When I think back on my reading life to date, there are maybe a couple dozen writers who stand out from the rest as the true friends of my mind: Woolf, Bellow, Proust, Dostoevsky…And the weird thing is that none of these—well, none except the poets—were love at first sight. I remember staring blankly at the first page of DeLillo’s Mao II at 15, when I still believed I was a poet myself. I remember struggling with the Constance Garnett version of The Brothers Karamazov by our apartment-complex pool the summer after freshman year of college, before switching translations and falling into it utterly. And I remember (this is embarrassing) tripping over the sprung rhythms of the opening of Augie March and being like, this is what all the fuss is about?
The experience of suddenly gaining new ears for an author is one I can perhaps best compare to the effortless French fluency I sometimes achieve in dreams. Or to the way Douglas Adams described the workings of the Babelfish in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One minute, I’m bumbling along with furrowed brow, nodding in feigned comprehension, Oui, bien sûr, the beach is which way again?; the next minute, the barriers melt and I’m immersed in a clear sea.
And this is the experience I had this year with the late Canadian genius Mavis Gallant—which is odd, because I already liked Mavis Gallant. In fact, I recommended her anthology Paris Stories in this space a couple years back. Some time in June, frustrated with much of the new fiction I was reading, I picked up the companion volume Varieties of Exile, confident that I at least knew what I was getting: a certain standard of craftsmanship. What I found instead was rapture. In the wry, daring, tender, and ruthless prose of stories like “The Chosen Husband” and “The Concert Party,” I was suddenly hearing secret harmonies. How many such stories had Gallant published in her lifetime? I decided I had to read them all, post-haste.
I turned to her Collected Stories, an 850-page feast recently reissued by Everyman’s Library. Starting with the pieces published in The New Yorker around what seemed her annus mirabilis, 1979, I read my way forward and backward with growing astonishment: “In The Tunnel,” “The Pegnitz Junction,” “An Alien Flower,” “Potter”… the stories only got deeper, richer, funnier, sadder. I limited myself to one a day, so that each would have time to steep in the back of my brain; soon, my daily hour with Mavis Gallant became the thing I most looked forward to. From “The Remission,” possibly the greatest of Gallant’s stories:
“When it became clear that Alec Webb was far more ill than anyone had cared to tell him, he tore up his English life and came down to die on the Riviera. The time was early in the reign of the new Elizabeth, and people were still doing this—migrating with no other purpose than the hope of a merciful sky.”
Collected Stories was the best book I read all year—one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever read—and as the remaining pages dwindled, I began to feel the sadness of impending loss; never again, barring amnesia, would I get to read these stories for the first time. Happily, Collected Stories turns out to be a wild misnomer; by July, I’d found an equal number of Gallant’s masterpieces lurking in unconscionably obscure volumes like My Heart Is Broken, Home Truths, and The Other Paris; on microfilm at the NYPL; and in the anthology of “uncollected work” The Cost of Living. Nearing now the true end of the Gallant oeuvre, I felt as if certain engines of perception had been restored to their factory settings; even books plucked from the New Release shelf at the bookstore carried a Gallant-like charge of clarity and depth. Or perhaps, afraid to break the spell, I began choosing them more carefully.
I found myself loving, for example, Max Porter’s short novel Lanny, with its tender English domesticity and bursts of wild, magic-realist collage. And Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of My Youth, an easygoing autofiction of Mumbai life that stealthily opens into something deeper (like all of Chaudhuri, really). And Sergio De La Pava’s Lost Empress, the daft and incendiary follow-up to A Naked Singularity, centering on mass incarceration, Joni Mitchell, and an off-brand football team called the Paterson Pork. I loved, at length and for the record, Ben Lerner’s third novel, The Topeka School. And much of Ocean Vuong’s debut, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
Cautiously, I turned this polyamorousess, or mania, or whatever it was, to some older fiction I’d been meaning to start or finish for a while now. The problems with Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow are well-documented, and probably inevitable—the whole thing is told backward, for God’s sake—but in my state of generalized receptivity, I found myself marveling more at its eclipsed discoveries (that guilt is the corollary not of sin but of fear; that suicide is impossible in reverse). One could certainly point out problems with Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, too—it’s no one’s idea of tightly constructed—but I found the narrator’s lusty openness to happenstance so vital and persuasive and charming that I went ahead and read The Black Album, too. Charmed isn’t quite the right word for what I felt about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything; its longeurs put even My Struggle to shame. But having set it aside a couple years ago, I now pushed on to one of the strangest and most indelible conclusions in literature.
It is only by comparison with Knausgaard that Vivian Gornick’s intense memoir Fierce Attachments can be called a palate-cleanser—it will haunt you, too. But this is a flawless piece of writing, born of a kind of intoxicating New York astringency I associate with Renata Adler, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Paula Fox. (What a pleasure it would be to teach a class on these four writers.)
I should say, in the interest of accuracy, that all was not totally hopeless before my Summer of Mavis Gallant, though the best books I read in the first part of 2019 were mostly classics, consecrated by time, or satellite works orbiting around them. Some years ago, a publisher from the Netherlands gave me a list of her country’s greatest novelists, and this spring I finally got aroud to reading Max Havelaar by Multatuli (a.k.a. Eduard Douwes Dekker). I had thought of it as a proto-muckracking work about the evils of the 19th-century coffee trade—the thing it’s famous for—but Multatuli is also an extraordinary writer and literary architect, hurling thunderbolts of satirical and polyphonic prose, as much Sergio De La Pava as Ida B. Wells. Encouraged, I decided to try W.F. Hermans as well, mainly because his just-translated war novella An Untouched House, from 1951, was shorter than Gerhard Reve’s The Evenings. I was pleasantly surprised to find Hermans’s writing beautiful and devastating as well as misanthropically furious—the thing he’s famous for.
And then, wrapping up an introduction to Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lucky Per, I picked up Niels Lhyne, by Pontoppidan’s fellow Dane and rough contemporary Jens Peter Jacobsen. The fact that I’d been barely aware of it seems insane to me now, both because Niels Lhyne forced a reassessment of my maps and calendars of literary modernism and because of the insane beauty of Jacobsen’s sentences (in Tiina Nunally’s exquisite translation.) Wanting to know more, I read the young critic Morton Høi Jensen’s 2017 book on Jacobsen, A Difficult Death, and found it a wonderful tutorial, in the vein of Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov. This reminded me in turn of how much I love the genre of popular criticism, and sent me toward David Bellos’s The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables—far more worth your time than the borderline-unwatchable BBC remake of Les Mis with Phil Collins’s daughter and McNulty from The Wire.
This was a wonderful year for new criticism as well (shout-out to James Wood’s essay on Pontoppidan, and to Patricia Lockwood’s incandescent rereading of Updike in the LRB). I’ll admit to having lumped Jia Tolentino’s New Yorker pieces in with some of the more fleeting hot takes that seem to have crept into that magazine via its website. But in August, as I traveled up to Maine for vacation, a friend urged me to give Tolentino’s Trick Mirror a chance, starting with the essay on ecstasy. I’m grateful for the advice. Tolentino’s decision to write nine original pieces for this book, rather than recycling from the magazine, is a sign of courageous seriousness—and serious courage. Moreover, Tolentino is a gifted memoirist and a brilliant reader, and her take on our digitally damaged culture, however warmly felt, is also about as definitive as we’re likely to get at present. I found a similar balance of thinking and feeling in the criticism of the poet Hanif Abdurraqib, which I’d started reading a few months earlier. There are some gems tucked into the gallimaufry They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, but his book-length essay on A Tribe Called Quest, Go Ahead in the Rain, seems to push the whole genre of music writing forward.
Of the narrative nonfiction I read this year, only Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe’s tremendous account of Ireland’s Troubles, counts as new, strictly speaking. But the lowercase troubles depicted in Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers remain urgent news, and I’d recommend any of these without reservation, not least for the effortless way they smuggle analysis into their storytelling. I’d also put in a plug for Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, neither narrative nor criticism, exactly, but all in all the Lipstick Traces of hip-hop.
Back to Mavis Gallant, though, through whom my whole year in reading flowed. I finished the last unread piece of her writing, the novel Green Water, Green Sky, on the first day of that vacation in Maine. For an encore, I went with a friend to the nearby house of Marguerite Yourcenar, whom Gallant had praised in her wonderful essay “Limpid Pessimist.” Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian had been stalled out for years now in the lower hundreds of my to-read list, but the experience of walking through her study, browsing her bookshelves, and of Gallant’s beneficent influence on my reading more generally, meant that I would give it another look. I found it as advertised: a singular masterpiece, an almost spooky inhabitation of the Roman imagination.
And then I turned to The Bluest Eye, in memory of Toni Morrison, one of the very first friends of my mind, whose writing had in a very real sense, made a novelist of me. It had been years since I’d read her, and I felt a little trepidation. How real were they, really, these ecstasies and deep sympathies? Was it possible they were just figments of my own imagination, like my ability to speak flawless French? Or of someone else’s, like the Babelfish? Or something in between?
“Nuns go by as quiet as lust, and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel. Rosemary Villanucci, our next-door fried who lives above her father’s café, sits in a 1939 Buck eating bread and butter.”
Nope. I can’t begin to understand, much less explain, what these lines do to me, but as we turn the collective page into 2020, I feel certain it doesn’t get any realer than that.
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Feast Days, the second novel from Ian MacKenzie, is narrated by Emma, a “trailing spouse” who accompanies her husband to the Brazillian megacity of São Paulo. Keenly observant and devastatingly intelligent, Emma feels “an affliction of vagueness” about her own purpose in the here and now. Her ambivalence is framed by the country’s political unrest, and the sharp divide between the haves and have-nots—as witnessed in the mass protest over corruption and inequality from behind the floor-to-ceiling windows in her luxury high-rise apartment.
Emma’s desire to somehow do something is the central movement of this lyrical, spare, deeply prescient entry in the Americans-abroad canon. Her loss of political and personal innocence is at once familiar and new, darkly comic, and, thanks to MacKenzie’s unerring ear, tonally flawless. It’s a superb novel about unrest within and without.
Ian MacKenzie spoke with me about the risks (and necessities) inherent in his decision to write in a woman’s voice, what it means to inhabit vantage point not your own, how Feast Days grew out of MacKenzie’s own time spent living in Brazil as a foreign service officer, and how the 2013 protests in Brazil over the country’s extreme economic and political inequality compared to the Occupy movement here in the States.
The Millions: This is your second novel. How did the process on the whole compare to that with your first?
Ian MacKenzie: I published my first novel, City of Strangers, in 2009. At the time, I was doing freelance editing work to make ends meet, living in Brooklyn, subletting rooms from friends, 27 years old. I’d been working on that book for maybe three years, after failing to publish an earlier novel and leaving a job as a high school teacher in order to have more time to write. I had this whole idea of what Being a Writer meant, an idea founded on received notions about personal and artistic freedom, and which involved living in New York City, keeping strange hours, and remaining sufficiently unattached to uproot myself on a whim. I don’t think I was really an adult yet. In other words, I was a cliché.
Now it’s 2018. My second novel, Feast Days, seems to me to be the work almost of a different writer entirely, and it’s inarguably the work of a different person. I’m married, I have a real job that has nothing to do with writing, I haven’t lived in New York for almost a decade, and I have a daughter, too, who was born only a few weeks after the book was sold to its publisher. Almost every prejudice I used to hold about what it means to be a writer has been demolished, happily so.
When I was working on my first novel, I had nothing to do but write and think about writing and think about Being a Writer. I couldn’t imagine anything more important in the world. By the time I was working on my second novel, however, I was writing in what scraps of time I could pick up in and around a demanding job, a marriage—in and around real life, in other words. I think, looking back, that I wrote City of Strangers as much because I wanted to be a writer as because I wanted to write that particular book, let alone needed to write it. I was in a rush to get somewhere. Feast Days I wrote because I had no choice but to write it.
As a husband and a father, I have a completely different sense now of what matters. Writing is no longer the most important thing in the world. That’s another cliché, surely. And, by the way, I also have a sense for what it’s like not to have the time or energy, around the demands of adult life, to read a novel or even two in a week, to give priority to fiction in that way. Perhaps that’s blasphemous for a writer to say, but from this knowledge I have an appreciation for what you’re asking of people when you send a book out into the world. It’s not just a matter of competing for attention in our distracted age, rather an understanding of the place books or any art have—a vital and indispensable one, obviously, but not an exclusive one. In a busy life, those encounters with art perhaps take on even more importance; so they have to be worth it. So I have much more empathy now regarding the way in which a person conceives of herself as a reader, and loves novels, but might not want to read, you know, The Recognitions on a Tuesday evening after work. If you publish a book, it needs to be worthy of another person’s time. That doesn’t mean that it should be simple or easy or that everyone has to like it. (Personally, I think that nothing makes a book difficult to read more than bad prose.) But it should be necessary. And it should also be really fucking good.
And when I talk about necessary books, I’ll say here that I think of your novel After Birth as absolutely that kind of necessary book. Its necessity, its raison d’être, just burns on every page.
TM: Thank you. I tried. And truth, there are not enough hours in the day or days in the year or years in a life for books that are not “worth it.” More and more I can intuit whether a book is going to bullshit me and waste my time from its opening pages, and I’ve grown shameless about not finishing books that hedge, books that are not tightly written, by writers who feel like mercenaries. There’s writing in service of the ego and then there’s writing in service of exploding the ego. Feast Days is so much the latter. It had me locked in from the first paragraph. You are so open and deliberate and clear and honest and funny and wry and arresting and self-aware. “Our naivety didn’t have political consequences. We had G.P.S. in our smartphones. I don’t think we were alcoholics.” It’s like the entire novel in microcosm. Gorgeous, and deceptively simple. Told from the P.O.V. of an American woman living in Sao Paolo. How did you arrive at this voice/structure/place, and what about the political implications you so shrewdly skewer on every page?
IM: The lines you just quoted, from the first page of the book, were among the earliest I wrote. The narrator’s voice, her existence, was always there for me. This book began as a short story, something that’s never happened to me previously as a writer—a short piece growing into something much longer—and it was because Emma’s presence was so clear and large and immediate; she required more space to inhabit. At some point I thought of Saul Bellow’s description of writing The Adventures of Augie March—he has a great line about Augie March’s voice coming down like rain and he, the writer, needing only to stand outside with a bucket—because I was so sure of Emma, but the experience of writing Feast Days wasn’t like standing outside with a bucket. I still had to manufacture every sentence. What was new for me, though, was how immediately it was clear if the sentence I had just written belonged to Emma, or if it was an impostor sentence.
I started writing the book when I was still living in São Paulo. I arrived there a few months before the nationwide demonstrations in 2013, the events that in many ways really catalyzed the political drama that continues to consume Brazil—a president impeached, a former president imprisoned, a large number of congressmen indicted for various corruption-related offenses, just the complete demolition of the country’s political class, all while crime and a general sense of instability permeate the major cities. And it’s important to note that this is happening in a country whose democracy is still quite young, barely 30 years old, so you have people speaking nostalgically of military dictatorship, which is both extraordinary and not at all ahistorical. A lot of the most consequential political developments happened after I left, in 2015, and so the moment I was there to witness was preliminary—so interesting, because the future could still have gone in so many different directions.
Emma’s voice is the main engine of the book. It’s a woman’s voice, of course, yet I’ve never written something that felt so natural. Somehow, writing as Emma allowed me to juxtapose registers—melancholy and biting, moody and ironic—in the way I do in conversation but have always resisted in writing. And, as you imply, she’s direct. She doesn’t say everything, and the lacunae, the things she doesn’t say, occupy the book’s white spaces and serve as frames around what is there. But when she does say something, she says it clearly. She doesn’t use a lot of simile or metaphor. She notices, and she remarks on what she notices. She’s laconic and sensitive at once. That’s why I used the line from the Mark Strand poem as the epigraph. It’s a great poem, “I Will Love the Twenty-First Century.” It’s filled with a kind of epochal, almost eschatological, emotion, yet it’s told in this ridiculously cool, dry, bemused voice. And that’s how Emma also thinks and talks.
TM: It strikes me as potentially problematic that one of the sharpest, deepest, most emotionally and intellectually enjoyable female narrators I’ve read recently was written by a man; probably a different reader would be up in arms about it, but I’m more interested in celebrating your accomplishment here. A good book is a good book is a good book, and this is a damn good book. The rest is noise. Though I confess I did wonder whether “Ian Mackenzie” might be a pen name. I’m very curious to hear about your day job. I admire the way it informs your writing as well as your perspective on writing. Feel free to tell me to fuck off.
IM: I certainly won’t tell you to fuck off! And as for your statement of the problem, I’ll take it as a compliment. But you’re right: it’s not what’s expected. And I wish I had some great, articulate account of being a male author writing in a woman’s voice, but I don’t. It was a voice—Emma’s voice—that simply began to exist within me. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t cognizant of the appropriation; I was, intensely so. I’m aware of recent controversy regarding writers’ appropriations of others’ cultures, sexes, experiences, and my instinctual response is that, ultimately, any writer should have the freedom to write from any point of view. But that doesn’t absolve writers from the sin of being tourists in others’ lives for the sake of a text. There’s lots of bad writing that results from a simplistic expropriation of exotic experience. If you’re going to write from a vantage not your own, you have a lot of work to do, both interior and observational. That said, you can write a shitty memoir, too, so it’s not as though writing only from your own experience guarantees success.
As for my day job, I’m a foreign service officer, a job that keeps me pretty far from the literary world, both physical and virtual. It’s ultimately distinct from writing, but, just as any writer’s day job or other experiences inform writing, it informs mine; for one thing, it brings me to other countries to live and work, and Feast Days grew out of my time living in Brazil. What I do as a foreign service officer is certainly useful to the concerns of a fiction writer: spend time in unfamiliar places, learn new languages, understand another country’s culture and politics, speak with and come to know the people who live there. I’m grateful that my livelihood is independent of my writing, although it’s a bit funny sometimes when the fact of writing comes up with my diplomatic colleagues, as it can’t help but seem somewhat curious.
When I was living in Brazil and the large-scale protests began, in 2013, I was cognizant that I was witnessing something not merely local but arising from the warp and weft of human society in the 21st century. I couldn’t help but think of DeLillo’s line from Mao II: “The future belongs to crowds.” You see it everywhere, especially from the first months of the Arab Spring. It’s the kind of thing, also, that engaging with the world as a foreign service officer deepens and complicates.
TM: Your distance from the literary world makes great sense, given your extraordinarily unselfconscious, intellectually and emotionally honest prose. The writing feels pure and fresh, unafraid of itself. And these tricky questions about appropriation remind me of something Geoff Dyer once said about how he’s not interested in fiction or memoir or nonfiction, he’s just interested in really good books. And incidentally, “Foreign Service Officer” is a great euphemism for “Novelist.” Diplomacy is the noble goal, but sometimes we’re outright spies, are we not?
On March 15, the politician and feminist activist Marielle Franco, who came out of the favelas to become this incredible leader, was assassinated in Rio. She had become a threat to the existing political system. Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets to demand justice for her. One of the things Feast Days does so beautifully is to articulate the ways huge disparities in class and privilege define life in Brazil. Do you think things will change? Are they changing? What will it take? Are these hopelessly naïve questions?
IM: I like your alternative definition for “foreign service officer.” Something I love about Brazil is its idiosyncratic tradition of diplomat writers—João Guimarães Rosa, Vinícius de Morães, João Cabral de Melo Neto. Osório Duque-Estrada, a poet who wrote the lyrics to Brazil’s national anthem, was briefly a diplomat; and Clarice Lispector, of course, was a diplomat’s wife.
To your question, I think things—all things—change slowly, when they change at all, and I resist being seduced by the narrative that the arc of history bends toward justice, because as much as I would like it to be true, and as much as the second half of the 20th century offers some consoling evidence, the arc of, say, the last 2,000 years of human history, or 4,000, shows that we’re not on a straight, predictable, or necessarily upward path. In Brazil, where enormous street demonstrations have been a feature of life for the past five years, I don’t think anyone would say the changes that have resulted are uncomplicatedly positive. The legacy of the 2013 manifestações is an ambiguous one, and frankly an unsettled one—there’s more to this story yet to come. And the same has to be true of the outpouring of public anger following Marielle Franco’s killing; perhaps it’s ultimately a part of the same story, or perhaps it isn’t. Brazilian society is riven by deep fissures along lines of race and class, great disparities that mark pretty much every 21st-century society but count particularly heavily in Brazil, where the wealthiest high-rises overlook the poorest favelas.
That’s all a way of saying that your questions aren’t naive at all, but they also aren’t straightforward ones to answer. I mentioned DeLillo’s line about crowds; that was something I thought about a lot during my time in São Paulo, as these protests turned into a recurring part of life. My main point of comparison was the Occupy protests in the United States, but what I saw in Brazil felt different. I don’t mean to diminish Occupy, but I never had the sense that something fundamental would change because of it. In Brazil, it felt like something was changing, or might, but it also felt like—as Emma’s husband notes at one point in the novel—the change to come wasn’t something those petitioning for change could control. You see that now, with some activists and politicians blaming the manifestações—or the June Journeys, as they’re known now—for leading indirectly to President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. In 2013, something came uncorked, and no one could predict the course of events to follow. This preoccupies Emma, a feeling she perceives in others of unearned sureness. She doesn’t feel sure, even as the world demands that she feel sure of her opinions, her information, herself. Beyond the local and personal concerns of the novel, I wanted to situate Emma’s story in this very specific 21st-century moment, when we’re only just beginning to reckon with the meaning of crowds, both physical and virtual. It’s the background hum of the novel. I don’t need to say more about that here; there’s plenty of opinion on that subject out there already for those who are inclined to consume it.
TM: Yes, yes, yes. This is precisely what I found so glorious and refreshing and truly hopeful in the most earnest sense about Emma’s voice: her refusal to be sure about anything. It’s so much harder to remain uncertain, to not know. Certainty can feel so cheap and shortsighted in general. She’s a stranger in a strange land, yes, but I got the sense that this is somehow constitutional for her. I love her for that. And it’s what makes her such a stellar narrator. She’s one of those characters I would follow anywhere.
Tell me what you’re reading, what you’ve been reading for the past few years, what fed into Feast Days, and what your head is in these days?
IM: Feast Days has two presiding spirits: Elizabeth Bishop and Joan Didion. Both of them are referred to in the course of the novel. Elizabeth Bishop, beyond what her poems mean to me, is inextricably bound up with the idea of the expatriate in Brazil. You can’t think of Brazil and not think of her. Didion is a more global sort of influence for me, the rotating blades of her sentences, the reach of her eye, her precise sense of the dangers of exporting Americans to far-flung locales. She puts her finger on things. Elizabeth Hardwick, in particular her masterpiece Sleepless Nights, gave me a feeling early on for the possibilities of attrition in prose, for what a slim book can do. Perhaps no writer is more significant to me than James Salter. The title Feast Days is meant as a nod toward Light Years, and also Salter’s memoir, Burning the Days. Graham Greene is another influence buried deep in the substrata of my sense of self as a writer. He’s named in the book, too. I suppose that’s to say I wear this stuff on my sleeve.
One of the finest recent novels I’ve read is another slim one, Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd. Not only is it intellectually rich and entertaining, in the way of, say, Ben Lerner’s novels (another favorite), it slyly builds toward a resonant and devastating ending.
Outside of any obvious relation to Feast Days, Zia Haider Rahman’s In the Light of What We Know, which I read a few years ago, is, I think, one of the most extraordinary and accomplished novels written in English this century. It’s a book I continue to think about as I contemplate the book I’m working on—which is in fact the book I was working on before even beginning Feast Days. Feast Days started life as procrastination, or distraction, from what I believed to be the main thing. I hope to turn back to that in earnest now.
Don’t you find influence such a slippery thing to discuss? And performative—just like on Facebook, you can’t avoid the attempt to curate the presentation of self through references and allusions. But of course it’s fun, too, rattling on about the literature you love.
So I’ll just also mention two books published this year that I loved, Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry and Uzodinma Iweala’s Speak No Evil. Uzo is a good friend, and we were able to do a couple of events together around the publication of our novels. His book is like chamber music, dense and woven, all rhythmic voice and concentrated emotion.
TM: At the close of the novel, Emma ruminates on the ending of Rossellini’s Journey to Italy, in which a estranged married couple embrace “out of fear…not devotion.” She judges this purported “happy ending” harshly: “their embrace is merely the postponement of something difficult.” But there seems to me, in the book’s final exhale, a note of grace, of resolution, of acquiescence to her life and her marriage and whatever life will bring. The possibility (or inevitability) of childbearing, in particular, haunts the novel. Does Emma live on for you? Do you have a sense of her trajectory beyond the pages of the book?
IM: Emma absolutely lives on for me! I said before how powerful the emergence of her voice in my mind was; that voice hasn’t gone away. I think with pleasure of revisiting Emma, in the way that Roth or Updike or Richard Ford helplessly revisit their characters; but, as with Roth, I can imagine returning to Emma albeit in a nonlinear way—a mind and a voice that are Emma’s, but imposed into different circumstances, not necessarily flowing directly from the events of Feast Days. I wonder about other possible lives for Emma. Other worlds at which to aim her particular eye.
It makes little sense to come up with another list of “best” Chicago books. To select a “top” 10 (or 20 or 1,000) has always seemed arbitrary and destined for accusations of unjustified boosterism and hyperbole, even in a city built on a foundation of unjustified boosterism and hyperbole.
Fairly or unfairly, Chicago often serves as a general proxy for American cities. Love or hate this idea of ostensible representativeness (most Chicagoans kind of just roll their eyes), to embrace it can prove helpful in one respect: looking at ambition, failed policies, immigration, founding myths, and contemporary life in Chicago, you find resonance elsewhere in America. When thinking through issues confronted by American cities today (and maybe always) — unequal distribution of resources, violent policing, persistent de facto segregation, administrative corruption, privatization of public services, neoliberal coddling of gentrification, fallout from decades of environmental degradation, and others — Chicago serves as a vital case study.
The local commentariat here works itself into spitting rages whenever any outsider — especially if that outsider bears a New York Times business card — parachutes into the Loop for 36 hours to explain Chi-Town (seriously, stop it: no one here calls it that) to the rest of the world. So, designed as a “Chicago 101” syllabus, these books serve as starting points rather than final judgments. They place Chicago at the center of ideas about city life, in some case pressing back on prevailing narratives about American urbanism. Instead of best Chicago books, this selection focuses on books that use a Chicago-centric perspective to address challenges that other places similarly confront.
And given that I’m leaving town this fall and casting my lot with the outsiders when I transplant to — I cringe, really, it feels like betrayal — Brooklyn, I wanted to get this thing together before the movers arrive. Much is missing: I chose not to focus on novels because so many others have done so, and poetry is almost entirely absent. Nelson Algren and Carl Sandburg were not on this list because they are prerequisites for the list. But with the excuses that I don’t intend on completeness and the movers at the gates, I hope it’s acceptable to leave gaps that conversation might fill.
1. “It Really Wasn’t Much of a Place at All.”
Dominic A. Pacyga opens Chicago: A Biography, his sweeping history of the Midwest’s largest city, with Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet. The priest and explorer first came upon a portage between the Chicago and Illinois Rivers in 1673. To build a canal here would be to connect the Great Lakes to the Mississippi, creating the largest inland waterway in the world and facilitating transportation from New York Harbor to the Mississippi along the entire midsection of the continent.
There’s a lot in between and after, and the last page of Pacyga’s book makes it to Barack Obama’s inauguration as President of the United States. That Pacyga covers so much — from the fire that destroyed one third of Chicago in 1871, to the city’s subsequent explosive growth (Chicago had a 1.7 million residents by 1900), to the Haymarket riot, to the 1968 DNC — should give a sense of the book’s scope. With so much terrain to cover, it comes as little surprise that even major events get relatively little space. Pacyga does, however, provide an especially detailed account of labor upheavals that characterized Chicago around the turn of the 20th century, providing context for understanding the city’s pushback against the rampant capitalism for which it earned its reputation.
Chicago: A Biography represents an essential starting point, primarily because it tracks the evolution of the city from a mucky swamp to a “global city.”
2. “Natural Advantages”
William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis and Donald Miller’s City of the Century both present meticulously detailed and conceptually riveting pictures of Chicago in the 1800’s — a century of incredible expansion. Chicago’s founding hustlers (to borrow Nelson Algren’s term for his fellow Chicagoans) proclaimed as early as the 1830’s that a marsh named for stinking onions by indigenous people, seated aside gloriously fertile grasslands on the shores of an inland ocean, would one day represent “the most important point in the great west.” By the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, the climax of Chicago’s ascendant century, that destiny had been realized.
Cronon and Miller interrogate the stakes of this transformation, asking about the lives it altered and about the enduring epistemic shifts that Chicago’s rise implied for the United States. Chicago transformed America’s relationship with the West and with capital itself, producing not only a vast urban expanse but also structuring what we would come to understand as “rural,” “suburban,” and “hinterland.” Cronon helps us understand how the city transformed goods into abstract commodities, reshaping our relationship to the food we buy and the environment we consume. He shows how rail transit didn’t just connect distant places, but rather restructured our very understanding of space and time. In notable contrast, Miller’s history dives into the enormous cast of characters that built Chicago and chronicled its rise. City of the Century’s meticulous characterization of the “hustlers” that poured concrete into Chicago’s foundations provides singular descriptions of this cast’s influence on the city’s trajectory.
3.“High Strung, Contagious Enthusiasm”
Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City has become standard literary fare for newcomers to Chicago, and one will often find multiple copies in a transplant’s household. Larson dramatizes the planning of the aforementioned World’s Columbian Exposition, which marked the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage to America. Planning required construction of an enormous classical-inspired city in Jackson Park on the South Side, involving many of the city’s (and nation’s) architectural and economic leaders, and marking Chicago’s global coming-out party.
Lurking in the crowds, H.H. Holmes — the book’s eponymous devil — became one of America’s first serial killers. He committed scores of murders silently throughout the fair, the urban anonymity afforded him by the crowds facilitating his crimes. Larson’s book has become important, not just as a document that depicts this contradiction between glorious spectacle and urban underbelly, but also because his romanticized vision of Chicago squares with how the city still views the fair. Its spectacle (and specter) looms large in Chicago’s self-conception.
Where Larson spends time examining the drama among fair planners, Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth presents an imaginative — and sparely, gorgeously rendered — view of the event’s history through a child’s eyes. An emotionally paralyzed man living in present-day Chicago, Jimmy attempts to reconnect with his father. In scenes from the 1800s, the monumental fair casts similar shadows over an inter-generational Corrigan family history. Ware depicts how the tendrils of Chicago’s past reach to its present in a city with a complicated history.
Jane Addams founded Hull-House in 1889, well before the Columbian Exposition’s electric lights flickered on. Her settlement house ultimately comprised an enormous complex of buildings in one of Chicago’s poorest immigrant neighborhoods. In Twenty Years at Hull House, one gets the sense of Addams’s determination to reformulate the way that cities treated the poor and immigrant classes — with dignity and a focus on individuals. She charted a course for services and advocacy for the poor that formed the foundation of social work and emphasized that communities matter in urban development.
Concurrently, Daniel Burnham — architect of the Columbian Exposition — moved on from the fair to create an urban plan that would transform Chicago and cement the city’s status as a global metropolis. Carl Smith’s The Plan of Chicago makes it clear that Burnham’s monumental visions leave a complicated legacy. Despite “sincere” hopes that “City Beautiful” concepts would ennoble the poor, the Plan of Chicago deserves criticism for overlooking conditions of daily life for those to whom Addams ministered. As much as it marks a culmination of optimism in city planning, it lays some of the foundation for abysmal policies that would haunt public housing in Chicago and in many other cities. Moreover, it marks a kind of opening chapter in “public-private partnerships” that govern contemporary efforts to encourage markets to solve urban problems.
5. Bigger Ambitions for Chicago-Born Novels
Native Son and The Adventures of Augie March belong at the heart of any serious conversation about Chicago novels (though I find Augie difficult to get through). The ambitions of Richard Wright and Saul Bellow in these two midcentury novels rise to the level of Chicago’s ambitions for itself. Their alternatingly devastating and ennobling investigations of individual agency and social determination in two unforgettable protagonists — Augie and Bigger Thomas — make them essential to an understanding of American ideas about selfhood, race, and ambition.
It can be easy to forget that these novels take place in Chicago; they belong to us all and not to any one city. “I am an American,” Augie declares right at his beginning. “Chicago born” comes only second, though it acts as validation of his Americanness. Upon reflection, one cannot imagine either novel taking place in any other American city — one of huge immigrant classes fragmented into neighborhoods bitterly segregated along racial and ethnic lines.
Reading these novels together with a spatial understanding of Chicago deepens one’s appreciation for how wide a gulf exists between the lives of their protagonists and the populations they represent. Augie and Bigger find themselves in Hyde Park, for example (which still boasts of its veneer of racial diversity relative to other neighborhoods), but their experiences there are utterly separate. From this smallest of details — the incongruity of lives despite physical proximity — emerges persistent truths about the structure of racial dynamics in American cities.
6. Making the Most of Migration
The Warmth of Other Suns, Isabel Wilkerson’s mammoth history of the Great Migration, won the 2015 Chicago Reader’s poll of “Greatest Chicago Book.” Chicago shares billing with LA and NYC as important destinations for those whose lives Wilkerson traces from the rural south to the urban north and west, but there can be no doubt that the Great Migration wrought indelible changes in the social fabric of every region in the United States from World War I through the 1970s; and in this story, Chicago plays a central role. Unwavering in her depictions of the political and physical violence of Jim Crow and nuanced in both her telling of personal stories and descriptions of broader effects of the migration on cities and people, Wilkerson’s book is the seminal text on the largest internal migration in American history.
Meanwhile, Adam Green’s Selling the Race provides an incisive contribution to conversations about how black Chicagoans carved a place for culture in modern America. Against prevailing narratives that cast black Americans (including many new migrants to Chicago) as victims of modernity, swept up by forces that looked to capitalize on anxieties of belonging, Green argues that they became powerful agents of cultural production. Examples from Mahalia Jackson to Ebony and Jet magazine (product of the Chicago-based Johnson Publications) present a rich picture of how much of black culture was generated and packaged for sale to wide audiences in Chicago.
7. Obsessions with the Ordinary
No city values the “ordinary” so dearly as Chicago. And if Studs Terkel stands as the everyman’s greatest champion, his Division Street America best ties the city’s affection for ordinariness to American identity. It would be a mistake to suggest that Terkel shilled the myth of a “city that works” (a term coined by Richard J. Daley). Rather, his no-nonsense portrayals of everyday Chicagoans — rich, poor, Democrat, Republican, racist, gay, jag-baggy, and others — coalesce to create this affecting hodgepodge. As Alex Kotlowitz (no slouch himself in the department of spotlighting and writing movingly about injustice in Chicago) has observed, there’s always Studs in the background — curious, probing, insisting, and asking questions that prompt often-ignored individuals to tell their stories.
Vivian Maier, whose recently discovered work also transacts in Chicago’s obsession with the ordinary, may outshine Terkel decades from now. She embodies the perfect female flâneur (or, as historian Lauren Elkin has rightly insisted, flâneuse). Maier spent most of her life as a nanny in Chicago, secretly capturing some 100,000 images on the city’s streets. The domestic nature of her work all but guaranteed invisibility, given chauvinistic structures of artistic production and labor valuation. But when John Maloof was researching the Northwest Side neighborhood of Portage Park in 2007, he came upon Maier’s forgotten images. He bought and disseminated them. Vivian Maier: A Photographer Found is a great introduction and Maier now belongs in discussions about great American street photographers. Hers is an utterly Chicago story.
8. Daley’s Siege
Richard J. Daley reigned over much of 20th-century Chicago. He ruled the city from 1955 until 1971, dominated Democratic Machine politics, and earned all of his enemies. Several books on this list describe Daley, and his complicated legacy plays out differently in their assessments. For this reason, I have left out of this list any Daley biographies.
Perhaps no account of Daley proves as brutal as Norman Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago. In his run-up to descriptions of protests and Chicago police reprisals, Mailer writes, “Daley was no national politician, but a clansman.” The 1968 DNC, convened by Daley, proved a flashpoint in American political history. The chaos fragmented the Democratic Party nationally, and set the stage for Richard Nixon’s victory in November. In Mailer’s description of Chicago, his clear affection for the city makes it all the more heartbreaking (despite his intimations of inevitability) that the fractures of American society should appear on live television broadcasts from Michigan Avenue.
Algren-esque musings notwithstanding, Mailer remains a Chicago outsider. So it feels appropriate to add Chicagoan Haskell Wexler’s film Medium Cool to this list of books. Combining documentary footage of the convention protests with a fictional film, Wexler enlivens and deepens Mailer’s account. He depicts the tumult of 1968 like perhaps no other text from that stormy year. As a bonus, Medium Cool echoes experiments happening in documentary at places like Kartemquin films, which would go on to produce the now-canonical Chicago films Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters.
9. Out in Chicago
The most recently published addition to this list is Timothy Stewart-Winter’s Queer Clout. In it, Stewart-Winter troubles the dominant narrative of 20th-century gay rights activism in the United States, which typically treats New York and San Francisco as the two central cities, often to the exclusion of the Midwest. He fills this narrative with a cacophonous history of LGBTQ culture and activism in Chicago, where firings, shakedowns, police bribes, and bar raids were just as much a part of life throughout the city as anywhere else.
Effective action depended ultimately on collaborations between gay rights and black civil rights groups, and the pursuit of delicate coalitions. Queer Clout traces the fits and starts of these collaborations and coalitions. Post-Orlando, Stewart-Winter’s discussion of the importance of gay bars for LGBTQ individuals — historically and presently — seems especially valuable. Bars served ground zero for exploitation by law enforcement, but also as meeting places and (most of the time) safe havens.
Stewart-Winter cautions against readily equating the gay rights movement with the civil rights movement; the layering of race, sexual orientation, and gender identification necessitates a more complicated picture. And his affecting description of unequal access to healthcare among Chicagoans affected by AIDS creates a devastating picture of failed policies. In a city divided between a black south and white north, lack of access to educational resources, preventive care, and treatment becomes a reminder of how segregation produces injustice that communities and policymakers must continue to fight to address.
10. Humboldt Park
To understand gentrification in Chicago, head to the Humboldt Park neighborhood, where protests against rising rents, tax hikes, and teardowns took place recently on the 606. This park, built on a former rail line, echoes efforts in other cities to erase industrial infrastructure from urban landscapes. Having whetted the appetite of developers, The 606 has accelerated the pace at which Humboldt Park is becoming unaffordable for longtime residents.
Sandra Cisneros grew up in Humboldt Park. Her beloved The House on Mango Street takes place in a similar fictional neighborhood. Traditional readings peg the novella as the coming-of-age story of Esperanza, a daughter of Mexican immigrants. Cisneros experiments with form — the book is a series of short vignettes — to explore Esperanza’s struggles with sexuality, national identity, class, and the Spanish language. The poetic language of these depictions alone makes an argument for the work’s importance.
To read Mango Street alongside Chris Ware’s Building Stories widens the lens through which readers can examine the relationship between individual and community identity. Ware’s unnamed protagonist, who loses a leg in a childhood accident, lives in Humboldt Park. Her story unfolds across 14 pamphlets, broadsheets, books, and other objects. Like Cisneros, Ware’s formal cartwheels advance conversations about identity. As with Cisneros, the book’s themes center on self-description — again, a disjointed and chronologically jumbled task (there’s no “right” way to read the book). He’s also interested in the evolving neighborhood, as the heroine moves away and revisits the three-flat in which so much life happens.
11. Whose City?
What does Chicago look like today? Natalie Moore’s The South Side, published last year, combines history and memoir to describe neighborhoods in the city that are too often represented in national news media in one-dimensional stories of gun violence. Her book draws productively from her own biography of a childhood in middle-class and largely black Chatham, and feels less concerned with comprehensiveness than with augmenting and correcting the record. As the current South Side reporter for the local NPR affiliate, Moore brings a great deal of connections and numerous voices to this project.
By contrast, Larry Bennett’s The Third City offers a picture of contemporary Chicago that seems at times too rosy in its assessment of the younger Richard M. Daley’s infrastructure investments (the book was published before the first term of Mayor Rahm “One Percent” Emanuel). Visions of Chicago as a global city — one that attracts entrepreneurs to ride the next wave of innovators was for a time called “Silicon Prairie” — ring with the optimism of the 19th century. It presents a picture of Chicago that has become popular among elected officials looking to attract private money and foreign tourists. This vision of Chicago’s third incarnation (a vision of privatization premised on the notion that a city’s chief ambition should be to attract capital to its core) looks like a new version of Burnham’s century-old Plan. It has fans elsewhere.
How to square this vision with the neighborhoods that sustain Chicago, and other cities, remains an unanswered question.
12. There Are No Two Finer Words…
Among garrulous Chicagoans, most will grudgingly agree: we miss Hot Doug’s. Chicago treasure Doug Sohn’s sausage emporium was not only a celebration of encased meats, but equally a democratizing force on a desolate block on California Avenue in the Avondale neighborhood. One waited in line (often for more than an hour) whether one was Anthony Bourdain, Aziz Ansari, or even Doug’s dad. In Hot Doug’s, the coffee table book that cashed in on Doug’s decision to close the shop not long ago, local voices weigh in on The Line: when they waited, how long they waited for, who got engaged to whom while waiting, who had to rush to the hospital to deliver a baby, etc.
Doug reminded us all (always calling us “my friend”) that in Chicago, one waits in line like civilized people. The snow, cold, heat, wind, and rain be damned.
13. Coda: Next Steps
There’s so much more to read and through-lines to trace from Carl Sandburg to Gwendolyn Brooks to Aleksandar Hemon to Chance the Rapper. Those interested in extensive lists of Chicago novels should consult, all kidding aside, several best-of lists already out there. My favorite was published by the dearly departed local site Gapers Block, and it organizes novels by neighborhood. Chicago magazine published a fun list of new Chicago-centric reads for the summer. I’m excited to read Margo Jefferson’s Negroland and Darryl Pinckney’s Black Deutschland. And Curbside Splendor Publishing (a local house) recently put out The Empty Bottle Chicago: 21+ Years of Music / Friendly / Dancing, a history of one of the Northwest Side’s most-loved venues.
But now, it’s time to get to packing.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
For most of her career, Cynthia Ozick has written challenging and brilliant fictions that examine the metaphysical aspects of Jewish culture, examining fabled belief systems, gender dynamics, and the walls culture might build with even-handedness and cautious interest. Novels and short stories like The Puttermesser Papers and “The Shawl” engage with cultural values and history in unique and dark ways, while several nonfiction books, including the forthcoming Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, examine the value of criticism and the state of the literary novel today. Erudite, intellectually rigorous, and brimming with generous insight, Ozick’s work as a critic and thinker demands a kind of attention from the reader, requires the reader to think along for the promise of revelation.
We corresponded about the new book via email. What follows is a conversation with someone just as interested in and excited about literature as they were when they first put pen to paper.
The Millions: In a Paris Review chat you did in 1985, you talked about having your routine consist of rising in the late afternoon and working through the night. Has anything changed since then in terms of how you approach the work?
Cynthia Ozick: Much blood has gone under the bridge since then. In the last half-dozen years, I’ve turned into a Snatcher: I read in desperate snatches in the interstices of the Quotidian, and dream of finding three uninterrupted quiet hours to think, moon, mentally maunder, and, above all, write. I am pursued by an anti-Muse; her name is Life. Her homely multisyllabic surname is often left unenunciated, but to certain initiates it may be whispered: Exigency.
TM: What’s your reading life like? Are you reading for, say, an hour or so, and then drafting/editing for a while? Is there urgency to write every day?
CO: Unlike in earlier years, I nowadays consume public information voluminously. I read both The New York Times and Wall Street Journal (one is the poison, the other the antidote, and make of that what you will!), and also many magazines, both the traditional kind and the digital. In terms of living wholly in one’s own allotted time, the world is not too much with us. Decades ago, though, it would have been inconceivable for me to acknowledge this. Whatever counted as “politics” was of no interest; nothing mattered but capital-L Literature and its inevitable sibling, History.
Still, writing, whether fiction or essays, is something apart from “information,” and rises out of the well of intuition: every human mind has its individuated “tone.” So when you ask about “the editing process,” and speak of “drafting/editing” — I find these reparative procedures foreign to me. I will not move on to the next sentence until the previous one is fully satisfactory. Perhaps there are two species of writers: those who complete an entire manuscript provisionally, with permission to go back to “polish the verbal surface,” as one such writer once described it, and those who endlessly and obstinately fiddle in place. (As for writing every day, see above.)
TM: You’re a writer who develops both formative essays and novels and short stories in nearly equal measure. Since part of drafting fiction involves investigating certain aspects of life, I wonder what you see as being the overlap between scrutiny in your essays and scrutiny in your plot lines, or if they’re completely separate.
CO: The difference is crucial: it’s between knowing and unknowing (rather than not knowing). If you are going to write an essay on, say, twilight in Sweden, or on Henry James, you know that much: you have your subject already in hand. But if you set out to write a story, whether long or short, you begin with less than a glimpse: a shred of idea that once moved you, or the wisp of memory of a mother and daughter you encountered for seconds as you passed them in a train, or simply an inchoate feeling. Plotting, though, can be intellectual or serendipitous, a deliberate plan or a revelation or an insight, and this can apply also to the “plot” of an essay; but overall an essay is an assessment, or rearrangement, of given materials, while a story must discover what it is made of in the very course of its own making.
TM: I’m interested in how this differentiates from writing an essay or a piece of creative nonfiction.
CO: In writing fiction, one creates a character, but very often it’s the character who influences the trajectory of events and ultimately creates the story. This wouldn’t necessarily apply to certain types of genre fiction, such as the detective novel, where the writer is in full control and follows the design of a prepared plot. But when the imagination is untethered and free, the writer may lose control of the character, and the character may stubbornly decide against the writer’s initial wish; or else the character reveals a motive that the writer never anticipated. This can hardly happen with what’s called “creative nonfiction,” despite the permissive adjective. The subject matter of non-fiction is fixed, chosen, unalterable. A nonfiction piece on the Civil War, say, can’t change the nature of the battles; both action and outcome remain today what they were then. The writer may play around a bit with the personalities of Grant or Lee, but the spine of the narrative is immovable. As for the “personal” essay, the writer, like a character in fiction, can assert whatever she desires; as in fiction, she is immune to the fact-checker.
TM: What do you think it might take in order for a writer to produce a “great American novel” in today’s literary landscape, or even one that has relevance and power beyond what it achieves in the insular writing community?
CO: How vast is the invisible infrastructure of this proposal! It puts in question an entire culture, and how a civilization expresses itself. Some say that the Great American Novel has already come into being, in The Great Gatsby, or in Moby-Dick, and a good case can be made for each of these. Dreiser’s Sister Carrie might be another candidate, or The Scarlet Letter, or The Adventures of Augie March. Your query, though, speaks of the current literary landscape, confirming that “what it might take” still isn’t clear. One answer might be that the day is young — but can we see any inkling of a presumptive heir to Bellow or Updike or Nabokov, or to so many others of the previous generation (the list would be long and impressive) who have left a formative mark on American experience? One sign, or omen, would be the presence of a writer of formidable language power, willing to use all the sources and resources of American prose; instead, we swim in a welter of the slipshod easy vernacular. Also absent, so far, is some overriding feeling or idea, or, at the least, something larger than pipsqueak cynicism. Finally, given that the country is roiling and boiling toward some unknown new dispensation grounded in narrow competing triumphalist claims, where is the bold and necessary ironist who will write our Death of Ivan Ilyich?
Or else, and why not? Maybe what we are waiting for will be the Great American Comic Novel! And a final caveat: the lineaments of a sublime work of the imagination can’t, after all, be prescribed, and one is guilty (mea culpa!) of tendentious theorizing if one dares to do it.
TM: Is technology perhaps counterintuitive to to serious literary debate, analysis, and scholarship, or do you feel that it marks a sort of natural progression and provides a platform to showcase what writing has come to in the age of the iPhone?
CO: Last year I finally surrendered my pen. I could not conceive of writing seriously on a keyboard facing an illuminated rectangle, and used the computer mainly as a means of transcribing a completed work (as was the typewriter in the past). The keyboard and the monitor struck me as enemies of the freedom of language, since it seemed that the words could come only through the pressure of one’s fingers on the narrow neck of a pen. Or to say it otherwise, the ink flowed directly out of the hand; and what was ink if not language? Yet now, as you see, I’ve learned (to my amazement) that one can actually think on a computer!
TM: In a culture of writers that either embrace the concept of direct narrative or a fractured storytelling structure, would the middle ground between the two extremes be something new to emerge, and if so, where does it lie?
CO: Either-or has never been storytelling’s only available way; from early on, there has always been that “middle ground.” Mostly it has been a companionship between fiction and an interpolated essay, side by side in the same novel. We see this in George Eliot and in E.M. Forster, where we hear the author’s reflecting voice; it might be called the “intelligence” of the novel: intelligence in both senses, the writer spying on her characters, and the writer’s mind exposed. The “fractured” novel (Ulysses is the great modernist instance, but think also of Zadie Smith’s NW and Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers) has so far not permitted amalgamation with any other form. Accretion, fragment by fragment, replaces logical chronology Yet despite its jagged unexpectedness, what fragmentation has in common with direct narrative is a paradoxical coherence: we know and feel what we are meant to know and feel. And if there is no middle ground between fragment and form, so be it: why should fiction, the ultimate territory of genuine freedom, eschew extremes? In life we are rightly persuaded to pursue the middle way. But in literature (three cheers for extremes!), what we want is what Kafka relentlessly demanded: A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.
TM: David Foster Wallace was an ardent fan of your work, citing The Puttermesser Papers as one of his favorite books. As a critic, writer, and cultural anthropologist, I wanted to know if you’ve considered the relevance of his work, and whether or not he shifted the direction of post-modern fiction yet again.
CO: It was an astonishment to be told not long ago that David Foster Wallace was even aware of my work, let alone had read any small part of it. It was even more startling to see a photo of the flyeaf of his copy of The Puttermesser Papers, on which appears a long list of words transcribed from the book, ostensibly because they were new to him. How could this be? If I hadn’t with my own eyes seen that list, I would have thought the rumor of his affinity was no more than a hoax. After all, Infinite Jest is a free-wheeling and exuberantly abundant novel with a fervently reverent and always growing readership, and not only is my own experience as a writer lightyears from his, but in subject matter and in literary temperament Wallace and I have nothing in common. His mind is encyclopedic and digressive; my scope is far more limited and my reach into the world definitively tamer. His novels are termed postmodern, and so they are, but in their appetite for overflowing tangential inclusiveness they also resemble the all-devouring 18th-century novel (Richardson, Fielding, Sterne). And finally: Wallace’s most original gesture is the art of the note — footnote and endnote, but especially footnote. Whether this alone (the seductive power of the asterisk) will “shift the direction of postmodern fiction” is doubtful. Once it has been done, and done so lavishly, it may seem superfluous to do it again.
TM: It seems that [The Puttermesser Papers] has a certain staying power, particularly among men. What do you think it is about the work that stands out, be it the brutality of the plot or the force of the prose?
CO: I’m afraid that I am unable to address this generous assessment of “staying power.” Time will, as they say, tell; and in some cases — though certainly not in mine — Time has already told. (See David Foster Wallace above.) Most writers and their books quickly fall into posthumous eclipse, and I don’t doubt that I will be among them.
TM: You said that fiction is the ultimate territory for genuine freedom, but is fiction not without rules? The novel can take many shapes, as can short stories, but there’s still something familiar within each mutation. Would you argue that genuine freedom works best with some sort of familiarity to constrain or guide its line of thinking?
CO: I agree that familiarity of form is most conducive to the reader’s comfort, and that feeling at home with its “rules” increases readerly enjoyment. Joyce’s Ulysses, which (after, say, Dickens and George Eliot and Trollope) seemed to have no rules at all, was hard going for its earliest readers, though certainly not nowadays, when stream of consciousness has become commonplace. Eliot’s The Waste Land was once dauntingly impenetrable; today its technique is ho-hum. The very concept of “rules” means familiarity, knowing what to expect; but even revolutions eventually evolve into the humdrum. As for constraining or guiding a line of thinking, isn’t that for sermons and tracts?
TM: A large part of your fiction writing has involved chronicling the Jewish-American experience…
CO: Here I hope you will allow me to demur. This is certainly true of other Jewish writers, at least those who are inclined to contemplate their heritage; call it, though without denigrating its art, sociological fiction. I am altogether without interest in the Jewish-American “experience,” if this term is intended, as you phrase it, to scrutinize and investigate the meaning of that identity, both how it plays out in conventional society and [the writers’] own personal heartbreak over legacy and fractured tradition. Again, all that is sociology, particularly the concern with identity and the deeper roots of the self. I am drawn elsewhere: to the Jewish metaphysic and its long and steadfast history. It is these grains of perception, I believe, that sustain my thinking and kindle imagination. (A recent story in this mode is “A Hebrew Sibyl,” which appeared in Granta.)
As for the sociological: Irving Howe, a stellar critic who was part of the group of literary luminaries who came to be known as The New York Intellectuals (all of them now nearly forgotten), once commented that after the generation of the immigrants, the American Jewish novel would die of lack of subject matter. And then — beware definitive declarations! — came the influx of those remarkable young writers who as children fled both the Soviet Union and Iran. For such embattled lives, having endured restriction and calumny in their earliest years, personal heartbreaks over legacy and fractured tradition may be vitally pertinent themes; or may not. But for American Jews, who for the first time in two millennia have the inconceivable good fortune of living freely and without overt fear, and who have rarely known an ounce of oppression or indignity, and who for the most part are now four or five generations distant from the immigrant period…for these, the identity question is simply another floating particle in the egalitarian multicultural movement. (Recall Irving Kristol’s quip: “They used to want to kill us, now they want to marry us.” And they have: 70 percent of American Jews are intermarried.) Those deeper roots of the self are more superficial than felt. When roots are genuinely deep, they are not scrutinized or investigated; they are as intrinsic and unremarked on as breathing. Self-knowledge in the Socratic sense is indifferent to roots, and Jewish self-knowledge can only mean knowledge, and what is knowledge in the absence of historical and textual and linguistic awareness? Which is why most novels by American Jewish writers are a branch of social studies. Nor would I quarrel with this: stories are free to be whatever they are.
TM: Writers who are conscious of coming from rich national and historical backgrounds tend to have their work characterized as being “haunted” by those important works of national or cultural identity that came before….Do you think it’s appropriate to draw those comparisons on the basis of legacy and cultural background, or do you think there should be a distinction between what a writer of a certain background is looking to achieve, and how a critic or academic might group them based on previous works of a certain genre?”
CO: Well, we know what Saul Bellow thought of how critics and academics grouped him! He retorted with his famous quip — Hart, Schaffner & Marx, mocking how he and Roth and Malamud were, in effect, regarded as a kind of Jewish-owned haberdashery. But your question is serious and important, and we’ve had two elegant answers from two significant Jewish writers. Isaac Bashevis Singer: “Every writer needs to have an address.” Harold Bloom: “The anxiety of influence.” Both these succinct insights acknowledge that origins not only count, but continue to carry their force. (The term “haunted” confused and misled me because of its baleful resonances.) Criticism would be blind and deaf if it failed to recognize affinities and legacies, as it always has: in America, Transcendentalism, the Harlem Renaissance, naturalism, and so many other literary movements and groupings, whether conscious and voluntary or critically observed. But this doesn’t make writers into pawns! Or turn Hawthorne and Melville, with their similar Anglo heritage, into Siamese twins! Or Bellow, Roth, and Malamud into Jewish clothiers. It’s a sublime paradox, sublime because the seeming contradiction fortifies rather than diminishes: every writer is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; and yet, contra Donne, every writer is at the same time an island entire of itself. The continent is humanity; but every continent contains someone’s own home address.
TM: At this point in your career…do you feel any differently about your work, either the work you’re developing or the work you’ve done? Do you feel that your role as a writer has taken on any sort of prominence?
CO: My diary with its innate depression contains the felt truth of any answer I might give. I have been driven to write — to be a writer — from a very early age, but have never been able to think of it as a “career,” a schemer’s word that suggests aggrandizing hot pursuit. And for a very long time I was unpublished, a failure in my own literary generation: a circumstance that has left its mark. I am always surprised to discover a reader, and when I do, it is usually in the context of “I never heard of her before.” As for what I feel about past work, I wish I had done more. And I begin to wonder whether reviewers who have found my novels unsympathetic may be right. I still hope to write a story made purely of feeling.
TM: Are you working on anything now that you’re hoping to release?
CO: Yes. On a story made purely of feeling.
TM: Can you elaborate on what you mean by this?
CO: This brings us instantly back to Tolstoy, though I am thinking here not of a novel, but rather of a story: The Death of Ivan Ilych, wherein ultimate aloneness in the face of imminent dying leads to a kind of catharsis, and revelation overcomes dread. Or the haying scene in Anna Karenina, which envelops the reader in bodily joy and the intense companionship of laborious achievement. On second thought, an entire novel can’t be made purely of feeling, since such sublime moments are exactly that: moments. Pure feeling mostly occurs at the extremes of life: terror and joy.
I recently read Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism, in which she spoke with American Communists past and present (1977), and asked what they had to say about it all. Her accounts described people who were perpetually waiting for “the revolution around the corner”; eventually, the revolution proved to be too long in coming. In Gornick’s book, the power that Communism offered its adherents really came through, sometimes in a creepy way, as people described a willingness to abandon spouses and families in service of the party’s aims. But I don’t think I’ve read a book that better conveys the sheer ordering power of ideology, any ideology, than Invisible Man, wherein the advent of Communism, christened “The Brotherhood” by Ellison, actually has a perceptible effect on the novel’s form.
The first half of Invisible Man is meandering chaos as the narrator encounters people who hugely affect his movements in the near- and the long-term. Casting an eye around your frame of reference, you reach for comparable narratives, like the Odyssey or the Divine Comedy, where itinerant heroes have adventures, or bump into people and listen to them say astonishing things at length. But Invisible Man has something else going for it, a nightmarish sense of powerlessness. This is partially a function of events; nothing goes the way it is meant to for the narrator and, by extension, his reader. He is invited to deliver his graduation speech to a gathering of white town fathers, and instead gets thrown into the boxing ring with a bunch of other terrified black boys. At college, he is assigned to ferry around an important white benefactor, and by solicitously catering to the man’s whims, ends up in a black dive full of rioting mental patients and prostitutes. In this interlude I felt that molasses-like feeling characteristic of bad dreams. The narrative brilliantly impels anxiety through its disjointed quality, which it shares with one of Ellison’s great influences, “The Waste Land”:
“What is wrong with this gentleman, Sylvester?” the tall one said.
“A man’s dying outside!” I said.
“Yes, and it’s good to die beneath God’s great tent of sky.”
“He’s got to have some whiskey!”
“Oh, that’s different,” one of them said and they began pushing a path to the bar. “A last bright drink to keep the anguish down. Step aside, please!”
The narrator is then duly punished for letting the benefactor go astray. He is sent to New York, gets a job (no thanks to his evil college president), gets blown up, gets electrically lobotomized, and gets discharged back into the world without knowing his ass from his elbow:
Things whirled too fast around me. My mind went alternately bright and blank in slow rolling waves. We, he, him — my mind and I — were no longer getting around in the same circles. Nor my body either. Across the aisle a young platinum blond nibbled at a red Delicious apple as station lights rippled past behind her. The train plunged. I dropped through the roar, giddy and vacuum-minded, sucked under and out into late afternoon Harlem.
And then the Brotherhood appears, to bring order to the chaos. Discovering the narrator’s remarkable powers as an orator, they send him for his training in the science of social change. Maybe I’m imagining it all, but once I arrived at this point in the novel, I lost my sense of anxiety and impotence. Not only the substance of the narrator’s life, but the text itself, took a form I could more easily follow. That’s the beauty of Marx’s ideas; a man can get control over his own story. Sooner or later, though, he will realize that someone else is writing the story for him: “The world was strange if you stopped to think about it; still it was a world that could be controlled by science, and the Brotherhood had both science and history under control.”
Soon, like many people in the twentieth century, the narrator finds that for all their science, the Brotherhood is thinking at a scale that has ceased to be relevant to the particular circumstances of men like him, or his Harlem neighbors, who worry about getting evicted or shot by the police. The people he calls “the transitory ones”:
…ones such as I had been before I found Brotherhood — birds of passage who were too obscure for learned classification, too silent for the most sensitive recorders of sound; of natures too ambiguous for the most ambiguous words, and too distant from the centers of historical decision to sign or even to applaud the signers of historical documents. We who write no novels, histories or other books.
Reading Invisible Man, I thought about The Adventures of Augie March, which was published a year later, and which also describes meandering and haplessness in the face of unforeseen circumstances. Bellow and Ellison were friends and roommates, and their novels form a pair of sorts. But Bellow’s meanderings seem so often to lead to opportunity; they can be described as “rollicking.” In America it is the privilege of the white man to rollick, even if he is a poor Jew born into moderate squalor. The black man, in this novel at any rate, can only be fucked around; his hope, in this novel, is to discover his own way of doing things. I say “man” because a woman in this novel can only be fucked, full stop; she does haven’t much hope of decent treatment, by the novelist or anyone else. Too obscure for learned classification, women are chattel and bait.
I felt Ellison’s novel invited me to compare its narrator to Augie March and feel sorrowful for the injustice inherent in American life, but Ellison may have protested this. In his great essay “The World and the Jug,” a riposte to the critic Irving Howe, Ellison criticized Richard Wright for his belief in the novel as a weapon. “True novels,” Ellison wrote, “even when most pessimistic and bitter, arise out of an impulse to celebrate human life and therefore are ritualistic and ceremonial at their core. Thus they would preserve as they destroy, affirm as they reject.” And Invisible Man does end, somehow, on an affirmative note, even though the narrator is living underground and philosophizing from some kind of vast coal scuttle. The reader’s chaos and disorientation returns, but this time, things seem like they are in hand:
In going underground, I whipped it all except the mind, the mind. And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived…Thus having tried to give pattern to the chaos which lives within the pattern of your certainties, I must come out, I must emerge.
As with American Communism, there is something of a pall over Ellison’s legacy — a sense of things left undone, a general wanting in his solidarity with other black writers and intellectuals. He repudiated the influence of Wright on his literature, when Wright gave him his first leg up as a young writer. He is said to have taken a dim, threatened view of later generations of black writers. But it seems to me that Ellison, as a black writer, was never quite allowed, by himself or others, to relax comfortably into the quirky individuality, even dickishness, that was the birthright of his white authorial contemporaries.
Invisible Man was Ellison’s only novel, his other work a smattering of stories and essays. Among his essays, he is chiefly remembered for the aforementioned stirring and dramatic exchange with Howe, a white man who, evidently, was not expecting pushback when he praised, with offensive qualifications, Invisible Man in an essay about Richard Wright and James Baldwin:
What astonishes one most about Invisible Man is the apparent freedom it displays from the ideological and emotional penalties suffered by Negroes in this country — I say ‘apparent’ because the freedom is not quite so complete as the book’s admirers like to suppose. Still, for long stretches Invisible Man does escape the formulas of protest, local color, genre quaintness and jazz chatter.
Howe’s assessment of Black writing, as something dictated by the social conditions that “formed a constant pressure on his literary work…with a pain and ferocity that nothing could remove,” prompted an exchange that would go three rounds and would lead Ellison to lob this stinger: “Many of those who write of Negro life today seem to assume that as long as their hearts are in the right place they can be as arbitrary as they wish in their formulations.” Referendums on the relative fairness of Ellison’s and Howe’s remarks continue to be published today.
I thought of Ellison when reading a modern-day exchange about race between public intellectuals — Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait. In a powerful essay in The Atlantic, Coates refutes the belief, shared by conservatives and progressives, in some derelict streak in black culture, and points instead to white supremacy as one of the “central organizing forces in American life.” In the context of Coates’s argument, Ellison might seem to willfully downplay this force, emphasizing in his response to Howe that his own influences took the form of Marx, Freud, Eliot, Pound, Stein, and Hemingway, books which “were to release me from whatever ‘segregated’ idea I might have had of my human possibilities.” But in Coates’s piece I heard strong echoes of Ellison’s rejection of white attempts to universalize and pathologize the black experience, as here:
Oddly enough, I found it far less painful to have to move to the back of a Southern bus, or climb to the peanut gallery of a movie house — matters about which I could do nothing except walk, read, hunt, dance, sculpt, cultivate ideas, or seek other uses for my time — than to tolerate concepts which distorted the actual reality of my situation or my reactions to it…I could escape the reduction imposed by unjust laws and customs, but not that imposed by ideas which defined me as no more than the sum of those laws and customs.
While Ellison evidently wanted to be remembered more for his fierce advocacy of the individual and the artist and his need for representation — “All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority,” he once told The Paris Review — his writing to Howe here is a resonant comment on the right of people to say who they are, rather than be told. In this he speaks even for the obscure birds, those men out of time, about whom the Invisible Man asked in his thrilling final line: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you”? And still today, people do not hear.
The review of Invisible Man in the New York Times began, amazingly, “Ralph Ellison’s first novel, ‘The Invisible Man,’ is the most impressive work of fiction by an American Negro which I have ever read.” Ellison never completed his gargantuan second novel, Juneteenth, which was Frankensteined and published after his death to thin reviews. For whatever reason, he paid the cost of being, as he put it “an individual who aspires to conscious eloquence.” But if Invisible Man is the most fully-realized embodiment of your conscious eloquence, that’s a hell of a legacy. How else might that Times review have begun? “The most impressive work of fiction by an American”? It would not have been an audacious claim.
This year I read articles about the San Francisco housing market and the Oakland housing market and the rise of the tech class and the death of the middle class, and I had anxieties. But I was fortunate to have a job, so I subscribed to three magazines, two of which I read. I read trend pieces in which I recognized myself because I have student loans and no car and no house and no offspring. I read online guides for how to introduce cats to babies, in case the latter condition should change. I read laments on the death of the humanities and felt morose. I read tweets where people said they didn’t like Frances Ha and felt misunderstood. I read the numbers on the scale and learned that I am fatter than I was the last time I wrote my Year in Reading. I read warnings about sitting being the new smoking and wondered if smoking will become okay by comparison. I read the ingredients in my lotion and wondered if they are giving me a rash. I read a WebMD thing about my rash and wondered if my lotion would be harmful for a baby. I read Amazon reviews for natural flea treatments and learned that there are none.
When I wasn’t reading a bunch of depressing shit, I read some strange and wonderful things. I read Dissident Gardens and thought it was so overwhelmingly wonderful that I read The Fortress of Solitude right away, and was underwhelmed by comparison. I read half of William Vollmann’s An Afghanistan Picture Show, which was not wonderful, and then I read all of his article about not being The Unabomber, which was. I read Ross Raisin’s Waterline. I read The Kindly Ones and wanted to talk to someone about it, but it’s old news and everyone is arguing about whether The Goldfinch and The Circle are bad or good. So I read four-year-old commentaries by Garth Risk Hallberg and Andrew Seal and had an imaginary talk with them both, and I think we all felt good at the end.
I read the memoir of Donald Antrim and felt very moved by his description of an outlandish kimono constructed by his mother, and wondered what it would be like to be the mother of Donald Antrim, or to have the mother that Donald Antrim had. I read an interview with Charles Manson, but did not care to consider what it would be like to be his mother. I read Tortilla Flat. I read Cannery Row. I read the Granta collection of under-40-year-olds and felt sort of stunned and worthless at the end. A story by Tahmima Anam about Dubai and falling continues to haunt me at odd moments. I read another story about falling, by Lionel Shriver, and got the spooky feeling I always get from Lionel Shriver, that she found the diary I would never actually keep, containing all my most awful thoughts. I wondered if Lionel Shriver is a witch. I re-read Of Human Bondage for the utter joy of it. I re-read Lucky Jim. I re-read Bridget Jones’s Diary. I got a cold and stayed home sick and re-read both memoirs of Beverly Cleary, and wished that I could stay home all week. I re-read Betsy was a Junior. I re-read The Adventures of Augie March, and wondered how it could have failed to show up on this list.
I read more things than I anticipated about Miley Cyrus. I somehow also read an interview with the woman whose husband committed infidelity with Kristen Stewart, accompanied by a picture of her nipples. I watched the music video for “Blurred Lines” and felt for a moment how very much people must hate women to come up with this shit. I realized that some of my favorite books by women are actually by men. I resolved to read more books by women. I felt obscurely annoyed at society for necessitating extra work on my part to correct its imbalance. I felt annoyed at myself for having this thought. I read The Group, which was a revelation. I read The Dud Avocado. I read The Conservationist and The Debut. I read The Affairs of Others and some good stories by Kate Milliken. Now I note that my reading list, like Ms. Cyrus, has a race problem–another thing requiring redress.
Next year I’ll do better, in this and all other matters.
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The Imp of the Perverse, not Patrick, may be the patron saint of this particular Irishman. Read the fictions of 2013 IMPAC winner Kevin Barry — he snagged the 100,000-euro prize with the bloody and lyrical novel City of Bohane — and you’ll discern the presence of a little demon stalking his people, a green-eyed creeping death with a rain-wracked ginger topknot. These souls find doing the right thing, whether it be moral or rational, quite the difficulty. The barriers are often karmically insurmountable. And as in his new book, the award-winning collection Dark Lies the Island, the affliction makes for consistently glorious, and often hilarious, reading.
Burn enough hours with the mind behind it all and you’ll detect certain immutable qualities, including a genuine affability, a grindstone work ethic, and immense empathy. The lattermost, a good thing for any writer, seems to be what also makes his readings among the most entertaining and virtuosic I’ve ever witnessed. The confidence and timing of a seasoned actor or comedian come naturally — the characters are made flesh — and as a story unspools in Barry’s easy Irish timbre, it reeks of the real, of the truth, no matter how fantastical the tale.
Barry recently visited Oregon for Portland’s Wordstock festival, and as is required by law here, I invited him out for some cycling (“I’ll ride 80k a day”) and some pints at the legendary Horse Brass Pub (“You Americans — look, if it’s over 5 percent, it isn’t beer; it’s fucking tawny port wine”). We inevitably found a good session beer to his liking and then talked at length about his work, the subconscious, the ’burbs, failure, the supernatural, Southern writers, comic fiction, and Ireland’s formidable literary legacy.
The Millions: Some biography, please.
Kevin Barry: I’m from Limerick city, on the west coast of Ireland. I’m 44. I’ve published three books, and I cycle my bike a lot in County Sligo. I live in an old police station there, in a swamp, essentially. And if I don’t write in the day, I don’t feel good for anything much.
TM: Did you grow up in Limerick?
KB: Pretty much in Limerick city until my late teens, in the suburbs. And when you grow up in an Irish suburb in the seventies, you may as well be in a suburb of Toronto or Phoenix. Most of the cultural feeds are precisely the same, except there’s also something slightly other about the language. Irish writers maybe have a slight edge because of the way we fucking mangle the English language. We have no rules for it. The way we deliver our stories is changing all the time, but I don’t think there’s any fear for the story. Human beings need stories as much as they need beer and trousers and hats and food and shelter.
TM: You hear early humans likely discovered fire a million years ago. We’ve been telling stories, in some form, around campfires for a million years.
KB: And it won’t stop. In terms of Irish writing, we must never underestimate the effect of 300 days of rain a year. We’re indoors a lot of the time, and we need to make shit up. We’d go nuts if we didn’t. But, yeah, I’m a kid of the suburbs and still have strange romantic notions about suburban life and that feeling on summer evenings. It always puzzles me that there isn’t more suburban art and literature.
TM: Maybe people are trying to escape the suburbs psychologically.
KB: Yeah, it’s like they’re so bland they can’t be mythic.
TM: Cheever made them mythic. It’s a liminal place, the hybrid city-country.
KB: There’s some French word that I can’t think of at the moment, where city bleeds into countryside, that edge of town. It’s a kind of nowhere land, with odd tensions from either side pulling. Nothing as eerie as walking around a suburb at 4 a.m. on a summer-night morning with nobody around and just a little bit of wind in the trees and leaves. And falling in love or out of love with some girl, and you’re 17. Those moments stay with you, in the sodium light.
TM: Does that shape your work?
KB: I remember talking once to a bunch of American students. And they were stunned and horrified to learn that Ireland has suburbs. Even though so many of us in Ireland grow up in the suburbs, they almost never show up in Irish literature. Because it doesn’t suit the mythos, which is either the Ulysses of the big city or the John McGahern small towns or the farm and the bleak austerity of the farmland. But Irish suburban life has almost never been done. The working-class cities, Limerick and Cork—that language has never appeared in Irish literature. I tried to bring some of it into City of Bohane. I hate the word resource applied in any way to literature or art, but it is a resource. It’s a very strange, weird, mangled, beautiful, tender, lovely take on English.
TM: You’re obviously besotted by the language, and you work its angles and curves to great effect. I picture the Oxford English Dictionary sinking into a Gaelic bog. But you don’t sacrifice clarity, even in your novel, which is a sustained, successful voice experiment. A high-low style seems to come easily to you, like a tune on the air.
KB: Thinking specifically in terms of the novel, I’ve always been drawn to work that tries to blend the high and the low. Saul Bellow in the fifties, with Augie March, trying to do Chicago street talk but the literary fucking high style as well, and really going for it. Martin Amis in the eighties in London. When I came to write City of Bohane, I had twin ambitions for it. I wanted it to be a grand, visceral entertainment, a real pulpy fucking page-turner, but also a serious language experiment. It was fun to write, and increasingly it seems to me that I should be having fun at the desk. On the very simple equation that if I’m having a good time at my end, the dear, beloved reader is having a good damn time at the far end. A lot of writers say that they don’t think about the reader at all. I’m a complete fucking whore for the reader. If someone picks up my book, they’re really doing me a fucking turn, and I want to give them a good time on many different levels. So I try to make every page and sentence pop. And that causes weird technical difficulties as a writer. It makes your work very intense as a reading experience. With City of Bohane, I sometimes think to tell the story right it should’ve been a much longer book, but the language was too intense. I think 280 pages is fine, because it’s fucking… It’s a wallop in the face.
TM: Some people can’t take it. Some of us eat it up, the sustained performance on the page. And it’s a first-person narrator. But there can be fatigue.
KB: People either tend to really love it and be evangelical of its cause or go, “Fuck all, this is not for me.” Which is fine. I would always take strong reactions over mild ones. It’s a book you have to read with the ears. You have to listen to it. And you have to do a bit of work at the start, and that’s kind of a difficult area now in novels. I think previously, as readers, we were prepared to give a novel a bit of time. You have a 900-page Russian door-stopper from the 19th century, and you give it a hundred pages, and it’d be fucking torture turning those pages. They’re like lead, you know? But then that magical thing happens where suddenly you’re trapped in the world. You’ve earned it.
TM: It’s the same with Shakespeare. Suddenly you’re in and it flows.
KB: I suspect now the reader won’t give you that much time anymore. It makes it a good time for the short story. I think, increasingly, people give as much time to a book as they will to an art-house movie or an indie film. I have this conversation all the time with my editor in London, and he says, “No, man, literature should be the alternative to all that white noise. It should be a quiet, immersive space where we go to get away from all that stuff.”
TM: A deeper escapism and amusement.
KB: Yeah, and maybe he’s right. Until recently, I hadn’t read the Booker Prize–winning Hilary Mantel novels, the Henry the Eighth stuff, you know? She has what I call “thumb.” You just want to turn the pages and keep going with it.
TM: In your work there seems to be the influence of writers from the American South. Barry Hannah and Charles Portis come to mind. A lot of Southern and Irish writers strike me as Hearers of the Music, profoundly taken by language. It seems that they particularly relish the poetry that can be drawn out of prose. Baudelaire wrote, “Always be a poet, even in prose.”
KB: To my shame, I’ve never read Charles Portis. Love Barry Hannah. There is an interesting correlation between Irish and Southern writers. We face similar difficulties, in terms often of the dialogue. You don’t want to over-egg it. But at the same time, people do fucking talk like that. So you have to be true to that as well. I think Hannah gets a beautiful balance.
TM: The dialects seem to have arisen from remoteness and insularity, fed over centuries by religious communalism. Flannery O’Connor wrote — and I once heard Hannah echo this — that the South is “Christ-haunted.” Is it the same for Ireland, with the huge Catholic and smaller Protestant presences?
KB: There’s no doubt. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but there’s Catholic prose and Protestant prose. Flannery O’Connor’s prose is Catholic fucking prose. John Updike’s prose is Protestant fucking prose. And that’s fine. There’s also Jewish prose, which dominated my whole reading staples in my twenties. I wanted to be the next great Jewish writer, which was difficult, as I was a ginger-haired child in Cork, in the south of Ireland. That didn’t work out. Without being too reductive, I would say the Protestant strain is to strip down and to pare back, to reduce. Beckett is a Protestant writer. Joyce is a Catholic writer. Joyce piles it all on to the fucking page. And for a long time in the 20th century, Irish writers had a great difficulty. They had to go one of the two paths. But there was a third way, and the stream in Irish writing I really love is that mischievous, anarchic, and inventive one that goes back to writers like Flann O’Brien, back to the 1700s to Laurence Sterne and Dean Swift. It’s a kind of crazy, funny, nasty strain.
TM: Tristram Shandy.
KB: Yes. I like my literature to be funny, the comic mode, and I think most of my favorite writers at some level are comic writers. Someone like Saul Bellow. Herzog is a novel about a nervous breakdown, a crack-up, and it’s fucking hilarious. Philip Roth writes terrifying novels about all sorts of disintegration and horrible, awful masculine emotions that are deathly funny. I think comedy is the most true human mode. It’s how we get through, through…
TM: The tragicomedy?
KB: For sure. My short stories, a lot of them are very dark, but I think almost always at the end they are comedic.
TM: That’s a great insight, of being Irish and that choosing between Joyce and Beckett. Beckett said Joyce was a synthesizer — put everything in, tried to bring it all together — but that he was an analyzer, and he was trying to take out every fucking thing he could. A reaction against Joyce and that high postmodernism.
KB: Absolutely. What I love about Beckett’s stuff, really, is that he plowed the same kind of stony ground for 50 years. And did him no harm. You can still bring new things all the time. In my own instance, I think the novels are going to be very different. The short stories are in lots of ways. I want to let the story dictate the style.
TM: The story is the master.
KB: Rather than the other way around. Don DeLillo once said that when he was writing, all that interested him was the sound. He said something like “I’ll happily change the subject of the sentence for the sake of how it sounds. And I will let the sound dictate the story.” I thought, Fucking heroic, man. And a story is a song, and it’s a tune. It’s a melody, and you follow it along.
TM: Dark Lies the Island is your new collection, your second. The stories are highly atmospheric. Whether you’re mixing despair and humor, delving into evil in disguise, or plying supernatural undercurrents, the particular psychology evoked just infuses the narrative.
KB: I think it’s the most intense prose form. There’s nothing like a fucking good story when you’re in its grip. I love the novel for its looseness, in the way that life is shapeless, but I just love that feeling when you’re in the hands of a really good storyteller and you find yourself sitting up a little straighter and turning down the radio and turning off the computer and chucking the kids out the window and just getting closer to the page. And you’re trapped, line by line. To make it that intense an experience for the reader is fucking difficult. I’m also really interested in the essay. It’s more front-of-the-brain.
TM: And you’re on the line. It’s you. You can’t blame it on a character.
KB: I think fiction is superior. You can’t lie in fiction. Your soul is there, pinned and wriggling on the page. You can lie much easier in nonfiction. Every single sentence in a short story is bearing weight, and for that reason most go wrong on me. Most end up on the floor. I write ten or twelve of the fuckers a year. One or two will get seen by anyone. I have a workroom at home in County Sligo that’s just littered with the corpses and near-corpses of half-dead zombie stories. It’s appalling shit. It’s fucking terrible. But I will always finish them, because I think that’s when you know you’re a pro: when you finish even the bad stuff. Just to get a finished object there.
TM: And to know.
KB: And to know. And I’ll do something else.
TM: Your stories read as deeply felt. Sometimes with the first-person stories, you think, That happened to him.
KB: I do think your best ones come out of your own experience. Everything is feed. Fiction happens in the subconscious, the back of the mind, that place, and I think your life experience has to sit back there for a while before it comes out. I think you have very little control as a writer, often. The decision to write fiction is a kind of a pact you make with your subconscious. You say, “Give me stuff. I’ll be there. I’ll be a pro. I’ll be at my fucking desk. I’ll be waiting for it.”
TM: “I’ll be the vessel.”
KB: Yeah. It’s sitting there. It took me a long time to get there. In my twenties I was writing music reviews, theater reviews, stuff like that, and it was doing fine, making the rent, having a good time out and about… Not getting happy. Knowing there was a part of my brain that I wasn’t using that I wanted to use. But it’s difficult when you’re writing sort of journalism stuff all day to find the time and space to write the fiction. I had to get poor. I bought a 12-foot caravan, a little trailer home, and I sat it on a beach in west Cork, and I spent a summer out there writing the next great Jewish-American novel. And it was a fucking monstrosity. But it taught me it has to be your main thing, the thing you do when you get up in the morning. The time especially for first drafts is when I’m barely awake.
TM: Fresh out of the dream state. John Gardner talked about the “vivid and continuous dream.” And a dream is a wild and fuzzy thing.
KB: Writing fiction and dreaming are very close. I won’t even have a cup of coffee when I get up. I’ll have a cup of weak tea. I don’t want to come up from it too quick. I want to stay in that kind of murky, blobby, kind of dream-shapey world and just— I don’t care about the sentences or the sense or anything. I just want to spew down words onto the page. And just slow accumulation. I’m working on a novel at the moment, and it’s very important to me to do something on it every day, even if it’s 20 minutes, to just try and make a daily connection with it. Because if you miss a day, it can suddenly completely start to go away. Writers have always sought ways to procrastinate. Editing and cutting is the enjoyable part.
TM: Bringing it out of the raw, like Michelangelo’s Captives.
KB: It’s the block of stone. Just cut away at it and see what you can get. There is a corollary to that. I think you can cut too much.
TM: The tendency toward the Carveresque, no pun intended. And a lot of that was Gordon Lish.
KB: Yeah. Or you can polish too much, hone too much, and take the original impulse and life force out of a piece.
TM: In your stories, and especially in your novel, place is always a primary force, a character, often sinister or supernatural.
KB: If I have a single, fundamental belief as a writer — and I suppose it’s quite an esoteric one — it’s that human feeling doesn’t just reside in humans but that it settles into our places, and I think very often fiction is about springing that feeling from places. [The recent New Yorker story] “Ox Mountain Death Song” comes from being out on my bike. I go out around the Sligo hills in the fucking drizzle and rain and wind. But it’s nice because your mind kind of unspews, you know?
TM: Woody Allen’s long, hot shower.
KB: For sure, and I was about three, four years going out cycling in the Ox Mountains, which by American standards aren’t mountains at all; they’re fucking hills, you know? But anytime I went, I got this kind of bleak, dark feeling into my bones. And eventually I said, “I’ll try a new method, a new tactic. I’ll go out and I’ll write the story on site.” I went out and I stayed in a cheap hotel in a little beach town in the shadow of the Ox Mountains and wrote a really rough draft in three days and kind of forgot about it for a few months. I’m often writing two stories at the same time, and one of them is kind of an attempt not to write the other one. There’s always a phantom story underneath. But there’s something John Cheever said in his beautiful introduction to his collected stories: stories remind you very much of the time in your life when you wrote them. Of the place, where you were. What I love about him is he’s deeply fucking weird, you know? Those are really strange, eerie, kind of crazy stories.
TM: He’s doing things that others just weren’t doing. You can say Shirley Jackson, a few others here and there, maybe. But, really, “The Swimmer”?
KB: Amazing story.
TM: Nobody was doing anything like that.
KB: Nobody was doing that stuff. I love to read stories that are coming out now and see what’s happening. But I do love to go back, to read the classic stuff. Someone like V.S. Pritchett, in the 20th century, was a hugely famous story writer. He was in The New Yorker five times a year. In Europe he was the most famous British man of letters. And he had one of those weird things where, after his death, in the late nineties, he just faded from view instantly. But you go back and read him and they’re nuts. And they’re all built on talk, on mad, deranged, demotic, provincial UK kind of talk. As much as you should always keep up with what’s happening and who’s pushing things out at the edge, don’t forget these guys. They put lifetimes’ worth of serious talent into developing the short story and bringing it to where it is. And it’s one of our greatest achievements as human beings, the short-story form. I think it’s really sublime when it’s good. I think what unifies the great story writers is that they stick with it throughout their careers. Sometimes you get the guy who comes out with a brilliant debut collection of stories and just goes on and writes novels. I really hate that shit. Keep writing stories. It’s not an apprentice form for the novel. It’s no accident that the very best writers of stories alive are the people who keep writing them all the way through their careers. Alice Munro, William Trevor, George Saunders.
TM: But we want your novels, too. That expansion. Like in City of Bohane, you’ve got small town, big tapestry. The Bohane River divides the city physically and metaphysically. On its way out to sea it seems to leach and drag the wickedness of the long dead out of the boglands of the countryside to poison the city with “the taint.” It feels directly connected to all the great Irish mythology, especially the Ulster Cycle, Cú Chulainn, the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Epic life and death sunk into the earth but fluid and moving.
KB: Those influences feed in subconsciously. Human feeling bleeding into the place. Limerick city is quite a troubled city, quite a violent place, lots of gang feuds. It’s known as Stab City. It’s always had lots of knife crime. Once, when I was a cub reporter in the late eighties, there was a great, since-passed-away local politician, a guy called Jim Kemmy, and I met him downtown one time. We were standing by the River Shannon, which is Ireland’s biggest, longest river, which enters the sea through Limerick, and there’d been some horrendous fucking gang feud in town with about five dead on either side. And I remember saying to him, “What’s wrong with us?” And he said, “I don’t know, but I think it’s coming in off the river.” And it stuck with me for years and years and years, and the first line of the novel is “Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river.” The taint of place. I try to escape Ireland in the winter often, and I go to Spain, just for some bit of light and blue skies and get out from under the belly of cloud. And I’m a secret bird-watcher. A twitcher. So I went a couple of times, in southern Spain, in Andalucía, to a town called Ronda. There’s a very famous gorge a couple of thousand feet deep. And it’s famous for its choughs, which are crows with red beaks. Amazing fliers. They fly sheer up and down the face of it. So I went there and was looking, and this fucking dark, black, horrendous feeling coming over me, and I’m going, “What the fuck is it?” And getting out of town. Getting out of Ronda on the next bus. Went back couple years later, same thing, down around the gorge. Started doing some research about it and discovered that in the Spanish Civil War 300 prisoners had been made to jump to their deaths, at gunpoint, at the gorge in Ronda. And I’m certain that some of that feeling, that terror, that fucking primeval human horror, has settled into those stones, and I fucking picked some of it up. My brother is a fisherman, loves to fish for trout in Ireland. He talks about a particular lake that he found himself on once in County Clare. And same thing. “Amazing, beautiful summer night. I’m out fishing in my boat out on the lake. Suddenly, ‘Fuck, get outta here.’ Horrible feeling.” Doing some research after: horrible scenes in the Irish famine. Two hundred people starved to death on the shores of this lake.
TM: And you’ve got to have the antennae to pick it up.
KB: I think we all have the antennae at some level.
TM: Some are more sensitive.
KB: Sometimes you’ll shiver and say, “Get outta Dodge.”
TM: Bad mojo. Can you talk about the risks you took with Bohane? I’m curious if there have been any comparisons to Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, if only because of the idiomatic invention.
KB: A Clockwork Orange was a hugely important book to me as a teenager. If you go back to it, it’s very much about Britain in the sixties. It’s a projection on the moment when it’s written. It’s about mods and rockers and Brighton Beach. Burgess wrote it when he was living just outside Brighton, and he couldn’t describe that world directly, but he described it brilliantly by doing it at a future remove. In some sense I think City of Bohane is a projection on Irish cities as they are at the moment, when they have over the last 20 years changed unbelievably, for the first time become multicultural places. Lots of new weird, wonderful energies, lots of new dark, dangerous tensions.
TM: Bohane is like a west-of-Ireland western.
KB: It’s a complete western.
TM: It’s very cinematic, and that quite literally plays into the risky and experimental narratorial conceit, a magical first-person omniscient narrator who’s also a character. But not like Vonnegut’s intrusive god-author; it doesn’t come off like that.
KB: I wanted the reader to feel like they were in some awful, horrendous dive bar in a tremendously deranged Irish city in the middle of the 21st century and there’s some crazy old fucking whisky-drunk nut alongside them whispering this demented tall tale into their ears.
TM: And he knows what people are thinking. You believe him.
KB: Yeah, he’s kind of God out there. One of the technical questions was “How much do I show this guy?” I kept him very, very limited. He shows up once or twice. The I word comes in.
TM: It’s a mystery, but I wouldn’t say it’s soft-pedaled. The voice is so strong. But I haven’t noticed anyone else remarking on it. Then we see you win the IMPAC. Obviously, it’s resonating.
KB: That was very cool, winning a big prize.
TM: Can you talk about setting as character and parallel protagonist?
KB: In Bohane in particular, obviously the city is the main character. I guess what it comes out of is when you’ve lived in a city like Limerick or like Cork, you are aware that there is a world out there, outside the city limits, but really it’s just kind of a rumor. It really doesn’t matter. Where you are is the center of the fucking universe. And Bohane is all-encompassing. They refer to anything outside of Bohane as Big Nothin’. It’s that sense that this is the world and this is all that counts. I think that’s familiar to anybody who’s lived or grown up in small cities. They’re just about big enough to be anonymous in, but also they’ve got this kind of weblike, clammy sense of connection to everything. Coincidences can genuinely happen. When people and professors read Dickens now, they say, “Too many coincidences,” right?
TM: But London was a hell of a lot smaller.
KB: London was about 800,000. People would’ve bumped into each other all the time.
TM: So it’s not necessarily a deus ex machina or overwrought orchestration.
KB: I think he was absolutely on the money.
TM: Is Bohane a bit of a mashup of Limerick, where you’re from, and Sligo, where you live now?
KB: Equal parts Limerick, where I lived until I was 20, and Cork, where I moved to and lived until I was 30. The accent I would hear is quite a Cork singsong, quite a melodious accent. I physically see it as Limerick, which is a dark dock town. And there’s west-of-Ireland weather in there. And great, mad renditions of the English language.
TM: About that. Ireland has given us folks considered the greatest writers in, or innovators within, the English language. People think Joyce and Beckett, deathless giants. Yeats. Flann O’Brien. Seamus Heaney. The great Frank O’Connor. And it’s not a very big place. Is it a burden or a source of effulgent pride?
KB: [Laughs] I would never go to my desk in the morning and say, “I must settle down to do some Irish writing here.” One of my great problems with the whole edifice of Irish literature is that it was sometimes quite a hermetic world. The only influences on Irish literature were things that had happened in Irish literature. As if electric light and television and cinema and rock-and-roll and punk and electro and disco had never been invented. I honestly don’t think in nationalistic terms. If you’re positioned in any way in any tradition, it’s better to have good people behind you than fucking twats.
If poetry is going to be tortured, agonized, and morbidly introspective, it might as well be funny too. John Berryman’s The Dream Songs are all that and more. Half elegiac lyricism and half lowdown buffoonery, they’re like nothing else in American literature, though they owe a debt to Saul Bellow’s breakthrough mixture of high and low in The Adventures of Auggie March. (The two men shared an office at the University of Minnesota in the 1950s. Can you imagine being an undergraduate there and making a routine appointment to discuss your C+ with Mr. Bellow or Mr. Berryman?) Although I can’t claim to understand The Dream Songs fully, I’m not required to. No one said it better than Berryman himself: “These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand./They are only meant to terrify & comfort.” Reading all 385 of them at a stretch (not recommended), I sometimes find myself bored as well as baffled. This too is allowed:
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles.
Perhaps the first thing to be said about The Dream Songs is that there are too many of them. By my reckoning (every reader’s will differ), fewer than half are truly first-rate or even intelligible, yet the good ones wouldn’t be so good if not set off by the messiness and prolixity of the others — and even the good ones are pretty messy too. It took Berryman years to break through to the mess that allowed life in. He served his apprenticeship under the ideal of formal severity and impersonality bequeathed by the gods of modernism. Not that he ever surrendered the modernist ideal of difficulty. Them Dream Songs isn’t easy, pal. But although their elisions and allusions seem to invite the sort of interpretive ingenuity that used to make academic careers, they succeed best when speaking more or less clearly about the elemental things: love, lust, friendship, death, despair, memory, and John Berryman.
John Berryman isn’t exactly a veiled presence in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1953), the major work that preceded The Dream Songs, but that strange narrative poem of 57 stanzas does give us something rarely encountered in his work thereafter: other consciousnesses. It’s true that friends, lovers, wives, children, students, rivals, doctors, nurses, mothers, and murderers populate The Dream Songs, but their appearances are always and openly grist for “Henry’s” — that is, Berryman’s — mill, objects in his psychic landscape. It’s also true that the Anne Bradstreet he brings into being is as much Berryman’s alter-ego or freely imaged object of desire as the actual Puritan poet who married at 16, crossed the Atlantic in 1630, bore eight children, wrote some of the earliest verse in America, and died at the age of 60 in 1672. Nevertheless, he was too much a scholar not to give a convincing sense of Puritan culture and the people who inhabited it. No scholar alone, however, would have dared to create an interior life for his protagonist the way that Berryman does. It’s hard to imagine the Harvard historian Perry Miller, for example, whose studies of Puritan thought and culture Berryman drew on heavily, trying to get inside the head of a woman in labor, as Berryman does in the stanzas describing the birth of Anne’s first child. (Another part of his research consisted of asking extremely intimate questions of mothers that he knew, including his own.) Magnificent in itself, this celebrated sequence is also a useful corrective to those who believe that the adulterous, alcoholic, sexist, self-involved male poet couldn’t write about anything but his own consciousness:
Monster you are killing me Be sure
I’ll have you later Women do endure
I can can no longer
and it passes the wretched trap whelming and I am me
drencht & powerful, I did it with my body!
One proud tug greens Heaven. Marvellous,
Swell, imperious bells. I fly.
Nevertheless, the adulterous, alcoholic, sexist, self-involved male poet did write primarily about his own consciousness, and in The Dream Songs, to return to his signature work, he did so over the course of about 400 pages and 7,000 lines. The question almost asks itself: Why should any of us struggle with 400 pages of fractured, nonlinear verse describing one mid-20th-century white academic’s private torments, not excluding details of a hemorrhage in his left ear and much grousing about the weather? Well, if you think The Dream Songs are excessively self-involved, try Love & Fame (1971), which goes on and on and on about insanely trivial matters, as if daring the reader to find the poetry in this mass of congealed autobiography. It’s there if you look hard enough, but some of the verse is so hilariously awful it must be intentional, as in this reminiscence about Berryman’s college years:
I must further explain: I needed a B,
I didn’t need an A, as in my other six courses,
but the extra credits accruing from those A’s
would fail to accrue if I’d any mark under B.
The bastard knew this,
as indeed my predicament was well known
through both my major Departments.
Unlike The Dream Songs, Love & Fame is meant all too clearly to be understood. It’s so lucid, in fact — a scrupulously detailed bildungsroman in verse — that most of the poetry gets lost in the glare. No one ever accused The Dream Songs of being too lucid. At their frequent worst, they are so clotted with private reference as to be impenetrable. Any poem that requires an annotation like the following (from John Berryman: A Critical Commentary by John Haffenden) plainly doesn’t give a damn whether it’s penetrable or not:
The ‘Little Baby’ is Berryman’s daughter Martha; Diana, the daughter of Kate Berryman’s friend, Eugenia Foster. ‘The Beast’ is the nickname given to the boy who lived next door to them in Lansdowne Park, Ballsbridge, Dublin. ‘Mir’ is the family name for Berryman’s mother.
Furthermore — to get the bad stuff out of the way — even if Songs were consistently successful, they would still suffer from the defect of most uniform poetic sequences: too much of a good thing. If Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets begin ever so slightly to pall, Berryman’s 385 sonnet-like Songs — 18 iambic lines divided into stanzas of six, six, and six, with varying rhymes and half lines, usually in the middle and end of each strophe — can hardly escape a similar but much heavier numbing effect. There is, of course, a fairly simple solution to this problem — don’t read them straight through. Although there are sequences within the sequence, the ordering has no organizational principle that holds for long. You could read them backwards and do almost as well.
Another difficulty is the minstrel dialect that Berryman mixes with the slang, jokes, baby talk, impossible grammar, and syntactic inversions. Readers of modern poetry are accustomed to such unstable compounds, but the appropriation of an idiom associated with racial oppression induces squirms, and is meant to. At least I hope it’s meant to. Sometimes I’m not so sure. I feel a little better knowing that Berryman’s friend Ralph Ellison had no problem with the blackface dialect and especially admired Song 68, which deals in part with the death of Bessie Smith. I guess I’ll always have some qualms, but would anyone really prefer The Dream Songs to be shorn of their outrages to decorum and taste? Don’t we read them partly because they’re so unlike what “great” poetry is supposed to be? The half-lunatic syntax serves many purposes — chiefly, the subversion of psychological defenses preventing access to primal guilts, fears, needs, and shames, or as Kafka might have said, the taking of an ax to the frozen sea within. The Songs are, after all, inspired by dreams, where we take our clothes off and don’t speak or think the King’s English, but Henry’s language is also extremely funny, an all-American music of boisterous vulgarity. Troubled and troubling as they are, The Dream Songs give back in delighted sound what they darkly ruminate on sense. The overall tenor of the book might be roughly stated as follows: Just because we’re buffoons, it doesn’t mean our lives aren’t tragic.
In the preface Berryman explains, somewhat misleadingly, that the poem “is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr Bones and variants thereof.” Although just enough distance exists between character and creator to allow for the writing of the book, few people believe Berryman’s disclaimer. Berryman is Henry, and Henry is, to a greater or — let us hope — lesser degree, us. More useful, I think, is Berryman’s statement to The Paris Review: “Henry to some extent was in the situation that we are all in in actual life — namely, he didn’t know and I didn’t know what the bloody fucking hell was going to happen next.” This barroom wisdom underwrites every line of the book. (“Parm me, lady,” drunken Henry says to his seatmate on an airplane in Song 5. “Orright” she replies.) I might add, before I look at a few Songs, that the principle of chaos and disorder to which this wisdom attests found spectacular expression in the poet’s everyday life. According to Bellow, Berryman “knocked himself out to be like everybody else,” but despite his efforts to be a responsible husband, father, citizen, and colleague, he failed in every respect. In Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman Paul Mariani describes a fairly typical night in the life of the poet when, drunk as usual and declining out of envious pique to attend a poetry reading at Berkeley, where we was then teaching:
Berryman came over to see Miriam [Ostroff, a faculty wife], chatted with her, read her some of his Dream Songs, and was soon boasting of his sexual prowess. In spite of her protests, he began chasing her around the room. When she told him to get out, he suddenly became contrite and downcast and promised to be good if only he could stay. After a short while, however, he started again, until he finally browbeat her into letting him spend “ten or fifteen minutes reverently caressing her feet, while reciting poetry.” Then, realizing that the house had windows and that someone might be watching, Berryman recovered himself, hailed a taxi, and went home.
Mariani’s biography is not edifying. Out of such squalor, however, Berryman created masterpieces like Dream Song 4, Henry’s appallingly believable version of “lust in action”:
Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken paprika, she glanced at me
Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the fact of her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her
or falling at her little feet and crying
‘You are the hottest one for years of night
Henry’s dazed eyes
have enjoyed, Brilliance.’ I advanced upon
(despairing) my spumoni. – Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls.
— Black hair, complexion Latin, jeweled eyes
downcast . . . The slob beside her feasts . . . What wonders is
she sitting on, over there?
The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars.
Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.
— Mr. Bones: there is.
The self-disgust is palpable and — who can doubt it? — thoroughly earned. Why then is this poem so exceedingly funny? Perhaps because like the best of the Songs it manages to be so many things at once. There ought to be a law against Henry, but his raging sexuality doesn’t stop him from idealizing both the object of his desire and his desire itself. The funniest thing about the Song is that it exists — a gross parody of poetic adoration that is touched with the lyricism of jeweled eyes and an apostrophized “Brilliance.” Helen Vendler writes in The Given and the Made, “We become marginally convinced, by such a poem, that the troubadours were Henrys too, and that Berryman is merely uncovering the unsalubrious, but oddly solacing, layer of psychic squalor beneath high artistic convention.” Nicely put, but somehow it sounds funnier when Henry says it.
Among the adjectives Vendler applies to Henry are “regressive, petulant, hysterical, childish, cunning, hypersexual, boastful, frightened, shameless, and revengeful.” Also, “complaining, greedy, lustful, and polymorphously perverse.” Did we miss anything? How about self-pitying, irresponsible, envious, and grandiose? Vendler, who notes that Henry is simultaneously “imaginative, hilarious, mocking, and full of Joycean music,” is making an important point about the intrusion of the Freudian Id into the august precincts of lyric poetry. If Henry’s worse than we are, it’s only by a matter of degree. Why shouldn’t self-portraiture, in poetry as well as prose, allow for the base and ignoble as well as the socially approved? Maybe because I’ve written a few myself, I’ve never understood the knock on memoirs as pointless exercises in narcissism. Until we all live lives of wholly integrated personhood, there will be much to learn from the microscopic examinations of the self performed by Mary Karr or Tobias Wolff or Henry Adams or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Because The Dream Songs derive so much from the model of self-examination provided by psychotherapy (and from Berryman’s long hours in group and private sessions), they’re more uncensored than most such memoiristic exercises but are unique only in their peculiar combination of hilarity and despair.
I’ve mentioned self-pity as one of the characteristic modes of Henry and his Songs. Since this particular vice isn’t going away any time soon and is, in fact, more ubiquitous than the alcoholism and lust for fame that the Songs also relate at inordinate length, I consider it wholly to Berryman’s credit that he presents Henry, in the midst of all his tribulations, feeling genuinely and unrepentantly sorry for himself. Instances aren’t hard to find: “Henry hates the world. What the world to Henry/did will not bear thought” (DS 74); “This world is gradually becoming a place/where I do not care to be any more” (DS 149); “The only happy people in the world/are those who do not have to write long poems” (DS 354); “Mr Bones,/stop that damn dismal” (DS 98). Mr Bones never did stop that damn dismal. Berryman, who regularly assigned Miguel de Unamuno to his students, must have learned something from the Spaniard’s metaphysics of pity. In the Tragic Sense of Life, Unamuno writes, “Man yearns to be loved, or, what is the same thing, to be pitied. Man wishes others to feel and share his hardships and sorrows. The roadside beggar’s exhibition of his sores and gangrened mutilations is something more than a device to extort alms from the passer-by. True alms is pity rather than the pittance that alleviates the material hardships of life.” For Unamuno the next step in the progression is turning the pity for the self outwards, towards a universal compassion for all suffering beings. Berryman never got that far. He occupied the huge gray area where self-pity and genuine pathos blur their edges. Song 149, for instance, sounds outrageously petulant — because Henry’s friends have died, he hates the world. Yet this petulance frames an elegy for a man whose sufferings easily surpassed Henry’s (or Berryman’s), his great friend Delmore Schwartz. A sober, chastened acceptance of death is precisely what Berryman does not provide. Henry’s refusal or inability to come to terms with necessity makes the Song doubly true — true to the intractability of grief, and true to the memory (half solace, half torment) of a loved friend:
This world is gradually becoming a place
where I do not care to be any more. Can Delmore die?
I don’t suppose
in all them years a day went ever by
without a loving thought for him. Welladay.
I imagine you have heard the terrible news,
that Delmore Schwartz is dead, miserably & alone,
in New York: he sang me a song
‘I am the Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz
Harms & the child I sing, two parents’ torts’
when he was young & gift-strong.
Berryman had a lot of grieving to do in The Dream Songs — for “Delmore,” “Randall” (Jarrell), “Richard” (Blackmur), “Louis” (MacNeice), and other friends, but mostly for himself. He too sang “Harms & the child”: his father’s suicide occurred when Berryman was 12. His unseemly bewailing of this primal wound is one of the glories of The Dream Songs. If you don’t feel sorry for yourself after a trauma like that, you’re probably damaged beyond redemption. I remember reading reviews of Flannery O’Connor’s posthumously published letters, The Habit of Being (1979), in which critic after critic marveled at her complete lack of self-pity in the face of rural isolation, degenerative illness, and overwhelming household cares. My response was more like Henry’s: What was wrong with this woman? On the other hand, who was I to judge this brave, unassuming, Roman Catholic stoic who virtually re-invented the American short story? Yet the feeling remains with me still — if Flannery O’Connor had ever permitted herself an occasional howl of self-pity, she might have extended a similar sympathy to the freaks, half-wits, criminals, con artists, and fanatics she depicted with such icy detachment. However brilliant, she was also, in my opinion, the coldest and cruelest of all major American writers. What Berryman says about Wallace Stevens is Song 219 is partly right; he just applies it to the wrong writer. Substitute “O’Connor” for “Stevens” and it makes perfect sense:
He mutter spiffy. He make wonder Henry’s
wits, though, with a odd
. . . something . . . something . . . not there in his flourishing art.
“Better than us; less wide” is Berryman’s final and misapplied verdict on Stevens. John Berryman was emphatically not better than us (though he’s speaking here as a poet to a poet), and there was nothing narrow or “less wide” about his emotional devastations. I’ve got my own Henry-like traumas to deal with. “Get over it,” people tell me. I can’t; that’s one of the reasons why I read poetry. Since all of us are damaged to one degree or another, I regard the shameless exhibitionism of The Dream Songs as not only essential to their success but a public service. But note: the Songs are art, not therapeutic transcripts. In 384, the penultimate Song, Berryman/Henry returns to the primal scene, his father’s suicide by shotgun. After all those years, after all those Songs, no resolution or catharsis is to be hoped for. There is only the consolation of expression through form:
The marker slants, flowerless, day’s almost done,
I stand above my father’s grave with rage,
often, often before
I’ve made this awful pilgrimage to one
who cannot visit me, who tore his page
out: I come back for more,
I spit upon this dreadful banker’s grave
who shot his heart out in a Florida dawn
O ho alas alas
When will indifference come, I moan & rave
I’d like to scrabble till I got right down
away down under the grass
and ax the casket open ha to see
just how he’s taking it, which he sought so hard
we’ll tear apart
the mouldering grave clothes ha then Henry
will heft the ax once more, his final card,
and fell it on the start.
It’s no accident that this poem of violent rage and hatred adheres with strictest discipline to a rhyme scheme of abc/abc and a metric of 5-5-3/5-5-3. The visionary power so overwhelms that the regularity passes almost unnoticed, but without the regularity controlling the passion, the Song wouldn’t be nearly so overwhelming. To offer any explication of a poem so primal in its address would almost seem an impertinence. The only analogue I can think of is the climax of Luis Buñuel’s Mexican B-movie version of Wuthering Heights — fabulously titled Abismos de Pasión — in which Heathcliff breaks into Cathy’s crypt with an ax and is shot while holding the decomposing corpse in his arms. Out of such subterranean currents of rage and despair are our ordinary lives made.
“When will indifference come?” If it had come, Berryman wouldn’t have needed to write the Songs and especially not 29, a nightmare of guilt and horror at the furthest extremity from indifference. I surely don’t understand this one fully, though it all feels sickeningly right, down to the unexplained “little cough” of the first stanza and the tantalizing/tormenting serenity of the Giotto-like figure that looms up in the second. That little cough may emanate from an imagined victim of Henry’s murderous fantasies. I myself am not bedeviled by recurring nightmares of committing violence against women, but I know how desolation and despair feel. Like this:
There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.
And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;
But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.
The third stanza presents a mind so disturbed as to risk foreclosing the possibility of any sympathetic response. For a moment it makes me think of all those pictures of naked little girls with penises by the “outsider” artist Henry Darger; if he hadn’t been drawing little girls, he might have been raping and murdering them. But there’s a reason Berryman called them “Dream Songs.” Their flashes of nightmarish, hallucinogenic imagery light up the darker recesses of the mind. John Berryman never hurt a fly (neither did Henry Darger), and The Dream Songs do what folk art cannot — they illuminate rather than exemplify pathologies of the soul. They’re also pretty good at illuminating ordinary experience. John Berryman lived in the world we live in, and when he wasn’t drunk or in detox or suicidal (or even when he was), he could describe the world and his place in it with grace and wit. After all this Sturm und Drang, I’d like to close with a lovely little poem (not a Dream Song) occasioned by the birth of his son Paul in 1957. Berryman of course turned out to be a negligent and mostly absent father to the boy, but he did leave him with “A Sympathy, A Welcome” — which excuses nothing. Whatever his feelings about his catastrophic father, I hope Paul Berryman had a happy life and that “loverhood” swung his soul like a broken bell.
Feel for your bad fall how could I fail,
poor Paul, who had it so good.
I can offer you only: this world like a knife.
Yet you’ll get to know your mother
and humourless as you do look you will laugh
and all the others
will NOT be fierce to you, and loverhood
will swing your soul like a broken bell
deep in a forsaken wood, poor Paul,
whose wild bad father loves you well.
I kept a reading journal for the first time this year and I highly recommend it. It’s humbling for one (that’s all I read?), inspiring (read more!), and clarifying (choose well). That said, it was a pretty great year reading-wise. I read David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green twice, re-read Turgenev’s First Love, William Gass’ On Being Blue, and Don DeLillo’s End Zone, and I highly recommend them all. With everything going on with the Penn State scandal, Margaux Fragoso’s harrowing memoir of sexual abuse, Tiger, Tiger is both timely and even more devastating. I finally read Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and thought it was terrific. I took Ann Patchett’s advice at the opening of Parnassus, her independent bookstore in Nashville, and bought Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, devouring it in a single sitting. I had so much fun reading The Stories of John Cheever in conjunction with The Journals of John Cheever that I read Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March in tandem with his Letters, which includes a wonderful introduction by its editor, Benjamin Taylor. J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace — my first experience with his work — was riveting, appalling, and beautiful. Jim Shepard’s story collection Like You’d Understand, Anyway was so wide-reaching, variegated, and emotionally precise I felt like I’d read a collection of micro-novels.
Still, of all the books I read, only Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian took over my world, and by that I mean I had that rare experience, while immersed in it, of seeing reality through its lens whenever I put it down and in the days after I finished it. Ostensibly it’s about a band of Indian hunters run amok along the Texas-Mexico border in the mid-nineteenth century but really it’s about how man’s natural state is warfare. You can buy that bill of goods or not but like McCarthy’s greatest works (Suttree, The Crossing) it’s written in his inimitable style, that fusion of The Book of Isaiah, Herman Melville, and Faulkner (though he’s more precise than the latter, more desolate and corporeal than Moby Dick’s author; whether his prophetic powers are on par with his artistry remains to be seen), a voice which is all his own, of course, and has an amplitude I’ve encountered only in, what, DeLillo at his most ecstatic? Murakami at his most unreal? Bellow in Augie March or Herzog? Alice Munro in The Progress of Love? John Hawkes in The Lime Twig? Read it if you read anything this coming year and note: a bonus to the experience is that you’ll add at least two hundred words to your lexicon.
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Catch-22 has been receiving a lot of press lately for its fiftieth anniversary, and why not? Joseph Heller’s masterpiece has permeated the culture in a way few novels do, its title becoming a catchphrase to readers and non-readers alike.
It also happens to be a very fine book. I certainly thought so when I read it at St. Louis University High, where it had become something of a rite of passage for juniors thanks to the efforts of Mr. Jim Raterman, whose energetic classes were known to include impersonations of B-25 bombers perfected by his upbringing near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton. Heller’s genius for encasing a humanistic tale in absurdist farce made the book endlessly appealing to a bunch of seventeen-year-olds whose young intellects were fermenting in an all-male prep school environment that put a high valuation on the quick reply, the clever pun, and the high-minded non sequitur. Many of us also happened to be terribly earnest, and Catch-22, with its indictment of war and solicitude of the individual, spoke directly to the bits of Jesuit social teaching that we picked up in theology class. The book felt decidedly important to us.
Unnoticed in the shadow of Catch-22’s wings, another book is marking its golden anniversary this year, one that also felt and still feels terribly important to me. I don’t remember how I learned that Catch-22 — along with another favorite book of mine, Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road — had lost its bid for the 1962 National Book Award to a slim volume by a man with the strange name of Walker Percy. Literary awards obviously don’t constitute the last word on merit, but I was curious to read the book judged superior to touchstones of my young reading life. I didn’t get around to The Moviegoer for two years after finishing Catch-22, but when I did, I knew that insofar as book awards have a power of ratification, the National Book Award committee had done its job in 1962. Still, when it comes to great literature, laurels like the NBA are paltry acknowledgments of a book’s real power; I found this to be especially true of Percy’s book. Catch-22 had been important to me as a student of literature, and Revolutionary Road had been important to my early development as a writer. But The Moviegoer was important to me as a human being. Like few other books I’ve ever read, it changed me.
F. Scott Fitzgerald thought “the purpose of a work of fiction is to appeal to the lingering after-effects in the reader’s mind.” Other than Fitzgerald’s own works, I’ve never read a novel whose power lies so fully not in the course of being read, but in the astral glow of having been read. When I completed The Moviegoer for the first time, I was at a loss to explain the significance of the 242 pages I’d just traversed, but I knew they had been important. I felt the novel working on me in strange ways, like a slow-release drug. That so much of The Moviegoer’s effect is felt when it’s not being read can be attributed not to some defect in Percy’s prose, but rather to the nature of the novel’s moral project.
That project is fixed in the book’s epigraph, a quote from Kierkegaard that Percy takes as his lodestar: “…[T]he specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair.” This is the condition that the narrator, Jack “Binx” Bolling, finds himself in at the novel’s opening, and it is the condition in which Percy keeps his narrator for most of the book; only upon the book’s completion does the reader realize just how mired Binx really is. Binx’s life is characterized by a vague, not altogether unpleasant sense of discontent; he’s unsure of his purpose in life, and his inability to discern it is both sweet and enervating. He devotes most of his energy to “the search,” an ill-defined quest for an ill-defined higher truth: “What is the nature of the search? you ask. …The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life.”
In this formulation of Binx’s preoccupation, Percy sounds like a contemporary who was also explicitly in search of ultimate meaning: Saul Bellow. Unlike Bellow’s characters, however, Binx makes good on his threats to stiff-arm society. Bellovian heroes like Charlie Citrine and Moses Herzog see the everydayness of life as both working against and essential to their own searches; in the end, they can never foreswear community. Binx has no such qualms. He calls himself “a model citizen” because he enjoys paying his bills and renewing his licenses on time, but he uses his conscientiousness in these matters as an excuse to avoid any other form of civic activity. His formidable aunt, who urges him to enter medical school, asks, “Don’t you feel obliged to use your brain and to make a contribution?” To which Binx responds, “No’m.” He treats his brokerage job as a game, has serial affairs with secretaries he sees as interchangeable, and, in the novel’s climax, fails to recognize the precarious mental state of his cousin Kate. He floats around in a sort of dreamlike state, bemused and terrified by the world. Fittingly, he lives on a street called Elysian Fields; like the dim realm the Greeks imagined for their deceased heroes, Binx’s New Orleans is neither perdition nor paradise. In an indeterminate world, Binx is convinced only of the importance of his search. “[N]ot for five minutes will I be distracted from the wonder,” he declares.
Such an assertion sounds off-putting in its solipsism, but in the context of the work as a whole, the reader is inclined to support Binx thanks to Percy’s refusal of irony. To revive the Bellow comparison: Bellow’s characters are comically solipsistic and hapless, and even a book as tightly locked within the first person as Herzog leaves room for the reader to laugh at the narrator’s overeducated lack of self-awareness. Percy wrestles this outlet away from the reader, forcing him to perform Kierkegaard’s insight along with Binx. Against his better instincts, the reader takes pleasure in sharing Binx’s aimlessness, though it quickly becomes clear that he ought not to. Early in the novel, Binx says, “Everything is upside-down for me,” but this is inaccurate. “Upside-down” describes a state of inverted order, yes, but a state of order nevertheless. Things aren’t reversed for Binx so much as they are polysemic, freighted with too much mysterious possibility, both beautiful and alienating. Even his confusion lacks order. Speaking enviously of his aunt, who is dismayed at the deterioration of Southern gentility, Binx says:
For her too the fabric is dissolving, but for her even the dissolving makes sense. …It seems so plain when I see it through her eyes. My duty in life is simple. I go to medical school. I live a long useful life serving my fellowman. What’s wrong with this? All I have to do is remember it.
But alas, Binx can only look through his aunt’s eyes for so long; when looking through his own, an action as simple as enrolling in medical school threatens the search — would pose a threat to the world’s beauty, while simultaneously risking meaninglessness amidst the vastness of the universe. “Where there is chance of gain, there is also chance of loss,” Binx says. “Whenever one courts great happiness, one also risks malaise.” Waking from the dream bears costs that Binx is unwilling to bear.
The reader, too, is reluctant to awaken. Who hasn’t yearned for a life free of banality’s demands? Realizing that the search itself is what poisons Binx is one of the book’s aforementioned after-effects. Percy works to make indolence alluring, reserving some of his most lyrical writing for Binx’s paralyzing reveries. Here’s Binx, recalling his college days:
…I had spent the four years propped on the front porch of the fraternity house, bemused and dreaming, watching the sun shine through the Spanish moss, lost in the mystery of finding myself alive at such a time and place.
It’s a lovely rendering of a feeling we’ve all experienced at one time or another, and it’s also an appealing description of what sounds like a fine way to spend an afternoon. What’s not so evident beneath Percy’s hushed, precise prose is that this passage points directly back to the epigraph. Here is despair, well hidden.
Appropriately, it is the source of so many American dreams, the movies, that provides ready fuel for Binx’s reveries. Movies limn his reality; he claims to have no memories of his own: “What I remember is the time John Wayne killed three men with a carbine as he was falling to the ground dusty street in Stagecoach, and the time the kitten found Orson Welles in the doorway in The Third Man.” And he depends on films to confirm his existence, a phenomenon he dubs “certification”:
Nowadays when a person lives somewhere, in a neighborhood, the place is not certified for him. More than likely he will live there sadly and the emptiness which is inside him will expand until it evacuates the entire neighborhood. But if he sees a movie which shows his very neighborhood, it becomes possible for him to live, for a time at least, as a person who is Somewhere and not Anywhere.
To describe The Moviegoer’s style as “cinematic” in any conventional sense would be a stretch (unless one has the cinema of Godard in mind). But there is a way in which Percy’s novel is reminiscent of film. So tight is Percy’s control over our emotional response to his work, so closely does he make it hew to Binx’s, that reading The Moviegoer is not unlike seeing the world through the ruthless eye of the camera, the lens’s vision substituted for our own.
I would be remiss to discuss The Moviegoer without a word about the book’s theology; for better or for worse, Percy is first and foremost known as a Catholic writer. Here, autobiography may be helpful.
I read The Moviegoer during the spring break of my freshman year of college, two-thirds of the way through a difficult year. My dad and I traveled to Jupiter, Florida to watch the Cardinals in spring training. What was only a notion during childhood visits to Florida now blossomed into a fully formed realization: with the exception of the ballpark, Florida filled me with dread. The strip malls, the prevalence of faded pastel colors, the salt-laced air that lashed everything — these all inescapably suggested decay.
The crisis came on Saturday night, when we went to Mass. Unfamiliar churches are also anxiety-provoking environments for me, and Jupiter’s was worse than most: its garish white marble and overwhelmingly old congregation gave it the feel of a mausoleum for the living. Listening to the priest go on in English rendered incomprehensible by a thick accent, the brand of Catholic humanism I’d carefully crafted in the amniotic environs of high school gave way like a weak levee before a flood. Everything that could conceivably be called meaningful seemed suddenly contingent, including meaning itself. For the better part of an hour, I lost all my faith, Catholic and otherwise.
Back at the hotel, I took refuge in The Moviegoer. No longer did I see Binx as a “strange man,” as I called him in several margin notes; I saw a version of myself. In the Binx who spent his college days mooning about on the fraternity porch, I saw the young man who had thus far spent college standing against the wall at parties and walking home alone, wondering why he couldn’t make his new school feel like home. In the Binx who shunned all social obligations, I saw the kid who kept his classmates at a wary length, failing to see the necessity of relationships. And in the Binx who yearns to find his role in life, I saw the young writer who could no longer see the point of writing, because some day the sun would wink out, and all the words would disappear.
As melodramatic as it sounds, such was my state of mind that spring, and for most of my first two years of college. The Moviegoer didn’t heal me, but it did make me believe in healing once again, in large part because I was comforted by the fairly obvious truth that Walker Percy had traveled this lonely path before me. A Catholic convert, a medical doctor, and a devotee of Kierkegaard, Percy hardly lived by blind faith. When I wrote earlier that The Moviegoer achieves its powerful effect by shutting off all views of its offstage workings, I wasn’t being entirely precise: one senses the author’s intimate knowledge of the sort of bewilderment that Binx and the reader are made to feel. In 1987, Percy described his Christian existentialism for The Paris Review:
I suppose I would prefer to describe it as a certain view of man, an anthropology, if you like; of man as wayfarer, in a rather conscious contrast to prevailing views of man as organism, as encultured creature, as consumer, Marxist, as subject to such and such a scientific or psychological understanding — all of which he is, but not entirely. It is the “not entirely” I’m interested in — like the man Kierkegaard described who read Hegel, understood himself and the universe perfectly by noon, but then had the problem of living out the rest of the day.
“The problem of living out the rest of the day” — it was exactly the problem I was facing in Florida, from the second we left the ballpark; and it was exactly the problem I was facing in Chicago, from the second I finished my daily reading in Adam Smith or Plato. Percy treated this problem seriously, and I was grateful to him for this. I wouldn’t have been able to stomach, for instance, Bellow’s thumbing his nose at the problem. For Bellow, laughter is crucial to living out the rest of the day; it is a form of resistance. At the end of The Adventures of Augie March, the titular character wonders, “Or is the laugh at nature — including eternity — that thinks it can win over us and the power of hope? Nah, nah! I think. It never will.” But to Percy, laughter is a sad expression of our reluctance to go along with nature, too solemn to satirize. Thus, Binx’s wry description of his uncle is also in some ways a rueful description of himself: “He is an exemplary Catholic, but it is hard to know why he takes the trouble. For the world he lives in, the City of Man, is so pleasant that the City of God must hold little in store for him.”
Binx is hardly an exemplary Catholic, but he desperately wants to believe in some higher power beyond the material world. And here is the trouble: his desire for the existence of a God figure is rooted not in any hope in an afterlife that would plug the hole of death, but in a need that this world, with its unsettling mixture of beauty and transience, have some ultimate meaning. Like most people, Binx only intermittently grasps death as a reality, and this failure lends Binx’s life its desultory quality: since he has all the time in the world, he can spend his days scanning the horizon for a signal from another world.
The Moviegoer didn’t shake me from my melancholy immediately, but it did help me to recognize that I was on the same terms with my depression as Binx is with his search; inhabiting it was comfortable in the way that staying in bed all day is comfortable. When I decided to transfer after my second year of college, I wrote about The Moviegoer in my application essay, not because the book had directly spurred my decision to leave Chicago, but because the memory of it, carried around for a year, pricked me as long as I was content to simply mark time. Transferring was for me not simply a change in schools; it was the first time I’d acted out of faith in years, and I wanted Walker Percy to get his due.
The word is out – Christopher Eric Hitchens, 61, lifelong litterateur, pamphleteer, bon-vivant, journalist, polemicist, iconoclast, “anti-theist,” author of over a dozen celebrated, debated, loathed and admired works of non-fiction, including a freshly published memoir, is dying. The news has traveled pretty widely and quickly, which is perhaps a sign of something encouraging: we are often told that literary culture is eroding from indifference. Indifference, thankfully, isn’t something to worry about when Hitchens is concerned. I am struck by how many of the reviewers of his memoir begin by “declaring an interest” – sort of a “before we get started, here’s my tale of the Hitch” type thing – and, as a devoted fan, it’s very heartening to find that they are often stories which are gracious and agreeable. It takes a certain kind of person who can be interviewed about his chemotherapy, looking about as good as could be expected, and still have his colleague and interviewer describe the hours spent together as “delightful.”
Hitchens is and has always been the kind of writer who, when considered, seems to demand that one take sides – pro, con, either way works fine, provided there’s no squeamishness or side-shuffling, moral or otherwise. This could be just as fairly said for any polemicist from the sublime (say, Cornel West) to the squalid (Glenn Beck), were it not for the fact that even his enemies would admit that at least he knows whereof he speaks. And then there’s the fact that this love it, hate it, dialectical standard (the Hitch-22 of the title) has pretty much been his modus operandi for a little over sixty years. Hitch himself has written about being annoyed with the boredom and anomie of his demise – you’ve got to admire that kind of stoic panache.
Well, for one thing, Hitch has certainly always had panache to burn. Delving into his memoir as a fan and admirer many things are apparent, not the least of which the fact that the man has done some living. Even a cursory glance registers a life about as examined as it gets: the traveling (several dozen countries and not a few war zones), the friends (Amis, Rushdie, MacEwan, and that’s just the inner circle), the output (two biographies, pamphlets, several large collections of decades of material). If anyone has the right to consider his time not wasted, it’s Hitch. What of his memoirs, then, his own recollections and ruminations on his years of travel, disputation, omnivorous reading and relentless writing? As a devoted fan, I have to say that the usual standard of writing is there, as is the wit and the incisive participation within the roil of history, but I regret to say that some of what might make his memoir truly outstanding is somehow obscured.
I come to praise Hitchens and not to bury him, so I’ll start with the strong points. First of all, Hitchens is an annotated man. Naturally, none of us are without our orbiting texts, especially in a postmodern world, endlessly obsessed with referents and signs and coded histories. Hitchens, however, has the unique ability to accomplish what some philosopher claim is the greatest accomplishment of all: to make one’s life, by living, into a work of art. His annotations come alive. At certain points, Hitchens denies any real talent for fiction writing. He’s too modest – the portraits he draws of his stern, repressed father and his vivacious yet gradually desperate mother are done in loving, honest, moving detail. And as he begins to take you through the various episodes of his life, his introduction to Orwellian thought-crime in English boarding schools, watching and participating in glorious, sordid hackery in the pubs of Fleet Street, first seeing America through the eyes of a coast-to-coast bus trip, literally standing side by side with Salman Rushdie through the ordeal of the fatwa, you begin to feel like you are in the grasp of a fine novel. There is more than a little resemblance to Bellow’s Augie March, for whose 50th anniversary edition he provided an introduction and who remained a favorite writer.
Hitchens’ Bellovian ability to not only remember the many people he meets but to give them back stories and tasteful daubs of prosaic color are intriguing, even when one isn’t necessarily up on his 20th Century labor history. A friend of mine has been reading it on his iPad, with automatic Wikipedia at his fingertips for every proper noun, the better to get instant précis on the large and detailed ensemble cast. The footnotes are rich with anecdotes with a snap and shine all their own. In one chapter on his time in Argentina he not only describes the horror and sheer brutality of its fascist regime but also sees fit to include a lovely, illuminating account of a visit paid to none other than Jorge Luis Borges himself, the master of the Aleph. What a novelist he might have made!
One thing which is unavoidable when talking about Hitch is the fact that for him, the political is personal. Not in the way people generally mean it – in fact, Hitch pours scorn on the kind of thinking which leads people to say “Speaking as a _____, I feel that…” and assume this is a kind of argument, or moral position, since it is after all merely a recitation of external properties: skin pigmentation, ethnic heritage, sexual identity, whatever. It might sound a bit grizzled or cranky to make the counter sally about how it’s not what you think, but how you think that matters. For Hitchens, what he does on the world stage, the causes he supports and the principles he holds, are a part of not only participating in the perpetual movement of history but also of being fully engaged in the world – honestly, critically, challengingly. It’s his way of taking things to task. After he attends to the burial of his mother, in Greece, during a coup against the U.S. backed government, he throws himself into covering the chaos and miasma for his newspaper. After he buries her, he makes sure to put flowers on the grave of George Seferis, the poet and national hero of independent Greece. One personal tragedy is a small parallel to a larger, national loss. For all his bravura and outspokenness, his opinions are not made of idle boasting.
A very pointed and revelatory moment in Hitch-22 is when he remembers what thrill it was, as a Socialist of a very specific kind (with a term for it all its own – the noble name of soixante-huitard, or 68’er) to see that the newspaper he reads along with everyone else is revealing what his own dialectical education and critique has been arguing all along: revolutions in Europe, the miasma of Vietnam, assassinations, civil rights, Cuba, torture by an ostensibly Labor government, yes, the times, they sure are a’changin’. It seems almost quaint these days, when we no longer seem to believe in grand narratives or in revolutionary change, but Hitch is very comfortable in laying down the line:
I began, along with many, many of my contemporaries, to experience a furious disillusionment with “conventional” politics. A bit young to be so cynical and so superior, you may think. My reply is that you should fucking well have been there and seen it for yourself. Had the study of life and literature and history merely domesticated me to waste and betray my youth, and to gape at a spectacle of undisguised atrocity and aggression as if it should be calmly received? I hope never to lose the access to outrage that I felt then.
He never has.
Many reviewers seem to have given a bit of the game away by offering too much of his- and the book’s- biographical heft. I’d rather not do so, if you’ll excuse me – it’s well worth referring you straight to the source. Hitchens is quoted often enough in the world of politics and letters but it’s usually he who is best suited to telling his own story – surprisingly not always the standard for writers. He was born into a somewhat frustrated lower-middle-class British military family, left to deal with the remnants of an England which had suffered and survived the Second World War with honor and fortitude, only to find that there wasn’t much to celebrate within the rubble. As an American, I was heartened to see how the country he discovered, traveling through it as a young man in the 60’s and 70’s, still seems, after the syrupy nostalgia of a boomer generation’s endless and self-congratulatory revisiting of it, exciting and fresh and endlessly innovative.
Ironically, what Hitch-22 lacks is what one would think a memoir might really consist of: what Carl Jung referred to as “memories, dreams, reflections.” So much of his writing is of world-historical importance; everything political he’s done because it was something he knew he could not keep silent about. I find this admirable in many ways. The problem for a long time reader is that Hitch-22 re-evaluates the issues (Iraq, the fatwa on Salman Rushdie, the Vietnam War, and the fall of the Berlin Wall) which have engaged him (and us) for a long time. But when the issue at hand is still pretty fresh, as in the war on terror, it becomes a little redundant. I sort of understand why he had to explain- again – how he made such a dramatic turn in leaving his decades-long post at The Nation, to find new allies to more fully give his support to the Iraq War. As a person who happened to oppose the war and is also an abiding Hitchens fan, I salute and respect his gutsy moral fervor. What I didn’t need from his memoirs is yet another explanation of his relationship with the likes of Ahmed Chalabi and Paul Wolfowitz. The case could easily be made that to hear his memoir is to hear the story of his intellectual development, thus, all the pages about the war are just as important as everything else. Fair enough. But it stands to reason that any interested reader might be fully capable of pursuing Hitchens’ voluminous writings on the matter (The Long Short War, roughly a third of the collection Love, Poverty and War, innumerable pieces in Slate as well as many other places) pretty easily. A reader of a memoir might be more inclined to want to know a bit more about what makes the man himself tick. I don’t want to sound like the over-bearing, ugly American in insisting on this but it’s a lot of pages on something which is, in Hitch’s moral universe, very much a covered topic.
What we don’t get too much of is some of the more universal human events: very little on his children, for example, or the experience of falling in love. He’s been married twice, both times in very long and apparently complex relationships. It’s not a craving for gossip which makes one feel a bit let down that we can’t have Hitchens writing with his usual scholastic aplomb about these kinds of moments. We do get some very enjoyable tales of word games with his friends: having Martin Amis and Rushdie coming up with dirty limericks or substituting words in song titles for playfully obscene lingo is great and all, but there have to have been more interesting conversations to recount than just that. One gets the feeling that Hitch is holding back a bit too much. When we are privy to some of his private reflections, the effect is devastating. A section of the Iraq chapter, previously published in Vanity Fair, contains a very true and profoundly tragic story of a soldier who was inspired to go to Baghdad in part because of reading Hitchens. He attends the burial at the invitation of the family and reads Shakespeare over the grave. This is Hitchens at his best – politics is never just an abstract concept or a trend, it is a way of life and – sadly all too often, of death. If there were any doubts about his commitment to the former in the face of the latter, this book can dispel them. It’s very much to be hoped that he can continue to keep his, however much of it he has left. We need more of him. Here’s hoping that he can manage to stick around long enough to continue to give as much as he can.
Rob writes in with this question:I’m a seventeen year old who is going to be spending five weeks this summer in Chicago (to be specific – Evanston, since I’ll be part of Northwestern’s summer high school music institute). I’m a life-long New Jerseyan, and have never been in the city of broad shoulders for longer than three days.So, since I like reading books about the place I’m visiting, I was wondering if you could recommend anything that captured the essence of Chicago – I’m looking for works that encapsulate Chicago in the same way Kavalier & Clay encapsulates New York.I was thinking about The Lazarus Project and Carl Sandburg’s work. Do you have any other ideas?Chicago has inspired some of America’s greatest fiction and continues to be a fruitful setting for contemporary writers. I’ve just completed The Lazarus Project (review hopefully forthcoming), and its twinned stories – set in Chicago 1908 and present day Eastern Europe – mine Chicago’s multicultural past and ignominious history. The book, based on the true story of the mysterious death of immigrant Lazarus Averbuch reminded me a lot of The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson’s non-fiction account of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and the serial killer who lurked in its shadows (my review here). Both Devil and Lazarus vividly evoke the chaos of Chicago, a turn of the century boomtown of slaughterhouses, nascent industry, and the first “skyscrapers” that was quickly aligning itself as the country’s center after only decades earlier being its frontier.An interest in this era in Chicago will inevitably lead one to Upton Sinclair, whose 1906 novel The Jungle is a muckraking, contemporary account of the slaughterhouse workers who drove Chicago’s economic engine. The novel is a landmark among American social novels.Jumping forward in time, Chicago produced one of America’s greatest novelists, Saul Bellow, who haunted the hauls of Northwestern in the 1930s. Garth writes that “the greatest Chicago novel ever is The Adventures of Augie March, which is highly recommended for someone who liked Kavalier & Clay.” This contention is hard to dispute.Patrick points us to another, more contemporary literary lodestar for Chicago: “The poet laureate of Chicago is Stuart Dybek (I mean, I don’t think he actually is, I just think he should be). The Coast of Chicago and I Sailed With Magellan are both absolute must reads. They both entirely take place in Chicago (mostly the South Side, but not exclusively). He’s one of my favorite authors, and somebody who should have a much larger audience.”Patrick also throws a more recent selection into the mix: “Also, it’s not like a totally Chicago Chicago book, but I think [Joshua Ferris’s] Then We Came to the End is about Chicago in a really interesting way, as it encapsulates life in the Loop, full of business people commuting from all the suburbs, folks who live in Lincoln Park, people who drive up from the South Side. Plus it’s really fun.”To these I would also add Adam Langer’s well received duo of books set in West Rogers Park, a neighborhood at the northern edge of the city not far from where I used to live: Crossing California and The Washington Story. Finally, anyone interested in Chicago fiction should consider Chris Ware’s landmark graphic novel, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. It’s another twinned story, with threads taking place in the near present and during 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, for so many the moment of Chicago’s emergence. Ware’s pathos is haunting and his spare, eccentric drawings are mesmerizing. Along with Devil in the White City, it is a favorite of contemporary Chicagoans.We’ve undoubtedly skipped over much worthy Chicago literature, so please enlighten us with further suggestions in the comments. Rob, thanks for a great question!