Some of the best novels out there — Huckleberry Finn, Of Mice and Men — deal largely with fictional friendships. Yet depictions of close friends that are central to the plot are considerably rare in modern novels. At The Guardian, AD Miller notes this isn’t the case for movies and TV shows, and suggests a number of reasons why. You could also read our own Kevin Hartnett on friendship in the age of Facebook.
“After years of reading, teaching, and writing about the book, though, I’ve come to believe that… our understanding of what is comic and what is serious in Huck Finn says more about America in the last century than America in the time Twain wrote the book.” Andrew Levy writes for Salon about childhood, race, and “dedicated amnesia” in Mark Twain’s controversial classic.
Literature –– no, the world –– needs more people like Azar Nafisi. A strident proponent of fiction, Nafisi has done much more than simply write about literature and its vital role in our lives, she’s taught it –– in America, England, Iran, and in lecture halls all over the world, in which she advocates for literature as an antidote to ideology. In her bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran, she tells how she quit the university where she was teaching because of the potential intrusion of the totalitarian government. Then, she invited her students into her home, which one could be tempted to describe as Nafisi putting her money where her mouth is, if the mention of money in such a context weren’t so gratuitously irrelevant.
In that book, Nafisi brought the power of American fiction into the world of Iran. In her latest book, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, she brings lessons from Iran to America. In Tehran, her students valued the freedom to read in a profound and immediate way, since such activities were often forbidden, especially for women. In America, reading isn’t cherished in the same way; it’s old hat to us. Or, at least, so said an Iranian man named Ramin who came to one of Nafisi’s readings in Seattle. “It’s useless,” he tells her, “your talk about books. These people are different from us –– they’re from another world. They don’t care about books and such things. It’s not like Iran, where we were crazy enough to Xerox hundreds of pages of Madame Bovary and A Farewell to Arms.”
Is he right? Nafisi doesn’t think so, but her resulting project doesn’t end up explaining why Ramin isn’t right so much as passionately explain why he shouldn’t be right. Having become an American citizen in 2008, Nafisi has a real stake in the answer to Ramin’s question, and so much to contribute to a possible answer. Her book, then, tries valiantly, if not always successfully, to cover a lot of ground. In these pages we find discussions of the three books of the subtitle –– Huck Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, but also many others, including a long epilogue focused on James Baldwin and J.D. Salinger –– as well as the founding fathers, conservatives, Common Core, the Iranian Revolution in 1979, her long-time friend Farrah, college friends Mike and Joanna, and numerous other personal anecdotes of life in America and Iran. It’s a testament to Nafisi’s considerable skill that she’s able to wrangle all this into a mostly cohesive unit. But wholeness actually seems a little beside the point, here, since what makes The Republic of Imagination so wonderful is Nafisi’s irrepressible conviction in the power of fiction to show us who we are.
But it’s more than that, too. Underneath her literary analysis and her personal reflections, Nafisi’s book carries an implicit argument about American values. For her, an American not by birth but by choice, the country she loves was both formed and created by its literature, the myths that both reflect us and instruct us. That’s where we belong, she says. And that’s what we should look to for guidance and difficult truths. Instead, she sees an America steeped in religiosity and jingoism. She quotes Mark Twain, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” In other words, a true republic must be malleable, open to constant scrutiny and endless revision, and we as citizens must reciprocate by criticizing in the hopes of change and making the necessary changes in ourselves as well. Religion and fervent, uncritical patriotism simplify things. Or, as Nafisi puts it:
Ideology eliminates paradox and seeks to destroy contradiction and ambiguity. While it is generally ruthless to outsiders, it can be consoling when you are in the group that always wears the white hat no matter what.
In her long chapter on Huck Finn, Nafisi celebrates Huck’s “subversive character” and how Jim “questions the system of beliefs sanctioned by religious and social authorities.” (She even valiantly defends the book’s notoriously unsatisfying ending, or, as George Saunders put it, “The ending, oh my god, the ending.”) In Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Nafisi sees the “iconically American” character of “lonely, dissatisfied career men, family men yearning to escape the seemingly desirable entrapments of their mundane lives.” The “standardized” Babbitt, in his desire to please, to be liked, to be successful, is contrasted with the figures in Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, who are “solitary misfits who cannot create a bond.” They represent “a new kind of urban loneliness that will cast a long shadow over American fiction.” Huck and the characters of McCullers’s first novel stand on one side of American values, Babbitt on the other. Nafisi asks, “What if we let Babbitt win?”
Letting Babbitt win amounts to succumbing to ideology, to allowing the comforting sway of conformism, of strict allegiance, to win out over critical individualism. Literature, with all its complexity and nuance, its ambiguities and contradictions, is not a replacement for these ideas but rather an antidote to them. Literature is not an ideology; it is not a religion. It is something grander, more human and humane. For literature asks nothing of you. It doesn’t tell you how to live or who to love. It doesn’t tell you that you aren’t good enough or that you were born wrong. It doesn’t promise punishment for lack of adherence, and it doesn’t condemn those who don’t follow it. And the best part? Literature acknowledges its fiction, its artifice, its ultimate inability to express the capital-T Truth. Literature only promises an attempt, over and over from endless artists, to see the world as their author sees it, to add if only one speck of useful insight, of meaningful observation, to the great tradition of the written word. Literature doesn’t just invite criticism and contribution, it demands it –– the basis of literature is a kind of call and response. Each new author is in some way responding to all who came before them, before they even write one word. Ideally, literature is complete freedom, and as such it’s a messy world –– cheaters and philanderers run rampant as evil characters get away with evil deeds and good people’s values are compromised and deep-seated values are not only questioned but irreverently tossed out the window. If you’re looking for an easy road map to human ethics, literature ain’t the place for you. But this is Nafisi’s point. We shouldn’t look for the easy instructions, for unambiguous demands; we need to challenge every belief we have, to test them, strengthen them, or replace them if need be.
Growing up in Ohio, religion was a normal part of everyday life. As an atheist from a young age, I clung to literature for its confrontational attitude toward accepted values, but I always disagreed when people would say to me, “Well, books are your religion.” Because literature is not a synonym for religion; it’s not a replacement. It’s another territory altogether. In fact, it is as Nafisi describes it, a country. “So much of who we are,” she writes, “no matter where we live, depends on how we imagine ourselves to be.” She goes on to say:
Stories endure –– they have been with us since the dawn of history –– but they need to be refreshed and retold in every generation through the eyes and experiences of new readers sharing a common space that knows no boundaries of politics or religion, ethnicity or gender –– a Republic of Imagination, that most democratic republic of all.
And like a true republic, citizenship here requires work and thought and an open mind, because literature isn’t easy –– it can still offend, provoke, or cause controversy. Even then, we must engage and not simplistically condemn. As Philip Pullman once put it when I saw him speak at the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford University, in response to a question about the “offensive” title of his book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ:
Yes, it was shocking thing to say, and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. Uh, but no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if they open it and read it they don’t have to like it. And if you read it and dislike it you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me. You can complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published or sold or bought or read. And that’s all I have to say on that subject.
Literature always gives you choices –– to act, to respond, to criticize, to protest –– and, more than that, it actually thrives on this process. Whereas ideology, religion, and jingoism flourish in rigidity, in adherence. As Salman Rushdie put it in The Satanic Verses, “unbendingess can also be monomania, he wanted to say, it can be tyranny, and also it can be brittle, whereas what is flexible can also be humane, and strong enough to last.”
I’m deeply appreciative of Azar Nafisi and her project of promoting fiction throughout the world. But more I’m grateful for her Republic of Imagination. My whole life I’ve been a citizen of a complex moral landscape, a rich world created by some of the greatest minds humanity has had to offer, peopled by every type of person from every type of culture –– I’ve always lived here, but now, thanks to Nafisi, I have a name for my adopted home.
Scribner’s has published an edition of The Sun Also Rises highlighted by a variant opening chapter-and-a-half, material that Hemingway eliminated from his final draft at the encouragement of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Readers are used to the 1926 novel starting off with a portrait of Robert Cohn; it turns out that, as many scholars have known, Hemingway planned to commence with the words “This is a novel about a lady,” and a snapshot of Lady Bret Ashley, only then to launch into his dissection of Cohn, in the middle of chapter two. This manuscript material is now available in “The Hemingway Library Edition,” volume, put out by Hemingway’s original publisher under the editorial aegis of Patrick Hemingway (his son) and Seán Hemingway (the grandson also rises). The release prompts us to consider how to receive this introduction and challenges us to wrap our heads around an alternate universe in which Fitzgerald’s advice goes unheeded. There will be skepticism about the endeavor; indeed, the previous “Hemingway Library Edition,” led to a bit of a takedown right here in The Millions.
The Sun Also Rises, its author’s first novel, crystallizes elements of the Hemingway canon: boozey expatriate Parisian lifestyle, delight in homosociality, bullfighting and bullrunning in Pamplona, how to fish correctly, how to write correctly, how to do anything correctly. I’ve included the book on countless course syllabi and read it almost as many times, and I still find it remarkable that this seminal work of Hemingway’s oeuvre, this text famous for defining the “lost generation,” starts out with a passage rich in thinly veiled anti-semitism. (The broken proboscis that Cohn suffers in a boxing match is said to “improve” his nose. We get it.) Therefore my first response to the new edition was to wonder whether it was an attempt to steer readers away from the unsavory aspects of the novel, a trigger warning-age sanding down of edges, meant to ease readers into the scornful Cohn section, rather than bludgeoning us with it at the start.
If so, I have some bad news, news that I will encapsulate in a word: Nordic. Or rather: non-nordic. The word “Nordic” does not appear at all in the standard The Sun Also Rises, but it arises in the new manuscript material, where the epithet “non-Nordic” is applied to Robert Cohn. This is 1920s terminology fraught with racializing overtones, and its presence here serves to highlight some of the nastiness in Hemingway’s book.
What to make of the fact that Fitzgerald had a hand in editing the term out? In The Great Gatsby, published a year before The Sun Also Rises, the villainous Tom Buchanan disquisitions about the “dominant race”: “We’re Nordics,” he says to his white, old-moneyed company, and it is their responsibility to defend civilization from them who are not. Buchanan is parroting ideas from Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color, a book that will show up in Jay Gatsby’s personal library; Fitzgerald draws the rhetoric from a system of racial thinking popular in early 20th-century America, a jumble of white supremacism, eugenics, both imperialism and isolationism, and xenophobia. No less dangerous for being inconsistent and disunified, it was a powerful enough undercurrent to produce the restrictive 1924 Immigration Act. It is the relationship to this context that leads Walter Benn Michaels, in a controversial argument in his book Our America, to situate Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises within a subgenre of 1920s literature he calls “nativist modernism.”
The inclusion of the word “nordics” brings the new edition of The Sun Also Rises closer in line with this system of thought, highlighting how contempt for Cohn is never far removed from his supposedly inferior racial stock. Throughout the novel, this inferiority is often put as a matter of social behavior and aesthetic taste. Cohn is unglib, unstoic, uninebriated, and is a fan of W.H. Hudson, who generated the kind of prose that Hemingway steeled himself every day of his life not to write. Indeed, the introductory material clarifies some of the condescension; it offers a history of Lady Bret Ashley’s names that makes legible Cohn’s later gaffe as her addresses her as “Lady Bret” instead of the proper “Lady Ashley.” The newly published passages also establish language that will form the novel’s memes. Ashley’s fiancée is called “nice,” a code for social approval that Hemingway proceeds to use 967 times in the novel (may not be the exact number), and is also described as “one of us” — terms that are used to exclude Cohn.
Even the initial assertion that Ashley is the novel’s focus is undermined by the depiction that follows, which largely treats the same question driving the overall plot: which male will win the right to possess the female body in the end? (No, this is not a novel that would pass the Bechdel test.) Throughout The Sun Also Rises, that issue is made more urgent by the possibility that Cohn will succeed in the end, the anxiety that Nordic stock would become diminished.
Hemingway’s discarded opening section includes a passage in which his narrator Jake Barnes self-reflectively ruminates over his choice to use the “I” of the first-person voice. Not just fodder for narratology geeks, this moment can open the door to readings that will claim that the novel is portraying its derision based on class and ethnicity (and, at times, gender and sexual orientation) with self-awareness — that it’s all ironic! The text seems confused at times, sure, but the fact is that Cohn is never redeemed or relieved of his role as nemesis, and that the novel ends with Barnes rescuing Ashley from a disastrous affair with a Spanish bullfighter.
I’m less interested in how The Sun Also Rises dramatizes the racial anxieties of the 1920s than I am with our cultural memory of the book. We are made aware of the unhappy ethnic elements of Oliver Twist and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but the foundational 1920s U.S. novels get a pass, it seems to me. The Sun Also Rises is known as a novel of the lost generation, and Gatsby as one of the jazz age, while both are formed out of the dark stuff of our history. The new-old introduction of The Sun Also Rises can’t mitigate that; maybe it can help us reckon with it better.
The Great American Novel is the great superlative of American life. We’ve had our poets, composers, philosophers, and painters, too, but no medium matches the spirit of our country like the novel does. The novel is grand, ambitious, limitless in its imagined possibility. It strains towards the idea that all of life may be captured in a story, just as we strain through history to make self-evident truths real on earth.
So, when you set out to debate “the great American novel,” the stakes are high.
We asked nine English scholars to choose one novel as the greatest our country has ever produced. Of course, we explained, the real goal is to get a good conversation going and we don’t really expect to elevate one novel above all the rest. But they took their assignments seriously anyway. You’ll see some familiar names below. Ishmael, Huck, Lily Bart, and Humbert Humbert are all there. But so is Don Corleone, and Lambert Strether, and a gifted blues singer named Ursa.
We hope you enjoy the conversation, and if you disagree with our scholars’ choices — which we assume you will — please offer your own nominations in the comments section.
Margaret E. Wright-Cleveland, Florida State University
How could anyone argue that Huck Finn is the Great American Novel? That racist propaganda? Repeatedly banned ever since it was written for all manner of “inappropriate” actions, attitudes, and name-calling? Yet it is precisely the novel’s tale of racism and its history of censorship that make it a Great American Novel contender. A land defined and challenged by racism, America struggles with how to understand and move beyond its history. Censor it? Deny it? Rewrite it? Ignore it? Twain confronts American history head-on and tells us this: White people are the problem.
Hemingway was right when he said, “All modern American literature comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn.” Hemingway was wrong when he continued, “If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating.” For if we stop where Hemingway instructs, we may read the actual wish of many whites – that someone else would take their “black problem” or their “Indian problem” or their “immigrant problem” away – but we miss Twain’s most important critique: White men like Tom Sawyer will forever manipulate the Huck Finns of the world.
Huck and Jim (never named “Nigger Jim” in the book, by the way) make good progress at working their way out of the hierarchy into which they were born until Tom shows up. Then Huck does unbelievably ridiculous things in the section Hemingway calls “cheating.” Why? Huck does so to keep himself out of jail and to save Jim, sure. But he also does so because Tom tells him he must. In spite of all he has learned about Jim; in spite of his own moral code; in spite of his own logic, Huck follows Tom’s orders. This is Twain’s knock-out punch. Tom leads because he wants an adventure; Huck follows because he wants to “do right.” In a democracy, shouldn’t we better choose our leaders?
If the Great American Novel both perceptively reflects its time and challenges Americans to do better, Huck Finn deserves the title. Rendering trenchant critiques on every manifestation of whiteness, Twain reminds us that solving racism requires whites to change.
Stuart Burrows, Brown University, and author of A Familiar Strangeness: American Fiction and the Language of Photography
The Ambassadors is famously difficult, so much so that the critic Ian Watt once wrote an entire essay about its opening paragraph. James’s mannered, labyrinthine sentences are as far from the engaging, colloquial style associated with the American novel as it’s possible to imagine; his hero, Lambert Strether, wouldn’t dream of saying “call me Lambert.” The great American subject, race, is completely absent. And although Strether, like Huck and Holden and countless other American heroes, is an innocent abroad, he is middle-aged — closer in years to Herzog and Rabbit than Nick or Janie. Strether’s wife and, most cruelly, his young son, are long dead, which makes his innocence a rather odd thing. But then there really is no-one like Strether. For Strether has imagination, perhaps more imagination than any American protagonist before or since.
“Nothing for you will ever come to the same thing as anything else,” a friend tells him at the start of his adventures. It’s a tribute to Strether’s extraordinary ability to open himself to every experience on its own terms. Strether is “one of those on whom nothing is lost” — James’s definition of what the writer should ideally be. The price to be paid for this openness is naivety: Strether — sent on a trip to Paris by his fiancée, the formidable Mrs. Newsome, to bring her son home to Massachusetts — is first deceived, then admonished, and finally betrayed.
But none of this robs him of his golden summer, his “second wind.” James dryly notes that Strether comes “to recognise the truth that wherever one paused in Paris the imagination reacted before one could stop it.”
Here is what his imagination does to the Luxembourg Gardens: “[a] vast bright Babylon, like some huge iridescent object, a jewel brilliant and hard, in which parts were not to be discriminated nor differences comfortably marked. It twinkled and trembled and melted together, and what seemed all surface one moment seemed all depth the next.”
At the height of his adventures Strether finds himself at a bohemian garden party, which prompts him to exclaim to a group of young Americans: “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to. It doesn’t so much matter what you do in particular, so long as you have your life. If you haven’t had that what have you had?” Strether insists that this is precisely what he has failed to have — he has no career, no money, and by this point in the novel, no fiancée. Yet the only way it makes sense to say that Strether has not had his life is if we think of him as having given his life to us — his perceptions, his humor, his sense of possibility. What other life could one want?
Zita C. Nunes, University of Maryland, and author of Cannibal Democracy: Race and Representation in the Literature of the Americas
John William DeForest is credited with the first use of the term, “The Great American Novel,” in an 1868 article in The Nation. Having taken a survey of American novels and judged them either too grand, “belonging to the wide realm of art rather than to our nationality,” or too small and of mere regional interest, DeForest finally settles on Uncle Tom’s Cabin as nearest to deserving the label.
He describes it as a portrait of American life from a time when it was easy to have American novels. It would seem that this time was characterized by the experience of slavery, which remains to this day as a legacy, leading me to think that our time is no harder. Given this context for the emergence of the idea of The Great American Novel, I nominate Corregidora, a novel by Gayl Jones, as a wonderful candidate for this distinction.
A difficult work, it has been well received by critics since its initial publication in 1975, who praised the innovative use of the novel form, which engaged a broad sweep of literary and popular language and genres. But what makes this novel stand out in terms of DeForest’s criteria is how all of this is put in the service of exploring what it is to be American in the wake of slavery. The novel traces the story of enslavement, first in Africa, then Brazil, and, finally, to a kind of freedom in the United States, passed down through four generations of mothers and daughters. As an allegory for the United States as part of America, this novel explores the secrets that help explain our mysterious ties to one another. Until Ursa finds the courage to ask “how much was hate and how much was love for [the slavemaster] Corregidora,” she is unable to make sense of all of the ambivalent stories of love and hate, race and sex, past and present, that interweave to make us what she calls “the consequences” of the historic and intimate choices that have been made.
DeForest tellingly is unable to name a single Great American Novel in his essay. Uncle Tom’s Cabin comes closest, he claims, since the material of the work was in many respects “admirable,” although “the comeliness of form was lacking.” I sympathize with DeForest’s reluctance to actually name The Great American Novel, but if I have to name one that is comely in form and admirable in material, it would be Corregidora.
Tom Ferraro, Duke University, and author of Feeling Italian: the Art of Ethnicity in America
Ahab rages at nature, resisting resource capital, and is destroyed; Gatsby accrues gangster wealth, in a delusion of class-transcending love, and is destroyed. Neither produces children. Of America’s mad masters, only Vito Corleone triumphs, in money and blood.
The Godfather is the most read adult novel in history and the most influential single act of American creativity of the second half of the American century: nothing else comes close. It provided the blueprint for the movies, which resurrected Hollywood. It tutored The Sopranos, which transformed television. And we all know who “The Godfather” is, even if we’ve never read a word of the book. How did Puzo do it?
Puzo’s Southern Italian imagination turned a visionary ethnic family man into a paradigm of capitalism wrapped in the sacred rhetoric of paternal beneficence. This interplay of family and business creates a double crisis of succession: first, Don Vito’s failure to recognize the emergent drug market, which precipitates the assassination attempt (a “hostile take over bid,” Mafia-style); and second, of the Americanization of his gifted son Michael (who studies math at Dartmouth, enlists in the Marines, and takes a WASP fiancée), which puts the sacred Sicilian family structure at risk. Both tensions are resolved in a single stroke: the Return of the Prodigal Son, who is re-educated in the old ways of love and death, and ascends to his father’s capitalist-patriarchal throne.
The Godfather was written in 1969 and can be read as a dramatic response to a pivotal moment in American history. Puzo substituted the Corleones’ tactical genius for our stumbling intervention in Vietnam; he traded the family’s homosocial discipline and female complicity for women’s liberation; and he offered the dream of successful immigrant solidarity in place of the misconstrued threat of civil rights and black power.
Yet like any profound myth narrative, The Godfather reads as well now as then. Its fantasy of perfect succession, the son accomplishing on behalf of the father what the father could not bear to do, is timeless. And Puzo’s ability to express love and irony simultaneously is masterful: the mafia is our greatest romance and our greatest fear, for it suspends our ethical judgments and binds us to its lust for power and vengeance. Of course, our immigrant entrepreneurs, violent of family if not of purpose, keep coming. Even Puzo’s out-sized vulgarities illuminate, if you can hear their sardonic wit.
After Puzo, none of America’s epic stories, Ahab’s or Gatsby’s, Hester Prynne’s or Invisible Man’s, reads exactly the same. And that is exactly the criterion of T.S. Eliot’s admission to the “great tradition.” The Godfather teaches us to experience doubly. To enjoy the specter of Sicilian otherness (an old-world counterculture, warm and sexy even in its violence) while suspecting the opposite, that the Corleones are the hidden first family of American capitalism. In Puzo’s omerta, the ferocious greed of the mafia is all our own.
Joseph Fruscione, George Washington University, and author of Faulkner and Hemingway: Biography of a Literary Rivalry
It is Invisible Man. No, it was not written by a Nobel Laureate or Pulitzer Prize winner, nor has it been around for centuries. It is a novel of substance, of layers and riffs. It might even be said to be the greatest American novel.
The greatness of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) comes from being many things to many readers. A racial epic. A bildungsroman in the form of a dramatic monologue. A rich psychological portrait of racial identity, racism, history, politics, manhood, and conflicted personal growth. An elusive story of and by an elusive, nameless narrator. A jazz-like play on literature, music, society, memory, and the self. A product of a voracious reader and writer. Somehow, it is all of these, perhaps one of the reasons it netted the National Book Award over The Old Man and the Sea and East of Eden.
“But what did I do to be so blue?,” Invisible asks at the end of its famous prologue. “Bear with me.”
And bear with him we do, for 25 chapters and nearly 600 pages. At moments, Invisible shows the kind of reach and attention to detail that Ellison did as a craftsman in writing — revising, rewriting, and saving draft after draft of his works. Invisible’s Harlem “hole” isn’t just brightly lit; it has exactly 1,369 lights, with more to come. He obsessively details his encounters with his grandfather (“It was he who caused the trouble”), the racist audience of a battle royal, his college administrators, members of the party, and the many people he meets in the South, New York, and elsewhere.
Another element of the novel’s greatness could be its metaphorical sequel — that is, Ellison’s attempt at recapturing its scope, ambitiousness, and importance in the second novel he composed over the last 30–40 years of his life but never finished. Invisible Man is Ellison’s lone completed novel, yet 61 years after it was written, it shows no signs of being outdated. Along with a series of short stories and many rich, intelligent essays, Invisible Man helps Ellison raise key debates and questions about literature, American society, race relations, and the writer’s social responsibility to look into such deep issues.
Which is what Ellison, who chose to end his greatest American novel with this line, might have wanted: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, it will continue to speak for us?
Kirk Curnutt, Troy University
On the surface, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth (1905) indulges that great American pastime, hating the rich. The merciless way it exposes backstabbers, adulterers, conniving social climbers, and entitled sexual harassers as gauche frauds was certainly one reason the novel sold a blockbusting 140,000 copies in its first year alone. Yet Mirth is so much more than a fin-de-siècle Dallas or Dynasty. It’s our most economically minded Great American Novel, refusing to flim-flam us with dreams of lighting out for unregulated territories by insisting there’s no escaping the marketplace. Saturated with metaphors of finance, it depicts love and matrimony as transactions and beauty as currency. But if that sounds deterministic, Mirth is also beguilingly ambiguous, never shortchanging the complexity of human desire and motive.
Lily Bart, the twenty-nine year-old virgin whose value as marriage material plummets amid gossip, is an unusual representative American: the hero as objet d’art. Because she’s an individual and a romantic, it’s easy to cheer her refusals to sell out/cash-in by welshing on debts or blackmailing her way to financial security. Yet Lily is also ornamental — sometimes unconsciously, sometimes contentedly so — and that makes interpreting her impossible without implicating ourselves in the same idle speculation the book critiques, which is the point: Mirth challenges the valuation of women. To prevent her heroine from getting price-fixed in appraisal, Wharton shrouds Lily in a surplus of conflicting explanations, right up to her final glug of chloral hydrate, which readers still can’t agree is intentional or accidental.
The surplus is why whenever I read The House of Mirth I feel like I’m dealing with my own house — only I’m throwing words instead of money at the problem.
My only compensation?
I buy into books that leave me thinking I’d have an easier time mastering the stock market
Albert Mobilio, The New School, and co-editor of Book Forum
Of course the great American novel would be written by an immigrant who didn’t arrive in this country until he was middle-aged and for whom English was merely one of his several languages. Of course he would be a European aristocrat who harbored more than a dash of cultural disdain for his adopted country where he only chose to reside for two decades (1940-1960) before repairing to the Continent.
But Nabokov was an American patriot, a sentiment he expressed when he recounted the “suffusion of warm, lighthearted pride” he felt showing his U.S. passport. So this hybrid figure, born in Russia, a resident of Prague, Berlin, and Montreux, took advantage of his relatively brief sojourn in America to write Lolita, a novel that not only speaks more intimately than any book by Fitzgerald, Faulkner, or Hemingway about our conflicted nature, but also enacts, via its high stylization, the great American seduction.
In Surprised by Sin, an analysis of Milton’s Paradise Lost, Stanley Fish offered an explanation for why the speeches of Christ — as both poetry and rhetoric — paled when compared to those of Satan and his minions: Milton sought to ensnare his readers with Beelzebub’s wry wit, revealing them as devotees of showy display over the plain-speech of salvation.
Nabokov takes similar aim in Lolita: was there ever a more enchanting narrator than Humbert Humbert? From his opening, near sing-able lines (“light of my life, fire of my loins, my sin, my soul”) we are treated to intricately built description, deft rationalization, and elegant self-analysis all delivered in prose reflecting an intelligence and aesthetic sensibility of the highest, most rarefied order. But he is also, in short, the devil. And Nabokov makes you love him. And we flatter ourselves for catching the clever allusions of, well, a rapist.
Humbert’s seduction of 12-year-old Dolores Haze (the European roué fouling the American (almost) virgin) certainly replays not only the grand theme of this nation’s discovery and founding, but welds that epic wrong to one far more familiar and, in terms of the felt experience of individuals, more emotionally serrated — the sexual abuse of a child by an adult. Nabokov depicts great sin as piecework, one-to-one destruction wrought by irresistibly attractive folks rather than something accomplished by armies or madmen. This sin, he goes on to suggest, is most effectively done with a shoeshine and a smile.
Nabokov didn’t need to live in the U.S. long to get our number. In fact, he started Lolita after just ten years in America. But this newcomer saw through to our core dilemma: from Barnum to Fox News, Americans love a good show. Beneath the gloss, though, lies a corruption, a despoiling impulse, that connects back to our original sin. Nabokov, an immigrant and ultimately a fellow despoiler, wrote a novel that re-enacts our fall and (here’s his most insidious trick) gets us to pride ourselves for being as smart as the devil himself.
Priscilla Wald, Duke University
When the novelist John William DeForest coined “the Great American Novel,” in a literary review in the January 1868 issue of The Nation, he intended to distinguish it from “the Great American Poem.” America was not ready for that higher art form. But “the Great American Novel” depicting “the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence”? That was within the grasp of his contemporaries.
Time has worn away the distinction, and novels nominated for the title typically describe the grand odysseys of larger than life characters. But I want to take DeForest’s criteria seriously and nominate a novel that takes the ordinariness of America and Americans as its subject: Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans.
Stein’s novel chronicles the history and development of two Jewish immigrant families, but the plot is not its point. The Making of Americans is about the inner thoughts of its unexceptional characters; it is about the beautiful crassness of American materialism, and about the author’s love affair with language. In nearly 1000 pages of the prose that made Stein famous, she dramatizes her “interest in ordinary middle class existence, in simple firm ordinary middle class traditions, in sordid material unaspiring visions, in a repeating, common, decent enough kind of living, with no fine kind of fancy ways inside us, no excitements to surprise us, no new ways of being bad or good to win us.” The pleasure of this novel is in the play of its language. Readers must abandon themselves to the incantatory rhythms of Stein’s repetitions: “I will go on being one every day telling about being being in men and in women. Certainly I will go on being one telling about being in men and women. I am going on being such a one.”
The dashed hopes and dreams of Stein’s characters lack the magnitude of Ahab’s or Jay Gatsby’s falls; their unremarkable acceptance of diminished dreams lacks even the lyrical wistfulness of Ishmael or Nick Carraway. Instead, Stein’s characters come to life in her cadences, repetitions, and digressions: the poetry of the quotidian. That is what makes Americans and what makes The Making of Americans, and what makes The Making of Americans the great American novel.
Hester Blum, Penn State University
Moby-Dick is about the work we do to make meaning of things, to comprehend the world. We do this both as individuals and collectives. Here, Melville says through his narrator, Ishmael, I will cast about you fragments of knowledge drawn from books, travels, rumors, ages, lies, fancies, labors, myths. Select some, let others lie, craft composites. In Melville’s terms knowledge is a process of accretion, a taxonomic drive. What is American about this? The product of an amalgamated nation, Moby-Dick enacts the processes by which we are shaped — and, crucially, shapers — of parts that jostle together, join and repel.
There are things we know in Moby-Dick: We know, for one, that Captain Ahab lost his leg to the white whale, that he is maddened by being “dismasted.” We know Ahab is driven to pursue to the death what his first mate Starbuck believes is simply a “dumb brute,” rather than a reasoning, destructive force. Yet how we come to know things in and about Moby-Dick is not always evident, if ever. Here, for example, is how Melville describes the sound of grief made by Ahab when speaking of his missing limb and his need for revenge: “he shouted with a terrific, loud, animal sob, like that of a heart-stricken moose.” There are flashier and more memorable lines than this one in the longer, pivotal chapter (“The Quarter Deck”). But we might linger on this unaccountable moose (as we could on many such arresting images in the novel): How do we come to know what a “heart-stricken moose” would sound like? Moby-Dick does not allow us to reject the outsized weirdness of this image, or to dispute how that poor, sad moose might have had its heart broken.
What makes Moby-Dick the Greatest American Novel, in other words, is that Melville can invoke the preposterous image of a sobbing, heart-stricken moose and we think, yes, I have come to know exactly what that sounds like, and I know what world of meaning is contained within that terrific sound. Moby-Dick asks us to take far-flung, incommensurate elements — a moose having a cardiac event, not to speak of a white whale bearing “inscrutable malice,” or the minutia of cetology — and bring them near to our understanding. What better hope for America than to bring outlandish curiosity — to try come to know — the multitudinous, oceanic scale of our world?
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Four years ago, in an attempt to help readers navigate the flood tide of Roberto Bolaño books appearing posthumously in English, we at The Millions put together a little syllabus. Little did we know how rash our promise to update “as further translations become available” would soon seem. Within two years, the release of six additional titles had rendered the first version nugatory. And since then, six more have become available.
Indeed, it’s hard to think of another figure in the history of weltliteratur whose catalogue has made it so quickly to these shores, or whose literary executors have been speedier – not to say more punctilious – in publishing his archive. Though Bolaño’s imagination seems inexhaustible, it’s hard not to greet the news of yet another “lost work” or “early work” or “lost early work” with fatigue. (Or even, given the overlap between certain editions, suspicion.) Yet the most recent publication, the poetry omnibus The Unknown University, is a major work, and should be the exclamation point at the end of the Bolaño boom. (Though there was that new story in The New Yorker a few weeks ago, so maybe Andrew Wylie knows something we don’t… And there’s always Advice from a Morrison Disciple to a Joyce Fanatic, co-written with A.G. Porta in 1984.)
At any rate, this seems an opportune time to revisit, once and for all, our Bolaño syllabus, which has more than doubled in size since 2009. Where originally we arranged the list as a kind of guided tour, it seems most worthwhile at this point to divide the available work into tiers: what you need to read, what you might want to, and what you can pass over without losing sleep.
1. The Savage Detectives
2666 may be more admirable, but The Savage Detectives is more loveable (think Moby-Dick vs. Huckleberry Finn). As such, it’s the Bolaño book I tend to urge on people first. Read The Savage Detectives all the way to the end, and you’ll understand why one might want to try to read this writer’s entire corpus. (See our review).
There is no other novel of the last decade that I think about more often, years after having read it. My enthusiastic take here now seems to me embarrassingly inadequate. A bona fide masterpiece.
3. Last Evenings on Earth
The best, by a whisker, of the five collections of short fiction available in English – largely because New Directions can’t have foreseen how big Bolaño was going to be, and so raided his Anagrama editions for the best stories. Highlights include “Dance Card,” “Sensini,” “The Grub,” “Mauricio ‘The Eye’ Silva,” and “Gomez Palacio.”
4. The Return
Another strikingly good collection, overlooked perhaps because of its appearance in 2010, when the Bolaño marketplace was already flooded. Between it and Last Evenings on Earth, you end up with the whole (I think) of the two collections published in Spanish during Bolaño’s lifetime. I especially love the title story. And for those inclined to read the Bolaño oeuvre as a roman-fleuve, you get here the porny “Prefigurations of Lalo Cura.”
5. Nazi Literature in the Americas
This early “novel,” a biographical encyclopedia of invented writers, offers our first glimpse of the ambition that would effloresce in the two big books. Not incidentally, it’s an excellent introduction to Bolaño’s peculiar sense of humor, which enjambs the absurd and the deadpan until it’s hard to tell which is which. Come to think of it, it’s probably his funniest book. (See our review).
6. Distant Star
This is my favorite of Bolaño’s short novels, and the other book I tend to recommend to neophytes. An expansion of a chapter in Nazi Literature, it yokes together two signature preoccupations: poetry and detectives.
7. The Unknown University
This beautiful dual-language edition purports to include “all of the poems of the great Roberto Bolaño.” Perhaps that should be “all of the great poems of Roberto Bolaño”; a quick comparison reveals some titles in The Romantic Dogs that I can’t find here. But you get most of that collection, plus Tres, plus the novel in prose-poems Antwerp, as well as a couple hundred other poems. As with The Secret of Evil and Woes of the True Policemen, the “history of the book” Bolaño’s executors provide here is weirdly hard to parse, but concerns fall away in the reading. At every turn there’s a sense that this manuscript was indeed the life’s work in poetry of a writer who valued poetry above all other genres. Verse narratives like “The Neochileans” have the impact of Bolaño’s best short novels. The lyric poems lose more in Laura Healy’s translation, especially as Bolaño likes to deal in fragments. As Jeff Peer noted here, the shorter pieces veer, albeit with a charming kind of indifference, between notebook and dream journal, genius and juvenilia. And because there are so many of these short poems, displayed one to a page, the book looks more tomelike than it is. Still, it is very much greater than the sum of its parts, and some of those parts are already very great indeed. The addictive element in Bolaño, more than anything else, is his sui generis sensibility, and this book is that sensibility distilled.
8. Between Parentheses
For those of you keeping score at home, that’s four genres Bolaño excelled in: the meganovel, the novella, the poem, and the short story. What are the odds that his collected nonfiction could be indispensable? Especially when most of it consists of occasional speeches and short newspaper work? Well, odds be damned. This book is great, in a way that reminds me of Jonathan Lethem’s recent and similarly loose-limbed The Ecstasy of Influence. There’s something fascinating about listening in as a writer talks shop, more or less off the cuff. Parts two through five do double-duty as an encyclopedia of Latin American fiction. And “Beach,” actually a short story, is one of Bolaño’s best.
9. By Night in Chile
Bolaño’s most formally perfect short novel, it is also the most self-contained. It offers a torrential dramatic monologue by a Catholic priest implicated in torture during Chile’s U.S.-backed Pinochet era. Some readers I respect think this is his best book. Though it plays its source material straighter than is typical in Bolaño, it might be another good one for norteamericanos to start with.
The Merely Excellent
1. The Third Reich
This was another book that I thought got a bit lost in the shuffle of 2009-2011, when an astonishing 1,800 pages of Bolaño’s prose made their way into English. Otherwise, it might have been recognized as one of the best novels published in English in the latter year. Certainly, it’s the strongest of Bolaño’s apprentice books. Here, the master seems to be David Lynch; all is atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere, as the failure of a plot to precipitate becomes itself a source of terrible foreboding. I’m also a sucker for the “visceral realism” of Natasha Wimmer’s translations, though I can’t speak to their accuracy.
Amulet on its own is a wonderful reworking of the Auxilio Lacouture monologue from The Savage Detectives, and a chance to get to spend more time with that book’s presiding spirits, Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano. It also contains some of Bolaño’s most bewitching sentences, including the one that seems to give 2666 its title: “Guerrero, at that time of night, is more like a cemetery than an avenue, not a cemetery in 1974 or 1968, or 1975, but a cemetery in the year 2666, a forgotten cemetery under the eyelid of a corpse or an unborn child, bathed in the dispassionate fluids of an eye that tried so hard to forget one particular thing that it ended up forgetting everything else.”
3. The Insufferable Gaucho
Here you get the sublime Kafka takeoff “Police Rat” and a sort of cover version of Borges’s “The South,” each approaching novella length. However, the decision to pair the five stories (a version of one of which also appears in Between Parentheses) with two (excellent) essays gives this collection as a whole a distinctly “odds and sods” feel.
4. The Secret of Evil
Another posthumous gallimaufry, but one I found totally delightful. Notwithstanding the magician’s indirection with which the “Preliminary Note” attempts to justify the book’s publication, it’s pretty clear that much of what’s here is in rough form. But as with Between Parentheses, it’s thrilling to see Bolaño at work, and to see where he might have gone next. And it’s always nice to see a little more of Ulises and Arturo.
One of Bolaño’s earliest pieces of fiction, Antwerp’s not much like the others, save for a hunchback who will also pop up in The Skating Rink. But it’s one of the greatest avant-garde “novel in fragments” out there (see our review). In fact, as the inclusion in The Unknown University of a slightly different version (titled “People Walking Away”) suggests, the prose here is close to poetry. So why “merely excellent” instead of “essential”? Well, if you already have a copy there, why buy the stand-alone version?
6. The Last Interview
Like many non-Anglophone writers, Bolaño treated the interview less as a promotional opportunity than as a form of performance art. That makes this entry in Melville House’s “Last Interview” series less illuminating, but also more fun, than it could have been. And of course the posthumous cash-in angle is right there in the title. In addition to Marcela Valdes’s long and brilliant introduction – one of the best pieces of critical writing on Bolaño available in English – you get four interviews. Though caveat emptor: the actual last interview also shows up at the end of Between Parentheses, so again you may be paying for what was already yours to begin with.
Necessary For Completists Only
1. Woes of the True Policeman
There was a concerted effort to market this first as a “missing piece” of 2666, and then as a novel proper, but it’s pretty clear that what Woes of the True Policeman truly is is an early stab at the big novel. The Amalfitano who appears here is a different character, but an equally deep one, and that and the rhetorical pyrotechics are the real selling points. (Am I the only person who finds the opening here really funny?) Still, aside from specialists and scholars, there’s something a little unsettling about pretending that what the writer didn’t think deserved our attention deserves our attention. Our review is here.
2. Monsieur Pain
When the jacket copy for Keith Ridgway’s forthcoming Hawthorn & Child calls it “the trippiest novel New Directions has published in years,” it must mean three years – since this one came out. And damned if I can make heads or tails of old Mr. Bread. It concerns an ailing César Vallejo and some mysterious policemen…or something. Bolaño wrote this in the early ’80s, and may have been surprised to be able to sell it to Anagrama in his breakthrough year, 1999. The most notable feature, for me, is formal: the “Epilogue for Voices” seems to anticipate the structural innovations of The Savage Detectives.
3. The Skating Rink
More straightforward than Monsieur Pain, this early novel seems like another pass at the material in Antwerp/”People Walking Away.” It’s a quick, entertaining read, but for me the strange characterological magic that makes the voices in the later novels come alive never quite happens in this one.
4. The Romantic Dogs
On its own, The Romantic Dogs is a fine collection. The same poem-to-poem unevenness that mars The Unknown University is present here, but because the selection tends toward the longer, more narrative poems, more of Bolaño makes it through the translation. Still, if much of what’s here is included there, this edition would seem to have been superseded for all but the most ardent Bolañophiles. See also: Tres.
See The Romantic Dogs.
This past year I read 56 books. That’s slightly off the pace of 60 books a year that I’ve set over the previous 12 years, but then I did read a lot of very long history books this year — yes, I’m looking at you, Robert Caro – and my wife and I did make a very time-consuming move to Canada late in the year. Or at least that’s what I’m telling myself. Maybe the real answer is that I’m just getting tired of trying to read so damn many books.
I know how many books I read because I’ve kept a list of every book I’ve finished since January 1, 2000. As of today, my total for books read in the new millennium stands at 776, of which 368 were fiction or poetry and 408 were nonfiction or memoir. Just less than 30 percent of those books, a total of 229, were written by women. At one point, I tried to keep track of how many of the authors I read were non-white, but the racial demarcations became so tangled — what to make of Bliss Broyard, a white writer who wrote a book about her father, Anatole, who concealed his (nearly invisible) African-American heritage until his death? — that I gave up.
As you can see, I’m a wee bit obsessive about my book lists. I’m deeply competitive, too. Because books are long, and because, in addition to holding down a number of teaching and freelance-writing gigs, I am also the primary caregiver for our six year old, my reading time is limited, which means I have to pace myself. I long ago figured out that to reach my goal of reading 60 books a year, I needed to average five books a month, or a little more than a book a week. For years now, reading has been something like training for a marathon. I keep mental tallies of how many pages I’ve read per night, and how many more pages I need to read in the next few days to keep to my average. In 2011, after years of hovering in the mid-50s, when my annual average hit precisely 60 — that is, 720 books read over 12 years — I did a private victory lap.
And that, finally, is what is so bizarre about my little obsession: I’m competing with no one. No one even knows I keep the lists. Once, some years ago before we adopted our son, I bragged to my wife that I had read 66 books in the previous year. She was appalled. Here she was busting her ass working long hours at her high-level job at the United Nations, and I had time to read 66 books a year? Needless to say, that was the last time I bragged to her about how many books I’d read. In fact, aside from a few deliberately vague references to members of my family, all my mental gymnastics over how many pages I read in an evening and how well I was keeping to my five-books-a-month pace has remained a well-kept secret.
In an odd way, the fact that no one else knows has made me more competitive, not less. I’m sure serious runners are familiar with this seeming paradox. Maybe nobody else knows that you shaved 1.2 seconds off your personal best time for the mile, but you know — and that knowledge, plus the fact that your achievement has brought you no external reward, gives you a perverse sense of satisfaction. Or no, let’s be honest about this: it gives you a perverse sense of superiority.
Because in the end, whether you’re recording how many seconds it takes you to run a mile or how many books you read in a year, what you are really doing is finding a way to quantify your inner sense of self-worth. For some people, their self-worth is bound up in the way they look, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so physical fitness — the number of seconds shaved off personal-best times, the number of reps at a certain weight, and so on — becomes a convenient proxy. In my case, I care about being seen as smart. In our culture, bookishness is a signifier of intellectual capacity, so the more books I read, the smarter I must be. That no one else knows is not merely beside the point; it heightens the sense of achievement. I’m a genius, I’ve been quietly telling myself for the past 13 years, and nobody even knows it.
This is made all the more complicated, and in a certain way more poignant, by the fact that I am a writer, so far not a terribly successful one. The problem isn’t so much that I’ve managed to publish only a handful of stories in literary magazines and have two unpublished novels languishing in my digital bottom drawer. That is galling, of course, but the real problem is that until very recently, my work just wasn’t very good. Unsuccessful writers tend not to say this aloud very often, at least not in public. It’s easier to blame the cruelty of the market and boneheaded editors, but I suspect that when they’re alone at their writing desk most serious writers are like me: for most of their early writing lives, they read their own stuff and cringe.
It is difficult to describe how painful this is. I became a writer not just because I thought I had something to say, but because I love good writing. I care about good writing. I will go so far as to say that, for me, good writing has a moral dimension to it. A great novel like Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or a revelatory story like James Joyce’s “The Dead” from Dubliners is like some incredibly fine moral scalpel that can slit me open, turn me inside out, and force me to feel the world in a raw, intimate way that only a great work of art can. A clumsy sentence or an insufficiently explored character in a place where that sort of thing isn’t supposed to occur — in a published novel, say, or a reputable literary magazine — feels not merely lazy or bad, but wrong.
And here I was doing it myself, year after year, story after story, book after book. For years, I had to come at my writing desk sideways, creep toward it inch by inch while pretending to be doing something else — reading the newspaper, checking my email, staring out the window — because I knew that once I sat down and opened up the file of whatever I was working on, it would suck. Worse, I had no idea how to make it not suck. I spent hours and hours — years, in some cases — fiddling with stories and parts of novels, and when I printed them out to read them afresh, they still sucked just as bad as they always had.
Through all those long years, reading — compulsive, competitive reading — was my balm. Early on, when I was in grad school, I told myself that an hour spent reading was as important to my progress as a writer as an hour spent writing. At the time, this was almost certainly true. I wasn’t one of those kids who read books by the bagful and had plowed through Tolstoy and Dostoevsky by the time I was 15. I probably read more books than the average American teenage boy, but I also played a lot of sports and watched a lot of TV. If I’m being honest, I’d also have to admit that I spent a fair amount of my adolescence too high to do anything but crank Pink Floyd and stare at the bedroom wall.
This became a real handicap in my 20s when I started to get serious about being a writer. My earliest attempts at fiction were all transparent knock-offs of early Raymond Carver stories. This was in part because I was in many ways a sad, confused character out of an early Carver story, but it was also because Raymond Carver was one of the very few contemporary writers I had actually read.
This is one of the reasons I started keeping the reading lists in the first place. I told myself I just wanted to keep a record of what I’d read, but, really, I knew myself well enough to know that I would turn it into a competition and start reading more. And I did. The first year I read 40 books. The next year I read 66. After a few years of steep dips following our son’s arrival, my averages boomed again, and by 2011 I had hit 74, my personal best. Keeping a list forced me to read more widely, too. Because I kept track of how many women and non-white writers I was reading, and because I was appalled how many white male writers I found I was choosing to read, I pushed myself out of my comfort zone and discovered great women writers like Julia Glass, Kate Christensen, and Edwidge Danticat that I might not have read otherwise.
But that was 13 years ago. I’m in my 40s now, and I don’t feel nearly as much a literary rube as I once did. There will always be people who have read more than I have and who have read more deeply than I ever will, but that doesn’t bother me as much as it once did. I’ve read enough to know what a good book is, and I’ve read widely enough to know that there are many different kinds of good books. More importantly, I think, I don’t hate my own work with same secret passion I once did. True, I’m getting paid to write again for the first time in decades, and serious people are taking my fiction seriously, but that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about being able to scroll down to any page of my own work that I consider finished and say, “Okay, a writer wrote that.” I still have to approach my writing desk crabwise, because this thing we do, this making magic out of words, is hard, no matter who’s doing it. But it no longer seems impossible to me. I no longer feel like I’m just fooling myself.
So in this new year, I am solemnly resolving to read fewer books. I’ll probably still record them because it’s habit now, and it is kind of nice to be able to look back over a year and see what I’ve read. But I won’t be aiming for 60 books a year anymore, and if I see a nice, fat doorstop of a novel I want to read, I won’t stop to check whether I’m far enough ahead for the year to give up the two or three weeks it’ll take to read it. I’ll just read the damn thing.
Image Credit: Flickr/Raoul Luoar
Imagine that Mark Twain had taken four volumes and 3,307 pages to get to the turning point in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn when Huck and Jim get lost in the fog at Cairo, Ill., where the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers meet. Imagine that at the end of that fourth volume, you still didn’t know whether their raft had drifted east along the Ohio River toward the free states or been carried southward down the Mississippi River and into the heart of American darkness. Now, imagine that those 3,307 pages, despite some slow bits, contained some of the most riveting reading of your life, and that you knew — knew in your bones — that Huck and Jim were headed south, and you lived in quiet dread that Mark Twain, now quite elderly, would die before he could finish the tale.
That would put you roughly in the position of a devoted reader of Robert Caro’s monumental biography of Lyndon Johnson, the fourth volume of which, The Passage of Power, arrives this week, just in time for Father’s Day. The Passage of Power ends in the summer of 1964, seven months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but before Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in the 1964 election, before most of the legislation that created The Great Society, before the Gulf of Tonkin incident that deepened America’s involvement in Vietnam and eventually destroyed the Johnson Presidency. In other words, the four volumes now in print, which have already earned Caro a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, along with virtually every other prize offered for books of history, merely form the prologue to the great American political tragedy that is the Johnson Presidency.
But what a prologue. These books are epically, at times even comically, overlong, and yet they are also, quite literally, epic in ambition and achievement. Caro is clearly trying to write the epic poem of The American Century, with tall, jug-eared, foul-mouthed LBJ as his flawed tragic hero. It is hard to believe that Caro will finish the last four and a half years of Johnson’s presidency in a single volume, as he has said he will, and I dread the hours it will take me to read the 1,500 pages or so I imagine it will take him to cover the subject, but I also fear that the American world I came of age in will never fully make sense to me unless Caro, now 76, lives long enough to finish his Life of Johnson.
The unifying theme of the Johnson biography, and of The Power Broker, Caro’s equally overlong, and equally brilliant biography of New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, is political power and its uses. In the prologue to The Passage of Power, Caro writes:
[A]lthough the cliché says that power always corrupts, what is seldom said, but what is equally true, is that power always reveals. When a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, concealment is necessary… But as a man obtains more power, camouflage is less necessary. The curtain begins to rise. The revealing begins.
As the curtain rises on this volume, Johnson is poised to trick himself out of the prize around which he has built his entire career. As the 1950s came to a close, Johnson was, as a ruthlessly effective majority leader of the U.S. Senate, arguably the second most powerful man in America, but after waiting too long to declare his candidacy for president in 1960, Johnson was outflanked by JFK and ended up as vice president. Johnson’s tenure in the Kennedy White House was made all the more humiliating by the fact that Kennedy’s aides, including his younger brother, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, despised him, mercilessly ridiculing the Texas-born LBJ as “Rufus Cornpone” and keeping him out of meetings where the real political decisions were being made.
This section of The Passage of Power, funny as it sometimes can be in depicting Johnson trying to toady his way into Kennedy’s esteem, is slack and wayward. Whenever things get slow in Johnson’s life, Caro has the unfortunate habit of changing the subject, offering potted histories of the other people and institutions around his central character. While the long digressions into the Kennedy family and the roots of the blood feud between Johnson and Bobby Kennedy in this volume are vastly more engrossing than the ponderous hundred-page history of the U.S. Senate that clogs the absurdly overstuffed third volume, Master of the Senate, these sideshows still feel like throat-clearing, especially compared to the second half of the book that begins with crack of the rifle that fells President Kennedy in Dallas.
Each of the four volumes has its set piece, a dramatic moment that Caro uses to turn the usually dry topic of history into a riveting page-turner, and here that set piece is Thanksgiving Week of 1963, which began with the Kennedy assassination. November 22, 1963, is surely the most exhaustively examined day in all of American history, and yet Caro manages to make it seem new by telling the story of the assassination from the point of view of the man it most directly affected, Vice President Johnson.
In the months leading up to the assassination, Caro reminds us, Johnson was increasingly worried that Kennedy might drop him from the ticket in 1964, and, on the very morning Kennedy landed in Dallas, editors at Life magazine met to discuss their investigation of Johnson aide Bobby Baker’s peddling of political favors, which was quickly morphing into an investigation of Johnson’s questionable financial dealings. Had Lee Harvey Oswald missed, it is altogether possible that the Baker scandal, along with Johnson’s dwindling political influence, could have pushed Kennedy to pick a new vice president, rendering Johnson little more than a colorful footnote to history.
But Oswald, and whoever else may or may not have been crouching in the Grassy Knoll, had deadly aim, and, in that instant, provided the hinge that separated the first half of the American Century from its darker, less glorious second half. For nearly an hour after the first shots rang out, as rumors swirled of a possible Soviet-led coup d’etat, Johnson was held out of sight in a small cubicle in Parkland Hospital where doctors were trying to revive the fallen president, until Kennedy aide Kenneth O’Donnell walked in, his face stricken, and said, “He’s gone,” two words that transformed Johnson from a political has-been into the leader of the free world.
Caro considers the next seven months, from the hectic Thanksgiving Week transition, in which a cool, calm President Johnson managed a flawless transition of power while the nation mourned, to the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Bill, which put an end to a century of legalized segregation, as Johnson’s “finest moment…a moment not only masterful, but, in its way, heroic.” The LBJ the reader has come to know in the previous 3,000 pages is a schemer and a bully, who lives for crushing those less powerful than himself, abusing his staff, publicly humiliating fellow politicians and government officials, and always carving up the spoils, political and financial, for his own benefit. “Yet for a period of time,” Caro writes, “a brief but crucial moment in history, he had held these elements [of his personality] in check, had overcome them, had, in a way, conquered himself.”
Sadly, it was to be a short-lived victory. “Power reveals,” Caro argues, and in The Passage of Power, he demonstrates precisely what this means. One comes away thinking that for a man like Johnson, with his exquisite antenna for the finest gradations of power, the chaotic post-assassination White House was a perfect atmosphere for his particular talents. On November 21, 1963, LBJ was still “Rufus Cornpone,” a big, funny-looking caricature of a Beltway pol, largely unknown to the average American, corrupt to the core, and fast slipping from power. Seven months later, he had passed a landmark civil rights bill, which Caro convincingly argues went far beyond anything Kennedy could have achieved, and was cruising toward one of the most lopsided presidential victories in history.
Johnson accomplished this by shielding himself behind the country’s almost mystical sense of the promise of the fallen president, leveraging his very powerlessness as a usurper to the throne into absolute power. Once he won the presidency in his own right in 1964, his ego returned, and all his great achievements for the poor and powerless of this country — Medicare, voting rights, Head Start — were undone by his unquenchable thirst for power and his ham-fisted approach to the war in Vietnam.
Robert Caro, one senses, has a bit of an ego on him, too, and it is a shame for those of us who love his books that he has not found an editor able to stand up to him after the near perfection of the first two volumes of this series. Master of the Senate is too long by at least a third, and this new volume, though less egregiously long-winded, nevertheless could do with a judicious edit. But while I might be able to imagine cutting hundreds of pages from these books, I cannot think of another living historian who could have written any of the pages that remain. As we learn from studying Lyndon Johnson, we have to take our geniuses as they are, warts and all.
Image Credit: Bill Morris/[email protected]
Though I could easily rattle off the titles of two dozen novels I love, cherish, and reread, I would struggle to name half a dozen short stories that affected me similarly. I simply don’t love the short form. That was until I read my first Rebecca Makkai short story “The Briefcase”. I fell in love with the form that day— at least Makkai’s version of it— and I wasn’t surprised when Alice Sebold chose it for the 2009 The Best American Short Stories anthology.
Others are smitten with Makkai’s work, too. Salman Rushdie, Richard Russo, Geraldine Brooks, and Dave Eggers have all chosen Rebecca’s short stories for anthologies. This, again, is no surprise. Her first sentences and paragraphs coax readers into the narrative and before they realize, Makkai is ferrying them on an adventure that enthralls, resonates and, often times, disconcerts.
She has done it again with her debut novel, The Borrower. The first pages drew me into the story as 10-year-old Ian Drake lures children’s librarian Lucy Hull into his life. Before Lucy fully understands the situation and its implications of her involvement with young Ian, she is off on a surreptitious, cross-country escapade with her most enthusiastic patron.
I conducted this interview by email as the last time Rebecca and I met, we lost track of time and I missed two trains and had to literally run to catch a third.
The Millions: Like your main character, your occupation brings children to great books. How did your experience as an elementary school teacher influence your characterization of the librarian Lucy Hull?
Rebecca Makkai: I’ve read out loud to children for half an hour every school day for the past eleven years, and that daily engagement with children’s books has kept them very much a part of my literary landscape. And part of my job is to be a book-pusher. At times I feel a bit like some skeezy drug dealer, hanging out at the edge of the playground, going, “If I can get them to try it just this once, I’ll have them hooked!”
Although I’m a very different person than Lucy, and her world is pure fiction, I did use that one element of my own life – the sublime satisfaction of connecting children with the books that will become their favorites. What makes that same feeling urgent and even desperate in Lucy’s case is the fact that this is one of the only ways she can help her patron Ian, who is being fed a whole different set of fictions – very damaging ones – by his parents and church.
TM: Though Lucy is first reluctant to acknowledge the sexuality of 10-year-old Ian, she acts when Ian’s religious parents take him to a church that specializes in gay reprogramming. Was this church – Glad Heart Ministries – based on a real group?
RM: Disturbingly, it was inspired by many, many different groups, though none directly. One of the largest and most egregious programs is Exodus International, which has hundreds of chapters, a youth ministry, and even (no kidding) an iPhone app – although, to be fair, they’re actually not the most hateful group out there, by a long shot. We never meet “Pastor Bob” in the book, but the few things we do learn about him are remarkably predictable of the leaders of these groups – including his being caught in a gay bar and trying to play it off.
TM: Ultimately, it is Lucy’s belief in the power and complexity of fiction that allows her to let go of Ian. Is her faith in the fictional narrative similar to your own?
RM: If you consider not just books but also movies, TV shows, fairytales, urban legends, the narratives of song lyrics and video games, etc., it’s clear that despite doomsday laments about the demise of literature, we are still a species that lives in fictional worlds almost as much as in the real one. We need stories on some fundamental level that go far beyond any one medium or industry, and I think we need them for the same reasons we need to dream. You know how if you keep someone from dreaming in a sleep lab, they go crazy? I imagine the same might be true for absorbing fictions. And just as dreams allow us to work things out that we never could have understood consciously, I think narratives keep us sane by letting us process the world without the filter of our own lived experience. Lucy recognizes that for Ian, a story would be far more effective than a nonfiction book about growing up gay, which would just embarrass and distance him. What she doesn’t realize until later is how much her own senses of self and family have been predicated on some necessary and merciful fictions.
TM: What books directly influenced or inspired this novel?
RM: I kept both Lolita and Huckleberry Finn close on hand as I wrote, and these are books that Lucy uses as touchstones throughout. There are many riffs on classic children’s books (or certain types of book) scattered through the text, but in structure I tried to parallel those two and also The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as much as I could. And there’s some Catcher in the Rye thrown in for good measure… All the iconic runaway books are part of Lucy’s frame of reference, and the fact that (not coincidentally) they all share some similarities of structure made it easier to follow all of them simultaneously.
TM: As a narrator, Lucy is slippery and unreliable. She claims to work at the public library in Hannibal, Missouri, but we later learn she has only adopted this town’s name for the sake of her story. Why did Lucy choose Hannibal to set off her road trip tale?
RM: Because it’s the starting point of Huckleberry Finn. In my mind (and, as implied in the story, in Lucy’s), Twain enshrined it as the ultimate launching pad for the American road story. It’s the middle of the country, the middle of nowhere, and yet it’s on the banks of this enormous river that can sweep you right out of town. An interested reader could find a lot of parallels there: a child and adult running away together, with a lot of bungling and a lot of confusion as to who’s rescuing whom. There’s also a passage when they cross the bridge to Cairo, Illinois that’s a very direct reference to Huck and Jim’s point of no return.
But yes, she is pretty slippery, isn’t she? I have a weakness for unreliable narrators. Because who’s ever met a reliable one in real life?
TM: While Ian is literally running away, Lucy is doing so metaphorically. Both are fighting against others’ perceptions of them. Lucy doesn’t accept the stereotype of the quiet, wallflower librarian, but she also doesn’t fully embrace her family’s rebellious nature. In this respect, you and Lucy are similar. Writers, like librarians, are perceived as being poorly dressed introverts and your earlier work was heavily influenced by your father’s experience in the failed 1956 Hungarian revolution. Is this novel as much about Lucy’s self-actualization as your own?
RM: Well, I am pretty poorly dressed right now, but that’s probably not what you’re really asking. Probably the only other element of the story that’s autobiographical, aside from the aforementioned book-pushing habit, is my experience as a first-generation American. My family isn’t Russian, and my father is a retired linguistics professor who (unlike Jurek Hulkinov) has no Mafia ties that I’m aware of, but the worldview that I grew up with, of seeing America as a miraculous but flawed refuge from quite recent danger, is one that infuses a lot of my fiction. And like Lucy’s family, the Hungarian side of my family has a fairly disturbing history – more disturbing than Lucy’s, actually, by quite a bit, although it’s not something I’m ready to write about yet.
The night before my wedding, my father asked me (for reasons that are still unclear) whether I considered myself an American. In some ways, I think this book is my answer.
TM: Both this novel and most of your short stories are political. What are the difficulties in writing politically charged fiction?
RM: I don’t find it difficult so much as unavoidable. It’s funny, even when I think I’m writing a very apolitical piece (because it’s not directly about politics or revolution), it will end up being about race or class. You’d think I’d be a loudly political person in real life, but really I limit myself to voting and occasionally talking back to NPR when I’m alone in the car. And maybe that’s just what my stories will always be about, whether I want it or not – in the way that a Roth story is always about sex and a John Irving story is always about dismemberment and bears.
I think that whether I’m writing about a revolution or a bomb shelter or a public library, what I’m drawn to is the power structure – who’s in charge, who’s being oppressed, who’s working their way up that ladder. There’s a lot of drama inherent in that, and it’s not so much that I have a political ax to grind as that this is where I tend to find the story.
I do think that if someone sets out to write fiction just to prove a certain political point, though, it becomes unbearable. It’s why I can’t stand Tolstoy. I think politics can be the subject, but not the point.
TM: You and your short works have appeared in The Best American Short Stories four times in a row. Did your writing process change significantly in order to write a novel?
RM: The Borrower actually had a very long gestation: I started it in 2000, long before I’d published any short fiction. It was several years before I began working on it seriously, and I abandoned it and came back to it many times in the nine years till its completion, but it was always there, lurking in the background.
I do have to switch gears, though, between short and long stories. The pacing is obviously very different: a short story will either compress a very long time into a few pages, or (more commonly) take a small moment and delve into every detail. As a novelist, unless you’re Virginia Woolf, you have to find the midpoint between those two extremes if you’re going to maintain the reader’s interest over the long haul. In The Borrower, I have three different (unmarked) sections with different paces: In the first part of the book, Lucy needs to see Ian’s deterioration over several months. When they leave town together, she becomes very aware of time, since every minute they’re gone makes her more culpable. Time is marked out very carefully in terms of hours, meals, days, nights. And then the last section backs off and gives a more telescopic view of the months and even years after the main incident. It’s not an uncommon structure in novels, of course – broad view, narrow focus, broad view – but I don’t think I ever was so consciously aware of it as a reader until I wrote this book.
The other adjustment I need to make between my shorter and longer work is in the depth and pace of characterization. Since you have fewer words in which to establish a character in a short story, you need (and can get away with) some broader strokes. In a novel, those broader strokes, piled over many pages, can come off as caricature. That said, most of the peripheral characters in The Borrower are intentionally larger-than-life, and I made the decision, for better or worse, to paint some of them with a very large brush – partly for comic effect, and partly because the world of this novel is a somewhat surreal one. In my novel in progress, that isn’t the case at all. I have to remind myself to slow down, and that we don’t need to know everything about a character the moment he opens his mouth.
TM: As a mother to a small child and infant and as a teacher who works full-time outside the home, how do you find time to balance your responsibilities and creative self? What advice would you give to writers who are struggling with this balance?
RM: Before you make me sound like a superhero, I should point out that there’s still some laundry on my closet floor from spring break. Which was almost three months ago. So I suppose the answer is that I let a lot of little things slide, in favor of the bigger things.
I also find that I do a lot of my writing when I’m not actually writing. In a very busy week, I might not get any real uninterrupted time at my computer (or that time might come when I’m too exhausted to use the English language responsibly), but then on Saturday I’ll hit the ground running with everything I’ve thought of all week long, in the shower, in the car, at the grocery store. I suppose it’s a slightly depressing modern take on Wordsworth’s going off on those long walks in the lake country and coming home with odes fully composed. My version involves composing in the pediatrician’s waiting room, then hurrying off to Starbucks to type like a maniac.
The key for me is to find the middle ground between feeling sorry for myself and expecting too much of myself. Come to think of it, maybe that’s the key to everything.
TM: What other things are you working on?
RM: I’m trying to get my stories to gel into some sort of collection, but I feel like a camp counselor with a cabin full of unruly girls refusing to coexist. And I’m working on my second novel, which is tentatively called The Happensack. It’s the story of a haunted house and a haunted family, told in reverse. I’m rather smitten with it right now, which is probably why I’m neglecting the laundry.
Two years ago I spent some time in Lenox, Massachusetts, at a house once owned by the poet Amy Clampitt. I slept in her bed, rifled through her books, gazed out the kitchen window at the tree by which her ashes are buried. Since 2001, the house has served as a residency for poets; as the ninth Amy Clampitt Resident Fellow, my boyfriend was awarded a six-month stay. On a January weekend I helped him move into the grey clapboard house with blue-green shutters. Just down the road, The Mount, the mansion built by Edith Wharton, stood in baronial splendor. Everything about the more intimate Clampitt house struck me as perfect: the cozy living room with its comfy upholstered chairs; the loft bedroom and writing nook overlooking the snowy street; the spare bedroom crammed with boxes of Clampitt’s manuscripts, correspondence, and photographs. We found a bin stacked with copies of Clampitt’s own books of poetry, and my boyfriend noted how cool it would be to read Amy Clampitt’s Amy Clampitt’s The Kingfisher.
I reluctantly caught the bus back to New York, where I had an M.F.A. thesis to write. This meant churning out and polishing short stories, and also producing a critical essay. I decided to write about Clampitt. Now I had an excuse for riding the Greyhound to Lenox as often as possible: I had research to do. But I immediately ran into trouble. I wanted to write about both Clampitt’s poetry and her house, but what was the connection between the two? Clampitt, who grew up in Iowa and spent most of her adult life in New York City, bought the house in Lenox when she was seventy-two, after winning a MacArthur grant. The places that loom large in her poems are primarily the rural landscapes of her childhood, the Manhattan streets of her adulthood, the Maine beaches where she vacationed in the summer, and the Europe of her travels—not the Berkshire towns along the Housatonic River. Six months after Clampitt moved to Lenox, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She died a year and a half later. On one of her bookshelves, between Dickens and Howard Moss, I found a spiral-bound workbook called Chemotherapy and You. Some of the pages were paper-clipped, marked for use.
In a piece here at The Millions, Luke Epplin discusses his visit to Pablo Neruda’s house in Isla Negra. This house “is exceptional among existing writers’ houses,” Epplin observes, in that Neruda “managed to shape it into a manifestation of what a life dedicated to poetry might look like.” The design of the house, the attention to detail, the arrangement of treasured possessions—all seem to capture the spirit of the writer of Odes to Common Things. But even as he enjoys seeing the house as an extension of Neruda’s poetic sensibility, Epplin is suspicious of the way that such museums tend to present a limited portrait of the writers who once lived there. In his critique of the literary tourism industry, he calls on Anne Trubek’s recently published A Skeptic’s Guide to Writers’ Houses, a book I find charming, if a bit oddly conceived. Trubek spends a lot of time describing places that irritate her. She finds writers’ houses that have been turned into museums dispiriting and even dumb. “[T]hey aim to do the impossible: to make physical—to make real—acts of literary imagination. Going to a writer’s house is a fool’s errand. We will never find our favorite characters or admired techniques within these houses; we can’t join Huck on the raft or experience Faulkner’s stream of consciousness. We can only walk through empty rooms full of pitchers and paintings and stoves.”
But she keeps going, reporting on her half-hearted treks around the country with a curmudgeon’s pleasure in disparaging what she sees. The first writer’s house she visits is the Walt Whitman House in Camden, New Jersey, where Whitman published three editions of Leaves of Grass and an autobiography, Specimen Days. Whitman died in this house, but, Trubek notes, “The house is set up, as are most house museums, to fool us into thinking that Whitman was still living there.” His things, or replicas of his things, are staged in a way that Trubek finds false. Though writers’ houses are meant to make their former inhabitants come alive, Trubek observes, “They remind me of death.”
In Lenox I became friendly with the poet Karen Chase, a great friend of Clampitt’s in the last few years of her life, and one of her literary executors. Karen was at Clampitt’s bedside when she died. We talked about this one morning in the kitchen of the house that Karen helped to furnish, taking her friend on “junking” trips to local antique stores. Karen told me that after the funeral the cleaning lady set up a little memorial to Clampitt: a table with a doily and an arrangement of Clampitt’s books, along with books by Edith Wharton. “I sort of messed it up,” Karen said with a touch of pride. “It was museum-like. It would have gone against her grain in the deepest way.” Trying to learn who Clampitt was (or Amy, as I really thought of her, longing for intimacy), I stared at the framed photograph of a woman both lanky and pixie-like, prim and hippieish, standing in a whirl of autumn leaves. I read her letters, filled with descriptions of European trips and anti-war rallies, the books on her nightstand and the flowers in her window box. And of course I read the four books that make up her Collected Poems, mostly on bus trips between Manhattan and Lenox. I was pleased to think of Clampitt herself, suddenly a poet in demand in her sixties, riding Greyhound to give readings and lectures.
The poems that struck me the most, the poems I decided to focus on in my M.F.A. thesis essay, were her portraits of the dead, at once somber and lovely. “A Winter Burial” describes a woman’s death, which seems as lonely as her time in a nursing home:
. . . one nightfall when the last
weak string gave way that had held whatever
she was, that mystery, together, the bier
that waited—there were no planes coming in,
not many made it to the funeral, the blizzard
had been so bad, the graveyard drifted
so deep, so many severed limbs of trees
thrown down, they couldn’t get in to plow
an opening for the hearse, or shovel
the cold white counterpane from that cell
in the hibernal cupboard, till the day after.
This is bleak, indeed: an old forgotten woman literally buried even deeper by a snowstorm. Still, the music of the poem—those lovely incantatory final lines—dignifies the death in a way, placing it not in a sterile box, but in a space of privacy that the snow-covered earth allows. Clampitt’s poems memorialize the dead not by portraying the person who once lived, but by paying acute attention to place, sometimes places where the subject died or is buried, sometimes places that invoke the relentless flow of time and history. One of her most famous poems, “A Procession at Candlemas,” observes, “Sooner or later / every trek becomes a funeral procession.”
She’s also wise to the way that paying tribute to a place can profane it, the kind of thing that troubles Trubek. “Amherst” refers to the worshippers who flock to Emily Dickinson’s house on the anniversary of her death: “the wistful, / the merely curious, in her hanging dress discern / an ikon; her ambiguities are made a shrine, / then violated.” Clampitt includes herself in this group: “we’ve drunk champagne above her grave, declaimed / the lines of one who dared not live aloud.” She wants to address her—“(Dear Emily, though, / seems too intrusive, Dear Miss Dickinson too prim)”—even as she knows this makes her part of the adoring crowd that reduces the woman to literary icon.
As an alternative to preserving a writer’s house, Trubek suggests greater attention to his or her work. Reflecting on the plans to restore Langston Hughes’ former house in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood, she asks, “Why not redirect our energy to reading Hughes rather than restoring his house . . . ? His books are plentiful and inexpensive. It would not be cost prohibitive to give every resident of Fairfax a book, or every teacher a classroom set of, say, Poetry for Young People.” After visiting Louisa May Alcott’s house, one of an exhausting number of literary sites in Concord, Massachusetts, Trubek reflects, “Here’s what I wish for Alcott, today: Her books assigned in schools as often as are Huck Finn or Catcher in the Rye; her reputation remade into that of the tortured romantic genius; it would also be nice to have a foundation in her honor dedicated to offering women writers grants or scholarships for female writers.” To promote the work, to elevate the status of a woman writer, to support other writers: these are worthy goals, and the Clampitt House, in its quiet way, fosters them. While the lavish Mount down the road lets tourists see where Wharton wrote The House of Mirth and other novels, perhaps increasing the readership of these books, it could be argued that the Clampitt House is better for writers (if only, so far, eleven of them) by providing a place to stay rent-free for an extended period of time and get work done. I imagine Trubek would approve of the Clampitt House: not a memorial, but a practical living space.
I don’t think Clampitt envisioned that her house would one day serve, in her name, as a temporary home for other poets. Her husband, who lived for seven years after her death, came up with the idea for the residency program. I do know that she had some romantic ideas about the former dwelling places of writers she admired. In her essay “A Poet’s Henry James,” she writes, “When I made a pilgrimage to Rye a couple of summers ago, it was with the objective of standing on the spot where Henry James dictated The Ambassadors.”
In the essay I completed as part of my M.F.A. thesis, I wrote about the experience of staying in the house of a writer who had died there, and I wrote about Clampitt’s poems that deal with death. I don’t think I quite found a successful way to link them. But though it puts me in danger of romanticizing Clampitt and the place she once lived, I can’t help but feel that her expansive poems about loss are connected to the cozy grey clapboard house in Lenox. According to Trubek, “writers’ houses are by definition melancholy.” There is something melancholy about the Clampitt House. As Clampitt observes about Dickinson’s house, the poet’s “ambiguities” are inevitably given over to strangers’ imaginings of what she must have been like.
It’s a good kind of melancholy, though, the kind that allows us to miss people we’ve never met. During a talk she gave at Grinnell forty-five years after she had graduated from the small Iowa college, Clampitt addressed the question of what a writer needs to know. “In one word, I’d say, predecessors. I don’t know why it is that things become more precious with the awareness that someone else has looked at them, thought about them, written about them. But so I find it to be . . . .Writers need company. We all need it.”
Image: Clampitt House, courtesy the author
The IQ Bubble
Oskar Schell, age nine, is a genius. Likewise Billy Argo and T.S. Spivet, both 10. At 14, Alma Singer is at least hella precocious. And with subspecialties including M-theory, French horn, and the Future of Humanity, her contemporary Ruprecht van Doren is off the charts (though with a name like Ruprecht van Doren, you’d sort of have to be). Genius is, by definition, exceptional, and until recently it was only in Lake Wobegon and the films of Wes Anderson that all children could be above average. But in the last few years the Anglo-American novel, full of characters like the foregoing, has come to resemble a kind of overdriven gifted-and-talented program: one your own kid would never make it into.
To be sure, the ‘tween geniuses of Jonathan Safran Foer et al. are not without precedent. It’s been almost two centuries since Dickens loosed his intrepid moppets on the streets of London. (Little David Copperfield is, if not quite Mensa material, surely a Child of Distinction.) And American literature has always been unusually interested in kids. If much of Russian fiction, as Dostoevsky reportedly said, emerged from Gogol’s overcoat, our own novelistic tradition might be said to have emerged from that of Mark Twain, who found in his Hannibal boyhood both a wellspring of vernacular comedy and a nexus of the great American tensions: freedom versus settlement, the individual versus society, the past versus the future. Huck Finn rendered James Fennimore Cooper’s Mohican fantasias on the same themes instantly old hat. Who needs noble savages when you’ve got adolescents? (Is there any difference, in the end?)
Even in America, however, literary innocence has historically been a rigged game. With its tropism for irony, the novel as a form prods its protagonists toward experience, toward compromise, and toward “sivilization” – in short, to growing up. Unless, that is, the child is more civilized than the man, as seems to be the case with the current bumper crop of prodigies. These kids’ real forebears are not Augie March or Maisie Farange, but comic book superheroes, Harriet the Spy, and – preeminently – the novels of J.D. Salinger. Like the Glasses, they seem too good for the lousy adult world, and perhaps too good to be true.
In this (and, it must be said, in its gargantuan length), Adam Levin’s literary debut, The Instructions, would seem to be some sort of apotheosis. Its 10-year-old narrator and protagonist, Gurion Maccabee, is not just another kid genius with an improbable name; he’s also worldly, charismatic, quick with a joke or to light up your smoke, a martial artist, a sometime-telepath, a devout half-Ethiopian, half-Ashkenazi Israelite…and, oh, yeah: quite possibly the Messiah. It’s easy to see why, even if you liked Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet, you might feel you need this wisenheimer’s 1,000-page scripture like you need a hole in your head. But The Instructions turns out to be, for better and for worse, something like the Only Kid Genius Novel You’ll Ever Need. That is, it simultaneously makes good on the subgenre’s promise and exposes its limitations. And en route to its wacko finale, it begins to illuminate the begged question: Why so much genius? Why now?
And a Child Shall Lead Them
The Instructions opens with our narrator inside a cage. Or rather, CAGE—a special facility within Aptakisic Junior High School for students with behavioral problems. It isn’t explained at first how this CAGE works, exactly, or what those initials stand for. What we get, instead, is Gurion’s voice—baroque, headlong, impertinent, a gallimaufry of high-flying excursus and middle-school pidgin (“banced,” “snat,” “chomsky”). His monologue (“Scripture,” he insists) careens from linguistics to theodicy to how to build your own small arms from household oddments. Underneath, though, a single question niggles: What’s a kid like you doing in a place like this?
Levin parcels the answer out slowly. Which turns out to be a good thing, because the plot—basically boy meets girl, girl’s a goy, mayhem ensues—is a pretty thin reed on which to hang three pounds of book. The entire novel covers only the four days leading up to what a mock-prefatory note has hinted will be some kind of in-school insurrection (variously referred to as “the Damage Proper;” “the 11/17 Miracle;” and “the Gurionic War.”) In the absence of much action, it’s the mystery of Gurion’s personality that keeps us reading. Well, that and to see what kind of crazy shit he’ll say next.
As any kid genius will, Gurion tap-dances all over the line between precocity and preciousness. Levin, who studied with George Saunders at Syracuse, clearly admires the miglior fabbro’s demotic hijinks, and Gurion often achieves a Saundersish charm, both in rat-a-tat dialogue and in casual stabs of description that bring the world of junior high back like yesterday’s hot lunch. Ron Desormie “taught Gym in shorts that his wang stretched the crotch of”—you pretty much had me at “wang.” But just as often there’s an inability to leave well enough alone (Desormie also “hummed out a melody with lipfart percussion and aggressively dance-walked and thought it was strutting.”)
Such compulsive effervescence is both a liability and an asset. On the one hand, it flattens the characters around Gurion (with a couple of exceptions), and thus the stakes for the impending “Miracle”-cum-“War.” Eliza June Watermark, his shiksa love-interest, is more a cluster of attributes than a fully formed person. The keepers of the CAGE are, like the lipfarting, dance-walking Desormie, cartoons. And I’d swear that Flowers, the middle-aged juju man who guides Gurion through the writing of the scripture we are even now reading, is actually Bleeding Gums Murphy, from The Simpsons:
Even if what you write about is boring, you can’t be writing boring. Seem to me like you want to write about you wang, anyhow. Now you wang—that’s a good example cause it’s boring to me […] One thing ain’t boring to me about you wang is how you’re callin it wang.
On the other hand, Levin ain’t boring, which is important, when your scripture is also a tome. And our inability to see actual people behind Levin’s antic renderings is a powerful corollary for what will come to seem the narrator’s egocentrism, the child trapped inside the prodigy.
The first half of The Instructions is also enlivened by lengthy “inserts”: emails, school assignments, a psychological assessment. Through these chinks in the monologuist’s armor, we begin to glimpse Gurion from angles other than his own. Flowers may not be, as therapist-in-training Sandra Billings suggests, his “imaginary friend” (after all—disappointingly—Mr. and Mrs. Maccabee can see him, too), but her otherwise reasonable conclusions and the vehemence with which Gurion doth protest remind us that, like any scripture, this one is open to interpretation:
It may be the case […] that Gurion is by nature an ideal student. […] On the other hand, it may be the case that Gurion, once an ideal student, has become […] the dangerous and even doomed boy indicated by his record.
It is in this kind of irony, rather than in verbal vaudeville, that Levin begins to earn the jacket-copy comparisons to David Foster Wallace. His greatest gifts are also, as Gurion would put it, his most “stealth”: a dialectical intelligence, and crucially, a sense of paradox. The specific paradoxes to which the novel keeps returning involve justice, peace, and power. And these are not mere abstractions, confined to the Torah stories that obsess Gurion; their real-world consequences range from in-school bullying to foreign policy. Such subtexts, handled subtly at first, come crashing into the foreground in a bravura set-piece near the novel’s midway point. The child prodigy thinks back to September 11 of his kindergarten year, and to events it takes more than a high Myers-Briggs score to comprehend.
In the novel’s second half, “The Gurionic War,” Levin dispenses, somewhat disastrously, with these insertions, leaving us with hundreds of pages of unadulterated prodigy. If this shaves a few ounces off the book, it also lays bare the geologic pacing of the plot. And the solipsism of Gurion’s point-of-view becomes not just something that seduces the other Aptakisic ne’er-do-wells, but something inflicted on the reader. It’s as if The Instructions has painted itself into a corner. Nonetheless, there’s always the possibility that Gurion will run up a wall, or sprout wings, and so we press on to the long-promised climax.
I’m not going to spoil that climax, other than invoking Einstein’s suggestion that no worthy problem is ever solved on the plane of its conception. On the level of action, Levin gives us a significant payoff—he has to, after so many pages, or we’d want to egg his house—but in aesthetic terms, I was unpersuaded. Until. Until the abrupt return (right around the point where Philip Roth makes a cameo) of other, opposing voices. The novel’s conclusion, as distinct from the climax, juxtaposes several points-of-view and timeframes, throwing the central questions of Gurion’s existence back into high relief. And what saves the novel from self-indulgence is that they are also among the burning ethical questions of our time. For example: who has the right, in a fallen world, to dispense justice? Who has the right to judge? And what separates a savior from a lunatic?
Cult of the Child
It can’t be an accident that the current boom in novels about kid geniuses (or wizards) coincides with the dawn of a new age of catastrophe: buildings falling, anthrax, school shootings, wars, near economic collapse, and the palpable twilight of the American empire. Back in the ‘60s, establishment types liked to imagine that the young people mucking up the nation’s campuses were merely restaging their childhood as politics – acting out their Oedipal fantasies. Now, though, it has begun to seem that the terms are reversed; that we are trying to escape our political traumas by returning to childhood. Botox, Facebook, Pixar, skateboards and ringer tees…
In particular, Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s, which publishes The Instructions, has made childhood into a cult phenomenon. Its quarterly is nostalgic in ways big (design) and small (plenty of coming-of-age stories), and most of its best books (What is the What, The Children’s Hospital, Here They Come) center on the experiences of children. Indeed, childhood delimits the McSweeney’s aesthetic as such—the meringue of whimsy on top, and underneath the moral fiber that is our birthright. (“I am tired,” runs one epigraph to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering…er… Genius. “I am true of heart!”)
The editors of N+1, precocious themselves, were quick to spot this. “Eggersards returned to the claims of childhood,” they noted in their first issue. But they were incorrect to claim that “Transcendence would not figure in [Eggersard] thought,” as anyone can tell you who remembers that moment at the end of AHWOSG where Dave and his kid brother run back and forth on the beach chasing the world’s most symbolic frisbee. To be a child is, for the duration of that childhood, to be transcendent.
The kid genius is, then—almost uniquely in our culture—a nakedly utopian figure (though a conservative one, in that his promised land lays in the past). He is wise. He is powerful. He is moral. The grinding compromises of bourgeois life and the adult obtusenesses that stands in for it do not concern him; growing up is selling out. He will, like Oskar Matzerath of The Tin Drum (for whom Foer’s Oskar is presumably named) stay small, and, in so doing, stay pure.
Putting Away Childish Things
At its best, the kid genius novel works as a kind of allegory, albeit at the cost of turning everything—even the world-historical—personal. At its worst, it represents just another flight from the ethical, into the ready embrace of the aesthetic. In the end, the signal achievement of The Instructions is that it manages to reopen the communicating channels between these binaries.
In so doing, this entertaining novel clears at least one of the hurdles of art: its strengths become inextricable from its weaknesses. Levin’s willingness to hew to the boundaries of his character’s skull—a kind of cage inside a CAGE inside a cage inside a cage—may sometimes make us wish Gurion would just take a Xanax and go to bed. But it also brings us into the presence of a fully realized consciousness, which is surely one of the noblest tasks of fiction.
To call The Instructions a young man’s book is to say partly that Levin, who himself may be a kind of genius, has many books ahead of him. And like Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, that other hypertrophied iteration of the kid genius novel, this one ultimately keeps in view a world of very adult consequences. To the innocence we’ve been protesting this last decade, it manages to restore connotations of blindness, gullibility, and misapprehension. And so it may mark both the culmination and the dissolution of its subgenre—a turn away from the handsome doll-furniture of our childhood rooms, and toward the world writ large.
Sidebar: A Brief Timeline of the Literary Kid Genius
Seymour Glass, Seymour: An Introduction (1963)
Simons Everson Manigault, Edisto (1984)
Phillip, A History of Luminous Motion (1989)
Hal Incandenza, Infinite Jest (1996)
Magid Iqbal, White Teeth (2000)
Ludo Newman, The Last Samurai (2002)
Oskar Schell, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005)
Blue van der Meer, Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006)
Billy Argo, The Boy Detective Fails (2006)
Rumika Vasi, Gifted (2007)
Saul Dawson-Smith, The Truth About These Strange Times (2008)
T.S. Spivet, The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet (2009)
Ruprecht van Doren, Skippy Dies (2010)
Gurion Maccabee, The Instructions (2010)
The first time I read Huckleberry Finn, I must’ve been nine, because I remember padding down the staircase one evening book in hand, and taking a left into the living room where my parents were sitting on the couch.
We moved away from the house I’m remembering when I was in fourth grade, so ten years old might be the upper limit here. I remember the book too. It was one of those editions designed to look old and expensive, with a faux-leather cover that had a padded feel to it, like the back seat of my parents’ minivan. The edges of the thin pages were “gilt,” giving the book a faintly biblical aspect.
I was walking down the stairs with the book in hand because, though a fairly precocious young reader, I’d come across a word I’d never seen before.
I held up the book, open to one of the early pages, and pointed. What does this word “nigger” mean?
My parents, I think, had not planned on doing any more parenting that day — maybe there were glasses of wine sitting on the coffee table — let alone having to carefully explain to a nine-year-old the gravity of this particular word. It wasn’t “where do babies come from?”, but it was close.
Nonetheless, and sensing, I assume, that they had better fully satiate my curiosity lest I bring this word carelessly with me to school the next day, they explained. I paraphrase: “this is a very, very bad word that white people used to call black people. You must never, ever use this word; it’s one of the worst things you can call someone.”
They did not, I note now, take the book away from me.
I went back to my room and kept reading, and eventually, some days or weeks later I finished the book.
To the best of my recollection, despite it appearing six times in the text, I never went back downstairs, book in hand, to ask my parents what the word “slave” meant.
If 2010 was a literary year of big names — featuring Franzen, Mitchell, Delillo and McEwan to name just a few — 2011 is lining up to be more subtle. Amid a very full lineup of intriguing forthcoming books, just one stands above the rest in terms of hype and anticipation, a literary peak that’s likely to be bittersweet in the form of the posthumous release of David Foster Wallace’s final novel. Readers will be hoping it does justice to his legacy.
In the shadow this big book are many others likely to be deserving of readers’ time. While 2010 was given over to the headliners, 2011 may be a year of new discoveries. Here are some of the books we’re looking forward to — 8,000 words strong and encompassing 76 titles, this is the only 2011 book preview you will ever need.
January or Already Out:
Gryphon by Charles Baxter: A collection of short fiction from an acknowledged master of the form. Seven of the twenty-three stories in the collection are new; others, including the title story, are considered classics. In each of these pieces, Publisher’s Weekly writes in a starred review, “the acutely observed real world is rocked by the exotic or surreal.” Baxter’s previous works include four novels (including a National Book Award nominee, The Feast of Love) and four prior short story collections. (Emily M.)
The Empty Family by Colm Tóibín: Tóibín follows up his wildly successful 2009 novel Brooklyn with a new collection of nine short stories concerned with love and loss, memory and homecoming. The Telegraph has called this collection “exquisite and almost excruciating.” (Emily M.)
While Mortals Sleep by Kurt Vonnegut: In the four years since his death, the Vonnegut vaults have been raided, yielding 2008’s Armageddon in Retrospect and 2009’s Look at the Birdie. Now comes While Mortals Sleep, 16 more unpublished pieces described by Delacorte Press as “a present left behind by a departed loved one.” Perhaps. But Vonnegut’s short fiction was generally uneven, and one might be forgiven for wondering how many more presents there are. Because the further we move from his passing, the further we move from his best. Dave Eggers, in the book’s foreword, calls Vonnegut “a hippie Mark Twain”; he is also in some danger of becoming a dorm-lit Tupac Shakur. (Jacob)
Night Soul and Other Stories by Joseph McElroy: Underappreciated master McElroy is known (and loved) for the challenging body of work, and these stories aren’t likely to disappoint his fans, though they may have come across some of them before. The oldest story in this collection of 12 dates back to 1981 and the title story was first published in 1982. But seven of them are reportedly from the last decade, including one “The Campaign Trail” which one early review describes as imagining “the 2008 Democratic presidential primary much like a Matthew Barney film of the subject might: unnamed figures representing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama ceremonially confront each other in a wild area of what once was Canada.” (Max)
Swamplandia! by Karen Russell: Swamplandia! is the first novel from New Yorker “20 Under 40” writer Karen Russell. It builds out of a short story from her 2006 collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and tells the tale of the Bigtree family, operators of an alligator wrestling tourist attraction deep in the Everglades. The family business is imperiled when the star ‘gator grappler dies, setting off a chain of catastrophes that lead 12-year-old Ava Bigtree to set off through the swamp in search of her lost sister Osceola. (Kevin)
Townie: A Memoir by Andre Dubus III: Andre Dubus III, of The House of Sand and Fog fame, grew up poor and hard in a Massachusetts mill town. His famous father, the late great short story writer Andre Dubus was AWOL, chasing younger tail, leaving Dubus and his three siblings to the care of their loving but overworked mother. The Townie is Dubus’s memoir of growing up and learning to fight before he learned to write. Advance word coming out of Kirkus and Booklist suggests this is going to be a good one. (Kevin)
When the Killing’s Done by T.C. Boyle: In his thirteenth novel, T.C. Boyle turns his attention to the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara and the practice of killing non-native fauna in an effort to protect the original ecosystem. A starred review in Booklist says, “Incisive and caustically witty, Boyle is fluent in evolutionary biology and island biogeography, cognizant of the shared emotions of all sentient beings, in awe over nature’s crushing power, and, by turns, bemused and appalled by human perversity.” (Edan)
The Strange Case of Edward Gorey by Alexander Theroux: Originally published in paperback in 2000, this biography of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey is being reissued by Fantagraphics Books in a new hardcover edition. Gorey was a reclusive, enigmatic figure who never married, professed asexuality in interviews, and became famous for a twisted and faintly ominous body of work — marked by a distinctive Victorian Gothic sensibility — that includes an alphabet book of dead children (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs.”) Alexander Theroux was Gorey’s friend and neighbor for more than a quarter century. Part biography, part artistic analysis, and part memoir of a long friendship, with exclusive interviews conducted shortly before Gorey’s death, this book is generally accepted as the most comprehensive portrait of Gorey ever written. (Emily M.)
Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt: Perhaps you are aware that Winston Churchill called his spells of depression “black dog”? Well, Mr. Chartwell is that black dog–literally, he’s a man-sized, ill-intentioned black laborador. In Rebecca Hunt’s fabular first novel, Mr. Chartwell rents a room in a terrace in Battersea from a recently widowed young librarian named Esther Hammerhans: the black dog has business with the widow and with the war-weary Prime Minister. British reviewers have been quite taken with the book’s whimsy and its muscular grappling with the nature of depression—through the stinking, canine bulk of Chartwell himself and the dark philosophy he whispers such that only his intended victim can hear. (Emily W.)
The Illumination: A Novel by Kevin Brockmeier: A new novel from the author of A Brief History of the Dead asks the question: What if our pain is the most beautiful thing about us? On a particular Friday night at 8:17pm, the Illumination commences: wounds and bruises begin to radiate light, to glimmer and shine. The Illumination follows the journey of a private book, a journal of love notes written by a man for his wife. The journal passes into the hands of a hospital patient following a lethal accident, and as it passes from hand to hand—to a data analyst, a photojournalist, a child, a missionary, a writer, a street vendor—the recipients find their lives subtly altered by their possession of the book. (Emily M.)
Portraits of a Marriage by Sándor Márai: Sándor Márai is one of those novelists, like Irène Némirovsky, about whom those of us in the English-speaking community tend to employ words like “discovered,” as if they were an obscure wine of quality unearthed in a Parisian basement. When Márai killed himself in 1989 in San Diego, shortly before his books began being translated to English, it’s true that his status as a great mind of an imperial age was probably unknown to the gang at his local Circle K. However, the (Austro-)Hungarian novelist was one of the premier authors of his milieu–Budapest before World War II–and English readers are the redeemed rather than the redeemers now that we can finally read his beautiful novels. Portraits of a Marriage is a chronicle of a relationship and an era on the way out. (Lydia)
West of Here by Jonathan Evison: Evison’s new novel is the #1 Indie Next pick for February, meaning that independent booksellers across the United States have voted it their favorite of all the books scheduled for publication that month. Set in a fictional town on the Pacific coast of Washington State, West of Here moves back and forth in time between the stories of the town’s founders in the late 1890s, and the lives of their descendants in 2005. It’s a structure that allows for a remarkably deep sense of history and place, and Evison handles the sweeping scope of his narrative masterfully. (Emily M.)
The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale: In this buzzed-about debut novel from Twelve Books, the eponymous hero is a chimpanzee who has learned to speak, read, and enjoy the visual arts, among other human endeavors. There is apparently interspecies love (and sex!) in the book, and the jacket copy declares that it goes beyond satire “…by showing us not what it means, but what it feels like be human — to love and lose, learn, aspire, grasp, and, in the end, to fail.” A bookseller at legendary West Hollywood indie bookstore Book Soup has raved to me about the novel’s inventiveness and its beautiful, beautiful prose. (Edan)
Other People We Married by Emma Straub: This debut collection of stories is one of the first books being printed by FiveChapters Books, the new publishing imprint of the popular website FiveChapters, which publishes a story a week in five installments. Straub inaugurated the New Novella series for Flatmancrooked Press with her much-praised novella, Fly-Over State, and she proved that with the internet and some good old fashioned charm, an unknown author can sell books and win hearts. Straub’s new book includes that novella as well as eleven other stories. Straub has been compared to Lorrie Moore for her humor and playful wit, and Moore herself has called this debut collection, “A revelation.” (Edan)
The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books edited by C. Max Magee and Jeff Martin: Yes, there’s certainly a conflict of interest in naming my book one of the year’s most anticipated, but what’s the point of having a website if I can’t use it to self-promote? And anyway, if my co-editor Jeff and I had an ideal reader in mind when we put together this collection, it was the Millions reader, passionate about books and reading and thoughtful about the future of this pastime as it intersects with the onslaught of technology. The essays we managed to gather here are illuminating, entertaining, funny, and poignant, and taken together they form a collection that is (dare I say) essential for the reader and writer invested in books at this critical and curious moment in their long history. Along with appearances by Millions staffers Garth Risk Hallberg, Emily St. John Mandel, and Sonya Chung and an introduction by me and my co-editor, this collection includes pieces by Jonathan Lethem, Reif Larsen, Elizabeth Crane Victor LaValle, Ander Monson, Tom Piazza, Lauren Groff, Benjamin Kunkel, Clancy Martin, Joe Meno, Rivka Galchen, and several others. All you technophiles: Consider making this the last physical book you ever buy. All you technophobes: This might be a good candidate for the first ebook you ever own. (Max)
You Think That’s Bad by Jim Shepard: Jim Shepard will once again dazzle us with his talent for universalizing the highly particular. According to the publisher, the stories in this new collection, like those of his National Book Award nominated Like You’d Understand Anyway, “traverse centuries, continents, and social strata,” featuring, among others, an Alpine researcher, a French nobleman’s manservant, a woman traveling the Arabian deserts to track an ancient Shia sect, and the inventor of the Godzilla epics. Further, Shepard culls “the vastness of experience—from its bizarre fringes and breathtaking pinnacles to the mediocre and desperately below average.” Easier said than done, and Shepard is a master. One of the stories, “Boys Town,” appeared in the November 10 issue of the New Yorker. (Sonya)
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht: Of all The New Yorker’s choices for the “20 Under 40” list, none was more surprising than Obreht, the youngest on the list and the only author chosen who had not yet published a book. That changes in March with the publication of her debut novel The Tiger’s Wife. The novel follows a young doctor, Natalia, as she travels to a war-torn Balkan country to work at an orphanage. But Natalia is also in search of answers – specifically, what happened to her grandfather, who has died recently. With blurbs from T.C. Boyle, Ann Patchett, and recent National Book Award winner Colum McCann already secured, expectations are high for this literary debut. (Patrick)
At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing from Library of America edited by George Kimball and John Schulian: Boxing writing inhabits a curious niche, resting at the juncture of sports journalism and noir. Perhaps “resting” is the wrong word, as the genre’s best examples rush toward victory or loss; even away from the arena, motion remains the thing. In a recent Irish Times article, Kimball described a 1954 John Lardner piece as At the Fights’ “cornerstone,” and delivered its opening line: “Stanley Ketchel was 24 years old when he was fatally shot in the back by the common-law husband of the lady who was cooking his breakfast.” Also on the card: Talese, Mailer, Mencken, and many, many others. (Jacob)
Unfamiliar Fishes by Sarah Vowell: “I’m better with dead people… than the living,” claims Sarah Vowell, only half joking. Her books often deal with historical figures, in most cases, long-dead and overlooked. In Assassination Vacation she chronicled her travels while researching the murders of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley. Details such as Garfield’s assassin bursting into song during trial coated the history lessons with a good dose of social intrigue. Vowell’s latest, Unfamiliar Fishes, was borne out of a fascination with American Imperialism in 1898, a year when the U.S, annexed Hawaii, invaded Cuba and the Philippines, and acquired Guam and Puerto Rico. Vowell follows the Americanization of Hawaii from its first missionary settlers to the overthrow of its monarchy and later annexation. A quote exemplary of Vowell’s humor, to prep you for reading: “They still love their last queen, celebrate her birthday, drape her statue with leis. It can be a traditional, reverent place. And I am a smart-alecky libertine.” (Anne)
Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews by Geoff Dyer: Dyer has a gained a reputation as one of our most inventive essayists (not to mention novelists). Dyer delights in bending genres and subverting expectations, and covering a 25-year span, this collection will likely showcase Dyer’s impressive range. The book, published by indie Graywolf, appears to have at least some overlap with a British collection that came out last year under the title Working the Room. The Guardian called Dyer “the most productive of slackers” and described the British collection as seeming to be “constructed as a vague quest. You move through the unusually lit rooms of the author’s fascinations.” (Max)
All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: When a new story collection arrives from an elder master, one is eager to know the balance of “new” versus “selected,” who has done the selecting, and by what criteria. But Random House has revealed little as of yet. We do know that six of the stories have never before appeared in book form; the title story appeared in the winter ’09 issue of the Kenyon Review. Doctorow is the author of 11 novels, and I for one hate to think the release of this collection signals a denouement in his novel production. On January 6, Doctorow turns 80 – happy birthday, ELD; may this be a productive year for you, for all our sakes. (Sonya)
Pym by Mat Johnson: Eager readers of Edgar Allan Poe, having dispatched his short stories may have then turned to his hauntingly weird novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. As I noted a few years back, the book has been an inspiration for generations of adventure and science-fiction writers and has maintained a cultish allure to this day. It is into this milieu that Johnson’s Pym arrives. Johnson wrote a pair of well regarded literary novels in the early part of last decade, turned to comics, and is now returning novels with this tale of a literature professor obsessed with the Pym tale, believing it to be true, and tracing the the journey of the doomed sailor to see what secrets might be unlocked. (Max)
Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin: The scenes of sodomy between Stalin and Krushchev in Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Blue Lard incurred charges of pornography and sparked protests, which included protestors wearing latex gloves while tossing flowers and copies of Sorokin’s books into a papier mâché toilet. Another novel of Sorokin’s (The Norm) depicts a Russian society where coprophagy is a la mode and only outcasts and outsiders refuse to partake. Needless to say, Sorokin’s fiction isn’t restrained in its critique of contemporary Russian society. His commentary continues in his latest novel, Day of the Oprichnik, where the ruling classes incorporate futuristic technology alongside the governing strategies of Ivan the Terrible. As Sorokin describes: “I just imagined what would happen to Russia if it isolated itself completely from the Western world–that is, if it erected a new Iron Curtain…. This would mean that Russia would be overtaken by its past, and our past would be our future.” (Anne)
This Vacant Paradise by Victoria Patterson: Victoria Patterson follows her acclaimed debut story collection Drift with a novel – her first – set in the posh environs of 1990s Newport Beach, California. As the title suggests, Patterson’s novel promises a social critique of the often vapid, money-laden 90s. It follows the beautiful but aging Esther Wilson as she attempts to navigate life without the aid of a wealthy man on her arm. Drift was a finalist for both the California Book Award and the Story Prize. (Patrick)
The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise by Georges Perec: Georges Perec wrote: “for us, who continue to have to do with a human race that insists on thinking, writing and above all publishing, the increasing size of our libraries tends to become one real problem.” We readers will have to deal with the fortunate burden of clearing shelf-space for another novel by Perec this spring, with the first English translation of The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise. The novel depicts an office underling’s attempts to ingratiate himself to his corporate superiors, while his neuroses expand a la Woody Allen. If Perec’s astutely observed yet darkly comical catalogue of managing directors, magnates, and heads of state in his essay “The Holy of Holies” is any indication, this “account of the office worker’s mindset” will offset the disorder it imposes. (Anne)
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: When David Foster Wallace died in 2008, he left behind a huge, fragmentary manuscript set in and around a Midwestern IRS office and featuring a character named David Wallace. The manuscript, quixotically, takes monotony as its master-trope, much as Infinite Jest used “entertainment.” Since then, Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s real-life editor, has been working to arrange the fragments in book form. Published excerpts of varying degrees of sublimity – reportedly including two stories from Oblivion – offer glimpses of a Jest-like complex of supporting characters. But these beleaguered office workers have more in common with the denizens of the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy sic) than with the Enfield Tennis Academy’s student-athletes. A note, quoted in D.T. Max’s New Yorker piece, hints at the gift Wallace wanted to give his characters: “Bliss – a-second-by-second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious – lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.” For readers still mourning the books he didn’t get to write, may it be so. (Garth)
The Free World: A Novel by David Bezmozgis: Another debut novel from a Twenty-Under-Forty’er, Bezmogis’ The Free World tells the story of three generations of the Krasnansky family as they try to escape Communist Russia for the United States. They are waylaid in Rome where the characters pursue different paths through the underbelly of their adopted city, ultimately bringing them into tension with each other as they grapple with a merciless immigration system and try to decide the family’s fate. (Kevin)
The Great Night by Chris Adrian: Chris Adrian’s last novel, The Children’s Hospital, showed him to be a writer of immense daring, curiosity, and heart. Along with two other books, it earned him a spot (by a whisker – he’s now 40) on The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40 List.” His new book The Great Night, looks back to one of magical realism’s forebears: Shakespeare. It’s a retelling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, set in modern-day San Francisco’s Buena Vista Park. (Garth)
Someday This Will Be Funny by Lynne Tillman: As if the publication of Lynne Tillman’s first book of short stories in nearly ten years–and her first book following her stand-out novel, American Genius: A Comedy–weren’t enough to celebrate, Tillman’s Someday This Will Be Funny also marks the debut of Richard Nash’s new publishing venture, Cursor. If Nash’s reading list, interviews, and speeches are any indication, Cursor will take publishing one giant leap into the future, with Tillman’s book at the forefront. Tillman’s new collection features appearances by Madame Realism, Marvin Gaye, and Clarence Thomas and incorporates epistle, quotation, and haiku as the stories “bounce between lyrical passages of lucid beauty, echoing the scattered, cycling arpeggio of Tillman’s preferred subject: the unsettled mind.” Tillman once said in an interview: “Writers are promiscuous with experience, absolutely.” She’s a woman of her word, and of the word. Hear, hear! (Anne)
Between Parentheses: Essays, Articles and Speeches 1998-2003 by Roberto Bolaño: Anyone who read “Literature + Illness = Illness” or “Myths of Chulu” in last year’s collection The Insufferable Gaucho can attest that a Bolaño essay no more resembles Montaigne than a Bolaño novel resembles Samuel Richardson. Indeed, the closest cousin of Bolaño’s nonfiction may be his fiction, and in some cases it’s hard to tell which is which. Confusion over the genre of the short piece “The Beach” (essay? story?) seems to have been the source of the misconception that Bolaño was a recovering junkie. Either way, though, it’s phenomenal writing – a single, extended, coruscating sentence – and it appears in this Natasha Wimmer translation of a 2004 Anagrama volume, along with 340 other pages of uncollected, unclassifiable Bolaño. (Garth)
The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: Phillips hasn’t quite recaptured the buzz that accompanied Prague his debut novel about expats in Budapest, but this new book just may. “The Tragedy of Arthur” is a fictional (or is it?), lost Shakespeare play about King Arthur and it is accompanied by a long introduction penned by a character (or is it the author?) named Arthur Phillips. Intertextual games ensue. (Max)
The Long Goodbye by Meghan O’Rourke: In another memoir about grief, O’Rourke draws on her dual patrimonies as a poet and cultural critic. The result is a searching account of losing her mother to cancer. O’Rourke finds herself blindsided by her own grief and bewildered by her inability to “share” it. Even as she documents her own feelings, she examines the changing cultural role of grief, and comes to long for the mourning rituals that are even now vanishing. The interplay of the objective and the subjective here speaks to audiences of both Oprah and The New Yorker, where the book was excerpted. (Garth)
The Basement of the Ivory Tower by Professor X: To begin, a short exemplary excerpt from Professor X’s manifesto against higher education for all: “America, ever-idealistic, seems wary of the vocational-education track. We are not comfortable limiting anyone’s options. Telling someone that college is not for him seems harsh and classist and British, as though we were sentencing him to a life in the coal mines. I sympathize with this stance; I subscribe to the American ideal. Unfortunately, it is with me and my red pen that that ideal crashes and burns.” And let me tell you (because I have wielded that red pen and know Professor X’s bloody business: adjuncting and community college teaching) it is a sad, sad world out there in America’s lesser colleges, many as crassly business-minded as Walmart and utterly delighted to have students who aren’t cut out to make the grade. Of course, liberal-minded idealists will object and cry Barbara Covett! at the likes of Professor X, but having been in his trench, I know how deeply painful and demoralizing—and pointless and dishonest—it is to teach college-level curriculum to those who are not equipped for high school: It’s like trying to teach the legless to dance. This is another commentary on the shoddy state of American higher education (see also, most recently, Ed Dante’s “Shadow Scholar” piece at The Chronicle of Higher Ed)—sure to be an incendiary little book. (Emily W.)
The Uncoupling by Meg Wolitzer: Wolitzer’s ninth novel is inspired by Lysistrata, the ancient Greek play wherein the women withhold sex from their menfolk until they agree to end their war. In Wolitzer’s novel, a New Jersey high school puts on a production of the play, and soon, the females in the town lose interest in coupling with their men. The Uncoupling follows Wolitzer’s bestselling novel The Ten Year Nap, about the lives of stay-at-home mothers in New York City, and I hope her latest is as funny, readable and wise as that book was. (Edan)
Fire Season by Philip Connors: This debut nonfiction effort by Connors is an account of his time spent over part of each of the last ten years as a fire lookout in New Mexico in a 7′ x 7′ tower. Connors also happens to be a literary critic and journalist whose writing has been fairly extensively published, including book reviews in the LRB and VQR. Some of his most powerful work has taken the form of diaries, including one in n+1 that recounts his brother’s suicide and another in The Paris Review about life as a fire lookout. The book takes the diary form and expands on it, with five long chapters, each one dedicated to a month he spends in the lookout tower each year. (Max)
My New American Life by Francine Prose: Francine Prose, former National Book Award finalist and prolific producer of novels, short stories, children’s books and nonfiction, will take us on a fictional tour of the bad old days of Bush-Cheney. My New American Life spins around Lula, a 26-year-old Albanian living in New York City on an expiring tourist visa. When she lands a job as a caretaker for a rebellious teenager in suburban New Jersey, she begins to live the American dream — until her brothers show up in a black Lexus SUV, a jarring reminder that family and history are always with us. The novel, according to the publisher’s jacket copy, captures the moment when American “dreams and ideals gave way to a culture of cynicism, lies and fear.” (Bill)
Swim Back to Me by Ann Packer: Ann Packer, who first burst onto the scene in 2002 with her blockbuster debut The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, returns with a fourth book. Kirkus describes it as a novella and five stories in its starred review, while the publisher calls it a collection of narratives framed by two linked novellas. Whichever the case, the collection seems likely to investigate the same avenues of grief that have been a hallmark of her prior, powerful work. (Max)
Bullfighting by Roddy Doyle: The title story of Doyle’s collection appeared in the New Yorker in early 2008 and concerns a collection of middle-aged Irish guys blowing off steam on a guys’ trip to Spain, wives and kids left behind in Dublin. When I traveled to the Mediterranean later that year and saw many a seaside watering hole advertising the “Full English Breakfast,” I thought of this story. (Max)
Nat Tate: An American Artist: 1928-1960 by William Boyd: Boyd, a wonderful author (Any Human Heart, Brazzaville Beach) who for whatever reason doesn’t seem to get much attention outside of prize committees, made culture vultures everywhere feel like complete assholes in 1998, when he carefully constructed and published a life of a fictional American artist who died by suicide at age 32. Enlisting the help of David Bowie, Gore Vidal, and others, Boyd had a number of people who should have known better reminiscing about Tate and lamenting his early death. Evidently a lot more people would have looked a lot more stupid had David Lister (an editor at The Independent who knew about the ruse), not revealed the hoax prematurely. Boyd’s great literary hoax is to be reissued this April. (Lydia)
Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman: A year after the publication of his last novel, The Divine Husband, Francisco Goldman watched his wife of two years, the promising young writer Aura Estrada, die as a result of a freak body-surfing accident. The aftermath sent him back to journalism for a time. Now Goldman has trained his considerable novelistic powers directly on the tragedy of his wife’s death, and on the ineffable continuities among love, grief, and art. (Garth)
There Is No Year by Blake Butler: Butler, one of the minds behind HTML Giant and author of the indie press favorite Scorch Atlas hits the big time with this new novel. The Harper Perennial catalog glosses it as evocative of House of Leaves and the films of David Lynch. A more iconoclastic “20 Under 40” list might have made room for Butler, and as for Harper’s labeling 32-year-ole Butler “one of the voices of his generation,” that may say more about how apocalypse-minded we are these days than it does about Butler. (Max)
Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work edited by Richard Ford: We’ve reminisced in the past about the steady disappearance of the short story anthology. Once common, these pocket-sized wonders now fill shelves at the kind of used bookstore I like to haunt but are rarely seen on the new release table at your local Borders. Still, a timely theme in these economically stagnant times (employment or lack thereof) and the imprimatur of a master of the form, Richard Ford, make this collection worth looking out for. Sure, most if not all of these stories have been previously published in other books, but how nice to have Stuart Dybek, Edward P. Jones, Charles D’Ambrosio, Ann Beattie, Alice Munro, John Cheever, Richard Yates, Deborah Eisenberg, Jhumpa Lahiri, and several others, all thematically linked and between two covers. (Max)
Embassytown by China Mieville Give China Mieville credit for refusing to rest on his laurels. After scoring a major hit with last year’s Kraken, his seventh lushly imagined fantasy novel, Mieville will abandon the world of Bas-Lag and his phantasmagorical London and take his fans someplace altogether different and unexpected. Embassytown, he recently told a Liverpool audience, will contain “science fiction, aliens and spaceships.” The title refers to “a city of contradictions on the outskirts of the universe” where humans and the native Hosts live in uneasy peace. When an unimaginable new arrival hits town, catastrophe looms. Given Mieville’s track record, expect a wild ride. (Bill)
Mondo and Other Stories by J.M.G. Le Clezio: The 2008 Nobel laureate’s large body of work continues to make its way into English. This collection of stories was first published in French in 1978. One of the stories collected here, the atmospheric “The Boy Who Had Never Seen the Sea,” appeared in the New Yorker shortly after Le Clezio’s Nobel win. Like that story, the rest in this collection focus on a child protagonist who seems to see the world through a different set of eyes. (Max)
To Do: A Book of Alphabets and Birthdays by Gertrude Stein: Described as “a fanciful journey through the alphabet” and originally conceived as a children’s book, Stein’s To Do “spiral[ed] out of simple childlike progression, so that by the time she reached the letter H, Henriette de Dactyl, a French typewriter (who exchanges typed messages with Yetta von Blickensdorfer, a German typewriter, and Mr. House, an American typewriter) wants to live on Melon Street and eat radishes, salads, and fried fish, and soup.” Written in 1940, the book was rejected several times by publishers for being too complex for children. A text-only version appeared in 1957 (after Stein’s death) from Yale, and in 2011, the publisher is putting out To Do with Giselle Potter’s illustrations, realizing Stein’s original concept. (Sonya)
Paying for It by Chester Brown: Throughout his twenty-year-long career, Chester Brown has developed a reputation as a wan and fearless confessor, presenting his lapses and failures from a dispassionate remove. Paying For It—subtitled “A Comic-Strip Memoir About Being a John”—may prove to be his most quietly self-lacerating. In exploring his penchant for prostitutes, Paying For It will likely feature little glamour, little boasting, and an understated honesty. Drawn and Quarterly predicts that the book “will be the most talked about graphic novel of 2011,” yet Brown doesn’t seem to relish controversy. When asked in 2004 why he might write so openly about his sex life, he responded, “Because it’s interesting.” (Jacob)
The London Train by Tessa Hadley: Stalwart of the fiction section of The New Yorker, Hadley’s latest is described as a “novel in two parts.” An early review in the Financial Times calls the book “darkly elegant” with “two distinct halves reflecting, enhancing and informing each other. The social and geographical territory is familiar for Hadley, that of the bourgeoisie and their travels (and travails) as they go looping between London and Cardiff.” (Max)
Pulse by Julian Barnes: Barnes’s latest is his third book of short stories. A preview from The Spectator explains the collection’s over-arching theme: “Each character is attuned to a ‘pulse’ – an amalgamation of a life-force and an Aristotelian flaw. They struggle against or thrive upon the submerged currents of life – touched by ambition, sex, love, health, work and death.” (Max)
The Tao of Travel by Paul Theroux: Theroux, the aging, still entertaining rake of the travel writing genre will indulge in a potentially interesting exercise here, collecting “the best writing on travel from the books that shaped him,” from Samuel Johnson, Eudora Welty and Mark Twain to Peter Matthiessen, Pico Iyer, and John McPhee. Cheesy title aside, it certainly sounds like an essential tome for travel writing fans. (Max)
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett: Ann Patchett has fearlessly ignored the admonition to write what you know. Her breakout novel, the intoxicating Bel Canto, centered around opera, Japanese business practices and a hostage situation in a South American embassy. Her new novel, State of Wonder, will have elements that sound similarly abstruse – doctors, medical students, drug development and the Amazon jungle. But at the heart of the novel is an inspiring student-teacher relationship, which, Patchett told an interviewer, is similar to the bond she had with her own writing teachers, Allan Gurganus and the late Grace Paley. “This one was a picnic,” Patchett says of State of Wonder, “because I didn’t have to make everything up wholesale.” (Bill)
The Astral by Kate Christensen The question to ask about Christensen’s next novel is will it deliver up another character on par with Hugo Whittier of The Epicure’s Lament? (“May we all simmer in the dark with such humor and gusto,” Sam Lipsyte wrote of Christensen’s immortal misanthrope.) The Penn-Faulkner Award-winning Christensen’s forthcoming sixth novel promises the story of a successful Brooklyn poet, Harry Quirk, whose marriage is in crisis and whose children have been swept up in cultishness of various kinds (perhaps a sort of Freedom, redux?). As a writer who reliably turns out novels that elicit warm praise from most of her reviewers, expect (at least) a genial, smart, gently satirical tale of the joys and woes of bougie New York life. (Emily W.)
The Curfew by Jesse Ball: What to expect from an author who teaches classes on dreaming, false identities, and lying? If the author is Jesse Ball, then one should expect expectations to be defied, plot summaries to fall short, and critics to use structures to describe the framework of his imaginative plottings (nesting-boxes, Klein bottle, labyrinth). Perhaps the magical realms Ball creates have something to do with his process: “to conjure up a state of affairs–a glimpse of one situated thought, where the situation is all that surrounds it in the mind.” Or with his imaginative approaches to writing, evident in his classes. Ball’s novel The Curfew depicts a father and daughter during wartime, the father risks it all to find his wife and the young daughter imagines her father’s treacherous journey. Expect for this description to only loosely conjure the realms of wonder within. (Anne)
Kurt Vonnegut: Novels & Stories 1963-1973: For those seeking Vonnegut’s aforementioned best, the Library of America will bestow upon him its black-cover treatment, collecting his great early novels (Cat’s Cradle, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, Slaughterhouse-Five, Breakfast of Champions) and stories into one thick volume. In this setting, it will be especially jarring to read Breakfast of Champions, whose “World Classics Library” “published hard-core pornography in Los Angeles, California.” (Jacob)
The Storm at the Door by Stefan Merrill Block: The precocious Block published his first novel at 26. The Story of Forgetting, ambitious but flawed, nonetheless suggested Block might be a name to watch. Sure enough, here he is with a second novel arriving before his 30th birthday. This time around, Block will again take mental illness as a primary theme. (Max)
Lola, California by Edie Meidav: Meidav is a rare thing, a less than well known writer who continues to publish big, dense, challenging novels with a major press. Meidav’s third such effort weighs in at 448 pages and asks “Can an old friend carry in amber the person you were going to become?” Should Meidav be better known? Almost definitely. (Max)
Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell: A 2009 National Book Award nod (for her collectionAmerican Salvage) landed Campbell on the radar of many a reader. Her backcountry fiction focuses on rural characters, meth-cookers, and bad jobs or none at all, all shot through with redemption and compassion. This new novel, which Campbell says has been in the works for more than four years, sounds like something of a modern-day Huck Finn, following a sixteen-year-old girl who takes to the Stark River in search of her vanished mother. (Max)
Estonia: A Ramble Through the Periphery by Alexander Theroux: In his one-of-a-kind Year in Reading piece, Theroux mentioned being this year “in the outback of frozen Estonia where I was not only writing a book but, as a kind of project, undertaking a private study of St. Paul and his life.” The book in question was this title, forthcoming from Fantagraphics. The book emerges from Theroux’s time spent in the former Soviet republic while his wife was on a Fulbright Scholarship. Ever observant, Theroux uses Estonia and its people as a lens through which to look back at America. (Max)
The Devil All the Time by Donald Ray Pollock: Former meatpacker and paper mill employee Pollock’s debut story collection Knockemstiff was a favorite amongst indie booksellers, landed on both Amazon and Publishers Weekly’s lists of best books of the year, and garnered the following enigmatic praise from the LA Times “a powerful, remarkable, exceptional book that is very hard to read.” According to his blog, Pollock’s debut novel is set in the 50s and 60s and “centers on the convergent lives of a tough but morally-upright young man from Ohio, a pair of serial killers who prey on hitchhikers, and an itinerant, spider-handling preacher and his crippled guitar virtuoso accompanist.” Naturally. (Patrick)
House of Holes: A Book of Raunch by Nicholson Baker: There’s very little info out there on Baker’s forthcoming novel, aside from some Twitter-excitement, including, “I don’t think it’s about poems” (McNally Jackson Bookstore) and “Back to Fermata territory?” (Ed Champion). So fans of Baker’s earlier (erotic) novels may be in for a treat. At Amazon, the description reads: “a gleefully provocative, off-the-charts sex novel that is unlike anything you’ve read.” (Sonya)
Night Film by Marisha Pessl: My first impression of Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics was clouded by the many, many stunned reviewers who could not help but mention Pessl’s beauty, often in the first paragraph of their reviews. (Indeed, it has been said that her picture was removed from advance copies of the novel to avoid just this.) Fortunately for those who do not choose books based on the bangability of their authors, while Ms. Pessl is hot, her prose is, by most assessments, hotter. Whether or not you liked Special Topics, you have to admit that the babe-authoress created one of the most startlingly distinctive fictional voices of recent years in Blue van Meer, the heroine-narrator of Pessl’s academic novel qua murder mystery (Oh, the breathtaking allusiveness! Ah, the witty figurative language—almost exhausting in its inventiveness!). My fear for Night Film—according to Pessl’s agent, “a psychological thriller about obsession, family loyalty and ambition set in raw contemporary Manhattan”—is that without Blue, Pessl’s nothing. Can she–could anyone (think Jonathan Safran Foer after Everything Is Illuminated)–generate another voice as distinct and scintillating as Blue’s? (Emily W.)
Lights Out in Wonderland by DBC Pierre: After the curious panic surrounding 2003’s Vernon God Little (“It’s sort of about Columbine!” “He’s not even from here!” “It won all kindsa prizes!”), Australia’s DBC Pierre faded from American minds. Three years later, his Ludmilia’s Broken English failed to gain traction, and it seems a sensible bet that Lights Out In Wonderland—another scattershot soap-box rant—will continue the downward trend. But as Lights Out is a foggy howl against the global market (“My hair crests over my head like the dying wave of capitalism,” reads one unfortunate simile), Pierre shouldn’t get too upset if units fail to move. (Jacob)
Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar: Hisham Matar, author of In the Country of Men, is the child of Libyan parents. In 1990, the novelist’s father Jaballa Matar was kidnapped in Cairo and extradited to Tripoli as a political dissident. Since then, his family has endured a special hell of loss and uncertainty–scant news punctuating long periods of silence–which Hisham Matar described in a haunting piece for the Gaurdian last January. His novel, due in August, is about a missing father, and will presumably draw upon Matar’s experience as the child of someone disappeared. (Lydia)
Beijing Welcomes You by Tom Scocca: Slate blogger and former New York Observer Editor Scocca chronicles his years spent in Beijing, observing a city and a culture moving into the global spotlight. The book examines the Chinese capital on the cusp of its global moment, tracking its history and exploring its singular character. Since Scocca lived in Beijing in the middle of the last decade, one can assume the buildup to the 2008 Beijing Olympics figures prominently in the text. Assuming Scocca brings his typical insightful and sometimes scathing perspective (witness his epic takedown of The New Yorker for publishing Dave Eggers’s The Wild Things excerpt which ran two years ago at The Awl), Beijing Welcomes You promises to offer astute cultural observation on a culture Americans would do well to observe. (Patrick)
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami: Murakami’s three volume stemwinder came out in Japan in 2009 and sold out its first printing in a day. The first two volumes will appear in the US this fall and fervor among English-speaking Murakamians is already building. The alpha-numeric title is a play on Orwell’s 1984 – in Japanese the letter Q is a homophonic with the number 9 – and the book’s plot (which was a tightly guarded secret prior to its Japanese release) concerns two characters, a PE teacher and a writer, who become involved in a religious cult through which they create “a mysterious past, different than the one we know.” (Kevin)
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach: In the Winter issue of n+1, Harbach published a provocative piece suggesting two paths for the novelist: MFA vs. NYC. Who needs the former, when you can ride the latter to a half-million dollar advance? Insiders have, predictably, likened Harbach’s treatment of a baseball team at a Wisconsin liberal arts college – presumably as a lens through which to view the American scene and the human condition – to the aforementioned Enfield Tennis Academy. (Garth)
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright: Enright, winner of The Booker Prize for the international bestseller The Gathering, explores a woman’s affair and her relationship with her lover’s young daughter. (Max)
Parallel Stories by Péter Nadas: Péter Nádas’ A Book of Memories might just be the best novel published in the ’80s, and Imre Goldstein’s translation into English of its massive successor would, in a just world, be the publishing event of the fall. Nádas is, simply put, a master. The freedom with which he combines the diverse idioms of realism, modernism, and postmodernism can only come from decades of discipline. More importantly – as a recent excerpt in The Paris Review illustrates – he generates a continuous, Proustian intensity of feeling and perception – psychological, philosophical, and physical. This three-volume work, structured as a set of braided short stories, tracks two families, one Hungarian and one German, across many decades. Readers looking for a fuller preview might consult Hungarian Literature Online, or Deborah Eisenberg’s appreciation in The New York Review of Books. (Garth)
Unknown (fall and beyond):
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: Described by Chee – a Whiting Award and NEA Fellowship recipient, currently a Visiting Professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop — as a kind of “historical fairy tale,” Queen is set in the time of the Second Empire (1852-70), in Paris. Chee’s first novel, Edinburgh, focused on a young boy’s surviving pedophilia. “The Queen of the Night sort of picks up in some ways from where Edinburgh leaves off,” Chee said in an interview, “in the sense that it is about a young woman who believes her voice is cursed, and if she uses it, terrible things will happen. And then she does, and they do. And she tries to put it right as best she can.” (Sonya)
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the reigning bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence, but it does feature a “sickly old tortoise” named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. “If people really think that (this is plagiarism),” Houellebecq sniffed, “then they haven’t the first notion what literature is.” Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory has just been awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. (Bill)
The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: Shriver apparently finished a draft of The New Republic in 1998. After six well-regarded but commercially ignored novels, she couldn’t find a buyer for this story of “cults of personality and terrorism” and was about to give up fiction-writing altogether. Flash forward a dozen years: Shriver is an Orange Prize winner, a National Book Award finalist, and has sold over a million copies worldwide. She has been fêted by…er…The New Republic, and hailed in these pages as “America’s Best Writer.” Also: terrorism and cults of personality are very much on people’s minds. Maybe this will be the book that lands her on the cover of Time. (Garth)
Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Viewed from afar, Levin’s first novel, The Instructions, looked, for good and ill – mostly for good – like a kind of apotheosis of the McSweeney’s house style: playful, inventive, funny-melancholic, youth-focused. However, it also possessed a couple of attributes that set it apart from other titles on the McSweeney’s list. One was its dialectical genius; another was the ferocity of its anger at the way the world is (which elsewhere in McSweeneydom often gets sublimated into melancholy). Though Levin wears his influences on his sleeve, his sensibility is utterly distinctive, and almost fully formed. Look for the stories in the follow-up, Hot Pink, to be formally audacious, occasionally adolescent, but always bracing in their passion. (Garth)
The Unfolding Haggadah by Jonathan Safran Foer with Nathan Englander: The only evidence of what this might be comes from Tablet where an essay by Judith Shulevitz includes a note about this title in the author’s bio. An anthology it is then. And with Foer and Englander at the helm, this is one to keep on the radar. (Max)
Four Selected Titles with UK publication dates but no US date yet:
Dante in Love by A. N. Wilson: Later this year, English biographer and critic A.N. Wilson comes out with Dante in Love, a study of the Florentine poet that, confusingly, shares a title with a 2005 book about Dante written by Harriet Rubin. Wilson’s book will, one imagines, address Dante’s exile, Beatrice, Guelphs, Ghibellines, and so on; his perspective as a very public defector from and subsequent re-convert to Christianity might bring new insight to this well-trod territory (then again, it might not). (Lydia)
River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh
King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher
The Stranger’s Child by Alan Hollinghurst
So, which of these books are you most looking forward to and which great new books did we neglect to include?
Like any number of people who love fiction, I tend to re-read my favorite books. It is not, however, common for me to read the same book twice in one year, and yet this year I’ve read two books twice—Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities and Adam Novy’s The Avian Gospels. I want to say that these books remind a reader that his life is fleeting, that he’ll be separated from everything he loves pretty soon, that he’ll disappear forever and rot and be forgotten, but I worry that might sound like overstatement (if not—ick—oversharement), or, even worse, that it might lead you, the Millions visitor, fellow lover of fiction, to assume the books are unfun reads, when, in fact, they are playful and joy-bringing. What reminds you you’ll die is their in-your-face aliveness, their assured immortality.
Novy’s The Avian Gospels is a novel in two short volumes about a foreign boy in an unnamed city-state that borders Hungary and Oklahoma. The city-state is run by a despot, its local Gypsies invent first- and second-wave ska, the boy falls in love with the despot’s daughter, and when a plague of birds descends upon all of them, only the boy and his father (who are much at odds) can protect the city-state from total destruction, for the boy and his father can both control birds. Just to be clear: the foregoing two sentences contain no spoilers. All I’ve described is in play by page 20. Did I mention this novel’s really funny? It’s funny in the way Blood Meridian is funny, and American Tabloid, and In the Penal Colony.
The only kind of book that’s harder for me to describe than a good collection of short stories, is a great collection of short stories, and Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities is a great collection of short stories. As in Wallace’s Girl With Curious Hair, Salinger’s Nine Stories, and Hannah’s Airships, the subject matter in The Awful Possibilities varies widely, piece to piece. There’s the story about the girl who’s kidnapped by kidney thieves, the one about suburban hardcore rappers, the motivational-speaker-who-needs-a-new-wallet story, and the set of instructions for abusing your child that’s told by….See? It’s hard. I’m having a hard time. I’m doing TeBordo’s work very little justice—about as much justice as I’d be doing Mark Twain’s if, in summarizing Huckleberry Finn, I said no more than, “It’s a book about this kid.” I’m thinking that the only hope I have of even beginning to get across how stellar the experience of reading The Awful Possibilities is, is to give you the beginning of The Awful Possibilities, then get out of the way and say goodnight:
Imagine you’re planning your own school shooting. Imagine you have good reasons, and it’s none of that I-play-too-many-video-games-and-listen-to-Marilyn-Manson-because-no-one-likes-me bullshit. You’re in tenth grade and you do okay in classes and you’ve got plenty of friends for what it’s worth but it’s not worth much to you. You live in Brooklyn. Brooklyn, Iowa. There are no Jews in Brooklyn, Iowa. Keep that in mind.
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If you have not been paying attention to trends in grade school pedagogy over the last couple decades, the first thing you should know is this: The way public school students—and particularly those in low-performing, low-income districts—are taught to understand books looks little like the way most readers of this site, myself included, probably learned themselves.
The changes have occurred in two somewhat contradictory directions. Instruction today is both more progressive and child-centered—where literacy instructors are discouraged from assigning one-size-fits-all whole class novels and students are expected to be given maximum freedom to choose books that they’re interested in—and more rote—where students are drilled in the practice of a dozen or so “reading skills” that attempt to teach comprehension as a stepwise process similar to multiplying fractions or performing long division. My own view of this approach—which goes by the term “balanced literacy”—was conceived during two years teaching sixth grade literacy in the Bronx, NY, and it evolved from a dim initial reading to the more favorable opinion I hold today.
The skills taught in balanced literacy are by themselves entirely uncontroversial. Students are expected to be able to read a text and perform these mental operations: summarizing, generalizing, drawing conclusions, making inferences, identifying main ideas and supporting details, making connections between the text and their own lives, identifying the author’s purpose, analyzing poetic devices like simile and personification, and recognizing point of view. These are the modes of thinking that all literate adults apply when they read (and when they think about complex information in any setting) and the question is not whether students should be able to make generalizations, but rather whether explicitly teaching students what generalizations are and how to perform them is the best way to inculcate a skill that is as much an art as a science, and which many readers of this site probably learned osmotically, in the same way that they learned language.
A main indictment of skill-based instruction is that it takes something like reading which should be wide-open, joyful and curious and turns it into a drab mechanistic procedure. This is the view that the educational historian Diane Ravitch has come to. In her latest book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, she cites the work of two researchers who have questioned the wisdom of attempting to bring lagging students up to grade level through explicit instruction in how to think:
“We have to consider the possibility that all the attention we are asking students to pay to their use of skills and strategies and to their monitoring of these strategies may turn relatively simple and intuitive tasks into introspective nightmares.” They suggested that “what really determines the ability to comprehend anything is how much one already knows about the topic under discussion in a text.”
From the time I began teaching in 2003 until quite recently this about summed up my view of skill-based instruction. My critique was buttressed with arguments similar to the ones above, but really it was rooted in my own education as a reader: I had never been taught how to generalize or to draw conclusions; those skills had come as a matter of course through repeated encounters reading, talking, writing and thinking about books.
Recently, though, I had the opportunity to write a reading curriculum for a well-regarded urban charter school and my thinking about skill-based instruction began to change. The curriculum typified the pedagogical approach critiqued by Ravitch: It was skills-based, attuned to the dictates of standardized tests, and it de-prioritized any specific content choices in favor of what could be termed “ways of thinking” about books. The more I delved into breaking down and sequencing the skills, however, the less I came to view them as “relatively simple” operations that amounted to droll fodder for standardized tests, and the more I thought of them as a high-stakes crash course in how to think that, when looked at in the right light, was more thrilling than just about anything I ever learned in middle school.
Take summarizing, for example, which would seem to be as vanilla a skill as there is. To disprove the contention that knowing how to summarize comes naturally, all you need to do is ask a typical ten-year-old to distill the movie he saw over the weekend. What you’ll get is a blow-by-blow of the plot that’s longer than the movie itself. This is where the work of teaching a child how to think comes in: How do you weigh information as more or less important? What aspects of the characters, the setting, and the overall theme should be woven in among the plot, and at what point in the sequence of the summary should they be included? These are plain questions, maybe, but they also cut to the heart of the challenge of making sense of information in any situation—and even as an adult I find that I could be better at it when narrating my weekend to my brother or telling a friend about a book I just finished.
Or take the skill of generalizing. Even if asked to make generalizations about a topic I know as well as any in the world—the members of my own family—it would still take me some time to get my bearings. I’d start with a surface generalization like “we all live in the northeast” and try to make my way to more substantive insights. I’d say “we all like adventures”—except that then I’d think that maybe my sister doesn’t—and then I’d think she’d object to being labeled that way, so maybe either my definition of adventuresome or my assessment of her is off. There’s no end to the way you can slice a topic, define essential qualities or sift for similarities, and there are no hard and fast rules for when degrees of difference turn a generalization into an overgeneralization. We all know how to generalize in the same way that we all know how to run—but can we leap hurdles, run a marathon, and launch our minds twenty feet through the air? It’s not unreasonable to expect that students will need some help figuring out how to do these things on their own.
Ravitch’s argument says that the ability to apply comprehension skills depends largely on familiarity with the underlying topic—if I knew my family members better, the connections among them would be self-evident. This is true to a point. You obviously can’t generalize about 19th-century American literature unless you’ve read a lot of it, but familiarity alone is not going to teach a student how to look for the less-obvious threads that tie Moby-Dick, Leaves of Grass, and Huck Finn together.
Like most dichotomies that crop up around a topic as complex and difficult as teaching kids how to read, the “skills vs. content” divide is a false one. Students who have fallen off of grade level pace usually want for both, and it doesn’t make sense to try and teach one without the other. But neither does it make sense to take comprehension skills—which is really just a euphemism for sophisticated thinking—for granted.
Gene Luen Yang, at 36, is not too much younger than the figures in our pop culture – think Margaret Cho and Lucy Liu – who have forced a re-examination of the Asian immigrant’s negotiation with the American landscape. But between Quentin Tarantino’s loving fetishization of Japan in Kill Bill and Cho’s jokes about her childhood dreams of growing up to play a Vietnamese hooker in movies, Yang’s celebrated graphic novel American Born Chinese (2006) served as a much-needed exploration of the dilemma that has faced the Asian-American as it has every minority. The book interweaved three stories: an adaptation of a Chinese classic, Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century novel Journey to the West which featured the famous Monkey King; an ’80s sitcom parody featuring a horrendous Asian-American stereotype named Chin-Kee; and a more straightforward tale of a Chinese-American adolescent who balances a friendship with a recent Chinese immigrant and his infatuation with a white girl at his school.
Yang’s work has become a little more funny and a little more sad. This year he has come out with two books. The Eternal Smile, which he wrote and Derek Kirk Kim illustrated, collects three stories about simulations and dreams. The title piece is a fascinating amalgamation of Don Rosa’s “Scrooge McDuck” comics and The Truman Show. Prime Baby, a piece that originally appeared in the New York Times Magazine, is a comedy about the narcissism of childhood.
I met Yang in Minneapolis on June 18 where he was in town to give a few talks. Yang lives with his wife and three small children in San Jose, where he grew up, and where he teaches high school computer science. We spoke about his Catholicism and his childhood as the son of Taiwanese immigrants. He is a polite and relaxed interviewee.
The Millions: In American Born Chinese, but also in your other books, there’s a strong preoccupation with very outmoded Asian stereotypes like the Fu Manchu mustache in Prime Baby or Chin-Kee in American Born Chinese. When you were growing up there were certainly Asian stereotypes on television and in American popular culture but they had changed at that point. It was no longer Fu Manchu or Chin-Kee, it was more likely to be the very wise Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid or the really smart invention nerd in Goonies. So why are you more preoccupied with stereotypes from your parents’ or grandparents’ generation and not with stereotypes that you were growing up with at the time?
Gene Luen Yang: The way Chin-Kee looks I pull from old sources. I pull from political cartoons around the turn-of-the-century, with the queue and the clothes. But for his words and his actions, I really pull from sources from the ’80s all the way up to the present day. I grew up around the time of John Hughes and Long Duk Dong…from Sixteen Candles. Long Duk Dong is really into these white girls, which is why I have Chin-Kee really into Melanie here. [opens copy of American Born Chinese and points to scene.] And then later on [turns page] in the cafeteria scene, right here, he pees in somebody’s Coke. That was something I grew up with. “Me Chinese. Me play joke. Me go pee pee in your Coke.” Right here, he’s offering his cousin a bite of crispy-fried cat gizzards with noodles. Now that phrase, “crispy-fried cat gizzards with noodles” I pulled from a political cartoon from 2001.
TM: Really? Where was that cartoon?
GLY: It was actually a Pat Oliphant cartoon. When I saw it I was really mad. So that’s why I made a reference to Pat Oliphant here. I named the high school after him. And then the address of the school, that’s actually when the cartoon was published. It was published in April 9 of 2001. It was during the Chinese spy plane crisis. So he does this cartoon where Uncle Sam goes to this Chinese restaurant and he’s served a plate with crispy-fried cat gizzards with noodles. And this Chinese waiter is buck-toothed and slant-eyed and he spills these noodles all over Uncle Sam and Uncle Sam gets mad and goes out in a huff. It’s supposed to be this commentary on the Chinese spy plane crisis at the time.
I just feel we know when we see someone in a queue with buckteeth and super slanted eyes that that’s supposed to be outdated. Right? But then a lot of these sorts of things keep popping up in our culture. Just because it’s not wearing a queue we don’t recognize it as coming from the same source.
TM: So the idea was to make it so obviously racist by using racist images for the past to express the racism that is still prevalent in more subtle ways.
I make a reference to William Hung here. [turns to page where Chin-Kee sings “She Bangs”] Now William Hung is a very controversial character within Asian-American communities. He’s very divisive. Some people look at him and say, “Here’s this guy who’s actually very brave. He completely has no singing talent at all. But he’s very brave to get out there and try. And that’s why he’s so celebrated.” But there are other folks in the Asian-American community that feel like, “The reason why he got so popular is that [in] his performance – a performance that got circulated on YouTube – he really embodies a lot of these stereotypes. He’s awkward. He doesn’t have great teeth. He speaks with an accent.”
TM: It’s like an Asian Sambo.
GLY: He’s a stereotypical Asian guy trying to be the “American Idol.” And just as we find monkeys in tuxedos funny because monkeys don’t belong in tuxedos, maybe we find this stereotypical Asian guy funny because Asians don’t belong on “American Idol.” I don’t feel like there’s a solid interpretation, but I do think that’s worth exploring.
TM: When I was in college I read the Arthur Waley translation of Monkey. It’s a bloodless translation. I hope someone does a better one. The proper title is Journey to the West. For Americans, if they know the story, they know it through the Arthur Waley translation. In China, I know that story is so popular now that a lot of people don’t even read the original text. They know the story through cartoons and comics. It’s the same way most Americans know the story of Huck Finn and Jim not through reading Huckleberry Finn but just through the way the characters of Huck Finn and Jim have appeared in our culture. Were you looking at comic book or cartoon interpretations from China of the Monkey story when you went about creating your own interpretation?
GLY: I was. I read the Waley translation. There’s a middle grade translation called Monkey by this guy named David Kherdian that reads a lot better. It’s meant for middle grade kids so it’s a lot more exciting and accessible. And I think in spirit at least it captures the original stories a little bit better, even if the Waley translation is more accurate.
I was really intimidated, to be honest, by the cartoon adaptations I saw. In China – not just in China, in Asia – everybody has done something with the Monkey King. Osamu Tezuka did something with the Monkey King. There’s so many Monkey King comics that he’s almost a genre in and of himself. So, for me, my main focus was trying to do something that hadn’t been done with him before. So originally, when I was thinking about doing a Monkey King comic, it wasn’t connected to the Asian-American experience at all. I just wanted to do a straight Monkey King adaptation. But after seeing so many brilliantly done straight adaptations in Asia I felt that I had to do something that none of those Asian artists could do. And that was [to] use the story to talk about the Asian-American experience.
TM: in the Monkey King chapters in the book you seem to meld the story with a Marvel Comics-style storytelling. Was that conscious?
GLY: I think that’s just sort of in my subconscious because I grew up reading that stuff. So anytime you get into the more adventure-y I think of it in a superhero way.
TM: I was surprised by some of the racism you depict in American Born Chinese because of your age and your place in San Francisco. I have this image of San Francisco being a very liberal place that has long had Asians.
GLY: In San Francisco that’s definitely true. I grew up a little bit further from San Francisco, in the suburbs of San Jose. As I was growing up there was this transition in the community. When we moved in, it was a big deal. My mom went to the school and asked for a list of the other Chinese families that were at the school. And there were two. And then we actually went and made house calls to them, to introduce ourselves. Nowadays in the same community that’s weird. You would be acting like a freak.
TM: You don’t explore this in your books, but I am curious to know how it worked out in your own life. We always say Asian-American, but of course, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai…these are all extremely different cultures.
GLY: Yeah they are.
TM: And when they came to America they were all extremely different cultures.
GLY: And they were all extremely antagonistic towards each other. Especially the Japanese and the Chinese.
TM: You don’t really explore that in your book, but did you see that in your own life growing up?
GLY: I guess I saw it in a certain way. Junior high is when I experienced the most virulent racism. Just because I think junior high brings out the jerk in people.
TM: It’s a nasty time.
GLY: Yeah, generally nice people in normal life are really mean in junior high. That’s true for me and that’s true for other people I went to school with. So I experienced the most virulent racism in junior high. And that’s when I started hanging out with primarily Asian kids too. My closest group of friends were all Asian. And there are different Asians. There are Korean and Chinese and Japanese. So at the time it wasn’t a conscious choice but now looking back on it as an adult I do think that we sort of bonded because the folks who were taunting us didn’t really make distinctions between Japanese and Chinese. I was just as likely to be called a nip as I was a chink. Because we were treated the same we bonded together over that. But at the same time I think there was a difference when we got together outside of school. So outside of school sometimes we would get together with our families and at that point the Japanese and the Chinese sort of had this split.
TM: There are strong themes in American Born Chinese of self-hatred and seeing yourself as ugly because you don’t fit into the dominate racial category. I did have a sense in the way you drew the Asian protagonist and the white characters that you didn’t draw the white guys to look particularly beautiful, and the Asian guy was not drawn to be particularly ugly. There were similarities in the shape of the characters’ faces. Were you drawing everyone similarly to make a point?
GLY: I think it’s partially from my own limited cartooning skills. And I think it’s inherent within the nature of comics to simplify. So I think that plays a part in it as well.
I can’t cartoon ugly very well. I have a sort of a cutsiness to my drawing. It’s not a conscious choice. It’s just there.
TM: You just automatically go cute.
GLY: Well, I grew up wanting to be a Disney animator. So early on that’s just what I looked at and that’s how I tried to draw. Even when I got off of that, it’s still sort of there.
TM: Is that partly where the interest in the racist cartoons come from? Pretty much everything Disney films did up until the mid-’90s…
GLY: Had that component. Well, I wasn’t aware of it when I was little. It all came out of my college experience. That’s when I started thinking about culture and religion.
TM: Were you taking classes there that were pointing these things out?
GLY: I took sociology classes. One of the things that happened in college is that it was the first time that I was in a setting where I was part of a majority.
TM: Because Berkeley is one third Asian.
GLY: Yeah, and within the circles that I ran in – I was an engineering major – it was like all Asians. And I remember being really conscious that something was different. I really felt a confidence that I never felt before. It wasn’t something that I chose. It was just something that happened.
TM: There’s a religious angle in The Eternal Smile. It starts with a lot of Christian evangelical influences, but it seems to descend to more Asian religious influences. More Tao. This is the way. He will descend and connect with nature. Were you thinking that at all?
GLY: I do think the Christianity I experienced was definitely Asian-tinged. There was a lot of talk about “emptying yourself.” But the way it was expressed is that you empty yourself to make room for the spirit of God, as opposed to emptying yourself for the sake of emptying yourself. But there was this sort of talk. I remember my mom would come home from these Catholic retreats with these pictorial representations of Buddha’s journey. Because they would talk about them both together. I think it’s just part of how I understand religion. I don’t think it was necessarily something bad.
TM: Did you see anything sinister when your priest was telling everyone ways in which Jesus was just like Buddha or Confucius?
GLY: They never said “just like.” They definitely never said “just like.” They did talk about similarities. They did talk about Buddha as a starting point. Things like that. The priests, when I was growing up, the vast majority of them were Chinese. A lot of the impetus for faith for a lot of the folks in that community was a response to communism, or at least a response to their experience of communism. The priests I grew up with had been locked up for 25, 30 years. They were in labor camps and that sort of thing. Their faith was a way of expressing something about the value of human life. That’s what they were attracted to and that’s what they held onto.
TM: Prime Baby I thought was a hilarious piece at times. One thing you don’t see in comics or a lot of other things is kids who are absolute jerks. You see it on “South Park.” But in “South Park” it’s so over the top you can’t believe it. Eric Cartman is like a Nazi. Kids aren’t Nazis but they are disgusting in other ways. The protagonist of Prime Baby is such an awful little child, but you can’t stop loving this kid. Were you looking at yourself at eight-years-old and angry at the kind of kid you might have been, but still presenting him with a certain degree of affection?
GLY: His voice was very clear in my head and I don’t know why. Derek [Kirk Kim] has told me that he thinks that out of all the characters I have written Thaddeus is most like me. (laughs). I don’t know how to take that. The story itself was inspired by what I was seeing at home. I have this boy. He’s six-years-old now. And I also have two daughters now. But when my first daughter was born my boy really liked her until she started walking around. And then all the sibling rivalry started coming up. And he’s not evil the way the main character is in here. And I remember before she was born thinking he was the sweetest little kid and then I saw this total mean streak come out in response to his little sister. So that was sort of the impetus of this. And the voice just came out. It was clear in my head. It was some of the easiest writing that I’ve done.
TM: The slug aliens in Prime Baby reminded me of the aliens in the Toy Story movies. They’re the sweetest group of things ever but they seem completely and utterly unaware of the evil of the world.
GLY: Well, I wasn’t thinking of Toy Story but that is a very similar set of characters. You’re right. I think it’s more of a parody of a certain type of Christian or religious person. I was debating between making them feel more like Buddhist monks or making them feel more like Christians. And I ended up going more on the Christian side. Because that’s the world that I’m a little more familiar with. Going Buddhist would have seemed like I was making fun of other people, but going Christian would have been more making fun of me and my friends or me and my family. It felt a little bit easier.
So that’s why I have them wearing the saltshakers, because they’re slugs wearing saltshakers. It’s like the cross. The cross is a device to kill people. So the saltshaker is a device to kill slugs. And they’re singing a song that they used to make us sing in Sunday School: “I’ve got peace like a river.”
TM: None of your endings are happy endings in and of themselves. You always feel that your characters have lost something. Do you always feel that they gained more than they lost?
GLY: Yeah, I think so. Thaddeus basically is closed off to everybody. To be open to one person at the end is a very big deal. I’ve thought about that too. Why it’s so hard for me to write a straight up happy ending. Maybe I don’t believe in them. Maybe I don’t believe that there’s pure happiness in this world. Maybe I just don’t believe that that’s true. I always feel that I experience that in my own life, that even in the happiest moments in my life there’s something that taints it.
PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.
(The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain)
The best prologue I ever read was an epigraph. The book in question was from my early reading days, before I had come to understand that epigraphs were a common thing. The quote was a prelude to a ripping fantasy yarn by Raymond Feist and was from the pen of Shakespeare:
We were, fair queen,
Two lads that thought there was no more behind
But such a day to-morrow as to-day,
And to be boy eternal.
The Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare
I would never hold that book up to any critical scrutiny today, but Feist’s talent for setting off an epic coming-of-age story with quotes about how great it was to be young—and to imagine anything was possible—had a kind of perfect intonation.
Having taken up the mantle “writer,” epigraphs have taken on a significance of another sort. Just what purpose epigraphs serve, where they come from, and how the source from which they were drawn affects the story in which they are embedded have all bubbled to the surface. Among the most pressing questions for me: should epigraphs be thought of as part of the text, a sort of pre-modern, post-modern device, like tossing a newspaper clipping into the body narrative? Or are they actually a direct invitation by the author, perhaps saying, “Look here, for from this inspiration came this tale?”
Put another way, are they part of the book or part of the author, or both, or neither?
People love to call epigraphs a bundle of things, an “apposite quote that sets the mood for a story and to give an idea of what’s coming” or “a quote to set the tone like a prelude in music” or as a “foreshadowing mechanism” or “like little appetizers of the great entrée of a story” meant to illuminate “important aspects of the story [and] get us headed in the right direction.”
Humbug, say I. Humbug.
Epigraphs have a long history. As early as 1726, one can find in Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels the cousin of the epigraph, a fictitious “note from the publisher” explaining that Gulliver is in fact a real person and these his true papers. Yes, Lolita got that from somewhere. But even Gulliver’s fictionalized note, that cousin to the epigraph, can be traced to Cervantes and Don Quixote (published in 1605) wherein the author assures us that:
My wish would be simply to present it to thee plain and unadorned, without any embellishment of preface or uncountable muster of customary sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies, such as are commonly put at the beginning of books.
Author’s Preface to Don Quixote (following, one should note, several sonnets, epigrams, and eulogies)
And so it is certain that even in the time predating the texts which we now call the canon, and some would assert Don Quixote the first “novel,” the epigraph and its ilk were widely entrenched into the formula for literature.
The point is, of course, that epigraphs have been around for a long time.
So to the question of how we are to read epigraphs, one must first decide whether there are ‘bad’ epigraphs and ‘good’ epigraphs, and if so, how these categories might arise.
I have already described something which many would characterize as an example of a good kind of epigraph, that quote which seems to connect in a fundamental way with the text. Like, perhaps, “Vengeance is mine, I shall repay.” Yet, of course, epigraphs cannot be too explicit, too clear or too thematic or it ruins the whole endeavor. If the author gets up on a soapbox and declares “this is an important novel” well then the ship’s sailed. That’s why William Styron starts Sophie’s Choice with this quote from André Malraux: “…I seek that essential region of the soul where absolute evil confronts brotherhood.”
Clearly these are not the only types of epigraphs that succeed. Nabokov hit a home run with his epigraph for The Gift with this quote from a Russian school-book: “An oak is a tree. A rose is a flower. A deer is an animal. A sparrow is a bird. Russia is our fatherland. Death is inevitable.” Which reveals that sometimes it is enough to be clever. Ander Monson’s Neck Deep and other Predicaments has an epigraph from the Chicago Manual of Style: “A dedication intended to be humorous will very likely lose its humor with time and so is inappropriate for a serious book destined to take a permanent place in the literature.” Again, very clever. So clever epigraphs work.
However, two kinds of epigraphs do not work. The first is any serious literary epigraph to a Harry Potter book, like for instance, this one from The Deathly Hallows
Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still. For they must needs be present, that love and live in that which is omnipresent. In this divine glass they see face to face; and their converse is free, as well as pure. This is the comfort of friends, that though they may be said to die, yet their friendship and society are, in the best sense, ever present, because immortal.
William Penn, More Fruits of Solitude
Perhaps one will call me hypocritical for allowing a quote from Shakespeare to grace a munchy fantasy novel and then to turn around and say that the epigraph to a Harry Potter book falls flat. I would simply note that the fantasy novel in question actually took itself seriously whereas Harry Potter tried to have it both ways—and the William Penn quote is about life and death, which would have been inappropriate to any book that wasn’t. Rowling should have selected something on the theme of love and friendship to be true to the work she published.
Another sort of epigraphical failure is in Blood Meridian. McCarthy uses one of those triple-epigraphs which I’ll address in a moment, and the third epigraph, after two highfalutin contemplations on darkness and death he adds this:
Clark, who led last year’s expedition to the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, and UC Berkeley colleague Tim D. White, also said that a re-examination of a 300,000-year-old fossil skull found in the same region earlier shows evidence of having been scalped.
THE YUMA DAILY SUN
McCarthy has an important point here, which is that people have been scalping each other since forever. Unfortunately, it would have come out more candidly through the mouth of one of his characters. The big problem is that in a semi-biblical masterwork, the only part of the entire overarching text that ever makes any reference to normal-sounding speech is this tiny bit of a 3-part epigraph.
So this sets out an objective standard. Epigraphs must count as part of the text because they affect the way the text is read, and therefore are tied more to the text than to the author. They belong to the text, regardless of the way the author feels. Also, as these epigraphs make clear, they are clearly not sources of inspiration for the story. Quite often they are tacked on.
So epigraphs abide by certain principles, and they do not always work. Quite often they come across like throat clearing, sort of a “here it goes” before the author gets into the work. Especially when an author has more than one epigraph, which seems to have become only more common. So when searching for an epigraph, the most important part of the endeavor should be how the quote integrates with the novel as a whole. Does it fit the tone, and does it take on a deeper meaning, or lend a deeper meaning, because it’s there?
(As a quick aside, I would like to say that overt references to Dover Beach should be restricted to epigraphs. In a striking number of novels, the poem is actually a plot point giving rise to a significant epiphany. I’m looking at you Fahrenheit 451 and most especially Saturday.)
But the question remains: How does one determine precisely the tone an epigraph should take? Herman Melville in Moby-Dick has probably one of the longest and most interesting (and most tonally consistent) epigraphs ever. He spends several pages just talking about Whales. But again, isn’t it just—too much? Would it not have been a better epigraph if he had simply included only this one from among all his myriad quotations:
October 13. “There she blows,” was sung out from the mast-head.
“Where away?” demanded the captain.
“Three points off the lee bow, sir.”
“Raise up your wheel. Steady!” “Steady, sir.”
“Mast-head ahoy! Do you see that whale now?”
“Ay ay, sir! A shoal of Sperm Whales! There she blows! There she breaches!”
“Sing out! sing out every time!”
“Ay Ay, sir! There she blows! there–there–THAR she blows–bowes–bo-o-os!”
“How far off?”
“Two miles and a half.”
“Thunder and lightning! so near! Call all hands.”
–J. ROSS BROWNE’S ETCHINGS OF A WHALING CRUIZE. 1846.
A similar question of “too much” arises in Sophie’s Choice and other texts in which the author seeks to use an epigraph in another language. Given the fact that most readers will not be speakers and therefore cannot see the intricacies in tone and the shades of meaning in that other language’s words, one wonders whether the author is writing the epigraph to himself or to the reader. If we are to think of epigraphs as part of the main text, then this foreign-language snippet needs to stand on its own, it can’t just be authorial vanity, right? Although, since his editor let him plant it there in the original German or French, one wonders if this means that epigraphs are thought to be more like dedications in the publishing world than the main text.
Finally, one wonders why epigraphs are always at the beginning of the book. Some stories end and make you want to hold the book to your chest and absorb it directly into your very soul. How moving it would be to me to finish a book and turn the page, sad that it’s all over and read an epigraph that reflects on all that’s come before.
Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is one of the most adventurous books I have ever read—a “Holocaust novel” with a particular twist. When I was a child, there had been a lot of talk about a possible Jewish State in the wilderness of Alaska. And suddenly this Jewish State comes alive in Michael Chabon’s feverishly inventive mind, complete with a Jewish Philip Marlowe and a list of horrendous crimes that resembles the design of a diabolic chess master. I fell in love with the novel’s funny, relentless song.
I found some of the same music in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a picaresque novel about an impossible future. A father and son wander this bleak landscape, trying to hold onto whatever little humanity they have left. It isn’t easy. They have to fight for some reason to survive. The book reminded me of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where the Mississippi was another kind of road, and Huck and Jim are surrounded by every sort of varmint. But Huck survives through the force of his own poetry, and Jim’s. They form an unbreakable human web. And so do father and son in Cormac McCarthy’s fable about a world gone mad.
“Here I am writing about him again, like a vicious old man who promises that this will be the last drink of his life.” – Horacio Castellanos Moya
If you’ve been tooling around the cross-referential world of Anglo-American literary blogs this fall, chances are you’ve come across an essay from the Argentine paper La Naçion called “Bolaño Inc.” Back in September, Scott Esposito of Conversational Reading linked to the original Spanish. When Guernica published an English translation this month, we mentioned it here. The Guardian followed suit (running what amounted to a 500-word paraphrase). Soon enough, Edmond Caldwell had conscripted it into his ongoing insurgency against the critic James Wood. Meanwhile, the literary blog of Wood’s employer, The New Yorker, had posted an excerpt under the title: “Bolaño Backlash?”
The basic premise of “Bolaño Inc.” – that Roberto Bolaño, the late Chilean author of the novels The Savage Detectives and 2666, has become a kind of mythological figure hovering over the North American literary landscape – was as noteworthy as it was unobjectionable. One had only to read reports of overflow crowds of galley-toting twentysomethings at the 2666 release party in New York’s East Village to see that the Bolaño phenomenon had taken on extraliterary dimensions. Indeed, Esposito had already pretty thoroughly plumbed the implications of “the Bolaño Myth” in a nuanced essay called “The Dream of Our Youth.” But when that essay appeared a year ago in the online journal Hermano Cerdo, it failed to “go viral.”
So why the attention to “Bolaño Inc.?” For one thing, there was the presumable authority of its author, Horacio Castellanos Moya. As a friend of Bolaño’s and as a fellow Latin American novelist (one we have covered admiringly), Castellanos Moya has first-hand knowledge of the man and his milieu. For another, there was the matter of temperament. A quick glance at titles – the wistful “The Dream of Our Youth,” the acerbic “Bolaño Inc.” – was sufficient to measure the distance between the two essays. In the latter, as in his excellent novel Senselessness, Castellanos Moya adopted a lively, pugnacious persona, and, from the title onward, “Bolaño Inc.” was framed as an exercise in brass-tacks analysis. “Roberto Bolaño is being sold in the U.S. as the next Gabriel García Marquez,” ran the text beneath the byline,
a darker, wilder, decidedly un-magical paragon of Latin American literature. But his former friend and fellow novelist, Horacio Castellanos Moya, isn’t buying it.
Beneath Castellanos Moya’s signature bellicosity, however, beats the heart of a disappointed romantic (a quality he shares with Bolaño), and so, notwithstanding its contrarian ambition, “Bolaño Inc.” paints the marketing of Bolaño in a pallette of reassuring black-and-white, and trots out a couple of familiar villains: on the one hand, “the U.S. cultural establishment;” on the other, the prejudiced, “paternalistic,” and gullible American readers who are its pawns.
As Esposito and Castellanos Moya argue, the Bolaño Myth in its most vulgar form represents a reduction of, and a distraction from, the Bolaño oeuvre; in theory, an attempt to reckon with it should lead to a richer understanding of the novels. In practice, however, Castellanos Moya’s hobbyhorses lead him badly astray. Following the scholar Sarah Pollack, (whose article in a recent issue of the journal Comparative Literature is the point of departure for “Bolaño Inc.”), he takes the presence of a Bolaño Myth as evidence for a number of conclusions it will not support: about its origin; about the power of publishers; and about the way North Americans view their neighbors to the South.
These points might be so local as to not be worth arguing – certainly not at length – were it not for a couple of their consequences. The first is that Castellanos Moya and Pollack badly mischaracterize what I believe is the appeal of The Savage Detectives for the U.S. reader – and in so doing, inadvertently miss the nature of Bolaño’s achievement. The second is that the narrative of “Bolaño Inc.” seems as tailor-made to manufacture media consent as the Bolaño Myth it diagnoses. (“Bolaño was sooo 2007,” drawls the hipster who haunts my nightmares.) Like Castellanos Moya, I had sworn I wasn’t going to write about Bolaño again, at least not so soon. But for what it can tell us about the half-life of the work of art in the cultural marketplace, and about Bolaño’s peculiar relationship to that marketplace, I think it’s worth responding to “Bolaño Inc.” in detail.
The salients of the Bolaño Myth will be familiar to anyone who’s read translator Natasha Wimmer’s introduction to the paperback edition of The Savage Detectives. Or Siddhartha Deb’s long reviews in Harper’s and The Times Literary Supplement. Or Benjamin Kunkel’s in The London Review of Books, or Francisco Goldman’s in The New York Review of Books, or Daniel Zalewski’s in The New Yorker (or mine here at The Millions), or any number of New York Times pieces. Castellanos Moya offers this helpful précis:
his tumultuous youth: his decision to drop out of high school and become a poet; his terrestrial odyssey from Mexico to Chile, where he was jailed during the coup d’etat; the formation of the failed infrarealist movement with the poet Mario Santiago; his itinerant existence in Europe; his eventual jobs as a camp watchman and dishwasher; a presumed drug addiction; and his premature death.
Alongside the biographical Bolaño Myth, according to Castellanos Moya and Pollack, runs a literary one – that Bolaño has replaced García Márquez as the representative of “Latin American literature in the imagination of the North American reader.”
Relative to the heavy emphasis on the biography, mentions of García Márquez are less common in North American responses to The Savage Detectives. But one can feel, broadly, the way that familiarity with Bolaño now signifies, for the U.S. reader, a cosmopolitan intimacy with Latin American literature, as, for a quarter century, familiarity with García Márquez did. And this must be irritating for a Latin American exile like Castellanos Moya, as if every German one spoke to in Berlin were to say, “Ah, yes…the English language…well, you know, I’ve recently been reading E. Annie Proulx.” (Perhaps Proulx isn’t even the right analogue. How large does Bolaño loom in the Spanish-speaking world, anyway, assuming such a world (singular) exists? I’m told Chileans prefer Alberto Fuguet, and my friend in Barcelona had never heard of him until he became famous over here.)
One can imagine, also, the frustration a Bolaño intimate might have felt upon reading, in large-circulation publications, that the author nursed a heroin addiction…when, to judge by the available evidence, he didn’t. As we’ve written here, the meme of Bolaño-as-junkie seems to have originated in the Wimmer essay, on the basis of a misreading of a short story. That this salacious detail made its way so quickly into so many other publications speaks to its attraction for the U.S. reader: it distills the subversive undercurrents of the Bolaño Myth into a single detail, and so joins it to a variety of preexisting narratives (about art and madness; about burning out vs. fading away). Several publications went so far as to draw a connection between drug use and the author’s death, at age 50, from liver disease. This amounted, as Bolaño’s widow wrote to The New York Times, to a kind of slander.
And so “Bolaño Inc.” offers us two important corrections to the historical record. First, Castellanos Moya insists, Bolaño, by his forties, was a dedicated and “sober family man.” It is likely that this stability, rather than the self-destructiveness we find so glamorous in our artists, facilitated the writing of Bolaño’s major works. Secondly, Castellanos Moya reminds us of the difficulty of slotting this particular writer into any storyline or school. “What is certain,” writes Castellanos Moya, “is that Bolaño was always a non-conformist; he was never a subversive or a revolutionary wrapped up in political movements, nor was he even a writer maudit.” This is as much as to say, Bolaño was a writer – solitary, iconoclastic, and, in his daily habits, a little boring.
“Bolaño Inc.” starts to fall apart, however, when Castellanos Moya dates the origins of the Bolaño Myth to the publication of The Savage Detectives. In 2005, editors at Farrar, Straus & Giroux acquired the hotly contested rights to The Savage Detectives, reportedly for somewhere in the mid six figures – on the high end for a work of translation by an author largely “unknown” in the U.S. The posthumous appeal of Bolaño’s personal story no doubt helped the sale along.
FSG’s subsequent marketing campaign for the novel would emphasize specific elements of the author’s biography. “The profiles,” a former editor at another publishing house observed, “essentially wrote themselves.” Among the campaign’s elements were the online publication of what would become Wimmer’s introduction to the paperback edition. The hardcover jacket photo was a portrait of a scraggly Bolaño circa 1975. Castellanos Moya takes this as proof positive of a top-down crafting of the Bolaño myth (though Lorin Stein, a senior editor at FSG, told me, “I stuck that picture . . . on the book because it was my favorite and because it was in the period of the novel”).
As it would with 2666, FSG printed up unusually attractive galley editions, and carpet-bombed reviewers, writers, and even editors at other houses with a copy, “basically signaling to the media that this was their ‘important’ book of the year,” my editor friend suggested. When the book achieved sales figures unprecedented for a work of postmodern literature in translation “the standard discourse in publishing . . . was was that the publisher had ‘made’ that book.” Or, as Castellanos Moya puts it,
in the middle of negotiations for The Savage Detectives appeared, like a bolt from the blue, the powerful hand of the landlords of fortune, who decided that this excellent novel was the work chosen to be the next big thing.
But here Castellanos Moya begs the question: why did these particular negotiations entice FSG in the first place? He treats the fact that the book was “excellent” almost parenthetically. (And Pollack’s article is almost comical in its rush to bypass what she calls Bolaño’s “creative genius” – a quality that doesn’t lend itself to the kind of argumentation on which C.V.s are built these days.) Then again, it might be fair to say that excellence is an afterthought in the marketplace, as well.
Likely more attractive for FSG was the fact that, by 2006, much of the groundwork for the Bolaño Myth had already been laid. Over several years, New Directions, an independent American press, had already published – “carefully and tenaciously,” Castellanos Moya tells us – several of Bolaño’s shorter works. New Directions was clearly not oblivious to the fascination exerted by the author himself (to ignore it would have amounted to publishing malpractice). The jacket bio for By Night In Chile, published in 2003, ran to an unusually detailed 150 words: arrest, imprisonment, death… By the following year, when Distant Star hit bookshelves, the head-shot of a rather gaunt-looking Bolaño had been swapped out for a fantastically moody portrait of the black-clad author in repose, inhaling a cigarette. These translations, by Chris Andrews, won “Best Books of the Year” honors from the major papers on both coasts, and led to excerpts in The New Yorker.
Nor can the initial development of the Bolaño Myth be laid at the feet of New Directions. Lest we forget, the sensation of The Savage Detectives began in 1999, when the novel won the Rómulo Gallegos prize, the preeminent prize for Spanish language fiction. Bolaño’s work in Spanish received glowing reviews from the TLS, almost all of which included a compressed biography in the opening paragraph.
In fact, the ultimate point of origin for the Bolaño myth – however distorted it would ultimately become – was Bolaño himself. Castellanos Moya avers that his friend “would have found it amusing to know they would call him the James Dean, the Jim Morrison, or the Jack Kerouac of Latin American literature,” and Bolaño would surely have recoiled from such a caricature. But his fondness for reimagining his life at epic scale is as distinctive an element in his authorial sensibility as it is in Philip Roth’s. It is most pronounced in The Savage Detectives, where he rewrites his own youth with a palpable, and powerful, yearning. So complete is the identification between Bolaño and his fictional alter-ego, Arturo Belano, that, when writing of a rumored movie version of The Savage Detectives, Castellanos Moya confuses the former with the latter.
At any rate, Castellanos Moya has the causal arrow backward. By the time FSG scooped up The Savage Detectives, Bolaño’s “reputation and legend” were already “in meteoric ascent” (as a 2005 New York Times piece put it) both in the U.S. and abroad. The blurbs for the hardcover edition for The Savage Detectives were drawn equally from reviews of the New Directions editions and from publications like Le Monde des Livres, Neuen Zurcher Zeitung, and Le Magazine Littéraire – catnip not for neo-Beats or Doors fanatics but for exactly the kinds of people who usually buy literature in translation. And it was after all a Spaniard, Enrique Vila-Matas, who detected in The Savage Detectives a sign
that the parade of Amazonian roosters was coming to an end: it marked the beginning of the end of the high priests of the Boom and all their local color.
A cynical reading of “Bolaño Inc.” might see it less as a cri de coeur against “the U.S. cultural establishment” than as an outgrowth of sibling rivalry within it. One imagines that the fine people at New Directions have complicated feelings about a larger publisher capitalizing on the groundwork it laid, and receiving the lion’s share of the credit for “making” The Savage Detectives. (Just as Latin American writers might feel slighted by the U.S. intelligentsia’s enthusiastic adoption of one of their own.) At the very least, it’s worth at noting that New Directions, a resourceful and estimable press, in Castellanos Moya’s account and in fact, is also his publisher.
On second thought, it is a little anachronistic to imagine that either publisher figures much in the larger “U.S. cultural establishment.” To be sure, it would be naïve to discount the role publishers and the broader critical ecology play in “breaking” authors to the public. There are even books, like The Lost Symbol or Going Rogue, whose bestseller status is, like box-office receipts of blockbusters, pretty much assured by the time the public sees them. But The Savage Detectives was not one of these. The amount paid for the book “was not exorbitant enough to warrant an all-out Dan Brown-like push,” one editor told me. “Books with that price tag bomb all the time.” And Lorin Stein noted that The Savage Detectives
surpassed our expectations by a long shot. How many 600-page experimental translated books make it to the bestseller list? You can’t work that sort of thing into a business plan.
I’m thinking here of Péter Nádas’ A Book of Memories – an achievement comparable to The Savage Detectives, and likewise published by FSG, but not one that has become totemic for U.S. readers. Castellanos Moya might attribute Nádas’ modest U.S. sales to the absence of a compelling “myth.” But we would already have come a fair piece from the godlike “landlords of the market,” descending from their home in the sky to anoint “next big things.” And the sluggish sales this year of Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones – another monumental translation with a six-figure advance and a compelling narrative attached – further suggest that the landlords’ power over the tenants is erratic, or at least weakening.
Indeed, it is “Bolaño Inc.”‘s treatment of these tenants – i.e. readers – that is the most galling element of its argument. The Savage Detectives, Castellanos Moya insists, offers U.S. readers a vision of Latin America as a kind of global id, ultimately reaffirming North American pieties
like the superiority of the protestant work ethic or the dichotomy according to which North Americans see themselves as workers, mature, responsible, and honest, while they see their neighbors to the South as lazy, adolescent, reckless, and delinquent.
As Pollack puts it,
Behind the construction of the Bolaño myth was not only a publisher’s marketing operation but also a redefinition of Latin American culture and literature that the U.S. cultural establishment is now selling to the public.
Castellanos Moya and Pollack seem to want simultaneously to treat readers as powerless before the whims of publishers and to indict them for their colonialist fantasies. (This is the same “public” that in other quarters gets dunned for its disinterest in literature in translation, and in literature more broadly.) Within the parameters of the argument “Bolaño Inc.” lays out, readers can’t win.
But the truth is that U.S. readers of The Savage Detectives are less likely to use it as a lens on their neighbors to the south than as a kind of mirror. From Huckleberry Finn onward, we have been attracted to stories of recklessness and nonconformity wherever we have found them. When we read The Savage Detectives, we are not comforted at having sidestepped Arturo Belano’s fate. We are Arturo Belano. Likewise, the Bolaño Myth is not a story about Latin American literature. It is a dream of who we’d like to be ourselves. In its lack of regard for the subaltern, this may be no improvement on the charges “Bolaño Inc.” advances. But the attitude of the U.S. metropole towards the global south – in contrast, perhaps, to that of Lou Dobbs – is narcissistic, not paternalistic. Purely in political terms, the distinction is an important one.
Moreover, Pollack’s quietist reading of the novel (at least as Castellanos Moya presents it) condescends to Bolaño himself, and is so radically at variance with the text as to be baffling. The Savage Detectives, she writes, “is a very comfortable choice for U.S. readers, offering both the pleasures of the savage and the superiority of the civilized.” Perhaps she means this as an indictment of the ideological mania of the Norteamericano, who completely misses what’s on the page; such an indictment would no doubt be “a very comfortable choice” for the readers of Comparative Literature. But to write of the novel as exploring “the difficulty of sustaining the hopes of youth,” as James Wood has, is far from reading it as a celebration of the joys of bourgeois responsibility.
Instead, The Savage Detectives offers a disquieting experience – one connected less to geography than to chronology. Bolaño is surely the most pan-national of Latin American writers, and his Mexico City could, in many respects, be L.A. It’s the historical backdrop – the 1970s – that give the novel its traction with U.S. readers. (In this way, the jacket photo is an inspired choice.)
The mid-’70s, as Bolaño presents them, are a time not just of individual aspirations, but of collective ones. Arturo and Ulises seem genuinely to believe that, confronted with a resistant world, they will remake it in their own image. Their failure, over subsequent years, to do so, is not a comforting commentary on the impossibility of change so much as it is a warning about the death of our ability to imagine progress – to, as Frederic Jameson puts it, “think the present historically.” Compare the openness of the ’70s here to the nightmarish ’90s of 2666. Something has been lost, this novel insists. Something happened back there.
The question of what that something was animates everything in The Savage Detectives, including its wonderfully shattered form, which leaves a gap precisely where the something should be. And this aesthetic dimension is the other disquieting experience of reading book – or really, it amounts to the same thing. In the ruthless unity of his conception Bolaño discovers a way out of the ruthless unity of postmodernity, and the aesthetic cul-de-sac it seemed to have led to. Seemingly through sheer willpower, he became the artist he had imagined himself to be.
This is the nature of the hype cycle: if the Bolaño backlash augured by The New Yorker’s “Book Bench” materializes, it will not be because readers have revolted against the novel (though there are readers whom the book leaves cold) but because they have revolted against a particular narrative being told about it. And Castellanos Moya, with his impeccable credentials and his tendentious but seductive account of the experience The Savage Detectives offers U.S. readers, provides the perfect cover story for those who can’t be bothered to do the reading. That is, “Bolaño Inc.” offers readers the very same enticements that the Bolaño Myth did: the chance to be Ahead of the Curve, to have an opinion that Says Something About You. Both myth and backlash pivot on a notion of authenticity that is at once an escape from commodification and the ultimate commodity. Bolaño had it, the myth insists. His fans don’t, says “Bolaño Inc.” But what if this authenticity itself is a construction? From what solid ground can we render judgment?
For a while now, I’ve been thinking out loud about just this question. One reader has accused me of hostility to the useful idea that taste is as constructed as anything else, and to the “hermeneutics of suspicion” more generally. I can see some of this at work in my reaction to “Bolaño Inc.” But the hermeneutics of suspicion to which Castellanos Moya subscribes should not mistake suspicion for proof of guilt. Indeed, it should properly extend suspicion to itself.
It may be easier to build our arguments about a work of art on assumptions about “the marketplace,” but it seems to me a perverse betrayal of the empirical to ignore the initial kick we get from the art that kicks us – the sighting of a certain yellow across the gallery, before you know it’s a De Kooning. Yes, you’re already in the gallery, you know you’re supposed to be looking at the framed thing on the wall, but damn! That yellow!
When I revisit my original review of The Savage Detectives – a book I bought because I liked the cover and the first page, and because I’d skimmed Deb’s piece in Harper’s – I find a reader aware of the star-making machinery, but innocent of the biographical myth to which he was supposed to be responding. (You can find me shoehorning it in at the end, in a frenzy of Googling.) Instead, not knowing any better, I began by trying to capture exactly why, from one writer’s perspective, the book felt like a punch in the face. This seems, empirically, like a sounder place to begin thinking about the book than any preconception that would deny the lingering intensity of the blow. I have to imagine, therefore, that, whatever their reasons for picking up the book, other readers who loved it were feeling something similar.
Not that any of this is likely to save us from a Bolaño backlash. Castellanos Moya’s imagining of the postmodern marketplace as a site with identifiable landlords – his conceit that superstructure and base can still be disentangled – has led him to overlook its algorithmic logic of its fashions. The anomalous length and intensity of Bolaño’s coronation (echoing, perhaps, the unusual length and intensity of his two larger novels) and the maddening impossibility of pinning down exactly what’s attributable to genius and what’s attributable to marketing have primed us for a comeuppance of equal intensity.
But when the reevaluation of Bolaño begins in earnest – and again, in some ways it might serve him well – one wants to imagine the author would prefer for it to respond to, and serve, what’s actually on the page. Of course the truth is, he probably wouldn’t give a shit either way. About this, the Myth and its debunkers can agree: Roberto Bolaño would probably be too busy writing to care.
[Bonus Link: Jorge Volpi’s brilliant, and somewhat different, take on all this is available in English at Three Percent.]
In his most recent article for The New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that “one way to make sense” of To Kill a Mockingbird “is to start with Big Jim Folsom.” It’s a thesis that rings all the Gladwell bells. There’s the near-nonsequiter. There’s the insistence that to understand something you thought you already understood, you have to know about something Gladwell knows about (in this case James “Big Jim” Folsom, an Alabama governor of the 1950s). And there’s the hedge, the stab at plausible deniability: well, this is only one way to do it. But on the evidence of Gladwell’s obtuse reading, starting with Big Jim Folsom is precisely not a way to make sense of Harper Lee’s novel. Rather, it is a way to make a hash of it.The flaws in Gladwell’s scorched-earth positivism, in both its rococo and its populist moods, have been so amply documented – and not only in the Letters page of The New Yorker – that it may be time for a counter-backlash. The high dudgeon with which The New Republic took Gladwell’s most recent book, Outliers, to task seemed to me to miss some of the charms that have landed it on the bestseller list. Disregard the sociological claptrap, and it’s clear that Gladwell is not a scientist, but an entertainer. The pleasure we take in his arguments – in which Laban Movement Analysis becomes the key to dog training, and football to teaching, and Lawrence of Arabia to Rick Pitino, or vice versa – is the pleasure of the high wire act, or, more aptly, that of the magic show. If things go well, the audience gets a little fizz of insight. If the trick goes wrong, nobody gets hurt, because, after all, there never really was a rabbit in that hat.There is something unheimlich, however, about watching Gladwell bring his rhetorical illusionism to bear on the already illusory realm of literature. In his glib reduction of Harper Lee’s most enduring fictional creation to a “Jim Crow liberal,” he misses the forest for the trees.The raison d’être for Gladwell’s debut as a literary critic, we are told, is that “a controversy… is swirling around the book on its fiftieth anniversary.” Well, now it is. This controversy apparently has something to do with “Atticus Finch and the limits of Southern liberalism,” and to resolve it, Gladwell decides to re-open the trial of the falsely accused Tom Robinson, which is the novel’s climax. Some historical evidence is dragged in, but we will pass over in silence Gladwell’s conflation of “cases of black-on-white rape” with “allegations of black-on-white rape.” The point is to re-examine Robinson’s defense attorney, Atticus Finch.According to Gladwell, Finch has perpetrated a kind of ideological malpractice. To wit:Finch wants his white, male jurors to do the right thing. But… he dare not challenge the foundations of their privilege. Instead, Finch does what lawyers for black men did in those days. He encourages them to swap one of their prejudices for another.More galling, to Gladwell, than this refusal to bait his jury is the turn-the-other-cheek ethic underlying it. Finch tells his daughter that it is not O.K. for her to hate anyone, even Hitler. “Really? Not even Hitler?” Gladwell asks. The question would be a gratuitous flourish, except that it discloses Gladwell’s supra-rational frustration with Finch’s “hearts and minds” approach to the world’s ills. You see, this approach “is about accommodation, not reform.”If Finch were a civil-rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict. But he isn’t. He’s not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law.Well, obviously. Otherwise Harper Lee would have named him Thurgood Marshall, or Shmurgood Shmarshall, and would have made him a heroic civil-rights reformer. But in addition to not being Thurgood Marshall, Atticus Finch is also a fictional character. This is not a trivial observation. Contradictions, blemishes, and blind spots are to be cherished in characters (and, some would say, in real people). Indeed, one way of reading the end of the novel is not that Atticus Finch has hypocritically “decided to obstruct justice” with his crony the sheriff, as Gladwell would have it, but that he has come to see the shortcomings in the inflexible moral code for which Gladwell has earlier chided him. He has discovered that all men are not the same, that the criminal Bob Ewell (incest, assault) and the innocent Boo Radley (reclusiveness, pallor) must be held to different standards.Certainly, Finch’s notions about racial equality do not match the liberal nostrums of our day. It would be weird if they did. Moreover, they may (or may not) be Lee’s notions. To Kill a Mockingbird certainly contains more than its fare share of racial stereotypes, which, like its accommodationist view of race, are worth discussing (as are the elements of Oliver Twist that today make us cringe). A more nuanced article might have made the argument that To Kill a Mockingbird has a didactic streak, and that it puts Atticus Finch forward as an allegorical figure of enlightenment. Or that readers of the book have mistakenly read him allegorically, rather than as a human being with human limitations. Or that To Kill a Mockingbird is not a very good book, and is racist to boot. Indeed, the latter may have been Gladwell’s reaction on taking up the book again in 2009.But he hasn’t chosen to make any of those arguments. And so his triumphant conclusion – “A book that we thought instructed us about the world tells us, instead, about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism” – rankles. No, we want to say, it tells Malcolm Gladwell about Jim Crow liberalism. Slighting the novel’s achievement on account of its anachronisms is like dismissing Huckleberry Finn because of the ways Twain caricatures Jim. There are good reasons why these books are on the most-banned list; that they record liberal blind-spots is not among them.Moreover, Gladwell’s thinly veiled hostility toward To Kill a Mockingbird betrays a fundamental misapprehension about the novel, as distinct from the satire or the polemic. Following George Orwell, he seems to want novels to provoke “a change of structure” rather than “a change in spirit.” That is, he wants them not to be novels.No one is going to canonize Harper Lee as the high priestess of negative capability (just as no one would nominate Orwell for high priest.) But the durability of To Kill a Mockingbird would seem to vindicate her method. Despite the “limitations” of Atticus’ worldview, the narrative that encompasses it has – no less than the righteous rage of reformers – paved the way for an epochal, and as yet incomplete, revolution in the way Americans think about race. And unlike a legal verdict, no one can overturn it. Not even the Roberts court. Not even Malcolm Gladwell.
It began at the start of the year with Huck Finn, and Gulliver put in an appearance this week. Along the way, Gatsby and Don Quixote stood on the pedestal and took a bow, their tales championed, their authors heralded.The Globe and Mail, that venerable institution which, not incidentally, happens to pay my salary, has summoned a panel of experts (not, repeat, NOT including yours truly) to choose 50 books – the finest fifty in literary history – drawn from fiction and non-fiction, and including tomes both classic and modern.But this isn’t just your garden variety list. No sir. For each book chosen, an essay is written by a noteworthy scribe (Alberto Manguel makes a case for Dante’s Divine Comedy; Michael Ignatieff for Machiavelli’s The Prince).Each week, one essay is published. There is no order to the publication of the fifty.We’ll check back at the end of the year when the project comes to a close, but in the meantime, here’s the latest essay, Victoria Glendinning’s case for Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. From there, scroll down and look on the left for individual links to each of the other essays published so far.
As anyone with a Gmail account knows, to send or receive an e-mail through Google’s electronic mail service is to have the impression that someone else is reading your mail. Mention the military in an e-mail – even disparagingly – and you will see, in the sidebar, beside the composition window, an ad for GoArmy.com. Mention Premier League football and you’ll get links to a panoply of stores selling Newcastle and Arsenal jerseys. This feeling of being watched and plied with goods and services that someone or something thinks you are likely to desire is rather odd at first (perhaps even creepy in a post-Patriot Act era). But it abates. You become a jaded “old boy” and don’t even notice the sidebar ads attempting to draw you in by ‘reading’ your missives. (Except, perhaps, for the odd time when, in writing to a student about plagiarism, the Google sidebar offers you a variety of online warehouses apparently chock-full of the same sort of stolen merchandise you are attempting to rail against.)At least until recently. A few weeks ago I began sending myself pieces of my dissertation as a means of backing them up. The sidebar’s offerings were unremarkable for several weeks (so unremarkable that I do not remember them and so cannot share them with you so that you too might remark on their unremarkableness).But this past weekend, something changed. As before, I attached the chapter, a Word document named Chapter 2, and wrote “Charke” in the subject line. (“Charke” refers to Charlotte Charke, a notoriously outlandish eighteenth-century actress famous for cross-dressing on and off the stage, whose autobiography is the subject of my chapter.) I pressed send. And suddenly my sidebar was INNUNDATED WITH ALPACAS: “How to get free Alpacas,” “Alpacas for fun & profit,” “Are Alpacas profitable?,” “Enjoy an alpaca lifestyle!”In that moment (a moment that has been repeated now several times – every time, in fact, that I send the Charke chapter to myself again), my whole concept of Gmail changed. I believe that Gmail is trying to tell me something about my future, and that future involves alpacas. What that future seems not to involve is recuperative literary analyses of neglected autobiographies by marginal eighteenth-century actresses.In that moment, I realized that the Gmail sidebar might be much more than we all thought it was. It might, in fact, be just the thing to fill those gaping holes in our post-modern psyches. Like the oracle at Delphi, haruspication, and all of the other delightful methods of divination devised by the Greeks, bibliomancy in the Renaissance and 18th century (aka “Bible dipping” for those of you familiar with Running With Scissors), seances in the 19th, and the Magic 8 Ball in the eighties and nineties, (not to mention tea leaves, crystal balls, Jim’s hairball in Huckleberry Finn…), the Gmail sidebar might just be the medium – I mean the clairvoyant medium – of our age. And it’s so much tidier than haruspication.I’ve got alpacas (free alpacas no less!), how bout you?
Lauren Groff’s fiction has appeared in journals including The Atlantic Monthly and Ploughshares and the most recent editions of the Best American Short Stories, Best New American Voices, and the Pushcart Prize anthologies. Her first novel, The Monsters of Templeton, will be out in February.This year I fell in love with the New York Review of Books Classics series, which reissues books that are either out-of-print or wildly underappreciated. Among the best were Elaine Dundy’s The Dud Avocado, John Williams’s Stoner, and Tatyana Tolstaya’s White Walls and The Slynx – a Gogol-esque dystopian tale. But the absolute sockdolager was Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories, which I read slowly and breathlessly – and when I finished I was furious that nobody had ever told me about Gallant and all her staggering talent before now.From other sources, I loved Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep – electrifying, human – as well as Junot Diaz’s The The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem, The Triumph of Love by Geoffrey Hill, and Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus. On a long car trip, I listened to an audiobook of Huckleberry Finn – the reader’s voice was the opposite of my internal reading voice, and it became a whole new book to me, layered atop the old book I knew so well.Also, because I moved full-time to Florida, my father-in-law lent me a copy of this strange old essay collection called Southern Ladies and Gentlemen by Florence King, which is supposed to explain/lampoon the south to northerners (the cover: a tiny blonde in a Confederate flag with a mint julep in hand). Yikes. It’s cringe-inducing, but makes me laugh, and I often find myself reading it when I should probably be reading other things.More from A Year in Reading 2007
I had such a good time reading the Count of Monte Cristo that it made me wonder why I don’t read more so-called “classics.” So many times I have wandered into a book store or browsed through Amazon fruitlessly, when I might have gone for the known quantity that is the classic. First, let me define what I’m talking about here. People shy away from classics for two reasons: because they are old. You worry that the book will seem moldy and out of touch. And a classic is the sort of book that is assigned in middle school and high school, and therefore it doesn’t seem like the sort of book you’d want to read for fun (it might bring back bad memories, after all). But again and again I find that this is the wrong way to look at it. I am almost never disappointed when I read a classic novel. So, for all you casual readers out there, consider the classic.But classics aren’t just great for us grown ups, they’re perfect for precocious young readers. When I worked at the book store, I would often encounter parents trying to find books for kids who had read all the kids books. These young readers had read all the Harry Potter, all the Lemony Snicket, and the parents were looking for more of the same. I realized that classic novels are the perfect way to graduate these young readers to the next level of reading. Sure they may get assigned some of these books in school, but I know that when I was young, I found reading books for fun to be far more gratifying than reading for school. Here’s a quick list of classics that I like to recommend to precocious young readers (I’m only recommending books that I have read, so if you’ve got any ideas please share – there are so many more!):The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark TwainThe Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel HawthornePride and Prejudice by Jane AustenGreat Expectations by Charles DickensGulliver’s Travels by Jonathan SwiftFrankenstein by Mary ShelleyOr you could just get ALL of themUpdate: From the comments:Awakening by Kate Chopin (suggested by edan)Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (suggested by edan)Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (suggested by erin)The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (suggested by The Happy Booker)Related: Ask a Book Question: The 27th in a Series (Classifying Classics)Related: Giving Kids the Classics