The first time I stole, I was told it was wrong. It was borrowed from a Garfield cartoon—one character says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and then in the next panel, a dictionary falls on his head. I thought it was funny; I included it in one of my stories. I was seven. When I showed the story to my parents, my dad asked if I’d come up with that joke on my own, and I admitted that I hadn’t. He explained to me that it wasn’t right to use someone’s words without giving credit to that person or without changing them enough so that they were my own; that was called plagiarism. It didn’t make sense to me. This cartoon had been drawn and printed and delivered to my parents’ doorstep for me to unfold and read while I ate my Cheerios. I could cut it out and stick it to the refrigerator with magnets, or roll out a ball of Silly Putty and pull Garfield right off of the page and into my hand. It didn’t make sense that enjoying or admiring or loving something wasn’t enough to make that something mine.
As a longtime lover of words, I was a master mimic. After hearing Donna Lewis’s “I Love You Always Forever” on the radio, I spent weeks trying to find and compose the tune on my Yamaha keyboard. I wrote my own song parodies à la “Weird Al” Yankovic. It only made sense that when I read books that I loved, I wanted to try and recreate them. Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones inspired my own series about a precocious six-year-old named Leslie Ann Mayfield. Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl led to the creation of The Girls of Greenwich Academy. They were imitations; they were different only in the sense that I couldn’t have the original and wanted to have control over as close an approximation as I could. I loved these stories like I loved the barrage of letters that Elizabeth Clarry receives from various societies and clubs—each pointing out her faults and shortcomings—in Jaclyn Moriarty’s Feeling Sorry for Celia (the letters being reflections of Elizabeth’s own subconscious thoughts and not real letters, of course), or like I loved a particular passage from Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl that I wrote out in notebooks and repeated so many times I had it memorized and still can recite it today: “She was elusive. She was today. She was tomorrow…In our minds we tried to pin her to a cork board like a butterfly, but the pin merely went through and away she flew.” I wrote a story composed entirely of letters to myself from fictionalized clubs. I read Stargirl so many times the pages fell out of the binding. But no matter how many times I read these books, no matter how many times I tried to make them my own, they remained too elusive to pin down. My inexperience impeded me. My inability to create something of equal value frustrated me. To create something of my own worthy of that kind of love felt impossible.
After I met Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, I realized all of my past preoccupations—even with Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen—had merely been crushes. With Prep, I felt vulnerable and unnervingly understood—I felt loved. Lee Fiora was a misanthrope, a cypher—difficult to like and everything I feared myself to be. Over the course of the four years in which the novel takes place, Lee silently watches her peers, trying at once to imitate them and appear unassuming enough to not be seen. She fails, of course; she fails and exposes herself as a fraud in the most public and humiliating way. I typed out hundreds of pages of the novel, and the sensation of generating Sittenfeld’s words by my own hand on my own screen felt like ecstasy. I dreamed of writing Prep myself. I dreamed of a machine that would allow me to go back in time and steal the manuscript before it was ever published and claim it as my own. But because I couldn’t pluck Prep from Curtis Sittenfeld’s hands like I once pulled cartoon Garfield off a page with putty, I decided to make it my mission: I would write a book that would make someone ache with recognition, a book that someone could love—even if that someone was only me.
I couldn’t know at the time of my preoccupation that Junie B.’s speech patterns and penchant for nicknames is reminiscent of short story writer Damon Runyon. I never knew until later that von Ziegesar modeled Gossip Girl on The Age of Innocence. Even having heard Prep compared to everything from A Separate Peace to The Bell Jar to The Catcher in the Rye, Lee Fiora’s story never felt like anything but her own. It is inevitable to bear a resemblance to classic literature, it seemed to me; everyone is made to read the same books the summer before ninth grade and write the same reports. The difference was that classic literature felt wholly impersonal, unrelatable, obsolete. It was okay to rewrite those stories because—to me—they’d ceased to entertain, to matter.
As I began to study writing in earnest in college and later graduate school, I looked not to the past but to contemporaries for inspiration and guidance. I had a love affair with Lorrie Moore my junior year of college; I loved repetition, lists, and long, looping, loquacious sentences that Moore could make funny in their inanity. I met Edward P. Jones and experimented with time, turning to him for guidance so I could shift forward and back without warning and without losing a reader. I wrote whole stories trying to imitate the narrative style of Thomas Bernhard and Donald Barthelme. My senior year of college, Zadie Smith—actual Zadie Smith, that is—came to my advanced fiction workshop the day my story was up for critique, and she noted that I did the Lorrie Moore-esque technique of listing three things, each item more extreme or nonsensical than the last. “The ‘Three Things’ things—that’s a Lorrie thing. It’s been done,” she said. The only part of my story Zadie Smith took special notice of was when the character said she didn’t know how to cook chicken properly so that it wasn’t still pink inside. “That’s honest,” she said. At the time, the only thing that stuck with me after class was pleasure at being told that I wrote like Lorrie Moore.
I remember reading Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go and, shortly after, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and feeling almost betrayed—Roy’s influence on Selasi was so evident to me that I felt I’d uncovered something devious or even criminal. But everything is borrowed from something, I’ve learned; every story is influenced by those told before it, every voice a reflection of an earlier one. By borrowing stories, trying on different styles, imitating different techniques, I somehow learned to develop my own voice—a cocktail of everything I’d ever read and admired and loved, but diffused through me, made into my own. When I first started showing people my own novel, I heard comparisons to Alissa Nutting’s Tampa and Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, and—to my great delight—Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. But readers also drew comparisons to stories I hadn’t even meant to echo: Lolita and Old School, so-called classics that I’d once dismissed as irrelevant, but that are still called up from the past today to be borrowed and reformed, made new again. Layers and layers of stories and voices in conversation with one another, building on one another; I love that idea, that every story I’ve ever loved is inextricable from my own. That I’ve finally, in a way, made them mine.
I worry that the novel I’ve written isn’t anything new. I worry that my story has already been told—been told dozens of times, in fact—and that I don’t contribute anything new to the story’s legacy except another tired imitation. But I also like to think that what I have contributed is my own truth, a personal intimacy, like the redemptive bit about the uncooked chicken. Writing the novel, I channeled Lorrie and Bernhard and Zadie all at once, exploring my characters and their story through several different lenses—empathic, contemptuous, tongue-in-cheek—but what never changed was my desire to make it all feel as achingly, cringingly honest as possible. Years later, an editor would read my novel and tell me that she’d always felt alone in her experience of depression until she read my character’s experience and, for the first time since I’d read Prep at age 14, I felt seen and understood.
I have created something, something that may even be worthy of love, but still I covet others. That won’t ever stop. I read to learn and to grow, and even if the things I read make me blind with envy—make me want to rip the pages from the bindings and hide them from the world and claim the words as my own—it only makes me want to improve. Each book I love is a new voice to carry with me, a new style to try on. A new something that I can stretch and hem and saturate with my scent until it feels like me. Like something honest.
Image Credit: Flickr/kooikkari.
I read A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and loved it, but more I needed to talk about it.
I sent out a few emails, but the dedicated readers in my life hadn’t yet read A Little Life, so I went on offensive by gifting a few copies. I posted tweets about the book to fish around for conversation. I identified and emailed soft targets, like the luring message I sent to my Donna Tartt-loving friend, “almost like The Goldfinch as far as epic reads go.”
While I waited for my book seeding to take, I posted a photo of the book cover on Instagram that got an immediate reaction: “It’s the best book I’ve ever read,” said one. “My heart was in my throat the whole time,” said another.
My agent and I started pecking out messages about the novel on our phones. To her, reading the book felt like an addiction. She questioned such impossible success in a group of friends, which prompted a conversation about the first part of the novel. To me, the set up felt like it was of the Manhattan ensemble genre, a distant cousin to The Age of Innocence or an episode of Friends. The brilliance lay in how Yanagihara set that tone and twisted it.
One of the copies I’d planted under the guise of a birthday gift gave back in a big way. My friend, who lives in Colorado, finished the book and emailed right away. We sent reviews from The New York Times, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker back and forth. We broke down each one. Was it the great gay novel? Maybe and maybe not, though there was no doubt that Yanagihara wrote across difference in a way that was refreshing and modern. In the next moment we compared the book to Great Expectations and Bleak House. “I keep thinking of Jane Eyre,” she wrote. “It’s the best kind of old-fashioned melodrama.”
At that point, a friend’s husband sent a message. He wondered if the book was any easier to read than it was to love someone who was reading it? I wrote back: “No.” That was the only brief conversation I had about the book.
A writer who lives in the U.K. posted on Facebook that she had read an early copy and needed to talk. I dove right in. We had both read about how Yanagihara had been
When I was 23, I returned to Korea for the first time since my adoption. For a month, I lived in a love motel, in a room paid for by the school at which I taught. I ate almost nothing but Frosted Flakes. I tried to gather the courage to give up and fly back to America. The only thing holding me there was the Korean woman who would become my wife, whom I met and began dating almost immediately.
I have been told by other writers that this story should be a book. Yet I have never felt like it has enough weight on its own. It is an interview anecdote: the 20 pounds I lost over two weeks with Tony the Tiger, the red lights ringing the ceiling over my round bed, the way my wife saved me, my denial over why I was really there. But something in the story has always been lacking.
Perhaps what is missing is a part I haven’t wanted to tell, a part other writers could see hidden in the whole, the same part that I have always struggled with confronting and have never known enough about: the two years I spent in Korea as a baby, before I was adopted as a sickly toddler who couldn’t toddle or talk.
Recently I designed a course on the novel for Grub Street, a writing center in Boston. The first thing I did was to get down from my shelves 10 novels I love, in search of scenes we might emulate. The goal for the course is to write six scenes, half of the 12 “major scenes” I heard it said once, in a workshop at Bread Loaf, that make up a typical contemporary novel. This “fact,” of course, made it into my sparse notes, though I didn’t know what to think about it. It provided a seductive kind of answer.
The first type of scene I went looking for was the “inciting incident,” the scene that starts the plot on its course. But what I noticed very quickly was that what starts the plot on its course is not usually what incites a novel, as we typically think of it. In other words, the scene that starts the plot isn’t usually the why of a novel’s existence in place and time, the situation of the story: think Nick moving to New York in The Great Gatsby, or the train going into the lake in Housekeeping. Those are incidents that might contribute to plot on a thematic and foundational level — nothing in those two great novels could have happened otherwise — but that don’t directly contribute to the string of causation E.M. Forster defined as plot (“The king died, and then the queen died of grief”).
About three months into my time in Korea, after I had changed jobs and decided to stay, my wife-to-be asked if I wanted her to help me find my birth mother. She could look into various Korean channels, search places I would never be able to search on my own. The offer she made was this: she would do everything and when she found a clue, we could travel together and she would translate for me. I thought about her offer for weeks, while she waited for me to make up my mind. I didn’t want to upset my family, but it was true that I didn’t have to tell them. I didn’t know how long my relationship would last, so I thought selfishly that this might be my best chance. On the other hand, I had been telling myself that I was not in Korea to find out anything about my birth family or my adoption, and this would change that. It would, I saw once I made up my mind, be admitting my denial.
I had my adoption information because I had needed it to get a new visa for former Korean citizens who had lost their citizenship (i.e. not by choice). Mainly, adoptees. The visa made it possible for me to do almost anything a citizen can do, except vote. My wife referred to the visa as an apology to adoptees when she told me about it and helped me to get my papers together.
She went ahead contacting whatever organizations she could find that still existed 21 years later. Eventually, she got a lead, and we made the trip to Seoul to meet with a person I thought would tell me about my birth mother, but who never would.
A scene that might start a plot of causation is Gatsby asking Nick to set him up with Daisy. Or rather, Gatsby asking Jordan to ask Nick to set him up with Daisy, which mirrors the convoluted arrangement of cars and drivers that results in Gatsby taking the blame for killing Myrtle and subsequently being killed by Wilson in what is probably the novel’s climax. Gatsby’s inciting incident happens mostly “off-screen,” during Nick’s first attendance at one of Gatsby’s famous parties. The plot that begins here will bring Gatsby and Daisy back together and part them after the accident.
A simpler example, in a way, is the arrival of Sylvie in Housekeeping, Sylvie who will represent one way of dealing with the past (running away from it, or, rather, not dealing with it). Her “parenting” of Ruth and Lucille will result in them taking sides. Ruth will follow Sylvie out of town and Lucille will stay.
I am using my own story as an example because I want to talk about what I believe these incitations are doing. Why they come slightly later in the novel, and what purpose they serve structurally, what in general they incite.Three years old, about six months after my adoption.
The offices of the adoption agency were in the basement of a concrete building which, from the outside, looked a lot like the sad little love motel I had recently vacated. My wife and I sat in a meeting room with a cheap couch, one chair that an agent would soon fill, and a coffee table on which my adoption file would appear. My memory goes in and out here, so I must leave the “truth” behind — such are the tools I am working with. It is likely that I have some sort of mental block regarding this trip, which makes me want to recreate it as better or worse than it actually was. I want to create a plot.
I opened a manila folder to find the application my parents had sent to adopt me. In it were shocking secrets about my father’s PTSD after Vietnam and my mother’s heartbreak over her inability to have a biological child. But, as my wife translated, there was nothing in the file about my birth mother. The agent said my birth mother had left me under a nearby bridge. I was found with a note that said, Give him to someone rich. A policeman gave me a name and took me to an orphanage, but the orphanage had recently burned down, so it, like my birth mother, was unrecoverable. My wife questioned none of this. I didn’t question it, either. I had new insight into my adoptive parents, which seemed itself a great treasure. What I wanted to know was whether I could photocopy the file. I was not allowed.
Later I would find out from other adoptees that they were told similar stories: of orphanages that no longer exist, of utter abandonment, and yet after going through a detective or lawyer or policeman, they were able to find much more, hidden or lost. I knew nothing about that then.
As the agent was gathering everything back up, though, absentmindedly, ready to put us behind her, I spotted a post-it note stuck to the folder. It had gone unseen, hidden against the table. As the folder lifted away, I snatched the note off of it and dropped it in my lap as if I was brushing away a fly, or as if I just wanted to touch my file one last time. The agent smiled at me as if she could understand this urge and had seen it before.
In thinking about the architecture of inciting incidents, it may be useful to work my way backward from the climax.
I have heard it said that modern novels don’t “resolve,” but I don’t believe it. What may give the impression that the modern novel does not “resolve” is Nick leaving New York in a similar physical and financial state (himself) as when he found it, or Ruth and Sylvie walking across the bridge to another life we barely hear about. These are not the definitive endings of Shakespearean plays — there is no marriage or sweeping death — or Greek plays — there is no intervention from a god or interpretation from a chorus. Neither are they the end of Jane Eyre, where Jane finds her way back to a diminished Rochester, or the end of Age of Innocence, where we skip ahead many years to see that Archer’s choice (of how to live) was indeed permanent, or the end of Anna Karenina, where Anna throws herself under a train and Levin comes to religion, one forever unhappy and one forever happy. But there is a death in Gatsby, and there is a decision about how to live in Housekeeping. What is interesting to note is that these points constitute not the endings of those books but their likely climaxes. They are not the final images — the final images are more mysterious, are more: images. The green light at the end of the dock, or walking over the lake in which Ruth’s ancestors perished.
So is there a resolution if it comes in the climax and not at the end of the book, and what exactly is being resolved there? I think the answer is in the question: what is being incited by the inciting incidents?
I met my birth mother on a cold January day in Seoul, with a wind full of coming snow. I hadn’t dressed warmly enough, and I have a problem with my ears where the wind makes them ache deep inside my head, so I was vibrating with pain and my wife was pressing my arm to keep me calm. I have never told anyone this. I never told my parents I even looked for my birth family. My birth mother was a short woman with a scar along her cheek-line, bright hurt eyes, a jutting chin, a wide, flat forehead. I wondered what the scar was from. I have mysterious scars on my legs and I wanted to ask her about them, whether they were from before she left me or whether, as I have always suspected, something happened to me in the orphanage, perhaps connected with my inability, at age two, to walk and talk. I didn’t ask. Instead, I did what seemed natural: shifted my feet awkwardly, tried to stay out of arms’ length, and cried.
My birth mother wanted to hug me, seemed sure about her feelings, whatever they were. But I wasn’t sure. I was still so damaged. I had hidden away any dream of this moment so far inside of me that it was a long, drawn-out process to pull my expectations, my fears and desires, back out into the open air. What I had for my birth mother was tears. I was glad my wife was there, and yet I wanted badly to be both alone with my birth mother and alone myself, so I could work out what I was feeling and let the feeling be more a reality than the person.
It doesn’t matter what we talked about, because we talked about nothing and everything, because we never talked, because what are words, really, what is real and what is made up?
In Gatsby and Housekeeping, the plot that starts with the inciting incident — will Gatsby and Daisy recover their love; will Ruth and Lucille keep to their house/family (essentially)? — comes to some conclusion in the climax. What, then, are the components of that plot? One can make the case that it is the intersection of the past and the present. Therein lies the main storylines of the books — and, I found, of all of the books in my stack.
In the diagram below, I am trying to get at what I think of as not one but three inciting “incidents” in a “traditional” contemporary novel, and at the way they interact with each other. I am calling these incidents: the inciting of plot, the inciting of theme, and the inciting of the past.
The inciting of plot refers to the moment the past intersects with the present. It is Gatsby asking Jordan to ask Nick to set him up with Daisy. It is Sylvie appearing with her baggage (the same but different baggage as Ruth and Lucille), to take care of the sisters and the house.
The inciting of theme refers to the situation that starts the book. It is Nick moving to New York and relaying his father’s advice and his opinion of himself as judgment-free. It is Housekeeping’s haunting moment in which the grandfather’s train falls into the lake and affects the fabric of the town and the family.
The third inciting “incident” is something that happens in the past (the past in relation to the main plot). I am referring to this past as “inciting” because I want it to carry the definition of “to incite” in Merriam Webster: to move to action. The inciting of the past has to do with the way we employ backstory. Often it does not occur at the beginning of the book. In Gatsby, it is learning about Gatsby’s history with Daisy after the inciting of the plot. Though in Housekeeping, the inciting of the past is conflated with the inciting of theme and does, in fact, begin the novel.
The inciting of the past has a lot to do with how a novel resonates. Ruth and Sylvie walking over the bridge — an image that stuck in my mind for years after I first read Housekeeping and couldn’t remember where the scene came from — is haunting on its own, yet is far more haunting and powerful combined with the context of what happened to Ruth’s grandfather. A Gatsby who pursues an affair with Daisy without any prior relationship never gets Nick to that famous line of “boats against the current.”
It was only after my birth mother had taken my wife and me back to her apartment that we understood what was written on that post-it note. I am making this up. My wife pressed my birth mother for more, as she had pressed the agency for more. Mother does not want reunion. Why had my birth mother told the agency that, or why had someone written it there and left it for me to find? Why was my birth mother acting the opposite now, as if she had always wanted to see me? I looked around the apartment as these two Korean women spoke the language of my birth, which I couldn’t understand. Their conversation, their lives, everything seemed so far away from me. It is a small room, and the clean, thin walls press close, but what those walls really are, borders between me and my past, are unbreachable still. I look up at the white florescent lights along the four edges of the ceiling, terrible lighting that makes everything seem as unreal as it is, as ugly as it could have been. It recalls the red lights in the love motel.
In the end, my birth mother told my wife that she had always been ashamed, and there were reasons, plenty of understandable reasons. She admitted that she was pretending and she would rather not do this, that she wasn’t ready for me yet. I let her, and will always let her, go.
As an aside: a writer friend recently brought up the idea that this focus on some past loss is a very American approach to the novel, and I wonder about this. But it is not necessarily a focus on loss that I am after, but a focus on the power of the present when it has the echo of the past, whether lost or, in the case of The Sun Also Rises or No-No Boy, two of the other books I was looking at, never able to be attained.
I don’t even think it necessarily has to be the past. The past here is just an easier go-to. In The Apothecary, another book on my list, it’s magic, an inherited imagination.What was under the bridge in Seoul?
When my wife and I were told at the adoption agency that my birth mother was unavailable, we went to the bridge where they said she had left me. It was an overpass. Cars went by overhead. We got out of our taxi and then walked down below. The road going under followed along a river or a stream, and seemed largely untraveled. I thought it would bring something back to me, or at least bring something up — but I felt nothing. There were two large water stains on the wall, and I thought, That was where she left me, though I had no proof or memory. Later I would question whether she left me there at all or whether that was only a convenient story. It might be said that I was lucky someone passed by and found me, and brought me to the police.
A lot of coincidence goes into creating a story without a plot.
Eventually we returned home and assessed our trip to Seoul. The evidence pointed to nothing for certain. I had come from a Korean woman, that was real. I could see in my own face always a little of her. In the mirror was still everything, all the nothing, that I knew about me. Yet at least I was really seeing myself, at last. I had fooled myself into thinking that I was in Korea to teach English to Korean kids, that I was only staying for my relationship, that I couldn’t eat anything but Frosted Flakes because I feared for my stomach and not for my identity.
I had an apartment now and not a room in a love motel. I looked up at the ceiling and there were no red lights. I had a girlfriend who had done everything to help me see myself. I still had my life to live, I mean. A change might have happened on that trip, past might have met present, but what I had to do next was keep living in Korea in the wake of something that had both ended and not ended.
I tell my students I believe in the rule of threes. There is a power that comes from two things coming together and resonating with a third. One thing does not a story make, but two or three things may. I want to get at what gives a novel a sense of depth, of meaningful action, a sense of propulsion and a sense of resolution and yet continuance. There’s a good case to be made that it begins with beginnings.
I made up a lot of the personal story that unfolds in this essay. A lot of it didn’t happen.
I was adopted when I was two. That much is true. I went back to Korea when I was 23. Whatever those first two years of my life were like does indeed always seem to be the missing link. But I had to make up some of the beginning in order to make up a middle and an end. Which has to do with inciting incidents.
That doesn’t matter, though. This story was, and is, real. The shame that I gave my imaginary birth mother is real. That shame is mine. And letting her go, I did that, I do that. Assessing all of the lacking evidence is a daily look in the mirror. Lately I worry that I missed my chance to find out one crucial incitation. Of course I have had to make up my beginnings before and will do so again. These are the things so important to the plot of who I am and to any plot of conviction and consequence — so important that they constantly draw us in: where the story starts, where the past and present meet, and what past is yet to come.
This completes a series of essays on craft that I privately refer to as “The Art of…: The Series.” (You can see why the name has remained private.) Previous entries include Epigraphs, the Opening Sentence, Close Writing, and Chapters.
(Spoilers, spoilers, blah, blah, blah.)
There are fewer famous closing lines than there are opening ones, probably because we start reading more books than we finish, i.e., the options are sparser. Not to mention how much context is sometimes required to understand the meaning (literal and figurative) of a book’s ending. You can’t just say: Hey, check this out: “He loved Big Brother.” To those unfamiliar with George Orwell’s 1984, what the hell would this mean? Some man is fan of reality television? Also, there is less pressure on a final line, isn’t there? If you’ve managed to keep a reader’s attention until the end, then you’ve already accomplished a great deal. In other words, the success of a book doesn’t exactly hinge on the quality of the last sentence, whereas an opening must rivet, pull, hook, excite, invite.
The more well-known closers tend to be lyrical passages of direct conclusion. A Tale of Two Cities features the oft-cited, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known,” and The Great Gatsby’s equally as referenced (most recently in the title of Maureen Corrigan’s book on Gatsby, And So We Read On), “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Other notable finishers spell out the meaning of the title, as in John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which ends with Garp’s daughter, considering her father: “In the world according to her father, Jenny Garp knew, we must have energy. Her famous grandmother, Jenny Fields, once thought of us as Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees, and Goners. But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” Or in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which ends, “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky–seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” And finally, Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude (one of the few, like Gatsby, to have a famous opening and closing):
Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.
My personal favorite among the famous closers is Ernest Hemingway’s “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” from The Sun Also Rises. This line not only aptly summarizes the themes of the novel but also stands as a wonderfully evocative statement on life in general — the beauty of our imagination is rarely matched by the ugliness of reality.
Most great last lines are not extractable or isolatable quotations; as I said, they require context. And sometimes their beauty comes more from what’s literally being described than the efficacy of the language. The ending of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence isn’t a poetic line in and of itself. Its power comes from the scene it ends. Newland Archer, older, now a widower, has the chance to see Madame Olenska again, she being the woman, as Newland’s son has it, “you’d have chucked everything for: only you didn’t.” When they go to meet her, Newland opts to sit outside the hotel instead, saying, “perhaps I shall follow you.” He stares at the balcony he knows to be Olenska’s, hoping to catch a glimpse. But he only sees the servant close the shutters. Then: “At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.” The tragedy in this line is inextricably linked to the scene it concludes. Wharton’s success lies in right ending as much as the words that describe it.
Leo Tolstoy’s ender in The Death of Ivan Ilych is also simple but masterful: “He drew in a breath, broke off in the middle of it, stretched himself out, and died.” This short novel deals with Ilych’s life in a plain style, refusing to make death abstract, and the ending emphasizes that. Death is a stark fact, one Ilych was not prepared for, and, unfortunately, it happens as easily and as unceremoniously as Tolstoy’s final sentence. Philip Roth, riffing on Ivan Ilych for his short parable Everyman, takes his unnamed protagonist through all the sicknesses of his life, using the close-calls of death as a way to narrate a life, for what is life, after all, than the continual resistance to death? His everyman perishes thusly: “He went under feeling far from felled, anything but doomed, eager yet again to be fulfilled, but nonetheless, he never woke up. Cardiac arrest. He was no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without even knowing. Just as he’d feared from the start.”
Roth is particularly good as final lines (as well as opening ones). American Pastoral, after delicately and intricately describing how the Swede’s family life literally explodes from the blast of his Patty Hearst-like daughter, ends with distinctly American questions: “And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” But maybe my favorite Roth ender comes from, appropriately, his final novel. Nemesis tells the story of a Polio outbreak in New Jersey in 1944. Bucky Cantor, a well-intentioned weightlifter and javelin-thrower, tries valiantly to help his community as the epidemic ravages its citizens. Eventually Bucky flees New Jersey for Indian Hill, a summer camp where his girlfriend Marcia’s a counselor. The fresh air promises health, a safe haven, but soon one of the counselors gets sick, and Bucky comes to believe that he is the carrier who introduced polio to the camp. When he, too, falls ill and has to be hospitalized, he ends things with Marcia, his love, because, “I owed her her freedom…and I gave it to her. I didn’t want the girl to feel stuck with me. I didn’t want to ruin her life. She hadn’t fallen in love with a cripple, and she shouldn’t be stuck with one.” Years later, a former student of Bucky’s from New Jersey runs into him. The sight of the former weightlifter with a “withered left arm and a useless left hand,” wearing a “full leg brace beneath his trousers,” is shocking, but even more so is his deep-seated bitterness. “God killed my mother in childbirth,” he says, “God gave me a thief for a father. In my early twenties, God gave me polio that I in turn gave to at least a dozen kids, probably more…How bitter should I be? You tell me.” The books ends with the former student’s vivid recollection of Bucky at his peak, when the kids would watch him throw his javelin:
He threw the javelin repeatedly that afternoon, each throw smooth and powerful, each throw accompanied by that resounding mingling of a shout and a grunt, and each, to our delight, landing several yards farther down the field than the last. Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder — and releasing it then like an explosion — he seemed to us invincible.
Roth’s last group of short novels (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis, collectively referred to as Nemeses) deal with this theme, that of the delicacy and vulnerability of us all, how, despite our intentions, regardless of our ethics or our choices, life can destroy you whenever it wants, and for whatever reason.
Toni Morrison can also open and close a book with power. Her Song of Solomon takes the hero, Milkman, to the town of Shalimar in search of gold. Milkman’s best friend, Guitar, tries to kill him but instead kills Pilate, Milkman’s mystical sister. After singing to her as she dies, Milkman realizes “why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly.” The promise (and failure) of human flight runs throughout Song of Solomon, beginning with its inimitable opening line: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” Whereas this man’s promise proves to be nothing more than a boast, Pilate flies in the truer, more significant sense. Milkman goes after Guitar after Pilate dies, and the novel concludes both ambiguously and conclusively:
Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life?” Milkman was not shouting now. “You need it? Here.” Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees — he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up the ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.
It is uncertain as to which man emerges victorious, but the real meaning here is in Milkman’s realization about the air. Flying is impossible for a person to do literally, and Milkman finally sees this– — his stubborn pride is released as he lets himself be guided by the “air,” or, more aptly, the right choice. Morrison’s books nearly always hint at magical realism, and sometimes they deliver it, but usually the magic stays where it lives, in the imagination, and her characters must find other ways to save themselves.
Notice in these last few examples how neatly their authors are able to unify the themes and the plots of the books into a distilled moment. Tolstoy’s frank style reinforces the matter-of-factness of death, Roth’s childhood memory evokes the naïve belief in human power, and Morrison’s “riding the air” answers a question set up by the first line. The skill here is in giving the sense of a cohesive whole, of arriving at a place that is both surprising and inevitable. The surprise comes as you read it; the feeling of inevitability comes after you’ve considered the ending in the context of the entire narrative. Ivan Ilych is coldly pronounced dead on page one, but his death doesn’t happen in a scene until the finale, where we now feel empathy. Roth reminds us of Bucky’s strength in his youth, a fact made poignant the sight of him as an older, decrepit adult. A man promises to fly who can’t, and then Milkman finds his own way of doing it.
Other than bringing a character to a pivotal point, or circling back to the beginning, and besides lyricism that summarizes the novel’s point of view, what are other ways novelists end their books in a satisfactory manner? Some choose to simply not end their novels at all. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has a circular structure in which the last sentence (which ends mid-sentence) loops back to complete the opening one (which begins mid-sentence). But since I haven’t read that book nor do I believe that I could rightfully analyze it, I’ll stick here with books within my intellectual capabilities. (Joyce has the distinct honor of having not one but three famous endings: Finnegans Wake, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, and the perfect final sentence of his story “The Dead.”) Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction also starts and concludes in medias sententia. Ellis’s aim, rather than suggesting circularity, is to suggest that we as readers have only momentarily joined a narrative that has been going on long before and will continue long after. Plus, his college-age characters are manic, erratic, and uncertain of everything. Ellis’s choice to cut them off is appropriate: they would have continued forever had he not done so. David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, (published a month before his 25th birthday) is a playful, extended riff on Wittgensteinian theories of language. (This is, mind, a novel in which a talking cockatiel named Vlad the Impaler ends up proselytizing on a Christian television network.) The final line is actually dialogue, spoken by Rick Vigorous, the protagonist Lenore’s boss and lover: “You can trust me,” R.V. says, watching her hand. “I’m a man of my”. For a narrative focused on language (most notably Ludwig Wittgenstein’s assertion that philosophical problems arise because of confusions of language stemming from false assumptions about how language works) to end by omitting the word ‘word’ — which is doubly meaningful as here the term denotes trust, an oath, the kind of certainty the book spends much energy making sure we don’t forget is linguistically suspect if not impossible — may seem too clever by half, but by the time a reader reaches this point, no other ending would seem appropriate (certainly not as pointed).
Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminated ends with a similar excision, though aimed at an entirely different purpose. The “guileless,” Thesaurus-happy Alexander Perchov — truly one of the most lovable characters in recent fiction — guides Jonathan Safran Foer through their trip to Trachimbrod in search of the woman who saved Foer’s grandfather from the Nazis. Alexander’s grandfather accompanies as driver (though he claims blindness), and it soon becomes apparent he has his own ghosts to search for in their Ukrainian journey. Grandfather, it turns out, had betrayed his best friend Hershel to the Nazis (revealed, in the novel, in a heartbreaking, punctuation-less section), and in the end he writes a letter to Jonathan and Alexander (also called Sasha) to explain his decision to take his own life. The letter ends as Grandfather does:
I am writing this in the luminescence of the television, and I am so sorry if this is now difficult to read, Sasha, but my hand is shaking so much, and it is not out of weakness that I will go to the bath when I am sure that you are asleep, and it is not because I cannot endure. Do you understand? I am complete with happiness, and it is what I must do, and I will do it. Do you understand me? I will walk without noise, and I will open the door in darkness, and I will
Like Wallace’s ending, this line is an interrupted promise, but here it is meaningfully sincere and incomplete for another reason entirely. I will is a strong subject-verb phrase, and by leaving it unfinished, Foer ends his book with nearly limitless optimism– — quite a feat considering it comes in a suicide note.
I am aware, as in all of these essays, that I haven’t said anything new or insightful on the subject of endings in general. Let me attempt something now. Unlike almost all other elements of fiction, the final lines do not participate in the project of keeping a reader reading. This may appear to grant a writer complete freedom, like the final two years of a two-term presidency — the absence of an impending re-election ostensibly allows for sweeping, public-opinion-be-damned initiatives. But in fact the last moments of a novel are its most delicate and important. If opening lines can be likened to a carnival booth runner’s shouts to passing fair-goers, the final lines are more than the prize of the game. Think about how much a reader gives a novelist — they agree to spend thousands of words listening and absorbing the novelist’s story. They are granting the novelist the rare chance to take them, via hundreds of pages, to a precise point, an incredibly particular moment that only fiction with all its complexity and length can reach. With enough trust, a novelist can take us anywhere, and the tools of narrative allow for remarkable specificity — the exact moment a marriage fails or the aftermath of a war for one family or a man’s tragic death that his whole life has seemed to point to. For writers, the last sentences aren’t about reader responsibility at all — it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop worrying about what comes next, because nothing does. No more keeping the reader interested, no more wariness over giving the game away. This is the game. This is the best time for a writer to get real, to depict reality as they see it, without compromises, without fear. The reader has stuck with you — give them something true, something honest and unquestionably yours. Take them from the promise of the opening line to those hyper-specific moments in life that take tens of thousands of words to set up — take them, as Junot Diaz did, to the beauty! The beauty!
See? It’s easy.
Now everybody —
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Publishing a book feels a little like a birthday. It lasts for longer than a day, but it’s wonderful and exciting and weird like a birthday is. (Am I the only one who spends her entire birthday thinking, Today is my birthday! Today? Today! Birthday? Birthday!). This year was just that for me, wonderful, exciting, and weird, especially the summer, when it seemed all I did was travel, talk to strangers about my book, and sleep in hotel rooms (which always made me think of “Nantucket” by William Carlos Williams: “– And the immaculate white bed.”)
Before my summer publication madness, before I did my reading in airplanes and various Panera locations and cheesy hotel bars, I had one particular experience with a book that filled my soul with fizz and made me feel alive in that way that only reading a great book can. I was at Ucross, the beautiful writing retreat in Wyoming, and between writing and weeping about writing, I sank into a green marshmallow-of-a-couch and began The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.
Edith Wharton! Edith Wharton! Edith! Wharton!
I read and liked The Age of Innocence years ago, but that didn’t prepare me for the love I would feel for this novel. Wharton’s heroine Lily Bart, simultaneously oblivious and wise, is one of the most compelling and complicated characters I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading. I pity and admire the way Miss Bart wields the power of her own beauty: she exploits her own magnetism, and it’s her own magnetism, or her confidence in that magnetism, that ruins her. Lily just wants to be free to live a grand, unfettered life, but she is a single woman in late 19th-century New York and her opportunities are limited (credit wendy here). She’s also a self-absorbed and entitled bitch. God, I love her. I also love Wharton’s assured and wise prose:
Lily had no heart to lean on. Her relation to her aunt was as superficial as that of chance lodgers who pass on the stairs. But even had the two been in closer contact, it was impossible to think of Mrs. Peniston’s mind as offering shelter or comprehension to such misery as Lily’s. As the pain that can be told is but half a pain, so the pity that questions has little healing in its touch. What Lily craved was the darkness made by enfolding arms, the silence which is not solitude, but compassion holding its breath.
See what I mean? Say it with me now: Edith! Wharton!
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In High Fidelity, Nick Hornby’s pop music-obsessed narrator Rob Fleming asks, following his most recent in a spate of romantic failures, while slumped in his apartment feeling desperately sorry for himself: “What came first – the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music? Do all those records turn you into a melancholy person?”
Having recounted a list of his “desert-island, all-time, top five most memorable split-ups,” Rob becomes increasingly revolted by his decidedly unmanly tendency to completely disintegrate following each new failed love affair. It’s romantic to believe that pop music supplied a language through which he could identify and express his angst and longing. But what if that “language” had started to supplant his feelings altogether? Without pop music, were things really that bad?
Literature, like pop music, can be dangerous, to those who love it best, and who therefore take it the most seriously. And just as tragic love songs are often the most beloved in pop music, tragic love stories are often the most beloved in literature. But what happens if feeling miserable becomes your way of getting closer to the books you love, rather than the books you love enabling you to get closer to your feelings? This is the scenario I’m describing: when you find yourself storming about, banging your head against a tree and bellowing in rage like Heathcliff for Cathy, and a feeling of hideous familiarity overtakes you. “I’ve felt this way before,” you think. Possibly even several times. And that you can’t remember who inspired this, or when, or why, is the most worrisome part of the altogether worrisome situation. Do you love… (what was his name again)? Or do you just love Wuthering Heights?
Young people (or so it is comforting to think) are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon. As a teenager, I read The End of the Affair, or more accurately, I fell for The End of the Affair. The prose is gorgeous, but the intensity is searing. The story covers a short time span, only a smattering of events that occur after Henri Bendix’s affair with Sarah has already ended, but so intense are Bendix’s emotions that in scope it felt comparable to The Divine Comedy: we’re in the depths of hell, then we’re up in the clouds, and then we’ve plunged deeper than ever before.
By no means is Greene encouraging you to want to be Henri Bendix. He is not an enviable character. The man has a private detective follow around his married ex-lover. He lives in a black hole of misery. He mostly loathes himself. But his love for Sarah enables him to routinely run the gamut of all existing human emotions. He was one of first characters I read outside of the science fiction genre capable of effectively taking trips around the world in a matter of seconds, without applying any sort of effort. What teenager could help but envy that?
So ardently did I love The End of the Affair that it wasn’t nearly enough to read it; I had to embody it. And if its extreme philosophy on love was a virus, I was more than happy to play host, spreading its insidious gospel to many of my unfortunate friends. During one late night phone call with a friend in boarding school, we quoted from the novel to each other while mourning recent romantic failures. But did we quote from The End of the Affair because of our romantic failures, or were we failing romantically because we could quote from The End of the Affair?
“I keep thinking of this line in particular,” my friend whispered fervently, “after Sarah dies, when Henri says, ‘I recognized my work for what it was – as unimportant a drug as cigarettes to get one through the weeks and years…’”
“There’s just no more point in going to class,” I said heavily.
Resigned, she could only agree.
But declaring like Bendix, “I’m too tired and old to learn to love, leave me alone forever” seventeen times by the age of twenty is only part of the problem. It’s one thing to repeat yourself; it’s quite another when people catch you in the act. In this matter, I think I’m entitled to throw a little frustration toward Andre Gide’s Strait is the Gate as well. Like The End of the Affair, Strait is the Gate is the story of young love sacrificed for religious dedication, of man losing out to God. But Strait is the Gate might win over The End of the Affair, and perhaps even The Age of Innocence, for documenting the most maddeningly unsuccessful of love affairs. Hamlet has nothing on the main character, Jerome, for sheer ability to endlessly dither while doing absolutely nothing. Thus the most agonizing scene in the novel occurs when Jerome finally, mercifully, is presented with the chance to declare himself to his love Alissa, the closest he gets to doing so in years. But as Alissa shuts the door behind her, “her eyes filled with an unspeakable love,” he does nothing. He could have knocked on the door, he admits. But instead he chooses to just stand there, “weeping and sobbing in the night.”
It is a credit to Gide that he dares let his narrator make such an aggravating decision: only a great novelist would risk the reader washing her hands of him entirely at that point, trusting that his creation is so fully-realized so as to withstand the subsequent censure. And so Jerome defends himself:
But to have kept her, to have forced the door, to have entered by any means whatever into the house, which yet would not have been shut against me – no, even today, when I look back into the past and live it over again – no, it was not possible to me, and whoever does not understand me here, has understood nothing of me up till now. (emphasis mine)
Fantastic line, isn’t it? It could win any argument. It could compellingly justify even the most erratic of actions. The moment I read it, I knew I had to use it. I committed it to memory. It would be my line, the same way Samuel L. Jackson’s character in Pulp Fiction memorizes Ezekiel 25:17, because he “thought it was just a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker.”
So once, during what may have been either an unprecedented blow-out or a fairly innocuous skirmish with a significant other, I declared in ringing tones: “And whoever does not understand me here… has understood nothing of me up till now!”
A beat. A furrowed brow.
“That’s that quote from that book, right?” he said.
“Yeah, you’ve mentioned it before.”
“Oh.” Extended, humiliated silence. “I usually only use it once per person,” I finally offered, miserably.
“That’s all right,” he said, with encouragement. “I’ve a really poor memory of quotes. It was almost like hearing it for the first time.”
A cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker, indeed.
So what came first – the literature or the love? I blame literature. Literature, no doubt, blames me. It might not be possible to tell. But just be careful which books you fall for: some of them might get you into trouble.
Some books are so a part of one it seems a folly to write even a paltry 700 words on their virtues. The Age of Innocence, which in my personal pantheon outshines Catcher in the Rye as the consoling novel for angsty and literate youth, confirmed my adolescent suspicion that people spoke and lived in codes. Immured in boarding school, that life was dictated by iron and mostly disagreeable statutes was patently obvious to teenaged me. But The Age of Innocence went beyond these; it spoke to the rules within rules–the ways that people prevent one another (especially girls, it seemed) from doing what they like, and the cowardice that stops people from going against the grain.
I don’t know if Edith Wharton intended this book to be read at as an epoch-spanning indictment of society’s bloodless crimes, or if she really thought that the immutable canon of the 1870s was finished and gone. One introduction I have seen instructs us to read The Age of Innocence less as a protest novel and more as a biting satire and a send-up of the gilded age. To be sure, it is a deeply sardonic novel; but if Wharton intended only to be a period satirist, she’s made a fool out of me.
Wharton’s novel and its more dramatic precursor, The House of Mirth, knew with what my jangled adolescent nerves suspected; Wharton wrote the things that people know but won’t say. Affirmed by these novels and fancying myself an Ellen (or even, horribly, a Lily Bart), I went about doing as I thought I pleased, garnering disapprobation. My messy room and demerits and cigarette smoking obscured (from myself, at least) my inner Newland, the realities my own coded speech and behavior and dress, the cruelties I served up to others. In the grand scheme of things, mine was rather a charmed adolescence. Perhaps I rankled against against society, against school’s constraints. But like Newland, I hardly wanted to leave.
When it was written, The Age of Innocence was about the olden days, the creaking conventions of which had long since been left by the wayside. The specifics would have been easily recognized by 1920s readers; some of them escape me today. Of Ellen Olenska’s estranged husband, it is said:
A half-paralysed white sneering fellow–rather handsome head, but eyes with a lot of lashes. Well, I’ll tell you the sort: when he wasn’t with women he was collecting china. Paying any price for both, I understand.
Oh, snap? But while the novel serves as an exquisite period piece filled with details of costume and decor (not for nothing is Wharton’s book with Ogden Codman Jr. The Decoration of Houses still in print today), it is timeless in its representation of the difference between inside and outside. Social conventions are discarded or exchanged; what remains is the chill a person feels when he or she understands that she has committed some transgression against the herd. The currents of social disapproval run deep, swift, and cold.
This is not a state of affairs peculiar to the upper crust; every crust has rules, a code. Sex is a particularly sticky wicket, even in our current, infinitely enlightened times. Were Ellen Olenska on Jersey Shore, she would be the pasty, sober blonde in a ruffled one-piece. In high school, she’s the one whose hand the boys won’t hold. Maybe she said some things on MySpace that rubbed everyone the wrong way. First this awesome guy Newland defended her when everyone was being whack, but in the end he couldn’t handle the drama (and he just wanted to do it with her anyway).
It’s all the same! The only difference is that in some crusts epithets like “slut” are freely employed and punches thrown, rather than everyone quietly declining a dinner party invitation.
Fortunately, getting older significantly reduces (one hopes) the paranoia that accompanies everyone’s adolescence. I no longer kick ineffectually at society’s traces while living in terror of a social misstep. Perhaps I’ve become a complicit member of the herd, but my nerves no longer jangle. Still, though, I read this novel (and The House of Mirth) as the work of someone who was deeply sensitive to the effects of collective mores on individual happiness, and to society’s censure of otherness. And this expressed with razor insight, with wry humor, with delicious irony, in elegant prose. What a book this is.
Joanna Smith Rakoff hasn’t had a Lillet in at least a year. Or so she says, after I point out that the drink enjoys a small but noteworthy role in her debut novel, A Fortunate Age, about six young Oberlin College graduates in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We’re at Cafe Figaro, a French restaurant with red booths and cloudy mirrors down the block from Skylight Books. In a couple of hours, Rakoff will read there as part of her west coast paperback tour. Until then, she has agreed to share the pâté with me; we’ve already discussed an English professor we’re both still close to.
Let me get this out of the way: I’m proud to be part of the Oberlin Mafia (class of ’02 in the house!) I’m always updating my list of famous alumni–Liz Phair, Ed Helms, and Gary Shteyngart, to name a few–and if I see a car with an Oberlin bumper sticker, I will do a French Connection-style chase to get the driver’s attention. I enjoy telling my husband that my alma mater is way better than his; at the University of Chicago they built the atomic bomb; at Oberlin they built an Environmental Studies Center that runs on human waste. My four years at Oberlin made me the thinker I am today. It was only a matter of time before I read A Fortunate Age.
And yet, I didn’t expect to love the book as much as I did, and its connection to Oberlin was only nominally what I loved about it. For starters, it feels simultaneously contemporary, with its references to Cat Power, and its spot-on descriptions of Brooklyn at the turn of the twenty-first century, and also deliciously old-fashioned, as sprawling as Middlemarch and as readable as The Age of Innocence. Rakoff told me she was highly influenced by John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, “the ultimate skewering of the middle class,” and A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell, which takes place on the eve of America’s entry into World War II. It’s one of Rakoff’s favorite novels. “What I love about it is that it’s very much about the cultural mood at the time, but the political goings-on, the historical backdrop, is woven in,” she says. “You see the way the forces of society and culture affect and influence these characters in a way that’s so subtle and wonderful.” Rakoff could very well be talking about her own novel, for it captures perfectly a particular time and place: New York from the late nineties tech boom, to the post-9/11 world of the new century. The characters are shaped by the city and this era, and as readers we pay witness to their evolutions. There’s a keen sense that this isn’t merely a personal drama about marriage, work, and making art, but also a book about what it means to exist in the world today. For instance, one character, Sadie Peregrine, isn’t just a mother of two, she is a mother of two in an increasingly frightening world:
Each day, some fresh horror arose: The train bombings in Madrid. The endless car bombings and suicide bombings in Iraq and Pakistan and Israel and Afghanistan, with their roster of civilian victims (children; always the children). The Vietnam-style rapes and massacres of Iraqi families–and the accompanying photos of the sweet-faced Virginia boys who’d perpetrated them. The kidnappings, all over the Middle East and North Africa, of journalists and contractors and translators. The beheadings–videotaped, aired on television–in Iraq. Everywhere, everything was wrong, wrong, wrong.
Typing this passage, I’m struck by how much darker it is than the opening of the novel, which begins with Lil’s wedding, four years after college graduation, its tone comic, almost jaunty. By the end of the novel, these characters have, without a doubt, reached adulthood, and it isn’t always a smooth transition.
Rakoff’s novel poses a central question: what do you hold onto from your idealistic youth, and what do you shed? In my mind, A Fortunate Age is a Post-Campus Novel: the campus, and what it signifies, has stayed with these characters, long after they’ve left it. For them, college was a time when they could easily devote themselves to art, and remain socially conscious; their passions did not yet have to be negotiated with the sobering realities of the working world. And the characters are cognizant, even occasionally pained by, this shift. In writing A Fortunate Age, Joanna says, “I was thinking a lot about the ways that going to a liberal arts college—specifically Oberlin, but you could say the same for other colleges of its kind, shapes you.” She says:
These colleges are utopian environments, in a way that a lot of these larger universities are not. You are instilled with these wonderful values and a wonderful sense of yourself, particularly if you are in the arts. And then you go out into the world, and it can be crushing. Perhaps more so in New York than everywhere else, but to see how commerce is what drives everything.
Joanna is a fan of the campus novel, particularly David Lodge’s work. She says she wanted to write a contemporary comedy of manners, which is difficult to do nowadays, because, at least in the US, “social mores are all over the place.” She points out that campus novels are so appealing because they’re about a closed society with certain rules. And maybe that’s why, in the world of her book, there’s “a Whartonian element to keeping up socially.” Lil, Sadie, and the others, they’ve got to compromise, and make sacrifices, in order to stay afloat in their world. “It’s indicative of the time period I’m chronicling,” she says.
Because the novel shifts perspective between five of the six characters, we get to see these characters both from the outside, and the in. We also see them through each other’s eyes, which can be both illuminating and alienating–sometimes friends get you, and sometimes, they don’t even come close. As the reader, we get to know these characters quite deeply, but never all at once. After spending a chapter with one, the narrative alights its glance on another, and we don’t return to the original character’s point of view for some time, if at all. This technique requires us to supply the rest of their story. Is Beth happy with Will? Is Dave going to stay in the band? How do they really feel? One can imagine both a negative, and a positive outcome, usually a mingling of both. Joanna tells me this was part of her plan, based in on the structure of The Group by Mary McCarthy, which A Fortunate Age was inspired by:
What I’m trying to do is give you a glimpse of a character—it’s kind of a Modernist project: to give you a glimpse of a character and then allow you to bore into that character’s head. I wanted each character to start off in an almost superficial way—see that character dealing with almost trite, gossipy things…their friends, their dress. As the chapter went on, I wanted to go deeper and deeper into their heads and see what their lives are like.
She is quick to point out, too, that the characters in her novel are affected by Oberlin in a totally different way than McCarthy’s characters are by Vassar. I asked Rakoff about one particular character in the novel, Caitlin, who also graduated from Oberlin with the others, but isn’t a friend of theirs–in fact, you might even describe her as a villain. We are never given access to her point of view. Caitlin wields a holier-than-thou attitude, and is blind to her own hypocritical behavior. “My initial draft of the book was more harsh and satirical with regard to all the characters, not just Caitlin,” Rakoff says. “Later drafts softened them, but not with Caitlin—and it’s not satirical license…I know people just like her. There’s always going to be that person who drinks the Kool-Aid, and it stays in her system. Part of Caitlin’s problem is that she’s so insecure and over confident, and she is trying so hard to be counter-cultural that she’s become dictatorial.”
I smile because I’ve too met people similar to Caitlin, though fewer and fewer with each year away from college. I ask Joanna about the choice to write about people in their twenties. Joanna laughs, and tells me about a friend who tried to convince her not to write the book. Her friend said she didn’t want to read about young people in New York. “I am that person!” she said. For a time, Joanna heeded her advice, until she couldn’t any longer. She wanted to tell this story.
[As a reviewer] I was doing this really heavy volume of reading, and I would get these novels about young women, usually in NY. They were just ridiculous. They were all about buying…Prada shoes, Gucci bags. I don’t know anyone whose life is like that. I don’t know anyone who really lives like this. I kept waiting for that novel to come my way, that was going to be about people I knew, and it never came.
A Fortunate Age isn’t about people I know–not exactly–but the lives explored therein are nevertheless rich and complicated, sometimes absurd, sometimes appalling, sometimes beautiful. It felt true to me. I’m glad Joanna Smith Rakoff wrote this book into existence. I can now add her to my illustrious list of alumni.
Sonya Chung is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher who nourishes her split personality by living part-time in the S. Bronx and part-time in rural PA. She writes and grows vegetables in both places. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, BOMB Magazine, and Sonora Review, among others. Her first novel, Long for This World, is forthcoming from Scribner in March 2010. You can find her fiction and blog-chronicles (adventures in publishing a first novel) at sonyachung.com.I.When a friend admits to me – usually a bit sheepishly, knowing that I am a literary writer and reader – that she is reading a paperback romance novel, or, even “worse,” a series of them, I laugh it off and say, as sincerely as I can muster, Good for you, I’m sure you need the relaxation and escape, and we move on to the next topic.In my fiction classes, I always ask students to fill out a brief survey on the first day of class so I can get a feel for their reading interests; invariably, a number of students list Dean Koontz or Dan Brown or Nora Roberts or (most recently and markedly) Stephenie Meyer as their touchstones. When I see these writers’ names or hear them mentioned in class, something goes thud in my stomach and a low-grade dread begins to buzz in my head.II.Am I just an insufferable snob? Possibly. If you think so, feel free to stop reading now; we may be at an impasse.III.A spiritual war rages between art and entertainment, elitism and populism, the difficult pleasure and the mindless escape, complex meaning and convention-driven predictability… literary fiction and genre fiction.Or not. On the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, a new “Summer Thriller” series – featuring, this past Sunday, a story (or serial installment?) by Dean Koontz. The protagonist is a whipsmart hostage negotiator who faces off with a Hannibal Lecter/Buffalo Bill-esque psychopath (he “displays” his dead [raped] female victims after dipping them in polyurethane). In a zippy plot twist (SPOILER alert), the hostage (ah coincidence!) turns out to be the negotiator’s savvy wife; the revelation elicits a “gasp” from the psychopath.In The New Yorker this week, a profile by staff writer Lauren Collins on prolific romance novelist Nora Roberts. I haven’t read the full profile, but it’s got Slate’s XX Factor blogger Willa Paskin (presumably not currently a romance reader) ready to pick up a Roberts novel – “Collins makes the case, without ever overselling, that Roberts’ books might not be totally devoid of artistic merit” – and eager to hang out with Roberts herself, who “comes across as a down-to-earth, foul-mouthed, self-deprecating, extremely grounded, extremely disciplined woman.”IV.What is going on here? Are we in the literary and genre camps laying down our arms and reaching across the proverbial aisle to hold hands and work together? More importantly, is “not totally devoid of artistic merit” some kind of newly-acceptable standard for reading selection? (Like how the standards for “organic” loosen to near-meaninglessness as big farming corps get into the business?)To anyone feeling ready to click away from this post in a huff: I feel a little like Sherman Alexie, who said last week in a follow-up to his feather-ruffling comments about the Kindle being elitist that he felt like David being mistook for Goliath.With its obligatory happy endings, strict conventions, formula elements, and, above all, comforting predictability, genre fiction will always garner a wider audience than literary fiction. Which is another way of saying that more people buy books and spend time with the words in them to evade the (messy, complicated) world as it is than to see it more truly – in all its mystery, pain, complexity, and beauty. Resistance – perhaps opposition is not too strong a word – to genre fiction for a writer and reader of literary fiction is, in my opinion, a literary ecosystem imperative.V.Why do The New Yorker and The New York Times want me to rethink my dividing lines? Are my soul or my artistic integrity at risk of atrophying if I don’t see the light and embrace a new political correctness that’s deemed formulaic genre writing and literary writing more alike than they are different?Let me, for the sake of this essay and the ensuing discussion, take a (overstated, survival-driven) hardliner’s position: pure genre writing invites and indulges engagement and validation of our lesser, lazier, unthinking, hedonistic selves; well-wrought literary fiction affords, in the critic Harold Bloom’s words, a difficult pleasure and illuminates the truths of the human soul, for better or for worse, thus opening the engaged reader to the possibility of courage, intellectual and emotional honesty, wisdom. Popular genre writing and literary writing represent diametrically opposed visions of the value and necessity of reading books; they are as different as lust and love, band-aids and surgery. To imply otherwise is to cop to hysterical anti-intellectualism and give credence to the same sorts of “elitist!” cries that sought to make Barack and Michelle Obama appear out of touch and John McCain a man of the people.There are real stakes here. What you read matters.VI. But enjoy your genre books, I say. Life is tough, we all seek ways to effectively distract and soothe ourselves. Consume your genre series with gusto and pleasure, like a drippy, juicy bacon burger; kick back and let them carry you away weightlessly, like an after-midnight Wii session. But do not imagine or attempt to argue that they play a vital role in augmenting the human experience. They allow for, are designed for, reader passivity and thus do not do what Joe Meno described eloquently in Edan Lepucki’s profile this week:Books have a different place in our society than other media. Books are different from television or film because they ask you to finish the project. You have to be actively engaged to read a book. It’s more like a blueprint. What it really is, is an opportunity… A book is a place where you’re forced to use your imagination.VII.So with Roberts and Koontz now occupying prized real estate in the pages of The New Yorker and the New York Times, it’s fight or flight as far as I can tell. Recently, I’ve been developing a list of what I call “bait n switch” books – books that bring together the strengths of both the genre and literary forms: suspense, sexual tension, absorbing dialogue, compelling plots, characters you come to love like your favorite pets; and fresh and inventive language, complex characterization, settings you can taste touch and smell, consequential ideas, ambiguity and surprise and mystery. I’ve given these as gifts or recommended them to people who tend to read only genre fiction or little fiction at all; with good response. My ultimate mission: to convert the unbelieving to the (crucial, soul-shaping) fact that you needn’t ingest bad or “not that bad” writing in order to be entertained and/or absorbed by a book. For anyone who’d like to suit up for the battle:Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (for erotic thriller lovers)Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are My Weakness and Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help (for chic lit readers)Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Pet Dog,” and really anything by Henry James (for romance readers)E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair and Ragtime (for Harry Potter and other boy-adventure fans)Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (for manly men who are into horror)Poetry by Jane Kenyon and Rilke (for people “intimidated” by poetry)The following two are a little riskier, but I’d like to try inflicting one or both of them on a poor unsuspecting soul one of these days:Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees (a simple, universal story of love/breakup/love again)Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth (pure storytelling, you hardly know what hit you)And, if all else fails, well: there’s always “The Wire.”[Image Credit: Randen Pederson]