With the publication of her 11th novel, Meg Wolitzer is poised to garner a level of critical attention most novelists only dream of. It feels like a long time coming, too (“Finally,” reads the parenthetical headline of her New York Times author profile). The Female Persuasion is hefty, and its subjects—which range from on-campus sexual harassment to the feminist movement to female mentorship—feel so of-the-moment that it’s easy to forget Wolitzer has been writing sprawling, ambitious books for her entire career.
In 2013, the critic Britt Peterson noted how Wolitzer, along with novelist Claire Messud, tackles novels of female ambition without shying away from ugly truths. “[Their] heroines fail and have to figure out how they feel about that—with some new, and slightly uncomfortable twists,” Peterson writes in The New Republic. It’s this tendency that makes Meg Wolitzer one of America’s great realist chroniclers of upwardly mobile Jewish women, whether they’re struggling in unfulfilling office day jobs, like Jules Jacobson in The Interestings, or trying to break through the comedy glass ceiling, like Dottie Engels in This Is My Life (brought to screen by the late, great Nora Ephron in 1997). New readers might see The Female Persuasion and think, “At last!” But Wolitzer has been there all along, and her backlist is worth another look.
So grab your beach blanket and promotional publisher’s tote—I know you have one—and get ready to spend the summer with Meg Wolitzer’s angry, hilarious, wry, and wily women.
Belzhar (2014): Written for teens, Belzhar is an interesting departure for Wolitzer. The low-key depression that can settle on her world-weary adult characters takes on sharper relief in Jam Gallahue, a teenager struggling with grief after losing her boyfriend, Reeve. Concerned for her safety, Jam’s parents send her to the Wooden Barn, a Vermont boarding school for troubled teens, to recover. While studying The Bell Jar (of course!), Jam discovers that keeping her own journal helps her access another world: one where Reeve is alive. But which world will Jam choose?
The Interestings (2013): Wolitzer’s last novel for adults, about a group of creative strivers who meet at a summer camp upstate in the ’70s, contains all her favorite themes writ large: friendship, ambition, gender politics. There’s Jules, a failed actress turned beleaguered therapist; Ash, a playwright and social activist with a troubled brother; and Ethan, a cartoonist whose Simpsons-level success makes him all kinds of rich. Class difference is the major bugaboo here, and while the opening chapters capture the electric feeling of young people discovering their passions, the book also veers off to explore what I fondly think of as “rich people problems.” Ash’s brother skips out on his trial for sexual assault and holes up in Iceland with a former camp counselor, leaving the gang to decide when—and how—they handle the (very illegal) secret.
The Uncoupling (2011): If despairing Twitter jokes about not wanting to date hetero men right now are up your alley, let me introduce you to four women in suburban New Jersey who lose all desire to have sex with their husbands and lovers. Is it the high school production of Lysistrata, or is something bigger and more complicated at work? Middle-age desire, marriages good and bad, and the pleasures and perils of nonmonogamy all get their moment in the spotlight.
The Ten-Year Nap (2008): What would you do if, after deciding to stay home to raise your children, you suddenly realized you wanted your old life—your career, your freedom—back? That’s the question at the heart of this wry examination of marriage, family, and ambition, and it hardly feels out of place 10 years later. There’s a rash of mothering memoirs hitting in the shelves in 2018, from Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything to Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, and I can’t help thinking of all those alarm clocks ringing out across Manhattan in the novel’s opening scene, asking each of Wolitzer’s women what kind of lives they want to waken into.
The Wife (2003): “Though I’m now sixty-four years old and mostly as invisible to men as a swirl of dust motes, I used to be a slender, big-titted blond girl with a certain shyness that drew Joe toward me like a hypnotized chicken,” confides Joan Castleman, the shrewd narrator of Wolitzer’s sixth novel. As Joan’s marriage to her husband (and former professor!) falls apart, she tells their love story with razor-sharp humor and pathos. Perhaps most poignant is Joan’s anger and grief about all that she has missed out on shepherding Joe’s career as a writer—when she could have been shepherding her own.
Image: Flickr/Mauricio Sepulveda
“You do not do, you do not do / Any more, black shoe…” The poet’s voice is strong, piercing. Her tone arch, sly. A few lines later, as she proclaims, “Daddy, I have had to kill you,” she sounds like she’s about to burble into a mean, delicious laugh.
The poem is Sylvia Plath’s patricidal “Daddy” and the voice her own, recorded for the BBC in October 1962, less than five months before her death at age 30. That day, she read aloud more than a dozen of the poems that would help make up Ariel, the posthumous collection that would make her name, as she herself foretold.
Writing about these same recordings in the New York Review of Books in 1971, Elizabeth Hardwick describes how “taken aback” she was by them. “Clearly, perfectly, staring you down,” she writes, describing Plath’s delivery. “She seemed to be standing at a banquet like Timon, crying, ‘Uncover, dogs, and lap!’”
I still remember my surprise at hearing these recordings on my tinny cassette recorder in my freshman dorm room more than 25 years ago. I suppose I expected something more ethereal, a doomy Ophelia floating down the river. There was, instead, something ferocious about them. First, it unsettled me; then it excited me.
Like many women, I saw myself in Plath: a diligent, high-achieving young woman, a striver privately bristling against social conventions and punishing gender roles. (“A living doll, everywhere you look,” she writes in “The Applicant.” “It can sew, it can cook…will you marry it, marry it, marry it?”) But Plath more than bristled; she burned. In so many of her poems and in her mordant, acid-tongued novel The Bell Jar, you can feel the rage rippling off the pages.
Growing up in the Midwest in the 1980s, I was a hard worker, a straight-A student, a people-pleaser, disciplined and dutiful. A Tracy Flick without the swagger. But when I first read “Daddy,” its incantational rhythm, its audacious analogies (the speaker likens herself to a concentration camp victim, her father to a Nazi, her husband to a vampire), it unleashed something inside me. I wanted to write like that. Bold, risk-taking, confrontational. “The work of a mad woman on fire”: That’s how my creative writing professor charitably classified the deeply derivative poems I wrote under Plath’s spell. But it didn’t matter that they were derivative. What mattered was that I—this well-behaved, compliant young woman—was writing from deeper, darker places, reservoirs of anger and frustration I’d always denied were there.
Even back then, it felt to me like Plath was writing from this secret, shared subterranean place—a place where girls and women let loose all their “unacceptable” feelings: bald ambition, aggression, frustration, resentment, rage. But now, in 2018, that place no longer feels so subterranean. “The anger window is open,” Rebecca Traister wrote last November. “For decades, centuries, it was closed: Something bad happened to you, you shoved it down, you maybe told someone but probably didn’t get much satisfaction—emotional or practical—from the confession.” In the aftermath of the 2016 campaign, the inauguration, the Harvey Weinstein scandal and everything that’s followed, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that the lid’s been torn off. The subterranean is no longer subterranean. Instead, it’s terra not-so-firma. Everything’s different now.
There’s always been a drumbeat of disapproval of Plath’s work, and it often comes down to: She’s just too much. A 1966 Time review of Ariel refers to “Daddy” as that “strange and terrible poem” Plath composed during her “last sick slide toward suicide,” adding that its style is as “brutal as a truncheon.” M.L. Rosenthal’s 1965 review of Ariel in The Spectator finds several of the poems “hard to penetrate in their morbid secretiveness” and puzzles uncomfortably over the way they seem to “make a weirdly incantatory black magic against unspecified persons and situations.” Years later, in the New Criterion, Bruce Bawer would refer to Plath’s “shrill, deranged” voice in the Ariel poems. She’s too much, too loud, too hysterical; she’s taking up too much space. It’s fascinating to read this criticism today, when political and cultural rhetoric runs searingly hot, when the standards for hyperbole have dramatically shifted, and when charges of female shrillness resonate more deeply than ever.
That’s why I’ve found myself returning to Plath so much in the last two years. Her recordings became the de facto soundtrack to my latest novel, Give Me Your Hand, begun in the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign and completed just after the inauguration. It’s the story of three brilliant, ambitious women seeking a cure for premenstrual dysphoric disorder, otherwise known as “extreme PMS.” There was something deeply unsettling about trying to bring to life the creeping misogyny within the male-dominated world of scientific research as the headlines blared. One day, it was candidate Donald Trump dismissing Megyn Kelly’s pointed questions by seemingly referencing her menstrual period; the next, it was “Grab them by the pussy.” Amid the cries of “Lock her up” and “Bern the Witch,” I listened to Plath over and over, but it was different now. Hearing her firm, authoritative voice, I couldn’t help thinking of the incessant criticism of Hillary Clinton’s voice as “shrill” and her laugh a cackle. I imagined what those critics might think of Plath’s voice: ruthless, relentless, witchy. Suddenly, the recordings seemed to take on an even greater strength. They felt bracing, invigorating. They felt like a battle cry.
There’s a long tradition of playing connect the dots between Plath’s biography and her writing. I, too, used to indulge in this line of thinking, titillated by the details of Plath’s life: her struggles with depression, her tumultuous marriage to poet Ted Hughes, her suicide. But this approach to her work feels different now too. It’s a way to diminish her writing as “personal” and thus small, even narcissistic. The argument is familiar. It’s the same one that pigeonholes fiction by and about women as “domestic novels” or movies about women as “chick flicks.” But as with those novels and movies, the issues with which Plath wrestles are the ones now consuming us: fear of female ambition, fear of the female body and the female voice, and perhaps most of all, fear of female power. The subterranean space Plath gave voice to for decades has become our daily landscape, and she serves as our sage, our guide. “I know the bottom,” she writes in “Elm.” “I know it with my great tap root: / It is what you fear. / I do not fear it: I have been there.”
It’s no surprise, then, that Plath seems more omnipresent than ever: Kirsten Dunst is developing The Bell Jar for the screen, a recent auction of Plath’s belongings garnered $551,862, and an exhibit of her belongings at the National Portrait Gallery featured everything from a ribboned ponytail of her to her Girl Scout uniform. But there’s something particularly exhilarating about young women responding to her with the same fervency I did a quarter century ago. As I listened to that cassette of Plath reading, millennial women tattoo The Bell Jar’s “I am I am I am” on their forearms, or fill their Tumblr and Instagram feeds with Plath quotes, excerpts and stanzas transformed into cris de coeur. The hands-down favorite is from “Lady Lazarus.” “Beware,” the speaker warns. “Out of the ash I rise with my red hair and I eat men like air.”
Lately, whenever I talk with a young woman about Plath or teach “Daddy” to undergrads, I think about the first critique of Plath I ever heard. It was a movie scene: a man visiting a woman’s apartment for the first time plucks a copy of Ariel from her book shelf. “Interesting poetess,” he says, “whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college-girl mentality.” The woman fumbles shyly and replies, self-effacingly, “Oh, yeah, right. I don’t know. Some of her poems seem neat.” Watching this exchange, I felt the burn of recognition. Because at the time, I was that “college girl” in thrall to Plath. I’m a cliché, I thought. But on a deeper level, I felt dismissed, diminished. The movie, of course, was Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. Now, when I watch that scene—the man’s casual dismissal, the woman’s abashed response, the laughter in the audience—it looks so different. Everything looks different now.
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/IsabelleTheDreamer.
It’s been a somewhat slow, muddy-brained reading year for me—likely due to the intense distractions of both ugly news media and challenging life happenings. But thankfully and nonetheless, some wonderful books got read (intentional passive voice, enacting the struggle here via syntax). In fact, since I needed a strategy this year—to battle the muddy distractedness—a handful of books even got read twice.
Two unexpected favorites were Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, both of which I began reading as if venturing into a musty basement, pinching my nose and bracing myself for dead rodents. In other words, I went in with all the baggage of a latecomer (to the hype), primed to find these seminal autobiographical novels both overrated and so socio-politically regressive that I would be unable to read them without a screen of irony. But in fact, nothing, not even cultural evolution, can stamp out beautiful writing; and one thing I’ve been most drawn to in fiction these days is a palpable sense of an author’s skin in the game. With both Plath and Miller, one cannot deny the precariously and deeply lived lives incarnated in these pages. In addition, Tropic sent me off to read Anaïs Nin’s gorgeous diaries (the years when she and Miller were intimates) which then sent me back to re-read Tropic.
Two other so-called classics I loved this year were The French Lieutenant’s Woman—John Fowles’s wonderful narrator, breaking the fourth wall and recounting the story of Victorian sexuality as much as that of Charles Smithson and Sarah Woodruff—and Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Of this pair, it was the D.H. Lawrence that got read twice—once in print, once via audio (you’ve just got to hear Mellors’s Derbyshire dialect, as read by Emilia Fox, in your ear). Next up, to square the circle, I’ll be tracking down Anaïs Nin’s D.H. Lawrence: An Unprofessional Study.
I am deeply grateful for Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, which I felt was written for “people like me,” who are, unfortunately, legion: we know this-and-that about the vast injustices of mass incarceration but needed Alexander to write the book that would coherently map out the cause and effect and thus activate us more concretely (I hope to have more to say/write about this next year). Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy ditto—a book that, in addition to educating you, will do that impossible thing: remind you that good, smart people set themselves to the hardest uphill life work imaginable and do this work regardless—regardless, that is, of all the shit that paralyzes people like me.
Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life made such an impression I can hardly talk about it. This one, too, I began rereading the minute I read the last word. It’s puzzle-piece, helix-like form left me in awe, and I dare say it is the most truly feminist novel I have read in a long time. It might take me a while to figure out what I mean by that, but I’m comfortable putting it out there.
Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn deserves every ounce of praise and honor it’s received. I’ve been telling people that if you liked the Elena Ferrante books, you’ll love Another Brooklyn.
Oh, and did I mention I was a judge for the Center for Fiction’s first novel award? This meant reading cartons-full of debut novels this summer—which was a great privilege, and also rather brain-breaking for this slow reader. You can see the shortlist here, but I’d like to shout-out a few that did not make the list: Deepak Unnikrishnan’s Temporary People (a tour-de-force of raw originality), Matthew Klam’s Who Is Rich? (characters you will love to hate and maybe even just love), and Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling (devastating, unflinching; a young-writer-to-watch).
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Michel Houellebecq’s latest English language poetry collection, Unreconciled, evokes a strange nostalgia. While this relentlessly downbeat collection is entirely composed of poems from between 1991 and 2013, it feels far older than that. In contrast to the current moment, the images Houellebecq uses to conjure up the bleakness of capitalism — commuters, isolated from each other by their Walkmen; microwave dinners for one — feel a little toothless. They make you want to laugh-sob over one beer too many: “remember when we thought things were bad for workers?” Which makes it all the more striking that one aspect of Houellebecq’s work makes it a must-read for the present day — his depiction of the Sad Flâneur.
This figure is freakin’ everywhere in this book. Trudging past an old beggar being kicked in the head, wandering through a car park, reluctantly navigating the tourist district, he consistently registers somewhere between numb and suicidal. He’s worlds away from what’s normally associated with the flâneur — somebody who takes joy from immersing themselves in the crowds and the hustle and bustle of the city. As such, he feels like the inevitable rebuttal to Walter Benjamin’s vision of the flâneur, who simultaneously protests capitalism with its emphasis on hurry and productivity by taking a turtle for a walk in the Arcades and allowing the turtle to set the pace of movement, and who functions as a connoisseur of capitalism. (“For the masses as well as the flâneur, glossy enameled corporate nameplates are as good a wall-decoration as an oil painting is for the homebody sitting in his living room.”) This vision of the flâneur feels appropriate now — undermining as it does, one interpretation of the flâneur’s most hopeful aspect: that he will act as a witness for the horrors of the past and trigger the “redemptive repair that can correct the past in hopes of a better future.”
Of course, Houellebecq didn’t invent this figure. The Sad Flâneur can be seen through all manner of literature, from the recent (for example, Tao Lin’s 2013 novel, Taipei) to the older (as with Esther Greenwood in Sylvia Plath’s only novel, The Bell Jar). It’s no coincidence that the figure appears in literature in times in which capitalism is at its most ruthless: at his most powerful, the Sad Flâneur lays bare the relationship between capitalism and depression.
All three works feature characters who move through the city with a certain weird sadness. Despite Esther acknowledging that her summer in New York is a gift for someone as suburban and inexperienced as herself, she never reaches the dizzy heights of flânerie. Instead, we get motion minus emotion: “I just bumped from my hotel to work and to parties and from parties to my hotel and back to work like a numb trolley-bus.” Even when she attempts to deviate from her schedule, as when she lets a group of strange men take her and her attractive friend for drinks, she still expresses her feelings via metaphors for a sort of melancholy movement: “It’s like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction…rushing away from all…that excitement at about a million miles an hour.” Paul, Taipei’s man-child protagonist is the inverse of Esther. He lives in New York full-time, his life is mysteriously all leisure (though, much like that classic New York sitcom trope, like in Friends or Sex and the City, his finances don’t really add up) and his motion expresses that: we follow him from party to party, with his arrival only leading to the realization that he wants to be somewhere else.
It’s clear Paul doesn’t think of himself as a slacker. He’s constantly inventing tiny tasks or goals, as if to lend a sense of industriousness to what is, effectively, just goofing off. He’s not wandering the city, he’s going to buy an avocado or to buy drugs, or else he’s going to a reading. He never seems to enjoy the city or motion itself so much as a sense of having something to check off his to-do list. Meanwhile, Houellebecq’s flâneur narrators are perhaps the most openly lugubrious about their lifestyle. In the poem “The Core of the Malaise,” the narrator states wistfully that when “one is dealing with a ‘simple stroll,’ that ‘direction is…alas very rare.” But if he hates walking with no clear goal, why do it? Earlier in the poem he clarifies for us. The view outside his room “doesn’t make you feel like going out, but staying in the room is disastrously boring.” If at this point, you’re chalking this up as the Gauloises n’ cynicism pose of a French writer of a certain age, read through the entire volume and you’ll gradually get worn down. He’s serious.
If you’re “well, duh”-ing the above, you’re not wrong. After all, one of the tasteless side effects of Plath’s death is that she’s become a poster girl for literary depression, while Houellebecq has been public about his own struggle with depression, which was so serious it led to “several stays in psychiatric units.” Lin has been equally candid, referring to his depression on several different occasions (although he has stressed he’s never been “officially” diagnosed with the illness due to embarrassment about consulting a doctor). So maybe I’m overegging this omelette. Maybe wandering through New York and Paris sounds terrible and exhausting and crushing because, quite simply, we’re seeing these cities through perspectives that have been soured by depression.
Yet none of these authors are shy about linking their works to a larger political picture. It’s no coincidence that Plath opens her novel on a sentence that neatly yokes together city, politics, and depression: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” By the Rosenbergs, Esther is referring to, of course, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were convicted of and executed for conspiring to commit espionage with information about the Atomic Bomb for the Soviet Union at the height of McCarthyism. Plath goes on:
I’m stupid about electrocutions. The idea of being electrocuted makes me sick, and that’s all there was to read about in the papers…It had nothing to do with me, but I couldn’t help wondering what it would be like, being burned alive all along your nerves.
Esther’s “It had nothing to do with me” feels disingenuous. It hardly seems a coincidence that the protagonist’s name is so strikingly similar to Ethel Rosenberg’s maiden name, Esther Ethel Greenglass. Besides which, the gruesome, half-botched execution that would go on to mark the height of McCarthyist paranoia in America is described here in a way that anticipates the electroshock therapy Esther undergoes for her depression (“with each flash a great jolt drubbed me till I thought my bones would break and the sap fly out of me like a split plant”). It’s hard not to conclude that Esther’s depression is, in part, that hoary old chestnut: a sane reaction to an insane world, or in this case, political climate.
It’s a similar story in Taipei. On a skim read, it seems apolitical. Barring the use of recreational drugs, Paul doesn’t feel passionately about anything and is so exhaustingly ironic that it’s hard to imagine him holding anything within a mile of a deeply-felt political belief. But that one exception is more meaningful than it first seems: in Audrea Lim’s acute LARB essay on Taipei, she notes how Lin swerves “conventional drug genres of bacchanal and cautionary tale” and makes reference to “what Michel Foucault calls ‘technologies of the self’– techniques that individuals enact upon their bodies, minds, and behavior in order to transform themselves.” Her emphasis is on the way drugs make us productive and our reality bearable and this, I believe, is where Taipei makes its politics known. Because Taipei is the first really convincing novel about the modern precariat worker.
The term was popularized in Guy Standing’s 2011 work The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class and refers to the millions of people “flanked by an army of unemployed and a detached group of socially ill misfits,” working zero hour contracts and without any of the benefits (sick leave, pensions, maternity leave) enjoyed by those in stable, seemingly permanent roles.
Which all feels distinctly familiar when reading Taipei, which was publicized as “an ode — or lament — to the way we live now” that would concentrate on “what it means to be…on the fringe in America, or anywhere else for that matter,” and in which Paul and his friends are united by the precariousness of their work. There are no stable salaried roles here, instead we get friends who wait tables (fine, but hard to fathom how to eke out a living from such a role in New York), work as a gig-by-gig research assistant for a ghostwriter and almost-copywriter for a band, or work as a freelance journalist whose pitch emails languish unanswered. Writer Paul is perhaps the most financially comfortable person of his generation in the novel, but make no mistake, he’s aware of his success being evaluated on a series of one-off performances. Paul’s most pressing motivation to take drugs isn’t to let off steam, but to repress his social anxiety to a point where he can be talkative at the events on his book tour:
To determine what amount of what drugs…he should ingest, on what days, to minimize anxiety and boredom for himself and others, he’d edited the seven page itinerary from his publisher to fit on one page…He’d printed a final draft…that said he should ingest something…before twenty-two of his twenty-five events and some miscellaneous things such as the day a writer from BlackBook was writing an article about ‘hanging out’ with him while doing that.
The success (or lack thereof) of Paul’s attempts to self-medicate are made explicit when he states:
I mean…the world is good enough, based on evidence, because I haven’t killed myself…Since the urge to kill myself isn’t so strong that I actually kill myself, the world is worth living in.
In a world in which the U.S. president appears to be about to roll back workers’ rights with regard to enforcing labor laws and cracking down on wage theft, in which almost a million Britons work zero hour contracts while their banks get propped up by the taxpayer, this feels like Paul has internalized the right-wing idea of what the standard of life for the average precariat worker should be. Just good enough so that you’re not pushed over the edge into brutal self-harm. Given Paul’s use of drugs to function professionally — in contrast to Walter Benjamin, who looked to hashish, much as he looked to his rambles through the city for “profane illumination” — Paul’s inability to move through the city without inventing small to-dos seems a symptom of an America in which productivity has taken priority over humanity.
Houellebecq is more explicitly savage about what he sees as the false promises of politics. He has no faith in the benevolence of institutions, and we see this in the geography of his latest collection. In Unreconciled hospitals are:
…asylums of suffering
Where the forgotten old turn into organs
Beneath the mocking and utterly indifferent eyes
Of interns who scratch themselves, eating bananas.
After death, the “council-flat old” are buried in “the crematorium/In a little cabinet with a white label” in contrast to “the too-rich old ladies” who are buried in cemeteries “surrounded by cypresses and plastic shrubs.” Clearly, only money permits you to escape being buried at the bureaucratic heart of the city. The fruits of capitalism are cold comfort for inequality: there’s only “Supermarkets and urban routes,/The immobile boredom of holidays.”
It’s worth stressing that half of the collection was written at the peak of publicity surrounding the plight of the French precariat — when working conditions at Orange (formerly the state-owned France Telecom) became increasingly stressful after a push for efficiency following privatization led then-boss Didier Lombard to announce he would cut 20,000 jobs. Lombard is suspected of trying to speed up job losses by unsettling staff with a forced relocation scheme and staff were subject to the stress of “a reduced workforce being asked to produce better results…the threat of site closures and job losses, and an atmosphere of increased competition between workers.” There were 35 suicides between 2008 and 2009 (and further waves of suicides up until midway through 2016), with employees leaving suicide notes implicating the management.
Given the implied politics of these works, the reason for these flaneurs’ strange, numbed sadness becomes clearer. How could these characters take pleasure in ambling across the city they’re based in, when these same cities are effectively the visual form of the same system that’s crushing them?
Because it’s worth stressing that the connection between capitalism and depression isn’t as woolly as it sounds. In recent years there has been a growing acceptance that the two are linked. Research from the World Health Organization and the U.S. National Research Council and Institute of Medicine support the idea that links between poverty and mental and physical health problems exist, while first-person narratives support the thesis and the Guardian publishes articles honing the argument: it’s not capitalism, but selfish capitalism we have to look out for.
Which makes returning to these works — starting with Houellebecq’s new collection — more than worthwhile. If you want to know what Donald Trump thinks about a work-life balance, refer to the man himself: “If you’re interested in ‘balancing’ work and pleasure, stop trying to balance them. Instead make your work more pleasurable.” And yet, it doesn’t sound as if work will become more pleasurable under Trump — as Professor Raymond Hogler has observed, his economic policy overlaps with right-to-work ideology (workers’ right not to be required to join a trade union), which statistically tends to correlate with “lower rates of union membership, lower levels of human development, lower per capita incomes, lower levels of trust and less progressive tax schemes.”
Cities will change under Trump. How could they not? We’re talking about the man whose hotels have altered the skylines of cities around the world, whose primary passion is real estate, whose security detail around Trump Tower in New York means Manhattan midtown traffic jams for the next four years. But it won’t just be about buildings, but people. Sure, Walter Benjamin was from a wealthy family and Charles Baudelaire spent much of his life living off his mother’s money, but still: I think we can all agree that making the city so prohibitively expensive that only philosophers and artists with family money can afford to idle their way round the streets curtails the revolutionary potential of flânerie.
So look to Houellebecq, Lin, Plath for a glimpse into the crystal ball. In a world where business interests will dominate the urban landscape, it’s hard to imagine the happy flâneur will be any more prevalent in literature — or life — than any other endangered species.
Image Credit: Pexels.
Early in her novel Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor describes protagonist Hazel Motes, leader of the Church without Christ, by the silhouette he casts on the sidewalk. “Haze’s shadow,” she writes, “was now behind him and now before him.” It’s a strange way to situate a character — skulking between his shadows — but it’s not unprecedented. In The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot’s narrator refers to “Your shadow at morning striding behind you/Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you.” Coincidence? Nobody can say for certain. But in the rare case of a critic linking O’Connor and Eliot, Sally Fitzgerald (O’Connor’s close friend) wrote that “it was Eliot and his Waste Land who provided for her the first impetus to write such a book as Wise Blood.”
Harold Bloom, the literary critic who thrives on making such connections, famously argued that great writers, burdened by what he called the “anxiety of influence,” subconsciously misread established literary giants to achieve originality. But in this case, O’Connor is not misreading Eliot. She’s answering him. The Waste Land delivers a darkly poetic proposition. Every line relentlessly reiterates the theme that, in the wake of World War One, hope had been leached from life. Existence, in the poem’s assessment, culminates in a word one rueful lover repeats in The Waste Land’s second section: “Nothing . . . Nothing. . . nothing . . .nothing . . .Nothing.”
O’Connor was a Catholic whose literary ambitions hewed to an active faith. For her, nothing could come from nothing. She embraced The Waste Land’s despair but refused to accept its emptiness. In her essay “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” she wrote, “I have heard it said that belief in Christian dogma is a hindrance to the writer, but I myself have found nothing further from the truth. Actually, it frees the storyteller to observe.” This belief — informed by a desire to observe from a Christian angle — compelled her to both absorb the meaningless in Eliot’sThe Waste Land while, at the same time, offering a response. Of Hazel Motes, she once wrote, “His search for a physical home mirrors his search for a spiritual one, and although he finds neither, it is the latter search which saves him from becoming a member of the wasteland and makes him worth 75,000 words.”
In both Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away, O’Connor — as Harold Bloom would expect one to — evokes Eliot’s wasteland by replicating its prominent themes. She transplants the desolate urban iconography of The Waste Land’s to the small rural enclaves of the American South. O’Connor’s southern landscape is the “upsidedown half of the world,” a sad and painful sprawl of land where “each weed that grew out of the gravel looked like a live green nerve.” At times her landscape seems on the verge of exploding into flames and, in least one instance, at the end of The Violent Bear it Away, does just that. But in the midst of this desolation and conflagration she confronts Eliot’s dried-up nothing with a flood of something. Decisively, if jarringly, she proposes a vision — albeit a strange vision (Eliot once said of O’Connor, “She has certainly an uncanny talent of high order but my nerves are just not strong enough to take much of a disturbance”) — of human redemption.
Eliot delivers the ruins. O’Connor preserves them, navigates them, and then, inspired by Catholicism, discovers in them an original form of grace.
Whatever anxiety O’Connor experienced over mimicking Eliot (probably not very much), she didn’t attempt to hide it. In O’Connor’s second (and final) novel, The Violent Bear It Away, the 14-year-old Francis Marion Tarwater receives from his aging uncle, with whom he lives in a countrified wasteland, careful instructions on how to bury his large dead body when he eventually keels over in their isolated abode. After digging what the uncle insisted had to be a proper hole (“I want it ten foot”), Tarwater was then, according to the uncle’s directions, instructed to “prop me with some bricks so I won’t roll into it and don’t let the dogs nudge me over the edge before it’s finished. You better pen up the dogs.” In The Waste Land’s single reference to burial, a soldier home from war in London sees a former comrade walking across London Bridge and asks, “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/‘Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” And then: “Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to man/Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again.”
In both instances, in both wastelands, dogs are banished from the graveside. They will not be set loose to complete Antony’s famous order, delivered in Act III, Scene I of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, at Caesar’s funeral, to “let slip the dogs of war.” That act would miss the point in these mirrored wastelands because, as both Eliot and O’Connor suggest, whatever justice is to be attained is, alas, pointless. The body is interred. The play is over. Death is death. Dust is dust. The dogs must be locked away.
Perhaps the only prospect worse than death is, for both authors, eternal earthly life. It’s a prospect that both Eliot and O’Connor symbolize in the form of a shriveled, miniaturized body. The Waste Land opens with an epigraph that declares (in part): “Nam Sibyllam quidem Cumis ego ipse oculis meis vidi in ampulla pendere.” Translation: “Now I myself with my own eyes saw the Sybil of Cumae hanging in a jar.” According to myth, the Sybil of Cumae asked Apollo for eternal life but, in so doing, forgot to ask for eternal youth. Wish granted, the Sybil ages forever, shrinking to the point that she fits in a glass jar. The image is reliably referenced later in the poem as a symbol of existential hopelessness (“You ought to be ashamed, I said, to look so antique.”)
What worked for Eliot worked for O’Connor. In Wise Blood, Enoch Emery, the trickster sidekick whose friendship Haze Motes rejects, steals a mummified dwarf (displayed in a glass case) from a local museum and delivers it to Sabbath Lily Hawks, the nymph lover of Motes, in a paper sac. Enoch wants Motes, despite his bad attitude, to have the desiccated and shrunken mummy as a “new jesus” symbol for his Church Without Christ. Earlier in the novel, when Enoch first sees the mummy, he approaches it cautiously, after reading a sign on the wall that tells him “he was once as tall as you or me.” As with Eliot’s Sybil, the mummy has diminished in size over time. The scene ends when a mother walks into the museum with two boys, both of who approach the glass and peer at the blackened figure.
O’Connor, again in Wise Blood, practically completes Eliot’s scene for him. In Eliot’s epigraph (which inexplicably switches to Greek), two boys approach the Sybil in the jar (some think this was the inspiration for Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar), just as the boys do in O’Connor’s museum. They ask her, “What do you want?” and the Sybil replies, in true Eliot fashion, “I want to die.” O’Connor grants the Sybil her wish when, after Sabbath showed Motes the mummified new Jesus, he “snatched the shriveled body and threw it against the wall.” Upon impact, “the head popped and the trash inside sprayed in a little cloud of dust.”
Few words are more evocative of The Waste Land than that carefully considered word: dust (a mote of dust). If there is a line that best captures the depth of the poem’s existential terror it comes when the narrator promises, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust” — or, as O’Connor suggests, maybe in the shattered head of a purloined dwarf.
O’Connor’s novels also follow Eliot’s lead on the theme of blindness. The inability to see, partially or completely, pervades The Waste Land. The “hyacinth girl,” from section one, describes a moment of potential romantic happiness when the girl notes of her possible lover, “we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,/Your arms full and your hair wet.” It’s one of the poem’s only moments of hope. But it’s immediately dashed when the hyacinth girl recalls how, quite suddenly, “I could not speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither/Living nor dead, and I knew nothing.” Later in the same section, the prophetess “Madame Sosostris,” consults her “wicked pack of cards” — is there any hope in there? — and finds a Phoenician sailor with “pearls that were his eyes” as well as a “one-eyed merchant.” The merchant on the tarot card carries something possibly significant on his back, but it turns out to be something for which Madame Sosotris must confess, “I am forbidden to see.” Some prophetess — she’s without foresight.
Sight, or lack thereof, is even more central to inner mechanics of Wise Blood. Hazel Motes, who can see normally when we meet him, eventually blinds himself in an act of spiritual rage. Motes’s antagonist, the preacher Asa Hawks, also sees normally, but fakes blindness as a ruse to foster donations. When naming her characters, O’Connor must have had in mind “seeing like a hawk” and the biblical “why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (And maybe even King Lear.) Either way, the theme of compromised sight is even in peripheral scenes. When Motes and Sabbath encounter a caged black bear at Tennessee gas station (don’t laugh, I once saw a caged ostrich an east-Texas gas station), we learn that “the bear had only one eye.” Enoch Emery’s landlady was “almost totally blind but moved about by an acute sense of smell.” Sabbath Lily says to her father about Haze, “I like his eyes. They don’t seem to see what he’s looking at, but they keep on looking.”
The similarities continue in other areas as well. They appear when Tarwater is raped in The Violent Bear it Away, and in Tarwater’s sadistic baptism (which results in drowning the feeble initiate). But, in the end, O’Connor isn’t content with simply mimicking Eliot’s hellscape of despair. Instead, she yanks us in the opposite direction — from a ghastly landscape to a strange paradise of redemption. And she does so in a way that, indeed, made her a true original — at once devout, humorous, and spiritual. It is in that last description of Motes’s eyes — “but they keep on looking” — that O’Connor’s faith intervenes, her Catholicism asks to be honored, and she lays an eccentric basis for hope.
Eliot ends his poem with a spiritual assessment of a wasted land that’s so devoid of life (specifically water) that it even dries out any prospect of Christ’s resurrection and, by extension, the rest of humanity. “After the agony in stony places/The shouting and the crying/Prison and palace and reverberation/Of thunder of spring over distant mountains/He who was living is now dead/We who are living are now dying.” To be sure, Motes doesn’t escape death. He dies in the back seat of a cop car. But before his death, after his blindness, as his spiritual vision intensifies towards something, he takes to staging his own crucifixion (wrapping himself in barbed wire and filling his shoes with rocks), and attempts his own conversion experience through a painful form of redemption.
The book ends with Motes’s corpse propped in a chair at the home of his landlady. Her name — evoking the water that never quenched The Waste Land — is Mrs. Flood, and her final observation — that she thinks (with her eyes shut) she sees “a pin point of light” in his dead eye sockets — is the twinkle of hope that you can search for throughout The Waste Land and never find. It is O’Connor’s way of answering, and escaping, The Waste Land. It is her way of resurrecting Motes, and ensuring that his quest for meaning never loses significance.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
In the preface of his faux-memoir novel Moonglow, Michael Chabon warns the reader: “I have stuck to facts except where facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” The world he creates in his novel — with a narrator so like the author in age, origin, and mannerism — is so convincingly real that for most of the book I was distracted by my desire to know which parts of the story were true and which were made up. Did Chabon’s grandfather really want to blow up Washington D.C.? And how much is true of the grandmother’s horrifying brush with Nazis?
But this, of course, is not the point of a novel, a book that is specifically marketed as fiction. Authors throughout history have taken this approach, creating fiction memoirs, perhaps to give themselves more freedom to embellish or play down scenes from life — I’m thinking of titles like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and Tobias Wolff’s Old School. In an interview with The Telegraph, Chabon clarified his intent in blending fact and fiction: “I actually feel like fiction, which is open about its deception, is a much more powerful and more revealing tool for getting at truths about what happens in families.” What kind of fiction is better at telling the truth than memoir? And what kind of truth is revealed from such writing?
These questions were at the forefront of my mind when I read Elif Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot. Like Chabon’s Moonglow, the narrator of The Idiot, Selin Karadağ, bears a strong resemblance to the author. Selin, like Batuman herself, is a New Jersey-born woman of Turkish descent, who goes to Harvard where she flirts with linguistics and the Russian language, falls in love with a senior who has another girlfriend, and follows him to Hungary that summer. Batuman writes about several of these events in her collection of nonfiction essays The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (2010), a thrilling book that I devoured in a matter of a few days.
I’ve long admired Batuman for her nonfiction writing (if you, too, want to fall in love, read Batuman’s essay on the peculiar history of Harvard’s Russian bells). Batuman’s incisive intelligence and blunt humor (for which she won the Terry Southern Humor Prize from The Paris Review in 2011) pervade both her essays — in The Possessed and in The New Yorker, where she has been a staff writer since 2010 — and her novel. Because of the similarities between The Idiot and Batuman’s personal essays, I found myself almost fact-checking the novel, measuring it up both against Batuman’s writing about her Harvard years and my own time as an undergrad there. I, too, took a psycholinguistics class with an attractive (though 15 years older) Italian man who, like Selin’s professor, wore shiny grey suits and taught in a cramped classroom on the 10th floor of the psychology building. And the series of strange events that lead to the character Selin spending a month teaching English in a Hungarian village are strikingly similar to the parade of missteps Batuman the nonfiction writer chronicles in The Possessed. I slipped so completely into Batuman’s fictional world, convinced of its truth, that when I reminded myself that Batuman had written a novel, not a memoir, I felt let down. I so wanted it all to be real. But why?
Batuman speaks directly to my strange urge to read this novel as nonfiction in an interview with The Rumpus in 2012. In response to a question about why publishers are more interested in getting writers to pen memoirs rather than novels, Batuman said: They want it to be true. And it’s actually an odd thing to want. The rationale is that people these days are no longer interested in novels, because we live in a newsy age, we care about facts, we care about the truth.” She ends by mentioning Tolstoy’s War and Peace and points out, “Tolstoy didn’t think he was detracting from the truth-telling power of his book by writing it as a novel.
So, now to Batuman’s novel and the truthiness living in its pages. At first blush, The Idiot is a bildungsroman of the late ’90s; Selin comes of age in a world where e-mail is just emerging and students at Harvard are social slaves to their dorm room phones, hoping that crushes will call on weekend nights. Indeed, Batuman introduces her narrative with a quote from the second volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, perhaps the heftiest tome of the bildungsroman genre. Batuman quotes from Proust, “In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.”
Adolescence is the beginning, middle, and end of The Idiot. Selin the character strikes me as an 18-year-old female version of Professor Timofey Pnin in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin; she is as confused by language and apt to make highly specific observations as the professor, though with a more modern, deadpan humor. Like this: an aerial view of one Hungarian town Selin describes as “spread out like some fantastic salad,” and a patch of overgrown grass in Boston “resembled a comb-over on the head of a bald person who didn’t want to see reality.”
Batuman’s enthusiasm for words comes through in Selin, whose quest to discover the truth about language makes her quite crazed. As Selin immerses herself in linguistics, psycholinguistics, and philosophy of language, she seems to hang her theories of language up, one by one, next to the linguists’ theories, a dizzying parade of Benjamin Whorf, Edward Sapir, Donald Davidson, and Noam Chomsky. Soon, Selin begins to be unraveled by language; she cannot communicate and loses the meaning of narratives and conversations, unable to step back from a close observation of form and structure to identify her own place in the story. She begins to feel anxious about her untethered position, and begs her own novelist to show her the way. “I wanted to know how it was going to turn out, like flipping ahead in a book,” Selin says in one of several metanarrative moments. “I didn’t even know what kind of story it was, or what kind of role I was supposed to be playing.”
Redemption in all this muddled language comes from literature, a nod to the author’s own preference for losing herself in the complex world of Russian fiction. Selin finds her own anxieties about language in a passage in Anton Chekhov’s “The Darling:” “You see a bottle, for example, standing there, or the rain falling, or a peasant going along in his cart, but what the bottle or rain or peasant are for, what sense they make, you can’t say and couldn’t say, even if they offered you a thousand rubles.” Even in her Russian classes, Selin sees more truth in the Russian literature the students are meant to read than in the facts of her own life. The short fiction stories in “Nina in Siberia,” which are only intended to teach the students Russian grammar and vocabulary, eerily mirror events in Selin’s life so that it becomes a challenge for Selin to separate what is happening to Nina from what is happening to her. (To me, this makes perfect sense. While a fanciful college sophomore with too many literature and language classes, I became so confused by my real life and so engrossed in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks that, while writing a paper about the literary significance of mouth pain and tooth aches in the book, I became convinced that I too had a mouth infection. And indeed, a week later I found myself strapped to a dentist chair, sedated and listening to the shrieking drills dig deep into my gums. Once again the truth of the book struck me; I understand that anxious absorption of an early college career. I’ve been there before.) As Nina the character searches for her love, Ivan, Selin begins to search for her own Ivan, the Hungarian senior she falls in love with. As Selin is made to act out Nina’s lines in her beginning Russian class with Ivan (the Hungarian) playing Ivan (Nina’s lover), I heard Elif Batuman’s laughter as she pulled the strings from above, coaxing Selin through a version of Batuman’s own hilarious search for the meaning of language by way of another layer of fiction — poor Nina’s fictional saga.
It was in this part of the book — when Elif seems to become Selin who seems to become Nina — that I came to understand one unique achievement of Batuman’s transformation of memoir into novel. The layered truths and fictions of The Idiot compounded so that everything in the novel became true and real in a deep, shining way that cannot be achieved through essays.
By the end of her novel, Batuman swerves away from the bildungsroman she seemed to have been writing all along. Selin returns to school convinced that her linguistics and philosophy of language classes had led her astray. In an allusion to Proust, whose pronouncement — that adolescence “is the only period in which we learn anything” — begins the book, Batuman concludes, “I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all.”
And that, in fact, might be the real truth of the whole conceit. That if we’re really searching for meaning, trying to dissect the whole novel and nose around for the facts hidden in it, then we risk not learning anything at all.
This July, I published my first novel, An Innocent Fashion, the story of a queer, biracial millennial who spirals into a depression after landing his dream job at a fashion magazine. The book was aptly pitched as “The Bell Jar meets The Devil Wears Prada” — with one foot firmly in each of both the “literary” and “commercial” realms. Yet the latter half of this equation proved the source of a major frustration. Specifically, I was self-conscious about other people’s biases against fashion, the commercial (read: “unserious”) theme on which my whole novel pivoted. In interviews I downplayed the fashion element over and over, explaining that despite being set in the office of a fashion magazine, the book was complex, using fashion to explore deeper societal issues.
Part of my preoccupation with “seriousness” came with the territory of being a first-time author; I yearned to be well-respected, considered “good enough” for one’s work to count as capital-L Literature. But the other part stemmed from a truth I’d been fighting from a young age: that fashion, which I had been passionate about from a young age, was not a very serious or important subject.
I grew up within a tight-knit Cuban family in Miami, surrounded by traditional values including the sharp distinction between male and female gender roles. As do many others, I learned that fashion was “for girls,” the subtext being that as it was somehow lesser — a frivolity. Personally, I didn’t see why fashion should be considered inherently more trivial than any other form of creative expression — writing, for instance, or fine art. I maintained that fashion’s unfair reputation was a reflection of my conservative environment. But even as an undergraduate at liberal-minded Yale, where intelligent peers sometimes expressed a heady disregard for the sartorial sphere, the effects of an entrenched bias were still evident. Others didn’t think as highly about fashion as I did; everywhere I went, fashion was considered frivolous.
Many books that embraced fashion as subject matter seemed to confirm and perpetuate this notion. As far as I could tell, fashion-oriented books fell primarily into the category of chick lit — juicy reads like Confessions of a Shopaholic and Bergdorf Blonds, in which “fashion” was a code word for the same kind of guilty pleasures afforded by junk food and reality TV. Of course, the biggest phenomenon in this league was The Devil Wears Prada.
Because like the author of Prada, I too had been a fashion assistant when I wrote my book, Prada had made for an inevitable comparison to An Innocent Fashion from the start. But unlike my book, however, in which even the least likable characters defy overarching stereotypes, Prada devotes 360 pages (and the film equivalent, two hours) to driving home the idea that fashion is not only frivolous, but also, inexplicably, “bad” — and that the people who love it are some inevitable combination of mean, superficial, and/or stupid. Aspiring to a career in”serious” journalism — the protagonist Andy Sachs paints an unanimously damning picture of her colleagues: nasty, brutish, and dagger-heeled.
The result of this reductive portrayal of the fashion industry is that pithy stereotypes remain unchallenged — a missed opportunity.
After all, it wasn’t always this way. If, in many realms, fashion has had an unfair reputation as a shallow womanly diversion, in literature it was put to use by some of our most important authors.
Consider Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in which, after her husband’s death, she can’t bear to throw away his shoes, which she compares to vital organs: “How could he come back if they took away his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?” There’s Sylvia Plath, whose novel The Bell Jar paints a portrait of a woman on the verge of losing her sanity, while working for the fictional equivalent of Mademoiselle in the ’50s. While the superficial magazine goings-on provoke the main character’s despair as she realizes her powerlessness to resist her destiny as a wife/mother/homemaker, she is frequently transfixed in earnest by the beauty of clothes and shoes, and “a whole life of marvelous, elaborate decadence that attracted me like a magnet” — making her relationship to fashion complex and real. In Edith Wharton’s society novels, corsetry and ruffles help Wharton make elegant, searing criticisms of class and gender inequality (“If I were shabby no one would have me,” says Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, “a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself”) — while who could forget the meaningful implications of fashion in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or The Great Gatsby, or Gone with the Wind?
Contemporary books touting fashion as subject matter rarely, if ever, offer such depth or complexity, while those that revolve around fashion magazines nearly always feature a cast made up exclusively of privileged white women. This perhaps more than anything is what I hoped would distinguish my novel. Given the precedent set by annals of homogeneously populated chick lit, the main character isn’t who you’d expect. He’s a person of color, queer, and the opposite of rich — an outsider named Ethan for whom the glamour of fashion represents the inaccessibility of the American dream. In the Prada-sphere, Ethan would surely be reduced to a stock character — most likely, a white woman’s sassy gay best friend.
The need for nuanced representations of fashion in fiction has never been greater. Fashion offers a unique lens to view some of the most important issues of our time: class, gender, race, and sexuality. Depictions of fashion in literature can and should reflect that, providing new ways to engage with the dialogue of human progress, challenging our ideas about society and personal identity. These goals, after all, are at the heart of literature and fashion alike.
See Also: Clothes in Books and Ways to go Wrong
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
With campaign rhetoric thrumming and throbbing around us, along with deepening divisions around race, guns, sexuality, and national security; and since much of what we see/hear in the media is alarming, disappointing, and not infrequently inane; I thought we might offer up some alternatives for readers looking to sink their political minds into something intelligent, compelling, possibly even hopeful (if not exactly optimistic). I asked Millions staff writers:
What is/are the best political fiction(s) you’ve read in the past decade?
We’re focusing on fiction because we’re interested in a broad definition of “political.” I wanted to hear from my colleagues what even constitutes “political fiction” in their minds.
The novel that came to mind for me first was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace I read it when it was published 16 years ago, but its chilling notion of social justice has stayed with me: in post-apartheid South Africa, Lucy, a white woman, is gang-raped in her home by three black men. She learns that the men are known by (one is even related to) Petrus, the black man and former employee with whom she runs a small farm and kennel on the eastern Cape. Her father, a womanizing university professor who’s been dismissed from his position for harassment, was with her when the attack happened — beaten and set aflame. Both survive the attack, but to David Lurie’s dismay, his daughter does not report the attack, nor leave the homestead; in fact, she eventually enters into a transactional relationship with Petrus, financial and sexual. If this narrative outcome isn’t disturbing enough, Coetzee makes sure to supply Lucy’s character with a motivational “theory” — that rape was
the price one has to pay for staying on…they see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves.
Fans of his work may know that Coetzee was criticized by his countrywoman Nadine Gordimer for writing stories that “leave nothing unsaid…about what human beings do to other human beings” — such that “the truth and meaning of what white has done to black [in South Africa] stands out on every page” — yet at the same time eschew the possibility of progressive change via political actors. Of Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, Gordimer famously wrote:
Coetzee’s heroes are those who ignore history, not make it…A revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions rises with the insistence of the song of cicadas to the climax of this novel…I don’t think the author would deny that it is his own revulsion…The exclusion is a central one that may eat out the heart of the work’s unity of art and life.
For Gordimer, a political writer was one who ruthlessly rendered social breakdown, but who also crafted characters that embodied the possibility of political upheaval and societal renewal; indeed the writer of the truly political novel must himself be driven by this possibility.
Interestingly, in his New York Times review of Disgrace, Michael Gorra compared the contemporaneous writing of Coetzee and Gordimer and wrote, “it is perhaps Coetzee, despite his resistance to a historically conditioned realism, who has the more deeply political mind.” And in the London Review of Books, while not naming Gordimer per se, Elizabeth Lowry suggested that a definition of political fiction along the lines of Gordimer’s engenders a simplistic, inferior genre:
For the South African novelist…how should the volatile, explosive history of South Africa, a history in the making, be represented in fiction without lapsing into the impoverished aesthetic of merely political writing?
Over a decade later, in “Where Has Political Fiction Gone?” (The Guardian, May 2010), Stuart Evers postulated on how novelists seem to have responded to Lowry’s challenge: “[C]ontemporary political novels — the ones that sell, at least — are more concerned with political disengagement than they are with values or beliefs. The theme that courses through…is not one of right versus left or socialism versus capitalism, but about inaction versus action.”
Disgrace is an unpleasant, unforgettable novel. While Lucy is in fact not the protagonist — David Lurie is — her actions, and inactions, constitute the novel’s most provocative questions: is a theory of necessary retribution extreme, regressive, even barbaric? Or could it be that such a theory expresses the profound truth of a spiritual reality? Is Lucy a creation of social realism, or of symbolic allegory? Can the answers to all these questions be yes, and if so, how so? In any case, there is nothing impoverished or disengaged about the effects of Disgrace on this reader. Sixteen years later, in the midst of our own racial horrors and retributions, the novel’s haunting questions—political and interpersonal — are as relevant as they’ve ever been.
In my early-20s I worked for an antiquarian bookseller who helped institutions build up collections of subject areas; one university was at work on a large collection of 20th-century American “literature of social change,” and he had me assist with finding these books. The guidelines took a passage from Barbara Kingsolver’s copy for the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.
The mere description of an injustice, or the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially responsible literature. ‘Social responsibility’ describes a moral obligation of individuals to engage with their communities in ways that promote a more respectful coexistence.
That’s a very, perhaps impossibly high bar, and I often found myself confused when I tried to separate out the various strands of literature that qualified. I’m still confused by the distinction, frankly. So as a very roundabout way of answering, I’ll say first that the books I’ve read and loved that explicitly include politics, as in electoral politics or political movements, are All the King’s Men — which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read full-stop — and Richard Wright’s Native Son, and A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, and Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (you’ll notice a masculine trend). I don’t really think of A Suitable Boy and Berlin Studies as political novels, but they actually have a lot of politics in them, i.e., elections, and I reread both every two or three years because I love them so much.
Then are lots of books that fall more under that “social change” category that are intensely political, in that politics shaped and were shaped by the social conditions they described — the wheelhouses of James Baldwin, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck — all authors whose books I’ve read and been moved by in the last decade. A Passage to India and Beloved jump out at me as the books that beautifully damn entire systems in miniature, although their temporal relationships to those systems are different. I finally read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen last week and though it’s not quite fiction, I can’t think of a book that so concisely lays out the most pressing American social issue of this month/year/decade/century. It collapses the border between “social” and “political.”
But it also turned out, when I worked on this university list, that the literature of social change could mean books where writers did something as ostensibly mundane as depicting sex, or depicting families. I take Aleksandar Hemon’s point that politics is real and has consequences, and that Americans excel at avoiding it in their novels. I also know people hate it when women take selfies and say it’s a political act, but I do find ideological kinship with books that depict women thinking about sex and families and work in complicated, even unpalatable ways. So even though it wouldn’t be eligible for The Bellwether Prize, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai feels compelling to me, because I read it as a statement about motherhood and its effects on intellectually curious women. Or The Bell Jar. Or A Life’s Work, although again it’s not fiction. But I don’t suppose those are actually political in a real sense. In fact, my interest in them may be exemplary of something less pleasant — finding kinship with people who look and feel the way that you do is the ugliest thing about politics right now.
I must admit, when I first saw this question, I told myself I wouldn’t participate. Political fiction? No thank you! Like everyone else, I already feel overwhelmed by politics from day to day: Bernie v. Hillary; how do we stop Donald Trump?; will we ever have the chutzpah to take on the NRA?; the intersection of poisoned water and poverty; climate change; yet another black man killed by a white police officer; and, hey, look, some congressman wants to take away my reproductive rights yet again…on and on, and I haven’t even gotten into international issues!
I don’t want politics to be a source of entertainment — there is too much at stake for that — and so I read fiction to be entertained. But please don’t misunderstand: reading fiction is no mere escape. Doing so requires sustained attention, and that attention lets me understand better human action and reaction. It requires me to produce empathy for people who may do the opposite of what I might do. A necessary skill in the real world. Politics can reduce us to numbers, to noise. Fiction is human. Let’s keep them separate.
But maybe that isn’t possible.
Soon after I received the Millions Quiz question, I began my friend Ramona Ausubel’s novel Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, about a privileged family that loses its fortune. The novel takes place in a particular era (the 1970s), and yet it’s whimsical and dreamy enough to feel out of time. It doesn’t feel overtly political; it’s concerned with human characters who are complicated and nuanced, and never beholden to a message or platform. But at the same time, the Vietnam War is quite central to the story, and the book doesn’t shy away from how the family came to acquire its wealth — with black slaves, for starters.
The novel also pays particular attention to the women in the family’s history: for instance, one mother’s goal to become a famous sculptor is never realized, not for lack of talent, but because she is female. In describing a woman who wants the career she can’t have, Ausubel has acknowledged that experience, validated it. While the book lets you see its players for themselves, out of time and circumstance, a sort of human essence that would persist no matter what, it also reveals how race, gender, and class privilege inform our worldview, and participate in our becoming.
Molly Ivins once called Texas politics the “finest form of free entertainment ever invented.” It’s a rare understatement from the late journalist, who knew more about the Lone Star State than most of us Texans ever will. (She tried to warn us, too, writing in 2001, “Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.”)
Everything is crazier in Texas, especially politics. The novelist Kinky Friedman (who is crazy, but the good kind of crazy) once got 12 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial election despite having written song lyrics like “They ain’t makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore / They ain’t makin’ carpenters who know what nails are for.” And this year, crazy has gone national, though it’s New York, not Texas, to blame.
That’s why I’ve been thinking about Billy Lee Brammer’s wonderful 1961 novel The Gay Place. The book follows three characters as they navigate the increasingly insane world of Texas politics: a state legislator, a United States senator, and a speechwriter who works for Governor Arthur “Goddamn” Fenstemaker (who is based very, very heavily on Lyndon B. Johnson). There’s a lot of drinking and a lot of sex. In other words, it’s the perfect Austin novel.
The protagonists in The Gay Place are perpetually filled with dread, and a feeling that something’s gone horribly wrong with the way the state is governed. But there’s not much pushback on their part, and few attempts to kick against the pricks. Brammer does a great job exploring how those who work in politics go from idealistic to cynical in record time, and how graft and bombast became the new normal in Austin. And it’s happening now, again, on a national level, though with higher stakes and an even more bizarre would-be leader (I am beginning to think that no fiction, even the most dystopian, could possibly account for Trump).
The Gay Place is brilliant and sui generis, even if the chicken-fried dialogue might perplex non-Southern readers. And it’s a great look at what happens when a state basically decides to expect political corruption. Sorry, the rest of America, but we warned y’all. Or at least we meant to.
One reason I rarely wade into discussions about modern U.S. politics is that I don’t give it enough sustained attention. I don’t have an adequately comprehensive understanding of the major lawmakers and issue negotiations to do anything other than parrot my commentator of choice when a flashpoint issue comes up. (That’s modern politics, mind you, I could talk about 1850s politics until I’m blue in the face.) In the summer of 2011, however, I knew the political machinations of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros like the back of my hand. I could talk about the Westerosi politics like the characters of The West Wing talk about U.S. politics — with long-winded complexity and near-perfect recall.
Martin is rightly praised for the scope and melodrama of his storytelling, but he’s also a political genius, or at least has the talent to write from the perspective of a handful of different political geniuses. I read the first 5 books in A Song of Ice and Fire in a few weeks. During that time, I probably spent more of my waking hours absorbed in the world of Westeros than I did going about my own life, and so for a short while I was able to hold all the details of its multi-faceted war in my head.
I knew I would like the romance, the battles, the centuries-old feuds and unlikely friendships, but I was surprised by how much I liked reading about the politics. Having a comprehensive understanding of the political scene made the council meetings electrifying. I found myself with an opinion of how these fictional politicians should proceed, something that never happens in my actual life. It helped me to understand why people who follow politics, you know, in the real world, get addicted to it. It was fascinating and confounding and impossible not to talk about.
At this point the finer points have slipped away, and I only remember the romance and melodrama (like how desperately I want Arya to be reunited with Nymeria), but for a few brief weeks I was a Westeros wonk.
Twice in the past year, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale — once for pleasure, the second time for a course called Disposable Life and the Contemporary Novel. The first reading was visceral; I swallowed the book whole and it left a lump in my throat. In my second reading (the text was paired with works like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates), I focused on the body in another way and attempted to understand how and why a person becomes expendable.
As I stood in Offred’s place, I felt a familiar fear. Atwood’s novel may be satire, but the gendered violence in Gilead doesn’t feel like a part of a distant dystopian world to me. It is everyday violence. Offred says, “I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last.”
As I write this now, hours after the hate crime in Orlando, I understand what Offred means. Opening myself up to the realities of the world — to the disposability of my body as an LGBTQ woman — feels like a slow death.
Atwood calls her work “speculative fiction” because it builds on the existing world, presenting something outlandish but not entirely impossible, because it is anchored in the real. I related to the violence and the dehumanization in the text. Though it would be easier to ignore these feelings, I must acknowledge them in order to work toward positive change. (Offred, too, remains politically conscious throughout the text.) I can’t argue that The Handmaid’s Tale is the best political fiction ever written, but it helped me find my voice — the most important political weapon there is.
Image Credit: Flickr/Andrew Comings.
Long before its publication, Jonathan Bate’s new biography of the English poet Ted Hughes was being circled by crows. This is fitting, since the crow was one of Hughes’s favorite animals and most recurrent images. In his 1971 collection Crow, written after the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath, the bird-protagonist is questioned at the gates of Hell: “…who is stronger than death?” Crow replies, “me, evidently,” and is allowed to pass. Hughes’s story is so calcified with rumour and controversy that any biographer, even one of Jonathan Bate’s caliber, was doomed to wade through a mire. The monumental book he has given us, Ted Hughes: The Unauthorized Life, is at the very least the story of a man who was stronger than death, capable of turning death into startling and important art. Whether his biographer has such strength is a critical question.
Bate certainly spent his time in the mud: almost as soon as The Unauthorized Life hit the shelves, Hughes’s widow publically defamed the book via a solicitor as “inaccurate” and “offensive,” going so far as to comment that “[t]he number of errors found in just a very few pages examined from this book are hard to excuse, since any serious biographer has an obligation to check his facts,” and demanding a public apology for insinuating that on the way to his burial, casket in tow, Hughes’s family stopped for “a good meal.”
But the relationship between Bate and the Hughes estate, controlled almost solely by Hughes’s widow Carol, was not always so strained. As Bate reported to The Guardian last year, Carol Hughes began as an “enthusiastic” supporter of the project, providing the Oxford professor and Shakespeare scholar with unprecedented access to the seemingly limitless Hughes archives, held in substantial private collections as well as at Atlanta’s Emory University and the British Library. But after four years of digging, Bate reportedly received a letter from the estate, terminating the offer of an authorized biography with “no reason” given.
Bate determined to go on with the work, and his guess about the reasoning behind the estate’s abrupt renunciation was that his project was becoming too biographical: what had started out as a “literary life” was developing into a more invasive, and potentially damaging, wholesale examination of a man as famous for his promiscuity as he was for his power with a poetic line. In his preface to the biography, perhaps anticipating the storm to come, Bate goes out of his way to keep things civil. He writes that “[t]he cardinal rule” he will apply to the project is that “…the work and how it came into being is what is worth writing about, what is to be respected.” In other words, the literature, not the life, will be his primary concern.
But even in the short distance it has already traversed by this passage, Bate’s biography has gone a long way toward proving that such a distinction is impossible to maintain. Though Ted Hughes was famously allergic to biographers (who could blame someone who spent so much time protecting his children from the vendetta-mongering paparazzi that haunted him, as the executor of Sylvia Plath’s estate?), Bate summarizes “[t]he argument of this biography” as the assertion “that Ted Hughes’s poetic self was constantly torn between a mythic or symbolic and an elegiac or confessional tendency…” “The tragedy of his career,” Bate adds, “is that it took so long for his elegiac voice to be unlocked.”
By the elegiac, Bate means the confessional. The argument here is that Hughes’s greatest poems were written when he allowed his biography to fully penetrate his art. The explicitly autobiographical collection Birthday Letters is the iconic example of this style from Hughes’s career, but as his published legacy expands, collections like Capriccio (a series of elegies to the woman for whom he left Plath) and even the much less erotic River take on clear biographical overtones in retrospect.
In his exquisite interview for The Paris Review, Hughes once answered a question about the confessional element in poetry by asserting that “Maybe all poetry, insofar as it moves us and connects with us, is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say but desperately needs to communicate, to be delivered of. Perhaps it’s the need to keep it hidden that makes it poetic—makes it poetry.” By this stage in his life, looking back on a volume of output that even the most prolific competitor would find intimidating, Hughes was willing to label it all “confessional,” to guess that an element of biography is what gives all poetry its vitality. Though during the exhausting legal battle surrounding her novel The Bell Jar, Hughes tried to escape ridicule from Plath’s admirers by insisting that hers was the work of “a symbolic artist” — in the open air he felt free to observe that what a true poet always works into symbols are the passions and events of his or her own life.
Why, then, Bate’s insistence on the lifelong tension between Hughes’s “symbolic” and “confessional” sides? None of his readings of Hughes’s poems hinge on this polarity. In fact, the most energized sections of The Unauthorized Life are those that cover the two poets’ life together. In these, Bate is able to intersperse lines from Birthday Letters to illuminate biographical details. His scan of Hughes’s signature poem “The Thought Fox” similarly treats the piece exclusively for its autobiographical significance, barely quoting the poem itself, and giving extensive space to Hughes’s reflective commentary about it. As often as Bate insists that his book is about Hughes’s “work and how it came into being,” he rarely pauses for detailed analysis of that work. Few lines are dissected for their technical elements. It is the story of Hughes’s life, not the content of his poetry, that dominates the narrative.
And as Bate delves again and again into Hughes’s tangled and often abusive sexual relationships — these sections are certainly his most electrifying and detailed — an uncomfortable, though understandable, reason for his lingering insistence that Hughes was “torn between the symbolic and the confessional” presents itself: Bate felt the need to keep things civilized. With an archive of blistering personal data at his disposal, but Hughes’s very human survivors more or less at his mercy, Bate faced a crushing ethical dilemma. The work that followed seems perpetually caught between the thrill of scandal and compulsion to soften the blow by selectively presenting Hughes’s most incendiary work as “symbolic.”
This compulsion blunts Bate’s criticism especially when he describes Hughes’s volatility towards women: the shadow of a living wife and family understandably makes him waiver. In his chapter about Hughes’s infidelity to Plath, he reflects that one of the poet’s “most tasteless lines” falls in his Birthday Letters poem about Assia Wevill, where he describes his mistress as “Slightly filthy with erotic mystery.” Yet any serious reader knows that in the Hughes canon, this line is nowhere close to the most tasteless. My personal pick would be the line from his poem “Crow’s First Lesson,” where Crow, asked by God to pronounce the word “love,” instead regurgitates a “woman’s vulva” which drops “over man’s neck” and “tightens.”
In fact, almost any passage from Crow more than equals Bate’s choice for “tastelessness.” We can infer that the problem with this line was not its imagery, but how it showcased Hughes’s potential for vitriol against the women he most loved, some of whom are still living. This sense of hesitation between analysis of the writing and emphasis on its biographical implications snags Bate’s scholarship at almost every crucial juncture. The lesson here is that no line, especially from an openly confessional poet, can be totally isolated from the life from which it sprung. Neither can it be analyzed only in terms of that life. The poet’s life and work are two branches derived from a single root, and Bate’s attempt to uncouple them only results in hindered growth.
But there were other methods available to him — precedents already set by great biographers. Beyond their shared surname, Jonathan Bate’s work on a poet so frequently compared to John Keats invites comparison between The Unauthorized Life and another heavy-hitter: the Harvard scholar W. Jackson Bate’s 1963 biography John Keats.
A look at the two texts side by side makes for a striking contrast. W.J. Bate’s prose is muscular and unsentimental, and though he captures Keats’s personal struggles with sympathy, his scholarship of the poetry is just as excellent. His work on Keats’s vowel interplay in “The Eve of St. Agnes” and “Hyperion” remains groundbreaking, and is conveyed with crisp clarity: The frequency of Keats’s complex assonance, W.J. Bate writes, “far exceeds that in any other major poet,” and is not found anywhere in English poetry except in “poets whom we should assume to have other pressing concerns in mind: Shakespeare…and Milton.” His conclusion is that genius in form and content reinforce each other; an observation that could just as easily apply to Hughes, though Jonathan Bate seldom ventures deep enough into his versification to resurface with such conclusions.
Instead, his commentary keeps a strange distance from mechanical analysis of the lines, though his syntax sometimes gives in to the temptation to mimic the staccato voice of his subject, with strained results: “The words of [Hughes’s] poems — which he obsessively refined, revised, rewrote — are complicated, freighted with meaning, sometimes darkly opaque, sometimes cut like jewels of crystal clarity.” A “jewel of clarity” sounds almost Hughesian, but only almost: converting nouns to verbs was one of the poet’s habitual gestures, but to end lines with an abstracted noun phrase like “crystal clarity” was something he got beyond early in his writing life, knowing that abstractions make weak images.
Still, to hold Bate’s Unauthorized Life of Hughes in your hand is to experience something as hefty and monumental as a good Hughes poem. Hughes’s enormous Collected Poems has been compared to “a hunk of Stonehenge” for both its magical overtones and its sheer physical weight. Bate’s book is undeniably important, just as hefty, and often movingly written. His last passages about Sylvia Plath’s undying importance to Hughes are instantly memorable; his last flourish like poetry itself: “Before him stands yesterday.”
If only every line of it were so good. But Bate was torn between his own rival muses: the personal and the symbolic strains of Hughes’s work, which he pitted against each other in the preface, turn out to be two sides of the same coin, the same monolith viewed from two angles. The intriguing rivalry he suggests between them turns out to be a false one. They were the same stone goddess that ruled all of Hughes’s work. Better to affirm, with the poet himself, that all poetry “is a revealing of something that the writer doesn’t actually want to say.” That to write is to confess in symbols. That the poetry is the biography. To have tracked this line of thinking directly through Hughes’s work would have made for a true “literary life.” Instead, Bate has given us a life informed by literature, where the most scandalizing moments are diffused by claims that they are important to a deep analysis that never occurs. Yet if what Bate gave us is not what it could have been, it is a riveting book nonetheless. Perhaps the best literary life of Hughes will have to wait until there is no one living left to hurt. In the meantime, the page is printed.
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike have “Seven Millions Questions with Katie Coyle,” author of Vivian Apple at the End of the World and Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle.
Discussed in this episode: doomsday religions, the Rapture, Pretty Monsters by Kelly Link, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling, juvenile delinquency as it pertains to flying car theft, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Julia Stiles, 10 Things I Hate About You (dir. Gil Junger), Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler, Neil Gaiman, awesome hair, Lorde, Taylor Swift, airplane etiquette.
Not discussed in this episode: Whatever happened to Julia Stiles? Oh yeah! She was in the movie with Robert De Niro. And football. The Best Exotic Silver Playbook. Right? Something like that.
I’m sure there is a point after which it is universally felt to be tedious to read about someone’s baby. I had, in fact, no intention of mentioning mine when I sat down to write this essay, which has nothing to do with babies and which a more serious person would have managed to produce without thinking about themselves at all, progeny or no progeny. But the fact remains that all the reading I did this spring I did with a small baby occupying much of my time and psychic energy in ways I have yet to fully understand. I didn’t have postpartum depression; I had postpartum elation, which then settled into a sort of dismal feeling — perhaps my normal condition — after I resumed work and my hair fell out and my boobs departed and my period returned and it was just time to go about my business as though something very altering had not recently taken place.
I mention this because I am sensitive to bummers right now — am possibly a bummer myself — to the extent that for several months I was unable to reader Harper’s magazine, where every article was about melting ice caps and war and hideous injustice. And yet somehow during this time, when reports of reality were too painful to allow into my own comfortable nest, I read two unbearably sad books, books I heard about again and again until it seemed necessary to read them myself. From the reverence with which people spoke about them, I understood them to be tremendous bummers, but beautiful, transcendent ones, offering up almost baptismal benefits to their readers.
The first of these was Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a 700-pager following the lives of a group of close friends in New York City. I read Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, which I found very, very good, and I expected to be similarly impressed by A Little Life, if not overwhelmed and made over in its image.
It’s always unsettling to find yourself totally at odds with an opinion that seems to be shared by many people with whom you might be expected to agree. A Little Life has stayed with me, not because I found it so sad, but because I found it so strangely bad, and have spent significant time wondering if what I perceive to be its badness is in fact a function of a bold narrative experiment that, to quote James Wood on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, “invents its own category of badness,” and thus deserves a very particular set of laurels. I am not being facetious; I was so impressed by Yanagihara’s other novel that it was conceivable to me that she might be up to some kind of perverse occult experiment with this one. I admired how dark The People in the Trees was, how gross, how resolute.
There is darkness, and grossness, and resoluteness in A Little Life, but its resoluteness is to a very particular, self-important sort of melodrama. The level of authorial commitment necessary for keeping this up over 700 pages is, paradoxically, what kept me interested in the novel even though I found it maddening and sometimes silly.
A Little Life has been lauded as a subversive masterpiece depicting the irreparable spiritual and physical damage of sexual abuse, of which the novel is unflinching in its portrayal, if irritatingly coy in the pace with which it unveils its horrors. Its protagonist and the victim of its suffering is Jude St. Francis, abandoned as a baby, taken in by pedophilic monks; rescued by the Feds, taken in by a pedophilic social worker; escaped; taken in by a pedophilic sociopath; rescued by a saintly social worker; sent to college; taken in by a saintly law professor; taken in by the delightful, suspiciously accomplished bunch of bright young men who become his star-studded adoptive family.
Jude is ravaged by his godawful past, and outstanding in spite of it (also very physically beautiful, it is suggested again and again). Both his misery and his excellence are exaggerated to occasionally cartoonish proportions; a new wound opening up on his legs every few pages; a new superhuman feat of professional prowess; a new demonstration of endless warmth and love for his friends; a new horror from his past suggested with a kind of lurid reticence: “He had heard stories from Brother Luke — he had seen videos — about things people did to one another: objects they used, props and weapons. A few times he had experienced these things himself.” Jude is a Mary Sue of suffering; the blood that flows from his unceasing bouts of self-harm is a stigmata.
I was not moved by the style which Yanagihara chose to put this story forth. The creepy, formal voice she sustained throughout the The People in the Trees revealed that she is a writer with a great deal of technical control. This makes the high melodrama in A Little Life all the more baffling. Here is Jude’s friend JB, following a conflagration with Jude and his best friend Willem:
Oh god, he thought. Oh god. What have I done?
I’m sorry, Jude, he said in his head, and this time he was able to cry properly, the tears running into his mouth, the mucus that he was unable to clean away bubbling over as well. But he was silent; he didn’t make any noise. I’m sorry, Jude, I’m so sorry, he repeated to himself, and then he whispered the words aloud, but quietly, so quietly that he could hear only his lips opening and closing, nothing more. Forgive me, Jude. Forgive me.
Or here’s Jude, describing one of the acts of sadism that defined the first half of his life:
Back at the house, the beating continued, and over the next days, the next weeks, he was beat more. Not regularly — he never knew when it might happen next — but often enough so that coupled with his lack of food, he was always dizzy, he was always weak: he felt he would never have the strength to run again.
There are other odd narrative choices, like the rare first-person accounts of the man who eventually adopts Jude dotted throughout an otherwise third-person omniscient voice. There is the seemingly random hopping back and forth between the third-person present tense — “One weekend at the end of September, he drives out to Caleb’s friend’s house in Bridgehampton, which Caleb is now occupying until early October. Rothko’s presentation went well, and Caleb has been more relaxed, affectionate, even. He has only hit him once more, a punch to the sternum that sent him skidding across the floor…” — and the third-person past: “The days slipped by and he let them. In the morning he swam, and he and Willem ate breakfast.”
Moments and decades pass with these disorienting leaps, in a way that, like much about this novel, hovered right on the border between something that felt deliberate and interesting, and something that felt bungling.
There are the odd names, made odder by their frequent appearance in list form, in a number of permutations, at art galleries, at restaurants, at house parties, in Willem’s affirmations for Jude:
You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.
(There are two people in the novel named Henry Young; there is only one person named Citizen van Straaten.) The novel’s extended cast reminded me of a less waspy but no less elite version of Donna Tartt’s fancy people, who have the names of animals and are sometimes two-dimensional. That said, one of A Little Life’s virtues is that it is comfortably populated with multiple people of color, achieving effortlessly that thing over which, for example, the show Girls struggled so mightily.
If there is a subversive brilliance to Yanagihara’s novel, I found it in the way that she makes the reader, or this reader, embody the qualities of the main villain of Jude’s adult life, his cinematically evil boyfriend Caleb, who is repulsed by weakness and made savage by Jude’s use of a wheelchair. I called Jude a Mary Sue up there; why didn’t I use the male equivalent, a Marty Stu or a Gary? This brings me to the only defense of this novel to which I am somewhat receptive — Garth Greenwell’s claim that A Little Life is “the great gay novel.” Greenwell argues that “to understand the novel’s exaggeration and its intense, claustrophobic focus on its characters’ inner lives requires recognizing how it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera,” a point that is well-taken. What I saw as a sort of unlikely friendship of a too-good-to-be-true crew of loving overachievers, all of them rich and famous in their own right, all of them helplessly devoted to Jude, Greenwell sees “the communities of care formed by LGBT people in response to the AIDS crisis.”
I see the way in which this novel may be speaking to a mode of friendship and male experience to which I don’t have access, and I see that, from certain angles, my sense that this novel was long and overwrought was the result of some latent instinct to belittle “modes long coded as queer,” the same one that is finally exasperated rather than moved by Jude’s fatal insecurity and damage. But Greenwell loses me with his closing comparison to the “great gay art” of Marcel Proust and Pedro Almodóvar. Almodóvar’s genius, apart from the great beauty of his aesthetic (think of Penélope Cruz lip-syncing Volver), lies in his use of high camp to beatify a rag-tag assortments of losers and rebels. A Little Life lacks any measure of humor — fundamental to Almodóvar’s work — and its prose, which is simultaneously breathless and strangely bloodless, can’t compare to Almodóvar’s mastery of his medium. And let’s leave Proust — his miniaturist’s perfection — out of this altogether.
A Little Life eventually becomes a hostage situation; things happen that are so sad that, even if you are me and skeptical of the whole enterprise, you shed tears when they happen. But despite all of its open wounds and razor cuts and burned skin and exposed muscle and grotesque sexual violence, and even my tendency this spring to be left sobbing by a sad commercial, I found it a curiously sterile, curiously anodyne experience.
When I finished A Little Life, I read the second book I had seen similarly venerated, and which I also found to have a relentless quality. About Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, one Amazon reviewer cautioned: “Have prozac at hand or at least a city park and dont do what the author does which is only look at the shards of glass, the rotten garbage, the yellow crabgrass. Look at least at one thriving graceful tree.” It’s true that the squalor starts right away, as Lish opens on the daily life of his protagonist Zou Lei, a half-Uighur, half-Han Chinese illegal immigrant to the United States, who is employed in a China Buffet-type joint.
They gave her a shirt with an insignia and visor, the smell of vaporized grease in the fabric. Everyone told her you have to be fast because the bossie watching you. They didn’t speak each other’s dialects, so they spoke English instead. Her first day, her worn-out sneakers slipped on the grease. She dropped an order, noodles popping out like worms, and that night she lay with her face to the wall, her jaw set, blinking…Squatting, she washed her clothes in the bathtub, wringing them out with her chapped, rural, purple-skinned hands, and hanging them up on the shower curtain rod with the others’ dripping laundry, the wet sequined denim and faded cartoon characters.
Lish makes the stakes of this unpleasant little existence evident immediately by having Zou Lei picked up by the police, and thrown into a carceral limbo where bodily harm, perpetual imprisonment, and spiritual annihilation are only a piece of paperwork or some guard’s malicious whim away. These dismal stakes are evident right away, and so is Lish’s commitment to an immersive immediacy of place and experience; I soon found the novel so moving and threatening and lovely that I would look up in the train to see if other people’s eyes were shining too.
There’s an abrupt macho fever to Lish’s writing that is the reverse of the style of A Little Life and which, had you described it to me, I would have predicted disliking intensely. But I found it hypnotic:
She started moving with the crowd, looking above their heads and seeing that she was going into a Chinatown, a thicket of vertical signs, the sails of sampans and junks, too many to read, a singsong clamor rising. No English. There were loudspeakers and dedications and banners for Year of the Dog. Voices all around her, calling and calling. Here, here, here, come and see! Someone spitting in the street. Crying out and running along next to her, pushing and pleading, grabbing the sleeve of her jacket. They put flyers in her hands and she dropped them. Missing teeth, younger than they looked. Illegals from the widow villages. Body wash, foot rub, Thai-style shower, bus to Atlantic City. A neon sign for KTV turned on in the dusk. The saw the endless heads of strangers, the crewcut workmen, running crates of rapeseed out the back of a van.
I don’t read very much poetry, but a few poems imprinted on me at a young age. I thought often of T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes” while reading this novel, imagining Lish as a remote god who had “such a vision of the street/ As the street hardly understands,” who writes “the conscience of a blackened street/ Impatient to assume the world.” And I was “moved by fancies that are curled/ Around these images, and cling:/ The notion of some infinitely gentle/ Infinitely suffering thing.”
It would be so easy for a book like this to be only brutal, or racist and othering in its brutality. And it is very brutal: Zou Lei falls in love with Skinner, a traumatized Iraq veteran whose head is filled with horrors: “What had been done to the bodies was not possible to reconstruct. They had been wrenched by giant hands, smashed, severed, filled with gas, perforated, burned, flung across space. A limb lay on a seat…A pile of organs, a liver in the red clothes…Everything had been blasted free of its identity…” But there remains something gentle and expansive in Lish’s characterizations. Here is Zou Lei, making a home of sorts with Skinner:
She was not the mother type. When she collected their empties one day and took them to the redeemer, it was because she was enterprising, not because she felt she should clean up after him. With the dollar and change she made, she bought a chicken skewer and saved it for them to eat together, half each, the meat cold by the time she had walked there with it through the small houses covered in Spanish graffiti. She was logging all these miles and it was good. Spring was coming, the big wheel of the city starting to turn.
I sort of hate to make so much out of an out-of-left-field novel about immigrants by a white man who is both a literary outsider and a pedigreed scion — a bald, muscular Marty Stu, if you will. It feels like a cliché. But I am powerless to deny that I found Preparation for the Next Life a beautiful, vital book. When I began reading, the continual squalor, the sense of doom, the guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach that made me close a Mother Jones tab made the book seem meaningful to me in a way that that A Little Life, although sad and similarly relentless, couldn’t do. I thought about them as a pair. What makes a book moving, and what makes a book mawkish?
In A Little Life, the dirt is on the inside, hiding in a shadowy group of monks and suburban pedophiles, and in the psyche if their victim; in Preparation for the Next Life, it’s on the outside — it’s on our streets and our food and our national conscience. Preparation is dealing in a physical squalor, the literal residue and dregs of crowded urban life, in a way that sometimes brought to mind, oddly, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
But where Miller upholds a sort of exuberant filth, a gleeful comic nihilism that leaves you feeling itchy from bedbugs but energized and ravenous, Preparation is as humorless, in its way, as A Little Life. More than that, Lish’s novel is implicating: Have you eaten at a grimy Chinese joint? Have you unthinkingly tossed out the Styrofoam clamshell box and the plastic bag stapled with a scribbled receipt, without wondering who put it there? Did your tax dollars fund the Iraq war — the war that both brings Zou Lei’s love to her and destroys him? In Yanagihara’s novel, squalor and degradation are the ruinous individual exception in a world of summer houses and talent and hard work that gets you somewhere; in Lish’s, they are the baseline condition of the life we have made on our planet.
I considered the depressing books I know and conducted a small Twitter survey. There’s An American Tragedy. There’s Native Son and The Bell Jar and The Kindly Ones and Of Mice and Men. There’s McTeague and Sophie’s Choice and Rabbit Run and House of Mirth. And there’s the destroying queen of sad books, Beloved, which I re-read in the course of my survey, my baby asleep in her pack n’ play, and felt things happen inside of my heart and brain. That novel is as huge as mother-child love; its horror has texture — the “pulsating…baby’s blood that soaked her fingers like oil.”
And talk about implicating. As with A Little Life, people in Beloved do things that must be the absolute limit of human awfulness; unlike Yanagihara’s novel, though, Beloved’s awfulness has an exponential, an infinite quality — right from its very dedication, “Sixty Million and more.” And even though A Little Life describes horror that in some ways is a systemic horror, and even though its protagonist is caught up in an underground network of monsters that must also exist in real life, it never manages to feel like more than one person’s exceptional, uncanny bad luck. There is no context in which to put Jude’s suffering but the frantic love of his friends and family.
Obviously, a novel that documents the individual’s response to American slavery, or American poverty, or the fallout of the Iraq War, is a different beast than a novel that documents the individual’s response to his own very particular and comparatively finite set of circumstances. A Little Life is the latter kind of novel. And perhaps it is logical that, at a time when even people who are staggeringly well off in the scheme of things can’t buy a home or feel assured of college for their children, a novel about a group of friends comprising a famous artist, a movie star, a “starchitect,” a corporate lawyer, and all of their well-to-do friends — a story that is intentionally stripped of historicity and chronological markers — would have to really bring it in order to seem tragic.
But if there’s any kind of suffering to arouse sympathy and pity in human hearts across class lines, it’s the kind endured by Jude. And yet I still came up against some barrier, beyond the absurd names, beyond the tense-jumping, that kept me from feeling Yanagihara’s novel the way it was meant to be felt. Perhaps I have some kind of liberal hypocrites’ need for a political angle, some guilt around which to marshal all of my ineffectual sorrow.
But let’s return for a moment to my recent quavering heart — my avoidance of the news, my pile of unread magazines. How did I cope with these devastating novels, when a 1,500-word article often proved too much for me this spring? Here is the cowardice of the novel-reader. While Preparation for the Next Life indeed made its way to a terrible crackup, it still ended on a redemptive note — a new life built around that time-honored American impulse to go West. Beloved, too, makes a little room for life to creep in: Paul D holds Sethe’s hand and says, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” Any redemption available in A Little Life is far more abstract — a purring cat, a blooming flower.
I accuse A Little Life of melodrama, but maybe, in my newly maternal state, I’m the sentimental fool needing succor — something that gives the lie to Henry Miller’s tossed-off prophesy: “We are all alone here, and we are dead.”
In Meg Wolitzer’s new YA novel Belzhar, a group of teenagers packed off to an idyllic boarding school learn that they have the ability to undo their most serious traumas. Their discovery is sparked by a writing assignment in a class on Sylvia Plath. At Slate, Jennifer Ray Morell connects Wolitzer’s novel to Plath’s classic The Bell Jar. Related: our own Hannah Gersen’s interview with biographer Elizabeth Winder.
It’s been fifty years since Sylvia Plath’s premature death at age thirty, but this summer marks a subtler anniversary in the Plath biography: it was sixty years ago, in July of 1953, that Plath arrived in New York City to work as an intern for Mademoiselle. A magazine internship may sound banal, but for Plath it was life-changing. Along with nineteen other “Millies” — Mademoiselle’s name for its female interns — Plath lived in Manhattan for a month and helped to put together the magazine’s fall college issue. It was one of the most intense experiences of Plath’s young life, leading to her first major breakdown and, a decade later, providing the raw material for The Bell Jar, her now classic coming-of-age novel.
Elizabeth Winder’s new biography, Pain, Parties, Work, documents this crucial time, drawing from new research and bringing a fresh, almost sunny perspective to a subject whose life is usually painted in shades of gray. The Plath we meet in Winder’s book is a frivolous, fashion-forward girl; a girl addicted to tanning and Revlon’s new Fire & Ice lipstick; a girl for whom “a shopping list was a poem.” To uncover this new version of Plath, Winder interviewed her contemporaries, the 19 other “Millies” who lived and worked with Plath. To these women, Plath was just another girl trying to make it in Manhattan, not a tortured, soul-bearing artist. “I could never have imagined the life she had ahead of her,” one Millie told Winder. “She seemed just like me.”
I spoke to Winder by phone a few weeks before her book’s release. We talked about getting to know the Millies, eating 1950s diner food, the joys of researching perfume, and the virtues of composing sentences on index cards.
The Millions: What inspired you to write this book?
Elizabeth Winder: I’ve read everything that Sylvia Plath has written and everything’s that’s been written about her. And I was always surprised that this time in her life is skimmed over, even as it’s always mentioned as the month that leads to that breakdown. And also, the whole Sylvia Plath life story has been approached in a reductionist way. I wanted to do something different. Because when I read her journals I see someone who’s so lively, so hungry for life, and really engaged in the world in a relatable way.
TM: How do you think she’s been unfairly portrayed?
EW: Depressed, pathological, humorless. Neurotic — well, she probably was neurotic. Competitive. Delusional — ambitious in a delusional way. And then later on, as sort of like a nagging wife. And then on another level, I think that she’s also diminished because of the way she looks. It’s not like she was some great beauty, but she fit in with the cultural standards of the time. Somehow, we always have a problem with a woman who’s a writer who also wears make-up and likes lipstick. That’s always been included as part of her pathology. People pathologize everything with Plath and that’s always rubbed me the wrong way.
TM: Tell me about the Millies. Did you know, from the get-go, that you would get in touch with them?
EW: No, I didn’t. I wrote the proposal and then I got the book deal and it overwhelmed me. When I sat down to do the research for the book I thought, oh my god, what am I going to do? Sylvia didn’t even write about this month in her journals! And I just started googling the names of the women — because they had been listed in biographies — and I wrote them letters.
TM: What was their reaction when you told them about your project? Did anyone refuse to meet with you?
EW: They were really interested for the most part. Excited, curious. They had so much fun going back to the past and reliving that stuff. Most of them I talked with on the phone or corresponded by letter. I was really careful. For me, the absolute most important part was being respectful and courteous with those interviews.
TM: What was most surprising thing about talking with them?
EW: I know the thing that I liked the most…they were just so smart and so funny. Some of them talk like writers, like really good writers. Well, some of them are. The way they remembered the month and all of the wonderful details, like the clothes that they wore. And what they were eating and the way the carpet felt and the little scenes that happened in the office. It made me feel like I was there and it just brought everything to life. In the process of writing it, I just sort of left the world. I felt like I was living in some Technicolor dream of the 1950s. And it was because of them and their generosity that I was able to completely enter that world.
TM: Did you have any other source materials? Did you get old magazines or watch movies from the period?
EW: I got a copy of the original magazine that they worked on. Neva, one of the Millies I interviewed, sent me one of her copies. I also went on Ebay and bought some other old magazines from the period. I got a Mademoiselle from 1952. And I went to some archives and looked at the magazines I couldn’t buy. I love fashion history, it’s always been an interest of mine. I learned a lot from looking at the advertisements, and I got a book on the history of make-up. Immersing myself in that period was so interesting. I got samples of some of the old perfumes. Sylvia wore Tigress. I tried on Youth Dew, too, which I think is kind of repulsive. I even started eating 1950s diner food. Like the salad with all the mayonnaise and frozen peas and things like that. Maraschino cherries. I was sort of method acting, I guess.
TM: As you reconstructed that month, were there gaps in the narrative that you were unable to fill?
EW: There were gaps, there were tons of gaps. But I’m kind of detail-oriented — at least in this way — and I considered it a gap if I didn’t know the exact shade of the carpet. I mean, I spent days figuring out what perfume Sylvia wore. I wanted to know what she was wearing every single day, I wanted to know what everyone else was wearing. I kind of kept researching until there was nothing left.
TM: This book is full of sidebars, describing different products from the time period, or interesting tidbits from Sylvia’s life and journals. Why did you choose to structure it that way? To make it more like a magazine?
EW: I didn’t, but I hope it kind of looks that way. I did that because I’m not too fond of just straight narrative. I like little asides. And because I wanted to get into all the details of the culture that she was so steeped in, because Sylvia Plath was so much of her time. She wasn’t backwards, she wasn’t pushing forward, she was just right in it. How do you fit the details of Halo shampoo, how do you fit it in? You have to reduce it and squash it, and I wanted all those products, all those glittery details.
TM: What you just said about Sylvia being so much of her time strikes me as true, but yet people think of her as a contemporary. Why do you think that is?
EW: First, because her poetry is so contemporary. You read it and it kind of exists outside of time. Somehow it’s so fresh to the point of being scary. Anytime I read her poetry, I feel it’s happening right now. So that’s one reason. The other reason is that she died when she was so young. And when your image is of someone being thirty years old, I think you can be inclined to think that they still exist in some way. She died when she was younger than I am right now. So I guess you kind of think, she’s still thirty, she’s still here. If she were alive now, she’d be eighty years old.
TM: Did your reading of The Bell Jar change after researching this time in Plath’s life?
EW: I think it made The Bell Jar more real for me and this kind of goes back to my experience interviewing all those really great women…when you ask two different people about something you get two different stories. More importantly, if you ask the same person on two different days, you get a different story. I guess what I mean is — and this has to do with being 32 versus being 15 and reading The Bell Jar — what talking with those women brought to light was how a really intense experience can be so thrilling and just so heartbreaking at the same time. It was so important to Sylvia to make the most of her life in that classic sort of post-World War II way, if you know what I mean. To make every moment shine.
TM: You write in Pain, Parties, Work that some of the Millies felt betrayed by The Bell Jar. Did you think Plath betrayed them?
EW: No, I don’t think so. Because…well, because it’s fiction. And because she changed their names. And also, when I read The Bell Jar, the character that I completely fell in love with wasn’t the narrator; it was Doreen, who was Sylvia’s best friend. She’s so glamorous and cool and she knows exactly how much to tip the bellhop. So I feel like the portraits that she did of the women were kind of flattering. If anyone would feel betrayed it would be Aurelia Plath, Sylvia’s mother. But Doreen is still the best thing about the book for me. She’s so glamorous in the coolest way possible.
TM: You’re a poet. What is your relationship to Plath’s work?
EW: She’s one of the first poets I started reading seriously as a young teenager. That really sharp and fresh way she uses language is so deeply personal and so vivid. And every time I read her poems I feel like I’m in some crazy movie. That’s exactly how I want to feel when I read anything. She’s been a huge influence on how I perceive language. She lived and breathed words. She didn’t treat them delicately or with some kind of academic reverence. She just dove right in, like they were a bathtub or food. That’s the first thing I noticed about her writing.
TM: I think your book portrays that, actually. The way you describe her world and her love of fashion, of food, of the feeling of fabrics or the smell of certain perfumes. I can see how that translates into her work.
EW: That’s the most important thing to me. It’s that deep, deep love of beauty. And that ability to spot it and to play with it.
TM: This is your first piece of nonfiction. How was writing it different from writing poetry?
EW: Before I wrote this book I barely wrote complete sentences. When I was an undergrad, I was the worst English major in the world. I loved reading the books but I just couldn’t write about them. And I’m sure I could never write fiction. I had zero experience with prose. The part that was excruciatingly hard was piecing it together in a way that makes logical sense. The way I wrote it was the way I write poems, which was writing words, and then writing words around them into phrases, and then writing sentences. But I don’t write any of these things in any kind of order. So then I just had like, a hundred typed pages that I had to arrange. And then at some point I was just in a room with a bunch of index cards…because that’s the only way I know how to write. So it was a piecing together.
TM: There is so much written on Plath; were you at all intimidated by the amount of previous scholarship?
EW: No. Maybe I should have been. But maybe I wasn’t because I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to do something so different. I wanted to write a book that was very intensely feminine. I think that there’s this impulse in society to kind of neutralize women who write and take away their femininity as if that detracts from them in some way. And I don’t like that.
TM: Why do you think it matters what Plath looked like?
EW: If you want to read a book about someone’s life, you want to know how they experience the world. And the physical world is a huge part of that, for so many different reasons. Especially for women, the way that we look hugely determines certain aspects of how we move through the world. My personality would probably be completely different if I were five inches taller. Or if I had different color hair. I actually think that’s true. I get mad at books that don’t give me more physical details. Because if I’m interested in a subject, I want to know the color of the wall, exactly what they’re wearing, what they had for lunch, I want to know all that stuff. And physical appearance fits into that. You can’t bring someone to life without describing how they look. You’d just be dealing with Slyvia Plath the name, not Sylvia Plath the human.
This interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
The first line of Suzanne Scanlon’s novel, Promising Young Women, is a knockout — “Ever since I heard Don Reakes say that the beauty contestant deserved to be raped by Mike Tyson, I wanted him dead,” — and from there the book only continues to deliver jabs of trenchant insight and fine-tuned language. The novel proceeds in a series of fragmented portraits that follow the young Lizzie, actress and wandering, suicidal soul, through a series of psychiatric institutionalizations, most significantly in the SS Roger, a ward for super-sensitives. Promising Young Women is a writer’s novel in its preoccupation with language and its many facets, and it’s also a performer’s novel in its concern for the performative, and especially in the (re)performance of texts it’s aligned with, like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar. Curtis White likens the experience of reading Promising Young Women to riding a wave: “The reader is driven before the story like something driven before a wave. And that is a deeply pleasurable feeling.” And Kate Zambreno, in her 2012 Year in Reading, called the book “a series of fragmented, poetic portraits…marked by Suzanne’s really gorgeous, wry, erudite voice.” Suzanne and I corresponded via email in a conversation that touched on the ways narratives are codified to create meaning, the liberating experience of reading and working with David Foster Wallace, and art as “the impossible trajectory of hope.”
The Millions: The epigraph for Promising Young Women contains three quotes; I’d like to focus on the first two, by Clarice Lispector and Ariana Reines, that allude to the inevitable interdependency of literature and life. Lispector’s quote, “She wanted to explain that that’s what her life was like, but not knowing what she meant by ‘that’s what it’s like’ or ‘her life’ she didn’t answer,” implicates language and all of its inadequacies (an idea you return to throughout the book) while Ariana Reines’s asks if a book can sufficiently construct other worlds and transport the reader between these worlds: “Can a book carry you into the world you have to pretend doesn’t exist most of the time, can a book carry you back out into what first made you alive.” With this in mind, how do literature and life intermingle for you as a writer, and also in what way does this interaction speak to your vision for Promising Young Women?
Suzanne Scanlon: I’m not exaggerating when I say that much of my identity has been founded or invented or re-created on the books I’ve read. I’ve always read that way — for instructions on how to live, as Flaubert put it. There have been times in my life when the worlds/ideas offered within a book — Virginia Woolf or Marguerite Duras or Shakespeare or Erica Jong — were immensely comforting to me — a balm, a relief from the limitation of the worlds/ideas most present in so-called real life. I guess I’m also very influenced by and interested in writing that, as Ben Lerner put it in an interview, recently, “collapses the distinction between art and life.” I wanted the referenced literature to be central to the life of Lizzie, she has collapsed this distinction in her mind (for better or worse), such that while she’s lying in the quiet room, having been administered a shot of Thorazine, she’s thinking about Virginia Woolf. That’s funny to me, and problematic and true; it might be as dangerous to her as it is her salvation.
TM: I’d love to hear you talk about the performative aspects of writing as an actress and theater critic — how does writing character in fiction compare to taking on a role as an actress? What inspiration does your writing draw from theater and acting?
SS: As a theater student, I was very early educated on a voracious reading of plays, of going to the theater — part of why I went to college in New York. Theater has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember and I think the world of it is great training for a writer. I recall very well the excitement of my first exposure to Beckett, Ionesco, Chekhov, Caryl Churchill, Wallace Shawn, Karen Finley, to name only a few playwrights — it was simply magic to discover these writers. And in a contemporary sense, I think some of the most interesting writing these days is happening for the theater (Young Jean Lee, Annie Baker, my dear friend David Adjmi, to name a few); there’s an attention to language, to rhythm, and an openness to experimentation that isn’t always valued in (mainstream) fiction. There’s also a playfulness, an awareness of the futility/absurdity of language, the artifice — but with a persistent sense of hope, which is taken for granted in the theater. Erik Ehn once said that the theater is about “the impossible trajectory of hope” and I never forgot that. I suppose that’s what I think all art should be.
TM: You touch on the power of spoken language in your story (or is it an essay?), “How I Lost My Dictionary,” where the narrator is carjacked by a boy claiming he has a gun that he never reveals: “This is a stick-up. If you say something, does it make it true? If you call your finger a gun, does it make you powerful? Do the words matter?” In Promising Young Women, it seems that the psychiatrist’s diagnoses function in the same way — if Roger says Lizzie is sicker than he thought then this becomes truth. In what way do words matter, especially in the ways they define identities and catalyze interactions? In what way is life a performance?
SS: Thank you for reading that piece! Yes, that’s long been a concern and, at times, obsession of mine. The way narratives get codified and repeated to create meaning. There was a time when this terrified me — the way that naming, labeling, delimits identity. As a parent, I see it anew: how a child may take to a label s/he is assigned (shy, smart, naughty, etc.) and then live up to it; the way families begin very early to assign, and repeat narratives (the lazy one, the difficult one, the responsible one). When Roger uses the term “Designated Patients” this speaks to the same idea — there is always a scapegoat, one to play the role — we like to limit identity and are less comfortable understanding the self as a fluid, multivalent thing. If we did accept that, we might see that we are all more alike than we could bear.
TM: Many reviews of Promising Young Women have remarked on the number of literary allusions folded into the relatively short novel — from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Ariel, from Joyce’s “The Dead” and Ulysses,, from Tolstoy and Melville, too. You’ve also borrowed scenes and structural devices and integrated them into Promising Young Women, and specifically scenes from The Bell Jar. This strikes me as a form of acting, perhaps in the sense of adopting roles of other novels and acting them out within your own. It also seems like an intriguing, fresh take on allusion. Could you talk more about the literary ancestors and allusions and borrowing, and how these play into the novel for you?
SS: Well, you know David Foster Wallace, who was my teacher at one point, does this throughout his work — he samples, alludes directly and indirectly — this is something I learned reading his work, and also through things he said. Reading him was mind-blowing: Wow, you can do that?! It was as if he gave me permission. I didn’t realize what fiction could be. I can say that about many writers, I guess, but for someone alive at the same time as I was — it felt huge. I remember reading “The Depressed Person” for example, and thinking, wow, so you can take that language and turn it around, make it do something else? Perform it, yes. I think his work is very performative, hysterically shifting, constantly referencing other works, other writers, while becoming his own.
Taking on the role of Plath, of course, using her words — well, it is easier in a novel than it is in real life. Just as Lizzie plays a woman who puts her head in the oven, I can play with Plath’s novel. I feel quite privileged, in fact, to be able to learn from Plath — to recognize her genius and the truth of her writing — and yet to have lived in a moment which has allowed me to approach it as one voice among many, one within a dialectic.
TM: The artist/writer Alexandre Singh recently laid out his own beliefs on the simultaneity of art-making by referencing Borges’s idea, that “every new artist causes the past to become deeper and richer. The past isn’t a dead, fixed place but one to which we’re constantly looking back to, discovering things, seeing things anew.” How do you envision this playing out within your writing? (Or do you?) To what extent do you see literature as enabling a dialogue with writers past and present (and future)?
SS: I do love the idea of the past as a shifting place, open to revision — and I like his idea that interviews are fictions! Yes, I feel like various dead writers are dear friends of mine — from Woolf to Plath to Duras to DFW — their lives and lessons and warnings and urgings are constantly informing my own, challenging my own. In this book, in writing in part about my mother’s death, I was both performing her life (which is supposedly fixed in the past, a space we are meant to leave behind) and her death. I was inventing a mother and then finding a way for her to die, to allow her to die. To move her to that place so that I might move there. I don’t know if that was conscious, but that’s how I see it now. For years I longed to speak to her, to get her advice, and I suppose a comfort in writing is being able to create her as much as I create a self.
TM: I was impressed by the verve and tone of the narrative voice — from the striking opening line, “Ever since I heard Don Reakes say that the beauty contestant deserved to be raped by Mike Tyson, I wanted him dead,” to aphorisms like, “There is a kind of loneliness that comes from being with people.” Much is said about the failure of communication, about the gaps between what is said and what is conveyed, about distances that cannot be bridged, about the utter failure to find the words, to convey messages. Very few writers who attempt this are able to communicate this breakdown so well. And yet this focus on the failure of language, its limitations, this occurs with a novel that, of course, relies on words. Would you speak more to the general weariness here, and also specifically the weariness towards language — the gaps and spaces?
SS: Well, yes, a general weariness. But I think the joy of writing is the feeling of reaching across or through those gaps. I love this essay by Susan Griffin where she states that her favorite moment in writing is “when the writing falls short.” I, too, find that exhilarating — that even at times the awareness of its limitation is comfort. This essay is in John D’Agata’s Next American Essay which also contains an essay by Annie Dillard, who is always working toward and around and through these gaps. I am not wearied when I read a line, a paragraph of hers or a line of DFW’s. I’m regularly thrilled by the movement toward or across that impossibility.
I suppose there was a time when I felt like Lizzie the narrator — that it was a waste to even try. The older I get, the more grateful I feel to have the chance to try, to work within and against a tradition.
TM: One of the things that Lizzie says she learns on the S.S. Roger — the psychiatric ward for super sensitives where Lizzie is a patient — is that she’s a cipher: “I am an empty thing. A fragmented mutating subject.” This is central to Lizzie’s desire to try on identities through acting, and is echoed through the novel’s structure. The novel, too, is a fragmented mutating subject, told from various overlapping perspectives. I’m wondering if you could talk about the role of this structural system in Promising Young Women (or other structural systems you were/are drawn to). Did you consciously define the novel against the traditional male bildungsroman, with its phallic Freytag triangle and climax? Also, in this sense, are there other literary influences to this novel/your writing, that aren’t as conspicuous as, say, the Plath?
SS: No, it was not consciously defined against the bildungsroman, though I have been interested in what I read as female bildungsroman (like The Bell Jar or Kate Chopin’s The Awakening) and so in that way it’s a subversion. Many of my favorite books are fragmented in structure, resisting linear plot or redemption — perhaps especially work by women — Lydia Davis, Claudia Rankine in Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Maggie Nelson, also The Lover, Jesus’ Son, Beloved, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. I think that while revising certain sections of PYW I was rereading both The Bell Jar and Infinite Jest. These novels might seem dissimilar but both are kind of anti-coming of age stories and both, of course, contain descriptions of depression that feel inspired, true.
Also, my editor, Danielle Dutton, is a brilliant writer and reader and her vision for fiction and this book truly made these fragments cohere, essentially made this a book. There was a time when I saw these as a collection of linked stories, but she saw it as a novel.
TM: The phrases “Promising Young Women” and later, “Girls with Problems,” are such taglines for the ways that young, attractive, women are romanticized, and even exulted, for their dependencies, their great sadnesses and weaknesses, and who become projects for the men, like the psychiatrist and like the boyfriend, who want to or need to help. While the book exposes these clichés (much like it maligns Friends, whose laugh track and faux cheery camaraderie alienate Lizzie) does participation in this system become a self-fulfilling prophecy? How does one break from the loop, and where does Lizzie and the SS Roger fall into this?
SS: Honestly, I don’t know how to break from the loop, save from becoming an artist who is both outside and inside. I think getting older helps, too. It’s much easier not to be a young woman, though everywhere you go you’re told to feel bad about getting older. I think Lizzie wants to be part of this system as much as it wants her. I think it is a mutual dependency. I don’t see it in black and white terms; one can be exploited and helped all at once. But yes, self-fulfilling prophecies abound — as with the naming of someone ill or sick; she lives up to this idea of herself, which is an idea that she, on some level, wants/needs to believe at this point in her life. Part of her breakdown then becomes a gift, a breakthrough — a total embracing of an identity in order to exhaust it, perhaps, to wear it out. If that makes any sense.