Welcome to our biannual Great Book Preview! We've assembled the best books of 2023A (that is, the first half of 2023), including new work from Nicole Chung, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Claire Dederer, Brian Dillon, Samantha Irby, Heidi Julavits, Catherine Lacy, Mario Vargas Llosa, Rebecca Makkai, Fernanda Melchor, Lorrie Moore, Jenny Odell, Curtis Sittenfeld, Clint Smith, Zadie Smith, Brandon Taylor, Colm Tóibín, and many, many more. At 85 titles, you may notice our 2023A list is a bit trimmer and more selective than in year's past. We wanted to make sure that our list comprises the books that we are truly anticipating the most—which is to say, we've carefully curated our selections to showcase the very best books coming out in the first half of 2023. We hope you enjoy! Love reading our Great Book Previews? Learn how you can support The Millions here. January Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor Part crime thriller and part saga of the powerful Wadia family, Age of Vice roams across India, from the dusty villages of Uttar Pradesh to the cauldron of New Delhi. Three lives intersect in this world of lavish estates, extravagant parties, drugs and seamy business deals: Ajay, the watchful family servant; Sunny, the playboy heir; and Neda, a journalist out to expose the consequences of corruption. The writing has authority. Kapoor, author of the novel Bad Character, grew up in northern India and has worked as a journalist in New Delhi. The result is an addictive, vivid spellbinder of a novel. —Bill Morris Decent People by De'Shawn Charles Winslow Winslow returns to the fictional Southern town of West Mills for a second time in this expertly-plotted and character-driven follow-up to his award-winning debut novel. In the 1970s, an investigation into a triple homicide reveals surprising and profoundly sad layers of reality for the townspeople of West Mills—the trauma and ramifications of segregation, class, deeply kept secrets, and underlying homophobia. A haunting, page-turning mystery, Decent People makes a must-read on anyone’s literary list. —Jianan Qian The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley In this debut novel, a perpetually single Black lawyer, Aretha, falls in love with Aaron, a coffee entrepreneur who shares a brownstone with a stable of bizarre roommates. When Aretha moves in with Aaron, she gets caught up in their household dramas, which range from illegal gun sales to half-baked schemes to prepare for the end of the world. It will not surprise people who’ve read Cauley's essays—or seen her work on The Daily Show, or read her excellent tweets—that The Survivalists is, according to Tom Perrotta, an “edgy” and “darkly funny” book. —Thom Beckwith Still Pictures by Janet Malcolm Malcolm was a master of reportage, able to dissect and decipher her subjects with startling precision. (Also one of my own writerly heroes.) She often mused on the relationship between journalist and subject; in much of her journalism, she judged her subjects from a cool distance. How, then, would she approach a memoir? What would a self-portrait by one of our most formidable portraitists look like? These were the questions that exhilarated me when I began Malcolm's posthumous memoir. Still Pictures is as much a look at Malcolm's own photos and memories as the nature of photography and memory, written with all her characteristic style and clarity. —Sophia M. Stewart The Half Known Life by Pico Iyer In this philosophical and theological travelog, Iyer searches the globe for paradise. Not for himself—he wants to understand the idea of paradise, that incentive and dream and goal that undergirds the world's religions. Maria Popova herself, the brilliant mind behind The Marginalian, has called Iyer "one of the most soulful and perceptive writers of our time" and I expect The Half Known Life will further cement that status. —SMS OK by Michelle McSweeney In this slim and lucid addition to the Object Lessons series, which explores the hidden lives of everyday objects, linguist and author Michelle McSweeney unpacks the phrase “OK,” coined 200 years ago and now ubiquitous in spoken English. As an object, “OK” reveals how technologies inscribe themselves into languages—originally, it was an acronym that stood for “all correct,” a phrase which marked some of the earliest printed newspapers as ready for publication. From there, McSweeney traces the word’s evolution through the present, illuminating the ways in which its meaning developed over time. —TB The 12th Commandment by Daniel Torday Torday presents a provocative and unexpected tale of contemporary Jewish life that owes less to Philip Roth and Saul Bellow than it does to Cynthia Ozick and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The 12th Commandment concerns the historical sect known as the Dönmeh, Turkish followers of a seventeenth-century Jewish pseudo-messiah who outwardly practice Islam but who are actually adherents of an esoteric kabbalistic faith. “Weird folk,” explains a character, “They’re like Jews and Muslims at the same time. Or something.” Unexpectedly set among an imagined group of Dönmeh in small-town Ohio, with a noirish murder plot driving the action, and The 12th Commandment will appeal to fans of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but Torday’s unique imagination and vital vision are his own. —Ed Simon Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes, translated by Ann Goldstein The story begins when Valeria Cossati—a 43-year-old office worker, self-sacrificing wife, and mother of two—buys a thick black notebook and begins writing at night—her thoughts, experiences, and fury. What follows over the course of six months are reflections on motherhood and femininity in postwar Rome that were as urgent and revelatory in the 1950s, when the novel was originally published, as they are today in post-Roe America. In the words of Annie Ernaux: “Reading Alba de Céspedes was, for me, like breaking into an unknown universe.” —Jenny Wu Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter by John Hendrickson I've been waiting for John to write this book since I first read his paradigm-shifting Atlantic article "What Joe Biden Can't Bring Himself to Say." Like Biden, John is a person who stutters. In Life on Delay, and with profound intelligence and insight, John examines his own stuttering life, as well as the lives of many other stutterers, to probe the many contradictions of disfluency. John has become something of a torchbearer in our community, and this book is going to be an essential contribution to the (currently very limited) literature of stuttering. I hate when people call certain books "important"—but this book is very important me, and will be important to a lot of people. We've been waiting a long time for a book like this. —SMS The Call of the Tribe by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by John King When I began my undergraduate studies, I was disappointed by how little nonfiction appeared on the syllabi of my Spanish literature classes. Then I encountered Llosa, a Nobel-winning nonfictioneer and intellectual heavyweight (and occasional novelist) who rose to prominence during the Latin American Boom. In The Call of the Tribe, he maps out the minds that shaped his own: Sartre and Adam Smith, Friedrich A. Hayek and Isaiah Berlin, and many more (mostly male) writers and thinkers. It's a pleasure—and a pleasurable challenge—to read Llosa on the roots of his ideology. —SMS The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women's Roles in Society by Eleanor Janega Ever since I visited the Cloisters for the first time earlier this year, I've been hungry to learn more about medieval life, and specifically women's place in it. Enter The Once and Future Sex, the subtitle of which quite directly addresses this yen of mine. Janega, a medievalist by training, makes middle-age sociology accessible, highlighting how archaic notions of femininity continue to shape modern womanhood in ways both subtle and overt. Beauty, sex, work, labor, motherhood, decorum—no aspect of women's lives goes unexplored in this rigorous study, which also highlights many of the era's subversive trailblazers. —SMS Black and Female by Tsitsi Dangarembga Zimbabwean writer Dangarembga explores the long shadow cast by imperialism in her own life, and the lives of all African people, in this volume of essays. The personal and political commingle (because, as all feminists know, they're one and the same) as Dangarembga excavates her own history and the history of her nation. The result is a clear-eyed look at what navigating life and art-making as a woman in Zimbabwe has taught her, as well as the possibilities and limits of a distinctly Black feminism, which she calls "the status quo’s worst nightmare." —SMS A Guest at the Feast by Colm Tóibín One of Ireland's greatest living novelists, Tóibín is known the world over for his fiction. That's why I'm so curious to read his new essay collection, to see how he transfers his mastery across genres. A (supposedly) great compliment is to be called a nonfiction writer with a "novelist's" sensibility—the implication being that nonfiction is best when it reads like fiction. (I disagree!) This isn't Tóibín's first foray into nonfiction (he's written books on Elizabeth Bishop; contemporary queer artists; and the fathers of famous Irish writers)—but it is one of his most intimate. This is clear from the book's outset, which features one of best opening lines I've read in a minute: "It all started with my balls." —SMS Vintage Contemporaries by Dan Kois I always love reading Dan Kois's criticism (if you haven't yet read him on Tár, please do yourself the favor—and prepare to have your mind blown) so I was thrilled to hear about his forthcoming novel, a coming-of-age set in New York City at the turn of the millennium that wrestles with art, friendship, and what it means to cultivate a creative life. Our very own Lydia Kiesling blurbed it and gave it what is in my book one of the ultimate compliments: "poignant without being treacly." A near-impossible literary feat—I can't wait to see (read?) Kois pull it off for myself. —SMS Your Driver Is Waiting by Priya Guns A retelling of the movie Taxi Driver featuring a ride-share driver? An incredible premise for a novel that explores work, class, and solidarity (or the lack thereof). Damani Krishanthan works for an Uber-like company, scraping by after her father dies during his shift at a fast-food restaurant. During a summer of uprising, she drives through throngs of protestors trying to make enough to cover rent. A relationship with a white wealthy protestor goes south, prompting a dramatic ending (considering its cinematic source material, I can only imagine). —Lydia Kiesling The Guest Lecture by Martin Riker Abby, a young economist, can't sleep the night before the talk she is scheduled to present tomorrow, optimism and John Maynard Keynes. A lapsed optimist struggling to support her family, she feels grossly unprepared to offer any insights into Keynes. With wry humor and true wisdom, Riker, co-founder and publisher of Dorothy, a Publishing Project, transforms one woman’s insomnia into an enchanting and playful exploration of literature, performance, and the life of the mind. —JQ After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz At the turn of the twentieth century, three queer women—Rina Faccio, Romaine Brooks, and Virginia Woolf among them—make the same decision: They take up their pens or paintbrushes to define their lives and their identities on their own terms. Taking cues from the Greek poet, After Sappho, Schwartz's Booker-longlisted debut novel, reimagines the intertwined voices of those pioneering women artists in the collective first-person, whose courage and struggles never cease to inspire and encourage those who come after. —JQ Hanging Out by Sheila Liming We’ve all heard the admonitions to slow down, drop out, resist the rush—but what does that actually look like? “Hanging out is about daring to do nothing much and, even more than that, about daring to do it in the company of others,” writes Liming in her treatise on the subject, the follow-up to her 2020 book What a Library Means to a Woman on Edith Wharton and book collections. Hanging Out, an endearing and revealing book, is well-timed, but as she notes, “we were having a hard time hanging out well before COVID-19 came along.” She makes a compelling case for us to get together. —Nick Ripatrazone Call and Response: Stories by Gothataone Moeng This debut story collection joins a chorus of literary voices rising out of contemporary Africa. Set in the author’s native village of Serowe, as well as in Gabarone, the thrumming capital of Botswana, these stories are spun from the struggles of women seeking to reconcile ancestral expectations with imported dreams—a girl who hides her sexual exploits from her family while her older brother flaunts his conquests; a young widow who ponders the custom of wearing mourning clothes for a year; a woman who returns from America, ashamed to have given up on the land of opportunity. The great Namwalli Serpell praised the collection for its "sharply observed vignettes," which together amount to a "beautiful" book full of "deep insight." —BM Black Empire by George S. Schuyler Originally published in serial form in the 1930s, Black Empire is the masterwork of George S. Schuyler, a journalist, Harlem Renaissance man, socialist-turned-arch-conservative, and creator of acid satires. This novel is the story of Dr. Henry Belsidus, a Black genius who sets out to cultivate a global network that will reclaim Africa from imperial powers and punish Europe and America for their crimes against the world’s Black population. Schuyler’s earlier novel, Black No More, is a satirical romp about a Black man who turns his skin white. In all his work, Schuyler work confronts an abiding and urgent moral quandary: How far should one go to bring justice to an unjust world? —BM February Where I'm Coming From by Barbara Brandon-Croft Drawn & Quarterly has never let me down, and its winning streak won’t be snapped by this collection from the first Black woman to have a nationally-syndicated comic strip. In the witty and groundbreaking "Where I’m Coming From," which ran from 1989 to 2005, nine Black girlfriends deliver insights and punchlines in equal measure, touching on politics, race, relationships, and everything in between. Tayari Jones says that Brandon-Croft’s work has “aged beautifully,” hailing the collection as “both ahead of its time and right on time.” —Evan Allgood Brutes by Dizz Tate This surreal and ambitious debut novel, written partially in first-person plural and billed as “The Virgin Suicides meets The Florida Project,” follows a clan of teenaged girls in Falls Landing, Florida, as they grapple with the disappearance of the local preacher's daughter. Brutes’s adolescent cast, time-jumping narrative, and promise of violence evoke the hit show Yellowjackets. Mariana Enríquez calls it “a beautiful and deeply strange novel, full of dread and longing.” —EA City of Blows by Tim Blake Nelson I love movies, but Hollywood—both the city and the industry that undergirds it—has never much interested me. Honestly, celebrity culture in America baffles me. But when a Hollywood insider and an accomplished playwright—and, not to mention, a fine actor—decides to satirize the toxic culture of Tinsel Town, I’m in. Nelson's debut novel follows four men fighting for control of a script and a place in a rapidly transforming Hollywood. There’s something sustaining in a story that shows how beautiful people can be just as petty—just as ugly—as the rest of us. —Il’ja Rákoš Couplets by Maggie Millner Lovers of horny, rhyming poetry rejoice: Millner’s “love story in poems,” arrives a week before Valentine’s Day, just in time to tie your brain to its bedposts. Kink and queerness, power and polyamory—this debut by the senior editor of the Yale Review has it all. Read an excerpt in BOMB to see why Elif Batuman, Garth Greenwell, and Leslie Jamison are all head over heels for this clever, seductive story of coming out and coming of age. —EA The Black Guy Dies First by Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. Harris This collaboration between Coleman, a scholar, and Harris, a journalist and film critic, explores the history of Black horror films since 1968. Named for the well-known cinematic trope, the book spans cult classics like Spider Baby up to commercial and critical successes like Get Out. According to Kirkus Reviews, the book is written with “keen observation, a satirical eye, and a genuine love for the subject.” —Edan Lepucki Big Swiss by Jen Beagin "A sex therapist's transcriptionist falls in love with a client while listening to her sessions"—that was all I needed to hear to get excited about Beagin's third novel. Throw in blurbs from Melissa Border and A Touch of Jen author Beth Morgan, and I was all but convinced that Big Swiss will be weird and horny and unfettered in all the best ways. "Pick it up because you like cheese," Morgan urges, "stay for the brilliant sentences." —SMS Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop by Martin Puchner So many books these days are described as being "sweeping histories"; Culture, which promises in its subtitle to take us from our most primitive artistic impulses all the way to the machinery of modern-day fandom. But what intrigues me most about Puchner's latest isn't its scope—it's its driving question: "What good are the arts?" In my more hopeless moments, this question bubbles up inside me, and I'm chomping at the bit to hear Puchner's answer, grounded in history and informed by cultures around the world. —SMS Dyscalculia by Camonghne Felix Following her poetry collection Build Yourself a Boat, which landed a spot on the National Book Award longlist, Camonghne Felix makes her nonfiction debut with this memoir, which charts a life-changing breakup and its many consequences for her life. When the author ends up in the hospital, she draws a parallel between her troubles as an adult and her childhood diagnosis of dyscalculia, a condition which makes it difficult to learn math or estimate place value. As she starts to tally her romantic miscalculations, she asks a wide-ranging question: who gets the right to freely express their own pain? —TB All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me by Patrick Bringley A former New Yorker staffer turned museum guard is a pretty compelling tagline, to be certain, and Bringley delivers in this intimate and philosophical debut memoir—he muses on the artworks, coworkers, and museumgoers that surround him. Adding poignancy to the memoir's conceit, his observations are all permeated with profound grief as he reels from the death of his older brother. Bringly brings the Met to life on a grand scale and granular level. —NR The Wife of Willesden by Zadie Smith For her first foray into playwriting, novelist and essayist Smith reimagines Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale about the Wife of Bath for twenty-first century, northwest London. Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her early fifties, tells her life story to strangers in a pub. In its review, The Guardian calls it “a celebration of community and local legends, of telling a good story and living a life worth telling. Not bad for an original text that’s 600 years old.” —EL Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World by Malcolm Harris I went to college in the Bay Area, where the allure of Silicon Valley was palpable. My classmates posted about their internships at Twitter and Microsoft, wore t-shirts with emblazoned with the logos of Google and Linkedin, and went on to get jobs with six-figure starting salaries. I remembered my dad's quaint stories of growing up in nearby Los Altos and struggled to reconcile that history with the present. Harris's comprehensive history of Silicon Valley, from railroad capitalism to free love to big tech, does just that. Palo Alto spans centuries in order to thoroughly demystifying the region's economics and unearth its enduring legacy of settler colonialism. Users by Colin Winnette I worked for years as a consultant at American-based IT companies with teams in Kyiv, and among those Ukrainians I knew who were handling the code, it was rare to find anyone who worshipped Steve Jobs, loved tech, or saw STEM work as anything particularly noble. No true believers in panaceas or "essential" tech. Here, in the fictional world of Winnette’s latest novel, we encounter a strong critique and timely caution that my Kyiv ITshnyks certainly understood well: the devastation that awaits when we entrust the mechanisms we’ve built to do our thinking, our feeling, and our living for us. —IR I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai In her follow-up to her 2018 novel The Great Believers, a Pulitzer and National Book Award finalist, Makkai brings us to a New Hampshire boarding school. Film professor Bodie Kane has been eager to forget her four awful years there, which included a murder of a classmate by the athletic trainer. But when she's brought back to campus to teach a two-week course, everything she thought she knew about the case is thrown into question. Makkai plays with true-crime tropes to deliver a literary exploration of friendship. —Marie Myung-Ok Lee Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears by Michael Schulman Michael Shulman is one of the great profile-writers of our time, and one of our best writers, period. (His New Yorker profiles of Jeremy Strong, Bo Burnahm, and Adam Driver long ago took up permanent residence in my brain.) What Schulman, a student of personality, could accomplish in a study of the Oscars—that most official of personality contests—is limitless. It's also just a perfect opportunity to spill so much celebrity gossip. I imagine devouring this book poolside, while sipping on a blue drink; a big umbrella overhead, a little umbrella in my glass. Slime by Susanne Wedlich, translated by Ayca Turkoglu Primordial slime has long been considered a cornerstone of life on Earth; without it, the natural world would be unrecognizable. Slimy substances like mucous and slobber are also common features of fictional monsters in popular culture from Lovecraft to Alien. Munich-based science and nature journalist Susanne Wedlich’s ode to the semi-liquids that hold our world together—and our minds in awe—reminds us “we are sticky beings living in a sticky place” (TLS), whether we like it or not. —JW March Monstrilio by Gerardo Sámano Córdova What lengths would you go to get back someone you've loved and lost? Just for a bit, to look in their eyes one more time, or tell them what needed to be told? But play that possibility out to its inevitable conclusion and it’s difficult to envision anything good coming from it. In Córdova’s horror debut, a grieving mother in Mexico City goes to unimaginable extremes to bring her late 11-year-old son back to life, only to discover that there are worse things than death. Grief, she learns, is not something to be trifled with, or worse, avoided. —IR Francisco by Alison Mills Newman Though it garnered plaudits from Toni Morrison when it was first published in 1974, Newman's autobiographical novel has long been out of print. Now, a reissue by New Directions—with a new foreword by Saidiya Hartman—promises to introduce a new generation of readers to Newman’s innovative and genre-bending story, which draws on the author’s experience as a young actress in 1960s Hollywood. —TB The Fifth Wound by Aurora Mattia In her new novel, the Mattia reinvents the roman à clef with a magical realist memoir that puts the dusty genre of autofiction to shame. Sifting from multiple narratives—and dimensions—The Fifth Wound is a romance, a meditation on transphobic violence, and a speculative tale of time travel, ecstatic visionaries, and mystical union. Transcending the limiting confines of not just society, but reality as well, and Mattia’s novel promises the reader an experience that recalibrates simplistic notions of truth and fiction, reality and illusion. —ES Saving Time by Jenny Odell I love books that force me to recognize or reconsider the structure of existence—and Odell’s book does just this, in a way that's both enlightening and generative. Her previous book, How to Do Nothing, was a runaway hit about what happens when we subvert the temporal expectations that are placed upon us: “Letting go of one overwhelming rhythm, you invite the presence of others. Perhaps more important, you remember that the arrangement is yours to make.” Odell demonstrates how it's never too late to save the time we have left. —NR The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe In 1958, at the age of 27, Rona Jaffe published her first novel, a revolutionary portrait of three young women employed at a New York publishing house. Renowned for its frankness and honesty, particularly in its depictions of sexual harassment, The Best of Everything is, per Michele Moses, “what you would get if you took Sex and the City and set it inside Mad Men’s universe.” Now, for its 65th anniversary, Penguin Classics is reissuing the novel, complete with a new introduction by New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme, who is the perfect voice to prime us for a retro romp through postwar New York and its attendant glitzy patina. —TB Raving by McKenzie Wark Wark's entry into Duke University Press's Practices series, which spotlights the activities that make us human, invites us into the underground queer and trans rave scene of New York City. A bombastic collision of sound and movement, raving is, to Wark, the ideal activity for "this era of diminishing futures." An avid raver herself, she blends academic analysis with her own first-hand accounts, all relayed with sensual, staccato prose. "Some come to serve looks; some come to leave their sweat on the dance floor," she writes. "I’m the latter kind. I want to be animate and animated on the floor." —SMS Still Life with Bones by Alexa Hagerty From 1960 to 1996, more than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, and tens of thousands more disappeared, after an American-backed coup gave rise to a steady march of genocidal dictators. Decades later, anthropologists like Alexa Hagerty are working to exhume and examine the dead, piecing together their bodies and their stories in an urgent but potentially quixotic quest for resolution, and attempting to bring a sense of humanity to the forensic sciences. —EA How to Think Like a Woman by Regan Penaluna In her first book, journalist Penaluna, who has a PhD in philosophy, explores the oft-forgotten and under-taught feminist philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Mary Astell, Damaris Masham, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Catherine Cockburn. Blending biography, criticism, and memoir, Penaluna explores the lives and beliefs of these thinkers, as well as the ways women—past and present—have been devalued within philosophy, academia, and history. How to Think Like a Woman serves as an alternate philosophical canon, where women and their intellect are deeply and rigorously examined. —Carolyn Quimby Y/N by Esther Yi “Y/N,” short for “[Your/Name],” refers to a type of fanfiction that allows readers to insert their own names into brackets in the story, so as to imagine themselves in romantic scenarios with popular idols. In Esther Yi’s debut novel, our narrator devotes herself to writing fanfic about a K-pop star named Moon. When Moon suddenly retires and retreats from the spotlight, the narrator embarks on a transnational search that unveils the absurd innards of a Korean entertainment company, as well as the loneliness of modern life and the various fantasies we enact to try to escape it. Yi, a Leipzig-based writer, has earned comparisons to Elif Batuman, Thomas Pynchon, Yoko Tawada, and Marie NDiaye. —JW How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of a Suicidal Mind by Clancy Martin Clancy Martin has tried to die by suicide more than 10 times. In How Not to Kill Yourself, he speaks frankly about these attempts and the thoughts that fueled them. In probing his own experiences, he inevitably comes to larger conclusions about the nature of the self-destructive mind and the philosophy of suicide. He also turns to other writers who have attempted suicide and written about it, from Yiyun Li to David Foster Wallace. Written with surprising tenderness and humor, this memoir-cum-critical-inquiry is a perspective-shifting study. Biography of X by Catherine Lacy With a title that recalls both Alex Haley’s biography of Malcolm X and Gertrude Stein’s consideration of her partner Alice B. Toklas, Lacey audaciously explores the contingencies of identity, memory, and history in her latest experimental novel. Lacey’s novel takes place in an alternative history where the American South separated from the United States and was governed as a fascist theocracy only recently being reabsorbed into the wider nation. Ostensibly The Biography of X is about the titular unknown, a celebrated but mysterious artist, and her widow’s account of that life as much as can be assembled. But with cameos by such twentieth-century luminaries as Sontag and Bowie, the novel is also a biography of American art and theory which understands that sometimes history is best understood at a slant. —ES The Last Catastrophe by Allegra Hyde This collection of 15 stories by the author of Eleutheria continues Hyde’s interest in humanity grappling with climate change. Alexandra Kleeman writes that these speculative stories are “dazzling, inventive, and glinting with dark humor.” Spaceships, AI, zombies, and body-switching abound. I, for one, am most excited to read the story about the girl growing a unicorn horn! —EL The New Earth by Jess Row A century which began with 9/11, and has so far seen economic collapse, a ground war in Europe, a global pandemic, and the rise of neo-fascism is painfully interesting. Jess Row’s latest novel interlays these interesting times on a family drama among the privileged Wilcoxes of the Upper East Side, from 2000 to 2018. The global perspective becomes synonymous with the vantage point of daughter Winter Wilcox, who on the eve of her wedding must grapple not just with her estranged family, but the ways in which her personal tragedies from years coincide with both parental secrets and historical injustices. “Disguising your origins is a deeply American impulse,” Row wrote in 2014, “but that doesn’t make it any less compromising,” a theme heartily interrogated in The New Earth. —ES Chlorine by Jade Song Song's debut novel revolves around high-schooler Ren Yu, a competitive swimmer who spends her days in the pool. Her immigrant parents expect her to train hard and secure a college scholarship, but she aspires to transform into a mermaid, freeing herself from the terrestrial world. A spiky, sapphic coming-of-age that embraces fantasy and horror to explore girlhood and its discontents. —JQ In Search of a Beautiful Freedom by Farah Jasmine Griffin A new volume of collected essays both new and previously published by Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia. Following her last book Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature, these new and previously unpublished essays range in topic from Covid to the efforts to ban Toni Morrison to the life work of Odetta. Griffin's insights into Black music, feminism, and literature are unparalleled. —LK Affinities by Brian Dillon When I read Dillon's previous books, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence, I considered them a diptych: two close looks at two literary forms (the essay and the sentence) that were driven by what Dillon himself calls his own "affinity." It turns out, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence were really the first two entries in a triptych! His latest book, Affinities, centers on images, from photographs to paintings to migraine auras. Why do images make us feel the way they do? Why are we drawn to certain images over other ones? Dillon is one of my favorite writers, thinkers, and close-readers, and I can't wait to read him on the pleasures of looking. —SMS Above Ground by Clint Smith I long for a literature—especially a poetry—of joy; life is too short and bland without it. Smith’s new poetry collection teems with images of love and fatherhood. Great poetry comes in many modes and subjects, but there’s something unique about a book of verse that makes me want to hold my own children a little tighter, as I think of his description of delivering a bear hug: “my arms are still / open like a universe / in need of a planet / to make it worth / something.” Juxtaposed with lines of grief and recognition—“men attempting / to unlearn the anger on their father’s / tongues, the heat in their hands”—Smith’s songs of joy are that much sweeter. —NR Ada's Room by Sharon Dodua Otoo, translated by Jon Cho-Polizzi Otoo's debut novel is about four women, all with the same name: Ada, a mother in fifteenth-century West Africa; Ada Lovelace, the real-life programmer in Victorian England; Ada, a prisoner in a concentration camp in 1945; and Ada, a young Ghanian woman in present day. As Otoo connects their narratives across centuries, the linear confines of history break down and a profound sorority comes into focus. R.O. Kwon calls this one "thrillingly, astonishingly original." —SMS April This Is Not Miami by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes Taking place in and around the Mexican city of Veracruz, this collection of crónicas—narrative nonfiction pieces that blend reportage with novelistic structures—explores the criminal underworld, shedding light on social problems that manifest in gory headlines. As in her novels Paradais and Hurricane Season, Melchor draws empathetic portraits of deeply unsympathetic figures, forcing her readers to understand the mindsets of monstrous characters. —TB Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Ever since the moment I finished Adjei-Brenyah’s surreal, satirical, and original debut story collection, Friday Black, I’ve been not-so-patiently waiting for whatever he wrote next. In his upcoming debut novel, two female gladiators fight to the death for their freedom on the hugely popular and controversial TV show, Chain-Gang All Stars, which airs on CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment). With his sharp eye for satire and reverence for humanity, Adjei-Brenyah’s latest explores the exploitation, violence, and false promises of the prison industrial complex, capitalism, and the country itself. —CQ Work-Life Balance by Aisha Franz, translated by Nicholas Houde This graphic novel, which was originally a comic series published by Colorama, concerns three friends who, disillusioned with their work lives, seek help from the same therapist. Franz, who lives in Berlin, was nominated for a Los Angeles Times book prize for her previous book, Shit is Real, which the Guardian called “a wise and funny journey through loneliness and confusion.” Her latest sounds just as promising. —EL Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe The latest book by scholar of English literature and Black Studies Christina Sharpe takes the form of a series of 248 notes on history, art, literature, and life whose meanings accumulate over the course of nearly 400 pages. At the center of the resulting polyphonic portrait of Black existence is the figure of Ida Wright Sharpe, the author’s mother. Saidiya Hartman calls Ordinary Notes "an exquisite text" that "demands everything of the reader and, in turn, offers us a vocabulary for living.” —JW A Living Remedy by Nicole Chung Chung's bestselling memoir All You Can Ever Know, published in 2018, cemented her as one of this generation's great chroniclers of family, both adoptive and biological: its limits and possibilities, what it means, how it shapes us. Her follow-up, which follows Chung as she mourns her parents and navigates the institutional inequities baked into American society, promises to be just as poignant. Blurbers Megha Majumdar, Julie Otsuka, Imani Perry, and Bryan Washington certainly think so. —SMS Second Star: And Other Reasons for Lingering by Philippe Delerm, translated by Jody Gladding A runaway hit in France, Second Star is a collection of vignettes about life's smallest and simplest moments, from washing your windows to peeling a clementine. With evocative descriptions of taste, touch, and sound, Delerm zeroes in on the sensations and pleasures that, while often overlooked or taken for granted, can make us feel most alive. Linger in the moment, he says, stay a while—be here, now. —SMS Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld I first encountered Curtis Sittenfeld in high school, when my dad's then-girlfriend gifted me a copy of Prep. It was smart and sexy and felt like a portal into womanhood, which I was on the precipice of. Sittenfeld knows how to write romantic comedy without ever slipping into the saccharine, the chivalrous, the cliche. (Also, Brandon Taylor is a fan!) So I can't wait for her new rom-com, about a comedy writer whose decision to swear off love is rocked when she falls for a pop star. —SMS Sea Change by Gina Chung Chung's debut centers on thirty-something Ro who feels stalled in her life—heartbroken after a breakup, father missing, mother remote, friends drifting away. She's also stagnating at her job at a mall aquarium, where one of her favorite sea creatures (and last remaining link to her father), an octopus named Dolores, is about to be sold to a wealthy investor intent on moving her to a private collection. Joseph Han called Ro one of his favorite Korean American characters of all time. —MML The One by Julia Argy Argy’s debut novel, about a woman who’s a contestant on a Bachelor-style dating reality show, has garnered some killer blurbs. Julie Buntin writes, “I could not stop reading Julia Argy’s smart, funny, and tender debut novel about falling in love and finding oneself on and offscreen,” and Claire Messud calls it “riveting, astute and darkly comic.” —EL Without Children by Peggy O'Donnell Heffington As a mother of three myself, I’m interested in why people become parents—or don’t. In Without Children, Heffington, a historian of gender, explores the long history of women who did not become mothers, for a variety of reasons. Situating what seems to some to be a modern phenomenon within a larger historical context, this one seems like an essential read. Ada Calhoun deems it a “timely, refreshingly open-hearted study.” —EL The Double Life of Benson Yu by Kevin Chong I hear the word “metafiction” and I usually figure I’m in for a cerebral workout and probably a headache. While Chong’s story of a graphic novelist focusing on his art in an attempt to process his difficult youth is indeed a workout, it’s also a hugely engaging, headache-free read about a world, Chinatown, and a creative outlet, graphic arts, that I know nothing about. Yes, there is a lot of darkness in this story, episodes that could present challenges to some readers, but ultimately the heft of this novel lies in its powerful reminder that unless we confront our demons, we’ll never exorcise them. —IR Arrangements in Blue by Amy Key An essay collection about unpartnered life set to the soundtrack of Joni Mitchell's Blue—so thoughtful of Amy Key to write a book specifically and exclusively for me! Looking back at her past romantic longings and collisions, Key considers the (inflated?) value of romantic love and finds her contradictory feelings on the matter reflected in Mitchell's lyrics. There's nothing poor-me about Arrangements in Blue; in Key's hands, solitary life becomes more capacious—and more complicated—than I ever thought possible. —SMS The Ugly History of Beautiful Things by Katy Kelleher In this deeply researched collection of essays, Paris Review contributor Katy Kelleher explores the hidden histories of our favorite luxury goods, revealing how even the most beautiful objects have dark, unsavory backgrounds. In a blend of historical, scientific and autobiographical writing, Kelleher explains why some red lipstick contains beetle shells, why certain perfumes include rodent musk, and why a fancy class of dishware is made with the ashes of cow bones. Along with helping us understand how these objects came to signify beauty, Kelleher reveals the price workers pay to bring them to us – and suggests a few ways we can ethically appreciate their products. —TB May Written on Water by Eileen Chang It is no exaggeration to say Eileen Chang has shaped our perceptions of modern cities in China. Before her, big cities were monstrous, with myriads of people often seen as sordid sinners. Chang portrayed Shanghai and Hong Kong as the intersections of tradition and modernity, of the East and the West. The pleasures of modernity embody new ways of life. The subtleties of everyday life signify people’s pursuit of happiness. Chang is sharp, rebellious, and unique. You will find even her examination of Shanghainese food eerily resonating. —JQ Homebodies by Tembe Denton-Hurst When Mickey Hayward loses her coveted media job, she pens a scathing letter about the racism and sexism she's encountered in the industry. It's met with silence and soon forgotten, until a media scandal catapults the letter—and Mickey—back into the spotlight. This witty take on fame, media, and the institutions that rule our lives, Homebodies already garnered blurbs from Danielle Evans, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, and Bryan Washington. —SMS Quietly Hostile by Samantha Irby If you’ve read Irby’s previous collections, or even skimmed her Instagram, you’re likely waiting for her next book of hilarious essays. This one sounds promising: it has a skunk on the front and covers everything from working in Hollywood, to getting a “deranged pandemic dog” (per the jacket copy), to being turned away from a restaurant for being dressed inappropriately. I can’t wait! —EL Dances by Nicole Cuffy At the age of 22, Cece Cordell is catapulted to fame when she becomes the first Black principal dancer in the history of the storied New York City Ballet. But her achievement doesn’t feel right, and she she soon embarks on a journey to find a missing older brother— and the pieces of herself that have been devoured by the voracious machinery of the highly competitive ballet world. This debut novel by the author of a decorated work of short fiction, 2018's Atlas of the Body, is an examination of the physical and spiritual costs all artists must pay in the pursuit of their art. —BM Monsters by Claire Dederer How to separate the art from the artist? A question I—and most cultural critics—have been wrestling with for a long time now. In Monsters, Claire Dederer takes a stab. Inspired by her Paris Review essay, "What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?," Dederer takes on Hemingway and Picasso, Miles Davis and Roman Polanski, to construct a deeply personal theory of art, genius, and cruelty, written from the perspective of both a critic and a fan. I've been counting down the days to this one for a while. —SMS Dykette by Jenny Fran Davis In her blurb for Davis's debut novel, the writer Samantha Hunt tells me everything I needed to know: "Like a tightly rolled spliff passed around the room," she writes, "you will inhale Dykette." Following three queer couples on a 10-day country getaway, Dykette takes on desire, debauchery, and destruction through a distinctly queer—and propulsively entertaining—lens. —SMS Avidly Reads Screen Time by Phillip Maciak Phillip Maciak is one of the best TV critics alive right now, full stop. Whether he's writing about Girls or Station Eleven or Bluey, his criticism is always characterized by wit, insight, and a remarkable propensity for close-reading. So yes, I was over the moon to learn about his new book of cultural criticism and history, Avidly Reads Screen Time, about how we define screens and how they define us. There are three Mad Men screen caps within the book's first 30 pages, so, yeah, it's gonna be ridiculously good. —SMS Thinning Blood by Leah Myers Leah Myers is likely the last official member of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe as a consequence of blood quantum laws. In a work of memoir and family excavation of her ancestors lives' in the Pacific Northwest, Myers explores the meaning of legacy, documentation, belonging, and weaves between and together her own life, the lives of her ancestors, and the hypotheticals of future generations. —LK King: A Life by Jonathan Eig Martin Luther King Jr. has, at this point, been flattened into an icon. The Selma to Montgomery march, "I Have a Dream," his assassination—this is what his life has been boiled down for many of us, and in the American imagination as a whole. King the leader, the orator, the pastor, the martyr—what about King the man? Eig's forthcoming tome on King, the first full biography in decades, contains new research and shines a fresh light on King's life, relationships, and interiority. —SMS A Life of One's Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again by Joanna Biggs I've recently realized that I will read just about any book of nonfiction that has the word "women" in the title. A Life of One's Own is no exception, though the draw certainly does not end at its title. Biggs's latest combine memoir, criticism, and biography (my favorite literary concoction) to study how women writers across the centuries—Plath, Woolf, Morrison, et al.— have carved out freedom for themselves in their lives and work. (I suspect this one will be a great companion to the aforementioned How to Think Like a Woman.) —SMS The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor Everyone’s favorite Booker Prize shortlister, national bestseller, Story Prize winner, Henry James prefacer, litcrit-newsletter purveyor, tweet-sender, and sweater-enjoyer Brandon Taylor, returns in May 2023 with The Late Americans. Like his acclaimed 2020 novel Real Life, The Late Americans is set in a small midwestern college town; also like Real Life, it is more accurately set in its young characters’ exquisitely sensitive and private psyches. Its three protagonists, and a larger constellation of midwestern eccentrics, artists, and academics, confront and provoke one another in a volatile year of self-discovery leading to a trip to a cabin where they bid goodbye to their former lives—a moment of reckoning that leaves each of them irrevocably altered. —Adam O'Fallon Price The Lost Journals of Sacajewea by Debra Magpie Earling Earling reimagines the well-trodden tale of Sacajewea and her role in the fateful expedition of Lewis and Clark in this historical novel. Endowed agency, authority, and interiority, Earling's Sacajewea rewrites the version of herself handed down through American history. Her life before the expedition comes into vivid focus, as do her complicated feelings about her role in charting the course for American imperialism. Night of the Living Rez author Morgan Talty praises this "transcendental work of literature" as "striking" and "elegant." —SMS On Women by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff Susan Sontag, Merve Emre—the collab of the century? I'll read anything by either writer, so I will of course be reading this. Sontag's takes on feminism, sexuality, beauty, fascism, aging, and more are the focus of this seven-essay collection, introduced by Emre and edited by Sontag's son David Rieff. Always drawn to the grey, the murky, the complicated, here Sontag considers the ubiquitous, amorphous forces that shape women's lives with her characteristic curiosity and authority. —SMS Lesbian Love Story by Amelia Possanza In her debut memoir, Brooklynite Possanza dives into the archives to recover the stories of twentieth-century New York lesbians. Sifting through records she finds role models and cautionary tales, juicy gossip and heart-wrenching regret. Writing with empathy, wit, and imagination, Possanza constructs a personal, political, and romantic history of lesbian life and love. —SMS June Where Are Your Boys Tonight?: The Oral History of Emo's Mainstream Explosion 1999-2008 by Chris Payne Emo exploded just as I gained consciousness as a human being with aesthetic tastes. For me, and many of my peers, emo music was a formative force in our lives, enunciating the frustration and darkness that many of us found ourselves newly harboring as adolescents. So I can't wait to read Chris Payne's oral history of the genre, which uses interviews with My Chemical Romance, Paramore, Panic! at the Disco, Fall Out Boy, and more to reconstruct emo's meteoric ascent and profound cultural footprint. —SMS Wannabe: Reckoning with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me by Aisha Harris Harris, host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, always has a take. Movies, TV, music—she's got an opinion and she's excited to tell you about it. Adapting her radio presence into book form, Wannabe sees Harris turning her talents for critique and criticism inward, looking at the media that has shaped her life and examining its effects. From Clueless to the Spice Girls, New Girl to Chance the Rapper, Harris teases out the connections between her identity and her love of pop culture with wit and elan. —SMS Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration by Alejandra Oliva Oliva is a writer, translator and immigration activist who has translated for people seeking asylum along the US-Mexico border since 2016. In this work of memoir and journalism, which won a 2022 Whiting Nonfiction Award, Oliva describes her experiences of translation, describes her own Mexican-American family's relationship to the border, and interrogates notions of citizenship and belonging. —LK I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home by Lorrie Moore Moore's first novel since 2009's A Gate at the Stairs, I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home (that title!) is a ghost story set in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries about grief, devotion, and narrative. I'll be honest, I have no idea what this book is actually going to be about (the descriptive copy sums up the plot thusly: "A teacher visiting his dying brother in the Bronx. A mysterious journal from the nineteenth century stolen from a boarding house. A therapy clown and an assassin, both presumed dead, but perhaps not dead at all . . .") but the intrigue makes it all the more anticipated. —SMS Directions to Myself: A Memoir of Four Years by Heidi Julavits My first introduction to Julavits was 2015's The Folded Clock, which I read the week after I first moved to New York, back in 2020. I've been waiting for her next book ever since. It's finally here—Directions to Myself sees Julavits studying what she calls "the end times of childhood." She writes about her son's upbringing as well as her own to find answers about motherhood, family life, and growing up. George Saunders calls it "an absolute stunner." I predict I'll feel the same. —SMS [millions_email]
Last month, The Millions entered the e-book publishing business with Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever. Staff writer Mark O'Connell has hitherto produced delightful work on, among other things, an obscure video game enthusiast named Martin Amis and "the Proust of pencil sharpeners." In Epic Fail, he traces the origins of viral fame to a pre-Internet age, squiring the reader effortlessly from Shakespeare to the Insane Clown Posse. Mark was kind enough to correspond with me for a Millions Conversation about his new book and early life as a middle school film critic. Lydia: You and I are colleagues who have never met but maintain an infrequent friendly chatting over the Twitter and the emails. It's enough distance that I didn't know this project was in the works until C. Max Magee's general announcement to the group, but close enough that upon hearing the news I felt the special kind of chuffed you only feel over a friend's achievement. Epic Fail has the distinction of bringing The Millions into a new phase of its existence, as a purveyor of e-books, which is already very exciting. And then I read Epic Fail and felt even more chuffed. I really enjoyed it. So now that I've buttered you up, I want to ask you about how this endeavor came about. Was this something you were working as a Millions or other piece that took on a life of its own? How long have you been thinking about the project? Our own Garth Risk Hallberg was your editor, I believe. When did he come on board? Mark: Actually, I have to think quite hard to formulate a coherent answer to the straightforward question of how it came about. Max got in touch early last year, February or March I think, to say that he'd been talking to Byliner about partnering on an e-book series, and to ask whether I had any ideas I thought might work for such a piece. I'd read something somewhere about this Irish schoolteacher called Amanda McKittrick Ros, who'd become widely known around the turn of the 20th century as the worst novelist of all time. I was fascinated not so much by the novels themselves – which are truly atrocious, obviously, but mostly just incredibly dull to read – as by the ironic way they were celebrated by this cultural elite in London and Oxford - C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien and Aldous Huxley and all those guys. I thought this was really interesting in itself, but also felt that it was a kind of fame or notoriety that we tend to think of as more or less uniquely contemporary. So I thought maybe this eccentric old Irish schoolteacher and amateur novelist might provide sort of a sneaky back door into a discussion of Internet culture, and of the whole ostensibly contemporary phenomenon of the Epic Fail. I'd been thinking about Ros as a possible topic for quite a while, but then this thing, because of the scope and length that the e-book allowed for, forced me to actually try and connect her to some wider and more contemporary cultural currents. Garth came on board very early on - at the outline stage, in fact. He was really instrumental in helping to broaden it out conceptually in the beginning; and then, when it came to writing the thing, in sharpening actual arguments, and sort of forcing me to come out into the open and say things in a very unequivocal way. Like yourself, I come from an academic background, where things like concision and having a solid "takeaway" are, or are supposed to be, paramount; but I think, constitutionally, I'm the type of writer who only figures out what I'm trying to say – or if indeed I have anything to say at all – by blindly writing my way into it. I'm not naturally a bottom-line type of person who goes in with an argument in mind, is what I think I might be saying here (see?), but Garth really stepped in and sort of forced me to be that when I needed to be. Lydia: That was what I found most enlightening about the essay -- in terms of information I did not have before -- that these literary lights of the early twentieth century went into ironic ecstasies over Amanda McKittrick Ros, held readings, formed clubs. I knew that they were elitist dicks (not a value statement) but it's funny to think that they did something so, I guess, unproductive and time-wastey, as read these awful, awful novels, like looking at lots of YouTube videos (shouldn't C.S. Lewis have been communing with the Lord?). But then, that's one takeaway of Epic Fail -- the thing with Ros and all the Worst Thing Evers to have followed, is that they either rise into some ethereal, sublime level of badness, or are so unheimlich in their nearness to regular mediocrity (or a combination of both), that it makes them special. (I loved, incidentally, your point about the virulent, absurd badness that actually infects the entirety of literature and art -- let's come back to that.) I see now there are two untrue things about my first sentence above, the first being that this was the best new information I gleaned from this piece. Because that was actually the song "Miracles," and also the song "Friday," which I had in fact made it this far without ever hearing in its entirety. I had sort of willfully not clicked on it, because I kept seeing it everywhere and I guess that was my way of keeping my own ironic distance. So, um, thank you for those things. You do realize you kind of wrote a hypertext book, because you can't read it and not go digging for, er, miracles, on the internet? And, truly, the most enlightening thing was learning about Mark O'Connell's rap phase. Although you're a tease -- first you talk about washing the lemon juice from your face (buy the book, get the reference) and lifting the veil from your readers' eyes, then you talk about the Irish rap scene, and I was in a fever of anticipation that the next thing coming was the revelation that you had done your own Worst Thing Ever, and that it was a rap, and that possibly there were bootleg tapes about. But it turns out that the secret shame -- which was a transcendent bit of prose, incidentally -- is actually that you once did something really dickish yourself to an aspiring rapper. A different kind of worst thing ever. In the beginning of the piece, your compare Cecilia Jimenez, the perpetrator of the Ecce Homo Christ fresco fiasco, to your grandmother, and you invoke the term "mortify" in the Catholic sense. Another Catholic word occurred to me when I got to this last bit of the book: penance. Sorry in advance for sounding like Geraldo, but had this been eating away Was your ebook, dare I say, an exorcism? Mark: I can't believe you'd never actually heard "Friday." That is hugely impressive to me. Although I can see how you'd want to avoid that stuff, or just never end up actually giving it the time of day. I don't think I've watched more than a few seconds of Gangnam Style, actually (although that's a whole other cultural ball of wax, obviously). That's interesting what you said about it being a kind of hypertext ebook. I don't think it really occurred to me when I was writing it, which seems completely idiotic now. But then after I finished it, I wrote this essay about unboxing videos for The Dublin Review, and the editor, Brendan Barrington, pointed out that having it on ink and paper actually made a lot of sense, because if it was online, the temptation for the reader -- even if the text itself wasn't full of links -- would be to just keep going away from the actual text to watch the videos being discussed. I wound up putting in a perhaps overly-cute footnote asking readers to just bear with me and watch the videos after finishing the essay, rather than whipping out their iPhones there and then. And then a couple of my friends who read Epic Fail said exactly what you've just said: that they kept having to put it down to go online and watch the stuff I was writing about. I suppose that would be even more pronounced if you happen to be reading it on an iPad, where you're just swiping away the text to check out some awful YouTube video. Maybe a major flaw of the book, in that sense, is that it keeps suggesting things to the reader that are more entertaining than itself. That's another thing that never occurred to me at all -- that a reader might think that the revelation at the end would be that I myself was a Worst Thing Ever. (Although of course I've done embarrassing stuff. Just probably nothing that would be entertaining for anyone who didn't know me.) But it's an interesting question, about the idea of penance. It's a concept I don't really understand. I didn't have a Catholic upbringing, so maybe it's a difficult thing to get your head around if it hasn't been part of your psycho-cultural make-up. Personally, I didn't feel any kind of relief from writing about the dickishness you mention. It actually just made me feel really awful about it all over again. In that sense, it's probably the opposite of penance; my writing about it actually exacerbated my guilt about it. I mean, obviously we're not exactly talking about an Augustinian level of moral self-disburdening here, but I do think that that's the sort of niggling, more or less banal guilt that a lot of people walk around with, and that makes them wince when they think about it. Some really shabby thing they did when they were a teenager, or whatever. But to answer your question about whether the book was an exorcism, the answer, I suppose, would be definitely not. Or at least it would be a spectacularly ineffective exorcism, seeing as I felt more possessed by it after writing about it than before. I just felt it would have been dishonest and sort of morally shifty not to talk about myself, and my own personal complicity in this culture of ridicule, in terms of the context I was writing in. Although I'm not convinced there's not something morally shifty about it anyway. Writing is a morally shifty thing to be doing, a lot of the time. What would Geraldo say to that? Lydia: Well, I didn't imagine you sitting at your carrel in a hair shirt. But I think the thrust of the book does invite everyone to put on at least a moderately hairy shirt and do a bit of reflection. I confess when I did watch "Friday," and thought uncharitable thoughts, I was brought a bit low by the gallantry, or I guess basic human decency, you extend to Ms. Black. And while I had hitherto missed the "Friday" phenomenon, I had seen, and laughed the proverbial tits off while seeing, monkey Jesus. I found your comparison of Cecilia Jimenez to your own grandmother, your touching description of the latter as "a constitutionally private, reserved, and serious person," and your remark that "if something like this were to happen to her, I'm afraid it might literally kill her," sobering. The dicks of the early twentieth century argued, probably on the way home from their Amanda McKittrick Ros fan club meetings, about whether art could be good without a moral component. And I'm stodgy and I feel that's the case, so what I perceived as a slight bit of moralizing on your part made the piece resonate with me. But since you have a sense of humor, (number-one most desirable quality in a writer), you don't try to act as though these things aren't hilariously bad. You just provide a friendly reminder that the road of the Worst Thing Ever in the technological age is one hundred percent of the time going to lead to a YouTube comment saying "I hope you die/get raped/etc." I was probably projecting about the rap stuff. In my experience the only thing that approaches the shame of shabby teenage things done is the shame of ludicrous teenage things written. And when I think about "Friday" and then some of the horrible things I wrote in high school or college, I offer a prayer or thanks to the monkey Jesus that I did not have to bear that particular cross at a time in my development when I would have been constitutionally disinclined to survive sustained mockery. Having managed to turn your interview into my personal feelings time, let's go back to Epic Fail. You mentioned Gangnam Style, and I thought of that phenomenon while reading. The same way that truly terrible efforts can, as you write, infect the whole of art with their badness, good writing invites the mind to romp. Epic Fail caused me to spend a Saturday afternoon sort of furiously taxonomizing, trying to sort through the spiritual differential of something like the film The Room, or something that seems well-produced and self-consciously zany (and thus, I think, unexciting) like Gangnam Style, or terrible Eurovision-style songs, or Susan Boyle, or the (brilliant) show Arrested Development. It sounds like faint praise to call something "tidy," but I really admire how you (with Garth's careful shepherding, it sounds like) avoided getting bogged down in trying to explain the whole landscape of viral fame, and list all the sort of subspecies and things that are not x but are y and so on. Your examples seemed really exemplary, and the whole effort was very clean. That said, it's such a vast field of inquiry, with many tributaries (I think I have like 200 metaphors in here so far). Do you feel finished thinking about it? You said in your last response that you feel more possessed by the subject than before. Would you consider a long-long-form on this topic? Mark: Can I just start by saying that the phrase "laugh the proverbial tits off" is itself a phrase that makes me laugh the proverbial tits off? But, to swiftly resume an attitude of moral seriousness – before no doubt just as swiftly relinquishing it – your point about things you did as a kid in high school is an important one, I think. Because part of what's so fascinating and troubling about this stuff is the almost complete randomness of it. You get the sense that this kind of viral celebrity could befall almost anyone. (Which is maybe, actually, another way of thinking about what the term "viral" actually means in that formulation.) We've all done stuff to some extent that could make us a source of amusement to a large number of people. I was just thinking the other day of this notebook I used to keep when I was about eleven or so, where I used to write in little reviews of films I'd watched on video. My sister found it in a drawer a few years back, and it had these hilariously po-faced reviews of movies where I'd give star ratings and list cast members and stuff like that. But the combination of wrongness and priggishness was kind of fantastic. Like there was a review of Glengarry Glen Ross (and I'm laughing just thinking about this) where I took grave umbrage at the unnecessary level of swearing in the film – "the characters seem to use f-words instead of punctuation" – and gave it 2 stars, memorably dismissing it as "a waste of an all-star cast." And then you turn the page and there's a five star review of Sister Act 2 that is just enraptured with the whole thing. I mean, if I was an 11 year-old kid nowadays, that would probably be a Tumblr or something, and those reviews could have wound up being a source of amusement to a lot of people outside my family, which would be a whole other story. Like that lady who reviewed an Olive Garden for her local paper last year and briefly became the Internet's woman of the hour. It's just very weird how randomly that stuff can happen. She seemed fine with it; she ultimately seemed not to give a rat's ass, but not all octogenarians would be so cool about something like that happening. I kind of love that woman actually. Her whole reaction was basically "What the hell is wrong with you people? Get back to work." Yes, I know what you mean about that taxonomizing urge. (If it weren't too aggressively meta, the whole human species might have been taxonomized as Homo Taxonomiens.) It was definitely a temptation for me, but I don't think it would have been all that helpful for the reader. Although I do talk at one point about the difference between "organic" or "free-range" epic fails and genetically engineered weirdness like Tim and Eric and that sort of stuff. I don't know that I'd want to write a whole book on it, because I feel like I'd like to move on to something else, but you never know. I do seem to be preoccupied by Internet weirdness. That unboxing video essay consumed me for a long time - and to be honest the essay became a sort of cover story for indulging that compulsion - and I've just finished writing a thing about ASMR videos for Slate. You're welcome. But who isn't fascinated by that stuff, really? (The answer to that rhetorical question is actually, no doubt, lots of normal people.) Lydia: The juxtaposition of Glengarry Glen Ross and Sister Act 2 in the notebook of Mark O'Connell, aged 11, the toughest critic on the block, is such pure comedy that I think the writers of Arrested Development would really struggle to find something as home-grown and delightful (local, organic, free-range fails, if you will). All the better because this was probably just before (or concurrent with) the moment when, according to your book, you yourself became hip to the joys of "entertaining ineptitude" and found nothing funnier than the vast distance between ambition and execution. Which brings me to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a part of your book that I found really fascinating. Brutally paraphrasing, Science has proven that the more of an idiot you are, the greater your confidence that you aren't an idiot. It occurs to me that in a sense being a kid is one sustained exercise in Dunning-Krugerism. In fact, arguably to be a proper kid you need those moments of total unselfconscious and total commitment -- it's hateful to think of a child having to posit his or her movie reviews or, ahem, paeans to exotic cats and cars, in some ironic, self-conscious frame. Once you get to middle and high school and college, where there are strange and multifarious forces at work -- your teachers try to nurture your better instincts and squelch your worse ones, while you and your peers spend much of your time trying feel one another up whilst putting one another down -- slowly you learn to think about your output (artistic or otherwise) in a different way. In terms or raw artistic ability, the wheat and the chaff alike have to go through this process of maturation. But your A. M. Ros, your Tommy Wiseau (of The Room), somehow come through it all with a really majestic, unshakable belief in their own ability that certainly exceeds that of people who really make great art. (When I read Epic Fail I was in the middle of re-reading Of Human Bondage -- have you read it? -- which has a whole section on artistic toils. Everything synced together beautifully at the moment when Philip the protagonist asks a professional painter to look over his work and give an opinion: "Don't you know if you have talent?" the painter asks, and Philip says, "All my friends know they have talent, but I am aware some of them are mistaken.") Okay, so you don't want to write a book about YouTube comments. I will forgive you. But according to your bio in Epic Fail you have a book on the horizon -- about John Banville? Please to explain. Mark: I have read it, but it was years ago. Actually, it was one of the first bits of "proper/serious" literature I ever really connected with - as in it wasn't about dragons or aliens or what have you. I don't remember all that much about it, but I do remember the business with the club foot, and that Mildred girl being a total bitch. (Am I somehow wrong in remembering it this way?) (Ed.: No.) I do remember being really impressed with myself for finishing it, though. I should probably read it again, through not-15-year-old eyes. I almost certainly didn't get it at all. But yeah, the Dunning-Krueger effect is a good one, isn't it? The ironic thing about it, of course, is how primed for misuse it seems to be. The last people who would ever see it applying to themselves are probably the people most affected by it. It's a usefully scientific-seeming way of explaining why other people are such idiots. Why "The best lack all conviction while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity", as Yeats put (it in a context so different as to make even bringing it up here wildly inappropriate). I do think most writers - most people, really - could probably do with a touch of the William McGonagall or Amanda McKittrick Ros or Tommy Wiseau unshakable self-belief. If you could somehow combine that with actual talent, you could do a very brisk artistic trade. That's possibly some kind of formula for genius: major talent combined with the self-belief that's more often associated with talentlessness. I do have a book on Banville on the horizon. Last I heard it's due to come out in July or thereabouts. It's based on my PhD thesis, which I finished a couple of years ago now. It looks at Banville's novels from the point of view of various psychoanalytic understandings of what narcissism means. It sounds quite narrow, but narcissism is so variously and broadly interpreted by theorists from Freud onwards that it's actually become almost like a kind of synonym for psychoanalysis itself. Even though it contains no quips about Trapped in the Closet, it will nonetheless be tremendous fun to read, I assure you. Lydia: Well, two things are clear. Number one, I must pray for "major talent combined with the self-belief that's more often associated with talentlessness." Number two, I must read John Banville. Mark, I can't thank you enough for chatting with me about yourself and your wonderful book. Any parting thoughts or, better yet, YouTube videos? Mark: It's unacceptable that you haven't read Banville. That needs to be redressed straight away. Unfortunately none of his books are set in Turkey, but there are parts of The Book of Evidence and Shroud that are set in a kind of warped version of San Francisco, if that's any good to you. Thanks for the back-and-forth, Lydia. It was a lot of fun. Like a proper old-fashioned epistolary set-up. Plus this whole thing has been a textbook example of vertical integration, when you think about it. Lydia: I hate that I just had to google vertical integration, but am also grateful to now know what that means. Ye olde one-stoppe shoppe, that's us.
One evening a couple of weeks ago, I passed a murderer in the front square of Trinity College Dublin. He didn’t look like a murderer – or he didn’t look like whatever it is murderers are supposed to look like. With his wavy white hair swept back from his high forehead, his tweed jacket, his beige slacks and blue oxford shirt, he could easily have passed for a professor nearing retirement age, scuttling between lectures while trying to avoid running into his students. He was even carrying an A4-sized folder under one arm. At first I thought he was someone I vaguely knew, and was about to nod blandly in his direction, when I realized why it was that I had recognized him. I must have done a quite blatant double take, because as we passed each other beneath the campanile he shot me a sidelong look of almost cartoonish wariness and culpability – swiveling his eyes toward me, and then away, and then quickly back again. He looked frightened. I stopped for a moment, and watched him walk across the cobbled square in the direction of Nassau Street. My first thought was this: That was Freddie Montgomery who just walked past me. And then I corrected myself: No, it wasn’t; it was Malcolm MacArthur. Freddie Montgomery is a fictional character, the murderer who narrates three novels by John Banville called The Book of Evidence, Ghosts, and Athena. Malcolm McArthur is not a fictional character – at least not in any straightforward sense; he is a man in his late sixties who spent the last thirty years in prison for killing two strangers in July of 1982. He was released in mid September. He is arguably the most notorious murderer in Ireland’s notoriously murderous history. The MacArthur story is one that everyone in this country knows, and although the murders happened decades ago, his name is rarely out of the papers here for very long. Whenever he would come up for parole (which he was repeatedly denied), and whenever he was let out on day-release (which happened more frequently over the last few years), the story would be back in the news, his face returned to the front page. The photograph invariably used by the papers was a black and white mug shot depicting a man in his late thirties, foppish and bow-tied, with an expression of mournful, distant perplexity. He looked no more like a killer then than he does now. But then what does a killer look like? At the time of the murders, MacArthur was a well-known socialite around Dublin. He was the son of a wealthy landowning family from Co. Meath, where many of the descendants of the country’s former Anglo-Irish ruling class still live, struggling to keep their imposing Georgian houses from falling into ruin. Although he had a young son with his partner, Brenda Little, his was apparently a familiar face in the underground gay bars and clubs of the city at a time when homosexual sex was still a criminal offense in the Republic. MacArthur, who lived off an inheritance fund, had been spending time in the Canary islands with his partner and their child when his money abruptly ran out. Inspired, he claims, by the IRA’s fundraising methodology, he decided that the only plausible means of maintaining his lifestyle was to pull off a series of armed robberies in Ireland before quietly leaving the country again and returning to Spain. In Dublin a few days after his return, he found a personal ad in a newspaper placed by a farmer in Offaly with a gun for sale. MacArthur wanted the gun, but he needed a car to get to Offaly, in the rural midlands, and to get away from the scenes of the robberies he was planning to commit. So he bought a hammer. “I wanted this hammer,” as he put it in a statement he gave after his arrest, “to injure somebody, to get a car, to travel down the country to get a gun because I had no transport. In turn I had planned ahead to stick somebody up and the object was to get money. I had been reading in the newspapers about all the robberies and this seemed a way out of my obsessive financial situation.” MacArthur put the hammer in a satchel along with a shovel and a fake gun, and he set out for Phoenix Park on Dublin’s northside, stopping in a sweet shop on the quays to buy an orange, which he ate along the way. When he got there, he walked around for a bit until he came across a car parked close to the American ambassador’s residence. Beside the car, its owner, a 27-year old nurse named Bridie Gargan, was sunbathing. The door of her car was open, and so MacArthur ordered Gargan to lie down in the back seat, and she panicked, and MacArthur became afraid that she would draw attention to them, and so he turned and hit her in the head with the hammer, and then hit her a second time because, as he put it, “the first blow did not do what I expected it to do.” As he was driving through the park, MacArthur was overtaken by an ambulance on the way to the nearby St. James’s hospital, where Gargan worked. The paramedics noticed her in the back seat, holding her bleeding head in her bloodied hands; seeing the hospital sticker on the windshield, they assumed that MacArthur was a doctor taking an injured patient to casualty, and escorted him to the gates of St. James’s. Instead of turning into the hospital’s grounds, however, he continued driving. He then abandoned the car in a lane way, leaving Bridie Gargan to finish dying in the back seat, and ducked into a pub, where he called a taxi to take him back to Dun Laoghaire, where he was staying. Two days later, MacArthur took a bus to Offaly, and arranged a meeting for the following day with the farmer who was selling the rifle. The farmer, whose name was Donal Dunne, picked MacArthur up from the town of Edenderry and drove him to a nearby boggy area in order to test out the gun. He mentioned that it had cost him eleven hundred pounds, and that he was not interested in selling it at a loss. After MacArthur had fired the gun at an improvised target, Dunne put his hand on the barrel to take it back from him. “I’m sorry, old chap,” said MacArthur, and shot him in the face. He then hid the body in some bushes, took Dunne’s car and drove it back to Dublin. As pointlessly horrible as these deeds of MacArthur’s were, it was what he did next that ensured they would never be forgotten. He made his way to the affluent little seaside town of Dalkey in south county Dublin (described by Flann O’Brien in The Dalkey Archive as “an unlikely town, huddled, quiet, pretending to be asleep”). There, he looked up a friend of his named Patrick Connolly who lived in an apartment overlooking the sea, and who took him in. He stayed at Connolly’s apartment until the police eventually tracked him down and arrested him there, having been tipped off by a neighbor about a man who resembled the suspect being seen around the building. When the circumstances of the arrest were made public, it ignited one of the most extraordinary political scandals in the country’s history. The reason for this was that Connolly wasn’t just some guy who unknowingly allowed a murderer to hide out in his home: he also happened to be Ireland’s Attorney General. At the time of the arrest, Connolly had been preparing to leave the country for a holiday in America. He went ahead with the holiday, but was quickly called back by his boss, the Taoiseach (prime minister) Charles Haughey. In the succeeding days, the weirder details of the case began to leak out to the press. While MacArthur had been staying with Connolly, for instance, they had both attended the All-Ireland hurling semi-final at Croke Park Stadium. They sat in a VIP box, where they met the Garda Commissioner, the state’s most senior police officer. The attorney general and the commissioner discussed the murders while MacArthur sat and listened politely. On his return from the US, Haughey fired Connolly; rumors of a sexual relationship between himself and MacArthur proved spurious, but were a source of extreme embarrassment to the government at the time. Attempting to distance himself from the scandal, Haughey famously referred to the whole affair as “a bizarre happening, an unprecedented situation, a grotesque situation, an almost unbelievable mischance.” The journalist Conor Cruise-O’Brien coined the acronym “GUBU” (Grotesque, Unbelievable, Bizarre, Unprecedented), and the term quickly became synonymous with the events. The pressure of the public scandal seemed likely to collapse the already precarious government, but it limped on for a further few months until unconnected revelations about phone tapping finally brought it down. I was a toddler when all this took place, and so I have no actual memories of any of it. But my grandparents happened to live in the apartment beside Connolly’s, and so I grew up knowing about the murderer who had been arrested next door, and I remember being transfixed by the idea that something like this could have happened in a place I knew so well, that was such a part of my guarded little world. Pulling up outside the building in the car with my parents, I would picture this man, this murderer, being hauled out the front door by police with sub-machine guns, helicopters circling the building, snipers on the roof of the retirement home across the street. I was independently assured by my parents and grandparents that nothing quite so dramatic had gone down, but it was still a matter of some pride to me that events of such cinematic scope and significance had taken place in my grandparents’ building. I wouldn’t say that I became preoccupied with MacArthur, but the slight thrill of his ghostly absence was something I felt whenever I visited them. Later, studying English in college, I read Banville’s The Book of Evidence, which I had heard was based on the MacArthur murders. I was enthralled by the icy composure and artful self-revelations of its murderer-narrator, Freddie Montgomery, the details of whose life and crimes bear an unmistakable resemblance to MacArthur’s. Montgomery is at once despicable, charismatic, depraved, and, somehow, strangely ordinary. Part of the greatness of the book was the way in which you identified with him even as you were utterly appalled by him; he was an Everymonster, part Underground Man and part Humbert Humbert. And he was also Malcolm MacArthur, at several imaginative removes – subjected to the simplifications and elisions of media coverage, to the elaborations and refinements of Banville’s imagination, and, finally, to the preoccupations and preconceptions of my own. I later went on to write my PhD thesis on Banville’s novels, and I must have read The Book of Evidence seven or eight times. Whenever I would see something about MacArthur in the newspapers, fiction and truth would become confounded, and it would be Freddie Montgomery who I would picture on day release, enduring the abuse of passing strangers who would put down their shopping bags to insult him on the streets, to call him a monster, to tell him that if there were any justice in the world he would never be allowed to walk among them. When I would read The Book of Evidence (or Ghosts, or Athena) I would sometimes find myself wondering what MacArthur might have made of a particular passage, or whether he would have recognized something of himself in the character that both was and was not him. Surely he must have read these books. (He is a well-read man, apparently; a man who bludgeoned a young woman to death with a hammer, yes, and who shot a stranger in the face, but a man of no little cultural refinement nonetheless. In an interview I read a few years ago, Banville told a story about an acquaintance of his who once picked up the last copy of the Times Literary Supplement in a newsagent near Mountjoy prison, and who took it to the counter only to be told that it wasn’t for sale, that it was to be sent up to the prison for Mr. MacArthur, who had a weekly standing order.) There’s one particular moment in The Book of Evidence that forces me, whenever I read it, to imagine what MacArthur’s reaction to it might be. It comes at the very end of Freddie’s long monologue of ambiguous self-recrimination and stylish equivocation, equal parts confession and performance. Sergeant Hogg (whose name gestures toward the author of Confessions of a Justified Sinner as well as to the standard porcine term of cop abuse) walks into Freddie’s cell and hands him a grubby sheet of paper. This, he announces, is Freddie’s confession. Freddie is utterly baffled. “These,” he protests, “are not my words.” Hogg shrugs, telling him to suit himself – he’s going down for life either way – and goes back to finish his dinner. Freddie is left to peruse this “confession,” and in it he sees a version of himself that he does not recognize, but which he nonetheless knows to be true: “It was an account of my crime I hardly recognised, and yet I believed it. He had made a murderer of me [...] I was no longer myself. I can’t explain it, but it’s true. I was no longer myself.” I wonder whether this might be an ironically inverted reflection of what Banville sees himself as doing with (or to) MacArthur here, or of how he envisages him experiencing it. The Book of Evidence is an imagined account of MacArthur’s crimes, one that makes him seem more human, and thereby both more and less terrifying. Within its pages, MacArthur is no longer himself, and that transformation somehow seems to carry over into the real, non-fictional world. There’s a certain kind of paradox here. By transfiguring him into a fiction – by fleshing him out, as it were, into a character – Banville somehow makes MacArthur seem more real, more believable; and yet to actually see him, to walk past him and make fleeting eye contact with him, was an unsettling experience, as though I had encountered the manifestation of a fiction. It was strange enough to chance upon this fabled murderer in a tweed jacket, who had once hidden from the law in the home of the country’s most senior legal officer, separated from my grandparents by a few inches of interior wall. But the simultaneous experience of seeing, and being seen by, a character from a novel I had spent so much time reading and thinking and writing about was somehow stranger still. Of course, Malcolm MacArthur is not Freddie Montgomery. He is a terribly real person, whose actions and whose guilt are likewise real and terrible. I know this, and yet, in some vague but significant sense, I don’t know it at all. Fiction and truth can inhabit the same places at once, and the same bodies.
Here, in its entirety, is the "plot" of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style: On a crowded Paris bus at around midday, the unnamed narrator observes a young man taking an older gentleman to task for deliberately pushing him and stepping on his feet. Then a vacant seat appears, and the young man rushes to occupy it, thus bringing the confrontation to an abrupt end. About an hour later, the narrator happens to pass the same young man as he is standing in front of the Gare St-Lazare, being informed by a friend that he ought to have another button sewn onto his coat. That’s it. Literally nothing else happens in the book. And it’s not as though Queneau spins this dull succession of non-events into some kind of mock epic, or crams his narrative so full of detail and description that it metastasizes into the sort of exploded view of the insignificant that Nicholson Baker trafficked in with his early fiction. By the end of the first page, you have learned everything you are ever going to know about the events on which the book focuses. What Queneau does do, however, is re-narrate this same scenario a further 98 times, in a series of distinct styles. The book is like a sequence of false starts, as though its author were attempting to begin a novel with no sense of the tone or attitude he wants to strike, and so becomes trapped in a comic holding pattern of writing and rewriting. Each of the 99 sections is given a simple and utilitarian title — “Notation,” “Hesitation,” “Precision,” “Official Letter,” “Insistence,” “Comedy,” “Philosophic,” and so on. From this at once laughably and ingeniously simple premise results one of the great high-concept show-off acts of twentieth century fiction. It’s laughable because this is, obviously, no sensible way to go about writing a book. It’s an amusing idea that you would imagine might be best left as merely that, as the kind of droll "how-about-this" notion that might be floated to other writers well into the home stretch of a night’s drinking. It’s good for a chuckle, certainly, but not something you would really want to sit down and actually knock out a book on. What’s ingenious, though, is how Queneau actually manages to transcend his own absurd restrictions by remaining punctiliously within them at all times. By being so staunchly committed to its shallowness, in other words, the book somehow contrives to seem kind of profound. (It’s very much one of those books, by the way, that steers you away from words like “novel” and “fiction” toward more generically non-committal terms like “composition” and “work” and — may God forgive me — “text”). The only way to read Exercises in Style is to just gird your loins and do it in one sitting; otherwise, its pleasures and frustrations are in danger of getting spread too thin. It should be experienced, I think, as the overwhelming imposition on the reader’s good will and patience it was surely intended to be. It also has a powerfully cumulative effect that requires compression in time in order to be fully felt, and it benefits from a mounting sense of absurdity that would be lost if you were to just pick it up intermittently. (I’ve read it both ways, I should say, and I’m convinced the single-sitter is the only way to go. Its neatly partitioned structure and its utter lack of plot or character might suggest otherwise, but don’t be fooled. It can also comfortably be read in a couple of hours.) Much of the joy of reading it, which is also a kind of exasperation, is in wondering what he’s going to do next and whether he’s going to be able to pull it off. To give a sense of what Queneau is up to here, it’s worth providing a few examples of the way he goes about it. This is how the section headed “Surprises” begins: “How tightly packed in we were on that bus platform! And how stupid and ridiculous that young man looked!” And this is from “Homeoteleuton”: “On a certain date, a corporate crate on which the electorate congregate when they migrate at a great rate, late, had to accommodate an ornate, tracheate celibate, who started to altercate with a proximate inmate, and ejaculate: ‘Oi, mate!’” The “Official Letter” section relates the entire incident as though it were the subject of a formal complaint to an office of some or other bureaucratic body: “I beg to advise you of the following facts of which I happened to be the equally impartial and horrified witness. Today, at roughly twelve noon, I was present on the platform of a bus...” One of my favorite exercises is entitled “Blurb.” It’s not just that it’s funny; it's also one of the purest examples of metafictional effrontery I’ve ever come across. It’s good enough and brief enough to warrant quoting in full: In this new novel, executed with his accustomed brio, the famous novelist X, to whom we are already indebted for so many masterpieces, has decided to confine himself to very clear-cut characters who act in an atmosphere which everybody, both adults and children, can understand. The plot revolves, then, round the meeting on a bus of the hero of this story and of a rather enigmatic character who picks a quarrel with the first person he meets. In the final episode we see this mysterious individual listening with the greatest attention to the advice of a friend, a past master of sartorial art. The whole makes a charming impression which the novelist X has etched with rare felicity. Queneau’s stochastic method might put you in mind of one of those invariably lame improvisational comedy setups whereby a performer has to switch registers according to an audience's shouted commands — delivering, say, a funeral eulogy first as infomercial sales patter, then as rap-battle braggadocio, then as bawdy Elizabethan comedy. And the book is, in an obvious sense, pure play, sheer diversion. Its effect is subtly paradoxical, like a less harrowing version of Chatroulette: you can be pretty sure what you’re going to get when you turn the page, but you have no idea in what form to expect it. A maximal level of monotony integrated, in other words, with a maximal level of variety. By turns frustrated and delighted with Queneau’s exploration of the limitless possibilities of limitation, I was reminded of a particularly memorable passage about the mathematics of tennis in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Schtitt, the quasi-mystic coach at Enfield Tennis Academy, is said to understand the sport as not a matter of reduction to pattern and order, but as one of “expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic growth,” as a “diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent.” Like tennis in Schtitt’s (and Wallace’s) understanding of it, Queneau’s literary game is all about the way in which an infinity of things can happen inside a finite and tightly delineated space. The book feels as though it could have been published last year, despite the occasional archaisms of Barbara Wright’s 1958 English translation (which, given the presumably immense difficulties of translating such a self-conscious piece of writing, is itself a work of playfully restricted art). The barefaced cheek of its linguistic divertissements seems to anticipate the simultaneously nifty and irritating textual gimmickry of some of Jonathan Safran Foer’s work. There’s “Pig Latin” (“Unway ayday aboutyay iddaymay anyay essyay usbay Iyay oticednay ayay oungyay anmay...”), there’s “Spoonerisms” (“One May, about didday, on the bear fatborm of a plus...”), and there’s a whole sequence of “Permutations” by groups of words and letters of increasing numbers (don’t even ask). Exercises in Style was first published in French in 1947, and so it slightly predates the Nouveau Roman. It also precedes the formation of the Oulipo group — of which Queneau was a co-founder and which numbered Georges Perec and Italo Calvino among its members — even though, with its linguistic games and its creative restrictions, it is often seen as one of the movement’s exemplary works. The closest thing I can think of to an immediate predecessor is Chapter 14 of Ulysses, the "Oxen of the Sun Episode" set in the National Maternity Hospital, which is narrated in a progression of historically advancing styles, from the birth of language, through Old and Middle English, the language of the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens, right through to early 20th Century Dublin slang. The effect is quite different, however, because Joyce’s stylistic ventriloquisms are in the service of the substantial theme of gestation and birth. Queneau’s substantial theme, on the other hand, is style itself. Though it seems the slightest kind of literature imaginable, Exercises in Style in fact places a very heavy weight of significance on its seemingly inconsequential diversions. “On the surface,” as John Banville puts it in The Book of Evidence, “that is where there is depth.” Queneau’s book seems all surface; it appears, as it were, to be all stylistic mouth and no narrative trousers. But it makes, or implies, some radical claims about the relationship between form and content, not least that the former isn’t simply a vehicle for the latter, but rather the way in which it is constituted. It is not so much an exercise in the privileging of style over substance, in other words, as an argument for the consubstantiality of the two. Just as in Kantian epistemology there is no separating the act of perception from the thing perceived, what we see through Queneau’s linguistic kaleidoscope is that there is no isolating the thing expressed from the mode of expression. Or, to put it another way — which the book exhaustively establishes as something one can always do — the ediummay is the essagemay (if you’ll orgivefay the iticralcray ichéclay).
My relationship with John Banville is a strange and unnatural one. In some odd sense I can’t quite identify, I often think that it might even be an unseemly one. A few months back, I finished a Ph.D., having written my thesis on Banville’s fiction. It took me about four years to complete, which means that over that period—at a rough calculation along the lines of a 42 hour working week and a 50 week working year—I spent something in the region of 8,400 hours engaged in activities that were directly Banville-related. 8,400 hours: that’s basically the equivalent of an entire calendar year spent reading his novels, thinking about them, reading and thinking about other academics’ opinions of them, formulating my own opinions, and thinking of clever things to write based on them. There’s nothing remarkable, of course, about a person spending a non-trivial portion of his or her life writing a doctoral thesis about the work of a single writer (university English departments are full of such misfits) but it is presumably fairly unusual for a person to spend four years writing a doctoral thesis on the work of someone who is not only still living and writing, but doing so within a couple of minutes’ walk from where that thesis is being written. Dublin is a fairly small city. While I was working on my thesis in Trinity College, it wasn’t unusual for me to leave the library to go for a sandwich somewhere and to pass Banville on the street. It happened more than once that I would be having lunch and he would enter the restaurant and sit down a couple of tables away, or walk past the window with his fedora, his large and quaintly flamboyant scarf, and his mysterious canvas carrier bag. (Containing what? Groceries? Surely not. Books, most likely, but then why would Banville be carrying around books? Where would he be taking them, and to whom?) When this happened, I would usually nod casually and discretely in his direction and say to my lunch companion something like "there goes the boss man," or "there’s the gaffer now." It amused me, for some reason, to think of myself as a low-level functionary, labouring away obscurely for years, scrutinizing texts and producing a complex 100,000 word response unlikely to be read by more than a tiny handful of specialists, as though this were a service for which I had been engaged by an eminent and enigmatic novelist. I had also convinced myself that it amused me to be utterly unknown to Banville, and yet to be spending my working days doing nothing but thinking about his novels. But I’m not sure it really did amuse me. I think it felt a little indecorous; even, perhaps, a little shameful. I sometimes joked about feeling a bit like a stalker, but I wasn’t always entirely sure that I was joking. It wouldn’t have felt so strange to be writing a thesis about the work of Bellow or Dickinson or Joyce or Woolf, because these are no longer men and women, as such, but historical figures, Great Writers, bodies of work to be read and thought about and, if you’re so inclined, interpreted. Even, as we say in the lit-crit racket, "working on" a living writer like, say, Toni Morrison or Don DeLillo would not carry with it this faint but indelible stain of unseemliness, because these people are remote, semi-legendary figures, securely encased in their reputations and, more importantly, their foreignness. Even if I lived in Manhattan and were writing a thesis on Thomas Pynchon, I would be unlikely to find myself standing behind him in the queue for the ATM (and even if I did, it is highly unlikely that I would realize it). But while I was working on him, Banville was everywhere. My period of postgraduate research coincided with his ascension to a level of fame and visibility he hadn’t previously inhabited (not long before I started writing my thesis, he won the Man Booker Prize for his novel The Sea). He was giving readings from as-yet-unpublished novels across the square from the library where I was writing about his published ones. He was curating exhibitions of eighteenth century etchings in galleries on the other side of town. He was getting into public squabbles with crime novelists for writing a highly successful series of mysteries under a pseudonym and bragging about how easy he found it (Banville has always seemed to enjoy mixing it up). At one point, presumably undergoing a particularly severe bout of inter-project restiveness, he was even embroiled in a weirdly out-of-character controversy over vivisection at the School of Medicine at Trinity. The spat became a minor news story, culminating in J.M. Coetzee’s weighing in on his behalf in the letters pages of The Irish Times, and involved his taking part in a small but vocal protest by animal rights campaigners outside the college, which I had to pass one day on my way to the library. Surely Richard Ellmann never had to pass Joyce on a picket line; surely Boswell was never called a scab by Dr. Johnson? (Nobody called me a scab, I should clarify—and neither am I seriously comparing myself to Boswell or Ellmann, or Banville to Johnson or Joyce—but the image is an amusing one, so I’ll let it stand). For four years, the question I was inevitably asked by anyone who happened to express an interest in what I was doing with my life was this one: "Have you met Banville yet?" It’s a question I got slicker at answering the more I was asked it, until it became a sort of automated response. It was always some minor variation on the following basic template: "No," I would say, "I haven’t. In fact, I’ve sort of been avoiding him. I’ve been in the same room as him quite a few times, at readings and that kind of thing. I’ve passed him on the street Christ knows how many times—Dublin is a small town, after all—but I’ve never felt inclined to speak to him, to introduce myself. To be honest, I don’t think it would do me or my work any good. I don’t think a critic should have too close a relationship with the writer he’s writing about, or better still any relationship at all. Why would Banville’s opinion of my opinion about his work have any bearing on those opinions, when you think about it? It’s not about what he thinks of me, it’s about what I think of him. Interviewing him would just compromise the integrity of my work." This last phrase I always delivered in an ironic, jocular staccato, as though acknowledging the pretentiousness of such a notion, as though highlighting the absurdity of the idea of my work having anything like integrity (I have this highly irritating habit of being dismissive of my own endeavours, and then immediately feeling as though I’ve slighted myself unforgivably). Like a lot of things we say to people, I suppose I both believed this and disbelieved it at the same time. Ambivalence was always the dominant affect of my thesis-writing years. Behind the jokes about stalking Banville lay a real discomfort with the fact that I was spending so much time thinking about him and writing about him—or thinking about his fiction, at least, which may or may not amount to the same thing. He is, I think, a fascinating novelist, and among the more important presences in contemporary literature, and so it makes perfect sense for there to be a considered academic response to his work (there’s loads of it, by the way, which, given his stature and his prolificacy and the finely-textured allusiveness of his writing, isn’t surprising). It also makes sense that I, as a scholar in the early stages of my career, should choose Banville as the subject of my apprentice work, because I am provoked and perplexed by it in intellectually productive ways and, even now, after all the time I’ve spent with it, still derive real pleasure from reading it. He is, I think, a great writer, and may even turn out to be a Great Writer. But he is also just a guy, and this is something that his physical proximity to me—the fact that I kept passing him on the street—made very difficult to ignore. I often asked myself what it might feel like to know that, somewhere in your city, a person with whom you are entirely unacquainted is spending his days writing a psychoanalytic examination of your life’s work. I was eking out an existence for myself—you couldn’t quite call it a living—through government-funded scholarships that were contingent upon the value to society, however hypothetical, of my interpretation of Banville’s fiction. I did occasionally have an unpleasant image of myself as a parasite living off a large animal who was innocent of my unobtrusively, harmlessly blood-sucking presence. You can have a certain image of yourself and then reject it, but you’ve still had that image: it has come from somewhere. I would have been a lot less uncomfortable had I been working on someone who was dead. (The morticianary insinuations of that sentence were not intended, but they are discomfitingly apt. It is only now, in fact—as in right this second—that I finally fully get Banville’s biographer-as-embalmer joke in The Newton Letter.) Strangely, when I did finally end up sitting down and having a conversation with him just a couple of months ago, his first reaction to my telling him that I had written my thesis on his work was to apologize for not being dead. I laughed, but made no comment on the spooky perceptiveness of his joke. "You must absolutely despise me," he said. I told him—truthfully—that I had somehow managed not to. What I didn’t tell him was that he had often, indirectly at least, given me occasion to despise myself. The awkward ambivalence of my psychological relationship with him, though, was not something I thought it wise to bring up over mini salmon vol-au-vents and room temperature white wine. I had not planned the meeting; in fact, I had had no idea that it would be happening until a couple of hours beforehand. I had received an email from my former Ph.D. supervisor, who had himself just received an email requesting, as a matter of extreme urgency, that someone—anyone—volunteer themselves to conduct a public interview with Banville that evening in a lecture hall in University College Dublin. He was due to receive an honorary lifetime membership of the university’s Law Society that evening, and whoever had initially been scheduled to handle the interview aspect of the proceedings had to cancel at the last minute, and they were now desperately looking for someone who could pull it off at short notice. I wasn’t sure that I was necessarily their guy but, deliberately denying myself any time to think about it, I rang the number anyway, and two hours later I was sitting in the UCD staff bar with the boss man, making small talk. (Against all reasonable expectations, Banville is really very good at small talk.) While acknowledging that he would be unlikely to conceive of it in the same way, I had always imagined our eventual meeting would be a kind of lower-intensity literary version of that café sit-down scene in Michael Mann’s Heat, in which Pacino and De Niro appear on screen together for the first time. (In moments of greater clarity I understood that, at best, it would be an episode of Inside The Actor’s Studio, with me as a less polished and fulsome James Lipton). The way it panned out, though, not even I could fool myself into sensing any kind of frisson of tension or significance. Banville appeared not to have any particular interest in the topic of my thesis—or at least if he did, he managed not to betray it by asking me any questions on the matter. I was both slightly disappointed and slightly relieved by this. The thesis was entitled “Narcissism in the Fiction of John Banville”, and so there was always the slight but non-negligible possibility that he might understand the whole project to be a long-winded and tortuous accusation of self-obsession and vanity on his part. Even if he didn’t take it personally, there was a chance—far less slight and non-negligible—that he would consider the whole approach facile or wrong-headed or obtuse or in some other way completely beside the point. I had absolute confidence in my work, but—as paradoxical as this might sound (and probably is)—less than absolute confidence in my ability to maintain that confidence in the face of any degree of criticism or dismissal from of its subject. Now that I think about it, it’s likely that Banville had similar reasons for not asking me about it. Apropos the issue of my spending (give or take) four years reading, thinking about and writing about his writing, he mentioned having interviewed Salman Rushdie for the New York Review of Books in about 1993, at the very height of the fatwa. He spent two full days transcribing their taped conversations. By the time he had finished, he said, he was consumed by an intense hatred of both Rushdie and himself. So he could, he assured me, imagine how I must feel about him after four years. I chuckled drily and, I hoped, urbanely. It struck me that having a conversation with the man amounted to having Banville on tap. All I had to do was make a comment or ask a question and, as though I’d popped a coin in a vending machine, it would provoke an emanation from the same source that produced The Book of Evidence, Doctor Copernicus and Shroud. I felt an unaccountable, giddy compulsion to start pointing to things and people and demanding that he describe them. How would you characterize the taste of these vol-au-vents, Mr Banville?; or See that elderly man over there at the bar? Let’s have an adjective for him; or What would you say if I asked you to describe this wine? This was, after all, someone who has described the taste of gin more frequently and more variously and more vividly than probably any other novelist in history—gin, with its "silver-sweet fumes" (Eclipse), and its "cold and insidious and subtly discomposing" taste with "the faintest tinct of paraffin-blue in its depths" (The Infinities). At this point the undergraduate from the university’s Law Society who had introduced us—and who seemed to be the main organizer of the event—had excused himself to go and check on the turnout in the lecture hall. Banville had just finished his own wine and was wondering aloud, presumably rhetorically, whether he might get away with swiping the untouched glass the Law Society guy had left behind. I gave him my blessing, though he seemed not to require it. A large grey-bearded man with a German accent sidled up to our table and shook hands with Banville. He congratulated him on what he called his "apotheosis"—presumably he meant the lifetime membership of the Law Society—and handed over a pile of about five or six first editions and foreign translations, which Banville dutifully signed. (The man offered him a biro, but he declined, withdrawing from an inner pocket of his jacket a gracefully gold-trimmed Mont Blanc. This glamorous implement now unsheathed, the mere idea of Banville ever writing with anything else was instantly relegated to the category of the preposterous.) I thought how strange it was that the man had used this word, "apotheosis," so enduringly associated as it was, for me, with Banville’s writing. I had, in fact, written something in my thesis about his repeated use of it. I wondered, briefly, whether the man could be making some kind of sly allusion here, but then checked this flight of obsessive fancy, realizing how unlikely it was that he would be as wonkishly preoccupied as I was with Banville’s fondness for a particular word, and what it might mean in the context of his work as a whole. The conversation turned again, somehow, to the topic of death, specifically that of Banville’s death. We spoke briefly of the difficulties future biographers and scholars would come up against now that no one, not even novelists, wrote letters any more. He pointed out that emails were probably more useful from a future scholarship point of view, given that they were all automatically archived and organized and searchable, to which I countered that that was all well and good if you had the password. He conceded that this was a fair point, and suggested that if I played my cards right he might think to pass on his login details to me before he died. I said that I would be honored. The idea of Banville having anything as vulgar as login details, however, seemed as strangely implausible as Nabokov owning a pickup truck—he is that kind of writer. Did he use instant messaging, I wondered? (It was an odd thought, but it was not inconceivable. A few years ago, I interviewed the philosopher Peter Singer for a magazine, and he still occasionally pops up on Google Chat, an occurrence which gives rise to all kinds of inane impulses.) I speculated idly on whether Banville’s password might be something like "@pose0s1s" or, maybe, "banvillenobel2016." Was he a Gmail man, I wondered? Probably not. Outlook Express, if anything. The interview was less of an ordeal than I had imagined it might be. On our way down to the lecture theatre I had told him that I had agreed to it only a couple of hours previously, that I was as a consequence grossly underprepared and that he would therefore have to do a lot of the heavy lifting himself, and he had patted my arm lightly and said, "Oh, don’t worry about that, I’m a raddled old whore at this stage." My questions seemed to me to shift from the bafflingly gnomic to the recklessly long-winded without ever occupying any intervening sweet spot of coherence and concision but, true to his word, he responded to them with an eloquence that, retrospectively, made those questions appear shrewd. Afterwards, there was a flurry of book-signings and hand-shakings, through which I stood awkwardly off to one side. There was some kind of official photograph that needed to be taken, and I allowed myself to be hustled into the shot, and then that was pretty much it for the evening. As we walked toward the exit, Banville asked me whether I needed a lift home. I had not anticipated this; had I foreseen it as a possibility, I might well have taken the bus there instead of driving. I told him that I had my car—I think I may even, moronically, have produced my keys and held them aloft, as though some kind of proof of my having driven might be required—but almost immediately regretted doing so. It would, I thought, have been worth the trouble of getting the bus back the following morning to collect my car, had it meant getting a lift home with Banville. I found myself wishing, suddenly, to know what kind of car he drove and, above all, what kind of driver he was. Would he handle his car like he did his prose, with supreme confidence and restraint, changing lanes with suave precision, overtaking with brisk wit and style? Or would he be ill at ease behind the wheel, as I imagined his protagonists would be, constantly wrong-footed by the stubborn actuality of traffic lights and lane-mergers, the boorish incursions of other motorists? I remembered a bit in Martin Amis’s The Information about the comparative driving skills of poets and novelists. The (almost certainly spurious) jist was that Novelists are generally decent drivers, while poets don’t drive, or at least shouldn’t: "Never trust a poet who can drive. Never trust a poet at the wheel. If he can drive, distrust the poems." And then I remembered Banville’s tendency to make grandiose-sounding claims in interviews about his aspirations of forging some sort of formal synthesis of poetry and the novel. Would he drive, I wondered, like a poet or a novelist? Would I gain some oblique insight into his mind, into his philosophical stance toward the world, by observing him negotiate the M50 and the Red Cow roundabout (that black comedy of infrastructural errors in which thousands of Dubliners play a daily role)? What would we chat about? How would he respond to questions as to fuel consumption, reliability, general performance? What radio stations, if any, would be preset on his car stereo? Would he have a SatNav, or one of those hands-free Bluetooth earpiece setups for his phone? I would now probably never know the answers to these questions. But perhaps that’s not such a terrible thing. Just a couple of weeks ago, I successfully convinced a publisher that my thesis was worth the time and money it would cost them to publish. So I’ll be spending a further few months on Banville-related activities, hacking and thrashing the thing into a book-like shape; and then, if I’m lucky, my first monograph will afford me some sort of reputation as an academic, as, specifically, a Banville scholar. And these would all be great things, things that might—I permit myself to hope—even lead to that greatest of great things, an actual full-time job. In the meantime, I’ll just have to get over my discomfort with what seems to me to be the rank presumption of regarding oneself as an "expert" on the work of someone who is still living and writing and (who knows?) possibly using a hands-free Bluetooth earpiece while driving. Eventually, I’ll have to come up with another topic on which to position myself as an expert. In my cockier moments, I sometimes fancy my chances with Nabokov. I would, of course, imagine him being utterly dismissive of whatever reading of his work I might decide to argue for. But that wouldn’t matter very much, because he is safely, unapproachably dead, and therefore reassuringly unlikely to sit down at the next table in a café, or offer me a lift home. I think it would be an easier relationship. Back | 1. In a section dealing with the novel Shroud, I find that I wrote the following: “‘Apotheosis’, in its associations with ideas of self-perfection and deification, is a key term in Banville’s later work. The narcissistic content of the word as he tends to use it is connected to the notion of the self as a work of art.”