For my first ever Year in Reading at The Millions, I will only be featuring books which I checked out from the local public library in my sleepy Massachusetts town a few miles north of the Red Line’s terminus. Constructed in 1892 and modeled after the Renaissance Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome, I’ve made this sandstone building a regular part of the itinerary on my way back from Stop ‘n Shop. The library has a resplendent mahogany reading room, the edges lined with framed 17th century drawings, with the back walls decorated with an incongruous painting of Napoleon’s ill-fated Russia campaign and a North African souk scene, all oranges and lemons in the sun. This room contains all of the new novels that come through the library, and after moving to Massachusetts and getting my card I made it a point to come every other week, and to take out more books than I had time to read.
I will not be considering books that I bought at the Harvard Co-Op or Grolier Poetry Bookshop, which without the deadline of a due-date tend to pile up next to my chair where they get chewed on by my French bulldog puppy. Nor will I write about books which I’ve taught these past two semesters, or which I published appraisals of and benefited from the generosity of publisher’s review copies. I’m also excluding non-fiction, preferring for the duration of this essay to focus entirely on the novel as the most exquisite vehicle for immersing ourselves in empathetic interiority to yet be devised by humans. And while there were seemingly endless books which I dipped into, reread portions of, skimmed, and started without finishing, holding to Francis Bacon’s contention in my beloved 17th century that “Some books are to be tasted… some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously,” I’ve rather chosen only to highlight those which the philosopher would have categorized as books that are “to be swallowed… to be chewed and digested.” Looking over the detritus of that complete year in reading, and examining that which was digested as a sort of literary coprologist, I’ve noticed certain traces of things consumed – namely novels of politics and horror, of imagination and immortality, of education and identity.
Campus novels are my comfort fiction, taking an embarrassing enjoyment in reading about people superficially like myself and proving the adage that there is nothing as consoling as our own narcissism. By my estimation the twin triumphs of that genre are my fellow Pittsburgher Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys and John Williams’s Stoner, the later of which remains alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as among the most perfect examples of 20th century American prose, where not even a comma is misplaced. While nothing quite reached those heights, the campus novels which I did read reminded me of why I love the genre so much – the excruciating personal politics, the combustible interactions between widely divergent personalities, and the barest intimations that the Ivory Tower is supposed to (and sometimes does) point to things transcendent and eternal.
Regarding that last, utopian quality of what we hope that higher education is supposed to do, I recently read Lan Samantha Chang’s All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost. The director of the esteemed University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Chang’s slender novel follows the literary careers of the poets who all trained together in the graduate seminar of Miranda Sturgis at fictional Bonneville College. Chang uses the characters of Bernard Sauvet and Roman Morris to interrogate how careerism, aesthetics, and competition all factor into something as seemingly rarefied as poetry. Roman has far more professional success, but is always haunted by the aridness of his verse; his is an abstraction polished to an immaculate sheen, but lacking in human feeling. Bernard, however, is a variety of earnest, celibate, very-serious-young-man with an affection for High Church Catholicism that Chang presents with precise verisimilitude, and who toils monastically in the production of an epic poem about the North American Jesuit martyrs. It’s a strange, quick read that risks falling into allegory, but never does.
A very different campus novel was Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, which details over the course of one semester a brief affair between creative writing professor Ted Swenson and his talented, if troubled, student Angela Argo. Intergenerational infidelity is one of the most hackneyed themes of the campus novel, and Prose’s narrative threatens to spill into the territory of David Mamet’s Oleanna. A lesser writer could have turned The Blue Angel, which is loosely based on Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film classic, into a conservative, scolding denunciation of gender politics; the twist being that it’s a woman whose delivering invective against the movement towards great accountability concerning sexual harassment. No doubt the novel must read very different after #MeToo, but the text itself doesn’t evidence the sympathy for Ted which some critics might accuse Prose of. As a character, Ted is nearer to Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert from Lolita, albeit less charming. When read as the account of an unreliable narrator, The Blue Angel isn’t a satire of feminist piety, but to the contrary an exploration of Ted’s ability to rationalize and obfuscate, most crucially to himself.
Ryan McIlvain’s novel The Radicals is only superficially a campus novel; its main characters Eli and Sam are both graduate students at NYU, but the author’s actual subject is how political extremism can justify all manner of things which we’d never think ourselves capable of, even murder. Reflecting back on the first day they really connected (at that most David Foster Wallace of pastimes – a tennis game), Eli says of Sam “I couldn’t have known I was standing across the net from a murderer, and neither could he,” which I imagine would be the sort of thing you’d remember when reflecting on the halcyon days of an activist group that turned deadly. McIlvain’s prose is a minimalist in a manner that I’m traditionally not attracted towards, but which in The Radicals he imbues with a sense of elegant parsimony. The politics of The Radicals is weirdly hermetically sealed, lower Manhattan during the early Obama years more a set piece for McIlvain to perform a thought experiment on the psychology of insular, extreme groups. Sam, initially the less committed of the two, though whom we’re given indications of his character during a disturbing road rage incident in the opening pages of the book, ultimately becomes the leader of an anarchist cell that emerges out of a movement which seems similar to Occupy Wall Street. As the group stalks through the Westchester estate of an executive implicated in the ’08 financial crash, we’re presented with a riveting account of how ideology can quickly veer into the cultish.
There is an elegiac quality to McIlvain’s novel, a sort of eulogy for Occupy, though of course the actual movement never fizzled out in a spasm of violence as The Radicals depicts. A more all-encompassing portrait of American politics in our current moment is Nathan Hill’s The Nix (2017). Hill’s book is a door-stopper, and for that and other reasons it has accurately drawn comparisons to the heaviest of Thomas Pynchon’s novels. The Nix follows the story of another ill-fated creative writing instructor, the unfortunately named Samuel Andresen-Anderson, though unlike Prose’s protagonist his vice isn’t sleeping with his students, but an addiction to a World of Warcraft-type video game. Samuel is only one of dozens of characters in the book, including his ‘60s radical mother who is in legal trouble for throwing rocks in Chicago’s Grant Park at a right-wing presidential candidate who evokes Roy Moore, his entitled student who functions as a millennial stereotype that somehow avoids being overly cliché, the musical prodigy of his youth whom he still pines for, her Iraq War veteran brother, and even the interior monologues of Allen Ginsberg and Hubert Humphrey. Hill’s most immaculate creation is the trickster-god of a book agent Guy Periwinkle, a mercurial, amoral, nihilistic Svengali who reads as an incarnation of the era of Twitter and Facebook.
The narrative threads are so many, so complicated, and so interrelated that it’s difficult to succinctly explain what The Nix is about, but to give a sense of its asynchronous scope the novel ranges from Norway on the eve of World War II, the stultifying conformity of 60’s Iowa, the ’68 Democratic National Convention (and the subsequent protests), suburban Illinois in the ‘80s, New York during the anti-war protests of 2003, as well as the Iraq War, and the imagined alternative universe of 2016. Its concerns include political polarization, the trauma that family can inflict across generation, the neoliberal university, and video-game addiction. Few novels capture America as it is right now with as much emotional accuracy as The Nix, but it’s all there – the rage, the vertigo, the exhaustion. Of course, haunting the pages of The Nix is a certain Fifth Avenue resident, who is never mentioned, but is very much the embodiment of our garbage era. More than that, Hill performs an excavation of the long arc of our contemporary history, and the scenes with Samuel’s mother in ’68 draw a direct connection between those events of a half-century ago and today, so that the real ghost which permeates the novel is less the mythical Norwegian sprite that gives the book its title, than that other “Nix” whose presidency set the template for a corrupt, compromised, polarized, spiteful, and hateful age.
Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic covered similar political and economic ground as both The Radicals and The Nix do, though as channeled through the mini-drama between upwardly mobile, self-made banker Doug Fanning and his new neighbor, the retired school-teacher Charlotte Graves. Union Atlantic follows Charlotte’s war of attrition against both Doug and the McMansion that he’s building in their tony Boston suburb. There is something almost Victorian about Haslett’s concerns; Doug’s journey from being raised by an alcoholic single mother in Southie to becoming a millionaire banker living in a Belmont-like suburb has a bit of the Horatio Alger boot-strap story about it, save for the fact that his protagonist never rises to the same heights of sympathy. Haslett portrays the contradictions of Massachusetts with admirable accuracy – the liberalism and the wealth, the Catholic city and the Protestant suburbs, the working class and the Boston Brahmins. As a nice magical realist touch, Charlotte is in the process of losing her mind, hearing her dogs speak to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X. I couldn’t help but be charmed by a dog who sputters invective in the tongue of the colonial Puritan theologian, saying things like “You dwell in Memory like some Perversity of the Flesh. A sin against the gift of Creation it is to harp on the dead while the living still suffer.”
A chilling evocation of those themes of sin and memory is supplied by Nick Laird in Modern Gods, though not without a bit of melancholic Irish wit. Laird provides a novel in two parts; the first concerns the wedding of Allison Donnelly to a man whom she later discovers was involved with the Ulster Unions in an act of spectacularly horrific violence during the Troubles, the second her anthropologist sister Liz’s trip to the appropriately named New Ulster in Papua New Guinea where she is involved in BBC documentary about the emergence of a cargo cult competing against the American evangelical missionaries who’re trying to convert the natives. Laird’s focus is on the horrors of sectarian violence, and the faith which justifies those acts. He could be writing of either the cargo cult, the evangelical missionaries, or the Ulster Protestants when he describes the “imagery of sacrifice and offering, memorials and altars … disguised as just the opposite, a sanctuary from materialism… a marketplace of cold transactions.” Laird’s most sympathetic (and disturbing) character is the cult leader herself, a native named Belef (just “belief” with the “I” taken out…) who appears as a character out of Joseph Conrad, and whose air of cold malice is as characteristic and as evocative of old Ulster as it is of new.
Cults from The Radicals to Modern Gods are very much on authors’ minds in our season of violent political rallies and epistemological anarchy, and so they’re a concern as well in Naomi Alderman’s science fiction parable The Power, where we see the emergence of a religion in opposition to the machinations of the patriarchy. Part of a tradition of feminist dystopian science fiction that finds its modern genesis in Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale (that author not for nothing prominently blurbing The Power). Alderman imagines an alternate world in which women are suddenly endowed with a physical strength that completely upends traditional gender roles, causing radical shifts in power from eastern Europe to Saudi Arabia, the Midwest to London. Alderman writes with narrative panache, moving rapidly between various intertwined plots and across wildly divergent voices, including that of the abused foster girl Allie who becomes the the leader of the new faith and christens herself Mother Eve; Roxie, the daughter of a Cockney-Jewish gangster; an American politician named Margot Cleary and her daughter Jocelyn; a Nigerian journalist named Tunde (who is the only major male character in the novel); and the Melania-like first-lady of Moldova, Tatiana Moskalev, who offs her piggish husband and establishes a female-sanctuary in her former country. The Power is a thought-provoking book, and one with some exquisite moments of emotional Schadenfreude, as when newly self-liberated women riot against repressive regimes in places like Riyadh, and yet it’s not a particularly hopeful book, as the new order begins to replicate the worst excesses of the old.
The Power is only one book in our current renaissance of feminist science fiction, written in large part as a response to the rank misogyny and anti-woman policies of our nation’s current regime. In The Guardian Vanessa Thorpe explains that this is a “matching literary revolution,” which sees a new “breed of women’s ‘speculative’ fiction, positing altered sexual and social hierarchies.” Louise Erdrich provides one such example in her Future Home of the Living God which reads as a sort of cracked, post-apocalyptic nativity tale. In a premise like that of P.D. James’s Children of Men, though without the implied reactionary politics, Erdrich presents the diary of Cedar Hawk Songmaker, college student and the adopted Ojibwe daughter of crunchy, upper middle-class Minnesota liberals. Cedar Hawk finds herself pregnant during an autumn when it seems as if evolution itself has started to reverse, as all manner of primeval beings hatch from eggs, one of which is the proverbial gestation of a theocratic government reacting to the ecological collapse. Erdrich remains one of our consummate prose stylists, and Cedar Hawk is an immaculate creation (in several different ways). A precocious and intelligent student, Cedar Hawk is a Catholic convert who grapples with women’s spirituality, and Erdrich presents a book that is both Catholic and vehemently pro-choice (while also understanding that to be pro-choice isn’t to be anti-pregnancy).
Genre fiction is perhaps the best way to explore our current moment, where the “Current Affairs” section and “Science Fiction” are increasingly indistinguishable. Erdrich and Alderman write in a tradition of literary speculative fiction which recalls recent work by Atwood, Chabon, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, and Jim Crace, but old fashioned hard science fiction with all of its intricate world-building never loses its charms. Sam Miller provides just that in his infectiously enjoyable Blackfish City, which follows the intertwined stories of several characters living in a floating, mechanical city above the Arctic Circle in an early 22nd century ravaged by climate change. Despite hard science fiction’s reputation for being all about asteroid mining colonies and silvery faster-than-light starships, the reality is that from Samuel Delaney to Octavia Butler, science fiction has always been more daring in how it approaches questions of race and gender than conservative literary fiction can be. Miller’s novel provides a detailed, fascinating account of how the geothermal powered city (which is operated by a consortium of Thai and Swedish companies) actually works, but his thematic concerns include economic stratification, deregulation, global warming, and gender fluidity. That, and he has depicted neuro-connected animal familiars that communicate with their human partners, including a polar bear and an orca whale. So, there’s that!
Science fiction isn’t the only genre attuned to our neoliberal, late capitalist, ascendant fascistic hell-scape – there’s also horror, of course. Paul Tremblay offers a visceral, thrilling, and disturbing account of a home invasion/hostage situation in his horror pastoral The Cabin at the End of the World, which makes fantastic use of narrative ambiguity in rewriting the often-over-played apocalyptic genre. One of the scariest novels I read in the past year was Hari Kunzru’s postmodern gothic White Tears. The strange ghost tale has been discussed as if it was a simple parody of white hipster culture’s appropriation of black music, and yet White Tears grapples with America’s racial history in a manner that evokes both William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Kunzru’s story follows the fraught friendship of Seth and Carter, who share a love of lo-fi Mississippi Delta blues music, both listening to and producing songs as an act of musical obsessiveness worthy of R. Crumb. Carter crafts a faux Robert Johnson style number attributed to an invented musician he christens “Charles Shaw,” based off of a recording of random, diegetic patter between two men playing chess in Washington Square Park which Seth picks up on one of his forays through New York to preserve ambient sound. The two discover that the fictional bluesman might be more real than they suppose.
The complexities and contradictions of American culture are also explored in Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean, which though perhaps not a horror novel itself is still a loving homage to the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. La Farge’s novel is an endlessly recursive frame-tale which follows a series of inter-nestled narratives ranging from the (fictional) homosexual relationship of Lovecraft with a young Floridian named Robert Barlow, to New York author Charlie Willett’s obsession with finding a lost pornographic work of the master himself, which is of course titled The Erotonomicon. Along the way the reader confronts questions of artifice and authenticity, as well as a consideration of the darker reaches of Lovecraft’s brilliant, if bigoted, soul. Le Farge moves across a century of history, and from the horror author’s native Providence to Mexico City on Dia de los Muertos, from northern Ontario to the Upper West Side, with a cameo appearance from Beat novelist William S. Burroughs. La Farge’s novel isn’t quite weird fiction itself, but he writes with an awareness that Lovecraft’s cold, chthonic, unfeeling, anarchic, nihilistic stories of meaninglessness are as apt an approach to our contemporary moment as any, where Cthulhu’s tentacles reach further than we’d care to admit and the Great Old Ones always threaten to devour us. Facing the uncertainties of terrifying push notification, reflect on the master himself, who wrote that the “oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
La Farge’s narrative progresses Zelig-like through 20th century literary history, its story encompassing fictionalized accounts of the intersection of both experimental and genre writing. I’ve always been drawn to picaresque, delighted by the appearance of historical figures as they arrive briefly in a story. Matt Haig’s masterful How to Stop Time has plenty of cameos in the life of its main character Tom Hazard, from William Shakespeare and Captain Cook to Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Tom isn’t quite an immortal, but in all the ways that matter he nearly is. Haig describes an entire secret fraternity of incredibly old people called the “Albatross Society” who vampire-like scurry about the margins of history. A Huguenot refugee who comes of age in Elizabethan England, Tom’s narrative follows his yearning to discover the missing daughter of his dead wife, the former a near-immortal like himself. Haig’s is a risky gambit, jumping from the 16th century to the 21st, yet he performs the job admirably, and as somebody who cashes checks from writing about the Tudor era, I can attest to the accurate feel of the Renaissance scenes in the book. Word is that a film adaptation is on the way, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (predictably), but more than even its cinematic action about secret societies and historical personages, How to Stop Time offers an estimably human reflection on what it means to grow old, and to lose people along the way.
As the nights grow dimmer and the temperature drops, the distant beginning of the year seems paradoxically closer, the months folding back in on themselves as the Earth reaches the same location in its annual terminus around our sun. January’s reading seems more recent to me than those summer beach indulgences when I got sand from Manchester-by-the-Sea in the creases of my library books, and so I end like an Ouroboros biting its own tale with the first book of 2018 which I read: Paul Kingsnorth’s enigmatic fable Beast. Founder of the Dark Mountain Project, which encourages artists and writers to grapple with what they see as an approaching climate apocalypse, Kingsnorth has been writing increasingly avant-garde prose in reaction to our inevitable demise. His main (and only) character Edward Buckmaster seems to be the same protagonist from his earlier novel The Wake, albeit that earlier novel takes place in the Dark Ages and is written in an Anglo-Saxon patois that is equally beautiful as tedious, while Beast by all intents seems to be broadly contemporary in its setting.
I’m unsure as to whether they’re the same character, or if Edward is to be understood as the reincarnation of his namesake, but both novels share a minimalist, elemental sensibility where the very nature of prose and narrative are stripped to bare essentials. Beast follows the surreal ruminations of Edward as he phases in and out of consciousness in a cottage on the English moors, in a landscape uninhabited by people, while he both stalks and is stalked by some sort of fantastic creature. The nature of the animal is unclear – is it a big cat? A wolf? Something else? And the setting is bizarrely wild, if not post-apocalyptic feeling, when compared to the reality of the urbanized English countryside. Beast is as if Jack London’s Call of the Wild was rewritten by Albert Camus. It’s the sort of “Man vs. Nature” plot that I always want to like and which I rarely do – save for this time, where I very much did enjoy Kingsnorth’s strange allegory. At least it feels like an allegory, but the nature of its implications are hard to interpret. Proffering a hypothesis, I will say that reading Beast, where boredom threaded by a dull anxiety is occasionally punctuated by moments of horror, is as succinct an experiential encapsulation of 2018 as any.
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My beloved father died suddenly almost five years ago. As it is for everyone who loses someone they love, my family and I found ourselves devastated. Adding to the shock of our loss was the guilt-ridden fact that my mother had not been there with my father during his final days to potentially catch the signs of his rapidly declining heart — she’d been with me, helping to manage my three young children while my husband was on a business trip.
Afterwards, the balanced weights of grief and regret settled on my shoulders, refusing to let go. Breathing was difficult. Prayer left me more drained as I grappled with my anger at losing our family patriarch so early in his life, at the age of 59 and only the beginning of his grandfatherhood, and my shame at the role my own selfishness played. Mothering and remaining a partner to my husband felt like playacting, as I tried to be brave in the face of my shattered grasp on what my life now was. To state perhaps the obvious, I’d never known life without my father.
Words have always been a place of solace for me, but during that turbulent time my own writing became splintered, as though I couldn’t hold a full thought inside my mind (which, clinically speaking, is exactly what grief does to our cognitions). A fog seeped into my neural connections, and consequently my interactions with the world became murky and indistinct. Unable to rely upon my own narrative, I sought out the stories of others who’d been submerged by grief, only to eventually surface for air and write about it. By a few months in, I’d completed what seems to have become required reading for the recently bereaved, gobbling up Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Joyce Carol Oates’s A Widow’s Story in hungry waves of reading at night when I couldn’t sleep. But, despite the compassion and empathy offered by these authors, I remained adrift as a woman, a daughter, and a reader. I wanted someone to tell me how to do it; how to live life without my father as an anchor. To my own surprise, I would not find my resilience in memoir, but in a fictional detective.
I discovered P.D. James at my local library, her series of mysteries impressively commanding an entire shelf all for themselves. I had planned to search the library’s database, quite literally, for “Widow Stories.” Despite the fact that I was not a widow, these were the primary books that seemed available to me as I grieved. It was as I wandered the aisles looking for an open kiosk to conduct my search that I noticed James’s work. I’d never read detective fiction before — it being a genre I had often (although I’m ashamed to admit it now) maligned as kitschy or formulaic. Despite this bias, I skeptically selected The Lighthouse from the shelf of offerings, as much out of desperation as curiosity.
I’ve always been an evening reader, and this pattern was set even more strictly during the months after my father’s death. The waning hours of winter daylight were when my anxious bereavement became the most acute, but as I pored through The Lighthouse over the next several nights, Commander Adam Dalgliesh’s controlled approach to the passions of life became a beacon to me. I found comfort in his cool-headedness as he faced the greatest cruelties human connection could muster. Here was a character who clearly felt deeply, penning acclaimed poetry in his spare time, but who also managed to subvert his ardency into a more functional rationality. Dalgliesh became a model for me of how to manage the pain of life’s losses without losing myself.
In The Lighthouse, one of the reader’s first encounters with Dalgliesh, and subsequently my introduction to the detective himself, finds the policeman-poet examining the body of a strangulation victim. P.D. James offers the reader a glimpse behind the detective’s eyes as she details the assessments Dalgliesh makes of the body and the crime scene. The victim’s height and physical features are precisely noted. His clothing is assessed with an intense scrutiny and the furniture in the room examined for clues to the inner workings of the victim. The entire scene is rational, logical, and emotionally tepid. And then, James offers a peek at the vibrant pulse below Dalgliesh’s detached demeanor:
The enclosing sheet seemed to have softened, defining rather than obliterating the sharp point of the nose and the bones of the quiescent arms. And now, thought Dalgliesh, the room will take possession of the dead. It seemed to him as it always did, that the air was imbued with the finality and the mystery of death; the patterned wallpaper, the carefully positioned chairs, the Regency desk, all mocking with their normality and permanence the transience of human life.
When I first read that passage, I was physically struck by the brutal truth of Dalgliesh’s observation. James’s words conjured the painful memory of returning home from the hospital to find the food my father had filled the refrigerator with just a day or so before his death. Milk, potato salad, his favorite cheese packaged from the deli, a few slices taken out. It was a chocolate cake with white frosting, one slice missing, that made me stifle a primal howl that night. The cake sat unassumingly on the middle shelf, but all I could picture was my father cutting himself a piece to enjoy as he sat alone in the house, waiting for his wife to come home. My mother and I promptly cleared out the fridge, both of us too ravaged by grief and guilt to care about the waste. James, through Dalgliesh, helped me to acknowledge, and even accept, that rawness would now lurk underneath the normalcy of life.
Following those observations of Dalgliesh’s in The Lighthouse, the reader sees him immediately shift back into a state of practiced analysis and get on with his job of solving the murder. It is made clear to the reader that Dalgliesh feels a great deal — he simply refuses to allow those feelings to inhibit his capacity to do his duty. If ever there was a lesson for the recently bereaved, I felt that was it: You can feel everything, but life must move forward. You are needed.
I won’t argue with those who say Dalgliesh represents a character who manages life by intellectualizing the emotional and, consequently, repressing actual feeling. I fully agree with that interpretation. When I discovered James and Dalgliesh, my emotional life was threatening to swallow me whole. Too anxious to sleep, my mental faculties drained from the ticker-tape thoughts of “Why didn’t I just hire a babysitter?” and “Why didn’t we make him go to the doctor?”, and my maternal routine involving a daily dose of chastising my children for what I perceived as their easy recuperation from their own loss of their grandfather, I had lost my balance. Reading The Lighthouse, followed by The Murder Room and A Certain Justice, Dalgliesh’s compartmentalized reactions to murder and treachery were the balm I so desperately needed.
I want to emphasize that the comfort I derived from James’s writing was not due to any “coziness” embedded in her mysteries. As noted in Val McDermid’s foreword to James’s recent short story collection published posthumously, The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories, “she was anything but cosy…She understands that murder is nasty and brutal, that it is fueled by the most malevolent of motives, and she’s not afraid to face that darkness head-on.” Rather, it was James’s frank handling of the brutalities of life that spoke to me. Losing my father was a childhood terror made real, but much like Dalgliesh, I did not have to succumb to these atavistic truths.
In The Murder Room, James describes Dalgliesh’s encounter with a victim burned alive in his own car:
Through the half-closed door he could see the ulna, and a few burnt fragments of cloth adhered to a thread of muscle. All that could burn on the head had been destroyed and the fire had extended to just above the knees. The charred face, the features obliterated, was turned towards him and the whole head, black as a spent match, looked unnaturally small. The mouth gaped in a grimace, seeming to mock the head’s grotesquerie. Only the teeth, gleaming white against the charred flesh, and a small patch of cracked skull proclaimed the corpse’s humanity.
She offers no screens for the reader. This death was full of horror and malice. In all of James’s murder mysteries, the brutal facts of death are on full display for the reader.
It is this transparency, I believe, that put Dalgliesh’s emotional balance into stark relief for me. A detective who had seen the worst in humanity, and yet kept his own in the process. Towards the end of The Murder Room, the murderer safely imprisoned and justice achieved in the only way possible for the victims, Dalgliesh reflects:
He felt both sad and exhausted but the emotion was not strange to him; this was often what he felt at the end of a case. He thought of the lives which his life had so briefly touched, of the secrets he had learned, the lies and the truths, the horror and the pain. Those lives so intimately touched would go on, as would his. Walking back… he turned his mind to the weekend ahead and was filled with a precarious joy.
If Adam Dalgliesh could encounter the worst of mankind and yet still perceive joy in life, I began to believe that I could figure out a way to feel joy again without my father.
Over the next year, I read James’s entire catalogue, which in its breadth covers detective fiction (the Dalgliesh and Cordelia Gray series), science fiction (Children of Men), nonfiction (The Maul and the Pear Tree), and her own memoir (Time to Be in Earnest). As I learned more about James herself, her personal story also became a model of how to restart my life without a father. James lost her husband at an early age after his struggles with mental illness. She then proceeded to raise her two daughters on her own while working full time as a civil servant and writing on the weekends. Knowing this now, I look back on my initial trip to the library with a sense of mild bemusement–although I hadn’t known it then, I’d discovered in the library that day another widow and her wide world of stories that would eventually see me out of my grief.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a monthly feature at The Millions.
Years ago, a friend of mine complained about the lack of intellectual stimulation at his day job. He gave as an example a coworker who spent her breaks reading — insert scorn here — a mystery novel. “Whose mystery is it?” I remember asking. “If it’s by, say, P.D. James, then your coworker is probably pretty smart.” A few weeks later, my friend called me back. “The book was P.D. James, and she is really smart.”
Phyllis Dorothy James White, the daughter of a tax inspector, has more than a dozen honorary doctorates and fellowships, and from institutions as eminent as Oxford and Cambridge. At 15 or 16, she won her high school’s prize for a story she describes as “low in credibility but high on drama and atmosphere” (she no longer has a copy). Her father was “not well off and not disposed to educate girls,” so James left school at 16 to work in a tax office, only returning to formal education decades later for night classes in hospital administration. Around that time, her mother was committed to a mental hospital, leaving James to care for her younger siblings. In a 1995 interview with The Paris Review, she said, “I would have loved to have gone to university, but I don’t think I would necessarily have been a better writer, indeed perhaps the reverse.” Regardless, her books abound with highly educated, often-influential characters who spout references to classic British literature and debate fine points of moral theology; and her most enduring creation, the fictional detective Adam Dalgliesh, is both a commander at New Scotland Yard and a famous poet. (He also shares a surname with one of James’s English teachers at Cambridge High School for Girls.)
In the decades before she published her first novel, Cover Her Face, at 42, James married an army doctor, survived World War II, struggled to raise two daughters when her husband returned from the war incapacitated by a mental illness that may have been schizophrenia, and worked full time to support her family. In the decades since, she has written 16 detective novels (including a sequel to Pride and Prejudice in which one of the characters is murdered), a disquisition on the history of detective fiction, a memoir, and the dystopian morality tale The Children of Men. She was honored with the title of baroness by Queen Elizabeth and has subsequently sat on the Conservative benches of the House of Lords. Despite her success as a novelist, she kept her administrative job until she retired at 60, a decision she attributes to growing up during the Depression, when secure civil service jobs were coveted. As recently as last October, she claimed to have cracked an unsolved 1931 murder.
James intended 2008’s The Private Patient to be the last Adam Dalgliesh novel, confessing to USA Today in 2010 that, at 90 years old, “I felt I wasn’t quite sure whether I could begin a new Dalgliesh…I hate the thought of not completing it.” In an April 2013 interview with the London Evening Standard, she revealed that she hoped to bring Dalgliesh back for a 15th book, in which she plans for Dalgliesh (whom James describes as “a reverent agnostic”), like his creator, to confront the certainty of his own death. But by December 2013, she again expressed doubts about her ability to finish: “[b]ut I have no time, no time at all and I do not think [the book] is going to get written, and I am just having to face that…but I hope it may get written.” Undoubtedly, so do her fans.
James resists what she sees as an artificial divide between literary and genre fiction. She takes pains, however, to draw distinctions between the detective fiction she writes and other species of crime novels — particularly ones in which the reader knows the murderer’s identity but the characters don’t, or in which, for the sake of suspense, the author deliberately withholds from the reader facts that are known to the characters. By contrast, a true detective novel makes a compact with the reader, as James explains in Talking about Detective Fiction:
What we can expect is a central mysterious crime, usually murder; a closed circle of suspects, each with motive, means and opportunity for the crime; a detective, either amateur or professional, who comes in like an avenging deity to solve it; and, by the end of the book, a solution which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel with deceptive cunning but essential fairness.
A well-crafted detective novel fulfills the same essentials of “a perfect tragedy” as outlined in Aristotle’s Poetics: it begins with catastrophe; calls forth fear, pity, and finally recognition; and invokes catharsis — a purging of emotion and restoration of order. As James herself pointed out in a 2009 interview for NPR’s Morning Edition, “The theory is that the mystery flourishes best in times of acute anxiety.” Any reader who picks up a murder mystery does so with absolute assurance that the murderer will be caught and brought to justice by the end, which partly accounts for the genre’s popularity. Within this structure, however, writers can (and do) weave social and political commentary, unresolved and conflicted relationships, philosophical and ethical questions, and often unsettling portraits of lives before and after a murder.
Another of the detective novel’s pleasures is that it asks the reader to solve the central mystery along with the detectives. The author unveils facts as the characters experience them, while simultaneously manipulating these revelations in ways that create deception and misdirection; but both the solution and the process of discovering it are supremely logical. Says James: “The detective can know nothing which the reader isn’t also told …It would be a very, very bad detective story at the end if the reader felt, ‘Who could possibly have guessed that?’” In the end, the detective’s (and the reader’s) triumph reaffirms the power of humanity over forces of darkness and sometimes terror. As James puts it, the mystery is “solved not by good luck or divine intervention…It’s solved by a human being. By human courage and human intelligence and human perseverance. In a sense, the detective story is a small celebration of reason and order in our very disorderly world.”
James admits that she abhors disorder: “In a long life, I have never taken a drug or got drunk, and I say that not as a matter of pride: it’s because the idea of being out of control is appalling to me. I think that when one writes detective stories one is imposing order, and a form of imperfect but human justice, on chaos.” Yet her flirtation with disorder, the terror that an ordinary person could transform into a killer or a killer’s victim, shares more with the complexity of literary fiction than it does with the tidy plots and flat characterization in, say, Agatha Christie mysteries. She has no interest in mass murders or psychopaths, she explained in a 2010 Telegraph interview: “They don’t interest me as much from a crime writing point of view because they kill without recognisable (sic) motives. What is fascinating is when you have an educated, law-abiding person who steps over a line.”
In Time to Be in Earnest, James recounts a day when she was feeding her baby daughters butter that her husband, Dr. Ernest Connor Bantry White, had sent from where he was stationed in India.
I was feeding fingers of toast into Jane’s buttery mouth that I heard…the news of the dropping of the atomic bomb…I knew that the dropping of the bomb would almost certainly bring Connor home earlier and probably safely. But it was still, for me, a moment of horror and, looking almost aghast at my two happy, buttery daughters…I knew that for all of us the world had changed for ever.
Sadly, her husband’s return from the war brought James neither peace nor safety. Suffering from psychosis, Connor was in and out of mental hospitals and sometimes violent. In 1986, pressed by an interviewer, she said, “He did have highs and lows. It was terrifying and terribly disruptive. It’s not a part of my life that’s very happy for me, and I don’t think about it often.” He died at 44 in what some articles have suggested may have been a suicide, but James has rarely discussed him and has never disclosed the details of his death. “One suffers with the patient and for oneself,” she writes in Time to Be in Earnest. “Another human being who was once a beloved companion can become not only a stranger, but occasionally a malevolent stranger.”
She never considered divorce even when it became clear that Connor would never be well again, and she has turned down more than one marriage proposal. Asked in 1986 why she had never remarried, she replied, “Connor was a very exceptional man — one of the few men I’ve met who really believed in the equality of women…I certainly miss my husband as much now as when he first died…We did have a mutual understanding. But I’m not sure one can find that very easily in another man.” Her love for her late husband was just as strong in a 2010 interview: “If I had met someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, I would have. I had men friends and I like men generally but I never met the right one again.” Her husband, troubled as he was, was James’s great love.
Arguably, James’s other great love is her fictional hero, Adam Dalgliesh, who embodies good looks, poetic sensibility, uncompromising ethics, compassion, wisdom, and, most of all, dispassionate intellect. When we first meet him in James’s first novel, Cover Her Face (1962), he has lost his wife in childbirth more than a decade earlier and has remained resolutely single ever since. Cordelia Gray, a detective in James’s only two novels to feature a female protagonist, encounters Dalgiesh through the investigation in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. In the next novel, A Taste for Death, Gray and Dalgliesh have been seen dining together, but James is too coy to discuss the nature of their relationship: “I’m afraid that as far as Adam’s sex life is concerned, what he does in private with a consenting adult is no affair of mine.”
Inevitably, interviewers ask about the relationship between James and her leading man. In a 1977 interview for The New York Times, James said of Dalgliesh, “I wanted a very sensitive, essentially lonely and withdrawn person;” by 1996, interviewed by People, she says, “I think in some ways he may be the masculine equivalent of me…He’s not a self-portrait, but he does have qualities I admire. He’s intelligent, he’s literary. I admire his sensitivities and certainly his courage and his self-sufficiency, but he may be too self-sufficient. I think there’s a splinter of ice in his heart.” Over the years, Dalgliesh’s character has softened somewhat — he falls in love over the course of the most recent four novels and finally remarries at the end of The Private Patient.
As a character, Dalgliesh can sometimes be too exemplary to be convincing. For example, though he contracts SARS in The Lighthouse and ruminates on the possibility of never seeing his soon-to-be fiancée again, before he collapses he completes an examination of a body, gives exhaustive instructions to his subordinates, and, later, in his delirium, solves a key piece of the mystery and insists on holding staff meetings from his sickbed. At such moments, Dalgliesh’s personal life seems superfluous. In giving him one, James gestures toward continuity of character that readers can follow from novel to novel, but she has made him so dependably unimpeachable that his inner conflicts have far less resonance than those of his subordinates and the minor characters he encounters — many of whom are so sharply and compassionately observed that her disciplined main plots contain a kaleidoscope of tiny and evocative stories.
In The Lighthouse, a servant grieves when she learns that a victim died wearing something she had sewed, tormented by the idea that the clothing had caused the death; Kate Miskin, Dalgliesh’s second-in-command, is acutely aware of the servant’s desolation but struggles to express compassion; her subordinate briefly recalls feeling as a child like his existence intruded on his parents’ intimacy: “Coming quietly and unexpectedly into a room where they were alone, he would see the cloud of disappointment quickly change to smiles of welcome — but not quickly enough.” In the last Dalgliesh novel, The Private Patient, the murder victim has waited 34 years to have plastic surgery for the scar left when her drunken father slashed her cheek with a bottle and her mother let the wound get seriously infected rather than reveal the abuse. Questioned by the doctor about her motives for removing the scar, she replies, “Because I no longer have need of it.”
For Dalgliesh as well as James, solving the murder is paramount, and James’s novels are notable for the virtuosity with which their plots are executed. James’s 2005 novel, The Lighthouse, for instance, begins with Dalgliesh being summoned to his superior’s office: a murder has been committed on an isolated island where the Prime Minister would like to hold a private meeting in a few months. The island has no cell phone service, allows only VIPs personally referred by previous guests to visit, and can be accessed only by private boat. More than 100 pages elapse — in which each of the characters is painstakingly introduced — before the body appears, swinging dramatically from the island’s lighthouse railing as gulls (and a servant) shriek in the background. James narrows her gaze to the disquieting image of “the neck mottled and stretched like the neck of a bald turkey, the head, grotesquely large, dropped to one side, the hands, palms outward, as if in a parody of benediction.” The body belongs to a famous novelist, publicly celebrated for his brilliant writing, disliked on the island for his difficult personality, and privately loathed for spectacular cruelties that emerge during the investigation. A handful of suspects stand at the foot of the lighthouse and look up at the body; the permanent staff sequester themselves in a dining room to speculate about the current batch of visiting VIPs; Dalgliesh and team promptly swoop in by helicopter to investigate. Suddenly, the game is on.
It’s at this point that James’s novels make their bid for a place among the “Queens of Crime” (Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham), whose books she devoured as a teenager. Her plots combine Christie’s audacious cleverness, Marsh’s evocation of situation and setting, Sayers’s acute sense of morality, and Allingham’s sensitivity to character. The resulting detective novels represent the best qualities of the genre: they are absorbing, intellectually challenging, emotionally satisfying, and artfully constructed. The process of unraveling the mystery demands the reader’s attention and patience as the investigators work through the evidence, and yet the solutions that emerge seem simultaneously surprising and inevitable. No matter how chilling, the murderers are sympathetically drawn; and the supposed innocents differ morally from the guilty only in that they happen not to have committed murder. In James’s hands, murder is simply another gesture that arises from character motivation. James writes in Time to Be in Earnest:
As a writer I find that the most credible motive and, perhaps, the one for which the reader can feel some sympathy, is the murderer’s wish to advantage, protect or avenge someone he or she greatly loves. But should the reader feel sympathy for the murderer? Perhaps sympathy is too strong a word; but I think there should be empathy and understanding.
This empathy and understanding distinguishes James from other giants of detective fiction. In Talking about Detective Fiction, James, in explaining the detective story’s “Golden Age,” writes with admiration for Agatha Christie’s “imaginative duplicity,” but notes, “Both the trickery and the final solution are invariably more ingenious than believable…there is no grief, no loss, an absence of outrage.” For James, conscience cannot be separated from compassion, and her work never delivers justice without also reaching into those dark places where the human spirit falls short.
James was born on August 3, 1920 — a few weeks before women’s suffrage would go into effect in the U.S.; and in England, women (including her role model Dorothy L. Sayers) would not be allowed to enroll at the University of Oxford for a few more months.
In Time to Be in Earnest, James writes, “I can recall a sentence from the Cambridge High School prospectus which, after pointing out that girls could enter the sixth form and be prepared for teacher training college or could take a secretarial course, added: ‘The school thus prepares either for a career or for the ordinary pursuits of womanhood.’” She recounts applying for promotions: “I accepted that I would have to be not only better qualified than the male candidates, but considerably better qualified. This can hardly be regarded as equality of opportunity.” When her debut novel Cover Her Face was published in 1962, all but one reviewer assumed it was written by a man. James denies any intention to conceal her sex, writing that she decided P.D. “was enigmatic and would look best on the book spine.”
Even in her memoir, James refuses to dwell too long on her own memories. She writes:
I see no need to write about these things. They are over and must be accepted, made sense of and forgiven, afforded no more than their proper place in a long life in which I have always known that happiness is a gift, not a right…Like dangerous and unpredictable beasts they lie curled in the pit of the subconscious. This seems a merciful dispensation; I have no intention of lying on a psychiatrist’s couch in an attempt to hear their waking growls.
One could easily imagine James pursuing a different literary path driven by autobiographical impulses, mining her parents’ uneasy marriage, her mother’s institutionalization, her husband’s disintegration into mental illness, her struggles to support a family and gain professional standing, her triumphant career as a writer.
One could also easily picture James as a child in a difficult family, discovering the writers who became influences — Jane Austen, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot — and reading simply for the pleasure they gave her. The challenges that have informed James’s writing could easily have kept her from writing at all. The mystery writers she read in adolescence and most admires as influences — Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Josephine Tey — could have been devoured and forgotten. Instead, P.D. James has taken her place among them.
Image Credit: Flickr/Chris Boland
What really begins in January, besides the calendar? Winter isn’t even close to ending, and nothing but the new year is being born. But we do, nevertheless, like to start things when the year starts. Maybe it’s that the quiet hibernation of the time, after the excess of the holidays, gives us the chance to reflect and resolve. Maybe, for those who believe, it’s that our “decayed world,” as Edmund Spenser introduced his Shepheardes Calender, has recently been refreshed by the birth of Christ. Or maybe it’s just the arbitrary placebo effect of a change of digit and a clear new calendar page. What will you resolve to read in January? A new diet book? Will you try, once again, to finish Getting Things Done? Or will this be the year you’ll read Proust, or Infinite Jest, or A Dance to the Music of Time? Or, might I humbly suggest, you could commence the healthful daily practice of reading a literary almanac.
In the 366 daily pages of A Reader’s Book of Days, I tell a thousand or two tales from the real lives of writers, as well as the lives they’ve invented. I also sum up each month with a short essay and a list of recommended reading, and that, I found, was the hardest part. Not that there wasn’t enough to say. Quite the opposite: there was too much. Talk about arbitrary! No 400 words or short stack of books could fully represent a 12th of the literary year. So it’s with a sense of incompletion that I offer my nine recommendations here for January, books and poems that begin, or hinge, or are contained in the year’s first month. Aside from almanacs like mine, surprisingly few books actually start in January, by the way; one of those that does may be the most appropriate January book of them all, though it’s not included below: Bridget Jones’s Diary, which opens the year not with hope but a hangover.
A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy (1909)
What did Tolstoy, in his last years, believe was the great work of his life? War and Peace? Anna Karenina? No, this anthology he spent 15 years gathering, which mixed his own aphorisms with those of the “best and wisest thinkers of the world,” organized by a theme for each day of the year.
At the Mountains of Madness by H. P. Lovecraft (1936)
As the southern summer opens up the South Pole for exploration, a scientific expedition led by professors Dyer and Lake discovers behind a range of unknown Antarctic mountains a vast, dead, and ancient city, one of the most evil and benighted of Lovecraft’s inhuman horrors.
“New Year Letter” by W. H. Auden (1940)
With hatreds convulsing the world “like a baffling crime,” Auden composed one of his great long poems as a letter to “dear friend Elizabeth,” whose hospitality in his adopted home of New York helped him toward this vision of order in art and life during a time of tyranny.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick (1968)
You are far more likely to know Blade Runner than its source novel, set on a single January day in a post-nuclear 1992, which features, rather than Ridley Scott’s neon glamor, Dick’s equally thrilling and disturbing brand of stripped-down noir.
Airport by Arthur Hailey (1968)
Arthur Hailey wrote blockbusters like no one else, earnest and fact-filled dramas set in a series of massive industrial monoliths: banks, hotels, power plants, and, in this case, Lincoln International Airport in Illinois, during the worst winter storm of the decade, with one jetliner stuck at the end of a runway and another coming in fast with a bomb on board.
“In California: Morning, Evening, Late January” by Denise Levertov (1989)
Levertov’s pastoral is unseasonal in the temperate lushness of its California winter, and unsettling in its vision of the industrial forces invading and managing its beauty.
The Children of Men by P.D. James (1992)
Another novel overshadowed by its movie adaptation, The Children of Men, in a startling departure from James’s Adam Dalgliesh mysteries, uses the premise of a world in which human fertility has disappeared to examine the nature and lure of power.
White Teeth by Zadie Smith (2000)
Smith’s debut, which begins with Archie Jones’s failed January suicide, has too much life to begin with a death: it overflows with not only the variety of multi-ethnic London but the exuberance of Smith taking her brilliant talent for its first walk out on the stage.
The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan (2006)
One of the omnivore’s dilemmas is how to navigate a world whose technology and global trade have accustomed even New Englanders to unseasonal luxuries like sweet corn and asparagus in the middle of January.