Dear Reader, envision that Village which grew upon the southern strand of that isle of Manhattoes: a Lenape settlement purchased for 60 guilders and named for Amsterdam, later to be acquired by gunships of King James, and her wooden-legged governor relieved of duty; a frontier town in that Era of Enlightenment, though a hearty fragment of some 7,000 souls clinging to that huge, dark, and mysterious continent; and which, upon the fresh-green breast of the New World a mighty metropolis to rival Babel or Byzantium would grow. Here, in the dusk-laden twilight of empire, let us contemplate our origins as we live out our endings, and ask which original sins have cursed our posterity? As this land was a fantasy of 18th-century people, dreaming in the baroque vernacular of that sinful and glorious age, an era which saw the twinned gifts of mercantile prosperity and the evils of human bondage, it befits us to speak in the serpentine tongue of the era, mimicking the meandering sentences and the commas and semicolons heaped together as high as oranges or coffee beans from the Indies sold in a Greenwich Village shop in 1746: something that the essayist Francis Spufford accomplishes in his brilliant account Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York (which, if not available yet in quarto form, is now for purchase in the equally convenient “paper back”).
Reminiscent of novels like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 (with its fake Jacobean play), Charles Johnson’s postmodern picaresque Middle Passage, or Eleanor Catton’s Victorian Gothicism in The Luminaries, Spufford returns us to when “New-York” (as it was then spelled) was a middling colony on the largest harbor in the world. Still smaller than Philadelphia and not yet as culturally significant as Boston, New-York was poised by virtue of geography and diversity to ultimately become America’s greatest city. Spufford’s main character describes his native London as “a world of worlds. Many spheres all mashed together, to baffle the astronomers. A fresh plant to discover, at every corner. Smelly and dirty and dangerous and prodigious,” an apt description of New-York’s future.
As of 1746, the city was only a hundredth the size of London, and “Broad Way” was a “species of cobbled avenue, only middling broad,” but where even her modest stature indicated the Great White Way which was to come, populated as it was with “Wagon-drivers, hawkers with handcarts and quick-paced pedestrians…passing in both directions.” Burnt and rebuilt, paved and repaved, built tall and torn down, there is (unlike in Philly or Boston) scarcely any evidence left of colonial origins. Golden Hill conjures that world for us, the literary equivalent of visiting Independence or Faneuil Hall. At a reeking Hudson River dock we skid over “fish-guts and turnip leaves and cats’ entrails, and the other effluvium of the port,” and in a counting office we smell “ink, smoke, charcoal and the sweat of men” as in domestic rooms we inhale the odor of “waxed wood, food, rosewater and tea-leaves.” Spufford allows us to glimpse New-York as it was and proffers explanation of how our New York came to be. What results is a novel about novels themselves and about America itself as the greatest example of that form.
Golden Hill follows the perambulations of Richard Smith, a mysterious Englishman arriving with a bill of order for £1,000 from a venerable London firm, to be fulfilled by a New-York creditor. Smith’s arrival throws the town into consternation, for what the stranger hopes to accomplish with such a large sum remains inscrutable. Denizens of the town include Greg Lovell and his daughters, namely the acerbic ingenue Tabitha, the delightfully named assistant to the governor, Septimus Oakeshott, and a whole multitude of Hogarthian characters. Spufford has digested the canon of 18th-century novels, when the form itself was defined, and in the winding, playful, self-aware sentences of Golden Hill one reads an aperitif of Sarah Fielding’s The Governess, an appetizer of Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, a soup of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, a supper of Samuel Richardson’s Pamela or Clarissa, a dram of John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, and of course a rich desert of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Spufford’s bildungsroman is a celebration of those door-stoppers, and he liberally borrows their conventions, imitating their social sweep and tendency to knowingly meditate on fiction’s paradoxes. Conventions are explored: not just the marriage plot subversions of Richard and Tabitha’s courtship, but depictions of an elegant dance, the performance of Joseph Addison’s omnipresent pre-Revolutionary play Cato, a smoky game of piquet, a snowy duel, an absurd trial, and a squalid prison sentence (as well as a sex scene out of Cleland), all constructed around the rake’s progress (and regress).
Tabitha contends that novels are “Slush for small minds, sir. Pabulum for the easily pleased,” but Golden Hill proves that in their finely attuned imitation of consciousness and construction of worlds both interior and exterior, novels remain the greatest mechanisms for empathy which language has ever produced. True to the form’s name itself, novels are about self-invention, and as such Richard Smith is a representative example of the bootstrapping characters of his century, the protagonist (and his creator) intuiting that there is significance in the first page’s freshness, where “There’s the lovely power of being a stranger.” A particularly American quality of the very form of the novel itself.
Smith explains that “I may as well have been born again when I stepped ashore. You’re a new man before you, new-made. I’ve no history here, and no character: and what I am is all in what I will be.” The religious connotation is not accidental, for in that most Protestant of literary forms, the novel always accounts for a conversion of sorts, for what else is self-invention? In the 18th-century Letters from an American Farmer, the French settler J. Hector St. John de Crèvecœur posited that the American was a “new man,” and as the novel constructs identities, so, too, could the tabula rasa of the western continents, for Spufford’s protagonist was a “young man with money in his pocket, new-fallen to land in a strange city on the world’s farther face, new-come or (As he himself had declared new-born, in the metropolis of Thule).”
Because of both chronology and spirit, America is the most novelistic of countries. Novels are engines of contradiction, and nothing is more contradictory than America as Empire of Liberty. Anyone walking a Manhattan street adorned in both unspeakable luxury and poverty can sense those contradictions. America is just slightly younger than the novel, for despite notable precedents (such as Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote), the form was an 18th-century phenomenon; as a result, we’ve never been as attracted to the epic poem, preferring to find our fullest encapsulation in the ever-elusive “Great American Novel.” Long-form, fictional prose—with its negative capability, its contradictions, and its multivocal nature—was particularly attuned to that strange combination of mercantilism, crackpot religiosity, and self-invention which has always marked the nation.
If Golden Hill were but a playful homage, it would be worthwhile enough, but the brilliance of Spufford’s narrative is that he makes explicit what was so often implicit in those books. Literary critic Edward Said brilliantly read Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park for sublimated evidence of English colonial injustice, but in our era, Spufford is freer than Austen to diagnose the inequities, cruelties, and terrors which defined that era and which dictate our present lives as well. From Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko through Herman Melville’s Benito Cereno and into the modernist masterpieces of Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison, race has always been integral to the novelistic imagination, and America’s original sin has oft been identified as corollary to myths of self-invention, indeed that which hypocritically made such self-invention for a select few possible. From his Broadway hotel, Smith hears someone “sweeping the last leaves, and singing slow in an African tongues as if their heart had long ago broken, and they were now rattling the pieces together desultorily in a bag.”
When Spufford describes New-York in the midst of a nor’easter as being “perched on the white edge of a white shore: the white tip of a continent layered in, choked with, smoothed over by, a vast and complete whiteness,” he provides an apt metaphor for the fantasies of racial purity which have motivated those in power, and of the ways in which white supremacy smothers the land. Far from being only a Southern “peculiar institution,” the bondage of human beings is what allowed Northern cities like New-York to grow fat, where for creditors like Mr. Lovell it was “every stage, every transaction, yielding sweet, secure profit, and those profits in turn buying a flood of Turkey-carpets, cabinets, tea-pots, Brummagem-ware toys and buttons, et cetera, et cetera.” That dizzying array of comforts and luxuries purchased with “Slaveries, Plantations, Chains, Whips, Floggings, Burnings…a whole World of Terrors.” Not content to let the central horror of slavery elude to the background, Golden Hill demonstrates how the wealth of colonial New-York was based on an economic logic which admitted that though the “slaves died in prodigious number…there were always number still more prodigious from Africa to replace them in the great machine, and so the owners kept on buying, and eagerly.”
Golden Hill is as much about today as then, for despite its playfulness, its readability, its love of what makes old novels beautiful, it’s fundamentally an account of American darkness—from the Guy Fawkes Day bonfire, which might as well be the Charlottesville rallies of last summer, to the capturing of our current fevered paranoia by invoking the so-called “Negro Plot,” when some five years before the setting of Golden Hill, over a hundred enslaved Africans were hung, immolated, or broken on the wheel in southern Manhattan, having been implicated in a nonexistent conspiracy to burn down the city. Leave it to an Englishman to write our moment’s Great American Novel, who with sober eye provides a diagnosis of American ills and, true to the didactic purpose of authors like Richardson and Defoe, provides a moralizing palliative to the body politic.
Spufford’s novel concerns invention and passing, wealth and poverty, appearances and illusions, the building of fortunes and the pining for that which is unavailable—not least of which for what some liar once called the “American Dream.” In one of those moments of unreliability which mark the novelist’s art, Spufford writes that the “operations of grace are beyond the recording powers of the novelist. Mrs. Fielding cannot describe them; nor Mr. Fielding, nor Mrs. Lennox, nor Mr. Richardson, nor Mr. Smollett, nor even Mr. Sterne, who can stretch his story further than most.” But we’re not to take such an argument at face value, for despite Tabitha’s protestations, novels have always been conduits of moral feeling. Golden Hill proves it. The only different between Spufford’s diagnosis and those which focus only on the degradations of the individual is that the rake whose fallenness is condemned in Golden Hill is America itself.
Writing professors love to talk about craft. Carpentry and agrarian metaphors abound. Writing is difficult manual labor; pens and pencils are “tools.” Stories, poems, and essays are perfected in workshops. Yet the moment the conversation turns to audience, the blue-collar references recede. It is considered impractical, perhaps taboo, to speak about outside audience with undergraduates because that means talking about publication.
I teach an introductory creative writing course at the College of New Jersey. It is a required fiction and poetry course for future minors. My students are smart and open-minded. We read John Cheever and Aimee Nezhukumatathil and George Saunders and Don DeLillo and Vievee Francis and Traci Brimhall. One staple of my classroom is nearly constant consideration of readers outside of the university. If a student asks me how she can make a living as a writer, I am going to give her an honest answer. A student who is driven to write and share her voice with the world needs to hustle. She needs to be shrewd. She needs to write for readers.
If I am going to talk about craft — if I am going to use blue-collar metaphors and references — I am going to remember what my father said about his craft work as a carpenter: do the job right. Make the customer happy. Take pride in your creations. To achieve that end, I talk to my students about publishing. Most are curious about publication; some are even anxious. It is part of my job, I think, to introduce them to the reality of their audience outside of the classroom. Let us be honest with ourselves: the classroom is not the world. The fact that it goes without saying means it is often unsaid. We train writers to write for their peers. As professors, we often train writers to write for us.
A talented student who is insensitive to audience might thrive in a university through sheer force of skill, but such gifts are worthless to the outside world. I am saying this as someone who loves experimentation and innovation, and who rewards my students for risks of language, structure, and thought. Yet I want those same students to be practical and smart about publication. Even a trickster like Thomas Pynchon could pivot between The Crying of Lot 49 and the reserved “Is It OK to Be a Luddite?”. Audience defines our words. Even better than the vague concept of audience, readers — living, breathing readers who are imperfect and stubborn and yet often rewarding with their time and attention, and hopefully, their monetary support — are the lifeblood of writing.
Professors know the importance of readers. I spoke with Tony Ardizzone, who teaches undergraduates at Indiana University, and Brian Oliu, who teaches at the University of Alabama. Both agreed: “I don’t think undergraduates at the 200 or 300-level consciously consider an audience for their stories beyond the other students in their workshop,” says Ardizzone. None of us blame the students, of course. A workshop audience is temporary and elastic; when you gift a draft to a group, they return the work to you. Not so with publication. Oliu asks his students to think about what parts of their stories an audience must comprehend as the writers originally intended, and what can be subjective. Oliu wants his students to consider if “are they comfortable with, as Maxine Kumin puts it, ‘releasing their work into the world and letting the ages do what it will.'”
How might we accomplish this for our students? Jay Varner, who teaches introductory and advanced creative non-fiction at James Madison University, thinks talking about context is essential. He urges his students “to assume that they’re writing for a reader off-campus.” At New Mexico Highlands University, Tyler Mills reminds her poetry students that they “can’t follow your poem to the café in Seattle on a Saturday afternoon where someone opens up to page fifteen of the literary journal on the table, sees your poem, and wonders why the ‘you’ might mean three different people in ambiguous ways.” She tells her students that poems “need to stand up to the world and speak past the workshop’s idiosyncrasies, its ‘reliability’ to the small group.”
Like Mills, I see worth in the college writing workshop, however imperfect its methods. Those who hate workshops likely do so because they have inaccurate perceptions and expectations of its success. I see the college creative workshop as one very particular audience; a literary experiment of sorts. The ability to “game” the workshop — to write what your peers want to hear — is not an entirely disingenuous act. If one can master writing to this group and is aware of what one is doing, than one can extend that skill toward the more nebulous audience of the outside world. When we look at a writer’s trajectory across an entire career, we see curves and sometimes contradictions. Authentic voices often evolve.
The need to evolve and shift one’s voice toward particular audiences is no more essential than for nonfiction writers. Alissa Wilkinson, a film critic for Rolling Stone and Christianity Today, teaches her students at the King’s College in New York City that they are not to “pander to their readers by telling them what they want to hear; rather, it’s trying to understand the questions, experiences, and prejudices their reader likely brings to the table, and thinking about how to make their argument to that reader and address their concerns without alienating or patronizing them.” Such an approach “requires deep empathy and hospitality.”
The importance of empathy was echoed by Amanda Goldblatt, who tells her fiction students at Northeastern Illinois University to think of writing “as a form of communication or communion.” I like the duality of those ideas, and think one can be high-minded about writing and still want students to reach readers and get paid for their creations. Goldblatt returned to teaching students the importance of “engagement” with audience: “If the reader, primarily, can’t understand, and secondarily (but perhaps more importantly), isn’t encouraged into a significant and new experience, then a story won’t work, won’t stick.”
Goldblatt knows that undergraduates grow simultaneously as readers and writers. She asks what draws them to the books they love, and they invariably use the word “flow,” as in how “you can read without stopping or stumbling, but also, when writing flows, it’s because one moment dissolves into the next, or the story is so engaging that they lose time, or feel something intensely while reading.”
To be certain, there is no one solution to this problem that covers all genres. Many successful poems and stories require ambiguity and confusion, or as Goldblatt describes it, “disorientation.” She explains that students must learn “to be not only prepared for the reader’s disorientation but willing to use it to meaningful effect.” The professors I spoke with might not use my particular approach toward audience. But we do share a feeling of responsibility for informing our students about the literary world beyond our walls. Readers must not be some abstract concept in a linguistic experiment. They are the people who click on essays, buy books, share collections, and who wander into bookstores. Readers help writers get paid. Readers are essential. Let’s teach students how to write for them.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
In one scene from Americana, Don DeLillo’s 1971 debut novel, narrator David Bell turns off a light and turns on a radio:
Sound filled the room, huge noise, bass and drums booming out of the speaker, beating and scratching, then the sting of a fierce needling trumpet. In the darkness that trumpet had a deeper beauty, filling space, leaving time behind, a difficult sound departing and returning, and I did not feel I was in a room with four walls. A note hung at eye level, dim speck on the railroad horizon, then vanished into a long silence shaded by the revving bass.
It is not surprising that a writer so in love with the sounds of language — someone who titled a novel White Noise — would embrace the power of radio as narrative. Yet, like other talented novelists, DeLillo manages to surprise us with the familiar. Elsewhere in the novel, Bell describes a “three-antenna marine-band hi-fi portable radio” belonging to another character. The radio transmitted a “never-ending squall of disc jockey babytalk, commercials for death, upstate bluegrass Jesus, and as we drove through the cloverleaf bedlams and past the morbid gray towns I perceived that all was in harmony, the stunned land feeding the convulsive radio, every acre of the night bursting with a kinetic unity, the logic beyond delirium.”
It is sometimes refreshing to ditch the convenience of playlists and clarity of satellite stations and embrace the surprise of terrestrial radio. The shifting genres of FM. The droning emptiness of AM. I am reminded of “Route 7 Outside Nacogdoches, Texas” by Joe Wilkins, about a long drive down the road, and the narrator’s “good pain inside distance.” There, “the night gone liquor black, / radio catching miles / of static, there was only / the ache of cicadas and wind / and leaves in the wind, / and I did not know I was driving / to you. I was driving.”
Radio is elegiac. Radio is the theater of the mind: our eyes are free to look elsewhere, but the sound bounces in our brains. Two mediums that elicit imagination and subjective experience, radios and literature go well together. As another theater of the mind, literature requires more active listener participation than visual entertainment. Often the synthesis of the two makes narrative magic.
Mucho Mass, the husband of Oedipa Maas, in The Crying of Lot 49 is a disc jockey for KCUF, a California radio station. The novel is suffused with sound. Mucho was previously a used car salesman, but unlike other hucksters, did not use pencil shavings “for hushing sick transmissions.” Oedipa is haunted by disembodied voices: late-night prank phone calls from her billionaire ex-boyfriend, who disguises his voice as The Shadow, a radio character from the 1930s. Lapsed Catholic he is, Thomas Pynchon makes the radio sacramental: Oedipa imagines Mucho “looking through the soundproof glass at one of his colleagues with a headset clamped on and cueing the next record with movements stylized as the handling of chrism, censer, chalice, might be for a holy man, yet really tuned in to the voice, voices, the music, its message, surrounded by it, digging it, as were all the faithful it went out to.”
We want to be surrounded by sound: speakers in front, above, and behind. Literature puts the speakers inside of us. Julian Murphet has considered William Faulkner’s experimentation with levels and layers of “voice” in his novels. Murphet is correct to note that “Faulkner’s career as a novelist is coeval with the rise of one of the most astonishing cultural events in any nation’s history: the present-tense linking up of American cities from coast to coast, thanks to syndication and electromagnetic propagation, through voices speaking into living rooms and office spaces ‘out of the air’ and directly into the resonant chambers of the soul.” Murphet quotes Theodor Adorno’s Current of Music to supplement the point: “The absence of visible persons makes the ‘radio voice’ appear more objective and infallible than a live voice; and the mystery of a machine which can speak may be felt in atavistic layers of our psychical life.” In Faulkner’s work, Murphet sees “how the art of the novel is adapted, in a state of emergency, to absorb these new, disembodied voices of radio and gramophone, not as alien impositions on the living speech and dialogic richness of an expanding nation but precisely as the transfiguration through mechanical mediation” of our selves and souls.
As I Lay Dying — perhaps Faulkner’s finest and most sonorous work — ends with a chapter narrated by Cash, the apostolic carpenter son. The chapter’s first sentence: “So when we stopped there to borrow the shovels we heard the graphophone playing in the house.” As the chapter goes on, Cash notes when the music plays, and when it stops: “So we set in the wagon, but the music wasn’t playing now. I reckon it’s a good thing we aint got ere a one of them. I reckon I wouldn’t never get no work done a-tall for listening to it. I dont know if a little music aint about the nicest thing a fellow can have.”
The family is about to meet the new Ms. Bundren. She is holding a graphophone. As the novel ends, Cash thinks how “everytime a new record would come from the mail order and us setting in the house in the winter, listening to it, I would think what a shame Darl couldn’t be to enjoy it too.” Faulkner chose to have Cash articulate his emotional and spiritual distance from his brother through their inability to share sound.
In John Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio,” Jim and Irene Westcott share sound, until “One Sunday afternoon, in the middle of a Schubert quartet, the music faded away altogether.” Broken, the radio was replaced with a “large gumwood cabinet” that occupied their apartment “like an aggressive intruder.” A clear and pure tone is later replaced with crackling and rustling, as the radio begins transmitting the surrounding world. Private and intimate conversations whisper from the radio. Also: “a monologue on salmon fishing in Canada, a bridge game, running comments on home movies of what had apparently been a fortnight at Sea Island, and a bitter family quarrel about an overdraft at the bank.” Soon the “hideous cabinet,” the ugly God of a machine tunes into the Westcott’s own sins and fears.
We learn how to live through radios. Within Eduardo Corral’s poem “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes,” the father “learned English / by listening to the radio. The first four words / he memorized: In God We Trust.” Radio delivers us news, both public and personal. In “Easter, 1960” by Sharon Olds, a hospital uses an “ancient boarding-school radio” to announce that the speaker’s boyfriend was one of two men brought to the emergency room after a car crash: “one of them / critical, one of them dead.”
Back to DeLillo’s Americana, where the “radio was announcing a sale on ground round steak and then some old-time rock came on, lush and mystical, cockney voices wailing through a prayer wheel of electric sitars.” Radio is like literature, like our thoughts: moving, shifting, often clouded in static, and yet sometimes out of the maddening noise comes clarity.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
Unless you’re inhuman or illiterate, you’ve felt the frisson of joy delivered by an instance of perfect mimesis in fiction — that moment when a writer gets something so recognizably right that the act of recognition itself seems to confer a new reality upon the experience. Yes! you might say, that’s exactly how it is, and underscoring your pleasure there might be recognition of another sort: the writer’s recognition of your own experience of the world.
Then there’s the convincing depiction of experience that’s recognizable, yet once-removed. For simplicity’s sake, for the moment let’s stick with experience or behavior rather than natural occurrence. Someone you might not have known or seen or heard firsthand becomes, through the deftness of the writer’s rendering, distinctly and convincingly familiar. Yes, you might say in this case, that’s what it must be to be someone like that. That’s how he would talk. That’s just what would happen. Reading Zadie Smith’s NW, for instance, when a distressed Natalie (Keisha) wanders the streets of her old neighborhood with Nathan, who’s never managed to escape its dire demographics, you might — if you were someone like me — never have known someone quite like Nathan, but now you do. You can hear him say, as surely as if he’d been standing next to you, “Everyone loves a bredrin when he’s ten…After that he’s a problem…That’s how it is…There’s no way to live in this country when you’re grown.”
Or another type, one you’ve observed in one form or another, might become not just credible but comprehensible, as in the work of Curtis Sittenfeld in American Wife. You might have asked yourself (again, if you’re like me, sadly), How is it possible to be Laura Bush? A smart, educated, seemingly enlightened woman as the self-affirmed conjugal flak of a spoiled, failed child of privilege turned evangelical war-mongering anti-intellectual politician on the world stage? And in Sittenfeld’s fiction you might find an answer that resonates.
Move one step further away from what you know, and you may be confronted with a character who’s conceivable even though he or she might not exist. Yes, you say in this case, it’s entirely credible that a character might be made up of such components — now I see her! — yes! — that’s what she’d say or do! She might be Oedipa Maas of The Crying of Lot 49. Or Jack Gladney, pioneering the field of Hitler Studies in White Noise. Or David Foster Wallace’s Orin Incandenza. Or Charles Dickens’s Mr. Dick.
But what about experience that’s inconceivable to most of us — an act of genius, a moment of utmost extremity, a visit to the moon, a chat with Kim Jong-un, falling to the guillotine, challenging Julius Caesar? Anyone who has read The Iliad and understood that the pouting Achilles was a hero to Homer’s audience must know that what we understand to be verisimilitude, let alone storytelling and heroism, is in some philosophical, even existential way uncommunicable across time and culture. And when we realize that nothing resembling what we understand to be a novel was written in the West before the 1600s or in the East before 11th century, we have to concede that fiction as a conveyance of experience, a depiction of reality, a connection between writer and reader is susceptible to time and interpretation.
What do we want from it anyway, aside from the oh-get-me-from-here-to-there-already of plot, a perfectly acceptable demand for the satisfactions of seeing things make sense? This was a question that — oddly, perhaps — came up for me as I was reading Ethan Canin’s new novel, A Doubter’s Almanac. Canin is, in the old-fashioned sense, as Henry James said of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “a beautiful writer.” His clear predecessor is the F. Scott Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby, as he can so perfectly capture a thought, a gesture, a look, a detail, or an event as it means something to a character whose reflections he’s so precisely and evocatively conveyed that it means something to us. In this new book, the narrator is something of a mathematical savant, son of the not-at-all-somewhat mathematical genius whose story the first half tells and the second half retells from another perspective.
This is fiction that captures reality in a way that’s quite different from what I’ve described so far, because the reality that Canin is depicting is, for the most part, philosophical. The novel is steeped in a mathematical sensibility. In his father’s mind, Hans, the narrator, tells us, “all the other academic disciplines — including the physical sciences …were irrevocably tainted by their debt to substance.” And again and again we are asked to view the world as someone like Hans’s father, Milo, might — purely, you might say, without reference to its physical coordinates, though the physical coordinates are what orient Milo and make him aware of his gift, as we see when we first witness his extraordinary “positional aptitude” — his uncanny ability to know precisely where he is on the “plane of the earth” — a “sort of intrinsic, spatial mapping.”
“Mathematics is an invented science,” Milo tells Hans. “But strangely,” he continues, “the inventions of mathematics, which are wholly constructions of the mind, are in turn able to yield other inventions. That is why they seem more like discoveries than creations. In fact the distinction remains a debate…I also believe that this is why so many mathematicians feel that they have been privy to the language of God.”
He thought for a moment. ‘Although I should also say that I’ve thought of it in other ways, too. As the language of the mind, for example. Or even’—here he turned to me more thoughtfully — ‘as the language of language. The underlier of grammar. The skeleton of cognition. The rails on which the train of human advance steams up and down, one hill after the next.’
At this point, a mulberry twig falls onto the lawn in front of father and son. “Squirrels,” Hans says, looking up. The squirrels, of course, are the point. “Mathematics,” Milo says, “is like carving a wooden doll…and then, one day, you watch as your wooden doll gives birth to another wooden doll.” In its form and its fashion, the novel raises the question: do we look to fiction for the wooden doll or the squirrel?
In A Doubter’s Almanac, Ethan Canin gives us a truly convincing picture of what it’s like to experience the world as most of us, probably, don’t. This is life in the abstract, which, predictably, doesn’t work out very well for those who are privy to this intellectually elevated existence. When Milo has failed in worldly terms: “His mind, he realized, was his only friend.”
Though Canin wants us to care about Milo and his mathematically gifted children and grandchildren, what’s far more convincing is what’s familiar: “We watched a pair of red ants pitilessly drag a thrashing inchworm across the sand. It was like the ending of a great novel.”
An inchworm or mayflies or lily pads: Canin takes us back to that moment of mimesis that reminds us of our connection to someone else’s vision or experience of the world:
My mother looked up at the cloud of wings and feelers. ‘Mayflies,’ she said.
‘They seem to be committing suicide in pairs.’
’You’re right.’ She leaned back and let out a sigh. ‘They’re mating.’
There is in this novel a strange tension that makes me, at any rate, wonder what we ask of fiction anymore. Does it, as in the work of Lydia Davis or Diane Williams or perhaps even Jenny Offill, ask us to question how we experience reality — or whether we experience it differently than others might? Or does it allow us to confirm what we think we know? In A Doubter’s Almanac we have two worlds, and two forms of fiction, in uneasy coexistence, one that psychologist Jerome Bruner says establishes “not truth but verisimilitude” and one that — in Bruner’s view not fiction but argument — “verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof.”
Just as, in a world that contains photography, a painter must reconsider the value of representationalism, a fiction writer in an age of the extraordinary documentation of television and the Internet, where every last little feature of reality might be found and viewed from virtually every angle, must reevaluate the merit of capturing every detail, every moment, of a story. Is that exquisite word picture of a person, a gesture, an instant — that yes! of recognition — what we want? Or do we want something different, something new, some sense that, with the same words, in the same world, we might, through the workings of fiction, find a way to rethink reality — and to find the familiar strange, the world an ever bigger, more interesting place?
Observing his daughter, the next generation of mathematical genius, admiring the carpet of lily pads on a slow spot in the river, Canin’s narrator remarks,
I think Emmy likes the mystery of the spot, too, the way she knows from the undulation of the green that the water is there but never actually sees it. The feeling is much like the joy of mathematics itself, the original secret of the guild: that the miracle of the universe can be worshipped without actually witnessing the divine.
I also think she might be counting the lily pads.
Worship the miracle of the universe, witness the divine, count the lily pads: what do we, as readers of fiction, want to do?
In New York City during late May of 2015, the Rangers professional hockey squad fell just short of the finals, while the Yankees and Mets approached the halfway marker of their seasons clinging to competitive success on the baseball diamond. Andrew Lloyd Weber’s stage adaptation of the Jack Black flick School of Rock appeared primed to draw flocks of the musical-hungry, and word-of-mouth for summer blockbuster Mad Max spread with zest. Mayor Bill de Blasio may have given up on his quest to ban horse rides from Central Park although, then again, maybe he had not. Gun violence, The New York Times acknowledged, had risen without nearing grim levels of an era gone by. Construction proceeded apace on that Department of Corrections-looking astral tower with apartments for the very rich off the southeastern edge of Central Park. Many of us readied for summer escapades. The number of beachgoers at Jacob Riis Park rose again. One World Trade Center recently had opened. New books debuted each and every Tuesday. There were apps for practically everything.
Meanwhile, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, something singular was about to blink out of existence. Although, let it be said, something singular always is about to blink out of existence if you put any stock in venerable city lore: it’s what makes New York New York. Yet Brazenhead Books, some of us want to believe, is the kind of destination New Yorker writer of yore Joseph Mitchell would have commemorated, which is to say, one rooted in the past, a pocket of anomalous culture.
The stroke of genius, Michael Seidenberg, host and proprietor of Brazenhead, will tell you in choosing several years ago to run a speakeasy from his one-time residence, rests in how everyone comes to him. All the book people, anyway. And some aren’t even book people. They just love the vibe.
“I guess for me the social aspect is the main draw — Michael is a gem, the sort of old-school all-around literary guy I haven’t encountered since my early days in NYC in the ’90s, when it already felt like that great old era was ending. It feels like my ideal party. Like many — most, I’d guess — I immediately felt at home,” says novelist Porochista Khakpour. She only recently visited for the first time.
Rachel Rosenfelt, creative director for Verso Books and founder and publisher of The New Inquiry, has visited countless times. She offers a quotation from Lewis Hyde’s The Gift to describe Brazenhead’s draw:
For the slow labor of realizing a potential gift the artist must retreat to those Bohemias, halfway between the slums and the library, where life is not counted by the clock and where the talented may be sure they will be ignored until that time, if it ever comes, when their gifts are viable enough to be set free and survive in the world.
It’s a place that can be mistaken for no other, Seidenberg’s bookstore. Even if that’s really the wrong word. Book-temple kind of gets it while sounding a notch too reverent and as if the environs offered way more space than they do. “That small and sacralized space” is how novelist Scott Cheshire refers to the apartment. “My wife calls it the place where time disappears.” Book-hovel conveys the winding and wending of the corridors through which visitors must pass, along with the no-fuss atmosphere, while failing to get across the distinct sense of wonder. Writer and New York City native Tara Isabella Burton notes “the anarchic spirit” of the place, “which is like every ‘let’s make a pillow fort’ sense of childish wonder meets ‘Beauty and the Beast’ library sense of awe.”
Drinks are perpetually at hand. Between each visit, the books somehow rearrange themselves on the shelves. A title called The Dreams (Naguib Mahfouz) faces outward alongside Arabesques (Anton Shammas). A Newsweek featuring Patty Hearst in black-and-white resides alongside a back-cover emblazoned with Mentors, Muses & Monsters. As when reading a series of diversely authored poems, the mental reflex is to draw evocative links between each one. The titles seem to whisper in cahoots.
At Brazenhead, there is no guest list. Maybe an invite or two. The rest of the picture fills in by chance. “It’s a secret club that welcomes all,” says musician Adam Kautz. Every Thursday, every Saturday, apparently since the dawn of time. At least the 19th century? “This place has something of Old Russia about it,” one visitor observed several months ago.
“Unlike most literary parties — which result in a few business cards exchanged, awkward conversations with unimpressive people with impressive bylines, my first night at Brazenhead produced an actual and ongoing relationship to a place and the people in it,” reflects critic Michael Thomsen.
“You really have to fight to maintain any real sense of reliable intellectual fellowship, so to have it provided for you in a super-fucking-cute apartment in Manhattan, whiskey and all, is such a rare gift,” offers fiction writer and recent New York City-arrival Keenan Walsh.
“Brazenhead is a living room in a city where nobody has space for a living room. It’s a community—where the books are both incidental and yet vital,” says Burton.
Who makes up the crowd? Students introduced to the book-haven by their adjunct professors; filmmakers, musicians, actors, and museum workers of most every stripe; psychologists; history buffs; childhood friends of Seidenberg’s; friends of those who have visited before; travelers from Ireland, from Italy, from Spain, from Russia, from Israel, from Lebanon, many of whom read about Brazenhead in a national paper and have arrived from distant lands; magazine editors, book editors, agents, and their assistants who, for the night at least, cease being assistants; book store employees, that endangered breed; and writers, many writers.
The categories of visitor, by the way, are not mutually exclusive.
During an early visit, I found myself in conversation with a smoky-voiced fellow over by the silver-lidded ice bowl. He told me about a 10-hour movie by a French New Wave director, a copy of which he owns. Later that night, young poet, Seidenberg’s right hand, and founder of Brazenhead’s well-attended weekly poetry readings Simona Blat pointed at one of the surrounding bookshelves. The Factory of Facts Luc Sante. The guy had just walked out the door. “That’s him,” she said.
Unassuming is the word, incognito the vibe, at Brazenhead. “A book shop,” writes Anatole Broyard in his treasured memoir, Kafka Was the Rage, “should have an almost ecclesiastical atmosphere. There should be an odor, or redolence of snuffed candles, dryness, desuetude — even contrition.” Minus most of the contrition, that description fits the bill. Tobacco smoke spices the air and friendly quantities of marijuana were legalized at Brazenhead at least a few years before the city of New York saw fit to follow suit. The outside world feels somehow suspended under Michael Seidenberg’s roof. Although, it’s true, legality isn’t exactly his raison d’etre, if, in fact, it’s anyone’s. Bob Dylan, The Stones, Tom Waits, and Leonard Cohen are familiars to the stereo system, which is known to have trouble with certain discs. Left to sort itself out, the stereo seems to invent a new form of techno with skipping fragments of “Visions of Johanna,” “Ruby Tuesday,” or whatever else is playing at the moment. Also frequently heard are the tunes of Sixto Rodriguez, a.k.a. Sugarman. These discs, newer to the collection, flow without a catch. Then there’s radio. “I think it’s best when CBS 101.1 is on,” says Kautz.
Seidenberg has held the apartment on 84th Street for 37 years, mostly as his place of residence. In a past life, puppeteering was his primary pursuit. Williamsburg-born, he opened his first bookstore location, which doubled as a base of puppetry operations, in today’s Cobble Hill. This was back when a storefront there went for a song and a dance, both of which Seidenberg could provide with puppets (and the moving company he used to run). Brooklyn now has achieved the quality of myth in his mind; cross the river east and he might dissolve under a sorceress’s spell. Brooklyn was what he aspired so mightily for so long to get out of — why ever go back? That, anyway, is his line. He means it too.
For several years, Brazenhead Books was a basement-level shop on the Upper East Side’s 84th Street. It never exactly did booming business. Regulars included the likes of pioneer Rolling Stone critic Paul Nelson (back in Duluth, Minn., Bobby Zimmerman pirated records from his collection) along with visits from illustrator Jeff Wong, journalist Nik Cohn, film critic Richard Brody, poet Aram Saroyan, and novelist Donald Antrim. Then the ’90s ended. Maintaining the store as rent costs frothed over became fiscally daunting. It was a shame, really, since Seidenberg lived on the same block, a second floor apartment a few buildings away. Tough to beat that commute. He transported his collection to the apartment and he and his wife, Nickita (“Nikki”), relocated within the neighborhood.
For a few years, limbo. On occasion he appeared in a pop-up stall along Central Park’s cobbled eastern border. Maybe you spoke with him there?
Then, inspiration: a close Seidenberg compatriot and art-restorer named George Bisacca along with former Brazenhead assistant Jonathan Lethem (of the Cobble Hill days) helped bring the latest and most unlikely incarnation into existence. It would be a speakeasy from the second-floor apartment, or most of the apartment. A belly-high shelf doubled as a countertop for the store and tripled as a bar immediately beyond the entry vestibule. Seidenberg would locate himself there and, if the day was slow, read the latest fiction to curry his interest.
“He does not have an incurious bone in his body,” says Cheshire.
In addition to recent publications by the younger set, including Cheshire, Khakpour, David Burr Gerrard, and Elliott Holt, well-represented at Brazenhead are house favorites Jerome Charyn, Thomas Berger, Muriel Spark, and Philip Roth. “You don’t need 18 miles of books with a man like Michael curating,” says Tyler Malone, editor-and-chief of lit mag The Scofield. Bob Dylan peers from multiple posters on the walls. A Roger Sterling-looking Joe DiMaggio declares from a 1980s poster-sized ad above the coatrack, “This city wasn’t built by frightened people.” On the shelves running to the ceiling behind Seidenberg’s counter, a strip from a larger painting dangles via a single tack. It features a series of brightly colored abstract shapes, some shadows, and, right at eye level, a bared breast. Just, you know, a conversation piece. Every window is covered, courtesy of interior design firm Whimsy, Flair & Throwback.
Lethem told a few friends about the place and those friends told a few more friends. Patricia Marx showed up for a Talk of the Town piece, noting among other key features the proprietor’s old Brooklyn accent and signature missing teeth (only one readily visible, an upper right incisor). Seidenberg coordinated with visitors via telephone and, “Whoa!” the cutting edge, a social network. For a few years in the late aughts, The New Inquiry made it a headquarters for festivities, hosting frequent readings. “Brazenhead gave me the space in New York City to grow up,” says Rosenfelt. “So few spaces allow that. I found out what I was doing, why I was doing it, what I cared about, and what, if The New Inquiry was going to be a thing, I’d like to have it be.”
From his position at the front of the store, Seidenberg will speak of the New York he knew growing up and what changes the decades have wrought; of his mother and father; of the family dentist to whom he loyally returned for decades as the elder gentleman would remind Seidenberg of his parents; of his wife, Nikki, her years as circulation manager and “emotional lynchpin” for Rolling Stone magazine; of their three-legged pit-bull, Ava, and American terrier, Rosie; of Roy Lavitt, childhood friend, overseas thespian, and head of Brazenhead’s marketing department (i.e. he has drawn cartoons adverting the shop for each incarnation); favorite movies, particularly those starring Burt Reynolds; of the 1980s, a time when so many in the city momentarily lost their way; of culinary achievement (e.g. “Food is something we got right. There are some good snacks…I don’t want to live in a world without snacks. It’s not a Julie Andrews thing, I just like snacks.”); of any writer you care to mention; of various terms ending in ‘-archy’ (e.g. “You can’t fill your beer can with someone else’s whiskey and call it anarchy!”); of how to elicit quick laughter as a puppeteer (trade secret: have the puppets hit each other); of pockets (e.g. “I feel like humans have too many pockets. Half the time I lose things, they’re in my pockets.”); of his adventures as someone licensed to conduct marriages in New York State (i.e. he recently married two writers in a ceremony held on the Brazenhead premises). And that, honestly, is only the tip of the conversational iceberg.
Rosenfelt provides an apt anecdote:
Once, I gave a talk to employees and executives of a Chinese publishing house for Pratt University. They didn’t speak English, so I had a translator with me. I described the importance of informal space and used Brazenhead as an example. After the talk, they approached me to ask if they could visit, which of course I was happy to facilitate. That visit was a true delight for both me and Michael — the space was so special, so essentially New York — they all seemed to light up and told me through their translator that it reminded them why they cared about books. One of them bought Walt Whitman and asked Michael to sign it, as though he was the author. We laughed about it, but I thought that it made cosmic sense. Michael is large, he contains multitudes.
Henry Miller and John Cooper Powys, fixtures of 1920s Greenwich Village, look out in black and white portrait from above a glass-fronted bookcase. Wander from room to room and you will find sections for Art, the Russians, the Japanese, the French, the Spanish, the otherwise translated, the rock ‘n’ rollers, the noir, the erotica, the memoir, The New Yorker writers, the paperback fiction, the poets, the ’60s, the movie-related, the collected letters, the sci-fi, the thrillers, and, all the way in back, replete with cushioned bench for intimate conversation, the first-edition room.
“The best things you stumble across aren’t for sale,” observes editor and critic Brian Gresko, “but are part of Michael’s personal history, or the cultural history of New York City, or, as is often the case, both.”
It was never going to last forever. That, for better and worse, has always been the imminent truth of Brazenhead Books. Scan any of the retro cover designs, titles long out of print, lurid paperback editions, and those that maybe never should have been published to begin with: marooned and made singular by the passage of time, the attrition of their mass-produced peers — curiosities now, corners curled, paper yellowed. Remarkable objects. In effect, the book trove is like a search engine you can stand inside of. Not such an efficient one, sure, but way more pleasurable probably for that very reason.
Word of eviction came down in the fall. Apparently, it is not legal to operate a commercial establishment from a residential apartment.
Following a bout of legal intrigue, final word arrived, an end date, the last hurrah: July 4th, 2015.
As a contributor to The New Inquiry, Seidenberg regularly filed a column called “Unsolicited Advice for Living in the End Times.”
“I’ve accepted the end times,” he says. “Not, like, in a Biblical way. I just did the math.” He may start writing the column again soon under his own banner.
Perhaps it was the tuberculosis speaking, but Franz Kafka also was a writer who had accepted the end times, or at least made a literary ritual of performing with crushing comedic involution the fate in store for the hopeful and bright eyed, his irony as wide across as a blue whale’s jawbone. In the story, “Wedding Preparations in the Country,” Kafka writes from the perspective of a traveler named Eduard Raban, a young man on leave from his office job: “Just recently I read in a prospectus a quotation from some writer or other. ‘A good book is the best friend there is,’ and that’s really true, it is so, a good book is the best friend there is.”
And that sentiment, Kafka’s Kafkaesque-ness notwithstanding, is where Seidenberg and Brazenhead Books figure on the involving literary tapestry of New York City history. (And the place of books in late capitalism — the latter phrase included here in honor of The New Inquiry.) He fostered a place for writers and friends and friends who are writers, and maintained it in its current form, commercial vicissitudes be damned, for almost a decade.
So if you happen to glimpse a few more writers than usual looking disconsolate at the new rooftop bar of your local supermarket or feeding pigeons along the cobbled borders of Central Park, you will know why.
“Excluded middles,” muses will-executor Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 are “bad shit, to be avoided.” Brazenhead Books worked such avoidance pretty deftly. No middle ever was excluded from its quarters. At Brazenhead, the middle has thrived.
“We need Brazenhead or something very much like it badly,” says Khakpour. “It’s not optional at this point. Literary culture has become far too corporate — Michael and Brazenhead are reminders of how and why to love books and authors.”
In the months and years ahead, Seidenberg, Nikita, their dogs, plus the lion’s share of his books, will spend more time in a recently acquired farmhouse upstate along the water. Tick-checks promise to become a regular thing. Evenings are likely to consist of watching the river, inventorying the stir of colors along the surface.
Says Seidenberg of sitting there (so contentedly) and watching the river flow, “I used to think it was only a metaphor.”
When I worked at a bookstore, I became adept at summarizing books for readers in as few words as possible. The Great Gatsby? Rich guy tries to win girl’s heart. The Crying of Lot 49? Girl checks the mail, discovers a worldwide conspiracy. It’s likely that I would have met my match, however, had I been working as a bookseller when Mat Johnson’s Pym came out in 2011. It’s several books rolled into one, really: a literary detective story about Edgar Allan Poe’s sole novel; an action-adventure movie featuring ice-dwelling albino creatures in Antarctica; a racial satire about the vain pursuit of pure whiteness; and likely a few other obscure subgenres as well.
Loving Day, Johnson’s new novel, lacks the fantastical backdrop of Pym. The whole novel takes place in Germantown, an African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia. There are no CGI monsters to speak of. (There may or may not be a ghost, however.) But it is arguably a more daring novel, and what makes it so daring is the fact that it’s so personal. Johnson has crammed as much of himself into this book as can fit. This is very affecting, as Johnson’s is a self that has immense difficulty fitting in anywhere.
Like many a Victorian Gothic, Loving Day begins with a man returning to his ancestral estate, finding it empty and in disrepair. But Warren Duffy is no member of the landed gentry. The son of a black woman and a white man (Irish, specifically, that pasty shade of white), Warren was raised in Germantown by his mother while looking passably Caucasian. After she died, and after his father took a hands-off approach to parenting for the remainder of his adolescence, Warren went to art school in Wales, “where dear Lord I have never felt blacker.” He married a Welsh woman who expected him to become a successful comic book artist and/or a successful father. He failed on both counts. Divorced, broke, Warren returns to Loudin Mansion, the seven-acre estate in the midst of Germantown that was already falling apart when his father bought it in the ’70s. Following his father’s death, Warren inherited it. He has dreams of his own regarding the house, ambitious though not especially noble: he wants to burn it down, claim the insurance money, then run off without even looking in the rearview mirror.
Warren’s plans are soon derailed, however. When he was a teenager, he had a brief romance with a Jewish girl who lived in one of Philly’s tonier neighborhoods. Unbeknownst to him, the affair produced a child, a girl named Tal. Once Warren is back in town, Tal’s grandfather tracks him down, explaining that her mother died a few years back, and what she needs now is guidance from the father she never knew. The arson scheme goes on the back burner, so to speak, while Warren tries to find a school where Tal can finish up her senior year and thus evade delinquency.
Middle-aged male, persevering through failure with the aid of alcohol and a sense of humor: it’s a setup that wouldn’t be out of place in, say, a Richard Ford novel. But where the loneliness of Ford’s men is existential in nature, Warren’s is also social, even genetic. He’s a black man who looks white, out of place wherever he goes.
I am a racial optical illusion. I am as visually duplicitous as the illustration of the young beauty that’s also the illustration of the old hag. Whoever sees the beauty will always see the beauty, even if the image of the hag can be pointed out to exist in the same etching. Whoever sees the hag will be equally resolute. The people who see me as white always will, and will think it’s madness that anyone else could come to any other conclusion, holding to this falsehood regardless of learning my true identity. The people who see me as black cannot imagine how a sane, intelligent person could be so blind not to understand this, despite my pale-skinned presence. The only influence I have over this perception, if any, is in the initial encounter. Here is my chance to be categorized as black, with an asterisk. The asterisk is my whole body.
It’s not saying too much, I don’t think, to detect aspects of the author within his character. Johnson is also the son of a white father and a black mother, his racial identity seemingly contingent upon the whims of whatever community he finds himself in. He’s written about it before, in Pym as well as Incognegro, a graphic novel that follows a black journalist “passing” for white in the Jim Crow south to report on lynching. But Loving Day is by far his most personal take on the matter, a statement of intent as much as a work of fiction.
That is not to say that it’s some humorless screed. Anyone who follows Johnson on Twitter knows that he is incapable of being unfunny. Loving Day is a thoroughly comic novel, though the humor isn’t sugar meant to help the medicine of racial insight go down more easily. No, the humor is the medicine. There’s the seemingly white kid with dreadlocks who calls himself One Drop, appropriating the name of the miscegenation law that was on the books for much of U.S. history. There’s the mixed-race school that Tals ends up attending, the students of which are “the human equivalent of mismatched socks.” There’s even the simple matter of terminology, as when one of Tal’s teachers declares Warren to be a “sunflower.” What’s a sunflower? “Yellow on the outside, brown on the inside. A slang term for a biracial person who denies their mixed nature, only recognizing their black identity.” If that doesn’t make you squirm, there are dozens more jokes like that, and one of them is bound to make you uncomfortable.
Is that what Johnson is up to, making us laugh at our discomfort at discussing race in any terms other than platitudes? As far as projects go, it’s not without merit, but there’s something deeper going on here. Indeed, part of Johnson’s aim is to reclaim the term from its pejorative associations. There’s value in this, certainly, but it’s worth pointing out how framing the “mulatto experience” as comic runs deeply against the grain of American literature.
For better or worse, the work of William Faulkner remains one a touchstone when it comes to literary depictions of race. Toni Morrison counts him as an early influence; she even wrote her master’s thesis on his work. Mixed-race characters appeared often in his fiction, nearly always with a sense of doom about them. Think of Joe Christmas in Light in August, who looks white but has the “one drop” of black in him. After having an affair with a white woman, he’s accused of rape, hunted down, and killed. This trope occurs often enough that there’s even a name for it: the Tragic Mulatto. Outcast in both directions, fated to never belong.
Loving Day is an entry in a small but vital subgenre: the Comic Mulatto Novel. (Fran Ross’s Oreo, soon to be reissued by New Directions, is another.) It looks to upend not just a vocabulary word, but an entire concept, one that’s been around since the Constitution was drafted. Rather than having a mixed-race character act as a metaphor, shouldering the burden of meaning, Loving Day places him in front and center, telling his own story and making his own meanings. That it does so with such nimbleness, tossing off one-liners with every turn of the page, is a testament to Johnson’s strengths.
And to the strengths of the form. Is there a better opportunity for the biting power of humor than the mixed-race experience? Partaking of two different cultures with different histories, halves that each take themselves to be a whole, seems like a secret weapon when it comes to making readers of various backgrounds laugh with first discomfort, then recognition, and finally understanding. Here’s hoping that more books will come along to explore this particular facet of the human comedy.
A letter appears before the text of The Comedians, the 1966 novel by Graham Greene. The author penned the letter to Alexander Stuart Frere, his longtime publisher who had recently retired. Greene debunks the common assumption that he is the first person narrator of his novels: “in my time I have been considered the murderer of a friend, the jealous lover of a civil servant’s wife, and an obsessive player at roulette. I don’t wish to add to my chameleon nature the characteristics belonging to the cuckolder of a South American diplomat, a possibly illegitimate birth and an education by the Jesuits. Ah, it may be said Brown is a Catholic and so, we know, is Greene…[all characters] are boiled up in the kitchen of the unconscious and emerge unrecognizable even to the cook in most cases.”
Frere, of course, would not need this explanation, so why address the letter to him? Does it instead exist for the edification, or perhaps entertainment, of the reader? Greene’s letter appears without label. Is it an introduction, a preface, a foreword, or something else?
The distinctions between prefaces, introductions, and forewords are tenuous. In the essay “Introductions: A Preface,” Michael Gorra offers a useful introduction to, well, introductions. “An introduction,” he writes, “tells you everything you need to sustain an initial conversation. It might include a bit of biography or a touch of critical history, and it should certainly establish the book in its own time and location, and perhaps place it in ours as well.” Introductions often postdate the original publication of a work. Introductions turn back to move forward a book’s appreciation. Although introductions are often written by someone other than the author, they need not be objective. Gorra thinks the best introductions are “acts of persuasion — ‘See this book my way’ — coherent arguments as learned as a scholarly article but as lightly footnoted as a review.” Although they share a “review’s assertive zest…unlike a review they assume the importance of the work in question.”
Gorra remembers reading introductory essays in used, 1950s-era Modern Library editions as an undergraduate. His understanding of literary criticism was molded by this prefatory form: Robert Penn Warren on Joseph Conrad, Irving Howe on The Bostonians, Angus Wilson on Great Expectations, Randal Jarrell on Rudyard Kipling, Malcolm Cowley on William Faulkner, and Lionel Trilling on Jane Austen. Gorra notes “many of Trilling’s finest essays — pieces on Keats and Dickens and Orwell, on Anna Karenina and The Princess Casamassima — got their start as introductions.”
Gorra moves beyond definition to explain the critic’s role within introductions. They need to know “how much or how little information a reader needs to make that book available; he must achieve a critical equipoise, at once accessible but not simplistic.” That care “puts a curb on eccentricity; however strongly voiced, an introduction shouldn’t be too idiosyncratic.” Introductions exist not for the critic, but for the reader. They should be “shrewd rather than clever.” Better to “address the work as a whole” than “approach it with a magic bullet or key or keyhole that claims to explain everything.” The introduction does not unlock the book for its readers; it takes a hand, leads them to the doorstep, and then leaves.
One of the few introductions written by the book’s own author is the unconventional opening to Lonesome Traveler, Jack Kerouac’s essay travelogue. Kerouac formats the essay as a questionnaire.
His response to “Please give a brief resume of your life” traces his childhood as the son of a printer in Lowell, Mass., to his “Final plans: hermitage in the woods, quiet writing of old age, mellow hopes of Paradise.” He shifts from family detail to statements of purpose and misreadings of critics: “Always considered writing my duty on earth. Also the preachment of universal kindness, which hysterical critics have failed to notice beneath frenetic activity of my true-story novels about the ‘beat’ generation. — Am actually not ‘beat’ but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic.”
Kerouac ends his introduction by replying to the query “Please give a short description of the book, its scope and purpose as you see them” with a nice litany of subjects: “Railroad work, sea work, mysticism, mountain work, lasciviousness, solipsism, self-indulgence, bullfights, drugs, churches, art museums, streets of cities, a mishmash of life as lived by an independent educated penniless rake going anywhere.”
We know Kerouac’s essay is an introduction because he tells us so. It is not a foreword, which, according to The Chicago Manual of Style, is also typically written by someone other than the author. Some dictionary definitions identify a foreword as an introduction. They both introduce, in the sense that they both preface the work. But neither are prefaces — in the traditional sense.
Marjorie E. Skillin and Robert M. Gay’s Words into Type doesn’t differentiate between prefaces and forewords, noting that both consider the “genesis, purpose, limitations, and scope of the book and may include acknowledgments of indebtedness.” Forewords often feel promotional. Skillin and Gay also note that, in terms of numerical pagination, introductions are typically part of the text, while forewords and prefaces have Roman numerals.
My favorite foreword is Walker Percy’s comments on A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. Percy was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans in 1976 when “a lady unknown to me” started phoning him: “What she proposed was preposterous…her son, who was dead, had written an entire novel during the early sixties, a big novel, and she wanted me to read it.” Percy was understandably skeptical, but finally gave in, hoping “that I could read a few pages and that they would be bad enough for me, in good conscience, to read no farther.” Instead, he fell in love with the book, especially Ignatius Reilly, “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one.” Percy essay arrives as a pitch; no one would mistake it for a contemplative preface.
That last comment admittedly comes from the hip, owing to seduction by sound. Introduction sounds clinical. Foreword sounds, well, you know. Preface massages the ear with that gentle f. Unlike introductions and forewords, prefaces are often written by the authors themselves, and are invaluable autobiographical documents. A preface is an ars poetica for a book, for a literary life. A preface often feels like the writer sitting across the table from the reader, and saying, listen, now I am going to tell you the truth.
In the preface to his second volume of Collected Stories, T.C. Boyle soon becomes contemplative: “To me, a story is an exercise of the imagination — or, as Flannery O’Connor has it, an act of discovery. I don’t know what a story will be until it begins to unfold, the whole coming to me in the act of composition as a kind of waking dream.” For Boyle, imagination and discovery means that he wants “to hear a single resonant bar of truth or mystery or what-if-ness, so I can hum it back and play a riff on it.” He includes memories of middle school, when “Darwin and earth science came tumbling into my consciousness…and I told my mother that I could no longer believe in the Roman Catholic doctrine that had propelled us to church on Sundays for as long as I could remember.” Boyle thinks “I’ve been looking for something to replace [faith] ever since. What have I found? Art and nature, the twin deities that sustained Wordsworth and Whitman and all the others whose experience became too complicated for received faith to contain it.”
By “received faith,” Boyle means a faith prescribed rather than practiced. He later found “the redeeming grace” of O’Connor; his “defining moment” was first reading “A Good Man Is Hard to Find:” “here was the sort of story that subverted expectations, that begin in one mode — situation comedy, familiar from TV — and ended wickedly and deliciously in another.” Boyle’s preface rolls and rolls — think of an acceptance speech that goes on a bit long, but we love the speaker so we shift in our seats and wait out of appreciation.
There are some gems. John Cheever, who taught Boyle at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, “was positively acidic on the subject of my academic pursuits,” but was otherwise “unfailingly kind and generous.” Cheever disliked Boyle’s self-identification as “experimental,” instead insisting “all good fiction was experimental…adducing his own ‘The Death of Justina’ as an example.”
He documents his early magazine submission attempts. He was quite successful, placing early stories in the likes of Esquire and Harper’s, but also had “plenty of rejection.” He covered his bedroom walls with the letters. He ends the preface with a return to first principles: “Money or no, a writer writes. The making of art — the making of stories — is a kind of addiction…You begin with nothing, open yourself up, sweat and worry and bleed, and finally you have something. And once you do, you want to have it all over again.” This act of writing fiction is the “privilege of reviewing the world as it comes to me and transforming it into another form altogether.”
Boyle has already elucidated some of these ideas in an essay, “This Monkey, My Back,” but for other fiction writers, prefaces are rare forays into autobiography. For jester-Catholic Thomas Pynchon, Slow Learner, his sole collection of stories, was his preferred confessional. The essay is labeled an introduction, but I think function trumps form. Pynchon’s essay is self-deprecating, contextual, and comprehensive. It is the closest he has ever come to being a teacher of writing.
The last story in the collection, “The Secret Integration,” was written in 1964. Pynchon admits “what a blow to the ego it can be to have to read over anything you wrote 20 years ago, even cancelled checks.” He hopes the stories are cautionary warnings “about some practices which younger writers might prefer to avoid.” Rather than presenting an abstract, sweeping declaration of his amateur past, Pynchon skewers each story in the collection. “The Small Rain,” his first published work, was written while “I was operating on the motto ‘Make it literary,’ a piece of bad advice I made up all by myself and then took.” One sin was his bad dialogue, including a “Louisiana girl talking in Tidewater diphthongs,” indicative of his desire “to show off my ear before I had one.” “Low-lands,” the second piece, “is more of a character sketch than a story,” the narrator of which was “a smart assed-jerk who didn’t know any better, and I apologize for it.” Next up is the infamous “Entropy,” fodder for his second novel, The Crying of Lot 49. Pynchon dismisses the tale as an attempt to force characters and events to conform to a theme. It was overwritten, “too conceptual, too cute and remote.” He looted a 19th-century guidebook to Egypt for “Under the Rose,” resulting in another “ass backwards” attempt to start with abstraction rather than plot and characters. The same “strategy of transfer” doomed “The Secret Integration,” as he culled details from a Federal Writers Project guidebook to the Berkshires.
Pynchon served in the Navy between 1955 and 1957, and notes that one positive of “peacetime service” is its “excellent introduction to the structure of society at large…One makes the amazing discovery that grown adults walking around with college educations, wearing khaki and brass and charged with heavy-duty responsibilities, can in fact be idiots.” His other influences were more literary: Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro.” On the Road by Kerouac. Helen Waddell’s The Wandering Scholars. Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings. To the Finland Station by Edmund Wilson. Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. Hamlet. Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene. Early issues of the Evergreen Review. And jazz, jazz, jazz: “I spent a lot of time in jazz clubs, nursing the two-beer minimum. I put on hornrimmed sunglasses at night. I went to parties in lofts where girls wore strange attire.” The time was post-Beat; “the parade had gone by.”
The essay ends on a note of nostalgia “for the writer who seemed then to be emerging, with his bad habits, dumb theories and occasional moments of productive silence in which he may have begun to get a glimpse of how it was done.” A reader taken with Boyle will forgive his trademark bravado; a reader taken with Pynchon will forgive his self-parodic deprecation. Those who dislike the fiction of either writer won’t stay around for the end of his preface — or crack open the book in the first place.
More often than not, introductory materials are welcomed because we appreciate the fiction that follows. Such expectation can cause problems. The most notable examples are the forewords of Toni Morrison’s Vintage editions, which began with the 1999 version of The Bluest Eye. In “Lobbying the Reader,” Tessa Roynon casts a skeptical eye toward these prefatory remarks. She begins her critique with Morrison’s foreword for Beloved. “Without any apparent self-conscious irony,” Roynon notes, Morrison says she wants her reader “to be kidnapped, thrown ruthlessly into an alien environment as the first step into a shared experience with the book’s population — just as the characters were snatched from one place to another, from any place to any other, without preparation or defense.” This before the reader encounters the first sentence of the actual novel, “124 was spiteful,” which becomes neutered by Morrison’s prefatory, critical self-examination.
Roynon’s love for Morrison’s fiction is contrasted with her disappointment in the forewords. She considers the essays formulaic and rushed, containing “apparently indisputable interpretations of the text…among profoundly suggestive ambiguities,” as if Morrison is hoarding her own meanings. Roynon worries that Morrison’s goal is the “desire to ensure that readers appreciate the scope of her artistry and her vision to the full.” Shouldn’t that be the experience of her readers? Morrison almost gives them no choice. The essays “demand to be read before the novels they introduce, not least because they are positioned between the dedications/epigraphs and the work’s opening paragraphs.”
Morrison’s prefatory summary for Beloved is so sharp, so commanding that Roynon thinks it threatens to undermine the novel itself: “The heroine would represent the unapologetic acceptance of shame and terror; assume the consequences of choosing infanticide; claim her own freedom.” Morrison has articulated elsewhere her reasons for contributing to the discussion about her books, but the gravity of these forewords makes readers passive recipients. What if the reader experiences the novel slightly differently? Does Morrison’s foreword negate those other readings? As Roynon notes, Morrison’s earlier critical essays would elicit, rather than close, “controversy and discussion.” By focusing on the autobiographical and the contextual, rather than being self-analytical, Morrison’s best forewords treats her readers as participants in the artistic experience, rather than people who are waiting for lectures.
Roynon’s solution is both simple and eloquent:
Were I Morrison’s editor I would urge her to cut the most explicit of her interpretations, to bury the explanations at which we [readers] used to work so hard to arrive. And I would entreat her to move all of her accompanying observations from the beginning of her books to their ends. Turning all the forewords into afterwords would greatly reduce their problematic aspects. In metaphorical terms of which Morrison herself is so fond: we don’t need lobbies or front porches on the homes that she has so painstakingly built. But back gardens? They could work.
No matter whether it is called an introduction, foreword, or preface, the best front piece written by the book’s own author encourages a reader to turn the page and start, but respects her need to experience the work on her own. William Gass’s long preface to In the Heart of the Heart of the Country is an exemplary selection. Originally written in 1976 and revised in 1981, Gass’s preface works as a standalone essay, an inspiring speech for fellow writers, and a document of one artist’s continuing struggle.
Gass reminds us that most stories never get told: “Even when the voice is there, and the tongue is limber as if with liquor or with love, where is that sensitive, admiring, other pair of ears?” His “litters of language” have been called “tales without plot or people.” Received well or not, they are his stories, the words of a boy who moved from North Dakota to Ohio, the son of a bigoted father without “a faith to embrace or an ideology to spurn.” “I won’t be like that,” Gass thought, but “naturally I grew in special hidden ways to be more like that than anyone could possibly imagine, or myself admit.”
Gass turned inward, moved in the direction of words. Lines like “I was forced to form myself from sounds and syllables” sound a bit sentimental if one is somewhat familiar with Gass, but he has always been, in the words of John Gardner, “a sneaky moralist.” Gass began writing stories because “in some dim way I wanted, myself, to have a soul, a special speech, a style…to make a sheet of steel from a flimsy page — something that would not soon weary itself out of shape as everything else I had known.” His earliest stories failed because they were written in the shadow and sound of the canon, leading Gass to wonder “from whose grip was it easier to escape — the graceless hack’s or the artful great’s?”
He broke free “by telling a story to entertain a toothache,” a story with “lots of incident, some excitement, much menace.” That story, the subject of constant revision and reworking for years, would become The Pedersen Kid, his seminal novella. Gass shares his personal “instructions” for the story: “The physical representation must be flowing and a bit repetitious; the dialogue realistic but musical. A ritual effect is needed.” Here one might think Gass is making the same sin of explanation as Morrison, but these are plans, not an exegesis of his work. These thematic plans soon eroded, and “during the actual writing, the management of microsyllables, the alteration of short and long sentences, the emotional integrity of the paragraph, the elevation of the most ordinary diction into some semblance of poetry, became my fanatical concern.” Only years and many rejections later did Gardner publish the story in MSS.
A great preface is a guide for other writers. While the biographical and contextual minutia might be of most interest to aficionados and scholars, working writers who find a great preface are in for a treat. At their best, these introductory essays are the exhales of years of work: years of failure, doubt, and sometimes despair. Gass’s preface for In the Heart of the Heart of the Country contains a handful of gems worthy of being pinned to a cork board above one’s desk:
The material that makes up a story must be placed under terrible compression, but it cannot simply release its meaning like a joke does. It must be epiphanous, yet remain an enigma. Its shortness must have a formal function: the deepening of the understanding, the darkening of the design.
All stories ought to end unsatisfactorily.
Though time may appear to pass within a story, the story itself must seem to have leaked like a blot from a single shake of the pen.
To a reader unhappy with his fiction: “I know which of us will be the greater fool, for your few cents spent on this book are a little loss from a small mistake; think of me and smile: I misspent a life.”
Gass ends with a description of his dream reader. She is “skilled and generous…forgiving of every error.” She is “a lover of lists, a twiddler of lines;” someone “given occasionally to mouthing a word aloud or wanting to read to a companion in a piercing library whisper.” Her “heartbeat alters with the tenses of the verbs.” She “will be a kind of slowpoke on the page, a sipper of sentences, full of reflective pauses.” She will “shadow the page like a palm.” In fact, the reader will “sink into the paper…become the print,” and “blossom on the other side with pleasure and sensation…from the touch of mind, and the love that lasts in language. Yes. Let’s imagine such a being, then. And begin. And then begin.”
A preface might begin as a cathartic act for the writer, but it should end as a love letter to readers. Books are built from sweat and blood, but without the forgiving eyes and hands of readers, books will gather dust on shelves: never touched, never opened, never begun.
Reif Larsen’s first novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet was a frustrating narrative wrapped in a beautiful work of art. Parts of it, story-wise, worked wonderfully, but many sections dragged ponderously along, and then the confounding and ill-fitting finale was rushed, as if impatient to be over. But the imagination of the novel –– the lovely images annotating the text, T.S. himself –– is undeniable, as is the talent of its author. But one can always forgive a debut novel its ambition, so it was with much interest that I embarked upon Larsen’s second effort, I Am Radar, a measurably better novel than T.S. Spivet, both for its leanness and its grandness. It’s an epic page-turner filled with small, tender moments of wonder, beginning with its almost archetypally postmodern opening:
It was just after midnight in birthing room 4C and Dr. Sherman, the mustached obstetrician presiding over the delivery, was sweating slightly into his cotton underwear, holding out his hands like a beggar, ready to receive the imminent cranium.
Without warning, the room plunged into total darkness.
The “imminent cranium” belongs to Radar Radmanovic, the center, if not exactly the protagonist, of this tale, and when the lights come back on in the delivery room, Radar comes out a pitch black baby — was it the electrical event somehow? — with white parents. It’s 1975 in New Jersey and rumors spread, leading Radar’s mother, Charlene, to find every doctor she can to figure what happened to her son. Soon, the family lands in Norway so that Radar can undergo an experimental procedure involving a machine called a vircator, which can emit a large electromagnetic pulse and somehow rid Radar of his skin abnormality. It works, Radar’s skin lightens until it becomes “a slightly yellowish, flushed cream color,” but it also causes Radar to suffer epileptic seizures. The procedure is overseen by a group of artists/activists/puppeteers called Kirkenesferda, who are, as a group, the real protagonist of I Am Radar. After the first section, we’re launched into various histories surrounding Kirkenesferda. First we learn of the group’s master puppeteer, Miroslav Danilovic and his father, Danilo, both caught in the precursors to the Bosnian War. Miro’s creations seem impossible, puppets with no puppeteer. We get the history of a man named Raksmey Raksmey who, as a baby, was found floating on Cambodia’s Mekong River in a basket. There is also a man in the Congo who is attempting to collect every book in the world. And finally there is Kermin, Radar’s father, who may have inadvertently caused a giant rolling blackout in New Jersey.
If this all sounds eerily Pynchonian to you, that’s because it is. Deliberately. Charlene, Radar’s mother, is described reading The Crying of Lot 49, feeling “overcome with what we are able to accomplish with the simple constellation of words.” The phrase “gravity’s rainbow” appears. One sequence features the mysterious Tunguska Event from 1908, when, in the words of one character:
There was a huge explosion in Siberia. It blew out two thousand square meters of forest, something like this. Eighty million trees destroyed. Center of explosion was seventy kilometers from Vanavara, but people there, they still feel heat blast all across their skin. The shockwave broke windows, collapsed woodsheds. It blew men right off their horse. It was powerful, so powerful. Stronger than an atom bomb.
This perfectly Pynchonian (and perfectly true) historical event was also explored in Thomas Pynchon’s unjustly dismissed masterwork Against the Day, the novel to which I Am Radar is most closely aligned, in my eyes. But Larsen is doing more than simply riffing on one of his favorite author’s themes –– rather, he is riffing on many of his favorite authors’ themes. One can, while reading, pick up references to Herman Melville, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, and Nikolai Gogol (Akaky Akakievich, the protagonist from one of my very favorite short stories, “The Overcoat,” show ups) and you can sense –– in the structure, in the prose, in the language –– the influence of Salman Rushdie, Jorge Luis Borges, David Foster Wallace, Mark Z.Danielewski, and, of course, Pynchon. This is a novel steeped in its own influences.
Additionally, within this 653-page tome are fictional books, like, for instance, a book on the history of Kirkenesferda, which the narrator references throughout (replete with excerpts, images, and footnotes), and a novella on part of the life of Raksmey Raksmey. There is also Radar’s book, which, within the novel’s world, he hasn’t written yet. Is I Am Radar the book Radar will write? Well, yes and no. See, on page 621, there is an image taken, a note tells us, from “Radmanovic, R. (2013) I Am Radar, p. 621,” which would suggest that, indeed, the book we’re holding in our hands is this same book. Yet, just a little later, on page 641, another image credit refers to page 705. Radar, we are to assume, wrote his own version that extends beyond the story here and that we won’t get to read.
So real books and fake books –– but what’s the point? Why engage in such esoteric literary pastiche? The short answer is that, like Radar and the other sons here, Larsen wants to declare himself.
The primary emotional thread of I Am Radar is fathers and sons, of familial legacy and individual identity. Kermin and Radar. Miro and Danilo. Raksmey and his adopted father Jean-Baptiste de Broglie. Each son struggles with becoming their own person while still acknowledging (sometimes begrudgingly) their forebears. They are like their fathers, but they are different. Like father, like son…sort of.
Larsen makes a clear connection between these literal fathers and sons and literary fathers and sons. Near the end of the book, as Radar and companions head up the Congo toward a massive secret library created by the man hoping to collect all the world’s books, an almost Biblical passage appears. It lasts nearly two pages, and comes in the form of a speech by Professor Funes, the ambitious collector who also happens to have “perfect and complete memory.” Because he can remember everything in great detail, he’s able to list all of the authors he read throughout his life. Here is a short excerpt:
I read Defoe and Asturias and Sterne and Stendhal and Verga and Carducci and Blasco Ibáñez and Hugo and Verne and Balzac and Stendhal and Flaubert and Baudelaire and Sand and Verlaine and Paz and Maupassant and Ibsen and Wordsworth and Austen and Coleridge and Shelley and Keats and Blake and Scott and Carpentier and García Márquez and Puig and Cortázar and García Lorca.
And so on, until it more or less moves it way up to “DeLillo and Mailer and Salinger.” This is like a personal version of Genesis or Chronicles with all those endless begats. Larsen, as the finale shows, acknowledges the great authors who came before him, how their influence on him is undeniable, unavoidable, deep –– but that he is still his own writer, one with formidable gifts and looming ambition.
If not everything quite works in I Am Radar –– like, e.g., characters’ names sometimes change and are hard to keep track of, which lessens the emotional impact of some of their arcs; and sometimes it’s difficult to tell if we’re reading an omniscient narrator or borrowed information from one of the fictional books or some hybrid of the two –– it’s partly due to Larsen’s maximalist approach. How can any writer sustain perfection in such a large undertaking? It’s nearly impossible to do. Anna Karenina has parts that lag, that underwhelm (most notably Levin’s long diatribes on his serfs), as does Ulysses and The Brothers Karamozov and Infinite Jest. Novels like I Am Radar, which would technically fall under the “historiographic metafiction,” are especially prone to unwieldy excess and inscrutability. Pynchon’s books fall into that same category, and his novels are unquestionably flawed. And here is Larsen, continuing the legacy, in the same vein but in his own way. Like father, like son. Sort of.
In a 1978 debate with William Gass at the University of Cincinnati, John Gardner said the fiction of Anthony Trollope is rarely taught “because it’s all clear.” In contrast, “every line of Thomas Pynchon you can explain because nothing is clear.” The result: “the academy ends up accidentally selecting books the student may need help with. They may be a couple of the greatest books in all history and 20 of the worst, but there’s something to say about them.” Gardner warned that “The sophisticated reader may not remember how to read: he may not understand why it’s nice that Jack in the Beanstalk steals those things from the giant.”
Neither Gardner nor any other single critic is the final word on what belongs in a classroom, but I admit some deference to his voice. His books The Art of Fiction and On Becoming a Novelist were influential to me as a young writer, and his playful debate with Gass has been invaluable in showing my students the tension within American fiction during the late ’70s. Yet Gardner’s polemical On Moral Fiction soured me a bit. He opted for a bullhorn where a flute might have been more appropriate. Gardner’s critical shouting was a show, a way to carve out a niche for his own literary identity. In a later interview with The New Orleans Review, Gardner is more measured: he calls Pynchon “a brilliant man, but his theory of what fiction ought to do is diametrically opposed to mine, and while I think he’s wonderful and ought to be read — besides which it’s a pleasure — I don’t want anybody confusing him with the great artists of our time. He’s a great stunt-man.”
I end my senior AP Literature course with the stunt man. The first text I give my students is Gass and Gardner’s debate; we finish with The Crying of Lot 49 by Pynchon. Between Gardner and Pynchon, the students read a significant amount of poetry, as well as novels by Graham Greene, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, William Faulkner, and plays by Eugène Ionesco and Jean-Paul Sartre. I end with Pynchon because his fiction is difficult, dated, and frustrating: exactly what my students need to read before they go to college.
Difficult, dated, and frustrating requires some explanation.
Pynchon is difficult because of his syntax. Consider the first sentence of The Crying of Lot 49: “One summer afternoon, Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.” Pynchon’s sentences are labyrinthine and recursive: full of noise. As his sentences become paragraphs, and his paragraphs span pages, the novel becomes a whirlwind of paranoia; a test of a reader’s endurance and patience.
Pynchon is dated. The novel’s first chapter contains references to The Shadow and Lamont Cranston, parodies of television legal dramas and ’60s local radio station DJs, and Timothy Leary’s consciousness-bending theories. The next chapter introduces Miles, a manager of a local motel, who is “maybe 16 with a Beatle haircut and a lapelless, cuffless, one-button mohair suit,” whose band is called “The Paranoids.”
Pynchon is frustrating. Although my students read difficult books, ranging from Morrison’s layered representation of trauma in Beloved to DeLillo’s absurd mash-up of linguistics and football in End Zone, each previous novel builds toward a resolution. Pynchon tricks, trips, and nearly pummels the reader with herrings of every color. Oedipa’s search is continually diverted with distractions, and that’s before she learns of The Tristero or Trystero, the multinational, historical conspiracy that has culminated in an underground postal system, W.A.S.T.E.
Pynchon has written six novels since The Crying of Lot 49, so why teach this early book that Pynchon himself said was a work “in which I seem to have forgotten most of what I thought I’d learned up till then?” Because I know that students, pushed by a teacher who believes in them, will rise to the difficulty of the material presented.
We read Pynchon for the same reasons that others might not.
Pynchon’s difficult syntax forces students to juggle two methods of reading: reading for language, and reading for content. That previously quoted first sentence has a lot of noise, but it is not cacophonic. Pynchon’s convoluted syntax mirrors Oedipa’s increasingly chaotic world. His sentences force students to rethink their assumptions about the purposes of not only traditional prose, but also experimental language. I do not intend Pynchon’s work to convert them to more postmodern interests in literature; rather, Pynchon’s fiction is like a literary workout that forces them to build from the ground up as readers. When students read easier works of literature, they might become deluded into thinking that all language is employed in the service of clear communication. Pynchon’s paradoxes make them return to other, non-literary texts with a bit more skepticism and independent thinking.
Although Pynchon’s references and comedic timing within The Crying of Lot 49 might feel dated, the novel helps students understand mid-’60s American fiction, particularly work from the West Coast. One might update the curiously self-deprecating band The Paranoids for our present as Big Data, a Brooklyn-based act founded by Harvard graduate Alan Wilkis. In a recent interview with NPR, he spoke about his “paranoid electronic pop project,” and how “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Internet.” Big Data’s great debut album, 2.0, leads with “The Business of Emotion,” a send-up of the “Facebook mood experiments:” “Feel good, make you feel good / I’m looking for emotion so I know just what to show you.” Students realize that, more and more, they are becoming Oedipa, buried in data: “They knew her pressure points, and the ganglia of her optimism, and one by one, pinch by precision pinch, they were immobilizing her.”
Finally, student frustration with Pynchon evolves into curiosity. Rather than becoming angry at Pynchon’s lack of linear progression and profluence, students are often intrigued by his parlor tricks. For years they have been taught to unearth and discover meaning in texts — English educators love to use manual labor metaphors, but don’t always want to get their hands dirty — yet The Crying of Lot 49 makes students consider what happens when a work of art might not have any traditional secrets to reveal. The movement toward skills-based education in the humanities has also created an effort-return mentality: the expectation that a text can, or should, be distilled into a single sentence. Don’t we want students who know how to handle messes?
There are many other difficult novels that could fit the aforementioned criteria. What is special about Pynchon and The Crying of Lot 49?
Published in 1965, Pynchon’s novel fits nicely within the decade of media theorist and “electronic prophet” Marshall McLuhan’s essential works: The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), Understanding Media (1964), and The Medium is the Massage (1967). As Mark Greif notes in The Age of the Crisis of Man, his excellent consideration of American fiction between 1933 and 1973, “Pynchon [puts] a TV set in every room of his fiction — often to drive the action.” McLuhan’s “electric light” illuminates Pynchon’s fiction.
Oedipa is the protagonist that McLuhan might dream of, a woman thrust into an electronic world she did not create but is forced to understand. Early in the novel, Oedipa and Metzger, her part-time lover, part-time legal mentor, visit The Scope, a nightclub on the outskirts of Los Angeles with “a strictly electronic music policy.” A “hip graybeard” explains “They put it on the tape, here, live, fella. We’ve got a whole back room full of your audio oscillators, gunshot machines, contact mikes, everything man.” As Oedipa drives through San Narciso on a Sunday, “She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit.” Oedipa’s world is wholly electronic; in fact, considering Pynchon’s sensibility as a jester-Catholic, holy electronic.
My students watch McLuhan’s 1976 appearance on The Today Show and are entertained by his dissection of the presidential debate between Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. “I never saw a more atrocious misuse of the TV medium,” he quips, and calls the moment when the sound cut during the debate a “rebellion of the medium against the bloody message.” If the bloody message is linear, progressive, and climactic storytelling, Pynchon’s novel is rebellion through performance. Greif notes that “‘Man’ as a being and a concept is put into jeopardy for Pynchon, not first by high-technological machines or weapons but by the use of ordinary materials and the creation of mundane objects — the changing status of the parts of men, and the insertion of inanimate things into their bodies and daily habits.” I don’t want students to smash their iPhones, but I do want them to think twice about what type of data they offer their devices.
At its worst, Pynchon’s prose is a beautiful failure. At its best, Pynchon’s prose is revelatory. I agree with Greif that, in the end, The Crying of Lot 49 and Pynchon’s canon as a whole are concerned with data: “whether remains are transmitted beyond each individual communication, buried in the material facts of the founding of the system of communication, and whether this residue may shadow and smudge the prospect of those who join such a system, without them even knowing it.” Not a bad lesson for students to learn, somewhere between thinking of giants, beanstalks, and other noise.
In Reif Larsen’s first novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, the eponymous Spivet faults a chemistry teacher for falling short of his profession’s duty. Petty and competitive, he has failed, in Spivet’s words, to “distribute wonder.” Like so many in that novel, the formulation lodged itself in my memory, stowed away for future theft. It occurs to me now, however, that the phrase is best repeated to describe Larsen himself, whose extraordinary second novel, I Am Radar, an epic about genocide, performance art, and puppetry, has just been published.
Larsen, as game and thoughtful an interviewee as he is novelist, agreed to talk with me about Radar and my own forthcoming debut, The Poser, a novel about a man born with the compulsion and ability to imitate anyone he meets.
Jacob Rubin: I Am Radar spans radically divergent places, many of which, though not all, are undergoing or on the verge of genocide. There is Cambodia of the ’70s, Congo in 2010, the Bosnian War, Norway of the ’70s, and (perhaps most horrific) New Jersey in 2010. From the outset, did you know these places would make up the book? Were there other settings you considered? At what point in the process, did you know that the performance art group Kirkenesferda would be the novel’s linchpin?
Reif Larsen: During the first three years I was writing Radar I had no idea where this book was going. I originally started in what is now part three, then quickly realized I had to go both back in time but also laterally in space and story. The book really felt like it had this willful mind of its own, which I know is a schizophrenic thing to say because there was no one making this all up but me, but at times I really felt like I was riding this bucking bronco and just trying to hang for dear life. And the book was like: “We’re going to Cambodia, motherfucker.” And I was like…“Okay, fine whatever, you say. Just don’t kill me.” Obviously the cheerful through line of genocide limited some of the places I could potentially set the book in. Also, all of these places I’d had some kind of prior interest in or history with. (My roommate during grad school was writing a book about Cambodia. My friend had been going to the Congo for years making movies.) So the book just started gobbling these places up like a hungry monster. And in the end, I did get to visit all of them too, which was slightly uncanny, particularly when I’d written a scene in a place I’d never been to and then actually went to that place. I was constantly racked by a kind of fictional déjà vu.
Kirkenesferda came about organically. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to establish this group that was there but not there. A kind of ghost — formed by a literature around it, by images and references and anecdotes, and this weird, Borgesian book of all books that obsessively documented the history of the group but which itself cannot be found. There is a line from the novel: “After a while the reader cannot help but wonder how anyone could be so committed to something if it were not, at least in some sense, true. Devotion, at its core, must be a kind of truth.” So I wanted to press this notion of “devotion as confirmation” to its inevitable breaking point.
JR: Let me ask you about curiosity, which seems paramount in your work. In The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, we have Spivet’s joyful, compulsive mapmaking. In Radar, it’s reflected both in the performance group’s mission and in the novel’s radical inclusiveness. I’m thinking, in particular, of the brilliant elucidations of real world phenomena, such as talking drums, quantum mechanics, telegraphy, puppetry, radiography, Morse code, among much else. What is your research process like? I realize the answer here is probably “both,” but which comes first — do you have the inkling that you’ll want to write about a certain place (ie. Cambodia in the ’70s) and then study it, or do you come to experience a place (Norway, for instance) and then feel the itch to set something there?
RL: As you suspected, there’s often a crazy interrelationship between my research and writing. Something will get stuck in my craw years before I ever write a word of the book — in this case it was a micro puppet show I witnessed down a dark staircase in Prague — and it will remain stuck, and I’ll keep coming back to it and usually this is a good sign I’m going to have to digest it via fiction somehow. Usually it’s not a one-to-one correspondence and not at all clear how that little morsel of observation will manifest itself on the page. Often the original reference will become quite veiled. I’ve been accused of writing “anti-autobiographical” fiction.
But then, just as often, my interests come out of the story itself. I will be writing a sentence and the father brings out a Morse Key and I’ll be like, “Shit. Gotta go learn about telegraphy.” For me, it’s always very important to be open to these kinds of messages (Morse or otherwise). The book will tell you what it’s interested in and then you have to go meet its demands. I was also amazed about the inclusivity of this particular book. The challenge was to cover that much ground and still make it feel like a novel, which I wasn’t really sure I did until the thing was finished, five years later. Still not quite sure, actually.
Along these lines, what was your process for researching Giovanni’s imitations? Part of the brilliance of this conceit is that imitations are the stuff of good fiction — noticing these inexplicable details that are there but not there, “the thread” that is unique to only this character. You are forcing yourself to write to specifics, to write compelling descriptions, but also to mine that vital territory of what separates a description of a person from the person itself. So I could see you writing this book armed with only the research of living on this planet as an observant being, but did you do other work as well?
JR: I did do some research, mainly about clothes in the 1940s and some of the history of Hollywood and of the Red Scare in Hollywood, as echoes of that period make their way into the book. In terms of the impressions themselves, as you suspected, I relied mainly on observation, experience, and caffeine. It was fun, though, to dramatize natural qualities of the writer (gesture obsession, hyper-observation) without Giovanni literally having to be one.
To get back to process for a sec, once you’ve assembled some of the research and let the book lead you to where it wants to go, do you think at all about genre? In the same way the best sci-fi bridges those liminal gaps between existing science and the science of, like, 12 hours from now, I Am Radar pulls at the bounds of what seems currently feasible. Did you think of it as science fiction?
RL: As a storyteller, I get very confused by the notion of genre. Even now, if you put a gun to my head I would be hard-pressed to tell you what it is. If there is a talking robot is it science fiction? If there is a dwarf with an axe and a cappuccino is it fantasy? I mean what even is YA anymore? Smaller words? Less complex emotional situations? No sodomy? Mostly genre is a shortcut for publishers and readers looking to categorize stories. Good writers rarely take shortcuts so genre doesn’t seem to be a very helpful discourse for us. A story is a story is a story.
JR: I want to ask about the theme of the exceptional. Radar, like The Selected Works of TS Spivet, explores precocity and its consequences. Many of the oddballs, eccentrics, and foundlings (some literal) who comprise Kirkenesferda are prodigies of a kind. I guess my question is about precocity and family. The precocity seems to give these collaborators joy and a kind of destiny at the price, often, of emotional orphanhood. How often does genius for these characters represent an expression of who they are, and how often does it represent a flight from home, or, at times, a burden parentally imposed?
RL: I’m not sure how to answer this question entirely — I, like many, am obsessed with the unanswerable questions of nature v. nurture and what is inherited and what is created on our own. It’s probably the most fundamental question of our humanness. But I do think you’ve pinned me to a familiar theme that comes up in my writing, which are these people who are imbalanced in some way — they present a particularly extraordinary skillset in one dimension, but then offer suffer an emotional imbalance because of it. Imbalanced characters are much more interesting to write about and throw up onto the canvas. There’s some purchase there and the imbalance leads to movement across the page. But the precocity that you’re referencing does allow for a sort of celebration of the strange; these characters have access to unusual or profound habits or thought processes that give you an excuse to tunnel deep into a mind or a scene or situation.
The same could be said, I suppose, about Giovanni, yes? He’s a great example of an imbalance in a character — a great skill at mimicry but paired with this interpersonal stuntedness. And I think you trace his growth so well over the course of the book. We really feel like we grow with Giovanni as he accepts, masters, and succumbs to his gifts. We feel his pitfalls and his triumphs. As a writer, how do you pace such growth on the page? How do you make it believable?
JR: Oh, definitely, yes. There’s a Buddhist adage about this, the exact wording of which I’m forgetting now, but it’s something like, the worn pocket leads to enlightenment more readily than the gilded robe (I write horrible fortunes cookies on the side). The idea, I think, is, “your strength is your weakness” because you will almost certainly rely too much on your strength, which creates an imbalance, a problem. This is certainly the case with Giovanni who is, in the end, impaired by his gift.
In terms of tracing growth, I think that’s really a matter of rhythm, of merciless rereading, of seeing when certain moments feel like they should come, and then engineering things as best you can to have that moment come maybe slightly before it’s expected. Like a lot of white people, I love rap music, and I’ve noticed really skilled rappers often complete the run of breath just slightly before the downbeat. Jay Z does this a lot. If he hit the beat exactly, it would feel late somehow. I became a bit obsessive about trying to do that with paragraphs and scenes.
What about getting started, inspiration? You’ve said that Susan Sontag’s decision to stage Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo in 1992 was a seed for Radar. How did that seed begin to flower? Were there others?
RL: This is an example of one of those things that got stuck in my craw before a word ever hit the page. I had read an article Sontag wrote about her time putting on Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo during the war and it struck me as so absurd, almost offensive, in its audacity: to believe that this city under literal siege, where crossing every intersection became a life or death situation because of the snipers, where there was no running water, where people were saving a single onion so that it would last for weeks — why would you go to this place and believe that putting on Godot could possibly be a good idea? But Sontag did and her actors risked their lives to be in the show and the theatre was in terrible shape and people came and after the war they named a street after her. But that knife edge between the sublime and the offensive was something I wanted to explore: the human necessity to put on this existential farce while real horrors were knocking on the door. It gets at the deepest questions of why we feel this strong, totally inexplicable will to create art. We will turn our lives upside down just so we can create art. And these are very personal questions for me because not a day goes by that I do not have some kind of deep doubt about why I’m spending my life writing silly books when there are people in real need out there. And yet I continue to write.
But while we are on this topic: let me ask you…what were the seeds for The Poser? What’s been your own experience acting or on the stage? Often first novels are famous for the writer throwing everything into it (is Radar actually a first novel?) but what I admired about your book was how controlled it felt. The boundaries of the world and the story were delineated in this very self-assured way. Did you spend a lot of time editing down the book?
JR: That Sontag story is fascinating, and Radar explores that dialectic of futility/essentiality so well. I do have some history with performance. I was a rapper in a college hip-hop group in the early-2000s and have done stand-up comedy, so I think a lot about the stage and performance. Years ago I used to entertain at kids’ parties as a juggler, which is my humblebrag way of saying I was a sex symbol. I think I like the disguise the stage demands and the way that disguise allows for the truth. The whole mask thing. It’s a very simple paradox, really, but is somehow, for me, inexhaustible.
I’m glad it felt controlled, thank you. Earlier iterations were less so. This is sort of The Poser 3.0. As I worked through each incarnation of the book, I felt myself becoming more ruthless. I was like Walter White by the end of it. I cut hundreds of pages from the book. A whole section about Giovanni’s childhood. Cut. The asperity of cutting becomes its own sort of decadence. My editor had to stay my hand from cutting more. I wanted to get rid of everything remotely extraneous. The faux America in which the book takes place seemed to require a radical sparseness or the kind of heightening that sparseness ensures. Roberto Calasso has a nice bit about Franz Kafka, how in Kafka a “cabinet” is, like, the only cabinet in the world. It is the platonic Cabinet. In cutting things down, I wanted the nouns in the book to feel like that: the sole furnishings of a concrete abstraction.
This makes me wonder about a certain tradition of literature and its influence on you. Radar is inflected throughout by a Nabokovian sense of play. Elsewhere you’ve written about Orhan Pamuk. How important is a sense of the meta-textual and gamesmanship for you in writing and reading? Would you describe Vladimir Nabokov and Pamuk as influences on Radar? Were there novels you frequently reread or revisited while working on Radar?
RL: I feel like our generation of writers has been washed by the rains of postmodernism and come out the other side cleaner and a little wiser, but largely our own selves still. We can admire and applaud Roland Barthes and Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, but I get this sense from our peers that we’re maybe ultimately not that interested in turning the camera on the whole game and have that be it. In of itself this maneuver is not that interesting and feels like it’s been done before: “Yes! It’s a farce! Fiction is a mirage!” etc. Now that we’ve gotten this out of our system, I think we have permission to almost go back to telling stories. Because it turns out telling good stories — even if you’re propping them up on all kinds of canned maneuvers of realism — is, and will always be, really very hard.
That said, I remain interested in the mechanics of how we do what we do, almost like a boy picking apart an insect to see how all the parts connect. And, in this particular book, I was interested in not just postmodernism for postmodernism sake, but I was shooting for a kind of “quantum fiction,” based on the science of quantum mechanics, whereby you purposefully leave things in a state of indeterminacy — you don’t fundamentally address whether a character is alive or dead. And the trick is to do this so that it has an emotional impact, and isn’t just a game. All maneuvers of these sort I believe have to be working on a pathological level — they can’t just hit the reader in the brain, they have to hit them in the heart. And this is where a lot of postmodernists for me fell short.
I read many books doing research for Radar and quite a few novels. I have to be careful reading fiction while writing fiction because I find there’s a lot of spillover. I’m too exposed. I start copying whomever I’m reading in the moment. But this book took so long to write that I couldn’t avoid fiction altogether and there were a number of books that lent me great wisdom in the process. Many of them are listed in the bibliography, but some important ones were: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Graham Green’s The Quiet American, Danilo Kis’s Garden, Ashes, Miroslav Krleža’s The Return of Philip Latinowicz, and Willem Frederik Hermans’s Beyond Sleep.
What about you? Were their books that you turned to while writing The Poser? And what’s your relationship to other people’s fiction when you’re deep into writing your own?
JR: I’ve been meaning to read Garden, Ashes for years. This reminds me to do it. I am sort of a picky reader when I’m writing. Often I read the same passages from favorite books over and over until I’ve sucked all the word fuel out of them. Some specific works, though, did help as I was writing. Remainder by Tom McCarthy, when I was doing a later pass, helped me with some alienated descriptions of human gesture and attitude. I read some Steven Millhauser, too, who is so good at creating mysterious, seductive landscapes immanent with danger. I think I was also influenced by Robertson Davies’s The Deptford Trilogy, which has sort of lightly magical properties and a crisp, evocative prose style I liked. Otherwise, I often return to Thomas Bernhard, Barry Hannah, and Denis Johnson, and sometimes the poetry of Dave Berman and Emily Dickinson.
RL: So now that you’ve written your first book, what advice would you give to writers who are attempting to do the same?
JR: More and more, I think, solutions to writing problems are found away from the desk. Attention to an obstacle, I think, is like sunshine to a succulent: the more you marshal your energies against it, the more the obstacle tends to grow. Whereas if you go take a nap or throw a javelin or something, the obstacle might very well shimmer and disappear. Mind you, this is advice I almost never take myself, but when I do, it always seems to help.
It is easy to get discouraged, and there is no wonder why. There is much about writing that is unhealthy in a very real and clinical sense. Sitting, as we all now know, kills billions of people. The time spent away from regular company, required for the practice, can’t be good for serotonin or dopamine levels, not to mention vitamin D. Staring at the screen, even from the perch of an ergonomic chair, is terrible for your eyes, wrists, back, and shoulders. Of course, any real labor is a million times worse. It’s just, anyone privileged enough to think of writing a novel could likely entertain any number of careers that would provide at least decent remuneration, status, and some recognition, even the rare, implausible shot at improving the world. So, if despite this very real discomfort and uncertainty, you feel better writing than not — well, then you damn better keep writing.
And you? Any tips on approaching a second novel? Asking for a friend…
RL: Hmmm. The second novel is where things get tricky. All I can say is that it was much more difficult than the first. You become more aware of all the things you aren’t capable of doing. Also, maybe this will change with future books, but I wasn’t really sure how to apply my experience of the first book to the second. I had to learn how to write the ecosystem and logic of the new book and almost had to start from square one again. But I would say: don’t shy away from it. Take the more difficult path because who knows when you will ever write another?
“Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!”
For years I bought into the old saw that says the second novel is the hardest one to write. It seemed to make sense. When starting out, most writers pour everything from the first 20 (or 30, or 40) years of their lives into their debut novel. It’s only natural that on the second visit to the well, many novelists find it has gone dry.
Stephen Fry, the British writer and actor, explained it this way: “The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel. If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23 and my second novel takes me two years, which one have I written more quickly? The second, of course. The first took 23 years and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of a lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.”
Fry made these remarks at the inaugural awarding of the Encore Prize, established in England in 1989 to honor writers who successfully navigate the peculiar perils of the second novel. Winners have included Iain Sinclair, Colm Toibin, A.L. Kennedy, and Claire Messud.
Fry’s point is well taken, but it’s just the beginning of the difficulties facing the second novelist. If a first novel fails to become a blockbuster, as almost all of them do, publishers are less inclined to get behind the follow-up by a writer who has gained a dubious track record but has lost that most precious of all literary selling points: novelty. Writers get only one shot at becoming The Next Big Thing, which, to too many publishers, is The Only Thing. Failure to do so can carry a wicked and long-lasting sting.
(Full disclosure: I’m speaking from experience. My first novel enjoyed respectable sales and a gratifying critical reception, including a largely positive review from impossible-to-please Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. But the novel failed to land on any best-seller lists or get me on Oprah. Five years later, my second novel disappeared like a stone dropped in a lake. I don’t think anyone even noticed the splash. I recently sold my third novel — 17 years after that quiet splash.)
There’s plenty of empirical evidence to support the claim that the second novel is the hardest one to write — and that it can be even harder to live down. After his well-received 1988 debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon spent years wrestling with a woolly, 1,500-page beast called The Fountain that finally defeated him and wound up in a drawer. Wisely, Chabon went in a different direction and produced Wonder Boys, a successful second novel that was, technically, his third. After getting nominated for a National Book Award for her 1973 debut, State of Grace, Joy Williams puzzled and pissed-off a lot of people with The Changeling, her unsettling second novel about a drunk woman on an island full of feral kids. Williams blamed the book’s frosty reception on the political climate of the late 1970s: “Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!” Martin Amis followed his fine debut, The Rachel Papers, with the disappointingly flippant Dead Babies. I still find it hard to believe that the writer responsible for Dead Babies (and an even worse wreck called Night Train) could also be capable of the brilliant London Fields, Time’s Arrow, The Information and, especially, Money: A Suicide Note. Then again, outsize talent rarely delivers a smooth ride. Even Zadie Smith stumbled with The Autograph Man after her acclaimed debut, White Teeth.
Sometimes a hugely successful — or over-praised — first novel can be a burden rather than a blessing. Alex Garland, Audrey Niffenegger, Charles Frazier, and Donna Tartt all enjoyed smash debuts, then suffered critical and/or popular disappointments the second time out. Frazier had the consolation of getting an $8 million advance for his dreadful Thirteen Moons, while Niffenegger got $5 million for Her Fearful Symmetry. That kind of money can salve the sting of even the nastiest reviews and most disappointing sales. Tartt regained her footing with her third novel, The Goldfinch, currently the most popular book among readers of The Millions and a few hundred thousand other people.
A handful of writers never produce a second novel, for varied and deeply personal reasons. Among the one-hit wonders we’ve written about here are James Ross, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, and Ralph Ellison. And in certain rare cases, the second novel is not only the hardest one to write, it’s the last one that gets written. Consider Philip Larkin. He published two highly regarded novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, back to back in the 1940s — and then abruptly abandoned fiction in favor of poetry. Why? Clive James offered one theory: “The hindsight answer is easy: because he was about to become the finest poet of his generation, instead of just one of its best novelists. A more inquiring appraisal suggests that although his aesthetic effect was rich, his stock of events was thin…Larkin, while being to no extent a dandy, is nevertheless an exquisite. It is often the way with exquisites that they graduate from full-scale prentice constructions to small-scale works of entirely original intensity, having found a large expanse limiting.” In other words, for some writers the biggest canvas is not necessarily the best one.
Of course, second novels don’t always flop — or drive their creators away from fiction-writing. Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run are just a few of the many second novels that were warmly received upon publication and have enjoyed a long shelf life. But until about a year ago, I regarded such stalwarts as the exceptions that proved the rule. Then a curious thing happened. I came upon a newly published second novel that knocked me out. Then another. And another. In all of these cases, the second novel was not merely a respectable step up from a promising debut. The debuts themselves were highly accomplished, critically acclaimed books; the second novels were even more ambitious, capacious, and assured.
I started to wonder: With so much high-quality fiction getting written every day in America — especially by writers who are supposed to be in the apprentice phase of their careers — is it possible that we’re entering a golden age of the second novel? Here are three writers who make me believe we are:
Rachel Kushner’s 2008 debut, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Refreshingly free of the mirror-gazing that mars many first novels, it told the story of two insulated colonies in the eastern end of Cuba in the late 1950s, where Americans were blithely extracting riches from sugar crops and nickel deposits while Fidel Castro and his rebels were getting ready to sweep away the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista — and, with it, the Americans’ cloistered world.
The novel is richly researched and deeply personal. Kushner’s grandfather was a mining executive in Cuba in the 1950s, and her mother grew up there. Kushner interviewed family members, pored over their memorabilia, even traveled to Cuba to walk the ground and talk to people who remembered life before the revolution. To her great credit, Kushner’s imagination took precedence over her prodigious research as she sat down to write. As she told an interviewer, “Just because something is true doesn’t mean it has a place.”
While her debut took place inside a hermetically sealed cloister, Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, explodes across time and space. The central character is Reno, a young woman from the West hoping to break into the 1970s downtown New York art scene, a motorcycle racer with “a need for risk.” But Reno’s artistic aspirations are merely the springboard for this ambitious novel as it moves from the 1970s to the First World War, from America to Europe to South America. It teems with characters, events, voices, ideas. It’s a big, sprawling, assured novel, and it announced the arrival of a major talent.
Dear American Airlines, Jonathan Miles’s first novel, exists in an even more tightly circumscribed space than Kushner’s American enclave in pre-revolutionary Cuba. This novel takes place inside the American Airlines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport — or, more accurately, inside the brain of Benjamin R. Ford, who has been stranded at O’Hare while trying to fly from New York to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of his gay daughter and, just maybe, reverse the downward momentum of a magnificently botched life. The novel’s conceit is a beauty: furious and utterly powerless, Ben, a failed poet, a failed drunk, a failed husband and father — but a reasonably successful translator — decides to sit down and write a complaint letter, demanding a refund from the soulless corporation that has kept him from attending his daughter’s wedding, effectively thwarting his last chance at redemption. The conceit could have turned the novel into a one-trick pony in less capable hands, but Miles manages to make Ben’s plight emblematic of what it’s like to live in America today — trapped and manipulated by monstrous forces but, if you happen to be as funny and resourceful as Ben Ford, never defeated by them.
It was a deft performance, but Miles outdid it last year with his second novel, Want Not, a meditation on the fallout of omnivorous consumerism. It tells three seemingly unrelated stories that come together only at the novel’s end: Talmadge and Micah, a couple of freegan scavengers, are squatting in an abandoned apartment on the New York’s Lower East Side, living immaculately pure lives off the grid; Elwin Cross Jr., a linguist who studies dying languages, lives alone miserably in the New Jersey suburbs, regularly visiting the nursing home where his father is succumbing to Alzheimer’s; and Dave Masoli, a bottom-feeding debt collector, his wife Sara, whose husband was killed on 9/11, and her daughter Alexis, who brings the strands of the story together, in shocking fashion.
From the first pages, it’s apparent that the themes are large, the characters are vivid and complex (with the exception of Dave Masoli), and the prose is rigorously polished. Here’s one of many astonishing sentences, a description of what Elwin hears after he has accidentally struck and killed a deer while driving home late at night:
It took a few seconds for the panicked clatter in his head to subside, for the hysterical warnings and recriminations being shouted from his subcortex to die down, and then: silence, or what passes for silence in that swath of New Jersey: the low-grade choral hum of a million near and distant engine pistons firing through the night, and as many industrial processes, the muted hiss and moan of sawblades and metal stamps and hydraulic presses and conveyor belts and coalfired turbines, plus the thrum of jets, whole flocks of them, towing invisible contrails toward Newark, and the insectile buzz of helicopters flying low and locust-like over fields of radio towers and above the scrollwork of turnpike exits, all of it fused into a single omnipresent drone, an aural smog that was almost imperceptible unless you stood alone and quivering on a deserted highwayside in the snow-hushed black hours of a November morning with a carcass hardening in the ice at your feet.
Want Not is a profound book not because Miles preaches, not even because he understands that we are what we throw away, but because he knows that our garbage tells us everything we need to know about ourselves, and it never lies.
In 1994, Charles McNair’s weird little first novel, Land O’ Goshen, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It reads as if it were written by Faulkner on acid. It’s corn-pone sci-fi. It’s nasty and funny. It’s brilliant.
The title conjures two locales: the place in Egypt where the Israelites began their exodus to the Promised Land; and the place where the novel unfolds, a little one-blinking-light grease stain in the piney wastes of southern Alabama. The story is told by Buddy, a 14-year-old orphan who lives in the woods, dodging the Christian soldiers who are trying to subjugate the populace. This future era is called the New Times, but it’s a lot like the Old Testament — bloody tooth and bloody claw. Sometimes Buddy dresses up in animal skins and, as The Wild Thing, terrorizes the locals, trying “to wake up those tired, beaten-down old souls in every place where folks just gave up to being stupid and bored and commanded.” Buddy enjoys a brief idyll at his forest hideout with a beautiful girl named Cissy Jean Barber, but the world won’t leave them in peace. Through the nearly Biblical tribulations of his coming of age, Buddy learns the key to survival: “Sad sorrow can’t kill you, if you don’t let it.”
Last year, after nearly two decades of silence, McNair finally published his second novel, Pickett’s Charge. It’s bigger than its predecessor in every way. It traverses an ocean, a century, a continent. If Land O’ Goshen was content to be a fable, Pickett’s Charge aspires to become a myth. It tells the story of Threadgill Pickett, a former Confederate soldier who, at the age of 114 in 1964, is a resident of the Mobile Sunset Home in Alabama. As a teenage soldier, Threadgill watched Yankees murder his twin brother, Ben, a century earlier, and when Ben’s ghost appears at the nursing home to inform Threadgill that he has located the last living Yankee soldier, a wealthy man in Bangor, Maine, Threadgill embarks on one last mission to avenge his brother’s death.
Pickett’s Charge has obvious echoes – the Bible, Twain, Cervantes, Marquez, Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. But this novel’s most direct forebear might be Charles Portis’s Norwood, another story about a southerner’s quixotic journey to the North to seek justice. While Threadgill Pickett is after something big — vengeance — Norwood Pratt is simply out to collect the $70 he loaned a buddy in the Marines. Yet McNair and Portis seem to agree that folly is folly, regardless of its scale. And they both know how to turn it into wicked fun.
Of course one could argue that a half dozen books do not constitute a trend or herald a new golden age. But I’m sure I’ve missed a truckload of recent second novels that would buttress my claim. Maybe Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which has come out 15 years after her debut and is concerned, in part, with the difficulty of writing a second novel. Surely there are others that disprove the old saw. I would love it if you would tell me about them.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
In a recent Bookforum essay, Natasha Vargas-Cooper argues that we should stop teaching novels to teenagers because she hated reading novels as a teenager. Her first example is The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway. It took her a decade to understand Jake Barnes’s condition because she, “like most high school sophomores, had no frame of reference to tap into the heady though subtle emotions that course through Hemingway’s novels.” She found Jake and company boring. She was a “hungry” teenager “starving for stimuli,” so “trout fishing in Spain did not cut it.” Hemingway wasn’t the only snore. Add F. Scott Fitzgerald, along with the “damnable Brontë sisters [who] were shoved down my throat.” She traded Bless Me, Ultima for mediums that were more “vital and urgent,” like “movies, musicals, and plays.” Those visual narratives “gave me large and instant rewards for spending time with them.”
The real villains were not stodgy novels, but her public school teachers. “Brutally inept teaching of The Pearl” almost soured her on Steinbeck. Most of her teachers “were as inspiring and provocative as the Great Expectations Word Search they handout out the first day we started Dickens.” Those teachers were “largely well-intentioned adults who don’t have the resources, or sometimes even the intellectual vigor, to make emotional landscapes of the western front, nineteenth-century London, or Pamplona very real to sixteen-year-olds.” In the hands of these insipid instructors, novels weren’t “the best device for transmitting ideas, grand themes, to hormonal, boisterous, easily distracted, immature teenagers.” Her proposed solution: students should read non-fiction.
Her potential reading list includes memoirs, creative non-fiction essays, meditations on language, and journalism. It’s a good list, but the problem is that Vargas-Cooper thinks she’s discovered the groundbreaking secret “to spark a love of reading, engage a young mind, and maybe even teach them how to write in a coherent manner.” Non-educators who write about education often make breathless suggestions that have already been used in the classroom for decades. Many of the writers and works who appear on Vargas-Cooper’s list are commonly taught in high school classrooms, and are suggested as independent reading selections for summer work: David Foster Wallace, Joan Didion, Hunter S. Thompson, George Orwell, Jon Krakauer, Malcolm X, James Baldwin, and others. Here’s a small sample of non-fiction from my own classroom: Wallace’s “Shipping Out,” “The Essay Vanishes” by Ander Monson, “Listening for Silence” by Mark Slouka, “How to Make Collard Greens” by Megan Mayhew Bergman, excerpts from The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr, and essays from Brevity.
Like many sweeping proclamations about high school education by those who have never done the actual work of guiding and caring for a classroom of students, Vargas-Cooper’s essay doesn’t pass scrutiny at the line-level. She wants the same supposedly banal educators she attacks earlier in the essay to now teach Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” and Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion. She then follows with a confounding sentence tandem: “Maybe the classroom is not the best setting for children to have profound literary experiences. Give the kids something they can relate to, immerse themselves in, and even copy!” I assume this means that teachers should give students non-fiction, but this transfer and experience must not happen within a classroom. Even parodic prose needs clarity.
Although I remain befuddled by her unawareness of high school reading lists, I am not surprised that Vargas-Cooper chose to begin her complaint with Hemingway, a writer often reduced to his myths. The Sun Also Rises is particularly well suited to misreading because of its unreliable, love-drunk narrator, Jake Barnes. Many of my own students have enjoyed Hemingway’s novel. I don’t say all, because no one other than a first-day teacher — or writers of thin commentaries on education — expects all students to enjoy every assignment, or even to read every book. But if Vargas-Cooper is looking for a “thought-provoking excursion into themes of empathy, human responsibility, and folly,” Hemingway delivers. I’m fairly certain that a novel about a man in love with a woman who would rather just be friends might connect with a teenage audience.
Students also enjoy The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, a literary thriller suffused with theological complexities. An unnamed “whiskey priest” is on the run in 1930s Mexico after a regime based on the real-life governance of Tomás Garrido Canabal has outlawed Catholicism. Priests can either forsake their religion, or die. The whiskey priest chooses faith, but that faith is tempered by pride. He is no exemplary priest; in fact, he is a terrible man. He has abandoned the daughter he fathered out of wedlock. Anyone in his presence is in danger of arrest or execution. Another unnamed character, the lieutenant, considers the whiskey priest a symbol of all that is evil within the Church: gluttony and hypocrisy. The lieutenant wants to eradicate all vestiges of Catholicism, and he will use all means necessary.
I teach at a public school, not a parochial school. Most of my students have a vague cultural knowledge of Catholicism, but they are a world away from the Mexican province of Tabasco. Some students miss the double meaning of “father.” Others don’t understand why the villagers would risk death to receive the sacrament of confession. And others still will not read the book at all, either because of disinterest, or because they are overwhelmed with other classes and commitments. But I do not want to live or teach in a country that asks students to only engage experiences similar to their own. I look to create comfortable dissonance in the classroom. I want my students to recognize that they are geographically and culturally different than the characters in Greene’s novel, and then to consider their shared humanity with these fictional characters. I ask them to do the same with the Bundrens in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, or with Oedipa Maas in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. They spend a season with the brilliant, maniacal football team at Logos College in Don DeLillo’s End Zone. And I pray that they will never know pain equal to the men and women in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but they benefit from seeing the world through such scarred eyes.
We should continue to teach novels in the high school classroom. Fiction has a home there. But we should stop writing fiction about high school teachers within essays about education. Vargas-Cooper’s ribbing is playful compared to the stereotypes cast by politicians who hope to siphon funding from education. Teachers don’t enter this profession to relax. Teachers are women and men who work themselves exhausted.
Let me be clear: we public school teachers are not martyrs. We get paid for what we do. Whether that pay is acceptable or not is for another discussion. In America, teachers are either seen as angelic or caustic, saviors or sycophants. These stereotypes enable politicians to convince the public to support the latest education fad or slash needed budgets. The reality is we teach because we love to help kids, and we think literature is a way to examine and understand our complex lives. We do our best to help students inhabit the world of novels. The worlds of those texts might be imagined, but the emotions are palpable and authentic. We do real work in public schools. That, I can assure you, is not fiction.
Image via Thomas Favre-Bulle/Flickr
As I write this sentence, I’m surrounded by old friends. About 1,500 of them. The bulk of my books, stacked on seven tightly packed bookshelves. I see yellowed paperbacks of John Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and Donald Barthelme’s Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts. All purchased at the Northwestern University bookstore in 1970 by a disoriented, overwhelmed freshman from Dubuque, Iowa. From Ethan Frome to metaficton in a matter of months. It was like a non-swimmer being tossed into arctic waters.
Or the green, stained hardcover edition of Marion French’s Myths and Legends of the Ages (1956), with its (to me at least) iconic illustrations by, I swear, Bette Davis. I had left it in my classroom on my last day at Bryant Elementary School, but it had my name in it and a kind teacher sent word to me at junior high to stop by and pick it up. I must have. I just looked up its market price for the first time. I could only find one copy for sale: $156.00.
Oh, I go on periodic weanings, but a lot remains. Take the row of Ace paperback editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs, purchased for 40 cents each at the Book Nook on Main Street when I was 11 and 12. These were being reissued contemporaneously with fantastic Frank Frazetta covers: a barely clothed woman with sculpted hair, a six-foot spear, flanked by snarling, but clearly domesticated, saber-toothed tigers. I can pick one up today and still feel a touch of that old excitement, the delicious anticipation of going on yet another adventure to Pellucidar, the stone-age world under the north pole, populated by a fantastic race of dimorphic humanoids whose males look like Neanderthals, while the women are clones of Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C. Who could resist? My well-used copies would be lucky to fetch $10.00 today.
I’m putting them all up for sale. Well, not all. I’m not willing, like the minions of part-time booksellers on Amazon.com, to list thousands of titles priced between $0.01 and $2.00 (my guess, hoping to make a dollar or two on handling and shipping). And there are a few I can’t part with. Yet. So I’ve decided to list the ones that, after painstaking research, appear to be worth at least $10.00, while not so dear to my heart that it would haunt me to see them go.
My idea is to whittle the shelves down. Who else would want the burden? Some 15 years ago, the last time we relocated, the burly, but middle-aged mover looked me up and down suspiciously as he climbed down from his van.
“You’re not a professor?” he asked. I shook my head, guiltily, wondering if I actually smelled like a library. Over half of the household weight was in books back then, and I’ve bought more shelves since.
I imagine the groan in the room as my will is read when they come to the sentence “And I leave my books to…”
My idea when I opened an online bookstore at biblio.com was to not only reduce the burden on my heirs, but to monetize my impeccable selections, most bought at used book sales for pittances. For instance, I was happy last year to pack off to Canada my copy of The Integrative Action of the Nervous System (Yale, 1961) by Sir Charles Sherrington for $39. I’d bought it at an Iowa State University library sale for 25 cents in 1978. I’d studied his work in a graduate-level neurophysiology course at the University of Iowa and thought it might be worth something. No real emotional attachment there.
But what about the five books that Arthur Ashe took off my desk at the U.S. Tennis Association back in 1988 with a sly smile, saying he had to think a bit about the inscriptions? He hadn’t yet revealed his AIDS diagnosis, but would be dead of complications from it within five years. Included in the books he signed were his just-published, three-volume history of the Black American athlete, which he had written with the fury of the condemned, often in hotel rooms, carting a computer with him everywhere, long before the days of laptops.
One of the joys of scanning my library is spying the discoveries, the first or early books of authors acquired when they were far from subsequent fame. Each was like discovering an amazing new restaurant before the reviews start hitting and the crowds ruin the fun. I recall the wall of rejection letters T.C. Boyle used to decorate his office when a graduate student at the University of Iowa. I read his MFA thesis one afternoon in the library and recognized many of these darkly comic stories when his first, thin-selling collection, Descent of Man appeared. Years later, when I asked him to sign it at a Barnes & Noble in Kansas City, he looked at me leerily and said, “You know, these are getting to be worth a lot of money.” I told him I didn’t intend to sell it, and so far that’s been true.
I’m not sure how I was tipped to Carl Hiaasen, who remains one of my great reading pleasures to this day. But I bought a copy of his first solo novel, Tourist Season, back in 1986 and told everyone I knew to read it too. Or the pristine copy of Bill Kinsella’s Shoeless Joe, purchased and read long before it was turned into Field of Dreams. Or knowing John Irving for his pre-Garp, hilarious Setting Free the Bears and The Water-Method Man and his Esquire profile of wrestling great Dan Gable, in which he bravely took to the mat with him.
But I must come clean. As fun as it is to get a sale, my currently listed volumes are moving at a pace which would take some 70 years to empty my e-store. Of course, that’s assuming people will continue to prize certain books: great out-of-print novels, first editions, volumes signed by the author. As e-books continue to take market share, paper books may be destined to become decorative objects, like cupboards built to hold commodes or vinyl album covers. I’ve seen a number of designer rooms in magazines where the books are shelved with titles to the wall (what?) or sorted by color. Maybe the next generation will fill shelves with books the way Gatsby did — real ones, but uncut (i.e. unread). Perhaps our progeny will shop for books the way the latecomers to the book sale do: $2 per shopping bag, or carrying a tape measure.
In any case, my shelves are already packed with wonderful books of no particular cash value. What will become of these? Who would want a battered paperback of Joyce’s Ulysses, even if it was used in classes taught by both the critic Alfred Kazin and the novelist Anthony Burgess, filled (perhaps ruined further) with my annotations? Who could possible care about my complete collection of paperback Best American Essays, starting with the inaugural 1986 edition? How could I find anyone else who would take equal delight in the first sequential tennis stroke photos ever published, in my battered Volume Two of the American Lawn Tennis Library, Mechanics of the Game (1926)?
And to tell the truth, I’m still acquiring about 10 books for every one I sell. But, honestly, each is indispensible. True, the shelves are already full, but it’s always possible to cram a few more in. And when the neighborhood library has its next book sale (hardcovers $2), can I really leave those possible gems to the illiterates with scanners? Even if I don’t find another autographed copy of Tim O’Brien’s first novel, If I Die in a Combat Zone (sold for $120 to an English professor at the Naval Academy), how can I possibly lose?
Image Credit: Flickr/Joe Shlabotnik
After Hugo Chávez’s death, it certainly didn’t take long for conspiracy theories to surface, or indeed resurface, about a United States plot to poison him. Then came Rand Paul’s epic filibuster, which fired up liberals, libertarians, and conspiracy theorists alike. The South American intrigue and vision of armed drones patrolling American skies almost managed to overshadow the upheaval at the Vatican, always good for a dose of real or imagined intrigue: Shocking Resignation! Papist plots! Female Popes! Borgias! Traitorous butlers! The past month has been particularly rich in conspiracy theories, though as Richard Hofstadter notes in his famous essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the conspiratorial worldview, “while it comes in waves of different intensity…appears to be ineradicable.”
Explaining humanity’s endemic paranoia, Hofstadter concedes that broadly speaking, conspiratorial thinkers have it right: “All political behavior requires strategy, many strategic acts depend for their effect upon a period of secrecy, and anything that is secret may be described, often with but little exaggeration, as conspiratorial.” The paranoid mind, however, sees conspiracy as “the motive force in historical events” and imagines a vast, shadowy network of unlimited power working around the clock to sabotage, infiltrate, obfuscate and corrupt. This worldview spawns a style that is “nothing if not coherent,” blends a “seemingly coherent application to detail” and “the most fantastic conclusions,” is flexible enough to adopt the voice of a Dryasdust pedant or a lurid visionary, and finally projects its author’s desires and limitations onto a beguiling villain, a “free, active, demonic agent.” Hofstadter’s paranoid, it turns out, possesses many of the elements of a good novelist (save, crucially, irony).
Several years ago — when some of the finest paranoid minds were at work on Barack Obama’s birth certificate — I used this connection between the paranoid and the novelist to design a composition class on conspiracy fiction. I figured the flashy topic would be a good way to smuggle in a short history of Western literature from the Book of Revelations to The Crying of Lot 49. The nineteen enrolled students, many of whom were reasonably expecting to be enlightened about Opus Dei or the suspiciously decorated Denver International Airport, found themselves snared in an elaborate plan designed to make them read Richard III. I still remember their gasps when they realized that the deception went all the way to the top (or rather, all the way to their graduate instructor). By the time the add/drop deadline had passed, we were proceeding line by line through Lucky’s monologue in Waiting for Godot, that two-act conspiratorial joke played on a hapless couple, and there was, to quote Beckett, “nothing to be done.” Unless I could somehow be stopped, my dastardly, 12-week plan would soon culminate in a research paper on a topic of their choice.
In one of the odd ways that syllabi mirror life, one day after class I found myself in a strange discussion with a student’s father. He worked in the defense industry and was concerned that his son’s enrollment in a conspiracy fiction class might raise red flags. I assured him that while I was guilty of numerous pedagogical crimes, I had no intention of subverting the government. The course, I explained, was about the importance of “plot” in both fiction and conspiracy theories. We were less concerned with loosening the tentacles of our military industrial complex than in teasing out the literary implications of Hofstadter’s essay on the paranoid style, which argues that the distinguishing feature of a conspiracy theory is not “the absence of verifiable facts,” but rather the “curious leap in imagination…from the undeniable to the unbelievable.” Conspiracy fiction, and here I smugly quoted from my course description, reverses this process, imaginatively leaping from the unbelievable to the undeniable.
Couldn’t he see, I breathlessly continued, that the paranoid’s ability to weave each new piece of information into a growing web of deceit mirrored the novelist’s seamless construction of a fictional world? That the paranoid’s perverse faith in the unremitting power of his antagonist was similar to the reader’s faith in the novelist’s diabolical control over every character, detail, scene and plot twist? (Did I mention that a tendency to longwindedness was one of my aforementioned teaching faults?) For my peroration, I urged him to grant that conspiracy fiction modeled an intensified version of the same “blessed rage for order” that motivates all of our reading, from modern poetry to a lease agreement.
In short, I told him that my course was in no way jeopardizing his security clearance.
Looking back on that little chat with the military contractor, I believe that episode, and its attendant eeriness, gave me the fanciful notion that my students were in fact conspiring against me. It speaks either to my classroom management skills or to my paranoid disposition that I began to see every note passed, whispered comment, or mute response to my questions as a sinister sign of collusion. Moreover, when they did speak, they seemed intent on asking questions for which I had no answer. I felt like The Third Man’s Holly Martins, the author of Breakfast at Double Egg Ranch who must give an impromptu lecture on the crisis of faith in the modern novel.
The often naïve heroes of conspiracy fiction must quickly learn to read the signs of an increasingly sinister world, and read I did. The students’ papers were a source of constant paranoid speculation. I became convinced that after having encountered Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” a meerschaum-infused tale of royal blackmail, they were employing increasingly cunning ways to conceal their thesis statements — those necessary MacGuffins around which all English papers turn — from my “lynx eye.” Were they perhaps hiding in plain sight like the missing letter, “thrust carelessly and…contemptuously” somewhere in those 2.5-spaced paragraphs?
No sooner had I given up the search then we moved on to Conan Doyle’s “The Red-Headed League,” that marvelous tale in which a conspiracy is set in motion in the most public of ways: a newspaper announcement putting out a call to “all red-headed men who are sound in body and mind.” Suspecting that the students had drawn inspiration from the redheaded man’s mysterious sinecure — copying out the Encyclopedia Britannica for 4 pounds a week — I soon began seeing plagiarists everywhere scheming to dupe their hardly Sherlockian instructor. When we got to Borges’s “Death and the Compass,” I convinced myself that the students were merely crafting their papers to read like plagiaries, thereby mimicking the villainous trick played on Lönnrot, a detective who is lured into a trap through his “reckless perspicacity.”
A switch from literature to Machiavelli’s political science gave me a strategy for heading off the class’s conspiratorial fever.
…in taking hold of a state, he who seizes it should examine all the offenses necessary for him to commit, and do them all at a stroke, so as not to have to renew them every day and, by not renewing them, to secure men and gain them to himself with benefits.
Acting more the lion than the fox, I didn’t even tuck my shirt into my khakis before bursting into the classroom the following day. I doled out pop quizzes, checked their books for marginalia, confiscated their phones and forced them to spend the remaining twenty minutes reflecting on Joseph K.’s unenviable, impossible task in The Trial:
…to meet an unknown accusation, not to mention other possible charges arising out of it, the whole of one’s life would have to be recalled to mind, down to the smallest actions and accidents, clearly formulated and examined from every angle.
It didn’t work. When we reached Pynchon, I predictably began to find curious graffiti around campus. I had taught the students too well in the art of conspiracy making, and by the end of the semester I was as besieged as Oedipa Maas with the “malignant, deliberate replication” of muted horns: “They knew her pressure points, and the ganglia of her optimism, and one by one, pinch by precision pinch, they were immobilizing her.”
Of my end-of-term evaluations, it suffices to quote the first line of The Trial: “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K.”
As the recap of my semester demonstrates, the conspiratorial thinker is also a pitiable figure, which Hofstadter points out in the oddly moving conclusion to his essay: “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.” That is, the paranoid believes in his fiction (which never ends well), and thus he fails to derive pleasure from the meticulously constructed plots in the way that the reader of conspiracy fiction can. (If only a work like Albert Cossery’s A Splendid Conspiracy, which brilliantly and amusingly depicts the melancholic aspect of a police chief who has “nothing but the mirage of a conspiracy to fill his loneliness,” had been on my syllabus, I might have seen the error of my ways earlier.)
And yet my paranoid pedagogy was ultimately more comitragic than tragic, more Beckettian than Shakespearian. I came into the class like the emotionally, psychologically, and morally stunted characters we would encounter and came out in considerably better shape than most of them. I should focus on the upside of conspiracy fiction, the way it offers perverse, often painful opportunities for entertainment, growth, introspection, and enlightenment: to improvise or “canter” like Vladimir and Estragon wiling away the time, to lose one’s childish illusions like The Ministry of Fear’s Arthur Rowe, to ponder one’s guilt, if only futilely, like Joseph K., or like Oedipa Maas, to discover fleetingly the “high magic to low puns.” Such is the allure of conspiratorial narrative; it invites a clarity, however illusory, amidst the very real and supremely readable distortions of the paranoid style.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
I used to be the kind of reader who gives short shrift to long novels. I used to take a wan pleasure in telling friends who had returned from a tour of duty with War and Peace or The Man Without Qualities with that I’ve-seen-some-things look in their eyes—the thousand-page stare—that they had been wasting their time. In the months it had taken them to plough through one book by some logorrheic modernist or world-encircling Russian, I had read a good eight to ten volumes of svelter dimensions. While they were bench-pressing, say, Infinite Jest for four months solid, I had squared away most of the major Nouveau Romanciers, a fistful of Thomas Bernhards, every goddamned novel Albert Camus ever wrote, and still had time to read some stuff I actually enjoyed.
I was a big believer, in other words, in the Slim Prestige Volume. Nothing over 400 pages. Why commit yourself to one gigantic classic when you can read a whole lot of small classics in the same period of time, racking up at least as much intellectual cachet while you were at it? I took Hippocrates’ famous dictum about ars being longa and vita being brevis as a warning against starting a book in your twenties that might wind up lying still unfinished on the nightstand of your deathbed. Aside from the occasional long novel––one every twelve to eighteen months––I was a Slim Prestige Volume man, and that seemed to be that.
Even when I went back to college in my mid-twenties to do a PhD in English literature, I still relied on a kind of intellectual cost-benefit analysis that persuaded me that my time was better spent broadening than deepening—or, as it were, thickening—my reading. Had I read Dostoevsky? Sure I had: I’d spent a couple of rainy evenings with Notes From Underground, and found it highly agreeable. Much better than The Double, in fact, which I’d also read. So yeah, I knew my Dostoevsky. Next question, please. Ah yes, Tolstoy! Who could ever recover from reading The Death of Ivan Illych, that thrilling (and thrillingly brief) exploration of mortality and futility?
There’s a memorable moment in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 where Amalfitano, the unhinged Catalan professor of literature, encounters a pharmacist working the night shift at his local drug store whom he discovers is reading his way diligently through the minor works of the major novelists. The young pharmacist, we are told, “chose The Metamorphosis over The Trial, he chose Bartleby over Moby-Dick, he chose A Simple Heart over Bouvard and Pécuchet, and A Christmas Carol over A Tale of Two Cities or The Pickwick Papers.” This causes Amalfitano to reflect on the “sad paradox” that “now even bookish pharmacists are afraid to take on the great, imperfect, torrential works, books that blaze paths into the unknown. They choose the perfect exercises of the great masters. Or what amounts to the same thing: they want to watch the great masters spar, but they have no interest in real combat, when the great masters struggle against that something, that something that terrifies us all, that something that cows us and spurs us on, amid blood and mortal wounds and stench.”
Apart from being a powerful vindication of Bolaño’s own staggering ambition, and of his novel’s vast and unyielding darkness, I found that this passage reflected something of my own slightly faint-hearted reading practices (practices from which, by the time I had got around to reading the 900-page 2666, I had obviously started to deviate). A bit of a bookish pharmacist myself, I was content with netting minnows like Bartleby, while leaving the great Moby-Dick-sized leviathans largely unharpooned. I was fond of Borges’ famous remark about its being “a laborious madness and an impoverishing one, the madness of composing vast books,” and tended to extrapolate from it a dismissal of reading them too—as though Borges, the great wanderer and mythologizer of labyrinths, would ever have approved of such readerly timidity.
And then, three or four years ago, something changed. For some reason I can’t recall (probably a longish lapse in productivity on my thesis) I set myself the task of reading a Great Big Important Novel. For another reason I can’t recall (probably the fact that it had been sitting on a shelf for years, its pages turning the sullen yellow of neglected great books), I settled on Gravity’s Rainbow. I can’t say that I enjoyed every minute of it, or even that I enjoyed all that much of it at all, but I can say that by the time I got to the end of it I was glad to have read it. Not just glad that I had finally finished it, but that I had started it and seen it through. I felt as though I had been through something major, as though I had not merely experienced something but done something, and that the doing and the experiencing were inseparable in the way that is peculiar to the act of reading. And I’ve had that same feeling, I realize, with almost every very long novel I’ve read before or since.
You finish the last page of a book like Gravity’s Rainbow and—even if you’ve spent much of it in a state of bewilderment or frustration or irritation—you think to yourself, “that was monumental.” But it strikes me that this sense of monumentality, this gratified speechlessness that we tend to feel at such moments of closure and valediction, has at least as much to do with our own sense of achievement in having read the thing as it does with a sense of the author’s achievement in having written it. When you read the kind of novel that promises to increase the strength of your upper-body as much as the height of your brow—a Ulysses or a Brothers Karamazov or a Gravity’s Rainbow—there’s an awe about the scale of the work which, rightly, informs your response to it but which, more problematically, is often difficult to separate from an awe at the fact of your own surmounting of it.
The upshot of this, I think, is that the greatness of a novel in the mind of its readers is often alloyed with those readers’ sense of their own greatness (as readers) for having conquered it. I don’t think William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, for instance, is nearly as fantastic a novel as people often claim it is. But it is one of the most memorable and monumental experiences of my reading life. And these are the reasons why: because the thing was just so long; because I had such a hard time with it; and because I eventually finished it. (I read it as part of an academic reading group devoted to long and difficult American novels, and I’m not sure I would have got to the end of it otherwise). Reading a novel of punishing difficulty and length is a version of climbing Everest for people who prefer not to leave the house. And people who climb Everest don’t howl with exhilaration at the summit because the mountain was a good or a well made or an interesting mountain per se, but because they’re overawed at themselves for having done such a fantastically difficult thing. (I’m willing to concede that they may not howl with exhilaration at all, what with the tiredness, the lack of oxygen and very possibly the frostbite. I’ll admit to being on shaky ground here, as I’ve never met anyone who’s climbed Everest, nor am I likely to if I continue not going out of the house.)
And there is, connected with this phenomenon, what I think of as Long Novel Stockholm syndrome. My own first experience of it—or at least my first conscious experience of it—was, again, with The Recognitions. With any novel of that difficulty and length (976 pages in my prestigiously scuffed and battered Penguin edition), the reader’s aggregate experience is bound to be composed of a mixture of frustrations and pleasures. But what I found with Gaddis’s gigantic exploration of fraudulence and creativity was that, though they were greatly outnumbered by the frustrations, the pleasures seemed to register much more firmly. If I were fully honest with myself, I would have had to admit that I was finding the novel gruelingly, unsparingly tedious. But I wasn’t prepared to be fully honest with myself. Because every couple of hundred pages or so, Gaddis would take pity on me and throw me a bone in the form of an engaging, genuinely compelling set piece. Like the wonderful episode in which one of the characters, under the impression that he is being given a gift of $5,000 by his long-lost father whom he has arranged to meet at a hotel, is in fact mistakenly being given a suitcase full of counterfeit cash by a failed confidence man. And then Gaddis would roll up his sleeves again and get back to the real business of boring me insensible with endless pages of direct-dialogue bluster about art, theology and the shallowness of post-war American culture.
I kept at it, doughtily ploughing my way through this seemingly inexhaustible stuff, holding out for another interlude of clemency from an author I knew was capable of entertaining and provoking me. At some point towards the end of the book it occurred to me that what I was experiencing could be looked at as a kind of literary variant of the Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, whereby hostages experience a perverse devotion to their captors, interpreting any abstention from violence and cruelty, however brief or arbitrary, as acts of kindness and even love. Psychologically, this is understood as a defense mechanism in which the victim fabricates a “good” side of the aggressor in order to avoid confronting the overwhelming terror of his or her situation. Perhaps I’m stretching the bonds of credulity by implicitly comparing William Gaddis to a FARC guerilla commander, but I’m convinced there’s something that happens when we get into a captive situation with a long and difficult book that is roughly analogous to the Stockholm syndrome scenario. For a start, the book’s very length lays out (for a certain kind of reader, at least) its own special form of imperative—part challenge, part command. The thousand-pager is something you measure yourself against, something you psyche yourself up for and tell yourself you’re going to endure and/or conquer. And this does, I think, amount to a kind of captivity: once you’ve got to Everest base camp, you really don’t want to pack up your stuff and turn back. I think it’s this principle that explains, for example, the fact that I’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow but gave up halfway through The Crying of Lot 49, when the latter could be used as a handy little bookmark for the former. When you combine this (admittedly self-imposed) captivity with a novel’s formidable reputation for greatness, you’ve got a perfect set of conditions for the literary Stockholm syndrome to kick in.
In order for a very long novel to get away with long, cruel sessions of boredom-torture, it has to commit, every so often, an act of kindness such as the counterfeit cash set piece in The Recognitions. This is why Ulysses is so deeply loved by so many readers—as well it should be—while Finnegans Wake has been read almost exclusively by Joyce scholars (of whom I’m tempted to think as the Patty Hearsts of literature). After the grueling ordeal of the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode, in which Stephen stands around in the National Library for dozens of pages boring everyone to damn-near-literal tears with his theories about the provenance of Hamlet, we are given the unrestrained pleasure of the “Wandering Rocks” episode. Ulysses might treat us like crap for seemingly interminable stretches of time, but it extends just enough in the way of writerly benevolence to keep us onside. And this kindness is the key to Stockholm syndrome. You don’t know when it’s going to come, or what form it’s going to take, but you get enough of it to keep you from despising your captor, or mounting a brave escape attempt by flinging the wretched thing across the room. According to an article called “Understanding Stockholm Syndrome” published in the FBI Law Enforcement Bullettin:
Kindness serves as the cornerstone of Stockholm syndrome; the condition will not develop unless the captor exhibits it in some form toward the hostage. However, captives often mistake a lack of abuse as kindness and may develop feelings of appreciation for this perceived benevolence. If the captor is purely evil and abusive, the hostage will respond with hatred. But if perpetrators show some kindness, victims will submerge the anger they feel in response to the terror and concentrate on the captors “good side” to protect themselves.
If you’re the kind of reader who doesn’t intend to give up on a Great Big Important Novel no matter how inhumanely it treats you, then there’s a sense in which Joyce or Pynchon or Gaddis (or whoever your captor happens to be) owns you for the duration of that captivity. In order to maintain your sanity, you may end up being disproportionately grateful for the parts where they don’t threaten to bore you to death, where there seems to be some genuine empathic connection between reader and writer. Machiavelli understood this truth long before a Swedish bank robbery turned into a hostage crisis and gave the world the name for a psychological condition. “Men who receive good when they expect evil,” Machiavelli wrote, “commit themselves all the more to their benefactor.” When he wrote that line in the early sixteenth century, the novel, of course, did not yet exist as a genre. I’m inclined to imagine, though, that if he’d been born a century later, he might well have said the same thing about Don Quixote.
Nearly ten years ago, I interviewed Jonathan Franzen, then primarily known less for his fiction—he’d published two great but largely unread novels—and more for a brilliant, cranky essay on writing (and reading), generally referred to as “the Harper’s Essay.” Over the course of a day, Franzen talked, with unflinching honesty, about the difficulties—and exhilarations—of writing The Corrections, which was due to be published three months hence. He had, he explained, become so consumed with writing a “big” novel, an important novel, that he spent years writing and discarding chapters, plot threads, characters, perpetually unsatisfied. His frustrations and ambitions rang eerily true for me, for numerous reasons, not the least of which being that I was working on a novel that, I knew, would be large in scope, so large that I began to hyperventilate when I allowed my mind to linger too long on it.
Franzen, of course, found his way out, in part, he explained, by turning away from the sorts of big novels he tended to favor, as both reader and writer, and toward the more slender volumes on his shelves, the Gatsbys and suchlike. Ultimately, he conceived of The Corrections, less as one massive tome, and more as a series of smaller novels. Franzen’s cure, in a way, became my own. I didn’t put down those big social novels, but I did look at them in a different light, as a series of component parts, and a few months later my own novel began to slide into place.
This fall, like everyone else on the planet, I burned dinner, let my two-year-old cry, stopped answering the phone, and missed any number of subway and bus stops, as I completely gave myself over to Freedom. But I was also, in a neat coincidence, starting work on my own second novel, an even larger and more nerve-wracking endeavor than the first, and so I found myself thinking about that long-ago interview—the advice he’d unknowingly doled out—and picking up some of the shorter novels on my bookshelves, including many old favorites, such as Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Laurie Colwin’s Family Happiness, both of which I re-read every year or so, marveling at their perfection, and Jean Rhys’s 1928 novel Quartet, which I’d not so much as glanced at since I was about 23.
Brief, brutal, and mildly baffling, Quartet follows a young—or, well, young-ish—former chorus girl, Marya Zelli, over the year following her Polish husband’s imprisonment for theft. Left in Paris with no money and no real way of making a living—she hails from shabby genteel English stock—Marya sells everything she owns, falls ill, and is taken in by the Heidlers, a wealthy British couple whose interest in her stems, she soon discovers, from the husband’s desire to make her his mistress. It’s not giving much away to reveal that she succumbs—you know she will from the moment they meet—because the real pleasure of the novel lies less in the plot (there isn’t much of one) and more in Rhys’ dark humor, unsparing accounts of Marya’s existential despair as she wanders “like a grey ghost…in a vague, shadowy world,” and genius for portraying a character with the smallest and most specific strokes (Lois Heidler, clutching her giant handbag, bears “the expression of the woman who is wondering how she is going to manage about the extra person to dinner… Obviously of the species wife.”).
For the 21st Century reader there’s also, of course, the odd and undeniable pleasure of reading about Paris—the expatriates of the Montparnasse–in the 1920s from a perspective rather more raw than that of, say, Hemingway. Rhys’ characters—be they would-be painters or Midwestern divorcees—appear to be on the verge of collapse—emotional, physical, financial, artistic–as if they were, to a one, harbingers of the financial failures that would devastate the global economy a year after the novel’s publication. At 23, Quartet struck me as a frank exploration of the vulnerability of a lone woman in a society geared toward monogamy and family. Fifteen years later, it reads as something much larger: an exposure of said society’s cracks and fissures, of the ways in which it has failed that lone woman, and, in doing so, has descended into a sort of moral decay. The residents of Paris wander its streets, devoid of money or purpose, resentful of the prosperous few, filled with the “devastating realization of the essential craziness of existence.” Not so different, I suppose, from New York—or Des Moines, or Fort Worth, or Sacramento—right now.
Some other books I’ve loved this year: Ada Leverson’s satirical novel, Love’s Shadow, originally published in 1908, and recently reissued by Bloomsbury, which covers similar territory to Quartet, but in a deeply comic manner. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which also made me burn dinner, allow my children to play with knives, etc. (Why, I’ve wondered, was Egan not on the cover of Time magazine? Her novel speaks equally to present-day truths about America.) Two new memoirs with very long titles, though I am not normally a memoir person: Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House (which I loved so much, I have forced it on everyone I know) and Bryan Charles’s There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, which is ostensibly about September 11, but really a kind of contemporary kunstleroman, about becoming a writer in the rather toxic contemporary literary climate. And three not-new collections of poetry: Sarah Vap’s American Spikenard, Sandra Beasley’s Theories of Falling, and David Young’s translation of the Chinese poet Du Fu, which is worth reading for the introduction alone.
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