All of Mark Haddon’s fiction for adults has, until now, been rooted in contemporary realism: emotionally intelligent, yet possessed of a light touch and a sweetly British sense of the absurd. You could argue that his best-known novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, is a work of deep imagination; the book, though meticulously realistic, is told from the point of view of a teenager with Savantism. But with his new novel, The Porpoise, Haddon goes deeper still. This time he gives us the gods and goddesses of the ancient world, priestesses and pirates, carnelian and amber. It’s a different kind of storytelling, rich as brocade and powerful indeed.
The Porpoise opens on a present-day setting, though it has a quality of strangeness that, rendered in the author’s somewhat formal language, feels timeless. An extraordinarily rich man named Philippe is married to an actress named Maja, the only person he has ever loved. While very pregnant, Maja takes what should be a short flight in a light aircraft, but the pilot foolishly flies into thick clouds and crashes, killing them both. The baby, a girl Philippe names Angelica, is delivered and lives.
Grief and a monstrous sense of ownership warp Philippe’s mind, and he half believes that Maja lives on in the girl, who he begins molesting when she is small and rapes when she enters adolescence. To keep the nature of their relationship secret, he takes Angelica out of school and moves them around the world. He owns homes in Sri Lanka, Berlin, and Skiathos; he can do what he wants.
The experience of reading Angelica’s story is swiftly engrossing, heady, disorienting—a tumble down a churning whitewater. Her life is a prison, and she feels implicated in her father’s sick need for her. Angelica reads copiously, the escapism of a lonely child desperate to climb out of her circumstance and away from her thoughts. She’s not interested in books other kids her age might read; instead, she plunges into the worlds of myth and legend. As if preparing us for what’s to come, the narrator says:
Her favorite stories are the old ones, those that set deep truths ringing like bells, that take the raw materials of sex and cruelty, of fate and chance, and render them safe by trapping them in beautiful words.
When Haddon’s novel—the book we’re reading—takes us on a similar journey, should we be surprised?
The most distressing parts of the story come out in a rush. A handsome young man comes to the house. The son of a recently deceased art dealer with whom Philippe worked, Darius feels compelled to visit Philippe—not only for business, but because he’s heard about the man’s unusual, beautiful daughter. When he meets the girl and they lock eyes, it takes him only moments to understand that something is very wrong. He tries to rescue her, is nearly killed by Philippe, escapes to the coast, and ends up on a schooner belonging to an old friend who he bumps into by chance. It’s a trippy coincidence that feels just this side of unlikely, even for a rich kid who’s used to things going his way. And sure enough, after Darius sleeps off his injuries, he wakes in a fug of confusion—on a different ship, an unfamiliar one with huge sails. His head swims, full of memories that aren’t his own. He’s still dashing, still hungry for adventure, but he’s become someone else: Pericles, the prince of Tyre, out to sea on his own ship, the Porpoise.
Once we get our sea legs we understand that the novel has become—in fact already was—a retelling of Shakespeare’s Pericles, the story of a young prince who discovered that the King of Antioch was having an incestuous relationship with his daughter and was forced to flee. (The play was itself a retelling of Apollonius of Tyre, a story that was popular during Shakespeare’s lifetime and for centuries before that.)
That’s the thing about legends, ask any scholar of the classics: They get told and retold and will always reflect the attitudes of the place and time of the teller. Haddon makes these characters resonate simply by giving them a “realness” that readers of contemporary fiction crave. They may have old-fashioned names, but they’re bristling with life. When Pericles meets the Queen of Tarsus and she “stands just a little closer to him than is proper, just inside an invisible orbit of which he has never been aware before,” we readers feel the electricity between them. Sex and attraction feature prominently throughout the story, as do birth and death, terror and violence—all the elemental stuff of life that hasn’t changed one bit over the eons—and the drama feels ageless because it is.
The novel’s only obviously contemporary note is Haddon’s insistence that a female perspective shine through the stories, even—or especially—the ones that depict male cruelty toward women. One character, Chloë, is a princess who dies at sea but is pulled ashore and comes back to life, later becoming a priestess who gives the local people advice and guidance. When discussing women’s lot in life, she’s a straight shooter: “Girls have secrets…And there are plenty of men who consider their good name more valuable than a girl’s life.” Does the weight of her words come down like a hammer because Haddon is unsubtle in giving the myth a twist of modern feminism? Or is it because they’re that weighty and timeless and true? It’s stirring either way. And frankly, sometimes subtle just isn’t the way to go.
Likewise, in one of the book’s most haunting passages, Haddon floats a theory for Philippe’s abuse of his daughter.
Does he know, in some corner of his mind, that what he is doing is wrong? Or, if you have never been forbidden absolutely, if you have never been harshly criticized by someone whose opinion genuinely matters to you, if you have never had to face the consequences of your own mistakes, does the quiet, critical, contrary voice at the back of the mind grow gradually quieter until it is no longer audible?
Well shit, the author seems to say. Here we (still) are.
In a brief author’s note, Haddon—who is stunningly sensitive to not only the plight but also the interiority of all his female characters—writes that there is only one version of the Pericles story, a Breton lai written in the early 14th century, in which the princess is the hero, so to speak. Rather than serving as a plot “instigating device,” he says, she is the one at the center of the story who travels around and has “adventures.” I like the way the word adventure is used throughout this novel: It serves as a stout reminder that true adventure is dangerous and experience hard-earned.
Ultimately, the purpose of this beautiful novel is to remind us—to prove to us—that emotional truths are ageless and universal, the bedrock on which our supposedly real lives are built. The thing is, a retelling of an old story is in some ways just an update, a variation on a theme. But when it’s done very well, it’s more like a translation. The meaning of the strange symbols, which can be hard to parse across centuries and cultures, becomes plain. Maybe a woman whose coffin is fished from the ocean can’t come back to life and morph into something new. But perhaps a woman who has experienced a great trauma can walk away from it, change her circumstances in order to survive, and thereby be reborn—first in her mind and then in reality.
Elliot Reed explores adolescent loneliness in his debut novel, A Key to Treehouse Living. “This condition of loneliness and isolation is largely universal, and it’s uncomfortable, so young people find lots of ways to cope with it. There are many ways of coping,” he said.
Reed’s debut follows the rural midwest adventures of William Tyce, a young character who equally enjoys the outdoors and reference books; it is William’s admiration for these books that gives his story its structure. William learns not only how to survive in a world that is largely absent of others but also how to really and truly live.
Reed and I spoke about loneliness, wisdom, imagination, and of course, A Key to Treehouse Living.
The Millions: I read A Guide to Treehouse Living as an ode from William Tyce, the young protagonist, to the rural midwest and—maybe even more so—to the outdoors in general. Among other things, William has a love for campfires, rafts, rivers, and his treehouse. Do you share this love of the natural world with your protagonist?
Elliot Reed: Yes. When people buy a book thinking it’s going to be about treehouses and find out it’s not really about treehouses, the hope is they will feel some consolation from there being a lot of nature in the book. If you haven’t floated down the Missouri River, I recommend it. Pick a cool day in the fall when there’s not too much flooding going on and beware of the silver carp. These large fish will jump right into your boat. If you want an even better experience, go float the Eleven Point River in the Ozarks. It’s called the Eleven Point because 11 springs pour into it. The water is deep, clear, and flows slowly between nice cliffs. Very few people around. You can still find hellbenders there. I know a fabulous canoe rental based out of Alton, Missouri, I’d be happy to point you to. Whether they provide snorkel gear, I don’t know.
TM: The glossary-style structure you implement in A Key to Treehouse Living is incredibly consuming. Why did you decide to write in this unique format?
ER: It was an accident. The first entry I wrote was “Bugling.” I don’t know why I wrote it, and I had no character in mind who would be writing it other than me. I liked writing about doing something I knew only a little bit about and making it sound authoritative. This goes back to my brief tenure as the head writer of the blog How to Start Your Own Handyman Business. I am not a handyman. Never have been. I thought what I wrote about bugling sounded funny, so I kept going.
TM: As the story progressed, did you find the structure difficult to maintain?
ER: Once I realized I was writing something that had volume, and something from a perspective that was not my perspective, I came to understand that I needed a big event. I looked out my window, and there was the Missouri River. The structure was easy to maintain, but I always knew it would feel like the story began flowing in an actual direction once the river was introduced.
TM: William is a kid who is wise beyond his years. Whether he’s talking about the importance of reference books in “Annotations,” giving information about the “Eskimo language” in “Athabascan,” or offering solutions to nightmares in “Betta Fish,” William knows a lot about, well, a lot of things. How much did you have to research to give William this kind of insight?
ER: I didn’t do any real research. I knew a little bit about the mounds because I was obsessed with the mounds for a while. I knew a little bit about hail-damage repair because I was briefly head writer for the microblog known as How to Start Your Own Mobile Dent Repair Business. I have never repaired a dent except for one time, and that had nothing to do with hail. I would, however, recommend you cite or quote William’s glossary in an academic research paper and then send me your paper. If I’d done research, I think this would be a very different book—I remember trying, once or twice, to consult an outside source, but the process felt untrue to William’s character.
TM: I want to ask about the loneliness William experiences. His mother is dead. His father abandoned him. His uncle isn’t really around. He doesn’t have very many human connections at all. In his own entry for “Luminescence,” he says this: “A person’s skin can also seem to glow, and you may want to be inside of it. Sometimes you may want to have another person’s skin surround you like the walls of a parachute house. Feelings can also be luminescent—physical sensations experienced in the darkness can glow with warm heat and then disappear all of a sudden as if obscured by a cloud.” Do you view his separation from people as being sad, or is it what empowers him?
ER: The Dalai Lama says we should be alone for 30 minutes of each day, right? When you follow William as he makes connections to a world in which he seems to be a foreigner, you should absolutely feel empowered. People screw him over or forget about him a lot, but he’d rather write about the ways he keeps moving forward.
TM: Do you think this sense of loneliness William experiences is rare in our world for young people, or is it largely universal?
ER: This condition of loneliness and isolation is largely universal, and it’s uncomfortable, so young people find lots of ways to cope with it. There are many ways of coping. William’s coping mechanism is he creates a glossary of terms that demystify his existence. If you’ve ever become immersed in a dictionary or a field guide to identifying things in nature, you may have been coping with that fundamental loneliness through the act of getting to know other things.
TM: My favorite section is “Making Things Up.” It’s beautiful, and I love how William states the importance of imagination. In his entry, William writes, “The Boy Scouts say you need food, water, and shelter to survive, but they forgot to say you also need to make lists, and you need an imagination. With an imagination, you’re never quite alone, even in a fort deep in the woods when nobody’s around.” As the creator of this character and this story, how important has imagination been in your life?
ER: I’m an only child. I had just one person I would describe as a friend my age before fifth grade. Like other children, I played computer games, so my imagination was outsourced that way. Myst is a good game: You’re alone on an island with a bunch of weird buildings, are given no instructions, and there seems to be no real problem. I lived in Prague for a few years when I was a teenager, and I didn’t speak Czech, so I had to use my imagination when trying to decipher what people were trying to say to me. I had to imagine what the signs said at the castles and churches we’d visit; then I’d see there was an English translation and for whatever reason suspect it had been mistranslated.
TM: I’m sure you’ll hear mentions of your novel alongside Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time due to, if nothing else, the voices of the young protagonists. Who are some of your favorite young literary characters?
ER: I’m ashamed to say I still haven’t read those books, but they’re in the top of the pile on my bedside table. The first book that comes to mind is a children’s book called Andrew Henry’s Meadow by Doris Burn, but that’s just a few pages long and is mostly beautiful drawings of runaway children building their town of forts in the wilderness. They have this town of forts and then a local dog finds them and gives up their location. I prefer Simons Manigault to Holden Caulfield, hands down, though I barely remember anything about Edisto. Then there’s Hushpuppy from the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. Hushpuppy is among the greatest heroes of all time. Scout, from Toni Cade Bambara’s fabulous short story “Gorilla, My Love,” has an unforgettable voice that must have rubbed off on William. Then there are the boys from the movie Stand by Me. I think they spend an afternoon smoking cigarettes and trading baseball cards in a treehouse in that movie. What could be better?
We think it’s safe to say last year was a big year for the book world. In addition to new titles by Harper Lee, Jonathan Franzen, and Lauren Groff, we got novels by Ottessa Moshfegh, Claire Vaye Watkins, and our own Garth Risk Hallberg. At this early stage, it already seems evident this year will keep up the pace. There’s a new Elizabeth Strout book, for one, and a new Annie Proulx; new novels by Don DeLillo, Curtis Sittenfeld, Richard Russo and Yann Martel; and much-hyped debut novels by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney and Callan Wink. There’s also a new book by Alexander Chee, and a new translation of Nobel Prize-winner Herta Müller. The books previewed here are all fiction. Our nonfiction preview is available here.
While there’s no such thing as a list that has everything, we feel certain this preview — at 8,600 words and 93 titles — is the only 2016 book preview you’ll need. Scroll down to get started.
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: The latest novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge centers on a mother and daughter’s tumultuous relationship. In a starred review, Kirkus reports: “The eponymous narrator looks back to the mid-1980s, when she goes into the hospital for an appendix removal and succumbs to a mysterious fever that keeps her there for nine weeks. The possible threat to her life brings Lucy’s mother, from whom she has been estranged for years, to her bedside — but not the father whose World War II–related trauma is largely responsible for clever Lucy’s fleeing her impoverished family for college and life as a writer.” Publishers Weekly says this “masterly” novel’s central message “is that sometimes in order to express love, one has to forgive.” Let’s hope HBO makes this one into a mini-series as well. (Edan)
The Past by Tessa Hadley: Hadley was described by one critic as “literary fiction’s best kept secret,” and Hilary Mantel has said she is “one of those writers a reader trusts,” which, considering the source, is as resounding an endorsement as one can possibly imagine. The English novelist is the author of five novels and two short story collections; in The Past, her sixth novel, siblings reunite to sell their grandparents’ old house. Most likely unsurprising to anyone who’s reunited with family for this sort of thing, “under the idyllic surface, there are tensions.” (Elizabeth)
Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor: Following her time-traveling debut, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World (which is a member of The Millions Hall of Fame), Cantor’s second novel, Good on Paper, chronicles the story of academic and mother Shira Greene. After Shira abandons her PhD thesis on Dante Alighieri’s Vita Nuova, she takes an unfulfilling temp job. When Nobel Prize-winner Romei contacts her to translate his latest work based on Dante’s text, she couldn’t be more excited. But upon receiving his text, she fears “the work is not only untranslatable but designed to break her.” (Cara)
The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun: The latest novel by Morocco’s most acclaimed living writer focuses on the dissolution of a marriage between a renowned painter and his wife. Using two distinct points of view, Ben Jelloun lets each of his characters — man and wife — tell their side of the story. Set against the backdrop of Casablanca in the midst of an awakening women’s rights movement, The Happy Marriage explores not only the question of who’s right and who’s wrong, but also the very nature of modern matrimony. (Nick M.)
Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams: Williams’s short stories operate according to the principles of Viktor Shklovsky’s ostranenie: making strange in order to reveal the ordinary anew. They are dense and dazzling oddities with an ear for patois and steeped deeply in the uncanny. Darkness and desire and despair and longing and schadenfreude and judgment roil just below the surface of seemingly pleasant exchanges, and, in their telling, subvert the reader’s expectations of just how a story unfolds. Williams’s previous collection Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty was a beauty. Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, her forthcoming, warns of linguistic breakdown, insistence, and restlessness. (Anne)
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: It’s been seven years since Samantha Hunt’s novel about Nicola Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else, was listed as an Orange Prize finalist. Now Hunt’s back with a modern gothic starring a scam-artist orphan who claims to talk to the dead; his sister who ages into a strange, silent woman; and, later, her pregnant niece, who follows her aunt on a trek across New York without exactly knowing why. Also featured: meteorites, a runaway nun, a noseless man, and a healthy dash of humor. Although it’s still too early to speculate on the prize-winning potential of Mr. Splitfoot, Hunt’s fantastical writing is already drawing favorable comparisons to Kelly Link and Aimee Bender, and her elegantly structured novel promises to be the year’s most unusual ghost story. (Kaulie)
The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela: Aboulela’s new novel transports readers to Scotland, the Caucasus, St. Petersburg, and Sudan. The protagonist is a Scottish-Sudanese lecturer researching “the lion of Dagestan,” a 19th-century leader who resisted Russian incursions, when she finds out that one of her students is his descendant. As they study up on the rebel leader, and the Georgian princess he captured as a bargaining chip, the two academics become embroiled in a cultural battle of their own. Aboulela’s fifth book sounds like a fascinating combination of Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat and A.S. Byatt’s Possession. (Matt)
Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson: With its intense competition and rivalries, the ballet world provides a novelist with plenty of dramatic material. Girl Through Glass alternates between late-1970s New York, where its heroine works her way into George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, and the present day, where she is a dance professor having an affair with a student. Exploring the exquisite precision of dancing alongside the unruliness of passion, Wilson’s novel looks to be on point. (Matt)
Unspeakable Things by Kathleen Spivack: In her debut novel, Spivack, an accomplished poet, tells the story of a refugee family fleeing Europe during the final year of WWII. In New York City, where they’ve been laying low, we meet a cast of characters including a Hungarian countess, an Austrian civil servant, a German pediatrician, and an eight-year-old obsessed with her family’s past — especially some long-forgotten matters involving late night, secretive meetings with Grigori Rasputin. Described by turns as “wild, erotic” as well as “daring, haunting, dark, creepy, and surreal,” Unspeakable Things certainly seems to live up to its title. (Nick M.)
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell: Greenwell’s debut novel expands his exquisitely written 2011 novella, Mitko. A meticulous stylist, Greenwell enlarges the story without losing its poetic tension. An American teacher of English in Bulgaria longs for Mitko, a hustler. Think the feel of James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. Greenwell’s lines tease and tear at the soul: “That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely. But warning, in places like the bathrooms at the National Place of Culture, where we met, is like some element coterminous with the air, ubiquitous and inescapable, so that it becomes part of those who inhabit it, and thus part and parcel of the desire that draws us there.” (Nick R.)
On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes: This novel about the ills of Europe generally and Spain specifically appears in English mere months after the death of its author, one of Spain’s premier novelists. Readers unmoved by, say, the sour hypotheticals of Michel Houellebecq will find a more nuanced, if no less depressing, portrait of economic decline and societal breakdown in On the Edge, the first of Chirbes’s novels to be translated into English (by Margaret Jull Costa). (Lydia)
The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks: The second collection of short fiction by Sparks, The Unfinished World comprises 19 short (often very short) stories, surreal and fantastic numbers with titles like “The Lizzie Borden Jazz Babies” and “Janitor in Space.” Sparks’s first collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, was The Atlantic Wire’s small press debut of 2012. (Lydia)
And Again by Jessica Chiarella: This debut by current UC Riverside MFA student Chiarella is a speculative literary novel about four terminally ill patients who are given new, cloned bodies that are genetically perfect and unmarred by the environmental dangers of modern life. According to the jacket copy, these four people — among them a congressman and a painter — are “restored, and unmade, by this medical miracle.” And Again is a January Indie Next Pick, and Laila Lalami calls it “a moving and beautifully crafted novel about the frailty of identity, the illusion of control, and the enduring power of love.” (Edan)
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel: The fourth novel by Martel is touted as an allegory that asks questions about loss, faith, suffering, and love. Sweeping from the 1600s to the present through three intersecting stories, this novel will no doubt be combed for comparison to his blockbuster — nine million copies and still selling strong — Life of Pi. And Martel will, no doubt, carry the comparisons well: “Once I’m in my little studio…there’s nothing here but my current novel,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I’m neither aware of the success of Life of Pi nor the sometimes very negative reviews Beatrice and Virgil got. That’s all on the outside.” (Claire)
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: We’ve been awaiting Chee’s sophomore novel, and here it finally is! A sweeping historical story — “a night at the opera you’ll wish never-ending,” says Helen Oyeyemi — and the kind I personally love best, with a fictional protagonist moving among real historical figures. Lilliet Berne is a diva of 19th-century Paris opera on the cusp of world fame, but at what cost? Queen of the Night traffics in secrets, betrayal, intrigue, glitz, and grit. And if you can judge a book by its cover, this one’s a real killer. (Sonya)
The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray: Whiting Award-winner Wray’s fourth novel, The Lost Time Accidents, moves backwards and forwards in time, and across the Atlantic, while following the fates of two Austrian brothers. Their lives are immersed in the rich history of early-20th-century salon culture (intermingling with the likes of Gustav Klimt and Ludwig Wittgenstein), but then they diverge as one aids Adolf Hitler and the other moves to the West Village and becomes a sci-fi writer. When the former wakes one morning to discover that he has been exiled from time, he scrambles to find a way back in. This mash-up of sci-fi, time-travel, and family epic is both madcap and ambitious: “literature as high wire act without the net,” as put by Marlon James. (Anne)
A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin: Canin is the New York Times bestselling author of The Palace Thief and America America and a faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Mathematical genius Milo Andret, subject of A Doubter’s Almanac, shares a home with Canin in northern Michigan. Milo travels to Berkeley, Princeton, Ohio, and back to the Midwest while studying and teaching mathematics. Later in the story, Hans, Milo’s son, reveals that he has been narrating his father’s mathematical triumphs and fall into addiction. Hans may be “scarred” by his father’s actions, but Canin finds a way to redeem him through love. (Cara)
Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma: Kirkus described this book as an ode to friendship, but it could just as easily be described as a meditation on mortality. Jansma’s second novel — his first was The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, published in 2014 — follows the intertwined lives and increasingly dark trajectories of a group of four young friends in New York City. (Emily)
Tender by Belinda McKeon: McKeon took her place among the prominent Irish novelists with her 2011 debut, Solace, which was voted Irish Book of the Year. Her second novel, Tender, follows the lifelong friendship of Catherine and James, who meet when they are both young in Dublin. At first she is a quiet college student and he the charismatic artist who brings her out of her shell, but McKeon follows their friendship through the years and their roles change, reverse, and become as complicated as they are dear. (Janet)
Wreck and Order by Hannah Tennant-Moore: Tennant-Moore’s debut novel, Wreck and Order, brings the audience into the life of Elsie, an intelligent young woman making self-destructive decisions. Economically privileged, she travels instead of attending college. Upon her return from Paris, she finds herself stuck in an abusive relationship and a job she hates — so she leaves the U.S. again, this time for Sri Lanka. A starred review from Publishers Weekly says, “Tennant-Moore is far too sophisticated and nuanced a writer to allow Elsie to be miraculously healed by the mysterious East.” Tennant-Moore leaves the audience with questions about how to find oneself and one’s purpose. (Cara)
Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink: A few short years ago, Wink was a fly-fishing guide in Montana. Today, he has nearly bagged the limit of early literary successes, reeling in an NEA grant, a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, and publications in The New Yorker, Granta, and the Best American Short Stories. “[T]hrough the transparency of his writing, at once delicate and brutally precise, the author gifts us with the wonderful feeling of knowing someone you’ve only met in a book,” Publishers Weekly says of Wink’s debut collection, which is mostly set in and around Yellowstone National Park. (Michael)
The Fugitives by Christopher Sorrentino: Ten years after Sorrentino’s much-lauded and National Book Award-nominated Trance, he returns with The Fugitives, called “something of a thriller, though more Richard Russo than Robert Ludlum,” by Kirkus. Within, struggling writer Sandy Mulligan leaves New York for a small, seemingly quiet Michigan town to escape scandal and finish his novel, and, well, does anything but. His name evokes Sorrentino’s father’s acclaimed novel Mulligan Stew, another tale of a struggling writer whose narrative falls apart. Mulligan’s novel suffers neglect as he befriends a swindler and becomes involved with an investigative reporter who’s there to uncover the crime; Sorrentino’s plot, in contrast, is fine-tuned. (Anne)
The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah: Gappah’s first book, a short story collection called An Elegy for Easterly, won the Guardian First Book Prize in 2009. The Book of Memory is her first novel, and if the first sentence of the description doesn’t hook you, I’m not sure what to tell you: “Memory is an albino woman languishing in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she has been convicted of murder.” The novel follows this “uniquely slippery narrator” as she pieces together her crime and the life that led her there. (Elizabeth)
Youngblood by Matthew Gallagher: In his debut work of fiction, Gallagher, a former U.S. Army captain, focuses his attentions on Jack Porter, a newly-minted lieutenant grappling with the drawdown of forces in Iraq. Struggling with the task of maintaining a delicate peace amongst warlords and militias, as well as the aggressive pressures being applied by a new commanding officer, Jack finds himself embroiled in a conflict between the nation he serves and the one he’s supposedly been sent to help. Described as “truthful, urgent, grave and darkly funny” — as well as “a slap in the face to a culture that’s grown all too comfortable with the notion of endless war” — this novel comes more than 12 years after George W. Bush declared, “Mission Accomplished,” and nine months before we elect our next president. (Nick M.)
Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney: West Berlin in the years before the Wall came down — “that petri dish of romantic radicalism” — is the lush backdrop for Pinckney’s second novel, Black Deutschland. It’s the story of Jed Goodfinch, a young gay black man who flees his stifling hometown of Chicago for Berlin, hoping to recapture the magic decadence of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s Weimar era and, in the process, remake and discover himself. In Berlin, Jed is free to become “that person I so admired, the black American expatriate.” Kirkus praises the novel for embodying the “inventive, idiosyncratic styles” now flourishing in African-American writing. (Bill)
Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka: The linked stories in Majka’s debut collection beg the question how much of ourselves we leave behind with each departure we make, as we become “citizens of the places where we cannot stay.” Kelly Link offers high praise: “A collection that leaves you longing — as one longs to return to much loved, much missed homes and communities and cities — for places that you, the reader, have never been. Prodigal with insight into why and how people love and leave, and love again.” You can read excerpts at Catapult and Longreads. (Bruna)
The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal: De Kerangal, a short-lister for the Prix Goncourt, has not been widely translated in English, although this may change after this novel — her first translation from an American publisher — simultaneously ruins and elevates everyone’s week/month/year. The Heart is a short and devastating account of a human heart (among other organs) as it makes its way from a dead person to a chronically ill person. It is part medical thriller, part reportage on the process of organ donation, part social study, part meditation on the unbearable pathos of life. (Lydia)
You Should Pity Us Instead by Amy Gustine: A debut collection of crisp short stories about people in various forms of extremis — people with kidnapped sons, babies who won’t stop crying, too many cats. The scenarios vary wildly in terms of their objective badness, but that’s how life is, and the writer treats them all with gravity. (Lydia)
The Lives of Elves by Muriel Barbery: Following the hoopla around her surprise bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Barbery, trained as a philosopher, became anxious about expectations for the next book. She traveled, and went back to teaching philosophy. She told The Independent that for a time she had lost the desire to write. Eight years on, we have The Lives of Elves, the story of two 12-year-old girls in Italy and France who each discover the world of elves. Barbery says the book is neither a fairytale nor a parable, strictly speaking, but that she is interested in “enchantment” — how the modern world is “cut off from” from its poetic illusions. (Sonya)
Square Wave by Mark de Silva: A dystopian debut set in America with a leitmotif of imperial power struggles in Sri Lanka in the 17th century. Part mystery, part sci-fi thriller, the novel reportedly deals with “the psychological effects of a militarized state upon its citizenry” — highly topical for Americans today. Readers of The New York Times may recognize de Silva’s name from the opinion section, where he was formerly a staffer. (Lydia)
The Arrangement by Ashley Warlick: Food writing fans may want to check out a novelization of the life of M.F.K. Fisher, focusing on, the title suggests, the more salacious personal details of the beloved food writer’s life. (Lydia)
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue: At once erudite and phantasmagoric, this novel begins with a 16th-century tennis match between the painter Caravaggio and the poet Francisco de Quevedo and swirls lysergically outward to take in the whole history of European conquest. It won awards in Spain and in Enrigue’s native Mexico; now Natasha Wimmer gives us an English translation. (Garth)
The Daredevils by Gary Amdahl: Over the last decade, Amdahl has traced an eccentric orbit through the indie-press cosmos; his mixture of bleakness, comedy, and virtuosity recalls the Coen Brothers, or Stanley Elkin’s A Bad Man. The “Amdahl Library” project at Artistically Declined Press seems to be on hold for now, but perhaps this novel, about a young man riding the currents of radical politics and theater in the early-12th century, will bring him a wider audience. (Garth)
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, at 18 and was later included on Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013. Following her fifth release, the critically-praised novel Boy, Snow, Bird, in 2014, Oyeyemi is publishing her first collection of short stories. The stories draw on similar fairy tale themes as her past works. In What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Oyeyemi links her characters through literal and metaphorical keys — to a house, a heart, a secret. If you can’t wait to get your hands on the collection, one of the stories, “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” was published in Ploughshares this summer. (Cara)
The Ancient Minstrel by Jim Harrison: With The Ancient Minstrel, our national treasure known as Jim Harrison returns to his greatest strength, the novella. Like Legends of the Fall, this new book is a trio of novellas that showcase Harrison’s seemingly limitless range. In the title piece, he has big fun at his own expense, spoofing an aging writer who wrestles with literary fame, his estranged wife, and an unplanned litter of piglets. In Eggs, a Montana woman attempting to have her first child reminisces about collecting eggs at her grandparents’ country home in England. And in The Case of the Howling Buddhas, retired detective Sunderson returns from earlier novels to investigate a bizarre cult. The book abounds with Harrison’s twin trademarks: wisdom and humor. (Bill)
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder: As a fan of sports talk radio and its obsessive analysis, I’m looking forward to Bachelder’s novel, which endlessly dissects the brutal 1985 play where Lawrence Taylor sacked Washington’s quarterback Joe Theismann, breaking his leg. In the novel, 22 friends meet to reenact the play, an occasion that allows Bacheler to philosophize about memory and the inherent chaos of sports. As he put it in a New York Times essay: “I’m moved…by the chasm…between heady design and disappointing outcome, between idealistic grandeur and violent calamity.” (Matt)
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota: Sahota’s second novel is the only title on the 2015 Man Booker Prize shortlist that has yet to be published in the United States. It tells the story of four Indians who emigrate to the north of England and find their lives twisted together in the process. Many critics cited its power as a political novel, particularly in a year when migration has dominated news cycles. But it works on multiple levels: The Guardian’s reviewer wrote, “This is a novel that takes on the largest questions and still shines in its smallest details.” (Elizabeth)
Burning Down the House by Jane Mendelsohn: The author of the 1990s bestseller I Was Amelia Earhart here focuses on a wealthy New York family beset by internal rivalries and an involvement, perhaps unwitting, in a dark underworld of international crime. Mendelsohn’s novel hopscotches the globe from Manhattan to London, Rome, Laos, and Turkey, trailing intrigue and ill-spent fortunes. (Michael)
Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov: In this first novel from Penkov (author of the story collection East of the West), a young Bulgarian immigrant returns to the borderlands of his home country in search of his grandfather. Molly Antopol calls it “a gorgeous and big-hearted novel that manages to be both a page-turning adventure story and a nuanced meditation on the meaning of home.” (Bruna)
Gone with the Mind by Mark Leyner: With novels like Et Tu, Babe and The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, Leyner was one of the postmodern darlings of the 1990s (or you may remember him sitting around the table with Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace for the legendary Charlie Rose segment). After spending almost the last decade on non-fiction and movie projects, he’s back with a new novel in which the fictional Mark Leyner reads from his autobiography at a reading set up by his mother at a New Jersey mall’s food court. Mark, his mother, and a few Panda Express employees share an evening that is absurd and profound — basically Leyneresque. (Janet)
Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta: “Maybe I’m a writer so I have an excuse to do research,” Spiotta said of what she enjoys about the writing process. And yet, for all of her research, she avoids the pitfalls of imagination harnessed by fact. In fact, Spiotta’s fourth and latest novel, Innocents and Others, is nearly filmic, channeling Jean-Luc Godard, according to Rachel Kushner, and “like classic JLG is brilliant, and erotic, and pop.” Turn to The New Yorker excerpt to see for yourself: witness Jelly, a loner who uses the phone as a tool for calculated seduction, and in doing so seduces the reader, too. (Anne)
Prodigals by Greg Jackson: Jackson’s collection opens with a story originally published in The New Yorker, ”Wagner in the Desert,” a crackling tale of debauchery set in Palm Springs. In it, a group of highly-educated, creative, and successful friends seek to “baptize [their] minds in an enforced nullity.” They also repeatedly attempt to go on a hike. The wonderfully titled “Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy,” in which a former tennis star enlists his houseguest in a bizarre project, and the eerily beautiful “Tanner’s Sisters” are two particularly memorable stories in this sharp and often haunting debut. (Matt)
Shelter by Jung Yun: Yun’s debut novel concerns Kyung Cho: a husband, father, and college professor in financial trouble who can no longer afford his home. When his own parents — whom he barely tolerates because they’ve never shown him warmth and affection — are faced with violence and must move in with him, Cho can no longer hide his anger and resentment toward them. The jacket copy compares the book to Affliction and House of Sand and Fog, and James Scott, author of The Kept, calls it “an urgent novel.” Yun’s work has previously been published in Tin House. (Edan)
99 Poems: New and Selected by Dana Gioia: A gifted poet of rhythm and reason, Gioia’s civic and critical pedigree is impressive. A previous chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia was recently named California’s Poet Laureate. In recent years Gioia’s critical writing has taken precedence — his 2013 essay “The Catholic Writer Today” is already a classic in its genre – but this new and selected collection marks his return to verse. Graywolf is Gioia’s longtime publisher, so look for emblematic works like “Becoming a Redwood” next to new poems like “Hot Summer Night:” “Let’s live in the flesh and not on a screen. / Let’s dress like people who want to be seen.” (Nick R.)
Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton: “I had rather be a meteor, singly, alone,” writes Margaret Cavendish, the titular character in Dutton’s novel Margaret the First. Cavendish is “a shy but audacious” woman of letters, whose writing and ambitions were ahead of her time. The taut prose and supple backdrop of courtly life are irresistible. (Witness: quail in broth and oysters; bowls stuffed with winter roses, petals tissue-thin; strange instruments set beside snuffboxes.) Dutton is something of a meteor herself, as founder of the Dorothy Project and with two wondrous books already under her belt, including the Believer Book Award-nominated novel Sprawl. (Anne)
The North Water by Ian McGuire: A raw and compulsively readable swashbuckler about the whaling business, with violence and intrigue in dirty port towns and on the high seas. There are many disturbing interactions between people and people, and people and animals — think The Revenant for the Arctic Circle. This is McGuire’s second novel; he is also the author of the “refreshingly low-minded campus novel” Incredible Bodies. (Lydia)
Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett: A young middle-class Nigerian man wakes up in his bed one morning to find that he has become white in the night. As a consequence, he loses his family but gains all manner of undeserved and unsolicited privileges, from management positions at various enterprises to the favors of beautiful women from the upper crust of Lagos society. His dizzying tragicomic odyssey paints a vivid portrait of the social and economic complexities of a modern megacity. (Lydia)
The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel The Nest will hit shelves in March trailing seductive pre-hype: we learned last December that the book was sold to Ecco for seven figures, and that it’s the story of a wealthy, “spectacularly dysfunctional” family — which for me brings to mind John Cheever, or maybe even the TV series Bloodlines, in which one of the siblings is a particular mess and the others have to deal with him. But The Nest has been described as “warm,” “funny,” and “tender,” so perhaps the novel is more an antidote to the darkness in family dysfunction we’ve known and loved — fucked-up families with hearts of gold? (Sonya)
What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera: A novel about a mother and daughter who leave Sri Lanka after a domestic disturbance and struggle to find happiness in the United States. Munaweera won the Regional Commonwealth Book Prize for Asia for her first novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors. (Lydia)
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan: A novelist examines the enduring fallout of a “small” terrorist attack in a Delhi marketplace, and the way that families, politics, and pain weave together. Mahajan’s first novel, Family Planning, was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas prize. (Lydia)
Hold Still by Lynn Steger Strong: An emotionally suspenseful debut about the relationship between a mother and her troubled young daughter, who commits an unfixable indiscretion that implicates them both. (Lydia)
Dodge Rose by Jack Cox: This young Australian has evidently made a close study of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett (and maybe of Henry Green) — and sets out in his first novel to recover and extend their enchantments. A small plot of plot — two cousins, newly introduced, attempt to settle the estate of an aunt — becomes the launch pad for all manner of prose pyrotechnics. (Garth)
High Dive by Jonathan Lee: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher could have been the title of Lee’s first novel, had Hilary Mantel not taken it for her 2014 short story collection. The similarities end with the subject matter, though. Where Mantel opted for a tight focus, Lee’s novel uses a real-life attempt to blow up Mrs. Thatcher as an opportunity to examine other, less public lives. (Garth)
My Struggle: Book Five by Karl Ove Knausgaard: Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, the fifth installment of this six-volume autobiographical novel covers Knausgaard’s early adulthood. The book is about a love affair, alcoholism, death, and the author’s struggle to write. James Wood describes Knausgaard’s prose as “intense and vital […] Knausgaard is utterly honest, unafraid to voice universal anxieties.” (Bruna)
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld: In Sittenfeld’s modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Liz is a New York City magazine writer and Darcy is a Cincinnati neurosurgeon. Although the update is certainly on trend with themes of CrossFit and reality TV, Sittenfeld is an obvious choice to recreate Jane Austen’s comedy of manners. From her boarding school debut, Prep, to the much-lauded American Wife, a thinly veiled imagination of Laura Bush, Sittenfeld is a master at dissecting social norms to reveal the truths of human nature underneath. (Tess)
Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock: The author’s wife, Diana Colbert, died of leukemia in 2011 when their daughter was only three years old. Inspired in part by this personal tragedy, this second novel by the author of 2008’s Beautiful Children traces a day in the life of a young New York couple with a new baby after the wife is diagnosed with cancer. “I can’t remember the last time I stayed up all night to finish a book,” enthuses novelist Ayelet Waldman. “This novel laid me waste.” (Michael)
Our Young Man by Edmund White: White’s 13th novel sees a young Frenchman, Guy, leave home for New York City, where he begins a modeling career that catapults him to the heights of the fashion world. His looks, which lend him enduring popularity amongst his gay cohort on Fire Island, stay youthful for decades, allowing him to keep modeling until he’s 35. As the novel takes place in the ’70s and ’80s, it touches on the cataclysm of the AIDS crisis. (Thom)
Now and Again by Charlotte Rogan: After harboring a secret writing habit for years, Rogan burst onto the bestseller list with her debut novel, The Lifeboat, which was praised for its portrayal of a complex heroine who, according to The New York Times, is “astute, conniving, comic and affecting.” Rogan’s second novel, Now and Again, stars an equally intricate secretary who finds proof of a high-level cover-up at the munitions plant where she works. It is both a topical look at whistleblowers and a critique of the Iraq War military-industrial complex. Teddy Wayne calls it “the novel we deserve for the war we didn’t.” (Claire)
Hystopia by David Means: After four published books, a rap sheet of prizes, and six short stories in The New Yorker, Means is coming out with his debut novel this spring. Hystopia is both the name of the book and a book-within-the-book, and it revolves around Eugene Allen, a Vietnam vet who comes up with an alternate history. In Allen’s bizarre, heady what-if, John F. Kennedy survives the ’60s, at the end of which he creates an agency called the Psych Corps that uses drugs to wipe traumas from people’s brains. (Thom)
Ear to the Ground by David L. Ulin and Paul Kolsby: In this “rollicking” tale about 1990s L.A., seismologist Charlie Richter, grandson of the man who invented the Richter scale, heads to the City of Angels to work at the Center of Earthquake Science to prove his methods for predicting quakes. The book, co-written by an essayist and critic (Ulin) and a screenwriter and movie producer (Kolsby), comes with an introduction by Karolina Waclawiak, author of The Invaders, and was previously serialized in the L.A. Reader. The novel will be published by the small but mighty Unnamed Press, an L.A.-based publishing house with a roster of quirky and formally daring books. (Edan)
Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings by Stephen O’Connor: A fictional account of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings told in conversations, fragments, and dreams. An excerpt is available at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading — the site’s editor called it “experimental, metaphysical, deeply unsettling, and important.” (Lydia)
Bardo or Not Bardo by Antoine Volodine: In his publisher’s synopsis, the French writer Volodine’s multi-novel project sounds appealingly nuts: “Most of his works take place in a post-apocalyptic world where members of the ‘post-exoticism’ writing movement have all been arrested as subversive elements.” A recent critical essay in The New Inquiry furthers the sense of a cult in the making. Bardo or Not Bardo, a comedy the characters of which keep bungling attempts at reincarnation, may be a good place to begin the indoctrination. (Garth)
Letters to Kevin by Stephen Dixon: In 2015, it’s remarkably easy to make a phone call, so the latest novel by Stephen Dixon comes off as a Beckettian farce. The plot is absurd: in it, a man named Rudy sets out to call his friend Kevin Wafer, a teenager-going-on-college-student who lives across the country in Palo Alto. Rudy doesn’t have a phone, but when he tries to use a phone booth, a crane picks it up and deposits it (and Rudy) in a warehouse. Eventually, he gives up and opts to write a letter instead. Throughout, Dixon’s black-and-white drawings lend depth to his nightmare of inconvenience. (Thom)
The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest: Barely 30, Tempest has won awards for her poetry, performances, and recordings. Her long narrative poem “Brand New Ancients” found the through-line from Homer to Jay-Z. Now she turns to prose, in a novel about scrabbling young Londoners trying to outrun the past. (Garth)
Zero K by Don DeLillo: When Jennifer Egan introduced DeLillo for his reception of the National Book Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, she noted “There will be no better way to understand life in the late-20th and early-21st century than reading the books of Don DeLillo.” Paranoia does not always lead to prescience, but DeLillo’s anxious eye toward the future has always been tempered by his identity as the son of immigrants and the Catholic spectacle of his youth. Zero K begins big: “Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” says billionaire Ross Lockhart to his son Jeff, the novel’s narrator. Jeff notes “We were sharing a rare point in time, contemplative, and the moment was made complete by his vintage sunglasses, bringing the night indoors.” No one is better than DeLillo at vaulting between registers of comedy and tragedy, between the consequence of eternity and the power of a single moment. (Nick R.)
LaRose by Louise Erdrich: On a summer day in North Dakota, 1999, a man named Landreaux stalks a deer along his property line. He shoots and misses, but he’s hit something else: his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty. Landreaux’s close with his neighbors, in part because he has a five-year-old son of his own, LaRose, and the boys were inseparable. Erdrich’s 15th novel explores the complicated aftermath of the death, as Landreaux and his wife decide to give LaRose to their grieving neighbors as retribution. (Emily)
The Fox Was Ever the Hunter by Herta Müller: As if living in a totalitarian regime wasn’t bad enough, the four friends in Müller’s novel must contend with the fact that one of them is spying on the group for the secret police. Capturing the fear and moral corruption of the final days of Romania’s Ceausescu regime — and inevitably drawing on her own persecution by the secret police — Müller won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009 for her work. Now, her long-time translator Philip Boehm brings the classic to English readers. (Tess)
The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon: Haddon is nothing if not versatile. You know him for his international bestseller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but did you know Haddon is also an illustrator, screenwriter, poet, winner of two BAFTAs, and has written 15 books for children? It might not come as a surprise that his new book is a departure: a collection of short stories. An expedition to Mars goes wrong, a seaside pier collapses, a woman is marooned on an island, two boys find a gun in a shoebox. The stories are billed as “searingly imaginative and emotionally taut.” (Claire)
Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet: In her 10th novel, Millet delves into the territory of the psychological thriller: a young mother, Anna, takes her six-year-old daughter, Lena, and flees her estranged husband, Ned, who’s running for office in Alaska. Anna and Lena go into hiding in a derelict hotel in Maine, which quickly begins to fill up with other guests; guests who, as the novel progresses, begin to seem less and less like ordinary tourists, even as Ned begins to seem more and more sociopathic. (Emily)
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub: What happens when you age out of your cool? It’s a topic that filmmaker Noah Baumbach has explored, and Straub is his literary counterpart. Her third novel follows three Brooklyn Gen X friends and former bandmates nearing 50 and handing off the baton of hipness to their children, stifled ambition and sexual frustration included. With the multigenerational structure, it would be easy to compare Straub to other masters of the genre like Meg Wolitzer or Jennifer Egan, but she’s already a master in her own right after The Vacationers, so Modern Lovers should prove to be a witty romp. (Tess)
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes: Barnes’s new novel — his first since 2011’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending — concerns the life of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Barnes considers his character not just on a human level, as a young man fearing for his life and the safety of his family under Joseph Stalin, but also as a lens through which to examine the fall of the Soviet Union and the role of the artist in society. (Emily)
Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo: There are two kinds of Russo aficionados — those who came to him through his hilarious 1997 academic satire Straight Man and those who started with his wry, brooding 1993 breakthrough Nobody’s Fool. The latter strain of Russophile will rejoice that Russo has brought back Donald “Sully” Sullivan, the irascible hero of Nobody’s Fool, who was played by Paul Newman in the movie version. Two decades on, Sully has learned from his doctor that he has at most a year or two to live, and spends the novel striving to keep the news from everybody he loves. (Michael)
The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan: You had to know the person who’s spent more than a decade working at thoroughbred racetracks would choose to blurb the horse racing novel. Morgan, who was named one of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 in 2010, has set both of her novels in her native Kentucky; this one centers on a powerful family aiming to breed the next racing great, and a young black man who comes to work for them and brings their prejudices into full view. It is described as “an unflinching portrait of lives cast in shadow by the enduring legacy of slavery.” (Elizabeth)
The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin: Cronin brings his mammoth, vampire apocalypse horror trilogy to a close this spring with The City of Mirrors. The Twelve (godfather vampires) have been defeated, and their descendants with them, and the human colonists start to retake the world, no longer confined to their fortresses and hiding places. But are they really safe? (They’re not.) Zero — the vampire who created The Twelve — survives, and he’s mad as hell. The conclusion of this suspenseful, surprising, frequently heartwarming, more often creepy-as-shit series promises to go out with a bang. (Janet)
The Fat Artist and Other Stories by Benjamin Hale: Hale’s simian debut novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, was widely praised; it takes talent to craft the believable voice of a chimpanzee who has “finally decided to give this undeserving and spiritually diseased world the generous gift of my memoirs.” Hale recently co-edited an issue of Conjunctions titled “A Menagerie,” that collects bestial tales. The short story form allows Hale’s own penchant for invention to further shine. One story, “The Minus World,” investigates shadow, “unfinished or rejected levels that the programmers left floating around” in Super Mario Bros: “It’s as if Mario had traveled to the distant, frayed edges of space and time. He must look into the void. It’s a little frightening.” The Fat Artist, which includes stories about dominatrices and performance artists, is sure to please. (Nick R.)
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett: In his third book and second novel, Imagine Me Gone, Haslett returns to the territory of mental illness — the subject of many of the stories in his award-winning debut collection You Are Not a Stranger Here. Margaret marries John, after learning of his serious struggle with depression, and later their eldest son, Michael, battles with despair as well. From Joy Williams: “[O]ne of the most harrowing and sustained descriptions of a mind in obsessive turmoil and disrepair that I’ve ever read.” Peter Carey, on the other hand, speaks to the hopeful elements of the novel — “both dreadfully sad and hilariously funny all at once. It is luminous with love.” (Sonya)
Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens: In her two previous novels, Erens has quietly built a reputation as a sharp stylist with a gift for bringing quirky outsiders alive on the page. In Eleven Hours, a very pregnant young woman arrives alone at the maternity ward wanting to give birth without a fetal heart monitor, IV tubes, or epidural anesthesia. The novel follows her 11-hour labor in the care of a Haitian nurse who is herself pregnant. “Erens evokes the layered experience of living in a body — its tides of memory, sensation, and emotion — like no other writer I know,” writes novelist Karen Russell. (Michael)
Allegheny Front by Matthew Neill Null: A collection of short stories set in the author’s native West Virginia, where people and landscapes and animals reap the wages of resource extraction. Null’s first novel, Honey from the Lion, was a historical novel about West Virginia’s timber industry. (Lydia)
Barkskins by Annie Proulx: The award-winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain returns with a new novel in June — 10 years in the making — about wilderness, the rampant destruction of forests, and greed. At over 800 pages, this ambitious novel spans over three centuries and travels from France to China to New England. (Bruna)
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler: If anyone was going to update The Taming of the Shrew, it should be the Pulitzer-winning Tyler, who is a keen observer of the nuances of the American family. In her take on the classic Shakespearean comedy, Kate is managing her odd scientist father’s household when his assistant might be deported, and the men scheme to keep him in the country with Kate’s help. Even though we think we already know the ending, the independent and contemporary Kate might have a surprise up her sleeve. (Tess)
They May Not Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Schine: Her new novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, will solidify Schine’s reputation as “the Jane Austen of the 21st century.” When her husband dies, Joy Bergman finds that her children, Molly and Daniel, have an arsenal of weapons to fend off the woes of widowhood. But Joy is not about to take advice or antidepressants from anyone. When an ardent suitor from Joy’s college days reappears, Molly and Daniel must cope with their widowed mother becoming as willful and rebellious as their own kids. They May Not Mean To, But They Do is a compassionate look at three generations, all coming of age together. (Bill)
The Girls by Emma Cline: This debut follows two young women into the world of a Manson-ish cult in the 1960s. Cline won the 2014 Plimpton Prize from the Paris Review, which also published her essay about how she came to this material. (Garth)
Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel: Ausubel’s first novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, won the PEN Center USA Fiction Award and the VCU Cabell First Novel Award. The New York Times Book Review wrote that her story collection, A Guide to Being Born, “finds a way to record the tensions between the corporeal and the invisible” — that’s an excellent way to read all her mischievous, magical work, actually. Ausubel’s second novel is about a moneyed family on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1970s — except this moneyed family is out of dough. The terror of being broke spins parents Fern and Edgar off on separate, strange journeys; meanwhile, their three kids are left to fend for themselves “in an improvised Neverland helmed by the tender, witty, and resourceful Cricket, age nine.” Maggie Shipstead calls it a “brilliantly imagined novel about family and fortune and the hidden knots between.” (Edan)
Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam: In Alam’s debut novel, Rich and Pretty, Sarah is the rich one and Lauren is the pretty one. They first met 20 years ago at a tony private school in Manhattan and became inseparable through high school, college, first jobs, and first loves. But now, all grown up and living very different New York lives, they have to navigate the tricky ways that the closest of friendships evolve, erode, and endure. Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers, says Alam, a Year in Reading alum at The Millions, has crafted a debut that’s “smart, sharp and beautifully made.” (Bill)
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Gyasi’s debut distills hundreds of years of of history into 300 pages, tracing the lives and legacies of two Ghanaian half-sisters, one of them sold into slavery, one of them comparatively free. (Garth)
July and Beyond:
Home Field by Hannah Gersen: Our own Hannah Gersen’s debut novel is the story of Dean, a high school football coach in small town Maryland — and therefore a pillar of his community — whose life comes untethered after his wife’s suicide. Left to raise three children dealing with their mother’s death — a daughter at Swarthmore, an 11-year-old son acting out, and an eight-year-old son who barely understands it all — not to mention keep winning football games, Dean has to take stock of the life he thought he had, and how to move forward. (Janet)
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer: FSG editor Eric Chinski knows Foer’s new novel — his first since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) — better than anyone (other than Foer himself of course). Chinski says of Here I Am, “It’s got this high-wire inventiveness and intensity of imagination in it, and the sheer energy that we associate with Jonathan’s writing, but it’s a big step forward for him. It’s got a kind of toughness; it’s dirty, it’s kind of funny, like Portnoy’s Complaint, it exposes American Jewish life.” It’s not, Chinski says, autobiographical in any strict sense, but does borrow from Foer’s life — the story of a Jewish family, divorce, and three sons, in Washington D.C. (Sonya)
How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball: In his new novel, Ball follows the trajectory of a brilliant teenager living an impoverished and increasingly precarious life in the absence of her parents. Her father is dead, her mother institutionalized, and when she discovers that there’s an arson club at her school, she finds herself rapidly running out of reasons not to set the world on fire. (Emily)
I Am No One by Patrick Flanery: How far does reasonable suspicion live from outright paranoia? Are they close neighbors; do they overlap? These are questions for Jeremy O’Keefe, a professor who has just returned to New York City after 10 years abroad, and suddenly finds himself the object of obsession for a pale young man from his past — or is he? (Nick M.)
Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard: Winner of the Amanda Davis Award from McSweeney’s and author of the novels Reunion and The Fates Will Find Their Way, Pittard now brings us the story of a young married couple, Mark and Maggie, on a road trip gone wrong. Maggie’s recently been robbed at gun point, and by the time they stop for the night at an out-of-the-way inn (without power), the two aren’t even speaking to one another. Frederick Barthelme calls it “a positively Hitchcockian misadventure” and the jacket copy dubs it a “modern Gothic.” (Edan)
Monterey Bay by Lindsay Hatton: Hatton (my quondam classmate) blends historical fact — the life of John Steinbeck circa Cannery Row — with the story of a young woman discovering the complexities of adult life. In the process, the novel illuminates the founding of the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. Celeste Ng, in her blurb, compares Monterey Bay, Euphoria, and The Signature of All Things. (Garth)
Losing It by Emma Rathbone: In her debut, The Patterns of Paper Monsters, Rathbone proved herself a wry observer of coming of age in difficult circumstances. Her second novel follows this theme, as protagonist Julia Greenfield visits her spinster aunt during a hot North Carolina summer to conquer her greatest insecurity: why she’s still a virgin at 26. Except her aunt is one as well at 58. What follows is a candid yet funny take on just what desire and love mean. (Tess)
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías: Marías returns with another masterful tapestry of noir-ish twists and digressive cerebration. A young man goes to work for a famous film director, and then finds himself entangled with the mysteries of the director’s wife. This one will be published in the U.S. in the fall. (Garth)
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You want to know how weird and deep my rabbit hole goes? I’ve developed what I’ll call an eccentricity about chapters. As in: there are certain choices that writers make when dividing up their narratives that quite simply drive me fucking crazy. Without an ounce of justification, I get a pound of pissed. And what this makes me realize is not so much that I’ve developed strange little idiosyncratic tics while I’m reading (that much is obvious) but more that my reading experience is personal and solitary and deeply entrenched in whole loads of bullshit that have nothing to do with the books, i.e., that the completely happenstantial list of books I’ve read over my life has somehow hoisted onto me certain expectations of literature and literary narrative technique that are built upon wholly dubious foundations that belong only to me and cannot be argued with any intellectual integrity. And even though I know this to be true I still in some way hold my complaint against the writer and more specifically whatever book I’m reading at the time and sometimes even go so far as to downright dislike the book (though of course I keep my reasoning to myself, mostly).
Because the thing about chapters is that they provide a lot of opportunities for the writer to communicate information about their book and can in fact orient the reader as to how to read the thing. A more crass version of the chapter’s utility can be plainly seen in, e.g., the novels of Dan Brown, in which the chapters are so short (and the pagination designed just so in order to create as many pages with only a few lines on them as possible) that a reader is goaded into thinking they’re moving through the book super-quick. This is not authorial assistance; it is a kind of manipulation that, given the meteoric popularity of Brown’s novels and others like them, most people are apparently pretty cool with.
What I’m talking about instead are the ways in which chapters are not merely components of a narrative’s foundational architecture but also part of its aesthetic, i.e., more like those imposing Ionic columns that both hold up the facade and immensely add to the overall quality of the building. To begin with an obvious example: think of how much the Fantasy genre has benefited from borrowing the chapter structure of histories. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings––as the archetypal built-world saga––divides itself up into Books and Parts and Chapters, these last of which each come with a title. Plus there’s also the Notes, Maps and Appendices––all of which add to the verisimilitude of legit history, preparing the reader for a similar treatment of a fictional place. These verisimilitudinous appropriations are so effective for Fantasy and Sci-fi genres that they’ve become a standard part of their aesthetic.
A person who picks up Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao will know right away the scope of the novel. After a short but foreboding prologue, we enter the first part of the book. Chapter One, then, is titled, “GhettoNerd at the End of the World: 1974–1987.” How much information about the rest of the story can be gleaned from just this chapter heading? Well, for one we can tell that Oscar’s story will take place over a number of years, which connotes a sense of the epic on par with nonfiction histories. Moreover, “GhettoNerd” effectively characterizes both the citizens that people the story and the nomenclature they use. And the appended prepositional phrase, “at the End of the World” suggests grandness of a different kind: that of comic books and adventure stories, the very same kind gobbled up by the hopelessly uncool protagonist. Also, these emphatically grand names (later chapters are titled, e.g., “Sentimental Education: 1988-1992” and “The Three Heartbreaks of Belicia Cabral: 1955-1962”) help absorb some of the momentum-shock of suddenly jumping from one time and place to another, and raise this thickly-accented contemporary tale to the status of History (a notion furthered by the book’s actual preoccupation with educating readers about the horrors of Trujillo). Tolkien borrowed from History to make his fantasy world Real; Díaz used it to make his story Significant.
But there are other ways of structuring a novel to reinforce its aims and intent. Ali Smith’s There but for the sections itself into the four words of the title, and each part not only begins with the titular word but also investigates it. The unfinished sentence, “there but for the,” becomes the connective tissue of the novel, each part working like a lengthy footnote to each word. The section, e.g., “but” features a poem on the conjunction/preposition that ends:
The way things connect.
Ali Smith incredibly makes her book seem like a narrative investigation of a single, incomplete sentence––the ending of which is of course known to all of us and factors into the story as well.
Chapter titles can sometimes become almost like characters, as in Office Girl by Joe Meno (a writer I unabashedly enjoy and who seems forever attached to his early success with Hairstyles of the Damned despite continuing to publish interesting works like The Boy Detective Fails, Demons in the Spring, and The Great Perhaps). The third-person-narrative novel has these short little chapters with titles like “But Ten Years Before” and “And That Night Goes to an Art Opening” and “Because This Is What He’s Been Doing.” These casual (and causal) names add a nice rhythm to the story and are actually quite necessary tactics for the reader to understand the ways the two protagonists feel about certain things in their life.
Books like Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Chuck Palahniuk’s Survivor use numerical ordering as techniques––Haddon’s protagonist, the autistic Christopher John Francis Boone, finds safety in math, especially prime numbers, so the chapters are headlined by those indivisible numbers; Palahniuk’s 1999 novel’s chapters are in reverse sequence––starting with Chapter 47 and ending with 1––as is the pagination, thereby “counting down” to the climax in the most literal way possible. These are simple and effective touches, connecting the disparate elements of the novels into single, cohesive units. Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Luminaries uses the Zodiac to reinforce the written-in-the-stars nature of her tale. Twelve main characters mirror the twelve signs, and the book’s even got twelve chapters and those are made up of smaller sections named after the precise (as I’m sure Catton researched it thoroughly) locations of the corresponding sign, as in, e.g., “Mercury in Sagittarius.” Taken altogether, Catton’s chapters work to add to the tone of the work (which is an uber-complex mystery featuring mediums and séances and ghosts (of a sort)) but are way too complex for someone like me who both doesn’t buy into astrology and knows next to nothing about it. In other words, from my point of view Catton succeeded in creating a forest even though I don’t understand the trees.
And then there is, of course, the shit that bothers me: for example, Moliere’s Tartuffe, a play in which the introduction of any character to a scene calls for a new one. What is this about? It makes for frustrating reading, akin to having someone announcing the entrance of every featured player in a sitcom. There’s Jerry! And look––Kramer! Just annoying. I know my aversion isn’t intellectually justifiable (after all, the scene numbers would be invisible if I ever actually saw a production of Tartuffe) but everyone has to admit that we’ve come to expect certain things from chapters, right? But here is a great problem: my arbitrary history with reading has not only given me these unfair proclivities but it’s also somehow convinced me that everyone else agrees with me.
Take, for instance, Charles Baxter’s otherwise fine novel The Feast of Love. In the opening of the book, Charlie Baxter embarks on a late-night walk after a night of restless sleep. This chapter, entitled “Preludes,” ends when Charlie’s friend Bradley comes upon him: “’Hey,’ he says, ‘Charlie. What they hell you doing out here? What’s up?’” Then, the section ends. The next chapter, “One,” begins like this: “’Hey,’ he says, ‘Charlie. What they hell you doing out here? What’s up?’” It’s the same setting, the same scene––hell, the same fucking moment––yet Baxter inserts a division here. Why? Well, I could see someone saying that Bradley’s entrance marks a shift in the story, since it is Bradley’s stories that comprise the novel. But then Baxter does this again. Chapter One ends with Bradley launching into his tales: “Okay,” he says. “Chapter One. Every relationship has at least one really good day…” and then Chapter Two begins, “Every relationship has at least one really good day.”
I don’t know why Baxter’s creative choices in The Feast of Love annoy me so much (and, to be fair, he doesn’t do this the entire book), but I think it might have to do with the physical properties of chapters. When a narrative stops and then continues on another page, I immediately assume some passage of time has elapsed or that maybe a change in perspective has occurred––there is just something psychically affecting about having to turn a page or having larger text interrupt prose. But when the scene merely continues, I am yanked out of the story and into the mind of the writer (or, more accurately, what I perceive to be the mind of the writer). So does this mean that I should try to eradicate my tendencies, open myself up to the myriad ways that chapters can function? Or do I simply use my weird shit as a helpful barometer for my taste? Should I, i.e., accept that certain books cannot and will not meet my stupid expectations and move along? There are already way too many books in this world for me to read, so maybe I should simple stop wasting my time with stuff that annoys me, even if my annoyance has zero legitimacy.
Okay, a little more time. It really pisses me off when books that have multiple parts still number the chapters as if the parts weren’t there. Díaz’s Oscar Wao does this, as do a number of bigger novels. This seems to ignore the entire purpose of Parts and Books, which to me create their own internal structure, much like the way each floor of a hotel begins numbering the rooms from 01. When writers ignore this, I tend to think of the Parts and Books to be arbitrary, an unnecessary intrusion to the larger rhythm.
But all of these weird little tics are mine and mine alone. I would never actually assume anyone else agrees or even thinks about this. I only know that when I read, these factors come into major play––justifiable or not––and help determine my assessment of a work. Even if I never mention it to others, in conversation or in a review, this stuff ends up mattering to me. Art (and art criticism) is full of unfair and unsubstantiated subjectivity like this but we love to pretend that we can approach things with cool empirical impartiality. Some can, I suppose, but I sure as hell can’t. I get stuck on chapters, on character names, on setting, on my perception of the author’s intention––because to me there isn’t any one aspect of fiction that stands above everything else. Every part of a novel or a story is a choice, made by a human being, and each part is as important as the next. And then there’s me––all-too-human, full of my own idiosyncrasies and prejudices and preferences and unable to stop them from taking over––responding to an author’s idiosyncrasies and prejudices and preferences. It’s like any relationship, I guess: the writer has their baggage, and I have mine. All I can do is hope that more often than not I stumble upon artists whose baggage is closest to mine. Because the other option would be for me to try to change these tics––which without going into too much detail I’ll just assure you is impossible.
Image credit: Unsplash/Will Tarpey.
When I write fiction, at least a first draft of something, I try not to think too much. Or maybe it’s that I try to keep my thoughts small: words, images, rhythms, a character’s particular way of holding a key. I try not to think about the symbolic meaning of said key—if keys keep showing up, I try not to think about why. In revision, sure. The keys will have to go. But for the first draft I willfully maintain a half-state of ignorance. This is how I was able to write basically the same short story twice. (I like to think the second “version,” published years later, is better.) It’s how I build parallels and thematic arcs into my work before I recognize them as such and risk overdoing them. It’s how I got many drafts into my first novel, The Little Bride, before I realized—when my editor brought it up, as a simple matter of fact—that the two central mother figures in the book leave their husbands and children. They don’t say goodbye, or leave notes, or send word of where they’ve gone. They just disappear, and don’t come back.
Initially, I was drawn to Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, by its premise: the book tells the story of the Lees, a multiracial family in 1970s Ohio reeling from the mysterious death of their middle child, Lydia. I found myself reading late into the night, fascinated by Ng’s imperfect characters working their way—imperfectly—through grief, moved by her restrained yet startlingly emotive prose, in awe of her masterful use of an omniscient narrator who switches points-of-view mid-scene as soundlessly as Marilyn Lee opens the door to her daughter’s empty bedroom. Then, mid-book, I found myself holding my breath as the narrative flashed back to one summer, years ago, when Marilyn cooked her family’s favorite meals, dug out her textbooks from her long-abandoned college career, and without a word moved an hour away to Toledo, where she rented an efficiency apartment and attempted to start again as a student.
Eventually, Marilyn returned. The family moved on, not speaking of her disappearance—when we meet them at the beginning of the book, we hear nothing of it. Marilyn’s great defection has been silenced. But of course it hangs over them, as it hung over me. Ng’s portrait of ambivalence is heart-breaking: “often, when she opened her books, Marilyn’s mind whirled. Equations jumbled and rejumbled, hidden messages jumping out at her. NaOH became Nath, his small face wide-eyed and reproachful…” Marilyn begins calling the house to listen silently to her family’s voices, to get just enough of them to shore herself up—not to face a lover or a boss, but herself.
Literature is full of disappearing mothers. Many of them die—think of all the orphans. A significant number commit suicide, including Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier, and Helen in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Others are forced away by war (Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Amy Bloom’s Away), or oppressive governments (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). Other mothers only imagine killing themselves, or leave for a couple hours (Laura Brown in The Hours does both) only to pretend neither happened. Less common are the women who are neither psychically wrecked nor physically threatened but simply and unbearably torn between motherhood and selfhood, tormented by their feeling that the two can’t coexist. These are characters like Marilyn Lee, or the narrator in Alice Munro’s story “Nettles,” whose separation from her husband costs her her daughters, or Leda in Elana Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, whose explanation for her three-year abandonment of her young daughters speaks to the central, wrenching paradox all these authors explore: “I loved them too much and it seemed to me that love for them would keep me from becoming myself.”
Why so much motherly abandonment? It makes for good conflict, of course. It can help define characters and set plots in motion. Most importantly, it’s an act that even in 2014 remains, in many ways, the ultimate taboo.
Granted, plenty of literary fathers leave, too. But when Rabbit goes running, when Francis Phelan tragically drops—and kills—his newborn son and leaves town in William Kennedy’s Ironweed, a reader (at least this reader) feels sorrow, disappointment, grief, a certain amount of anger, but not shock. Their leaving, it seems, in these and countless other stories, is part of their condition. Whereas when a mother leaves, we assume she must defy her very nature.
Celeste Ng –– who was kind enough to correspond with me, via email –– wonders if this assumption lies partly in our—limited—notions of what’s “natural.” She points out: “Plenty of animal mothers leave their offspring as a matter of routine. Harp seals abandon their pups early on. Cuckoos notoriously lay their eggs in other birds’ nests and abandon them—tricking other birds into raising a chick that isn’t theirs. Even cute, cuddly, pandas often have twins and then abandon the one that seems weaker. And many animals, when stressed or starved, abandon their young—or eat them.”
Our tendency to forget this, Ng says, shows up in the first stories we’re told. “Look at the classic children’s book Are You My Mother? The baby bird goes looking for his mother, and because he’s never seen her, he thinks a cat, a dog, a cow, a hen, a plane, a car, and even a boat might be his mother. So from a very early age, we get the idea that without a mother, you have no real sense of self—you have zero idea who you are or what you’re supposed to do in your life. I’m being a bit facetious here—and I’m not saying that we’re wrong about how important mothers are, either—just that mothers hold a very revered place in our culture and our psyche. Maybe that’s why this plotline appears so often in literature. Losing the one person who’s supposed to nurture and protect you in your most vulnerable years—what a fundamental fear.”
This fear belongs primarily—and primally—to children. Which may be why telling the story of a mother’s leaving not from a child’s point-of-view (Where’d You Go, Bernadette, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) but from the mother’s can feel risky. Writers are all too aware—however hard we may try to ignore it—of the reading public’s impatience with “unsympathetic” characters, and it can be tempting to put sympathy before truth. Ng says that in an earlier, “melodramatic” draft of Everything I Never Told You, Marilyn’s frustrations with her life led to a breakdown and visit to a mental hospital, until Ng took the leap and rewrote her as “a stronger character, with particular desires, who made the choice to leave her family.”
It’s striking, too, that Marilyn bolsters her resolve to leave by thinking of her mother’s old, spine-cracked Betty Crocker cookbook, while in The Hours, Laura Brown urges herself on—and ultimately comforts herself—with Mrs. Dalloway. Emma Bovary, of course, chain-reads romance novels. It’s as if the authors of these books, knowing the challenges they face in portraying mothers who call it quits, brought in iconic texts as units of cultural precedent, backsplashes for the mothers to fling themselves against, asking what they want, and facing what they are.
A mother abandoning her children is an inversion of the orphan tale. It may even feel to some readers like a perversion. It’s a story that’s easy to read and say, without thinking, “I can’t imagine.”
And yet, most of us can. What parent hasn’t at some point longed to flee, even for a day? Parents who are passionate about their work perhaps experience this more acutely. I know I’m guilty of frequent mental abandonment, whether I’m wrestling with a plot problem as my daughter performs “Let it Go” or jotting notes in magic marker for the novel I’m now revising though I’ve promised to draw a tree. I’ve come to accept this as part of the deal, part of my commitment to being both a mother and a writer: I go away in my mind so that I can stay.
I should mention. That novel I’m revising? It begins with a teenage mother leaving her baby in a pear orchard. Don’t ask if I was thinking, when I first wrote this opening scene, about its resonance with my first novel, or all the other novels in which mothers disappear. I wasn’t. But I am now. And I’m thinking about how maybe my cultivated first-draft obliviousness is a little like the trips I take in my mind as a mother: a benign and necessary neglect. If you read the latest woo-woo about parenting, you know that “they” are now recommending we leave our kids alone more, not alone alone, but with enough space that they can figure things out, take risks, make mistakes. Maybe I’ve just known, all along, that my work needs space, too. In any case, I intend to keep up my willed inattention, and let all of us—the kids, and the books, and me (me!)—grow strong, and a little wild.
Image Credit: Irina.
Could geeking out over a mutually beloved novel surpass even alcohol as the ultimate social ice-breaker? In my three months of solo travel in India, shared literary interests have opened the doors to several new friendships. Quite like the bond formed between travelers on similar journeys, the bond formed around a favorite novel is one of shared immersive experience, usually open to impossibly wide interpretations. When we meet someone else who’s “been there,” there’s a biting urge to know exactly what the other person saw, what scenes remain strongest in her memory, what crucial knowledge or insight was retrieved, and what her experience reveals or changes about our own?
If we try to extend this “traveler’s comparison” to other narrative mediums — television programs, movies, plays — it can often lose some of its steam. Why is this? Relative limitlessness in physical and emotional sensory potential is the privilege and burden of the reader. The book, more so than any other form of narrative media, rings true, more synonymous, with the limitlessness and loneliness to be found while facing the open road or holding a one-way airline ticket to Azerbaijan. In my hypotheses, it is the loneliness quality in particular, physically and intellectually inherent to the act of reading, that lays the bedrock for the powerful social bonding achieved through literature. The limitlessness is critical too, as it promises a bounty of fertile avenues for conversation, but it’s the loneliness of the reader — or, as Rainer Maria Rilke might say, it’s how “two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other” — that assigns to a very special category those friendships formed over books.
Enjoying a good work of literature entails getting lost. Vast and foreign is the journey, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. If the book is good, then the intelligence that guides us through the story will appear many degrees superior to our own. Even in the case of a child narrator like Harper Lee’s Scout Finch, or an impaired one, like Christopher John Francis Boone — the autistic 15-year-old narrator of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of the Dog in the Night-Time — the narrative intelligences of our books should leave us feeling a bit pressed intellectually, a bit outmatched, amazed ultimately by the talent of the author who brought such an exquisite intelligence to life. It should be our expectation as readers to be transported into a compellingly drawn, but very foreign and unique reality. Our guide, the local aficionado, attempts to help us understand everything we’re taking in, though we’ll inevitably overlook and misunderstand things from time to time, sometimes big, important things. Reading Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, for me, was an experience similar to that of using one’s brain; I was able to intellectually command perhaps 10 percent of the content at hand. If this was part of Pynchon’s intent for his novel, I commend him for crafting an impressive and very odd reflection of the human condition. Yes, reading is both a richly gratifying and lonely act, at both intellectual and sensory levels, which is why meeting someone with whom we share a favorite book has a way of jump-starting our social batteries, even on our more quiet nights.
Maya Dorn, a 41-year-old copywriter, musician, and avid reader from San Francisco, uses shared literary interests as a litmus test for social compatibility. “Liking the same books is like having the same sense of humor — if you don’t have it in common, it’s going to be hard to bond with someone. You risk ending up with nothing to talk about.” Maya specifically cites Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, as popping up again and again on the fringes of her social circles. Funny she mentioned that title; though I’ve not read The Master and Margarita, it was recommended to me a month prior to meeting Maya, at a café in Goa, where a vacationing Russian day-spa owner — stoned to a point of spare, clear English and silky slow hand gestures — explained to me the premise of Bulgakov’s post-modern “Silver Age” classic. “It’s about different type of prison, a prison of the mind!” The Russian pointed meaningfully at his own head. Sharing such intensely themed, café-table book-talk with a strange Russian proved quite an adventure in itself, with our caffeine jitters occasionally morphing into anachronistic, Cold War-era paranoias of Pynchonesque mirth. He was the first Russian I’d met abroad.
Currently I’m 100 pages out from finishing Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, quite a relevant book for this topic, as so many of Eugenides’ principal characters’ social lives are influenced by literature. Clearly Eugenides sees the unique social potency of books as a given fact, something that can be leveraged as a plausible plot-building tool. College seniors, Madeleine Hanna and Leonard Bankhead, sow the early seeds of the novel’s epic romance while discussing various books in a Semiotics 211 seminar. The two of them quietly ally with one other, colluding intellectually against the opinions of the cerebral and pretentious Thurston Meems. Madeleine and Leonard criticize the gratuitous morbidity of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, while Thurston extols the text for its originality. A bit later on in the story (spoiler alert) it is nothing other than a brief, semi-drunken bout of book chatter that opens the door for Madeleine’s unlikely one night stand with the villainous Thurston:
‘A Lover’s Discourse.’
Thurston squeezed his eyes shut, nodding with pleasure. ‘That’s a great book.’
‘You like it?’ Madeleine said.
‘The thing about that book,’ Thurston said. ‘Is that, ostensibly, it’s a deconstruction of love. It’s supposed to cast a cold eye on the whole romantic enterprise, right? But it reads like a diary.’
‘That’s what my paper’s on!’ Madeleine cried. ‘I deconstructed Barthes’ deconstruction of love.’
In the story-world of The Marriage Plot, literature maintains a power to broker alliances and define enemies. Books are also cited in the mediations of religious and political debate. Books influence career paths, and weigh in profoundly on other critical, life-defining decisions faced by Eugenides’ characters. At one point in the novel, Eugenides finds it perfectly reasonable that nothing other than a positive social experience — three young women bonding at a conference on Victorian literature — would be enough to inspire his protagonist, Madeleine, to pursue a career as a Victorian scholar.
The Marriage Plot isn’t really about books so to speak — I say this despite the title itself being an allusion to the standard plots that recurred throughout the great Victorian-era novels — nevertheless, Eugenides is most comfortable and successful in using the phenomenon of literary community to facilitate settings and move his plots. The success of The Marriage Plot may help illustrate and confirm that the social utility of literature may be by its own right capable of assuring literature’s imminent survival.
As Eugenides’ novel illustrates, the social reach of literature doesn’t end with discussions of stories and novels. Academic texts and non-fiction contribute peripheral influence to communities of all kinds, even those not squarely centered around literature. Avid reader and rock climber, Joe White, of Leeds, England cites Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void as indispensable to his adventurous social circle. “Though I can’t recall ever forming a particular personal bond over just one book,” Joe says, “being heavily involved in climbing and mountaineering fraternities has led me to form many friendships based around that specific activity, and the literature that surrounds the activity often provides talking points or focal points for the community. Pretty much everyone’s read Touching the Void, I mean, it’s not only relevant to climbing, but it’s an amazing story in its own right.”
I recently happened into a brief but enjoyable encounter with the esteemed Joyce Carol Oates. She was promoting her memoir, A Widow’s Story, and was fielding questions from her audience. Amid the 100-plus crowd, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to ask her one:
Ms. Oates, in a recent interview you spoke of the unique type of distress that comes from having one’s work rebuked in a public forum. You cited the experience of your contemporary, Norman Mailer, after having his second novel, Barbary Shore, denounced by the literary critics of the day, making, as Mailer put it, “an outlaw out of him.” But could you speak to the opposite side of this dichotomy — what might you share with us concerning that unique thrill and gratification that comes from producing a superior work of art, a work you know to be beloved by people all over the world. Do those who love your work weigh as heavy on the writer’s mind as those who detract from it?
Oates, took some time in silence to prepare her response.
“Art is a communal experience,” she replied.
As far as directly quoting the writing legend, the exact integrity of my recollections end with that phrase, but I can attest that she expounded for some time on the personal connections to be achieved through these special artifacts, books, these “communal experiences.” But does the act of reading, at a glance, feel in any way communal? Or does it feel, in fact, quite the opposite? Even members of the most ambitious and tightly-knit book clubs tend to do their actual reading in solitude. As such, when the noise of the world becomes occluded by the bestseller between your hands, it’s easy (and perhaps optimal?) to forget that so many others are journeying across this exact same text. You can’t see your companions now, your fellow patrons. They’re nowhere on your radar. You have no idea who they are or that they exist at all. Nevertheless, as you read, your fellow adventurers are out there waiting to meet you, biding their time behind a chance encounter, a well-fated introduction, a tweet, or a blog post, or an otherwise interesting article of prose. You didn’t realize it, but so much mystery, so much anticipation has amassed behind your new friendship, a cosmos-load of potential energy. You didn’t know it — you were too engaged with the mind behind the words — but through all the sentences, the pages, the lovely, lonely hours past, a part of you secretly longed for a flesh-and-blood friend with whom you could share your experience. When you meet your friend, you’ve met an instant confidant. You unburden yourselves on one another, reliving the adventures, revisiting those daunting and glorious experiences you dearly miss, refining and refreshing your perspective in the silver gazing pool of another soul, one that’s triumphed through similar loneliness. Book-bonding is soul-mating, pre-arranged through art, fun-filled and beautiful as a wedding.
Image Credit: Pexels/Min An.
In Dan Chaon’s story “Prodigal,” from his collection Among the Missing, the narrator says: “When I was young, I used to identify with those precociously perceptive child narrators one finds in books. You know the type. They always have big dark eyes. They observe poetic details, clear-sighted, very sensitive… Now that I have children of my own… I think of that gentle, dewy-eyed first person narrator and it makes my skin crawl.”
A New York Times review of the recent novel Mercury Under My Tongue praised the book by saying of its protagonist, “Fortunately, unlike the precocious child narrators that populate so much fiction, there isn’t a whiff of gee-whiz wonderment or innocence about him.”
I love precocious narrators. Of course the child narrator is not a new construct, but some of the most buzzed-about novels of the 2000s, such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, have featured memorable young leads. The books have met with both exuberant acclaim and accusations of being cloying, gimmicky, mannered, precious, faux-innocent, forced, unbelievable, exasperating, show-offy, or just plain annoying. But I admire the books’ inventiveness, and I love the characters’ idiosyncratic voices, unapologetic intelligence and bold curiosity. And, like Chaon’s narrator, and probably like many lifelong readers, I see a bit of myself in them.
With so many precocious children and their quirks to keep track of, here is a guide to some of the genre’s recent standouts:
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Oskar Schell, 9, “inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, Francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archaeologist, collector.” Having found a key left behind by his father, who died in the 9/11 attacks, Oskar sets out to find the lock.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics: Blue van Meer, 16, who never met a simile, metaphor, parenthetical quip, reference, citation, or Strategic Capitalization she didn’t like. Her mother died in a car accident; Dad is a brilliant, nomadic, and pompous professor.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: Christopher Boone, 15, autistic and mathematically gifted. A fan of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, he investigates who killed his neighbor’s dog, and uncovers the truth about his mother’s death.
Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love: Alma Singer, 14, who keeps a notebook called “How to Survive in the Wild” inspired by her adventurous father, who died of cancer. She is trying to find the author of an old novel that her mother is translating.
Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet: T.S. Spivet, 12, a cartography genius traveling by train, alone, from a Montana ranch to Washington, DC, to accept an award at the Smithsonian.
In each of these books, told in first-person, voice is central. Reviewers often remark that the protagonists sound nothing like a “real” child or teenager. But aside from Curious Incident, which is meant to be a feat of channeling—this is how the world looks through the eyes and brain of an autistic boy—reality and fidelity are not of primary concern. Lacking much real-world and life experience, the characters filter their lives through film noir, cowboy movies, detective stories, Jewish mysticism, novels and history.
As T.S. says before beginning his train journey, “I guess I was a sucker for historical myth just like Father. But whereas his Spiral of Nostalgic Unfulfillment was directed at the cinematic West of the trail drive, one need only whisper the phrase ‘bustling railroad town’ to raise my blood pressure a notch.” Alma’s hero is the aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who disappeared during WWII. Blue describes Hannah Schneider, the film teacher whose mysterious death fuels the book’s plot, as straight out of a black and white classic:
She had an elegant sort of romantic, bone-sculpted face, one that took well to both shadows and light… Within her carriage… was a little bit of the Paramount lot, a little neat scotch and air kisses at Ciro’s. I felt, when she opened her mouth, she wouldn’t utter the crumbly speak of modernity, but would use moist words like beau, top drawer and sound (only occasionally ring-a-ding-ding).
These influences from previous eras create an internal logic for each book. The trick is similar to that of the movie Brick, which transported the conventions of ‘30s detective fiction to a Southern California high school. Would a high schooler say “No, bulls would gum it. They’d flash their dusty standards at the wide-eyes and probably find some yegg to pin, probably even the right one”? Of course not. But as Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir wrote of the film, “it’s an engrossing fantasy picture that in some ways gets close to the feeling of teenage life, even though it bears almost no relationship to its reality.”
For his Spring 2008 ready-to-wear collection, Marc Jacobs designed shoes that had squat heels jutting out backwards, horizontally, from the ball of the foot. I love shoes as much as I love reading, and found this pair quite special: Jacobs had managed to rearrange conventional elements into something whimsical, and expand the idea of what a shoe can be.
Most books fit within a remarkably limited format, but formal inventiveness is a salient trait of these novels. Like children, they don’t always follow the rules. The books include maps and diagrams in the margins; pages in color and marked up with a red correction pen; illustrations and photos; blank pages; pages with type so dense they’re unreadable; foot notes and citations; chapters named for classic books or numbered with increasing prime numbers; and codas of a mathematical proof (Curious Incident), a Final Exam (Special Topics), and a flip book (Extremely Loud). According to critics like B.R. Myers, whose article “A Bag of Tired Tricks” appeared in The Atlantic upon the publication of Extremely Loud, my enjoyment of such “spurious playfulness” makes me “easily amused.”
But I don’t see these flourishes as gratuitous examples of “look at me! I’m different and clever!” T.S. makes sense of the world through mapping, and as he deals with the recent death of his younger brother “during an accident with a gun in the barn that no one ever talked about,” the tragedy’s repercussions are fittingly explored in the margins. Christopher’s brain functions in an emotionally detached, logical/mathematical/schematic way that necessitates diagrams. I found Extremely Loud’s backwards-flipbook, in which photos show a leaping body rising upwards alongside one of the twin towers, a moving visualization of Oskar’s biggest wish. Plus, it’s simply fun to turn the page and find a picture. It’s a fitting throwback to children’s books, as well as a nod to the hyperlinked/sidebar-ed/multimedia texts we read, without fuss, online.
The playfulness extends to language. More than any book I can remember, Special Topics delights in inventive, extended description. Listen to Blue riff on a central character:
He was a Goodnight Moon (Brown, 1947). Goodnight Moons had duvet eyes, shadowy eyelids, a smile like a hammock and a silvered, sleepy countenance… Goodnight Moons could be male or female and were universally adored. Even teachers worshipped them. They looked to Goodnight Moons whenever they asked a question and even though they answered with a drowsy, wholly incorrect answer, the teacher would say, ‘Oh, wonderful.’
None of the precocious narrators are Goodnight Moons. In fact, let’s call them The Outsiders (Hinton, 1967), though with less class warfare. They do not fit easily into the world. Aside from Alma’s Russian immigrant pen pal, none of them has a true friend his or her own age; professors, teachers, parents, grandparents and strangers to whom they write letters provide a tenuous social life. They are unpopular at school, lonely, awkward, weird.
I was not a 12-year-old cartography genius or pint-sized private eye, but I was an overachieving kid who took a while to figure out how to be smart without being an annoying show-off—a quality of precocious narrators that often bugs readers. I recently re-read the journal that I kept through high school, which was not all that long ago. The content breakdown is approximately 60% about boys, 30% about how lonely I felt, and 10% about how great I was doing on my AP physics tests. I had forgotten about the time I gossiped about how academically stupid my crush’s girlfriend was, and then he confronted me about it via AIM conversation. Which is to say, I really could have used a bookish friend like Alma or Blue. (And like Blue, whose father quizzes her on vocabulary and makes her perform readings of classic plays during long car trips, I had parent-assigned summer homework. I remember writing short reports about the book Cheaper by the Dozen and the sport of diving; homework earned points, which could be redeemed for sodas and CDs.)
The books also nimbly capture how, when brains trump social skills, you end up feeling both older and younger than everyone around you. Alma and Blue are clueless about boys and have disastrous first kisses, but are ambitious enough to unravel complicated mysteries. And that’s what’s heartbreaking about these books: they put smart kids in the position to feel like they can, and should, come up with answers to some of life’s biggest questions.
Because for all their cuteness, the novels are really about surviving death and loss. Several of the characters assemble literal survival kits, that include items like a telescope, compasses, drafting paper, duct tape, a stuffed animal, a snakebite kit, iodine pills, Swiss Army knives, a copy of Edible Plants and Flowers in North America, and Juicy Juice boxes. But what good is a compass or stuffed animal—where can you go, and what second-rate comfort will you find?—when you are a child whose parent or sibling has died?
As a culture, we have an odd relationship with high-achieving youths. The media scrambles to cover four-year-old abstract artists, 12-year-old fashion bloggers, 13-year-olds who climb Mt. Everest—but we regard the little prodigies with a mix of admiration, disbelief, mistrust and even hostility. (Witness the backlash against some of the precociously talented young novelists themselves, like accusations that Pessl only got a book deal because she’s pretty, and the phenomenon of “Schadenfoer“; note the glee people are taking in mocking Krauss’ recent over-the-top blurb.)
The other day, I overheard a commercial advertising a contest that would reward “the fastest, most accurate texter.” Then I learned that Jersey Shore’s The Situation had inked a book deal.
In an age of shortening attention spans and the glorification of stupidity, I find it comforting and exciting to spend time with young characters for whom books, maps, notebooks, letters, research, drawings, imagined inventions and classic films are central and essential. Precocious narrators, and the ambitious novelists who create them, give me hope that our culture can keep evolving without sliding into Idiocracy, and stand as proof of the power of intelligence, imagination, curiosity, and even “gee-whiz wonderment.”
In The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, T.S. coins the term “Stenpock,” after his science teacher, Mr. Stenpock. A Stenpock is someone “who insists on staying within the confines of his or her job title and harbors no passion for the offbeat or the incredible.” Precocious narrators are anti-Stenpocks, and I’m a sucker for them.
[Image credit: Inna]
At N+1, Marco Roth autopsies “the neuronovel” – think Motherless Brooklyn (Tourette’s), The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (autism), Lowboy (paranoid schizophrenia), The Echo Maker (Capgras syndrome), and Atmospheric Disturbances (Capgras again?) – and finds “sign[s] of the novel’s diminishing purview.”
Gene writes in with this question:I currently teach a high school English course called 21st Century Literature, and I’ve hit a bit of a block these last few weeks in trying to put together this year’s syllabus. We currently read Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao along with essays from the likes of David Foster Wallace (“E Unibus Pluram”) to Chuck Klosterman (“The Real World”). We also look at some popular TV shows, music, and films in an attempt to get the students to examine the world in which they live with something of a more “critical” eye.So. I’m trying to replace Fortress for this year’s class, partly because I update the syllabus every year and partly because it was the one last year’s students voted out. My problem, though, is that I haven’t read anything this year that has really blown me away. And so I turn to you, Millions, for some guidance. I’m currently considering Bock’s Beautiful Children, Ferris’ Then We Came To The End, Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England, or possibly the new collection of essays State by State. My students are really intelligent, and so just about anything is fair game. What, then, would you add to the class to be read right after Eggers’ Heartbreaking Work?Five of our contributors weighed in.Edan: What a terrific course! Can I take it? Your syllabus thus far sounds pretty damn spectacular as is, so I’ve tried my best to come up with texts that fulfill a role that the other books haven’t. Of the four you’re considering teaching, I think State by State is the best, since it showcases so many great writers. While I enjoyed Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End, I think a workplace narrative would be lost on most teenagers. Here are my suggestions:Willful Creatures: Stories by Aimee Bender or Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link: It might be fun to add some short fiction to the syllabus, and to improve the male-to-female author ratio. Of the many writers I introduced to my Oberlin students, Bender and Link were the biggest hits, perhaps for the magic and fantasy they inject into their odd and beautiful stories. Both writers provide excellent discussion fodder about the construction of reality, and about notions of genre in contemporary fiction.The Known World by Edward P. Jones: Still one of my favorite novels of all time, this is a historical novel about black slave owners in antebellum Virginia. It’s told in a sprawling omniscient voice, not a common point of view in these fragmented, solipsistic times. It might be interesting to compare this perspective to the more intimate first person narratives on the syllabus. Also, since your other texts take place in the time they’re written, it might be interesting to see how a contemporary writer depicts and manipulates the past.Look at Me by Jennifer Egan Published a few days before September 11th, this novel feels strangely prophetic. It also articulates, well before its time, the strange and complicated nature of online social networks like Facebook, certainly a topic of interest among high school students. The book tells two parallel narratives: one about a model whose face is unrecognizable after a car accident, and another about a teenage girl living in a long-dead industrial town in the Midwest. It’s equal parts beautiful, entertaining, satirical, and sad. This novel could inspire many fruitful discussions about identity, media, beauty, and representations of self.Andrew: Rawi Hage’s DeNiro’s Game is a tightly-written haunting jagged rush through the streets of war-torn Beirut in the 1980s. Now calling Montreal his home, Rawi Hage lived through the endless Lebanese civil war and writes this tale as a survival story, not a political polemic. The protagonists are ordinary young Lebanese guys – where ordinary means bombed-out homes, militias, snipers and rubble. No longer children, but not quite adults, Bassam and George flex their muscles amid the smoke and dust of a city that has been prodded and beaten by any group with a big enough stick.Winner of the 2008 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and short-listed for countless major awards up here in Canada, Hage’s debut novel throws the reader into a part of the world in the not-so-distant past that he likely has only seen from news images, and he gives these images human dimensions. This is a harrowing story of brutal youth.Emily: Although I wouldn’t say it blew me away, I submit Keith Gessen’s All The Sad Young Literary Men as a possible addition to your 21st century lit syllabus – not least because I think I would have found such a book personally useful had something like it been recommended it to me in high school. Its depiction of the social and intellectual chaos and disappointments of college and the post-college decade for three bright, ambitious, politically serious young men manages – oh, as I feared it might (for so many sad young literary men do) – not to take itself or its characters too seriously. Not that Gessen trivializes or denies the pains of his three protagonists, but he is exquisitely aware of the absurdities idealism and ambition sometimes fall into – particularly among the young. The character Sam is my favorite example of this: he aspires to write to great Zionist epic and has managed to get an advance from a publisher toward this end, but he does not speak Hebrew, has never been to Israel, and is a little bit fuzzy on Israeli history and politics. His best claim to the project is his extensive collection of fiery Jewish girlfriends. Like his fellow protagonists, Keith and Mark, Sam seems more delighted by the idea of literary accomplishment for himself than able to sit down and produce the stunning epic of the Jewish people that he imagines and more hungry for fame than to write his book (“Fame – fame was the anti-death. But it seemed to slither from his grasp, seemed to giggle and retreat, seemed to hide behind a huge oak tree and make fake farting sounds with its hands.”).Gessen has a particularly deft touch with juxtaposition – almost zeugma perhaps? – in his plotting and narration. The personal and the political – the sublime and the ridiculous – are cheek by jowl and often confused: Keith’s desire to sleep with the vice president’s daughter (who is in his class at Harvard and dating his roommate) is bound up with his desire for the vice president himself (Gore) to win the presidential election; For Sam, his intellectual work and his personal life are strangely aligned such that “refreshed by his summation of the Holocaust, Sam decided to put the rest of his life in order” and instead of wrestling with his genuine artistic problem (his inability to write his epic), he becomes crazily obsessed, instead, with his shrinking Google. I suspect that we will see better work from Gessen in the years to come, but for its humor, its pathos, and its willness to depict (and deftness in depicting) the humiliations and vagueries of early adulthood, I think it’s an excellent choice (particularly since among your students there are, I imagine, some present and future sad young literary men).Garth: This is sounds like a great class. I wish I’d had you as a teacher! One of the implicit challenges of answering the question is the tension between the need to appeal to high schoolers and the search for formal innovation. These two are not mutually exclusive; I vividly remember falling in love with Infinite Jest as a high-schooler. Still, some of the aesthetic strategies that separate contemporary writers from the hoary old 1900s (which are so last century) come at the cost of emotional immediacy. some of my favorite works of 21st Century fiction – Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai; Kathryn Davis’ The Thin Place; Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance; Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno – may be a little too cerebral for high schoolers.I thought of several adventurous novels which are less formally pluperfect (in my opinion), but which might make a stronger appeal to this age group. Chief among them are Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital, Uzodinma Iweala’s Beasts of No Nation, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.Though I didn’t care for Beautiful Children, and suspect teenagers would see through its outdated assessment of youth culture, Then We Came to the End has an appealing warmth and good humor, as well as a fascinating first-person-plural voice. Ultimately, though, the two “21st Century” books I can most imagine teaching to high-schoolers are George Saunders’ Pastoralia (2000) and Paul Beatty’s The White-Boy Shuffle (1996).Max: Sounds like putting together the syllabus is a fun job. It’s interesting that the students didn’t like Fortress as much. I think I would agree with them on that. Though it was certainly an ambitious and at times entertaining book, I think it falls apart in the second half. I haven’t read Motherless Brooklyn, but I know it seems to have many more fans than Fortress.Thinking about short story collections, you could hardly go wrong with Edward P. Jones’s two collections – Lost in the City and All Aunt Hagar’s Children – Jones’s stories are terrific and offer a perspective that is quite different from Chabon, Lethem, and the rest of the Brooklyn crowd. Also, Jones’s The Known World is to my mind maybe the best novel of the last 20 years. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and Atonement by Ian McEwan also strike me as solid candidates, with the latter offering a unique and satisfying “reveal” at the end that changes how the reader thinks about the books structure (assuming your students haven’t already seen the film which, anyway, does the book a disservice in trying to render a purely literary twist via the language of Hollywood.)Gene, thanks for the question and please let us know what you select. Millions readers, please offer your suggestions in the comments below.
I’d have thought that the whole concept of summer reading lists for high schoolers would have fallen by the wayside, as it would seem to lack usefulness in our testing- and extracurriculars-obsessed education system, but a CS Monitor article shows that it’s alive and well (and just in time for that last-two-weeks-of-summer cram).The article includes some interesting insights on the makeup of such lists and how they’ve changed over the years.For the most part, reading lists are still heavy on classics. But consider the differences between reading lists from the 1960s and those in the 1980s. Of the nine most commonly taught books in public high schools in 1963, only one (the 1938 play Our Town) was written in the 20th century. By 1988, the 10 most commonly taught novels in public schools included four books from the 20th century: The Great Gatsby (1925), Of Mice and Men (1937), Lord of the Flies (1954), and To Kill a Mockingbird (1960).But not all novels take a generation to catapult to required summer reading lists. Some new staples in summer reading lists: Life of Pi by Yann Martel, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon, Monster by Walter Dean Myers, and The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.Ten years ago, these reading lists didn’t have new books like that,” says Alleen Nilsen, Arizona State University English professor and co-author of the textbook Literature for Today’s Young Adult. “These are really popular new books.”So what catapults Life of Pi and The Lovely Bones to the elusive reading list club? Both are bildungsromans, or stories of young people coming of age. Ms. Nilsen says this theme is crucial for reading list inclusion, as youth need to feel a connection to the literature.
In Sexual Personae, a landmark work in the field of pseudo-intellectual posturing, Camille Paglia claims that Da Vinci carried the Mona Lisa with him everywhere he went. To DaVinci, the painting was more than just a pretty smile, it was a power object, an “apotropaion,” a totem with the power to protect its bearer from harm. This sort of fetishization is hardly unique to Italian artists. Rather, it seems almost fundamental to human nature, perhaps even that which, in the final analysis, separates us from the animals. After all, what member of the animal kingdom would ever display the same unflagging devotion to an object as a child to its security blanket or would seek to define itself by its clothes? Perhaps the fact that dogs and monkeys don’t wear Armani (at least not consentingly) is definitive proof that they have no sense of self.Roger Morris’s Taking Comfort could easily be titled “Apotropian.” The protagonist is a marketing man (shades of Morris himself) who, after witnessing a suicide, begins to collect objects associated with tragedy in the belief that they have the power to protect him from disaster in his own life. A novel about materialism may sound, at first, cliche, but it’s carried off with a deft touch, the material presented in a way that is at once fresh and familiar. Morris plays a dangerous game with his narrative, constantly switching perspectives and focusing the action in each chapter on the relationship between a character and an object. The gambit pays off, as we’re shown the inner life of a multitude of characters, both incidental and essential to the main action of the story, a tactic that allows Morris a hard-to-achieve combination of introspection and brisk pacing. Inevitably, the objects the book fetishizes become part of the characters, even characters themselves. Everything from birth control pills to a coffee mug exert a powerful influence over their owners/users, contributing to identities that possess, in their reliance on the things with which they surround themselves, an alarming malleability.Whether these relationships are good or bad, Morris never makes clear. What is unavoidable, though, is his thesis that our relationships to things are meaningful, whether we like it or not. Although other authors, notably Brett Easton Ellis have sought to comment on the moral emptiness of modern life by describing their characters with brand names and designer goods, Morris’s characters’ relationships with their possessions rise above cynical manipulations, achieving something like poetry. Morris has a gift for spare, vital prose, and both characters and objects are described with the loving precision of a man who makes his living selling things. The book is written in the language of the marketplace, and it possesses an odd lyricism, ripped off of billboards and television spots, that in some ways predicts the future, a time when the low culture of advertising, god help us, merges with the high culture of literature (much to the delight of the late Andy Warhol, no doubt).Perhaps this is Morris’s greatest accomplishment, one that could have only been carried off by a marketing man: he makes us believe in things, not as mere manifestations of our material culture, but as incarnations of hope, desire, and courage. He makes us believe they’re important. By the sex scene in the middle of the book, even the body is, inevitably and with great power, reduced to nothing more than an object, over which the main protagonist’s girlfriend floats observing. With this epiphanic out of body experience, one of the book’s most stirring images, Morris makes it clear that our bodies themselves are nothing more than things, our possessions mere extensions of ourselves.Although the ending lacks the feeling of inevitability that distinguishes a truly masterful novel, Morris’s book is as good as, if not better than, most of the Booker and Whitbread (now Costa) winning novels I’ve read over the last few years (Life of Pi, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and Vernon God Little come to mind) and deserves all of the attention that has been heaped on those projects.With his soon to be released second book, The Gentle Axe, a high concept thriller starring Inspector Porfiry Petrovich of Crime and Punishment, already garnering praise, Morris is a name to keep an eye on.
Brandon of The Bibliosphere weighed in with the best book he read during a year in which he got around to catching up on a bunch of classics, new and old:I couldn’t resist joining in on the fun of all the best-of lists making the rounds: the New York Times Book Review printed its own list, as did Publisher’s Weekly. My reading is pretty varied, but I always seem to be a few years behind: the most recent books I read this year were published in 2004.2006 was more of a year for me to play catch-up – Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Albert Camus’ The Stranger were among my favorite books this year. They exemplified everything I love about literature; they were thought-provoking, obsessive, and deeply unsettling. Franz Kafka’s The Trial disturbed me on a level no horror novel can reach. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, while treading a fine line between pretentiousness and genius, obliterated the very idea of what a novel is supposed to be. And Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time gave me one of the freshest and most sympathetic heroes I’ve come across in a long time.But Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is, without a doubt, the best book I read this year. It’s funny, infuriating, tragic, and beautifully-written. Neither too long nor too short, this book is, in a word, perfect.Thanks Brandon!
Bud offers a charming man about town piece that touches on the intersection of technology and culture.One of my biggest on-the-job challenges back when I was a bookseller was recommending books for finicky teenagers. In an effort to take some of the guesswork out of this endeavor, Anita Silvey, a professor of children’s literature at Simmons College in Boston, wrote 500 Great Books for Teens. Scripps news prints 20 of those recommendations, including The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby, and, of course, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger.Germany is prosecuting seven men for burning a copy of The Diary of Anne Frank, in a case that highlights the symbolic power of books.And in Trenton, NJ, librarians are accusing a library accountant of refusing to purchase the novel Whore by Tanika Lynch for the library’s collection because “he objected to the title.”
Patric (who’s got a pretty cool website) wrote in with this question, which tested my research skills.What was Entertainment Weekly’s #1 Fiction Title for 2003?Before I set to figuring this one out, I guessed what it might be just to see if I would be right. Knowing Entertainment Weekly’s tastes, I figured that Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was a pretty good candidate, but, no it turns out to be EW’s number two book. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger seemed like a good pick because, while a book club favorite, it broke new ground, Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude for its genre-bending hipness, and maybe Monica Ali’s Brick Lane for its multicultural bent. But: no, no, and no. It turns out that the EW editors decided that 2003’s best novel was Samaritan by Richard Price. It’s actually a pretty good choice; Samaritan was well-reviewed, and sold well, but was not considered one of the “hot” books of the year. In the book, Price (who also wrote Clockers) weaves a mystery of sorts about a man who returns to his roots in a hard-edged New Jersey town and is brutally assaulted, but refuses to implicate his attacker. It’s a bold and interesting pick by EW for best book of the year. (My pick, by the way, is The Known World by Edward P. Jones, hands down.)