Last week marked the release of The Heart is Strange, a new collection of John Berryman poems released to coincide with the centenary of the poet’s birth. At The Paris Review Daily, Dan Piepenbring digs through the magazine’s interview archives to find Berryman’s account of meeting W.B. Yeats. Pair with: Stephen Akey on Berryman’s classic The Dream Songs.
2014 has already offered a literary bounty for readers, including new books by E.L. Doctorow, Lorrie Moore, Teju Cole, and Lydia Davis. The second-half of 2014 is looking even more plentiful, with new books from superstars like Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Ian McEwan, Marilynne Robinson, Denis Johnson, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and quite a few more. Here at The Millions, we’re especially excited that three of our long-time staff writers — Edan Lepucki, Bill Morris, and Emily St. John Mandel — will soon have new books on shelves. All three books are winning impressive advance praise.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at over 8,000 words strong and encompassing 84 titles, this is the only second-half 2014 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
California by Edan Lepucki: Millions staffer Edan Lepucki’s first full-length novel has been praised by Jennifer Egan, Dan Chaon, and Sherman Alexie, and championed by Stephen Colbert, who’s using it as a case study in sticking it to Amazon. A post-apocalyptic novel set in a California of the not-too-distant future, California follows a young couple struggling to make it work in a shack in the wilderness — dealing with everyday struggles like marriage and privacy as much as dystopian ones likes food and water — until a change in circumstance sends them on a journey to find what’s left of civilization, and what’s left of their past lives. (Janet)
Motor City Burning by Bill Morris: Bill Morris made his literary debut 20 years ago with Motor City, a novel set amid the rich history of 1950s Detroit. Since then, he’s pursued various other interests, writing a novel set in Bangkok and contributing frequently to The Millions as a staff writer. But as anyone who follows Bill’s essays can tell you, his hometown is rarely far from his mind. Now, with the Motor City much in the news, he returns to explore class, race, bloodshed and baseball in the 1960s. (Garth)
The Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique: Tiphanie Yanique follows her much lauded story collection, How to Escape From a Leper Colony, with “an epic multigenerational tale set in the U.S. Virgin Islands that traces the ambivalent history of its inhabitants during the course of the 20th century.” That’s according to Publishers Weekly, who gave The Land of Love and Drowning a starred review. Yanique’s debut novel has been receiving raves all over the place; in its starred review, Kirkus called it, “Bubbling with talent and ambition, this novel is a head-spinning Caribbean cocktail.” (Edan)
Friendship by Emily Gould: Gould, who put the gawk in Gawker in the middle part of the last decade, turns to fiction with a debut novel that at times reads like a series of blog entries written in the third person. In the novel, two friends, Bev and Amy, are trying to make it as writers in New York when Bev gets pregnant. The question of whether Bev should keep the baby, and what Amy should think about the fact that Bev is even considering it, turns the novel into a meditation on growing up in a world built for the young. (Michael)
Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann: Vollmann has over 30 years and damn near as many books earned a reputation as a wildly prolific novelist. Still, almost a decade has passed since his last full-length work of fiction, the National Book Award-winning Europe Central. Here, he offers what may have started as a suite of ghost stories… but is now another sprawling atlas of Vollmann’s obsessions. Stories of violence, romance, and cultural collision are held together by supernatural elements and by Vollmann’s psychedelically sui generis prose. (Garth)
High as the Horses’ Bridles by Scott Cheshire: To the distinguished roster of fictional evangelicals — Faulkner’s Whitfield, Ellison’s Bliss — this first novel adds Josiah Laudermilk, a child-prodigy preacher in 1980s Queens. Cheshire makes huge leaps in time and space to bring us the story of Laudermilk’s transformation into an adult estranged from his father and his faith. (Garth)
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: The second novel from Rebecca Makkai (after 2011’s The Borrower) moves back and forth in the 20th century to tell a story of love, ghosts, and intrigue. The house for which The Hundred-Year House is named is Laurelfield, a rambling estate and former artists’ colony in Chicago’s wealthy North Shore. Owned by the Devohr family for generations, it now finds Zee (née Devohr) and her husband returning to live in the carriage house while she teaches at a local college and he supposedly writes a poet’s biography. What he does instead is ghostwrite teen novels and uncover family secrets. (Janet)
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway: Having written about ninjas, spies in their eighties and mechanical bees in his last two novels, Nick Harkaway is in a tough spot if he wants to top himself this time around. All the indications are that he may have done it, though — Tigerman sees a powerful United Nations carry out a cockamie plan to wipe out a former British colony. The protagonist, a former British soldier, takes it upon himself to fight for his patch of the old empire. (Thom)
Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya: Yelena Akhtiorskaya is one of New York’s best young writers — funny and inventive and stylistically daring, yes, but also clear-eyed and honest. Born in Odessa and raised in Brighton Beach, she’s been publishing essays and fiction in smart-set venues for a few years. Now she delivers her first novel, about two decades in the life of a Ukrainian family resettled in Russian-speaking Brooklyn. An excerpt is available at n+1. (Garth)
The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: “And then one day when the lake ice had broken and geese had come again, two brothers, twins, stole a little boat and rowed together out towards Nizhi.” In an alternate Russia, twin brothers Yarik and Dima work together at Oranzheria, the novel’s titular “sea of glass” greenhouse, until their lives veer into conflict. Weil’s exquisite pen and ink illustrations “frame the titles of all 29 chapters and decorate the novel’s endpapers,” making the book, literally, a work of art. If The New Valley, Weil’s lyric first book of linked novellas, is any indication, this new book will be memorable. (Nick R.)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: Murakami’s previous novel, 1Q84, was a sprawling, fantastical work. His latest is just the opposite: a concise, focused story about a 37-year-old man still trying to come terms with a personal trauma that took place seventeen years earlier — when he was unceremoniously cut out of a tight knit group of friends. The novel has less magical strangeness than most Murakami books, and may be his most straightforward tale since Norwegian Wood. (Kevin)
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas: Thomas spreads his canvas wide in this 640-page doorstop of a novel, which follows three generations of an Irish American family from Queens, but at heart the book is an intimate tale of a family’s struggle to make its peace with a catastrophic illness that strikes one of its members at precisely the wrong moment. Simon & Schuster spent more than a million dollars on this first novel whose author was then teaching high school in New York, thus assuring that the book will either be the fall’s Cinderella story or a poster child for outsized advances given to untested authors. (Michael)
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: Is it “the year of Roxane Gay?” Time suggested it in a review of Gay’s new novel, An Untamed State; when asked (in a self-interview) how that made her feel, she said, “First, I tinkled on myself. Then my ego exploded and I am still cleaning up the mess.” It’s as good a glimpse as any into the wonder that is Roxane Gay — her Twitterstorms alone are brilliant bits of cultural criticism, and her powerful essays, on her blog, Tumblr, and at various magazines, leave you with the sense that this is a woman who can write dazzlingly on just about any topic. In her first essay collection, we’re promised a wide-ranging list of subjects: Sweet Valley High, Django Unchained, abortion, Girls, Chris Brown, and the meaning of feminism. (Elizabeth)
The Kills by Richard House: House’s vast tetralogy, at once a border-hopping thriller and a doorstopping experiment, was longlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize in the U.K. Taking as its backdrop the machinery of the global war on terror, it should be of equal interest on these shores. (Garth)
Before, During, After by Richard Bausch: Since 1980, Richard Bausch has been pouring out novels and story collections that have brilliantly twinned the personal with the epic. His twelfth novel, Before, During, After, spins a love story between two ordinary people – Natasha, a lonely congressional aide, and Michael Faulk, an Episcopalian priest – whose affair and marriage are undone by epic events, one global, one personal. While Michael nearly dies during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Natasha’s error on a Caribbean shore leads to a private, unspeakable trauma. As the novel unspools, Before and During prove to be no match for After. (Bill)
Your Face In Mine by Jess Row: Possibly inspired by the ageless Black Like Me, Jess Row tells the story of Kelly Thorndike, a native Baltimorean who moves back to his hometown and discovers that an old friend has gotten surgery to change his race. At one time a skinny, white, Jewish man, Martin is now African-American, and he’s kept his new identity secret from his friends and family. Martin tells Kelly he wants to come clean, and the two become mired in a fractious, thought-provoking controversy. (Thom)
Flings by Justin Taylor: “Our faith makes us crazy in the world”; so reads a line in The Gospel of Anarchy, Taylor’s novel about a Florida commune of anarchist hippies. The original sentence comes from Don DeLillo’s Mao II, an appropriate literary mentor — Taylor is equal parts hilarious and prescient, capable of finding the sublime in the most prosaic, diverse material. On the first page of the collection’s title story alone: labor history, love, and “an inspired treatise on the American government’s illegal 1921 deployment of the Air Force to bomb striking mine workers at Blair Mountain, West Virginia.” (Nick R.)
Augustus by John Williams: There are things that are famous for being famous, such as the Kardashians, and then there are things that are famous for being not famous, such as John Williams’s Stoner. Since its publication in 1965, the “forgotten” work has enjoyed quite a history – metamorphosing from under-appreciated gem into international bestseller and over-praised classic. Indeed, it’s forgivable at this point to forget that Williams’s most appreciated work was actually his final novel, Augustus, which split the National Book Award and earned more praise during its author’s lifetime than his other books put together. Interestingly, readers of both Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing will here encounter an altogether new version of the John Williams they’ve come to know: Augustus is an epistolary novel set in classical Rome. It’s a rare genius who can reinvent himself in his final work and earn high praise for doing so. (Nick M.)
Alfred Ollivant’s Bob, Son of Battle by Lydia Davis: In the early 1900s, Bob, Son of Battle became a popular children’s tale in England and the United States. Focused on a young boy caught up in a rivalry between two sheepdogs on the moors between Scotland and England, the story eventually found its way into Lydia Davis’s childhood bedroom. Alas, the years have not been kind to the thick Cumbrian dialect in which it was written (“hoodoo” = “how do you do” and “gammy” = “illness,” e.g.) and the work fell out of popularity as a result. Now, however, Davis has updated the work into clear, modern vernacular in order to bring the story to an entirely new generation of readers, and perhaps the next generation of Lydia Davises (if one could ever possibly exist). (Nick M.)
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven is Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, and if pre-publication buzz is any indication, it’s her best, most ambitious work yet. Post-apocalyptic tales are all the rage this season, but Mandel’s intricate plotting and deftness with drawing character makes this novel of interlinked tales stand out as a beguiling read. Beginning with the onslaught of the deadly Georgian flu and the death of a famous actor onstage, and advancing twenty years into the future to a traveling troupe of Shakespearean actors who perform for the few remaining survivors, the novel sits with darkness while searching for the beauty in art and human connection. (Anne)
The Secret Place by Tana French: People have been bragging about snagging this galley all summer, and for good reason: Tana French’s beautifully written, character-driven mysteries about the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad are always a literary event. Her latest concerns a murder at an all girls’ school, and detective Frank Mackey’s daughter Holly might just be a suspect. My fellow staff writer Janet Potter said The Secret Place is damn good, and if you’re smart you will trust Janet Potter. (Edan)
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: David Mitchell has evidently returned to his genre-, time-, and location-bending best with a novel that weaves the Iraq War with punk rock with immortal beings with the End Times. This is a novel that had Publisher’s Weekly asking, “Is The Bone Clocks the most ambitious novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque?” A tall order, either way. A thrill, either way. (Lydia)
Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham: The creator, producer and star of the HBO series Girls — and also, it must be stated, an Oberlin College graduate — has penned a comic essay collection à la David Sedaris or Tina Fey… though something tells me Dunham’s will be more candid and ribald. As Lena herself writes: “No, I am not a sexpert, a psychologist, or a registered dietician. I am not a married mother of three or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise. But I am a girl with a keen interest in self-actualization, sending hopeful dispatches from the front lines of that struggle.” Amen, Lena, amen! (Edan)
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters: After her masterful handling of the haunted house story in The Little Stranger, Waters again taps into the narrative potential of domestic intrusion. This time, it’s lodgers rather than ghosts who are the nuisance. In 1922, a cash-strapped widow and her spinster daughter living by themselves in a large London house let out rooms to a young couple. Annoyances and class tensions soon ignite in these combustible confines, and from the looks of it, the security deposit won’t even begin to cover the damages. The novel promises to be a well-crafted, claustrophobic thriller. (Matt)
The Children Act by Ian McEwan: McEwan’s thirteenth novel treads some familiar ground — a tense moral question sits at the heart of the narrative: whether it is right for parents to refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds. Discussing the novel at the Oxford Literary Festival this past spring, McEwan said that the practice was “utterly perverse and inhumane.” It’s not the first time McEwan has expressed displeasure with religion: in 2005 he told the Believer he had “no patience whatsoever” for it; three years later, he made international news discussing Islam and Christianity, saying he didn’t “like these medieval visions of the world according to which God is coming to save the faithful and to damn the others.” (Elizabeth)
10:04 by Ben Lerner: Ben Lerner follows the unexpected success of his superb first novel Leaving the Atocha Station with a book about a writer whose first novel is an unexpected success. Which is actually something like what you’d expect if you’d read that superb and unexpectedly successful first novel, with its artful manipulations of the boundaries between fiction and memoir. The suddenly successful narrator of 10:04 also gets diagnosed with a serious heart condition and is asked by a friend to help her conceive a child. Two extracts from the novel, “Specimen Days” and “False Spring,” have run in recent issues of the Paris Review. (Mark)
Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood: Some fans will remember well the titular story in Atwood’s forthcoming collection, which was published in the New Yorker in December of 2011, and which begins, in Atwood’s typical-wonderful droll fashion: “At the outset, Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” With this collection, according to the jacket copy, “Margaret Atwood ventures into the shadowland earlier explored by fabulists and concoctors of dark yarns such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle…” If you aren’t planning to read this book, it means you like boring stuff. (Edan)
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel: Just this month, Mantel was made a dame; the reigning queen of British fiction, she’s won two of the last five Man Booker Prizes. But Mantel’s ascension to superstardom was long in the making: she is at work on her twelfth novel in a career that’s spanned four decades. This fall sees the publication of her second collection of short stories, set several centuries on from the novels that earned her those Bookers. Her British publisher, Nicholas Pearson, said, “Where her last two novels explore how modern England was forged, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher shows us the country we have become. These stories are Mantel at her observant best.” (Elizabeth)
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill: In his first novel since his 2008 PEN/Faulkner-winning Netherland, about a Dutch immigrant in post 9/11 New York, O’Neill tells another fish-out-of-water tale, this time about a New Yorker who takes a job as a “family officer” for a wealthy family in Dubai. Surrounded by corruption and overwhelmed by daily life in the desert metropolis, the narrator becomes obsessed with the disappearance of another American in what Publishers Weekly calls “a beautifully crafted narrative about a man undone by a soulless society.” (Michael)
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan: William Finnegan is both a journalist’s journalist and one of the New Yorker’s most consistently engaging voices. Over the years, he’s written about everything from apartheid in South Africa to the broken economy at home (Cold New World now looks prophetic). My favorite of his New Yorker pieces, though, is an insanely long memoir about surfing (Part 1; Part 2) that, legend has it, was crashed into the magazine just before the arrival of Tina Brown as editor. Two decades on, Finnegan returns to this lifelong passion, at book length.
Wittgenstein, Jr. by Lars Iyer: With their ingenious blend of philosophical dialogue and vaudevillian verve, Iyer’s trilogy, Spurious, Dogma and Exodus, earned a cult following. Wittgenstein, Jr. compacts Iyer’s concerns into a single campus novel, set at early 21st-century Cambridge. It should serve as an ideal introduction to his work. (Garth)
The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim: No one makes chaos as appealing a spectacle as Antrim, whether it’s unloosed on the dilapidated red library from The Hundred Brothers, its priceless rugs, heraldic arms and rare books threatened by drunken siblings and a bounding Doberman; the pancake house from The Verificationist; or the moated suburban neighborhood from Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. His latest is a collection of stories written over the past fifteen years, each of which was published in the New Yorker. The Emerald Light in the Air demonstrates that Antrim’s controlled anarchy translates beautifully to the shorter form. (Matt)
Hold the Dark by William Giraldi: Having built a reputation for critical savagery following the hatchet he sank into a pair of Alix Ohlin books in the Times in 2012, Giraldi puts his own neck on the line with this literary thriller set in a remote Alaskan village where wolves are eating children. Billed as an “Alaskan Oresteia,” the novel follows a pair of men, one an aging nature writer, the other a returning soldier, who come to learn secrets “about the unkillable bonds of family, and the untamed animal in the soul of every human being.” That sound you hear is the whine of blades touching grindstones across literary America. (Michael)
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas: The title of Christos Tsiolkas’s fifth novel — his first since the international bestseller, The Slap — is a nickname for Daniel Kelly, an Australian swimming prodigy so ruthless in the water that he gets likened to the sharp-toothed, predatory fish. But Daniel’s Olympic ambitions are thwarted by a crime whose nature Tsiolkas hints at but shrewdly withholds. This novel, like all of Tsiolkas’s work, is a vigorous, sometimes vicious argument about what it means to be Australian. As one character concludes, “We are parochial and narrow-minded and we are racist and ungenerous and…” It gets worse, gorgeously worse. (Bill)
Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones: You’re showing your age and (lack of) internet bona fides if you admit that you’re unfamiliar with Jones’s work. For years now the Buzzfeed LGBT editor has been lighting it up at his day job, and also on Twitter, with a ferocity befitting his name. Now, after earning praise from D.A. Powell and after winning a NYC-based Literary Death Match bout, Jones will use his debut collection to prominently display his poetry chops. (Ed. note: check out an excerpt over here.) (Nick M.)
Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück: The UK publisher (Carcanet) of Louise Glück’s newest collection — her twelfth — describes the poems as “a sequence of journeys and explorations through time and memory.” Macmillan describes it as “a story of adventure, an encounter with the unknown, a knight’s undaunted journey into the kingdom of death; this is a story of the world you’ve always known… every familiar facet has been made to shimmer like the contours of a dream…” In other words, Glück’s newest work is interested in a kind of reiterative, collage-like experience of narrative — “tells a single story but the parts are mutable.” (Sonya)
Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg: In Goldberg’s latest novel, infamous Chicago mafia hit man Sal Cupertine must flee to Las Vegas to escape the FBI, where he assumes the identity of… Rabbi David Cohen. The Mafia plus the Torah makes for a darkly funny and suspenseful morality tale. Goldberg, who runs UC Riverside-Palm Desert’s low residency MFA program, is also the author of Living Dead Girl, which was an LA Times Fiction Prize finalist, and the popular Burn Notice series, among others. The man can spin a good yarn. (Edan)
Happiness: Ten Years of n+1 by Editors of n+1: Happiness is a collection of the best pieces from n+1’s first decade, selected by the magazine’s editors. Ten years is a pretty long time for any literary journal to continue existing, but when you consider the number of prominent younger American writers who have had a long association with the magazine, it’s actually sort of surprising that it hasn’t been around longer. Chad Harbach, Keith Gessen, Benjamin Kunkel and Elif Batuman all launched their careers through its pages. Pieces by these writers, and several more, are included here. (Mark)
Neverhome by Laird Hunt: According to letters and accounts from the time, around 400 women disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War. Years ago, Laird Hunt read a collection of one of those women’s letters, and the idea for this novel has been germinating ever since. It tells the story of Constance Thompson, a farm wife who leaves her husband behind, calls herself Ash and fights for the Union. Neverhome is both a story about the harrowing life of a cross-dressing soldier, and an investigation into the mysterious circumstances that led her there. (Janet)
My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner: Brian Turner served for seven years in the US Army, spending time in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq. Since then, he has published two collections of poetry — Here, Bullet and the T.S. Elliot Prize-shortlisted Phantom Noise — both of which draw heavily on his experiences in those wars. His new book is a memoir about his year in Iraq, and about the aftermath of that experience. Turner also makes a leap of conceptual identification, attempting to imagine the conflict through the experience of the Iraqi other. Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, has praised it as “brilliant and beautiful”, and as ranking “with the best war memoirs I’ve ever encountered”. (Mark)
Wallflowers: Stories by Eliza Robertson: Robertson’s stories — often told from the perspectives of outsiders, often concerned with the mysteries of love and family, set in places ranging from the Canadian suburbs to Marseilles — have earned her a considerable following in her native Canada. Her debut collection includes “We Walked on Water,” winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and “L’Etranger,” shortlisted for the CBC Short Story Prize. (Emily)
On Bittersweet Place by Ronna Wineberg: On Bittersweet Place is the second publication from Relegation Books, a small press founded by author Dallas Hudgens. The novel — Wineberg’s first, following her acclaimed story collection Second Language — concerns Lena Czernitski, a young Russian Jewish immigrant trying to find her place in the glamour and darkness of 1920s Chicago. (Emily)
The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis: Following on the heels of the acclaimed The Free World, Bezmozgis’s second novel is about 24 hours in the life of Baruch Kotler, a disgraced Israeli politician who meets the Soviet-era spy who denounced him decades earlier. (Kevin)
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran: The feminist journalist and author of How to Be a Woman, once called “the UK’s answer to Tina Fey, Chelsea Handler, and Lena Dunham all rolled into one” by Marie Claire, is publishing her first novel. It follows Johanna Morrigan, who at 14 decides to start life over as Dolly Wilde. Two years later she’s a goth chick and “Lady Sex Adventurer” with a gig writing reviews for a music paper, when she starts to wonder about what she lost when she reinvented herself. (Janet)
On Immunity: An Innoculation by Eula Biss: When Biss became a mother, she began looking into the topic of vaccination. What she had assumed would be a few hours of personal research turned into a fascination, and the result is a sweeping work that considers the concept of immunity, the history of vaccination — a practice that sometimes seems to function as a lightning rod for our most paranoid fears about the chemical-laden modern world in which we find ourselves, but that has its roots in centuries-old folk medicine — and the ways in which we’re interconnected, with meditations on writers ranging from Voltaire to Bram Stoker. (Emily)
Yes, Please by Amy Poehler: The Leslie Knopes among us cannot wait for Poehler’s first book of personal stories and advice, in the vein of Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? In Poehler’s delightful New Yorker essay about her job at an ice cream parlor, she wrote, “It’s important to know when it’s time to turn in your kazoo.” Wise words from one of America’s most beloved comics and actresses. (Anne)
The Peripheral by William Gibson: William Gibson fans rejoice, for his first novel in four years is upon us. The novel follows an army veteran with futuristic nerve damage wrought during his time in a futuristic kill squad. (Technically, according to Gibson, it’s a novel taking place in multiple futures, so it’s probably more complicated than that). You can watch him read the first two pages here. If William Gibson were a tense, he’d be future-noir. (Lydia)
Lila by Marilynne Robinson: Marilynne Robinson published her brilliant debut novel Housekeeping in 1980 and then basically went dark for a decade and a half, but has been relatively prolific in the last ten years. After re-emerging with 2004’s gorgeous and heartbreaking Gilead, she followed up four years later with Home, a retelling of the prodigal son parable that revisited a story and characters from Gilead. James Wood’s description of the relationship between the two books is exact and lovely: “Home is not a sequel [to Gilead],” he wrote, “but more like that novel’s brother.” With her new novel, Robinson has given those books a sister. The novel tells the story of Lila – the young bride of Gilead’s narrator, Rev. John Ames – who was abandoned as a toddler and raised by a drifter. (Mark) (Ed. Note: You can read an excerpt over here.)
Dan by Joanna Ruocco: Joanna Ruocco’s kaleidoscopic fictions have been likened to Donald Barthelme’s for their dark humor and uncanny occurrences that revel in wordplay. Her stories “map the unmappable wrinkles of the mind,” says Laird Hunt, and by bridging disparate ideas creates a synesthesia. In Dan, Ruocco’s latest novel, the character Melba Zuzzo finds herself in a rut while living in a male-dominated town in the foothills of a mountain. What ensues is a “slapstick parable” that according to her publisher, Dorothy Project, evokes both the “unabashed campiness of Thomas Pynchon” and the capacious imagination of Raymond Roussel. (Anne)
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James: Marlon James follows his stunning and brutal The Book of Night Women with A Brief History of Seven Killings, which depicts the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley, “spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters — assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts.” Irvine Welsh calls it “an amazing novel of power, corruption and lies. I can’t think of a better one I’ve read this century.” (Edan)
Citizen by Claudia Rankine: “Often a division is made between politics and poetry, and I like to think this is a moment when the intersection is recognized,” remarked poet Claudia Rankine, about recently winning the Jackson Poetry Prize. In her lyric hybrid work, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine investigated media’s role in our private lives, taking on television, pharmaceutical marketing, depression, race, and identity in the post–9/11 era. Citizen, her follow-up book, deals pointedly with race and racial aggression in the media and the everyday — from the classroom to the playing field and the public stage — as it traces the effects of racism in our so-called “post-race” age. (Anne)
Some Luck by Jane Smiley: Still best known for her 1991 Pulitzer-winner A Thousand Acres, Smiley returns to Iowa farm country in this ambitious family saga set in the first half of the 20th century. Some Luck is the first installment in a trilogy spanning 100 years in the lives of the Langdon family, starting from its rural Iowa roots in 1920 and following the clan as its five children spread out across America in a time of epochal change. The second volume, Early Warning, is due in spring 2015, with the final volume, which brings the story up to December 31, 2019, set to appear next fall. (Michael)
Reunion by Hannah Pittard: In Pittard’s second novel — her first was 2011’s The Fates Will Find Their Way, lauded here and just about everywhere else — a failed screenwriter on the verge of divorce agrees to join her family for a reunion in Atlanta after her estranged father commits suicide. It’s a nuanced and intriguing study of family and love, money and debt, failure and success, starring one of the most likable flawed narrators to come along in some time. (Emily)
A Different Bed Every Time by Jac Jemc: Six years ago Chicago-based author Jac Jemc started a blog to track the rejection letters she received. But recently the blog’s been rather quiet — due to a slew of acceptances, it seems. Jemc’s first novel, My Only Wife, was published in 2012 and nominated for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham award; it depicts a husband’s obsession with recalling memories of his wife who disappeared five years earlier. When Jemc’s follow-up collection, A Different Bed Every Time, hits shelves, expect to encounter stories showcasing Jemc’s playful and poetic sensibility, in a book that Laura van den Berg deems “mythic and essential.” (Anne)
300,000,000 by Blake Butler: Blake Butler deploys words like chemicals that merge into phrases, coalescing in alternate existences, with familiar worlds distorted. In Butler’s third novel, There is No Year, a family survives a disease but is still subject to a scourge of infestations and other horrors and mysteries, including a house with secret passageways and the existence of a duplicate “copy family.” Butler began his latest novel, 300,000,000, as a retaliation against the hype surrounding Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. The result? A portrait of American violence, told through the minds of a Manson-like cult figure and the policeman responsible for figuring him out, while tracking a trail of violence and descent into psychosis. (Anne)
Sister Golden Hair by Darcey Steinke: In Steinke’s new novel, a coming-of-age story set in early-70’s Virginia, twelve-year-old Jesse’s family is on the brink of collapse: her father has recently been defrocked, and her mother is coming undone. When her father was a pastor, Jesse felt that they were a part of something — “We were at the center of what I thought of as THE HOLY, and our every move had weight and meaning” — but they’ve drifted into a life of vertiginous weightlessness. (Emily)
Quick Kills by Lynn Lurie: Lurie’s first novel, Corner of the Dead, featured a photojournalist traumatized by the atrocities committed by the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru during the 1980s. In Quick Kills, the narrator is a young girl who finds herself on the other side of the camera, the exploited subject of a predatory photographer: “There is fear in my eyes. I see the fear clearly even in the blurred snapshot.” This slim work looks to be an unsettling rumination on art, pornography and sexual violence. (Matt)
Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère: This biography of Éduard Limonov, published in France in 2011, won the prestigious Prix Théophraste-Renaudot, which is typically awarded to a novel. Limonov’s life makes for good novelistic material: he is founder of the National Bolshevik Party, which “believes in the creation of a grand empire that will include the whole of Europe and Russia, as well as Northern/Central Asia, to be governed under Russian dominance” (Wikipedia), and FSG’s English translation (by John Lambert) will be released under the in-case-you-didn’t-know title Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia. Typical of Carrère, he approaches his subject essayistically, wrestling with his own attractions/repulsions vis-à-vis the epic Limonov. (Sonya)
The Heart Is Strange by John Berryman: To mark the centenary of John Berryman’s birth, FSG is reissuing much of his poetry, including his book The Dream Songs. They’re also publishing a new collection, featuring three uncollected pieces along with older examples of his work, that spans the length of his career. From his juvenalia, to the landmark “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” to his later poems, The Heart is Strange puts Berryman’s talents on display, which means a new generation will start using the phrase “heavy bored.” (For a primer on Dream Songs, check out Stephen Akey’s Millions essay.) (Thom)
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber: Faber’s latest novel – which David Mitchell called his “second masterpiece” after The Crimson Petal and the White – touches on interstellar space travel, cataclysmic events, romantic love, and religious faith. Such broad territory seems befitting for an author claimed simultaneously by the nations of Scotland, Australia, and the Netherlands. (Nick M.)
Hiding in Plain Sight by Nuruddin Farah: Farah is back with another trilogy after his acclaimed Blood in the Sun series. Once again, he explores identity, obligation, family ties, and how politics can interrupt it all. After Bella’s brother is killed by Somali extremists, she has to give up her life as a famous fashion photographer and raise his children as if they were her own. Yet when the children’s mother returns, Bella must decide what matters more — her family or herself. (Tess)
The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson: In an interview last fall, Johnson described his new novel as “kind of a spy story with what we might call serious intentions, on the order of Graham Greene.” Johnson, whose 2007 novel Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award, has written a post-9/11 spy thriller concerning a trio of travelers in west Africa; one is a self-styled soldier of fortune, another is being trailed by two spy agencies and Interpol, and all three are hiding secrets from one another. (Emily)
Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford: I was gleeful to learn that Frank Bascombe will return to us after eight years and the threat of oblivion. At a reading in April, Ford reintroduced Bascombe as a 67-year-old Jersey-dweller ruminating on his former home, tipped on its side by Hurricane Sandy. Let Me Be Frank With You will comprise four novellas, each narrated with, undoubtedly, that unmistakable Bascombe verve. (Lydia)
Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet: After the high hilarity of her satirical early work, Lydia Millet reached new emotional depths in her last three novels. This new novel, concerning the discovery of mermaids and the ensuing scramble to cash in, looks to achieve a new kind of synthesis. (Garth)
Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter: Lindsay Hunter’s first story collection Daddy’s is described by its publisher Featherproof Books as a “collection of toxic southern gothics, packaged as a bait box of temptation.” Her second collection Don’t Kiss Me, published by FSG (who says big houses don’t publish story collections?) is, according to the Tin House blog, “a heterogeneous story collection that holds together… peculiar voices that tend to overlap in areas of loss, self-pity, and hilarity.” Hunter is a practitioner of the short-short form and founding host of a flash fiction reading series; no surprise that her debut novel Ugly Girls would be “voice-driven with [a] breakneck pace.” Roxane Gay (on Twitter) called it “gorgeously hopeless.” (Sonya)
Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare: Originally published in 1978 and appearing in English for the first time this year, Twilight of the Eastern Gods is the fictional account of the prolific Albanian novelist’s time at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow, to which Kadare was recruited in 1958. A kind of factory meant to produce top Socialist writers, the Gorky Institute’s prescribed style and disagreeable faculty instead caused Kadare to rethink his calling. Like his other novels, Twilight promises to be a wormhole into strange times. (Lydia)
A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin: Beneath the quiet poetry of Ha Jin’s sentences is a searing novelistic ambition; in A Map of Betrayal, the story of a double-agent in the CIA, he explores a half-century of entanglements between China and the U.S., and the divided loyalties that result. (Garth)
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews: The premise of Toews’s sixth novel, released to critical acclaim in Canada earlier this year, is simple and devastating: there are two adult sisters, and one of them wants to die. She’s a wildly successful and in-demand concert pianist, but she longs for self-annihilation. It’s a premise that could easily be grindingly unbearable, but Toews is a writer of considerable subtlety and grace, with a gift for bringing flashes of lightness, even humor, to the darkest of tales. (Emily)
Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 by Alice Munro: If our guide to Alice Munro wasn’t enough, Family Furnishings will feature 25 of her best stories from the past 19 years. It’s the first anthology of her work since Selected Stories (1968-1994) and should fill the Munro oeuvre for both lifelong fans and those who found her after her Nobel Prize win last year. Despite her larger-than-life reputation now, these stories remind us what makes Munro one of the best short story writers in the first place — her ability to illuminate quotidian problems and intimacies in small-town Canada. (Tess)
Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles d’Ambrosio: In 2005 Charles D’Ambrosio published an essay collection, Orphans, with a small press, and the book won a devoted following. The entire print run consisted of 3,500 copies, but all of them, D’Ambrosio writes in his introduction to Loitering, managed to find their way into the hands of readers, “a solace to me like the thought of home.” In Loitering, which consists of the eleven original essays from Orphans and a number of new pieces, D’Ambrosio considers subjects ranging from the work of J.D. Salinger to the idea of home. (Emily)
Why Religion is Immoral: And Other Interventions by Christopher Hitchens: Since his death from cancer in 2011, Christopher Hitchens has refused to leave the party. His voice — erudite, witty, proudly biased — can be heard again in this new collection of his unpublished speeches, a follow-up to his late-life bestseller, God Is Not Great. The word “interventions” in the new book’s title is critical because Hitchens’s great theme — his opposition to all forms of tyranny, including religious, political and social — led him to support the misinformed and disastrous military invention against the Iraqi tyrant, Saddam Hussein. Hitchens wasn’t always right, but as this new collection ably demonstrates, he was never dull. (Bill)
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck: One of the most significant German-language novelists of her generation, Erpenbeck follows up the celebrated novel Visitation with a heady conceit located somewhere between Cloud Atlas and Groundhog Day. The End of Days follows a single character, born early in the 20th Century, to five different deaths: the first as an infant, the second as a teenager, and so on. In each case, her life illuminates the broader history of Europe, which remains ever in the background, dying its own deaths. (Garth)
Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: In Rash’s poem, “Preserves,” a family discovers a beautiful springhouse after a funeral, where “woodslats bowed with berry and vegetable.” Rash’s work is suffused with this sense: a pastoral world is dying, and his sentences are its best chance at resurrection. Longtime fans of Rash’s elegiac prose are happy this craftsman is finally getting his deserved recognition. His novel, Serena, will reach theaters later this year, and star Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. In Above the Waterfall, set in North Carolina, a terrible crime brings together a sheriff and a park ranger. The territory might be familiar, but this poet-novelist always delivers. (Nick R.)
The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Mehgan Daum: Thirteen years after it was published, My Misspent Youth holds up as a perennially interesting book of essays, not to mention the final word on being young and broke in New York. In her new collection, Meghan Daum looks at a host of modern anxieties, including the modern wedding industry, Joni Mitchell and the habits of digital natives. Though a lot of her material is funny in the vein of Nora Ephron, there’s gravity here, too — as there is in “Matricide”, which tackles the death of her mother. Our own Matt Seidel recently featured Daum’s editor in a piece on editors’ first buys. (Thom)
The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya: Ludmila Ulitskaya only began writing novels after her scientific credentials were revoked for translating a banned novel. The Russian author’s commitments to art, activism, and speaking her mind have led her to become one of Russia’s most popular living authors. These same concerns guide her fiction, too — called smart, prickly, and with harsh wit — and in this, her latest novel, The Big Green Tent, is no exception. When a poet, a pianist, and a photographer try to transcend oppression in post-Stalinist Russia, their ultimate destinies are far darker than their author’s. (Anne)
Skylight by José Saramago: This is Saramago’s so-called “lost work,” which was written in the 1950s, but rediscovered after the Nobel laureate’s death in 2010. The novel features the interconnected stories of the residents of an apartment building in Lisbon in the 1940s. (Kevin)
The First Bad Man by Miranda July: If you’re like me, and think about the various Miranda July short stories like favorite tracks on a beloved album, you might be surprised that The First Bad Man is her debut novel. Her short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, was published six years ago and won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award; since then, she has, amongst other varied projects, released an acclaimed feature film and a book project inspired by the people behind various PennySaver ads. The novel, which centers around a woman “with a perpetual lump in her throat,” chronicles what happens when, after taking her boss’s selfish, cruel daughter, her “eccentrically ordered world explodes.” (Elizabeth)
Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: Sara Gerard’s star is rising. The NYC-based bookseller slash art-mag-employee slash writer drew attention last fall with “Things I Told My Mother,” an essayistic inquiry into women’s representation in society, spawned by a topless walk the author took through Times Square. This kind of intensity and boldness guide all of Gerard’s work — whether concerning other writers, or her own bout with anorexia, addiction, and a stint jumping freight trains, and now in her first novel Binary Star. Binary Star interweaves astronomical research with a story about an unnamed anorexic who burns through her intensely dysfunctional life like a star burns fuel, never to be replenished. (Anne)
Outline by Rachel Cusk: Some travelers collect stories as much as souvenirs. In Cusk’s latest novel, a woman writer travels to Greece to teach a creative writing workshop but learns just as much from the tales her fellow travelers tell her. As she listens, she weaves their stories into a narrative of loss, creativity, family life, and intimacy. To keep with the storytelling tradition, the Paris Review serialized the novel, but FSG will publish it for a full narrative experience. (Tess)
Glow by Ned Beauman: Beauman’s previous novels, The Boxer Beetle and The Teleportation Accident — the one a fanciful look at eugenics and fascism, the other a genre-bending wonder about an avant-garde set designer in 1930s Berlin — each displayed a learned, diabolical imagination at work. His latest appears just as unhinged. Enrolled in a “continuous amateur neurochemistry seminar” and suffering from a sleep disorder, its hero experiments with the designer drug, “glow,” which opens up a gateway into a Pynchonian universe: a disappeared friend, pirate radio stations, and a nefarious Burmese mining company. (Matt)
There’s Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: In his first story collection in 15 years, Charles Baxter, a son of the Midwest and venerated writer of fiction, poetry and essays, gives us inter-related tales that are tidily bifurcated into two sections, one devoted to virtues (“Chastity,” “Charity,” “Forbearance”), the other to vices (“Lust,” “Sloth,” “Avarice”). Characters re-appear, performing acts both virtuous and loathsome, in stories that are set mostly around Minneapolis but also roam to New York, Tuscany and Ethiopia. The collection’s title is a typical “request moment” that animates the stories, resulting in a murder, a rescue, a love affair, an assault, even a surprising gesture of kindness. (Bill)
Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris: I was such a big fan of Amelia Morris’s hilarious, entertaining, and useful food blog, Bon Appétempt, that I tracked her down and asked her to teach for my writing school, Writing Workshops Los Angeles. Now Amelia has penned a compelling and funny memoir about becoming an adult and an artist — both in and out of the kitchen — that is sure to bring her even more devoted readers. If you like Laurie Colwin and MFK Fischer and, I don’t know, total goofballs baking cakes while making weird faces, you’ll love Amelia Morris and Bon Appétempt. (Edan)
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: “What I want is to create stories that shift around when you reread them.” Few can shake readers awake as well as Link, which makes short fiction her ideal form. She has been called the “George Saunders of the fairy tale,” but simply being Kelly Link is enough. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, gets its title from the sense that in fiction, “there’s a kind of cathartic, discomforting joy — a pain/pleasure — in people behaving badly.” Her previous fantastical tales have been populated by librarians, cellists, aliens, and fainting goats. Link aims to surprise, which makes her work absolutely pleasing. (Nick R.)
Find Me by Laura van den Berg: Laura van den Berg’s fictions often unfurl just beyond the real, with their madcap mix of zany and dreamlike set-ups. Case in point, van den Berg’s recent story collection, The Isle of Youth, was peopled by yacht thieves, a mother-daughter magician team, and newlyweds who survive a plane crash. Her first novel, Find Me, continues this surreal, at times catastrophic streak, as it follows Joy, a grocery clerk, cough-syrup addict who’s immune to an ongoing plague of memory illness. Joy’s resulting hospital stay and cross-country journey plotline sounds like a surreal mash-up of Stephen King’s The Stand and Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps. (Anne)
The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa: The 2010 Nobel Prize winner trains his eye on corruption and urbanization in modern day Lima in his latest novel. According to CityLab, “The story follows two parallel tales: an elite Lima businessman who decides to punish his undeserving heirs, and a self-made man in Vargas Llosa’s adopted hometown, Piura, who resists an extortionist demand.” (Kevin)
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“These were not like other poems: within their consistent 16-line armature they were turbulent, mad, feverish, cryptic, an unruly union of boppy jive-talk, and thorny quasi-Elizabethan diction. It was impossible to tell who was speaking, or to whom; poems ended in mid-syllable, bristled with random phrases in foreign languages, sported menacing-looking accent marks and Shakespearean contractions, were riddled with ampersands and ellipses.” At The Rumpus, a memory of falling in love with The Dream Songs (which happens to nicely complement a piece we published back in April).
If poetry is going to be tortured, agonized, and morbidly introspective, it might as well be funny too. John Berryman’s The Dream Songs are all that and more. Half elegiac lyricism and half lowdown buffoonery, they’re like nothing else in American literature, though they owe a debt to Saul Bellow’s breakthrough mixture of high and low in The Adventures of Auggie March. (The two men shared an office at the University of Minnesota in the 1950s. Can you imagine being an undergraduate there and making a routine appointment to discuss your C+ with Mr. Bellow or Mr. Berryman?) Although I can’t claim to understand The Dream Songs fully, I’m not required to. No one said it better than Berryman himself: “These Songs are not meant to be understood, you understand./They are only meant to terrify & comfort.” Reading all 385 of them at a stretch (not recommended), I sometimes find myself bored as well as baffled. This too is allowed:
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as achilles.
Perhaps the first thing to be said about The Dream Songs is that there are too many of them. By my reckoning (every reader’s will differ), fewer than half are truly first-rate or even intelligible, yet the good ones wouldn’t be so good if not set off by the messiness and prolixity of the others — and even the good ones are pretty messy too. It took Berryman years to break through to the mess that allowed life in. He served his apprenticeship under the ideal of formal severity and impersonality bequeathed by the gods of modernism. Not that he ever surrendered the modernist ideal of difficulty. Them Dream Songs isn’t easy, pal. But although their elisions and allusions seem to invite the sort of interpretive ingenuity that used to make academic careers, they succeed best when speaking more or less clearly about the elemental things: love, lust, friendship, death, despair, memory, and John Berryman.
John Berryman isn’t exactly a veiled presence in Homage to Mistress Bradstreet (1953), the major work that preceded The Dream Songs, but that strange narrative poem of 57 stanzas does give us something rarely encountered in his work thereafter: other consciousnesses. It’s true that friends, lovers, wives, children, students, rivals, doctors, nurses, mothers, and murderers populate The Dream Songs, but their appearances are always and openly grist for “Henry’s” — that is, Berryman’s — mill, objects in his psychic landscape. It’s also true that the Anne Bradstreet he brings into being is as much Berryman’s alter-ego or freely imaged object of desire as the actual Puritan poet who married at 16, crossed the Atlantic in 1630, bore eight children, wrote some of the earliest verse in America, and died at the age of 60 in 1672. Nevertheless, he was too much a scholar not to give a convincing sense of Puritan culture and the people who inhabited it. No scholar alone, however, would have dared to create an interior life for his protagonist the way that Berryman does. It’s hard to imagine the Harvard historian Perry Miller, for example, whose studies of Puritan thought and culture Berryman drew on heavily, trying to get inside the head of a woman in labor, as Berryman does in the stanzas describing the birth of Anne’s first child. (Another part of his research consisted of asking extremely intimate questions of mothers that he knew, including his own.) Magnificent in itself, this celebrated sequence is also a useful corrective to those who believe that the adulterous, alcoholic, sexist, self-involved male poet couldn’t write about anything but his own consciousness:
Monster you are killing me Be sure
I’ll have you later Women do endure
I can can no longer
and it passes the wretched trap whelming and I am me
drencht & powerful, I did it with my body!
One proud tug greens Heaven. Marvellous,
Swell, imperious bells. I fly.
Nevertheless, the adulterous, alcoholic, sexist, self-involved male poet did write primarily about his own consciousness, and in The Dream Songs, to return to his signature work, he did so over the course of about 400 pages and 7,000 lines. The question almost asks itself: Why should any of us struggle with 400 pages of fractured, nonlinear verse describing one mid-20th-century white academic’s private torments, not excluding details of a hemorrhage in his left ear and much grousing about the weather? Well, if you think The Dream Songs are excessively self-involved, try Love & Fame (1971), which goes on and on and on about insanely trivial matters, as if daring the reader to find the poetry in this mass of congealed autobiography. It’s there if you look hard enough, but some of the verse is so hilariously awful it must be intentional, as in this reminiscence about Berryman’s college years:
I must further explain: I needed a B,
I didn’t need an A, as in my other six courses,
but the extra credits accruing from those A’s
would fail to accrue if I’d any mark under B.
The bastard knew this,
as indeed my predicament was well known
through both my major Departments.
Unlike The Dream Songs, Love & Fame is meant all too clearly to be understood. It’s so lucid, in fact — a scrupulously detailed bildungsroman in verse — that most of the poetry gets lost in the glare. No one ever accused The Dream Songs of being too lucid. At their frequent worst, they are so clotted with private reference as to be impenetrable. Any poem that requires an annotation like the following (from John Berryman: A Critical Commentary by John Haffenden) plainly doesn’t give a damn whether it’s penetrable or not:
The ‘Little Baby’ is Berryman’s daughter Martha; Diana, the daughter of Kate Berryman’s friend, Eugenia Foster. ‘The Beast’ is the nickname given to the boy who lived next door to them in Lansdowne Park, Ballsbridge, Dublin. ‘Mir’ is the family name for Berryman’s mother.
Furthermore — to get the bad stuff out of the way — even if Songs were consistently successful, they would still suffer from the defect of most uniform poetic sequences: too much of a good thing. If Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets begin ever so slightly to pall, Berryman’s 385 sonnet-like Songs — 18 iambic lines divided into stanzas of six, six, and six, with varying rhymes and half lines, usually in the middle and end of each strophe — can hardly escape a similar but much heavier numbing effect. There is, of course, a fairly simple solution to this problem — don’t read them straight through. Although there are sequences within the sequence, the ordering has no organizational principle that holds for long. You could read them backwards and do almost as well.
Another difficulty is the minstrel dialect that Berryman mixes with the slang, jokes, baby talk, impossible grammar, and syntactic inversions. Readers of modern poetry are accustomed to such unstable compounds, but the appropriation of an idiom associated with racial oppression induces squirms, and is meant to. At least I hope it’s meant to. Sometimes I’m not so sure. I feel a little better knowing that Berryman’s friend Ralph Ellison had no problem with the blackface dialect and especially admired Song 68, which deals in part with the death of Bessie Smith. I guess I’ll always have some qualms, but would anyone really prefer The Dream Songs to be shorn of their outrages to decorum and taste? Don’t we read them partly because they’re so unlike what “great” poetry is supposed to be? The half-lunatic syntax serves many purposes — chiefly, the subversion of psychological defenses preventing access to primal guilts, fears, needs, and shames, or as Kafka might have said, the taking of an ax to the frozen sea within. The Songs are, after all, inspired by dreams, where we take our clothes off and don’t speak or think the King’s English, but Henry’s language is also extremely funny, an all-American music of boisterous vulgarity. Troubled and troubling as they are, The Dream Songs give back in delighted sound what they darkly ruminate on sense. The overall tenor of the book might be roughly stated as follows: Just because we’re buffoons, it doesn’t mean our lives aren’t tragic.
In the preface Berryman explains, somewhat misleadingly, that the poem “is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white American in early middle age sometimes in blackface, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr Bones and variants thereof.” Although just enough distance exists between character and creator to allow for the writing of the book, few people believe Berryman’s disclaimer. Berryman is Henry, and Henry is, to a greater or — let us hope — lesser degree, us. More useful, I think, is Berryman’s statement to The Paris Review: “Henry to some extent was in the situation that we are all in in actual life — namely, he didn’t know and I didn’t know what the bloody fucking hell was going to happen next.” This barroom wisdom underwrites every line of the book. (“Parm me, lady,” drunken Henry says to his seatmate on an airplane in Song 5. “Orright” she replies.) I might add, before I look at a few Songs, that the principle of chaos and disorder to which this wisdom attests found spectacular expression in the poet’s everyday life. According to Bellow, Berryman “knocked himself out to be like everybody else,” but despite his efforts to be a responsible husband, father, citizen, and colleague, he failed in every respect. In Dream Song: The Life of John Berryman Paul Mariani describes a fairly typical night in the life of the poet when, drunk as usual and declining out of envious pique to attend a poetry reading at Berkeley, where we was then teaching:
Berryman came over to see Miriam [Ostroff, a faculty wife], chatted with her, read her some of his Dream Songs, and was soon boasting of his sexual prowess. In spite of her protests, he began chasing her around the room. When she told him to get out, he suddenly became contrite and downcast and promised to be good if only he could stay. After a short while, however, he started again, until he finally browbeat her into letting him spend “ten or fifteen minutes reverently caressing her feet, while reciting poetry.” Then, realizing that the house had windows and that someone might be watching, Berryman recovered himself, hailed a taxi, and went home.
Mariani’s biography is not edifying. Out of such squalor, however, Berryman created masterpieces like Dream Song 4, Henry’s appallingly believable version of “lust in action”:
Filling her compact & delicious body
with chicken paprika, she glanced at me
Fainting with interest, I hungered back
and only the fact of her husband & four other people
kept me from springing on her
or falling at her little feet and crying
‘You are the hottest one for years of night
Henry’s dazed eyes
have enjoyed, Brilliance.’ I advanced upon
(despairing) my spumoni. – Sir Bones: is stuffed,
de world, wif feeding girls.
— Black hair, complexion Latin, jeweled eyes
downcast . . . The slob beside her feasts . . . What wonders is
she sitting on, over there?
The restaurant buzzes. She might as well be on Mars.
Where did it all go wrong? There ought to be a law against Henry.
— Mr. Bones: there is.
The self-disgust is palpable and — who can doubt it? — thoroughly earned. Why then is this poem so exceedingly funny? Perhaps because like the best of the Songs it manages to be so many things at once. There ought to be a law against Henry, but his raging sexuality doesn’t stop him from idealizing both the object of his desire and his desire itself. The funniest thing about the Song is that it exists — a gross parody of poetic adoration that is touched with the lyricism of jeweled eyes and an apostrophized “Brilliance.” Helen Vendler writes in The Given and the Made, “We become marginally convinced, by such a poem, that the troubadours were Henrys too, and that Berryman is merely uncovering the unsalubrious, but oddly solacing, layer of psychic squalor beneath high artistic convention.” Nicely put, but somehow it sounds funnier when Henry says it.
Among the adjectives Vendler applies to Henry are “regressive, petulant, hysterical, childish, cunning, hypersexual, boastful, frightened, shameless, and revengeful.” Also, “complaining, greedy, lustful, and polymorphously perverse.” Did we miss anything? How about self-pitying, irresponsible, envious, and grandiose? Vendler, who notes that Henry is simultaneously “imaginative, hilarious, mocking, and full of Joycean music,” is making an important point about the intrusion of the Freudian Id into the august precincts of lyric poetry. If Henry’s worse than we are, it’s only by a matter of degree. Why shouldn’t self-portraiture, in poetry as well as prose, allow for the base and ignoble as well as the socially approved? Maybe because I’ve written a few myself, I’ve never understood the knock on memoirs as pointless exercises in narcissism. Until we all live lives of wholly integrated personhood, there will be much to learn from the microscopic examinations of the self performed by Mary Karr or Tobias Wolff or Henry Adams or Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Because The Dream Songs derive so much from the model of self-examination provided by psychotherapy (and from Berryman’s long hours in group and private sessions), they’re more uncensored than most such memoiristic exercises but are unique only in their peculiar combination of hilarity and despair.
I’ve mentioned self-pity as one of the characteristic modes of Henry and his Songs. Since this particular vice isn’t going away any time soon and is, in fact, more ubiquitous than the alcoholism and lust for fame that the Songs also relate at inordinate length, I consider it wholly to Berryman’s credit that he presents Henry, in the midst of all his tribulations, feeling genuinely and unrepentantly sorry for himself. Instances aren’t hard to find: “Henry hates the world. What the world to Henry/did will not bear thought” (DS 74); “This world is gradually becoming a place/where I do not care to be any more” (DS 149); “The only happy people in the world/are those who do not have to write long poems” (DS 354); “Mr Bones,/stop that damn dismal” (DS 98). Mr Bones never did stop that damn dismal. Berryman, who regularly assigned Miguel de Unamuno to his students, must have learned something from the Spaniard’s metaphysics of pity. In the Tragic Sense of Life, Unamuno writes, “Man yearns to be loved, or, what is the same thing, to be pitied. Man wishes others to feel and share his hardships and sorrows. The roadside beggar’s exhibition of his sores and gangrened mutilations is something more than a device to extort alms from the passer-by. True alms is pity rather than the pittance that alleviates the material hardships of life.” For Unamuno the next step in the progression is turning the pity for the self outwards, towards a universal compassion for all suffering beings. Berryman never got that far. He occupied the huge gray area where self-pity and genuine pathos blur their edges. Song 149, for instance, sounds outrageously petulant — because Henry’s friends have died, he hates the world. Yet this petulance frames an elegy for a man whose sufferings easily surpassed Henry’s (or Berryman’s), his great friend Delmore Schwartz. A sober, chastened acceptance of death is precisely what Berryman does not provide. Henry’s refusal or inability to come to terms with necessity makes the Song doubly true — true to the intractability of grief, and true to the memory (half solace, half torment) of a loved friend:
This world is gradually becoming a place
where I do not care to be any more. Can Delmore die?
I don’t suppose
in all them years a day went ever by
without a loving thought for him. Welladay.
I imagine you have heard the terrible news,
that Delmore Schwartz is dead, miserably & alone,
in New York: he sang me a song
‘I am the Brooklyn poet Delmore Schwartz
Harms & the child I sing, two parents’ torts’
when he was young & gift-strong.
Berryman had a lot of grieving to do in The Dream Songs — for “Delmore,” “Randall” (Jarrell), “Richard” (Blackmur), “Louis” (MacNeice), and other friends, but mostly for himself. He too sang “Harms & the child”: his father’s suicide occurred when Berryman was 12. His unseemly bewailing of this primal wound is one of the glories of The Dream Songs. If you don’t feel sorry for yourself after a trauma like that, you’re probably damaged beyond redemption. I remember reading reviews of Flannery O’Connor’s posthumously published letters, The Habit of Being (1979), in which critic after critic marveled at her complete lack of self-pity in the face of rural isolation, degenerative illness, and overwhelming household cares. My response was more like Henry’s: What was wrong with this woman? On the other hand, who was I to judge this brave, unassuming, Roman Catholic stoic who virtually re-invented the American short story? Yet the feeling remains with me still — if Flannery O’Connor had ever permitted herself an occasional howl of self-pity, she might have extended a similar sympathy to the freaks, half-wits, criminals, con artists, and fanatics she depicted with such icy detachment. However brilliant, she was also, in my opinion, the coldest and cruelest of all major American writers. What Berryman says about Wallace Stevens is Song 219 is partly right; he just applies it to the wrong writer. Substitute “O’Connor” for “Stevens” and it makes perfect sense:
He mutter spiffy. He make wonder Henry’s
wits, though, with a odd
. . . something . . . something . . . not there in his flourishing art.
“Better than us; less wide” is Berryman’s final and misapplied verdict on Stevens. John Berryman was emphatically not better than us (though he’s speaking here as a poet to a poet), and there was nothing narrow or “less wide” about his emotional devastations. I’ve got my own Henry-like traumas to deal with. “Get over it,” people tell me. I can’t; that’s one of the reasons why I read poetry. Since all of us are damaged to one degree or another, I regard the shameless exhibitionism of The Dream Songs as not only essential to their success but a public service. But note: the Songs are art, not therapeutic transcripts. In 384, the penultimate Song, Berryman/Henry returns to the primal scene, his father’s suicide by shotgun. After all those years, after all those Songs, no resolution or catharsis is to be hoped for. There is only the consolation of expression through form:
The marker slants, flowerless, day’s almost done,
I stand above my father’s grave with rage,
often, often before
I’ve made this awful pilgrimage to one
who cannot visit me, who tore his page
out: I come back for more,
I spit upon this dreadful banker’s grave
who shot his heart out in a Florida dawn
O ho alas alas
When will indifference come, I moan & rave
I’d like to scrabble till I got right down
away down under the grass
and ax the casket open ha to see
just how he’s taking it, which he sought so hard
we’ll tear apart
the mouldering grave clothes ha then Henry
will heft the ax once more, his final card,
and fell it on the start.
It’s no accident that this poem of violent rage and hatred adheres with strictest discipline to a rhyme scheme of abc/abc and a metric of 5-5-3/5-5-3. The visionary power so overwhelms that the regularity passes almost unnoticed, but without the regularity controlling the passion, the Song wouldn’t be nearly so overwhelming. To offer any explication of a poem so primal in its address would almost seem an impertinence. The only analogue I can think of is the climax of Luis Buñuel’s Mexican B-movie version of Wuthering Heights — fabulously titled Abismos de Pasión — in which Heathcliff breaks into Cathy’s crypt with an ax and is shot while holding the decomposing corpse in his arms. Out of such subterranean currents of rage and despair are our ordinary lives made.
“When will indifference come?” If it had come, Berryman wouldn’t have needed to write the Songs and especially not 29, a nightmare of guilt and horror at the furthest extremity from indifference. I surely don’t understand this one fully, though it all feels sickeningly right, down to the unexplained “little cough” of the first stanza and the tantalizing/tormenting serenity of the Giotto-like figure that looms up in the second. That little cough may emanate from an imagined victim of Henry’s murderous fantasies. I myself am not bedeviled by recurring nightmares of committing violence against women, but I know how desolation and despair feel. Like this:
There sat down, once, a thing on Henry’s heart
só heavy, if he had a hundred years
& more, & weeping, sleepless, in all them time
Henry could not make good.
Starts again always in Henry’s ears
the little cough somewhere, an odour, a chime.
And there is another thing he has in mind
like a grave Sienese face a thousand years
would fail to blur the still profiled reproach of. Ghastly,
with open eyes, he attends, blind.
All the bells say: too late. This is not for tears;
But never did Henry, as he thought he did,
end anyone and hacks her body up
and hide the pieces, where they may be found.
He knows: he went over everyone, & nobody’s missing.
Often he reckons, in the dawn, them up.
Nobody is ever missing.
The third stanza presents a mind so disturbed as to risk foreclosing the possibility of any sympathetic response. For a moment it makes me think of all those pictures of naked little girls with penises by the “outsider” artist Henry Darger; if he hadn’t been drawing little girls, he might have been raping and murdering them. But there’s a reason Berryman called them “Dream Songs.” Their flashes of nightmarish, hallucinogenic imagery light up the darker recesses of the mind. John Berryman never hurt a fly (neither did Henry Darger), and The Dream Songs do what folk art cannot — they illuminate rather than exemplify pathologies of the soul. They’re also pretty good at illuminating ordinary experience. John Berryman lived in the world we live in, and when he wasn’t drunk or in detox or suicidal (or even when he was), he could describe the world and his place in it with grace and wit. After all this Sturm und Drang, I’d like to close with a lovely little poem (not a Dream Song) occasioned by the birth of his son Paul in 1957. Berryman of course turned out to be a negligent and mostly absent father to the boy, but he did leave him with “A Sympathy, A Welcome” — which excuses nothing. Whatever his feelings about his catastrophic father, I hope Paul Berryman had a happy life and that “loverhood” swung his soul like a broken bell.
Feel for your bad fall how could I fail,
poor Paul, who had it so good.
I can offer you only: this world like a knife.
Yet you’ll get to know your mother
and humourless as you do look you will laugh
and all the others
will NOT be fierce to you, and loverhood
will swing your soul like a broken bell
deep in a forsaken wood, poor Paul,
whose wild bad father loves you well.
I read and admired Leslie Jamison’s The Gin Closet when it first came out –and was immediately curious about its author: How could someone so young (Jamison was 26 at publication) write a book so lyrical, dark and knowing? As she and I both found ourselves in Iowa City this last spring, Jamison, now 28, agreed to sit down for a chat.
This was Jamison’s second stint in Iowa City; she’d received her MFA from the Writers Workshop five years ago, and is presently a PhD candidate at Yale. Now, she was accompanying her boyfriend, another Yale PhD student, while he got his MFA in poetry at the workshop.
On a cool spring day, before the cornfields were plowed or the leaves of the trees had unfurled, Jamison and I drove to the small town of Mount Vernon twenty miles north of Iowa City. Our destination was a coffeehouse called Fuel, a standard-bearer among coffeehouses with nooks and comfortable chairs, ample table space, amusing oddments to look at and buy, not to mention great coffee, and cookies baked in small batches all day long. (Jamison works part time in a bakery and has developed, she says, a snobbery about cookies: Fresh from the oven or none at all!). Fuel is one of Jamison’s natural habitats; she reads and writes there for hours at a stretch, so it seemed the ideal spot for a good long chat into the digital recorder. Also, as Jamison herself pointed out, The Gin Closet, which came out in paperback this month, is concerned with three generations of women and Fuel is run by three generations of women. Today, the granddaughter served as barista as the grandmother baked.
Stella, The Gin Closet’s protagonist, joins a long line of literary heroines, very intelligent young women on the cusp of adult lifewho willfully make bad choices (think Emma Woodhouse, Dorothea Brooke, Hester Prynne, Isabel Archer). At loose ends in her mid-twenties, Stella works for a famous, abusive boss and has fallen in love with a married man. In part to console herself, Stella moves in with her grandmother Lucy only to discover that Lucy is dying.
Jamison’s prose is lyrical, with the frank blare of youth:
Every night I said things like: Today my boss and I got drunk at lunch. Today my boss was on Oprah! Today I spent a thousand dollars on gift baskets. Today I used the word “autumnal” twice, and both times I was speaking to tulip salesmen…I compressed my days neatly into appetizer courses. I worked as a personal assistant for a woman with a reputation for treating people like shit, and she treated me like shit. I couldn’t spin witty versions of the rest. In the darkness I began caring for my collapsing grandmother. She wasn’t being inspirational or having sex or treating anyone like shit. She was just getting old.
As Lucy dies, a secret emerges: Stella has an aunt, Matilda, who was cast out of the family before Stella was born. After the funeral, Stella sets out to find this Aunt Tilly, ostensibly to deliver a letter but really to set things right. Tilly is found in a trailer in the Nevada desert.
The novel alternates between Stella’s first person and her aunt Tilly’s limited third person narrations. Tilly is a late-stage alcoholic and ex-prostitute whose difficult past Jamison renders fearlessly. Tilly’s one son Abe, a banker, has been sending her enough money so she can quit turning tricks; he wants her to live with him in San Francisco, but only if she’ll stop drinking. Stella convinces Tilly to take up this longstanding offer and the three of them—Stella, Tilly and Abe—set up housekeeping together in the city.
The center, if there ever was one, doesn’t hold.
As I suspected, Jamison is whip smart, articulate and intense—a terrific conversationalist.
Michelle Huneven: What got you started on this book—what was the germ, the seed?
Leslie Jamison: The short answer is my family I was working on a different novel and was stuck–I didn’t understand how stuck. I moved into a family home with my grandmother who was very sick. My life was taken over by her declining health. Trying to take care of her was completely beyond what I understood how to do. I realized when I woke up in the morning that there was no way I could work on this other novel, it had no claim on my heart or thoughts, so I just started writing with no particular plan about what was happening with my grandmother and how it was bringing up a lot of feelings about our family, a lot of old wounds that hadn’t been repaired. I had a fantasy that they could all be repaired before she died. It didn’t happen that way. But I was left with these pages about how I wish things had been different in our family, in particular with an aunt who had been estranged for a long time. I started to write a novel that explored bluntly what if– what if my aunt came back into the conversation of my family. That scenario had a lot of emotional weight with me and really drove the first draft of the novel. It took many more drafts to get further in–and further away from my family.
MH: I particularly liked Stella’s mix of naieve hopefulness and her blind confidence that she could repair the familial breach and somehow accomplish what her mother and grandmother hadn’t managed to do.
LJ: Yes, Stella has a dual feeling of guilt and superiority. I shared some version of that, myself. You feel responsible for what your family has done, even if you weren’t alive for it, but you also feel like, I’m better than that, I would never do that to somebody, and what’s more, I can go fix it. Stella thinks “I can do what my mother wasn’t capable of doing, which was to love the damage in another person.”
MH: In a way, Stella’s a classic young heroine. She’s smart and deep, but she’s not yet fully-formed, which makes her ripe for demons—in the beginning of the book, she has a terrible boss, she’s deep in it with a married man, then she’s in over her head with her sick grandmother. A flick on the back of the head is all that’s needed to send her down some misbegotten path—like saving her aunt.
LJ: Which lets you in on the dirty secret of what altruism really is, which is saying I don’t know how to deal with my own stuff so I’ll immerse myself in somebody else’s stuff, so I can feel like a hero in their life.
MH: Yes, but there are times when nothing can touch your low self esteem except getting out of yourself and being of service to another person.
LJ: We can do good things out of flawed motives–which doesn’t make them less good. But you can also show up for a certain situation only to discover that the situation is bigger than you are–you’re really signing up to lose control.
MH: One scene really haunts me. Stella goes to her aunt’s trailer in Nevada and sees the gin closet, her aunt’s drinking room. It’s a terrible womb-tomb place, bottles, flies, a turkey carcass of all things, a stool in the corner—truly the nightmare version of a tuffet. Appalling! But the next thing you know, Stella and Tilly are drinking together. Reading along, I was thinking: No! Don’t do it, Stella–you’re giving too much ground! I knew she wanted to help her aunt and bring her back into the family. While I never thought she had a chance of succeeding, I really didn’t want her to sink to her aunt’s level.
LJ: I wanted to destabilize Stella’s hero complex from the start to show it as confused. She wanted to connect with her aunt and build a sense of trust and to not be just another voice saying, “you’re a fuck up and we want your problems far away from us.” The short cut to that was to get low with her, get shamed with her.
That’s as opposed to saying I’m here, in a better spot, and I want you to come here too, which imposes a boundary and a separateness that requires a lot of moral fortitude and a kind of caring that’s willing to be patient.
MH: And drinking with her aunt is like taking food in the dark realm, like Persephone eating the pomegranate seeds—it compromises the mission, prefigures its doom.
The novel also plays with a universal orphan fantasy: you’re a little girl and you’re mad at your parents and then you think, Hey! what if I had another, secret family which was my real, true family. Even the happiest child imagines at some point that she actually belongs with the fairies.
LJ: (Laughs) Yeah! Drunken fairies! Absolutely. Stella replaces her mother with a woman she can be a mother to. She has trouble recognizing all the ways that her mother has been a mother for her, and wants to instead focus on what she resents her for and to replace her with a relationship that can make her feel good about herself, where she can occupy this nurturing role. What Stella’s mother has given her is complicated, but there’s a lot of good in it. And that, I think is ultimately the reckoning in the orphan family fantasy–where you have to come back and say, maybe I didn’t want the fairies after all.
MH: It’s Coraline—suddenly your busy, hardworking mother seems infinitely better than the one who wants to replace your eyes with buttons.
LJ: Or Where the Wild Things Are. Suddenly, your cold porridge in your room doesn’t look so bad after where you’ve been…
MH: I was interested, too, in how, when the new family forms, when they move into Abe’s apartment, closeness doesn’t follow. The two educated young people don’t really know how to find common ground with Tilly, who is white-knuckling it through her days working at a new job that’s essentially busywork, and trying to put her stamp on the loft by decorating it with cheap little trinkets she finds on her wanderings. The three don’t even enjoy a honeymoon period together.
LJ: Yes. It’s strange to suddenly be family with someone with whom you don’t have that whole backlog of quiet awkward shared family experience. Tilly and Stella are family but there’s no territory that they share beyond a feeling that it’s wrong that they hadn’t been family so far. So there’s kind of a rabid good intention coming up against, well, what it looks like day to day.
MH: Here’s a question all the bookclubs will ask you: How did you write so convincingly about prostitution?
LJ: I did what every self-respecting PhD student does…which is to say, I went to the library. I checked out 20 books from the Yale system and spent a month doing little but reading them. The main thing I remember feeling from all these womens’ stories was that, yes, many of them were stories of incredible hardship, but they weren’t about soul-erasure or the effacement of dignity–they weren’t black and white Before and After stories. There was a tremendous amount of dailiness; not quite so much melodrama as I’d imagined. I remember thinking, I’m not qualified to imagine my way into this. And then thinking, I’m just going to have to get over that.
MH: What writing, what literary models conditioned you for writing The Gin Closet?
LJ: I distinctly remember reading–over the course of two long, lonely, completely engrossed days–the entirety of Yates’ Revolutionary Road. I’d reached one of those points where I’d forgotten what the point of a novel was–why the world was better-off for having it, I guess–and why I was writing my own; and I read Yates and felt such deep humanity and honesty and richness in his world, and felt myself so changed–I thought, if I can do this for anyone, the book will be worth it. The deep geneology of my conditioning had been going on for a long time before the draft, as is true for all writers: Faulkner and Woolf are my twin gods; Plath has always been important to me, Anne Carson, the many beautiful and talented writers I’m lucky to call friends.
MH: What’s the next book? How is it different or the same from The Gin Closet?
LJ: I am working on the second draft of a novel about the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaraugua.
I feel like The Gin Closet was a gush of consciousness. I wrote it from pure feeling. I followed it intuitively. I’m not sure if any of my other books are going to be like that. The process of writing since then has been much more deliberate– not that my heart isn’t involved. But I’ve been extending out of myself much more, whereas with the first one, I was dredging stuff out from inside myself. That’s not to say it’s totally autobiographical.
MH: Who are you looking to now, for the new book? What writers do you reach for to “prime the pump” so to speak—to make you want to write?
LJ: There are some writers who make me want to write, and other writers who make me feel as if I can write–as if I have it in me–and these circles aren’t entirely overlapping. Shirley Hazzard makes me want to write–in fact, she makes me want to write exactly like she writes–but this is usually bad, because I end up writing second-tier Hazzard instead of any-tier Jamison. I usually read poetry when I’m trying to write–it makes me swollen with beauty and possibility, with honesty, but it doesn’t call up the urge to imitate. Lately I’ve been reading Carson’s Nox, and Berryman’s Dream Songs. The new book is about history, which gives me a rich well of reading that isn’t fiction. I’ve been reading a lot of Sandinista memoirs–they are just so fucking interesting; full of the physical world and translated curse-words and a surprising (maybe not so surprising) amount of sex and humor.
MH: You seem to have a penchant for poets…how has living with/among poets affected your writing and your attitudes toward fiction and poetry?
LJ: I’ve always thought “A penchant for poets” might be a good title for my memoir, if I ever publish one. I’ve dated a few of them, and–as you point out—I have been living with one for several years, in a house so laden with books in multiple genres it’s creaking at the seams. As I’ve mentioned, poetry gets me inspired to write–I love getting close to the minds that make it. I love having conversations over scrambled eggs about line breaks and refrains, because I get to think about making without thinking about my own making. Sometimes it’s hard because I feel like Practical Peggy juxtaposed against the infinite and infinitely disorganized energy of a poet–short attention span, fickle production, wild strokes of genius.
MH: So which side are you going to root for this year at the Writers Workshop softball game?
LJ: I’m going to have to root for fiction. Genre before love. Plus, my boyfriend loves to argue, so I think this will suit him just fine.
MH: How has it been being back in Iowa City for two years, when you’re not at the workshop?
LJ: Yeah! (Laughs and squints at the iphone on the table between us) How much time do you have left on your little recorder there?
For me, 2009 was the year of Europe Central – not so much because I would wind up reading, in late November, William T. Vollmann’s large novel of that name, but because a couple of chance encounters back in January (Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England and Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (reviewed here)) set me on a path toward it. In the intervening months, I found myself traipsing back and forth between literary Berlin and literary Moscow and losing myself in the territories in between.
My very favorite of the books I encountered during these peregrinations – indeed, the best book I read all year – was A Book of Memories, by the Hungarian master Péter Nádas. A glib way of describing this indescribable novel would be to say that it is to postmodernism what The Magic Mountain is to modernism – rigorous, comprehensive…a classic. However, the author who kept coming to mind as I read was Harold Brodkey. Nádas’ psychological and phenomenological insights are, like those of Brodkey’s stories, microscopically acute. Formally, however, A Book of Memories offers more excitement. The novel unfolds like a game of three-card monte, giving us several narrators whose gradual convergence seems to encompass the entire aesthetic and political history of Central Europe in the 20th Century.
A close second would have to be The Foundation Pit, by the early-Soviet-era writer Andrey Platonov. This slim novel reckons the cost of the Stalinist industrial program, but in the process reveals an ecstatic vision of the human soul. I agree with Edwin Frank of NYRB Classics: Platonov’s voice is as arresting as Kafka’s. It is also tender, and weirdly touching. And Platonov inspired me to read (finally) Life and Fate, the sweeping World War II saga by his good friend Vasily Grossman. This novel, like some of Platonov’s work, was suppressed by Soviet censors, and as a consequence was never properly edited. That shows, I think, in the sketchiness of some of the book’s secondary characters and plots. But at its frequent best – in its depiction of German death camps; in its attention to the trials of Viktor Shtrum and his family; and in an early, haunting letter from Viktor’s mother – Life and Fate approaches the depth of its models, Tolstoy and Chekhov.
The two finest works of nonfiction I read this year, by contrast, had a distinctly American flavor: Gay Talese’s Thy Neighbor’s Wife and Edie, a riveting oral history of Edie Sedgwick, edited by Jean Stein. Each is in the neighborhood of 500 pages, but reads with the propulsion of an intellectual whodunit. Taken together, they create a panorama of the transformative years between World War II and Vietnam, whose upheavals we’re still living down today. Come for the titillation; stay for the education.
Amid these longer works, it was a relief to have poetry collections to dip into. My favorites were Frederick Seidel’s Ooga-Booga and John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, both of which I wrote about here. (On second thought, where these two poets are concerned, maybe relief isn’t quite the right word.) Similarly, a couple of coffeetable books offered piecemeal inspiration. Air : 24 Hours, a remarkable monograph on/interview with the painter Jennifer Bartlett, is freshly minted MacArthur Genius Deborah Eisenberg’s My Dinner With Andre. I also heartily recommend Up is Up, But So is Down, an anthology of Downtown New York literature from the 1970s and 1980s. Reproductions of flyers and zines adorn this volume, expertly compiled by Brandon Stosuy. Come for the images; stay for the writing.
A couple of other novels I loved this year were Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift and Virginia Woolf’s The Waves. Each, in my read, unraveled at the end, and so didn’t quite stand with Nádas (or Herzog, or Mrs. Dalloway). But each reached rare pinnacles of perception and beauty, and I’m always pleased to spend time in the company of these writers.
The best new books I read were Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City and Ingo Schulze’s New Lives. One of the first things people notice about Lethem is his skylarking prose, but in this most recent novel, a note of deeper irony (the kind born of pain; one wants to call it European, or maybe Bellovian) disciplines the sentences. I look forward to seeing where Lethem goes next. The East German setting of New Lives, and its uroboric epistolary structure – starting late in the story, slowly filling in the background – made for slow going at first, but the ethical intensity of its restaging of Faust has haunted me since I read it.
And then there was Europe Central, about which more anon. I’m not sure I can recommend it, anymore than I was sure I could recommend Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men last year. I haven’t even decided if I think Europe Central is a good book. But it swallowed me by slow degrees, and hasn’t quite let go.
There are many, many more amazing books I’d like to write about here: Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov; McElroy’s Lookout Cartridge; Rabbit Redux, Running Dog, Dog Soldiers; The Book of Daniel, Daniel Deronda… In fact, looking forward to “A Year in Reading” has begun to exert a formal pressure on my reading list, encouraging me to bypass the ephemeral in search of books I might passionately recommend. Fully half of what I read this year blew my mind, and I look forward to some future “Year in Reading” entry when I have 52 masterpieces to endorse. Imagine: one great book a week. For now, though, mindful that your hunger to read a 10,000 word post about what I read is probably even less keen than mine is to write it, I’ll leave you with these titles, and wishes for great reading in 2010.
“He was drunk and exhausted
but he was critically acclaimed and respected.”
– The Hold Steady, “Stuck Between Stations”
Writing about literature is often figured as a sort of parasitism – “what lice will do, when they have no more blood to suck,” is how I’m told they put it in the Nineteenth Century. For a time in the Twentieth, however, the relationship between a certain school of exegetes and a certain coterie of writers was closer to symbiosis. The job of New Critics and their Formalist counterparts was to decode a text’s meanings through close examination of its language. The job of the poet, meanwhile, was to create a text that would stand up to such scrutiny.
Ezra Pound’s Cantos constitute, it seems to me, the paramount example of poetry alert to – even anxious about – its own interpretative possibilities. It is the tension between Pound’s confidence in the cryptographic stamina of his readers and his desire to make the poems finally unsolvable that makes The Cantos (all 800 pages of them) so frustrating. And so beautiful. Behind the bricolage of quotations (translated, mistranslated, untranslated), the syntactic suspensions, the typographic oddities and the lunatic fragmentation, there’s always a sense of something powerful, mysterious, and epic at work.
John Berryman’s The Dream Songs, which I came to by way of The Hold Steady’s Boys and Girls in America, clearly counts The Cantos among its million billion influences. And at first blush, The Dream Songs seem equally baffling – the kind of private language the philosophers tell us isn’t possible:
Le’s do a hoedown, gal,
one blue, one shuffle,
if them is all you seem to réquire. Strip,
ol banger, skip us we, sugar; so hang on
one chaste evenin.
-Sir Bones, or Galahad: astonishin
yo legal & yo good.
Who is Mr. Bones? Why the dialect? And what’s up with that accent mark over the “e”? These are the same kinds of questions Pound invites. For all their fragmentation, though, The Dream Songs are intensely intimate in a way The Cantos never quite manage. Through a variety of moods and methods, they adumbrate the life and consciousness of a hero as multifarious and singular as Joyce’s Humphrey Chimpden Earwicker. Also: Berryman’s ear is astonishing. Sometimes a Difficult Book is more swimming pool than jigsaw puzzle. Rather than trying to solve it, we do better just to jump in.
The final poem cycle worth mentioning in this troika of Difficult Books is Ted Berrigan’s The Sonnets. Berrigan is often identified as a “second-generation” New York School poet, a designation both helpful and un-. On the one hand, The Sonnets draw on both the suggestive opacity of John Ashbery and the urbanity of Frank O’Hara and Kenneth Koch. On the other, nothing about these poems feels self-consciously “School”ed. By the time his generation came of age (Berrigan was born in 1934), the New Criticism’s dominance was waning, and with it the legacy of programatic formalism. The fragmentation of The Sonnets speaks of openness and freedom, rather than discipline and constraint. Which is to say it’s a very 1960s kind of book. “And high upon the Brooklyn Bridge alone,” Berrigan writes,
to breathe an old woman slop oatmeal,
loveliness that longs for butterfly! There is no pad
as you lope across the trails and bosky dells
I often think sweet and sour pork”
shoe repair, and scary.
What does it mean? I have no idea. I often don’t, when I read these three marvelous poets. But I don’t know what life means, either – just that, like Berrigan, Berryman, and Pound, it makes me feel alive.
More Difficult Books
Michael wrote in with this question:For some reason (an end of summer shortening of attention span, perhaps) I’m in the mood for poetry, so I was wondering if, in the interest of discussing that other form of literature, the crew at The Millions could suggest some favorite poems, poets or poetry collections (the latter would be especially helpful, its the easiest way to carry around a dozen great mind in your pocket). Anyway, thanks for any suggestions.A trio of Millions contibutors chimed in on this one:Andrew: Full disclosure: my experience with poetry has been minimal, and for the most part it is my obsession with song and music that has led me to certain poets. In this context, then, I have been stirred most by the poetic voice of Leonard Cohen. The very fact that I know his voice intimately from his songs means that I hear his poems, too, spoken in my ear in that same voice. And while he’s often labeled as a darkly intense romantic, in fact some of his finest poems have a light, playful quality. The one that first caught my attention is a little thing called “I Wonder How Many People In This City”, from The Spice-Box of Earth, his second collection of poems from 1961. Here it is in its entirety:I wonder how many people in this citylive in furnished rooms.Late at night when I look out at the buildingsI swear I see a face in every windowlooking back at meand when I turn awayI wonder how many go back to their desksand write this down.All his collections are great, and his first one Let Us Compare Mythologies, from 1956, has recently been reissued. Additionally, many of his poems (including the one cited) and song lyrics can be found within the pages of the massive Stranger Music.Garth: Inspired by Craig Finn of the Hold Steady, I’ve been working my way through John Berryman’s Dream Songs this year. Even for someone like me, who enjoys the fragmentary and fractal poetry of, say, John Ashbery, the Dream Songs were an adjustment, in that point-of-view and syntax are ever-shifting. For the first ten poems, I found myself searching for a way in. But this seems to be one of those great books that teaches you how to read it; I latched on to the rhythm, started reading the poems aloud to myself, and was off and running. One of the pleasures of reading this book is that so many of my friends turn out to have read it, and everyone has different favorites. Dream Songs Week at The Millions, anyone?Emily: If you don’t have a preexisting taste for a particular kind of poetry and you like browsing, there’s really nothing like The Norton Anthology of Poetry – then you’ve got everything from Beowulf to Billy Collins (our former poet laureate, whom I loathe, but many people seem to like) in chronological order, along with brief bios of all the poets, and a bit of a reader’s guide on versification (rhyme, meter, forms) and poetic syntax. But it’s not cheap and with 1828 poems by 334 poets, it’s not a pocket book either.For price and selection – oh, most beloved of American publishers! – you cannot beat Dover paperbacks for poetry collections (where, right now, you can also get Obama and McCain paperdolls). All of their books are between a dollar and $10 and they have both single author collections (Yeats, Rochester – one of my favorites – a dirty, disillusioned Restoration poet, Browning, most wonderful Keats, Blake, Christina Rosetti, Tennyson, Sandburg), and multi-author collections. Favorite American Poems and 101 Best Loved Poems both looked good, but they have historical collections as well, like English Romantic Poetry, if you want to be more methodical in your reading.I also highly recommend the Academy of American Poets. They have an extensive online collection of poetry by American and English poets – more poets than the Norton – and they also have recordings of many of the poets reading their work. I highly recommend listening to Gwendolyn Brooks reading “We Real Cool” or Langston Hughes reading “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” It’s a very user-friendly site and in addition to better biographical sketches than the Norton, they have an index of occasional poems for those so inclined (wedding, funeral, etc).As for individual favorite poems: I love Christopher Smart’s crazy “Jubilate Agno” – it’s a long poem, but a small portion of it gets anthologized and excerpted a lot as “For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry” or just “My Cat Jeoffry.” I also love Ogden Nash’s “A Portrait of the Artist as a Prematurely Old Man” (also, if you can find the recording of this, it’s delightful). Robert Herrick’s short poems: “The Night Piece, to Julia,” “Upon Julia’s Clothes,” “Upon Prue, His Maid,” “Delight in Disorder,” and also his pastoral poems like “The Hock Cart” and “Corinna’s Going A-Maying.” Milton is great but he’s a workout – his syntax can be a bit like taking part in WWF Smackdown for some readers. And Marvell’s “The Garden,” his “Mower” poems, and “Bermudas.” Others to try: Gerrard Manly Hopkins, Christina Rosetti’s “Goblin Market,” Dorothy Parker’s “Resume,” Robert Graves, W.H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes’ “The Thought Fox” …There are so many more, but I think I’ve probably already said too much.As a final note: I recommend you begin by reading William Carlos Williams’ “This is just to say” and then read Kenneth Koch’s “Variations on a theme by William Carlos Williams.”