The Embers: A Novel

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A Year in Reading: Jennifer Gilmore

One favorite book I’ve read all year?  Impossible.  But when I think it over, I do see a trend in the books I’ve most enjoyed in 2010.  This probably says way too much about my year, but I have delighted most in narratives peopled with characters who have come undone in some fashion, be it by history, by the failing of their bodies or minds, their screwed up finances.  These characters are negotiating how to remain in their own skins, or they are doing what they can to unzip their hides, step out of their pelts.

Or they are figuring out how to come undone alone. Marisa Silver’s story collection Alone With You was one of my favorite reads this year.  I admire all of Silver’s novels—The God of War was one of my favorites of 2008—but her stories go even deeper into the vast terrain of human longing.  My favorite story in the collection is the title piece, which gets into the head and heart of someone dealing with mental illness, who, “has come to understand that identity is a porous thing, an easily felled house of cards.”  Like the keen way Charles D’Ambrosio’s stories delve into the pain of that loss of self, this story—the whole assemblage—works with the backdrop of family, motherhood in particular, and the result is a stunning collection, sad in all the best, thinking ways.

Dear Money, Martha McPhee’s fourth novel, was a favorite for many reasons, one of them being that writing about money has always seemed to me to fall under the purview of men.   Well, McPhee goes at it whole hog with her character, India Palmer, a financially strapped writer married to a visual artist who is more concerned with his work than financial security. (Here is where I must confess: I am a financially strapped writer married to a visual artist.)  With the help of a mentor, India is transformed Pygmalian-style from midlist writer into a Wall Street wizard (is that even a term?) and McPhee manages to realistically remodel this woman—what she wants, what validates her, what grants her power—while bearing miraculous witness to the financial crisis.  The book, which is also an investigation of what it means to want, takes no prisoners and it ends terrifically.

Switching gears entirely, I found An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken, published in 2009, to be one of my more exquisite, if difficult reads this year.  This is the story of the author’s experience giving birth to a stillborn child.  I have never not admired anything McCracken has written and I imagine I will always love whatever she offers up, but what I admired most about this memoir was how she put order to her devastating experience.  What happened leading up to discovering her child would not live, and the after effects of that shattering moment of discovery is quite miraculously contained in these few spare pages.  McCracken’s ability to convey that experience—convey grief, convey hope, convey despair, convey relief, convey unspeakable want—all the facts and emotions that accompany terrible loss, whatever that may be—is breathtaking.

There were many other books read and loved: Matt Bondurant’s utterly gripping The Wettest County in the World, in which Sherwood Anderson, here an investigative reporter, chronicles the story of these three distinct brothers, the author’s kin, who have been distilling and distributing moonshine in Prohibition-era Virginia.  I also re-read The Book of Daniel, by E.L. Doctorow, which to my mind is one of the most perfect novels on earth, one written from the fictionalized and incredibly wacked out and necessary point of view of the Rosenberg’s—as in Ethel and Julius’s—son.  It’s about the end of the American old left and start of the new, about a family and a country undone but their respective histories.  And Hyatt Bass’s The Embers, also about a family in crisis, negotiating how to stay knit together after a death in the family threatens to unravel them.  Which led me to what I am embarrassed to admit is the first time I’ve read A Death in the Family by James Agee, a novel that gives terrific insight into how we think during a moment of tragedy.

Who hasn’t been unmoored?  Each of these characters in these terrific books in some way is granted a new beginning.  It’s not all unicorns and daffodils, to be sure, but there is something gained here after loss.  Always. Which feels very promising for my favorite books of 2011…

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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Climbing a Tree, Uncovering a Duck: Writers on Writing

In class the other day, a student compared novel writing to climbing a very large tree. You’re on one branch, she said, and it’s wobbly. You don’t like it, it makes you uncomfortable—if not totally freaked out. Your hands are probably chapped by now, and the ground below grows more and more distant. Above you, there are sturdier spots, breathtaking vistas, but you have to climb carefully. You don’t want to fall out of the tree, do you?

A couple of weeks ago, I figured something out about the structure of my very-new novel that left me feeling exhilarated and ready to move forward. I’d been working and working on a certain section until—exhale—something changed. It felt like when I get a Thai massage, and the masseuse, upon discovering a particularly tough archipelago of knots, goes to town, grinding her fist (or—wait—is that an elbow…or…her teeth?) as I try to hold back tears. This time, though, I was the masseuse, and I was massaging the hell out of my novel. I couldn’t see its knots, I could only feel them, sliding and resisting beneath my fingertips. I didn’t stop, though—I would smooth them out, I would get to the bottom of this. When I was done, my novel did feel better. Also, it needed an aspirin.

I’ve always sought out writing metaphors and similes because they articulate the strangeness, joy, and frustrations of such an abstract activity, one that requires you to dream and to focus at the same time. It’s the not-exactly quality of figurative language, the pairing of two alien contexts to create a new familiar, that seems appropriate for a process that is at times so maddening. What is writing? It seems to exist in a liminal universe, where words slowly turn into worlds.

I have some favorites. There are many gems in The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard, which begins, “When you write, you lay out a line of words. The line of words is a miner’s pick, a woodcarver’s gouge, a surgeon’s probe.” Lorrie Moore has said that a short story is “like a mad, lovely visitor with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend.” (Not sure I agree—but, lord, do I wish I did.) In an interview, Ron Carlson said, “Today, my writing day felt like pushing a big rock that was flat on every side, and heavy. Oosh. All I can say is: here’s my shoulder once again.” And was it Ann Beattie who compared writing a novel to walking into the ocean to die? (Now, that’s one I can relate to.) Of course, no essay on this topic can exclude Franz Kafka’s “A book should be the ax that breaks the frozen sea within,” but I prefer Joy Williams’s take, included in the contributors’ notes of Best American Short Stories 1995:
This was an extremely difficult story for me to write, and I could not get out, I could not get out of the story. Writing it did not break up the frozen sea within, this is no ax, the sea remains as heavy and unyielding as ever. Everything here seems to me to be cold and helpless and unresolved. There is such a difference between the living and the dead, it cannot be traveled really. So I perpetrate a lie here. I pretend to traverse some of the distance the living share. All art is about nothingness: our apprehension of it, our fear of it, its approach. We’re on the same trail here, we hurry along, soon we’ll meet. There are details along the way, of course. Even here there are tattoos and hairdressers and ice cream and dogs with slippers. But these are just details, which protect us as long they can from nothingness, the dear things.
Isn’t that just exactly how it feels? Upon reading these descriptions, and others, I feel less alone.

I decided to ask some contemporary writers for their own writing metaphors. In his reply to my email query, Ben Fountain, author of Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, asked me, “Is the metaphor supposed to relate to the act of writing, as in, it’s like pulling your hair out one strand at a time? Chewing chalk?” Yes, I wrote back, that’s precisely what I mean. Peter Bognanni, author of the debut novel The House of Tomorrow, was more practical: “Writing fiction is writing life,” he said. “Except characters don’t go to the bathroom as often.” (Amen to that. I always think, if I made myself into a fictional character, she would have to pee every 35 minutes… talk about squandering the drama.)

I received a few outdoorsy metaphors—maybe being chained to a desk sends our minds there immediately. Kate Christensen, most recently the author of Trouble, has been working on a new novel, which she compares to climbing a mountain.
I started in September at base camp with a full, heavy pack and lots of equipment. It was a long uphill slog through an avalanche, a blizzard, crevasses, and a couple of wrong turns. Last week I finally made it to the summit, oxygen-depleted and cautiously euphoric. I’m heading down the other side now, and I can see the ending at the bottom, but they always say the descent is the most dangerous part of the whole undertaking.
Antoine Wilson, author of The Interloper, is also working on a new novel. He compared writing to “fishing with a bent nail and cut hot dogs for bait. All nibbles, a constant feeling that things are getting away from you, a long slow day. And then someone hands you a spear gun. You realize you weren’t really fishing before, just preparing.” A surfer boy from way back, Antoine says he also relies on the adage, “Ride the wave you’re on.”

Hyatt Bass, who, aside from being the author of The Embers, may just be my doppelganger, compared writing to canoeing through a swamp: “It looks gorgeous from a distance, and you can’t wait to delve in. You start off fast and strong. Soon you’re totally lost, scared, worn out, covered in mosquitoes, and you can’t stand the smell of yourself. If you’re lucky, you find your way out and the swamp still looks good enough to lure you back several more times.”

Jennifer Egan, whose new novel A Visit From the Goon Squad comes out this week, told me she often compares writing to physical exercise: “If you do it regularly,” she said, “you can’t imagine not doing it. But if you fall out of the habit, you’re no more inclined to write than you would be to run when no one is chasing you.”

Matthew Specktor, author of That Summertime Sound, gave me an architectural metaphor. Regarding the revision of his new novel, he said, “I feel I’m picking up a very large house, with all its support beams intact, and moving it fifteen feet to the left. The structure’s the same, only all its views are shifted.” Emily St. John Mandel, fellow Millions contributor and author of The Singer’s Gun, also had a revision-specific metaphor:
I saw a television segment when I was a kid about a man who carved very realistic ducks out of blocks of wood. There were a few before-and-after shots (block of wood, then duck), and the interviewer asked the man how he did it. The man said, “Well, I start with the block of wood, and then I just cut away everything that isn’t the duck.”

For some reason that’s always stayed with me, and since cutting away extraneous parts is such a large part of the revision process for me, I think of that television segment all the time when I’m polishing my work—I think of the process of revising a novel as getting rid of everything that isn’t the duck.
Victor LaValle, author of Big Machine, is usually quite the jokester, but when I asked for a metaphor, he got serious on me. “Writing is a self-inflicted wound,” he said. Ouch, I thought. And also: Man, that’s true.

Now that I have visualized writing as tree-climbing, mountaineering, running from a murderer, and self-mutilation, among other things, I am feeling pumped to get to work. How about you?

Image credit: Flickr/JonRiivera.

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