The Emperor's Children (Vintage)

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Two Novels Tell Very Different Stories About Terrorism in America

1.

It’s strange that the attacks on September 11 are referred to almost exclusively by their date, because it was an event so large that its aftermath sprawls well beyond the borders of conventional time. Maybe this is why we call it 9/11 and not 9/11/01, the former reminding us that trauma has a recurrent, cyclical nature.

Healing, however, can be a more linear process. In the 17 years since 9/11, our culture has worked through an index of ideas about terrorism, Islam, and any potential link between the two. We can see this, in part, by looking at the novels that seek to explore this link, two of which are Terrorist by John Updike, published in 2006, and The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan, published in 2016. While many post-9/11 novels tend to focus on the experience of victims or witnesses—such as Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close—Updike’s and Mahajan’s novels are, to some degree, exercises in understanding a terrorist’s motivations, particularly as a function of religion. However, for all their similarities in subject matter, a number of distinguishing factors—namely the decade that separates their publications, as well as the cultural viewpoints of their authors—allow them to demonstrate a specific evolution of thought regarding Islam and terrorism.

2.
Terrorist was published in 2006, and the novel is steeped in the anxieties of the era in which it was written. The protagonist, Ahmad, an Egyptian-American high school senior living in an economically depressed part of New Jersey, is the novel’s titular terrorist. And though it isn’t until later in the book that he is introduced to the terror plot in which he will participate, from the very beginning he embodies the caricature of Islamic fundamentalists that emerged directly after 9/11—primarily that they hate us for our freedom and the way that freedom flaunts our godlessness. This is expressed in the novel’s opening lines:
Devils, Ahmad thinks. These devils seek to take away my God. All day long, at Central High School, girls sway and sneer and expose their soft bodies and alluring hair. Their bare bellies, adorned with shining navel studs and low-down purple tattoos, ask, What else is there to see?…The teachers, weak Christians and nonobservant Jews, make a show of teaching virtue and righteous self-restraint, but their shifty eyes and hollow voices betray their lack of belief…They lack true faith;…they are unclean.
The novel’s trajectory doesn’t need to take Ahmad far from where he starts. Already, his devotion to God and Islam results in his demonization of non-Muslims, and in psychosexual anger. In addition, Ahmad’s Islam functions to alienate him from the other characters in the novel, particularly his white mother, his Jewish guidance counselor, and a black Christian acquaintance from school named Joryleen. His father is absent in his life, so he is the only Egyptian Muslim in his small social circle, which makes his race and religion topics of interest to those around him. Ahmad’s religion, in fact, often seems to be the only thing his social circle is capable of talking about. And this focus seems warranted as Ahmad sees the world through the prism of an Islam that openly suggests violence. The novel is filled with exchanges similar to the one that takes place after Ahmad accepts an invitation to see Joryleen sing in her church choir. She thanks him for coming; he replies:
“You have been gracious to me, and I was curious. It is helpful, up to a point, to know the enemy.”

“Enemy? Whoa. You didn’t have no enemies there.”

“My teacher at the mosque says that all unbelievers are our enemies. The prophet said that eventually all unbelievers must be destroyed.”
This teacher, Ahmad’s imam, is one of the people who recruits him for the suicide bombing he later agrees to participate in, underscoring the fact that all of the novel’s Muslim characters are eventually part of the terror plot. This cleanly fulfills the assumptions the other characters make about Muslims: that they are not to be trusted, that they are enemies of America. They become what many bearded men of a certain race or religion became in the years after 9/11—representatives of the overlap between Islam and evil. Ahmad’s guidance counselor, Jack Levy, whose distrust of Islam primes him to save Ahmad from his ultimate suicide mission, meets the imam at Ahmad’s graduation. It doesn’t take long before Levy, knowing nothing about the man, associates his religion with violence:
Levy studies the imam—a slight, impeccable man embodying a belief system that not many years ago managed the deaths of, among others, hundreds of commuters from northern New Jersey…[H]is initial good will toward the imam dissolves: the man in his white garb sticks like a bone in the throat of the occasion.”
This is one of many times the connection between violence and Islam is articulated. Taken individually, one could argue that the book’s moments of prejudice—e.g. when Jack’s wife tells her sister “Think of what our parents would have said if we’d brought home Muslim men to marry,” or when the secretary of defense advises another character to get out of New Jersey because “It’s full of Arabs—Arab Americans, so-called.” —might aid a larger purpose. A racist character does not prove a novel racist. The problem of this novel, however, is not that characters say Islamaphobic things, but that the events of the novel only prove these characters right. Every Muslim in the book is a terrorist. Each one wants to see harm done to America. None are to be trusted. While American fear and distrust during the post-9/11 years accounted for an ongoing legacy of violence and death, in Terrorist, that fear and distrust are completely warranted and, perhaps, all that will save us.

3.

Titles may not be the most useful part of a book on which to dwell, but they can serve as a starting point. In Updike’s novel, the title is a claim of decisiveness, a claim to understand the wounded American imagination from which the word terrorist gathers its power. Updike’s title speaks well to the novel’s heavy-handedness, telling readers the whole story, conjuring up a spectacle of violence and destruction. Karan Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs, on the other hand, promises a narrative more subtle and complex, which does not rely on social and political caricatures.

The novel opens with a public bombing in a crowded market, and while the rest of the narrative focuses in large part on the victims of this bombing, the renderings of the bombers offer glimpses into the characters’ religious and political motivations. The bomb maker, Shockie, returns from the attack to his organization’s home base, and the room he shares with Malik, noting that:
Malik was praying on a mat…He was a religious person—religion, Shockie thought, that crutch of the weak.
Shockie and Malik are both Muslims. It is not Islam as ideology, however, that has led them down the path to violence, but their inclusion in an oppressed minority group. Islam as a religion separates the two men—Shockie, the motivated and dedicated killer disdains Malik’s devotion. And that religious devotion seems to be the root of Malik’s moments of compassion, for which he is often derided, such as when he suggests at a group meeting that,
We should write letters to the victims and [their] families […] After all, what these victims go through is similar to what we all have gone through as Kashmiris. Something bad happens to them, they expect the government to help them and instead the government ignores them. […]If you want a true Islamic revolution in this country—not just fighting selfishly for our small aims—then we need to win over these people, show our solidarity with them, tell them that our hands were tied, we were only trying to expose to them the callousness of the people they have chosen to elect.”
In Malik and Shockie, Mahajan braids together a number of motivations for these acts of violence. While Islam, like any other well-known identity, functions to group people together through shared experience, it does not send those people on the path to murder. As The Association of Small Bombs seems to suggest, the path that leads to the violence of terrorism, begins somewhere else.

4.

In The Association of Small Bombs, violence is far less the bloody fulfillment of Islam’s tenets than it is a misguided attempt to counter Muslim oppression. But like Terrorist, The Association is also interested in the transformation from peaceful citizen to violent extremist. This transformation can be seen in Ayub, a leader of The NGO, a peaceful protest group dedicated to getting prime minister Modi to own up to his Islamophobic policies.

Ayub’s religion is tied to both his nonviolence and his tendency toward revolution. He often looks to the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Muhammad Ali for hope and inspiration. He and his girlfriend, Tara, pillars of The NGO, are united in their grand aims of bringing Modi to justice and encouraging peace between Hindus and Muslims. However, they are less united in their personal aims, and when Tara breaks up with him, it initiates a heartbreak that becomes disillusionment and then violence.

Ayub moves back to his family’s small village and lives on their farm. There, he considers the ineffectualness of nonviolence. He considers assassinating Modi. His thoughts turn rancorous, bitter, and cynical. At this point—just as he is beginning to fall from grace—Ayub is introduced to Shockie, thereby bridging the book’s opening act of terror with its concluding one.

Shockie questions Ayub’s motives for joining violent extremist group, Ayub thinks through a few potential reasons, then says:
I tried nonviolence…I wanted equality between Hindus and Muslims, brotherhood. I thought the majority could be persuaded with such action…Now I see it’s a world where everything operates by force…I had always thought you had to educate others about your pain, show them how to solve it. Now I realize you have to make them feel it.
Throughout Ayub’s journey to violence, he questions his own motives. More often than not, they are political and moral, an act of revenge for what India or the Western world has done not to the Muslim religion but to the Muslim people:
How many time had Tara and he contacted some absent journalist at a major newspaper, one of those people who nodded and took no notes and then shook his head and said, ‘But what’s the story?’  What’s the story? The story is that thousands of innocent Muslims are being killed in plain sight, that innocent Muslims are being harassed in America for a crime they didn’t commit, that innocent Iraqis going about their business now wake to hear American armored vehicles razing…with their sirens while gangs of disaffected young men in office clothes shoot back from the alleys, reloading their AK-47s.
But both the novel and Ayub are aware that murder is not simply the result of political disagreements. While Ayub’s anger over the injustices done to Muslims has significant bearing on his actions, he decides that for someone to do what terrorists do, a more primal anger must be part of the equation. This is seen when Ayub imagines the last moments of Mohammed Atta, who is believed to have helped organize the attacks on 9/11:
There was too much blood involved—blood tossed against the mile-high windows of the WTC like a libation—for the reasons to not be emotional and hotheaded, even if it took the hijackers a year of training to accomplish their goals. Killing others and then yourself is the most visceral experience possible. Atta must have felt himself full of sexual hate for the people piled high in the towers, bodies in a vertical morgue.
Though Ayub has many motivations for violence, the most primal emotional one seems to come into full focus in the moments just after the bomb he planted detonates:
Hundreds of people lay on the ground. From the shop came only silence. Ayub—thrown to the ground, rolling, sliding—thought: Tara will hear me now.
In these lines, Mahajan’s terrorist is allowed to preserve the shreds of his humanity, rather than become a cliché of extremist Islam. Religion makes Ayub a marginalized and oppressed minority within his community. But it is not the path to the dehumanization, extremism, and violence that marks Ayub’s fall from grace.

5.

Like titles, it might be fruitless to dwell too long on endings. However, there is a fundamental difference evident in the conclusions of each novel.

In Terrorist, Ahmad is ready to drive a truck laden with explosives into the Lincoln Tunnel. He is stopped by his guidance counselor, saved by the slightest recognition of his own humanity. After the plot has been diffused, Ahmad drives the truck back to New Jersey, and in the novel’s final paragraphs observes the residents of Manhattan:
All around them…the great city crawls with people…all reduced by the towering structures around them to the size of insects, but scuttling, hurrying, intent in the milky morning sun upon some plan or scheme or hope they are hugging to themselves, their reason for living another day, each one of them impaled lives upon the pin of consciousness, fixed upon self-advancement and self-preservation. That, and only that.
These devils, Ahmad thinks, have taken away my God.

This paragraph, especially the last line, can be read as Ahmad having lost, with the foiled attack, what he sees as his meaning and purpose. Without his upcoming martyrdom, without the murder that would have brought him closer to god, he must now accept his mundane life. Perhaps his Islam was only a way to escape sad conditions, the pain of fatherlessness or alienation. However, the connection between Islam and violence is maintained throughout and articulated clearly at the end. The connection might be complicated by a number of personal and circumstantial factors. But that connection is one that many people in the United States took for granted in the years directly following 9/11. Updike’s book echoes the beat of the American pulse, one that was perhaps hammering too fast for thought, reason, and compassion, and too fast for us to consider the stark boundaries of good and evil that we drew around one another.

But if time can heal, then the privilege of time belongs to Mahajan’s The Association of Small Bombs. The book was also written by a writer of color who was raised in India and does not share Updike’s white, ethnocentric point of view, a writer who understands that Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism are not things inflicted upon the Western world, but delocalized symptoms of many complicated issues. Mahajan’s novel also illustrates the ripple effects of violence, and show us that there are few winners where terrorism is concerned. Each of the characters’ lives end in sadness, loneliness, or fear. For some, for Ayub, that end is death.

After detonating his bomb, he manages to escape and is taken in by Shockie’s gang. They abandon him on a deserted island. After desperate attempts to save himself, he gives up, and Mahajan notes that,
[H]e became very tired and despairing and he sat down by a crooked doorframe and wept. ‘I am sorry, God,’ he said finally, recalling his oldest companion—one he had forgotten. ‘Take me back.’
Before Ayub starves to death, it is the disconnection between violence and religion that Mahajan chooses to underscore. It’s a striking note to end on. If a novel is, to some degree, a product of its time, then this choice seems reflective of the progress toward understanding that has taken place over the past decade. It also offers a glimpse into what may be possible in the decades to follow.

Image credit: ActionVance.

The Admiral in the Library: The Millions Interviews James Stavridis

I recently attended a talk in Boston given by Adm. James Stavridis, the dean of the Fletcher School — Tufts University’s graduate school of Law and Diplomacy — his alma mater (and mine). The subject was global security, and during the course of his very sobering talk, he gave a fascinating sidebar on the importance of reading novels — of stories. Among the books he mentioned were The Orphan Master’s Son, The Circle, Matterhorn, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and Station Eleven.

Stavridis has had an illustrious, globe-spanning career in the U.S. Military including three years leading U.S. Southern Command and four years (2009-2013) as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO. When we met before dinner, we quickly launched into a rapid-fire chat about books we had recently read. It seemed to me, he had read everything. Through military ventures in Haiti, Bosnia, the Persian Gulf, and Libya (among other operations Stavridis commanded was the 2011 NATO intervention that led to the downfall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime) on aircraft carriers and battleships, while serving at the Pentagon and on Navy destroyers, one thing has been consistent: his love of reading, and his need for books to help make sense of this increasingly complicated world. His exuberance for the written word inspired me to return to Boston and finish our conversation.

Marcia DeSanctis: When I met you last month, you told me you had just put down My Life in France and it had you in tears. That surprised me.

James Stavridis: Why?

MD: I suppose because you’re a four-star admiral.

JS: Well, even four-star admirals read quirky books and this is an incredibly quirky, wonderful book about discovering yourself and discovering your life. Julia Child comes to France, kind of searched around for what to do with her life, essentially. Newly married and falls in love not only with her husband but with France and with its cuisine and with its culture. The voice in the book is so authentic and so beautiful, so wonderfully rendered. And the part that really had me in tears — because everything I said to you is actually quite joyous and upbeat — is the end of the book where she recognizes that, as she hits her 80s, she cannot continue to go independently to the small home in the south of France where she had centered so much of her life. And you can feel her untethering from something that has meant everything to her.

MD: You also mentioned you like books about chefs.

JS: Oh, I love books about chefs. Who doesn’t? I love, particularly, chef memoirs. Anthony Bourdain is just fantastic, Kitchen Confidential. Or The Devil in the Kitchen (Marco Pierre White) is just fabulous.

MD: So the reason I asked to interview you was because I recently attended a lecture you gave in Boston, which was a frank assessment of the crises that are facing our planet now and the people on it. You covered it all — climate change, ISIS, epidemics, poverty, inequality, cyber risks. And then you posted a slide about novels. Can you tell me why you inserted a slide about novels and why you chose the ones that you did?

JS: Well, first of all, because reading is integral to my life. And I think, in the end, we solve global problems not by launching missiles, it’s by launching ideas. So as a tool for understanding the world and for understanding how you can change the world, I find fiction incredibly important. One that I put up pretty frequently is The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, which is a superb book about North Korea. And North Korea’s an almost impenetrable country. But through a decade of meticulous research and endless interviews and then, an understanding of the human sensibility in an extraordinarily dystopian world, Adam Johnson gives us a portrait of life in North Korea. It’s not a burlesque, it’s not satire. It is, in every sense, life in a world where everything is a half a beat off the music. It’s a gorgeous novel.

I think a second book I had there was The Circle by David Eggers, which is a world in which all of the social networks kind of merge into one. So picture Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, everything merged in one huge social network where the motto is “Privacy is Theft.” And the idea is that by complete transparency, we can transform the world. Overlaid on it is a coming of age story of a young woman who has her first job at the Circle. In the largest sense, by one of our most creative contemporary writers, David Eggers, it is a story about what we hold to ourselves, what is privacy, and what transparency can provide but take away from each of us. I think that is an enormous debate that spans the distance from Edward Snowden to Julian Assange to Chelsea Manning. It’s a profoundly important novel that helps us deal with this collision between privacy and transparency.

MD: And you think a novel has the power to help deal with it?

JS: I do, I do absolutely. In the most prosaic way, novels are stories. So recognizing there are differences in how people learn and what people want to read, for me — and I think for the vast majority of people — stories are the best way to learn.

MD: You also discussed Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven.

JS: Dystopian literature is very interesting. Most of it is unspeakably bleak. But some dystopian literature really is about how you come back; it’s about resilience, so I love that novel.

Station Eleven is about the world after a brutal pandemic that kills 99.9 percent of the population. And it’s a novel about choices that people make in crisis. And so the protagonist chooses — and I love this part — to become part of a wandering troupe of Shakespearean actors with a kind of ragtag orchestra attached to it, that wanders around this devastated countryside putting on plays and concerts. And think about that for a minute and what that implies about the resilience of the human spirit, about the importance of art, the importance of music, the importance of drama — all those things are powerful in this. It’s such a wonderful construct. And, at the end of the novel, they got to an airport where another band of outcasts have managed to find a way. And in the distance, they see a light on a hilltop — not a bonfire but an electric light. It’s a symbol that we can recover, we can come back. It’s a very hopeful novel.

I was just testifying with Bill Gates on the Hill yesterday, not to namedrop, but we were talking about global health and pandemics and the importance of speed and alacrity in response. Part of what can help us prepare for a pandemic is imagining how horrible the outcome would be. Thus, a book like Station Eleven helps us do that.

MD: Interesting. So in your talk, you confirmed what most of us know, that in a world gone mad or potentially gone mad, novels are these kinds of islands of sanity and escape, even ones that are difficult to read like A Constellation of Vital Phenomena.

JS: Yeah, oh, that’s an absolutely wonderful book.

MD: I agree. So explain to me, why reading matters and the importance of books, particularly fiction, in your life.

JS: Well, first of all, I developed a reading habit very early. My parents moved to Greece when I was eight years old. In those days, in the 1960s, Greece effectively didn’t have television. Certainly no English language television. So my mom would take me down to the embassy library on the weekends and I’d pick out books. And then, it became a lifelong habit and I’ve always had a book in my hand. I read constantly. I read probably 80 percent fiction, 20 percent nonfiction. And I have found through reading fiction, I understand the human condition better.

You said a moment ago that a novel is a sanctuary in the middle of this violent world. Let’s remember that occasionally, novels are also moments of violence in an otherwise very peaceful life. It can be the opposite. And so if you can think of a novel as a kind of simulator where you imagine what you would do in a stressful, dangerous situation, it becomes, I think, a very helpful learning tool about ourselves.

And, helpful to understand other places and cultures. I’ve recommended on occasion a novel about Afghanistan called The Afghan Campaign by Steven Pressfield, which is not about the current NATO campaign, it’s not about the Russian campaign, it’s not about the British campaign. It’s about the first campaign, which is that of Alexander the Great and the Greeks’ attempt to conquer Afghanistan, which turned out roughly the same as all the other ones. And the reason is because you can drop a line — a plumb line — from 2,500 years ago to the present day in terms of the toughness of Pashtuns and their culture. And so to read a novel like that, even set in an ancient time, could help you understand Afghanistan and its place in history.

Lastly, I think novels are a way that we can explore the unimaginable. So here, I’m thinking of science fiction and fantasy even, which I think are not only entertaining but powerful in terms of how they open our minds. I’ll give you an example. Ender’s Game, which is a classic science fiction novel about a cyber force defending its world. It makes me think, “Should we have a cyber force today?” Today we have an Army, a Navy, an Air Force, and a Marine Corps. We don’t have a cyber force. But when I read a science fiction novel about the future, I think, “Boy, we’re going to need one pretty quick.” I have a lot of pragmatic, real world reasons for that, as well. But fiction can reinforce that and open up what’s often unimaginable to us.

MD: Do you believe that there is a single most important novel about conflict — or let’s say two, an old one and a new one, a classic and a contemporary — that really encapsulates the bad and the ugly about war?

JS: Yeah, I’ll give you a modern one, Matterhorn, which is by Karl Marlantes. It’s about Vietnam and combat at the micro level. It’s about a young Princeton graduate who becomes a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps and his first 60 days in combat. It won the National Book Award. It’s magnificent.

I’ll give you one from the middle period. Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane, about the psychology of war, is quite terrific. All Quiet on the Western Front, a World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque, is incredible.

For contemporary historical fiction written about a battle 2,500 years ago, I’d recommend Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield, which is about the Battle of Thermopylae. And there’s a powerful line in that book, which I think is very true, which is that the opposite of fear is not courage. The opposite of fear on a battlefield is love. Because warriors in combat fight for the love of those with whom they are in combat. That’s a powerful idea. Actually, I have to give you one other.

MD: Great.

JS: Because I’m an Admiral, I get to give you a nautical book.

MD: That was one of my questions, actually.

JS: So the best seagoing books about combat, in my opinion, are by a writer called Patrick O’Brian. He wrote a series of believe it or not, 20 novels and they’re all set from about 1800 through 1815. They follow the life and times of a British sea captain, Jack Aubrey. They are terrific. Picture Jane Austen going to sea and writing about maritime combat. They are that good. I think they may be the best writing of the late-20th century. The reason they’re not more widely celebrated is because they’re perceived as maritime warfare genre. But these are big, chewy, fascinating books about life, relationships. About a third of them are set ashore in early 1800s Great Britain, two-thirds set at sea. The combat scenes are incredibly realistic.

MD: Do you have a favorite book about the sea?

JS: I think it’s hard to argue with Moby-Dick. It’s the greatest sea novel of all.

MD: Do you have an opinion about 9/11 books? I’ll name a few — The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud; The Submission by Amy Waldman; Homeboy by HM Naqvi; Falling Man by Don DeLillo.

JS: I like Don DeLillo, I liked Falling Man. I don’t lean to 9/11 books as a general proposition. I had a near death experience at 9/11. I was in the Pentagon and my office was right on the side of the building that was hit by the airplane.

MD: You spent your career up until now with the military. Do you read books that are critical of U.S. policy and the wars themselves?

JS: Of course.

MD: There are many.

JS: Oh, sure.

MD: Shattering depictions of the war, soldiers’ reality, and the aftermath.

JS: Oh, gosh, yes. Both fiction and nonfiction. I’ll give you a couple that I loved. I like Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman, just came out. I like Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. I like Yellow Birds (Kevin Powers), I like The Book of Jonas (Stephen Dau).

In terms of nonfiction, critical, I think is Fiasco by Tom Ricks — it’s harsh, but, in many ways, accurate. It’s about Iraq. Most of the really harsh books are more about Iraq, less about Afghanistan, I think because Afghanistan’s probably going to come out okay.

MD: Yes. What about Dexter Filkins?

JS: I love Dexter Filkins. The Forever War I think is a masterpiece. And you know, I signed 2,700 letters of condolence to young men and women who died under my command. And when I’m in Washington, I often go to Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery and visit with them and that will be with me forever. So I read those books partly to honor them, partly because it’s a big part of my life, partly because I feel it’s my responsibility.

MD: How do you have time to do all this reading?

JS: I stay up late at night, do it on airplanes, use technology to make it easy.

MD: I was going to ask — Kindle or hard copy?

JS: Both.

MD: Books on tape? Do you do Audible?

JS: No, I don’t. What I do now, as opposed to going out and buying a stack of books, is I’ll read on the Kindle and then say okay, that’s a terrific book, and buy it. Like I just read Into the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides, which is a book about a polar expedition and it’s fantastic. It’s nonfiction but it reads like a novel. It’s kind of in Eric Larson style if you know his work.

MD: I do.

JS: I’m reading currently his new book, Dead Wake, about the sinking of the Lusitania. It’s just fantastic. Oh, gosh. Fabulous, fabulous writer. So if I think a book will stand up to it, I’ll own a copy of it. I own about 5,000 books and I’m trying to not own 10,000 books.

MD: You have a long reading list at the end of your autobiography The Accidental Admiral. One of the books is Generation of Winter by Vassily Aksyonov.

JS: Yeah, it’s a beautiful novel.

MD: I wrote my senior thesis on him, by the way.

JS: Stop it.

MD: Yes, about Aksyonov.

JS: Is he still alive, by the way?

MD: No, he died a few years ago. He’s not one of the better known Soviet-era writers. Why do you think this is an important book?

JS: Because it raises issues of ethics in command. It’s also, I think, a portrait of a really interesting period in Russian society that transitioned from the World War II generation and how they were effectively betrayed. And I think it’s also a novel about civilian control of the military. I just think it’s a very clever, haunting novel and the characters are beautifully developed.

Is it as good as [Fyodor] Dostoevsky or [Leo] Tolstoy or [Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn, [Nikolai] Gogol? No. But…

MD: You have a lot of Russians on that list.

JS: Oh, yeah. I love Russian literature.

MD: If you met Vladimir Putin, what would you suggest he read?

JS: I’d start — and I’m sure he’s read a lot of the — well, actually, no, he was a KGB Colonel, so maybe not. He’s certainly not from the intelligentsia, he’s from the thugocracy.

MD: Thugocracy.

JS: Thugocracy, absolutely. I think I’d start him on Dead Souls by Gogol because it’s such an absurdist novel and it’s about trying to grasp power and watching it slip through your fingers. I’d probably force him to read The Brothers Karamazov and focus on the Grand Inquisitor scene. But you know what he’d say back to me? He’d say, “Okay, I’ll read those, but, Stavridis, if you want to understand how tough Russians are and why your sanctions aren’t going to work, read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Solzhenitsyn. And so I think we could have a lively conversation about the motifs of Russian literature.

MD: Fair enough. You also included one of my favorites, The Good Soldier Svejk. What does that book teach you about command? Not much, right?

JS: No, not much at all. Another terrific novel — I forget if it was on my list, I think it was, is called One Soldier’s War by Arkady Babchenko. You should stop everything you’re doing and read this book.

MD: Really? Why?

JS: If you like Russia and you’re interested in this topic, it’s about a Russian conscript fighting in Chechnya in the 1980s. It’s an inside look at the Russian military and its extraordinary dysfunctionality and the cruelty of its counter-insurgency technique, which led, obviously, to the complete disasters there. I mean, it makes the U.S. performance in Vietnam look like an Olympic gold medal by comparison. It’s a powerful, powerful book.

MD: I noticed you had Anne Applebaum’s book on the list, which I thought was really a masterpiece. I mean…

JS: Gulag.

MD: Gulag: A History, yes.

JS: Yeah, it’s a brilliant book.

MD: Of all the global concerns now — and there are many — what do you think is the most fertile ground for future literature?

JS: Of what’s happening now, I think it’s the Arab Spring, which the term itself has become this sort of grand irony. But I think what’s happening in the Arab world today is a lot like the Reformation, which ripped apart the Christian faith, created the wars between Protestants and Catholics, destroyed a third of the population of Europe. It led to, among other things, William Shakespeare’s plays, Martin Luther’s writing. So I think the big muscle movement is in the Arab world and I think those novels are being written. They’ll have to be translated. They’ll start to come out, though. But the searing quality of what’s happening in that part of the world, I think, will unfortunately lend itself to a dark vein of fiction going forward. I think another place is India, and I love contemporary Indian fiction.

MD: Name a few that you love.

JS: The Last Man in Tower by Aravind Adiga, and even better is White Tiger. I like Salman Rushdie. He’s a little dense and somewhat impenetrable. I like — I forget his name. Sea of Poppies is his best book. It’s fantastic. It’s historical fiction set, oh, probably 200 years ago. Hang on, let’s see. [Looks it up on iPad] Yeah, Amitav Ghosh. Sea of Poppies. So there’s a few. But I think Indian literature will lend itself to big, big novels coming out.

The United States will continue to produce, I think, terrific novels from young novelists and from old novelists. Can there be a better writer alive today than Cormac McCarthy, who’s 80-plus years old and keeps writing these masterpieces one after the other? It’s unbelievable.

MD: It is.

JS: And we have brilliant, brilliant young writers, certainly in the English speaking world — this novel, The Luminaries (Eleanor Catton) She’s a New Zealander, youngest person to ever win the Man-Booker Prize. And the book is just — oh, my God, it’s magnificent. It’s just unstoppable.

MD: Tell me what you like about it.

JS: I love it because it’s so complicated and the fit and finish of it are just extraordinary as a technical accomplishment. Secondly, it is about a fascinating period in the Gold Rush in New Zealand in the 1850s. And thirdly, the characters in it are so both crisply drawn but feel like they’re just from contemporary life. They feel like they have walked in from people you know. It’s really good. I’ll tell you, it’s like Cold Mountain, which I know you’ve read, by Charles Frazier. It’s that good.

MD: That’s a good war book.

JS: It is a good war book a book that shows both sides of it, with the coming home piece, too.

MD: I wanted to get some final thoughts about some of the books you highlighted in your talk in Boston (Matterhorn, The Orphan Master’s Son, Station Eleven, The Circle). Is this the literature of hope or is it the literature of despair about the world we live in now?

JS: What we hope from our writers is that they give us both. Despair’s part of the human condition as is joy and hope and love. And there are wonderful novels on both sides. And as I look back at literature over the ages, I think that’s largely been the case. I think you go back to Voltaire writing in the midst of the French Revolution, the world’s collapsing. I mean, the world is on fire. It’s really falling apart. We like to act like the world’s falling apart. It’s actually not. It’s actually going to hold together and it’s getting better. And that’s hard to see in the thicket of the day-to-day anguish over — justifiably — over Syria and the Ukraine and people flying airplanes into the side of mountains. But if you really rise your head above it and you look at violence in the world, levels of war, we’re better than we’ve ever been. Fewer people are killed in war, fewer people die of pestilence. We’re getting better by really any conceivable metric.

So back to Voltaire. He’s writing in a world that really is on fire. What’s the novel he writes? Candide. You know? “I must tend my garden.” It’s pretty terrific. And that’s a book I read once every year or two. And you know, there are those who say, “Oh, it was all a big satire and you know, he’s actually debunking the theory of optimism.” I don’t think so. I think Candide is a book of optimism and a book of hope from a guy who was very cynical. But I think in his heart, he felt like the outcome of this revolution and everything that was falling apart would eventually be a better world, and I think we’re getting there.

MD: Anything you’re looking forward to?

JS: Well, I wake up every morning hoping that this will be the day that Hilary Mantel’s third volume comes out after Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. I love Hilary Mantel because she’s a brilliant writer. But what I love about the trilogy is the reversal of character in which Thomas Cromwell, always portrayed as the villain, is suddenly the hero. And Sir Thomas More, the saintly Thomas More, is the insufferable prig. And I find it a to be a powerful piece of fiction because it reimagines the world. Because no one knows. No one knows. I mean, that was 400 years ago and no one knows.

MD: Last question. Do you have a favorite movie about the Navy?

JS: The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial by a country mile.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Only Spinning Forward: On the Commercial Viability of LGBTQ Literature

Gay is the new vampire. Everywhere in YA fiction, boys are kissing boys, girls are sidling up against the captains of their swim teams, and queer kids are getting cute. It’s wonderful. YA books with LGBTQ themes and characters, written by straight and by LGBTQ authors, are winning critical acclaim and they’re selling.

A super short list of great recent YA LGBTQ books might include Emily Danforth’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post, everything by David Levithan, The House You Pass on the Way by Jacqueline Woodson, Some Day This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron, and The Vast Fields of the Ordinary by Nick Burd.

While some of YA LGBTQ lit’s appeal might be its current sociopolitical relevance, most of its appeal is simply that this is our world now. We live in an era where, year by year and state by state, our lives are becoming fully integrated into mainstream American culture. “There’s no question,” says Emily Danforth, the author of The Miseducation of Cameron Post, “that there are generations now of teen readers ready for these books. It feels more normal — and that’s a problematic word — if you’re 14 to have queer friends and talk about sexuality in a way that is very different than it was 15 years ago.“ Not to mention, there’s a universality here: All teens, regardless of their orientation or identity, are working out what it means to be sexual beings, with the confusions, desires, and pressures that entails.

Yet there’s a tremendous disconnect between what’s happening in the YA marketplace and what’s going on with adult fiction. This is true across genres, for both literary and commercial books. While there are some well-known LGTBQ writers like Michael Cunningham, Alice Walker, Armistead Maupin, Edmund White, and Dorothy Allison, there aren’t many. In fact, these few writers feel more like the token exceptions that prove the rule. Overall, mainstream LGTBQ adult fiction is non-existent, even in 2014.

But why, especially when contrasted with the YA boom, is this the case? On first thought, we might attribute the differences in popularity to demographics, to generational perspectives, with all the statistics showing that younger people are more likely to be gay friendly than older folks. Perhaps straight teens are cool with the LGBTQ experience in a way straight adults simply are not? When thinking about these differences, author and writer for The Huffington Post Kergan Edwards-Stout said, “Younger people in general seem to be much accepting of LGBT issues and people and approach life a little more globally. I think older audiences tend to be closing themselves off, instead of expanding.”

Unlike the static adult audience, the YA audience is dynamic. Every six years or so, the next mini-generation of teen readers emerges, with new interests, references, and cultural trends that can be tapped into. However, with a 2012 study showing that about 43 percent of YA readers are adults (primarily between the ages of 18 to 44), this demographic explanation alone doesn’t suffice. After all, if so many adults are willing to read YA fiction with LGBTQ themes, why aren’t they also reading adult fiction with LGBTQ themes in comparable numbers? We need to look at deeper distinctions to help us understand this disparity between the YA and adult marketplaces and understand the ongoing exclusion of LGBQT writers.

There is a thick history here where writers with non-dominant identities (LGTBQ writers, writers of color) are isolated into their own genres. That is to say, if you’re gay, you don’t write “fiction.” You write, “Gay fiction.” This still holds true. Novels like The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud or The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, which feature gay characters, are fine, but novels with actual LGTBQ protagonists written by an actual LGTBQ authors are likely to be relegated to their own audiences, genres, and bookstore shelves. These books often aren’t seen as marketably mainstream.

First, there’s the cultural element to consider. There may be cues in LGBTQ novels and stories that straight readers “don’t get.” Fictional LGBTQ characters sometimes inhabit spaces that are unfamiliar to straight readers. There are the gay bars, lesbian hang-outs, and…queer poetry readings? While we can talk about these occasional unique cultural differences, this isn’t really it.

Because there’s the sex. And sex, as any reader of Jonathan Franzen, Alice Munro, or Philip Roth will know, is a constant of contemporary fiction. Where would our literature be without heterosexual adultery as a convenient plot device? And the thing about gay sex is that it can be “a bother,” to use Kergan Edwards-Stout’s euphemism, for straight readers. Which is to say, two same-sex teens kissing in a YA novel may be acceptable to a predominantly straight audience. But two dudes blowing each other — or engaging in anal — is, well, a touch “too gay.” From a commercial perspective, the nitty gritty of LGTBQ relationships is often still seen as unpalatable and other.

Aside from sucking generally, this dismissal of LGBTQ artwork has personal resonance for many LGTBQ readers and writers, including me. A couple years ago, an agent told me via email that my first manuscript was, in a sense, “too gay.” The agent’s exact words were, “this is America, after all, where a million soccer moms will read 50 SHADES OF GREY, but wouldn’t touch a book that is far less graphically gay than that one is graphically straight (or so I hear, anyway).” That concluding parenthetical aside — “(or so I hear, anyway)” — is perfect and speaks to the lowest common denominator of audience acceptability. It’s as if the liberal, cosmopolitan agent is shrugging, What can you do about the tastes of the heterosexual hoi polloi?

Though exuberant gayness certainly wasn’t the only thing that made my first manuscript not commercially viable, I was struck by the straight-up-ness of the agent’s assessment: Gayness, like actual gayness (versus the unremittingly pleasant kind you might encounter through Modern Family, Ellen, or a David Sedaris audiobook), well, it just doesn’t sell. This issue, when compounded by the well-documented gender disparities in publishing, is exacerbated for lesbian, trans, and queer writers for whom the intersectionalities of their identities mean they are even more likely to be excluded and ignored.

Of course, this isn’t anybody’s fault per se, which is exactly the point. You can’t blame agents for not representing LGBTQ adult fiction because they think it won’t sell to publishers, since the publishers are pretty convinced it won’t sell to readers. It’s a form of cultural exclusion that isn’t unique to publishing. There are few out Hollywood actors, for example, and fewer still mainstream movies with LGBTQ protagonists (unless they die vis-à-vis AIDS or driving off a cliff a la Thelma & Louis — my gosh, it’s 2014, and the two most mainstream gay movies are still Brokeback Mountain and Philadelphia.)

Which isn’t to say there aren’t amazing LGBTQ adult books (and movies) created every year. Caleb Crain’s splendid 2013 novel Necessary Errors proves how well-crafted prose, engaging characters, and beautiful language can capture any audience. And as YA author Nick Burd wrote in an email interview, “I like to think that all readers dive into books willing to encounter people and situations that are foreign to them. But I guess that’s slightly wishful thinking.“ Still, LGBT books for adult audiences, especially those containing a fair bit of sexual congress, face significant barriers. Luckily, there are smaller presses like ITNA, established earlier this year by Christopher Stoddard, the goal of which is to publish off-beat books, all of which so far feature gay, occasionally transgressive themes.

With all these factors to consider, it benefits us to look at the burden of “relatability.” When the notion of “relatability” is discussed, this burden is usually placed on the cultural object, on the book or movie. Audiences, we’re told, are drawn in by relatable characters, relevant stories, and accessible prose. But this should be a two-way street. Readers need to challenge themselves, to expand their own definitions of what they find relatable, to break free from provincial mindsets where the sole purpose of art is to provide a mirror, not of life, but of readers’ own lives. We need to explode the established notions of relatability. All the LGBTQ writers I talked to or emailed with conveyed this idea in some way or another.

What’s clear is progress, even if it’s slow, is being made. Research by YA author Malinda Lo, building on the work of Christine Jenkins, shows consistent growth in publication of YA LGBTA novels going back all the way to 1969 — with the biggest gains occurring since 2004. These teen readers, with their broadening notions of relatability, are growing up, growing into adult readers. Hopefully, soon they will be eager to share in more adult LGBTQ stories, ready to embrace a world that only spins forward.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Most Anticipated: The Great 2013 Book Preview

2013 is looking very fruitful, readers. While last year offered new work from Zadie Smith, Junot Díaz, Michael Chabon, and many more, this year we’ll get our hands on new George Saunders, Karen Russell, Jamaica Kincaid, Anne Carson, Colum McCann, Aleksandar Hemon and even Vladimir Nabokov and J.R.R. Tolkien, as well as, beyond the horizon of summer, new Paul Harding, Jonathan Lethem, and Thomas Pynchon. We’ll also see an impressive array of anticipated work in translation from the likes of Alejandro Zambra, Ma Jian, László Krasznahorkai, Javier Marías and Karl Ove Knausgaard, among others. But these just offer the merest hint of the literary plenty that 2013 is poised to deliver. A bounty that we have tried to tame in another of our big book previews.

The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at 7,900 words strong and encompassing 79 titles, this is the only 2013 book preview you will ever need.

January or Already Out:

Tenth of December by George Saunders: Tenth of December is George Saunders at his hilarious, heartbreaking best, excavating modern American life in a way that only he can. In “Home,” a soldier returns from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to a deteriorating family situation. In “Victory Lap,” a botched abduction is told from three very different perspectives. Tenth of December has already prompted an all-out rave profile from the New York Times. And for those George Saunders super fans out there, yes, there is a story set at a theme park. (Patrick)

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright: While Wright was working on his 25,000-word take-down of the Church of Scientology for The New Yorker (where he is a staff writer), a spokesman for the organization showed up with four lawyers and 47 binders of documentation. “I suppose the idea was to drown me in information,” Wright recently told the Times, “but it was like trying to pour water on a fish.” The investigation has blossomed into a full-length book that’s shaping up to be as controversial as anything that crosses Scientology’s path: Wright has been receiving numerous legal missives from the church itself and the celebrities he scrutinizes, and his British publisher has just backed out—though they claim they haven’t been directly threatened by anyone. (Elizabeth)

Umbrella by Will Self: Shortly before Umbrella came out in the UK last September, Will Self published an essay in The Guardian about how he’d gone modernist. “As I’ve grown older, and realised that there aren’t that many books left for me to write, so I’ve become determined that they should be the fictive equivalent of ripping the damn corset off altogether and chucking it on the fire.” Umbrella is the result of Self’s surge in ambition, and it won him some of the best reviews of his career, as well as his first Booker shortlisting. He lost out to Hilary Mantel in the end, but he won the moral victory in the group photo round by doing this. (Mark)

Revenge by Yoko Ogawa: English-reading fans of the prolific and much-lauded Yoko Ogawa rejoice at the advent of Revenge, a set of eleven stories translated from Japanese by Stephen Snyder.  The stories, like Ogawa’s other novels (among them The Diving PoolThe Housekeeper and the Professor, and Hotel Iris) are purportedly elegant and creepy. (Lydia)

 

 

Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra: Drop the phrase “Chilean novelist” and literary minds automatically flock to Bolaño. However, Alejandro Zambra is another name those words should soon conjure if they don’t already. Zambra was named one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish Language Novelists in 2010, and his soon-to-be-released third novel, Ways of Going Home, just won a PEN translation award. The novel has dual narratives: a child’s perspective in Pinochet’s Chile and an author’s meditation on the struggle of writing. In Zambra’s own words (from our 2011 interview): “It’s a book about memory, about parents, about Chile.  It’s about the 80s, about the years when we children were secondary characters in the literature of our parents.  It’s about the dictatorship, as well, I guess.  And about literature, intimacy, the construction of intimacy.” (Anne)

Scenes from Early Life by Philip Hensher: In his eighth novel, Scenes from Early Life, Philip Hensher “shows for the first time what [he] has largely concealed in the past: his heart,” writes Amanda Craig in The Independent.  Written in the form of a memoir, narrated in the voice of Hensher’s real-life husband Zaved Mahmood, the novel invites comparison with Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas.  Described as a hybrid of fiction, history, and biography—and as both “clever” and “loving”—the inventive project here is distinctly intriguing. (Sonya)

Exodus by Lars Iyer: Exodus, which follows Spurious and Dogma, is the eminently satisfying and unexpectedly moving final installment in a truly original trilogy about two wandering British intellectuals—Lars and W., not to be confused with Lars Iyer and his real friend W., whom he’s been quoting for years on his blog—and their endless search for meaning in a random universe, for true originality of thought, for a leader, for better gin. (Emily M.)

February:

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell: Russell’s short stories are marked by superb follow-through: many succeed due to her iron-clad commitment to often fantastical conceits, like the title story of her first collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, which draws a powerful metaphor for adolescent girlhood in an actual orphanage for girls raised by wolves. Last year saw her debut novel, Swamplandia!nominated for the Pulitzer prize; this year, her second short story collection—and another batch of fantastical conceits—finally arrives. Just imagine the characters in this title story, trying to quell their bloodlust, sinking their fangs into lemons under the Italian sun. (Elizabeth)

My Brother’s Book by Maurice Sendak: When Maurice Sendak died last May he left one, final, unpublished book behind.  It is, according to a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly, a beautiful, intensely serious elegy for Sendak’s beloved older brother Jack, who died in 1995.  The story, illustrated in watercolors, has Guy (a stand-in for Sendak), journeying down the gullet of a massive polar bear named Death- “Diving through time so vast—sweeping past paradise”- into an underworld where he and Jack have one last reunion. “To read this intensely private work,” writes Publisher’s Weekly, “is to look over the artist’s shoulder as he crafts his own afterworld, a place where he lies in silent embrace with those he loves forever.” (Kevin)

Benediction by Kent Haruf: Kent Haruf’s previous novels, which include Plainsong and Eventide, have all taken place in the fictional Colorado town of Holt, which is based on the real life city of Yuma.  His newest work is no exception.  It is a network of family dramas in a small town, most of which revolve around loss or impending loss, strained relationships, and efforts to grapple, together, with the pain the characters face in their own lives and feel in the lives of those around them. (Kevin)

 

See Now Then by Jamaica Kincaid: For See Now Then, her first novel in a decade, Jamaica Kincaid settles into a small town in Vermont, where she dissects the past, present and future of the crumbling marriage of Mrs. Sweet, mother of two children named Heracles and Persephone, a woman whose composer husband leaves her for a younger musician.  Kincaid is known as a writer who can see clean through the surface of things – and people – and this novel assures us that “Mrs. Sweet could see Mrs. Sweet very well.” (Bill)

The Bridge Over the Neroch: And Other Works by Leonid Tsypkin: Like Chekhov, Tsypkin was a doctor by trade. In fact, that was all most people knew him as during his lifetime. At the time of Tsypkin’s death, his novel Summer in Baden-Baden, one of the most beautiful to come out of the Soviet Era, remained unpublished, trapped in a drawer in Moscow. Now New Directions brings us the “remaining writings”: a novella and several short stories. (Garth)

 

How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields: Like his 2008 book The Thing About Life is that One Day You’ll Be Dead, which was nearly as much a biology text book as it was a memoir, How Literature Saved My Life obstinately evades genre definitions. It takes the form of numerous short essays and fragments of oblique meditation on life and literature; and, as you’d expect from the author of Reality Hunger, it’s heavily textured with quotation. Topics include Shields’s identification with such diverse fellows as Ben Lerner (his “aesthetic spawn”) and George W. Bush, the fundamental meaninglessness of life, and the continued decline of realist narrative fiction. (Mark)

The City of Devi by Manil Suri: Manil Suri is perhaps best known for his first novel The Death of Vishnu, which was long-listed for the Booker and shortlisted for the 2002 PEN/Faulkner Award.  The City of Devi, his third novel, takes place in a Mumbai emptied out under threat of nuclear attack.  Sarita, a 33-year-old statistician, stays in the city to find her beloved husband, who has mysteriously vanished.  She ends up teaming up with a gay Muslim man named Jaz, and together they travel across this dangerous and absurd and magical landscape.  According to Keran Desai, this is Suri’s “bravest and most passionate book,” which combines “the thrill of Bollywood with the pull of a thriller.” (Edan)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s & Other Voices, Other Rooms: Two Novels by Truman Capote: Holly Golightly is turning 55, and to mark her entry into late middle age, the Modern Library is reissuing Capote’s dazzling 1958 novella that made her and Tiffany’s Fifth Avenue showroom into American icons. The short novel is paired with Capote’s (also brief) debut novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, a strange and haunting semi-fictional evocation of Capote’s hauntingly strange Southern childhood. Modern Library will also reissue Capote’s Complete Stories in March. (Michael)

Nothing Gold Can Stay by Ron Rash: Ron Rash has earned a spot as one of the top fiction writers describing life in Appalachia with his previous books, The Cove, Serena, and One Foot in Eden.  His newest collection of short stories tells of two drug-addicted friends stealing their former boss’s war trophies, of a prisoner on a chain-gang trying to convince a farmer’s young wife to help him escape, and of an eerie diving expedition to retrieve the body of a girl who drowned beneath a waterfall. (Kevin)

 

The Love Song of Jonny Valentine by Teddy Wayne: If you have ever wondered what, if anything, is going on inside the head of one of those kiddie pop stars who seem animatronically designed to make the tween girls swoon, then Jonny Valentine may be for you. Winner of a Whiting Writers’ Award for his first novel Kapitoil, Wayne has built a reputation for offbeat wit in his humor columns for Vanity Fair and McSweeney’s, as well as “Shouts & Murmurs” pieces in The New Yorker. Here, he channels the voice of a lonely eleven-year-old pop megastar in a rollicking satire of America’s obsession with fame and pop culture. (Michael)

Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked by James Lasdun: English poet, novelist and short story writer James Lasdun’s new book is a short memoir about a long and harrowing experience at the hands of a former student who set out to destroy him and through online accusations of sexual harassment and theft. J.M. Coetzee has called it “a reminder, as if any were needed, of how easily, since the arrival of the Internet, our peace can be troubled and our good name besmirched.” (Mark)

 

Fight Song by Joshua Mohr: Joshua Mohr’s previous novels—Some Things That Meant The World To Me, Termite Parade, and Damascus—formed a loose trilogy, each book standing alone but all three concerned with a mildly overlapping cast of drifting and marginal characters in San Francisco. In Fight Song, Mohr is on to new territory, “way out in a puzzling universe known as the suburbs,” where a middle-aged man embarks on a quest to find happiness, to reconnect with his distant and distracted family, and to reverse a long slide into purposelessness. (Emily M.)

March:

Middle C by William H. Gass: Not many writers are still at the height of their powers at age 88. Hell, not many writers are still writing at 88. (We’re looking at you, Philip Roth.) But William H. Gass has always been an outlier, pursuing his own vision on his own timetable. His last novel (and magnum opus) The Tunnel took thirty years to write. Middle C, comparatively svelte at 400-odd pages, took a mere fifteen, and may be his most accessible fiction since 1968’s In The Heart of the Heart of the Country. It’s a character piece, concerning one Joseph Skizzen, a serial (and hapless) C.V. embellisher and connoisseur of more serious forms of infamy. The plot, such as it is, follows him from war-torn Europe, where he loses his father, to a career as a music professor in the Midwest. Not much happens – does it ever, in Gass? – but, sentence by sentence, you won’t read a more beautifully composed or stimulating novel this year. Or possibly any other. (Garth)

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout: Maine native Elizabeth Strout won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2009 for Olive Kitteridge, her novel in the form of linked stories.  Strout’s fourth novel, The Burgess Boys, is the story of the brothers Jim and Bob Burgess, who are haunted by the freak accident that killed their father when they were children in Maine.  They have since fled to Brooklyn, but they’re summoned home by their sister Susan, who needs their help dealing with her troubled teenage son.  Once they’re back home, long-buried tensions resurface that will change the Burgess boys forever. (Bill)

The Fun Parts by Sam Lipsyte: Sam Lipsyte returns to short stories with his new book The Fun Parts. The collection contains some fiction previously published in The Paris Review, Playboy, and The New Yorker, including his excellent “The Climber Room,” which ends with a bizarre twist. Several of the stories, including “The Dungeon Master” and “Snacks,” explore the world from the perspectives of misfit teens. As with all of Lipstye’s stories, expect his absurdist humor and a just a touch of perversion. Get excited. (Patrick)

Red Doc> by Anne Carson: It’s been more than a decade since Carson, a poet and classicist, published The Autobiography of Red, a dazzling and powerful poetic novel that reinvents the myth of Herakles and Greyon: hero and monster reworked into a story of violently deep unrequited love. Red Doc> promises to be a sequel of sorts, with “a very different style,” “changed names,” and the spare preview is incredibly intriguing: “To live past the end of your myth is a perilous thing.”  (Elizabeth)

 

A Thousand Pardons by Jonathan Dee: Author of The Privileges, arguably the best novel about haute New York in the boom years of the past decade, Dee returns with another tale of family life in the upper reaches of New York society, this time post-recession. When her husband loses his job as a partner at a white-shoe law firm, Helen Armstead finds a job at a PR firm, where she discovers she has an almost magical, and definitely lucrative, gift: she can convince powerful men to admit their mistakes. But this is a novel, so her professional success does not necessarily translate into success in her personal life. (Michael)

Speedboat by Renata Adler: This novel, first published in 1976, brings to mind the old saw about the Velvet Underground. Not everybody read it, but everybody who did went on to write a novel of his or her own. Adler is primarily known for her acerbic New Yorker fact pieces, but, like her omnicompetent contemporary Joan Didion, she is also a terrific fiction writer. This fragmented look at the life of an Adler-like journalist may be her Play It As It Lays. Writers still urgently press out-of-print copies on each other in big-city bars near last call. Now it’s getting the NYRB Classics treatment. (Garth)

Mary Coin by Marisa Silver: Following the success of her novel The God of War, The New Yorker favorite Marisa Silver returns with Mary Coin, a novel inspired by Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother” photo. The book follows three characters: Mary, the mother in the photograph; Vera Dare, the photographer; and Walker Dodge, a contemporary-era professor of cultural history. Ben Fountain says it’s “quite simply one of the best books I’ve read in years,” and Meghan O’Rourke calls it “an extraordinarily wise and compassionate novel.” (Edan)

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid: Hamid’s previous novels were The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Moth Smoke. His third borrows the structure of self-help books (chapter titles include “Avoid Idealists”, “Don’t Fall in Love”, and “Work For Yourself”) to follow a nameless man’s ascent from a childhood of rural poverty to success as a corporate tycoon in a metropolis in “rising Asia.” (Emily M.)

 

The Tragedy of Mr. Morn Vladimir Nabokov: I furrowed my brow when I saw Nabokov’s name on the preview list, imagining a horde of publishers rooting through his undies for hitherto undiscovered index cards.  But this is a very old play, in the scheme of Nabokov’s life–written in 1923, published in Russian in 2008, published in English this spring.  The play is about royalty, revolutionaries, allegories; “On the page,” writes Lesley Chamberlain for the TLS, ” the entire text creeps metonymically sideways. Its author weaves language into a tissue of reality hinting at some veiled, mysteriously interconnected, static truth beyond.”  I’m not sure what that means, but I think I like it. (Lydia)

The Book of My Lives by Aleksandar Hemon: Sarajevo-born, Chicago-based author Aleksandar Hemon—winner of the MacArthur “genius grant” and editor of Dalkey Archive’s stellar Best European Fiction series—abandons fiction for essay and memoir in his fifth book, The Book of My Lives. The title alludes to and, as far as we can tell, calls upon Hemon’s New Yorker essay “The Book of My Life,” about his former literature professor turned war criminal, Nikola Koljevic. Just as Hemon’s novel Lazarus Project straddled the fiction/nonfiction divide, The Book of My Lives isn’t strictly memoir, pushing boundaries of genre now from the nonfiction side. (Anne)

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma: Kristopher Jansma, academic and Electric Literature blogger, drawer of daring and controversial parallels on the digital pages of our own august publication (Is The Killing like or not like Kafka?), publishes his debut novel on the first day of spring.  The novel features young writers, young love, artistic competition, girls, jaunts.  I predict that at least one blurber will reference This Side of Paradise. (Lydia)

 

A Map of Tulsa by Benjamin Lytal: In the 2003, “a young Oklahoman who work[ed] in New York” stole the eleventh issue of McSweeney’s from the likes of Joyce Carol Oates and T.C. Boyle with a story – well, scenario, really – called “Weena.” Maybe I only loved it so much because I, too, was from outlands like those it so lovingly described. Still, I’ve been keeping an eye out for that young Oklahoman, Benjamin Lytal, ever since. I assume that A Map of Tulsa, too, is about coming of age in Tulsa, a city that looks from the window of a passing car at night “like a mournful spaceship.” (Garth)

In Partial Disgrace by Charles Newman: Newman, the editor who put TriQuarterly on the map in the 1960s, was once spoken of in the same breath with the great dark humorists of postwar American writing. Even before his death, in 2006, his novels were falling out of print and his reputation fading. If there is any justice in the republic of letters (which is a big if), the belated publication of his incomplete masterwork, a sprawling trilogy set in a fictional Mitteleuropean nation to rival Musil’s Kakania, should put him permanently back on the map. (Garth)

The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: J.M. Coetzee, Nobel laureate and two-time Booker Prize winner, continues to explore the plight of the outsider in his new allegorical novel, The Childhood of Jesus.  It’s the story of an unnamed man and boy who cross an ocean to a strange land where, bereft of memories, they are assigned the names Simon and David before they set out to find the boy’s mother.  They succeed, apparently, only to run afoul of the authorities, which forces them to flee by car through the mountains.  One early reader has called the novel “profound and continually surprising.” (Bill)

April:

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson: The beloved author of Case HistoriesBehind the Scenes at the Museum, and Started Early, Took My Dog (among others) is out with the stor(ies) of Ursula Todd. In 1910, Todd is born during a snowstorm in England, but from then on there are parallel stories — one in which she dies at first breath, and one in which she lives through the tumultuous 20th century.  As the lives of Ursula Todd continue to multiply, Atkinson asks what, then, is the best way to live, if one has multiple chances? (Janet)

All That Is by James Salter: Upon return from service as a naval officer in Okinawa, Philip Bowman becomes a book editor during the “golden age” of publishing.  The publisher’s blurb promises “Salter’s signature economy of prose” and a story about the “dazzling, sometimes devastating labyrinth of love and ambition.” In our interview with Salter in September, he told us it was “an intimate story about a life in New York publishing,” some 10 years in the making.  From John Irving: “A beautiful novel, with sufficient love, heartbreak, vengeance, identity confusion, longing, and euphoria of language to have satisfied Shakespeare.” Tim O’Brien: “Salter’s vivid, lucid prose does exquisite justice to his subject—the relentless struggle to make good on our own humanity.” April will not come soon enough. (Sonya)

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud: The Emperor’s Children, Messud’s bestselling novel from 2006, did as much as anyone has to bridge the gap between the social novel and the novel of consciousness her husband, James Wood, has championed in his criticism. Now, Messud returns with the story of a Boston-area woman who becomes entangled with a Lebanese-Italian family that moves in nearby. Expect, among other things, insanely fine writing. (Garth)

 

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer: In a review of her most recent book, 2011’s The Uncoupling, the San Francisco Chronicle declared that, “At this point in her career, Meg Wolitzer deserves to be a household name.” Wolitzer’s tenth novel begins at a summer camp for the arts in 1974, and follows a group of friends into the adulthood. They’re all talented, but talent isn’t enough, and as they grow up, their paths split: some are forced to exchange their childhood dreams for more conventional lives, while others find great success—and, as one might imagine, tensions arise from these differences. (Elizabeth)

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner: Rachel Kushner’s first novel, Telex from Cuba, was lauded for its evocative descriptions and its power of suspense. Kushner will surely call on both talents for The Flamethrowers, as her heroine first becomes immersed in a late ‘70s New York downtown scene peopled by artists and squatters, and then follows a motorcycle baron to Italy during the height of the Autonomist movement. Images are central to Kushner’s creative process: a ducati, a woman in war paint, and a F.T. Marinetti lookalike riding atop a cycle with a bullet-shaped sidecar were talismans (among others) for writing this book. (Anne)

Harvard Square by André Aciman: In 1970s Cambridge, Massachusetts, a young Harvard graduate student from Egypt wants to be the consummate American, fully assimilated and ensconced in the ivory tower as a literature professor. Then he meets Kalaj — an Arab cab driver who denigrates American mass culture and captivates the student with his seedy, adventurous life. Harvard Square tells the story of this young student’s dilemma, caught between the lofty world of Harvard academia and the magnetic company of his new friend. (Janet)

Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel: Woke Up Lonely is Fiona Maazel’s first novel since being named a “5 Under 35” choice by the National Book Foundation. The book focuses on Thurlow Dan, the founder of the Helix, a cult that promises to cure loneliness. Ironically, Thurlow himself is profoundly lonely and longing for his ex-wife, Esme. The book has been compared to the work of Sam Lipsyte and Karen Russell, and if there’s one phrase that continually appears in early reviews and press materials, it is “action packed.” (Patrick)

The Dark Road by Ma Jian: Ma Jian, whose books and person are both banned from China, published his third novel The Dark Road in June (Yunchen Publishing House, Taipei); the English translation will be released by Penguin.  The story: a couple determined to give birth to a second child in order to carry on the family line flee their village and the family planning crackdown. At Sampsonia Way, Tienchi Martin-Liao described it as “an absurd story” that uses “magical realism to describe the perverse reality in China.” The publisher describes it as “a haunting and indelible portrait of the tragedies befalling women and families at the hands of China’s one-child policy and of the human spirit’s capacity to endure even the most brutal cruelty.” Martin-Liao tells us that the book’s title, Yin Zhi Dao, also means vagina, or place of life and origin. (Sonya)

The Pink Hotel by Anna Stothard: Stothard’s second novel (after Isabel and Rocco) follows an unnamed 17-year-old narrator as she flies from London to L.A. for the funeral of Lily, a mother she never knew, the proprietess of The Pink Hotel. While the hotel’s residents throw a rave in Lily’s honor, her daughter steals a suitcase of Lily’s photos, letters, and clothes. These mementos set her on a journey around L.A., returning letters to their writers and photos to their subjects and uncovering the secrets of her mother’s life. Longlisted for the 2012 Orange Prize, The Pink Hotel has been optioned for production by True Blood’s Stephen Moyer and Anna Paquin. (Janet)

Our Man in Iraq by Robert Perišic: Perišic is one of the leading new writers to have emerged from Croatia after the fall of the Iron Curtain. In this, his first novel to appear stateside, he offers the funny and absurd tale of two cousins from Zagreb who get caught up in the American Invasion of Iraq, circa 2003. Perišic speaks English, and assisted with the translation, so his voice should come through intact, and a blurb from Jonathan Franzen never hurts. (Garth)

May:

And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini: Few details have been released so far about the third novel from international publishing juggernaut Hosseini (The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns).  In a statement posted to Penguin’s website, Hosseini explains,  “My new novel is a multi-generational family story as well, this time revolving around brothers and sisters, and the ways in which they love, wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for each other.” (Kevin)

My Struggle: Book Two: A Man in Love by Karl Ove Knausgaard: The first part of Knausgaard’s six-part behemoth was the single most stirring novel I read in 2012. Or is the word memoir? Anyway, this year sees the publication of Part Two, which apparently shifts the emphasis from Knausgaard’s childhood and the death of his father to his romantic foibles as an adult. But form trumps content in this book, and I’d read 400 pages of Knausgaard dilating on trips to the dentist. There’s still time to run out and catch up on Part One before May rolls around. I can’t imagine many readers who finish it won’t want to keep going. (Garth)

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt: You Are One of Them is Pushcart Prize-winner Elliott Holt’s debut novel. You might be forgiven for thinking she’d already published a few books, as Holt has been a fixture of the literary Twittersphere for years. Holt’s debut is a literary suspense novel spanning years, as a young woman, raised in politically charged Washington D.C. of the 1980s, goes to Moscow to investigate the decades-old death of her childhood friend. (Patrick)

 

The Fall of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien: In a letter to his American publisher two decades after abandoning The Fall of Arthur, Tolkien expressed regret that he’d left the epic poem unfinished (some suggest it was cast aside as he focused on writing The Hobbit, published in 1937). Nearly eighty years later, the work has been edited and annotated by his son, Christopher, who has written three companion essays that explore the text and his father’s use of Arthurian legend in Middle Earth. Tolkien fans will be grateful for the uncharted territory but unused to the book’s bulk, or lack thereof: in the American edition, poem, notes, and essays clock in just shy of 200 pages long. (Elizabeth)

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: The author of the critically acclaimed novels Half of a Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus, both set in Adichie’s home country of Nigeria, now turns her keen eye to the trials of cultural assimilation for Africans in America and England. In the novel, a young Nigerian couple leave their homeland – she to America for an education, he to a far more unsettled, undocumented life in England. In their separate ways, each confront issues of race and identity they would never have faced in Nigeria, where they eventually reunite. (Michael)

Red Moon by Benjamin Percy: Percy, whose previous books include the novel The Wilding and the story collection Refresh, Refresh, imagines a world wherein werewolves have always lived among us, uneasily tolerated, a hidden but largely controlled menace, required by law to take a transformation-inhibiting drug. He describes his new novel as “a narrative made of equal parts supernatural thriller, love story and political allegory.” (Emily M.)

 

A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel: A short story collection that includes the author’s New Yorker debut, “Atria”. If that piece is any indication, the book is more than a bit fabulist – the plot involves a girl who finds herself pregnant and worries she’ll give birth to an animal. The specter of parenthood, as the title suggests, appears in numerous guises, as does the reinvention that marked the protagonists of her novel (the genesis of which she wrote about in our own pages). (Thom)

The Hanging Garden by Patrick White: The last work of Nobel Laureate Patrick White gives his homeland an Elysian feel. At the beginning, we meet two orphans, Eirene Sklavos and Gilbert Horsfall, whose parents both died in separate conflicts early on in the second World War. They escape to a house in suburban Sydney and bond in a lush little garden. As with most things published posthumously, the story is a little bit scattershot, but early reviews out of Oz (and our own take) say the book is worthy of its author. (Thom)

Love Is Power, or Something Like That by A. Igoni Barrett: Barrett’s middle name, Igonibo, means stranger, though he’s no stranger to all things literary: he chronicled his childhood bookishness in our pages last year, and his father is Jamaican-born poet Lindsay Barrett who settled in Nigeria, where the younger Barrett was born and still lives. The streets of Lagos provide the backdrop for his second story collection, Love Is Power, or Something Like That. His first was called From the Cave of Rotten Teeth, and rotting teeth seems to be something of a recurring motif. It’s picked up at least tangentially in this book with “My Smelling Mouth Problem,” a story where the protagonist’s halitosis causes disturbances on a city bus ride. (Anne)

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer: George Packer reveals the state of affairs in America in his ominously-titled new book, a history told in biographical inspections of its various residents (read about one, a lobbyist, in a truly riveting excerpt in The New Yorker).  The bad news, probably, is that American is fucked.  The good news, I learned from an interview in The Gunn Oracle, the paper of record at Packer’s high school, is that Packer didn’t become a proper journalist until age 40, which is sort of heartening, and may officially qualify him for Bloom status.  (More bad news: no posted vacancies at The Gunn Oracle.) (Lydia)

Pacific by Tom Drury: Drury’s fans will be ecstatic to learn that his new novel focuses once again on the inhabitants of Grouse County, Iowa, where two of his four previous books, The End of Vandalism and Hunts in Dreams, also take place. In this new novel, Tiny Darling’s son Micah travels to L.A. to reunite with his mother who abandoned him years before, while back in the Midwest, a mysterious woman unsettles everyone she meets.  The novel tells two parallel tales, plumbing both the comic and tragic of life.  Yiyun Li says that Drury is a “rare master of the art of seeing.” This novel is sure to prove that—yet again. (Edan)

Forty-One False Starts: Essays on Artists and Writers by Janet Malcolm: The title of this collection comes from a 1994 New Yorker profile of the artist David Salle, in which Malcolm tried in 41 different ways, without success, to penetrate the carefully constructed shell of an artist who had made a bundle during the go-go 1980s but was terrified that he was already forgotten by the art world, a has-been.  Malcolm trains her laser eye on a variety of other subjects, including Edward Weston’s nudes, the German photographer Thomas Struth, Edith Wharton, the Gossip Girl novels, and the false starts on her own autobiography. (Bill)

June:

Transatlantic by Colum McCann: Known for deftly lacing his fiction with historical events – such as the high-wire walk between the twin towers that opened his National Book Award-winning novel, Let the Great World Spin – McCann threads together three very different journeys to Ireland in his new novel, Transatlantic.  The first was Frederick Douglass’s trip to denounce slavery in 1845, just as the potato famine was beginning; the second was the first transatlantic flight, in 1919, by Jack Alcock and Arthur Brown; and the third was former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell’s repeated crossings to broker the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.  In an interview, McCann said it’s the aftermath of such large historic events that interests him as a novelist: “What happens in the quiet moments?  What happens when the plane has landed?” (Bill)

The Hare by César Aira: A recent bit of contrarianism in The New Republic blamed the exhaustive posthumous marketing of Roberto Bolaño for crowding other Latin American writers out of the U.S. marketplace. If anything, it seems to me, it’s the opposite: the success of The Savage Detectives helped publishers realize there was a market for Daniel Sada, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and the fascinating Argentinian César Aira. The past few years have seen seven of Aira’s many novels translated into English. Some of them, like Ghosts, are transcendently good, but none has been a breakout hit. Maybe the reissue of The Hare, which appeared in the U.K. in 1998, will be it. At the very least, it’s the longest Aira to appear in English: a picaresque about a naturalist’s voyage into the Argentinean pampas. (Garth)

Taipei by Tao Lin: Indie darling Tao Lin officially enters the world of big six publishing with his eighth published work, Taipei, an autobiographical novel beginning in 2009 and concerning a few years in the life of a 25-year-old protagonist moving from Taiwan to New York City and Las Vegas. In an Observer interview from 2011, Lin said that the book “contains a marriage, somewhat extreme recreational drug usage, parents, [and] a book tour” – all of which should be familiar subjects to people who’ve followed Lin’s exploits on Twitter, Tumblr and his blog over the past few years. (And especially if you’ve been one of his “interns.”) (Nick)

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell: Matt Bell’s novel is an exploration of parenthood and marriage, and it carries the premise and the force of myth: a woman who can sing objects into being and a man who longs for fatherhood get married and leave their hectic lives for a quiet homestead by the side of a remote lake. But as pregnancy after pregnancy fails, the wife’s powers take a darker turn—she sings the stars from the sky—and their grief transforms not only their marriage but the world around them. (Emily M.)

His Wife Leaves Him by Stephen Dixon: Stephen Dixon, a writer known for rendering unbearable experiences, has built his 15th novel around a premise that is almost unbearably simple: A man named Martin is thinking about the loss of his wife, Gwen.  Dixon’s long and fruitful career includes more than 500 shorts stories, three O. Henry Prizes, two Pushcart Prizes and a pair of nominations for the National Book Award.  His Wife Leaves Him, according to its author, “is about a bunch of nouns: love, guilt, sickness, death, remorse, loss, family, matrimony, sex, children, parenting, aging, mistakes, incidents, minutiae, birth, music, jobs, affairs, memory, remembering, reminiscence, forgetting, repression, dreams, reverie, nightmares, meeting, dating, conceiving, imagining, delaying, loving.” (Bill)

Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai: The novels of the great Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai have recently begun to break through with American audiences. Thus far, however, we’ve only glimpsed one half of his oeuvre: the one that deals (darkly, complexly) with postwar Europe. Krasznahorkai has also long taken an interest in East Asia, where he’s spent time in residence. Seiobo There Below, one of several novels drawing on this experience, shows a Japanese goddess visiting disparate places and times, in search of beauty. (Garth)

Carnival by Rawi Hage: True to its title, Carnival – which takes place in a city loosely based on the author’s hometown of Montreal – takes the reader on a tour of a place well-populated with odd and eccentric characters. The protagonist, Fly, is a cab driver with a penchant for binge reading. We learn that he chose his name to draw a contrast with a group called the Spiders. The Spiders are a loose collection of predatory cab drivers, who choose to wait for their customers rather than to hunt them on the streets. Fly himself, too, is no slouch when it comes to weirdness – he says that his mother gave birth to him in front of an audience of seals. (Thom)

Cannonball by Joseph McElroy: Of the American experimental novelists of the 1960s and 1970s, Joseph McElroy may be the most idiosyncratic. He specializes in what you might call information architecture, overloading his narratives with nonfictional data while strategically withholding the kinds of exposition that are conventional in fiction. The results speak for themselves: moments of startling resonance, power, mystery…and topicality. His work has previously tackled the Pinochet regime, artificial intelligence, and, in his terrific recent story collection, Night Soul, terrorism. Now he turns his attention to the Iraq War. (Garth)

On the Floor by Aifric Campbell: Banker-turned-novelist Aifric Campbell takes on the testosterone of the eighties. At Morgan Stanley, she saw firsthand the excesses of the era, which drove young female analysts to develop “contempt” for other women. As a product of that environment, her main character, Geri, feels like a “skirt among men.” She lacquers her ambitions with conspicuously feminine gestures and modes of dress. In an interview with the Guardian, Campbell pointed out that she used to race greyhounds, which gave her a “certain logic” that helped her in banking and writing. (Thom)

July:

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff: Rakoff passed away last summer at the age of 47, shortly after completing this slender novel “written entirely in verse.” His previous books have been largely satirical, so this final work is a departure: stretching across the country and the twentieth century, the novel’s stories are linked by “acts of generosity or cruelty.” Ira Glass, who brought Rakoff to the airwaves for more than a decade, has described the book as “very funny and very sad, which is my favorite combination” (a fair descriptor of much of Rakoff’s radio work, like this heartbreaking performance from the live episode of “This American Life” staged just a few months before his death.) (Elizabeth)

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw: In his third novel, Aw writes about Malaysian immigrants to contemporary Shanghai, featuring an ensemble cast who hail from diverse backgrounds; their stories are interwoven, and counterpointed with the lives they left behind.  Aw, who was a practicing lawyer while writing his first novel, The Harmony Silk Factory, won accolades for his debut: longlisted for Man Booker Prize, International Impac Dublin Award and the Guardian First Book Prize; winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award as well as the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel (Asia Pacific region).  (Sonya)

August:

Night Film by Marisha Pessl: This much-anticipated, oft-delayed follow-up to Pessl’s bestselling Special Topics in Calamity Physics originally set to come out in 2010 is now scheduled – no, this time they really mean it – in the fall. The novel is a “psychological literary thriller” about a young New Yorker who sets out to investigate the apparent suicide of Ashley Cordova, daughter of a reclusive European movie director. (Michael)

The Infatuations by Javier Marías: Javier Marías’s new book, translated by Marguerite Jull Costa, is his 14th novel to be published in English. It was awarded Spain’s National Novel Prize last October, but Marías turned it down out of an aversion to receiving public money. It’s the story of a woman’s obsession with an apparently happy couple who inexplicably disappear. It’s his first novel to be narrated from a woman’s perspective, so it will be interesting to see how Marias manages to accommodate his penchant for detailed descriptions of ladies crossing and uncrossing their legs. (Mark)

Clare of the Sea-Light by Edwidge Danticat: My time at the University of Miami overlapped with Danticat’s, though unfortunately I never took her creative writing course. I did, however, see her speak at an event for the English department during my junior year. She was astounding. There are prose stylists in this world and then there are storytellers, and rare are people like Danticat who are both. She read from her memoir Brother, I’m Dying, which features one of the most devastating and personal depictions of our wretched immigration system ever written. Haiti has always been an remarkable place – a nation built with equal measures of hope, passion, charm, malfeasance and tragedy. In this forthcoming story collection, Clare of the Sea-Light – which draws its title from a piece she originally published in Haiti Noir – we can expect the prodigiously talented author to render each aspect of the place beautifully. (Nick)

Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain: Caleb Crain’s debut novel, which concerns the topic of “youth,” borrows its title from W. H. Auden’s 1929 poem “[It was Easter as I walked in the public gardens]” and takes place in the Czech Republic during the last decade of the 20th century. Look for Crain, a journalist, critic and banished member of the NYPL’s Central Library Plan advisory committee, to use research and insight from his previous book – a provocative look at male friendship, personal lives, and literary creation – in order to give Jacob Putnam and the rest of the characters in Necessary Errors a great deal of interwoven influences, covert desires and realistic interaction. (Nick)

September:

Enon by Paul Harding: In 2009, the tiny Bellevue Literary Press published Harding’s debut novel, Tinkers, which went on to win the Pulitzer Prize. Tinkers tells the story of George Washington Crosby, an old man reliving the memories of his life as he dies surround by family. Enon, named for the Massachusetts town where Crosby died, is about his grandson, Charlie Crosby, and Charlie’s daughter Kate. (Janet)

October:

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert: Elizabeth Gilbert’s mega-bestselling Eat Pray Love put her on Time Magazine’s list of most influential people in the world, and then Julia Roberts played her in the movie adaptation. What many fans of that memoir don’t know is that Gilbert started her career as a fiction writer, penning a short story collection, Pilgrims, and the novel, Stern Men, which was a New York Times Notable Book in 2000.  Now, 13 years later, she returns to the form with the publication of “a big, sprawling, epic historical novel that takes place from 1760 to 1880, following the fortunes of a family called the Whittakers, who make their name in the early botanical exploration/proto-pharmaceutical business trade.” That description is from Gilbert herself, taken from this candid, illuminating and entertaining interview with Rachel Khong for The Rumpus. (Edan)

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem: Sunnyside Queens has long held a contrarian perspective. In the 1920s, as urban development projects washed over the outer boroughs, the folks in Sunnyside did all they could to keep the place from turning into a cookie-cutter suburb. Driveways were banned and garages were disallowed. Instead of lawns, the neighborhood’s designers recommended long courtyards that spanned the entire length of blocks – these were meant to encourage mingling and space sharing. It’s no doubt this spirit of dissent, skepticism and opinionated egalitarianism that’s drawn Jonathan Lethem to the neighborhood as the centerpiece for his new novel, a “family epic,” which focuses on three generations of American leftists growing up in the outer borough. (Nick)

Unknown:

Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon: Washington Post critic Ron Charles broke the news recently that Thomas Pynchon will have a new book out from Penguin this fall called Bleeding Edge. (Though Penguin says the book has not yet been scheduled). Charles said the news of the new book was confirmed by two Penguin employees and that “everything is tentative” at this time. More as we know it, folks. (Max)

Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush: There’s still not much to report on Rush’s latest, a novel of love and friendship set in upstate New York on the eve of the Iraq War. In October, though Granta Books in the U.K. announced an autumn 2013 publication date, so here’s hoping… (Garth)

The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: The fifth of Vollmann’s Seven Dreams books to appear, The Dying Grass will most likely not see print until summer of 2015, according to his editor. First up is Last Stories, a collection of ghost stories slated to hit bookstores next year. Assuming there still are bookstores next year. (Garth)

Your Name Here by Helen DeWitt: Your Name Here seems to be stuck in a holding pattern at Noemi Press, befitting, one supposes, its tortured publication history. In a recent Believer interview, DeWitt suggested that the version that appears in print, if it appears in print, may not be the same as the .pdf she was selling on her website a few years back. Chunks may have been spun off into other works of fiction. Whatever the damn thing ends up looking like, we eagerly await it. (Garth)

Escape from the Children’s Hospital by Jonathan Safran Foer: Foer returns to childhood, to trauma, and to interwoven voices and storylines. The childhood here is Foer’s own, though, so this may mark a kind of departure. We’ll have to wait and see, as no publication date has been set. (Garth)

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Recovery in Pieces: A Study of the Literature of 9/11

Actually, I am sitting here in my pants, looking at a blank screen, finding nothing funny, scared out of my mind like everybody else, smoking a family-sized pouch of Golden Virginia.

–Zadie Smith, “This is how it feels to me,” in The Guardian, October 13, 2001.
If you want to read the Greatest Work of 9/11 Literature, the consensus is: keep waiting. It will be a long time before someone writes it.

We don’t know what it will look like. It could be the Moby Dick of the Twenty-First Century, or maybe a new Gatsby, but more likely it will be neither. Maybe it won’t be a novel at all. It could be a sweeping history (maybe) of New York at the turn of the Millennium and of America on the precipice of total economic implosion (or not). We will read it on our iPad34 (or maybe by then Amazon will beam narratives directly into our brain for $1.99). One thing that seems certain is that no one has yet written that book. Not DeLillo (too sterile), Safran Foer (too cloying), Hamid (too severe), Messud (too prissy), O’Neill (too realist), Spiegelman (too panicked), Eisenberg (too cryptic) or the 9/11 Commission (too thorough).

The idea is that it will take time to determine what — if any — single piece of literature best captures the events of September 11, 2001 and their aftermath. We can name any number of reasons why authors seem to have underwhelmed us during the past decade. Perhaps they suffered from an extended period of crippling fear of the kind Zadie Smith described just weeks after the attacks. Literary production can tend to feel superfluous in the aftermath of large loss of life. Or perhaps it’s our persistent closeness to the events. We’re still only a decade out, despite the sense that we’ve been waiting in airport security lines for an eternity. (By comparison, Heller wrote Catch-22 almost 20 years after Pearl Harbor; War and Peace wasn’t finished until 50 years after France’s invasion of Russia; and I think the jury may still be out on who wrote the definitive work on Vietnam). We can’t blame earnest authors for trying. It just wasn’t long enough ago yet.

None of this stops critics from trying to figure out the best 9/11 book so far.

We gather books about 9/11 (and some would go as far as to make the hyperbolic-somewhat-tongue-in-cheek claim “they’re all post-9/11 books now”) into a single pile and determine who has best distilled the essence of terrorism’s various traumatic effects on our national psyche and our ordinary life. On one hand, it seems plausible to blame this tic on our collective reduced attention spans and expectations for rapid literary responses to cultural and historical events. Or more simply: we want our book and we want it now. On the other hand, the imperative to produce a 9/11 book became a kind of authorly compulsion — a new way to justify the craft of writing to an audience whose numbers always seem to be inexorably marching toward zero. Amid conversations about “the death of the novel” (and we often fail to remember that these discussions were robust and ominous-sounding back in 2001 too), 9/11 provided a renewed opportunity for books to become culturally relevant. Fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction — the whole lot. Any literary rendering of the post-9/11 world would be preferable to the unmediated reality of it. Or more simply: writers could come to the rescue of a traumatized public. Or even more simply: why shouldn’t it have been writing that could have soothed us and given us some kind of answers?

Whether these considerations will eventually vindicate the authors who tried to translate 9/11 into literature just a few raw years after the fact, we can’t say. My contention is simply that, for now, they shouldn’t be so universally panned for trying. In the meantime, perhaps this decade anniversary isn’t an opportunity to determine who’s written the best book so far, but rather to reconsider accepted notions about what constitutes the Literature of 9/11 in the first place. The books we have written and read since 2001 tell us more about ourselves than about the capacity of literature to encompass the consequences of an event like these terrorist attacks. Rather than rank these books, we should fit them into categories that allow us to consider why we turn to literature in the aftermath of a traumatic event. We can more usefully ask ourselves “Why read?” and think about why this particular historical moment produced such a rapid and rapidly evolving body of literature.

Here are some ideas to help get this conversation started. I don’t intend these bullet point-style assertions to be a decisive argument. Rather, I guess I’m just trying to figure out a way to group and regroup the books that have been on our collective radar for the past ten years.

1. To understand the post-9/11 world, we should look to the literature of the last moments before September 11, 2001.

Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections was published on September 1, 2001. Concerned with biotech, the dot-com crash, and the erosion of middle class family life in millennial America, Franzen’s novel captures a vague sense of menace in the days immediately before 9/11. And, though she has become better known for A Visit from the Goon Squad (which mentions the World Trade Center, only briefly) Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me proves that fiction can often seem to predict the world just ahead of us. The events of the novel so uncannily represent the shadow presence of terrorism in the unseen spaces of American everyday life that Egan, who wrote the book entirely before 9/11, included an afterward to the novel in 2002. She writes: “Had Look at Me been a work-in-progress last fall, I would have had to receive the novel in light of what happened. Instead, it remains an imaginative artifact of a more innocent time.” This last line has always been problematic for me. Were we really that innocent before 9/11? Authors seemed totally capable of exposing the dread underlying the exuberance (rational or otherwise) at the close of the Millennium. I wonder to whether we’ll remember the pre-9/11 years as one of innocence or willful ignorance.

2. There is no single body of 9/11 Literature.

As I have mentioned, the tendency in the past decade has been to lump together all works of fiction about 9/11. As the number of works that deal directly and indirectly with the terrorist attacks has ballooned, the moniker “9/11 Literature” has become a dull catchall term used to describe too many types of books. Instead, we can try to make some distinctions to figure out more precisely what different kinds of books have done, and stop trying to judge them all by the same criteria. It can be helpful, for example, to distinguish between 9/11 Literature and Post-9/11 Literature. Whereas Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist and Don DeLillo’s Falling Man pivot around the events of September 11, books like Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children suggest how the events and their effects can be pushed to the margins. Works of 9/11 Literature obsess about the intricate and far-reaching effects of 9/11 on the lives of characters, whereas Post-9/11 Literature emphasizes how individuals can move beyond the trauma of the attacks and allow ordinary life to resume its flow.

3. The literary response to 9/11 better helps us understand the longer-term psychological effects of terrorism on families, communities, and nations.

Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers and Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close help us understand how the effects of cultural trauma reach into future generations. They explore how we are all implicated into broader narratives of belonging to national and cultural heritages. Spiegelman had to publish the serial version of his comics in Germany because squeamish newspapers in America believed that his critiques of the Bush Administration would be poorly received at home. Likewise, Safran Foer’s novel was frequently criticized as playing on themes of grief and loss that seemed too fresh. As time passes, these criticisms fall away, and what we’re left with is a more subtle understanding of how — in the immediate aftermath of a cultural trauma — we must try to recover as individuals.

4. The relationship between The 9/11 Commission Report and The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation stands as one of the most compelling pairs of books to emerge in the past ten years — and neither one of these is a novel.

While I’d argue that no single works stands out as the definitive representation of the terrorist attacks, a reader could do no better to understand the attacks of September 11, 2001 than to devour the 9/11 Commission’s official report. To 9/11 truthers, it probably makes sense that the government would produce an eloquent and sophisticated rendering of the attacks, and the complicated histories of terrorism and American intelligence failures that led to them. But to the rest of us, it comes as a fascinating surprise — one that reveals the government’s investment in the production of a literary artifact of some serious depth and skilled sentence-making. The 9/11 Commission Report defies the expectation that a government document should be stodgy and defensive. Instead, it reveals — often in a tone that breaks its own rigid impartiality and becomes downright moving — the grating human oversights of regulators and the humanity of the terrorists themselves as they bumblingly tried to find a hiding place in America.

When read alongside Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon’s adaptation of the report, the two works become a breathtaking and genre-bending account of 9/11. Together, they are proof that an event like 9/11 can actually produce new artistic forms. The effort to describe and understand — to probe and render aesthetically — gives rise to new ways of thinking about the world. These are not novels, but they certainly rise to the level of literature, no matter how one decides to define it.

5. It’s time to start re-thinking the place of 9/11 in the landscape of American literary production.

It has become more apparent that 9/11 is moving to the background of our cultural consciousness. Its influence remains, but its effects have faded when compared to what seem like more pressing economic and political concerns. Books like Deborah Eisenberg’s Twilight of the Superheroes help us understand what this process of fading looks like. But to return to Franzen and Egan, no two books seem better suited to the moment after the post-9/11 moment than Freedom and A Visit from the Goon Squad. To understand how authors have begun to fill their blank screens with something other than images of the World Trade Center on fire, it’s hard to do better. Franzen tackles the Bush Administration while Egan projects into a future New York, in which the 9/11 memorial has become an old landmark in Lower Manhattan. Literature looks forward at the next moment — toward a space and time during which we will no longer use the term Post-9/11 to describe ourselves, if only because newer and more troubling problems will take its place.
* * *
I have left out many works and many ideas. Where are Joseph O’Neill and Ian McEwan? Where are Colum McCann and John Updike? I have left out (in the very last minute) Lorraine Adams, whose book Harbor absolutely changed the way I thought about post-9/11 America when I read it, even though it had little if anything to do with 9/11. All of this is just to say: the conversation should continue, and I think it will only get more interesting throughout the next decade.

 

Image credit: WarmSleepy/Flickr

The Great New York Novel?: A Review of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland

It has been said, though by whom I can’t remember, that the Great New York Novel is as elusive a creature as the Great American One. Because this city (the argument goes) concatenates the fictional challenges of other urban settings – the scale of Tokyo, the insularity and cinematic overfamiliarity of Paris, the mutability and lunatic vitality of Bombay – no novelist can own it the way Dreiser and Wright and Farrell own Chicago or Dickens owns London. And so Ishmael pushes out to sea, Isabel Archer steams for England, and Gatsby is left standing at West Egg, chasing the green light. The world’s most expensive real estate beggars the literary imagination.Of course this is more truism than truth. Melville, James, Fitzgerald, Wharton, Ellison, and, more recently, Doctorow and DeLillo and Auster have done the city justice. Three great novels by Saul Bellow – Seize the Day, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler’s Planet – constitute their own kind of New York Trilogy, rendering midcentury Manhattan indelible for all time. (Bellow, of course, cut his teeth on Chicago). But it speaks to the size of Joseph O’Neill’s ambitions – and the sublimity his accomplishments – that his third work of fiction, Netherland, merits comparison with these authors. Indeed, in its extraordinary literariness, it invites such comparison. It is, for long stretches, a Great New York Novel.The book is deceptively slim, and concerns a Dutch-born investment banker named Hans van der Broek who becomes estranged from his family and from himself in the wake of (though not because of) the September 11 attacks. Exiled in a haunted Chelsea Hotel and a benumbed city, Hans finds a measure of belonging in a cricket league populated largely by working-class immigrants.Hans’ narration has a Proustian sensitivity – and, more strikingly, a Proustian elasticity. Making scant use of page- and chapter-breaks, Netherland travels backward and forward in time, arranging events by emotional, rather than chronological, logic – and, in the process, creating suspense. We learn in the first few pages that by the end of his story, Hans will have settled back into bourgeois stolidity, in London. But how will he have gotten there? we wonder. And will he have learned anything in the process?The answer to the latter question is, of course yes; Netherland, which starts as a murder mystery, is really a novel of awakening. The vehicle for that awakening is O’Neill’s finest creation, a dynamo named Chuck Ramkissoon who will, by 2006, end up face down in the Gowanus Canal. Chuck is an operator, a calculator, and a charmer, but he takes the American dream quite earnestly. “‘Think fantastic,'” he tells Hans. “‘My motto is, Think fantastic.'” He has interests in a kosher sushi business, a numbers game, and real estate. His most ambitious project, however, is to convert a little-used airfield in outermost Brooklyn into Bald Eagle Field:”I’m talking about an arena. A sports arena for the greatest teams in the world. Twelve exhibition matches every summer, watched by eight thousand spectators at fifty dollars a pop. I’m talking about advertising, I’m talking about year-round consumption of food and drink in the bar-restaurant.”Or rather, I should say, Chuck’s most ambitious project is Hans. Initially a cricket buddy, he becomes a kind of mentor for Hans, Quixote to Hans’ Sancho Panza, West Indian Gatsby to his Continental Carraway, shuttling him through insalubrious outer-borough locales and slowly pulling him out of his deep freeze. “He was going to fascinate me,” Hans says, describing both the trajectory of the book and Chuck’s strategy for drawing Hans into the tangled business of “Chuck Cricket, Inc.”As James Wood noted in his New Yorker review, O’Neill finds in cricket a beautiful controlling metaphor; it comes to stand variously for upward aspiration; for camaraderie; for innocence; for fragile, ridiculous, sublime democracy – for all the things Hans feels he lost in the fall of 2001. Beautiful, too, is the way O’Neill puts the metaphor to work, letting his diction suggest, rather than insist (just as he does with the novel’s other preoccupation, the aftermath of September 11). In a scene that recalls Levin among the mowers in Anna Karenina, Hans trims the grass of the wicket-to-be:We took turns driving a lightweight fairway mower with an eighty-inch cut and fast eleven-blade reels. Chuck liked to stripe the grass with dark green and pale green rings. You started with a perimeter run and then, looping back, made circle after circle, each one smaller than the last, each one with a common center. They would soon be gone, but no matter. What was important was the rhythm of the cutting, and the smell of the cutting, and the satisfaction of time passed fruitfully on the field with a gargling diesel engine, and the glory and suspensefulness of the enterprise. […] For all of its apparent artificiality, cricket is a sport in nature. Which may be why it calls almost for a naturalist’s attentiveness: the ability to locate, in a mostly static herd of white-clothed men, the significant action. It’s a question of lookingO’Neill’s writing is this luminous, this precise, this cadenced, and this understated throughout the novel. It creates, in Henry James’ formulation, the present palpable-intimate: Even as the above passage evokes a world, its aphoristic intelligence evokes a worldview, and in the modulation from hesitation (“it calls almost for…attentiveness”) to penetrating insight (It’s a question of looking), it embodies Hans’ weaknesses and capacities. Perhaps even more deft, because less exquisite, is the way O’Neill gives us Chuck Ramkissoon, almost entirely through gesture and dialogue. Along with The Emperor’s Children and The Line of Beauty, Netherland contains some of the most immaculately written English prose of the new century.When O’Neill is using his miraculous instrument to capture the underrepresented precincts of Eastern Parkway and the Herald Square DMV and the Chelsea Hotel and Floyd Bennett Field, it takes on a moral majesty. With the great hole of the World Trade Center smoldering in the background, to record is to memorialize; and apprehending the world as clearly as Hans does becomes a kind of metaphysics, as in the novels of Bellow. It is not a question of looking, but one of seeing.That said, although Netherland moves like a great book, it is, like The Emperor’s Children, sometimes merely a good one. Which is to say that sometimes, Hans merely looks. The stakes of the novel, the things we’re led to believe matter most to him – his wife, Rachel, and his child, Jake – never fully matter to us, because they never assert their independence from Hans’ literary imperatives. A lovely description of Jake’s “train-infested underpants” makes a statement about Hans (what an eye!), rather than one about Jake; whereas Keith Neudecker playing catch with his son in DeLillo’s Falling Man actually, if laconically, sees the boy. Of Keith, James Wood wrote, “He had never been, perhaps, an easy husband – uncommunicative, driven, adulterous, tediously male,” but when it comes to relationships with other people, is there really so much difference between DeLillo’s protagonist and O’Neill’s?Even at the end of the narrative, Hans doesn’t quite seem to see Rachel or Jake as real people, nor is his failure in this regard presented ironically. And because of the novel’s chronological structure and its insistence on the importance of seeing, this threatens to become a serious flaw beneath the novel’s manicured surface. If Hans has been vouchsafed some kind of revelation, there in the green fields of Brooklyn, why are his feelings for his wife so much less convincing than his feelings for Chuck Ramkissoon? And how are we to feel about his return to the IKEA’d embrace of bourgeois “lifestyle” from the dicier terrain of actual life? Is this growth or surrender?This being a novel, style provides the answer, or at least begs the question. O’Neill’s, ultimately, is elegiac, and so, like the tide Fitzgerald’s boats beat against, it keeps tugging Hans toward the past, which is the book’s, and Hans’, center of gravity. The point is not that Hans’ suffering clears the way to redemption, but that for a few moments, it seemed it could have. As the book nears its conclusion, Hans circles back and back to the moments when he came closest to grace, seeing them with ever fiercer clarity. The paragraphs take on the surging rhythms of Hans van der Broek’s wounded heart. Which is a rather too literary way of saying that, in Netherland Joseph O’Neill has accomplished something even more impressive than the Great New York novel. He has brought – has restored – Hans van der Broek to life. We see him.See also: Kevin’s take on Netherland

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