Three recent works, an updating of a Franz Kafka story, a rambunctious saga, and a cautionary tale about the home-wrecking potential of home-buying provided my reading sustenance this summer. Each is predominantly about appetite — for food, sex, fame, money, adventure — and its potential wasting effect on the human soul.
By making the narrator of his first novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, a talking chimp — and an orotund one at that — Benjamin Hale pushed the boundaries of the human. He does the same, quite literally, in the title story from his new collection, The Fat Artist, in which a man attempts to become the fattest — or rather, heaviest — man alive under the glare of Guggenheim museum-goers. The artist, Tristan Hurt, is “blessed with the gift of bullshit” and, in thrall to the “fame drive,” has made a name for himself through a series of “ugly, angry, abrasive, disgusting, violent, scatological, pornographic, antisocial, and antihuman” installations. Or as he succinctly sums up his aesthetic: “I lived as if my parents were dead.”
And that’s before he plants himself in a glass box, vowing to eat whatever is brought to him by visitors attracted by the ghoulish spectacle. Hale’s glib showman doesn’t register with the same intensity as Kafka’s starving artist-saint, or even the “young panther” that replaces him, but Tristan, blessed with a liberal arts education, is by far the best theoretician:
…in a culture of abundance and affordable luxury, bodily self-abnegation no longer retains this primeval horror. Rather, the twenty-first-century middle-class American must actively labor not to become fat. Thus eating becomes moralized behavior. How often have you heard a woman describe a rich dessert as “sinful”? To eat is to sin—in secular society, the body replaces the soul. Good and evil are no longer purely spiritual concepts—these words have been transubstantiated into the realm of the flesh.
Aquinas, who laid out five specific kinds of overindulgence, might have raised an eyebrow at the claim that eating has just now become a moralized behavior. Tristran’s is a facile argument for a facile character, but that doesn’t mean the provocateur hasn’t stumbled on the culminating project of his career, in which his ego and self-loathing swell in equal measure.
Something of a “fat artist” makes an appearance in Donald Ray Pollock’s The Heavenly Table as well: Willy the Whale, a carnival act who dies after eating “half a hogshead of raw crawdads in an hour.” Willy the Whale’s is one of many prodigious appetites in the lusty novel, which could hardly find a more fitting epigraph than Ben Jonson’s “On Gut:” “Gut eats all day and lechers all the night/so all his meat he tasteth over twice….” (Pollock’s debut collection of stories, Knockemstiff, also had its share of lust and gluttony, their connection highlighted in a brief portrait of two women “who, out of sheer loneliness, end up doing kinky stuff with candy bars, wake up with apple fritters in their hair.”)
Early on, we meet a hermit preaching the virtues of asceticism and waxing rhapsodic on the “heavenly table” awaiting us in the afterlife: “Won’t be no scrounging for scraps after that, I guarantee ye.” The rest of the story is about how that celestial vision is translated, or mistranslated, in the earthly realm where human appetites run amok. I say “human” appetites, but one of the more chilling scenes involves a satiated intestinal worm working its way out of a corpse.
The Heavenly Table opens on the Georgia-Alabama border in 1917 as a white sharecropping family shares “a bland wad of flower and water fried in a dollop of leftover fat.” When one of the widowed father’s three sons makes a wisecrack he doesn’t appreciate, a swift chokehold dislodges even that meager repast from the offender’s throat. The father soon dies, and with his passing the novel’s atmosphere of hardscrabble abstemiousness dissipates. The novel shifts tone from eerie Southern Gothic to Rabelaisan picaresque, and the feast, “pork chops thick as a bull’s cock, beefsteaks the size of wagon wheels, buttered biscuits as hot and fluffy as…tits,” begins. And with the feast, a lot of shit — a scrupulous latrine inspector is among the central characters.
First, the three sons gorge on a sick hog: “People most always have a big feed after a funeral, don’t they?” They gorge again after murdering their employer, an exploitative landowner who spends “comfortable evening[s] alone drinking brandy in the dark and idly thinking of all the women he had molested over the years.” The crime commits them to a fugitive life as semi-competent bank robbers — the “Jewett Boys” as they are known in the tabloids — a journey taking them north towards Meade, a southern Ohio town catering to the various needs, and vices, of a nearby army camp preparing soldiers to go overseas to fight in the First World War. Along with a memorable meal — “eight lobsters, along with boiled potatoes and slaw, an entire plate of macaroons” — Meade offers them an opportunity to whet other appetites. “Shit, I could have gone five or six if I’d known what I was doing at first,” says one brother after a visit to the local brothel, the Whore Barn.
Along with books, women, and booze, books are avidly consumed. The brothers have memorized one of their few possessions, a pulp novel called The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket. It is “filled…with every act of rape, robbery, and murder that [the author’s] indignant syphylitic brain could possibly conceive.” (The elder, and most refined, brother covets more refined fare, fantasizing about a well-lined bookshelf rather than a well-fed stomach.) Another character partly blames his son’s dissolution on getting his hands on a copy of Tom Jones, a similarly rollicking episodic adventure. In the novel’s most hamfisted scene, it suddenly dawns on an army officer trained in classical literature that he is gay. His harrowing, ill-fated attempt to lose his virginity to a ravenous hotel maid is less revelatory than a flashback to his college reading syllabus: “After all, his revered Greeks and Romans had written so much about it. Buggery. Pederasty. Homosexuality.” The Eureka moment brings tears to his eyes, and the formally staid lieutenant is indulging in drug-fueled orgies by week’s end. L’appétit vient en mangeant…
In brief, passions, and portions, are outsized in The Heavenly Table, which gives it an indigestible quality. The fast-moving adventure and gallery of grotesques consistently entertain, but as one shovels down the novel’s 72 chapters, the concentrated flavor of the exquisite opening becomes a distant memory.
Faintly audible behind all the novel’s noise is an elegy for a world threatened by the “ego-driven, cannibalistic forces of twentieth century capitalism.” A ravenous economic system produces ravenous subjects, and jumping to the ego-driven, cannibalistic forces of the 21st century, we meet two such subjects in Joe McGinniss Jr.’s Carousel Court.
Carousel Court takes place close to the present, during the recent housing crash, yet it feels post-apocalyptic, Flip This House meets The Road. Nick and Phoebe have relocated from Boston to California, planning to rent in Los Angeles and renovate a house in Serenos, Calif., an inland development. The young couple spare no expense in their “virtual homebuilding” — an hourglass pool, Italian marble bathroom, and an indoor climbing wall, which, as events spiral downward, stands as a mocking reminder of their upwardly mobile aspirations. Nick loses his job, the economy tanks, and the 30-something pair are marooned among “rotting five-bedroom corpses,” their desolate neighborhood visited nightly by “mountain lions and bobcats, pit vipers, and Latino gangs trolling for new turf.” They have bitten off more than then they can chew, and are now at risk of the “barren landscape fold[ing] in on itself, this patch of earth swallowing” them whole.
Their underwater mortgage is actually less disastrous than their caustic marriage — an epistolary novella could be constructed entirely out of their hostile text messages — which from the start is threatened by a mismatch in drives. Try as he might to satisfy it, Nick recognizes a hunger in his wife he can never satisfy, “an appetite that seemed to border on compulsion.” The most pronounced, and intoxicating, feature of her beautiful face is “that jaw of hers,” seductive and menacing, even more so as it juts out more prominently from her emaciated face. Phoebe’s hunger is entirely figurative; indeed, her diet consists primarily of booze and Klonopin, and her budget-busting trips to Whole Foods are less about eating, or feeding her child, than restorative glimpses of paradise: “She’ll linger in the wide, bountiful aisles, the cool air, the welcoming faces, and mist will cleanse fresh-cut kale, and time itself will stop.” Allen Ginsberg saw the ghost of Walt Whitman in a supermarket in California; Phoebe has had her own, distinctly yuppie vision of the heavenly table.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
My friend and I have created this running joke about a blockbuster movie in which the hero — a slothful young man with a mysteriously absent father — spends every day at a Starbucks, dutifully banging out a few sentences of his unfinished novel. One day the barista spells his name wrong on a cup, but it’s actually a cryptic message, and soon a wall in the bathroom is sliding open to reveal a hidden passageway. Our hero descends beneath the Starbucks into a bustling, technologically sophisticated control room where, for centuries, a secret cabal of the greatest writers on Earth has been using its literary chops to save humanity from all sorts of apocalyptic threats. Of course the hero’s father belonged to this cabal, and of course there’s an alien tyrant determined to invade Earth and muck up its entire public library system or whatever, and of course our hero wipes the muffin crumbs off his t-shirt and ends up saving us all from annihilation — but most importantly he learns a lot about the craft of writing.
In a way, that story has already been done. Have you read The Secret History by Donna Tartt? It’s about gifted college students who become so passionately intellectual that they have no choice but to start killing each other, and it captivated me when I first read it. Or maybe you read Special Topics in Calamity Physics, in which a painfully brilliant student solves an elaborate murder mystery using her exceptional skills in the humanities? Or The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, which bravely explores how tragic and meaningful life can be when you’re a terribly erudite chimp? Or the warehouse of knowledge porn known as Wittgenstein’s Mistress?
And then we have The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt. I’ll tell you right now that I love this book, but I feel helpless to love it, and I wonder if loving it makes me a bad person.
This is what happens in The Last Samurai. Sibylla, a devastatingly smart and preternaturally rational young woman from America, goes to a party in London and meets a famous writer whose style she abhors, comparing it to Liberace’s. Disappointingly, she sleeps with him. (“I was still drunk, and I was still trying to think of things I could do without being unpardonably rude. Well, I thought, I could sleep with him without being rude.”) She ends up raising a child, Ludo, who can memorize The Iliad and teach himself foreign languages at age five. Ludo would be the crowning achievement of any comfortably situated Park Slope mom, but Sibylla, who struggles to pay the bills by transcribing old issues of magazines, can barely feed Ludo’s appetite for knowledge. She often resorts to playing an old tape of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, hoping it will provide Ludo with some admirable male role models. Ludo begs to know his father’s identity. Sibylla won’t tell him.
After his 11th birthday, Ludo finds a clue that leads him — secretly, without Sibylla’s help — to “Liberace.” But when he sees that Liberace is a hack, and that telling him the truth won’t do any good, Ludo keeps the big revelation about his parentage to himself. “If we fought with real swords I would kill him,” he thinks, quoting one of his favorite lines from Seven Samurai. Instead, Ludo takes off on other journeys throughout London, searching for surrogate father figures — a brilliant linguist who traveled the world, a charismatic physicist with a popular TV show, a reclusive millionaire painter. When Ludo finds them, he lies and says he’s their son. “A good samurai will parry the blow.” Hilariously, most of them believe it — it seems that “great men” have a tendency to sleep around. As the father figures try to explain themselves and dish out advice to their not-quite son, Ludo gains a variety of perspectives on how he might conduct his own life.
What worries me about The Last Samurai is how exceptional Sibylla and Ludo are, and how quickly I find myself identifying with them.
Sibylla’s work as an underpaid transcriber sounds backbreaking. She sits at a typewriter in a small London flat (which is so poorly heated that in winter she and Ludo ride the tube to stay warm) and labors for 36 hours at a stretch to preserve garbage publications like Advanced Angling, British Home Decorator and The Poodle Breeder for posterity. Meanwhile she has to ignore the emotional development of her absolute prodigy of a son because she’s too busy earning money to keep them alive. But when I read this, I’m happy! Because I feel like I’ve been there. Haven’t we all — especially those of us with a passion for language and typing — felt like a wage slave at some point, like an unheralded maestro, and doesn’t that memory lodge itself in our identities and become a part of who we are? So I read this heartbreaking passage about a single mother suffering in her cold London flat and I feel a vicarious joy, as if Helen DeWitt “gets” me.
And when Ludo takes his magnificent brain to public school for the first time, and discovers the exquisite agony of being misunderstood by a world of simpletons, I feel like Helen DeWitt “gets” me.
And when The Last Samurai jokes about the nobility of linguistics and the dreariness of Oxford University Press, then I really feel like Helen DeWitt “gets” me, because I used to be the linguistics editor at Oxford University Press.
The jacket copy for the new edition of The Last Samurai makes a big fuss about how, when the book was originally released in 2000, the publisher declared it was “destined to become a cult classic.” To which Garth Risk Hallberg replied, “Why not just, ‘destined to become a classic?’” By releasing this new edition, New Directions seems to be signaling that we’re ready to erase the word “cult” from the book’s reputation.
But I’m not so sure. I feel helpless to love The Last Samurai because it “gets” me. But how many other people can say that? How many linguistics editors are there at Oxford University Press? How many people, when they read about a devastatingly smart and coldly rational white woman who tells her tragically brilliant son that she would have committed suicide by now if not for the fact that she feels obligated to raise him, will smile and quietly rejoice because this is exactly the type of misfit they fancy themselves to be? Who is foolish enough to admit that they fantasize about being oppressed by their own superior intellect?
I think there’s something shameful about loving The Last Samurai. The novel gratifies the individual egos of a very specific type of reader. And isn’t that what a cult classic is — a book that people love, but only for themselves?
“A good samurai will parry the blow.”
What’s so damning about knowledge porn is that it’s often written with the same basic level of intelligence as any other work of mainstream literary fiction. Which ruins the whole premise! Here is a paragraph from Special Topics in Calamity Physics:
Dad picked up women the way certain wool pants can’t help but pick up lint. For years, I had a nickname for them, though I feel a little guilty using it now: June Bugs (see “Figeater Beetle,” Ordinary Insects, Vol. 24).
So we have a lamestream analogy about pants gathering lint, followed by a completely invented bit of “scholarship” that leads the reader nowhere but is meant to indicate that the narrator is actually brilliant. This is not what a smart person sounds like. You can’t footnote a cliché and call it genius. (Remind me to yell at you about the magician-heist movie Now You See Me and its ridiculously named sequel, Now You See Me 2, which commit the same infuriating error on a massive Hollywood scale.)
Fortunately for us, The Last Samurai is better than that. It’s a rare work of knowledge porn that actually conveys knowledge. Flip through the book and the first thing you’ll notice is Greek writing, or Japanese writing, or impossibly long strings of numbers. As Ludo studies, DeWitt folds his material into the text, and a patient reader will learn that, in Japanese, JIN is an exogenous Chinese lexeme, while hito is an indigenous Japanese lexeme; that in E.V. Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey (yes, it’s a real thing), Odysseus calls his companions “lads;” and that in the sum of any sequence n + (n+1) + (n+2) + (n+3) etc. is simply half of the sum of the sequence added to itself backwards. DeWitt doesn’t just tell us her characters are smart; she builds the truth of that assertion into the book, and she makes us smarter for reading it.
As a stylist, too, DeWitt stands above most peddlers of knowledge porn. Both Sibylla and Ludo, as narrators, pour forth in a primly accurate voice that often gives way to sardonic or slapstick humor. Sibylla marvels at the cheesiness of a western movie that rips off Seven Samuai: “Not ONE but SEVEN tall men in tights — it’s simply MAGNIFICENT.” Unsure of what to say in the note she leaves for Liberace after sleeping with him, she writes several pages analyzing the The Iliad in the original Greek, and then realizes, “I still did not have something on the page that could be concluded with an airy Ciao.” At one point Ludo mentions that Sibylla dressed him up like a hunchback so they could sneak into an age-restricted screening of The Crying Game. It’s a frequently delightful book, zany in the same way that Nell Zink is zany, as we watch the narrator’s extraordinary intelligence run out from under her and trip against the common things in life.
During the five pages when Ludo confronts his father Liberace, I underlined everything they said because DeWitt’s use of dialogue — with innovative elisions and subtle shifts in POV — is masterful. Structurally the novel grows up and out, just like Ludo, grasping at new relationships and open-ended questions even as the story is ending.
So if The Last Samurai belongs to a genre of books that perpetuate a seductive fantasy about the nature of intelligence, then it’s the best example of that genre I’ve ever seen.
And let me tell you another thing I love about The Last Samurai. It blurs the line between biological kinship and intellectual mentorship in a way that feels strangely mature and matter-of-fact.
From Sibylla’s perspective, raising Ludo seems an awful lot like a horror movie. She gives birth to this accidental child whose rapid intellectual development suddenly takes priority over her own (just like her being born ruined her mother’s goal of developing as a musician). But the child prodigy is basically a sociopath until he grows up, and in the meantime she is still responsible for feeding him, cleaning him, and providing him with the raw materials that his life’s work — whatever it may be — will be built upon. This is the horror that all mothers experience, just ratcheted up a notch because this particular child is smarter than Isaac Newton and Noam Chomsky combined. And that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is how easily Sibylla might fail, how easily Ludo could become a monster, how easily she might fall into despair and lash out at her son: “A chittering Alien bursts from the breast to devour your child before your eyes.”
When your child is not just smart, but freakishly smart — as Ludo putzes around like a child, Sibylla refers to him drily as “The Phenomenon” — you have a moral and social imperative to raise him well. Throughout the novel, Sibylla suffers from boredom and heartache and poverty and suicidal thoughts, but she never stops trying to raise Ludo responsibly. She forces Ludo to read a film critic’s take on a lesser Kurosawa film about a judo champion, hoping to teach him that there is no terminal state of contentment at the end of the hero’s journey; that “a hero who actually becomes is tantamount to a villain.” As Ludo’s fiendishly pedestrian schoolteacher puts it, Ludo “has got to understand that there is more to life than how much you know.”
The dramatic tension at the heart of The Last Samurai is this question of whether Ludo will ever learn that there is more to life than knowledge porn. And whether we will, too.
We think it’s safe to say last year was a big year for the book world. In addition to new titles by Harper Lee, Jonathan Franzen, and Lauren Groff, we got novels by Ottessa Moshfegh, Claire Vaye Watkins, and our own Garth Risk Hallberg. At this early stage, it already seems evident this year will keep up the pace. There’s a new Elizabeth Strout book, for one, and a new Annie Proulx; new novels by Don DeLillo, Curtis Sittenfeld, Richard Russo and Yann Martel; and much-hyped debut novels by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney and Callan Wink. There’s also a new book by Alexander Chee, and a new translation of Nobel Prize-winner Herta Müller. The books previewed here are all fiction. Our nonfiction preview is available here.
While there’s no such thing as a list that has everything, we feel certain this preview — at 8,600 words and 93 titles — is the only 2016 book preview you’ll need. Scroll down to get started.
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout: The latest novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Olive Kitteridge centers on a mother and daughter’s tumultuous relationship. In a starred review, Kirkus reports: “The eponymous narrator looks back to the mid-1980s, when she goes into the hospital for an appendix removal and succumbs to a mysterious fever that keeps her there for nine weeks. The possible threat to her life brings Lucy’s mother, from whom she has been estranged for years, to her bedside — but not the father whose World War II–related trauma is largely responsible for clever Lucy’s fleeing her impoverished family for college and life as a writer.” Publishers Weekly says this “masterly” novel’s central message “is that sometimes in order to express love, one has to forgive.” Let’s hope HBO makes this one into a mini-series as well. (Edan)
The Past by Tessa Hadley: Hadley was described by one critic as “literary fiction’s best kept secret,” and Hilary Mantel has said she is “one of those writers a reader trusts,” which, considering the source, is as resounding an endorsement as one can possibly imagine. The English novelist is the author of five novels and two short story collections; in The Past, her sixth novel, siblings reunite to sell their grandparents’ old house. Most likely unsurprising to anyone who’s reunited with family for this sort of thing, “under the idyllic surface, there are tensions.” (Elizabeth)
Good on Paper by Rachel Cantor: Following her time-traveling debut, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World (which is a member of The Millions Hall of Fame), Cantor’s second novel, Good on Paper, chronicles the story of academic and mother Shira Greene. After Shira abandons her PhD thesis on Dante Alighieri’s Vita Nuova, she takes an unfulfilling temp job. When Nobel Prize-winner Romei contacts her to translate his latest work based on Dante’s text, she couldn’t be more excited. But upon receiving his text, she fears “the work is not only untranslatable but designed to break her.” (Cara)
The Happy Marriage by Tahar Ben Jelloun: The latest novel by Morocco’s most acclaimed living writer focuses on the dissolution of a marriage between a renowned painter and his wife. Using two distinct points of view, Ben Jelloun lets each of his characters — man and wife — tell their side of the story. Set against the backdrop of Casablanca in the midst of an awakening women’s rights movement, The Happy Marriage explores not only the question of who’s right and who’s wrong, but also the very nature of modern matrimony. (Nick M.)
Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine by Diane Williams: Williams’s short stories operate according to the principles of Viktor Shklovsky’s ostranenie: making strange in order to reveal the ordinary anew. They are dense and dazzling oddities with an ear for patois and steeped deeply in the uncanny. Darkness and desire and despair and longing and schadenfreude and judgment roil just below the surface of seemingly pleasant exchanges, and, in their telling, subvert the reader’s expectations of just how a story unfolds. Williams’s previous collection Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty was a beauty. Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, her forthcoming, warns of linguistic breakdown, insistence, and restlessness. (Anne)
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt: It’s been seven years since Samantha Hunt’s novel about Nicola Tesla, The Invention of Everything Else, was listed as an Orange Prize finalist. Now Hunt’s back with a modern gothic starring a scam-artist orphan who claims to talk to the dead; his sister who ages into a strange, silent woman; and, later, her pregnant niece, who follows her aunt on a trek across New York without exactly knowing why. Also featured: meteorites, a runaway nun, a noseless man, and a healthy dash of humor. Although it’s still too early to speculate on the prize-winning potential of Mr. Splitfoot, Hunt’s fantastical writing is already drawing favorable comparisons to Kelly Link and Aimee Bender, and her elegantly structured novel promises to be the year’s most unusual ghost story. (Kaulie)
The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela: Aboulela’s new novel transports readers to Scotland, the Caucasus, St. Petersburg, and Sudan. The protagonist is a Scottish-Sudanese lecturer researching “the lion of Dagestan,” a 19th-century leader who resisted Russian incursions, when she finds out that one of her students is his descendant. As they study up on the rebel leader, and the Georgian princess he captured as a bargaining chip, the two academics become embroiled in a cultural battle of their own. Aboulela’s fifth book sounds like a fascinating combination of Leo Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat and A.S. Byatt’s Possession. (Matt)
Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson: With its intense competition and rivalries, the ballet world provides a novelist with plenty of dramatic material. Girl Through Glass alternates between late-1970s New York, where its heroine works her way into George Balanchine’s School of American Ballet, and the present day, where she is a dance professor having an affair with a student. Exploring the exquisite precision of dancing alongside the unruliness of passion, Wilson’s novel looks to be on point. (Matt)
Unspeakable Things by Kathleen Spivack: In her debut novel, Spivack, an accomplished poet, tells the story of a refugee family fleeing Europe during the final year of WWII. In New York City, where they’ve been laying low, we meet a cast of characters including a Hungarian countess, an Austrian civil servant, a German pediatrician, and an eight-year-old obsessed with her family’s past — especially some long-forgotten matters involving late night, secretive meetings with Grigori Rasputin. Described by turns as “wild, erotic” as well as “daring, haunting, dark, creepy, and surreal,” Unspeakable Things certainly seems to live up to its title. (Nick M.)
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell: Greenwell’s debut novel expands his exquisitely written 2011 novella, Mitko. A meticulous stylist, Greenwell enlarges the story without losing its poetic tension. An American teacher of English in Bulgaria longs for Mitko, a hustler. Think the feel of James Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime. Greenwell’s lines tease and tear at the soul: “That my first encounter with Mitko B. ended in a betrayal, even a minor one, should have given me greater warning at the time, which should in turn have made my desire for him less, if not done away with it completely. But warning, in places like the bathrooms at the National Place of Culture, where we met, is like some element coterminous with the air, ubiquitous and inescapable, so that it becomes part of those who inhabit it, and thus part and parcel of the desire that draws us there.” (Nick R.)
On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes: This novel about the ills of Europe generally and Spain specifically appears in English mere months after the death of its author, one of Spain’s premier novelists. Readers unmoved by, say, the sour hypotheticals of Michel Houellebecq will find a more nuanced, if no less depressing, portrait of economic decline and societal breakdown in On the Edge, the first of Chirbes’s novels to be translated into English (by Margaret Jull Costa). (Lydia)
The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks: The second collection of short fiction by Sparks, The Unfinished World comprises 19 short (often very short) stories, surreal and fantastic numbers with titles like “The Lizzie Borden Jazz Babies” and “Janitor in Space.” Sparks’s first collection, May We Shed These Human Bodies, was The Atlantic Wire’s small press debut of 2012. (Lydia)
And Again by Jessica Chiarella: This debut by current UC Riverside MFA student Chiarella is a speculative literary novel about four terminally ill patients who are given new, cloned bodies that are genetically perfect and unmarred by the environmental dangers of modern life. According to the jacket copy, these four people — among them a congressman and a painter — are “restored, and unmade, by this medical miracle.” And Again is a January Indie Next Pick, and Laila Lalami calls it “a moving and beautifully crafted novel about the frailty of identity, the illusion of control, and the enduring power of love.” (Edan)
The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel: The fourth novel by Martel is touted as an allegory that asks questions about loss, faith, suffering, and love. Sweeping from the 1600s to the present through three intersecting stories, this novel will no doubt be combed for comparison to his blockbuster — nine million copies and still selling strong — Life of Pi. And Martel will, no doubt, carry the comparisons well: “Once I’m in my little studio…there’s nothing here but my current novel,” he told The Globe and Mail. “I’m neither aware of the success of Life of Pi nor the sometimes very negative reviews Beatrice and Virgil got. That’s all on the outside.” (Claire)
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee: We’ve been awaiting Chee’s sophomore novel, and here it finally is! A sweeping historical story — “a night at the opera you’ll wish never-ending,” says Helen Oyeyemi — and the kind I personally love best, with a fictional protagonist moving among real historical figures. Lilliet Berne is a diva of 19th-century Paris opera on the cusp of world fame, but at what cost? Queen of the Night traffics in secrets, betrayal, intrigue, glitz, and grit. And if you can judge a book by its cover, this one’s a real killer. (Sonya)
The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray: Whiting Award-winner Wray’s fourth novel, The Lost Time Accidents, moves backwards and forwards in time, and across the Atlantic, while following the fates of two Austrian brothers. Their lives are immersed in the rich history of early-20th-century salon culture (intermingling with the likes of Gustav Klimt and Ludwig Wittgenstein), but then they diverge as one aids Adolf Hitler and the other moves to the West Village and becomes a sci-fi writer. When the former wakes one morning to discover that he has been exiled from time, he scrambles to find a way back in. This mash-up of sci-fi, time-travel, and family epic is both madcap and ambitious: “literature as high wire act without the net,” as put by Marlon James. (Anne)
A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin: Canin is the New York Times bestselling author of The Palace Thief and America America and a faculty member at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Mathematical genius Milo Andret, subject of A Doubter’s Almanac, shares a home with Canin in northern Michigan. Milo travels to Berkeley, Princeton, Ohio, and back to the Midwest while studying and teaching mathematics. Later in the story, Hans, Milo’s son, reveals that he has been narrating his father’s mathematical triumphs and fall into addiction. Hans may be “scarred” by his father’s actions, but Canin finds a way to redeem him through love. (Cara)
Why We Came to the City by Kristopher Jansma: Kirkus described this book as an ode to friendship, but it could just as easily be described as a meditation on mortality. Jansma’s second novel — his first was The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, published in 2014 — follows the intertwined lives and increasingly dark trajectories of a group of four young friends in New York City. (Emily)
Tender by Belinda McKeon: McKeon took her place among the prominent Irish novelists with her 2011 debut, Solace, which was voted Irish Book of the Year. Her second novel, Tender, follows the lifelong friendship of Catherine and James, who meet when they are both young in Dublin. At first she is a quiet college student and he the charismatic artist who brings her out of her shell, but McKeon follows their friendship through the years and their roles change, reverse, and become as complicated as they are dear. (Janet)
Wreck and Order by Hannah Tennant-Moore: Tennant-Moore’s debut novel, Wreck and Order, brings the audience into the life of Elsie, an intelligent young woman making self-destructive decisions. Economically privileged, she travels instead of attending college. Upon her return from Paris, she finds herself stuck in an abusive relationship and a job she hates — so she leaves the U.S. again, this time for Sri Lanka. A starred review from Publishers Weekly says, “Tennant-Moore is far too sophisticated and nuanced a writer to allow Elsie to be miraculously healed by the mysterious East.” Tennant-Moore leaves the audience with questions about how to find oneself and one’s purpose. (Cara)
Dog Run Moon by Callan Wink: A few short years ago, Wink was a fly-fishing guide in Montana. Today, he has nearly bagged the limit of early literary successes, reeling in an NEA grant, a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford, and publications in The New Yorker, Granta, and the Best American Short Stories. “[T]hrough the transparency of his writing, at once delicate and brutally precise, the author gifts us with the wonderful feeling of knowing someone you’ve only met in a book,” Publishers Weekly says of Wink’s debut collection, which is mostly set in and around Yellowstone National Park. (Michael)
The Fugitives by Christopher Sorrentino: Ten years after Sorrentino’s much-lauded and National Book Award-nominated Trance, he returns with The Fugitives, called “something of a thriller, though more Richard Russo than Robert Ludlum,” by Kirkus. Within, struggling writer Sandy Mulligan leaves New York for a small, seemingly quiet Michigan town to escape scandal and finish his novel, and, well, does anything but. His name evokes Sorrentino’s father’s acclaimed novel Mulligan Stew, another tale of a struggling writer whose narrative falls apart. Mulligan’s novel suffers neglect as he befriends a swindler and becomes involved with an investigative reporter who’s there to uncover the crime; Sorrentino’s plot, in contrast, is fine-tuned. (Anne)
The Book of Memory by Petina Gappah: Gappah’s first book, a short story collection called An Elegy for Easterly, won the Guardian First Book Prize in 2009. The Book of Memory is her first novel, and if the first sentence of the description doesn’t hook you, I’m not sure what to tell you: “Memory is an albino woman languishing in Chikurubi Maximum Security Prison in Harare, Zimbabwe, where she has been convicted of murder.” The novel follows this “uniquely slippery narrator” as she pieces together her crime and the life that led her there. (Elizabeth)
Youngblood by Matthew Gallagher: In his debut work of fiction, Gallagher, a former U.S. Army captain, focuses his attentions on Jack Porter, a newly-minted lieutenant grappling with the drawdown of forces in Iraq. Struggling with the task of maintaining a delicate peace amongst warlords and militias, as well as the aggressive pressures being applied by a new commanding officer, Jack finds himself embroiled in a conflict between the nation he serves and the one he’s supposedly been sent to help. Described as “truthful, urgent, grave and darkly funny” — as well as “a slap in the face to a culture that’s grown all too comfortable with the notion of endless war” — this novel comes more than 12 years after George W. Bush declared, “Mission Accomplished,” and nine months before we elect our next president. (Nick M.)
Black Deutschland by Darryl Pinckney: West Berlin in the years before the Wall came down — “that petri dish of romantic radicalism” — is the lush backdrop for Pinckney’s second novel, Black Deutschland. It’s the story of Jed Goodfinch, a young gay black man who flees his stifling hometown of Chicago for Berlin, hoping to recapture the magic decadence of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s Weimar era and, in the process, remake and discover himself. In Berlin, Jed is free to become “that person I so admired, the black American expatriate.” Kirkus praises the novel for embodying the “inventive, idiosyncratic styles” now flourishing in African-American writing. (Bill)
Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka: The linked stories in Majka’s debut collection beg the question how much of ourselves we leave behind with each departure we make, as we become “citizens of the places where we cannot stay.” Kelly Link offers high praise: “A collection that leaves you longing — as one longs to return to much loved, much missed homes and communities and cities — for places that you, the reader, have never been. Prodigal with insight into why and how people love and leave, and love again.” You can read excerpts at Catapult and Longreads. (Bruna)
The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal: De Kerangal, a short-lister for the Prix Goncourt, has not been widely translated in English, although this may change after this novel — her first translation from an American publisher — simultaneously ruins and elevates everyone’s week/month/year. The Heart is a short and devastating account of a human heart (among other organs) as it makes its way from a dead person to a chronically ill person. It is part medical thriller, part reportage on the process of organ donation, part social study, part meditation on the unbearable pathos of life. (Lydia)
You Should Pity Us Instead by Amy Gustine: A debut collection of crisp short stories about people in various forms of extremis — people with kidnapped sons, babies who won’t stop crying, too many cats. The scenarios vary wildly in terms of their objective badness, but that’s how life is, and the writer treats them all with gravity. (Lydia)
The Lives of Elves by Muriel Barbery: Following the hoopla around her surprise bestseller The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Barbery, trained as a philosopher, became anxious about expectations for the next book. She traveled, and went back to teaching philosophy. She told The Independent that for a time she had lost the desire to write. Eight years on, we have The Lives of Elves, the story of two 12-year-old girls in Italy and France who each discover the world of elves. Barbery says the book is neither a fairytale nor a parable, strictly speaking, but that she is interested in “enchantment” — how the modern world is “cut off from” from its poetic illusions. (Sonya)
Square Wave by Mark de Silva: A dystopian debut set in America with a leitmotif of imperial power struggles in Sri Lanka in the 17th century. Part mystery, part sci-fi thriller, the novel reportedly deals with “the psychological effects of a militarized state upon its citizenry” — highly topical for Americans today. Readers of The New York Times may recognize de Silva’s name from the opinion section, where he was formerly a staffer. (Lydia)
The Arrangement by Ashley Warlick: Food writing fans may want to check out a novelization of the life of M.F.K. Fisher, focusing on, the title suggests, the more salacious personal details of the beloved food writer’s life. (Lydia)
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue: At once erudite and phantasmagoric, this novel begins with a 16th-century tennis match between the painter Caravaggio and the poet Francisco de Quevedo and swirls lysergically outward to take in the whole history of European conquest. It won awards in Spain and in Enrigue’s native Mexico; now Natasha Wimmer gives us an English translation. (Garth)
The Daredevils by Gary Amdahl: Over the last decade, Amdahl has traced an eccentric orbit through the indie-press cosmos; his mixture of bleakness, comedy, and virtuosity recalls the Coen Brothers, or Stanley Elkin’s A Bad Man. The “Amdahl Library” project at Artistically Declined Press seems to be on hold for now, but perhaps this novel, about a young man riding the currents of radical politics and theater in the early-12th century, will bring him a wider audience. (Garth)
What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi wrote her first novel, The Icarus Girl, at 18 and was later included on Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists in 2013. Following her fifth release, the critically-praised novel Boy, Snow, Bird, in 2014, Oyeyemi is publishing her first collection of short stories. The stories draw on similar fairy tale themes as her past works. In What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, Oyeyemi links her characters through literal and metaphorical keys — to a house, a heart, a secret. If you can’t wait to get your hands on the collection, one of the stories, “‘Sorry’ Doesn’t Sweeten Her Tea,” was published in Ploughshares this summer. (Cara)
The Ancient Minstrel by Jim Harrison: With The Ancient Minstrel, our national treasure known as Jim Harrison returns to his greatest strength, the novella. Like Legends of the Fall, this new book is a trio of novellas that showcase Harrison’s seemingly limitless range. In the title piece, he has big fun at his own expense, spoofing an aging writer who wrestles with literary fame, his estranged wife, and an unplanned litter of piglets. In Eggs, a Montana woman attempting to have her first child reminisces about collecting eggs at her grandparents’ country home in England. And in The Case of the Howling Buddhas, retired detective Sunderson returns from earlier novels to investigate a bizarre cult. The book abounds with Harrison’s twin trademarks: wisdom and humor. (Bill)
The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder: As a fan of sports talk radio and its obsessive analysis, I’m looking forward to Bachelder’s novel, which endlessly dissects the brutal 1985 play where Lawrence Taylor sacked Washington’s quarterback Joe Theismann, breaking his leg. In the novel, 22 friends meet to reenact the play, an occasion that allows Bacheler to philosophize about memory and the inherent chaos of sports. As he put it in a New York Times essay: “I’m moved…by the chasm…between heady design and disappointing outcome, between idealistic grandeur and violent calamity.” (Matt)
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota: Sahota’s second novel is the only title on the 2015 Man Booker Prize shortlist that has yet to be published in the United States. It tells the story of four Indians who emigrate to the north of England and find their lives twisted together in the process. Many critics cited its power as a political novel, particularly in a year when migration has dominated news cycles. But it works on multiple levels: The Guardian’s reviewer wrote, “This is a novel that takes on the largest questions and still shines in its smallest details.” (Elizabeth)
Burning Down the House by Jane Mendelsohn: The author of the 1990s bestseller I Was Amelia Earhart here focuses on a wealthy New York family beset by internal rivalries and an involvement, perhaps unwitting, in a dark underworld of international crime. Mendelsohn’s novel hopscotches the globe from Manhattan to London, Rome, Laos, and Turkey, trailing intrigue and ill-spent fortunes. (Michael)
Stork Mountain by Miroslav Penkov: In this first novel from Penkov (author of the story collection East of the West), a young Bulgarian immigrant returns to the borderlands of his home country in search of his grandfather. Molly Antopol calls it “a gorgeous and big-hearted novel that manages to be both a page-turning adventure story and a nuanced meditation on the meaning of home.” (Bruna)
Gone with the Mind by Mark Leyner: With novels like Et Tu, Babe and The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, Leyner was one of the postmodern darlings of the 1990s (or you may remember him sitting around the table with Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace for the legendary Charlie Rose segment). After spending almost the last decade on non-fiction and movie projects, he’s back with a new novel in which the fictional Mark Leyner reads from his autobiography at a reading set up by his mother at a New Jersey mall’s food court. Mark, his mother, and a few Panda Express employees share an evening that is absurd and profound — basically Leyneresque. (Janet)
Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta: “Maybe I’m a writer so I have an excuse to do research,” Spiotta said of what she enjoys about the writing process. And yet, for all of her research, she avoids the pitfalls of imagination harnessed by fact. In fact, Spiotta’s fourth and latest novel, Innocents and Others, is nearly filmic, channeling Jean-Luc Godard, according to Rachel Kushner, and “like classic JLG is brilliant, and erotic, and pop.” Turn to The New Yorker excerpt to see for yourself: witness Jelly, a loner who uses the phone as a tool for calculated seduction, and in doing so seduces the reader, too. (Anne)
Prodigals by Greg Jackson: Jackson’s collection opens with a story originally published in The New Yorker, ”Wagner in the Desert,” a crackling tale of debauchery set in Palm Springs. In it, a group of highly-educated, creative, and successful friends seek to “baptize [their] minds in an enforced nullity.” They also repeatedly attempt to go on a hike. The wonderfully titled “Serve-and-Volley, Near Vichy,” in which a former tennis star enlists his houseguest in a bizarre project, and the eerily beautiful “Tanner’s Sisters” are two particularly memorable stories in this sharp and often haunting debut. (Matt)
Shelter by Jung Yun: Yun’s debut novel concerns Kyung Cho: a husband, father, and college professor in financial trouble who can no longer afford his home. When his own parents — whom he barely tolerates because they’ve never shown him warmth and affection — are faced with violence and must move in with him, Cho can no longer hide his anger and resentment toward them. The jacket copy compares the book to Affliction and House of Sand and Fog, and James Scott, author of The Kept, calls it “an urgent novel.” Yun’s work has previously been published in Tin House. (Edan)
99 Poems: New and Selected by Dana Gioia: A gifted poet of rhythm and reason, Gioia’s civic and critical pedigree is impressive. A previous chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Gioia was recently named California’s Poet Laureate. In recent years Gioia’s critical writing has taken precedence — his 2013 essay “The Catholic Writer Today” is already a classic in its genre – but this new and selected collection marks his return to verse. Graywolf is Gioia’s longtime publisher, so look for emblematic works like “Becoming a Redwood” next to new poems like “Hot Summer Night:” “Let’s live in the flesh and not on a screen. / Let’s dress like people who want to be seen.” (Nick R.)
Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton: “I had rather be a meteor, singly, alone,” writes Margaret Cavendish, the titular character in Dutton’s novel Margaret the First. Cavendish is “a shy but audacious” woman of letters, whose writing and ambitions were ahead of her time. The taut prose and supple backdrop of courtly life are irresistible. (Witness: quail in broth and oysters; bowls stuffed with winter roses, petals tissue-thin; strange instruments set beside snuffboxes.) Dutton is something of a meteor herself, as founder of the Dorothy Project and with two wondrous books already under her belt, including the Believer Book Award-nominated novel Sprawl. (Anne)
The North Water by Ian McGuire: A raw and compulsively readable swashbuckler about the whaling business, with violence and intrigue in dirty port towns and on the high seas. There are many disturbing interactions between people and people, and people and animals — think The Revenant for the Arctic Circle. This is McGuire’s second novel; he is also the author of the “refreshingly low-minded campus novel” Incredible Bodies. (Lydia)
Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett: A young middle-class Nigerian man wakes up in his bed one morning to find that he has become white in the night. As a consequence, he loses his family but gains all manner of undeserved and unsolicited privileges, from management positions at various enterprises to the favors of beautiful women from the upper crust of Lagos society. His dizzying tragicomic odyssey paints a vivid portrait of the social and economic complexities of a modern megacity. (Lydia)
The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney: D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel The Nest will hit shelves in March trailing seductive pre-hype: we learned last December that the book was sold to Ecco for seven figures, and that it’s the story of a wealthy, “spectacularly dysfunctional” family — which for me brings to mind John Cheever, or maybe even the TV series Bloodlines, in which one of the siblings is a particular mess and the others have to deal with him. But The Nest has been described as “warm,” “funny,” and “tender,” so perhaps the novel is more an antidote to the darkness in family dysfunction we’ve known and loved — fucked-up families with hearts of gold? (Sonya)
What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera: A novel about a mother and daughter who leave Sri Lanka after a domestic disturbance and struggle to find happiness in the United States. Munaweera won the Regional Commonwealth Book Prize for Asia for her first novel, Island of a Thousand Mirrors. (Lydia)
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan: A novelist examines the enduring fallout of a “small” terrorist attack in a Delhi marketplace, and the way that families, politics, and pain weave together. Mahajan’s first novel, Family Planning, was a finalist for the Dylan Thomas prize. (Lydia)
Hold Still by Lynn Steger Strong: An emotionally suspenseful debut about the relationship between a mother and her troubled young daughter, who commits an unfixable indiscretion that implicates them both. (Lydia)
Dodge Rose by Jack Cox: This young Australian has evidently made a close study of James Joyce and Samuel Beckett (and maybe of Henry Green) — and sets out in his first novel to recover and extend their enchantments. A small plot of plot — two cousins, newly introduced, attempt to settle the estate of an aunt — becomes the launch pad for all manner of prose pyrotechnics. (Garth)
High Dive by Jonathan Lee: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher could have been the title of Lee’s first novel, had Hilary Mantel not taken it for her 2014 short story collection. The similarities end with the subject matter, though. Where Mantel opted for a tight focus, Lee’s novel uses a real-life attempt to blow up Mrs. Thatcher as an opportunity to examine other, less public lives. (Garth)
My Struggle: Book Five by Karl Ove Knausgaard: Translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett, the fifth installment of this six-volume autobiographical novel covers Knausgaard’s early adulthood. The book is about a love affair, alcoholism, death, and the author’s struggle to write. James Wood describes Knausgaard’s prose as “intense and vital […] Knausgaard is utterly honest, unafraid to voice universal anxieties.” (Bruna)
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld: In Sittenfeld’s modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice, Liz is a New York City magazine writer and Darcy is a Cincinnati neurosurgeon. Although the update is certainly on trend with themes of CrossFit and reality TV, Sittenfeld is an obvious choice to recreate Jane Austen’s comedy of manners. From her boarding school debut, Prep, to the much-lauded American Wife, a thinly veiled imagination of Laura Bush, Sittenfeld is a master at dissecting social norms to reveal the truths of human nature underneath. (Tess)
Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock: The author’s wife, Diana Colbert, died of leukemia in 2011 when their daughter was only three years old. Inspired in part by this personal tragedy, this second novel by the author of 2008’s Beautiful Children traces a day in the life of a young New York couple with a new baby after the wife is diagnosed with cancer. “I can’t remember the last time I stayed up all night to finish a book,” enthuses novelist Ayelet Waldman. “This novel laid me waste.” (Michael)
Our Young Man by Edmund White: White’s 13th novel sees a young Frenchman, Guy, leave home for New York City, where he begins a modeling career that catapults him to the heights of the fashion world. His looks, which lend him enduring popularity amongst his gay cohort on Fire Island, stay youthful for decades, allowing him to keep modeling until he’s 35. As the novel takes place in the ’70s and ’80s, it touches on the cataclysm of the AIDS crisis. (Thom)
Now and Again by Charlotte Rogan: After harboring a secret writing habit for years, Rogan burst onto the bestseller list with her debut novel, The Lifeboat, which was praised for its portrayal of a complex heroine who, according to The New York Times, is “astute, conniving, comic and affecting.” Rogan’s second novel, Now and Again, stars an equally intricate secretary who finds proof of a high-level cover-up at the munitions plant where she works. It is both a topical look at whistleblowers and a critique of the Iraq War military-industrial complex. Teddy Wayne calls it “the novel we deserve for the war we didn’t.” (Claire)
Hystopia by David Means: After four published books, a rap sheet of prizes, and six short stories in The New Yorker, Means is coming out with his debut novel this spring. Hystopia is both the name of the book and a book-within-the-book, and it revolves around Eugene Allen, a Vietnam vet who comes up with an alternate history. In Allen’s bizarre, heady what-if, John F. Kennedy survives the ’60s, at the end of which he creates an agency called the Psych Corps that uses drugs to wipe traumas from people’s brains. (Thom)
Ear to the Ground by David L. Ulin and Paul Kolsby: In this “rollicking” tale about 1990s L.A., seismologist Charlie Richter, grandson of the man who invented the Richter scale, heads to the City of Angels to work at the Center of Earthquake Science to prove his methods for predicting quakes. The book, co-written by an essayist and critic (Ulin) and a screenwriter and movie producer (Kolsby), comes with an introduction by Karolina Waclawiak, author of The Invaders, and was previously serialized in the L.A. Reader. The novel will be published by the small but mighty Unnamed Press, an L.A.-based publishing house with a roster of quirky and formally daring books. (Edan)
Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings by Stephen O’Connor: A fictional account of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings told in conversations, fragments, and dreams. An excerpt is available at Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading — the site’s editor called it “experimental, metaphysical, deeply unsettling, and important.” (Lydia)
Bardo or Not Bardo by Antoine Volodine: In his publisher’s synopsis, the French writer Volodine’s multi-novel project sounds appealingly nuts: “Most of his works take place in a post-apocalyptic world where members of the ‘post-exoticism’ writing movement have all been arrested as subversive elements.” A recent critical essay in The New Inquiry furthers the sense of a cult in the making. Bardo or Not Bardo, a comedy the characters of which keep bungling attempts at reincarnation, may be a good place to begin the indoctrination. (Garth)
Letters to Kevin by Stephen Dixon: In 2015, it’s remarkably easy to make a phone call, so the latest novel by Stephen Dixon comes off as a Beckettian farce. The plot is absurd: in it, a man named Rudy sets out to call his friend Kevin Wafer, a teenager-going-on-college-student who lives across the country in Palo Alto. Rudy doesn’t have a phone, but when he tries to use a phone booth, a crane picks it up and deposits it (and Rudy) in a warehouse. Eventually, he gives up and opts to write a letter instead. Throughout, Dixon’s black-and-white drawings lend depth to his nightmare of inconvenience. (Thom)
The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest: Barely 30, Tempest has won awards for her poetry, performances, and recordings. Her long narrative poem “Brand New Ancients” found the through-line from Homer to Jay-Z. Now she turns to prose, in a novel about scrabbling young Londoners trying to outrun the past. (Garth)
Zero K by Don DeLillo: When Jennifer Egan introduced DeLillo for his reception of the National Book Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, she noted “There will be no better way to understand life in the late-20th and early-21st century than reading the books of Don DeLillo.” Paranoia does not always lead to prescience, but DeLillo’s anxious eye toward the future has always been tempered by his identity as the son of immigrants and the Catholic spectacle of his youth. Zero K begins big: “Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” says billionaire Ross Lockhart to his son Jeff, the novel’s narrator. Jeff notes “We were sharing a rare point in time, contemplative, and the moment was made complete by his vintage sunglasses, bringing the night indoors.” No one is better than DeLillo at vaulting between registers of comedy and tragedy, between the consequence of eternity and the power of a single moment. (Nick R.)
LaRose by Louise Erdrich: On a summer day in North Dakota, 1999, a man named Landreaux stalks a deer along his property line. He shoots and misses, but he’s hit something else: his neighbor’s five-year-old son, Dusty. Landreaux’s close with his neighbors, in part because he has a five-year-old son of his own, LaRose, and the boys were inseparable. Erdrich’s 15th novel explores the complicated aftermath of the death, as Landreaux and his wife decide to give LaRose to their grieving neighbors as retribution. (Emily)
The Fox Was Ever the Hunter by Herta Müller: As if living in a totalitarian regime wasn’t bad enough, the four friends in Müller’s novel must contend with the fact that one of them is spying on the group for the secret police. Capturing the fear and moral corruption of the final days of Romania’s Ceausescu regime — and inevitably drawing on her own persecution by the secret police — Müller won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2009 for her work. Now, her long-time translator Philip Boehm brings the classic to English readers. (Tess)
The Pier Falls by Mark Haddon: Haddon is nothing if not versatile. You know him for his international bestseller, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but did you know Haddon is also an illustrator, screenwriter, poet, winner of two BAFTAs, and has written 15 books for children? It might not come as a surprise that his new book is a departure: a collection of short stories. An expedition to Mars goes wrong, a seaside pier collapses, a woman is marooned on an island, two boys find a gun in a shoebox. The stories are billed as “searingly imaginative and emotionally taut.” (Claire)
Sweet Lamb of Heaven by Lydia Millet: In her 10th novel, Millet delves into the territory of the psychological thriller: a young mother, Anna, takes her six-year-old daughter, Lena, and flees her estranged husband, Ned, who’s running for office in Alaska. Anna and Lena go into hiding in a derelict hotel in Maine, which quickly begins to fill up with other guests; guests who, as the novel progresses, begin to seem less and less like ordinary tourists, even as Ned begins to seem more and more sociopathic. (Emily)
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub: What happens when you age out of your cool? It’s a topic that filmmaker Noah Baumbach has explored, and Straub is his literary counterpart. Her third novel follows three Brooklyn Gen X friends and former bandmates nearing 50 and handing off the baton of hipness to their children, stifled ambition and sexual frustration included. With the multigenerational structure, it would be easy to compare Straub to other masters of the genre like Meg Wolitzer or Jennifer Egan, but she’s already a master in her own right after The Vacationers, so Modern Lovers should prove to be a witty romp. (Tess)
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes: Barnes’s new novel — his first since 2011’s Man Booker Prize-winning The Sense of an Ending — concerns the life of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. Barnes considers his character not just on a human level, as a young man fearing for his life and the safety of his family under Joseph Stalin, but also as a lens through which to examine the fall of the Soviet Union and the role of the artist in society. (Emily)
Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo: There are two kinds of Russo aficionados — those who came to him through his hilarious 1997 academic satire Straight Man and those who started with his wry, brooding 1993 breakthrough Nobody’s Fool. The latter strain of Russophile will rejoice that Russo has brought back Donald “Sully” Sullivan, the irascible hero of Nobody’s Fool, who was played by Paul Newman in the movie version. Two decades on, Sully has learned from his doctor that he has at most a year or two to live, and spends the novel striving to keep the news from everybody he loves. (Michael)
The Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan: You had to know the person who’s spent more than a decade working at thoroughbred racetracks would choose to blurb the horse racing novel. Morgan, who was named one of The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 in 2010, has set both of her novels in her native Kentucky; this one centers on a powerful family aiming to breed the next racing great, and a young black man who comes to work for them and brings their prejudices into full view. It is described as “an unflinching portrait of lives cast in shadow by the enduring legacy of slavery.” (Elizabeth)
The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin: Cronin brings his mammoth, vampire apocalypse horror trilogy to a close this spring with The City of Mirrors. The Twelve (godfather vampires) have been defeated, and their descendants with them, and the human colonists start to retake the world, no longer confined to their fortresses and hiding places. But are they really safe? (They’re not.) Zero — the vampire who created The Twelve — survives, and he’s mad as hell. The conclusion of this suspenseful, surprising, frequently heartwarming, more often creepy-as-shit series promises to go out with a bang. (Janet)
The Fat Artist and Other Stories by Benjamin Hale: Hale’s simian debut novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, was widely praised; it takes talent to craft the believable voice of a chimpanzee who has “finally decided to give this undeserving and spiritually diseased world the generous gift of my memoirs.” Hale recently co-edited an issue of Conjunctions titled “A Menagerie,” that collects bestial tales. The short story form allows Hale’s own penchant for invention to further shine. One story, “The Minus World,” investigates shadow, “unfinished or rejected levels that the programmers left floating around” in Super Mario Bros: “It’s as if Mario had traveled to the distant, frayed edges of space and time. He must look into the void. It’s a little frightening.” The Fat Artist, which includes stories about dominatrices and performance artists, is sure to please. (Nick R.)
Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett: In his third book and second novel, Imagine Me Gone, Haslett returns to the territory of mental illness — the subject of many of the stories in his award-winning debut collection You Are Not a Stranger Here. Margaret marries John, after learning of his serious struggle with depression, and later their eldest son, Michael, battles with despair as well. From Joy Williams: “[O]ne of the most harrowing and sustained descriptions of a mind in obsessive turmoil and disrepair that I’ve ever read.” Peter Carey, on the other hand, speaks to the hopeful elements of the novel — “both dreadfully sad and hilariously funny all at once. It is luminous with love.” (Sonya)
Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens: In her two previous novels, Erens has quietly built a reputation as a sharp stylist with a gift for bringing quirky outsiders alive on the page. In Eleven Hours, a very pregnant young woman arrives alone at the maternity ward wanting to give birth without a fetal heart monitor, IV tubes, or epidural anesthesia. The novel follows her 11-hour labor in the care of a Haitian nurse who is herself pregnant. “Erens evokes the layered experience of living in a body — its tides of memory, sensation, and emotion — like no other writer I know,” writes novelist Karen Russell. (Michael)
Allegheny Front by Matthew Neill Null: A collection of short stories set in the author’s native West Virginia, where people and landscapes and animals reap the wages of resource extraction. Null’s first novel, Honey from the Lion, was a historical novel about West Virginia’s timber industry. (Lydia)
Barkskins by Annie Proulx: The award-winning author of The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain returns with a new novel in June — 10 years in the making — about wilderness, the rampant destruction of forests, and greed. At over 800 pages, this ambitious novel spans over three centuries and travels from France to China to New England. (Bruna)
Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler: If anyone was going to update The Taming of the Shrew, it should be the Pulitzer-winning Tyler, who is a keen observer of the nuances of the American family. In her take on the classic Shakespearean comedy, Kate is managing her odd scientist father’s household when his assistant might be deported, and the men scheme to keep him in the country with Kate’s help. Even though we think we already know the ending, the independent and contemporary Kate might have a surprise up her sleeve. (Tess)
They May Not Mean To, But They Do by Cathleen Schine: Her new novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, will solidify Schine’s reputation as “the Jane Austen of the 21st century.” When her husband dies, Joy Bergman finds that her children, Molly and Daniel, have an arsenal of weapons to fend off the woes of widowhood. But Joy is not about to take advice or antidepressants from anyone. When an ardent suitor from Joy’s college days reappears, Molly and Daniel must cope with their widowed mother becoming as willful and rebellious as their own kids. They May Not Mean To, But They Do is a compassionate look at three generations, all coming of age together. (Bill)
The Girls by Emma Cline: This debut follows two young women into the world of a Manson-ish cult in the 1960s. Cline won the 2014 Plimpton Prize from the Paris Review, which also published her essay about how she came to this material. (Garth)
Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty by Ramona Ausubel: Ausubel’s first novel, No One Is Here Except All of Us, won the PEN Center USA Fiction Award and the VCU Cabell First Novel Award. The New York Times Book Review wrote that her story collection, A Guide to Being Born, “finds a way to record the tensions between the corporeal and the invisible” — that’s an excellent way to read all her mischievous, magical work, actually. Ausubel’s second novel is about a moneyed family on Martha’s Vineyard in the 1970s — except this moneyed family is out of dough. The terror of being broke spins parents Fern and Edgar off on separate, strange journeys; meanwhile, their three kids are left to fend for themselves “in an improvised Neverland helmed by the tender, witty, and resourceful Cricket, age nine.” Maggie Shipstead calls it a “brilliantly imagined novel about family and fortune and the hidden knots between.” (Edan)
Rich and Pretty by Rumaan Alam: In Alam’s debut novel, Rich and Pretty, Sarah is the rich one and Lauren is the pretty one. They first met 20 years ago at a tony private school in Manhattan and became inseparable through high school, college, first jobs, and first loves. But now, all grown up and living very different New York lives, they have to navigate the tricky ways that the closest of friendships evolve, erode, and endure. Emma Straub, author of The Vacationers, says Alam, a Year in Reading alum at The Millions, has crafted a debut that’s “smart, sharp and beautifully made.” (Bill)
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: Gyasi’s debut distills hundreds of years of of history into 300 pages, tracing the lives and legacies of two Ghanaian half-sisters, one of them sold into slavery, one of them comparatively free. (Garth)
July and Beyond:
Home Field by Hannah Gersen: Our own Hannah Gersen’s debut novel is the story of Dean, a high school football coach in small town Maryland — and therefore a pillar of his community — whose life comes untethered after his wife’s suicide. Left to raise three children dealing with their mother’s death — a daughter at Swarthmore, an 11-year-old son acting out, and an eight-year-old son who barely understands it all — not to mention keep winning football games, Dean has to take stock of the life he thought he had, and how to move forward. (Janet)
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer: FSG editor Eric Chinski knows Foer’s new novel — his first since Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005) — better than anyone (other than Foer himself of course). Chinski says of Here I Am, “It’s got this high-wire inventiveness and intensity of imagination in it, and the sheer energy that we associate with Jonathan’s writing, but it’s a big step forward for him. It’s got a kind of toughness; it’s dirty, it’s kind of funny, like Portnoy’s Complaint, it exposes American Jewish life.” It’s not, Chinski says, autobiographical in any strict sense, but does borrow from Foer’s life — the story of a Jewish family, divorce, and three sons, in Washington D.C. (Sonya)
How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball: In his new novel, Ball follows the trajectory of a brilliant teenager living an impoverished and increasingly precarious life in the absence of her parents. Her father is dead, her mother institutionalized, and when she discovers that there’s an arson club at her school, she finds herself rapidly running out of reasons not to set the world on fire. (Emily)
I Am No One by Patrick Flanery: How far does reasonable suspicion live from outright paranoia? Are they close neighbors; do they overlap? These are questions for Jeremy O’Keefe, a professor who has just returned to New York City after 10 years abroad, and suddenly finds himself the object of obsession for a pale young man from his past — or is he? (Nick M.)
Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard: Winner of the Amanda Davis Award from McSweeney’s and author of the novels Reunion and The Fates Will Find Their Way, Pittard now brings us the story of a young married couple, Mark and Maggie, on a road trip gone wrong. Maggie’s recently been robbed at gun point, and by the time they stop for the night at an out-of-the-way inn (without power), the two aren’t even speaking to one another. Frederick Barthelme calls it “a positively Hitchcockian misadventure” and the jacket copy dubs it a “modern Gothic.” (Edan)
Monterey Bay by Lindsay Hatton: Hatton (my quondam classmate) blends historical fact — the life of John Steinbeck circa Cannery Row — with the story of a young woman discovering the complexities of adult life. In the process, the novel illuminates the founding of the famous Monterey Bay Aquarium. Celeste Ng, in her blurb, compares Monterey Bay, Euphoria, and The Signature of All Things. (Garth)
Losing It by Emma Rathbone: In her debut, The Patterns of Paper Monsters, Rathbone proved herself a wry observer of coming of age in difficult circumstances. Her second novel follows this theme, as protagonist Julia Greenfield visits her spinster aunt during a hot North Carolina summer to conquer her greatest insecurity: why she’s still a virgin at 26. Except her aunt is one as well at 58. What follows is a candid yet funny take on just what desire and love mean. (Tess)
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías: Marías returns with another masterful tapestry of noir-ish twists and digressive cerebration. A young man goes to work for a famous film director, and then finds himself entangled with the mysteries of the director’s wife. This one will be published in the U.S. in the fall. (Garth)
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Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about stories with monkeys. I’ve been thinking about them for a while, actually, but until now it’s been a mostly passive project. Maybe “project” is too lofty a term. I haven’t really been looking for these stories. I haven’t been actively keeping track of them. Occasionally, though, I’ll come across one, or I’ll remember one that I read years ago. Basically, I’ve just been noticing them — monkeys — and for whatever reason they’ve had a tendency to linger in my mind. It wasn’t until recently, when I re-read “A Girl with a Monkey” by Leonard Michaels, that all of these monkeys began to organize themselves.
Currently I have two main categories. The first involves stories that feature monkeys as prominent characters or focal points. Haruki Murakami’s “A Shinagawa Monkey,” for example, in which a woman keeps forgetting her name, and as the story unravels we see that really the woman isn’t “forgetting” her name at all — it’s being stolen by a monkey. Or take the title story of Lydia Millet’s Love in Infant Monkeys or George Saunders’s “93990,” from In Persuasion Nation, which both use monkeys to get at issues of scientific experimentation and animal cruelty. Or Andrew Alexander’s “Little Bitty Pretty One,” which first appeared in Mississippi Review and which I encountered in 1999’s New Stories from the South. Alexander’s story begins, “My sister once ordered a monkey from the back of a comic book,” and over the course of the story — only a few pages — we witness the monkey’s life in the house, from its arrival via the mail to its burial in the backyard, and we get to know the narrator and his family in a way that would not have been possible without that monkey. What all of the stories in this category have in common, I would argue, is that their very existence depends on their monkeys. Sure, they could have been written without them — with rabbits, say — but without the primate-primate connection between monkey and human — human character and human reader both — these stories wouldn’t be the same at all.
And this first category is also where I would place books like Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Benjamin Hale’s The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, two different takes on the “civilized” primate attempting to navigate the human world, in the tradition of Franz Kafka’s story “A Report to an Academy,” but these are chimpanzee stories, and technically chimpanzees are not monkeys — chimps being Great Apes, along with gorillas and humans and orangutans, while the many varieties of monkey are a big branch or two away on the primate family tree — but I fear we’re already getting off track here.
I fear, too, that this first category might seem a bit too simple, obvious, reductive. It might feel like a catch-all, an easy way of dealing with an enormously ranging assortment — stories that use monkeys for laughs, for sympathy, for mystery. It’s a category that, if the doors were open to film, could comfortably house things as disparate as Monkey Trouble and Planet of the Apes, which I’ll admit might strike some as problematic, but here again I’ll argue that what both of these stories depend on — wherefrom they derive either their comedy or their terror — is that primate-primate connection. Insert humans and the stories fall apart; insert another type of animal and the stories fall apart.
It’s the second category, though, that I’m most interested in. Here we have stories that don’t ask so much of their monkeys, stories that could arguably exist without these animals and suffer no serious loss of esteem. I’m speaking now of stories like Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” The focus with this one is usually The Misfit or the grandmother or the gruesome finale, but what I appreciate is the quieter oddity of moments like the family’s arrival at Red Sammy’s restaurant, where there’s “a gray monkey about a foot high, chained to a chinaberry tree.” The monkey gets four sentences. We see him retreat into the branches of his tree as the family approaches, and as the family exits, we see him again, “busy catching fleas on himself and biting each one carefully between his teeth as if it were a delicacy.” And that’s all — just a roadside monkey, a strange little sight along the road to doom.
There’s also Richard Ford’s “Rock Springs,” another often-anthologized piece, the story of Earl, car thief and writer of bad checks. The story starts with Earl fleeing Montana — headed south in a stolen Mercedes with his girlfriend, his daughter, and his daughter’s dog Duke — and it ends later that night, not much farther south, with Earl musing alone in the parking lot of a Ramada Inn, asking the reader to join him in wondering about how it is that we end up in the places that we do. This has always struck me as a bold move, this ending, a risky move on the part of the author. My favorite scene, though, happens early on, when Earl’s girlfriend, Edna, pours herself a drink in the passenger seat and says, apropos of nothing, “Did I ever tell you I once had a monkey?”
Then for two pages Edna explains how she won a spider monkey in a dice game, how after a week she “got the creeps” and couldn’t handle the monkey staring at her at night anymore, so she “went out to the car, got a length of clothesline wire, and came back in and wired her to the doorknob through her little silver collar, then went back and tried to sleep.” And then when Edna woke up, she found that the monkey “had tipped off her chair-back and hanged herself on the wire line.”
To me it’s the most emotionally affecting moment in the story, much more so than any of the human drama. And it’s also a moment that allows for the most intriguing instance of characterization for Earl: when Edna finishes her story, describing how she put the monkey in a trash bag and took it to the dump, Earl says, “Well, that’s horrible,” which is obvious and true. But then he goes on: “But I don’t see what else you could do. You didn’t mean to kill it. You’d have done it differently if you had.”
You’d have done it differently if you had — gets me every time. There are countless ways Earl could have responded in this moment — he could’ve stopped with “You didn’t mean to kill it,” which would have, again, been obvious and true, perhaps even reassuring in its banality — but instead this is the way Earl seeks to console, by pointing out that there exist other, more purposeful ways a person might choose to kill a monkey.
As much as I value this scene, though, as much as I appreciate this unsettling peek at Earl’s character, I doubt anyone would argue that Edna’s monkey plays any real, significant role in the story’s plot. Same for the monkey outside of Red Sammy’s place. But I do think these monkeys have utility in terms of narrative. In O’Connor’s story, if nothing else, that monkey has an atmospheric effect. It tips the narrative universe just a bit further off-kilter. In a world where it’s possible to find a monkey chained to a tree beside a highway restaurant — and for that fact to warrant not a whole lot of attention, for that monkey to seem more or less ordinary — maybe it’s also possible, or at least less unlikely, to end up crossing paths with the escaped convict you read about in that morning’s newspaper. There are other things O’Connor does to make that crossing of paths seem plausible, other bits of foreshadowing and so on, but, to my mind, there’s a certain expansion of possibility that occurs with that monkey around. And you could say the same for Ford’s story: what can’t happen in Edna’s life, or in the world of the story, if it’s the sort of place where a person might roll some dice in a bar one day and wind up the reluctant owner of a monkey?
Then there’s the Leonard Michaels story “A Girl with a Monkey,” which I now see as a sort of pinnacle in my type-two classification of monkey stories. It’s the story of a man named Beard, an American traveling alone in Germany, who falls in love with a woman named Inger. Inger is a prostitute, she takes “classes in paper restoration at the local museum,” and she has a monkey. The monkey never actually appears on the page though. It gets referred to occasionally in conversation, as when, during a disagreement over whether Inger will go home for the evening or spend a third night in the company of Beard, he says, “I’m not your monkey.” To which Inger says, “You think you’re more complicated.”
And this isn’t the only place where a reader might feel compelled to compare Beard to an ape. There’s a baseness to his character, and that combination of the tender and the grotesque that Leonard Michaels’s characters often have — it’s easy to imagine a reader saying, “Oh, I get it — it’s Beard that’s the ‘monkey’ here, he’s an animal…” And it’s true that along those lines the story does have things to say about distinctions between humans and animals, notions of innocence and purity and ownership and whether or not “all sentient beings were equivalent.”
There’s something happening, too, at the intersection of the animalistic and the sexual. We see it creeping up when Beard “remembered that Inger had talked about her monkey. The memory stirred him, as he had been stirred in the restaurant, with sexual desire. Nothing could be more plain, more real. It thrust against the front of his trousers. He went into a café to sit for a while and pretend to read a newspaper.”
No doubt there are significant discussions to be had about these things, important conversations both literary and sociological, but here again I’m more interested in the monkey’s effect on the story’s atmosphere, which is very real even if the monkey itself never appears.
The closest we come to actually seeing this animal is when Beard goes to meet Inger at her apartment. But Inger isn’t there. Instead Beard finds her roommate, Greta, who has no idea where Inger is. Beard doesn’t believe this, but Greta insists. She tells him, “Please go look for yourself. No clothes in her closet, no suitcase, no bicycle.” And the monkey is gone too, the monkey we never see and whose very existence we’d have cause to doubt if not for Greta. “I was an idiot to let her move in,” Greta says, “a girl with a monkey.”
Again, in no way does the story’s plot depend on this monkey. The story could very nearly exist as is with each mention of the word “monkey” replaced with “goldfish” or “parakeet” or “turtle.” That monkey has an effect, though. It sets the story in a world in which a young woman might have a monkey as a pet, for one thing, which, yes, I realize, can and does happen in reality, but there’s something more going on here. There’s something about how little attention that monkey gets — from Inger, from Beard, from the narrator — how ordinary it seems. Never once does Beard say something like, “Wait, what? You have a monkey? Are you serious? Where’d you get it? Can I see it?” All of which would be reasonable responses, I think, in the world that I live in. Maybe this downplaying speaks to the degree of attraction and obsession Beard feels — his feelings for Inger are all-consuming, tunnel-vision-inducing to the point that he can’t even register the oddity of her having a monkey waiting for her at home. The whole thing has a way of making me feel like there’s something wrong with me, because it seems like I’m the only one who sees something strange going on here. I mean, the story isn’t even called “The Girl with the Monkey,” an article-shift that would confer some uniqueness to the situation. It’s “A Girl with a Monkey,” as in, possibly, one of many. But the story is confident — it takes the monkey as a given and moves on, and so I do too.
There are echoes of Anton Chekhov’s lady and her pet dog here too, I think, another story of a man surprising himself with his devotion to a woman he meets abroad. There’s nothing remarkable about a dog as a pet though, and there’s nothing remarkable about the way Chekhov’s story winds up either — by which I mean the events are entirely believable, inevitable, deflating, and saddening in exactly the way that life can be — though there is certainly something remarkable about the way Chekhov so deftly executes that ending.
But there is something remarkable about the way in which “A Girl with a Monkey” comes to a close, with Beard hoping for one thing and finding something better — something approaching the unlikelihood of a faulty memory leading to a wrong turn, which then leads to a startled cat leaping from a basket, which leads to a car accident, which leads to a run-in with an infamous criminal — and what I’m thinking now is that maybe it’s the monkey that allows such things to happen. Improbable animals priming us for improbable events. It isn’t just a matter of the strange being made to seem ordinary, it’s a matter of the extraordinary being made to seem possible.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
In the months following the publication of my novel in February, I didn’t write any fiction for a long while. This was due in part to being very busy with traveling, teaching, touring, writing nonfiction and little essayettes like this one, but also in part because of a particular type of depression that some other fiction writers I know have also experienced: the strangely sinking, empty feeling that comes after publishing one’s first book. At times I was thinking things along the lines of, “What’s the point of any of this bullshit? What have I accomplished? What have I changed? Maybe I should move back home and go back to painting houses.”
You work with single-minded devotion on something for years with hope, anxiety, desperation, ambition, daily dumping the greater part of your energy into the dream of seeing this thing bound between covers and on display in a bookstore — and then it actually happens. As Bill Hicks once said in a monologue about quitting smoking, “You know, in a way, I feel sorry for people who’ve never been addicted to anything. They don’t know what it’s like to want something that bad… and get it.” True — the elation of seeing your book in a bookstore for the first time is ineffable. But like the cigarette, it’s followed by a vacuous wake. So what now? After the last ripples from the initial splash of attention (if you’re lucky enough to get one) fade, after the bookstore readings are over, after the young, first-time novelist’s amuse-bouche taste of glamour is swallowed, digested, and passed: now what? Well, congratulations — you’re a writer. This is your job now. So get to work. Write another book.
But that first book you were working on for years with slavish devotion because you wanted to write that book. Now you feel like you have to simply write a book. This is the germ agent of the “second book syndrome.” And the unfortunate result is often that a writer’s “second” book (it’s rarely the case that a writer’s second published book is actually his or her second written one) is a disappointment, written as it was under the attendant loom of self-conscious anxieties about the market, one’s reputation, one’s readership. Less ambition, less love went into this one. Behind the surface of the text the reader may faintly hear the sound of the writer punching the clock, just going to work as joylessly and mechanically as a factory worker or Joyce Carol Oates.
And I didn’t want that to be me. Whenever I tried to write fiction during this first-book hangover time, I could feel myself writing just to write — rather than writing because I felt that what I was writing needed to be written, or deserved to be read. I wasn’t in love with what I was writing. One often hears the advice given to aspiring fiction writers, “Write every day.” It’s a piece of advice that I’ve come to disagree with. In fact, a major problem with many of the mediocre books that march out into the world in astonishing numbers is that they were written just to be written. Now I think a better piece of advice is: “Write only if you have something to say.”
I needed to find another novel that needed, wanted to be written. I needed to find another novel to fall in love with. I needed to get as far away as I could from Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Gawker, YouTube, and all the other depressing shit that keeps me from writing. I sublet my New York apartment to a friend and rented a house in a tiny town at the southern edge of the Caribbean side of Costa Rica during September and October. This location wasn’t quite a random decision. I had a good friend who died a few years ago, whose father was from this area of Costa Rica, who had always talked about what a beautiful place it is, and this trip was in small part a personal pilgrimage to him; also, the novel I was trying to make myself write involves Afro-Caribbean labor on banana plantations along the Eastern coast of Central America, so there was an element of a research trip in it as well. But mostly what I wanted was to go to a quiet, beautiful place where I knew no one, to turn my back on the vast and inconsequential roar of the internet’s hive, to be the fuck alone with my brain awhile in a place where I could sit down and get to work, not on a novel, but on a novel I would grow so much in love with I’d take a bullet for it — the only kind that really deserves to be written.
I took along a stack of books to read that all wound up battered, water-warped, and mold-speckled by the time I returned. Most of the books I took with me were research-related. I tend to do a tremendous amount of research for my fiction. So if I’m writing fiction, I’m probably reading much more nonfiction than fiction, because I’m raiding reality for interesting things to steal and fictionalize. Mostly biographies and histories and things like that, but also philosophy, because I think that the realm of ideas is crucially important to good fiction, a position I’m doubly defensive of because I think these days it’s generally poopooed inside the opinion-cloud of what contemporary American fiction is supposed to look like (which, broadly put, says “yes” to characters pensively looking out of windows and blowing on cups of coffee, and “no” to characters talking about the universe in expansive blocks of dialogue, which is more up my alley). And I had realized, or thought I had, that I needed to familiarize myself to some extent with postcolonial theory in order to write this novel, which I imagined would have something to do with the history of colonialism in Latin America and the Caribbean. So to get me started I took along a stack of what I figured were some of the seminal texts of postcolonialism that I had never read: a lot of Gayatri Spivak (which is the sort of thing that’s pretty much unreadable unless you’re taking a class in it), Edward Saïd, and Frantz Fanon.
And I must say, Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth was doubtlessly the most mind-altering discovery of all my reading in 2011. After slogging through Spivak, I was relieved and delighted to discover that Fanon is, among other things, marvelously fun to read. Granted, Fanon is really a proto-postcolonialist, as he was writing long before that became a word — and indeed, while much of the book remains as potent and relevant as it was in the 60s, The Wretched of the Earth is in some ways an incredible snapshot of its time, as a great deal about the global political situation he was writing about has dramatically changed, especially since the end of the Cold War. But the fury of the dispossessed in his writing is eternal. His writing is mesmerizing, incantatory; his sentences turn circles in the sky before descending to attack, and every word is charged with absolute rage. There is an almost Biblical quality to his writing; it reminds me of Erich Auerbach’s description of the Talmud, words that “must enter the earthly realm from some unknown heights or depths.” It is not brittle academic language, it is the language of prophecy. Listen:
The wealth of the imperialist nations is also our wealth. At a universal level, such a statement in no way means we feel implicated in the technical feats or artistic creations of the West. In concrete terms Europe has been bloated out of all proportions by the gold and raw materials from such colonial countries as Latin America, China, and Africa. Today Europe’s tower of opulence faces these continents, for centuries the point of departure of their shipments of diamonds, oil, silk and cotton, timber, and exotic produce to this very same Europe. Europe is literally the creation of the Third World. The riches which are choking it are those plundered from the underdeveloped peoples. The ports of Holland, the docks in Bordeaux and Liverpool owe their importance to the trade and deportation of millions of slaves. And when we hear the head of a European nation declare with hand on heart that he must come to the aid of the unfortunate peoples of the underdeveloped world, we do not tremble with gratitude.
Or how about this, which gave me no small degree of inward pause as I sat reading it on the beach in Costa Rica:
The national bourgeoisie establishes holiday resorts and playgrounds for entertaining the Western bourgeoisie. This sector goes by the name of tourism and becomes a national industry for this very purpose. We only have to look at what has happened in Latin America if we want proof of the way the ex-colonized bourgeoisie can be transformed into “party” organizer. The casinos in Havana and Mexico City, the beaches of Rio, Copacabana, and Acapulco, the young Brazilian and Mexican girls, the thirteen-year-old mestizas, are the scars of this depravation of the national bourgeoisie. Because it is lacking in ideas, because it is inward-looking, cut off from the people, sapped by its congenital incapacity to evaluate issues on the basis of the nation as a whole, the national bourgeoisie assumes the role of manager for the companies of the West and turns its country virtually into a bordello for Europe. Once again we need only to look at the pitiful spectacle of certain republics in Latin America. U.S. businessmen, banking magnates, and technocrats “jet down to the tropics,” and for a week to ten days wallow in the sweet depravity of their private “reserves.”
I read Richard Philcox’s more recent translation from the French, and in his afterward, he discusses his process of trying to preserve the hypnotic and songlike quality of oration, knowing that Fanon dictated the book to his wife in the last year of his life as he lay dying of leukemia (it was published posthumously in 1961):
In fact the many lyrical, not to say delirious, digressions in Les Damnés de la Terre are proof of a man dictating his text with the knowledge that he has little time left to live and desperate to put his thoughts, every single one of them, down on paper.
And it is precisely that quality to the book — the urgency, the necessity of it — that I found most relieving, most inspiring, most invigorating about it. So often I will read a book that feels as if it was written just to be written. For instance, at some point earlier this year I read T.C. Boyle’s Talk Talk, a novel he wrote a few years ago (I think he’s put out a few since). Boyle has written some great novels, but when I read that book, I could not help but think he phoned that one in. It’s not completely awful, but it simply reads like what it is: a book that was written because, well, it was time to write a book. The Wretched of the Earth was not such a book. I know it’s apples and oranges comparing fiction to nonfiction, but this is a book that has a fire under it. Frantz Fanon was not punching the clock. He was not writing a book because he was a writer and writers write books. He was writing with dire passion, with an intensity of hate that only true love can birth.
That is the kind of book I want to write, and in this respect I hope I can draw some kind of inspiration from it.
“Have the courage to read it,” Jean-Paul Sartre writes in the preface, “primarily because it will make you feel ashamed, and shame, as Marx said, is a revolutionary feeling.”
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If you’re like me, you keep a list of books you read, and at this time of year, you may run your finger back over it, remembering not just the plots, the soul-lifting favorites, and the drudges cast aside in frustration. You also remember the when and where of each book. This one on a plane to somewhere cold, that one in bed on a warm summer night. That list, even if it is just titles and authors and nothing more, is a diary in layers. Your days, other plots, imaginary people.
And so when, in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we ask our esteemed guests to tell us about the “best” book(s) they read all year, we do it not just because we want a great book recommendation from someone we admire (we do) and certainly not because we want to cobble together some unwieldy Top 100 of 2011 list (we don’t). We do it because we want a peek into that diary. And in the responses we learn how anything from a 300-year-old work to last summer’s bestseller reached out and insinuated itself into a life outside those pages.
With this in mind, for an eighth year, we asked some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers to look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era. We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2012 a fruitful one.
As we have in prior years, the names of our 2011 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we post their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along in your favorite feed reader.
Stephen Dodson, coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad.
Ben Marcus, author of The Flame Aphabet.
Eleanor Henderson, author of Ten Thousand Saints.
Colum McCann, author of Let the Great World Spin.
Nick Moran, The Millions intern.
Dan Kois, senior editor at Slate.
John Williams, founding editor of The Second Pass.
Michael Bourne, staff writer at The Millions.
Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org.
Scott Esposito, coauthor of Lady Chatterley’s Brother, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Hannah Pittard, author of The Fates Will Find Their Way.
Benjamin Hale, author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore.
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Parul Sehgal, books editor at NPR.org.
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