The Festival of Earthly Delights

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A Year in Reading 2012

The end of another year is here (so soon? Ah, I’m getting old), and with it a flood of valedictory lists and wrap ups, accountings and scorecards. Each year, as these lists spill out across the landscape, the onslaught becomes difficult to parse and begins to feel suspiciously (to us, anyway) like a marketing boondoggle to support the promotional-book-cover-sticker-and-blurb industry. There are so many “best of the year” lists that everything is the best (and sometimes also the worst).

So, how can we have some year-end fun while still extracting something meaningful from the effort?

We readers tend to be a thoughtful bunch, noting down the titles we have read or lining them up one by one on a shelf. We are intellectually omnivorous as well and not too overly prejudiced toward the new or the old, picking up a 130-year-old classic of Russian literature and then following it up with the bestselling, beach read of the moment. Taken together, a long list of books read is a map of our year, and the best of these books are the year’s pinnacles, and the challenging books, its rewarding treks. The “10 best books of 2012” list is so small next to this.

And so in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we’ve asked our esteemed guests to take us on a tour of these pinnacles and to give an accounting of these treks.

With this in mind, for a ninth year, some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers will 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 2013 a fruitful one.

As in prior years, the names of our 2012 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish 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 that way.

Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.
Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl.
Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex.
Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction.
Rob Delaney, comedian and writer.
Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World.
Tania James, author of Atlas of Unknowns.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Maria Popova, founder and editor of Brain Pickings.
Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia.
David Vann, author of Dirt.
Helen Schulman, author of This Beautiful Life.
Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti.
Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Bill Morris, author of All Souls’ Day, staff writer for The Millions.
Scott Esposito, co-author of The End of Oulipo?, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet, staff writer for The Millions.
Edan Lepucki, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me, staff writer for The Millions.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions, blogger at At Times Dull.
David Haglund, writer and editor at Slate.
Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth.
Chris Ware, author of Building Stories.
Kevin Smokler, author of Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, on twitter as @weegee.
Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate.
Geoff Dyer, author of Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.
Susan Orlean, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.
Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org.
Matt Dojny, author of The Festival of Earthly Delights.
Nell Freudenberger, author of The Newlyweds.
Ed Park, author of Personal Days.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen.
Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings.
Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them.
Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins.
Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City.
Paul Ford, author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, writer at Ftrain.com.
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions.
Christian Lorentzen, editor at the London Review of Books.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily M. Keeler, editor of Little Brother Magazine.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
Alix Ohlin, author of Inside.
Lars Iyer, author of Exodus.
Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Malcolm Jones, senior writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, author of Little Boy Blues.
Susan Straight, author of Between Heaven and Here.
Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends.
Patrick Somerville, author of This Bright River.
Lydia Millet, author of Magnificence.
Jennifer duBois, author of A Partial History of Lost Causes.
Nick Dybek, author of When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man.
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise.
Ellen Ullman, author of By Blood.
Jane Hirshfield, author of Come, Thief.
Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator.
Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis.
Thomas Beckwith, intern for The Millions.
Benjamin Anastas, author of Too Good to Be True.
Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines.
Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer for the LA Times, a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle.
Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast.
Robert Birnbaum, editor-at-large at Identity Theory.
Brian Joseph Davis, creator of The Composites, co-publisher of Joyland Magazine.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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Year in Reading Graphics by LK Magee

Pass the Rémy Red Berry Infusion: John Wray Interviews Matt Dojny

Wray and Dojny, 18 years ago in Texas.

Like another bold book that’s just hitting the shelves, Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?, Matt Dojny’s The Festival of Earthly Delights is a novel from life, though the life that it’s from — to judge by the book that resulted — must be radically, grotesquely different. Dojny’s novel is high entertainment: a wildly heightened and distorted assembly of painfully funny, jaw-dropping misadventures that resolve themselves, in almost classical style, into a big old-fashioned technicolor ending. No less a literary funnyman than Gary Shteyngart called The Festival of Earthly Delights “A glorious novel” — with exclamation marks! — and I can’t help but agree. This is a quintessential summer book, but not the kind that you’d want to take to the beach, if only because it would turn you into the kind of snorting, cackling deviant that people tend to move their towels away from. Also, it has funny pictures.

Boyd Darrow, the novel’s epically star-crossed hero, has just landed in the tiny Southeast Asian country of Puchai (“The Kingdom of Winks!”) with his grouchy and distinctly less-than-faithful girlfriend, Ulla. In a series of letters to a mysterious figure from his past known only as “Hap,” Darrow narrates a string of cultural gaffes and psychosexual misadventures as his relationship and professional life and understanding of the world in general are radically and permanently Puchafied. But the country of Puchai itself is the real star of the novel, from the atomically smelly garong fruit everyone finds so delicious to its national fondness for the music of the mid-career Eagles and the Festival of Taang Lôke Kwaam Banterng Sumitchanani, the “Festival of Earthly Delights” of the title, the absurd and improbable celebration of which also serves as the rococo end of the novel itself.

In tribute to the novel’s theme of cultural dislocation, and to its author’s storied past on the Asian subcontinent, this interview was held in a Malaysian karaoke parlor in midtown Manhattan. Dojny, for reasons unclear to this writer, had smuggled in a bottle of Rémy Red Berry Infusion.

John Wray: You worked for a while as an actor in karaoke videos in Singapore, if I’m remembering rightly. I know that you drew on many experiences from your time in Southeast Asia when you were plotting out Boyd Darrow’s misadventures in The Festival of Earthly Delights — how come acting in karaoke videos didn’t make it into the book?

Matt Dojny: I’d originally planned to have Boyd’s journey more directly mirror my own — the first half of the book was going to be set in “Puchai” (my fictionalized stand-in for Thailand), and the second half was going to recount Boyd’s travels around the continent, including a stint doing some karaoke-acting. However, if I’d stuck with that structure, the book would’ve been 1,000 pages long, which seemed kind of excessive for a first novel, so — hey, do you want to perform “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” [Smashing Pumpkins], or can I?

JW: Wow, this interview is heading south in a hurry. Go ahead.

MD: Here, try a sip of this of Remy Red. It tastes like a strawberry popsicle soaked in turpentine.

JW: Ugh. Okay.

Unlike a lot of novels that arise more or less directly out of the author’s coming of age, yours seems unfettered by any particular desire to represent your own life accurately, or even fairly, which may be part of the reason it’s so hilarious — you’ve given yourself the freedom to shape the material for maximum kick. Was transforming Thailand into the fictional (and very weird) country of Puchai an important step in that direction? Did it liberate you to get especially freaky?

That version of “Bullet” made me just a little uncomfortable, by the way. The lyrics really seemed to speak to you on a fundamental level. Do you consider yourself an angry person?

MD: No, I don’t think I’m particularly angry. But, I will admit that the lyrics “Despite all my rage/I am still just a rat in a cage” speak to my innermost being. Is that so wrong?

In answer to your first question: I mainly set the novel in Puchai because I’m lazy, and didn’t want to have to do a lot of research about Thailand. I loved living there, but it was more interesting for me to make up a new culture rather than having to interrogate an existing one. If that allowed for maximum freakiness, then, bully for me. Does that answer make sense? I feel like I’ve gotten drunk too early in this interview. This Remy Red might’ve been a mistake. I’m switching to beer. You pick a song.

JW: I’m going to vote for something classy this time. Do you do women’s voices?

MD: Not in my daily life. But I’ll do my best.

JW: Then I’m going to respectfully request “For The Good Times” by Al Green. Something tells me you have a soulful falsetto.

Did you have any particular models in mind when you were writing this novel? I’ve been trying to come up with some guesses, which hasn’t been easy. Kingsley Amis keeps springing to mind for some reason — especially his masterpiece of institutional satire, Lucky Jim. But maybe that’s just because Kingsley Amis was an angry writer too.

MD: I like to think that I’m not as much of a misanthrope — or a misogynist — as Amis was, but, that being said, Lucky Jim was absolutely a reference point — my book is basically half campus novel, and half epistolary novel. Oh, and half bildungsroman.

I’d like to reiterate that I do not think of myself as an angry writer — I feel like you’re still picking up on the powerful reverberations of that Smashing Pumpkins song.

And, with all due respect to Mr. Green, I’m going to pass on that song request. I feel like for a karaoke performance to be truly successful, you have to know the song inside and out, and my kinship with that track isn’t deep enough. Can I do some Otis Redding instead? Maybe “Try a Little Tenderness?”

JW: I’d never discourage anyone from performing that number. It also resonates with my next question, which touches on the sensual side of your writing. To wit: there’s a lot of sex in this book — a lot more than one tends to encounter in contemporary fiction by polite and well-spoken young men. Katie Roiphe would never have had to write her polemic in the Atlantic Monthly (or wherever that was) if the culture had more novelists of your stripe. What purpose does sex play in the novel? Were you setting out to write our generation’s version of Updike’s Couples? And don’t you worry what your mother will think?

MD: I absolutely worry what my mother might think; I’m even chagrined that she’s likely reading this interview. Hopefully she doesn’t know about the Internet.

My natural inclination is to be shy and retiring, and yet I also felt obligated to explore the more cringe-inducing corners of my psyche while writing the book. I’m guessing that inclination is somehow related to my Catholic upbringing? Anyway, I guess the purpose of my acknowledgment of the existence of human sexuality in the novel was to make myself and my family (and probably the reader) as uncomfortable as possible…Speaking of which, instead of Otis Redding, I’m going to sing “My Humps.” Hold my beer, please.

JW: Jesus. That was actually really, really good. I feel as if I’ve never truly heard that song before. And now I’ll never be able to erase it fully from my mind.

MD: That was the effect I’d intended.

JW: I wanted ask about the drawings in the book. There are so many of them, and they’re so illustrative, that the experience of reading it comes close, at certain points, to that of a graphic novel. Did you ever consider going in that direction with the story?

MD: My background is as a visual artist, and, when I first conceived of working on a book, I originally thought it’d be mostly art, with a little bit of text. I didn’t really think of myself as a writer back then, so this approach allowed me to ease myself into the concept of being a novelist. Once I started writing, the text took over, and the illustrations became secondary, or, at least, subservient to the story. I’d love to do a graphic novel someday, but it seems like so much work. It took me four or five years to write this book — if it had more art and fewer words, I’d probably still be working on it.

Can you do me a favor and do a rap song? I want to level the playing field after that Black Eyed Peas number. I feel unclean now.

JW: I’m not sure I have the sense of rhythm required for hip hop, but I’ll do something in that general direction. How about “Work It” by Missy Elliott? That song has always spoken to me for some reason.

I’m now going to do something that I strongly disapprove of and get annoyed by in interviews, which is to bring up specific episodes from your novel and ask about the stories behind them, as though the whole point of writing fiction weren’t the excitement and challenge of making things up. But I have to ask: did you, at any point in your time in Asia, have a job interview with an embittered Vietnam veteran gone native who asked you to smuggle a tiny bottle of his urine back to America, just so you could pour it out on to the ground when you arrived?

MD: The character of Sam is, in fact, based partially on the Vietnam vet who ran the language school where I taught English in Thailand. In reality, though, the man asked me to smuggle a bottle of urine into Vietnam and pour it onto the ground, not America. I’m sure he’d been through some terrible things there, and I fully understand why he might’ve had an adverse reaction to the young American backpackers such as myself who were now tourists in the country where he’d once fought. The image of the tiny vial of urine stuck with me, though, and seemed like it should be repurposed for the general reading public.

JW: How about the brothel in the novel — “Meowy X-mas?” Did it exist, and did you go there, and did a buxom and well-intentioned bar girl actually swallow your wedding ring? Feel free to pass on this question if answering it will ruin your life.

MD: First of all, I want to go on record as saying that your flow is formidable. Don’t sell your rap-skills short.

Regarding Meowy X-mas: I actually didn’t get around to visiting any brothels during my visit in Southeast Asia, and I have never had anyone eat my jewelry, so I had to rely on my fiction-making skills for that scene. I did, however, go to a bar in Singapore that was full of very ruddy and overweight middle-aged Englishmen and their incongruously beautiful 20-year-old Singaporean love interests. It had an unsavory vibe that makes me think that, in retrospect, it was basically a more evolved version of a brothel. I wasn’t actually propositioned there, but maybe I was too obviously poverty-stricken. Or maybe it was my lack of ruddiness.

Okay, I’m going to sing a Lionel Richie song now. You have a problem with that?

JW: Depends on the number. May I suggest “All Night Long?” Not sure I’m ready for a ballad from The Lion King right now.

I was impressed to see an ecstatic blurb from Kristen Schaal on the back of the book — I’ve loved her ever since she played the stalker fan on Flight of the Conchords. How did you get a copy of the novel to her, and do you know if she’s currently single?

MD: Kristen used to live upstairs from me and, back in the day, would walk my dog, before she went all Hollywood on me. She is very awesome, but I’m pretty sure she’s in a committed relationship — maybe you could woo her with your rapping skills.

Now, what should we do next — maybe a duet? What would you say to a little “Islands in the Steam?”

JW: Dear lord. If that’s not a sign that this interview’s over, I don’t know what is.

Image courtesy of the author.

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