These are tough times for fiction. According to a report released by the Association of American Publishers, between 2013 and 2017, sales of adult fiction fell by 16%, and according to BookScan, which tracks print book sales, no fiction title topped a million copies in print in either 2016 or 2017. In contrast, just six years ago, in 2012, E.L. James’ Fifty Shades trilogy sold 14 million copies in print, along with millions more e-books.
Earlier this year, in an interview for Poets & Writers Magazine, literary agent Lynn Nesbit, whose clients include Ann Beattie, Joan Didion, and Jeffrey Eugenides, told me she thinks the current political climate is partly to blame for sagging fiction sales. “Even commercial fiction isn’t selling well,” she said. “Everyone is consumed with reality, the news. Every day there’s some new breaking scandal. We’ve all become ambulance chasers.”
Nesbit is onto something, I think. For too many of us, the hours we used to spend at night reading are now consumed with deep dives into polling numbers or the latest twist in the Mueller investigation. But while the space Donald Trump is taking up in the collective American mind is surely a drag on fiction sales, our obsession with all things Trump is but one particulate in an ever-thickening haze of digital noise coming between ourselves and our thoughts. Novels are hard, Facebook posts are easy – and more and more we seem to be going with easy.
I’m no exception. If you take out the novels I get paid to review, I’m reading less fiction these days, and the novels I do read for pleasure tend to lean more heavily on plot-driven suspense than on literary quality. Still, every few months a great novel punches a hole in the digital fog. Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry was one of these for me this year. With its heady mix of publishing industry gossip and writerly ambition, this enigmatic little novel worked like a 300-page internet-blocking app, locking me on my couch for three nights straight, absorbed only by the pleasures of words on paper.
The first half of Asymmetry traces a May-December affair between Alice, a twentysomething book editor, and Ezra Blazer, an aging literary lion plainly modeled on the late Philip Roth. That, as has been widely reported, Halliday herself had an affair with Roth while she was working for Roth’s literary agent Andrew Wylie, adds voyeuristic appeal, but what might have become tawdry and puerile is instead deeply affecting. This is the book Roth’s own creepily priapic late sex novels should have been.
Then, halfway through, Halliday abruptly abandons Alice and Ezra’s doomed affair for a wildly different tale of Amar Ala Jaafari, an Iraqi American economist enduring a Kafkaesque detention in border control at London’s Heathrow Airport. If the opening section of the novel goes down like spiked fruit punch on a summer’s day, this second section is more like a heavy dose of ketamine: deadening, surreal, and profoundly disturbing. I raced through the first part and battled my way through the second, but through it all, I never once felt the urge to check my Facebook feed.
Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room had a similar effect on me, though Kushner’s women’s prison tale is ultimately a knottier, angrier read. I bought The Mars Room with Kushner’s second novel The Flamethrowers and read The Flamethrowers first. The Flamethrowers is a very good novel perhaps a little too in love with how good a novel it is, forever flaunting its central character’s preternatural cool and its deeply researched forays into the New York art world and radical Italian politics. The book seems to constantly demand of its readers that they tell it again how smart it is.
The Mars Room also features a fiercely cool female narrator in a fictive universe few readers will know first-hand – in this case, a bleak women’s prison in California’s Central Valley – but The Mars Room spends little time insisting on its own excellence. It is merely excellent. The plot, such as it is, turns on the longing of Kushner’s narrator, a 29-year-old exotic dancer serving two consecutive life sentences, to be reunited with her young son, but the novel’s emotional power lies in its ability to lock you up, whoever you are, with 3,000 poor, desperate women in a featureless wasteland where wine is made from ketchup and fruit juice, violence is everywhere, and the best anyone can do – indeed, all there is to do – is survive another day.
I wanted to click onto Facebook a thousand times, but, Reader, I did not.
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They keep coming – novels, short stories, memoirs, journals, oral histories, documentaries and feature films that feed off the decade that goes by many names. Tom Wolfe called it the “Me Decade.” Martin Amis called it the “Joke Decade.” Doonesbury’s Zonker Harris called it a “Kidney Stone of a Decade.” I call it the “Cockroach Decade”; the 1970s have become an unkillable source of inspiration for writers and filmmakers, the scummy well that refuses to run dry. What is the secret of its durable appeal? The answer, I think, comes in three flavors.
1. Primary Sources
These are first-person, boots-on-the-ground accounts of how lives were lived in the ’70s or, in some cases, how those lives are remembered from a distance of many years, after the fog of booze and ’ludes has drifted out to sea. There’s a scabrous new entry to this sub-genre called 20th-Century Boy: Notebooks on the Seventies, an eyewitness account by Duncan Hannah, an aspiring painter who arrived in New York from Minneapolis (by way of prep school and Bard College) in the early 1970s and proceeded to take a swan dive into the bubbling downtown scene of art and punk rock experimentation. He drank and drugged heroically, hit every club and party, fucked anything that walked upright (well, in Hannah’s case, anything female that walked upright, since he claims he was 100 percent hetero, to the chagrin of many of the guys.)
Hannah had the good sense to write everything down “as it happened,” which gives the book its pungent, sometimes sick immediacy. Here, for instance, are Hannah’s thoughts after accompanying an acidophilic girlfriend to an abortion clinic: “After the fifty acid trips this girl had taken from eighth grade on, what would she have given birth to…a fish? Stan Laurel?”
Students of history and fans of Balzac will learn valuable things about how life was lived – and how much things cost – in New York City in the 1970s. It took just $60 to hire somebody to kill somebody. A loft rented for $350 a month. A double feature of foreign films at the Carnegie Hill Cinema cost $1.50. The World Trade Center loomed in the distance “like twin phosphorescent robots.” Fifty-third Street and Third Avenue was the gay hustlers’ corner. The twin lodestars of downtown nightlife were CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, where Hannah was a fixture, and farther uptown it was Studio 54, “the elegant playground for the international jet set,” where Bianca Jagger famously rode a white horse onto the dance floor and where Hannah once spotted Truman Capote, pickled on booze and prescription drugs and looking like “a waxwork from Madame Tussauds. A zombie.”
After a while you begin to realize that this was a small world, virtually a club, and Hannah was able to join it and live the dissolute boho life partly because he was pretty, partly because he had artistic dreams, and partly because he got regular checks from home. The name-dropping gets tiresome eventually, and Hannah comes across, more than once, as a rich-boy dilettante, a trust-fund punk. The club is so hermetically insulated from the outside world that the era’s searing traumas, Vietnam and Watergate, get glancing mention. And here is Hannah’s insight into his struggle to become a painter: “It’s hard.” Such remarks give new depth to the meaning of the word shallow.
Despite all this, 20th-Century Boy will stand as valuable source material for anyone hoping to understand the 1970s. If it did nothing else, the book confirmed two of my long-held beliefs: that Iggy Pop is a genius, and Lou Reed was a five-star asshole. And it ends almost sweetly, with Hannah’s stubbornly conventional paintings winning him a solo gallery show, where he arrives sober, gets treated like a prince, and actually sells a bunch of pictures. Hannah has come to realize that the coolest thing of all is the courage to do what’s uncool. It’s a grace note of an ending to a long grubby harrowing wallow. Somehow, it feels perfect.
Hannah, it turns out, is quoted frequently in another primary source from the era, Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain, first published in 1996, two decades after the facts. Absolutely everybody who was anybody is here, yakking away about the bands, the booze, the backbiting, the brawls, the record deals, the nihilism, the hard drugs, the sex, the joy of making it up as you went along, with no expectations, no limits, no rules. The punk movement, which was never a true movement, took all of five years to eat itself alive. But reading about the cannibalistic banquet is the equivalent of passing a ghastly car crash: you cannot look away.
A far more expansive primary source is Will Hermes’s superb Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever. Using a wider lens than McNeil and McCain, Hermes examines the hot house scenes in the mid-’70s that produced not only punk but also hip-hop, salsa, loft jazz, minimalist operas, superstar DJs. In a review of the book, David Gates echoes one of the lessons from 20th-Century Boy. “Of course we get the headline-news boilerplate: Son of Sam, the 1977 blackout, the opening of the World Trade Center,” Gates writes. “But more important, Hermes gives us a sense of what a small town New York used to be.”
2. Embellished Experience
Then there are writers and artists who journey back in time, ransack their memories of the ’70s, and embellish them to create a sort of time-lapse portrait. Michael Zadoorian’s fourth book, the terrific Beautiful Music, is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story that is usually the stuff of first novels. A nerdy white teenager named Danny Yzemski is living with his unhinged widow mom in northwest Detroit in aftermath of the 1967 riot (or rebellion, depending on your political persuasion). It’s 1974 and Detroit has just elected its first black mayor, Coleman Young, and racism and the related tensions on the city streets and in the hallways of Redford High School are prompting many white families to pack up and get out of town. Danny’s salvation is his discovery of rock ’n’ roll, which helps him survive tough times in a tough town.
I called Zadoorian at his home in Detroit and asked him why he revisited the ’70s four decades after his 1975 graduation from Redford High. “I don’t know what drew me to write a coming-of-age story when I was in my late fifties,” he replied. “Maybe it’s a matter of trying to understand your path, this place, the way life was back then, including the toxic things like racism, anger, fear, white people moving out. There’s something fascinating about the ’70s, especially to people who weren’t alive then. Things were so outrageous and ugly that there was an audacity and a beauty to it. It was a time of ferment when the world went kind of crazy. It’s interesting to find those moments in time when things shift.”
For Zadoorian, one of the most seductive shifts in the ’70s was the music. “I wanted to be unashamed about the music I loved then, including stuff that would be considered crap now – like Foghat,” he said. “Punk rock was a reaction to bloated stadium rock and all the excess.” Joey Ramone addressed this split in Please Kill Me when he compared the making of the first Ramones album with the working method of Fleetwood Mac, the richest band on the planet:
We did the album in a week and we only spent sixty-four hundred dollars making it – everybody was amazed. At that time, people did not have that much regard for money. There was a lotta money around. Money circulating around for absurd things. Money wasn’t tight yet – some albums were costing half a million dollars to make and taking two or three years to record, like Fleetwood Mac and stuff.
Another talking head in Please Kill Me is Patti Smith, the poet rocker whose 2010 memoir of the era, Just Kids, won the National Book Award. The book spins around her relationship with a fellow aspiring artist, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, as the two become soul mates, lovers, and each other’s muses. The book stops when they reach the crest of fame – a wave she’s still riding, one that snuffed him out in 1989 when he died of AIDS at 42.
Spike Lee’s 1999 movie, Summer of Sam, is set in the incendiary summer of 1977, the poster-boy season of the decade, when New York City was bedeviled by a serial killer, arson fires, a blackout, riots, near bankruptcy, the discordant rise of punk and disco – a citywide fever that seemed like it would never break. Here’s how a young woman identified as Keelin remembered that summer for the New York Times:
What with the heat, the fire hydrants fanning out big sprays across the streets full of sweaty people, the looting, no subways, little work, no elevators, no refrigerators, Son of Sam roaming around, boyfriend sick, and punk rock as sound track in my head, Blackout ’77 was a surreal, fun, scary holiday in New York City during its glorious nadir.
While Lee’s movie is supposedly about the serial killer David Berkowitz, known as Son of Sam, the thing about the movie that sticks with me is its evocation of the era – winking disco balls, easy sex and plentiful drugs, bad fashions, the racist clannishness in an Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, with Ben Gazzara perfectly cast as the white neighborhood’s Mob boss patriarch. The movie is both a snapshot of a moment in time and an indictment of a timeless American urge: the need to find a scapegoat, to pin blame on someone outside the clan.
Full disclosure: I, too, got bitten by the Cockroach Decade. Last year I published a nonfiction book called American Berserk: A Cub Reporter, a Small-Town Daily, the Schizo ’70s, which chronicled my time working at a Gannett newspaper in a central Pennsylvania tank town during the Summer of Sam. When I started writing the book, I saw the decade as pure cheese, a grim jumble of water beds, Ford Pintos, shag carpets and shag haircuts, leisure suits made of petroleum-based fabrics, Peter Frampton’s talking guitar, disco, the Captain and Tenille. By the time I finished writing the book, however, my memories and research had helped me realize something Will Hermes and Michael Zadoorian understood from the start. The ’70s was a time of ferment and pushback, the era that gave us Earth Day and the Alaska pipeline, gay rights and women’s rights and Nixon’s call for “law and order,” the grime of CBGB and the glitz of Studio 54, a brief burst of brilliant auteur-driven movies, people scrambling to get on the last helicopter leaving Saigon while others drank the Kool-Aid in Jonestown. “Amid the cheese and the kidney stones,” I concluded, “there was a staticy vibe, a disconnect, a dissonance that has proven strangely alluring. The times were anything but homogeneous; they were cracked, crazed, schizo. For some writers – myself included, as it turns out – bad times can be the best times.”
3. Fruits of Research and Imagination
And then there are those artists who missed the party but are drawn to its irresistible afterglow. One of the most stunning recent examples was 2015’s City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg, a contributing editor at The Millions who was not yet born when many of the depicted events took place. This sprawling, 911-page novel is packed with detail about New York City in the ’70s, including squatters, punk bands, DIY zines, heroin, sexual experimentation, real-estate exploitation, trust-funders in the Duncan Hannah mold, all of it bubbling toward the cataclysmic night of the July 13, 1977, when the lights went out and New York burned. The novel is a stunner, a testament to the power of research fueled by a rich imagination. Reviewing the novel in The New Yorker, Louis Menand wrote, “New York felt empty…and out of control. But, in part because of the collapse, the city also felt open, liberated, available. Anything seemed possible.” Including this magisterial novel, so many years later.
Rachel Kushner, who was born in 1968, pulled off a similar feat with her 2013 novel, The Flamethrowers. A woman motorcycle racer from Nevada named Reno – “the fastest woman in the world” – lands in the downtown New York art scene of the ’70s and proceeds to paint a fly-on-the-wall portrait of all the hustlers, poseurs, talkers, minimalists, frauds and geniuses. Kushner takes the reader on side trips to World War I battlefields, South American rubber plantations, the gilded enclave of Lake Como, and the violent streets of Rome. There’s a rare fearlessness at work here. As I noted when the book was first published: “Kushner doesn’t just write what she knows; she writes what she knows and what she is able to learn and what she is able to imagine truthfully from all of it.”
In his 2009 National Book Award-winning novel Let the Great World Spin, Irish-born, New York-based Colum McCann used Philip Petit’s high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974 as his narrative glue. Around that magical moment McCann spins stories of the interlinked lives of an Irish monk, a Guatemalan nurse, socialites, artists, judges, hookers, the grieving parents of a soldier killed in Vietnam. We travel from the burnt-out Bronx to Park Avenue to downtown and, yes, to Max’s and Studio 54. We’re a long way from Duncan Hannah country; we’re in a time and place that has failed utterly to insulate itself against bankruptcy, crime, grime, racism, abandonment, grief – or the quivering possibility of redemption. The Irish monk might be the perfect emblem of why the ’70s continue to draw us back: “he was some bright hallelujah in the shitbox of what the world really was.”
Bringing us right up to date, there were three 1970s-infused premiers at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival. Mapplethorpe, directed and co-written by Ondi Timoner, is an intriguing new biopic that flips the equation of Just Kids by pushing Patti Smith into the background and making the case that what actually killed Robert Mapplethorpe was his insatiable hunger for fame. The documentary Studio 54, directed by Matt Tyrnauer, attempts to bottle the exuberance and decadence of the famous disco, which led to the downfall of its two creators, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager. (In his 2009 book The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night, Anthony Haden-Guest noted that the guests on the club’s frenzied opening night, April 26, 1977, included Donald Trump and his new wife, Ivana.) And Horses: Patti Smith and Her Band, a concert documentary filmed in Los Angeles in 2016, draws its title from Smith’s 1975 album. The iconic photograph of svelte, mop-haired Smith on the album’s cover was shot by Robert Mapplethorpe.
So the Cockroach Decade is still alive and very much with us. It was a time when everything was sucky and broken and therefore anything was possible. The stakes were so low that the potential was unlimited – and people were ready to get on and ride. As Ian Schrager said of those pre-AIDS days and nights: “We rode it for all it was worth.” It was this wide-open, anything-goes, more-more-more ethos that makes the ’70s simultaneously so appalling and so appealing. Nothing succeeds like excess; nothing fails like excess. That’s what the decade keeps telling us, and that’s why artists will keep going back for more, more, more.
Image credit: Wikimedia
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April.
The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose
Eleanor & Park
The Good Lord Bird
Jesus’ Son: Stories
Major shakeups to the April Top Ten were wrought by the graduation of six (count ’em) titles to our Millions Hall of Fame: The Goldfinch, Selected Stories, The Flamethrowers, The Luminaries, Draw It With Your Eyes Closed, and The Lowland. This “March 2014” class of ascendants is noteworthy not only for being the biggest single-month Hall of Fame class ever, but also for being one of the most highly-decorated classes in series history. How decorated? Let’s run the tape: Donna Tartt’s novel won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Alice Munro won the last Nobel Prize for Literature. Rachel Kushner’s novel was a finalist for the National Book Award. Eleanor Catton was the winner of last year’s Man Booker Prize. And Jhumpa Lahiri’s work was shortlisted for that same Man Booker Prize. Objectively speaking, this is the biggest and best class to date.
Of course, here at The Millions, our readers have plenty of decorated authors on their “to be read” shelves, and as a result, our Top Ten doesn’t so much rebuild — to borrow the parlance of a college football team — as it reloads.
To wit: we’re replacing a National Book Award finalist, a Pulitzer winner, and a Man Booker winner with two National Book Award winners, a Pulitzer finalist, and Lorrie Moore.
Heading off this new crop of titles is Philipp Meyer’s The Son, which was a Pulitzer finalist this past year, and which was met with critical acclaim for weeks after it was first published. It’s a book that John Davidson described for our site as being, “a sprawling, meticulously researched epic tale set in southern Texas,” and one that “leverages” a “certain theory of Native American societies … to explore the American creation myth.” Indeed, Meyer himself noted in his Millions interview that, “If there’s a moral purpose to the book, it’s to put our history, the history of this country, into a context.”
Additionally, the April Top Ten welcomes James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird, which blew past the field at last year’s National Book Awards to claim top prize overall. (The announcement of a movie deal soon followed.) For The Millions, our own Bill Morris sang the work’s praises and he sang them loudly. The book, Morris wrote in his latest Year in Reading piece, is “one of the most astonishing, rollicking, delightful, smart and sad books I’ve read in all my life.” Evidently you listened.
New(ish) releases weren’t the only new additions to our list this month, either. Sneaking into the tenth spot on our list was a classic collection from Denis Johnson, the winner of the National Book Award in 2007. It’s a pity they no longer print the version that fits in your pocket.
And what to say of Lorrie Moore, whose addition to the Vanderbilt faculty last Fall was overshadowed by news of Bark‘s imminent publication? Perhaps it’s best if I let the final paragraph from Arianne Wack’s profile of the author speak for itself:
Exploring the demands of a life is the heart of Moore’s work, and the resonate truth of her prose has fueled a fevered desire for her books. Her characters don’t so much adventure through life as they do drift and stumble through it, making it a map of emotional landmarks, places you keep finding yourself in. One suspects that Moore is not simply writing a life, but cleverly recording yours. There is a commonality linking reader with character, an elastic boundary between her fiction and our reality that both reinforces and subverts one’s own sense of uniqueness. Coming away from one of her stories, one is reminded that we are all just doing this the best we know how.
Or better yet, perhaps I should point you toward our own Edan Lepucki’s summation of Moore’s influence on a generation of American short story writers:
We all came out of Lorrie Moore’s overcoat–or her frog hospital, her bonehead Halloween costume. If you’re a young woman writer with a comic tendency, and you like similes and wordplay, and you traffic in the human wilderness of misunderstanding and alienation, then you most certainly participate in the Moore tradition.
Lastly, the April Top Ten welcomes two other newcomers as well. Entering the field in the eighth spot is Eleanor & Park, of which Janet Potter proclaimed, “Rarely is a realistic love story a page-turner, but when I got to the end I tweeted: ‘Stayed up til 3 finishing Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell. Would have stayed up forever.'” (The book is being made into a movie, by the way.) Meanwhile, a collection of portraits entitled Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction’s Most Beloved Heroines enters the list in sixth place, likely owing to its prominence on Hannah Gersen’s list of gift ideas from last year.
Near Misses: Americanah, Little Failure: A Memoir, Stories of Anton Chekhov, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World: A Novel, and Tampa. See Also: Last month’s list.
“Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!”
For years I bought into the old saw that says the second novel is the hardest one to write. It seemed to make sense. When starting out, most writers pour everything from the first 20 (or 30, or 40) years of their lives into their debut novel. It’s only natural that on the second visit to the well, many novelists find it has gone dry.
Stephen Fry, the British writer and actor, explained it this way: “The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel. If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23 and my second novel takes me two years, which one have I written more quickly? The second, of course. The first took 23 years and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of a lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.”
Fry made these remarks at the inaugural awarding of the Encore Prize, established in England in 1989 to honor writers who successfully navigate the peculiar perils of the second novel. Winners have included Iain Sinclair, Colm Toibin, A.L. Kennedy, and Claire Messud.
Fry’s point is well taken, but it’s just the beginning of the difficulties facing the second novelist. If a first novel fails to become a blockbuster, as almost all of them do, publishers are less inclined to get behind the follow-up by a writer who has gained a dubious track record but has lost that most precious of all literary selling points: novelty. Writers get only one shot at becoming The Next Big Thing, which, to too many publishers, is The Only Thing. Failure to do so can carry a wicked and long-lasting sting.
(Full disclosure: I’m speaking from experience. My first novel enjoyed respectable sales and a gratifying critical reception, including a largely positive review from impossible-to-please Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. But the novel failed to land on any best-seller lists or get me on Oprah. Five years later, my second novel disappeared like a stone dropped in a lake. I don’t think anyone even noticed the splash. I recently sold my third novel — 17 years after that quiet splash.)
There’s plenty of empirical evidence to support the claim that the second novel is the hardest one to write — and that it can be even harder to live down. After his well-received 1988 debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon spent years wrestling with a woolly, 1,500-page beast called The Fountain that finally defeated him and wound up in a drawer. Wisely, Chabon went in a different direction and produced Wonder Boys, a successful second novel that was, technically, his third. After getting nominated for a National Book Award for her 1973 debut, State of Grace, Joy Williams puzzled and pissed-off a lot of people with The Changeling, her unsettling second novel about a drunk woman on an island full of feral kids. Williams blamed the book’s frosty reception on the political climate of the late 1970s: “Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!” Martin Amis followed his fine debut, The Rachel Papers, with the disappointingly flippant Dead Babies. I still find it hard to believe that the writer responsible for Dead Babies (and an even worse wreck called Night Train) could also be capable of the brilliant London Fields, Time’s Arrow, The Information and, especially, Money: A Suicide Note. Then again, outsize talent rarely delivers a smooth ride. Even Zadie Smith stumbled with The Autograph Man after her acclaimed debut, White Teeth.
Sometimes a hugely successful — or over-praised — first novel can be a burden rather than a blessing. Alex Garland, Audrey Niffenegger, Charles Frazier, and Donna Tartt all enjoyed smash debuts, then suffered critical and/or popular disappointments the second time out. Frazier had the consolation of getting an $8 million advance for his dreadful Thirteen Moons, while Niffenegger got $5 million for Her Fearful Symmetry. That kind of money can salve the sting of even the nastiest reviews and most disappointing sales. Tartt regained her footing with her third novel, The Goldfinch, currently the most popular book among readers of The Millions and a few hundred thousand other people.
A handful of writers never produce a second novel, for varied and deeply personal reasons. Among the one-hit wonders we’ve written about here are James Ross, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, and Ralph Ellison. And in certain rare cases, the second novel is not only the hardest one to write, it’s the last one that gets written. Consider Philip Larkin. He published two highly regarded novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, back to back in the 1940s — and then abruptly abandoned fiction in favor of poetry. Why? Clive James offered one theory: “The hindsight answer is easy: because he was about to become the finest poet of his generation, instead of just one of its best novelists. A more inquiring appraisal suggests that although his aesthetic effect was rich, his stock of events was thin…Larkin, while being to no extent a dandy, is nevertheless an exquisite. It is often the way with exquisites that they graduate from full-scale prentice constructions to small-scale works of entirely original intensity, having found a large expanse limiting.” In other words, for some writers the biggest canvas is not necessarily the best one.
Of course, second novels don’t always flop — or drive their creators away from fiction-writing. Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run are just a few of the many second novels that were warmly received upon publication and have enjoyed a long shelf life. But until about a year ago, I regarded such stalwarts as the exceptions that proved the rule. Then a curious thing happened. I came upon a newly published second novel that knocked me out. Then another. And another. In all of these cases, the second novel was not merely a respectable step up from a promising debut. The debuts themselves were highly accomplished, critically acclaimed books; the second novels were even more ambitious, capacious, and assured.
I started to wonder: With so much high-quality fiction getting written every day in America — especially by writers who are supposed to be in the apprentice phase of their careers — is it possible that we’re entering a golden age of the second novel? Here are three writers who make me believe we are:
Rachel Kushner’s 2008 debut, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Refreshingly free of the mirror-gazing that mars many first novels, it told the story of two insulated colonies in the eastern end of Cuba in the late 1950s, where Americans were blithely extracting riches from sugar crops and nickel deposits while Fidel Castro and his rebels were getting ready to sweep away the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista — and, with it, the Americans’ cloistered world.
The novel is richly researched and deeply personal. Kushner’s grandfather was a mining executive in Cuba in the 1950s, and her mother grew up there. Kushner interviewed family members, pored over their memorabilia, even traveled to Cuba to walk the ground and talk to people who remembered life before the revolution. To her great credit, Kushner’s imagination took precedence over her prodigious research as she sat down to write. As she told an interviewer, “Just because something is true doesn’t mean it has a place.”
While her debut took place inside a hermetically sealed cloister, Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, explodes across time and space. The central character is Reno, a young woman from the West hoping to break into the 1970s downtown New York art scene, a motorcycle racer with “a need for risk.” But Reno’s artistic aspirations are merely the springboard for this ambitious novel as it moves from the 1970s to the First World War, from America to Europe to South America. It teems with characters, events, voices, ideas. It’s a big, sprawling, assured novel, and it announced the arrival of a major talent.
Dear American Airlines, Jonathan Miles’s first novel, exists in an even more tightly circumscribed space than Kushner’s American enclave in pre-revolutionary Cuba. This novel takes place inside the American Airlines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport — or, more accurately, inside the brain of Benjamin R. Ford, who has been stranded at O’Hare while trying to fly from New York to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of his gay daughter and, just maybe, reverse the downward momentum of a magnificently botched life. The novel’s conceit is a beauty: furious and utterly powerless, Ben, a failed poet, a failed drunk, a failed husband and father — but a reasonably successful translator — decides to sit down and write a complaint letter, demanding a refund from the soulless corporation that has kept him from attending his daughter’s wedding, effectively thwarting his last chance at redemption. The conceit could have turned the novel into a one-trick pony in less capable hands, but Miles manages to make Ben’s plight emblematic of what it’s like to live in America today — trapped and manipulated by monstrous forces but, if you happen to be as funny and resourceful as Ben Ford, never defeated by them.
It was a deft performance, but Miles outdid it last year with his second novel, Want Not, a meditation on the fallout of omnivorous consumerism. It tells three seemingly unrelated stories that come together only at the novel’s end: Talmadge and Micah, a couple of freegan scavengers, are squatting in an abandoned apartment on the New York’s Lower East Side, living immaculately pure lives off the grid; Elwin Cross Jr., a linguist who studies dying languages, lives alone miserably in the New Jersey suburbs, regularly visiting the nursing home where his father is succumbing to Alzheimer’s; and Dave Masoli, a bottom-feeding debt collector, his wife Sara, whose husband was killed on 9/11, and her daughter Alexis, who brings the strands of the story together, in shocking fashion.
From the first pages, it’s apparent that the themes are large, the characters are vivid and complex (with the exception of Dave Masoli), and the prose is rigorously polished. Here’s one of many astonishing sentences, a description of what Elwin hears after he has accidentally struck and killed a deer while driving home late at night:
It took a few seconds for the panicked clatter in his head to subside, for the hysterical warnings and recriminations being shouted from his subcortex to die down, and then: silence, or what passes for silence in that swath of New Jersey: the low-grade choral hum of a million near and distant engine pistons firing through the night, and as many industrial processes, the muted hiss and moan of sawblades and metal stamps and hydraulic presses and conveyor belts and coalfired turbines, plus the thrum of jets, whole flocks of them, towing invisible contrails toward Newark, and the insectile buzz of helicopters flying low and locust-like over fields of radio towers and above the scrollwork of turnpike exits, all of it fused into a single omnipresent drone, an aural smog that was almost imperceptible unless you stood alone and quivering on a deserted highwayside in the snow-hushed black hours of a November morning with a carcass hardening in the ice at your feet.
Want Not is a profound book not because Miles preaches, not even because he understands that we are what we throw away, but because he knows that our garbage tells us everything we need to know about ourselves, and it never lies.
In 1994, Charles McNair’s weird little first novel, Land O’ Goshen, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It reads as if it were written by Faulkner on acid. It’s corn-pone sci-fi. It’s nasty and funny. It’s brilliant.
The title conjures two locales: the place in Egypt where the Israelites began their exodus to the Promised Land; and the place where the novel unfolds, a little one-blinking-light grease stain in the piney wastes of southern Alabama. The story is told by Buddy, a 14-year-old orphan who lives in the woods, dodging the Christian soldiers who are trying to subjugate the populace. This future era is called the New Times, but it’s a lot like the Old Testament — bloody tooth and bloody claw. Sometimes Buddy dresses up in animal skins and, as The Wild Thing, terrorizes the locals, trying “to wake up those tired, beaten-down old souls in every place where folks just gave up to being stupid and bored and commanded.” Buddy enjoys a brief idyll at his forest hideout with a beautiful girl named Cissy Jean Barber, but the world won’t leave them in peace. Through the nearly Biblical tribulations of his coming of age, Buddy learns the key to survival: “Sad sorrow can’t kill you, if you don’t let it.”
Last year, after nearly two decades of silence, McNair finally published his second novel, Pickett’s Charge. It’s bigger than its predecessor in every way. It traverses an ocean, a century, a continent. If Land O’ Goshen was content to be a fable, Pickett’s Charge aspires to become a myth. It tells the story of Threadgill Pickett, a former Confederate soldier who, at the age of 114 in 1964, is a resident of the Mobile Sunset Home in Alabama. As a teenage soldier, Threadgill watched Yankees murder his twin brother, Ben, a century earlier, and when Ben’s ghost appears at the nursing home to inform Threadgill that he has located the last living Yankee soldier, a wealthy man in Bangor, Maine, Threadgill embarks on one last mission to avenge his brother’s death.
Pickett’s Charge has obvious echoes – the Bible, Twain, Cervantes, Marquez, Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. But this novel’s most direct forebear might be Charles Portis’s Norwood, another story about a southerner’s quixotic journey to the North to seek justice. While Threadgill Pickett is after something big — vengeance — Norwood Pratt is simply out to collect the $70 he loaned a buddy in the Marines. Yet McNair and Portis seem to agree that folly is folly, regardless of its scale. And they both know how to turn it into wicked fun.
Of course one could argue that a half dozen books do not constitute a trend or herald a new golden age. But I’m sure I’ve missed a truckload of recent second novels that would buttress my claim. Maybe Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which has come out 15 years after her debut and is concerned, in part, with the difficulty of writing a second novel. Surely there are others that disprove the old saw. I would love it if you would tell me about them.
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Out this week: Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow; Perfect by Rachel Joyce; A Highly Unlikely Scenario by Rachel Cantor; Selected Letters of Robert Creeley; The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart; and new paperback editions of Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Kurt Vonnegut’s Letters and Year in Reading favorite Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers.