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A Box of Powerful Things: The Millions Interviews Miranda July

Miranda July is known for her acrobatic approach to storytelling media: film, literature, visual art, smartphone apps. Her collection of short stories, No One Belongs Here More than You, received the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award in 2007. July’s first novel, The First Bad Man, follows Cheryl Glickman after a houseguest rattles her carefully calibrated home. An at times surreal exploration of depression, motherhood, sexuality, and snail infestation, July’s novel unflinchingly, tenderly portrays the emotional complexities of human interaction. We spoke via phone.

The Millions: Where did your inspiration for this project come from? Was it a very different process for you writing a novel, as opposed to working on a collection of short stories?

Miranda July: Well, the inspiration came very suddenly. I literally just had the idea on a long drive: of Cheryl and Clee, and their relationship and how it changed. I even knew that there would be a baby at the end and that Cheryl would end up alone with it. So that all came in a few minutes, which was very lucky and I still thank the gods for that.

That said, it took a while to get to that moment of inspiration, and I even had a whole other novel idea that I was working on. So I had like, gone down the road of another novel that was very true to…it was a story based on my own life, and then I made my movie The Future, and through making that I realized, oh wait, I did better with the parts of the movie that were less like someone like me. The more fantastical parts of it were more emotionally honest. And so, at that point, I was like, shoot, I can’t do that first novel idea. One way to think of it is that they couldn’t be played by me in a movie. You know? And I knew that would help me. It’d be easier to write a novel like that. So it was both all at once and many years leading up to that moment.

Then, in terms of short stories, I wrote my short stories pretty quickly and didn’t do a lot of drafts, so I thought that’s what writing was. And, at least for me, writing a novel wasn’t like that at all. I wrote a first draft pretty painstakingly…it certainly wasn’t great. At all. I knew the writing wasn’t good enough. That was scary, that part, because I didn’t yet know that, well, once you have a draft, then from there, everything’s an improvement, and it’s comparatively fun. It’s in a way more like editing a movie with the endless ability to re-shoot these scenes than it is like writing a short story.

TM: Do you find yourself partial to certain characteristics of first-person narrators? There seems to be some shared tendencies among Cheryl and some of the narrators in No One Belongs Here More than You — a defamiliarization of daily tasks; this almost mystical connection between strangers.

MJ: Yeah, I mean I guess that…Cheryl’s so alone and so uneasy with herself, and kind of overthinking every moment. And while it would be boring right now for me to make a character who looks just like me, and did all those things, by making her different from me in marked ways — you know, just in how alone she actually is, that it allowed me to go much further and create a character who’s really not like me at all in her level of — sort of awareness and understanding of the world. You know? She’s not politicized, she doesn’t listen to music, she doesn’t use terms like “gender” or something. And then I could really take flight. She had some shadows of me; she had all of these tools and really this faith and ignorance, tied together, that allowed kind of amazing things to happen.

TM: There’s a strong sense of audience and performance throughout the novel — Cheryl narrates to an imaginary viewer, then we have Rick witnessing Clee and Cheryl’s re-enactment of the self-defense video. What sorts of aims did you have for this device throughout? Do you think your interest in this is related to your work as a filmmaker?

MJ: I think often in my work the things that people are doing, just to get by, I think of as their art. It ends up looking almost a little bit like my art, even though in the context of the story it’s not art at all, and they’re not artists — because I think that’s how I look at the world often. You know, “Wow, look at that really complicated, unnecessary thing that person’s doing and clearly that’s the only way they can do it, like, that’s so them.” And that makes it good art, you know? Honest and revealing.

TM: So much of this project probes the nuances of motherhood, yet Cheryl’s mother is notably absent — besides the rope of Cheryl’s imaginary (metaphysical?) semen coating her mother’s portrait as a young woman. Can you speak a little about characters/events that are happening off the page?

MJ: It’s funny, I’m not ever interested really in people’s parents or their backstory. I mean, some writers — and especially screenwriters — that’s just part of your homework, where everyone’s come from and what their whole psychology is. It just doesn’t get me going. I think it feels a little too writerly or something. I worry that I’d do a bad job of it. I even had — early on, there was an old best friend character in this book, of Cheryl’s. Clee was actually her daughter. And it was too much about the past! I was like, what? Who am I? Eventually I let that go.

TM: How did you approach surrealism within the novel?

MJ: Right. I guess what I tried to do was…as long as I could anchor something in Cheryl’s reality, and I see her reality as like when you wake up from a dream and for awhile you’re still in the dream and then you shake the residue of that off, and you join your day? She sort of stays in the dream and integrates it in very real-world ways into her life. She assumes it has practical meaning. And the dream is whatever idea or misconception she has in the moment.

I probably have a special ability to do that because I am prone to those kinds of misconceptions myself, but I’m self-aware enough — it’s just something I laugh about, and maybe it’s a little bit embarrassing sometimes. So it’s fun to be able to be like, well, fuck that, I’m going to take this kind of thing all the way. And what if these misconceptions are powerful? What if they could, ultimately if you had enough faith in them, create a baby? And I know there’s all kinds of twisted logic in that, like, of course the baby was made by sex, real sex, but I — the trick was to stay suspended in that belief, and I know that it’s both funny and implausible, but also that one part of you, as you’re reading it, would just believe.

TM: It seems like the characters are only able to experience sexuality once they’ve become divorced from their usual selves. Do you think anyone is able to feel present-action pleasure? Or is that key to sort of tapping into the experience?

MJ: I mean, to me that’s very female. This is like, a huge generalization, but…I feel like for women sex is very story-based and mental, and — I mean, I think there have been studies on this, this isn’t just my personal theory. You know, and then for men it’s supposed to be that it’s more visual, and just like, looking at a hot bod. So I felt like what if you just took pride in that? Or just took it very matter-of-factly? Like instead of feeling bad about like, “Oh I’m totally not present when I have sex,” she’s like, “What works for me is I block out the other person entirely!” You know? It was just kind of enjoyable. And because she doesn’t have any political agenda, it’s just a personal kind of bubble that she’s in. But for us, it actually is slightly political, I think, to hear someone say that so unabashedly. It’s kind of nice to hear it, because probably a lot of people feel that way.

TM: Do you think there is a sort of spirituality in Cheryl’s relationship with Kubelko Bundy?

MJ: Yeah. Yeah. For sure. It’s that kind of — it’s like the world of sacred things that you have as a child. Like you might have this box as a child full of really important things. And you might look aa an adult and be like, wow that’s…all junk. Like, it’s just trash. You know? And be torn, like, do I throw this out? It still seems to contain some value, but it’s all the memory. And for her, like with Kubelko Bundy, she kept that feeling. That really like, kind of almost religious feeling, alive, straight on through. And it’s almost like there’s been no — like the major interruptions of relationships haven’t happened for her, so there’s no reason to let go of those powerful things.

TM: Did you have a box of powerful things?

MJ: I did! And my brother did. It’s funny because now we’re like, expecting our kids to. My son’s not old enough, but my brother just showed his treasure box to his sons, my nephews, and they were kind of like, “Huh. Those things don’t seem that interesting.” Like, why that rock? But even I’m like, “But see how smooth it is? It’s the smoothest. Like, how could it be that smooth?”

TM: I guess that sort of magic is super personal, though. I don’t know that it ever translates.

MJ: Yeah.

TM: Can you tell me a little bit about the auction of objects in this book, and how that idea originated?

MJ: When it comes to a sort of marketing idea for a project, which I’ve now done for all my recent things…when I’m done with the project, I kind of just start anew, coming in more from my quasi-art ideas. At that time, I remember I was thinking of the idea of stores as portraits, like what if you had an online store that had sourced all the objects from your home, and was selling them? So it would be a portrait of that person; all their books, or all their toiletries. And it could be a famous person or a not famous person. I was thinking a lot about that idea right then, and meanwhile I was trying to think of an idea for the book. So you can see how I got there. And then the nice twist for me was — you know, they’re not real objects, they’re things that, as I wrote them, I never expected to have to try and find them, you know, in stores and on eBay, with varying degrees of success. So it became like this scavenger hunt from fiction to reality, while still getting to exercise a little bit of an idea that I’ll probably continue to work on. The store as art.

TM: How did you come to the title?

MJ: Well, I had that title before. I’m a little weird with titles. I feel like they should be a little bit more normal than the book itself, because they’re like an ad for the book. It should feel like something you already have, almost. And I liked that it also seemed like a title of a movie made by a man that would be like, nominated for an Oscar. And in that sense, the book itself was kind of like, in drag or something. The cover is really super straight, and then you open it up and there’s all this weirdness inside with the colors. And the book itself is kind of about that, about people on the inside and people…what they look like on the outside. What’s actually going on inside. Some of it was that, that all seemed fitting to me. When I got to the point where I wrote “the first bad man,” I was writing that scene and writing about which one are you, and I was like, oh, the first bad man. Like, I had already had that title. I didn’t know if it was going to work for this book, I knew Phillip wasn’t worthy of being the first bad man. That it had to be Clee. And I was like, oh my god, there it is. I’m the first bad man. And I thought that was also sort of a nice moment because it’s not a big deal, but it’s like — a moment that sort of…where everything’s changing, and Cheryl does stop and take note: a bad man who comes into town makes all this trouble and leaves. And that’s ultimately what happens.

Most Anticipated: The Great Second-Half 2014 Book Preview

2014 has already offered a literary bounty for readers, including new books by E.L. Doctorow, Lorrie Moore, Teju Cole, and Lydia Davis. The second-half of 2014 is looking even more plentiful, with new books from superstars like Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Ian McEwan, Marilynne Robinson, Denis Johnson, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and quite a few more. Here at The Millions, we’re especially excited that three of our long-time staff writers — Edan Lepucki, Bill Morris, and Emily St. John Mandel — will soon have new books on shelves. All three books are winning impressive advance praise.

The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at over 8,000 words strong and encompassing 84 titles, this is the only second-half 2014 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.

July:

California by Edan Lepucki: Millions staffer Edan Lepucki’s first full-length novel has been praised by Jennifer Egan, Dan Chaon, and Sherman Alexie, and championed by Stephen Colbert, who’s using it as a case study in sticking it to Amazon. A post-apocalyptic novel set in a California of the not-too-distant future, California follows a young couple struggling to make it work in a shack in the wilderness — dealing with everyday struggles like marriage and privacy as much as dystopian ones likes food and water — until a change in circumstance sends them on a journey to find what’s left of civilization, and what’s left of their past lives. (Janet)

Motor City Burning by Bill Morris: Bill Morris made his literary debut 20 years ago with Motor City, a novel set amid the rich history of 1950s Detroit. Since then, he’s pursued various other interests, writing a novel set in Bangkok and contributing frequently to The Millions as a staff writer. But as anyone who follows Bill’s essays can tell you, his hometown is rarely far from his mind. Now, with the Motor City much in the news, he returns to explore class, race, bloodshed and baseball in the 1960s. (Garth)

 

The Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique: Tiphanie Yanique follows her much lauded story collection, How to Escape From a Leper Colony, with “an epic multigenerational tale set in the U.S. Virgin Islands that traces the ambivalent history of its inhabitants during the course of the 20th century.” That’s according to Publishers Weekly, who gave The Land of Love and Drowning a starred review. Yanique’s debut novel has been receiving raves all over the place; in its starred review, Kirkus called it, “Bubbling with talent and ambition, this novel is a head-spinning Caribbean cocktail.” (Edan)

Friendship by Emily Gould: Gould, who put the gawk in Gawker in the middle part of the last decade, turns to fiction with a debut novel that at times reads like a series of blog entries written in the third person. In the novel, two friends, Bev and Amy, are trying to make it as writers in New York when Bev gets pregnant. The question of whether Bev should keep the baby, and what Amy should think about the fact that Bev is even considering it, turns the novel into a meditation on growing up in a world built for the young. (Michael)

Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann: Vollmann has over 30 years and damn near as many books earned a reputation as a wildly prolific novelist. Still, almost a decade has passed since his last full-length work of fiction, the National Book Award-winning Europe Central. Here, he offers what may have started as a suite of ghost stories… but is now another sprawling atlas of Vollmann’s obsessions. Stories of violence, romance, and cultural collision are held together by supernatural elements and by Vollmann’s psychedelically sui generis prose. (Garth)

High as the Horses’ Bridles by Scott Cheshire: To the distinguished roster of fictional evangelicals — Faulkner’s Whitfield, Ellison’s Bliss — this first novel adds Josiah Laudermilk, a child-prodigy preacher in 1980s Queens. Cheshire makes huge leaps in time and space to bring us the story of Laudermilk’s transformation into an adult estranged from his father and his faith. (Garth)

 

The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: The second novel from Rebecca Makkai (after 2011’s The Borrower) moves back and forth in the 20th century to tell a story of love, ghosts, and intrigue. The house for which The Hundred-Year House is named is Laurelfield, a rambling estate and former artists’ colony in Chicago’s wealthy North Shore. Owned by the Devohr family for generations, it now finds Zee (née Devohr) and her husband returning to live in the carriage house while she teaches at a local college and he supposedly writes a poet’s biography. What he does instead is ghostwrite teen novels and uncover family secrets. (Janet)

Tigerman by Nick Harkaway: Having written about ninjas, spies in their eighties and mechanical bees in his last two novels, Nick Harkaway is in a tough spot if he wants to top himself this time around. All the indications are that he may have done it, though — Tigerman sees a powerful United Nations carry out a cockamie plan to wipe out a former British colony. The protagonist, a former British soldier, takes it upon himself to fight for his patch of the old empire. (Thom)

 

Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya: Yelena Akhtiorskaya is one of New York’s best young writers — funny and inventive and stylistically daring, yes, but also clear-eyed and honest. Born in Odessa and raised in Brighton Beach, she’s been publishing essays and fiction in smart-set venues for a few years. Now she delivers her first novel, about two decades in the life of a Ukrainian family resettled in Russian-speaking Brooklyn. An excerpt is available at n+1. (Garth)

 

The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: “And then one day when the lake ice had broken and geese had come again, two brothers, twins, stole a little boat and rowed together out towards Nizhi.” In an alternate Russia, twin brothers Yarik and Dima work together at Oranzheria, the novel’s titular “sea of glass” greenhouse, until their lives veer into conflict. Weil’s exquisite pen and ink illustrations “frame the titles of all 29 chapters and decorate the novel’s endpapers,” making the book, literally, a work of art. If The New Valley, Weil’s lyric first book of linked novellas, is any indication, this new book will be memorable. (Nick R.)

August:

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: Murakami’s previous novel, 1Q84, was a sprawling, fantastical work. His latest is just the opposite: a concise, focused story about a 37-year-old man still trying to come terms with a personal trauma that took place seventeen years earlier — when he was unceremoniously cut out of a tight knit group of friends. The novel has less magical strangeness than most Murakami books, and may be his most straightforward tale since Norwegian Wood. (Kevin)

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas: Thomas spreads his canvas wide in this 640-page doorstop of a novel, which follows three generations of an Irish American family from Queens, but at heart the book is an intimate tale of a family’s struggle to make its peace with a catastrophic illness that strikes one of its members at precisely the wrong moment. Simon & Schuster spent more than a million dollars on this first novel whose author was then teaching high school in New York, thus assuring that the book will either be the fall’s Cinderella story or a poster child for outsized advances given to untested authors. (Michael)

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: Is it “the year of Roxane Gay?” Time suggested it in a review of Gay’s new novel, An Untamed State; when asked (in a self-interview) how that made her feel, she said, “First, I tinkled on myself. Then my ego exploded and I am still cleaning up the mess.” It’s as good a glimpse as any into the wonder that is Roxane Gay — her Twitterstorms alone are brilliant bits of cultural criticism, and her powerful essays, on her blog, Tumblr, and at various magazines, leave you with the sense that this is a woman who can write dazzlingly on just about any topic. In her first essay collection, we’re promised a wide-ranging list of subjects: Sweet Valley High, Django Unchained, abortion, Girls, Chris Brown, and the meaning of feminism. (Elizabeth)

The Kills by Richard House: House’s vast tetralogy, at once a border-hopping thriller and a doorstopping experiment, was longlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize in the U.K. Taking as its backdrop the machinery of the global war on terror, it should be of equal interest on these shores. (Garth)

 

 

Before, During, After by Richard Bausch: Since 1980, Richard Bausch has been pouring out novels and story collections that have brilliantly twinned the personal with the epic. His twelfth novel, Before, During, After, spins a love story between two ordinary people – Natasha, a lonely congressional aide, and Michael Faulk, an Episcopalian priest – whose affair and marriage are undone by epic events, one global, one personal. While Michael nearly dies during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Natasha’s error on a Caribbean shore leads to a private, unspeakable trauma. As the novel unspools, Before and During prove to be no match for After. (Bill)

Your Face In Mine by Jess Row: Possibly inspired by the ageless Black Like Me, Jess Row tells the story of Kelly Thorndike, a native Baltimorean who moves back to his hometown and discovers that an old friend has gotten surgery to change his race. At one time a skinny, white, Jewish man, Martin is now African-American, and he’s kept his new identity secret from his friends and family. Martin tells Kelly he wants to come clean, and the two become mired in a fractious, thought-provoking controversy. (Thom)

 

Flings by Justin Taylor: “Our faith makes us crazy in the world”; so reads a line in The Gospel of Anarchy, Taylor’s novel about a Florida commune of anarchist hippies. The original sentence comes from Don DeLillo’s Mao II, an appropriate literary mentor — Taylor is equal parts hilarious and prescient, capable of finding the sublime in the most prosaic, diverse material. On the first page of the collection’s title story alone: labor history, love, and “an inspired treatise on the American government’s illegal 1921 deployment of the Air Force to bomb striking mine workers at Blair Mountain, West Virginia.” (Nick R.)

Augustus by John Williams: There are things that are famous for being famous, such as the Kardashians, and then there are things that are famous for being not famous, such as John Williams’s Stoner. Since its publication in 1965, the “forgotten” work has enjoyed quite a history – metamorphosing from under-appreciated gem into international bestseller and over-praised classic. Indeed, it’s forgivable at this point to forget that Williams’s most appreciated work was actually his final novel, Augustus, which split the National Book Award and earned more praise during its author’s lifetime than his other books put together. Interestingly, readers of both Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing will here encounter an altogether new version of the John Williams they’ve come to know: Augustus is an epistolary novel set in classical Rome. It’s a rare genius who can reinvent himself in his final work and earn high praise for doing so. (Nick M.)

Alfred Ollivant’s Bob, Son of Battle by Lydia Davis: In the early 1900s, Bob, Son of Battle became a popular children’s tale in England and the United States. Focused on a young boy caught up in a rivalry between two sheepdogs on the moors between Scotland and England, the story eventually found its way into Lydia Davis’s childhood bedroom. Alas, the years have not been kind to the thick Cumbrian dialect in which it was written (“hoodoo” = “how do you do” and “gammy” = “illness,” e.g.) and the work fell out of popularity as a result. Now, however, Davis has updated the work into clear, modern vernacular in order to bring the story to an entirely new generation of readers, and perhaps the next generation of Lydia Davises (if one could ever possibly exist). (Nick M.)

September:

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven is Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, and if pre-publication buzz is any indication, it’s her best, most ambitious work yet. Post-apocalyptic tales are all the rage this season, but Mandel’s intricate plotting and deftness with drawing character makes this novel of interlinked tales stand out as a beguiling read. Beginning with the onslaught of the deadly Georgian flu and the death of a famous actor onstage, and advancing twenty years into the future to a traveling troupe of Shakespearean actors who perform for the few remaining survivors, the novel sits with darkness while searching for the beauty in art and human connection. (Anne)

The Secret Place by Tana French: People have been bragging about snagging this galley all summer, and for good reason: Tana French’s beautifully written, character-driven mysteries about the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad are always a literary event. Her latest concerns a murder at an all girls’ school, and detective Frank Mackey’s daughter Holly might just be a suspect. My fellow staff writer Janet Potter said The Secret Place is damn good, and if you’re smart you will trust Janet Potter. (Edan)

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: David Mitchell has evidently returned to his genre-, time-, and location-bending best with a novel that weaves the Iraq War with punk rock with immortal beings with the End Times. This is a novel that had Publisher’s Weekly asking, “Is The Bone Clocks the most ambitious novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque?” A tall order, either way. A thrill, either way. (Lydia)

 

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham: The creator, producer and star of the HBO series Girls — and also, it must be stated, an Oberlin College graduate — has penned a comic essay collection à la David Sedaris or Tina Fey… though something tells me Dunham’s will be more candid and ribald. As Lena herself writes: “No, I am not a sexpert, a psychologist, or a registered dietician. I am not a married mother of three or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise. But I am a girl with a keen interest in self-actualization, sending hopeful dispatches from the front lines of that struggle.” Amen, Lena, amen! (Edan)

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters: After her masterful handling of the haunted house story in The Little Stranger, Waters again taps into the narrative potential of domestic intrusion. This time, it’s lodgers rather than ghosts who are the nuisance. In 1922, a cash-strapped widow and her spinster daughter living by themselves in a large London house let out rooms to a young couple. Annoyances and class tensions soon ignite in these combustible confines, and from the looks of it, the security deposit won’t even begin to cover the damages. The novel promises to be a well-crafted, claustrophobic thriller. (Matt)

The Children Act by Ian McEwan: McEwan’s thirteenth novel treads some familiar ground — a tense moral question sits at the heart of the narrative: whether it is right for parents to refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds. Discussing the novel at the Oxford Literary Festival this past spring, McEwan said that the practice was “utterly perverse and inhumane.” It’s not the first time McEwan has expressed displeasure with religion: in 2005 he told the Believer he had “no patience whatsoever” for it; three years later, he made international news discussing Islam and Christianity, saying he didn’t “like these medieval visions of the world according to which God is coming to save the faithful and to damn the others.” (Elizabeth)

10:04 by Ben Lerner: Ben Lerner follows the unexpected success of his superb first novel Leaving the Atocha Station with a book about a writer whose first novel is an unexpected success. Which is actually something like what you’d expect if you’d read that superb and unexpectedly successful first novel, with its artful manipulations of the boundaries between fiction and memoir. The suddenly successful narrator of 10:04 also gets diagnosed with a serious heart condition and is asked by a friend to help her conceive a child. Two extracts from the novel, “Specimen Days” and “False Spring,” have run in recent issues of the Paris Review. (Mark)

Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood: Some fans will remember well the titular story in Atwood’s forthcoming collection, which was published in the New Yorker in December of 2011, and which begins, in Atwood’s typical-wonderful droll fashion: “At the outset, Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” With this collection, according to the jacket copy, “Margaret Atwood ventures into the shadowland earlier explored by fabulists and concoctors of dark yarns such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle…” If you aren’t planning to read this book, it means you like boring stuff. (Edan)

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel: Just this month, Mantel was made a dame; the reigning queen of British fiction, she’s won two of the last five Man Booker Prizes. But Mantel’s ascension to superstardom was long in the making: she is at work on her twelfth novel in a career that’s spanned four decades. This fall sees the publication of her second collection of short stories, set several centuries on from the novels that earned her those Bookers. Her British publisher, Nicholas Pearson, said, “Where her last two novels explore how modern England was forged, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher shows us the country we have become. These stories are Mantel at her observant best.” (Elizabeth)

The Dog by Joseph O’Neill: In his first novel since his 2008 PEN/Faulkner-winning Netherland, about a Dutch immigrant in post 9/11 New York, O’Neill tells another fish-out-of-water tale, this time about a New Yorker who takes a job as a “family officer” for a wealthy family in Dubai. Surrounded by corruption and overwhelmed by daily life in the desert metropolis, the narrator becomes obsessed with the disappearance of another American in what Publishers Weekly calls “a beautifully crafted narrative about a man undone by a soulless society.” (Michael)

Barbarian Days by William Finnegan: William Finnegan is both a journalist’s journalist and one of the New Yorker’s most consistently engaging voices. Over the years, he’s written about everything from apartheid in South Africa to the broken economy at home (Cold New World now looks prophetic). My favorite of his New Yorker pieces, though, is an insanely long memoir about surfing (Part 1; Part 2) that, legend has it, was crashed into the magazine just before the arrival of Tina Brown as editor. Two decades on, Finnegan returns to this lifelong passion, at book length.

Wittgenstein, Jr. by Lars Iyer: With their ingenious blend of philosophical dialogue and vaudevillian verve, Iyer’s trilogy, Spurious, Dogma and Exodus, earned a cult following. Wittgenstein, Jr. compacts Iyer’s concerns into a single campus novel, set at early 21st-century Cambridge. It should serve as an ideal introduction to his work. (Garth)

 

 

The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim: No one makes chaos as appealing a spectacle as Antrim, whether it’s unloosed on the dilapidated red library from The Hundred Brothers, its priceless rugs, heraldic arms and rare books threatened by drunken siblings and a bounding Doberman; the pancake house from The Verificationist; or the moated suburban neighborhood from Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. His latest is a collection of stories written over the past fifteen years, each of which was published in the New Yorker. The Emerald Light in the Air demonstrates that Antrim’s controlled anarchy translates beautifully to the shorter form. (Matt)

Hold the Dark by William Giraldi: Having built a reputation for critical savagery following the hatchet he sank into a pair of Alix Ohlin books in the Times in 2012, Giraldi puts his own neck on the line with this literary thriller set in a remote Alaskan village where wolves are eating children. Billed as an “Alaskan Oresteia,” the novel follows a pair of men, one an aging nature writer, the other a returning soldier, who come to learn secrets “about the unkillable bonds of family, and the untamed animal in the soul of every human being.” That sound you hear is the whine of blades touching grindstones across literary America. (Michael)

Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas: The title of Christos Tsiolkas’s fifth novel — his first since the international bestseller, The Slap — is a nickname for Daniel Kelly, an Australian swimming prodigy so ruthless in the water that he gets likened to the sharp-toothed, predatory fish. But Daniel’s Olympic ambitions are thwarted by a crime whose nature Tsiolkas hints at but shrewdly withholds. This novel, like all of Tsiolkas’s work, is a vigorous, sometimes vicious argument about what it means to be Australian. As one character concludes, “We are parochial and narrow-minded and we are racist and ungenerous and…” It gets worse, gorgeously worse. (Bill)

Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones: You’re showing your age and (lack of) internet bona fides if you admit that you’re unfamiliar with Jones’s work. For years now the Buzzfeed LGBT editor has been lighting it up at his day job, and also on Twitter, with a ferocity befitting his name. Now, after earning praise from D.A. Powell and after winning a NYC-based Literary Death Match bout, Jones will use his debut collection to prominently display his poetry chops. (Ed. note: check out an excerpt over here.) (Nick M.)

Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück: The UK publisher (Carcanet) of Louise Glück’s newest collection — her twelfth — describes the poems as “a sequence of journeys and explorations through time and memory.” Macmillan describes it as “a story of adventure, an encounter with the unknown, a knight’s undaunted journey into the kingdom of death; this is a story of the world you’ve always known… every familiar facet has been made to shimmer like the contours of a dream…” In other words, Glück’s newest work is interested in a kind of reiterative, collage-like experience of narrative — “tells a single story but the parts are mutable.” (Sonya)

Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg: In Goldberg’s latest novel, infamous Chicago mafia hit man Sal Cupertine must flee to Las Vegas to escape the FBI, where he assumes the identity of… Rabbi David Cohen. The Mafia plus the Torah makes for a darkly funny and suspenseful morality tale. Goldberg, who runs UC Riverside-Palm Desert’s low residency MFA program, is also the author of Living Dead Girl, which was an LA Times Fiction Prize finalist, and the popular Burn Notice series, among others. The man can spin a good yarn. (Edan)

Happiness: Ten Years of n+1 by Editors of n+1: Happiness is a collection of the best pieces from n+1’s first decade, selected by the magazine’s editors. Ten years is a pretty long time for any literary journal to continue existing, but when you consider the number of prominent younger American writers who have had a long association with the magazine, it’s actually sort of surprising that it hasn’t been around longer. Chad Harbach, Keith Gessen, Benjamin Kunkel and Elif Batuman all launched their careers through its pages. Pieces by these writers, and several more, are included here. (Mark)

Neverhome by Laird Hunt: According to letters and accounts from the time, around 400 women disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War. Years ago, Laird Hunt read a collection of one of those women’s letters, and the idea for this novel has been germinating ever since. It tells the story of Constance Thompson, a farm wife who leaves her husband behind, calls herself Ash and fights for the Union. Neverhome is both a story about the harrowing life of a cross-dressing soldier, and an investigation into the mysterious circumstances that led her there. (Janet)

My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner: Brian Turner served for seven years in the US Army, spending time in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq. Since then, he has published two collections of poetry — Here, Bullet and the T.S. Elliot Prize-shortlisted Phantom Noise — both of which draw heavily on his experiences in those wars. His new book is a memoir about his year in Iraq, and about the aftermath of that experience. Turner also makes a leap of conceptual identification, attempting to imagine the conflict through the experience of the Iraqi other. Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, has praised it as “brilliant and beautiful”, and as ranking “with the best war memoirs I’ve ever encountered”. (Mark)

Wallflowers: Stories by Eliza Robertson: Robertson’s stories — often told from the perspectives of outsiders, often concerned with the mysteries of love and family, set in places ranging from the Canadian suburbs to Marseilles — have earned her a considerable following in her native Canada. Her debut collection includes “We Walked on Water,” winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and “L’Etranger,” shortlisted for the CBC Short Story Prize. (Emily)

 

On Bittersweet Place by Ronna Wineberg: On Bittersweet Place is the second publication from Relegation Books, a small press founded by author Dallas Hudgens. The novel — Wineberg’s first, following her acclaimed story collection Second Language — concerns Lena Czernitski, a young Russian Jewish immigrant trying to find her place in the glamour and darkness of 1920s Chicago. (Emily)

 

The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis: Following on the heels of the acclaimed The Free World, Bezmozgis’s second novel is about 24 hours in the life of Baruch Kotler, a disgraced Israeli politician who meets the Soviet-era spy who denounced him decades earlier. (Kevin)

 

 

How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran: The feminist journalist and author of How to Be a Woman, once called “the UK’s answer to Tina Fey, Chelsea Handler, and Lena Dunham all rolled into one” by Marie Claire, is publishing her first novel. It follows Johanna Morrigan, who at 14 decides to start life over as Dolly Wilde. Two years later she’s a goth chick and “Lady Sex Adventurer” with a gig writing reviews for a music paper, when she starts to wonder about what she lost when she reinvented herself. (Janet)

On Immunity: An Innoculation by Eula Biss: When Biss became a mother, she began looking into the topic of vaccination. What she had assumed would be a few hours of personal research turned into a fascination, and the result is a sweeping work that considers the concept of immunity, the history of vaccination — a practice that sometimes seems to function as a lightning rod for our most paranoid fears about the chemical-laden modern world in which we find ourselves, but that has its roots in centuries-old folk medicine — and the ways in which we’re interconnected, with meditations on writers ranging from Voltaire to Bram Stoker. (Emily)

October:

Yes, Please by Amy Poehler: The Leslie Knopes among us cannot wait for Poehler’s first book of personal stories and advice, in the vein of Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? In Poehler’s delightful New Yorker essay about her job at an ice cream parlor, she wrote, “It’s important to know when it’s time to turn in your kazoo.” Wise words from one of America’s most beloved comics and actresses. (Anne)

The Peripheral by William Gibson: William Gibson fans rejoice, for his first novel in four years is upon us. The novel follows an army veteran with futuristic nerve damage wrought during his time in a futuristic kill squad. (Technically, according to Gibson, it’s a novel taking place in multiple futures, so it’s probably more complicated than that). You can watch him read the first two pages here. If William Gibson were a tense, he’d be future-noir. (Lydia)

Lila by Marilynne Robinson: Marilynne Robinson published her brilliant debut novel Housekeeping in 1980 and then basically went dark for a decade and a half, but has been relatively prolific in the last ten years. After re-emerging with 2004’s gorgeous and heartbreaking Gilead, she followed up four years later with Home, a retelling of the prodigal son parable that revisited a story and characters from Gilead. James Wood’s description of the relationship between the two books is exact and lovely: “Home is not a sequel [to Gilead],” he wrote, “but more like that novel’s brother.” With her new novel, Robinson has given those books a sister. The novel tells the story of Lila – the young bride of Gilead’s narrator, Rev. John Ames – who was abandoned as a toddler and raised by a drifter. (Mark) (Ed. Note: You can read an excerpt over here.)

Dan by Joanna Ruocco: Joanna Ruocco’s kaleidoscopic fictions have been likened to Donald Barthelme’s for their dark humor and uncanny occurrences that revel in wordplay. Her stories “map the unmappable wrinkles of the mind,” says Laird Hunt, and by bridging disparate ideas creates a synesthesia. In Dan, Ruocco’s latest novel, the character Melba Zuzzo finds herself in a rut while living in a male-dominated town in the foothills of a mountain. What ensues is a “slapstick parable” that according to her publisher, Dorothy Project, evokes both the “unabashed campiness of Thomas Pynchon” and the capacious imagination of Raymond Roussel. (Anne)

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James: Marlon James follows his stunning and brutal The Book of Night Women with A Brief History of Seven Killings, which depicts the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley, “spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters — assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts.” Irvine Welsh calls it “an amazing novel of power, corruption and lies. I can’t think of a better one I’ve read this century.” (Edan)

 

Citizen by Claudia Rankine: “Often a division is made between politics and poetry, and I like to think this is a moment when the intersection is recognized,” remarked poet Claudia Rankine, about recently winning the Jackson Poetry Prize. In her lyric hybrid work, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine investigated media’s role in our private lives, taking on television, pharmaceutical marketing, depression, race, and identity in the post–9/11 era. Citizen, her follow-up book, deals pointedly with race and racial aggression in the media and the everyday — from the classroom to the playing field and the public stage — as it traces the effects of racism in our so-called “post-race” age. (Anne)

Some Luck by Jane Smiley: Still best known for her 1991 Pulitzer-winner A Thousand Acres, Smiley returns to Iowa farm country in this ambitious family saga set in the first half of the 20th century. Some Luck is the first installment in a trilogy spanning 100 years in the lives of the Langdon family, starting from its rural Iowa roots in 1920 and following the clan as its five children spread out across America in a time of epochal change. The second volume, Early Warning, is due in spring 2015, with the final volume, which brings the story up to December 31, 2019, set to appear next fall. (Michael)

Reunion by Hannah Pittard: In Pittard’s second novel — her first was 2011’s The Fates Will Find Their Way, lauded here and just about everywhere else — a failed screenwriter on the verge of divorce agrees to join her family for a reunion in Atlanta after her estranged father commits suicide. It’s a nuanced and intriguing study of family and love, money and debt, failure and success, starring one of the most likable flawed narrators to come along in some time. (Emily)

 

A Different Bed Every Time by Jac Jemc: Six years ago Chicago-based author Jac Jemc started a blog to track the rejection letters she received. But recently the blog’s been rather quiet — due to a slew of acceptances, it seems. Jemc’s first novel, My Only Wife, was published in 2012 and nominated for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham award; it depicts a husband’s obsession with recalling memories of his wife who disappeared five years earlier. When Jemc’s follow-up collection, A Different Bed Every Time, hits shelves, expect to encounter stories showcasing Jemc’s playful and poetic sensibility, in a book that Laura van den Berg deems “mythic and essential.” (Anne)

300,000,000 by Blake Butler: Blake Butler deploys words like chemicals that merge into phrases, coalescing in alternate existences, with familiar worlds distorted. In Butler’s third novel, There is No Year, a family survives a disease but is still subject to a scourge of infestations and other horrors and mysteries, including a house with secret passageways and the existence of a duplicate “copy family.” Butler began his latest novel, 300,000,000, as a retaliation against the hype surrounding Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. The result? A portrait of American violence, told through the minds of a Manson-like cult figure and the policeman responsible for figuring him out, while tracking a trail of violence and descent into psychosis. (Anne)

Sister Golden Hair by Darcey Steinke: In Steinke’s new novel, a coming-of-age story set in early-70’s Virginia, twelve-year-old Jesse’s family is on the brink of collapse: her father has recently been defrocked, and her mother is coming undone. When her father was a pastor, Jesse felt that they were a part of something — “We were at the center of what I thought of as THE HOLY, and our every move had weight and meaning” — but they’ve drifted into a life of vertiginous weightlessness. (Emily)

 

Quick Kills by Lynn Lurie: Lurie’s first novel, Corner of the Dead, featured a photojournalist traumatized by the atrocities committed by the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru during the 1980s. In Quick Kills, the narrator is a young girl who finds herself on the other side of the camera, the exploited subject of a predatory photographer: “There is fear in my eyes. I see the fear clearly even in the blurred snapshot.” This slim work looks to be an unsettling rumination on art, pornography and sexual violence. (Matt)

Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère: This biography of Éduard Limonov, published in France in 2011, won the prestigious Prix Théophraste-Renaudot, which is typically awarded to a novel. Limonov’s life makes for good novelistic material: he is founder of the National Bolshevik Party, which “believes in the creation of a grand empire that will include the whole of Europe and Russia, as well as Northern/Central Asia, to be governed under Russian dominance” (Wikipedia), and FSG’s English translation (by John Lambert) will be released under the in-case-you-didn’t-know title Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia. Typical of Carrère, he approaches his subject essayistically, wrestling with his own attractions/repulsions vis-à-vis the epic Limonov. (Sonya)

The Heart Is Strange by John Berryman: To mark the centenary of John Berryman’s birth, FSG is reissuing much of his poetry, including his book The Dream Songs. They’re also publishing a new collection, featuring three uncollected pieces along with older examples of his work, that spans the length of his career. From his juvenalia, to the landmark “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” to his later poems, The Heart is Strange puts Berryman’s talents on display, which means a new generation will start using the phrase “heavy bored.” (For a primer on Dream Songs, check out Stephen Akey’s Millions essay.) (Thom)

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber: Faber’s latest novel – which David Mitchell called his “second masterpiece” after The Crimson Petal and the White – touches on interstellar space travel, cataclysmic events, romantic love, and religious faith. Such broad territory seems befitting for an author claimed simultaneously by the nations of Scotland, Australia, and the Netherlands. (Nick M.)

 

Hiding in Plain Sight by Nuruddin Farah: Farah is back with another trilogy after his acclaimed Blood in the Sun series. Once again, he explores identity, obligation, family ties, and how politics can interrupt it all. After Bella’s brother is killed by Somali extremists, she has to give up her life as a famous fashion photographer and raise his children as if they were her own. Yet when the children’s mother returns, Bella must decide what matters more — her family or herself. (Tess)

November:

The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson: In an interview last fall, Johnson described his new novel as “kind of a spy story with what we might call serious intentions, on the order of Graham Greene.” Johnson, whose 2007 novel Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award, has written a post-9/11 spy thriller concerning a trio of travelers in west Africa; one is a self-styled soldier of fortune, another is being trailed by two spy agencies and Interpol, and all three are hiding secrets from one another. (Emily)

Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford: I was gleeful to learn that Frank Bascombe will return to us after eight years and the threat of oblivion. At a reading in April, Ford reintroduced Bascombe as a 67-year-old Jersey-dweller ruminating on his former home, tipped on its side by Hurricane Sandy. Let Me Be Frank With You will comprise four novellas, each narrated with, undoubtedly, that unmistakable Bascombe verve. (Lydia)

 

Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet: After the high hilarity of her satirical early work, Lydia Millet reached new emotional depths in her last three novels. This new novel, concerning the discovery of mermaids and the ensuing scramble to cash in, looks to achieve a new kind of synthesis. (Garth)

 

 

Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter: Lindsay Hunter’s first story collection Daddy’s is described by its publisher Featherproof Books as a “collection of toxic southern gothics, packaged as a bait box of temptation.” Her second collection Don’t Kiss Me, published by FSG (who says big houses don’t publish story collections?) is, according to the Tin House blog, “a heterogeneous story collection that holds together… peculiar voices that tend to overlap in areas of loss, self-pity, and hilarity.” Hunter is a practitioner of the short-short form and founding host of a flash fiction reading series; no surprise that her debut novel Ugly Girls would be “voice-driven with [a] breakneck pace.” Roxane Gay (on Twitter) called it “gorgeously hopeless.” (Sonya)

Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare: Originally published in 1978 and appearing in English for the first time this year, Twilight of the Eastern Gods is the fictional account of the prolific Albanian novelist’s time at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow, to which Kadare was recruited in 1958. A kind of factory meant to produce top Socialist writers, the Gorky Institute’s prescribed style and disagreeable faculty instead caused Kadare to rethink his calling. Like his other novels, Twilight promises to be a wormhole into strange times. (Lydia)

A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin: Beneath the quiet poetry of Ha Jin’s sentences is a searing novelistic ambition; in A Map of Betrayal, the story of a double-agent in the CIA, he explores a half-century of entanglements between China and the U.S., and the divided loyalties that result. (Garth)

 

 

All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews: The premise of Toews’s sixth novel, released to critical acclaim in Canada earlier this year, is simple and devastating: there are two adult sisters, and one of them wants to die. She’s a wildly successful and in-demand concert pianist, but she longs for self-annihilation. It’s a premise that could easily be grindingly unbearable, but Toews is a writer of considerable subtlety and grace, with a gift for bringing flashes of lightness, even humor, to the darkest of tales. (Emily)

 

Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 by Alice Munro: If our guide to Alice Munro wasn’t enough, Family Furnishings will feature 25 of her best stories from the past 19 years. It’s the first anthology of her work since Selected Stories (1968-1994) and should fill the Munro oeuvre for both lifelong fans and those who found her after her Nobel Prize win last year. Despite her larger-than-life reputation now, these stories remind us what makes Munro one of the best short story writers in the first place — her ability to illuminate quotidian problems and intimacies in small-town Canada. (Tess)

Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles d’Ambrosio: In 2005 Charles D’Ambrosio published an essay collection, Orphans, with a small press, and the book won a devoted following. The entire print run consisted of 3,500 copies, but all of them, D’Ambrosio writes in his introduction to Loitering, managed to find their way into the hands of readers, “a solace to me like the thought of home.” In Loitering, which consists of the eleven original essays from Orphans and a number of new pieces, D’Ambrosio considers subjects ranging from the work of J.D. Salinger to the idea of home. (Emily)

Why Religion is Immoral: And Other Interventions by Christopher Hitchens: Since his death from cancer in 2011, Christopher Hitchens has refused to leave the party. His voice — erudite, witty, proudly biased — can be heard again in this new collection of his unpublished speeches, a follow-up to his late-life bestseller, God Is Not Great. The word “interventions” in the new book’s title is critical because Hitchens’s great theme — his opposition to all forms of tyranny, including religious, political and social — led him to support the misinformed and disastrous military invention against the Iraqi tyrant, Saddam Hussein. Hitchens wasn’t always right, but as this new collection ably demonstrates, he was never dull. (Bill)

The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck: One of the most significant German-language novelists of her generation, Erpenbeck follows up the celebrated novel Visitation with a heady conceit located somewhere between Cloud Atlas and Groundhog Day. The End of Days follows a single character, born early in the 20th Century, to five different deaths: the first as an infant, the second as a teenager, and so on. In each case, her life illuminates the broader history of Europe, which remains ever in the background, dying its own deaths. (Garth)

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: In Rash’s poem, “Preserves,” a family discovers a beautiful springhouse after a funeral, where “woodslats bowed with berry and vegetable.” Rash’s work is suffused with this sense: a pastoral world is dying, and his sentences are its best chance at resurrection. Longtime fans of Rash’s elegiac prose are happy this craftsman is finally getting his deserved recognition. His novel, Serena, will reach theaters later this year, and star Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. In Above the Waterfall, set in North Carolina, a terrible crime brings together a sheriff and a park ranger. The territory might be familiar, but this poet-novelist always delivers. (Nick R.)

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Mehgan Daum: Thirteen years after it was published, My Misspent Youth holds up as a perennially interesting book of essays, not to mention the final word on being young and broke in New York. In her new collection, Meghan Daum looks at a host of modern anxieties, including the modern wedding industry, Joni Mitchell and the habits of digital natives. Though a lot of her material is funny in the vein of Nora Ephron, there’s gravity here, too — as there is in “Matricide”, which tackles the death of her mother. Our own Matt Seidel recently featured Daum’s editor in a piece on editors’ first buys. (Thom)

December:

The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya: Ludmila Ulitskaya only began writing novels after her scientific credentials were revoked for translating a banned novel. The Russian author’s commitments to art, activism, and speaking her mind have led her to become one of Russia’s most popular living authors. These same concerns guide her fiction, too — called smart, prickly, and with harsh wit — and in this, her latest novel, The Big Green Tent, is no exception. When a poet, a pianist, and a photographer try to transcend oppression in post-Stalinist Russia, their ultimate destinies are far darker than their author’s. (Anne)

Skylight by José Saramago: This is Saramago’s so-called “lost work,” which was written in the 1950s, but rediscovered after the Nobel laureate’s death in 2010. The novel features the interconnected stories of the residents of an apartment building in Lisbon in the 1940s. (Kevin)

 

 

January:

The First Bad Man by Miranda July: If you’re like me, and think about the various Miranda July short stories like favorite tracks on a beloved album, you might be surprised that The First Bad Man is her debut novel. Her short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, was published six years ago and won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award; since then, she has, amongst other varied projects, released an acclaimed feature film and a book project inspired by the people behind various PennySaver ads. The novel, which centers around a woman “with a perpetual lump in her throat,” chronicles what happens when, after taking her boss’s selfish, cruel daughter, her “eccentrically ordered world explodes.” (Elizabeth)

Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: Sara Gerard’s star is rising. The NYC-based bookseller slash art-mag-employee slash writer drew attention last fall with “Things I Told My Mother,” an essayistic inquiry into women’s representation in society, spawned by a topless walk the author took through Times Square. This kind of intensity and boldness guide all of Gerard’s work — whether concerning other writers, or her own bout with anorexia, addiction, and a stint jumping freight trains, and now in her first novel Binary Star. Binary Star interweaves astronomical research with a story about an unnamed anorexic who burns through her intensely dysfunctional life like a star burns fuel, never to be replenished. (Anne)

Outline by Rachel Cusk: Some travelers collect stories as much as souvenirs. In Cusk’s latest novel, a woman writer travels to Greece to teach a creative writing workshop but learns just as much from the tales her fellow travelers tell her. As she listens, she weaves their stories into a narrative of loss, creativity, family life, and intimacy. To keep with the storytelling tradition, the Paris Review serialized the novel, but FSG will publish it for a full narrative experience. (Tess)

 

Glow by Ned Beauman: Beauman’s previous novels, The Boxer Beetle and The Teleportation Accident — the one a fanciful look at eugenics and fascism, the other a genre-bending wonder about an avant-garde set designer in 1930s Berlin — each displayed a learned, diabolical imagination at work. His latest appears just as unhinged. Enrolled in a “continuous amateur neurochemistry seminar” and suffering from a sleep disorder, its hero experiments with the designer drug, “glow,” which opens up a gateway into a Pynchonian universe: a disappeared friend, pirate radio stations, and a nefarious Burmese mining company. (Matt)

February:

There’s Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: In his first story collection in 15 years, Charles Baxter, a son of the Midwest and venerated writer of fiction, poetry and essays, gives us inter-related tales that are tidily bifurcated into two sections, one devoted to virtues (“Chastity,” “Charity,” “Forbearance”), the other to vices (“Lust,” “Sloth,” “Avarice”). Characters re-appear, performing acts both virtuous and loathsome, in stories that are set mostly around Minneapolis but also roam to New York, Tuscany and Ethiopia. The collection’s title is a typical “request moment” that animates the stories, resulting in a murder, a rescue, a love affair, an assault, even a surprising gesture of kindness. (Bill)

Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris: I was such a big fan of Amelia Morris’s hilarious, entertaining, and useful food blog, Bon Appétempt, that I tracked her down and asked her to teach for my writing school, Writing Workshops Los Angeles. Now Amelia has penned a compelling and funny memoir about becoming an adult and an artist — both in and out of the kitchen — that is sure to bring her even more devoted readers. If you like Laurie Colwin and MFK Fischer and, I don’t know, total goofballs baking cakes while making weird faces, you’ll love Amelia Morris and Bon Appétempt. (Edan)

Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: “What I want is to create stories that shift around when you reread them.” Few can shake readers awake as well as Link, which makes short fiction her ideal form. She has been called the “George Saunders of the fairy tale,” but simply being Kelly Link is enough. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, gets its title from the sense that in fiction, “there’s a kind of cathartic, discomforting joy — a pain/pleasure — in people behaving badly.” Her previous fantastical tales have been populated by librarians, cellists, aliens, and fainting goats. Link aims to surprise, which makes her work absolutely pleasing. (Nick R.)

Find Me by Laura van den Berg: Laura van den Berg’s fictions often unfurl just beyond the real, with their madcap mix of zany and dreamlike set-ups. Case in point, van den Berg’s recent story collection, The Isle of Youth, was peopled by yacht thieves, a mother-daughter magician team, and newlyweds who survive a plane crash. Her first novel, Find Me, continues this surreal, at times catastrophic streak, as it follows Joy, a grocery clerk, cough-syrup addict who’s immune to an ongoing plague of memory illness. Joy’s resulting hospital stay and cross-country journey plotline sounds like a surreal mash-up of Stephen King’s The Stand and Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps. (Anne)

March:

The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa: The 2010 Nobel Prize winner trains his eye on corruption and urbanization in modern day Lima in his latest novel. According to CityLab, “The story follows two parallel tales: an elite Lima businessman who decides to punish his undeserving heirs, and a self-made man in Vargas Llosa’s adopted hometown, Piura, who resists an extortionist demand.” (Kevin)

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On Loneliness: Art, Life, and Fucking Human Beings

1.
“I’ve been thinking about whether, on average, people are lonelier in real life than in novels,” Elizabeth Bachner wrote recently in the opening to an essay about (among other things) the novel Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann. I don’t have an answer, but the question makes me think about how much of life is about loneliness and efforts to cure or soothe loneliness, and how much of art is about loneliness and efforts to cure or soothe loneliness; and how loneliness is a word — easily enough spoken or written, like death or love – but really it’s a deep sadness, which is also a force, driving so many of our desires and actions, and at the same time shameful and hidden and nearly impossible to live with, out in the open, in any authentic way.

David Foster Wallace is often quoted as saying that fiction is about what it is to be a fucking human being, and so I guess what I am saying is that there are days – not every day, but often enough – when it seems to me that what it is is to be lonely; to be in this state of deep sadness and estrangement, and to know – not so much on the intellectual, conscious level but on the level where shame and fear live – that there is something terribly wrong about this loneliness on the one hand, and on the other (in knowing the wrongness utterly), something also potentially beautiful.

2.
“All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life,” writes Miranda July. “Where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it.” July’s vision of life as relentlessly estranging resonates: we must “make it through” and, hour by hour, “cope,” alone, inside of our bodies. The “how” is where she seems to put her investigative eye, which is to say her hope.

In It Chooses You, July tells the story of how she became blocked in the middle of writing a screenplay, and, in an effort to get unblocked – to understand better one of the film’s protagonists (or, at the least, distract herself from having to) – embarks on a project: she begins calling people who advertise items for sale in the LA Pennysaver, asking them if she can come to their homes with a photographer and tape recorder to interview them — “about your life and everything about you. Your hopes, your fears…”
I read it while I ate lunch, and then, because I was in no hurry to get back to not writing, I usually kept reading it straight through […] Each listing was like a very brief newspaper article. News flash: someone is selling a jacket. The jacket is leather. It is also large and black. The person thinks it is worth ten dollars. But the person is not very confident about that price, and is willing to consider other, lower prices. I wanted to know more things about what this leather-jacket person thought, how they were getting through the days, what they hoped, what they feared.
July describes visits with individuals and households all around metropolitan LA. For sale: tadpoles, baby leopards, a large suitcase, traditional Indian clothing, photo albums, Care Bears, hair dryer, Christmas card fronts. July (and her crew of two) meet, among others, an older man living in a flophouse who is undergoing a gender transformation; a 17 year-old boy whose father has been laid off and who’s been inaccurately tracked as Special Ed; a man who reveals his house-arrest ankle bracelet and is both boastful and evasive about the nature of his crime; a childlike 45 year-old man who makes photo-collages on his bedroom wall of babies and young women; a middle-aged Greek woman who for 10 years has lived vicariously through the vacation photo albums of a wealthy couple she doesn’t know.

Most of the people July called said no, and so those who said yes, “the ones I met with did not feel random – we chose each other.” July offers $50 for her subjects’ time, and so a number of those who say yes are quite poor. Also, as the Pennysaver takes ads via phone and in-person, most of them don’t own or use computers (“of course they don’t, or they’d just use Craigslist”). All of them have a desire and need to tell their stories, to be listened to and to connect. So much so that, in more than one case, July and her crew have a difficult time leaving:
After a long time I began to understand that he would never let us leave. We just had to go. I silently counted to three and stood up […] We silently walk-ran to the elevator and Alfred hit the down button repeatedly until the elevator doors opened […]

I started to make a polite noise of regret, but seeing her face fall, I realized that refusing was the opposite of polite. I squeezed my iPhone in my pocket. Would it be weird to check my email right now? Or maybe read the news? […] The fullness of her life was menacing to me – there was no room for invention, no place for the kind of fictional conjuring that makes me feel useful, or feel anything at all. She wanted me to just actually be there and eat fruit with her. I went home and immediately fell asleep, as if fleeing from consciousness.
What makes us uncomfortable, what both repels and compels us, is always worth noting, and July is both candid and insightful about this:
Michael and Primila and Pauline had exhausted me with their openness and their quaint inefficiency […]

Domingo was […] the person whom I felt most creepily privileged around. We drove home, in my Prius. If I interacted only with people like me, then I’d feel normal again, un-creepy. Which didn’t seem right either. So I decided that it was okay to feel creepy, it was appropriate, because I was a little creepy […]

It suddenly seemed obvious to me that the whole world, and especially Los Angeles, was designed to protect me from these people I was meeting. There was no law against knowing them, but it wouldn’t happen […] when I leave my car my iPhone escorts me, letting everyone else in the post office know that I’m not really with them, I’m with my own people.
In her Malina essay, Elizabeth Bachner quotes Kafka: “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? […] what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply […]” July’s project is even more immediate than Kafka’s — not just reading books, but seeking out actual distressing human encounters, encounters with loneliness, in order to be awoken in some way.

And yet, her project is still relatively controlled, and measured; she can depart from her interviewee when she has had enough, she can determine the best subject-artist distance from which to extract material, transform it into “fictional conjuring,” through analysis, through reflection.

3.
With Jeff, One Lonely Guy, Jeff Ragsdale, David Shields, and Michael Logan engage in a different project from July’s, though with shared interests in the how of coping and in close-ups of lives that repel and compel, that hammer one’s skull with the force of loneliness. The book’s genesis, from Shields’s introduction:
In late October 2011, my friend and former student Jeff Ragsdale posted this flyer around New York City:

I-f anyone wants to talk about anything, call me. (347) 469-3173

Jeff, one lonely guy.

Jeff recently realized he sabotaged his stand-up and acting careers. He was down and out, living in a tiny room in a boarding house in Harlem. Having gone through a painful breakup this fall, he was extremely lonely.
The flyer was then re-posted on reddit.com and other social networking sites, and by the time of Jeff’s publication in January 2012, Ragsdale had become an Internet sensation, receiving over 60,000 phone calls and texts from all over the world. The book is a compilation of these texts and transcribed phone calls, “rearranged [by Shields and Logan] into this chorus of voices talking about the searing loneliness of existence in America at this moment.” Short personal vignettes and memoirs written by Ragsdale are threaded throughout the material, which is divided into seven (loosely) topical chapters. “This is the authentic sound of human beings, at ground level […] trying to connect in whatever way possible,” Shields writes. “This is Occupy Loneliness.”

Whereas July reflects on her own flinchiness in the face of too-much raw humanity, giving herself and the reader some breathing space, Jeff’s goal, it seems, is to break down all protective boundaries between those who hide, deny, or manage their loneliness and those who act it out; between creepy privilege and fully-blown desperation. The curation, or “rearrangement” of Jeff’s material is thus much less mediated than July’s; the texts are given to us in a barrage, one after the other, with only Ragsdale’s occasional (italicized) interjections, no less raw and searing than the voices of those who contacted him.

From the chapter called “Notes on Childhood”:
My first memory is of my parents rolling on the floor, punching each other’s faces, my mom’s teeth clenched. The police were always at our house.

I had counseling because my mom found out I was cutting myself. Please don’t tell anyone… Smiling makes you live longer… I’m better than I was in the past so I’m really good… In the beginning I got molested by my older stepbrother. I never told anybody for 4 to 5 years. He also rapidly hit my head against a wall and had 2 knives […] Will you be my friend? I am – it’s just that I don’t have a lot of friends. (Anya, 13, North Carolina)

I need a boyfriend that doesn’t want me to stay anorexic. I need a family that actually cares, minus the red tape. I need maturity. And I have Xanax. I don’t want to have to need anything. I don’t. I just want to disappear. (Erica)

I hire a sweet old lady to babysit my son and then I put a strap on and do men I meet at sex parties… It usually goes on in locked rooms and takes the guy months before he’ll open up with me… Men like it but feel embarrassed about liking it… My friend and me are a tandem. She doesn’t speak English, so whoever the guy is, he needs to know some Spanish or he’s going to freak out at this screaming Spanish woman. She likes to spank people while I watch. Sometimes she likes to walk on a man’s back, yelling at him, before giving him a blow job and swallowing… (I ask if her friend does intercourse.)… No, she has a husband. (Amy)
From the section called “Love Sucks”:
If I lived with you in real life would you hit me?… Do you think I’m pretty?… I don’t want to fight with you but I do like your dominance over me… Why don’t you want to be with me?… I can’t talk… I’m in the car with my parents… I know I’m only 17… Kidnap me… Please Jeff… How old are you again?… You’re basically the same age as my dad, that’s why I can’t tell them… If I lived with you I would want to take showers with you… I love you Jeff. You care about me… I will be with you someday Jeff, I know it… As long as you don’t start drama or I’ll blackmail you… I like you a lot but I want to be able to trust you. (Krystal)

My life’s all-time low was when I had sex with a 75-pound Asian hooker I knew had AIDS, but I was so screwed up on coke and alcohol I didn’t even care. I actually felt sorry for her because she had to pay for the cab ride over to the hotel I was staying in. She got on top of me and it was like screwing a skeleton. I couldn’t even look at her.
It’s a difficult book to read, even more difficult to summarize: 138 pages of continuous confession, desperation, tales of abuse and self-destruction – a deluge of uncensored loneliness. There are blips of exuberance and encouragement, along with the occasional scolding/derision of Jeff’s project (mostly from men). Some people write more matter-of-factly about typical problems – can’t find a mate, confused about my life’s calling, wish I was skinny, lost my job. Jeff’s passages reveal that he actually meets some of the women for sex and dates, ever hopeful that romantic love will cure his loneliness, even as he continues to obsess over Kira, the woman from the recent breakup. At one point he sums up their relationship thus:
I know I should have left the relationship. We both should have. I hit Kira in the face once, but it’s not as simple as it sounds.
And thus:
I remember that first punch. It started when I grabbed Kira’s leg. She sat up and punched me as hard as she could in the face. I actually saw stars. […] Things spiraled out of control after that. Our roommates were scared. They even slipped an eviction note under our door: “We’ve never been around this type of violence. It’s frightening. We know you’re not preparing for acting gigs, like you say.”
How are we – and by “we” I suppose I mean those of us who would not be likely to respond to Jeff’s ad – to engage with all these raw, ugly, lonelier-in-real-life-than-in-novels voices? Or is the project of Jeff as a book, as a text, packaged and offered to us as “America singing – singing a dirge,” intended to challenge our very conceptions of beauty and ugliness? Is Jeff meant to make the safe-at-home reader feel creepy about being protected, about the walls we typically put up between ourselves and these “authentic” voices? Or is the argument that all of us are these voices, distancing ourselves from ourselves, and walk-running to the elevator like July’s crew, at our own peril?

4.
In life people drift more, there’s less closure, there’s less follow-up, there’s even more murkiness – which is a lot of murkiness. Novels have a terrible intimacy no matter what – because of what’s exposed when you write one. Because of what happens when you read one […] There are all these people, real and imaginary, breathing against our faces in any novel, not just accidentally jostling us like people in a crowded bar, but knowing us, or making us know them.
Bachner is talking about novels, but she could also be talking about Jeff, or about It Chooses You. The “terrible intimacy” that Bachner experiences with Malina, with the unnamed protagonist Ich (I/me), is in identifying with Ich’s struggle to hide her desire to be loved, to play the aloof game with her lover Ivan.
Ivan needs Ich to play harder to get, to be less eager, to trot or gallop toward him less. He tells her, You have to stay in the game. She says, “I don’t want any game.” He says, “But without a game it won’t work” […] “While we talk I can never allow myself to think that in an hour we will be lying in the bed or toward evening or very late at night […] Extreme self-control lets me accept Ivan’s sitting opposite me at first, silently smoking and talking.”
Ich must always hide how much she wants Ivan to love her, she must be ashamed that her happiness is tied up in being with him. She must pretend to be the person who doesn’t need to keep telling her stories or confessing her loneliness in order to feel connected to something. She must mind her boundaries, let the crew leave and run for the elevator once they reach the threshold of discomfort. She must not respond to Jeff’s ad, not pour out either her ecstasy or her devastation. She must be self-composed, her emotional distance always calibrated. Bachner, like Ich, doesn’t want any game, any concealment of her hunger for intimacy:

The bad self-help book [she is also reading The Therapy Tapes of Anne Sexton] sees the only measure of my worth in another’s eyes as managing to detach and not want him, to go to the movies alone or with some guy I love less than Ivan […] to have sex alone or with someone I want less than Ivan, to sit in the bath and […] think about astronomy or Austrian literature.
5.
The last person that Miranda July meets through the Pennysaver is Joe, an 81 year-old retired house-painter and contractor, “an obsessive-compulsive angel, working furiously on the side of good.” Joe and his wife Carolyn have been married 62 years, very much in love; they’ve cared for and buried countless dogs and cats; Joe does grocery shopping for eight elderly neighbors; Carolyn is sick with diabetes; they live on social security. During the interview, Joe invites July over for Christmas, at which point she makes her move to exit, though not unaffected:
When we finally extricated ourselves, we just sat in the car, very quietly, and were oddly tearful. Alfred said something about wanting to be a better boyfriend to his girlfriend. I felt like I wasn’t living thoroughly enough […] And yet this visit was suffused with death. Real death: all those cats and dogs, the widows he shopped for, and his own death, which he referred to more than once – but matter-of-factly, like it was a deadline that he was trying to get a lot of things done before.
July writes earlier in the book about how getting married and trying to finish a movie had made her fixated on death and time:
So all my time was spent measuring time […] And now that I had vowed to hang out with this man until I died, I also thought a lot about dying. It seemed I had not only married him but also married my eventual death.
July can’t forget Joe and Carolyn, so she casts Joe in her film. Then Joe gets diagnosed with cancer, he has just a few weeks to live. But Joe wants to do the film, despite his illness. The protagonist has his epiphany and transformation via meeting the character Joe; the film, The Future, gets finished. Before its release, Joe dies.

6.
Joe and Carolyn were not lonely, and not lonelier than the characters in the film, though many of the people July met through the Pennysaver were terribly lonely; July is the murkier character, drifting between art and life, running toward and away from loneliness. Elizabeth Bachner is living her real life, either at the movies kissing her Ivan, or in the bathtub with a bad self-help book, but still, we assume, finding connection and intimacy in novels. Jeff Ragsdale, from what I’ve gathered, is now both less lonely and more lonely, but it’s hard to say, because in real life, there is less closure, less follow-up. Today, I am having one of those days when what it is to be a fucking human being is to be lonely; but I’m reading a novel that’s just getting good, all these people breathing against my face, and plus, there’s always tomorrow, which is to say the hope of loneliness turning into an authentic voice, into something beautiful.

Image courtesy of .v1ctor./Flickr

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