I met Chuck Palahniuk in Pasadena, California, at a signing for his latest book, Adjustment Day. When I arrived, 30 minutes ahead of time, there was already a long line. Young girls and boys were standing there with the yellow book in their hands, waiting to see him. Everybody was particularly excited because they knew that he was not only going to sign books but also talk with them individually and take some pictures with them, writer and reader posing in fighting positions. “He really wants to give back to his readers,” one of the girls at the log-in point told us. I waited in line, reading and talking with the others. Some came from North Hollywood, some from Orange County. “What about you?” I’m asked. Palahniuk’s fans want to know each other, they discuss when and how they read Fight Club, they joke and bicker about its real meaning.
One of my critical theory graduate friends explained to me once, “The first rule of fight club is nobody knows what Fight Club is about–not even the author.” Thus, if you ask Chuck Palahniuk, he might answer: It’s a romance. It’s just The Great Gatsby updated a little.
At the end of Palahniuk’s tour for Adjustment Day, I emailed with him to chat about his books and the psychology of his main characters.
The Millions: Tyler from Fight Club and Talbott from Adjustment Day can be psychopaths, but they also say things that all of us have thought at least once in our lives. How do you construct the psychology of your characters? Do you think that we can consider them the Raskolnikovs of our time?
Chuck Palahniuk: Talbott has no child, no heir or apprentice, and he’s trying to pass along all the wisdom he believes he’s acquired in his lifetime. This is what any responsible parent does, so does it make him a psychopath? Likewise, Tyler is trying to empower another person with the only skills Tyler has. They both might be wrong-headed, but their motives are sound. Neither is malicious, so I’d say neither is a psychopath. Most likely that makes me a psychopath. I’ll embrace that idea. As for either one being Raskolnikov, I can’t say because I’ve never read Crime and Punishment.
TM: There’s a sense that all your characters are so fragile and scared, and angry with society, and all they look for is “one something that explains everything.” Do you feel that in our society there is an avoidance of complexity and conflict?
CP: Please, let’s not kid ourselves. I divide my life between two states that have both legalized marijuana. Not to mention that I staggered through my 20s in a cloud of dope smoke, never daring to write a word. Opiate abuse is soaring. We’re so bombarded with complications and conflict that our lives make a Kafka story looks like a cute kitten video. We’re starving for the One Big Idea that will simplify our world and unite us. What a relief that we have Jordan Peterson to show us the way, at last.
TM: One of the most interesting themes of your work is the issue of power—the idea that power is not about controlling the body but controlling the mind. Are you drawn to the topic by an influence of French philosophy, or has it been shaped primarily by your own life experiences?
CP: Experience is our first teacher. Academia merely gives language to what we’ve lived. Me, my background is journalism so I’m always surveying people and looking for patterns between their seemingly disparate lives. These larger, shared patterns I try to illustrate with fictional stories. The last and most abstract way of communicating real life stuff is via the buzz words of Foucault and Derrida and Heidegger.
TM: You said that Adjustment Day is a rewrite of Gone with the Wind. In the book the characters discuss the repetition of the American narrative model and the importance of breaking with tradition. How is this important for you as a writer?
CP: Once you recognize the myth you’re retelling, then you’re truly free to cleave unto it or to violate the myth. So many groups are calling for civil war, or self-segregating, it seemed like a new American civil war novel was needed.
TM: One of your characters talks about Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet, comparing the difficulty of finding fulfillment in his life and even to Kurt Cobain’s life. Do you think that parable is more relatable today than in the time of Flaubert?
CP: My guess is, yes, it is more applicable today. We have so much more social mobility. Our values are more fluid. And with more options we’re free to experiment and avoid our Dasein. Each of us knows her or his destiny, but we will move heaven and earth to avoid getting to it. Having said that, damn, I could use a Percocet.
For my first ever Year in Reading at The Millions, I will only be featuring books which I checked out from the local public library in my sleepy Massachusetts town a few miles north of the Red Line’s terminus. Constructed in 1892 and modeled after the Renaissance Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome, I’ve made this sandstone building a regular part of the itinerary on my way back from Stop ‘n Shop. The library has a resplendent mahogany reading room, the edges lined with framed 17th century drawings, with the back walls decorated with an incongruous painting of Napoleon’s ill-fated Russia campaign and a North African souk scene, all oranges and lemons in the sun. This room contains all of the new novels that come through the library, and after moving to Massachusetts and getting my card I made it a point to come every other week, and to take out more books than I had time to read.
I will not be considering books that I bought at the Harvard Co-Op or Grolier Poetry Bookshop, which without the deadline of a due-date tend to pile up next to my chair where they get chewed on by my French bulldog puppy. Nor will I write about books which I’ve taught these past two semesters, or which I published appraisals of and benefited from the generosity of publisher’s review copies. I’m also excluding non-fiction, preferring for the duration of this essay to focus entirely on the novel as the most exquisite vehicle for immersing ourselves in empathetic interiority to yet be devised by humans. And while there were seemingly endless books which I dipped into, reread portions of, skimmed, and started without finishing, holding to Francis Bacon’s contention in my beloved 17th century that “Some books are to be tasted… some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously,” I’ve rather chosen only to highlight those which the philosopher would have categorized as books that are “to be swallowed… to be chewed and digested.” Looking over the detritus of that complete year in reading, and examining that which was digested as a sort of literary coprologist, I’ve noticed certain traces of things consumed – namely novels of politics and horror, of imagination and immortality, of education and identity.
Campus novels are my comfort fiction, taking an embarrassing enjoyment in reading about people superficially like myself and proving the adage that there is nothing as consoling as our own narcissism. By my estimation the twin triumphs of that genre are my fellow Pittsburgher Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys and John Williams’s Stoner, the later of which remains alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as among the most perfect examples of 20th century American prose, where not even a comma is misplaced. While nothing quite reached those heights, the campus novels which I did read reminded me of why I love the genre so much – the excruciating personal politics, the combustible interactions between widely divergent personalities, and the barest intimations that the Ivory Tower is supposed to (and sometimes does) point to things transcendent and eternal.
Regarding that last, utopian quality of what we hope that higher education is supposed to do, I recently read Lan Samantha Chang’s All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost. The director of the esteemed University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Chang’s slender novel follows the literary careers of the poets who all trained together in the graduate seminar of Miranda Sturgis at fictional Bonneville College. Chang uses the characters of Bernard Sauvet and Roman Morris to interrogate how careerism, aesthetics, and competition all factor into something as seemingly rarefied as poetry. Roman has far more professional success, but is always haunted by the aridness of his verse; his is an abstraction polished to an immaculate sheen, but lacking in human feeling. Bernard, however, is a variety of earnest, celibate, very-serious-young-man with an affection for High Church Catholicism that Chang presents with precise verisimilitude, and who toils monastically in the production of an epic poem about the North American Jesuit martyrs. It’s a strange, quick read that risks falling into allegory, but never does.
A very different campus novel was Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, which details over the course of one semester a brief affair between creative writing professor Ted Swenson and his talented, if troubled, student Angela Argo. Intergenerational infidelity is one of the most hackneyed themes of the campus novel, and Prose’s narrative threatens to spill into the territory of David Mamet’s Oleanna. A lesser writer could have turned The Blue Angel, which is loosely based on Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film classic, into a conservative, scolding denunciation of gender politics; the twist being that it’s a woman whose delivering invective against the movement towards great accountability concerning sexual harassment. No doubt the novel must read very different after #MeToo, but the text itself doesn’t evidence the sympathy for Ted which some critics might accuse Prose of. As a character, Ted is nearer to Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert from Lolita, albeit less charming. When read as the account of an unreliable narrator, The Blue Angel isn’t a satire of feminist piety, but to the contrary an exploration of Ted’s ability to rationalize and obfuscate, most crucially to himself.
Ryan McIlvain’s novel The Radicals is only superficially a campus novel; its main characters Eli and Sam are both graduate students at NYU, but the author’s actual subject is how political extremism can justify all manner of things which we’d never think ourselves capable of, even murder. Reflecting back on the first day they really connected (at that most David Foster Wallace of pastimes – a tennis game), Eli says of Sam “I couldn’t have known I was standing across the net from a murderer, and neither could he,” which I imagine would be the sort of thing you’d remember when reflecting on the halcyon days of an activist group that turned deadly. McIlvain’s prose is a minimalist in a manner that I’m traditionally not attracted towards, but which in The Radicals he imbues with a sense of elegant parsimony. The politics of The Radicals is weirdly hermetically sealed, lower Manhattan during the early Obama years more a set piece for McIlvain to perform a thought experiment on the psychology of insular, extreme groups. Sam, initially the less committed of the two, though whom we’re given indications of his character during a disturbing road rage incident in the opening pages of the book, ultimately becomes the leader of an anarchist cell that emerges out of a movement which seems similar to Occupy Wall Street. As the group stalks through the Westchester estate of an executive implicated in the ’08 financial crash, we’re presented with a riveting account of how ideology can quickly veer into the cultish.
There is an elegiac quality to McIlvain’s novel, a sort of eulogy for Occupy, though of course the actual movement never fizzled out in a spasm of violence as The Radicals depicts. A more all-encompassing portrait of American politics in our current moment is Nathan Hill’s The Nix (2017). Hill’s book is a door-stopper, and for that and other reasons it has accurately drawn comparisons to the heaviest of Thomas Pynchon’s novels. The Nix follows the story of another ill-fated creative writing instructor, the unfortunately named Samuel Andresen-Anderson, though unlike Prose’s protagonist his vice isn’t sleeping with his students, but an addiction to a World of Warcraft-type video game. Samuel is only one of dozens of characters in the book, including his ‘60s radical mother who is in legal trouble for throwing rocks in Chicago’s Grant Park at a right-wing presidential candidate who evokes Roy Moore, his entitled student who functions as a millennial stereotype that somehow avoids being overly cliché, the musical prodigy of his youth whom he still pines for, her Iraq War veteran brother, and even the interior monologues of Allen Ginsberg and Hubert Humphrey. Hill’s most immaculate creation is the trickster-god of a book agent Guy Periwinkle, a mercurial, amoral, nihilistic Svengali who reads as an incarnation of the era of Twitter and Facebook.
The narrative threads are so many, so complicated, and so interrelated that it’s difficult to succinctly explain what The Nix is about, but to give a sense of its asynchronous scope the novel ranges from Norway on the eve of World War II, the stultifying conformity of 60’s Iowa, the ’68 Democratic National Convention (and the subsequent protests), suburban Illinois in the ‘80s, New York during the anti-war protests of 2003, as well as the Iraq War, and the imagined alternative universe of 2016. Its concerns include political polarization, the trauma that family can inflict across generation, the neoliberal university, and video-game addiction. Few novels capture America as it is right now with as much emotional accuracy as The Nix, but it’s all there – the rage, the vertigo, the exhaustion. Of course, haunting the pages of The Nix is a certain Fifth Avenue resident, who is never mentioned, but is very much the embodiment of our garbage era. More than that, Hill performs an excavation of the long arc of our contemporary history, and the scenes with Samuel’s mother in ’68 draw a direct connection between those events of a half-century ago and today, so that the real ghost which permeates the novel is less the mythical Norwegian sprite that gives the book its title, than that other “Nix” whose presidency set the template for a corrupt, compromised, polarized, spiteful, and hateful age.
Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic covered similar political and economic ground as both The Radicals and The Nix do, though as channeled through the mini-drama between upwardly mobile, self-made banker Doug Fanning and his new neighbor, the retired school-teacher Charlotte Graves. Union Atlantic follows Charlotte’s war of attrition against both Doug and the McMansion that he’s building in their tony Boston suburb. There is something almost Victorian about Haslett’s concerns; Doug’s journey from being raised by an alcoholic single mother in Southie to becoming a millionaire banker living in a Belmont-like suburb has a bit of the Horatio Alger boot-strap story about it, save for the fact that his protagonist never rises to the same heights of sympathy. Haslett portrays the contradictions of Massachusetts with admirable accuracy – the liberalism and the wealth, the Catholic city and the Protestant suburbs, the working class and the Boston Brahmins. As a nice magical realist touch, Charlotte is in the process of losing her mind, hearing her dogs speak to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X. I couldn’t help but be charmed by a dog who sputters invective in the tongue of the colonial Puritan theologian, saying things like “You dwell in Memory like some Perversity of the Flesh. A sin against the gift of Creation it is to harp on the dead while the living still suffer.”
A chilling evocation of those themes of sin and memory is supplied by Nick Laird in Modern Gods, though not without a bit of melancholic Irish wit. Laird provides a novel in two parts; the first concerns the wedding of Allison Donnelly to a man whom she later discovers was involved with the Ulster Unions in an act of spectacularly horrific violence during the Troubles, the second her anthropologist sister Liz’s trip to the appropriately named New Ulster in Papua New Guinea where she is involved in BBC documentary about the emergence of a cargo cult competing against the American evangelical missionaries who’re trying to convert the natives. Laird’s focus is on the horrors of sectarian violence, and the faith which justifies those acts. He could be writing of either the cargo cult, the evangelical missionaries, or the Ulster Protestants when he describes the “imagery of sacrifice and offering, memorials and altars … disguised as just the opposite, a sanctuary from materialism… a marketplace of cold transactions.” Laird’s most sympathetic (and disturbing) character is the cult leader herself, a native named Belef (just “belief” with the “I” taken out…) who appears as a character out of Joseph Conrad, and whose air of cold malice is as characteristic and as evocative of old Ulster as it is of new.
Cults from The Radicals to Modern Gods are very much on authors’ minds in our season of violent political rallies and epistemological anarchy, and so they’re a concern as well in Naomi Alderman’s science fiction parable The Power, where we see the emergence of a religion in opposition to the machinations of the patriarchy. Part of a tradition of feminist dystopian science fiction that finds its modern genesis in Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale (that author not for nothing prominently blurbing The Power). Alderman imagines an alternate world in which women are suddenly endowed with a physical strength that completely upends traditional gender roles, causing radical shifts in power from eastern Europe to Saudi Arabia, the Midwest to London. Alderman writes with narrative panache, moving rapidly between various intertwined plots and across wildly divergent voices, including that of the abused foster girl Allie who becomes the the leader of the new faith and christens herself Mother Eve; Roxie, the daughter of a Cockney-Jewish gangster; an American politician named Margot Cleary and her daughter Jocelyn; a Nigerian journalist named Tunde (who is the only major male character in the novel); and the Melania-like first-lady of Moldova, Tatiana Moskalev, who offs her piggish husband and establishes a female-sanctuary in her former country. The Power is a thought-provoking book, and one with some exquisite moments of emotional Schadenfreude, as when newly self-liberated women riot against repressive regimes in places like Riyadh, and yet it’s not a particularly hopeful book, as the new order begins to replicate the worst excesses of the old.
The Power is only one book in our current renaissance of feminist science fiction, written in large part as a response to the rank misogyny and anti-woman policies of our nation’s current regime. In The Guardian Vanessa Thorpe explains that this is a “matching literary revolution,” which sees a new “breed of women’s ‘speculative’ fiction, positing altered sexual and social hierarchies.” Louise Erdrich provides one such example in her Future Home of the Living God which reads as a sort of cracked, post-apocalyptic nativity tale. In a premise like that of P.D. James’s Children of Men, though without the implied reactionary politics, Erdrich presents the diary of Cedar Hawk Songmaker, college student and the adopted Ojibwe daughter of crunchy, upper middle-class Minnesota liberals. Cedar Hawk finds herself pregnant during an autumn when it seems as if evolution itself has started to reverse, as all manner of primeval beings hatch from eggs, one of which is the proverbial gestation of a theocratic government reacting to the ecological collapse. Erdrich remains one of our consummate prose stylists, and Cedar Hawk is an immaculate creation (in several different ways). A precocious and intelligent student, Cedar Hawk is a Catholic convert who grapples with women’s spirituality, and Erdrich presents a book that is both Catholic and vehemently pro-choice (while also understanding that to be pro-choice isn’t to be anti-pregnancy).
Genre fiction is perhaps the best way to explore our current moment, where the “Current Affairs” section and “Science Fiction” are increasingly indistinguishable. Erdrich and Alderman write in a tradition of literary speculative fiction which recalls recent work by Atwood, Chabon, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, and Jim Crace, but old fashioned hard science fiction with all of its intricate world-building never loses its charms. Sam Miller provides just that in his infectiously enjoyable Blackfish City, which follows the intertwined stories of several characters living in a floating, mechanical city above the Arctic Circle in an early 22nd century ravaged by climate change. Despite hard science fiction’s reputation for being all about asteroid mining colonies and silvery faster-than-light starships, the reality is that from Samuel Delaney to Octavia Butler, science fiction has always been more daring in how it approaches questions of race and gender than conservative literary fiction can be. Miller’s novel provides a detailed, fascinating account of how the geothermal powered city (which is operated by a consortium of Thai and Swedish companies) actually works, but his thematic concerns include economic stratification, deregulation, global warming, and gender fluidity. That, and he has depicted neuro-connected animal familiars that communicate with their human partners, including a polar bear and an orca whale. So, there’s that!
Science fiction isn’t the only genre attuned to our neoliberal, late capitalist, ascendant fascistic hell-scape – there’s also horror, of course. Paul Tremblay offers a visceral, thrilling, and disturbing account of a home invasion/hostage situation in his horror pastoral The Cabin at the End of the World, which makes fantastic use of narrative ambiguity in rewriting the often-over-played apocalyptic genre. One of the scariest novels I read in the past year was Hari Kunzru’s postmodern gothic White Tears. The strange ghost tale has been discussed as if it was a simple parody of white hipster culture’s appropriation of black music, and yet White Tears grapples with America’s racial history in a manner that evokes both William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Kunzru’s story follows the fraught friendship of Seth and Carter, who share a love of lo-fi Mississippi Delta blues music, both listening to and producing songs as an act of musical obsessiveness worthy of R. Crumb. Carter crafts a faux Robert Johnson style number attributed to an invented musician he christens “Charles Shaw,” based off of a recording of random, diegetic patter between two men playing chess in Washington Square Park which Seth picks up on one of his forays through New York to preserve ambient sound. The two discover that the fictional bluesman might be more real than they suppose.
The complexities and contradictions of American culture are also explored in Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean, which though perhaps not a horror novel itself is still a loving homage to the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. La Farge’s novel is an endlessly recursive frame-tale which follows a series of inter-nestled narratives ranging from the (fictional) homosexual relationship of Lovecraft with a young Floridian named Robert Barlow, to New York author Charlie Willett’s obsession with finding a lost pornographic work of the master himself, which is of course titled The Erotonomicon. Along the way the reader confronts questions of artifice and authenticity, as well as a consideration of the darker reaches of Lovecraft’s brilliant, if bigoted, soul. Le Farge moves across a century of history, and from the horror author’s native Providence to Mexico City on Dia de los Muertos, from northern Ontario to the Upper West Side, with a cameo appearance from Beat novelist William S. Burroughs. La Farge’s novel isn’t quite weird fiction itself, but he writes with an awareness that Lovecraft’s cold, chthonic, unfeeling, anarchic, nihilistic stories of meaninglessness are as apt an approach to our contemporary moment as any, where Cthulhu’s tentacles reach further than we’d care to admit and the Great Old Ones always threaten to devour us. Facing the uncertainties of terrifying push notification, reflect on the master himself, who wrote that the “oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
La Farge’s narrative progresses Zelig-like through 20th century literary history, its story encompassing fictionalized accounts of the intersection of both experimental and genre writing. I’ve always been drawn to picaresque, delighted by the appearance of historical figures as they arrive briefly in a story. Matt Haig’s masterful How to Stop Time has plenty of cameos in the life of its main character Tom Hazard, from William Shakespeare and Captain Cook to Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Tom isn’t quite an immortal, but in all the ways that matter he nearly is. Haig describes an entire secret fraternity of incredibly old people called the “Albatross Society” who vampire-like scurry about the margins of history. A Huguenot refugee who comes of age in Elizabethan England, Tom’s narrative follows his yearning to discover the missing daughter of his dead wife, the former a near-immortal like himself. Haig’s is a risky gambit, jumping from the 16th century to the 21st, yet he performs the job admirably, and as somebody who cashes checks from writing about the Tudor era, I can attest to the accurate feel of the Renaissance scenes in the book. Word is that a film adaptation is on the way, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (predictably), but more than even its cinematic action about secret societies and historical personages, How to Stop Time offers an estimably human reflection on what it means to grow old, and to lose people along the way.
As the nights grow dimmer and the temperature drops, the distant beginning of the year seems paradoxically closer, the months folding back in on themselves as the Earth reaches the same location in its annual terminus around our sun. January’s reading seems more recent to me than those summer beach indulgences when I got sand from Manchester-by-the-Sea in the creases of my library books, and so I end like an Ouroboros biting its own tale with the first book of 2018 which I read: Paul Kingsnorth’s enigmatic fable Beast. Founder of the Dark Mountain Project, which encourages artists and writers to grapple with what they see as an approaching climate apocalypse, Kingsnorth has been writing increasingly avant-garde prose in reaction to our inevitable demise. His main (and only) character Edward Buckmaster seems to be the same protagonist from his earlier novel The Wake, albeit that earlier novel takes place in the Dark Ages and is written in an Anglo-Saxon patois that is equally beautiful as tedious, while Beast by all intents seems to be broadly contemporary in its setting.
I’m unsure as to whether they’re the same character, or if Edward is to be understood as the reincarnation of his namesake, but both novels share a minimalist, elemental sensibility where the very nature of prose and narrative are stripped to bare essentials. Beast follows the surreal ruminations of Edward as he phases in and out of consciousness in a cottage on the English moors, in a landscape uninhabited by people, while he both stalks and is stalked by some sort of fantastic creature. The nature of the animal is unclear – is it a big cat? A wolf? Something else? And the setting is bizarrely wild, if not post-apocalyptic feeling, when compared to the reality of the urbanized English countryside. Beast is as if Jack London’s Call of the Wild was rewritten by Albert Camus. It’s the sort of “Man vs. Nature” plot that I always want to like and which I rarely do – save for this time, where I very much did enjoy Kingsnorth’s strange allegory. At least it feels like an allegory, but the nature of its implications are hard to interpret. Proffering a hypothesis, I will say that reading Beast, where boredom threaded by a dull anxiety is occasionally punctuated by moments of horror, is as succinct an experiential encapsulation of 2018 as any.
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Almost exactly year ago, I wrote a list of books to read to understand late-stage capitalism for this site, because so much of what’s going on in the world today—Trump, endless wars, climate disasters, the migrant crisis, extreme income inequality—can be tied back to capitalism and yet we have so few books that examine its effects on us who are living in this frenzied late-stage capitalist epoch.
I would have added Gary Shteyngart’s Lake Success to the list, but it hadn’t been published yet. On first reading it as a literary novel, the “rich-hedge funder-goes-on-a-journey-suffers-hardship-like-the-Greyhound-bus-bathrooms-returns-having-learned-a-thing-or-two” was a bit of a let-down. The frenetic satirical voice, the similar plot of his older work, Super Sad True Love Story with the older secular Jewish man and the younger Asian woman, grated on my nerves a bit. While other reviewers had praised Lake Success as a radical departure from the previous, since it dealt with an American-born not immigrant character, I still couldn’t get over the similarity in tone, down to the fact that the older Jewish American narrator, previously “Lenny,” is now “Barry”—which of course rhymes with “Gary.”
But sitting back and taking it in as a whole, and situating it amongst our current cultural and political climate, I realized it is possible to write a novel that seems not fully functional in a literary sense (including with somewhat generic unlikeable characters), but its dysfunction can be, inadvertently or not, precisely the point.
It reminds me, glancingly, of Ha Jin’s masterful War Trash, a “diary” about a Chinese soldier who becomes a POW in a U.N. detention camp during the Korean War. The novel’s deliberately clunky voice (a shock after the lyrical Waiting) made the reading difficult but in the end faithfully convey a non-native’s voice further occluded by the stream-of-consciousness form of the diary entry written by a traumatized soldier during a war.
Shteyngart’s previous novel, Super Sad True Love Story, was putatively a love story, but I admired it for its look at techno-futurism, eerily predicting the smart phone, skinny jeans, Internet sites like Hot or Not. It was a funny Black Mirror long before there was Black Mirror, and, for something totally esoteric, the author’s a correct and nuanced and untranslated use of the Korean word gijibae (“brat”—used only for women and girls) was pretty cool.
Lake Success, in contrast to Super Sad, dwells not in the near-future but in the real time of a Trump election cycle, rooted in the seeming unending nightmare of our present; to use a contemporary word, it feels like “streaming.” It starts with Barry, the head of a hedge fund, eschewing a private helicopter or other hedge fund modes of transport to head to Port Authority, on the lam from his marriage, his son’s autism diagnosis, the feds who are closing in on him for some shady trades. He hops on a Greyhound and ends up traversing the country with nothing but some cash and a suitcase full of his beloved expensive watches and the vague goal of reuniting with his college girlfriend, with whom he has not kept in touch basically since they broke up after college, when he chose high finance over their relationship. Much of the middle of the book is a picaresque tour of America’s Triumpian interior. Shteyngart ups the stakes of his modern Odysseus journey by subtracting Barry’s phone and credit cards until he lands in a cash-poor situation (at one point begging with a cardboard sign and cup) not dissimilar from that of the average Greyhound bus passenger, citizens of all colors who are sharing the bus ride with him and act as a kind of Greek chorus.
Barry is about as deeply an unlikeable narrator as they come. He judges women on purely superficial bases (his first contact with his wife-to-be is when she admonishes him for ogling her breasts). He is so underdeveloped emotionally it seems he has no Pavlovian responses to anything except thoughts of sex (but not with his wife, now) and money, which, since he has so much of it, he mainly uses to buy extremely expensive rare watches that he dithers over while barely paying attention to his son.
The finance aspect of the novel is that Barry is being chased by the feds for his shady positions his hedge fund takes in “Gastrolux” and “Valupro,” which seem inspired by the fraud and price gouging of hedge funder Martin “Pharma Bro” Shkreli and the Galleon Group’s Raj Rajaratnam, a Sri Lankan immigrant to whom a director at Goldman Sachs passed insider information. Barry is cheater on his wife and on SEC regulations, but he isn’t so much a Bonfire of the Vanities Sherman McCoy Master of the Universe as a clueless doofus, even though sloppily racist (he thinks his friend Jeff Park is Chinese—a joke recycled from Super Sad True Love Story with the young Korean American woman, Eunice Park: “Chinese women are so delicate”). The only thing Barry knows in his heart is making money (which he continues to do despite the feds) and while he tries to love his three-year-old son, it seems the only way he can do this is through saving his son, who can’t tell time, a special watch to inherit. As he abandons his family and cuts off communication, Barry knows something’s a bit off with him; there are clues he feels might indicate he is “autistic” like his son.
Barry’s world of high finance frequently references Goldman Sachs, where I once worked; Goldman has indeed become part of pop culture, if anything for indelibly fomenting the mortgage crisis of 2008, but I didn’t find Barry convincing as an ex-athlete finance bro. Barry’s default modes are sheepish and full of shame, which are usually not part of a finance bro’s emotional palette, evidenced in how Goldman conducted part of its business at strip clubs and on golf courses. Most of the finance people I worked with were too self centered to have that aching Barry angst or his need to please because they were convinced they’d already “won” via their acumen and merits and the spoils of income inequality.
What makes Lake Success a notable book for this year is less characterizations and plot. Despite the fact that this novel is pushed as a departure from his earlier immigrant novels, it’s almost like each novel has a version of the same protagonist going through different situations, and that his books merely skim the surface of technical and scientific issues while utilizing jargon (China-pegged currency arbitrage, genetic modification, mortgage-backed securities) but in some ways this refractory, superficial style is precisely what makes his work so interesting and original, especially at this time.
While Shteyngart’s “Barry” characters (I’ll call all his anti-hero protagonists Barry) grope (sometimes literally) their way into their futures, dystopian and not, in between the gross jokes (Barry burps up beer and Domino’s pizza while simultaneously trying to navigate a touching moment with a friend) that rise from the basic—in all senses of the word—plots (love story, road trip story), in Lake Success, we readers can squint to look at the glinting of the over-the-top glass and chrome of these billion-dollar apartments and see, mercilessly reflected back, the attention-deficient, capital-obsessed, atomized, ever accelerating FOMO society that we have become. Even Barry’s liberal-leaning wife, a lawyer-turned-stay-at-home-mom, rationalizes the good living afforded by Barry’s rapacious capitalism and uneasily deludes herself that, as Dawn Powell characterized certain New Yorkers in the ’30s, that with her phalanx of cooks and nannies and doormen, she is still “not idle rich, but busy, good-living, intelligent idling rich.”
What this novel has carved out, as if with surgical scalpel, is the feeling of malaise that in our weird late-stage capitalist epoch, even someone worth 30 billion dollars can feel. Jeff Park the “Chinese” financier peevishly complains that the top of his Ferrari “used to go down in fourteen seconds…but now it takes eighteen. Everything’s a scam.” Barry, likewise, can’t believe it when he finds his ridiculously expensive watch has lost a few seconds. It’s a funny and sad (and maybe super-sad) realization for these one-percenters that money can’t buy them a perfect universe, that having the means to overspend on a consumable good like a watch still does not guarantee its quality—it is a scam—nor does thirty billion versus fifteen billion make a difference in death. Here is where, through a sea of financial jargon sometimes inexpertly applied (and maybe the goobledy-goo of financial jargon is precisely the point), we hit gold.
The feds do catch up to Barry, but it gets resolved in a paragraph or two (no spoilers, here), and Barry’s free to go and he’s not even barred from the industry; at first this seems like “too easy” a plot point, the galloping narrative merely running out of gas. But it continues as an eminently plausible and expected resolution (art imitates life and back again). It therefore makes in a paragraph the point that a thousand studies from the Roosevelt Institute outlining the costs of rescinding of Glass-Steagall (a Depression-era banking reform law) never could, about how we got here, and how we are unlikely to learn from our mistakes, as long as the money-laden people stay in charge.
That pretty much all the upper-income characters in Lake Success are mild-to-moderately loathsome illuminates the hypocrisies that the people on the “good” side of income inequality have little motivation to change it, even when they are, like Barry’s wife, uncomfortable with some of the moral aspects of it. Barry considers himself a Republican but “socially liberal,” but sees nothing wrong with gouging dying patients for an essential drug because profit and shareholder value is his lodestar. Jeff Park’s father actually needs that drug, and so Jeff is mad at Barry because of it, but Jeff is also glad he, too, is a rapacious Lamborghini-driving financial swell because that way he can afford the heavily-price-inflated drug for his father. Talk about a model minority.
It’s a radical updating of The Great Gatsby as we see Barry smashing up people’s lives, while his cross-country journey gives him plenty of time to think about it and even meet the people impacted by what to him was merely moving numbers around. In our current culture, we privilege business, even though it doesn’t make sense—why do we focus to the exclusion of arts and other sciences, on economic value measured in piles of paper while we despoil the air and water that we depend on to live? Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” isn’t rational and impartial, it’s about maximizing profit; as evidence, as Americans, we might want to consider why all other countries in the world are smart enough to not base their healthcare systems on ours, and the majority have some kind of universal insurance while we, in the so-called land of consumer choice, don’t even had a public option for it. Further, in classic economics, profits would be zero; in a perfect capitalist society because of transparency in costs of production that essential pharma drug should be priced near what it cost to make. Barry succeeds by subverting all of that
The Lake Success of the title is actually a place as well as a metaphor in the book. It is Barry’s green light at the end of the dock, his East Egg, his Rosebud and his White Whale all at once. Why not pack it all into one narrative? Late stage capitalism’s name suggests excess, and also that we are approaching a terminus, as presaged in the title of the excellent early-late-stage capitalism novel (2006), Then We Came to the End. That unless we pivot drastically (“a course correction,” as Barry might say), there’s a black hole waiting as a consequence of our pollution of our environment, of our prizing lucre over life, our worship of paper, of using technology to get rid of inefficiency then discovering that human relationships are remarkably inefficient as well.
Lake Success does take a drastic pivot at the very end (no spoilers!), with a burst of lyricism verging on sentimentality that suggests both beauty and love—and an end. The way Barry lives is clearly not sustainable, and this is what we learn. In this, the novel succeeds wildly, for what is the role of artist if not to reflect back society to the reader—even, and perhaps especially, if we aren’t going to like what we see?
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Asher looked up at all those stars again. It wasn’t right for such a sky to be shining above them when so many people had lost so much. But the sky doesn’t pay a bit of attention to the things that happen to us, the joys or the sorrows, either one.” –Silas House, Southernmost
I ordered the sweatshirt—the navy with bright yellow lettering—from Kin Ship Goods, the offbeat apparel store in Charleston. “West Virginia vs. The World.” I suppose I didn’t really need a new sweatshirt, although I felt compelled to get this specific one. Kin Ship only sells super soft sweatshirts and tees, with a whole line of WV-themed clothing. One place of several that feels uniquely our own.
Our. Possessive. The language of belonging to others, to someplace, even if that someplace tends to be a much-maligned and misunderstood corner of the world. That’s what it means, many times, to be from Appalachia. As the only state wholly contained within Appalachia, “West Virginia vs. The World” indeed. I attempted to, in an almost literal way, wear my heart on my sleeve, except the wording on my sweatshirt stretches over my entire torso. You can’t miss it.
In his novel Southernmost, Silas House begins with a flood biblical enough for a small borough of East Tennessee and its preacher, Asher Sharpe. “The rain had been falling with a pounding meanness for two days, and the waters rose all at once in the middle of the night …” As the waters rise, Asher tends to his soggy, wiped-out flock. Reading about the flood in House’s novel reminded me of two summers past, when, away for some training in New York City, I awoke to the morning news showing Joe Manchin III, a senator from my state, outside Clendenin, West Virginia, which, like many other places in the state, suffered severe flooding. Rains came down in such quantity and force that the creeks and streams and rivers swelled into every available hollow. From Clendenin, the cameras panned to images of Richwood, also flooded, a river through the local library, where, somehow, the library’s orange cat had been saved.
Meanwhile, Manhattan’s sun was bright, baking the flat grid of pavement below my feet.
The land in Appalachia rises and dips so close, so hemmed in, that if it rains hard enough, there’s nowhere for it all to go. “This one feels like judgement,” House writes of the flood that overtakes Asher’s little town. Reading it, I recognize that nugget, as true for the novel’s slice of Appalachia as it is my own.
Steve Almond believes in stories: “Stories don’t fall from the clouds, after all. They are invented and refined and promoted by particular narrators with particular agendas.” Almond explores what stories can do and explores darker aspect of stories through the lens of the 2016 election in Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country. Just as stories have the potential to lift us up, they can also instill within us rather toxic beliefs. As “the basic unit of human consciousness,” Almond implores us to understand the underlying meaning behind the stories we tell ourselves as we struggle to make meaning in our lives and from that which swirls around us. Modern life proliferates stories with increased velocity, which makes pausing on them, let along parsing them, a particular challenge. “The stories we tell and the ones we absorb are what allows us to pluck meaning from the rush of experience,” writes Almond. “Only through the patient interrogation of these stories can we begin to understand where we are and how we got there.”
Problem is, we don’t live in a time where patience is the virtue it once was. Instead, we live in a time when the patience of which Almond speaks feels particularly undervalued, where instead, speed and sensationalism reign. Our politicians tell us we’re done reading books, favoring squawking television sets. Culturally, we prize that which grabs our fleeting attention spans. This, of course, makes the exercise of painstakingly parsing stories even more important. Can we truly value stories if we casually consume them, and can we find their flaws without painstaking investigation? We careen through unexamined lives, more concerned with the idea of protecting ourselves than submitting to more difficult, more examined, and ultimately more satisfying existence.
When Elizabeth Catte read Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, she unpacked many troubling stories relating to her home region, Appalachia. One might say she harnessed her anger at J.D. Vance’s one-voiced, sloppy, and self-serving narrative through the salve of her own meticulous research and impassioned prose. In considering the book, Vance’s title is instructive; he considers the story of his experiences and his family indicative of an entire culture, as if the whole of Appalachia as well as Rust Belt Ohio (which he often conflates with Appalachia) should be viewed through his and only his point of view. It shouldn’t be a stretch to say that a 400-plus-county region extending across many states probably has more cultural nuance than a single man’s story, and in her slender but intellectually hefty book, What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, Catte identifies Elegy as one of many “bad stories” to be debunked.
When her unwavering eye is trained on Vance’s book, Catte pulls apart his flimsy arguments much the same way Steve Almond confronts other bad stories: by seeing how the narrator constructs narrative to serve an agenda. Catte unpacks narrator J.D. Vance by showing us how he wants us to read him: “He is simply an individual burdened with the dual identity of both cosmopolitan elite and hillbilly everyman, performing what he calls his ‘civic responsibility’ to contribute his talent and energy to solving social problems.” She identifies a crafted persona and cautions against his agenda: “Perhaps it is wise to consider if this humility is just a strategy.” We should beware Vance’s humblebrag lest we miss the manipulation he pulls us through, his personal pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps-type memoir as the only way to “save” a region. Vance ignores any other viewpoint than his own; Catte rightfully takes Vance’s case study of one to task, unmasking the personal myth with which he underpins the entire book, and challenges its claims to cultural ethos. In this way, Hillbilly Elegy is best-seller and a bad story.
In a similar way, Catte pulls apart another “bad story” from the region, one she calls “Trump Country” pieces, journalism that privileges outside writers-as-experts on Appalachia to explain Donald Trump’s appeal as a presidential candidate and later the support of his presidency. “Trump Country pieces share a willingness to use flawed representations of Appalachia to shore up narratives of an extreme ‘other America’ that can be condemned or redeemed to suit one’s purpose,” she writes. “This is the region’s most conventional narrative, popularized for more than 15 years by individuals who enhanced their own prestige or economic fortunes by presenting Appalachia as a space filled with contradictions only intelligent outsider observers could act on.” She articulates this bad story which emanates from Appalachia by using the Almond formula of seeing what particular narrators and particular agendas invent, refine, and promote. It becomes far easier to blame the working class and the poor voters in Appalachia for Trump than other, more genteel-seeming places for the Trump phenomenon, despite the impossible math. Take West Virginia, for instance. We only have five electoral votes.
J.D. Vance, while not specifically writing Elegy as a “Trump Country” piece, has fashioned himself into a news-segment Trump Country whisperer, manipulating his persona as hillbilly insider and intellectual outsider (as if Appalachia couldn’t have intellectuals inside its borders) as a clever tactic to get rich. All the while, Vance continues to improve his own position without complicating the narrative within existing “Trump Country” pieces. He is, as Catte describes, “a well-educated person with a powerful platform who has chosen to accept a considerable amount of fame and wealth to become the spokesperson for the region,” and he’s telling America the story it wants to hear.
When I read Elegy, it struck a pervasive false note, the same way Trump Country pieces magnify only the small part of the region necessary to tell the author’s prefabricated story without looking for intricacies that would complicate a narrative or challenging easy notions that might exist. For instance, when a reporter writing a Trump Country piece for Vanity Fair came to Morgantown, he failed to report on the patrons at the local coffee house The Blue Moose, where one might find West Virginia University professors grabbing morning coffee, or students writing everything from poems to doctoral dissertations, or business colleagues meeting up. A place like The Blue Moose might reveal an interesting range of opinions and impressions rather than just supporting the bad story that’s become an accepted one. The author doesn’t cite anyone from the university, the state’s flagship land-grant institution, a Research 1 university, where he could have talked to experts in regional history and politics. Instead, this writer chooses the seedy Blue Parrot, a local club that boldly advertises “all nude” dancers on its marquee. As you might imagine, he finds the source he’s looking for: a gun-toting Trump supporter who, for the purposes of the Vanity Fair article, becomes representative of my little corner of Appalachia. To show a potential dichotomy of views could have proven intellectually and culturally valuable. To seek only the one view that fit a prevailing outsider narrative reveals manipulation, a sign of a bad story. The Vanity Fair article came out before the West Virginia primary, where Trump did win the Republican bid, and where Bernie Sanders carried each of the state’s 55 counties, a fact often missed, or conveniently omitted, in reporting about our region. I would never argue that Trump didn’t enjoy support here, but he wasn’t the only candidate that did.
Steve Almond writes in Bad Stories that “so long as our free press operates as a for-profit enterprise, its managers are duty-bound to sell whatever we’re willing to buy.” Reading this reminds me of all the Trump Country pieces I’d read in national publications about West Virginia and the rest of Appalachia. Trump Country pieces were what those other Americans were willing to buy. The story of the region, its role as the “other America,” is preserved in these stories. Even as the historic teachers’ strike happened, the reporters had their agendas for poverty porn. And this extends beyond journalism, to book publishing, television, and film. What continues to perplex me is why so many people are so willing to buy into this one narrative without any curiosity. Good stories often force us to reexamine our preconceived ideas. They open us through more plurality of perspectives, or surprise us with what lies beneath the surface. The typical Appalachian story unfolds to the taste of those outside our borders.
Asher Sharpe, at a crossroads when we meet him in Southernmost, changes from judgmental preacher to judged man. Raised by a fundamentalist Christian mother, he’s grown up to be a preacher according to her narrow understanding of scripture and doctrine. His mother, so steadfast in her beliefs, runs her other son, Luke, out of town by putting a gun to his head and threatening to kill him to put him out of his misery. Luke had just come out to her and Asher as a gay man. Asher says and does nothing, and it’s the nothingness of his response that haunts him later. At the story’s beginning, Asher is married to Lydia, a woman born and bred to be a preacher’s wife. In the aftermath of the flood, Lydia refuses shelter to two gay men—two gay men who helped saved Justin, her own son, from rising flood waters. The men’s home has been destroyed and they have nowhere to go. Asher does not contradict his wife, but he feels shame at her behavior and at his own cowardice. He can’t see her in quite the same way anymore. “She had grown afraid of everything,” writes House. Perhaps Asher is losing fear as he recognizes it in her.
Lydia’s litany of anti-gay beliefs, “We have to stand up for what’s right,” or some version of it, is parroted by most of Asher’s congregation. They feel their position is a moral one ordained by God.
Using the imaginative power of fiction, Silas House dares to imagine a straight, Appalachian preacher going through a significant change of heart on an entrenched issue in his faith community. House belongs to both the LGBTQ and Appalachian communities—born in the region, living and writing in Eastern Kentucky. Southernmost confronts the tensions of these two communities, and it does so through the eyes of the least likely character. It is the magic alchemy of fiction writing—and fiction reading—which allows us entree not just into what is but what could be. This, perhaps, feels most significant about Southernmost. In a novel, unlike in memoir, we can see the world how it could be. Where J.D. Vance tries to imprint his own experience on others, Silas House invites us to imagine what actually changes a person’s beliefs. House explores what makes people change and grow through Asher.
Against the idea of faith used as judgement, Asher confronts his flock: “He plucked his Bible up from the pulpit and held it in the air. ‘You can use the Word to judge and condemn people or you can use it to love them.’” Later, Asher sees his own role in the judgment he saw in in his church: “He thinks about the man he had been, just a couple years ago. Judging and preaching and telling others how to live, filled up with the weight of thinking he knew what God wanted.” Some characters change. Asher Sharpe converts to a whole new mode of understanding.
Reading House’s novel, I began to understand Asher’s journey, in part, as the unraveling of a bad story, one deeply entrenched but not impossible to pull apart to find a new, better understanding. And in fact, Asher articulates the magic that reading does: “For most of his life Asher had devoted all his reading to the Bible, of course. That had been expected of him, to read the Bible and nothing else. His congregation had hired him because he had not been to seminary. Only recently had he realized the way books could give a person wings.” Being inculcated with only one set of stories—in Asher’s case only reading the Bible—narrows the view. But by embracing how stories help grow our understanding, he imagines them as wings—that which allow a body to soar.
Steve Almond asks of us, “What happens when we treat hope as a sucker’s game?”
House gives us gives us a sideways answer: “When people lift their voices at the same time, when they join together to pray, God pauses.”
For Elizabeth Catte, it’s about recognizing what’s in front of us to notice: “Appalachia’s images of strikes and strife and land hollowed out for coal, but it is also images of joy and freedom.”
Even problematic books increase our understanding. While I did not enjoy nor agree with Hillbilly Elegy, it opened my eyes to a narrative of the region I call home. It’s one I don’t always want to see or confront. I felt I was being duped. Despite lacking in the artfulness I admire and seek out in the books I read, the let-me-tell-you posturing behind the story struck me as a snake-oil-salesman tactic. But I cannot ignore that this story exists and that it speaks to others.
I believe the books we’ve previously read can influence the books we come to read. An impression of Elegy comes from my reading of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Not in style, of course, but by the “invented” quality of the character Gatsby. Jay Gatsby has fashioned himself into the man he believes will win over his beloved Daisy—a prize, it’s important to note, not worth winning. Gatsby commits himself fully to his own myth making. While lacking in the charm and better qualities of the fictitious Gatsby, JD Vance channels the powerful force of mythmaking, crafting himself through story into a one-of-a-kind hybrid of Appalachian country boy and Yale-educated cultural elite. With just enough truth in each, he stakes his claim through persona and story, as invented as James Gatz into The Great Gatsby.
He ultimately fails because for his narrator to work, I recognize that my own story and voice would have to be silenced. It goes back to his subtitle, which says his story is the story of a culture in crisis. He takes the mantle only for himself. There’s no room in Vance’s narrative for an educated woman of Appalachian roots to return to the region and to carve out a life where she hopes to help others. My way, I suppose, is both too simple and less best-seller-worthy. It does have two benefits: authenticity and honesty. I live and work in Appalachia, and I have deep family roots here. My story is one of many stories that make up this place. I continue to read Appalachian writers and stories of this region because place shapes people. I yearn to better understand this place that shapes me. I hope to make a positive mark on it.
One of the things I liked best about Southernmost is that Asher Sharpe and other characters are people I could know. Eastern Tennessee is not West Virginia—we share some cultural overlap, and we also have our particulars and peculiarities, as different parts of a whole. However, House’s description of the tight community, the landscape, and the slow-changing attitudes toward LGBTQ people struck a chord of recognition as I read. Soon after the book’s release, many writers and readers of Appalachian literature began talking about the significance of Southernmost. Often, the praise for the novel includes the adjectives “brave” and “important.” The book was not reviewed in The New York Times despite House’s good literary reputation and the articles about Kentucky—particularly Appalachian Kentucky—he’s written for the Times’s op-ed section. House continues to support other writers from Appalachia and to speak from the heart about the region’s struggles as well as its splendor.
If Almond shows us how to parse bad stories, which perhaps leads us to recognize good stories, and Silas House serves as example of the importance of region, story, change, and growth, then Elizabeth Catte reminds us that stories are about power. She issues a directive to Appalachians to “write about your people as an act of power.” If not, stories will end up in the hands of those who might craft them into just the kind of bad stories Almond also warns us of. Catte implores us to write about our people to establish our own ethos and to overcome the source of bad stories about Appalachia:
It reflects how credibility falls easily to those given the privilege of defining who or what Appalachian is. It also shows the rewards that fall to individuals, universally men and exclusively white, regardless of the company they keep. It is the power to grant yourself permission for continued exploitation of vulnerable subjects. It is the power to have your work selected as emblematic of a cultural moment by individuals and organizations that didn’t care one iota about Appalachia until their gaze could fill the region with pathologies.
“People believe what they need to believe,” writes Almond. “Our stories about the world arise from the panic of our inner lives. Beneath our lesser defenses—the swirling rage and paranoia and indifference—are human beings somehow in pain.” In two very different ways, Silas House and Elizabeth Catte channel that pain. It’s in these stories that we learn how we might change a narrative’s trajectory for the better. Not in the easy, Pollyanna-ish ways of sloganeering and whitewashing, but in the harder way of living through the difficulties of our lives and crafting authentic stories from experience: what people might mean when they say they “speak truth to power.”
When we write or when we otherwise imprint our stories into the collective narrative we might call culture, we can choose acceptance and equality and authenticity. We can choose hard-earned redemption. While we can’t flee the past, we can imagine beyond it. We can imagine joy, even through the grim. There is a way, even, to rescue that most tenuous of feelings—hope. The stars above may be indifferent to our plights. We do not have to be like the stars. We have the ability to open books.
Good fiction typically provides few good answers but many good questions. The great novels and stories can often be, however incompletely, expressed as a single, overarching question that the author is working out via narrative. Is the American dream an illusion? (The Great Gatsby); should a person marry for money? (Sense and Sensibility); can the son of God be born in human form and sacrifice himself to save humanity? (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows).
Good essay, like good fiction, is also mostly engaged in the act of asking questions. But the forms differ in a few crucial aesthetic respects, leaving aside the basic fact of fictionality, which, as we know, can be an overstated difference—nonfiction is often partly invented and much fiction is true, or true enough, but never mind that. Centrally, fiction possesses a narrator that obscures the author. Largely as a function of the narrator’s existence and also simple novelistic convention, most novels seek to attain a smooth narrative surface, an artifactual quality. A great deal of received wisdom regarding fiction craft has to do with the author disappearing in the service of creating John Gardner’s “vivid, continuous dream.” This isn’t to say that essayists don’t also obsessively and endlessly revise to create a polished surface, but the goal is typically not authorial effacement. Maybe an easier way to say it would be that both fiction and essay revolve around formulating questions, but essay very often works the act of questioning—of figuring out what the question is—into the form.
Joan Didion pioneered what we think of as the modern essay, a self-conscious blend of journalism, criticism, and personal experience. Some Didion essays are intensely focused on one subject, for instance, “On Keeping a Notebook.” But the most Didion-y of Didion’s essays are ones like “Slouching Toward Bethlehem” and “The White Album,” that meander through subject and theme like a car driving home from work via L.A.’s surface streets. “The White Album,” for example, combines the description of her mental instability and compulsive dread with a more panoramic view of her bad-trippy east-Hollywood neighborhood in the late ’60s, a personal account which ripples out into larger cultural considerations: the Doors, the Manson murders, and California—always California.
Didion’s stylistic legacy serves as both influence and study for Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls, an excellent collection of individual essays and also, to my mind, a fascinating example of the book-length possibilities of the essay form. Dead Girls begins in what seems straightforward-enough fashion with Part One, The Dead Girl Show, a quartet of thematically unified essays examining the centrality of the figure of the dead girl in American popular culture. These include “Toward a Theory of the Dead Girl,” about the glut of recent dead girl TV shows including True Detective, The Killing, and Pretty Little Liars; “Black Hole,” about growing up in the serial killer-y Pacific Northwest; “The Husband Did It,” about true-crime TV shows; and my personal favorite, “The Daughter as Detective,” about Bolin’s father’s taste in Scandinavian crime thrillers. (A side note: It’s not a requirement that you have mystery-addict parents to enjoy this essay, but it could hardly fail to charm someone who, like myself, grew up in a house crammed with Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö mysteries.)
Having established its seeming method in Part One, the book veers sideways into Part Two, Lost in Los Angeles, essays largely about Bolin’s experience as a 20-something living, for no especially good reason, in L.A. Aimlessness becomes a dominant theme, as the book shifts gears into writing about freeways, Britney Spears’s celebrity journey, and wandering around graveyards. Perhaps in an attempt to pre-empt readerly confusion at the book’s shape-shifting, Bolin has made it clear, both in press and in the introduction: This is not just a book of essays about dead girls in pop culture.
I understand this concern and will admit to feeling a slight confusion about Bolin’s project immediately after Part One. But proceeding through Part Two, and then Three, Weird Sisters, about teenage girlhood and the occult, I found myself increasingly glad the book had morphed and kept morphing. The book’s intelligence has a questing quality, a pleasant restlessness as it moves from literary criticism to personal anecdote to academic cultural/political critique and back again, like a jittery moth that never lands for too long on the light it circles.
The way Bolin modulates subject and approach metaphorizes both the breadth and slipperiness of her main thematic concern: narratives of female objectification. The book generally proceeds from objective to subjective, mimicking the detached and objectifying eye of its central detective figure in Part One, then moving steadily into subjective, personal territory. Like Indiana Jones switching a bag of sand for gold, Bolin substitutes her younger self as the Dead Girl and, in doing so, bestows the Dead Girl agency, brings her to life.
Part Four, the longform essay “Accomplices,” brings the project to an end and to a thematic whole. In a way, it embodies the entire book, incorporating the major concerns—growing up, white female objectification and privilege, romance and the lack thereof, Los Angeles—into a self-aware meditation on the author’s sentimental education in the context of literary counterparts like Rachel Kushner and Eileen Myles and, yes, Joan Didion. Bolin seems to be asking whether there is, inherent in the act of writing the classic coming-of-age “Hello to All That” essay, as she puts it, a self-objectification that echoes the deadly cultural objectifications critiqued earlier in the collection. “How can I use the personal essay,” she asks, “instead of letting it use me?” Part Four anatomizes the entire Dead Girls project, simultaneously encapsulating the book and acting as a Moebius strip that returns the reader to the more stylized and essayistic distance of the opening chapters.
To be clear, there are many standout and stand-alone individual essays in these sections. The aforementioned “Daughter as Detective,” which, in addition to its many virtues, contains the unforgettable description of Bolin’s father as a “manic pixie dream dad.” “This Place Makes Everyone a Gambler,” a deft personal history of reading and rereading Play It as It Lays, that weaves together L.A. noir, Britney Spears, and Dateline NBC. “Just Us Girls,” a touching cultural study of adolescent female friendship. But the book’s biggest triumph, in my opinion, is of a larger, formal nature, as Bolin marshals her themes and interests into a book-length reflection, of and on, the persistent figure of the Dead Girl.
Alice was kind enough to field a few of the questions that occurred to me in writing this review, mainly regarding how this book’s singular form came to be.
The Millions: Can you provide a little general background about how the book got written? I’m curious which essays were written first. Also, if there were any pieces that it became apparent needed to be written in the interest of book-length cohesion. I’m especially interested in “Accomplices,” which serves so well as an embodiment and critique of the project.
Alice Bolin: This is a little hard to answer because most of the previously published essays in the book are drastically changed from their earlier forms. I would say the book really started with “The Dead Girl Show” and the essays in the second section about California, which I started writing, hilariously, the second I moved there. I started most of those pieces in 2013 and 2014 in Los Angeles, and that was when I started to see the ideas I’d been working with coming together in some vaguely book-like shape. Most of the essays in the third section, “Weird Sisters,” existed earlier, though, in different versions—I realized late in the game that my preoccupations with witchiness and teen girl pathology pretty obviously dovetailed with the Dead Girl thing.
“Accomplices” was the last piece I wrote for the book, and I knew that it was my opportunity to pull up some of the narrative paths I’d laid down earlier, both about Dead Girls and about my own life. The book as a whole is about questioning received narratives, so I had ambitions for it to work as sort of a (sorry) palimpsest, putting forth suppositions and then writing over or revising them. I want there to be some dissonance for the reader.
TM: At what point did the theme of The Dead Girl emerge? Was it obvious from the start? The collection approaches this subject from so many angles; I’m interested in if there was a certain amount of retrofitting in the revision—that is, were there already completed or published essays that you went back to and revised with the dead girl subject/theme in mind? Or did it all kind of hang together as it does from the start?
AB: I think once I wrote “The Dead Girl Show,” I saw that Dead Girls were a theme that I had been interested in for a very long time. I had already been writing about thrillers, true crime, detective fiction, and horror movies, genres where Dead Girls were everywhere. After that I was thinking about other ways I could write about Dead Girl genres—like in the Nordic Noir essay—and about subjects from other pulp genres that could throw those essays into relief, like pop music or reality TV. I didn’t really do much retrofitting that I can remember, except maybe lines here and there. I have my MFA in poetry, so I have borrowed a lot of the ways I think about a collection from poetry books—that you allow your preoccupations to dictate the shape of the book, instead of the other way around.
TM: The book’s critical mode seems to move somewhat from objective to subjective, and then, in Part Four, comment on that move. That is (and I realize I might be oversimplifying here, since all these elements exist in all the essays), Part One is predominately cultural critique, and then parts Two and Three become increasingly personal. To what extent was this movement something that organically emerged in revision, and to what extent was it conscious?
AB: It’s interesting, because in my original draft I had the California essays first, and the Dead Girl essays second—they seemed most important to me, but then my editor was like “Uh, shouldn’t Dead Girls be first since that is the title and the whole point of the book?” She was so right. Someone else has pointed out that the book works like a Dead Girl show, with the Dead Girl as bait at the beginning of the book, but the rest of the narrative arc being about something totally different. I love this, but it didn’t really occur to me, except maybe intuitively. I definitely wanted the fourth section to critique the strategies of earlier essays, but beyond that, the organization was more by subject than method. I actually wanted to cut the third section late into the drafting process, if that tells you anything about how uncomfortable I am with writing about my own life!
TM: To me, because of the thematic unity and movement of the book, Dead Girls has a somewhat novelistic quality or instinct. Is this something you’re interested in doing? More generally, what’s next?
AB: This is such a nice compliment! I am absolutely interested in experimenting with fiction. I had a sort of epiphany in the past few months about how my own attitude toward myself in the book is a lot like the detachment novelists have toward their characters—it’s the only way I can break through (or maybe… use?) my self-loathing. Anyway, yes I am interested in writing an autobiographical novel sometime in the future, with more details TBA, in maybe like 10 years. I’m also thinking about another very girly essay collection about magazines, social media influencers, and the vintage internet, and more generally, the way women have mediated and monetized their personalities.
In the middle of a class discussion of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby some years ago, a student raised his hand and asked, in essence: What are we supposed to make of the scene where Nick Carraway goes off with the gay guy?
And I said, in essence: Wait, what gay guy?
He pointed me to the scene that closes Chapter III. This is the chapter in which Nick accompanies Tom Buchanan and his mistress, Myrtle, to an apartment Tom keeps in Manhattan. Myrtle invites her sister and some neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. McKee, to join them, and they throw a raucous party that ends with Tom breaking Myrtle’s nose. Amid the blood and the screaming, Mr. McKee awakens from an alcoholic slumber:
Then Mr. McKee turned and continued on out the door. Taking my hat from the chandelier, I followed.
“Come to lunch some day,” he suggested, as we groaned down in the elevator.
“Keep your hands off the lever,” snapped the elevator boy.
“I beg your pardon,” said Mr. McKee with dignity, “I didn’t know I was touching it.”
“All right,” I agreed. “I’ll be glad to.”
…I was standing beside his bed and he was sitting up between the sheets, clad in his underwear, with a great portfolio in his hands.
“Beauty and the Beast…Loneliness…Old Grocery Horse…Brook’n Bridge…”
Then I was lying half asleep in the cold lower level of the Pennsylvania Station, staring at the morning Tribune, and waiting for the four o’clock train.
I had, I’m embarrassed to say, never seen that passage before. Except that’s not true. I’d read the book half a dozen times since college, and taught it once, but I had somehow missed the fact that the narrator wanders off in a drunken stupor with a stranger and ends up in his bedroom.
Whether my student knew it or not, he was tapping into a strain of scholarly inquiry into the sexual orientation of Nick Carraway that dates back at least to Keath Fraser’s 1979 essay “Another Reading of The Great Gatsby.” Fraser ultimately equivocated on the question of Nick’s sexuality, but in 1992, Edward Wasiolek argued in “The Sexual Drama of Nick and Gatsby” that the gay subtext in Gatsby is crystal clear: “I do not know how one can read the scene in McKee’s bedroom in any other way, especially when so many other facts about [Nick’s] behavior support such a conclusion.”
In the decades since, suggestions that maybe, possibly, there’s more to Fitzgerald’s narrator than he’s letting on have given way to ever more self-assured, even faintly indignant, assertions of Nick’s queerness, with titles like The Atlantic’s 2013 article “The Great Gatsby Movie Needed to Be More Gay” or BookRiot’s 2017 piece “Nick Carraway Is Queer and in Love with Jay Gatsby.”
Most queer readings of Gatsby begin with that scene with Mr. McKee and branch out from there to note that Nick’s love interest in the novel, Jordan Baker, is an athlete who carries herself “like a young cadet” and is most alluring to Nick when they play tennis and “a faint mustache of perspiration appear[s] on her upper lip.” When she and Nick break up at the end of the book, Jordan tells him she had thought he was “an honest, straightforward person,” to which he responds, “I’m thirty. I’m five years too old to lie to myself and call it honor”—a line that rings differently if you read Nick as a closeted gay man.
Of course, all of this shapes how we view the relationship between Nick and Gatsby. In a straight reading of the novel, Nick is merely an interested observer who helps facilitate Gatsby’s mad dream to rekindle his love affair with Daisy, now unhappily married to Tom Buchanan. That Gatsby, the one taught for generations in high school and college classrooms, is a classic tale about the American Dream and doomed love and the impossibility of turning back time. In that novel, Nick loves Gatsby, the erstwhile James Gatz of North Dakota, for his capacity to dream Jay Gatsby into being and for his willingness to risk it all for the love of a beautiful woman.
In a queer reading of Gatsby, Nick doesn’t just love Gatsby, he’s in love with him. In some readings, the tragedy is that Gatsby doesn’t love him back. In others, Gatsby is as repressed as Nick, each chasing an unavailable woman to avoid admitting what he truly desires. “Nick chooses Jordan for some of the same reasons Gatsby chose Daisy,” writes Wasiolek in “The Sexual Drama of Nick and Gatsby.” “Daisy is Gatsby’s defense against women, and Jordan is Nick’s against women.”
That last one, I’ll admit, is a touch too Freudian for me, but if Nick were gay and in love with Gatsby it sure would clear up some things—such as what exactly Nick sees in Gatsby, a social-climbing fabulist with gangster friends who moves heaven and earth for a woman Nick plainly sees as a ditz. It would also make sense of Nick’s emotionally sterile affair with Jordan. And, of course, if Nick is queer, his trip to Mr. McKee’s bedroom isn’t merely a mysterious interlude in a canonical book, but a secret key that opens the door onto one of America’s first great gay novels.
So then, is Nick gay? The short answer is we’ll never know. The only person who could say for sure is F. Scott Fitzgerald, and he’s been dead since 1940. But it’s worth noting that when he wrote Gatsby, Fitzgerald was the golden boy of American letters at a time of near-universal homophobia. Had readers picked up even a whiff of gay subtext in Gatsby, he risked losing everything: his career, his marriage, his reputation, his friends. But no one did see it, and, in fact, as Wasiolek notes, among the thousands of essays and critical studies of one of America’s most widely read novels no one noted the gay subtext in the McKee bedroom scene until Fraser wrote about it in 1979.
So, making Nick a closeted gay man makes little emotional or artistic sense unless Fitzgerald was using Nick’s sexuality to explore in a deeply coded way his own guilt and shame over his unspoken desires—a theory that runs into the not inconsiderable hurdle that there is zero evidence that Fitzgerald was attracted to men. Yes, his wife Zelda did once accuse him of being in love with Ernest Hemingway, but at the time their marriage was unraveling and she was months from being hospitalized for schizophrenia. (Zelda also despised Hemingway, whom she reportedly saw as “a pansy with hair on his chest.” Hemingway, for his part, hated Zelda right back, times approximately a million.)
But here’s the thing: If Fitzgerald had wanted to scratch a sexual itch badly enough to make him write coded gay characters into his books, he suffered no shortage of opportunities. For the last decade of his life, he lived apart from Zelda in European resort towns and in Hollywood, where he was surrounded by men living more or less openly gay lives. Yet not one credible story of Fitzgerald having sex with another man has turned up, either in his journals or in the famously gossipy movie colony. Instead, he had a few minor flings with female starlets before settling into stable relationship with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham, who was with him when he died.
But okay, people are complicated. Maybe Fitzgerald had a secret life he was able keep under wraps his entire adult life despite the fact that he was falling-down drunk for much of that time, or perhaps he desired men, but was so disgusted by this need that he never acted upon it. There is, I think, a deeper reason to question a queer reading of The Great Gatsby: It doesn’t sound much like a novel F. Scott Fitzgerald, gay or straight, would write.
Fitzgerald was a compulsively autobiographical writer who wrote his flaws into his work, unflinchingly and in plain English. When he drank, his characters drank along with him. When his marriage failed, his characters lost their wives, too. When he had a nervous breakdown, he wrote a searingly honest set of essays called “The Crack-Up” for Esquire. It strains credulity to suggest that if Fitzgerald were gay, he would expiate his guilt and shame by writing a veiled gay love plot nobody would notice for half a century. It’s just not how his artistic apparatus worked. As a writer, Fitzgerald wore remarkably few veils. For 20 years, he opened a vein and beauty flowed onto the page.
None of this, of course, proves that Nick isn’t gay—that can’t be proven one way or the other—but I suspect the queer readings of Nick Carraway say more about the way we read now than they do about Nick or The Great Gatsby. We read with a perpetually queered eye, forever on the hunt for coded language or secret lives in characters. This is not in itself a bad thing. It layers our reading, opening our eyes to stories within stories that we missed before, but it can blind us, too, because once we know the code, we start to think all writers are in on it, when some of them might not be. Just because Fitzgerald wrote a scene that reads to us like a gay tryst doesn’t mean that Fitzgerald was gay and trying to send us a message in a bottle. Similarly, the fact that Nick meets a gay man and doesn’t run screaming doesn’t make Nick gay. Maybe it just means he’s tolerant and curious about people, whether they’re closeted gay men or bootleggers who want to turn back time.
Let’s go back to that scene with Mr. McKee. No writer as attuned to wordplay and symbols as F. Scott Fitzgerald could have written that line about touching the elevator lever before a scene in which two men end up in a bedroom and not meant for a reader to catch the double-entendre. Whatever his sexual persuasion, Fitzgerald wasn’t an idiot.
To us, reading with our queered eye, the double-entendre must be a veiled hint that Nick is gay, but that’s us now when the closeted gay man has become a stock character in film and literature. Fitzgerald’s original readers wouldn’t necessarily have come to the same conclusion. The savvier among them might have picked up that Mr. McKee is gay. It’s McKee, after all, who invites Nick for lunch and gets accused of touching the lever. It’s also McKee who’s in bed in his skivvies while Nick stands, outside the bed, listening to McKee drone on about his photo album.
Of course, Nick does follow McKee from the party and accept his lunch invitation, but that’s Nick’s role in Gatsby: he follows people and agrees to things. Nick’s tolerance, his curiosity about people, isn’t just some minor character quirk. It’s key to Nick’s character and central to Fitzgerald’s narrative strategy. Over and over, Nick meets bizarre, interesting people and reserves judgment until they reveal themselves to him—and us. It’s right there on the first page of the novel, when Nick relates the advice his father gave him about keeping in mind that not everyone has had his advantages. “In consequence,” Nick explains, “I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.”
Thus, when Gatsby’s friend, the gangster Meyer Wolfsheim, winds up a story about a mob hit by showing off his cufflinks fashioned from the “finest specimens of human molars,” Nick doesn’t back slowly out of the room and call the cops. He looks closer at the mobster’s cufflinks and exclaims, “Well! That’s a very interesting idea.” Later, when Gatsby arranges for Nick to set up a date with Daisy, a married woman Gatsby hasn’t seen since he was a poor boy about to be sent off to war, Nick doesn’t tell Gatsby gently and firmly that he’s out of his mind. No, he calls Daisy to set up the date.
This, to my mind, is what a queer reading of Gatsby misses: Nick’s tolerance, his willingness to reserve judgment about things his world found frightening or wrong. Yes, it’s possible Fitzgerald was using the scene with Mr. McKee to speak in code of his own hidden desires, but more likely it’s a scene in which a straight man in 1920s America meets a closeted gay man—and listens to him. Likewise, maybe Nick’s love for Gatsby is queer, but more likely it’s queer in the nonsexual sense, meaning odd, uncanny. Maybe Nick really is who he says he is: a nice, decent, rather conventional bond salesman from the Midwest who knows he shouldn’t admire Jay Gatsby, but does anyway. Maybe he loves Gatsby, not because he wants to have sex with him, but because he wants to understand him, make sense of his queer and improbable dreams.
On January 29, the Olympic torch relay for the PyeongChang Winter Olympics passed through Chuncheon in Gungwon Province. The last time I had really paid attention to the Olympics was when my family took me to Beijing nearly a decade ago. This year my eye alighted on the event not for the promise of feats of athleticism or sportsmanship, but on the last torchbearer of the day, the promotional ambassador from South Korea, the actor Jang Keun-suk.
In 2009 I was 16 years old, and early in the winter and into the better part of spring, I was hooked on the South Korean drama You’re Beautiful. A 16-episode television series that gained international cult status, spawned remakes in Japan and Taiwan, and briefly popularized the sale of a hybrid “pig-rabbit” stuffed animal that appears in the series, the storyline follows a young nun-in-training (played by Park Shin-hye) who is forced to disguise her identity and pretend to be male in a popular boy-band-slash-idol-group, A.N.JELL, cohabiting with the three other members of the band (played by Jang Keun-suk, Jung Yong-hwa, and Lee Hong-gi) all as beautiful as—well—angels. As she tries to hide her gender and transforms into an idol, hijinks and antics, dark family histories, jealousy, and, of course, love ensue.
For those who didn’t grow up with East Asian, and particularly Korean, dramas, the genre’s appeal—and the highly-specific world of idols and idol bands in the Korean media industry—can be difficult to understand. The romantic dramas are, compared to Western series, completely unsexy, or rather, unsexed. The humor is campy, even slapstick. Standard tropes include gender-bending, family debts, hospitalizations, “noble idiot”-esque sacrifices, and disappearances abroad. That Christmas I showed an episode of You’re Beautiful to a friend of my cousin, a young woman with short-cropped blonde hair. She took one look at Lee Hong-gi, pretty-faced and sporting a shaggy bleached blonde hairdo similar to her own, and snorted, “That’s a guy? No wonder people think I’m a dude.”
Still, I was in love. I remember debating the merits of the moody male lead and his nice-guy romantic rival with my best friend, sprawled out on the thick green duvet on her bed, in her comfortable room with its tall, white-framed windows. She was the one who gave me my own stuffed pig-rabbit to hang on my cellphone. Last year, not long after moving to New York and in a fit of escapism, I rewatched You’re Beautiful, this time sprawled on a rainbow-colored throw on the bed in my Brooklyn sublease, autumn leaves brittle on the sidewalk.
It had been eight years. There was still an undeniable charm. I found myself swept up again by the sheer escapism and audacity of the whole story, incredible as it was, or precisely because it was so incredible. One thing about the K-drama universe is its utter commitment to its implausibility. And yes—I’ll admit it—with his deep smooth voice, slim-fit blazers, gelled-up hair, and tight-collared shirts, Jang Keun-suk, the male lead, was gorgeous.
Not long after rewatching You’re Beautiful, I reread The Great Gatsby. In high school, the book was taught to me as a novel commenting on the American Dream. This time, reading it while still afloat on the clouds of my K-drama high, I caught much more about Nick’s tendencies towards idolization and symbol-making, his willingness to suspend his disbelief.
The first time Nick Carraway hears Gatsby tell the story of his life, he doesn’t believe it. “With an effort I managed to restrain my incredulous laughter,” he says. And who can blame him? Oxford and inheritances, tiger-hunting and rubies, war and heartbreak: It’s all too overblown, too storybook to be taken seriously. Then Gatsby shows Nick a medal from Montenegro. And Nick, all of a sudden, believes: “Then it was all true.”
The layers of apotheosization in the novel are multifold: Gatsby’s idealization of Daisy, Jordan’s interest in Nick, Myrtle’s desire for Tom, Nick’s own veneration of Gatsby. Each relationship is a forceful reading of the opposite party, a transmutation of human into desire. As much as our rational instincts tell us the incredible fantasy we’re being fed can’t be true, the smaller, perhaps more powerful part of us, would like to buy in. Because wouldn’t it be nice if the dream were true?
Towards that end, the mental leaps we take can be incredible. Perhaps the root of building an idol is one’s willingness to adapt any small gesture into a symbol fitting the story. Here is Nick, for instance, on Gatsby’s smile:
It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
This is the kind of outsized reading that fans pin upon the faraway icons of their sublimated desires, reifying details of biography, gesture, and dress, projecting objects and moments into assumptions of meaning and tenderness. One wonders what Nick was trying to escape from. Idolatry is a form of love, and love, after all, is not a usefully descriptive term: It is the catch-all hiding all sorts of projections and desires, hollow shapes and aberrant hopes, like the bland and smiling Noh mask that anonymizes completely expression, body, intent.
As a 16-year-old, I did precisely the same thing to Jang Keun-suk, projecting desire and hope and all sorts of elemental qualities onto a televised phrase, a photo-shoot smile. Back then I lived in a narrow and highly-structured world where I sensed, in a way I could not have articulated then, that there was much more of life waiting on the wings, some of it beautiful, some of it unstable, some of it far less predictable or orderly than I could see. And I was netted in the promises made incarnate by crazy stories like You’re Beautiful, as Nick was by Gatsby’s self-created myth: promises of love and of pain, and of the wild ways a life could suddenly change.
There’s a scene in You’re Beautiful in which Jang Keun-suk tells Park Shin-hye, “I am loved by thousands of people. That is my job.”
Part of the fun of the drama is how it shines a light on the behind-the-scenes work of an idol, dealing with fans, keeping up appearances, providing the raw material one consumes in their story-making. The actors in the series perform roles as meta-types of the idols they are, in some form, in real life. (The four principal stars are, today, all big names in acting or music). It was this that made me realize the reciprocal nature of the idol and the idolater. To be idealized, the idol must first be believed.
Out of all the people that Gatsby hosted in his mansion, it was only Nick that was willing to read so much into his smile, which in reality must have been merely a smile on a handsome face, a social tic acquired in his eagerness to please. It was also only Nick, out of all of Gatsby’s guests, that felt such loyalty, even love, to him at the end of everything, arranging his funeral, writing his story, trying to seek some recompense.
Even at the end of the novel, though Gatsby’s self-made myth is imploded, Nick has found something else to deify. He’s a believer still, reworking the material to something different, even grander. He thinks about the endless parties, the green light, the transformation from James Gatz to Jay Gatsby. In relating Gatsby’s story he creates a new myth for his old idol, populating it with sensitive extrapolations he conjures from the bones of Gatsby’s experience and, in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s clamorous, perfumed language, the vocabulary of a dreamer, enshrining his legend.
This year, succumbing again to the girlish fanaticism I’d once possessed for a K-drama hero, for a moody pair of guy-linered eyes, skinny jeans, and a husky voice singing love ballads, there was a part of me aware, like Nick, of the falseness and ridiculousness of it all. But incredulity conversely reinforces this desire to believe: It makes the symbol all the stronger when the disbelief is assuaged. Part of the power of icons is how much we want, despite all the evidence and common sense given to the contrary, the myths we imbue them with to be real. If only, if only the possibilities were true. By the way, I don’t have a religion.
But perhaps it is the nature of faith to turn out to be misplaced. Everyone lets down everyone else: Daisy lets down Gatsby, Nick lets down Jordan, Gatsby isn’t who he told Nick he was. The dream falls apart when we can no longer believe.
This time, revisiting the drama and the novel, You’re Beautiful held up rather less well than The Great Gatsby. Unlike when I was in high school, this time I found parts of the drama cheesy to the point of being embarrassing to watch. Some of the sequences I found so romantic back in the day now were just silly. But when I was 16 it was easier to love.
Somewhere along the eight years between 16 and 24, fantasy had proven, was proving, to be frailer than I’d thought. This time, revisiting both stories, I was more aware of the mechanisms and pitfalls of idolatry. Many of the people and institutions that were once unimpeachable in my mind had, in the years since, gradually or suddenly fallen from their perches. Each time it happened I was a little less surprised. I guess the word is disillusionment.
While cleaning out my closet, I found the pig-rabbit my best friend had given me in high school. With the jolt of time settling, I realized the actors in the drama were, at the time, younger than I am now. After finishing the drama I looked up again the handsome lead who had captivated me so. This was around the time he announced he would be the ambassador for the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. Seeing him now, I was unreasonably surprised to see how much he’d changed. He’d cut his hair and ditched the black jeans for summer-colored suits; his skin was no longer so smooth. And I could no longer so easily suspend my disbelief, or so easily alchemize meaning from his gestures.
How I wished it weren’t so. Still, his voice remained the same, and though he now sings sunny pop songs instead of slow ballads, it was easy to pretend, for a little while, that I could go back to believing.
“Located along a private beach on 235 Middle Neck Road, this opulent Gatsby-inspiring estate spans over 5 acres. A mere 25 minutes away from New York City by boat, this home is the perfect scene for a roaring 20s party. Just picture the glitz and glamour of fireworks reflecting across the water at all hours of the night.” For a cool $16.9 million you, too, can live in the home that inspired F. Scott Fitzgerald. Pair with our own Sonya Chung on adding The Great Gatsby to her teaching syllabus.
Towards the end of each year I do one of those anonymous surveys where I ask the students—high-school sophomores and juniors—how much they read, as a percentage, of each book. I’ve been doing this for the last 10 years or so, and the results are remarkably consistent: most students read most, but rarely all, of each book. About 15 percent read every single word of every single thing, some of it twice. These the kids who would read the contents list of a 7-11 freezer if told, the same students who tend to sit in the front row and take the kind of notes that end up in the Smithsonian. Another 15 percent admit to struggling to even open the books, but would gladly read the 7-11 freezer list because of its novelty value and the refreshing lack of obfuscating adjectives and modifiers. The 70 percent of students in the middle make up the dominant percentage, the ones who often leave little notes, not quite apologia, but regretful explanations about wishing that they had more time to do all the reading because they would have liked to, that they did most of it, that what they read of The Great Gatsby was really good but what with other homework, and athletics, and Uncle Steve’s birthday dinner, and the cousin in Jersey with leukemia, and x not yet having said anything about prom…well, there was a lot to think about.
All this at three separate independent schools in different parts of California. Like I said, remarkably consistent results, and results that translate across gender, race, and socioeconomic status. In terms of the not-highly-rigorous breakdown of those not-highly-rigorous statistics you get about 70 percent of the students reading about 70 percent of the material 70 percent of the time. All of which sounds terrific, except that most of the time, most of the 70 percent, and even some of the 15 percent taking Smithsonian-esque notes, see words rather than read them. For most high-school students, the act of “reading” recalls the soft glow of something done at night, before bed, in jim-jams with a cup of hot cocoa—the equivalent of night-time elevator music. Or, if not that, they’re “reading” on the bus, in the car, while standing outside class two minutes before the bell. And, at best, gaining an understanding of situation and context: who did what or said what to whom and where at what time in what kind of weather. Seeing words but not really reading them, a marriage without contact.
I want them to see reading as something far more intimate, even fractured at times, as something combative, vulgar, assertive—a constant back-and-forth between reading and rereading, moments of stepping outside the text then coming back and battering at it with questions. Something better done in a flak jacket than pajamas. And high school students hate doing it. Who, what, when, and where, of course, are essential. You gotta figure out who’s sleeping with whom before you ask why. There’s a brother involved? What? No. Wait! They’re on a train? If that part’s hazy, the next stop becomes SparkNotes and PinkMonkey, and you might as well hand out the 7-11 freezer list. But how to truly turn them off? Ask them to annotate. The a-word: to add notes to (a text or diagram) giving explanation or comment. To say they “hate” it not strong enough. The most common disclaimers being about how it takes them out of the story, how if they stop they can’t remember what happened, that it takes too long, that it’s not enjoyable anymore. I’ve had students tell me, with genuine feeling, that reading’s been ruined for them—forever. Well, yes, if “reading” is that thing they do at bedtime with that cup of cocoa, and if that’s the thing ruined forever, then, no, I’m not sorry. How many students do trig curled up in bed without a pen or pencil?
So the task has to be to get them to see reading as something a little more combative, which is not to undermine scanning and context. I love scanning and context, reading for the sheer drama of turning the page, for the drama of occupation, of escape—especially on a beach, or hungover, or sitting in 24E on a flight without a functioning TV. But in a high-school English class, the skill of reading as an intimate, assertive thing stands as the thing I’m more interested in—the premise being that if reading were less of a spectator sport maybe we’d inhabit a world better informed, more critical—and critical in a reflective rather than a reactive sense—a world shaped more collectively by thoughtfulness, by magnanimity.
But annotate what, students ask? A fair question. And the place to begin is questions, the questions that come after the who, what, when, and where have been answered. Why questions—about place, about character, about motives…about the weather. Questions that pick at the story’s fabric in ways that enhance that fabric as opposed to designing a new one. So, for instance, after reading the first couple of pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby out loud in class, students invariably ask questions about why the novel’s named after Gatsby, about what makes him great, if his father gave him any other advice than the part about not all the people in the world having had the advantages he’s had. About how come the narrator doesn’t know the name for a seismograph. Interesting enough questions, but dead ends, as a couple of the students put it (though at least two of their classmates are adamant that we need to pursue the seismograph thing) because they depend either on plot that hasn’t happened yet or hearsay. Better the question that at least allows for the possibility of an answer through what’s already there rather than depending upon the goose chase of the imagination. So when Nick Carraway says that “[R]eserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope” it might benefit us to ask why? Why “hope” as opposed to something else? Why infinite? And what might this tell us about Nick Carraway’s temperament? Questions that allow us to begin to work out the kind of world Nick Carraway lives in and how that world might interact with ours. The kinds of questions that unnerve what’s in front of us, that give us something to hold onto in terms of plot while, simultaneously, digging a little deeper into that plot.
They want to know how many they need. A ball of string question. And I tell them not to go all gung-ho and answer the questions, but to let them sit for a while, the idea being to try and read from inside the story rather than from inside a predetermined perspective. Virginia Woolf calls it the art of delaying dictation: “If we could banish all [such] preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning. Do not dictate to your author; try to become him.” Even in novels, to delay that impulse, that reflex, as long as possible, allowing the piece itself a chance to stand, at least for a moment, outside the moment of presumption. The questions more important, paradoxically, than the answers. It sounds all back to front, but getting students to trust, first and foremost, their own ability to ask questions rather than a teacher’s executive ability to provide answers leads, again, to the kind of critical, reflective impulse our world so desperately need. It allows students access to a way of thinking, a means for seeing, long after they’ve forgotten if affect works primarily as a verb or a noun, or how many suitors Odysseus slays in the great hall.
Which brings up the question of quantity. If the ability to read, and think, critically is the primary currency secondary education needs to invest in, then the disfigured mathematical percentage of how many students read how much becomes less important. I’m not sure it really matters if students read all of The Great Gatsby, or Their Eyes Were Watching God, or The House on Mango Street, Macbeth, etc. Of course it’s nice if they do, and it’s nice if they go out into the world with a complex sense of Gatsby’s dream, of Janie’s epiphany, of Esperanza’s journey, Macbeth’s predicament, etc., but I think it’s more important that they know what reading looks like, that they know it as an act of meaningful aggression. We’re not in the business of creating English majors, nice as it would be to fill the world with such people. But until Birnam Wood do come unto Dunsinane, I’ll take empathetic, critical thinkers as a stop-gap. Reading in high school is not about, or shouldn’t be about, numbers of pages; it should be about a way of thinking, a way of seeing. For that, we can focus on certain passages, the certain, crucial passages that most books build to—the golden bricks. As teachers, we can fill in the rest of the building. It’s the skill of reading itself that’s the important thing, perhaps the only thing.
That said, they can’t be forced. It tends to work to begin small—maybe one annotation every two pages, but a real one. Not underlining or highlighting—that’s not annotating, that’s underlining or highlighting. Annotating is where there’s something highlighted or underlined and accompanied by a note working out why said moment was underlined or highlighted. Why questions: about reserving judgments and infinite hope. So, one every two pages. And we agree to it as a class. If one person doesn’t do it, we all do jumping jacks. Not literally, though I wish, just like I wish I could pull off having class outside and using saxophones and live macaws as props. In place of jumping jacks, a two-minute free write on some contemporary event, like a wardrobe malfunction.
And this is where the larger picture begins to coalesce—the significance of developing a skill through reading that translates into larger worlds, a skill learned in a safe space where poor judgment comes without real consequences, except intellectual ones. The point being that the consequences aren’t human. They’re judgments about characters experiencing pain, triumph, sadness, joy, hurt, and so on, but we can get them wrong and little changes. Getting people wrong in the real world, of course, comes with real consequences, sometimes tragic. The skill of delaying judgment, at least categorically, until sufficient questions are in play stands so powerfully at the center of empathy. To return to Virginia Woolf’s point: if reading can teach us how to begin to push preconceptions about fictional characters further aside (“banish” seems overly hopeful), then reading perhaps serves as a model for a similar push in response to people in the world, and not just those that enter our interpersonal spaces, but also the persons in the worlds outside ours—the cultural, social, and political worlds so often represented in binary ways in the media. To effectively annotate and read the fictional worlds of Jay Gatsby, Janie Crawford, Esperanza, Macbeth, et. al. allows students, ultimately, to be able to do the same for hurricanes, race riots, economic policies, state of the union speeches, even wardrobe malfunctions—but to do so from a place that begins with witness, a place that works aggressively to keep preconceptions at bay—questions not answers. This what real reading can accomplish—an aggressive stance, a flak jacket, that stands as a condition, ironically, for more empathy. Romanticized? Maybe—actually, not even maybe. But still essential.
The other part of this resides in stillness. To be still, to hover, inside a piece of literature requires students stopping for moments at a time within the characters and their fates, their worlds. Annotations force them into that space, if only for a moment, alongside a partial stepping back from the worlds circumscribed by their own egos: the teaching of reading as the teaching of stillness, a kind of meditative, cognitive moment where students develop the ability to be intellectually still in a world so often pushing their intellects to move at breakneck speed from moment to moment, a constant shuffling of information, their minds the photons inside the Hadron collider moving at a searing pace. And this is crucial no matter where students go to school, no matter what the classroom: English and History, Science, Math, Art, Foreign Language, Metalwork, etc. Students need to know how to undermine and dismantle the spectacles surrounding them, and how to slow each spectacle down in turn in order to better see the axles turning inside of it. Critical reading is where that stillness begins. Annotations in the margins of Macbeth or a set of scribbled-on sticky notes in Their Eyes Were Watching God are the beginning points of interpreting their worlds, the ones screeching past them without brakes.
Image Credit: Pixels.
Scott Fitzgerald died in Los Angeles on December 21, 1940, age 44, after spending his last 36 months working as a Hollywood screenwriter. He’d stopped drinking by then, but the well-paying screenplay re-write work that brought him to Hollywood had dried up too. With a weak heart, and a chronic lung condition aggravated by heavy smoking, he was increasingly bedridden, laboring away on a long-planned Hollywood novel.
Benzedrine got him up in the morning; Nembutal tucked him in. A steady intake of cork-filtered cigarettes, coffee, Coca-Cola, and pans of chocolate fudge, rounded out the medications. They weren’t enough. Two mild heart attacks anticipated a massive third, which quickly ended things. The Tycoon manuscript, approximately 50,000 words in five-and-a-half chapters, was edited promptly by the preeminent critic Edmund Wilson, Fitzgerald’s friend from their days at Princeton, and published by Scribner’s the next year in a combined edition with The Great Gatsby, titled The Last Tycoon (issued in an edited format half a century later as The Love of the Last Tycoon).
Readers will find good accounts of Fitzgerald’s Hollywood sojourn in Matthew Bruccoli’s Some Sort of Epic Grandeur and Scott Donaldson’s Fool for Love; while close-up views are rendered in Aaron Latham’s out-of-print Crazy Sundays; F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood and Against the Current, the 1985 memoir of Fitzgerald’s secretary Frances Kroll Ring. But Fitzgerald’s own reports of his struggles helped to cement his legacy. In 1945, The Crack Up, a collection of his magazine articles, notes, and letters, also edited by Wilson, was published by New Directions. Its title was taken from three confessional essays that appeared in Esquire magazine in 1936, shocking then for the abject candor Fitzgerald used to describe a recent nervous breakdown and his wobbly recovery.
Widely admired by young academics like John Berryman — who published a glowing reappraisal of Gatsby in 1945 — The Crack Up launched a movement in confessional literature that’s lasted to this hour. Once The Far Side of Paradise, Andrew Mizener’s 1951 biography, appeared, Fitzgerald’s brief, dramatic life, as reflected in his writings, became perhaps the central literary legend of the American Century. Gatsby, which had nowhere near the sales of his hit first novel, at last found an audience.
Fitzgerald’s L.A. years are typically regarded as a minor coda to a tragic life, and Tycoon as a brilliant fragment of tantalizing promise. However, Tycoon succeeds in expressing a lot: its portrait of L.A., of studio work, of fully seen characters; how Hollywood’s atmosphere of imagination ruins people. Wilson edited Tycoon and The Crack Up to benefit Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda and daughter Scottie, who had been left in no small want at his death. By launching the author’s posthumous career, The Last Tycoon finally let Fitzgerald support his family comfortably with income from his writing, which had been the goal all along.
I propose that this revival-after-death was planned by a man aware that time was running out; that at the end, Fitzgerald was working on something that would endure because he wouldn’t finish it; that Fitzgerald had found a way for his death to give Tycoon, a necessarily fragmented tale of loss, a more moving outcome than anything he might dream up. Largely forgotten by 1940, his subsequent literary resurrection was no less important and lasting than that of Franz Kafka, a writer who died in utter obscurity, and whose own unfinished, posthumously published novel, The Trial, Fitzgerald knew very well.
He had hit bottom in the summer of 1936 following the disappointing reception of his fourth novel, Tender Is the Night, which he’d struggled for years to finish. At the end of his financial rope because of Zelda’s hospital bills and Scottie’s school tuition, his short story writing, high-paying romantic hackwork for The Saturday Evening Post, was completely blocked. Hiding out at a cheap North Carolina resort hotel near Zelda’s sanitarium, Fitzgerald consoled himself with a steady intake of beer, which, not being gin, somehow didn’t count as alcohol.
Without money or prospects, he wrote the abject Crack Up essays for Esquire, then a girlie magazine with literary pretensions published in Chicago. In their wake, miraculously, a sympathetic MGM executive offered Fitzgerald a writing job: $1,000 a week for six months. Out of options, he moved west, where he started re-write work on high profile projects like A Yank at Oxford, The Women, and Gone with the Wind.
Edmund Wilson gave Fitzgerald a copy of The Trial in early 1939, during a visit east. In May, Fitzgerald wrote thanking him, the first of his Los Angeles letters Wilson uses in The Crack Up: “It seemed to renew old times [with you] learning about Franz Kafka […]” Fitzgerald wrote another Princeton friend around this time recommending, among other books, “The Trial –fantastic novel by the Czech Franz Kafka which you may have to wait for but it is worth it.”
Eighteen months later, the Czech was still on his mind, writing Max Perkins, his Scribner’s editor: “Kafka was an extraordinary Czechoslavakian [sic] Jew who died in ’36 [wrong, but the Crack Up year]. He will never have a wide public but The Trial and America are two books writers will never be able to forget.”
He closes: “This is the first day off I have taken for many months and I just wanted to tell you the book is coming along and that comparatively speaking all is well.”
He was dead a week later.
Franz Kafka died of tuberculosis in 1924, after instructing his friend and executor, Max Brod, to burn his three unfinished novels. Brod instead had them all published in Germany within two years. The Trial’s first English translation appeared in the U.K. in 1936, in the U.S. the following year.
To this day, editions of The Trial and The Last Tycoon are remarkably similar in form. Both were edited, with notes, by a close friend of the writer, both include unconnected manuscript episodes, notebook entries, and letters. Consequently, their authors play large off-stage roles in the novels’ wider drama. Some readers might also note how ably Kafka’s air of absurd paranoia translates, in Fitzgerald’s arch romantic vision, to cutthroat goings on in Hollywood.
Fitzgerald first went to Los Angeles in the ‘20s, when movie sales of his stories were nearly automatic. He returned needing work few years later, and his drunken, show-off antics at Beverly Hills parties quickly sank his prospects. During both stays he spent time with Irving Thalberg, MGM’s creative chief, who, in the Crack Up year of ‘36 successfully worked himself to death: 37, pneumonia.
Thalberg, of course, fascinated Fitzgerald; they were both young, gifted, successful self-made men with glamorous wives (Thalberg was married to Norma Shearer, then MGM’s biggest female star), both preoccupied with popular storytelling. That Thalberg died of overwork the same time as Fitzgerald’s own breakdown made him an irresistible subject.
The Last Tycoon begins narrated by a studio chief’s daughter, Cecilia Brady, looking back to when she was twenty, five years before. Like Nick Caraway’s remembrance of Gatsby, she is recalling a dead man — Monroe Stahr, her father’s studio partner, and bitter rival.
An elegiac mood sets in early as Cecilia describes her particular view of the movie colony with a world-weariness more appropriate to a man of forty: “I accepted Hollywood with the resignation of a ghost assigned to a haunted house.”
Published recollections of Fitzgerald’s appearance are in striking agreement on just how ghostly he appeared in Los Angeles: pale green eyes, light brown hair, pallid skin, old, dark Ivy League suits (he drove a used Ford sedan); and how modestly he behaved in public, fading into backgrounds when once he demanded attention. According to Beloved Infidel, his lover Sheilah Graham’s bestselling 1958 memoir, she first sees him at a party, a handsome, very pale man sitting in an armchair smoking, smiling at her from across the room one minute, and, when she looks again, vanished the next.
Perhaps because Fitzgerald’s writerly dialogue and sense of storytelling was so criticized by movie people, Tycoon is built on talk, and an early scene mercilessly dissects a story conference for a bad romantic B picture. Fitzgerald’s L.A. is as sad as Raymond Chandler’s, cruel as Nathanael West’s, though richer than both. He had, in fact, been relieved earlier that last year to find that his friend “Pep” West’s The Day of the Locust, which he greatly admired, didn’t cover Tycoon’s territory.
Cecilia Brady’s monologue soon shifts to a third person narration, though in much the same voice, to describe events she had no way of witnessing. Either Fitzgerald couldn’t quite decide how the story would be told, or was attempting something closer to film narration. Tycoon is held together with cuts, and mood, of making do with fragments.
A sense of the incomplete pervades the story. Nothing Stahr touches is ever finished: not the endless line of movies needing his constant attention (in Chapter IV he fires a director from a set, before reviewing dailies from several different productions); not his half-built Malibu house, the novel’s central symbol; not his marriage to his dead wife, a great movie star whose image can’t disappear, continued (as Sheilah replaced Zelda) in her apparent double, Kathleen Moore. Early, or untimely, death is never far off. Fitzgerald didn’t need a complete novel to show how short Hollywood lives could be.
Working from a story outline, trying to keep to a production schedule, he took great care with each emerging chapter, polishing them until they were nearly done. The sketched-in ending — a plane crash related somehow to a studio power struggle — had a possible coda: (spoiler) a boy finds Stahr’s briefcase in the wreckage and keeps it. That is: the papers survive the man.
Wilson was given the manuscript by Perkins and lacking any obvious directions consulted both Graham and Kroll Ring to shape the manuscript for publication. One Fitzgerald biographer asserts that he made the work appear more realized than it was.
Whether Fitzgerald was confident his old friend, a la Brod, would fashion something from the manuscript is impossible to say. But given Wilson’s stature then as America’s foremost critic (he had just published the magnificent historical study, To the Finland Station), it almost certainly crossed his mind. Three weeks before he died, Fitzgerald wrote Wilson, the last letter in The Crack Up, saying how pleased he was with the new novel, and that its emotional honesty will probably get him in trouble. “I honestly hoped somebody else would write it but nobody seems to be going to.” He closes with a p.s. mentioning he was working under “a horrible paucity of time.”
Late in Chapter V, shortly before the manuscript stops, his heart doctor realizes that Stahr “was due to die very soon now. Within six months one could say definitely. What was the use of developing the cardiograms?” Indeed, Fitzgerald was waiting for a visit from his own cardiologist at Sheilah’s apartment near Sunset when the third attack hit.
“He will never have a wide public,” Fitzgerald, writing about Kafka the week before he died, was probably thinking the same of himself. However wrong that turned out to be, he absolutely knew what he had with The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon: “two books writers will never be able to forget.” That same day he also wrote Zelda to say he was getting better; that he needed rest; that it was odd how, alone of all the body’s organs, the heart was able to repair itself.
As an advocate for both books and therapy, I determined, upon first hearing the word “bibliotherapy,” that this might be my bespoke profession. I go to group therapy. I read a lot of novels. I’m constantly recommending novels to my group. Members struggling with various problems typically don’t count on me to empathize through personal experience. They count on me for book recommendations. Your adult son is an expat in Europe and is exploring his sexuality? See Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors. You feel alienated from your wealthy family but drawn to nagging spiritual questions about existence? Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is for you. Gutted by the loss of a loved one? You could do worse than James Agee’s A Death in the Family (Men’s therapy group, by the way).
The concept of bibliotherapy — a word coined in 1916 — long teetered on the edge of trendiness. But lately it has tilted toward truth. The highbrow media has weighed in favorably — consider Ceridwen Dovey’s much discussed New Yorker profile on The School of Life’s bibliotherapy team. And then the books: Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education and, perhaps most notably, The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Each book, to varying degrees, suggests connections between reading and happiness. A Google Scholar’s worth of criticism — my obscure favorite being Keith Oatley’s “Why Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation” (pdf) — has lent the idea scholarly heft. To be clear: nobody is arguing that reading books is a substitute for the medication required to treat acute mental illness. But the notion that novels might have a genuine therapeutic benefit for certain kinds of spiritual ailments seems legit.
If we concede that books can be therapeutic, then it seems appropriate to explore the potential pitfalls of asking literature to serve that cause. Of initial concern is the inherent presumptuousness of the endeavor. When I advise my fellow group therapy members — whom I know as intimately as I know anyone, if intimacy is defined by the sharing of anxiety, fear, and grief — what they should read, the assumption is that I’m able to divine how my interpretation of a novel will intersect with their predicted interpretations of the same novel. If reception theory tells us anything, it’s that this kind of interpretive foretelling, especially when refracted through the radically subjectivity of a novel, is a matter of great uncertainty, and maybe even an implicit form of lit bullying (“What? You didn’t pick up on that theme? What’s the matter with you?).
Plus, novels don’t work this way. They aren’t narrative prescriptions. Even when done badly, novels are artistic expressions necessarily unmoored from reality, expressions that ultimately depend on idiosyncratic characters who act, think, and feel, thereby becoming emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and even physically embodied — quite differently — in every reader’s mind. Yes, The Great Gatsby has universal appeal. But there’s a unique Gatsby for every reader who has passed eyes over the book. (Maybe even Donald Trump has one: “not great, not great; an overrated loser.”) Given the tenuousness and variability of this personal act of translation, it’s hard not to wonder: How could anyone expect to intuit how anyone else might react to certain characters in certain settings under certain circumstances?
In The Novel Cure, Berthoud and Elderkin aren’t hampered by this question. They match personal contemporary ailments with common literary themes as if they were complementary puzzle pieces. They do so under the assumption that the mere presence of a literary counterpart to a contemporary dilemma automatically imbues a novel with therapeutic agency. They advise that a person dealing with adultery in real life might want to read Madame Bovary. Or that someone who struggles to reach orgasm should read Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Does this kind of advice make any sense?
Consider the adultery example. How can Berthoud and Elderkin assess exactly how novelistic adultery will be translated into thoughts and feelings about something as deeply contextualized as real life adultery? How can they assess if it will be translated at all? Think of all the possible reactions. Use your imagination. A contemporary cuckold could go off the rails at any juncture in the Bovary narrative. He could become so immensely interested in Gustave Flaubert’s intimately detailed portrait of 19th-century provincial life, and the people in it, that he eventually finds the cuckolding theme a distraction, finishes the novel, quits his high paying job, and commits himself to a graduate program in French social history. Books have driven people to do stranger things. Sure it’s unlikely, but my point is this: Telling someone precisely what to take from a novel, based on the superficiality of a shared event, isn’t therapeutic. It’s fascist. A repression of a more genuine response.
More interesting would be to reverse the bibliotherapeutic premise altogether. Instead of asking “what’s wrong with you?” and assigning a book, assign a book and ask “what’s wrong with you?” When I lend books to friends outside of therapy, this strategy (upon reflection) is basically what I’m testing. I’m not trying to solve a person’s problem. I’m trying, in a way, to create one. I want to shake someone out of complacency. Great novels (and sometimes not so great ones) jar us, often unexpectedly. Ever have a novel sneak upon you and kick you in the gut, leaving you staring into space, dazed by an epiphany? Yes. Novels do this. They present obstacles that elicit the catharsis (from katharo, which means clearing obstacles) we didn’t think we needed. We should allow books to cause more trouble in our lives.
But the sanguine bibliotherapeutic mission will have none of that. Its premise is to take down obstacles and march us towards happiness. Proof is how easily this genre of therapy veers into self-help territory. The New York Public Library’s “Bibliotherapy” page suggests that readers check out David Brooks’s The Road to Character, Cheryl Strayed’s Brave Enough, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. These books are assuredly smart books by smart writers, all of whom I admire. But the goal of this type of book is to help readers find some kind of stability. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that. But the problem from the perspective of literary fiction is that such “self-improvement” books seek to tamp down the very human emotions that literature dines out on: fear, insecurity, vulnerability, and the willingness to take strange paths to strange places. Imagine reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment without being at least little off kilter. You’d shut the book the moment Raskolnikov committed his murder. Being moved by fiction means being willing to be led astray a little. It helps if your rules are not ordinary.
It also seems prudent to wonder how the bibliotherapeutic pharmacy would bottle up the work of certain writers. Would it do so in a way that excludes literary genius? Almost assuredly it would. Cormac McCarthy, whom many critics consider one of the greatest writers ever — appears three times in The Novel Cure. Predictably, The Road is mentioned as a way to (a) gain insight into fatherhood and (b) achieve brevity of expression. That’s it — all talk of apocalypse and the survival instinct as integral influences on human morality is brushed aside. Inexplicably, Blood Meridian is listed as a book that sheds light on the challenge of going cold turkey. I have no idea here. None. But I do know that if you are a reader who grasps the totality of McCarthy’s work, your literary soul, as Cormac might put it, is drowning in a cesspool of roiling bile.
Because here is what bibliotherapy, as it’s now defined, has no use for: darkness. Real darkness. McCarthy’s greatest literary accomplishment is arguably Suttree, the culmination of a series of “Tennessee novels” that dealt in chilling forms of deviance — incest, necrophilia, self-imposed social alienation — that, on every page, sully the reader’s sense of decency. McCarthy’s greatest narrative accomplishment was likely No Country for Old Men, a blood splattered thriller that features a psychopath who kills random innocent people with a captive bolt pistol. These works, much like the work of Henry Miller (none of whose sex-fueled books get mentioned in The Novel Cure), aestheticize evil — in this case violence and misogynistic sex — into brilliant forms of literary beauty. They are tremendously important and profoundly gorgeous books, albeit in very disturbing ways. They are more likely to send you into therapy than practice it.
The good news for bibliotherapy is that there are too many hardcore fiction readers who know all too well that concerted reading enhances the quality of their lives. A single book might destabilize, tottering you into emotional turmoil. But books — collectively consumed through the steady focus of serious reading — undoubtedly have for many readers a comforting, even therapeutic, effect. This brand of bibliotherapy, a brand born of ongoing submission to great literature — not unlike traditional therapy — does not necessarily seek to solve specific problems. (In my group therapy, members have been dealing with the same unresolved issues for years. We define each other by them.) Instead, what evolves through both consistent reading and therapy is a deep, even profound, understanding of the dramas that underscore the challenges of being human in the modern world.
So, despite my concerns, I remain a believer in bibliotherapy. But its goal should not necessarily be to make us feel better. It should be to make us feel more, to feel deeper, to feel more honestly. In this respect, quality literature, no matter what the subject matter, slows the world down for us, gives us time to place a microscope over its defining events, and urges us to ask, what’s going on here, what does it mean, why do I care, and how do I feel? That might not qualify as formal therapy, but it’s a good place to start.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
This completes a series of essays on craft that I privately refer to as “The Art of…: The Series.” (You can see why the name has remained private.) Previous entries include Epigraphs, the Opening Sentence, Close Writing, and Chapters.
(Spoilers, spoilers, blah, blah, blah.)
There are fewer famous closing lines than there are opening ones, probably because we start reading more books than we finish, i.e., the options are sparser. Not to mention how much context is sometimes required to understand the meaning (literal and figurative) of a book’s ending. You can’t just say: Hey, check this out: “He loved Big Brother.” To those unfamiliar with George Orwell’s 1984, what the hell would this mean? Some man is fan of reality television? Also, there is less pressure on a final line, isn’t there? If you’ve managed to keep a reader’s attention until the end, then you’ve already accomplished a great deal. In other words, the success of a book doesn’t exactly hinge on the quality of the last sentence, whereas an opening must rivet, pull, hook, excite, invite.
The more well-known closers tend to be lyrical passages of direct conclusion. A Tale of Two Cities features the oft-cited, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known,” and The Great Gatsby’s equally as referenced (most recently in the title of Maureen Corrigan’s book on Gatsby, And So We Read On), “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” Other notable finishers spell out the meaning of the title, as in John Irving’s The World According to Garp, which ends with Garp’s daughter, considering her father: “In the world according to her father, Jenny Garp knew, we must have energy. Her famous grandmother, Jenny Fields, once thought of us as Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees, and Goners. But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” Or in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which ends, “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed sombre under an overcast sky–seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.” And finally, Gabriel García Márquez’s masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude (one of the few, like Gatsby, to have a famous opening and closing):
Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.
My personal favorite among the famous closers is Ernest Hemingway’s “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” from The Sun Also Rises. This line not only aptly summarizes the themes of the novel but also stands as a wonderfully evocative statement on life in general — the beauty of our imagination is rarely matched by the ugliness of reality.
Most great last lines are not extractable or isolatable quotations; as I said, they require context. And sometimes their beauty comes more from what’s literally being described than the efficacy of the language. The ending of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence isn’t a poetic line in and of itself. Its power comes from the scene it ends. Newland Archer, older, now a widower, has the chance to see Madame Olenska again, she being the woman, as Newland’s son has it, “you’d have chucked everything for: only you didn’t.” When they go to meet her, Newland opts to sit outside the hotel instead, saying, “perhaps I shall follow you.” He stares at the balcony he knows to be Olenska’s, hoping to catch a glimpse. But he only sees the servant close the shutters. Then: “At that, as if it had been the signal he waited for, Newland Archer got up slowly and walked back alone to his hotel.” The tragedy in this line is inextricably linked to the scene it concludes. Wharton’s success lies in right ending as much as the words that describe it.
Leo Tolstoy’s ender in The Death of Ivan Ilych is also simple but masterful: “He drew in a breath, broke off in the middle of it, stretched himself out, and died.” This short novel deals with Ilych’s life in a plain style, refusing to make death abstract, and the ending emphasizes that. Death is a stark fact, one Ilych was not prepared for, and, unfortunately, it happens as easily and as unceremoniously as Tolstoy’s final sentence. Philip Roth, riffing on Ivan Ilych for his short parable Everyman, takes his unnamed protagonist through all the sicknesses of his life, using the close-calls of death as a way to narrate a life, for what is life, after all, than the continual resistance to death? His everyman perishes thusly: “He went under feeling far from felled, anything but doomed, eager yet again to be fulfilled, but nonetheless, he never woke up. Cardiac arrest. He was no more, freed from being, entering into nowhere without even knowing. Just as he’d feared from the start.”
Roth is particularly good as final lines (as well as opening ones). American Pastoral, after delicately and intricately describing how the Swede’s family life literally explodes from the blast of his Patty Hearst-like daughter, ends with distinctly American questions: “And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” But maybe my favorite Roth ender comes from, appropriately, his final novel. Nemesis tells the story of a Polio outbreak in New Jersey in 1944. Bucky Cantor, a well-intentioned weightlifter and javelin-thrower, tries valiantly to help his community as the epidemic ravages its citizens. Eventually Bucky flees New Jersey for Indian Hill, a summer camp where his girlfriend Marcia’s a counselor. The fresh air promises health, a safe haven, but soon one of the counselors gets sick, and Bucky comes to believe that he is the carrier who introduced polio to the camp. When he, too, falls ill and has to be hospitalized, he ends things with Marcia, his love, because, “I owed her her freedom…and I gave it to her. I didn’t want the girl to feel stuck with me. I didn’t want to ruin her life. She hadn’t fallen in love with a cripple, and she shouldn’t be stuck with one.” Years later, a former student of Bucky’s from New Jersey runs into him. The sight of the former weightlifter with a “withered left arm and a useless left hand,” wearing a “full leg brace beneath his trousers,” is shocking, but even more so is his deep-seated bitterness. “God killed my mother in childbirth,” he says, “God gave me a thief for a father. In my early twenties, God gave me polio that I in turn gave to at least a dozen kids, probably more…How bitter should I be? You tell me.” The books ends with the former student’s vivid recollection of Bucky at his peak, when the kids would watch him throw his javelin:
He threw the javelin repeatedly that afternoon, each throw smooth and powerful, each throw accompanied by that resounding mingling of a shout and a grunt, and each, to our delight, landing several yards farther down the field than the last. Running with the javelin aloft, stretching his throwing arm back behind his body, bringing the throwing arm through to release the javelin high over his shoulder — and releasing it then like an explosion — he seemed to us invincible.
Roth’s last group of short novels (Everyman, Indignation, The Humbling and Nemesis, collectively referred to as Nemeses) deal with this theme, that of the delicacy and vulnerability of us all, how, despite our intentions, regardless of our ethics or our choices, life can destroy you whenever it wants, and for whatever reason.
Toni Morrison can also open and close a book with power. Her Song of Solomon takes the hero, Milkman, to the town of Shalimar in search of gold. Milkman’s best friend, Guitar, tries to kill him but instead kills Pilate, Milkman’s mystical sister. After singing to her as she dies, Milkman realizes “why he loved her so. Without ever leaving the ground, she could fly.” The promise (and failure) of human flight runs throughout Song of Solomon, beginning with its inimitable opening line: “The North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance agent promised to fly from Mercy to the other side of Lake Superior at three o’clock.” Whereas this man’s promise proves to be nothing more than a boast, Pilate flies in the truer, more significant sense. Milkman goes after Guitar after Pilate dies, and the novel concludes both ambiguously and conclusively:
Milkman stopped waving and narrowed his eyes. He could just make out Guitar’s head and shoulders in the dark. “You want my life?” Milkman was not shouting now. “You need it? Here.” Without wiping away the tears, taking a deep breath, or even bending his knees — he leaped. As fleet and bright as a lodestar he wheeled toward Guitar and it did not matter which one of them would give up the ghost in the killing arms of his brother. For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.
It is uncertain as to which man emerges victorious, but the real meaning here is in Milkman’s realization about the air. Flying is impossible for a person to do literally, and Milkman finally sees this– — his stubborn pride is released as he lets himself be guided by the “air,” or, more aptly, the right choice. Morrison’s books nearly always hint at magical realism, and sometimes they deliver it, but usually the magic stays where it lives, in the imagination, and her characters must find other ways to save themselves.
Notice in these last few examples how neatly their authors are able to unify the themes and the plots of the books into a distilled moment. Tolstoy’s frank style reinforces the matter-of-factness of death, Roth’s childhood memory evokes the naïve belief in human power, and Morrison’s “riding the air” answers a question set up by the first line. The skill here is in giving the sense of a cohesive whole, of arriving at a place that is both surprising and inevitable. The surprise comes as you read it; the feeling of inevitability comes after you’ve considered the ending in the context of the entire narrative. Ivan Ilych is coldly pronounced dead on page one, but his death doesn’t happen in a scene until the finale, where we now feel empathy. Roth reminds us of Bucky’s strength in his youth, a fact made poignant the sight of him as an older, decrepit adult. A man promises to fly who can’t, and then Milkman finds his own way of doing it.
Other than bringing a character to a pivotal point, or circling back to the beginning, and besides lyricism that summarizes the novel’s point of view, what are other ways novelists end their books in a satisfactory manner? Some choose to simply not end their novels at all. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has a circular structure in which the last sentence (which ends mid-sentence) loops back to complete the opening one (which begins mid-sentence). But since I haven’t read that book nor do I believe that I could rightfully analyze it, I’ll stick here with books within my intellectual capabilities. (Joyce has the distinct honor of having not one but three famous endings: Finnegans Wake, Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses, and the perfect final sentence of his story “The Dead.”) Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction also starts and concludes in medias sententia. Ellis’s aim, rather than suggesting circularity, is to suggest that we as readers have only momentarily joined a narrative that has been going on long before and will continue long after. Plus, his college-age characters are manic, erratic, and uncertain of everything. Ellis’s choice to cut them off is appropriate: they would have continued forever had he not done so. David Foster Wallace’s first novel, The Broom of the System, (published a month before his 25th birthday) is a playful, extended riff on Wittgensteinian theories of language. (This is, mind, a novel in which a talking cockatiel named Vlad the Impaler ends up proselytizing on a Christian television network.) The final line is actually dialogue, spoken by Rick Vigorous, the protagonist Lenore’s boss and lover: “You can trust me,” R.V. says, watching her hand. “I’m a man of my”. For a narrative focused on language (most notably Ludwig Wittgenstein’s assertion that philosophical problems arise because of confusions of language stemming from false assumptions about how language works) to end by omitting the word ‘word’ — which is doubly meaningful as here the term denotes trust, an oath, the kind of certainty the book spends much energy making sure we don’t forget is linguistically suspect if not impossible — may seem too clever by half, but by the time a reader reaches this point, no other ending would seem appropriate (certainly not as pointed).
Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything Is Illuminated ends with a similar excision, though aimed at an entirely different purpose. The “guileless,” Thesaurus-happy Alexander Perchov — truly one of the most lovable characters in recent fiction — guides Jonathan Safran Foer through their trip to Trachimbrod in search of the woman who saved Foer’s grandfather from the Nazis. Alexander’s grandfather accompanies as driver (though he claims blindness), and it soon becomes apparent he has his own ghosts to search for in their Ukrainian journey. Grandfather, it turns out, had betrayed his best friend Hershel to the Nazis (revealed, in the novel, in a heartbreaking, punctuation-less section), and in the end he writes a letter to Jonathan and Alexander (also called Sasha) to explain his decision to take his own life. The letter ends as Grandfather does:
I am writing this in the luminescence of the television, and I am so sorry if this is now difficult to read, Sasha, but my hand is shaking so much, and it is not out of weakness that I will go to the bath when I am sure that you are asleep, and it is not because I cannot endure. Do you understand? I am complete with happiness, and it is what I must do, and I will do it. Do you understand me? I will walk without noise, and I will open the door in darkness, and I will
Like Wallace’s ending, this line is an interrupted promise, but here it is meaningfully sincere and incomplete for another reason entirely. I will is a strong subject-verb phrase, and by leaving it unfinished, Foer ends his book with nearly limitless optimism– — quite a feat considering it comes in a suicide note.
I am aware, as in all of these essays, that I haven’t said anything new or insightful on the subject of endings in general. Let me attempt something now. Unlike almost all other elements of fiction, the final lines do not participate in the project of keeping a reader reading. This may appear to grant a writer complete freedom, like the final two years of a two-term presidency — the absence of an impending re-election ostensibly allows for sweeping, public-opinion-be-damned initiatives. But in fact the last moments of a novel are its most delicate and important. If opening lines can be likened to a carnival booth runner’s shouts to passing fair-goers, the final lines are more than the prize of the game. Think about how much a reader gives a novelist — they agree to spend thousands of words listening and absorbing the novelist’s story. They are granting the novelist the rare chance to take them, via hundreds of pages, to a precise point, an incredibly particular moment that only fiction with all its complexity and length can reach. With enough trust, a novelist can take us anywhere, and the tools of narrative allow for remarkable specificity — the exact moment a marriage fails or the aftermath of a war for one family or a man’s tragic death that his whole life has seemed to point to. For writers, the last sentences aren’t about reader responsibility at all — it’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop worrying about what comes next, because nothing does. No more keeping the reader interested, no more wariness over giving the game away. This is the game. This is the best time for a writer to get real, to depict reality as they see it, without compromises, without fear. The reader has stuck with you — give them something true, something honest and unquestionably yours. Take them from the promise of the opening line to those hyper-specific moments in life that take tens of thousands of words to set up — take them, as Junot Diaz did, to the beauty! The beauty!
See? It’s easy.
Now everybody —
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
I probably shouldn’t admit that I keep an Excel spreadsheet to track what books I’ve read in a given year. The file spans seventeen years, a book lover’s rap sheet, for sure; at my best, I was reading just under 50 books a year, a rate that I felt proud of. Unfortunately, I’ve been reading steadily fewer books over the years. I’m sure Excel could generate an instructive and depressing chart to illustrate this. After the birth of my daughter, I fell from tallies in the forties to the thirties. My son’s arrival in 2011 bumped me down to the twenties. Last year I was grazing the treetops just a few dozen feet above rock bottom.
I was once more casual about books, and I expected far less of myself as a reader. I read whatever was at hand, and I rarely tracked what I was reading. This changed—predictably—in college, when I joined a freshman class where I felt like everyone else had read everything important, while I had read nothing worthwhile. One boy in my Latin class seemed to have read Julius Caesar while in the cradle. Nietzsche was invoked often in late-night bull sessions at the dorm, and I knew the name, but could do little more than nod along. In one class, the professor and the students agreed The Great Gatsby was the solid-gold standard of all modern lit—tossing off references to the high-hatted lover, the ash heap, and West Egg, as if these were people and places they all knew personally as kids.
Looking back now, I can see how some of the people I thought knew everything had in fact just gathered enough knowledge to sound impressive. Such a nuanced understanding eluded me at the time, although such an insight even then would not have really made me feel better. I was a young man of no pedigree coming from the backwaters of Kalamazoo, Michigan, and I was contending with the ex-pats of the East Coast and the better-bred urbanites of the Midwest’s larger cities; all that mattered was what it felt like I had not done, had not read, did not know.
Being prone to rash vows, I swore then that I would henceforth read everything that mattered. That I would embark upon the reading journey of all reading journeys. I’d just have to read everything. Fair enough: except I didn’t really know where to begin. And I didn’t really have time to get started in between integral calculus and seeking out new friends. I made no real progress until the arrival of summer vacation, when I returned home to work as a messenger in a law firm.
For weeks I stumbled blindly through books by William Blake and Carl Sandberg, but nothing really clicked till I opened a copy of the ever-controversial Lolita. Before then, I often said that I wanted to a writer but that I’d probably be a lawyer because it was more practical. After reading Nabokov, I had an epiphany on the order of anything out of Dubliners: I cared more about art than legal arguments. And I admired Nabokov more than any learned attorney. Nabokov was a perfect specimen of art made man. His voice and tone were pitch perfect; he was deeply learned and sophisticated, and he had the charm to make a deeply disturbing story into a thing of terrible beauty.
That summer I put Lolita in the hands of everyone I knew. I urged it onto a girl I was trying to impress. I gushed to the point of self-abasement with strangers at Barnes & Noble. I even convinced my 85-year-old grandmother to read it. She surprised me by diving in so deeply that she read with a copy of a French-English dictionary at hand, the better to unlock the meaning of each filigreed phrase.
I was startled by her deep engagement with the text. Here was a woman who had not finished her last year of high school, and yet she could settle into Nabokov’s wordplay with a verve all her own. The night that I fetched the book from her, after she had finished, we sat in her kitchen in the dim light of a hanging pendulum lamp; we were surrounded by tall piles she had made of newspapers that she intended to read. She lived alone, as my grandfather had died the year previous. We spoke until well after dark, something that had never happened before. The world was full of new surprises.
After that summer, I would never again pretend to care about a career in law: I was mesmerized by the idea of finding, reading, and maybe even writing consequential books. I didn’t have a future path for gainful employment, but I did have The List, and that, at the time, felt like enough.
I call it the List, but its full name is The List of Every Book I Need to Read before I Die. The rules of The List are simple. Rule 1: the List is never written down. It can only be kept in one’s head because only thought can hold the list of everything worth knowing, because the entire universe is worth knowing, and the universe is infinite. Rule 2: you cannot remove a book from the List until you’ve read it entirely—because until the last paragraph, anything can happen.
I have not bothered with any more rules because those two have proved trouble enough.
Those first years of exploring the books of The List were like the beginning stages of love; when you and your beloved discover a shared appreciation for lazy afternoons on a blanket in Central Park, forgetting everything else exists; when you are startled and overjoyed at the simplest coincidences; when it feels like the entire world is made for you to discover its hidden connections and contradictions.
I remember in particular when I fell for the work of William Faulkner in March of 1998. We’d been introduced before, but always at the wrong time and place. This time, I was particularly weak and needy: my graduation was nearing, and having abandoned law school, there were many legitimate questions about where I’d live and how I’d afford living. I was also physically ill with a late winter cold. Into this ailing world, there arrived a Modern Library double-edition of As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury.
Faulkner was brash, confident, and utterly unconventional in all the ways that I was vulnerable to. He was not proper and neat, like Nabokov. He broke things. He seethed. I did nothing for two days but lie in bed and power through both novels. Once I could stand again, I became the evangelist of yet another Great Book. You have to read Faulkner, I kept saying. Have you read this guy? You have to read this. The man has no limits!
One evening at a small party on the patio deck of a nearby apartment, I was introduced to another graduating senior, a woman who had just completed her honors thesis. I inquired about the topic. She said, simply: “Faulkner.” I am not lying when I tell you thunder rumbled in the distance: it had just finished raining. I put my hand on the railing to steady myself.
“Explain something to me,” I said, eager to dive in, “Why does Faulkner put a tiny picture of an eye in the text of The Sound and the Fury? Why is there a tiny coffin hidden in the lines of As I Lay Dying? What’s it all mean?”
This woman glanced at the cloudy skies, as if hopeful for rain but quick. “I don’t know,” she said. I think in retrospect that perhaps she thought I was in the opening stages of a come on. Maybe I was, in a manner. We were all drinking and we were all young and I was desperate to find a way forward that could join the world of reading to the real world of adulthood and being.
My way forward, eventually, led to New York for an MFA program that fall. And while there I began to meet more people tunneling through books, working their own Lists. To my great joy, among these people I could actually talk about what I was reading, and what I thought of Great and Important Books. Yet we were all also very busy and protective of our writing time, as we were all supposed to be composing Important Novels of our own. Also, I was still a laggard. I was reading fistfuls of Hemingway and Dostoevsky, but I still hadn’t read Moby-Dick, and whenever Jane Austen came up, I’d pretend to hear someone calling in another room.
Around that time I returned home again for the holidays and visited my grandmother. She was not living in her house any longer during the winters. Instead, her children prevailed on her to occupy a small cottage on a plot that my uncle owned near a deep pond called Gun Lake. The rooms where she lived were sparsely furnished; she brought little more than her clothes, a television, and dozens of books, which she stacked on the floor near a portable heater.
On a snowy Christmas Day, she and I sat on the divan near the windows where outside my uncle was shoveling snow and we talked about New York City, and what my life was like, and what I was reading there, what new authors I had to tell her about. I found these dialogues somehow more affecting than most of the ones that I had in New York because they were the most honest and true; neither my grandmother nor I had read everything we wanted to read, and we were both serious about fixing the score on that point.
This new relationship surprised me, but it was not without precedent. As a boy, after raking leaves or performing the prerequisite chores to help out, I would sit at my grandmother’s kitchen table with a finger to a page in her 2,128-page unabridged Webster’s dictionary, quizzing her on words while she baked. Pie-eyed; melancholy; puny—these were words we laughed over. This connection had matured into a kind of partnership when I was an adult, and we could speak honestly and like fellow travelers who met up from time to time.
After I finished graduate school, I kept up the tradition of the List; despite stepping away from a community of fellow readers, I did not find myself reading less. If anything, I began to read more. I crossed names off the List and added names on to replace the ones that have passed. I met and became smitten with the likes of Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster and Yukio Mishima.
Around the time that I got married, I fell hard for Graham Greene’s serious novels. During the settling in period of my first home, I binged on John O’Hara. The joy of those books is intermingled with the joy of those periods of my life. Sometimes, I wish just as much that I could forget all the Graham Greene novels and begin The End of the Affair again for the first time. I wish I could read with unspoiled eyes the startling first chapter of BUtterfield 8. But you can’t go back.
I was eating dinner with friends on the Upper West Side in January 2010 when my father called and told me that my grandmother, Valerie Cote, had died. Like a character from countless novels or plays, I was to return home. And home I went, packed up with heavy feelings and the sense that a long, winding conversation had been interrupted—and would never resume again.
At the time, I was reading a book by Nam Le called The Boat. The Boat is a collection of stories, about which I can now remember almost nothing. I carried the book in a knapsack on the 11-hour drive home; and during the three days that I spent in Michigan, I know that I took the book out a few times, but I never really read it with any comprehension or joy.
Instead, while home I helped my parents empty out the apartment where my grandmother lived her final days. We threw out tattered clothes and sun-bleached furniture. There was very little worth keeping. She did not really seem to care about possessions. Except for her small horde of books. She was alone but not alone. In the collection of books near where she died, I recognized many books that she had carried unfinished around for ages, such as Thomas Mann’s Joseph novels. She had neglected the real world at the end and lived in the world of the book, and yet she still did not finish her List.
If it stimulated her, the reading, if it propped her up at the end, as her body failed her, as the light went out, I can’t say for sure. I can, however, say for certain that standing in her apartment while my mother vacuumed and my father packed up boxes, I felt no trace of her presence. It was as if she’d already been gone for ages. I suspect I would feel the same if I stood in Borges’s tiny flat or Proust’s bedroom. It is possible to stop living in the world long before you stop living.
So, then, what is it all worth, all this reading? Is it all just a delusion, a way of killing time, before time kills you?
I don’t think so, and my proof comes—ironically—via one last list. This list is a partial one, a mere sampling from the titles of the books that I took from my grandmother’s apartment and added to my own library on the shelves of my home in New York. This is the list of the place where my List, the list of a boy born in 1976 and still alive, overlaps with my grandmother’s List, the list of a girl born in 1915 and who died in 2010; despite our differences, we share a set of books that neither of us have ever read but both of us feel like we should and hope that we will read someday, somehow:
The last book in this partial list, This Side of Paradise, belongs to a set of hardcover F. Scott Fitzgerald novels which includes The Great Gatsby. And mention of Gatsby returns me—borne back ceaselessly on the tide of nostalgia—to the period in my life when I finally tasted of that great book, the golden apple of American literature, or so I’d been told to expect. I was almost twenty-three, and I read the book all at once over the course of an evening; from the start, Gatsby’s story sent a frisson of recognition through me, like when you approach a murky portrait in a dark room and discover that you are looking at a dusty mirror.
As every reader of Fitzgerald’s finest novel knows, Jay Gatsby fashions a new life out of the void of his past. Born in the Midwest, he rejects his birthright, changes his name, and moves to New York. He pursues an impossible dream. He remains slightly lost, ever in love with an ideal. He comes East to start fresh, but how do you escape the lonely heart you carry within you? Short answer: you don’t.
My grandmother was eleven when The Great Gatsby was published. Like a Jazz Age bon vivant, for a brief period in her teenage years she wore her hair short and danced the Charleston at a trendy club in downtown Kalamazoo. Her name at the time was Ruby Herrick. Years later, after marrying my grandfather, she took his last name—Cote—but she also did something unusual. She began to go by a new first name: Valerie. This was the only name I knew her by. I was a teenager before I learned that she’d once been known as Ruby.
She never left Kalamazoo, despite her name change. She never had to run, or never could. In contrast, I did not change my name, but I did flee to the East. And I do have my own ridiculous ambitions, especially when it comes to The List. I have fashioned a new life in a new city in the quest of an ideal, although I would be hard pressed to sum up all I am after in words. Jay Gatsby probably wouldn’t have been able to say precisely what he wanted, either. He also was a lover of books, by the way—as the owl-eyed man at a party at his house points out in the novel. Except none of the pages in Gatsby’s books are cut. Unlike my grandmother, he never read a single page. He had a different kind of List.
So, now, here I am, after seventeen years of reading my way through my List, and I am reading still, but not as often; and why is that? Perhaps I am too busy. Perhaps I am entering into a period when I can’t fit in time for reading, and so I am deferring much of it for later—as my grandmother began reading with a vengeance after her children were grown and her husband was away at the club with his semiretired friends.
Or, perhaps, the number of books I read has dropped to a low now because after years of accumulation, I have gathered up enough stories and views and perspectives that I can at last wade through life with some confidence. I am no longer that 18-year old cub so cowed by what all the others around him have done. I see ways into the world other those of the milieu that I was born into; certainly there are countless more ways of seeing, but for now I can ease off the throttle.
I’ll never quit, of course. For me, reading is an act of personal tradition, something that belongs to me as deeply as a genetic signature; it is a kind of ongoing, hereditary faith. The images, characters and stories that I have gathered up are the templates for the stories, narratives, and analogies that help me interpret the world—like an ivy using a trellis to catch and claw its way to the light. I am not any more trying to gain admission to a mandarin club or rise up in standing against my rivals. I am going to read, and read, and the reading itself is and will have to be enough.
Reading is solitary and personal, but you aren’t necessarily alone in it. In some ways, we are all reading together; even if we are also reading alone. The List is infinite. My life is finite. I don’t need to finish everything. Finishing isn’t even the point.
Image via Longborough University Library/Flickr