In June of 2016, I started a podcast with my friend Jesse called Fan’s Notes, about our two favorite topics of discussion: books and basketball. To date, we’ve recorded 58 episodes, a rate of about one book every two weeks. The project has been somewhat time-consuming, and extremely unlucrative, but it has been hugely rewarding in terms of reading. A quick scan through our list of published episodes in 2018 (the project comes in handy here as a kind of diary of my year’s reading) reminds me of many new favorites: Elif Batuman’s The Idiot and Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women among them.
As a fairly slow reader, the podcast has benefited—dictated, really—my reading list, I think to the benefit of my writing. Not just in terms of regularly discussing literature in a somewhat structured (if beer-accompanied) format, but also in terms of simply venturing a little beyond the confines of my usual taste. I would not otherwise, probably, have sat down and read straight through two collections of Borges, would have been content with my passing familiarity with the greatest hits: “The Aleph,” “The Circular Ruins,” “The Garden of Forking Paths.” Like most people, as much I intend to read new things, the attention-draining demands of life always make it easy to stick with what I’m confident will bring a good return on my reading time. That Patrick Melrose collection on the bookshelf, for example, is a constant familiar lure and pleasurable threat to experiencing novel novels.
Of all the excellent books the podcast introduced me to in 2018, none was more unexpected or exciting than Mary McCarthy’s The Company She Keeps. I’d been vaguely aware of McCarthy as someone in the 20th-century literary landscape, had heard of The Group. But I’d never read her, and I’d never heard of this novel, her first, published in 1942. That this book was published 77 years ago, going on a century, is truly hard to believe—it is one of the most modern novels I’ve read in a long time, more modern than most modern novels.
The book’s political concerns are shockingly timely, somehow prefiguring #MeToo and DSA 80 years ahead of schedule. The Company She Keeps follows its protagonist, Margaret Sargent, a young bohemian Trotskyite, as she destroys her marriage, finds odd jobs to make ends meet, engages in a series of love affairs, and navigates the ’30s-era New York communist scene. Margaret’s sexual and political agency feel bracing, radical even by today’s standards. She is accorded the traditionally male prerogative to destroy and rebuild her life as she sees fit—to make, at times, foolish and selfish and self-destructive choices—without apology or justification.
The novel’s form, too, is unusual and daring. It comprises six long, sometimes novella-length chapters, stories all published independently in outlets like The Partisan Review. Despite being anchored by Margaret’s consciousness and concerns, the POV moves from third person to first to second. In one story, Margaret only appears halfway through and functions as the antagonist. McCarthy employs every possible vantage point to probe Margaret’s character—her principled bravery, her fears and anxieties, her generosity and snobbish prejudices—in a kind of dialectic analysis mirroring the Marxist and Freudian thought that dominated both the author and characters’ intellectual circles. As soon as Margaret believes a proposition about herself or the world to be true, something else proves it false, and the two truths must be synthesized in order to allow her to edge forward. Margaret’s mental landscape—and this is where the real action of the book takes place—is like an impossibly large mansion of locked rooms. Unlocking one door, she only finds herself trapped in another.
The book posits self-awareness as a kind of comic hell. In the memorable conclusion to “Portrait of the Intellectual as a Yale Man,” the main character, Jim Barnett, a smug leftist (and avatar of white male privilege decades before that was a phrase in circulation) ruefully considers his extramarital fling with Margaret:
What did he regret, he asked himself. If he had to do it over again, he would make the same decision. What he yearned for, perhaps, was the possibility of a decision, the instant of a choice, when a man stands at a crossroads and knows he is free. Still, even that had been illusory. He had never been free, but until he had tried to love the girl, he had not known he was bound. It was self-knowledge she had taught him. She had shown him the cage of his own his nature. He had accommodated himself to it, but he could never forgive her. Through her, he had lost his primeval innocence, and he would hate her forever, as Adam hates Eve.
Once the door to honest introspection is cracked, it cannot be closed again, can only be flung wider and wider as each confounding truth barges through. It turns out a little self-perception goes a long way, and a lot goes a little.
The comic, brutal irony of McCarthy’s narrative regard—toward Margaret and the motley cast of secondary characters—is what struck me initially as most bracingly modern about the novel. As I read on, however, I began to question this proposition. I’m not sure, in fact, how much patience modern readers would have for a narrative voice this unsparing, or a protagonist as flawed and vexing as Margaret Sargent. She is not, in the horrible modern formulation, relatable. She is not nice, and neither, to its credit, is The Company She Keeps. This is a book that pulls no punches—about art, politics, psychology, and human nature. This is a book that tells the truth because there’s something at stake, politically and personally, something that would be lost by any intellectual fudging or false comfort. In a period of such rank political and cultural dishonesty, we need books like this—now more than ever, I want to cornily say, though probably this has always been the case. There have probably never been enough books like this.
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There is a marvelous scene in Dick Fontaine’s underseen 1968 roustabout documentary Will the Real Norman Mailer Please Stand Up? where we are in a bar watching people watch Norman Mailer on Merv Griffin’s show. He’s ostensibly being interviewed about his latest novel, Why Are We in Vietnam?. But just as that book is only obliquely about Vietnam, Mailer is only obliquely being interviewed. Griffin lets the pugilistic author hurl denunciatory roundhouses about the war at the camera, the instinctive performer going for where the real audience is. In the bar, the patrons take it all in passively, much as we all do while watching TV unless the Cubs are winning the World Series or the president is announcing that bombing has begun. Eventually there is grousing at Mailer’s fury, though, and the set duly disconnected. America’s great public intellectual is silenced.
The movie is a companion piece of sorts to The Armies of the Night, Mailer’s nonfiction novel—a genre he had disparaged when Truman Capote, one of his rivals in the world of literary TV jousters and quipsters, had tried it out—about attending and being arrested at the 1967 March on the Pentagon. Like Fontaine’s quizzical and half-jesting film essay on celebrity and authenticity, Mailer’s book is not so much a document of the thing itself but a cockeyed jape about his vainglorious participation. Yoked as it is to a brooding and half-baked analysis of American sin and militarism, The Armies of the Night is fitfully incandescent. But it rewards for being reported on the ground without resorting to canned narratives. All is filtered through Mailer’s sensibility, trained by years of fiery raging against the creeping totalitarianism of American life. It’s best read with Miami and the Siege of Chicago, the other great grounding component of the new boxed set of Mailer-ana from Library of America: Norman Mailer: The Sixties.
At nearly 1,400 pages packed into two volumes, it’s all too much at once, like a supercut of Mailer’s TV appearances, those bright dark eyes and halo hair, his machine-gun sentences snapped out one after the other until the white flag is waved. The delineation by decade isn’t particularly helpful, because it necessitates including a couple of Mailer’s noisier but lesser novels.
Although he had spent much of his writing life after the war trying to be recognized as a novelist, nothing after his still-notable debut, The Naked and the Dead, attracted the kind of heat he desired. 1965’s An American Dream was noisy at the time but embarrassing now. It’s a feverish mess related by Stephen Rojack, a war hero turned philosophy professor and politician who just can’t keep himself out of trouble—a character who, in other words, reads purposefully like an exaggeration of all Mailer’s traits (lest we forget that time he ran for mayor with Jimmy Breslin). After murdering his wife, Rojack wastes no time bedding her maid and then falling into bed with a nightclub singer, not to mention nearly killing the singer’s lover and making friends with the cop who’s investigating him. There is some snap to Mailer’s voice here and there (“the air had the virile blank intensity of a teller’s cage”). But its ludicrous potboiler elements are laughable, and the turgid antihero narrative, reflecting his unfortunate tendency for romanticizing violent outsiders, leaves a sour aftertaste.
As for the collection’s other novel, 1967’s Why Are We in Vietnam?, this slogging faux-Burroughs picaresque mockery of American male braggadocio tries to fashion itself as some kind of commentary on the war and the species, but chases its own tail in exhausting fashion. One can see why everybody at the time wanted to know why the whole book, which only directly references the war at the very end, seemed like a tiresome setup for an unfunny joke, like Portnoy’s Complaint without the wit.
It was Mailer’s nonfiction—an earlier batch of which had been collected in 1959’s Advertisements for Myself—staggering under more ideas than they could conceivably carry and redolent with doom, which ultimately did for him and his reputation what his novels’ scandalous content never had.
By the time The Armies of the Night opens, Mailer is in the full bloom of naked self-regard of his brilliance and contradictions. He views himself as a character—“the novelist,” or simply “Mailer.” Bumbling about a pre-march party in D.C., he gets heroically tanked and makes catty little remarks about fellow peace-marching literati like Dwight Macdonald and Robert Lowell. Then comes a shambling speech at the Ambassador, which he relates in the book as a kind of verbal performance art, but which looks in Fontaine’s movie as garbled and occasionally racist nonsense.
“He laughed when he read the red bordered story in Time about his scatological solo at the Ambassador Theater—he laughed because he knew it had stimulated his cause.” What cause was that, exactly? He doesn’t discuss the war itself much at all, in fact. When Mailer can wrest the book away from contemplation of “Mailer,” Armies is a tactical work about how the protestors formed, scattered, and regrouped in their move on the Pentagon, a building whose sheer size made any confrontation or encirclement impossible. (There’s an irony here, in that Mailer had a few years earlier complained about James Jones’s The Thin Red Line, which had been compared to his own World War II Pacific Theater combat novel, The Naked and the Dead, saying that “it is too technical. One needs ten topographical maps to trace the action.”)
In Mailer’s highly personal history, there isn’t any grand forward momentum. Rather, it’s a chaotic melee in which batches of fuzzy-headed youths and intellectuals, and the odd tight phalanx of true activists, swarm fitfully toward a monstrous and unassailable target with no idea of what victory would constitute. As such, Mailer analyzes the whole “ambiguous event” with enough distance to keep from romanticizing it. A note of sorrow pervades the account when he can wrest his eyes from himself, worrying over a “terror” that “nihilism might be the only answer to totalitarianism.” He looks over it all like a tactician studying a dusty book of battle: “they assembled too soon, and they attacked too soon.”
Strategies are also promulgated throughout Miami and the Siege of Chicago. A tighter and angrier piece of work than Armies, it finds Mailer in leaner form. Leaving behind some of those toys that cluttered up the earlier book, he keeps to the subject while not abandoning his orotund voice. It’s an account of a seemingly doomed nation told in two meetings: the 1968 Republican convention in Miami in early August and the Democratic convention that followed in Chicago later that month. Mailer’s voice is fulsome but not playful, as though he has come to the end of things after the killing of Bobby Kennedy two months before: “Like pieces of flesh fragmented from the explosion of a grenade, echoes of the horror of Kennedy’s assassination were everywhere.”
The “Nixon in Miami” segment is a classic slice of New Journalism. Spiky with overblown metaphors and heavy with luxuriantly dark language (“the vegetal memories of that excised jungle haunted Miami Beach in a steam-pot of miasmas”), it delivers cynicism by the truckload as Mailer stumps around the plasticine pirate place, sweating in his reporter suit as he delivers the nit and the grit of delegate counting. The competition between a desperately mugging Richard Nixon and serene but outmaneuvered Nelson Rockefeller is handled as mostly a foregone conclusion whose result at this phenomenally dull Potemkin event is ultimately beside the point: “unless one knows him well…it is next to useless to interview a politician.”
At one point, Mailer aims a full racist sneer at the black musicians playing for the white crowd, calling them “a veritable Ganges of Uncle Toms.” This racism is of a piece with many other moments throughout this collection. Witness his observations in Armies of the black people at the march who he thought held themselves apart, referring once to a “Black contingent [drifting] off on an Oriental scramble of secret signals.” Or, after he was arrested, seeing the “sly pale octaroon” with “hints of some sly jungle animal who would scavenge at the edge of camp.”
Like in Armies, with its uncertainty over tactics and goals, at the start of “The Siege of Chicago,” Mailer arrives in town as no friend of Daley’s pro-war hippie-thumping fascists. But it takes time for him to line up behind the protestors. Delving somewhat back into his old self-regarding ways, Mailer puffs himself up as a supposedly unique breed of “Left Conservative” as though there weren’t also millions of Americans who hated the war and the reactionary attitudes of its supporters but still wanted nothing to do with the slovenly utopian narcissism of the Yippies and their compatriots. But the war veteran who first wonders if “these odd unkempt children” were the kind of allies with whom “one wished to enter battle” is turned around once he witnesses the “nightmare” of the police riot on Michigan Avenue and sees the tenacity of the bloodied protestors who faced down assault after assault: “Some were turning from college students to revolutionaries.”
Mailer presents himself as the grounded intellectual, one who might find common cause with the agitators but still holds himself to the side. Some of this is the querulous discontent of the middle-aged man (born in 1923, he was well into his 40s by the time he marched on the Pentagon). Part of that constructed image is also a leftover of that detachment he tried to identify in 1957’s “The White Negro,” that weird firebomb of an article on the permutations of Hip.
But in the ’60s, some things were different. Mailer had determined to put drugs behind him. His contempt for the liberal establishment, especially after they gained power in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, grew ever larger. The divorces and children kept adding up, as did the bills. Paying journalism kept the paychecks coming in more than those pieces for Dissent or the novels that never blew the doors off as much as he imagined they would. So he kept himself going on TV to stir the pot and keep his name out there. He also kept knocking out the articles that fill up this collection’s second volume.
As in any collection of Mailer, this batch is part premature wisdom and part gasbag. Some pieces have both in abundance. “Ten Thousand Words a Minute,” supposedly about the 1963 Patterson-Liston heavyweight fight in Chicago, has top-notch material on the fight itself and a half-comic ode to the “shabby-looking” sports reporters feverishly bashing at their typewriters, all worked into soliloquies on “the Negroes,” the nation, and whatever else was coursing through Mailer’s overtaxed neurons at the time. Occasionally he fixates on a person, and the result is never good, as seen in “An Evening with Jackie Kennedy,” which contains among the most meaningless sentences one could ever read: “Afterward one could ask what it was one wanted of her, and the answer was that she show herself to us as she is.”
But, then, he was writing about a woman, and they eternally flummoxed Mailer. Take 1963’s “The Case Against McCarthy,” a clumsy blatherskite of a piece supposedly reviewing Mary McCarthy’s The Group. It was not only a bestseller, which infuriated Mailer, but written by a woman and about women, which pushed him over the edge. Loosely framed as a trial enunciating the author’s transgressions, Mailer’s piece windmills frantically. Even as he acknowledges her craft, he huffs and condescends about this lady daring to ascend the Olympus of Male Writers, calling her, a “duncy broad” and “Mary” (nowhere does he say “William” for Burroughs), imagining her as a shop lady with “a little boutique on the Avenue,” and concluding that “she is simply not a good enough woman to write a major novel.” Unlike, say, Mailer, who was a good enough man to have stabbed his second wife, Adele, with a penknife three years before writing this piece. She had reportedly told him he wasn’t as good as Dostoyevsky.
Misogynist character assassinations aside, the essays are replete with literary jousting of the kind one doesn’t see anymore. While savaging Another Country, Mailer extends a deft and graceful appreciation of James Baldwin (“Nobody has more elegance than Baldwin as an essayist, not one of us hadn’t learned something about the art of the essay from him”) before twisting the knife one more time just for fun (“and yet he can’t even find a good prose for his novel”). It’s illuminating also, in this time of shellacked appreciation for J.D. Salinger, to read this dismissive and probably correct assessment: “there is nothing in Franny and Zooey which would hinder it from becoming first-rate television.”
The digressions are, as ever, not just rampant but part of the attraction. In the middle of “The Debate with William F. Buckley,” Mailer finds time for an extended journey into “the plague” of the century:
Even 25 years ago architecture, for example, still told one something about a building and what went on within it. Today, who can tell the difference between a modern school and a modern hospital, between a modern hospital and a modern prison, or a prison and a housing project? The airports look like luxury hotels, the luxury hotels are indistinguishable from a modern corporation’s home office, and the home office looks like an air-conditioned underground city on the moon.
What was his point, again? Something about alienation and the Right Wing and our disconnection from reality and responsibility in the great postwar malaise of homogenized madness. Doesn’t matter—he was essentially correct even without being anybody’s idea of an architecture critic.
Mailer and his writing was essential to his time because he declared it so. Later, with the onetime public intellectual’s turn to gaseous fictions (Harlot’s Ghost, Ancient Evenings) and a retreat from the constant engagement demanded by nonfiction journalism, that was not the case. But in the 1960s, he planted himself in the streets and in the pages where battle took place, told what he saw, and made his stand.
This year I read articles about the San Francisco housing market and the Oakland housing market and the rise of the tech class and the death of the middle class, and I had anxieties. But I was fortunate to have a job, so I subscribed to three magazines, two of which I read. I read trend pieces in which I recognized myself because I have student loans and no car and no house and no offspring. I read online guides for how to introduce cats to babies, in case the latter condition should change. I read laments on the death of the humanities and felt morose. I read tweets where people said they didn’t like Frances Ha and felt misunderstood. I read the numbers on the scale and learned that I am fatter than I was the last time I wrote my Year in Reading. I read warnings about sitting being the new smoking and wondered if smoking will become okay by comparison. I read the ingredients in my lotion and wondered if they are giving me a rash. I read a WebMD thing about my rash and wondered if my lotion would be harmful for a baby. I read Amazon reviews for natural flea treatments and learned that there are none.
When I wasn’t reading a bunch of depressing shit, I read some strange and wonderful things. I read Dissident Gardens and thought it was so overwhelmingly wonderful that I read The Fortress of Solitude right away, and was underwhelmed by comparison. I read half of William Vollmann’s An Afghanistan Picture Show, which was not wonderful, and then I read all of his article about not being The Unabomber, which was. I read Ross Raisin’s Waterline. I read The Kindly Ones and wanted to talk to someone about it, but it’s old news and everyone is arguing about whether The Goldfinch and The Circle are bad or good. So I read four-year-old commentaries by Garth Risk Hallberg and Andrew Seal and had an imaginary talk with them both, and I think we all felt good at the end.
I read the memoir of Donald Antrim and felt very moved by his description of an outlandish kimono constructed by his mother, and wondered what it would be like to be the mother of Donald Antrim, or to have the mother that Donald Antrim had. I read an interview with Charles Manson, but did not care to consider what it would be like to be his mother. I read Tortilla Flat. I read Cannery Row. I read the Granta collection of under-40-year-olds and felt sort of stunned and worthless at the end. A story by Tahmima Anam about Dubai and falling continues to haunt me at odd moments. I read another story about falling, by Lionel Shriver, and got the spooky feeling I always get from Lionel Shriver, that she found the diary I would never actually keep, containing all my most awful thoughts. I wondered if Lionel Shriver is a witch. I re-read Of Human Bondage for the utter joy of it. I re-read Lucky Jim. I re-read Bridget Jones’s Diary. I got a cold and stayed home sick and re-read both memoirs of Beverly Cleary, and wished that I could stay home all week. I re-read Betsy was a Junior. I re-read The Adventures of Augie March, and wondered how it could have failed to show up on this list.
I read more things than I anticipated about Miley Cyrus. I somehow also read an interview with the woman whose husband committed infidelity with Kristen Stewart, accompanied by a picture of her nipples. I watched the music video for “Blurred Lines” and felt for a moment how very much people must hate women to come up with this shit. I realized that some of my favorite books by women are actually by men. I resolved to read more books by women. I felt obscurely annoyed at society for necessitating extra work on my part to correct its imbalance. I felt annoyed at myself for having this thought. I read The Group, which was a revelation. I read The Dud Avocado. I read The Conservationist and The Debut. I read The Affairs of Others and some good stories by Kate Milliken. Now I note that my reading list, like Ms. Cyrus, has a race problem–another thing requiring redress.
Next year I’ll do better, in this and all other matters.
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The first moment I saw that one giant word “GIRLS” flash across the screen in all caps, I became utterly, hopelessly enamored of Lena Dunham’s HBO television show. Yes, I know the endless criticisms, both reasonable and totally unreasonable. No matter. The show speaks to me like no other television show currently on air, and I am beyond excited that it is back for a second season on Sunday.
But while Dunham’s lady-centered wry comedy may be singular in today’s television line-up, the world of literature is home to a multitude of books with the same appeal as Girls, books that feature a certain kind of female protagonist (usually one coming of age) or a certain kind of female narrator (pointed, self-deprecating, and ultimately wise). These are books that — like Girls — explore what it is like to be young and hungry — hungry for love and hungry for sex, but most of all, hungry for recognition and hungry for adulthood. Ultimately, the girls in these books, like the girls of Girls, are hungry to become the women they will one day be.
And yes, of course, the girls in question here, both on the show and in these books, are privileged enough that they are not literally hungry. Many of them are also privileged enough to live on their own in New York and to be more concerned with opportunity costs than financial costs. And yes, the girls in these books — like on the television show — are all white. I am not white (or at least I’m only half), but these happen to be the books that have jumped out at me, that made me feel as if something of my own life had been understood and articulated in a way that was both illuminating and reassuring. I welcome your suggestions for other books in the comments.
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti: Many comparisons have been made between Heti’s novel and Girls, the most titillating of which obsess about both projects’ frank depictions of sex and shadows of autobiography. Less titillating but far more important are their shared concerns about the process of becoming an artist and also the intricacies of female friendship. The fictional Sheila and her best friend Margaux ostensibly fall out over a yellow dress, and Hannah and Marnie ostensibly fall out over the rent/Marnie buying a book by Hannah’s nemesis/which one of them is “the wound,” but really, both fights are ultimately about boundaries, both artistic and personal. It’s no surprise that Sheila and Margaux patch things up (though I won’t spoil how), and we have yet to see where things go for Hannah and Marnie, but both brutally honest portrayals do full justice to the complexity of a crumbling friendship, whether it’s eventually resuscitated or not.
The Fallback Plan by Leigh Stein: After graduating from college (with an oh-so-useful theater degree), 22-year-old Esther Kohler moves back home with her parents in suburban Illinois, where she takes a gig babysitting for the neighbors in order to pay her parents rent on her childhood bedroom. She quickly becomes involved with her charge’s father (shades of Jessa), as well as a Very Handsome friend her own age (complete with awkward — completely, terribly, realistically awkward — sex scene). Stein’s wry voice shines through the entire short novel, especially in the pages involving the Littlest Panda, a creation of Esther’s imagination that she wants to turn into a Chronicles of Narnia-inspired screenplay. There is, of course, more to Esther’s lethargy and indecision than meets the eye, but her (and Stein’s) self-aware take on the self-pitying recession-grad generation is compelling reading even without the eventual reveal about Esther’s backstory.
The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy: The protagonist of Dundy’s 1958 novel is Sally Jay Gorce, a 21-year-old American girl, straight out of college and living abroad for two years on her uncle’s dime. The cult classic was widely praised (by the disparate likes of Ernest Hemingway and Groucho Marx) when it was originally released, and attained cult status anew when NYRB Press reissued it in 2007 (and not just because of the nude figure on the cover). Of all the girls on this list, Gorce seems most like the proto-Girl — a girl who is self-avowedly “hellbent on living,” getting herself into (and out of) escapade after escapade during her time in France. Many of Gorce’s misadventures involve a heavy dose of slapstick, starting on page one with our introduction to our heroine, who is sitting at a Parisian bar having a morning cocktail, wearing an evening dress because all her other clothes are at the cleaners.
The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 1: 1931-1934 by Anaïs Nin: When Hannah’s diary got her into a mess of trouble, she probably took comfort in the tradition of great literary diarists before her, of whom Anaïs Nin is the reigning queen. In Volume One (of the six expurgated adult diaries), Nin talks freely — one might say obsessively — about Henry Miller and his wife June, her psychoanalysis, and her relationship with her father. But you don’t read Nin’s diaries for the plot points so much as the arcs of emotion and insight, as well as the searing descriptions of her friends and their relationships, (sound familiar, Marnie and Charlie?). Still, Nin perhaps has more in common with Jessa than with Hannah, as in this entry, reminiscent of the Jessa-ism that is possibly the most famous line from Season One of Girls: “Psychoanalysis did save me because it allowed the birth of the real me, a most dangerous and painful one for a woman, filled with dangers; for no one has ever loved an adventurous woman as they have loved adventurous men…I may not become a saint, but I am very full and very rich. I cannot install myself anywhere yet; I must climb dizzier heights.” Then again, Jessa would never be caught dead “journaling.”
The Lone Pilgrim by Laurie Colwin: In this collection of stories, the women are farther along the path to adulthood than Hannah and her crew — many are married, own homes, have stable careers — but they are no less lost. These are stories about new lovers and ex-lovers and the complexities of romantic love in all its forms, stories in which the women seek love as a form of stability but also rebel against the expectations of a relationship. In a turn that Jessa would appreciate, one of Colwin’s young female characters gets married in order to prove that she’s serious-minded, but meanwhile maintains a constant low-level high throughout the courtship and marriage. Beyond their thematic overlap, the stories are linked by Colwin’s diamond-sharp prose and emotional acuity. At the end of the collection’s eponymous story, Colwin writes of a woman who has married the man she loves and whose life appears to be in place, “Those days were spent in quest — the quest to settle your own life, and now the search has ended. Your imagined happiness is yours…It is yours, but still you are afraid to enter it, wondering what you might find.”
I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley: Crosley’s first collection of essays covers well-trodden 20-something-living-in-New-York ground, mostly having to do with a privileged class of horrors: the horrible first boss, the horrors of getting locked out of your apartment, the horrors of moving (from one Upper West Side apartment to another), the horrors of being a maid-of-honor. Still, Crosley’s sardonic and self-aware take on those seemingly unremarkable rites of passage elevates them to true moments of insight and recognition. Not to mention laugh-out-loud (or at least smile visibly) lines like: “People are less quick to applaud as you grow older. Life starts out with everyone clapping when you take a poo and goes downhill from there.” And as we know, Dunham loves a good bathroom scene. Hannah Horvath couldn’t have said it better herself.
The Group by Mary McCarthy: When The Group was first published in 1963, Norman Podhoretz dismissed it as “a trivial lady writer’s novel,” the kind of criticism that has dogged female artists — and has already, unsurprisingly, been hurled at Lena Dunham — throughout time. Of course, McCarthy’s novel, which follows a group of eight female friends after they graduate from Vassar and move to New York City in the 1930s, is anything but trivial. At the time it was published, The Group was considered revolutionary — it was banned in Australia while simultaneously spending two years on The New York Times bestseller list. A full 50 years after its publication (and 80 years after the story’s events), the novel’s satire-tinged account of the women’s lives offers a nuanced portrait of love and sex and birth control, marriage and divorce, childbirth and breastfeeding, professional ambition and thwarted dreams, and the fluctuations of female friendship.
The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing by Melissa Bank: This collection of linked short stories centers around Jane Rosenal, who, like so many intelligent young female protagonists, works in publishing in New York City. The collection does not exactly follow Jane’s personal search for love, though her love life figures largely in the stories; instead, the stories act more like a romantic education, as Jane observes and interacts with different forms of love as she makes her way from teenager to young woman to adult. Last in the collection, the title story descends into rom-com territory, though Zosia Mamet might be able to work the same miracle with its one-dimensional material — a discussion of The Rules and a final moral to Be Yourself — as she has with the hilarious but terribly flat character of Shoshanna. Still, Bank’s sprightly prose and sympathetic voice run through all the stories, making for an engaging, enjoyable read.
Emma by Jane Austen: Lena Dunham has said that Clueless ranks among her influences, and there would be no Clueless (and perhaps no Hannah Horvath) without Jane Austen’s original meddlesome, egotistic, incredibly flawed heroine, Emma. While Hollywood would have you read Emma as a straight rom-com — and Emma as an unimpeachable heroine — it’s better read the classic novel with the same lens of dramatic irony that the discerning viewer applies to Girls. Hannah is not supposed to be a character who makes all the right decisions; we root for Hannah, but we do not necessarily agree with her every move. In Emma’s case, the close reader cannot necessarily even root for her by the end; if you pay attention, Emma is revealed to be much closer to the original Mean Girl rather than the perfect innocent portrayed in the movies. Just like Hannah, Emma is clueless; we can only hope that by the end of Girls, Hannah will have grown up more than Austen’s beloved-but-actually-kind-of-terrible protagonist.
Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women by Nora Ephron: Although a few of the essays in Ephron’s landmark collection are somewhat prohibitively dated (the ones concerning Watergate, in particular, rely on a detailed knowledge of the scandal that is unlikely in 2013), most are as relevant today as they were when Ephron wrote them 40 years ago. The best known in the collection, “A Few Words About Breasts,” tackles standards of female beauty that would ring all-too-true for Hannah (remember that cruel scene in which Jessa and Marnie bond by laughing about how small Hannah’s breasts are?). Ultimately, though, the collection’s real legacy is its examination of the Women’s Movement, a reminder — all-too-relevant in today’s political atmosphere — of the struggle for the gender equality (or at least semblance of it) that many 20-something women have simply grown up with. In the final essay of the collection, Ephron offers a piece of wisdom that might benefit the girls of Girls as they continue on with their belated coming-of-age: “I was no good at all at any of it, no good at being a girl; on the other hand, I am not half-bad at being a woman.”
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Joanna Smith Rakoff hasn’t had a Lillet in at least a year. Or so she says, after I point out that the drink enjoys a small but noteworthy role in her debut novel, A Fortunate Age, about six young Oberlin College graduates in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We’re at Cafe Figaro, a French restaurant with red booths and cloudy mirrors down the block from Skylight Books. In a couple of hours, Rakoff will read there as part of her west coast paperback tour. Until then, she has agreed to share the pâté with me; we’ve already discussed an English professor we’re both still close to.
Let me get this out of the way: I’m proud to be part of the Oberlin Mafia (class of ’02 in the house!) I’m always updating my list of famous alumni–Liz Phair, Ed Helms, and Gary Shteyngart, to name a few–and if I see a car with an Oberlin bumper sticker, I will do a French Connection-style chase to get the driver’s attention. I enjoy telling my husband that my alma mater is way better than his; at the University of Chicago they built the atomic bomb; at Oberlin they built an Environmental Studies Center that runs on human waste. My four years at Oberlin made me the thinker I am today. It was only a matter of time before I read A Fortunate Age.
And yet, I didn’t expect to love the book as much as I did, and its connection to Oberlin was only nominally what I loved about it. For starters, it feels simultaneously contemporary, with its references to Cat Power, and its spot-on descriptions of Brooklyn at the turn of the twenty-first century, and also deliciously old-fashioned, as sprawling as Middlemarch and as readable as The Age of Innocence. Rakoff told me she was highly influenced by John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, “the ultimate skewering of the middle class,” and A Time to Be Born by Dawn Powell, which takes place on the eve of America’s entry into World War II. It’s one of Rakoff’s favorite novels. “What I love about it is that it’s very much about the cultural mood at the time, but the political goings-on, the historical backdrop, is woven in,” she says. “You see the way the forces of society and culture affect and influence these characters in a way that’s so subtle and wonderful.” Rakoff could very well be talking about her own novel, for it captures perfectly a particular time and place: New York from the late nineties tech boom, to the post-9/11 world of the new century. The characters are shaped by the city and this era, and as readers we pay witness to their evolutions. There’s a keen sense that this isn’t merely a personal drama about marriage, work, and making art, but also a book about what it means to exist in the world today. For instance, one character, Sadie Peregrine, isn’t just a mother of two, she is a mother of two in an increasingly frightening world:
Each day, some fresh horror arose: The train bombings in Madrid. The endless car bombings and suicide bombings in Iraq and Pakistan and Israel and Afghanistan, with their roster of civilian victims (children; always the children). The Vietnam-style rapes and massacres of Iraqi families–and the accompanying photos of the sweet-faced Virginia boys who’d perpetrated them. The kidnappings, all over the Middle East and North Africa, of journalists and contractors and translators. The beheadings–videotaped, aired on television–in Iraq. Everywhere, everything was wrong, wrong, wrong.
Typing this passage, I’m struck by how much darker it is than the opening of the novel, which begins with Lil’s wedding, four years after college graduation, its tone comic, almost jaunty. By the end of the novel, these characters have, without a doubt, reached adulthood, and it isn’t always a smooth transition.
Rakoff’s novel poses a central question: what do you hold onto from your idealistic youth, and what do you shed? In my mind, A Fortunate Age is a Post-Campus Novel: the campus, and what it signifies, has stayed with these characters, long after they’ve left it. For them, college was a time when they could easily devote themselves to art, and remain socially conscious; their passions did not yet have to be negotiated with the sobering realities of the working world. And the characters are cognizant, even occasionally pained by, this shift. In writing A Fortunate Age, Joanna says, “I was thinking a lot about the ways that going to a liberal arts college—specifically Oberlin, but you could say the same for other colleges of its kind, shapes you.” She says:
These colleges are utopian environments, in a way that a lot of these larger universities are not. You are instilled with these wonderful values and a wonderful sense of yourself, particularly if you are in the arts. And then you go out into the world, and it can be crushing. Perhaps more so in New York than everywhere else, but to see how commerce is what drives everything.
Joanna is a fan of the campus novel, particularly David Lodge’s work. She says she wanted to write a contemporary comedy of manners, which is difficult to do nowadays, because, at least in the US, “social mores are all over the place.” She points out that campus novels are so appealing because they’re about a closed society with certain rules. And maybe that’s why, in the world of her book, there’s “a Whartonian element to keeping up socially.” Lil, Sadie, and the others, they’ve got to compromise, and make sacrifices, in order to stay afloat in their world. “It’s indicative of the time period I’m chronicling,” she says.
Because the novel shifts perspective between five of the six characters, we get to see these characters both from the outside, and the in. We also see them through each other’s eyes, which can be both illuminating and alienating–sometimes friends get you, and sometimes, they don’t even come close. As the reader, we get to know these characters quite deeply, but never all at once. After spending a chapter with one, the narrative alights its glance on another, and we don’t return to the original character’s point of view for some time, if at all. This technique requires us to supply the rest of their story. Is Beth happy with Will? Is Dave going to stay in the band? How do they really feel? One can imagine both a negative, and a positive outcome, usually a mingling of both. Joanna tells me this was part of her plan, based in on the structure of The Group by Mary McCarthy, which A Fortunate Age was inspired by:
What I’m trying to do is give you a glimpse of a character—it’s kind of a Modernist project: to give you a glimpse of a character and then allow you to bore into that character’s head. I wanted each character to start off in an almost superficial way—see that character dealing with almost trite, gossipy things…their friends, their dress. As the chapter went on, I wanted to go deeper and deeper into their heads and see what their lives are like.
She is quick to point out, too, that the characters in her novel are affected by Oberlin in a totally different way than McCarthy’s characters are by Vassar. I asked Rakoff about one particular character in the novel, Caitlin, who also graduated from Oberlin with the others, but isn’t a friend of theirs–in fact, you might even describe her as a villain. We are never given access to her point of view. Caitlin wields a holier-than-thou attitude, and is blind to her own hypocritical behavior. “My initial draft of the book was more harsh and satirical with regard to all the characters, not just Caitlin,” Rakoff says. “Later drafts softened them, but not with Caitlin—and it’s not satirical license…I know people just like her. There’s always going to be that person who drinks the Kool-Aid, and it stays in her system. Part of Caitlin’s problem is that she’s so insecure and over confident, and she is trying so hard to be counter-cultural that she’s become dictatorial.”
I smile because I’ve too met people similar to Caitlin, though fewer and fewer with each year away from college. I ask Joanna about the choice to write about people in their twenties. Joanna laughs, and tells me about a friend who tried to convince her not to write the book. Her friend said she didn’t want to read about young people in New York. “I am that person!” she said. For a time, Joanna heeded her advice, until she couldn’t any longer. She wanted to tell this story.
[As a reviewer] I was doing this really heavy volume of reading, and I would get these novels about young women, usually in NY. They were just ridiculous. They were all about buying…Prada shoes, Gucci bags. I don’t know anyone whose life is like that. I don’t know anyone who really lives like this. I kept waiting for that novel to come my way, that was going to be about people I knew, and it never came.
A Fortunate Age isn’t about people I know–not exactly–but the lives explored therein are nevertheless rich and complicated, sometimes absurd, sometimes appalling, sometimes beautiful. It felt true to me. I’m glad Joanna Smith Rakoff wrote this book into existence. I can now add her to my illustrious list of alumni.
Like more conventional forms of romance, the first great literary love of my life began with a look. Young readers of Playboy have similar experiences, I believe, with centerfolds: a precise moment – the turning of a page to reveal a face (more likely a body) that haunts the young man for the rest of his days. In bars too, at high school dances, in college dining halls, in lecture classes and seminars such infatuations begin: a single glimpse of an unknown stranger prompts the festerings of fascination and desire. My literary romance began in the pages of A Book of Days for the Literary Year, between June 22nd and June 23rd:This picture, which still hangs above my desk, is Mary McCarthy’s Vassar senior portrait and from the first moment I saw it, I was in love. She was all the things I wanted to be: a writer, beautiful and serious, but also – or so she seemed to me – bright, frank, fearless, alluring. And she was also what I was then: a bit childlike and clean-scrubbed and, perhaps, a bit mischievous (I sense that still in the shadowed corner of her mouth). I have since discovered that McCarthy’s looks were a bit sharper than this picture reveals, and became more so in her 20s and 30s. There are also some ghastly pictures of her in later life (one of her on a panel with W.H. Auden comes to mind – the two look like finalists in a World’s Least Well-Preserved Person contest, and I think I remember McCarthy to be missing a tooth in this one). But in the Vassar portrait she is stunning. I gather from the number of men who fell under her spell (Edmund Wilson, Clement Greenburg, and Philip Rahv among them) that the beauty that won me was real.Is this strange? Or inappropriate? This enthralling first look, this discovery of one of the great literary loves of my life through a visceral, physical attraction to her? My affair ended in an intellectual and aesthetic admiration of McCarthy’s bracing, clean, meticulously observed prose and her total, sometimes aggressive, frankness about sex and everything else in How I Grew, The Group, The Groves of Academe, Cast a Cold Eye, The Company She Keeps, and Intellectual Memoirs. Her bravery (or was it brazenness?) held me rapt and abject even after the original power of the Vassar picture had been diluted somewhat by other, less flattering visions of her. The most famous McCarthy line of all time is one she tossed out about Lillian Hellman on The Dick Cavett Show in 1979. McCarthy had described Hellman as a dishonest writer and Cavett pressed her, “What is dishonest about Lillian Hellman?” McCarthy responded: “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” (Hellman responded with a $2.5 million libel suit.) Not until I found Lord Rochester, Leopold von Sacher Masoch, and the Marquis de Sade some years later would someone seem so awe-inspiringly self-assured and terrifyingly bold in thought and word.But the question of beauty remains. Susan Sontag, whom one might have expected to rise above the average woman’s hyper-consciousness of beauty, was by her own account, one of us: “Physical beauty is enormously, almost morbidly, important to me.” In Paradise Lost, the newly-created, unfallen Eve is more taken with her own reflection in a lake than she is with Adam. He is, by her own account,”less fair,/ less winning… than that smooth wat’ry image” of herself. When I started reading McCarthy, I didn’t just want to be able to write like she did, I wanted to be her. I wanted to be what she had been: beautiful, dazzlingly bright and self-certain. Her books were sacred how-to guides that might transform me (however silly or sinister the ladies at jezebel.com may have found the idea of intellectual memoirs as how-to books in Anne’s post last week). But it is laughable: Jon Stewart had a joke about the increasing sexiness and femaleness of cable news anchors – a segment called “News I’d Like to F#@k” and this approach to news-watching was, regrettably, similar to the way (in my too earnest and hopeful teendom) I approached McCarthy – with a confusion of hungers – for beauty, for intellectual acuity. I cannot tell which is which sometimes. I cannot subtract the beauty of the person (beauty I admire; a beauty I covet) from the disembodied voices of the written world. The materiality of the person clings to the writing, gives the words a captivating timbre that the plodding and mousy can never achieve.I remember reading reviews of Marisha Pessl’s novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006) and none of the reviewers seemed capable of talking about the book itself (The Secret History, Redux? – I guess, I have not read it) without first invoking Pessl’s beauty, or other reviewers’ fascination with her beauty, which was the same thing. I do not think that I am alone in my weakness – “partial, prejudiced, & ignorant” I may be – dilettantish, even (as you already know) – but not alone. Perhaps there are earnest and just readers out there who are not drawn in and repulsed so erratically as I am: people who plod dutifully and methodically through expansive reading lists of canonized authors (perhaps they go further – and read chronologically and boy-girl-boy-girl as well!), immune to the charms of such as these. But to belittle the powers of beauty and charm – and the irrational more generally – is not to escape it, and I do not try.Patricia HighsmithAnna Akhmatova, 1924.Sylvia Plath, Yorkshire, 1956, Smith College Mortimer Rare Book Room.Assia Wevill, poet and second wife of Ted Hughes. She committed suicide in 1969, as Plath had before her, but killed her daughter by Hughes as well as herself.
Renee writes in with this question:There is a relatively new book (fiction) that has been compared with The Group by Mary McCarthy. What is it? I have done an exhaustive search and cannot find it.The Group, published in 1962, is described by some as McCarthy’s biggest success. “The group” is eight graduates of Vassar, then an all-women college. McCarthy explores the different paths their lives take and offers a satire of stuffy east coast, Ivy League society. Though the book’s characters are graduates of the class of 1933, the book is more a relic of 1962, as McCarthy was not shy about the sex lives of her characters, presaging the loosening of social mores that was to come later that decade. Though not all that well-known now, the book is still highly regarded, which is no doubt part of the reason why it inspired A Fortunate Age, a forthcoming debut by Joanna Smith Rakoff. From Booklist:Like the classic novel it so obviously pays homage to, Mary McCarthy’s The Group, Rakoff’s mesmerizing debut opens with a wedding and closes with a funeral. In between, the novel provides a pitch-perfect portrait of the generation that came of age in the 1990s as four ambitious Oberlin graduates arrive in New York City full of hopes and dreams.A Fortunate Age will be published in April 2009.
I am a fan of nostalgic genres, as my last list testified: Not the least of the charms of the country house movie, following in the tradition of classical pastoral, is that the country house comes to represent a pre-Lapsarian, Edenic space associated with leisure, pleasure, and harmony. Usually this harmony is destroyed or interrupted (“Brideshead” is the archetypal example of this: Ryder returns to a decayed and abandoned Brideshead as a soldier during World War II, and begins to reminisce about the golden age gone by), but it’s the idea that – however fleeting or fragile – such happiness and peace and pleasure shared with friends is possible.Today I share with you another list, for another nostalgic genre: the school story. These pieces are often simultaneously nostalgic for the youthful abandon and friendship and simple pleasures of schooldays, and meditations on the betrayals and abandonment that turn children into adults. I largely exclude American high school movies (they seems a different beast) in favor of boarding school novels and films:Claudine a l’Ecole, ColetteNicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens (Oh, the horrors of C19th Yorkshire schools: now in a good movie adaptation with Charlie Hunnam and Jim Broadbent.)Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte (and numerous film versions)Vanity Fair, William Makepeace ThackerayThe Group, Mary McCarthyHow I Grew, Mary McCarthy’s autobiographical reminiscences of boarding school in Seattle, and a deflowering scene to match (outdo?) the famous one in The Group”To Serve Them All My Days” (BBC miniseries)School TiesRushmoreThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark (Maggie Smith in her prime playing the titular Miss Jean is a knockout)Picnic at Hanging Rock (awesome and insane – Victorian repressed sexuality done 70’s style – it will haunt with you)The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola was definitely watching Picnic at Hanging Rock before she made this)Young Sherlock Holmes (an early Barry Levinson movie – if you didn’t watch it in the 80’s as a child, do now)Flirting (great Australia movie: Thandie Newton, a very young Nicole Kidman, and Noah Taylor, plus a priceless scene involving boxing and Jean-Paul Sartre)The Children’s Hour, Lillian Hellman (women beware women)Frost in May, Antonia White (also the translator of Colette’s Claudine novels)Maurice, E.M. Forster (novel and film both great – the brief joys and inevitable tragedy of homosexuality in turn of the century England)Trouble at Willow Gables, Philip Larkin (one of my favorite books of all time – PL’s imitation/parody of 1940’s girls school novels is beyond delightful – sensual, campy, absurd, delicious)It Was Fun in the Fourth, Nancy Breary (an original 1940’s author of English girls boarding school novels – a hoot, and great read with the Larkin)Tom Brown’s School Days (oh, brutality. And now in a fine film adaptation with Stephen Fry as headmaster.)”Such, Such Were the Joys” (George Orwell’s essay on the horrors of the English public school, the full text is available at george-orwell.org)Harry PotterA Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnet (there’s a recent movie adaptation of this C19th children’s classic, but the book’s great – some problems with Orientalism, I grant you, but I stand by this childhood fave)Dead Poets’ SocietyLost and Delirious (Mischa Barton and Piper Perabo: A Separate Peace/Dead Poets’ Society for girls: also features falconry)A Separate PeaceCruel IntentionsBrick (I know it’s set in an American high school – but it’s so noir-y and all-consuming it feels like a boarding school: plus Joseph Gordon Levitt is becoming Heath Leger circa 10 Things I Hate About You – uncanny)The Skulls (It takes place at a college, but there’s something juvenile about a secret society)Goodbye, Mr. ChipsPrep, Curtis Sittenfeld (I haven’t read it, but I want too)The Emperor’s Club