1. Donald Trump was hardly into his first full calendar year as president before a chorus of critics and pundits began to use the word “dystopian” to describe his administration and the social milieu that it seemed to precipitate. In March 2017, novelist John Feffer wrote, “Unpredictability, incompetence, and demolition are the dystopian watchwords of the current moment, as the world threatens to fragment before our very eyes.” Months later, Entertainment Weekly ran an article with the hypertext title, “How the Trump era made dystopia cool again.” The A.V. Club and Vulture both proposed that we had reached “peak dystopia.” Writing for The New Yorker, Jill Lepore described our era as “A Golden Age for Dystopian Fiction.” (Not of, but “for.”) In early 2018, when the internet was briefly galvanized by talk of Oprah Winfrey running against Donald Trump in 2020, Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane described that potential contest as “troublingly dystopian.” What a curious, discomfiting situation we find ourselves in when the buzzword à la mode is 130 years old, and the literary genre we once relied on to explicate life behind the Iron Curtain is now apparently reflective of contemporary America. But what exactly is it about the Trump administration that makes us reach for such specific literary terminology? Is it the sudden resurgence of white supremacy and fascist sympathies in the American heartland, providing a speculative path toward American authoritarianism? Perhaps, but neither racism nor fascism are requirements of the genre. Are we terrified that this administration will instigate a world-ending nuclear conflict with North Korea, and/or Russia—and/or a devastating economic war with China, and/or Europe? If so, the relevant literary genre would be apocalyptic, not necessarily dystopian. Or do we say “dystopian” hyperbolically—reflecting our anxieties about a nightmarish social sphere of distress, confusion, and disorientation? That might be better described as surreal, or absurd. Are we alarmed by the hard pivot away from professionalism, decency, and decorum? Issues like these are more at home in the novel of manners, such as Pride and Prejudice. Or are we simply dismayed and alarmed by the convergence of an outrageous, semi-competent administration and a general mood of anti-intellectualism? That would be a job for satire. Trump himself—bumbling, bombastic, egoic, unaware, unpredictable, unread—would be more at home as the quixotic protagonist of a picaresque, or as a delusional child king in a fairy tale. It is my suspicion that we call some things “dystopian” for the same reason we sometimes abuse correct usage of “gothic,” “ironic,” or “Kafkaesque”: We like the sound of it, and we enjoy invoking its vaguer associations. But if we’re going by conventional definitions, it is arguable that there was nothing specifically or egregiously dystopian about the Trump administration until last April, when the administration announced a new “zero tolerance” policy on illegal border crossing, becoming the first White House in memory to implement a standing procedure for separating migrant children from their parents, even as they attempted to surrender themselves legally in a plea for sanctuary. Dystopia is a rich, heterogeneous, and dynamic category of film and literature. However, when we look at the most successful, enduring works of this genre, we find the same institution caught in the crosshairs of various fictional totalitarian regimes, again and again: the independent and autonomous nuclear family. 2. Dystopian fiction was preceded by utopian fiction, beginning in 1516 with Thomas More’s novel Utopia. (The synthetic Greek toponym “Utopia” was simply More’s joking name for his setting—an invented South American island—as the word literally means “no place,” or “nowhere.”) Utopian novels were immensely popular in 19th-century England, as humanist philosophies and medical and industrial technologies at the tail end of the Enlightenment combined to suggest a better and brighter tomorrow. Theoretically, a fruitful Eden was almost within reach. Yes, dystopia is commonly described as the opposite of utopia, but this obscures a common trope in which dystopic future societies are presented as the aftermath (or consequence) of failed attempts to bring about an actual utopia. Perhaps the precursor to dystopian fiction is Fyodor Dostoevsky’s anti-utopian novel Notes from the Underground, published in 1864. Dostoevsky’s skeptical narrator monologues at length on the preposterousness of the idea that science and Western philosophy were ushering in a radical new era of human progress: “Only look about you: blood is being spilt in streams, and in the merriest way, as though it were champagne.” Dostoevsky’s intention, partly, was to deride and pick apart Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s utilitarian, materialist novel, What Is to Be Done?, in which characters make grand, romantic statements about the joyful founding of an eternal, collectivist utopia. Dostoevsky’s Underground Man sees two major flaws in this thinking. First, if given the opportunity to submit to rational prescriptions for a better life, people would rather be free to suffer. Second, idealism—when taken too seriously—tends to breed dissociation, distortion, and interpersonal alienation. Today we associate a handful of qualities with the concept of dystopia: governmental overreach, unnatural social configurations, paranoia, state-driven propaganda, digitally panoptic surveillance, and other alienating technologies. However, none of these characteristics are intrinsic to the genre, just as dystopian fiction isn’t necessarily satirical or allegorical, regardless of the popularity of Black Mirror. Dystopia is such a diverse and mutable canon overall that there are no essential commonalities—with one possible exception: a significant distortion of family relations. Nearly all landmark works of dystopian fiction feature an oppressive governmental order that interferes with what we might term the “natural” process of family-making: choosing a partner and raising a family freely and relatively unencumbered by external power structures. This is observed from the outset in the seminal dystopian novel We, by Yevgeny Zamyatin, published in Russia in 1921. Set in the walled-off, hyper-rational future society One State, in which sexual liaisons are overseen by the government, the conflict in We is precipitated by a moment of illicit flirtation, and the principal transgression upon which the plot later hangs is an unlicensed pregnancy. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, fetuses gestate in artificial wombs and are raised by the state. Here, too, an illegal pregnancy is a major plot point, and the word “father” is an epithet. In 1984, George Orwell’s Oceania allows marriage but prohibits divorce, as well as non-procreative sex. Winston Smith’s central offense is his illegal affair with Julia, and it is her whom he must betray to restore his safety and good standing. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag’s unhappy, alienating marriage is the consequence of an illiterate, spiritually unwell society. In Lois Lowry’s The Giver, infants are not raised by their biological mothers but are assigned to families—if they are not summarily euthanized. Even in the bubblegum dystopia The Hunger Games, the action commences with Katniss’s motherly intervention on her little sister’s behalf, sparing her from certain death, allowing her to continue to have a childhood. The most influential dystopian novel of this moment is Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, thanks to the Hulu miniseries adaptation starring Elisabeth Moss, previously a different sort of feminist icon in AMC’s Mad Men. In Atwood’s novel, a near-future United States is replaced by an Old-Testament Christian theonomy in which healthy young women are forced to bear children for high-status men and their infertile wives. This feature of Atwood’s world-building can’t exactly be chalked up to pure fantasy crafted in the welter of creative genius. To borrow a phrase, we’ve seen this before. In an essay for Glamour last year, Jenae Holloway writes that she is “frustrated and jealous that [her] white feminist allies are able to digest The Handmaid’s Tale through the lens of a fictitious foreboding”—in other words, that the show does not strike them as it strikes her: with a sense of “déjà vu.” Holloway’s essay reminds us that an even cursory look into slavery in the Americas reveals separations of children from parents, forced adoptions, and rape as standard to the experience. Breaking up families is not simply a systematic and normalized aspect of state control; it is a requirement to maintain the system itself. Historically, human slavery may have been a relatively limited phenomena in Atwood’s Canada; however, indigenous families were routinely shattered by administrative bodies between 1944 and 1984, including 20,000 children in the “Sixties Scoop” alone. Conventionally, the non-academic reader or viewer only associates these phenomena with science fiction when the writer works in this palette explicitly—Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred and her short story “Bloodchild” come to mind—but once one considers the potential for reverberations of chattel slavery in literary dystopias, one begins to see them everywhere: in Kurt Vonnegut’s story “Harrison Bergeron,” wherein a teenage übermensch is taken from his parents, who later witness his televised execution; in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” where citizens of an agrarian community cannot protect their spouses or children from ritualized public execution; and most obviously Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” which depicts a perfect society enabled by the unending agony of a single imprisoned, tortured child. None of this is to say that participation in a family is categorically “natural,” or what legitimizes one’s existence. The world has more than enough space for people who abstain from family-making. Nor does this observation require us to attempt to define what a family is. What is important is to note that our most successful, compelling, and enduring literary dystopias consistently present antagonists to the nuclear family dynamic. They create rigid legal frameworks around everything from sexual union to rearing of children. This is the dreaded commonality at the root of mainline dystopian fiction: the simple formula, “government authority > family independence.” Whether you were raised by biological or adoptive parents, older siblings, or more distant relatives—or by a foster parent, or some other surrogate or legal guardian—what you share with the vast majority of humans is that you were once the object of a small, imperfect social unit responsible for your protection and care. This is the primary social contract, based not on law or philosophy, but on love and trust. For better and worse, our bonds to our families pre-exist and preponderate the accident of our nationality. Accepting this truth may be the first test of a legitimate state. It is the illegitimate, insecure regime that seeks to disrupt and broadly supersede the imperfect moral authority of reasonable, well-intended parents—in all of their many forms and situations. 3. In separating migrant families seeking amnesty, President Trump brought us into dystopia at last. It is a small comfort that he clearly knew from the outset that this action was morally untenable. He told reporters that he “hated” the policy of family separation, claiming that it was “the Democrats’ fault,” the repercussion of a do-nothing Congress. In reality, neither Barack Obama nor George W. Bush separated migrant children from their parents as a standard practice. There is no law or settlement that requires detained families to be broken up, and the general legal consensus was that if Trump were being honest—if family separation had actually been an unwanted, pre-existing policy—he could have ended it, overnight, “with a phone call.” As usual, executive dissimulation instigated bizarre performances lower down the chain of command: On June 18, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen held an extraordinary press conference in which she denied the existence of an official family-separation policy while simultaneously arguing for its legitimacy. Nielsen’s denials were particularly astonishing as two months before her press conference, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced—publicly and on camera—the instigation of family separation as a deterrent to improper border crossings. In fact, the DHS had already published guidelines explaining the system of family separation and admitted to detaining approximately 2,000 migrant children. The truth was that the institution of a heartless, zero-tolerance border policy was a calculated effort led by administration strategist Stephen Miller, who was also a key architect of the travel ban in 2017. Writing for The Atlantic, McKay Koppins characterizes Miller’s push for this policy as overtly xenophobic and intentionally inhumane, designed to appeal to Trump’s base while also sowing chaos among his opponents. To our nation’s credit, outrage was abundant and came from all corners. Evangelist Franklin Graham said that family separation was “disgraceful.” Laura Bush wrote that the policy was “cruel” and that it broke her heart. Even former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci described the policy as “inhumane” and “atrocious.” Governors from eight states announced they would withdraw or deny National Guard troops previously promised to help secure the Southwest border. Even Ivanka Trump, who has yet to be accused of hypersensitivity, allegedly asked her father to change course on family separations at the border. Condemnation also came from both houses of Congress, with Senate Republicans vowing to end family separations if Trump did not. On June 20, after repeatedly claiming that only Congress could end family separations at the border, Trump reversed course, signing an executive order that would ostensibly keep migrant families together during future detentions. Technically, this order allowed family separations to continue as a discretionary practice, until the ACLU brought a lawsuit before Judge Dana Sabraw of the Federal District Court in San Diego, who issued an injunction that temporarily halted family separations and required all separated migrant children be reunited with their parents within 30 days—a requirement that was not met. As far as steps down a slippery slope toward totalitarianism go, Trump’s “zero-tolerance” border policy has been significant. Nearly 3,000 migrant children were traumatically separated from their parents, with some flown across the country. In Texas, children were routed to a detention facility in a converted Walmart Supercenter in Brownsville and a tent-city detention center near the border station in Tornillo—where summertime temperatures regularly approach 100 F. Some migrant children and babies were kept in cages—a term the administration resisted but could not deny, just as the smiling image of Donald Trump in the converted Walmart cannot be reasonably considered anything other than gloating propaganda. For many migrants, significant emotional and psychological damage has already been done. Recently, dozens of female migrants in a Seattle-area detention facility were separated from their children, having to endure hearing them crying through the walls. One such detainee informed U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal that she told a Border Patrol agent she wanted to see her children, to which the agent replied, “You will never see your children again. Families don’t exist here.” That same week, a Honduran man named Marco Antonio Muñoz, who had been separated from his wife and toddler after crossing the Southwest border, hanged himself in his Texas holding cell. 4. Not only has the executive branch of this government launched an assault on the dignity and sanctity of the family; they have simultaneously begun work to erode the permanence of citizenship, through a process of “denaturalization”—an action not attempted since the paranoid 1950s of Joseph McCarthy and the Red Scare. This would transfer the authority to strip citizenship from the court system to law enforcement agencies, such as DHS, or ICE, who would presumably go looking for naturalized Americans who may have misrepresented themselves in some way during their application for citizenship. This situation would subject naturalized citizens to the paranoia and potential exploitation of an East German-like police state, in which they are under warrantless surveillance, threatened by informants, and potentially expugnable for nothing more heinous than a paperwork error. Simultaneously, conservatives such as Tucker Carlson have argued for a referendum on birthright citizenship, the foundation of the equality Americans purport to enjoy. This fits with the administration’s pattern of using diverse methodologies to thwart and rescind legal and illegal residency alike, in what has increasingly come to look like a new front in the multi-pronged effort to alter the racial and cultural demographics of the electorate. This, too, conforms to the genre of dystopia: the existence of a large and oppressed underclass living adjacent to privileged elites, who are sometimes floored to learn that not everyone perceives the status quo as the next-best thing to a true utopia. If given even tacit approval, policies like separating families at the border will lead to an open season on immigrants—legal residents and undocumented migrants alike—as well as millions of other natural and naturalized citizens who are not both white and perfectly fluent in English. We will see an emboldened expansion of unconstitutional checkpoints at places like airports and bus depots. We will see the normalization of racial profiling. Our children will see their friends taken out of school without warning. They will be disappeared. But if we’ve read our dystopian literature, we are prepared. To a degree, we are insulated. We can understand this moment in history, and how comforting it must feel to curl up inside the illusory sense of security offered by an impenetrable border, or a leader who boldly intones our weaker ideas and more shameful suspicions, or some fatuous, utopian aphorism about making a nation great again. We will remind ourselves and each other what is at stake. We will remember that the only thing we need to know about utopia is that nobody actually lives there. Image: Flickr/Karen Roe
1. As much as I may rack my brain, there are 15 minutes or so in the dark that I can’t account for and that I’ll never get back—15 minutes during which, I have to think, that creep’s hands were touching my body. It’s a weird thing to think about all these years later, this weird little grain of rice in my consciousness, a scratch where the record skips. The truth is I will never know what happened, exactly. None of it will ever be resolved. He didn’t rape me, at least in part because he didn’t get the chance. He probably touched me, roamed his hands all over my body, but who’s to say? Only he could. I was passed out. It was the fall of my senior year of college. A few days before, I’d gone to happy hour with my boyfriend and he’d dumped me shortly after the pizza arrived. I was crushed and caught off guard, and my incredibly intelligent way of responding to this was to rebound, or at least try to. The weekend came. I slid my bruised ego into the World’s Tiniest Dress and went to a party at the house of a grad-student friend of mine. I didn’t usually go to strange parties because I had my boyfriend and our tight-knit group of friends, except now I didn’t have the boyfriend and I was too embarrassed to see the friends. I left my apartment with the idea I’d do something dumb—kiss someone or something. If he heard about it later, all the better. That was the point. When the two guys started talking to me at the party, I was drunk. Even so, some lizard part of my brain knew that when they asked me to leave with them, the right answer was nope. Drunk as I was, I could feel them watching me closely, so closely that I can still see the deep muddy brown of one’s eyes, his white-blond eyelashes. They were DJs, they said, and they were going to a late-night rave. I should come, too. They could get me in. They’d give me a ride. No thanks, I said, and stumbled off to the tiny guest room my friend had promised to me. She had this old millworker’s house. The bed was narrow with some antique, almost Dickensian frame. I remember pulling the blankets over me and staring at the wall a minute, feeling disappointed and lonely and, even before anything else happened, just incredibly ashamed of myself. Then I closed my eyes. 2. Flash forward, 14 years later. It’s the fall of 2017; I’m talking about #MeToo with a friend and we start coming up with a list of literary characters who, had they been real, might now be exposed as rapists, sexual harassers, workplace bullies, and/or terrible boyfriends. A dark joke, our list is long but hardly comprehensive: Humbert Humbert, Oblonsky, Mr. Rochester, Steven Rojack. Well. You’re kind of spoiled for choice. One of the lesser-known names on the list was Patrick Standish, the main male character in Take a Girl Like You, Kingsley Amis’s 1960 novel. In his era, of course, Amis was a near-ubiquitous man of letters who wrote novels as well as movie and restaurant reviews, poetry and criticism. He’s not nearly as widely read now, despite the New York Review of Books recently reissuing much of his catalogue. If people know Amis’s work, they tend to know his name-making first novel, 1954’s Lucky Jim, or perhaps The Old Devils, which won the Booker Prize in 1986. It’s a shame, because Take a Girl Like You is among his best—a great work of art, deeply moral and wonderfully realized. A lost classic. Still, to make this argument, I’ve got to spoil it for you, and this is a novel which turns on an essential one-two punch, a lot like that Wilco song, “She’s a Jar,” that you can only hear for the first time once. It’s a funny, sometimes-rapturous love story that ends with a rape. Jenny Bunn meets Patrick Standish. She’s a virgin and he’s a seasoned, self-aware lothario. They fall in love (“she had a sort of permanent two gin and tonics inside her” while “he had felt the wing of the angel of marriage brush his cheek, and was afraid”). But Jenny still isn’t quite ready to have sex, and Patrick spends several hundred pages trying in vain to seduce her. At last, he breaks up with her at a party, telling her, “We’re finished. Even if you walked in on me naked I wouldn’t touch you.” In despair, Jenny gets super drunk and passes out in a guestroom: It all faded away. Time went by in the same queer speedless way as before. Then Patrick was with her. He had been there for some minutes or hours when she first realized he was, and again was in bed with her without seeming to have got there. What he did was off by himself and nothing to do with her. All the same, she wanted him to stop, but her movements were all the wrong ones for that and he was kissing her too much for her to try to tell him. She thought he would stop anyway as soon as he realized how much off on his own he was. But he did not, and did not stop, so she put her arms around him and tried to be with him, only there was no way of doing it and nothing to feel. Then there was another interval, after which he told her he loved her and would never leave her now. She said she loved him too, and asked him if it had been nice. He said it had been wonderful, and went on to talk about France. Their host comes into the room, realizes what Patrick has done, and kicks him out of the house. So maybe it’s perverse, but I feel as though I am in a kind of catbird seat for understanding all this, though it’s true I never bobbed up to consciousness like Jenny Bunn did. In my case, I just woke up the next morning, with no interval of awareness. I helped my friend clean up, drank a cup of coffee, drove home. I didn’t know anything before four o’clock that afternoon, when she called me and told me she’d thought it over. If it had happened to her, she’d decided, she’d want to know. One of those guys got in bed with you, she told me. He’d taken off his pants but didn’t seem to have an erection. He’d only been in there a few minutes. He hadn’t had time to do anything. Anyway, she’d kicked him out of the house. I thanked her for doing that and hung up the phone. I was sitting on my bedroom floor by this point, because my legs had given out for the first time in my life. On the surface, Take a Girl Like You is a sex comedy, and tellingly, not every contemporary critic believed Jenny’s experience to be rape. In Postwar British Fiction, published in 1962, James Gindin describes the novel’s conclusion this way: “Jenny loses her virginity, but not as a result of moral or immoral suasion; Patrick tricks her into capitulation while drunk” (a view Merritt Moseley would decry in 1993). The 1970 movie adaptation, starring Hayley Mills as Jenny Bunn, portrayed the story as a kind of sexual slapstick, changing the ending so that Jenny chooses to sleep with another character. Then Patrick chases Jenny down a road in what’s meant to be a madcap scene. Cue a breezy theme song by The Foundations, roll credits. But Kingsley Amis knew that what happens to Jenny is terribly wrong, though the word “rape” is not used, even by Jenny herself. The next morning, she wakes up puking, hungover: Jenny decided reading would be too much for her. She smoked a cigarette until her insides felt as if they were getting as far away from the middle of her as they could. Then she put it out. But even with that big hollow in her interior she was recovering enough to start getting the first edge of thought. For it to have gone like that, almost without her noticing. At that she rebuked herself, sitting up straight in her chair. What was so special about her that it should have happened the way she imagined it, alone with a man in a country cottage surrounded by beautiful scenery, with the owls suddenly waking her up in the early hours and him putting his arms around her and soothing her, and then in the morning the birds singing and the horses neighing, and her frying eggs and bacon and spreading a wholemeal loaf with thick farm butter? A lot of sentimental rubbish, that was—she would be asking for roses and violins next. Much better be sensible, think herself lucky it had not gone for her as it did for some, sordid and frightening and painful and with someone you hated or hardly knew. That was happening every day. That’s the crux of the novel, its turning from comic to tragic. Jenny deserves better and she doesn’t get it. In fact she is almost pathetically grateful that she has had it no worse. As light as Amis’s touch is here—Take a Girl Like You is not political, not a polemic—you can’t mistake his grief and revulsion. Amis would later describe Patrick Standish as the worst person he’d ever written about, and this when he made a career of writing about unpleasant people, including Roger Micheldene, the hideous antihero of 1963’s One Fat Englishman. Amis knew he wasn’t writing about any straightforward “capitulation.” Take a Girl Like You is often compared with Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, but I say the better foil is Nabokov’s Lolita, in which the subtle, below-surface moral weight of the novel is with the victim—all of it springing from her loss and victimization. The Lolita comparison is, yes, a little ironic because Amis hated Lolita and hated Nabokov. Still, there’s a central likeness. Nabokov did not intend that we should fall for Humbert Humbert’s artsy, tortured rationalization of rape; Amis didn’t intend that Patrick Standish be taken for a sympathetic hero, either. Patrick is charming and funny and fun, even erudite, and he’s also a complete asshole. (As well as raping Jenny, Patrick sleeps with his boss’s 17-year-old daughter.) [millions_ad] You could even argue that Take a Girl Like You is in some senses a subtler and certainly a more realistic portrayal of rape because Jenny is not eye-poppingly young, and there’s no continuous, hysterical fireworks of justification. Amis gives both Jenny’s and Patrick’s perspectives in alternating sections, and Jenny’s experience is as deftly handled as it is, in part, familiar. I read the novel swearing under my breath. Kingsley Amis nailed it. The natural next question is, how’d he do that? In his lifetime, most especially in his later career, Amis was notorious for his misogyny. As the biographies reveal, he was himself a prolific womanizer who sometimes felt guilty about it and often wrote about that guilt, not least of all in Take a Girl Like You. That’s not necessarily the same thing as being a sexist, repentant or otherwise. The evidence is mixed; you can neither dismiss him as a misogynist nor declare his misogyny merely supposed and perceived, as Paul Fussell did in his 1994 book on Amis, The Anti-Egotist. To hear Fussell tell it, Amis is merely “tired of the automatic imputation of virtue and sensitivity to the female character … Women, Amis knows, can be fully wicked as men. They can lie and cheat and destroy with the best of them.” That’s true and yet not the whole picture. In some of the novels, the women do nothing but lie, cheat and destroy while the men struggle vainly to run the world in spite of this ongoing assault. Is that still satire? It is, in the case of 1978’s Jake’s Thing, where the crazy women are leavened out with pathetic women and no character, the men included, is in any sense to be admired. You can’t miss the comic brio of its penultimate paragraph: Jake did a quick run-through of women in his mind, not of the ones he had known or dealt with in the past few months or years so much as all of them: their concern with the surface of things, with objects and appearances, with their surroundings and how they looked and sounded in them, with seeming to be better and to be right while getting everything wrong, their automatic assumption of the role of injured party in any clash of wills, their certainty that a view is the more credible and useful for the fact that they hold it, their use of misunderstanding and misrepresentation as weapons of debate, their selective sensitivity to tones of voice, their unawareness of the difference in themselves between sincerity and insincerity, their interest in importance (together with noticeable inability to discriminate in that sphere), their fondness for general conversation and directionless discussion, their pre-emption of the major share of feeling, their exaggerated estimate of their own plausibility, their never listening and lots of other things like that, all according to him. But 1984’s Stanley and the Women is a bridge too far. There’s just one minor female character who isn’t a complete emotional monster, while every male character is sympathetic. Here the satire, if it still is satire, is as sour, unrelieved, and unrelenting as anything Amis ever wrote. In the U.S., several publishers turned down the book because the women on their boards objected. There’s a nadir in the poetry, too, though the 1987 poem that begins “Women and queers and children / cry when things go wrong” went unpublished and unfinished. In his excellent The Life of Kingsley Amis, Zachary Leader described the poem as “calculated to cause the maximum possible offense.” (I’d add, without glee, that it’s also a bit rich coming from Amis, who had a paralyzing fear of the dark and couldn’t be left alone.) Even if you wanted to, you couldn’t separate art from artist here because the offense is the whole point. Still, that convention—holding out the work from the person who made it—is flimsy to begin with. It presents a false choice. In the end, we don’t really get to choose between great works and flawed people. We get both. As Christopher Hitchens wrote of H.L. Mencken: “He had very grievous moral and intellectual shortcomings and even deformities … But any reductionist analysis of Mencken runs the risk of ignoring a fine mind that engaged itself in some high duties.” It’s an uneasy position for this Amis fan. But what’s the alternative, not reading him at all? I love his work. Even in the minor novels, the ones that don’t quite come off, there’s always, always the intelligence, the bite in the closely observed details and those trademark Amis sentences that are wonderfully precise and yet never pretentious, never overwrought. My copies of his books are dog-eared and misshapen from repeated drops in the bath. I’m always in some stage of rereading The Old Devils, and I keep multiple copies of 1990’s The Folks That Live on the Hill because I’m always pushing it on friends. About the time I was at risk of rape at that party in 2003, I was working my way through everything Amis ever wrote, because my college library had every title. I have never encountered that happy condition since, and it almost makes me wish I’d never left school. Maybe you’re not supposed to have a favorite writer—maybe he shouldn’t be my favorite writer—but Kingsley Amis is my favorite writer. That Amis remains a complex figure is fitting, full stop. There remains something akin to the “problem from hell” that Martin Amis identifies in Nabokov’s work. In the case of Amis senior, it is not a recurring preoccupation with the “despoiliation of very young girls”; it’s a recurring, vigorous anti-woman streak that does not at all preclude him from seeing what women sometimes suffer at the hands of men. In 1969’s The Green Man, for instance, the narrator labors to banish the ghost of a long-ago rapist. And Amis’s 1976 alternate-world novel The Alteration, as William Gibson has written, “depicts the oppression of patriarchy, given full reign by theocracy, as thoroughly as any novel prior to, say, Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.” To dismiss Amis as a misogynist would be an attempt to resolve the sort of frustrated justice he himself depicted over and over again. Great works, flawed people. The facts do not really compute. 3. I never saw that guy, the one who got in bed with me, ever again. I got up off the floor and moved on with my life because it did not occur to me that there was a choice. I did not consider calling the police, not for a second. I was too embarrassed as it was, and in my gut I know that if I had been raped that night, I wouldn’t have reported it. Imagine saying to the police: I’d just been dumped. I was very drunk. I was wearing this napkin of a dress. I don’t remember it. Dear God. Even now. I didn’t even say #MeToo last fall when the hashtag was trending because I didn’t want to have to explain anything to anyone. Also because I didn’t think of it as anything special. Also because it wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me. The breakup hurt me much worse, and for longer. For me, “trauma” doesn’t seem like the right word; whatever happened to me that night I just took as part of the fabric of experience. Why make a fuss, and open myself to judgement and blame? Wouldn’t I have to be a purer victim for it be really wrong in the eyes of our culture? This points to the ultimate triumph of Amis’s Jenny—his sense of the full scope of her predicament. Jenny not only moves on with her life; she makes up with Patrick. In the last lines of the novel, Patrick says, “It was inevitable,” and Jenny responds, “Oh yes, I expect it was. But I can’t help feeling it’s rather a pity.” In the sequel, 1988’s Difficulties with Girls, Jenny and Patrick are married, have been married eight years as the novel begins. The rape has receded from view, becoming just another part of the knit of Jenny’s experience, and in this way, I’m convinced, Amis brings our dilemma into focus as few other novelists ever have. The question that #MeToo is answering is, in part: What do we do with these experiences? How do we describe them and how do we integrate them into our lives, and why have we tried to integrate them? How have we been encouraged to erase them? Shouldn’t we hold them apart? What exact behavior becomes legible here, and who benefits when we keep our mouths shut? Almost 70 years after Take a Girl Like You, we’re having that public conversation. Amis was there in 1960. Rereading it and the rest of his catalogue over the last couple of months, I’ve come to see again the particular wingspan of his accomplishments as a writer. The range of the novels, the humor and precision in the poems. All that lively, fun, cutting intellectual energy put to such wonderful use—most of the time. If we’re left with irreducible ambiguities (and indefensible shit like “women and queers and children”), well, at least we get the art, too. As Amis knew, misogyny and rape don’t take place at some great remove from art and life. They’re part of an ambient hum that drifts in and out of our consciousness, moving from background to foreground and back again. Then as now, that’s the awful problem.
Bina Shah was introduced to me via Facebook by a mutual friend who is a fine short story writer. She contacted me directly about her first novel, which I published. I don't believe she wrote her new novel, Before She Sleeps, thinking it would become a dystopian thriller, but it was clear to me that her writing was moving in this direction. I, on the other hand, reached a point in my career where I felt I'd said most of what I'd wanted to say, shared my many minute observations about unusual families, complicated relationships, and love between mismatched people. Going by the advice of my then-agent, I began to write tighter narratives, at the center of which was a mystery that needed to be solved. Black Diamond Fall is the second novel that I've written in this new vein, and I like to think that despite the constraints, it is stylistically similar to my earlier novels. We spoke about our books via email. —Joseph Olshan Joseph Olshan: Your first novel, A Season for Martyrs, was a fascinating portrait of Pakistan in 2007 and the last three months of Benazir Bhutto’s life. The novel's narrative was written at a high literary elevation in the sense that the present-day narrative was in counterpoint to a kind of lush, lyrical mythical history of the Sindh region of Pakistan, where Bhutto grew up. Some of the novel's best writing portrayed this history. When you began writing Before She Sleeps, which is set in a future society where the female population has dangerously dwindled, did you have any idea that you'd be writing a novel that would end up reading like a dystopian thriller? Was that your intention? Did you consciously write with a thriller audience in mind? BS: I just read an article called "Stephen King's Top 20 Rules for Writers" (I feel like there are at least a hundred versions of the same piece) where he says that when you write a story, you're telling yourself the story, and when you rewrite, you're taking out all the things that are not in the story. I don't think I write with an audience in mind so directly, not in the way that I'd be mindful of their reactions and expectations if I were narrating it to a group of listeners, or even my 5-year-old nephew. What I am doing when I write is not quite to tell myself the story, a la Stephen King, but to get it down. Any working writer knows what I mean by that phrase: capturing the story, rather than inventing the story. I'm doing what Michelangelo did when he saw a fully formed statue in a block of marble: He used his tools to chisel it all out of the rock. I'm no Michelangelo, but the story already exists in my head as an entity: elusive, amorphous, and fully alive. I'm getting it down on the page before it gets away from me. How I shape it, mold it, form it and direct it is my craft, but it's already there on some plane that I'm accessing as I write. JO: But you ended writing a dystopian novel very much in the vein of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. And sure enough, all the early reviewers are likening your book to hers. In a starred review Publishers Weekly urged fans of Atwood's book to read yours. How much of an influence did The Handmaid's Tale have on your writing Before She Sleeps? BS: I read The Handmaid's Tale in college and while it was a very powerful book, I wasn't able to make the parallels between the Christian fundamentalist society Atwood envisions and the equally frightening one I envision in Before She Sleeps. But when I returned to Pakistan and lived there 20 years among some of the worst conditions for women, I was able to see them. What Margaret Atwood imagined happening in the future was already happening now in the regions of South Asia, East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Only the cultural and religious contexts were different; the patriarchy, the misogyny, the control over women and their lives was the same. So rather than thinking about The Handmaid's Tale in terms of influence, it was a point of reference for me as I wrote Before She Sleeps. I did reread The Handmaid's Tale while I was in the process of writing Before She Sleeps just to make sure I wasn't over-borrowing specific terms, concepts or plot points. JO: It seems to me that Before She Sleeps is a timely novel in the sense that it tells a story about women taken advantage of and kept in check by men, rebelling and triumphing when they find a higher, more secure ground where they can live more freely. As you know the #MeToo movement began with a kind of rebellion and caught fire. Can you try and relate this new movement to what has gone on in Pakistan, where women have traditionally been subjugated to men? BS: In talking about Before She Sleeps, I feel the need to make the point (somewhat repeatedly) that feminism, rebellion and resistance look different in different parts of the world. I got an early review of Before She Sleeps which basically said the women weren't independent enough, which in my mind boils down to: "They weren't feminist enough." But feminist enough for whom? When you live in a part of the world where honor killings exist, where a girl or a woman can be killed for marrying the partner of her choice, then even falling in love with someone is an act of resistance to that patriarchal system. Also, Pakistani women have traditionally been subjugated to men and the patriarchal tribal systems that operate in my country. They have resisted both directly and indirectly. They find a way to go around obstacles rather than straight through them. The concept of "smashing the patriarchy" is very new to Pakistan; it has been brought into the country by a global wave of feminism, including the #MeToo movement, over the last four or five years. We always thought of finding our rebellions within the patriarchy, and this is exactly what Before She Sleeps portrays: a subversion of the system, not destruction outright, because that seems impossible given the scope of the power and control against the women. It may look like a compromise to more Western eyes, or it may look like women reacting with courage and elegance to an impossible situation. Now I have a question for you: Just as Before She Sleeps is a switch in genres for me—from straightforward literary fiction to dystopia with shades of speculative, science, and technology fiction—you've switched things up with your forthcoming novel, Black Diamond Fall. It's being characterized as a "literary thriller," which I associate with excellent books like The Alienist by Caleb Carr and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Was it hard for you to make the switch between semi-autobiographical literary fiction and a mystery/thriller? Were you aware of the change in genres, and how did it affect your writing? JO: Well, first of all, all my fiction is semi-autobiographical—even Black Diamond Fall. I don’t have the ability to write a story where some large part has not occurred within the realm of my own experience. A novelist needs to discover what they can and cannot do. If they are unable to make this distinction, then their output will be wildly inconsistent. Having written and published 10 books, I’ve learned what I cannot do. So Black Diamond Fall, while a mystery of sorts, is semi-autobiographical in the sense that its central relationship, its deepest chords resonate with a relationship I had, a relationship that stirred me up in all the right ways for fiction. I spun around that a tale of disappearance and vandalism, both of which were based in fact: A student disappeared from the Middlebury College campus in 2010, and shortly thereafter the Robert Frost homestead (which is open to the public) was vandalized. This is my second effort at suspense fiction, and I’ve learned that readers of this sort of fiction have expectations that must be addressed by the writer. In this sense you might say I was broadening my craft, whereas writing literary fiction is solely about creating a balanced sphere of a world—and sometimes fine literary novels do not take the audience into consideration and can be hard-going. BS: On that last note, on taking the audience into consideration, is the writer really obligated to keep the audience in mind when writing? I've encountered difficulty with questions of a similar nature, asking me if I write for a "Western audience" or a "Pakistani one." I always say that I don't think about an audience like that, but what's your philosophy on this as a writer? JO: Every serious writer has to try and take a step back periodically and ask themselves if a reader can objectively relate to what is on the page. By the time one has written and published a book or two, this process should be pretty rote. But the first and foremost concern is the integrity of book itself, and as I was beginning to say in the last answer, a book is like a sphere, a whole world with a balanced ecosystem, and the writer is the godlike force creating that world. Once the world itself has literary integrity, it should be inhabitable by all different sorts of people. It should be universal. And the reader should be able to recognize this universality and in so doing, find comfort in reading. I am the editor of your novel. I’ve gone through it several times in the editorial process, so perhaps I no longer possess the degree of objectivity toward your work that a fresh reader has. But in my opinion what distinguishes your novel is the fact that you are deeply familiar with the cultures of North America and West Asia and this is brought to bear in Before She Sleeps, a novel that, though located deeply in your native culture, feels American in many ways. Now here is a delicate discussion that I think readers of The Millions will be interested in: the editorial process itself. I’ve edited two of your novels, and I think we’ll both agree that I asked you to do more work on Before She Sleeps. It’s true that by this time we’d built up a trust that allowed you to be very receptive to my editorial concerns—much more so than several of my other writers, some of them first-time authors, who have, in my opinion, given me a remarkable amount of pushback. As an author of several books, can you give a sense of what it was like to go through this intense process? BS: First of all, I'm curious to know how you think Before She Sleeps feels like an American novel! As you know I spent the first five years of my life in the U.S., and then six years in college and graduate school. I'm in the United States this summer in the run-up to the novel, and I keep thinking about the impact of America on my life; it seems to have found its way into my writing as well, as you say. Before She Sleeps was, for me, an ambitious novel. So when I had my manuscript ready to show to you, I knew there were flaws, but I couldn't identify them, let alone fix them, because I had no objectivity at all. I welcomed the idea of my editor as collaborator, someone who would read with a fresh pair of eyes and be able to see what was wrong in terms of structure, pacing, ideas, and so on. I found your role as editor tremendously supportive; whatever you suggested for the novel was done in the spirit of making the book as strong as it could be before it went to publication. I wanted it strong, and because you're not just an editor but also an acclaimed novelist, I knew you were sensitive to my needs as a writer, to be supported but also challenged in the revisions. I think the process of working on the book together, as editor and writer, was exhilarating: You weren't afraid to ask me bold questions; you were very decisive about what you felt needed expansion or cutting back; you were uninhibited in your praise of what you thought were strong passages or characterizations. You also brought a different perspective to my work, as a male, as an American, and as someone who is experienced and confident as a writer. I appreciated that perspective; it gave a richness and depth to the novel that expanded its scope and its power. You infused it with an energy and spirit that is very characteristic of you as a person, too, and in you I found an affinity for dramatic tension and a fast pace that served the novel very well. Because that's what it's all about, in the end: You do what you need to do to make it the best book it can be, and when an editor believes in you and your work, it's very easy to trust them right back and just go for it.
We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around). Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. (“Phew, it’s a hot one,” etc.) Find more August titles at our Great Second-Half Preview, and let us know what you’re looking forward to in the comments! A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua: A factory worker named Scarlett Chen is having an affair with Yeung—her boss—when her life is suddenly turned upside down. After she becomes pregnant with Yeung’s son, Scarlett is sent to a secret maternity home in Los Angeles so that the child will be born with the privileges of American citizenship. Distressed at her isolation, Scarlett flees to San Francisco’s Chinatown with a teenage stowaway named Daisy. Together, they disappear into a community of immigrants that remains hidden to most Americans. While they strive for their version of the American dream, Yeung will do anything to secure his son’s future. In a time when immigration policy has returned to the center of our national politics, Bay Area author Vanessa Hua delivers a book that explores the motivations, fears, and aspirations that drive people to migrate. (Ismail) This Mournable Body by Tsitsi Dangarembga: Set in Zimbabwe, this novel follows Tambudzai—the protagonist of Dangarembga's previous novel, Nervous Conditions--as she navigates her position as a schoolteacher, with traumatic results. Kirkus calls this "a difficult but ultimately rewarding meditation on the tolls that capitalism and misogyny take on a fledgling nation's soul." (Lydia) Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft): The 116 vignettes that make up this collection have been called digressive, discursive, and speculative. My adjectives: disarming and wonderfully encouraging. Whether telling the story of the trip that brought Chopin’s heart back to Warsaw or of a euthanasia pact between two sweethearts, Croft’s translation from Polish is light as a feather yet captures well the economy and depth of Tokarczuk’s deceptively simple style. A welcome reminder of how love drives out fear and also a worthy Man Booker International winner for 2018. (Il’ja) If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim: Kim, a Columbia MFA graduate and contributing editor of Apogee Journal, is drawing rave advance praise for her debut novel. If You Leave Me is a family saga and romance set during the Korean War and its aftermath. Though a historical drama, its concerns—including mental illness and refugee life—could not be more timely. (Adam) Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice McFadden: On the heels of her American Book Award- and NAACP Image Award-winning novel The Book of Harlan, McFadden’s 10th novel, Praise Song for theButterflies, gives us the story of Abeo, a privileged 9-year-old girl in West Africa who is sacrificed by her family into a brutal life of ritual servitude to atone for the father’s sins. Fifteen years later, Abeo is freed and must learn how to heal and live again. A difficult story that, according to Kirkus, McFadden takes on with “riveting prose” that “keeps the reader turning pages.” (Sonya) The Third Hotel by Laura Van Den Berg: When Clare arrives in Havana, she is surprised to find her husband, Richard, standing in a white linen suit outside a museum (surprised, because she thought Richard was dead). The search for answers sends Clare on a surreal journey; the distinctions between reality and fantasy blur. Her role in Richard’s death and reappearance comes to light in the streets of Havana, her memories of her marriage, and her childhood in Florida. Lauren Groff praises the novel as “artfully fractured, slim and singular.” (Claire) The Devoted by Blair Hurley: Longlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, Hurley's debut explores the complex relationship between a young woman and her Buddhist teacher. Publishers Weekly writes, "this thoughtful novel carefully untangles the often knotty interconnection between romantic and religious love, revealing the dangers inherent in each without denying their value." (Lydia) Severance by Ling Ma: In this funny, frightening, and touching debut, office drone Candace is one of only a few New Yorkers to survive a plague that’s leveled the city. She joins a group, led by IT guru Bob, in search of the Facility, where they can start society anew. Ling Ma manages the impressive trick of delivering a bildungsroman, a survival tale, and satire of late capitalist millennial angst in one book, and Severance announces its author as a supremely talented writer to watch. (Adam) Night Soil by Dale Peck: Author and critic Dale Peck has made a career out of telling stories about growing up queer; with Night Soil, he might have finally hit upon his most interesting and well-executed iteration of that story since his 1993 debut. The novel follows Judas Stammers, an eloquently foul-mouthed and compulsively horny heir to a Southern mining fortune, and his mother Dixie, a reclusive artist famous for making technically perfect pots. Living in the shadow of the Academy that their ancestor Marcus Stammers founded in order to educate—and exploit—his former slaves, Judas and Dixie must confront the history of their family’s complicity in slavery and environmental degradation. This is a hilarious, thought-provoking, and lush novel about art’s entanglement with America’s original sin. (Ismail) How Are You Going to Save Yourself by JM Holmes: A collection of stories featuring four young men living in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. In a starred review, Kirkus writes "these stories of young working-class black men coming into their dubious inheritances mark the debut of an assured young talent in American storytelling." Read Holmes discuss one of the stories at the The Paris Review here. (Lydia) Cherry by Nico Walker: A medic in the Iraq War returns home to America to his wife, residual trauma, and a burgeoning drug addiction. The novel was written while the author was doing time in federal prison for armed robbery. New York Magazine says "it was probably inevitable that a book like this would emerge from these twin scourges on American life abroad and at home, but it wasn’t necessary that it be a novel of such searing beauty as Cherry." (Lydia) The Fifth Woman by Nona Caspers: A novel in stories following the aftermath of a death of a woman named Michelle in a bike accident. Kirkus says the book "tracks grief through all its painful stages, from the surreal collapse of memory to the bittersweet tug of letting go." (Lydia) Baby, You're Gonna Be Mine by Kevin Wilson: The first story collection in a decade from the author of The Family Fang, Kirkus says "Wilson triumphantly returns to short stories… ruminating once more on grief, adolescence, and what it means to be a family… Evocative, compassionate, and exquisitely composed stories about the human condition.”(Lydia) The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher: The sequel to Dear Committee Members, a novel that swiftly achieved status among academics, Schumacher's latest tracks the foibles of the Chair of English at Payne University. In a starred review, Kirkus called it "A witty but kindhearted academic satire that oscillates between genuine compassion and scathing mockery with admirable dexterity." (Lydia) Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard: After the success of his six-part autofiction project My Struggle, Norwegian author Karl Knausgaard embarked on a new project: a quartet of memoiristic reflections on the seasons. Knausgaard wraps up the quartet with Summer, an intensely observed meditation on the Swedish countryside that the author has made a home in with his family. (Ismail) French Exit by Patrick deWitt: In this new novel by Patrick deWitt, bestselling author of The Sisters Brothers and Undermajordomo Minor, a widow and her son try to escape their problems (scandal, financial ruin, etc.) by fleeing to Paris. Kirkus Reviews calls it “a bright, original yarn with a surprising twist,” and Maria Semple says it’s her favorite deWitt novel yet, its dialogue “dizzyingly good.” According to Andrew Sean Greer the novel is “brilliant, addictive, funny and wise.” (Edan) Notes from the Fog by Ben Marcus: If you’ve read Marcus before, you know what you’re in for: a set of bizarre stories that are simultaneously terrifying and hysterical, fantastical and discomfortingly realistic. For example, in “The Grow-Light Blues,” which appeared in The New Yorker a few years back, a corporate employee tests a new nutrition supplement—the light from his computer screen. The results are not pleasant. With plots that seem like those of Black Mirror, Marcus presents dystopian futures that are all the more frightening because they seem possible. (Ismail) Heartbreaker by Claudia Dey: Called “a dark star of a book, glittering with mordant humor and astonishing, seductive strangeness and grace” by Lauren Groff, this is the story of Pony Darlene Fontaine. She lives in “the territory,” a sinister town run on a scarce economic resource. One night, Pony’s mother, Billie Jean, bolts barefoot into cold of the wider world—a place where the townspeople have never been. Told from the perspectives of Pony, a dog, and a teenage boy, this book shows the magic of Dey’s imagination. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, calling it a “word-for-word triumph.” (Claire) Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah: Every news event, policy decision, and cultural moment now draws parallels to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. “It’s Gilead, we’re in Gilead,” Twitter tells us, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” But Shah’s novel is both explicitly connected to Atwood’s marvel and working to expand it by imagining what a secular, Middle Eastern Gilead might look like. In a near future, war and disease have wiped out the women of what is currently Pakistan and Iran, and those who survived are now the forced breeders of a dystopian society. But there’s resistance, secrets, and risk; the result, Kirkus writes, is a kind of spy-genre-cum-soap-opera update on a modern classic. (Kaulie) Open Me by Lisa Locascio: If you’re looking for a sexy and smart summer read, look no further. In this erotic coming-of-age story, Lisa Locascio explores the female body, politics, and desire. Aimee Bender writes that this debut novel is “a kind of love letter to the female body and all its power and visceral complexity. This is a story of many important layers, but one of the many reasons it remains distinct in my mind is because of its honesty about our complicated, yearning physical selves.” (Zoë) Housegirl by Michael Donkor: In this debut novel, Donkor follows three Ghanaian girls: Belinda, the obedient; Mary, the irrepressible; and Amma, the rebel. For her part, Amma has had about enough of the tight-laced life in London that her parents want for her and begins to balk at the strictures of British life. But when she is brought to London to provide a proper in-house example for willful Amma, sensible Belinda begins to experience a cultural dissociation that threatens her sense of self as nothing before ever had. (Il’ja)
Kingsley Amis is best remembered today as the author of comic novels—perhaps even the pre-eminent writer in that genre during the second half of the 20th century. But you would hardly guess it if you looked just at his output from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. This was Kingsley Amis’s midlife crisis, and it showed up in the strangest sort of way. Most comedians have a secret hankering for tragedy. But not Kingsley Amis. He was now determined to aim low, not high. His new plan involved a full-fledged assault on genre fiction in every one of its manifestations. In The Anti-Death League (1966) he embraced science fiction, and in The Green Man (1969) he delivered a horror story about ghosts haunting a country inn. The Riverside Villas Murder (1973) is an old-school British detective story, while The Alteration (1976) is an alternative history about England in a world that had never experienced the Reformation. All this happened in the aftermath of Amis’s 1965 divorce from Hilary Ann Bardwell after more than 15 years of marriage. Amis was trying to make a new start with second wife Elizabeth Jane Howard, a marriage also destined for acrimony and eventual divorce. He was under severe financial pressure and gaining weight during this period—while also gaining a reputation as a very heavy drinker. In the words of his biographer Zachary Leader, Amis had started treating alcohol as a “a hobby or interest, like jazz or science fiction.” Alexander Waugh would later claim that you could tell Amis had a serious drinking problem just by looking at photos of him from his late middle age onward—travails indicated by a “resplendent sheen on his forehead” which reflected a kind of boozer’s sweat, and a bewildered and aggressive demeanor known as a “Scotch gaze” to those familiar with the facial expressions of patrons leaving the bar at closing time. Other aging males in this situation would solve their midlife crisis by buying a fancy sports car, but Amis didn’t know how to drive. So instead he turned to James Bond. Agent 007 was truly the right hero for the right author, a stylish gent who could save the world, meet a deadline, and still not miss cocktail hour. If Bond could defeat SPECTRE and SMERSH, surely he could help a 40-something bloke get back on his feet again? Thus began Amis’s most ambitious genre gambit from this period, his 1968 spy novel Colonel Sun. Using the pseudonym Robert Markham, Amis had now shifted allegiances from Lucky Jim Dixon to the more debonair James Bond. This must have seemed like a huge opportunity at the time. Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, had died in 1964 at the very moment when the franchise was taking off. The film Goldfinger, released almost exactly a month after the author’s fatal heart attack at age 56, made it into the Guinness Book of World Records as the fastest-grossing movie to date. The film, shot for a budget of just $3 million, went on to earn $125 million at the box office—the biggest moneymaker of the year. After Fleming’s death, Amis had a legitimate opportunity to step into the driver’s seat of the hottest genre property of the era. “I do expect to make quite a lot of money out of the venture,” Amis admitted in a 1968 article for The Observer. I’m hardly surprised. Ian Fleming ranks as the highest-earning British crime-fiction writer of all time, and his estate collected royalties on the sales of a staggering 60 million books during the two years following the author’s death. Amis only needed to hold on to this installed base of James Bond fans to ensure a life of wealth and luxury. But Amis also ardently defended the move on its purely literary merits. A few years earlier, Amis had responded to criticisms of Fleming’s Thunderball with one of the most cogent arguments ever made for the worthiness of escapist fiction. “I think wish fulfillment is a common and normal human activity…No adult ought to feel like an adult all the time.” Even if the Bond novels simply served as a means of compensating for adolescent inferiority complexes, they would be “praiseworthy rather than blameworthy on that ground.” This revealing comment from 1965 was made at the very outset of Amis’s plunge into genre fiction. He clearly felt that no apologies need be made for this choice, which could have unintended benefits for the psychic health of Britain’s youth. Yet there’s some heavy irony in the fact that Ian Fleming himself created the character of James Bond at the outset of a midlife crisis of his own. And he defended his decision in even more crass terms than did Amis. In 1962, in his treatise on “How to Write a Thriller,” Fleming admitted to inherent laziness and claimed that his secret to success was simply churning out 2,000 words per day and not thinking too much about it. “I never correct anything and I never go back to what I have written,” Fleming boasted. “If you once look back, you are lost. How could you have written this drivel?” Above all, Fleming cautioned against “introspection and self-criticism.” If you give in to those, “you will be lucky if you write 500 words a day and you will be disgusted with them into the bargain.” Could Kingsley Amis really follow in the footsteps of an author with such an untutored technique? Could the droll humorist behind Lucky Jim and One Fat Englishman—and one of the most pleasing prose stylists of the post-WWII literary world—really match the snap, flash, and slapdash approach of Ian Fleming, a man who learned how to write by drafting memorandums for British Naval Intelligence? Certainly Amis pared down his writing style for this project. He makes no attempt to draw on his nonpareil skill in comic fiction—a strange decision, given the successful moments of dark humor starting to show up in the successful James Bond movies around this same time. There’s hardly a metaphor in sight in these pages, nothing highbrow or poetic—with the strange exception of recurring parallels with the myth of Theseus inserted into Colonel Sun, a plot twist that would never have come from the pen of Mr. Fleming. Amis, in other words, took great pains to imitate the Bond formula, or at least is superficial trappings. We know for a fact that he studied Fleming’s work with care and took copious notes. (For example, on the jacket of one Bond book, Amis wrote: “B. smiles 13 times by p. 165.”) And in many passages, he comes up with a reasonable facsimile of the original. But in many other respects, the James Bond in these pages is unrecognizable. In the first big fight scene, Bond actually runs away from his attackers. In two other key confrontations, Bond comes up a duffer, incapable of effective action and forced to rely on his amateur associates to save him from sure death. He doesn’t even remember to use the fancy gadgets given him by Q at the outset of the story—in fact, James Bond’s most high-tech weapon in the decisive battle here is a knife. Above all, our superspy 007 shows himself susceptible to “introspection and self-criticism”—the two qualities most despised by Ian Fleming. In other regards, Amis actually manages to surpass Fleming. His James Bond savors his booze like a connoisseur and never settles for a boring martini, shaken, not stirred. Amis’s sense of setting and landscape is outstanding, and the reader can tell that he carefully scouted out the Greek locations that serve as the backdrop for most of Colonel Sun. The psychological aspects of the story are deft and convincing, and they reveal a protagonist with a high degree of poise and self-awareness. In other words, James Bond, in these pages, bears a striking resemblance to Kingsley Amis. Or at least to a somewhat improved Mr. Amis, as he might have preferred to see himself in his 40s. Yes, genre fiction is a kind of wish fulfillment. Alas, this was not the formula that James Bond fans were looking for back in 1968. Colonel Sun sold reasonably well but not at the level of an Ian Fleming book. Even today, after 26 Bond movies, no one has tried to turn Amis’s effort into a film. And for good reason—this story isn’t especially cinematic and skips over the very elements that fans have come to love most in 007 films: outrageous exploits, flippant attitudes, and super-duper spy equipment. The great oddity is that Kingsley Amis was perfectly well-equipped to bring those ingredients into the story. His mistake was to base his approach on the Ian Fleming novels rather than the even more successful Sean Connery movies that might have nudged him into a different direction. Instead, Amis came up with a protagonist as dry as those famous shaken martinis. But there was one silver lining to this clouded outcome. Amis gave up spy fiction and soon returned to his forte, the comic novel. In 1986, he even won the Booker Prize for The Old Devils—beating out Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale in the process. By this point, Amis had settled into the role of the irritable and beloved curmudgeon. It wasn’t quite like being a superspy—or even the author of a superspy bestseller—but it was the best possible typecasting: the part Amis was always really meant to play. Image: Flickr/Tom Woodward
Putting together our semi-annual Previews is a blessing and a curse. A blessing to be able to look six months into the future and see the avalanche of vital creative work coming our way; a curse because no one list can hope to be comprehensive, and no one person can hope to read all these damn books. We tried valiantly to keep it under 100, and this year, we just...couldn't. But it's a privilege to fail with such a good list: We've got new novels by Kate Atkinson, Dale Peck, Pat Barker, Haruki Murakami, Bernice McFadden, and Barbara Kingsolver. We've got a stunning array of debut novels, including one by our very own editor, Lydia Kiesling—not to mention R.O. Kwon, Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Crystal Hana Kim, Lucy Tan, Vanessa Hua, Wayétu Moore, and Olivia Laing. We've got long-awaited memoirs by Kiese Laymon and Nicole Chung. Works of nonfiction by Michiko Kakutani and Jonathan Franzen. The year has been bad, but the books will be good. (And if you don't see a title here, look out for our monthly Previews.) As always, you can help ensure that these previews, and all our great books coverage, continue for years to come by lending your support to the site as a member. (As a thank you for their generosity, our members now get a monthly email newsletter brimming with book recommendations from our illustrious staffers.) The Millions has been running for nearly 15 years on a wing and a prayer, and we’re incredibly grateful for the love of our recurring readers and current members who help us sustain the work that we do. JULY The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon: In her debut novel, Kwon investigates faith and identity as well as love and loss. Celeste Ng writes, “The Incendiaries probes the seductive and dangerous places to which we drift when loss unmoors us. In dazzlingly acrobatic prose, R.O. Kwon explores the lines between faith and fanaticism, passion and violence, the rational and the unknowable.” The Incendiaries is an American Booksellers Association Indies Introduce pick, and The New York Times recently profiled Kwon as a summer writer to watch. (Zoë) My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh: Booker finalist Ottessa Moshfegh’s latest book is (as fans of hers can probably guess) both funny and deeply tender, a testament to the author’s keen eye for the sad and the weird. In it, a young woman starts a regiment of “narcotic hibernation,” prescribed to her by a psychiatrist as demented as psychiatrists come. Eventually, her drug use leads to a spate of bad side effects, which kick off a spiral of increasingly dysfunctional behavior. (Thom) Fruit of the Drunken Tree by Ingrid Rojas Contreras: Against the backdrop of political disarray and vicious violence driven by Pablo Escobar’s drug empire, sisters Chula and Cassandra live safely in a gated Bogotá community. But when a woman from the city’s working-class slums named Petrona becomes their live-in maid, the city’s chaos penetrates the family’s comfort. Soon, Chula and Petrona’s lives are hopelessly entangled amidst devastating violence. Bay Area author Ingrid Rojas Contreras brings us this excellent and timely debut novel about the particular pressures that war exerts on the women caught up in its wake. (Ismail) A Carnival of Losses by Donald Hall: Hall, a former United States poet laureate, earnestly began writing prose while teaching at the University of Michigan during the 1950s. Failed stories and novels during his teenage years had soured him on the genre, but then he longed to write “reminiscent, descriptive” nonfiction “by trying and failing and trying again.” Hall’s been prolific ever since, and Carnival of Losses will publish a month after his passing. Gems here include an elegy written nearly 22 years after the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. “In the months and years after her death, Jane’s voice and mine rose as one, spiraling together the images and diphthongs of the dead who were once the living, our necropoetics of grief and love in the singular absence of flesh.” For a skilled essayist, the past is always present. This book is a fitting final gift. (Nick R.) What We Were Promised by Lucy Tan: Set in China’s metropolis Shanghai, the story is about a new rich Chinese family returning to their native land after fulfilling the American Dream. Their previous city and country have transformed as much as themselves, as have their counterparts in China. For those who want to take a look at the many contrasts and complexities in contemporary China, Tan’s work provides a valuable perspective. (Jianan) An Ocean of Minutes by Thea Lim: In Lim’s debut novel, the world has been devastated by a flu pandemic and time travel is possible. Frank and Polly, a young couple, are learning to live in their new world—until Frank gets sick. In order to save his life, Polly travels to the future for TimeRaiser—a company set on rebuilding the world—with a plan to meet Frank there. When something in their plan goes wrong, the two try to find each other across decades. From a starred Publishers Weekly review: “Lim’s enthralling novel succeeds on every level: as a love story, an imaginative thriller, and a dystopian narrative.” (Carolyn) How to Love a Jamaican by Alexia Arthurs: Last year, Alexia Arthurs won the Plimpton Prize for her story “Bad Behavior,” which appeared in The Paris Review’s summer issue in 2016. How to Love a Jamaican, her first book, includes that story along with several others, two of which were published originally in Vice and Granta. Readers looking for a recommendation can take one from Zadie Smith, who praised the collection as “sharp and kind, bitter and sweet.” (Thom) Give Me Your Hand by Megan Abbott: Megan Abbott is blowing up. EW just asked if she was Hollywood’s next big novelist, due to the number of adaptations of her work currently in production, but she’s been steadily writing award-winning books for a decade. Her genre might be described as the female friendship thriller, and her latest is about two high school friends who later become rivals in the scientific academic community. Rivalries never end well in Abbott’s world. (Janet) The Seas by Samantha Hunt: Sailors, seas, love, hauntings—in The Seas, soon to be reissued by Tin House, Samantha Hunt's fiction sees the world through a scrim of wonder and curiosity, whether it's investigating mothering (as in “A Love Story”), reimagining the late days of doddering Nikolai Tesla at the New Yorker Hotel (“The Invention of Everything Else”), or in an ill-fated love story between a young girl and a 30-something Iraq War Veteran. Dave Eggers has called The Seas "One of the most distinctive and unforgettable voices I've read in years. The book will linger…in your head for a good long time.” (Anne) The Occasional Virgin by Hanan al-Shaykh: Novelist and playwright Hanan al-Shaykh's latest novel concerns two 30-something friends, Huda and Yvonne, who grew up together in Lebanon (the former Muslim, the latter Christian) and who now, according to the jacket copy, "find themselves torn between the traditional worlds they were born into and the successful professional identities they’ve created." Alberto Manguel calls it "A modern Jane Austen comedy, wise, witty and unexpectedly profound." I'm seduced by the title alone. (Edan) The Marvellous Equations of the Dread by Marcia Douglas: In this massively creative work of musical magical realism, Bob Marley has been reincarnated as Fall-down and haunts a clocktower built on the site of a hanging tree in Kingston. Recognized only by a former lover, he visits with King Edward VII, Marcus Garvey, and Haile Selassie. Time isn’t quite what it usually is, either—years fly by every time Fall-down returns to his tower, and his story follows 300 years of violence and myth. But the true innovation here is in the musicality of the prose: Subtitled “A Novel in Bass Riddim,” Marvellous Equations of the Dread draws from—and continues—a long Caribbean musical tradition. (Kaulie) The Death of Truth by Michiko Kakutani: Kakutani is best-known as the long-reigning—and frequently eviscerating—chief book critic at The New York Times, a job she left last year in order to write this book. In The Death of Truth, she considers our troubling era of alternative facts and traces the trends that have brought us to this horrific moment where the very concept of “objective reality” provokes a certain nostalgia. “Trump did not spring out of nowhere,” she told Vanity Fair in a recent interview, “and I was struck by how prescient writers like Alexis de Tocqueville and George Orwell and Hannah Arendt were about how those in power get to define what the truth is.” (Emily) Immigrant, Montana by Amitava Kumar: Kumar, author of multiple works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, returns with a novel about Kailash, a young immigrant from India, coming of age and searching for love in the United States. Publishers Weekly notes (in a starred review) that “this coming-of-age-in-the-city story is bolstered by the author’s captivating prose, which keeps it consistently surprising and hilarious.” (Emily) Brother by David Chariandy: A tightly constructed and powerful novel that tells the story of two brothers in a housing complex in a Toronto suburb during the simmering summer of 1991. Michael and Francis balance hope against the danger of having it as they struggle against prejudice and low expectations. This is set against the tense events of a fateful night. When the novel came out in Canada last year, it won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize and was declared one of the best of the year by many. Marlon James calls Brother "a brilliant, powerful elegy from a living brother to a lost one.” (Claire) A Terrible Country by Keith Gessen: Familial devotion, academic glory, and the need for some space to think have combined to send Andrei back to Moscow some 20 years after his family had emigrated to America. The trip should stir up some academic fodder for his ailing career, and besides, his aging baba Seva could really use the help. For her part, baba Seva never wavers in her assessment of Andrei’s attempt to make a go of it in 200-aughtish Russia: “This is a terrible country,” she tells him. Repeatedly. Perhaps he should have listened. This faux memoir is journalist and historian Keith Gessen’s second novel and an essential addition to the “Before You Go to Russia, Read…” list. (Il’ja) The Lost Country by William Gay: After Little Sister Death, Gay’s 2015 novel that slipped just over the border from Southern gothic into horror, longtime fans of his dark realism (where the real is ever imbued with the fantastic) will be grateful to indie publisher Dzanc Books for one more posthumous novel from the author. Protagonist Billy Edgewater returns to eastern Tennessee after two years in the Navy to see his dying father. Per Kirkus, the picaresque journey takes us through “italicized flashbacks, stream-of-consciousness interludes, infidelities, prison breaks, murderous revenge, biblical language, and a deep kinship between the land and its inhabitants,” and of course, there’s also a one-armed con man named Roosterfish, who brings humor into Gay’s bleak (drunken, violent) and yet still mystical world of mid-1950s rural Tennessee. (Sonya) Comemadre by Roque Larraquy (translated by Heather Cleary): A fin de siècle Beunos Aires doctor probes a little too closely when examining the threshold between life and death. A 21st-century artist discovers the ultimate in transcendence and turns himself into an objet d'art. In this dark, dense, surprisingly short debut novel by the Argentinian author, we’re confronted with enough grotesqueries to fill a couple Terry Gilliam films and, more importantly, with the idea that the only real monsters are those that are formed out of our own ambition. (Il’ja) Now My Heart Is Full by Laura June: "It was my mother I thought of as I looked down at my new daughter," writes Laura June in her debut memoir about how motherhood has forced her to face, reconcile, and even reassess her relationship with her late mother, who was an alcoholic. Roxane Gay calls it “warm and moving,” and Alana Massey writes, “Laura June triumphs by resisting the inertia of inherited suffering and surrendering to the possibility of a boundless, unbreakable love.” Fans of Laura June's parenting essays on The Cut will definitely want to check this one out. (Edan) OK, Mr. Field by Katherine Kilalea: In this debut novel, a concert pianist (the eponymous Mr. Field) spends his payout from a train accident on a replica of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye. And then his wife vanishes. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called the book “a striking, singular debut” and “a disorienting and enthralling descent into one man’s peculiar malaise.” You can whet your appetite with this excerpt in The Paris Review. Kilalea, who is from South Africa and now lives in London, is also the author of the poetry collection One Eye’d Leigh. (Edan) Nevada Days by Bernardo Atxaga (translated by Margaret Jull Costa): Though it’s difficult to write a truly new European travelogue, the Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga seems to have found a way. After spurning Harvard—who tried to recruit him to be an author in residence—Atxaga took an offer to spend nine months at the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, which led to this book about his tenure in the Silver State during the run-up to Obama's election. Though it’s largely a fictionalized account, the book contains passages and stories the author overheard. (Thom) Interior by Thomas Clerc (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman): Give it to Thomas Clerc: The French writer isn’t misleading his readers with the title of this book. At heart, Interior is a tour of the author’s apartment, animated with a comic level of detail and consideration. Every object and appliance gets a history, and the author gives opinions on things like bathroom reading material. Like Samuel Beckett’s fiction, Interior comes alive through its narrator, whose quirkiness helps shepherd the reader through a landscape of tedium. (Thom) Eden by Andrea Kleine: Hope and her sister, Eden, were abducted as children, lured into a van by a man they thought was their father’s friend; 20 years later, Hope’s life as a New York playwright is crumbling when she hears their abductor is up for parole. Eden’s story could keep him locked away, but nobody knows where she is, so Hope takes off to look for her, charting a cross-country path in a run-down RV. The author of Calf, Kleine is no stranger to violence, and Eden is a hard, sometimes frightening look at the way trauma follows us. (Kaulie) Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls by Alissa Nutting: The latest collection from one of America’s most audaciously interesting writers follows her last two novels, in which she inverted the Lolita story and satirized Silicon Valley, respectively. Somewhere in between, she also wrote about her love of hot dogs. Oh, and this collection’s title is clearly a nod to Lucia Berlin. Let’s be real for a minute: If you need more than that to buy this book, you’re not my friend, you’ve got bad taste, and you should keep scrolling. (Nick M.) Suicide Club by Rachel Heng: What if we could live forever? Or: When is life no longer, you know, life? Heng’s debut novel, set in a futuristic New York where the healthy have a shot at immortality, probes those questions artfully but directly. Lea Kirino trades organs on the New York Stock Exchange and might never die, but when she runs into her long-disappeared father and meets the other members of his Suicide Club, she begins to wonder what life will cost her. Part critique of the American cult of wellness, part glittering future with a nightmare undercurrent, Suicide Club is nothing if not deeply imaginative and timely. (Kaulie) The Samurai by Shusaku Endo (translated by Van C. Gessel): In early 17th-century Japan, four low-ranking samurai and a Jesuit priest set off for la Nueva España (Mexico) on a trade mission. What could go wrong? The question of whether there can ever be substantive interplay between the core traditions of the West and the Far East—or whether the dynamic is somehow doomed, organically, to the superficial—is a recurring motif in Endo’s work much as it was in his life. Endo’s Catholic faith lent a peculiar depth to his writing that’s neither parochial nor proselytizing but typically, as in this New Directions reprint, thick with adventure. (Il’ja) If You See Me, Don’t Say Hi by Neel Patel: The characters in these 11 stories, nearly all of whom are first-generation Indian immigrants, are gay and straight, highly successful and totally lost, meekly traditional and boldly transgressive, but as they navigate a familiar contemporary landscape of suburban malls and social media stalking, they come off as deeply—and compellingly—American. (Michael) Homeplace by John Lingan: Maybe it’s true that a dive bar shouldn’t have a website, but probably that notion gets thrown out the window when the bar's longtime owner gave Patsy Cline her first break. In the same way, throw out your notions of what a hyper-localized examination of a small-town bar can be. In Lingan’s hands, the Troubadour explodes like a shattered glass, shards shot beyond Virginia, revealing something about ourselves—all of us—if we can catch the right glints in the pieces. (Nick M.) Early Work by Andrew Martin: In this debut, a writer named Peter Cunningham slowly becomes aware that he’s not the novelist he wants to be. He walks his dog, writes every day, and teaches at a woman’s prison, but he still feels directionless, especially in comparison to his medical student girlfriend. When he meets a woman who’s separated from her fiance, he starts to learn that inspiration is always complex. (Thom) AUGUST A River of Stars by Vanessa Hua: A factory worker named Scarlett Chen is having an affair with Yeung—her boss—when her life is suddenly turned upside down. After she becomes pregnant with Yeung’s son, Scarlett is sent to a secret maternity home in Los Angeles so that the child will be born with the privileges of American citizenship. Distressed at her isolation, Scarlett flees to San Francisco’s Chinatown with a teenage stowaway named Daisy. Together, they disappear into a community of immigrants that remains hidden to most Americans. While they strive for their version of the American dream, Yeung will do anything to secure his son’s future. In a time when immigration policy has returned to the center of our national politics, Bay Area author Vanessa Hua delivers a book that explores the motivations, fears, and aspirations that drive people to migrate. (Ismail) Flights by Olga Tokarczuk (translated by Jennifer Croft): The 116 vignettes that make up this collection have been called digressive, discursive, and speculative. My adjectives: disarming and wonderfully encouraging. Whether telling the story of the trip that brought Chopin’s heart back to Warsaw or of a euthanasia pact between two sweethearts, Croft’s translation from Polish is light as a feather yet captures well the economy and depth of Tokarczuk’s deceptively simple style. A welcome reminder of how love drives out fear and also a worthy Man Booker International winner for 2018. (Il’ja) If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim: Kim, a Columbia MFA graduate and contributing editor of Apogee Journal, is drawing rave advance praise for her debut novel. If You Leave Me is a family saga and romance set during the Korean War and its aftermath. Though a historical drama, its concerns—including mental illness and refugee life—could not be more timely. (Adam) Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice McFadden: On the heels of her American Book Award- and NAACP Image Award-winning novel The Book of Harlan, McFadden’s 10th novel, Praise Song for the Butterflies, gives us the story of Abeo, a privileged 9-year-old girl in West Africa who is sacrificed by her family into a brutal life of ritual servitude to atone for the father’s sins. Fifteen years later, Abeo is freed and must learn how to heal and live again. A difficult story that, according to Kirkus, McFadden takes on with “riveting prose” that “keeps the reader turning pages.” (Sonya) The Third Hotel by Laura Van Den Berg: When Clare arrives in Havana, she is surprised to find her husband, Richard, standing in a white linen suit outside a museum (surprised, because she thought Richard was dead). The search for answers sends Clare on a surreal journey; the distinctions between reality and fantasy blur. Her role in Richard's death and reappearance comes to light in the streets of Havana, her memories of her marriage, and her childhood in Florida. Lauren Groff praises the novel as “artfully fractured, slim and singular.” (Claire) Severance by Ling Ma: In this funny, frightening, and touching debut, office drone Candace is one of only a few New Yorkers to survive a plague that’s leveled the city. She joins a group, led by IT guru Bob, in search of the Facility, where they can start society anew. Ling Ma manages the impressive trick of delivering a bildungsroman, a survival tale, and satire of late capitalist millennial angst in one book, and Severance announces its author as a supremely talented writer to watch. (Adam) Night Soil by Dale Peck: Author and critic Dale Peck has made a career out of telling stories about growing up queer; with Night Soil, he might have finally hit upon his most interesting and well-executed iteration of that story since his 1993 debut. The novel follows Judas Stammers, an eloquently foul-mouthed and compulsively horny heir to a Southern mining fortune, and his mother Dixie, a reclusive artist famous for making technically perfect pots. Living in the shadow of the Academy that their ancestor Marcus Stammers founded in order to educate—and exploit—his former slaves, Judas and Dixie must confront the history of their family’s complicity in slavery and environmental degradation. This is a hilarious, thought-provoking, and lush novel about art’s entanglement with America’s original sin. (Ismail) Summer by Karl Ove Knausgaard: After the success of his six-part autofiction project My Struggle, Norwegian author Karl Knausgaard embarked on a new project: a quartet of memoiristic reflections on the seasons. Knausgaard wraps up the quartet with Summer, an intensely observed meditation on the Swedish countryside that the author has made a home in with his family. (Ismail) Ohio by Stephen Markley: Ohio is an ambitious novel composed of the stories of four residents of New Canaan, Ohio, narratively unified by the death of their mutual friend in Iraq. Markley writes movingly about his characters, about the wastelands of the industrial Midwest, about small towns with economic and cultural vacuums filled by opioids, Donald Trump, and anti-immigrant hatred. This is the kind of book people rarely attempt to write any more, a Big American Novel that seeks to tell us where we live now. (Adam) French Exit by Patrick deWitt: In this new novel by Patrick deWitt, bestselling author of The Sisters Brothers and Undermajordomo Minor, a widow and her son try to escape their problems (scandal, financial ruin, etc.) by fleeing to Paris. Kirkus Reviews calls it “a bright, original yarn with a surprising twist,” and Maria Semple says it's her favorite deWitt novel yet, its dialogue "dizzyingly good." According to Andrew Sean Greer the novel is "brilliant, addictive, funny and wise." (Edan) Notes from the Fog by Ben Marcus: If you’ve read Marcus before, you know what you’re in for: a set of bizarre stories that are simultaneously terrifying and hysterical, fantastical and discomfortingly realistic. For example, in “The Grow-Light Blues,” which appeared in The New Yorker a few years back, a corporate employee tests a new nutrition supplement—the light from his computer screen. The results are not pleasant. With plots that seem like those of Black Mirror, Marcus presents dystopian futures that are all the more frightening because they seem possible. (Ismail) The Reservoir Tapes by Jon McGregor: In the follow-up to his Costa Award-winning novel Reservoir 13, McGregor’s newest book focuses on the crime at the center of its predecessor: the disappearance of 13-year-old Becky Shaw. After Becky goes missing, an interviewer comes to town to collect stories from the villagers. Over the course of the book, the community reveals what happened (or what may have happened) in the days and weeks before the incident. In its starred review, Kirkus called the novel a “noteworthy event” that, when put in conversation with Reservoir 13, is “nothing short of a remarkable experiment in storytelling.” (Carolyn) Heartbreaker by Claudia Dey: Called “a dark star of a book, glittering with mordant humor and astonishing, seductive strangeness and grace” by Lauren Groff, this is the story of Pony Darlene Fontaine. She lives in “the territory,” a sinister town run on a scarce economic resource. One night, Pony’s mother, Billie Jean, bolts barefoot into cold of the wider world—a place where the townspeople have never been. Told from the perspectives of Pony, a dog, and a teenage boy, this book shows the magic of Dey’s imagination. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, calling it a "word-for-word triumph." (Claire) Before She Sleeps by Bina Shah: Every news event, policy decision, and cultural moment now draws parallels to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. “It’s Gilead, we’re in Gilead,” Twitter tells us, “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.” But Shah’s novel is both explicitly connected to Atwood’s marvel and working to expand it by imagining what a secular, Middle Eastern Gilead might look like. In a near future, war and disease have wiped out the women of what is currently Pakistan and Iran, and those who survived are now the forced breeders of a dystopian society. But there’s resistance, secrets, and risk; the result, Kirkus writes, is a kind of spy-genre-cum-soap-opera update on a modern classic. (Kaulie) Boom Town by Sam Anderson: The decorated journalist Sam Anderson, a staff writer at The New York Times Magazine, has set out to fill a yawning gap in the American popular imagination: our tendency to ignore the nation’s 27th-largest metropolis, Oklahoma City. Anderson’s rollicking narrative is woven from two threads—the vicissitudes of the city’s NBA team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the city’s boom-and-bust history of colorful characters, vicious weather, boosterism, and bloodshed, including, of course, the 1995 terrorist bombing of the federal building that left 168 dead. Everything about Anderson’s OK City is outsize, including the self-delusions. Its Will Rogers World Airport, for instance, doesn’t have any international flights. Anderson runs wild with this material. (Bill) Pretty Things by Virginie Despentes (translated by Emma Ramadan): French feminist author and filmmaker Virginie Despentes’s King Kong Theory used her experience of rape, prostitution, and work in the porn industry to explode myths of sex, gender, and beauty, and it subsequently gained a cult following among English-language readers when first published in 2010. She's since broken through to a wider audience with Volume 1 of her Vernon Subutex trilogy, just shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. While we’re waiting on the second volume of Subutex in the States, Feminist Press brings us Despentes' Pretty Things, "a mean little book, wickedly funny, totally lascivious, often pornographic,” according to Kirkus, and just one of the many reasons Lauren Elkin has called Despentes "a feminist Zola for the twenty-first century.” (Anne) Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction by Joshua Cohen: Book of Numbers, Cohen’s tome about a tech titan leading us out of the pre-internet wilderness with his search engine, contains aphoristic observations on technology: “Our access is bewildering, not just beyond imagination but becoming imagination, and so bewildering twice over. We can only search the found, find the searched, and charge it to our room.” Now comes a nonfiction book about life in the digital age. The wide-ranging collection has political profiles, book reviews, and idiosyncratic journal entries: “Hat Lessons Gleaned from Attending a Film Noir Marathon with a Nonagenarian Ex-Milliner Who Never Stops Talking.” (Matt) Open Me by Lisa Locascio: If you’re looking for a sexy and smart summer read, look no further. In this erotic coming-of-age story, Lisa Locascio explores the female body, politics, and desire. Aimee Bender writes that this debut novel is “a kind of love letter to the female body and all its power and visceral complexity. This is a story of many important layers, but one of the many reasons it remains distinct in my mind is because of its honesty about our complicated, yearning physical selves.” (Zoë) Housegirl by Michael Donkor: In this debut novel, Donkor follows three Ghanaian girls: Belinda, the obedient; Mary, the irrepressible; and Amma, the rebel. For her part, Amma has had about enough of the tight-laced life in London that her parents want for her and begins to balk at the strictures of British life. But when she is brought to London to provide a proper in-house example for willful Amma, sensible Belinda begins to experience a cultural dissociation that threatens her sense of self as nothing before ever had. (Il’ja) SEPTEMBER Transcription by Kate Atkinson: As a fangirl of both the virtuosic Life After Life and of her Jackson Brody detective novels, I barely need to see a review to get excited about a new Atkinson novel—especially a period novel about a female spy, recruited by MI5 at age 18 to monitor fascist sympathizers. Nonetheless, here’s some love from Booklist (starred review): “This is a wonderful novel about making choices, failing to make them, and living, with some degree of grace, the lives our choices determine for us.” (Sonya) The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling: File The Golden State under "most most-anticipated" as it’s the first novel of The Millions’ own brilliant and beloved Lydia Kiesling, who has has been wielding her pen and editorial prowess on this site for many a year. Two months pre-pub, The Golden State is already off to the races with a nomination for the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize and a starred review from Publisher's Weekly, stating, "Kiesling depicts parenting in the digital age with humor and brutal honesty and offers insights into language, academics, and even the United Nations." Kiesling herself has written that "great writing is bracing, and makes you feel like making something of your own, either another piece of writing, or a joyful noise unto the Lord.” The Golden State promises just that. (Anne) She Would Be King by Wayétu Moore: It’s the early years of Liberia, and three strangers with nothing in common help smooth the way for the nation. Gbessa is a West African exile who survives certain death; June Dey is running from a Virginia plantation; Norman Aragon, the son of a colonizer and a slave, can disappear at will. Their story stands at the meeting point of the diaspora, history, and magical realism, and Edwidge Danticat calls the novel “beautiful and magical.” (Kaulie) The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker: Barker is best known for her fantastic World War I Regeneration trilogy, including The Ghost Road, winner of the 1995 Booker Prize. The Silence of the Girls sees Barker casting her historical imagination back further, to Ancient Greece and the Trojan War. Captured by Achilles, Briseis goes from queen to concubine, from ruler to subject—in this retelling of The Iliad, Barker reclaims Briseis as a protagonist, giving authorial voice to her and the other women who have long existed only as powerless subjects in a male epic. (Adam) The Wildlands by Abby Geni: Geni’s last novel, The Lightkeepers, was a thriller set on an isolated island that was also somehow a meditation on appreciating nature, and it blew me away. Her new novel similarly combines the natural world with manmade terror. It follows four young siblings who are orphaned by an Oklahoma tornado and the ensuing national media attention that pushes their relationships to the edge. (Janet) Washington Black by Esi Edugyan: Edugyan’s last novel, Half-Blood Blues, won the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was a finalist for the Man Booker. Attica Locke calls this one “nothing short of a masterpiece.” When Wash, an 11-year-old enslaved in Barbados, is chosen as a manservant, he is terrified. The chooser, Christopher Wilde, however, turns out to be a naturalist, explorer, and abolitionist. But soon Wash and Christopher find themselves having to escape to save their lives. Their run takes them from the frozen North to London and Morocco. It’s all based on a famous 19th-century criminal case. (Claire) Crudo by Olivia Laing: Olivia Laing, known for her chronicles of urban loneliness and writers' attraction to drink as well as critical writing on art and literature, jumps genres with her first novel, Crudo. It's a spitfire of a story with a fervent narrator and a twist: The book is written in the voice of punk feminist author Kathy Acker performed in mash-up with Laing's own, as she considers marriage (with equivocation) and the absurdity of current events circa 2017. Suzanne Moore at The Guardian says, "Here [Laing] asks how we might not disappear…She reaches out for something extraordinary. Crudo is a hot, hot book.” (Anne) Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart: Set during the lead-up to the 2016 presidential election, Shteyngart’s novel begins with a bloodied, hungover, Fitzgerald-loving hedge fund manager—his company is called “This Side of Capital”—waiting for a bus in Manhattan’s Port Authority. A disastrous dinner party the night before has pushed him over the edge, leading to his impulsive decision to flee the city, his business woes, and his wife and autistic toddler to track down an old girlfriend. Like Salman Rushdie in The Golden House, Shteyngart turns his satiric eye on a gilded family in disarray. (Matt) The Shape of Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez (translated by Anne McLean): In this, his sixth novel in English translation, Colombian writer Juan Gabriel Vasquez plays mischief with history, a string of murders, and the conspiracy theories that commonly arise alongside. Add a storyline carried by a duet of narrators—one with a healthy dollop of paranoia, the other with a fixation for real crime so engrossing he’s turned his home into a kind of museum of crime noir—and you’ve got a gripping read and a solid reflection on the appeal of conspiracy. (Il’ja) The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish by Katya Apekina: Edie finds her mother Marianne in the living room only just surviving a suicide attempt, while her sister Mae is upstairs in a trance. Marianne is committed to a mental hospital, and the sisters are sent to live with their father, far from their native Louisiana. But as they spend more time with their father, the girls grow further apart, torn by their deep loyalty to opposite parents and their own grief and confusion. Apekina’s debut novel plays with tricky family relationships and the way fact and fantasy, loyalty and obsession, can be so difficult to tease apart. (Kaulie) After the Winter by Guadalupe Nettel (translated by Rosalind Harvey): A story about love and consciousness that takes place in Havana, Paris, and New York, by the Mexican author who Katie Kitamura called "a brilliant anatomist of love and perversity...each new book is a revelation." (Lydia) Ordinary People by Diana Evans: The third novel from Evans, the inaugural winner of the Orange Prize for New Writers, Ordinary People follows two troubled couples as they make their way through life in London. The backdrop: Obama’s 2008 election. The trouble: Living your 30s is hard, parenthood is harder, and relationships to people and places change, often more than we’d like them to. But Evans is as sharply funny—in clear-eyed, exacting fashion—as she is sad, and Ordinary People cuts close to the quick of, well, ordinary people. (Kaulie) Heartland: A Memoir of Working Hard and Being Broke by Sarah Smarsh: An uncomfortable reality of contemporary American society, one of many, is that where social mobility is concerned, the so-called American Dream is best achieved in Denmark. If you’re born into poverty here, in other words, hard work won’t necessarily pull you out. In Heartland, Smarsh blends memoir—she comes from a long line of teen mothers and was raised primarily by her grandmother on a farm near Wichita—with analysis and social commentary to offer a nuanced exploration of the impact of generational poverty and a look at the lives of poor and working-class Americans. (Emily) The Caregiver by Samuel Park: Park’s third novel takes place in Rio de Janeiro and California. Mara is an immigrant whose beloved mother Ana, a voice-over actress, was involved with a civilian rebel group in Rio. In California as an adult now, Mara works as a caregiver to a young woman with stomach cancer and grapples with her mother’s complicated, enigmatic past. Shortly after finishing the novel in 2017, Park himself died of stomach cancer at age 41. (Sonya) The Order of the Day by Eric Vuillard: Winning France’s prestigious Prix Goncourt doesn’t guarantee an English translation, but as Garth Risk Hallberg showed in a piece about international prize winners, it helps. Recent translated winners include Mathias Énard’s Compass and Leïla Slimani’s The Perfect Nanny, and the latest is Eric Vuillard’s The Order of the Day, a historical novel about the rise of Nazism, corporate complicity, and Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. Discussing his fictionalized account, Vuillard, who also wrote a novel about Buffalo Bill Cody, told The New York Times that “there is no such thing as neutral history.” (Matt) Your Duck Is My Duck by Deborah Eisenberg: This new collection is the famed short story writer’s first book since 2006, and advance word says it lives up to the best of her work. Over the course of six lengthy, morally complicated stories, the author showcases her trademark wit and sensitivity, exploring such matters as books that expose one’s own past and the trials of finding yourself infatuated with a human rights worker. (Thom) Ponti by Sharlene Teo: Set in Singapore in the 1990s, Teo's debut, which won the inaugural Deborah Rogers award in the U.K. and was subsequently the subject of a bidding war, describes a twisted friendship between two teenage girls. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls it "relatable yet unsettling." (Lydia) Waiting for Eden by Elliot Ackerman: Eden Malcom, a deeply wounded soldier coming back from the Iraq war, lies unconscious in a bed. The story is narrated by a ghost, Eden’s friend and fellow soldier whom he has lost in the foreign land. Through numerous shattering moments in the book, Ackerman pushes the readers to explore eternal human problems such as the meaning of life, marriage, love and betrayal. (Jianan) Boomer1 by Daniel Torday: Daniel Torday follows his acclaimed debut, The Last Flight of Poxl West, with a second novel that carries a menacing subtitle: Retire or We’ll Retire You. It’s apt because this is the story of a millennial loser named Mark Brumfeld, a bluegrass musician, former journalist, and current grad student whose punk bassist girlfriend rejects his marriage proposal, driving him out of New York and back to his parents’ basement in suburban Baltimore. There, under the titular handle of Boomer1, he starts posting online critiques of baby boomers that go viral. Intergenerational warfare—what a smart lens for looking at the way we live today. (Bill) River by Esther Kinsky (translated by Iain Galbraith): One of the unsung attractions of London is the transitional areas at the edges, where city meets country meets industry meets waterfowl meets isolated immigrant laborer. A book in which scarcely anything ever happens, River is, however, filled with life. Resolute in her take on the terrain as the outsider looking in, Kinsky skillfully chronicles the importance in our lives of the homely, the unobserved and the irrepressibly present. A book for those who would gladly reread W.G. Sebald but wish he had written about people more often. (Il’ja) The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman: Sarah Weinman uncovers that Sally Horner, an 11-year-old girl who was kidnapped in 1948, was the inspiration for Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita. Through her thorough research, Weinman learns that Nabokov knew much about Horner’s case and made efforts to disguise this fact. Megan Abbott writes that The Real Lolita “offers both nuanced and compassionate true-crime reportage and revelatory cultural and literary history. It will, quite simply, change the way you think about Lolita and ‘Lolitas’ forever.” (Zoë) The Personality Brokers by Merve Emre: The Myers-Briggs personality test is the most popular test of its kind in the world, and affects life in ways large and small--from the hiring and career development practices of Fortune 500 companies, to time-wasting Facebook tests to, amazingly, people's Twitter bios. (I'm allegedly an ENFP, incidentally.) As it happens, the test was contrived by a team of mother-daughter novelists with a Jung obsession. Scholar and trenchant literary critic Emre uses archival research to tell this story, revealing the fictions woven into a supposedly "scientific" instrument. (Lydia) [millions_ad] OCTOBER Killing Commendatore by Haruki Murakami (translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen): Like many before me, I once fell into Murakami’s fictional world only to emerge six months later wondering what on earth happened. So any anticipation for his new books is tempered by caution. His new novel is about a freshly divorced painter who moves to the mountains, where he finds an eerie and powerful painting called “Killing Commendatore.” Mysteries proliferate, and you will keep reading—not because you are expecting resolution but because it’s Murakami, and you’re under his spell. (Hannah) All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung: This book—the first by the former editor of the much-missed site The Toast—is garnering high praise from lots of great people, among them Alexander Chee, who wrote, “I've been waiting for this writer, and this book—and everything else she'll write.” Born prematurely to Korean parents who had immigrated to America, the author was adopted by a white couple who raised her in rural Oregon, where she encountered bigotry her family couldn’t see. Eventually, Chung grew curious about her past, which led her to seek out the truth of her origins and identity. (Thom) Heavy by Kiese Laymon: Finally! This memoir has been mentioned as “forthcoming” at the end of every Kiese Laymon interview or magazine article for a few years, and I’ve been excited about it the entire time. Laymon has written one novel and one essay collection about America and race. This memoir focuses on Laymon’s own body—in the personal sense of how he treats it and lives in it, and in the larger sense of the heavy burden of a black body in America. (Janet) Almost Everything by Anne Lamott: Perhaps unsurprisingly, the author of Bird by Bird has some fascinating thoughts about hope and its role in our lives. In Almost Everything, Anne Lamott recounts her own struggles with despair, admitting that at her lowest she “stockpiled antibiotics for the Apocalypse.” From that point on, she discovered her own strength, and her journey forms the basis of this thoughtful and innovative work. (Thom) Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver: The beloved novelist’s latest tells the story of Willa Knox, whose middle-class life has crumbled: The magazine she built her career around has folded, and the college where her husband had tenure has shut down. All she has is a very old house in need of serious repair. Out of desperation, she begins looking into her house’s history, hoping that she might be able to get some funding from the historical society. Through her research, she finds a kindred spirit in Thatcher Greenwood, who occupied the premises in 1871 and was an advocate of the work of Charles Darwin. Though they are separated by more than a century, Knox and Greenwood both know what it’s like to live through cultural upheaval. (Hannah) Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: In his debut short story collection, Adjei-Brenyah writes about the injustice black people face every day in America. Tackling issues like criminal justice, consumerism, and racism, these timely stories are searching for humanity in a brutal world. The collection is both heartbreaking and hopeful, and George Saunders called it “an excitement and a wonder: strange, crazed, urgent and funny.” (Carolyn) Things to Make and Break by May-Lan Tan: This debut collection of short fiction is the most recent collaboration between Coffee House Press and Emily Books. The 11 short stories argue that relationships between two people often contain a third presence, whether that means another person or a past or future self. Tan’s sensibility has been compared to that of Joy Williams, David Lynch, and Carmen Maria Machado. (Hannah) Gone So Long by Andre Dubus III: Whether in his fiction (House of Sand and Fog) or his nonfiction (Townie), Dubus tells blistering stories about broken lives. In his new novel, Daniel Ahern “hasn’t seen his daughter in forty years, and there is so much to tell her, but why would she listen?” Susan, his daughter, has good reason to hate Daniel—his horrific act of violence ruined their family and poisoned her life. Dubus has the preternatural power to make every storyline feel mythic, and Gone So Long rides an inevitable charge of guilt, fear, and stubborn hope. “Even after we’re gone, what we’ve left behind lives on in some way,” Dubus writes—including who we’ve left behind. (Nick R.) Retablos: Stories from a Life Lived Along the Border by Octavio Solis: A memoir about growing up a mile from the Rio Grande, told in vignettes, or retablos, showing the small and large moments that take place along the U.S. border. Julia Alvarez says of the book, "Unpretentiously and with an unerring accuracy of tone and rhythm, Solis slowly builds what amounts to a storybook cathedral. We inhabit a border world rich in characters, lush with details, playful and poignant, a border that refutes the stereotypes and divisions smaller minds create. Solis reminds us that sometimes the most profound truths are best told with crafted fictions—and he is a master at it." (Lydia) Family Trust by Kathy Wang: Acclaimed by Cristina Alger as “a brilliant mashup of The Nest and Crazy Rich Asians,” the book deals with many hidden family tensions ignited by the approaching of the death of Stanley Huang, the father of the family. Family Trust brings the readers to rethink the ambitions behind the bloom of Silicon Valley and what families really mean. (Jianan) Anniversaries by Uwe Johnson (translated by Damion Searls): At 1,800 pages, the two-volume set of Uwe Johnson’s 1968 classic—and first complete publication of the book in English—isn’t going to do your TBR pile any favors. The NYRB release follows, in detail, the New York lives of German emigres Gesine Cresspahl and her daughter Marie as they come to terms with the heritage of the Germany they escaped and with an American existence that, in 1968, begins to resonate with challenges not dissimilar to those they left behind. A Searls translation portends a rewarding reading experience despite the volumes’ length. (Il’ja) White Dancing Elephants by Chaya Bhuvaneswar: Drawing comparisons to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Margaret Atwood, and Sandra Cisneros, Bhuvaneswar’s debut collection pulls together stories of diverse women of color as they face violence, whether it be sexual, racial, or self-inflicted. The Buddha also makes an appearance, as do Hindu myths, incurable diseases, and an android. No wonder Jeff VanderMeer calls White Dancing Elephants “often provocative” as well as bold, honest, and fresh. (Kaulie) Impossible Owls by Brian Phillips: You know meritocratic capitalism is a lie because everyone who wrote during Holly Anderson’s tenure as editor of MTV News is not presently wealthy beyond imagination, but that’s beside the point. Better yet, let’s pour one out for Grantland. Better still, let’s focus on one truth. Brian Phillips’s essays are out of this world: big-hearted, exhaustive, unrelentingly curious, and goddamned fun. It’s about time he graced us with this collection. (Nick M.) The Souls of Yellow Folk by Wesley Yang: For the title of his debut collection of essays on race, gender, and American society, Wesley Yang invokes W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1903 classic study of race in America. These 13 essays, some of which appeared previously in New York magazine, The New York Times Magazine, and n+1, explore the ways in which the American dream shapes and distorts an assortment of people: chefs, strivers, pickup artists, and school shooters. Included here is “Paper Tigers,” Yang’s personal, National Magazine Award-winning look at Asian-American overachievers. As Yang’s avid followers already know, his laser scrutiny spares no one—not even Yang himself. (Bill) The Witch Elm by Tana French: For six novels now, French has taken readers inside the squabbling, backstabbing world of the (fictional) Dublin Murder Squad, with each successive book following a different detective working frantically to close a case. Now, in a twist, French has—temporarily, we hope—set aside the Murder Squad for a stand-alone book that follows the victim of a crime, a tall, handsome, faintly clueless public relations man named Toby who is nearly beaten to death when he surprises two burglars in his home. Early reviews online attest that French’s trademark immersive prose and incisive understanding of human psychology remain intact, but readers do seem to miss the Murder Squad. (Michael) There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald: Casey Gerald fulfilled the American dream and is here to call bullshit. He grew up in Dallas with a sometimes absent mother and was recruited to play football for Yale. As he came to inhabit the rarefied air of Yale, Harvard, and Wall Street, he recognized the false myths that hold up those institutions and how their perpetuation affects those striving to get in. (Janet) Training School for Negro Girls by Camille Acker: Camille Acker spins her debut story collection around a pair of linked premises: that respectability does not equal freedom and that the acclaim of others is a tinny substitute for one’s own sense of self. Set mostly in Washington, D.C., these stories give us a millennial who fights gentrification—until she learns that she’s part of the problem; a schoolteacher who dreams of a better city and winds up taking out her frustrations on her students; and a young piano player who wins a competition—and discovers that the prize is worthless. A timely, welcome book. (Bill) The Taiga Syndrome by Cristina Rivera Garza (translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana): Marguerite Duras, Clarice Lispector, Juan Rulfo—comparisons to each have been made with regard to Cristina Rivera Garza's novels, which are uncanny and unique, often exploring and crossing and investigating borders, including but not limited to "geopolitical borders and conceptual borders, borders of gender and genre, borders between life and death." Rivera Garza has spent her life crossing borders, too. Born in Mexico, she lived between San Diego and Tijuana for a long while, and she now directs the first bilingual creative writing Ph.D. program at the University of Houston. The Taiga Syndrome is Rivera Garza's second novel to be translated to English, a book which Daniel Borzutzky likens to "Apocalypse Now fused with the worlds of Clarice Lispector and Jorge Luis Borges." Yowza. (Anne) Well-Read Black Girl ed. Glory Edim: Glory Edim founded Well-Read Black Girl, a Brooklyn-based book club and an online space that highlights black literature and sisterhood, and last year she produced the inaugural Well-Read Black Girl Festival. Most recently, Edim curated the Well-Read Black Girl anthology, and contributors include Morgan Jerkins, Tayari Jones, Lynn Nottage, Gabourey Sidibe, Rebecca Walker, Jesmyn Ward, Jacqueline Woodson, and Barbara Smith. The collection of essays celebrates the power of representation, visibility, and storytelling. (Zoë) Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return by Martin Riker: Martin Riker has exquisite taste in books. He’s proven this again and again as publisher of Dorothy and former editor for Dalkey Archive, and as a critic and champion of literature in translation, innovative writing, and authors who take risks—which is why the debut of Riker’s first novel, Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return, is so thrilling for us bookish types. The titular Samuel Johnson is not that Samuel Johnson but a Samuel Johnson who comes of age in mid-20th-century America who is killed and whose consciousness then migrates from body to body to inevitably inhabit many lives in what Joshua Cohen calls “a masterpiece of metempsychosis.” (Anne) NOVEMBER All the Lives We Never Lived by Anuradha Roy: This is Roy’s latest offering after a powerful showing in Sleeping on Jupiter, which was longlisted for the Man Booker prize in 2015. This novel centers around Myshkin, a boy whose life is changed when his mother elopes—no, vanishes—with a German man who appears naked at a river near their house one day and insists he has come for her after first meeting her in Bali. The novel follows the anamnesis of what happened, and his ruminations on its effect on his life. Already published in Britain, the novel has been called “elegiac,” compelling, and powerful, among other things. Conceived during a time Roy spent in Bali—at a festival where I had the pleasure of meeting her in 2015—this is an affecting novel. Readers should look for a conversation between Roy and me on this site around publication date. (Chigozie) Evening in Paradise by Lucia Berlin: Can you remember a better short story collection in recent years than Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women? I can’t. Maybe once a week I think about that dentist, ripping his own teeth out in front of his granddaughter. Now, Berlin’s estate is back with even more stories, this time all previously uncompiled. In the case of a less talented writer, I’d be worried about publishers scraping the barrel. But with Berlin, there are surely unplucked molars. (Nick M.) The End of the End of the Earth by Jonathan Franzen: Today Franzen is best known as a novelist—even the “Great American Novelist”—but it’s worth noting that he first appeared on many readers’ radar with his 1996 Harper’s essay “Perchance to Dream” about the difficulties of writing fiction in an age of images. Franzen’s essays, like his novels, can be a mixed bag, but he is a man perennially interested in interesting things that others overlook, such as, in this book, the global devastation of seabirds by predators and climate change. (Michael) Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants by Mathias Énard (translated by Charlotte Mandell): From the author of the brilliant, Prix Goncourt-winning Compass, a work of historical fiction that follows Michelangelo to the Ottoman Empire, where he is considering a commission from the Sultan to build a bridge across the Golden Horn. The novel promises to continue Énard’s deep, humanistic explorations of the historical and ongoing connections between Europe and Asia, Islamdom and Christendom. (Lydia) My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite: As the title makes clear, the Nigerian writer Oyinkan Braithwaite’s first novel is a dark comedy of sibling rivalry. The beautiful Ayoola leads a charmed life, and thanks to the cleanup efforts of her older sister, Korede, she suffers no repercussions from killing a string of boyfriends. Korede’s loyalty is tested, however, when a man close to her heart asks out her sister. Film producers are already getting in on the fun, as Working Title has optioned what the publisher calls a “hand grenade of a novel.” (Matt) Those Who Knew by Idra Novey: Following up her debut novel, Ways to Disappear, Novey's latest tells the story of a woman who suspects a senator's hand in the death of a young woman on an unnamed island. The great Rebecca Traister says the book "speaks with uncommon prescience to the swirl around us. Novey writes, with acuity and depth, about questions of silence, power, and complicity. The universe she has created is imagined, and all too real." (Lydia) The April 3rd Incident by Yu Hua (translated by Allan H. Barr): A collection of his best early stories from a pioneer in China’s 1980 avant-garde literary movement, renowned for approaching realist subject matters through unconventional techniques. In his writings, reality is punctured and estranged, leading up to a new look at things familiar. Yu Hua is one of the best acclaimed contemporary Chinese authors. His previous works include China in Ten Words, Brothers, and the stunning To Live. (Jianan) The Feral Detective by Jonathan Lethem: Charles Heist lives in a trailer in the desert outside L.A. and keeps his pet opossum in a desk drawer. Phoebe Siegler is a sarcastic motormouth looking for a friend’s missing daughter. Together, they explore California’s sun-blasted Inland Empire, searching for the girl among warring encampments of hippies and vagabonds living off the grid. In other words, we’re in Lethemland, where characters have implausible last names, genre tropes are turned inside out, and no detective is complete without a pet opossum. Insurrecto by Gina Apostol: A story that takes across time and place in the Philippines, from the American occupation to the Duterte era, by the winner of the PEN Open Book Award for Gun Dealer's Daughter. (Don't miss Apostol's astute essay in the Los Angeles Review of Books on Francine Prose and textual appropriation.) (Lydia) Hardly Children by Laura Adamcyzk: Chicago-based author Laura Adamcyzk's bold and observant debut story collection, Hardly Children, teems with wry wit as it explores memory and family and uncovers the unexpected in the everyday. Her stories often involve family, interrelations within, and their disintegration, such as in "Girls,” which won the Dzanc Books/Disquiet Prize. Other stories are pithy and razor sharp, such as "Gun Control," which invents many permutations of Chekhov's Gun (i.e., a gun in act one must go off by act three), and in doing so reflects the degree to which Adamcyzk considers the architecture of her stories, which often shift in striking ways. (Anne) The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya (translated by Asa Yoneda): This is the English-language debut from a Japanese writer whose work has already been translated worldwide. The short stories in this collection are a mix of the fantastical and the painfully real. The title story is about a woman who makes radical changes to her appearance through bodybuilding, yet her husband doesn’t even notice. Other mysterious premises include a saleswoman whose client won’t come out of a dressing room, a newlywed couple who begin to resemble each other, and umbrellas that have magical properties. (Hannah) The Patch by John McPhee: McPhee’s seventh collection of essays is finely curated, as expected for an essayist who lives and breathes structure. Essays on the sporting life fill the first part; the second includes shorter, previously uncollected pieces. The collection’s titular essay is an elegiac classic, which begins with the pursuit of chain pickerel in New Hampshire but soon becomes an essay about his dying father. McPhee flawlessly moves from gravity to levity, as in his writing about the Hershey chocolate factory. Such pieces are tastes of his willingness to let the world around him just be and to marvel at mysteries of all variety: “Pools and pools and pools of chocolate—fifty-thousand-pound, ninety-thousand-pound, Olympic-length pools of chocolate—in the conching rooms...Slip a little spatula in there and see how it tastes. Waxy? Claggy? Gritty? Mild? Taste it soft. That is the way to get the flavor.” One wishes John McPhee would write about everything, his words an introduction to all of life’s flavors. (Nick R.) The Best Bad Things by Katrina Carrasco: A gender-bending historical detective story involving the opium trade and the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the Pacific Northwest. (Lydia) Useful Phrases for Immigrants by May-lee Chai: Winner of the Doris Bakwin Award selected by Tayari Jones, Chai's collection comprises eight stories detailing life in a globalized world. Edward P. Jones called Useful Phrases "a splendid gem of a story collection...Complementing the vivid characters, the reader has the gift of language―‘a wind so treacherous it had its own name,' 'summer days stretched taffy slow'....Chai's work is a grand event." (Lydia) DECEMBER North of Dawn by Nuruddin Farah: Farah has been writing about the world’s greatest catastrophes for years, and his novels, especially Hiding in Plain Sight, have been about the tragedy that accompanies the loss of one’s original country. That strong theme is the centrifugal force of this novel about a calm home engulfed when a son leaves quiet and peaceful Oslo to die back in Somalia. His widow and children return to Norway to live with his parents, and in bringing their devoted religiosity with them, threaten to explode the family once again. Farah is a master of shifts and turns, so this novel promises to be among the year’s most exciting publications. (Chigozie) Revolution Sunday by Wendy Guerra (translated by Achy Obejas): Translated for the first time into English, internationally bestselling novelist Guerra's book follows a writer from Cuba to Spain, where her expat compatriots assume she is a spy for Castro. Back home in Cuba, she is treated with equal suspicion by her government. (Lydia)
The New York Times recently ran an animated ad online that featured a blinking cursor spelling out the words “He said” followed by “She said. She said. She said.” Ad infinitum. The ad, of course, was in reference to #MeToo, a feminist movement of truth-telling about sexual harassment and assault. Perhaps not coincidentally, there has also recently been a steady rise in post-apocalyptic/dystopian books that feature control over some aspect(s) of female reproduction. But these literary efforts have not been entirely lauded. In a recent, mostly-positive review of Leni Zumas’s Red Clocks in The Chicago Tribune, Kathleen Rooney pondered the issue of Handmaid’s Tale burnout: “How much feminist dystopic fiction can audiences read?” Ron Charles of The Washington Post echoed Rooney’s sentiments in his review of Louise Erdrich’s Future Home of the Living God: “But do we need another novel that reenacts the grim obstetrical control of The Handmaid’s Tale?” To be clear, Charles’s beef in the review isn’t really with the presence of “grim obstetrical control” in the novel, his concerns have more to do with elements like pacing, writing style, and character. But his question—and Rooney’s—point to relevant concerns, especially in the age of #MeToo: do dystopian novels that feature “grim obstetrical control” run the risk of feeling derivative, the equivalent of a cursor repeating “she said” into eternity? Will readers of these works suffer dystopia burnout and turn to quiet domestic dramas instead? Do these novels have the potential to strengthen or reinforce the #MeToo movement without feeling didactic? And if so, how? It’s true that dystopian/apocalyptic conceits have the potential to feel very derivative: a book published next year about women possessed with electrostatic power would feel like a wanna-be version of Naomi Alderman’s The Power; a novel about changing skin tone to reflect criminal behavior would be a too-close-for-comfort copy of When She Woke; even Erdrich’s concoction of evolution accelerating in reverse, if repeated, would feel redundant. But “grim obstetrical control” is not a speculative premise, it’s a setting that reiterates a current and historical social predicament. While The Handmaid’s Tale often feels other-worldly, Margaret Atwood has explained on numerous occasions that none of the travails of the women in her dystopic novel were fabricated; all of the misogynistic events occurred at some point in history. Nevertheless, mandatory red cloaks or ritualized procreation on behalf of infertile women still seems, especially for more privileged readers, to be events at the bottom of a very slippery slope and not situations we might find ourselves in next Thursday. Enter: Red Clocks. It isn’t speculative or post-apocalyptic, and although some reviewers have labeled it dystopian, Zumas herself refers to it as “paratopian.” Regardless, it reaffirms the idea of “grim obstetrical control” as setting rather than speculative premise by placing the characters in a world only three laws away from our own: abortion has been repealed, in vitro fertilization is illegal, and, imminently, adoptions will require two parents. To make matters worse, there’s a “Pink Wall” separating Canada from the United States, and Canadian officials who suspect minors of crossing the border to abort their pregnancies can return them to their homes to face criminal charges. This “grim obstetrical future” is not months or years away. It is not a cumulative snowball effect of the religious right slowly taking hold of our ovaries; Red Clocks is terrifying because the setting could be tomorrow. We don’t need more novels about “grim obstetrical control” in order to expose the possible reality of the sexual subjugation of women; we need these novels because, like the #MeToo movement, they expose a setting that has felt invisible and unacknowledged for centuries. If “grim obstetrical control” is the setting rather than the speculative premise, then asking whether we need another The Handmaid’s Tale is a little bit like asking whether we need another novel about WWII. Many of us might not choose to read another novel about WWII but we’d never suggest that Nazis were a speculative trope that’s been used up. This distinction, between setting and speculative premise, matters. Readers look to the speculative premise, often a conceit, as the meaning-making centrifuge of dystopian books. Setting, on the other hand, is more likely to be an arbiter of the novel’s mood or context for a character’s identity (though we can all certainly think of exceptions). So to see “grim obstetrical control” as speculative premise, and thus the meaning-making force of these books, is to risk missing the more profound offerings of each. [millions_ad] In Erdrich’s book, for instance, while Cedar Hawn Songmaker’s pregnancy is central to the narrative and the “grim obstetrical control” setting puts her and her growing fetus in danger, it’s her complicated relationship to religion that makes Cedar’s journey compelling. She is a recent Catholic convert (much to the chagrin of her hippie adoptive parents) and edits a Catholic magazine called Zeal. When the novel commences Cedar is at work on an issue on the Incarnation; meanwhile, her baby is due (and, spoiler alert, is born) on December 25. She and her lover conceive the baby while trying on nativity costumes in a church basement (he wears the angel wings) and Cedar takes comfort in religion at various times—mouthing Hail Marys and the words of Hildegard of Bingen. On the other hand, the religious right has renamed all of the street signs after Bible verses and leads the “grim obstetrical control” charge, rounding up pregnant women and imprisoning them (and often disposing of them after the birth). Cedar’s Ojibwe birth mother, who she meets near the beginning of the novel, is responsible for tending a statue of Kateri Tekakwitha, patron saint of Native people. The figure of Kateri has been appearing on the reservation, not to pious believers but to feckless gamblers whom she chastises rather severely. Religion provides both comfort and harm, fodder for philosophical musings and justification for violent subjugation; the nativity looms as a larger parallel story but the analogous actors Erdrich provides are flawed, unwilling, and deeply human. “Maybe God has some plan for me,” muses Cedar near the end of the novel. But then: “I crawl back onto my cot, and at the very notion of God Has a Plan, I start laughing so hard I have to stuff the edge of a blanket in my mouth.” To miss this dexterous, complicated, unflinching portrait of religion is, I think, to miss one of the central dynamics of Cedar’s character and one of the great strengths of the novel. Similarly, although the new misogynistic laws of Red Clocks certainly provide some of the tension in the book, to relegate the novel to a parable about the overturning of Roe v. Wade is to do the book a huge injustice. The five women in the novel struggle with myriad philosophical, ethical, and emotional issues: one character is caught between biological instinct and political conviction; another wrestles with notions of love and vocation; one woman faces feelings of guilt while another confronts grief. All of them wonder, in some way, what makes a life significant, specifically a woman’s life. And they grapple with how romantic relationships—or the true desire for solitude—relegate us to certain roles within our society. The political setting is not the purpose of the book but it does heighten the tension and increase the urgency of the characters’ choices. The decision to stay happily single, for instance, takes on different weight when this means you’ll be barred from adopting a child. Revealing a teenage friend’s pregnancy becomes more significant when the result may be years of incarceration. Though these dire settings raise the emotional stakes and intensify the choices of the characters in both Future Home and Red Clocks, they are not, ultimately, what the books are about. In her review of Red Clocks, Rooney further clarifies her concern about the onslaught of feminist dystopic fiction: “readers,” she cautions, “might find it redundant to be immersed in fiction that so closely resembles nightmares that already feel too present.” Donald Trump fatigue is certainly an important issue, and the inundation of stories from the #MeToo movement can feel disheartening because they point to a real setting, but one that is slippery and sometimes invisible. They point to acts that happen in dark rooms or closed offices or to comments so subtle and insidious that others can pretend to mishear. Novels that feature “grim obstetrical control” as setting make the invisible visible. They offer the relief of seeing plainly on the page what many women have felt for centuries, a vision that might be simply one step down a slippery slope or the horrible wreckage at the bottom. But they do not suggest that ultimate meaning is to be found in the setting, in the subjugation and disenfranchisement; rather, it’s to be found in characters who act bravely, wisely, foolishly, repugnantly, resiliently against the backdrop of this reality.
The Digital Reader rounded up a list based on Amazon's end of year book sales. Some interesting factoids: Dan Brown's Origin: A Novel was the most read and gifted book this holiday season, and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale was the year's most borrowed book from Prime Reading. Pair with: our cheat sheet for Kindle (and other e-reader) owners.
Along the way, as I was helicoptered off Algonquin Mountain, wheeled into the Lake Placid ER, then driven by ambulance to Saranac Lake ER and wheeled into midnight surgery, the forest rangers, the nurses, the EMTs and doctors would ask what I did for a living. When I explained I was a writer, the response was often how at least I’ll be able to write about all this when it’s over. I certainly played the part of WRITER, reminding my husband again and again, when I was sprawled out on the trail and waiting to be rescued, to make sure my little green notebook and my pen went with me when I was helicoptered out. I kept this notebook beside me at all times, except for the surgery that would insert a metal rod and screws into my leg and ankle. I planned on recording my observations, the odd angles and discolorations of my leg, the various textures of pain, the bright personalities of the nurses, the sounds from the other hospital rooms, the kindnesses. But here’s a confession: I barely used that notebook. I have three measly pages to cover my first week of injury. My writer self, a previously eager observer of my life’s lows, appeared to be asleep or absent, cowering off in some corner of my mind. I’m still trying to understand why. Despite my lackluster notetaking, I can remember certain moments if I try. My nails digging into my husband’s arm and leaving marks. A stranger covering me with his rain jacket. How I couldn’t stop shaking. The helicopter circling over us, needing to burn off fuel, while the trees around us trembled and blew as if in a storm. I remember asking my husband to shoot me. I remember rising above the trees while strapped into a harness, and suddenly there was so much light from the setting sun. I intended to wave goodbye to my children but I was spinning the wrong way. But there are other moments that I can’t access. In particular, the time between when I was walking down a trail beside some rocks, not even a steep part, and I noticed a man to my lower left, and I was thinking, I do not feel like saying hello to this man, as I was tired of greeting people—then, somehow, I was on my back, and this kind man, the one I didn’t want to greet, was crouched next to me, explaining I’ve been hurt. That I was really hurt. I glanced at my leg, bent in angles that should have been impossible. Then I closed my eyes. Between those two moments, there is nothing. I want to know what my body was doing during that nothing time. More accurately, I want to be able to describe what my body was doing and what I was thinking and feeling. I wish someone was taking a video so I could see myself fall. It’s strange, as a writer, disorienting, to have moments, no matter how brief, unavailable to me. Did I slip? Stumble? Push myself off the rocks? Twist? Flail? Leap? Scream? Cry out? (Apparently the brain stops recording memories during traumatic events, focusing its resources instead on survival, due to increased adrenaline and noradrenaline production, says Scientific American.) I’m glad, of course, my brain stayed focused and I survived. But I still wish my writing self could have been an observer, just as I wish that same self could have been more present during the times of intense pain. When, for instance, the forest ranger was preparing to splint my leg without pain meds while my tibia was almost pushing through my skin. I needed to be splinted before I could be lifted up to the helicopter. “Ready?” the ranger asked. A quiet voice in my head was telling me to pay careful attention, but the voice was so muted, and then I began screaming, as the pain went beyond what was bearable. I went elsewhere, to a place I may never be able to describe, and there is some disappointment about visiting a place, however bleak, where there aren’t words. I am trying to write about my experience three months after the accident. One problem I keep encountering is the fact this was an accident, an awful twist of fate. I write awful but another problem is it wasn’t that bad, not when put into the context of greater suffering in the world. Yes, I felt intense pain while waiting for the helicopter. Yes, the waiting felt infinite but actually it was 2 hours. Yes, the splinting was intolerable, but that lasted no more than a minute. After that, I was rescued, saved, medicated, taken care of. My hospital room had a lakeside view with a loon! I know people have felt much worse, and been more frightened, for much longer. I know some people are never rescued. How can one’s pain be made more interesting? More complex? More relevant? Must pain be complex or interesting or relevant to warrant writing about? How does one write about a violence that has no perpetrator, no blame? Were I assaulted on the mountaintop, had someone thrown me down those rocks, there would be a villain, and presumably a motive, and therefore there would have been a clearer story to tell. But what happened was the trail was slippery, and I slipped. I can’t even blame my boots. I checked them later on. The treads were fine. Everybody was falling that day, my husband has reminded me. He fell moments before I did. A woman fell moments before him, slicing open her arm. At times, it seems I could sum up my accident in a sentence or two. Yet I can’t shake this need to continue writing about it. [millions_ad] The accident happened at the start of an annual family vacation. I was in no shape to drive home, so my initial two weeks of recovery were spent in the Adirondacks, on various beds and scenic benches. I expected I would get much reading and writing done. A mini-writing retreat, I thought! How nice. I made my husband download the stories I was working on to a laptop using the hospital Wi-Fi. I stocked my Kindle with non-fiction I had meant to read months ago. I had my pile of articles about global warming, police surveillance, that sort of thing. But even with time stretching in the way it does in hospitals—eternity was available, nothing was expected of me—any writerly impulse quickly evaporated. Reading non-fiction put me to sleep. Not a deep sleep, but a sleep lasting for only a few minutes. I’d wake up and doggedly read a few more paragraphs before nodding off. My folder of articles lay untouched on my bed. My notebook lay beside me. The laptop remained unopened. I stared at the wall more than I thought possible, the pain meds keeping boredom away. When a volunteer wheeled in what she called her “comfort cart,” I eagerly grabbed for the easy escape of People magazine. Perhaps it’s silly, after an injury, to become frustrated with one’s self for a lack of artistic interest in one’s situation. Perhaps the situation was simply not that interesting. Perhaps it’s okay I found more engagement with the amount of calories a celebrity consumes in a day. But I think there was something more going on, a collection of evidence, or a sinking feeling. The first book I was able to latch onto in the hospital was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s a novel I come back to every year or two. I read it before I had my first child and thought, well this is rather showy and dramatic, isn’t it. After the birth of my first child, I read it again and wept. I don’t cry anymore at the ending, but I do find solace in its portrayal of an effective parental love and a useful suffering. The dad does manage to save his child in the end, after all. In the hospital setting, I found this novel’s bleakness to be reassuring, its descriptions of the decimated, impersonal, and brutal wilderness to be more accurate than the romantic description of trees I’ve encountered elsewhere. I would read the book, fall asleep several pages in, then wake and read more, and fall asleep, and cry because my leg hurt so much, take the pain meds, and read more. Read in this fragmented way, certain scenes stretched on practically forever. I think the father swimming out to the ship went on for most of one night. I must have reread certain parts, and I was reading so slowly. But I feel like this particular reading of the book was my truest reading, the most accurate. Perhaps suffering, no matter how pointless such suffering is, is the best state of mind when reading a book about suffering. I found solace in the idea that suffering can have a purpose, a goal. Even my suffering, I wondered? A purpose larger than the personal, I wondered? I carried my notebook with me everywhere while I used crutches. I carried it to a second visit to the Saranac Lake ER because my leg had turned a deep rich blue and swelled to an obscene size. “I’m turning into a blueberry. Like Violet Beauregarde!” I told my daughter, who patted me with alarm. I rarely wrote in the notebook. I just carried it, occasionally jotting down commandments from my doctors. Elevate. Ice. Rest. I took the notebook to the final appointment with my surgeon, whom I had fallen in love with. I say this in the most sincere, non-creepy way possible: here was a man who had put my leg back together. A man who had smiled at me with such kindness before the surgery, when I was very frightened, and afterwards, who moved my bandaged leg with great pride. It was like we had created something together. “Look at that!” he said with a little awe, moving my leg up and down. I don’t know how people cannot fall in love with their surgeons. I suppose there is a story waiting somewhere in that proclamation. My writer self eventually did wake up. Proudly, now, it waves around its updated list of things it can write about more accurately and personally: a mountain injury! A helicopter rescue! An ambulance ride! Being wheeled into a frigid operating room and hearing Pink Floyd! Going under for surgery! Metal implants in one’s leg! Becoming hysterical from pain while one’s children watched. The queasy loneliness of a hospital room at night. I could turn it all into a story, adding some kind of tension, or forcing something more to happen. Give the injured wife and her husband a history, perhaps a violent history. Or maybe the child could be the one injured, and the mother would have to watch her child in pain rather than watching her own pain. But part of me has become bored with reshaping the details of my life into a narrative with an exciting enough plot that also satisfies a need for completion and revelation by the story’s end. Part of me wants this experience to be enough as it was. I will get back almost everything that I lost. I’ll be able to walk without a limp. At some point, I should be able to run. My family will go back to the mountains and have a proper vacation. And there have been little gifts along the way. Reading returned to me in a fury once I went off opioids at the end of week two. When was the last time I had so much space to read since I was a child? The Executioner’s Song, Borne, Fever Dream, The Book of Joan, Lincoln in the Bardo, The Handmaid’s Tale, Against Depression. I had love affairs with each of these books. I read gratefully, whole-heartedly, without distraction, as I had nothing else I could do. I read through my insomnia, and I read while my leg was elevated and iced, and I read while doing my physical therapy exercises every three hours, and I read to my children while I rested, and I listened to the books as I hobbled around the block. What I won’t get back are those moments I can’t remember, the falling, the pain. Those are the parts, if I do tell this story someday in its completion, I will have to make up. Here are some of the ways my accident changed me. I will hike less joyfully next summer. I will hesitate on rocky trails. I will bring an emergency beacon and consider trip insurance with helicopter evacuation coverage. I may stop below the ridges of mountains rather than climb. I have lost my certainty that hiking up mountains has a point. What is the point? Gazing at them from a distance might be enough. I hope environmental descriptions in my writing will gain some kind of brutality, that I will say no to romanticism when it suggests itself, especially when the sun is setting on a scene. Because the mountain stood there while I screamed. Of course it did. And then my family, my husband and children, had to climb down it in the dark. Did I ever think nature had a heart? Yes, I suppose I did. Maybe this is the real loss or revelation. We talk so much about trying to save the natural world as if it is a living breathing person. It’s not. It’s still worth saving, but not because of its kindness. Photo courtesy of the author.
"The novel is told from the perspective of an unnamed African-American narrator who considers himself to be socially invisible due to the color of his skin," writes Variety. Following in the footsteps of its adaptation of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Hulu is in the beginning stages of adapting Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man. Read our own editor Lydia Kiesling on Ellison's Invisible Man.
I’ve been trying to think how I’d describe The Best Kind of People. The novel has been compared to Judith Guest's Ordinary People for the depiction of an affluent family trying to cope with trauma. I’d add in The Ice Storm by Rick Moody for the close critique of WASP culture in Connecticut. But Zoe Whittall’s novel is also completely contemporary, taking some of Meg Wolitzer’s ability in The Interestings to show the feelings and motivations of a large cast of characters, with Claire Messud’s willingness, in The Woman Upstairs, to tackle discomfort, or Margaret Atwoods's ability, in A Handmaid's Tale, to show how a wider culture influences individual behavior. Reading The Best Kind of People felt like a kind of compulsion—I stayed up way past my bedtime because I had to finish. It tells the story of the Woodbury family. When the father, George, teacher at the prep school and local hero, is accused of sexual impropriety, his wife, daughter, and son face isolation from their community as they struggle to reconcile the accusations with the man they know. “I miss who I thought he was,” says the mother, Joan. The characters are flawed and human as they struggle, some of them achingly so, but Whittall is also generous towards them. There is a warmth and kindness to the story that, at times, make it feels like a gossipy, insider dish about a prominent family—the one who lives in the big house, who seem to have lots of money, but everyone in town is always trying to guess exactly how much. At the same time, the novel takes a big topic: It shows the link between rape culture, patriarchy, and privilege. The balance between these two sides of the book is perfectly judged. I talked to Whittall by email and in person about timely novels, rape culture, selling film rights to Sarah Polley, and what a novel should be. The Millions: The Best Kind of People was first published in Canada in 2016, before the Bill Cosby trial, but just as several high profile sexual misconduct cases were in the media. What prompted you to start writing this book? Zoe Whittall: The book began with the character of the mother, Joan, who came to me after listening to a radio program about a high-profile murder and sexual assault case, where the wife of the killer didn’t know anything about the crimes. After finding out her husband was a monster, she faced so much stigma, because everyone assumed she had to have known. I’m always drawn in by news stories of extreme marital deception or the lives of con men and women. I think that fascination began after I had a year-long relationship with someone who told me they were in remission from cancer, but it became clear to me near the end of our relationship that she was lying—about the illness and a whole lot of other things. It was nothing like Joan and George’s marriage, but the feeling of being blindsided, and loving someone who could be that manipulative, of not knowing what the real truth is while someone you love is looking you in the eye and trying to get you to believe them, that was my way in to figuring out who Joan might be and how she might feel, even though her life is so different from mine. In terms of the timeliness of the book, I had no idea that it would be published at the same time a massive cultural conversation about rape was happening in the media. Women have always talked and written about sexual assault but what’s new is that people are listening right now. The first piece of literary work I had published was a poem about rape culture—though it wasn’t called that in 1995. I was 15 when the Montreal massacre happened in my city, and I was a young feminist who came of age during the era of 1990s No Means No campaigns. Back then to talk about rape was to have conversations on the margins—campus radio, riot grrl zines, with likeminded activists—but the idea of discussing it in the mainstream media, or creating art that could reach beyond the festival circuit or the small press world seemed highly unlikely. My other novels are about queer and trans people, and they have done really well but never beyond the indie literary market. I’m very surprised at how well The Best Kind of People has done commercially in Canada and very happy that it’s contributed to this wider conversation. I’m hopeful it might also be of interest to readers in the U.S. TM: It takes a long time to write a novel. Were you worried while you were writing that you might miss the moment? ZW: I wasn’t worried it would miss the moment, I was just hoping it would have its own moment. It took me so much longer to write this novel than my first two—I thought it was done in 2011, 2012, 2013—each spring I gave it to my agent, and she handed it back with excellent notes and calmly explained it wasn’t quite there yet. By 2014 I wanted to bury it in the yard, I was convinced it was absolute garbage and no one would want to publish it. By the time it was done, I was just grateful that my publisher was interested in putting it out at all. I wasn’t really aware of the moment—that people might want to discuss this book in a way that felt timely and coincided with major news stories—until it was done, and my editor said oh, this is exciting and is going to potentially have a lot of interested readers given what’s going on right now. We were editing it during a big celebrity assault trial in Toronto. So I kind of realized it after it was already finished, but I had so many pre-publication anxieties that I tried not to think about it. TM: And then Cosby was acquitted and here we are. Still. It doesn't feel like much has changed? But the one upside—and I say this with some regret—is that your novel, it is published in the U.S. today, feels every bit as relevant as it did when it came out in Canada. I got so much from it because it shows how rape culture works. Not just as a theory, but in a life. Is this what you set out to do? ZW: I didn’t set out to write a novel about rape culture. In terms of novels about sexual assault, there are crime novels, survivor memoirs, books about false accusations—and I wasn’t interested in writing those. I wanted to look at what it feels to be impacted by the issue from the point of view of the family of the accused and the stigma they face. That was something I hadn’t read before. I did want to explore, through overlapping narratives, how complicated issues of power, youth, and sexuality can be. Andrew’s storyline, the brother, was my way of looking at age and consent through a gay male lens, which cannot be properly understood using heterosexual norms. I wanted Sadie’s crushes, relationships, and sexual experiences to be varied and chaotic in a way that felt true to my memories of what it feels like to be a teen girl. Because of the form, it all had to happen at the level of life. It doesn’t feel like much has changed, no. There’s a lot of hysteria in the media about false accusations as though they are suddenly a common occurrence, when really what is common is what happened with Cosby, or with Brock Turner, or a million other powerful men. They are not held accountable, even when the proof is undeniable—they are on film and there was a witness, or 60 people are accusing someone of the same crime— it doesn’t really matter. So the conversation has changed, in that we’re even having a conversation, but it doesn’t feel like there has been a real shift in how rapists are held truly accountable. What’s different is that young women are able to refuse to take some of bullshit that women of my generation had to live with. It’s exciting to see how willing young women are to speak up about sexual assault and sexism in general. That’s a change. TM: The novel begins with an epigraph: [Rape Culture’s] most devilish trick is to make the average, non-criminal person identify with the person accused, instead of the person reporting the crime… —Kate Harding, Asking for It Did you include this quote at the beginning or end of your writing process? ZW: I included it at the end because I was aware that once your book becomes an object that no longer belongs to you, it is read in ways you cannot anticipate. I had fears about feminists reading the book and being angry or annoyed that it wasn’t what they’d hoped it would be. I had fears that people would read it and get a message that wasn’t intended. (This has happened—a woman approached me to say my novel was “so realistic” because “teenage girls do lie!” and I was so shocked. That is not the book I wrote or the way I hoped it would be read.) Before I sold the film rights to Sarah Polley, I met with quite a few older male film producers who wanted to make a did-he-or-didn’t-he type of film, and it became clear they could only relate to the accused, not the accuser. A young man sent me a long (so long!) email teaching me about feminism, because even though the MRA plotline was clearly meant to be fairly satirical, he interpreted me as someone who was sympathetic to MRAs. But as a novelist, I cannot present characters one-dimensionally, so thus, in the Men's Rights Activist plotline for example, there is a character named Dorothy. Even if we see her through the daughter Sadie’s discerning eyes, Dorothy still has to be a full-blooded person. You can’t create art any other way. It was complicated to do this since the plot involves many characters who don’t believe the young women accusing George, and I didn’t want it to be read, right off the bat, as a book that is about questioning the veracity of teen girls. That book—and article—has been written a million times and I had no desire to write it again. (Though I will say that an excellent book on false accusations is The Blue Angel by Francine Prose, which I think is a masterful novel.) So the Kate Harding quote—who also generously contributed a blurb for the book—was my way of stating at the start that the automatic assumption of who is telling the truth when a man is accused, is part of the problem, and a question I kept in mind as I wrote it. And this is, if you can think about it after the fact, part of why I felt the novel needed to be written. TM: The idea of rape culture can be confusing to some in that can be hard to see. This book lays it all out. I had a frustrating conversation the other day and I found myself tempted to hand over a copy of your book and walk away. But some of my least favorite, heavy-handed novels read like an author sets out to explain an issue. Your book avoids this. How did you write with a light touch, while delving deep? ZW: It was sometimes difficult to pull back on my own beliefs about sexual assault and let my characters have their own thoughts and feelings as the events unfold. You’re right, no one wants to read a polemical novel or a story where the authorial voice intervenes clumsily in order to educate the reader. I learned so much about the world by reading fiction as a young adult, in a roundabout way. The same way I hate exercising but I love dancing or riding my bike. It’s always so much more interesting to learn through story. I approach plot through character and I was interested in the emotional arcs of the family, Joan, Sadie and Andrew, after the arrest of their father/husband, and how it might feel to be the bystander who is implicated by virtue of who they are to the accused. I wanted to write about how it feels to love someone accused of sexual assault and not know what to do, not know how to process it and understand it. I think a lot of the problems we have in situations like this come from having been lead to believe that rapists are strangers, monsters, and not real people in our communities. That they can’t be rapists and also good friends, fathers, teachers, mentors, at the same time. People often say, “Well, he was a great professor to me, so it’s impossible,” even though we have had the hard data on who commits sexual crimes for decades, and it’s mostly people who are known to the victim. We know the majority of women and men who are assaulted never report. We know that those who report rarely ever get justice through the court system, or even get that far in the process, if they report to the police. We know who the police tend to believe. And when white men with power are accused it is customary to believe they are being honest when they say they’re innocent. We owe a lot to the violence against women movement who have done the labor on these issues with no support for decades. We know what we know because of them. It was hard to keep that light touch, as you describe it. In some ways I was attempting to write a social novel, but a non-polemical one. It was my first attempt at literary realism with a close third person narration and I had all sorts of clumsy failures while trying to set the scene and go deep into it that way. Sometimes I look at the book and it looks like a clump of dirt or a bunch of string. I can’t believe it’s an object in the world provoking discussion. TM: The book is a perfect balancing act between an issue and, dare I use the word, entertainment? It feels odd given what the book is about, but that’s what I think when, in her blurb, Kate Harding compares this novel to Ordinary People. This book captures a moment. Issue driven versus entertainment—what do you think a novel should be? ZW: What a novel should be? Some of my favourite novels are long poems or plotless diversions, so I don’t really have an answer for what a novel should be. As a writer who has tried to do different things with each one of my novels, I think I’m still figuring it out. I never feel that they are finished and long to rewrite them forever. The Best Kind of People was my experiment with realism, with a social novel and a family novel, all mixed up. In terms of the art versus entertainment set-up, I’m a literary reader and poet who enjoys challenging books, but I’m also a television writer who loves and appreciates pop culture. I don’t think those two interests need to be in opposition anymore, and I think that is due to a shift in how we consume culture, and the elevated artistry of auteur-lead television, which sounds trite to mention, but it’s really been a gift to storytellers. I think it has shifted how I write. If I had all the money and time in the world, I’d be working on non-linear novels written in poetic fragments, that’s where my heart is. But learning how to write for television has ignited a new love of action and clarity, and that bled into the writing of this novel. So, I suppose I’m a recovering snob. Learning to write sketch comedy (on IFC’s The Baroness Von Sketch Show) has really taught me about tone and sitting in those excruciating awkward moments. I deeply related to the moment in The End of Tour where David Foster Wallace can’t stop watching TV. I don’t drink or do drugs much anymore and my sedative of choice is Netflix, and I’ve developed a real interest in telling stories on screen and the craft of scriptwriting. This has affected my prose, but in a way that has been a gift, in terms of brevity, clarity, pacing. TM: The story centers on a white wealthy family in Connecticut. In many ways, they individuals are harmed by the system of power that they also uphold. We get to see how rape culture works on them, all while they continually struggle to see it themselves. But the story doesn’t undermine the characters. It would have been easy to lay blame, or present a binary balance of power. As I said before, as an author you are generous to the characters. You slowly show the complexity of their situations. Can you tell me more about how you found and held this balance? ZW: It’s funny—I just read a bad review of the book on Goodreads that complains the book contains “mixed messages,” which I kind of like, because who wants a book with a “message?” That’s not a novel, that’s a political pamphlet. I tried to come at each character’s story with compassion and curiosity. Sexuality is not simple, especially not in a repressed world like the one the Woodbury’s live in, especially not for teenagers. Given the complexities of human desire and behavior and problems with communication and honesty, a book with a message is just not what I was going for. It wasn’t a balance that came easy. With third person, you can’t really step in with your authorial voice and lay blame in a pedantic kind of way, it doesn’t work. You can only show what the characters do and say, and through that action, you can understand what their struggle is. TM: Without spoiling the plot, I will say that the end of this novel is an incredible kick in the gut. It drives home everything that came before. Can you tell me something about your thinking around it the end? ZW: I agonized over the ending, and continued to even after I wrote the final sentence, which took a long time to write. It was based on discussions I had with a woman whose father is in jail for molestation, and how her mother feels about him now, what she wishes for her life and their relationship. (My friend the filmmaker Chase Joynt made a documentary called Between You and Me for the CBC about her story.) The circumstances are different, but what Joan does at the end made sense to me. I wanted the conclusion to be realistic, not aspirational, in terms of where the country is at with regards to sexual assault. And a lot of people feel mad about that, but I wanted it to be an accurate portrait of the time we’re living in, and who the characters really are.
1. [Warning: Spoilers ahead.] The final episode of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale—like the rest of the show—is far more suspenseful than the original 1985 novel written by Margaret Atwood. Hulu’s Offred engages in several radically defiant acts; you worry more for her safety than you did in the book. But while these additions to plot probably make for better viewing, they obscure the central brilliance of the novel, which took its power from the mundane horrors of the handmaid Offred’s everyday life. In the show, a subversive handmaid tells Offred to pick up a special package for safekeeping. After she obtains the parcel, Offred marches home proudly. “They should’ve never given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army,” she says of the state-mandated red garb she must wear. Offred, like her fellow handmaids, is forced to undergo a ritualized rape so that she can bear children for the well-to-do men of a totalitarian state. To endure this servitude, Hulu’s Offred finds solace in small acts of resistance. But the original Offred, Atwood’s intended Offred, is far less politically active. In the novel, Offred recalls her feminist mother, whose activist leanings she always had trouble relating to. Even the regime of Gilead does not radicalize her; indeed, she is outwardly compliant—she attempts to get pregnant from a tryst with her assigned commander’s driver, at the suggestion of her mistress, his wife, Serena Joy. The show, however, features Girl Power Moments set to danceable tunes. One of these intrusive songs is the otherwise wonderful Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good.” It plays when, having stood up to the insidious Aunt Lydia, Offred and her fellow handmaids march down a wintry street, Offred leading the red cloaked women. Hulu’s Offred takes strong political stances against the regime under which she suffers. This, of course, is not worthy of recrimination—there is much to admire about her character. But her political bent makes her more unique, more of a leader than an Everywoman. While transforming Offred into a stereotypically empowered representation of a woman may make the show more appealing to some viewers, I found it disheartening. To me, the book drew its magic from Offred’s stance as a witness. Not everyone is able to act in open defiance when the stakes are truly life and death, nor should people in unjust situations be blamed for their inability to escape them. The book offered another option for the oppressed; Atwood’s Offred finds, to steal a phrase from the French philosopher Hélène Cixous, “a way out” through the simple act of telling her own story. 2. Offred’s narration, though fiction, falls within a long tradition, as first-person narratives of life in bondage date back to colonial times. In the late 17th century, Mary Rowlandson wrote one of the first so-called captivity narratives about her experience as a hostage of Native Americans. The book, which was immensely popular at the time, has a didactic, moralizing quality. Rowlandson tells her story and at the end determines that her time in captivity was God’s punishment for the selfishness she indulged in prior to being kidnapped. While the bondage narratives of the 17th and 18th centuries were predominantly written by and about white Americans, the bondage narratives of the 19th century were mostly written by and about black people who had been enslaved. The former category, that of captivity narratives, was largely about enforcing racist stereotypes that helped justify colonists’ mistreatment of Native Americans. The latter category, on the other hand, generally worked to tell individual stories, with the aim of aiding the abolitionist cause. The audience for both was almost always educated white readers. Oddly, given the problematic racial politics of the The Handmaid’s Tale, both book and show, the narration of Atwood’s Offred has much in common with 19th-century slave narratives. As with famous examples like Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, the textual version of The Handmaid’s Tale makes its potent political statement through the act of recounting what daily life was like, rather than through more explicit political commentary. “I have no comments to make upon the subject of Slavery,” wrote Northup at the end of his story. “Those who read this book may form their own opinions of the ‘peculiar institution.’ This is no fiction, no exaggeration.” The process of mapping a fictional sex-based oppression narrative onto the historical trope of race-based slavery yielded imperfect results in both the novel and show. The book’s aracial approach—minorities have been rounded up and sent to the so-called “colonies,” is particularly troubling, especially when the novel uses a historically black narrative format. The Hulu show, on the other hand, as Angelica Jade Bastién writes, features a somewhat glib “post-racial” approach. Minorities haven’t been sent to the colonies and are featured as prominent characters (Offred’s husband, daughter, and best friend), but the show fails to realistically address how race would function in an American religious authoritarian regime like that of Gilead. 3. That Atwood’s novel is a futuristic bondage narrative becomes overwhelmingly evident in the final pages of the book, which come in the form of an appended “Historical Note.” Offred’s narration ends mysteriously with her being taken away from Commander Waterford's house in a van. The epilogue is set at a University of Nunavit conference set in 2195, many years after the collapse of Gilead. A professor named Piexoto gives a talk on “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which has been discovered in the form of 30 tape cassettes in a footlocker. In this metafictional moment that departs from the confessional realist style that dominates the novel, Piexoto discusses scholars’ intense examination of the tapes in order to verify their accuracy and determine the speaker’s identity—a pursuit which ends in frustration. He reveals that he believes they were made after the fact while the narrator hid in a house along the Underground Femaleroad as she attempted to escape Gilead. His speech’s opening reveals a good deal about the society that has replaced Gilead: This item—I hesitate to use the word document—was unearthed on the site of what was once the city of Bangor, in what at the time prior to the inception of the Gileadean regime, would have been the state of Maine. We know that this city was a prominent way station on …the ‘Underground Femaleroad,’ since dubbed by some of our historical wags ‘The Underground Frailroad.’ (Laughter, groans.) For this reason, our association has taken a particular interest in it. Piexoto questions the legitimacy of Offred’s narrative, reluctant to call it a document but rather demoting it to the rank of “item.” Furthermore, Piexoto’s insensitive crack about the “The Underground Frailroad” is only made worse by the fact that he has just read a narrative detailing the horrors of gender oppression and has gained little from it. It is this bleak ending that suggests the limits of storytelling and the bondage narrative: unlike with activism, or even a more active text like the Hulu show, the apolitical bondage narrative does not imbue every reader with a more progressive set of politics; the interpretation of any personal narrative is subject to the whims of readers the narrative’s creator never chose. In the final episode of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Offred opens the secret package she was told to keep safe and finds writings by women who have also been enslaved as handmaids. She is overjoyed by reading the accounts of other women in similar situations. She falls asleep reading these accounts, and the next day she, as previously mentioned, refuses Aunt Lydia’s mandate that she and her fellow handmaids stone another handmaid to death. It’s a somewhat clunky plot mechanism for generating Offred’s inspiration, but it seems to be the closest the final episode of the Hulu adaptation comes to making a nod to the narrative origins of the story. 4. Though the novel’s “Historical Note” undoes the explicit political force of Offred’s narration, the book—somehow, incredibly—affirms a farther-reaching and perhaps even more important message. Because if you can’t change the world you live in, you can find your way out of it. Hélène Cixous wrote that women writing their own stories was a way to escape patriarchal society. In a 1975 essay called “Sorties / Out and Out / Attacks, Ways Out and Forays,” Cixous writes that self-expression could help women combat their oppression. “It is writing in writing, from woman and toward woman, and in accepting the challenge of the discourse controlled by the phallus, that woman will affirm woman somewhere other than in silence.” Breaking one’s silence, if oppressed as Offred is, is a vital means for survival. In both the show and the novel, handmaids like Offred are forced to be obedient. “Blessed are the meek,” Aunt Lydia tells them. Eyes down and hands folded, she tells the woman—whom she calls “girls”—when they first, after being captured, enter the handmaid training center. Then later, when they are out in public, they avert their eyes and wear absurdly modest bonnets that cover most of their faces. Its visuals like this that remind me of a line from Cixous’s essay: “Is this me, this no-body that is dressed up, wrapped in veils, carefully kept distant, pushed to the side of History and change, nullified, kept out of the way, on the edge of the stage, on the kitchenside, the bedside?” At the end of the novel, though her story is co-opted by an insensitive historian, the answer to Cixous’s question for Atwood’s Offred, having spoken her truth, is most certainly, no. As for how the Hulu adaptation would answer that same question, I think the answer is more complicated, as Hulu’s Offred has shown herself to be a more actively resistant heroine. Perhaps she won’t be recorded in history in the same way Atwood’s, but in the end, both representations show women who are doing what they need to survive—and that’s what matters most.
1. Funny Walls When I was at school, we had a teacher called Mr Wall. When he wasn’t listening, we’d tell this joke: (Kid mimes holding a phone.) ‘Is Mr Wall there, please?’ ‘No.’ ‘Is Mrs Wall there, please?’ ‘No.’ ‘Are there any walls there?’ ‘No.’ ‘You’d better get out because the ceiling’s about to fall down.’ This is the only joke in existence about a wall. Because walls aren’t funny. In literature, there’s also one single funny wall and it’s in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Mechanicals, a set of poor players, put on a production of Pyramus and Thisbe. Tom Snout plays the wall that keeps the lovers apart. In this same interlude it doth befall That I, one Snout by name, present a wall. The comic possibilities of someone pretending to be a wall were lost neither on William Shakespeare nor the many thousands of English teachers obliged to stage a version of the play. And such a wall, as I would have you think, That had in it a crannied hole, or chink, Through which the lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe, Did whisper often very secretly. As a schoolboy, I saw a production about which I remember nothing other than the Wall, as played by Snout, farting in the face of Pyramus, as played by Bottom (also funny). It was a light-bulb moment: maybe Shakespeare could be something other than a dead man teachers use to bore kids. 2. Scary Walls Gothic writing, according to Angela Carter, "retains a singular moral function--that of provoking unease." As the genre moved from the haunted ruins of Italian castles to more domestic settings, writers like Edgar Allan Poe employed bricks and mortar to do just this. A number of his stories rely on walls. Consider "The Cask of Amontillado," for instance. Montresor, a nasty sort, takes revenge on Fortunato for an unreported slight. The unfortunate Fortunato falls for the trick of being invited to a private wine-tasting ceremony (wouldn’t we all?), only to be first chained up and then walled away in the catacombs underneath Montresor’s palazzo. In "The Black Cat," the protagonist’s wife, accidentally axed in the head, is walled up behind a house’s interior wall. In "The Tell Tale Heart," it is beneath a floorboard, rather than behind a wall, that a corpse is hidden. H.P. Lovecraft, the spiritual descendant of Poe, came up with "The Rats in the Walls," a short story featuring rats in the walls of an ancestral home. The scurrying sound, enough to drive anyone to distraction, leads the protagonist to discover the entrance to a subterranean city in which his family have raised generations of human cattle. To eat. Unlike the character in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s "The Yellow Wallpaper," the narrator is driven mad by what lies behind the walls, rather than what covers them. In these examples, walls screen past indiscretions. What you can’t see can’t hurt you. They obscure dark history, but only for so long, as in Poe’s "The Fall of the House of Usher." Walls in literature, as well as history, have a tendency to collapse. 3. Prison Walls We may suppose that walls are erected to keep a threat, be that a metaphorical secret or a literal danger, apart and out of sight. In Jorge Luis Borges's "The House of Asterion," it initially appears that the reverse is true. We’re introduced to a character of royal blood, Asterion. He tells us how he spends his days roaming the corridors of his infinite house. There are no locked doors, only endless passageways. His world is walls. The story ends: Would you believe it, Ariadne? The Minotaur scarcely defended himself. The house is the Labyrinth, Asterion is the Minotaur. His walls are those of a jail. The reader understands that it sucks to be the Minotaur, especially as he gets killed and, who knows, maybe he’s not so much of a monster after all but, as my father used to say, it’s better to be safe than sorry. The Minotaur looks bad, after all. Harvard University is transformed into a prison in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Prisons need walls, for, as in the story of the Minotaur, wardens tend to prefer prisoners on their side of the perimeter. The Wall in Atwood’s story has "ugly new floodlights mounted on metal posts above it, and barbed wire along the bottom and broken glass set in concrete along the top." Not a structure you’d fancy climbing and mildly reminiscent of English lower league football stadia. You don’t need to have studied high-school English to mark the significance of a university converted to a prison. Citizens of Gilead are forced to attend ritual viewings of the dissidents that are hanged on the Wall. 4. Office Walls There’s a chance that you’ve spent at least a portion of your working life gazing blankly at an office wall. In Herman Melville’s "Bartleby the Scrivener," Bartleby, the Wall Street worker who prefers not to, spends hours staring at a "dead" brick wall through his office window. The narrator describes these periods as "dead wall reveries." When Bartleby is finally admitted to jail, he is found with "his face towards a high wall." Clearly, there’s something significant going on here. Bartleby begins the story walled off from his colleagues, his job the only thing with which he is able to form a connection. When even this fades, he stares at walls, symbols of urban separation in Melville’s story of capitalism’s forced individualism. 5. Biblical Walls Let down by works of fiction, I look to The Bible because I remember that it’s full of good stories and also walls. The Walls of Jericho, felled by marching and horn blowing, is one of the most famous moments, found in Joshua 6:1–27. Therefore he said unto Judah, Let us build these cities, and make about them walls, and towers, gates, and bars, while the land is yet before us; because we have sought the Lord our God, we have sought him, and he hath given us rest on every side. So they built and prospered. (2 Chronicles 14:7) God loves walls. At least, according to the Old Testament, he does. I’ve been to cathedrals with fantastic walls and it’s a sin to doubt His judgment. Yet, like the notion of eternal grace in a place called Heaven, I still feel this nagging doubt. The Old Testament, like the modern world, may contain walls, but it also contains smiting. 6.Great Walls Franz Kafka wrote about walls, most famously castle walls and bedroom walls, but in "The Great Wall of China," written in 1917 but not published until 1931, he describes an elderly mason looking back at the piecemeal construction of the Great Wall. Each team of builders is allocated 500 meters of wall to build over five years. When finished, they are transferred to a different region to do the same again. As they journey to their new project, they see other sections of the wall, built by other teams. This proves, therefore, the success of the project, despite there being "gaps which have never been built in at all." The "invaders from the North," against whom the wall is protecting China, never invade. When children are naughty, we hold up these pictures in front of them, and they immediately burst into tears and run into our arms. It doesn’t matter, the construction occupies the people. And the building of the wall illustrates the power and wisdom of the Emperor, for such a huge undertaking cannot be anything but impressive. Unity! Unity! Shoulder to shoulder, a coordinated movement of the people, their blood no longer confined in the limited circulation of the body but rolling sweetly and yet still returning through the infinite extent of China. Fear of invasion, suggests Kafka, is a more powerful form of control than bricks and mortar. 7. Your Neighbor’s Wall Robert Frost is no fan of walls. Or, at least, the poet-persona in "Mending Wall" isn’t. The verse describes a springtime meeting between neighbors, during which they repair the wall that divides their property. The speaker is happy for the structure to fall down. Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was likely to give offence. The neighbor isn’t persuaded. Described as "like an old-stone savage armed," he "will not go behind his father’s saying:" Good fences make good neighbors. He builds a wall because we always build walls. There may be nothing to wall in or wall out, but that doesn’t matter: the wall is all. Image courtesy of the author.
Over the past few months, bookstores have seen a spike in the sale of dystopian novels. George Orwell’s 1984 reached the top of Amazon’s bestseller list in January, followed soon after by Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Predictably, this news was fox chased by trend piece writers -- who then became the target of protesting think piece writers: “Forget Nineteen Eighty-Four. These five dystopias better reflect Trump’s US” shouted one; “Grave New World: Why "Nineteen Eighty-Four" is not the book we need in the Trump era,” claimed another. Meanwhile, away from the mud and scrum, in the hothouse of independent publishing, French author Antoine Volodine’s eighth book in English translation, Radiant Terminus, was released by Open Letter. Deftly translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman, it’s the first major apocalyptic novel to come out in a year stacked with books in the genre, notably Omar El Akkad’s American War and David Williams’s When the English Fall. As with most titles without big marketing budgets, Radiant Terminus may struggle to find its way into popular discourse. This is a shame. Not just because it’s the most stylistically courageous, entertaining dystopian novel in recent memory, but because of all possible scenarios leading to our cataclysmic end, the one imagined by Volodine might be among the timeliest. Rather than caused by the direct result of aggression, he envisions the world ruined by a bright idea. Far in the future -- keep following, this shouldn’t take more than a minute -- engineers of the Second Soviet Union beat warheads into sizzling fuel rods, transforming their planet into a hive of energy self-sufficient cities, resource extraction centers, and prison camps, each powered by a nuclear reactor. But after generations of implied slack and harmony, the reactors fail, a cascade of nuclear meltdowns follow, and this “project of the century,” born of the purest egalitarian spirit, collapses society. Entire continents become uninhabitable. Dog-headed fascists lunge from their dens. Counter-revolutionary armies raze oblast after irradiated oblast. It’s here that Radiant Termius begins. And where the fun begins. Narrowly escaping the fall of the last fortified city, comrade-soldier Kronauer flees into the Siberian taiga. In scenes evoking visions of present-day Chernobyl -- birch roots wedging cracks in irradiated concrete, atomic heaps steaming under evergreen canopies -- he seeks help from a settlement believed to be across the steppe, within a dark wood. As if stumbling into a folk tale dreamt by Strugatsky Brothers, the crippled kolkhoz that Kronauer enters is nuclear-powered yet primordial, existing in a fabulist realm between dreams and reality. This community of “Radiant Terminus,” whence the book gets its title, is led by the monstrous Solovyei, “a gigantic muzhik in his Sunday best, with a beard and a wreath of hair sticking out here and there as if run through by an electrical current.” Unfortunately for Kronauer and all those who meet him, Solovyei is a jealous giant, a twisted psychic tyrant. In the words of one victim: Nobody was permitted to exist in the kolkhoz unless he’d gotten control over them in the heart of their dreams. No one was allowed to struggle in his or her own future unless he was part of it and directing it as he wished. Rather than fell Kronauer with his axe, Solovyei makes him a prisoner of the communal farm. Expected to work on pain of being cast as a drain on socialist society, Kronauer meets Radiant Terminus’ residents: Solovyei’s three grown daughters, all prey to their father’s incestuous, oneiric violations; a handful of shambling proles; and Gramma Ugdul, the witchy keeper of a radioactive well, two kilometers deep, at the bottom of which lies a reactor in eternal meltdown. Together they join in the endless labor of gathering and “liquidating” irradiated items by hurling them down Ugdul’s abyss. The book’s heroic narrative progresses with dreamlike logic, leading, as most would expect, to an almost unbearably tense confrontation between Kronauer and Solovyei. What results isn’t an end. Instead, it precipitates a pivot in the narrative -- or, better described: a concussive break of the central narrative, cracking the skull of the story, opening a consciousness unable to differentiate between nightmares and waking life, declamations and ramblings, physics and shamanism, she and they, he or I. If this all seems odd, it is -- in the best sense. Part of the joy of the book is the playful seriousness with which Volodine goes about his world building; another is spotting his influences. Samuel Beckett is clearly one. So are the aforementioned Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, perhaps best known for their 1971 sci-fi novel Roadside Picnic, adapted into the feature film Stalker by Andrei Tarkovsky. The nightmarish, irradiated atmosphere of that world -- a world in which the most terrifying perils lie unseen, often imperceptible -- is reflected in Volodine’s. So too are other fantastic elements, including Solovyei’s psychic projections. In Radiant Terminus, what Volodine brings to the French -- and now, through Zuckerman, to the English -- is perspective on a genre that’s refreshingly distinct from the two or three upsetting novels America read in high school. Unlike 1984 or Brave New World, he evokes a post-urban dystopia -- a communal, agrarian dystopia, slowly receding into an apocalypse of open steppes and endless woodland. This may seem unprecedented, but not within the Russian tradition. After witnessing the Terror Famine of 1932 and 1933, Andrey Platonov wrote The Foundation Pit, a brilliant short novel brought to English by Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and Olga Meerson in 2009. Unpublished in the Soviet Union until the 1980s, it follows a team of rural workers tasked with excavating the foundation of an unimaginably brilliant edifice, a “future building for the proletariat.” With little prospect of seeing the project realized, they spade deeper into the clay, oblivious to the pit’s semblance to a mass grave. Meanwhile, in the village where the workers are barracked, an activist hurries along the process of total collectivization -- culminating with the gathering and liquidation of the region’s kulaks. The satiric atmosphere of The Foundation Pit is so toxic with jargon and slogans that the prose itself mutates; description becomes sooty with language from official mouthpieces: “Most likely the rooks felt like departing ahead of time,” the narrator muses as a worker scans the sky, “in order to survive the organization collective-farm autumn in some sunny region and return later to a universal institutionalized calm.” In Radiant Terminus, Solovyei’s psychic intrusion into his subjects’ minds, his joy at “walking supreme throughout [their dreams]” seems only a fantastic reframing of what Platonov’s diggers experience when they return to their barracks, “furnished with a radio … so that during the time of rest each of them might acquire meaning of mass life”: This oppressed despair of soul from the radio was sometimes more than Zhachev could endure, and, amid the noise of consciousness pouring from the loudspeaker, he would shout out: “Stop that sound! Let me reply to it!” Adopting his graceful gait, Safronov would immediately advance forward. “Comrade Zhachev, that’s more than enough…It’s time to subordinate yourself entirely to the directive work of the leadership.” This same imperative hits Kronauer when he first steps into the boundary of Radiant Terminus, halting at the sound of a piercing whistle. Hands over his ears, he looks to his guide, one of Solovyei’s subordinated daughters. Her eyes were obstinately focused on the tips of her boots, as if she didn’t want to watch what was happening. —It’s nothing, she said finally. We’re in one of Solovyei’s dreams. He’s not happy that you’re here with me. Kronauer walked up to Samiya Schmidt and looked at her, aghast. He kept his ears covered and he found it necessary to talk loudly to make himself heard. Within the communities of both novels, truth is subservient to the barreling pace of activity: neither Solovyei nor the unseen spirit of Stalin would pause to consider the objection to a posited statement: in company, with frenetic movement and reprisals, they act as their will dictates; in seclusion, behind doors barred to dissent, they recuse themselves from question. Unlike the urban 1984 and Brave New World, where rigid control is needed to maintain the hard science fiction of the state, the rural setting of these two microcosmic dystopias can tolerate facts that counter its leaders. They’re simply ignored or dismissed, brushed away by hapless followers. Existing within a cycle of work and days, the power of these tyrants becomes as intemperate and natural to them as the weather -- even, to some, as entertaining. All considered, it wouldn’t be wrong to view the kolkhoz of Radiant Terminus as reconstruction of the village of The Foundation Pit. Stolen from the Russian, charged with psychosis, radiation, and incest, Volodine rebuilt it slat by slat, hut by hut, within a darker world. In his foreword to the novel, Brian Evanson reminds us that Radiant Terminus is just one book in a forty-nine volume set that, when complete, will form Volodine’s ambitious, interconnected “post-exoticist” project. “One of the key features of [his] work,” Evanson explains, “comes in the echoes that operate both within individual books and between books.” Certainly, within the book’s last quarter, these echoes rebound -- becoming as taxing on the reader as they are to Volodine’s characters: —It’s just repetition, Noumak Ashariyev insisted. It’s hell. —It’s not just hell, Matthias Boyol corrected. It’s more that we’re within a dream that we can’t understand the mechanisms of. We’re inside, and we don’t have any way of getting out. Long after the point is taken, the book persists, nearly to the point of page-flipping exhaustion -- the same exhaustion that meets every reader of Bouvard and Pécuchet -- but it would be cruel to dismiss Radiant Terminus on this charge. In truth, to be fair -- what other conclusion could we expect? “Death occurs,” John Berger wrote, “when life has no scrap to defend.” At the end of 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, as either implied by or explicitly stated in their respective appendices, future academics discover the texts or recordings that form the books’ core narratives. But in Radiant Terminus, in a future irreversibly collapsed from the start, there are no academics -- only snow, steppes, a shamble of survivors, “existences wasted and millennia gone for nothing.” Without the ability to rebuild civilization, the novel, its world, and its world’s inhabitants lose common language and temporality: overcast months become years, years become decades, decades become “one thousand eight hundred and twenty-six years or more.” As humanity atomizes and recedes, surrounded by Platonov’s “universal enduring existence,” its narrative deltas into a frozen sea. As Ben Ehrenreich wrote in his exploration of Volodine’s “post-exoticist” project for The Nation, “this, you’ll remember, is literature of defeat”; Radiant Terminus offers nothing in the way of hope. But perhaps an injection of French pessimism is warranted -- overdue for those who still assume the spirit of humanism to be indomitable. Volodine reminds us of a truth we can easily forget, distracted, as we often are, by the luxuries of technology and moral outrage: namely, that the civilization we’ve inherited is an heirloom so terribly precious, at risk of shattering into one thousand eight hundred and twenty-six irreparable pieces, yet in constant motion -- passed and plundered from generation to generation, hand to shaking hand. At the height of the Cold War, in his speech to the Swedish Academy, Solzhenitsyn claimed that the massive upheaval of Western society is “approaching that point beyond which the system becomes metastable and must fall.” Over the decades that followed, most considered his prediction delusional. Today, to many, it seems less so. Future scholars may agree or disagree, but only in the chance they exist. As Radiant Terminus demonstrates, Kafka’s axe -- the axe of a book that can split the frozen sea -- is useless without the knowledge to wield it as a tool. Present circumstances considered, the thought alone makes Orwell and Atwood seem cheery.
1. I read a lot, and so do you. We read books, and we read about books. Still, with surprising frequency, a writer comes across your screen, and you’re surprised you’ve never encountered his or her name or work previously. This was the case for me with Laird Hunt, whose seventh novel, The Evening Road, was published by Little, Brown last month. Having followed the controversy around Lionel Shriver’s remarks at the Brisbane Writers’ Conference last fall (and having commented myself on the process of writing across race and gender in interviews), when I learned that Hunt, who is white and male, has written three novels featuring female first-person protagonists, two of whom are black, I took notice. And wondered why I hadn’t come across consideration of his work in this context earlier. In an interview about his 2012 novel Kind One, a Pen/Faulkner finalist, Hunt had said: My approach to writing about people who are, in different ways, unlike me...is to speak of not for. In other words I’m not talking about appropriation here, but about acknowledging and actively advocating...a larger, truer, more exciting sense of our shared humanity. Five of Hunt’s novels were published by the venerable and very indie Coffee House Press in Minneapolis (only recently has he published with a corporate house); this struck me as possibly contributing to his quietish presence in the literary media. In any case, with the release of The Evening Road, Hunt’s work may begin the shift to center stage. 2. Seven novels. In addition to being specifically interested in the above-mentioned two, I am struck by Hunt’s range -- subject matter, setting, form, voice, conceptual and moral interests -- over a long career. The earlier novels -- The Impossibly, The Exquisite, and Ray of the Star -- form a loose group: experimental in form, set in current times and urban environments, engaged in relational and conceptual puzzles. Laird himself suggested such a grouping in a 2006 interview, and included his second novel, Indiana, Indiana, an elegiac, Midwestern family saga: I think of The Exquisite more as a brother or sister of The Impossibly, rather than as a son or daughter. Looking at it that way, I might suggest that Indiana, Indiana is a cousin of those two texts, a cousin that would have had more fun playing with The Exquisite than The Impossibly...even if The Exquisite wouldn't, I imagine, be caught dead with it. The Evening Road and Kind One are set in the periods of Jim Crow and slavery, respectively. In Kind One -- inspired, says Hunt, by Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, which plumbs the little-known history of black slaveowners in the antebellum south -- a white woman named Ginny Lancaster narrates her past story as both abused and abuser; we hear later the first-person voice of Zinnia, one of two slave girls (sisters) whom Ginny tormented, directly and indirectly, and who subsequently revolted, shackling Ginny in a shed without food for long periods. Neverhome features a nontraditional female -- a married woman who pretends to be a man in order to soldier for the Union during the Civil War. In The Evening Road, we hear two distinct first-person accounts -- by a white woman named Ottie Lee and a 16-year-old black girl named Calla Destry -- of events surrounding a lynching in a fictional Indiana town called Marvel. What I admire, and what is simultaneously difficult, about The Evening Road is its portrayal of the contradictions that riddle human nature and that ultimately fuel systematic acts of violence and injustice. White characters condone, participate in, find “festive” the spectacle of a lynching, while at the same time digress from that sanctioning in moments of more evolved humanness. There is a critical scene in which a group of white characters steals a wagon from a black family, and two of the white characters express their sincere regret: He had served in the war and seen cornflowers [black men] fresh up out of Africa stand up and fight the kaiser with their bare hands and American cornflowers stand up to fight when no one else would…No one ought to have taken a wagon and left folks trying to get to a prayer vigil to set in the dark by the side of the road. Yet those characters go along and board the wagon, and their giddiness about the lynching returns soon enough. It’s an affecting portrayal of sincerity and complicity together, disturbing -- and too familiar -- in its plain accuracy. In addition, these white characters have painful stories of their own: Ottie Lee, the white female narrator, was the strongest voice for stealing the wagon, and we learn shortly after that as a child she was nearly killed by her mentally unstable mother on multiple occasions. Laird’s recent novels remind us that within the tradition of historical fiction, approaches to telling historical stories are diverse. A review at Vulture of The Evening Road describes the novel, admiringly, as “More bonkers Americana than straight historical fiction.” In a New York Times review, Kaitlyn Greenidge -- whose NYT Op-Ed piece about the Lionel Shriver controversy last fall became a lucid and important rallying voice for many writers of color, myself included -- criticized The Evening Road for being unrealistic; specifically for “attempt[ing] to prettify the violence” of a lynching, for example inventing terminology -- “cornflower” -- for racist epithets (Hunt has spoken about this particular choice as both part of his writing process and ultimately an expression of the novel’s “alt world ontology”). Greenidge’s critique implies a belief that a novel concerning true acts of injustice -- acts that have been systematically minimized or ignored in order to dehumanize entire groups of people -- has a responsibility to the hardest of hard facts. And while Greenidge doesn’t say so explicitly, her critique raises for me the question of whether that responsibility is heightened when the writer is a member of the racial group who committed and has benefited from the acts. Hunt is a white man more or less from Indiana. His varied, peripatetic background -- stints and partial education in Singapore, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Indiana, The Hague, London, and Paris as a youth and young adult, then New York, where he worked for the United Nations, and on to Denver for most of his adult life -- amounts to an unusually heterogeneous map of influences. For five years, he worked as a press officer for the United Nations. As a translator, French is the non-English language most in his ear, yet a crafted, lyrical 19th-century American dialect(ish) makes the music of four of his novels. Hunt engaged in this robust exchange with me, in the midst of a busy tour schedule. We talked about inventing literary language, whiteness and complicity, historical surrealism, and the dual challenges of reviewing and being reviewed. The Millions: Your seven novels cover such a wide range of subject matter and style. I’ve suggested -- as have you -- that your work might be “grouped” into two phases. When you consider your novelistic journey, what do you see in terms of continuities, kinships, pivots, departures, etc? Laird Hunt: My split trajectory as a writer is absolutely informed by my split trajectory as a person. I did seventh grade in London and eighth in rural Indiana. Even after I had settled in then, on my grandmother’s farm, I spent my summers in Hong Kong, which is where my stepmother is from and my younger sister grew up. When I set to writing seriously I kept going deeply into the distinct archives my mind had built around these two sets of experience. Still, just as I was keeping my hand in with Indiana during the years I was mostly publishing city novels set in something much like now, I am continuing to draw on my lengthy and varied urban experience in projects that are growing up quietly but insistently as I spelunk in the shallower and deeper pockets of the past of rural America. At a reading last night in Denver I announced, in a sudden moment of exhaustion, that with the publication of The Evening Road I had finished this exploration I undertook, for better or worse, of crucible moments in individual and national life. Almost as soon as I said it I remembered that the novel on witches I am currently completing, which is told by a female narrator and touches on questions of race, erasure, agency, and rebellion, will make me a liar when/if it is published. TM: Coffee House Press published your first five books; with Neverhome and The Evening Road, you’re with a larger corporate publisher, Little, Brown. Some might perceive this as a “promotion,” but I wonder if you do. What has this pivot/departure meant for you -- professionally, creatively -- if anything? LH: Coffee House is one of the most amazing literary presses on the planet, and I wouldn’t trade my years of having had the honor of appearing on their lists for anything. The move to Little, Brown has been exciting and in all ways quite seamless. I am still writing exactly those books I feel I need to write and am being fully supported as I do so. Support of course means receiving tough edits and essential feedback off the page too. Having friends in Minneapolis AND new ones in New York is an awfully pleasant side benefit. TM: In response to an interview question about Kind One and writing female characters in a context of racial injustice, you said: “[I]t’s time to do better. It has been time for a good long while now.” Four years on, and in the midst of heated cultural-political polarization -- are we doing better? Worse? Both? LH: We are far, indeed very far away from where we need to be as a country. I believe very deeply that we stand a better chance of getting there, if individually -- with care and determination -- we do our best to grapple with our past. And to own up to what we inherit from said past and how we perpetuate it. I do these things with fiction. Others do it other ways. Or plough some intriguing middle ground between essay, poetry, history and fiction. Do I think we will get there? Wherever there is? I am somewhere between “I don’t know” and “I do.” TM: Whose work in particular would you cite as inspiring? LH: There is a great deal of passion and brilliance at work out there. See Renee Gladman’s recent Calamities. Or John Keene’s Counternarratives. Or Karen Tei Yamashita’s Circle K. Cycles. Or a curious little book like The Correspondence by J.D. Daniels. TM: Given your wide and varied background and work as a translator, tell us about your sense of home, and language, and the voices in your writerly ear. LH: At just this moment the voice, so to speak, of the pianist Girma Yifrashewa is in my ears and rare is the occasion that I don’t have something equally extraordinary and transporting coming through headphones or earbuds as I write. This has been the case for me almost since my earliest days as a writer, and I’m certain it has impacted on this question. Also, I went through a long period of reading a lot of poetry and even publishing work that wasn’t quite poetry (let’s be very clear), but had some linguistic charge, in poetry magazines, so some residual sonic eddies live on in my ear. Add to that the fact that I spent years living in places surrounded by people who didn’t speak English the way I do or speak English at all, then went to live with someone who had a very marked Central Indiana accent. My best friends during the five years I spent working as a press officer at the United Nations were from Kenya and Guyana, and just about everyone in the English press service (colleagues from Ghana, Nigeria, the Gambia, the Netherlands, England, New Jersey, the Bronx, Brazil, etc.) had their own way of shaping English. Which is to say the meaningful layers have accumulated as they do for all of us. When I’m digging in on voice it always feels like there is a lot to draw on. And it should be stressed, especially in the case of these three most recent books, that because the voices are composites and constructions, rather than faithful imitations of actual speech patterns from the past, it is useful to have more than just one way of getting things said in my ear. TM: Is there a sense, then, that you are creating a language/vernacular -- not so unlike what, say, Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings? Tell us a bit about that approach, as opposed to actually attempting to imitate speech patterns? LH: There is a precursor to the voices I am working with in these novels in the character of Opal in Indiana, Indiana. We know her in the novel as the great love of the main character, Noah, and get direct access to her mainly through letters she writes him. These letters are adaptations of prose poems I wrote years ago in the wake of traveling to San Francisco and Paris. Something about their almost giddy, forward-rushing quality and the melancholy hiding in their corners, made them perfect for Opal. Still, you wonder if you have gotten something right. In this case I had a kind of answer when I visited a museum attached to the Logansport State Hospital, the real-world equivalent of the hospital where Opal is for many years in the book. One of the exhibits was comprised of the letters of a brilliant young woman, an aspiring composer, who found herself at the hospital in the early 20th century. The letters are not Opal’s but, wow, they were awfully close both in tone and content and even in some of their constructions. It wasn’t the same but it felt the same. All this to say you can get to something that richly evokes the past for the 21st-century eye and ear by going at it otherwise. I have rarely felt more sunk in the past than I have in the pages of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, and they are extraordinarily unlike the past as we would encounter it by reading diaries and other documents from that time. Then there is an approach like Paul Kingsnorth’s in The Wake. Kingsnorth creates what he calls a “shadow tongue” that is neither modern nor old English and the resultant hybrid brings the world most vividly to life. This is the sort of thing I am going for, trying for, failing better at. TM: White characters like Ottie and Ginny are compelling in their human dimensionality, and also disturbingly complicit in racial violence. Is your ultimate vision of white conscience a dark one? LH: In one of the scenes in Kind One, the ghost of a murdered slave returns to the narrator, Ginny Lancaster, as she lies in a misery of her own making. Before Ginny, the ghost dances a terrible dance in which eyes and ears and mouths sprout in frightening profusion from his body. He calls this dance “The Way of the World.” In the wagon-stealing scene in The Evening Road, Ottie Lee makes an awful, self-damning choice that speaks pretty loudly to this “way” and to how unambiguously she is a part of it and is perpetuating it. This doesn’t mean, and it almost never does, that she isn’t capable at other moments of compassion and doing the right thing. Her companions are all stretched along this spectrum and slide back and forth depending on the situation. I don’t know how we get off this road of whiteness and onto some other. I do know that it’s real and we can’t afford abstractions when we discuss it and think about it and fight it. TM: In these combative times under this new political regime, some on the progressive left would say that empathizing with oppressors -- trying to understand where Trump supporters are coming from -- is folly. Tell us about your specific hope/interest in alternating between white and black narrators in these novels about slavery and its legacy. LH: I think more than “folly,” as you put it, what I have heard or at least understood from the progressive left, of which I am a part (so we’re not all the same) is that it’s best not to undertake this sort of endeavor at all. As in just don’t do it. As soon as I start to hear proscription of this sort, especially around the arts, I want to get in there and see what’s going on. How much great work would be gone if its author had not tried to go into the bad as well as the good? Think of all the characters in Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad who would have to be zapped because they are flawed, complex, and on the wrong side of things. Even some of the worst of the worst in that novel, the relentless slave catcher, say, are allowed a story, a narrative, a past. They aren’t just unexamined caricatures. Their dimensionality doesn’t let them off the hook: to the contrary. It’s just that instead of being told they are bad, we readers get to understand the textures of that badness and draw our own conclusions. TM: You’ve been writing in the tradition of historical fiction for some time now. How would you describe your fiction’s relationship to historical truth? Is Kaitlyn Greenidge correct that certain situations would have been much more dangerous for black people in 1930s Indiana than is depicted in The Evening Road? Are the benign, sometimes harmonious encounters between black people and white people fantastical creations born of “a sort of reconciliation fantasy?” LH: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren; Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier; Octavia Butler’s Kindred; Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior; Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber; George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo; Paul Beatty’s The Sellout; and Whitehead’s already mentioned Underground Railroad are just a very, very few of the novels that have effectively used the tools of fantasy, sci-fi, fable, allegory, satire, and humor to look at very serious subject matter. These are the kinds of sources of inspiration I have gone to as I have written or considered the implications of my own recent novels. I would have thought The Evening Road, with its giant pigs; corn-based vocabulary; impossible prayer vigils; flag forests; a town called Marvel at its middle; hallucinations in foul beauty parlors; conversations with angels over breakfast; and bloodhounds wearing neckties, would have made clear its method and its lineage very quickly. Just as, to greater or lesser degree, the previous two novels did. I do the work I do then put it out there. Others get to critique it. I review more than enough to know how much time and effort goes into writing a thoughtful take on something. That’s an act of generosity. If someone has taken the time to read one of my books, and has issues with it, I’m always ready to listen.
Is there such a thing as literary science fiction? It’s not a sub-genre that you’d find in a bookshop. In 2015, Neil Gaiman and Kazuo Ishiguro debated the nature of genre and fiction in the New Statesman. They talk about literary fiction as just another genre. Meanwhile, Joyce Saricks posits that rather than a genre, literary fiction is a set of conventions. I’ve not read a whole lot of whatever might be defined as literary fiction. I find non-genre fiction a little on the dull side. People -- real people -- interacting in the real world or some such plot. What’s the point of that? I want to read something that in no way can ever happen to me or anyone I know. I want to explore the imagination of terrific authors. I’ve heard that literary fiction is meant to be demanding. I don’t mind demanding, but I want, as a rule, a stimulating plot and relatable or, at the very least, interesting characters. I suspect My Idea of Fun by Will Self (1993) is the closest I’ve come to enjoying a piece of literary fiction, but I was far from entertained. And so I read genre fiction -- mostly science fiction, but anything that falls under the umbrella of speculative fiction. It turns out that some of what I’ve read and enjoyed and would recommend might be called literary science fiction. This is sometimes science fiction as written by authors who wouldn’t normally write within the genre, but more often than not regular science fiction that has been picked up by a non-genre audience. Literary fantasy is not so common as literary science fiction, but there is a lot of fantasy, both classical and modern that non-fantasy fans will be familiar with (many are put off by the label "fantasy," and maybe an awful lot of terrible 1980s fantasy movies). Of course there are J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and the Chronicles of Narnia and Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. These books are only the briefest glimpses into both the imagination of some terrific authors and the scope of fantasy fiction. It isn’t all about hobbits and lions and wizards. There’s much more to explore. You’ve likely read most of these examples; if they’ve piqued your interest and want to explore more genre fiction, here are some suggestions for next steps. You read: Super Sad True Love Story (2010) by Gary Shteyngart is a grim warning of the world of social media. There’s not a whole lot of plot, but Shteyngart’s story is set in a slightly dystopic near future New York. There are ideas about post-humanism, as technology is replacing emotional judgement -- people don’t need to make choices; ratings, data, and algorithms do that for you. As an epistolary and satirical novel Super Sad True Love Story engages well. The science fiction elements are kept to the background as the characters’ relationships come to the fore. Now try: Ready Player One (2011) by Ernest Cline. In Cline’s near future, like Shteyngart’s, there is economic dystopic overtones. Most folk interact via virtual worlds. In the real world, most people are judged harshly. Wade spends all his time in a virtual utopia that is a new kind of puzzle game. Solving clues and eventually winning it will allow him to confront his real-world relationships. Friendships are key to the enjoyment of this novel, as well as how technology alters our perception of them. Are we the masters or servants of technology? Snow Crash (1992) by Neal Stephenson is a complex and knowing satire. The world is full of drugs, crime, nightclubs, and computer hacking; "Snow Crash" is a drug that allows the user access to the Metaverse. Stephenson examined virtual reality, capitalism, and, importantly, information culture and its effects on us as people -- way before most other authors. Like Cline and Shtenyngart, technology -- in this case the avatars -- in Snow Crash is as much a part of the human experience as the physical person. You read: Never Let Me Go (2005) by Kazuo Ishiguro is one of the best and most surprising novels in the science fiction genre. It is the story of childhood friends at a special boarding school, narrated by Kathy. Slowly the world is revealed as a science fiction dystopia wherein where the privileged literally rely on these lower class of people to prolong their lives. The science fiction-ness of the story -- how the genetics work for example -- is not really the purpose of the story. Ishiguro writes brilliantly about what it means to be a person and how liberty and relationships intertwine. Now try: Spares (1996) by Michael Marshall Smith tells pretty much the same story, but with a different narrative and a more brutal full-on science fiction realization. Jack Randall is the typical Smith anti-hero -- all bad mouth and bad luck. He works in a Spares farm. Spares are human clones of the privileged who use them for health insurance. Lose an arm in an accident; get your replacement from your clone. Spares is dark yet witty, and again, muses on the nature of humanity, as Jack sobers up and sees the future for what it really is. He believes the Spares are people too, and that it’s time he takes a stand for the moral high ground, while confronting his past. The Book of Phoenix (2015) by Nnedi Okorafor is another tale about what it means to be a human in a created body. A woman called Phoenix is an "accelerated human" who falls in love and finds out about the horrors perpetuated by the company that created her. One day, Phoenix’s boyfriend witnesses an atrocity and kills himself. Grieving, Phoenix decides she is in a prison rather than a home. The book is, on the surface, about slavery and oppression: Americans and their corporations taking the lives of people of color as if they meant nothing. It is powerful stuff, with very tender moments. You read: Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) by Kurt Vonnegut is perhaps his most famous work, and maybe his best. It is the tale of Billy Pilgrim, an anti-war chaplain's assistant in the United States Army, who was captured in 1944 and witnessed the Dresden bombings by the allies. This narrative is interweaved with Billy’s experiences of being held in an alien zoo on a planet far from Earth called Tralfamadore. These aliens can see in such a way that they experience all of spacetime concurrently. This leads to a uniquely fatalistic viewpoint when death becomes meaningless. Utterly brilliant. Definitely science fiction. So it goes. Now try: A Scanner Darkly (1977) by Philip K. Dick. Like Vonnegut, Dick often mixes his personal reality with fiction and throws in an unreliable narrator. In A Scanner Darkly, Bob Arctor is a drug user (as was Dick) in the near future. However, he’s also an undercover agent investigating drug users. Throughout the story, we’re never sure who the real Bob is, and what his motives are. It’s a proper science fiction world where Bob wears a "scramble suit" to hide his identity. Dick’s characters get into your head and make you ponder the nature of who you might be long after the book is over. Little Brother (2008) by Cory Doctorow takes a look at the world of surveillance. Unlike Dick’s novel, this is not an internal examination but an external, as four teenagers are under attack from a near future Department of Homeland Security. Paranoia is present and correct as 17-year-old Marcus and his friends go on the run after a terrorist attack in San Francisco. Doctorow’s usual themes include fighting the system and allowing information to be free. You read: The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) by Margaret Atwood. After a religiously motivated terrorist attack and the suspension of the U.S. Constitution, the newly formed Republic of Gilead takes away some women's rights -- even the liberty to read. There is very little science in The Handmaid’s Tale -- indeed, Atwood herself calls it speculative rather than science fiction. The point, however, is not aliens or spaceships, but how people deal with the present, by transporting us to a potential, and in this case frightening, totalitarian future. Now try: Bête (2014) by Adam Roberts is also a biting satire about rights. Animals, in Roberts’ bleak future, have been augmented with artificial intelligence. But where does the beast end and the technology take over? The protagonist in this story is Graham, who is gradually stripped of his own rights and humanity. He is one of the most engaging protagonists in recent years: an ordinary man who becomes an anti-hero for the common good. As with The Handmaid’s Tale, the author forces us to consider the nature of the soul and self-awareness. Herland (1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman explores the ideas of a feminist utopia from the perspective of three American male archetypes. More of a treatise than a novel, it is science fiction only in the sense of alternative history and human reproduction via parthenogenesis. Gilman suggests that gender is socially constructed and ultimately that rights are not something that can be given or taken from any arbitrary group. You read: The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin is regarded as the novel that made her name in science fiction. Humans did not originate on Earth, but on a planet called Hain. The Hainish seeded many worlds millions of years ago. In The Left Hand of Darkness, set many centuries in the future, Genly Ai from Earth is sent to Gethen -- another seeded world -- in order to invite the natives to join an interplanetary coalition. As we live in a world of bigotry, racism and intolerance, Le Guin brilliantly holds up a mirror. Now try: Ammonite (1992) by Nicola Griffith also addresses gender in the far future. On a planet that has seen all men killed by an endemic disease, anthropologist Marghe journeys around the planet looking for answers to the mysterious illness, while living with various matricidal cultures and challenging her own preconceptions and her identity. Griffith’s attention to detail and the episodic nature of Marghe’s life result in a fascinating and engaging story -- which is what the women of this planet value above all else. Accepting different cultural ideologies is an important factor in science fiction and both Le Guin and Griffith have produced highlights here. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (2015) by Becky Chambers. There’s a ship called the Wayfayer, crewed by aliens, who are, by most definitions, the good guys. A new recruit named Rosemary joins the ship as it embarks on a mission to provide a new wormhole route to the titular planet. Chambers writes one of most fun books in the genre, featuring aliens in love, fluid genders, issues of class, the solidarity of family, and being the outsider. You Read: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (2004) by Susanna Clarke. In this folk-tale fantasy, Clarke writes a morality tale set in 19th-century England concerning magic and its use during the Napoleonic Wars. Somewhat gothic, and featuring dark fairies and other supernatural creatures, this is written in the style of Charles Dickens and others. Magic is power. Who controls it? Who uses it? Should it even be used? Now try: Sorcerer to the Crown (2015) by Zen Cho is set in a similar universe to Clarke’s novel: Regency England with added fantasy. Women don’t have the same rights as men, and foreign policy is built on bigotry. The son of an African slave has been raised by England’s Sorcerer Royal. As in Clarke’s story, magic is fading and there are strained relationships with the fairies. This is where the novels diverge. Prunella Gentleman is a gifted magician and fights her oppressive masters. Cho writes with charm and the characters have ambiguity and depth. This is more than just fairies and magic, it is a study of human monsters, women’s rights, and bigotry. Alif the Unseen (2012) by G. Willow Wilson. Take the idea of power, politics and traditional magic and move it to the Middle East. We’re in a Middle-Eastern tyrannical state sometime in the near future. Alif is Arabian-Indian, and he’s a hacker and security expert. While having a science fiction core, this sadly under-read book has fantasy at its heart. When Alif’s love leaves him, he discovers the secret book of the jinn; he also discovers a new and unseen world of magic and information. As with those above, this is a story of power. Who has it, and who controls it. The elite think they do, but the old ways, the old magic is stronger. You read: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) by Lewis Carroll. Everyone’s favorite surrealist fantasy begins with a bored little girl looking for an adventure. And what an adventure! Dispensing with logic and creating some of the most memorable and culturally significant characters in literary history, Carroll’s iconic story is a fundamental moment not just in fantasy fiction but in all fiction. Now try: A Wild Sheep Chase (1982) by Haruki Murakami sees the (unreliable?) narrator involved with a photo that was sent to him in a confessional letter by his long-lost friend, The Rat. Another character, The Boss’s secretary, reveals that a strange sheep with a star shaped birthmark, pictured in an advertisement, is in some way the secret source of The Boss's power. The narrator quests to find both the sheep and his friend. Doesn’t sound much like Alice for sure, but this is a modern take on the surreal journey populated by strange and somewhat impossible characters, with a destination that might not be quite like it seems. You might have read Kafka on the Shore or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle -- both terrific novels -- but you really should read Murakami’s brilliantly engaging exploration into magical oddness. A Man Lies Dreaming (2014) by Lavie Tidhar. Was Alice’s story nothing more than a dream? Or something more solid? Shomer, Tidhar’s protagonist, lies dreaming in Auschwitz. Having previously been a pulp novelist, his dreams are highly stylized. In Shomer’s dream, Adolf Hitler is now disgraced and known only as Wolf. His existence is a miserable one. He lives as a grungy private dick working London's back streets. Like much of Tidhar’s work, this novel is pitched as a modern noir. It is however, as with Carroll’s seminal work, an investigation into the power of imagination. Less surreal and magical than Alice, it explores the fantastical in an original and refreshing manner. You read: The Once and Future King (1958) by T.H. White. A classical fantasy tale of English folklore, despite being set in "Gramarye." White re-tells the story of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, and Queen Guinevere. This is an allegoric re-writing of the tale, with the time-travelling Merlyn bestowing his wisdom on the young Arthur. Now try: Redemption in Indigo (2010) by Karen Lord takes us on a journey into a Senegalese folk tale. Lord’s protagonist is Paama’s husband. Not at all bright, and somewhat gluttonous, he follows Paama to her parent’s village. There he kills the livestock and steals corn. He is tricked by spirit creatures (djombi). Paama has no choice to leave him. She meets the djombi, who gives her a gift of a Chaos Stick, which allows her to manipulate the subtle forces of the world. A Tale for the Time Being (2013) by Ruth Ozeki. Diarist Nao is spiritually lost. Feeling neither American or Japanese (born in the former, but living in the latter), she visits her grandmother in Sendai. This is a complex, deep, and beautifully told story about finding solace in spirituality. Meanwhile, Ruth, a novelist living on a small island off the coast of British Columbia, finds Nao’s diary washed up on the beach -- possibly from the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. Ruth has a strong connection to Nao, but is it magic, or is it the power of narrative? You read: American Gods (2001) by Neil Gaiman. No one is more in tune with modern fantasy than Neil Gaiman. This is an epic take on the American road trip but with added gods. A convict called Shadow is caught up in a battle between the old gods that the immigrants brought to America, and the new ones people are worshiping. Gaiman treats his subject with utmost seriousness while telling a ripping good yarn. Now try: The Shining Girls (2013) by Lauren Beukes causes some debate. Is it science fiction or is it fantasy? Sure it is a time-travel tale, but the mechanism of travel has no basis in science. Gaiman, an Englishman, and Beukes, a South African, provide an alternative perspective on cultural America. A drifter murders the titular girls with magical potential, which somehow allow him to travel through time via a door in a house. Kirby, a potential victim from 1989, recalls encounters with a strange visitor throughout her life. Connecting the clues, she concludes that several murders throughout the century are the work of this same man. She determines to hunt and stop him. As several time periods occur in Beukes beautifully written and carefully crafted novel, it allows comment on the changes in American society. The People in the Trees (2013) by Hanya Yanagihara. Whereas Gaiman and Beukes use fantasy to comment on culture from a removed stance, Yanagihara looks at cultural impact head on, with the added and very difficult subject of abuse. Fantasy isn’t all about spells and magic rings. In a complex plot, Western scientists visit the mysterious island of U'ivu to research a lost tribe who claim to have eternal life. Yanagihara’s prose has an appropriate dream-like quality as it explores our perceptions through the idea that magic is a part of nature to some cultures. You read: The Harry Potter series (1997-2007) by J.K. Rowling. The story of a magician and his friends who grow up learning how to use magic in the world and to fight a series of evil enemies. As with other teen fantasies (such as TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer), these books are more about growing up and understanding the world than they are about magic and monsters. Now try: The Magicians (2009) by Lev Grossman is, from one perspective, Narnia remixed starring Harry Potter at university with swearing and sex. Which sounds great to me! From another, it is about addiction and control. Quentin (Harry) loves the fantasy books Fillory and Further (Chronicles of Narnia). Thinking he is applying to Princeton, he ends up at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy (Hogwarts). He learns about magic while making new friends and falling in love, while is former best friend, Julia, who failed to get to Brakebills, learns about magic from the outside world. There are beasts and fights and double crossing and the discovery that Fillory is real. Rollicking good fun with plenty of magic and monsters, but Grossman adds an unexpected depth to the story. Signal to Noise (2015) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a perfect fantasy novel for anyone who was a teenager in the 1980s. I’d imagine it is pretty enjoyable for everyone else too. This time, there is no formal education in magic. Set in Mexico, Signal to Noise charts the growing pains of Meche and her friends Sebastian and Daniela. The make magic from music. Literally. Magic corrupts Meche and her character changes. Moreno-Garcia nails how selfish you can be as a teenager once you get a whiff of power or dominance. In the end, everything falls apart. Image Credit: Pixabay.
1.Standing at the DMV counter for a new license, I grit my teeth against a vivid mental picture of my mangled body being pulled from a car wreck. I am about to check “yes” for organ donor. As pen hits paper, I shudder at images of sharp tools flashing at the accident scene, removing my eyeballs and kidneys. I resist the urge to ask the clerk behind the counter if the medics will absolutely ensure I’m dead before removing my organs. My fear is mitigated by knowing that there is such great need for organs; I’ve recently learned this by teaching bioethics to nursing and premedical students. When the shiny plastic card is handed to me, I look at the tiny blue heart enclosing “Organ Donor” in red and feel a flush of satisfaction: I’ve done the right thing. Two recent books, Karen Russell’s Sleep Donation and Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last, probe our conflicted feelings about giving parts of ourselves to others. Russell’s novella uses the delightfully sly conceit of an insomnia epidemic to dramatize the interpersonal dynamics of donation. Protagonist Trish Edgewater works for Slumber Corps, a nonprofit funded and run by former CEOs Rudy and Jim Storch; she secures sleep donations by telling recruits the heart-wrenching story of her sister who succumbed to fatal sleep deprivation. In Atwood’s novel, a corporation disguised as a collective is secretly euthanizing prisoners and selling their organs. These two sci-fi tales pose pressing ethical questions that affect us now: What motivates donation? How does donation work in a for-profit health care industry? What are our obligations to others and what are our rights to our organs and tissues? Karen Russell and I discussed these questions over the phone on the day before the election; in the post-election reality, their urgency has intensified. 2. Anxiety over organ harvesting has a long and ghoulish life in our collective imagination. Historian Katharine Park, in Secrets of Woman, notes the persistent cultural narrative of early dissectionists in Renaissance Italy shunting corpses out of trapdoors in their laboratories when the authorities came around. Mary Shelley was thinking of both public autopsies on executed criminals and the vulture eating Prometheus’s liver when she described Victor Frankenstein assembling human cadaver parts into a new creature. A foreigner draining good English blood from Lucy Westenra -- and transfusions from four men -- sets off an international vampire hunt in Dracula. In our century, Kazuo Ishiguro in Never Let Me Go imagines an eerily plausible world in which people clone themselves for their own future transplant needs. Private organ and tissue banking is already a thriving industry; only the completion of human cloning technology seems to stand between Ishiguro’s medical dystopia and us. Sleep Donation is Russell’s first foray into “straight science fiction.” As a young reader, she was influenced by Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, a Cold War era thriller about bioengineered plants that revolt against humans; and Frank Herbert's 1965 novel Dune. Of the last, she said, “It’s an amazing, prescient epic about ecological fragility, monopolistic guilds, and an interstellar community addicted to ‘spice’ the way we are dependent on fossil fuels. Dune showed me how an alternate universe can hold up a mirror to our own reality.” In her novella, the idea of dream donation “gets at the global transmission of ideas -- that accelerated connectivity of the Internet age, and the increasingly porous boundaries of this new world,” Russell said. 3. While drafting Sleep Donation, Russell researched organ and blood donation and read up on the history of the AIDS epidemic. The novella captures the turbulence of a new disease outbreak. Scientists race to find the cause and develop a cure. Meanwhile, people seek their own solutions. Some “file for dream bankruptcy” and wait to be approved for a sleep donation; others resort to medical tourism -- seeking treatment abroad; and a fringe of Night Worlds spring up complete with nostrum sellers and social spots catering to those who are awake all night. In her recruitment, Trish has stumbled across a particularly valuable sleep donor, Baby A. Her pure sleep makes her a universal donor. Trish forms a bond with her mother, Mrs. Harkonnen, who volunteers Baby A to give the maximum amount of sleep to the Corps. The baby’s father, however, resists the unrestricted donation. The conflict between Mrs. and Mr. Harkonnen raises questions about motives for donation. Like blood donation, sleep donation does not seem to harm the donor; blood and sleep are renewable resources. “What has always felt so beautiful to me about blood donation is that it's so literal and simple, a very visceral way to give and to receive. You get to participate in the circulatory system of a human community, a communal body,” Russell said. But more murky is the question of manipulating goodwill and consent to secure bodily gifts. I’ve been able to avoid consenting to post-mortem organ harvesting for most of my adult life because the U.S. follows an opt-in system; those wishing to donate organs after death must give explicit permission via a living will, driver’s license, or donor registry under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act -- a piece of legislation that sounds like it could have been invented by Russell or Atwood. Other countries like Austria have an opt-out system, which presumes consent and requires explicit refusal to donate; these countries have about a 90 percent donation rate. In an opt-in system, recruiting donors is paramount, as Sleep Donation dramatizes. Mrs. Harkonnen insists on donating the maximum amount of sleep from her baby, but her husband’s objections make us consider the limits of our obligations to others. In her meditative essays in On Immunity, Eula Biss recounts her experience of blood loss during labor. She has Type O negative blood, making her a universal donor. Like Baby A, the rarity of her “anatomical gift” exponentially increases its value because it can help anyone, regardless of the recipient’s blood type. At the same time, Biss can only receive Type O negative transfusions. Her understanding, exquisitely woven throughout the essays in this volume, that we are all somatically interdependent -- and interdependently vulnerable -- motivates her to donate blood. She has benefitted, and so has learned with visceral immediacy what her body has needed to survive from another human body. Her motive, at least in part, is reciprocation. Biss’s intention seems to be enlightened volunteerism. Sleep Donation, on the other hand, highlights the ethical problem of emotional manipulation for a “good cause.” Trish uses emotional inducements to form relationships with donors by performing the maudlin tale of her sister’s fatal insomnia. She grieves afresh with every pitch -- her anguish is genuine, and the Storches exploit her as their most valuable recruiter. Corporate motives of maximizing gain lurk ominously in this gift economy. 4. The Storches’ Slumber Corps and Atwood’s Orwellian corporation, Consilience, play to our wariness of big business. Of Sleep Donation, Russell said, “I wanted to explore this tension that I think many people feel today between the desire towards openness and generosity, and a mistrust of institutions and corporations, a fear that you will get sapped dry by the for-profit world.” The instincts that Russell and Atwood tap into may be justified in the real-world case of the human tissue industry. Tissues are more easily harvested, stored, and transplanted than whole organs, and unless a donor specifies otherwise, consent to organ donation also permits tissue harvesting. It is illegal for citizens to buy or sell organs and tissues. The law prohibiting organ and tissue sales by citizens is intended to avoid incentivizing body part sales (other than blood, sperm, and eggs, all legally sold by individuals), which could affect people disproportionately according to income. It could also further reduce donation of biomaterials in our inefficient opt-in system, experts postulate, if people will hold out for the highest bid and/or always expect remuneration. These intentions seem ethical, given the huge economic and health disparities in the U.S. What donors often don’t know, however, is that the tissue industry is explicitly and legally for-profit -- a fact that surprised even Russell in our recent conversation. The industry generates more than $1 billion annually. Corporations such as biotech companies routinely buy organs, tissues, cells, and medical record information from medical centers and government banks in order to develop new treatments for profit. Organ donors are not the only contributors to tissue harvests. If you’ve ever wondered what happens to your blood or tissues removed for regular care or testing, or where your newborn’s umbilical cord went, they all get banked for research and potential sale. At a recent doctor’s appointment, I signed a Notice of Privacy Practices (4 pages of miniscule font), which effectively secures my consent for my tissues and fluids to be banked and used at the facility’s discretion without notifying or compensating me. Every doctor’s office has a similar waiver for patients to sign before being seen, but most patients are unaware of what they are consenting to. We are all unwitting donors. Perhaps because the reality of profiteering from human parts is already here, in The Heart Goes Last, Atwood bumps the ethics of human body part sales into darker territory. Her corporation, Consilience, bypasses the complicated dance of donation and instead kidnaps people from outside the town, euthanizes them, and sells their organs to a nursing home franchise. Most chillingly, the citizens perform the euthanasia without question because they are hostages to the middle-class comforts provided by Consilience against the lawlessness and poverty that had set in after a realistically-limned economic collapse. Atwood is having a dark laugh at our dependence on capitalist luxuries when Charmaine dutifully carries out what she thinks is the execution of her own husband without knowing that all of her victim’s organs are going to be sold. 5. I’ve done the right thing, I tell myself to quiet down the gory, TV medical drama-informed mental image of medics harvesting my organs beside my crumpled car. Both the fictional Mrs. Harkonnen and the real Eula Biss offer antidotes to corporate profiteering. They are persuaded to donate for personal reasons -- desires to respond to human needs not quantifiable in dollar amounts, to return a life-saving gift. My own decision to donate was based on seeing how many young adults just learning to become healthcare providers had registered themselves as donors. In class, even before we tackled the details of opt-in versus opt-out systems and ethical questions of informed consent, the nursing students had very practical understandings of the egregious organ shortage in the U.S. They didn’t share my fierce attachment to my somatic wholeness after death. (There are prohibitions in some cultures to opening the body before and after death; cultural variation in rules about bodily wholeness must be respected in any donation system). Some of my students explained their reasoning for being such willing donors: if I’m dead, I don’t need my parts, but they could save other lives. Listening to others showed me a new way to think about my dead body as a gift. We are exposed to new perspectives through live encounters, but imaginary ones may hold even more potential for stimulating ethical deliberation. Russell agrees: “I think fiction is a realm where people can play out different scenarios, engage with these questions in a way where a certain kind of stakes are reduced (‘it's just fiction’) so it becomes safe to really take a look at the unexamined assumptions that underlie our values and decisions.” There are individual stakes, and then there are corporate stakes. Russell and Atwood both avenge the sinister business of bioprofiteering in their sci-fi worlds. The Storches sell some of Baby A’s pure samples to Japanese researchers and make a huge profit. Atwood’s corporate creeps are planning to sell infant blood and scale up their sale of prisoner organs to the rich, preparing an empire that will easily flourish in the lawless post-crash climate. And in both novels, the plots are foiled by female whistle-blowers. In Atwood’s dystopia, corporate vampirism is stopped -- but only for one corporation. The novel leaves open the possibility that it could happen with other companies because the conditions are still there. The ending of Sleep Donation is ambiguous. Russell said, “My original desire was simply to tell a story, the story of this particular character, Trish Edgewater, who is confronted with a terrible dilemma, and the questions arose as I drafted forward. [For the ending,] I wanted to leave open both possibilities, that Trish brings down the Storches, and that Trish ends up getting scapegoated. ‘Rewarding’ that move with a happy ending (or a happier one than Trish going to prison), or ‘punishing’ it by showing that Trish loses everything [including her friendship with Mrs. Harkonnen] -- either of those moves would have felt somehow reductive to me, as if I were only writing this to show people the ‘right’ thing to do, making it a blunt moral fable, instead of a world to explore those questions about giving and receiving that haunt me still (and that I hope will haunt the reader).” Despite the ambiguity of Russell’s ending, both novels’ revolutionary endings give us hope; they offer an antidote to what Russell described in an email the day after the election as the “corrosive cynicism that causes people to feel justified in ‘opting out’ of caring, trying. What a shame it is,” she added, “when our best impulses, the deep and genuine desire to give to one another, cannot find an outlet that we trust.” Storytelling is perhaps our best inoculation against a donation dystopia of selfishness and unwitting complicity in a market of human parts; Russell emphasized that although she did research, she “wanted to be careful that the parallel between sleep donation and organ donation did not feel too one-to-one because sleep donation also felt analogous to storytelling generally. When you read or receive a story, you embody that author’s dream. Stories and novels have always given me a perch in an alternate world that lets me see something that was invisible to me when I was zipped into my own tight-fitting skin, pursuing my own interests.” Sleep Donation and The Heart Goes Last let us see ethical questions taking shape around bodily ownership and gifting, questions with enormous stakes that are often invisible in everyday cultural narratives about health and healthcare. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
With campaign rhetoric thrumming and throbbing around us, along with deepening divisions around race, guns, sexuality, and national security; and since much of what we see/hear in the media is alarming, disappointing, and not infrequently inane; I thought we might offer up some alternatives for readers looking to sink their political minds into something intelligent, compelling, possibly even hopeful (if not exactly optimistic). I asked Millions staff writers: What is/are the best political fiction(s) you’ve read in the past decade? We’re focusing on fiction because we’re interested in a broad definition of “political.” I wanted to hear from my colleagues what even constitutes “political fiction” in their minds. The novel that came to mind for me first was J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace I read it when it was published 16 years ago, but its chilling notion of social justice has stayed with me: in post-apartheid South Africa, Lucy, a white woman, is gang-raped in her home by three black men. She learns that the men are known by (one is even related to) Petrus, the black man and former employee with whom she runs a small farm and kennel on the eastern Cape. Her father, a womanizing university professor who’s been dismissed from his position for harassment, was with her when the attack happened -- beaten and set aflame. Both survive the attack, but to David Lurie’s dismay, his daughter does not report the attack, nor leave the homestead; in fact, she eventually enters into a transactional relationship with Petrus, financial and sexual. If this narrative outcome isn’t disturbing enough, Coetzee makes sure to supply Lucy’s character with a motivational “theory” -- that rape was the price one has to pay for staying on...they see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying? Perhaps that is what they tell themselves. Fans of his work may know that Coetzee was criticized by his countrywoman Nadine Gordimer for writing stories that “leave nothing unsaid...about what human beings do to other human beings” -- such that “the truth and meaning of what white has done to black [in South Africa] stands out on every page” -- yet at the same time eschew the possibility of progressive change via political actors. Of Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K, Gordimer famously wrote: Coetzee’s heroes are those who ignore history, not make it...A revulsion against all political and revolutionary solutions rises with the insistence of the song of cicadas to the climax of this novel...I don’t think the author would deny that it is his own revulsion...The exclusion is a central one that may eat out the heart of the work’s unity of art and life. For Gordimer, a political writer was one who ruthlessly rendered social breakdown, but who also crafted characters that embodied the possibility of political upheaval and societal renewal; indeed the writer of the truly political novel must himself be driven by this possibility. Interestingly, in his New York Times review of Disgrace, Michael Gorra compared the contemporaneous writing of Coetzee and Gordimer and wrote, “it is perhaps Coetzee, despite his resistance to a historically conditioned realism, who has the more deeply political mind.” And in the London Review of Books, while not naming Gordimer per se, Elizabeth Lowry suggested that a definition of political fiction along the lines of Gordimer’s engenders a simplistic, inferior genre: For the South African novelist...how should the volatile, explosive history of South Africa, a history in the making, be represented in fiction without lapsing into the impoverished aesthetic of merely political writing? Over a decade later, in “Where Has Political Fiction Gone?” (The Guardian, May 2010), Stuart Evers postulated on how novelists seem to have responded to Lowry’s challenge: "[C]ontemporary political novels -- the ones that sell, at least -- are more concerned with political disengagement than they are with values or beliefs. The theme that courses through...is not one of right versus left or socialism versus capitalism, but about inaction versus action.” Disgrace is an unpleasant, unforgettable novel. While Lucy is in fact not the protagonist -- David Lurie is -- her actions, and inactions, constitute the novel’s most provocative questions: is a theory of necessary retribution extreme, regressive, even barbaric? Or could it be that such a theory expresses the profound truth of a spiritual reality? Is Lucy a creation of social realism, or of symbolic allegory? Can the answers to all these questions be yes, and if so, how so? In any case, there is nothing impoverished or disengaged about the effects of Disgrace on this reader. Sixteen years later, in the midst of our own racial horrors and retributions, the novel’s haunting questions—political and interpersonal -- are as relevant as they’ve ever been. Lydia Kiesling In my early-20s I worked for an antiquarian bookseller who helped institutions build up collections of subject areas; one university was at work on a large collection of 20th-century American “literature of social change,” and he had me assist with finding these books. The guidelines took a passage from Barbara Kingsolver's copy for the Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. The mere description of an injustice, or the personal predicament of an exploited person, without any clear position of social analysis invoked by the writer, does not in itself constitute socially responsible literature. ‘Social responsibility’ describes a moral obligation of individuals to engage with their communities in ways that promote a more respectful coexistence. That's a very, perhaps impossibly high bar, and I often found myself confused when I tried to separate out the various strands of literature that qualified. I’m still confused by the distinction, frankly. So as a very roundabout way of answering, I’ll say first that the books I’ve read and loved that explicitly include politics, as in electoral politics or political movements, are All the King’s Men -- which is one of the most beautiful books I’ve read full-stop -- and Richard Wright’s Native Son, and A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, and Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy, and Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem, and Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories, and Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man (you’ll notice a masculine trend). I don’t really think of A Suitable Boy and Berlin Studies as political novels, but they actually have a lot of politics in them, i.e., elections, and I reread both every two or three years because I love them so much. Then are lots of books that fall more under that “social change” category that are intensely political, in that politics shaped and were shaped by the social conditions they described -- the wheelhouses of James Baldwin, Sinclair Lewis, John Steinbeck -- all authors whose books I’ve read and been moved by in the last decade. A Passage to India and Beloved jump out at me as the books that beautifully damn entire systems in miniature, although their temporal relationships to those systems are different. I finally read Claudia Rankine’s Citizen last week and though it’s not quite fiction, I can’t think of a book that so concisely lays out the most pressing American social issue of this month/year/decade/century. It collapses the border between “social” and “political.” But it also turned out, when I worked on this university list, that the literature of social change could mean books where writers did something as ostensibly mundane as depicting sex, or depicting families. I take Aleksandar Hemon’s point that politics is real and has consequences, and that Americans excel at avoiding it in their novels. I also know people hate it when women take selfies and say it’s a political act, but I do find ideological kinship with books that depict women thinking about sex and families and work in complicated, even unpalatable ways. So even though it wouldn't be eligible for The Bellwether Prize, Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai feels compelling to me, because I read it as a statement about motherhood and its effects on intellectually curious women. Or The Bell Jar. Or A Life's Work, although again it's not fiction. But I don't suppose those are actually political in a real sense. In fact, my interest in them may be exemplary of something less pleasant -- finding kinship with people who look and feel the way that you do is the ugliest thing about politics right now. Edan Lepucki I must admit, when I first saw this question, I told myself I wouldn't participate. Political fiction? No thank you! Like everyone else, I already feel overwhelmed by politics from day to day: Bernie v. Hillary; how do we stop Donald Trump?; will we ever have the chutzpah to take on the NRA?; the intersection of poisoned water and poverty; climate change; yet another black man killed by a white police officer; and, hey, look, some congressman wants to take away my reproductive rights yet again...on and on, and I haven't even gotten into international issues! I don't want politics to be a source of entertainment -- there is too much at stake for that -- and so I read fiction to be entertained. But please don't misunderstand: reading fiction is no mere escape. Doing so requires sustained attention, and that attention lets me understand better human action and reaction. It requires me to produce empathy for people who may do the opposite of what I might do. A necessary skill in the real world. Politics can reduce us to numbers, to noise. Fiction is human. Let's keep them separate. But maybe that isn't possible. Soon after I received the Millions Quiz question, I began my friend Ramona Ausubel's novel Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, about a privileged family that loses its fortune. The novel takes place in a particular era (the 1970s), and yet it's whimsical and dreamy enough to feel out of time. It doesn't feel overtly political; it's concerned with human characters who are complicated and nuanced, and never beholden to a message or platform. But at the same time, the Vietnam War is quite central to the story, and the book doesn't shy away from how the family came to acquire its wealth -- with black slaves, for starters. The novel also pays particular attention to the women in the family's history: for instance, one mother's goal to become a famous sculptor is never realized, not for lack of talent, but because she is female. In describing a woman who wants the career she can't have, Ausubel has acknowledged that experience, validated it. While the book lets you see its players for themselves, out of time and circumstance, a sort of human essence that would persist no matter what, it also reveals how race, gender, and class privilege inform our worldview, and participate in our becoming. That's...political. Michael Schaub Molly Ivins once called Texas politics the "finest form of free entertainment ever invented." It's a rare understatement from the late journalist, who knew more about the Lone Star State than most of us Texans ever will. (She tried to warn us, too, writing in 2001, "Next time I tell you someone from Texas should not be president of the United States, please pay attention.") Everything is crazier in Texas, especially politics. The novelist Kinky Friedman (who is crazy, but the good kind of crazy) once got 12 percent of the vote in a gubernatorial election despite having written song lyrics like "They ain't makin' Jews like Jesus anymore / They ain't makin' carpenters who know what nails are for." And this year, crazy has gone national, though it's New York, not Texas, to blame. That's why I've been thinking about Billy Lee Brammer's wonderful 1961 novel The Gay Place. The book follows three characters as they navigate the increasingly insane world of Texas politics: a state legislator, a United States senator, and a speechwriter who works for Governor Arthur "Goddamn" Fenstemaker (who is based very, very heavily on Lyndon B. Johnson). There's a lot of drinking and a lot of sex. In other words, it's the perfect Austin novel. The protagonists in The Gay Place are perpetually filled with dread, and a feeling that something's gone horribly wrong with the way the state is governed. But there's not much pushback on their part, and few attempts to kick against the pricks. Brammer does a great job exploring how those who work in politics go from idealistic to cynical in record time, and how graft and bombast became the new normal in Austin. And it's happening now, again, on a national level, though with higher stakes and an even more bizarre would-be leader (I am beginning to think that no fiction, even the most dystopian, could possibly account for Trump). The Gay Place is brilliant and sui generis, even if the chicken-fried dialogue might perplex non-Southern readers. And it's a great look at what happens when a state basically decides to expect political corruption. Sorry, the rest of America, but we warned y'all. Or at least we meant to. Janet Potter One reason I rarely wade into discussions about modern U.S. politics is that I don’t give it enough sustained attention. I don’t have an adequately comprehensive understanding of the major lawmakers and issue negotiations to do anything other than parrot my commentator of choice when a flashpoint issue comes up. (That’s modern politics, mind you, I could talk about 1850s politics until I’m blue in the face.) In the summer of 2011, however, I knew the political machinations of George R.R. Martin’s Westeros like the back of my hand. I could talk about the Westerosi politics like the characters of The West Wing talk about U.S. politics -- with long-winded complexity and near-perfect recall. Martin is rightly praised for the scope and melodrama of his storytelling, but he’s also a political genius, or at least has the talent to write from the perspective of a handful of different political geniuses. I read the first 5 books in A Song of Ice and Fire in a few weeks. During that time, I probably spent more of my waking hours absorbed in the world of Westeros than I did going about my own life, and so for a short while I was able to hold all the details of its multi-faceted war in my head. I knew I would like the romance, the battles, the centuries-old feuds and unlikely friendships, but I was surprised by how much I liked reading about the politics. Having a comprehensive understanding of the political scene made the council meetings electrifying. I found myself with an opinion of how these fictional politicians should proceed, something that never happens in my actual life. It helped me to understand why people who follow politics, you know, in the real world, get addicted to it. It was fascinating and confounding and impossible not to talk about. At this point the finer points have slipped away, and I only remember the romance and melodrama (like how desperately I want Arya to be reunited with Nymeria), but for a few brief weeks I was a Westeros wonk. Cara DuBois Twice in the past year, I’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale -- once for pleasure, the second time for a course called Disposable Life and the Contemporary Novel. The first reading was visceral; I swallowed the book whole and it left a lump in my throat. In my second reading (the text was paired with works like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates), I focused on the body in another way and attempted to understand how and why a person becomes expendable. As I stood in Offred’s place, I felt a familiar fear. Atwood’s novel may be satire, but the gendered violence in Gilead doesn’t feel like a part of a distant dystopian world to me. It is everyday violence. Offred says, “I try not to think too much. Like other things now, thought must be rationed. There’s a lot that doesn’t bear thinking about. Thinking can hurt your chances, and I intend to last.” As I write this now, hours after the hate crime in Orlando, I understand what Offred means. Opening myself up to the realities of the world -- to the disposability of my body as an LGBTQ woman -- feels like a slow death. Atwood calls her work “speculative fiction” because it builds on the existing world, presenting something outlandish but not entirely impossible, because it is anchored in the real. I related to the violence and the dehumanization in the text. Though it would be easier to ignore these feelings, I must acknowledge them in order to work toward positive change. (Offred, too, remains politically conscious throughout the text.) I can’t argue that The Handmaid’s Tale is the best political fiction ever written, but it helped me find my voice -- the most important political weapon there is. Image Credit: Flickr/Andrew Comings.
Last weekend, my local library hosted a “bag sale” in its basement, one of its occasional fundraisers in which eight dollars gets you a paper shopping bag and free, manic rein to fill it with used books. I look forward to these sales with the childish excitement that once accompanied major holidays, despite the glaring fact that I don’t need any books. Given my hoarder’s mania for gathering them — from give-a-book/take-a-book racks, curbside boxes, friends both generous and easily stolen from, and bookstores new and secondhand — one could make a convincing argument that a sack of secondhand books is one of the last things I need. My house is filled with books, and though I try to get rid of those I no longer care about, such efforts are largely futile. The things gather like autumn leaves at the corners of a fence; no sooner do I rake them away then another heap blows in. I’m running out of places to stash them. Unless I live to 140, I’ll never read them all. But still: eight dollars. So on Sunday morning, I descended the library’s rear staircase like a man eager to be condemned, and entered its long, low, yellow-lit cellar, lined with tables, carts, and boxes of books. Thousands and thousands of books. I gave a grandmotherly, white-haired volunteer — is there any other kind? — my eight bucks; she wrote “PAID” on a Trader Joe’s bag and handed it to me. I thanked her, turned around, and waded into the stacks, joining 30 or so others, brows knit in concentration, in pursuit of more books. It was 11:55. At noon, in the hardcover fiction section, I made my first pull of the day: T.C. Boyle’s 2006 story collection, Tooth & Claw. I’m not a huge short-story fan, and I had no real intention of taking Tooth & Claw home. But it was fairly new — at such a sale, anything published within the last decade qualifies as “fairly new” — and I love Boyle. So I just held it for a second, looking at its black-and-grey cover, before sliding it back on the shelf. There was a strange tenderness to the act; the impulse seemed to come from the same place that leads me to absently ruffle my son’s hair whenever he passes by. Two minutes later, crouching above a shallow box of paperbacks, I brought up Richard Russo’s The Risk Pool. I’ve only read one Russo novel, Empire Falls, and although I enjoyed it, I’ve also lazily assumed that I don’t need to read any other Russos; his work strikes me — rightly or not — as a minor series of variations on a familiar theme. What attracted me to The Risk Pool was its cover; it was an old Vintage Contemporary, a fine time capsule of late ‘80s art direction. I’ve never been disappointed by anything I’ve read in the Vintage line — Yates, Portis, Doyle, Carver — and I’ve never been disappointed by the books’ surreal, pastel covers. The Risk Pool’s was a pleasingly nostalgic painting of a man and a boy resting beside a country road. I took it in, as if standing in a gallery, then nestled it back in its box, needing to move on. At 12:03, I dropped my first book of the day into the bag: Boyle’s East is East, an early-ish novel of his that I’d never gotten around to. I felt an inane sense of accomplishment, as if I were a St. Bernard who had just discovered a lost cross-country skier. I looked down at East is East in the bottom of the sack; it seemed tragically small and lonesome, and I resolved to find it some friends. At 12:05, as I again ran my eyes across the hardcover fiction titles, I heard a woman say to a volunteer: “Shoot me if I come back again.” They laughed, and although I didn’t look up, I pictured the joker struggling with a book-overflowing bag, preparing to drag it back to her book-overflowing house. I haven’t reached the point where I need to tell strangers that they may murder me if I try to buy any more books, but I’ll probably get there soon. I checked my watch. I’d been there for twelve minutes. After East is East, I had tossed a couple more books in my bag (Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaid’s Tale and Joe Meno’s Office Girl), and I was feeling fairly content until I spotted an old, weathered copy of William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner. I had no particular problem with or interest in the novel; the issue was that it reminded me that my mother had given me James McBride’s The Good Lord Bird two Christmases ago. That, in turn, reminded me that I hadn’t read The Good Lord Bird — or The Imperfectionists, or Ender’s Game, or A Fan’s Notes, or any other of the dozens of other novels that I’ve picked up over the years, each time thinking, “I can’t wait to read this,” before making the purchase. It was another reminder that I will surely die before I read all of my books, that my descendants will one day be forced to shovel through it all, skeptically asking one another, “Did he actually read all these?” Then, with a Homer Simpson “Ooh,” I spotted Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, dropped it in my bag, and forgot about my eventual demise. I can’t wait to read The Plot Against America. At 12:10, I saw the fourth copy of Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants since I arrived at the sale just fifteen minutes before. It brought me back to a college-era bull-session question I used to pose: Which album do you see more than any other at used-CD stores? (I always went with R.E.M.’s Monster, which, it seemed, everybody bought and nobody really liked.) So was Water for Elephants the new Monster? I didn’t think so. For one thing, between Freakonomics and Eat, Pray, Love, the competition was fairly stiff. Perhaps Water for Elephants is the new Zooropa. These are what pass for thoughts at a library bag sale. At 12:18, I found a paperback copy of Steven King’s Lisey’s Story, and pondered its possibilities. I wasn’t wondering whether or not I might want to read it; I had already made that determination at a church rummage sale in July, when I bought the book in hardcover. That version of Lisey’s Story was the approximate weight of an Oldsmobile, and the questions before me now were: 1) Should I take this paperback and, once home, swap it out for the hardcover? 2) Would I actually get rid of the massive thing, or would I just keep them both? And 3) Was I really in the business of buying books that I already owned? Lisey’s Story went back on the shelf. At around 12:25, with two more books in the bag (E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel and Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother), I realized that I needed to get back home. There were chores to be done, errands to be run, kids to be corralled. I buzzed the children’s section and chose a quick nine or ten titles — Clifford's Kitten and a Tom and Jerry Golden Book among them — that looked to be in decent shape. Then a peculiar Black Friday anxiety washed over me as I forced myself towards the exit: what was I missing? There was so much still to see! Christ, I barely browsed Nonfiction! My eyesight grew twitchy and granular as I tried to take it all in: every sci-fi novel, every mystery, every moldering Penguin Classic. I picked up something by Arthur Koestler, as if grabbing at a bobbing life preserver, while I moved slowly from the room. Then, with a sigh, I put Darkness at Noon back in its box and walked into the day, struck by the freshness of the air outside. The bag felt heavy in my hand, but not oppressively so. All in all, the previous half-hour had been a success: six more books to add to the top of the teetering mountain. I wouldn’t be back that day; I could survive until the next bag sale, whenever that might be. Nobody would have to shoot me for buying things I didn’t need.
1. I can usually remember exactly where I was when I read any given book. Here’s what I mean: when I look to the shelf before me, The Spell of the Sensuous, by David Abram, is the title that catches my eye. It’s a hardcover with a matte black jacket and gray print on the spine. Where was I? An image arrives instantly: a wheely chair in the adjunct faculty office at the community college. It was winter, my first in New Mexico. Besides teaching, I waitressed in a cocktail lounge until two or three in the morning. Exhausted and homesick, unable to afford health insurance, I often wondered whether I’d made a mistake in following my heart to Santa Fe. Next on the shelf: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood, which I read in a college dorm room strewn with empty mugs and textbooks. Rain streamed down the windowpanes for weeks on end. It was finals, but I wasn’t writing my papers -- those I stupidly saved until 24 hours before they were due. I was a frantic person then, always running late. And as for Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, I read that on a pink couch in a Cambridge apartment in summer. My boyfriend and I had just broken up; he packed his bags and moved to Alaska, and I was simultaneously fraught with grief and elated with newfound freedom. It’s an ability I suspect many of us possess: besides plying our minds for the story’s plot, the characters’ names, and the themes presented, we can send ourselves back to where we were when we read the books we loved. Lately, I’ve been trying to pay even more attention to my journey as the reading of the book is taking place. What mark did the book leave on me, and in turn, what imprint did I impart? Books have always helped me to find meaning in the chaos of experience. As my eyes scan the shelf, I can picture angsty teenage afternoons, Cynthia Voigt beside me offering up Dicey’s Song like comfort food. I see an October of bad job interviews, red wine, and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom. I see a quick succession of flings and subsequent breakups, Jane Smiley and Joyce Carol Oates stroking my hair as I wept. I read Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich when my grandmother died. Anita Shreve, Stephen King, and Isabel Allende saw me through romantic weekends, family get-togethers, and summer road trips. Because of the books I have read, I’m a teacher, a traveler, and a chef. I am a fighter and a laugher. I am a writer. For one bewildering moment, I wonder who I’d be without this shelf. 2. When I was 22, I worked at a hotel in my hometown for six months and saved up enough money to buy a round-the-world plane ticket. While members of my graduating class were accepting real jobs and renting their first apartments, I moved back in with my mom and dad. It took some convincing to get my mom to agree to put me up while I prepared to see the world alone. “I just need to do this,” I told her many times, so many that finally I actually believed it. The truth was, I didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do, and so traveling seemed the most logical path, because after 17 years as a student, I needed a break. I needed some culture, some eye-opening excitement. In the end, my mom pitched in for my rabies vaccine, and together we mapped out my route on the family globe. A few days before Thanksgiving, my brother drove me to the Boston airport. I was bound for Hong Kong, and foolishly I had done very little planning and no preparatory reading. Like most other things, I had left my trip around the world until the last minute. My friends threw me a going-away party the night before, and I hadn’t slept at all. At the airport, my brother kissed me goodbye and tore off gleefully in my car -- his for the next six months -- and then I was alone, the morning still dark and very cold. I looked at the ticket in my hand. This wasn’t how I imagined it would be -- already, a desperate loneliness, and I hadn’t even left the States. In Hong Kong, I suffered from horrible jetlag. I woke every morning at three and tossed and turned until four, and then I sat out on the roof of my hostel and watched the city twinkle awake. I had never felt so lonesome. I had no idea what to do with myself. I couldn’t communicate, and I had terrible trouble reading my map. I didn’t know how to do the most basic things -- eat at a café, find a book in the library, buy a train ticket -- and I felt stupid and self-conscious trying. People looked at me strangely, and so I wandered the streets very early in the mornings when only schoolchildren were out walking. I wrote weepy emails home and wondered how I would survive six months of this. Then I opened Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt. Of the book itself, I only vaguely remember the plot. The main themes stand out: a desperate childhood, extreme poverty, alcoholism, and abandonment. I remember McCourt’s Limerick in stills: a dirty gray street, a freezing Sunday mass, a sour pickled dinner, a Christmas with nothing. I can remember well the book’s humor, though, and its hope. I remember an adolescent Frank who scrimped and saved, rose in the morning, passed out in bed at night, and watched men throw his mother around. Still, he survived. By the light of a waning headlamp, I finished the book and wept. I slept deeply that night and rose with the sun for the first time in a week. When I think of Angela’s Ashes, what I remember most is the way Hong Kong sounded and smelled. The air was muggy, winey, and fishy by late afternoon. Salt blew off the sea. My hostel smelled like cigarette smoke and old newspapers, and the curtains were always closed so that the place sat in a simmering, crowded gloom. In the very early morning, the scent of lilies blew in through the single open window. The girl in the bed next to mine came in late and slept a restless, whimpering sleep. All of this I recall as if it happened very recently. I think of Angela’s Ashes and my senses remember Hong Kong. The book kept me from giving up, I realize now. It kept me from getting on the next plane home, and it forced me out of the relative safety of my hostel. If Frank could survive, you can do this, I told myself, setting out. I took a ferry to Lantau Island and then rode a bus for hours through a tiny fishing village and a silver city built into cloud forest. On Lantau, standing beneath the largest Buddha sculpture in the world, I couldn’t believe where I was. 3. Thailand was my next stop. I made my slow way up and down the country, riding buses toward Burma and then back to Bangkok. In the daytime the buses were always crowded, four or five to a seat and people standing with animals and children in the aisles. There would invariably be a toddler on my lap. The heat would rise and the hours would lengthen, and yet there was always something so calm about those rides. The heat, the long light, and the good-natured Thais all made for easy traveling. I read The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith on one such journey. We were traveling down Thailand’s narrowest passage towards the Malaysian border, having left Bangkok early that morning. We were due in the city of Trang by midnight, and all the while I read. The sun was warm through the windows, and a gentle breeze blew. A little girl sat perched on my lap, her hair in braids, her hands folded across her body. Eventually, she closed her eyes and slept against me. I read about a grassy Botswana savannah, a friendly community, and a no-nonsense lady detective called Hetty who sings to herself, “O, Botswana, my country, my place.” I can still remember that line exactly. I was a continent away from home on a bus in Asia, and yet I also felt, however temporarily, to be in my place. The words somehow matched exactly the Thailand that stretched alongside me, yellow and green beneath an amber afternoon sky. There came an occasional glimpse of the sea. I was content, flung, and anonymous. I had never felt so free. We jostled along in the fading afternoon, the passengers’ heads lolling in sleep. A man in a beach hut on the island of Ko Chang gave me his copy of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist in exchange for a piece of cake wrapped in foil and two lukewarm Chang beers. Of that book, I remember round pebbles and a wandering boy, spare prose, a search for treasure, and a long journey home. But I cannot think of The Alchemist without also thinking of that man’s beach hut, his dreadlocks, the jam-packed ashtray by his bed, and his sandy kitchen floor. I remember a white-sand beach, creaking palms, shells lined up on the stairs, a jagged painting of birds and water. I can still hear the man’s deep, quiet voice. Our feet were bare. He was born on the beach, he told me. Without The Alchemist, I might not have remembered him at all. 4. I spent my last months in India, where I felt it my duty to read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. I expected to slog through the book, published three-quarters of a century ago, but in the end, I couldn’t put it down. Everything I saw matched the texture of the book: the sounds of the streets and markets, the smells of burnt sugar and sweat, and the rocking of the trains. I noticed caves the color of clay, and my train once passed through a desert strewn with bones. I saw the marshes of Goa and the Karnataka coast; I turned the pages. Still, India shook me. It shakes most anyone, I imagine, especially if you’re used to orderly streets and personal space. The clamor was jolting. The trains were late and crammed, and people slept on cots in rows on the sidewalks. I saw sick people, hungry people, and dead people. I was overwhelmed and afraid, and people stared at me constantly. In the end, it was, of course, a book that saved me. I distinctly remember sitting on a train in a busy aisle seat, deep into A Passage to India. Mrs. Moore was watching from the deck of a ship as India shrank away. She had had a bad go of it, and she was ready to go home to England. On a train pulling through neighborhoods of sprawling Mumbai slums, I read Forster’s description of Mrs. Moore’s departure: ...Presently the boat sailed and thousands of coconut palms appeared all around the anchorage and climbed the hills to wave her farewell. 'So you thought an echo was India; you took the Marabar caves as final?' they laughed. 'What have we in common with them, or they with Asirgarh? Goodbye! I put down the book, looked out into mad Mumbai, and laughed out loud. I heard Forster’s coconut palms everywhere after that: So you thought one bad night was India? One bad meal? One crowded street? India is beautiful, you see. Give it time! Their whispers strengthened me. In freezing Manali, I did what I could to stay warm, eat well, and exercise. By Haridwar, I had stopped noticing the stares. I learned to look instead for the beauty each place offered: In Rishikesh, I stayed for free in an ashram, practicing yoga in the mornings and walking by the glacially blue Ganges in the afternoons. Jaipur held an ancient fort, a raucous flea market, and an organic farm at the end of a dirt road where, for three weeks, I weeded vegetable gardens with a group of Israeli hippies. Rajasthan was a city of blue roofs, golden sunsets, and cream-colored walls, a color palette I will remember for the rest of my life. Nowhere else, I suspect, could I have read so closely or loved so dearly A Passage to India. 5. That year, only the books in my hands knew where to find me. They were my guides, my teachers, and my friends. Thailand will always resemble Botswana in the afternoon light, and my Hong Kong is Lantau, silent mornings, and Frank McCourt as a rugged little boy, finding laughter in a gloomy room. For readers, I have discovered, there will always be two journeys, and if we forget one, we’re bound to lose both, for each sustains the narrative of our lives. Photos by Katie Thebeau.
I read The Handmaid's Tale for the first time this summer. I'd never read any Margaret Atwood before that. I picked up a used hardcover at a bookstore in Philadelphia, and it sat around before I finally decided to take the plunge. I don't know why I waited so long. It is perhaps the most moving book I've ever read. It is dark, funny, poignant, frightening. Margaret Atwood writes with such fierce poetry that I found myself running my fingers over the words, trying to absorb the book's magic in every sense I could. It doesn't happen often, that kind of magic. I saw a picture of Atwood writing it in Berlin, and it is just her at a table in an otherwise empty room. The novel's magic is all her. It is quite the feminist novel, too, and what blows my mind is that it is almost 30 years old but feels as of the moment as I'm sure it did back then. Women are still fighting for their rights. We are still fighting for our personhood, for our right to total equality. We are still Offreds in many ways. When I finished the book I felt depressed for days, mourning the loss of such a gorgeous and enveloping companion. Then, recently, I was given an advance copy of Laura van den Berg's novel Find Me, out next year on FSG. It felt like the response to The Handmaid's Tale's call. The characters are very different, the worlds in which the novels are set are different, but the yearning of both characters, the driving grief, feels very much of a piece. Both novels offer precision of language and metaphor and scene even as what is being constructed feels messy, chaotic, sad, hopeless. Find Me's joy is speaking in parallel with The Handmaid's Tale's Offred. Both orphaned and alone in the world, both so completely real, both telling a story that feels important and exciting to read. I feel lucky to have stumbled upon these books this year, and challenged by them to be better. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
I’ve written before about By Heart, a series at The Atlantic in which authors write short pieces about their favorite passages in literature. This week, our own Edan Lepucki -- whose new novel you may have heard about thanks to Stephen Colbert -- writes about the metaphors in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. (FYI, Margaret Atwood wrote a Year in Reading entry for The Millions.)
When I write fiction, at least a first draft of something, I try not to think too much. Or maybe it’s that I try to keep my thoughts small: words, images, rhythms, a character’s particular way of holding a key. I try not to think about the symbolic meaning of said key -- if keys keep showing up, I try not to think about why. In revision, sure. The keys will have to go. But for the first draft I willfully maintain a half-state of ignorance. This is how I was able to write basically the same short story twice. (I like to think the second “version,” published years later, is better.) It’s how I build parallels and thematic arcs into my work before I recognize them as such and risk overdoing them. It’s how I got many drafts into my first novel, The Little Bride, before I realized -- when my editor brought it up, as a simple matter of fact -- that the two central mother figures in the book leave their husbands and children. They don’t say goodbye, or leave notes, or send word of where they’ve gone. They just disappear, and don’t come back. Initially, I was drawn to Celeste Ng’s debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, by its premise: the book tells the story of the Lees, a multiracial family in 1970s Ohio reeling from the mysterious death of their middle child, Lydia. I found myself reading late into the night, fascinated by Ng’s imperfect characters working their way -- imperfectly -- through grief, moved by her restrained yet startlingly emotive prose, in awe of her masterful use of an omniscient narrator who switches points-of-view mid-scene as soundlessly as Marilyn Lee opens the door to her daughter’s empty bedroom. Then, mid-book, I found myself holding my breath as the narrative flashed back to one summer, years ago, when Marilyn cooked her family’s favorite meals, dug out her textbooks from her long-abandoned college career, and without a word moved an hour away to Toledo, where she rented an efficiency apartment and attempted to start again as a student. Eventually, Marilyn returned. The family moved on, not speaking of her disappearance -- when we meet them at the beginning of the book, we hear nothing of it. Marilyn’s great defection has been silenced. But of course it hangs over them, as it hung over me. Ng’s portrait of ambivalence is heart-breaking: “often, when she opened her books, Marilyn’s mind whirled. Equations jumbled and rejumbled, hidden messages jumping out at her. NaOH became Nath, his small face wide-eyed and reproachful...” Marilyn begins calling the house to listen silently to her family’s voices, to get just enough of them to shore herself up -- not to face a lover or a boss, but herself. Literature is full of disappearing mothers. Many of them die -- think of all the orphans. A significant number commit suicide, including Anna Karenina, Emma Bovary, Edna Pontellier, and Helen in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Others are forced away by war (Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, Amy Bloom’s Away), or oppressive governments (Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale). Other mothers only imagine killing themselves, or leave for a couple hours (Laura Brown in The Hours does both) only to pretend neither happened. Less common are the women who are neither psychically wrecked nor physically threatened but simply and unbearably torn between motherhood and selfhood, tormented by their feeling that the two can’t coexist. These are characters like Marilyn Lee, or the narrator in Alice Munro’s story “Nettles,” whose separation from her husband costs her her daughters, or Leda in Elana Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, whose explanation for her three-year abandonment of her young daughters speaks to the central, wrenching paradox all these authors explore: “I loved them too much and it seemed to me that love for them would keep me from becoming myself.” Why so much motherly abandonment? It makes for good conflict, of course. It can help define characters and set plots in motion. Most importantly, it’s an act that even in 2014 remains, in many ways, the ultimate taboo. Granted, plenty of literary fathers leave, too. But when Rabbit goes running, when Francis Phelan tragically drops -- and kills -- his newborn son and leaves town in William Kennedy’s Ironweed, a reader (at least this reader) feels sorrow, disappointment, grief, a certain amount of anger, but not shock. Their leaving, it seems, in these and countless other stories, is part of their condition. Whereas when a mother leaves, we assume she must defy her very nature. Celeste Ng –– who was kind enough to correspond with me, via email –– wonders if this assumption lies partly in our -- limited -- notions of what’s “natural.” She points out: “Plenty of animal mothers leave their offspring as a matter of routine. Harp seals abandon their pups early on. Cuckoos notoriously lay their eggs in other birds' nests and abandon them -- tricking other birds into raising a chick that isn't theirs. Even cute, cuddly, pandas often have twins and then abandon the one that seems weaker. And many animals, when stressed or starved, abandon their young -- or eat them.” Our tendency to forget this, Ng says, shows up in the first stories we’re told. “Look at the classic children’s book, Are You My Mother? The baby bird goes looking for his mother, and because he's never seen her, he thinks a cat, a dog, a cow, a hen, a plane, a car, and even a boat might be his mother. So from a very early age, we get the idea that without a mother, you have no real sense of self -- you have zero idea who you are or what you're supposed to do in your life. I'm being a bit facetious here -- and I'm not saying that we're wrong about how important mothers are, either -- just that mothers hold a very revered place in our culture and our psyche. Maybe that's why this plotline appears so often in literature. Losing the one person who's supposed to nurture and protect you in your most vulnerable years -- what a fundamental fear.” This fear belongs primarily -- and primally -- to children. Which may be why telling the story of a mother’s leaving not from a child’s point-of-view (Where’d You Go, Bernadette, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) but from the mother’s can feel risky. Writers are all too aware -- however hard we may try to ignore it -- of the reading public’s impatience with “unsympathetic” characters, and it can be tempting to put sympathy before truth. Ng says that in an earlier, “melodramatic” draft of Everything I Never Told You, Marilyn’s frustrations with her life led to a breakdown and visit to a mental hospital, until Ng took the leap and rewrote her as “a stronger character, with particular desires, who made the choice to leave her family.” It’s striking, too, that Marilyn bolsters her resolve to leave by thinking of her mother’s old, spine-cracked Betty Crocker cookbook, while in The Hours, Laura Brown urges herself on -- and ultimately comforts herself -- with Mrs. Dalloway. Emma Bovary, of course, chain-reads romance novels. It’s as if the authors of these books, knowing the challenges they face in portraying mothers who call it quits, brought in iconic texts as units of cultural precedent, backsplashes for the mothers to fling themselves against, asking what they want, and facing what they are. A mother abandoning her children is an inversion of the orphan tale. It may even feel to some readers like a perversion. It’s a story that’s easy to read and say, without thinking, “I can’t imagine.” And yet, most of us can. What parent hasn’t at some point longed to flee, even for a day? Parents who are passionate about their work perhaps experience this more acutely. I know I’m guilty of frequent mental abandonment, whether I’m wrestling with a plot problem as my daughter performs “Let it Go” or jotting notes in magic marker for the novel I’m now revising though I’ve promised to draw a tree. I’ve come to accept this as part of the deal, part of my commitment to being both a mother and a writer: I go away in my mind so that I can stay. I should mention. That novel I’m revising? It begins with a teenage mother leaving her baby in a pear orchard. Don’t ask if I was thinking, when I first wrote this opening scene, about its resonance with my first novel, or all the other novels in which mothers disappear. I wasn’t. But I am now. And I’m thinking about how maybe my cultivated first-draft obliviousness is a little like the trips I take in my mind as a mother: a benign and necessary neglect. If you read the latest woo-woo about parenting, you know that “they” are now recommending we leave our kids alone more, not alone alone, but with enough space that they can figure things out, take risks, make mistakes. Maybe I’ve just known, all along, that my work needs space, too. In any case, I intend to keep up my willed inattention, and let all of us -- the kids, and the books, and me (me!) -- grow strong, and a little wild. Image Credit: Wikipedia
As a kid, video games taught me just as much about writing as novels did. The thousands of hours I spent with my head in books were matched by the thousands of hours I spent at my computer. In my child brain, they didn’t seem as if they were disparate forms belonging to different centuries. I’m not sure I even recognized the difference. I played games for the storytelling, to the degree that no one in middle school actually considered me to be completely a “gamer.” I didn’t really care about winning or being good. What interested me were the stories. When I played strategy games like Civilization, the kingdoms I built did not consist of representative pieces on a chessboard. In my head, even as early as age 7, the cities were real. Families lived in them. They had cultures and identities and backstories invented with each subsequent turn. I had feelings about them. My districts, armies, and generals were built not just for effectiveness but aesthetic design and sociological meaning. My outings as a fighter pilot in space simulators had dramatic and cinematic arcs to them, missions experienced not as sets of objectives but as short stories, as chapters. The gleam of the fake pixelated gray of the bulkheads and the pulsing neon lights of the cockpit instruments were just as important as the scoreboard. In the first two first-person shooters I played, I rarely completed levels successfully, instead treating the labyrinths of Doom or Dark Forces as Kafkaesque wanderings interrupted by existential shootouts. I was fascinated by how the story was introduced, how the narrative progressed over shifting environments, with layered escalations of both difficulty and design. There were times when it was almost as if the games I was playing and the books I was reading were in conversation. Half-Life meant Huxley and Diablo II meant Dante. In the 7th grade, I took Latin and read Roman History just to give my obsession with Caesar III more context. William Gibson forced me to go back and re-experience Syndicate. Sim City 2000 directly caused me to steal my father’s copy of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. Max Payne, my first experience with any sort of noir, meant Patricia Highsmith and Raymond Chandler. By the time I was in high school, I was confused as to why such a small collection of books were explicitly influencing games. When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, I could not understand why there was not a video game version lurking somewhere in a dark corner of the digital universe, or even vague homages in the totally unrelated omnipresent sci-fi dystopias that were the setting for so many games. In what can only be described now as adolescent naivety, it was unthinkable to me that male-dominated, technologically-centered works like Ender’s Game or Snow Crash were so in sync with the video games being developed, but As I Lay Dying and Pride and Prejudice were somehow unworthy. In the 15 years since my 12-year-old boy gamer heyday, video games have become the most dominant form of media on the planet, though you would not be able to tell by reading contemporary literature. Aside from the efforts of Austin Grossman and Ernest Cline, the few works of fiction that do confront gaming’s prominence tend to be on the borderlines of genres not always considered “literary,” or works of experimental literature more interested in turning the form of the novel into a game than using the novel to explore what the rise of gaming means to the human experience. What is particularly sad about this state of affairs is that the literary world and the video games world could greatly benefit each other. Even a conversation, let alone the beginning of real collaborations and dialogues, would help each contend with their respective shortcomings. The book publishing industry needs to carve out a more interesting, necessary space for itself in the digital world. All too frequently “technology” is considered one big amorphous blob, or worse, treated with indifference. Barely enhanced e-books, predictably executed apps, and promotional Twitter accounts for dead or Luddite authors seem to represent the extent of most publishers’ innovative efforts. Even in terms of pure content, contemporary fiction too often fails to fully evoke 21st-century life and contend with its burgeoning issues. We writers disproportionately focus on the past, or worse, replicate the form and structures of centuries gone without appetite for the risk, resistance, and failure innovation entails. The video games community, despite its tremendous financial success and cultural relevance, has its own significant problems. Despite the best efforts of a growing cadre of games critics, journalists, writers, and theorists, not to mention a legion of talented independent developers, the industry is plagued by issues of cultural legitimacy and a real struggle to grow out of repetitive content. American cultural institutions largely ignore the entire medium, the exceptions often taking the form of desperate half-hearted attempts to appeal to a younger demographic (such as MoMA’s addition of 14 mostly-retro games to its collection), or outright hostility (such as the late Roger Ebert’s 2010 statement that “video games can never be art,” a stance he subsequently softened after getting dissents from readers). Meanwhile, big budget games like Call of Duty and Halo follow the same tired patterns of gameplay and storytelling with little real innovation aside from graphical improvements and the ever-evolving appropriations of Hollywood clichés. Games writing luminaries such as Leigh Alexander, Luke Plunkett, Tom Bissell, Cara Ellison, and John Walker have explored and debated every facet of what a video game is and should be, including the Sisyphean tasks of attacking the mainstream industry for its utterly regressive gender politics, lack of diversity, and unwillingness to explore subject matter other than the same tried and true action movie content patronizingly marketed to the worst imagined 12-year-old boy archetype. But this growing field of theory and criticism has only been so successful in forcing the form to confront its demons. Over the past year, I made a concerted effort to begin meeting, talking, and collaborating with members of the games industry. I went to conferences, events, and explored the social networks of the few friends I had working in the field. During this time, every game developer I came across, whether her company was big or small, her projects commercial or experimental, expressed a desire to be taken more seriously as an artist and creator. And there was a tangible feeling that they are not there yet. When I attended the Game Developers Conference for the first time in March 2013, I was stunned at how receptive everyone was to the presence of a random aspiring novelist. Mainstream behemoths and indie game developers alike asked me how they might more “literary” or “novelistic.” Producers of big budget titles told me how much they wished they had better written content within their games, but seemed to have no idea how to access the pool of what one Creative Assembly designer called “all those surely unemployed creative writing MFAs living in Brooklyn.” There may be a kernel of truth in his statement. There is certainly unutilized talent in the literary world capable of writing the pants off of a lot of what passes for dialogue or in-game text in many mainstream video games. Aside from the few individuals with both gaming and literary backgrounds (like Austin Grossman), the games industry has little framework for how to judge the abilities of those who are not already writing for games or designing them outright. So far, no developer has been explicitly willing to take the risk to start evaluating or hiring Iowa grads. “It would be nice if we could figure out how to do it,” Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment told me, “but without a record of actually writing for games in some capacity, it’s very difficult to hire someone.” At the same time, employees of mainstream developers continually express great interest in how to cultivate more serious topics and subject matter. “How did books get to be so respected?” an Electronic Arts VP asked me at that same GDC last year, as though this suspect level of gravitas must be the result of a viral marketing campaign and not a cultural evolution that took place over hundreds of years. Tin-eared dialogue aside, there is actually an impressive literary consciousness to be found within certain tracts of the video games community. In a conversation with Anthony Burch (Borderlands 2), Susan O’Connor (BioShock and Bioshock 2), and Aaron Linde (Gears of War 3), three supremely talented games writers, we shared our disappointment that there had never been a violent action game written by Bret Easton Ellis, and that no game designer had ever gone to David Foster Wallace and said “what do you want to make?” "Blood Meridian would make for a hell of a videogame,” Burch told me recently. “McCarthy explores the depths of human evil and bloodlust; an interactive version could allow the player to explore their own personal capacity for those same things. I'd love to see a P.G. Wodehouse videogame. Wodehouse's books, unlike most videogames, were centered around people but never included any violence or sex. I'd love to see his sensibilities transplanted into games. Just imagining a Telltale-style [a developer famous for making episodic adventure games] Jeeves and Wooster game makes me slightly giddy" I then asked him how the games industry could attract better writing talent. “Start making games that allow for greater narrative depth,” he replied. “If most of your game's script consists of battle dialog (imagine writing 50 different variations of the phrase, "incoming grenade!"), that's not going to attract top talent. If, however, your game allows the world to react to the player's actions in interesting ways, or if your story reveals itself to the player in ways only games can achieve, then you might well find writing talent jumping at the chance to do something challenging, different, and risky.” Underneath conversations like this lurks the reality that being a “games writer” is too often considered a secondary position in the making of a game. Designers, producers, and programmers tend to control a greater share of narrative structure and destiny than you might expect, with writers simply crafting made-to-order textual content. Nevertheless, if my wanderings in the game world have convinced me of anything, it is that within even the worst cliché of the demographic “gamer,” there is a prospective reader of literary fiction. Not unlike the most ambitious and challenging novels, video games feature unreliable narrators, shifting perspectives, digressions that become their own plot lines, fragmented timelines, the use of magic, myth, hallucination, and multiple outcomes. These are commonalities rather than eccentricities, and gamers are undaunted, even treating narrative difficulties as worthy challenges. Game designer Jane McGonigal calculated that as a planet we play three billion hours of video games a week. Millions of people have come of age experiencing storytelling predominantly through this medium. Millions of people have fake killed millions of other fake people. Millions of people have conquered the world or prevented it from being conquered, have built and run impossibly vast megacities, have followed the stories of countless heroes and villains. We should try to write some novels for them. Twelve- to 18-year-old males are not the only people playing video games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is 30 years old, and 45 percent are female. Yet there can be no doubt that most games are still marketed toward a young, overwhelmingly male demographic, with companies convinced this is necessary to their bottom line despite the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary. This disproportionate focus leaves substantial room for the games industry to acquire new customers. There are whole swaths of potential players whom the video games industry has tacitly abandoned with sexism, repetition, and an inability to embrace new narrative and content. We should try to make games for them. We should be making novels into video games, video games into novels. Publishers should collaborate with indie game developers, trading them a platform and content in exchange for labor and a new form of adaptation. Literary magazines and libraries should sponsor gamejams. The games industry should fully embrace the thousands of works of classic literature open to them in the public domain. Even without structured efforts to that end, there is some hope that within the flourishing realm of “indie games” the medium is maturing and embracing more literary themes and modalities. At the booths of the Independent Games Festival, Calvino and Borges were household names. When I mentioned Edwin’s Abbott’s Flatland to the developers of Super Hexagon and Super Space, they rolled their eyes as if they were literature PhDs who had just been asked at a dinner party if they had heard of James Joyce. The makers of 2014 IGF Finalist Paralect have acknowledged the direct influence of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. But the scope of this interest and knowledge is limited to a small set of authors. Whereas in the past indie games were simply a subcultural sideshow and barely an influence on the larger industry, the rise of digital distribution has allowed small or individual independent developers to have the opportunity to reap real financial success while still remaining divorced from large development budgets and battles over the same predefined market share. In the past year, award-winning games such as Papers Please (a game of passport control in a fictional communist satellite state) and Starseed Pilgrim (a game of gardening riddled with floating poetry), both developed by singular individuals, proved that indie games with atypical premises can succeed in the market and, more importantly, provide players with involving experiences that feel worthy of printed literary companions. Gone Home, a game in which you explore your empty childhood home, is often described by players and reviewers as being novelistic, inherently like a book. As of February, it had sold 250,000 copies (in a scant seven months on the market). Not bad for the gaming equivalent of an indie novel released on a small press. Imagine if a self-published literary fiction novel about growing up in the mid-90s in the Pacific Northwest grossed 250,000 copies. In the video games world, the performance of a game like Gone Home represents a nice, feel-good story, but still pales in comparison to the mainstream titles. For reference, Grand Theft Auto V sold almost 27 million copies in the last four months of 2013, grossing over a billion dollars in its first three days of sales. While it’s easy to dismiss mainstream games like Grand Theft Auto V or Call of Duty as shallow, or not on par with any notion of being literary classics, it is difficult to imagine Miguel de Cervantes not enjoying a virtual romp through the virtual medieval world in Assassin’s Creed, let alone the glee Italo Calvino would feel upon witnessing Sim City. It’s easy to forget that video games, even the most boring or decadent ones, are realizing what were once only the high-minded fantasies of The OULIPO and other pre-digital experimental writers. When the Dante’s Inferno video game was released in 2010, it caused several editions of The Divine Comedy to shoot up Amazon’s sales charts. It did not really matter that the game was nowhere close to being a perfect adaptation or embodiment of the epic poem. A friend of mine who teaches middle-school English in Cleveland, Ohio, almost wept recounting how a group of her students brought a copy to class. “Kids ask me all the time about which author influenced Bioshock (Ayn Rand) or why Spec Ops: The Line failed in its attempt to remake Heart of Darkness,” she said. “My adult friends do too. But they rarely pester me to find out who won the Man Booker.” With works both new and old, the literary community is in the unique position to take a role in an adolescent art form’s coming of age. And if game developers were to start directly pursuing writers with backgrounds outside of their comfort zone, the result could be an era of unprecedented collaboration and innovation for not just one industry, but two. Image Credit: LPW
We celebrated Canada Day a bit early here yesterday with the news that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature and our review of Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam. So what is Canadian literature exactly? Atwood offered her definition for The Daily Beast: "It’s too multiple [to give a concise definition], but let us say that the point of view (if the writer is not pretending to be American, which they often are) is never that of someone who feels that their country is an imperial power. Because, in fact, Canada is not an imperial power." You can also see The Handmaid's Tale at the Royal Winnipeg Ballet next week.
I was in college when I discovered The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. It was my sophomore year, and the novel had been assigned in my literary criticism and theory course, my first introduction to the English department's upper-division, a place I'd fantasized about almost since I learned to read. I was 19. Before that semester, I had never heard the words "semiotics" or "simulacrum" or "cyborg;" I thought "PoMo" was just a silly nickname for the too-cool seniors who smoked outside the library in tight pants and pointy Beatles boots. I was a baby, basically. I still recall the day I started The Handmaid's Tale. It swept me away even as I underlined sentence after sentence, convinced that the narrator's musings on language and storytelling would be discussed later in class. "My self is a thing I must now compose as one composes a speech," Offred narrates early on. "What I must present is a made thing, not something born." I haven't since found another book that captures as well as Atwood's does the power of language and storytelling, how our identities are made and unmade by narrative. That first time, I read for hours: on my narrow bed, and then on the floor, in the middle of my dorm room. Later that same evening, or maybe the next, I read some of the book aloud to my roommate, who kept falling asleep as I did so. Every few minutes, she'd wake up and describe to me her dreamscape, altered by Atwood's descriptions. "Keep going," she'd say and close her eyes again. (Years later, I would dream that I was Offred, trapped on a large cruise ship, trying to escape some unseen threat. The memory of those dark, wood-paneled hallways, and my robe and wimple, still gives me the chills.) I've since returned to The Handmaid's Tale three more times, and on each read, it astonishes me. I love the novel's insistence on back story, on Offred's need to conjure a time when she still had her old identity, her "shining name," when she and her best friend Moira were allowed to go to college, and smoke cigarettes, and make tasteless jokes ("It sounds like a dessert. Date rapé"). The novel imagines America as a totalitarian Christian state that has stripped the rights of women, and although it does so vividly and powerfully, the dystopian premise is never central to my reading experience. I always fixate instead on Offred's language play, and on the way she comprehends herself -- and her female body -- in this new world. Stories pass the time, yes, but they're also a lifeline to the past, and they allow Offred to function in this terrible new world: "One detaches oneself," she narrates, "one describes." The Handmaid's Tale not only speculates a new world, filled with Unwomen, Pornomarts, and Birthmobiles, it also mourns the one that is gone. For instance, when Offred describes the housekeeper knocking on Offred's door before entering, she says: "I like her for that. It means she thinks I have some of what we used to call privacy left." For Atwood, the speculative effort is to imagine not just what the future might bring, but also what it might take away. I was thinking about The Handmaid's Tale as I read MaddAddam, the final book in Atwood's latest dystopian trilogy, for it also imagines a dark future. The three more recent novels in Atwood's oeuvre, however, which take place after a super-virus has eradicated most of humankind, are far more science-oriented than The Handmaid's Tale. Here, Atwood is primarily interested in the havoc wrought by genetic splicing and bio-engineering; instead of a Christian theocracy, money-hungry corporations run the government. In the trilogy's first book, Oryx and Crake, the main character, Snowman, is the lone human being among a new species known as Crakers, who were created in a laboratory by Snowman's best friend, Crake. The perfect and beautiful Crakers eat leaves and their own excrement, and their urine wards off dangerous predators. The second book, The Year of the Flood, takes place at the same time that Oryx and Crake does, but it focuses on two female survivors of the apocalypse, Toby and Ren, who were once members of an ecology-based religion called God's Gardeners. Their past overlaps with Snowman's, and readers of both books will delight in seeing just how. In these first two novels, the majority of the narrative is exposition dispensed via flashback. In fact, as I mentioned in a previous essay, much of the narrative drive comes from the reader wanting to know what in the bleep happened here?! In both novels, the present-day scenes cover very little time, and, save for a flurry of drama in the final third, not much occurs, action-wise. By contrast, the exposition in each book covers years: whole childhoods, a love affair or two, and the rise and fall of close friendships. In these flashbacks, Atwood anchors her sweeping sci-fi future with intimate, human conflicts. If Atwood were to cut out the back story in these novels, there wouldn't be enough left for a book-length work. The past is what matters, and it's what moves us. Once the reader gets to MaddAddam, so much of this world has already been built (and stunningly so) that there's a heavier expectation for the book's present to provide the thrills. Unfortunately, that doesn't quite happen. There isn't much for Atwood's characters to do; Toby, Ren, Snowman, and a handful of former members of God's Gardeners and the eco-terrorist group MaddAddam have reunited in a ruined world, but the threats they face as a group feel relatively minor. I suppose, once the world has ended, the urgency gets sucked right out of one's day. What MaddAddam lacks in terms of story, it makes up for with its keen investigation of story itself: of its persistence, and our persistent need for it. As brilliant as he was, Snowman's friend Crake could not create an improved species that didn't sing -- or, it turns out, one that also didn't seek out a cosmology. Crakers long for stories about their creator, and it's up to the humans in the book to provide them. In the trilogy's first and third books we get the tales that Snowman and Toby tell these curious listeners, and the human-to-Craker translations are entertaining and enlightening. In MaddAddam, Toby wonders: "What kind of story -- what kind of history, will be of any use at all, to people she can't know will exist, in the future she can't foresee?" When Toby teaches a child Craker how to write, she wonders, "How soon before there are ancient texts they feel they have to obey but have forgotten how to interpret? Have I ruined them?" Again, Atwood returns to her longtime interest in storytelling. Narrative makes us human, it informs us about ourselves and the world, it teaches us empathy; it can also constrain us, and much can be lost in the telling, or not told at all. In The Handmaid's Tale, Offred thinks, "We lived in the gaps between the stories." In MaddAddam, Toby thinks, "There's the story, then there's the real story, then there's the story of how the story came to be told. Then there's what you leave out of the story. Which is part of the story too." It's not only the Crakers who require narrative in MaddAddam, it's the human players, too. Toby needs to know who her new lover (and old friend) Zeb was, before they met. The story of his past reveals him, and brings them closer. Zeb's past is filtered by Toby's narration, and the reader also gets the version told to the Crakers. The past only exists as long as we tell it, and the telling is the tricky part. Occasionally, Zeb's story threatens to dissolve under the weight of Atwood's sci-fi jargon: "Maybe he knew about some of Zeb's earlier capers and was hiring for a hithert0-unknown bunch of darksiders who wanted Zeb to tackle a bolus of seriously forbidden hackery; or maybe it was an extortion outfit after some plutocrat, or a hireling connected with IP thieves who needed a skein of professional trackwork to further their kidnapping of a Corps brainiac." Most of the time, though, his past sings with drama: familial dysfunction, globetrotting, computer hacking, and even bear eating. One can almost feel Atwood's glee in lines like: "anyone who'd listen to him would be credited with a terminal case of brain herpes." It's impossible not to love a writer in her 70s who uses the word "lulz." Atwood's dry humor and her continual interest in gender and the body are also on full display in MaddAddam. Zeb's story, to Toby's chagrin, is peppered with details of his past lovers, and in the story's present, Toby is hounded by her jealousy of Swift Fox, a younger female member of MaddAddam: Toby knows she's resenting the snide innuendos Swift Fox aimed at her earlier, not to mention the gauzy shift and the cute shorts. And the breast weaponry, and the girly-girl pigtails. They don't go with your budding wrinkles, she feels like saying. Tanning takes its toll. As all three books in Atwood's trilogy attest, an apocalypse won't destroy romantic attraction, longing, or jealousy, nor will it dismantle gender roles -- if anything, these are magnified. Atwood's characters have bodies, and she doesn't let us forget that fact. (At the end of the world, people will still look at your ass, which is both a problem and a comfort. ) MaddAddam may not be Atwood's strongest work, but the world she foresees in this trilogy is frighteningly realistic and vividly imagined, and one must read all three novels to get the complete picture. It's no Handmaid, but that's okay. I've been chasing that literary dragon for 13 years...and counting.
In her essay In Praise of Unlikeable Characters, fellow staff writer Emily St. John Mandel writes about protagonists who behave badly, like the eponymous Marie in Marcy Dermansky's frisky little novel, Bad Marie. It's true, many readers want to actually like a book's main character -- they'd take them to lunch if they could -- but true villains are a hoot, everyone knows that. Who doesn't love to hate Dr. Claw and his menacing feline in Inspector Gadget? The problem is, in a work of thoughtful fiction, most villains are given a modicum of humanity; it's their hidden vulnerability, their tangled motivation, that makes a reader believe they are real people. Makes them less villainous, really. Dermansky's Marie is "supremely conniving," as Mandel puts it, but she isn't a villain. She isn't vile. It's impossible to hate someone that shocking, that fun. I've been thinking lately about the truly poisonous characters in fiction. The female ones, specifically. Because women are vilified every day for not doing or saying what they're supposed to. Is it anti-feminist to write an evil woman? I hope not, because there are some truly fabulous cunts in fiction. Here are just a few: Edith Stoner in Stoner John Williams' quiet masterpiece about an unassuming English professor named William Stoner spans more than 45 years and depicts, with simplicity and compassion, the slow and important work of understanding the self -- one's passions and desires, one's body, one's flaws. A main source of conflict in the novel is Stoner's wife, Edith. Like Stoner at the beginning of the novel, Edith doesn't know who she is. At the start of their courtship, we learn: Her needlepoint was delicate and useless, she painted misty landscapes of thin water-color washes, and she played the piano with a forceless but precise hand; yet she was ignorant of her own bodily functions, she had never been alone to care for her own self one day of her life, nor could it have ever occurred to her that she might become responsible for the well-being of another. Unlike her husband, though, who discovers his love of literature and commits himself to the study of it, Edith never finds or seriously seeks out true fulfillment. Her unhappiness is a weapon she uses in their marriage, and the above passage only hints at her capacity for viciousness. She usurps his home office, she pits their daughter against him. Oh, how she terrorizes Stoner! I recently led a discussion about this novel and midway into it a woman raised her hand and said something like, "What the hell is up with Edith?" This was followed by a flurry of nods and invectives from the rest of the class. It takes everything in me to summon up sympathy for Edith -- to even comprehend the depth of her meanness. Though her role in Stoner's narrative is complex, I'm sure that if she starred in her own novel, it would be a tedious, vacuous, and miserable read. Boo! Hiss! The Wife in "Do Not Disturb" "I am not the kind of person who leaves the woman with cancer," says the push-over husband in my favorite story by A.M. Homes, "but I don't know what you do when the woman with cancer is a bitch." Who would know what to do? In "Do Not Disturb" we witness a dysfunctional marriage turn even more toxic as the narrator's wife, a surgeon who knows exactly how cancer can terrorize one's body, undergoes a hysterectomy and chemo, all the while being nasty to her partner and saying things like, "I feel nothing. I am made of steel and wood." The wife's brief moments of vulnerability -- for instance, when she farts and runs out of the room, embarrassed -- redefine her vileness as nothing more than a defense mechanism in the face of a life-threatening disease. But when I reach out to sympathize with her, she bites my hand. Cathy/Kate Ames in East of Eden Some readers complain that Cathy -- Cal and Aron's mother in John Steinbeck's classic novel -- isn't a believable or plausible character. That might be true, for her cruelty renders her inhuman. I'd diagnose her as a dangerous psychopath; she kills her parents in a house fire, shoots her husband, abandons her newborn children, and murders her brothel boss so that she may inherit the business -- and does it all with a smirk. She feels no empathy, thinks only of herself. And, like some reality television villainess, she's beautiful. Of course she is. Here is a description of her as a school girl: Cathy grew more lovely all the time. The delicate blooming skin, the golden hair, the wide-set, modest, and yet promising eyes, the little mouth full of sweetness, caught attention and held it. I love Cathy's inner-monster almost as much as I love Steinbeck's descriptions of her. With prose rhythm like that, I forgive this book for all of its flaws, for the way it demonizes a woman for using her sexuality to get what she wants. Zenia in The Robber Bride The three female protagonists of Margaret Atwood's The Robber Bride suffer at the hands of Zenia, the man-stealer (and man-eater), who isn't so much a woman as non-gendered -- she is without a verifiable past, she is almost mythic in her actions and in her ability to disappear and renew herself, and she does not suffer as the other women, or men, in the novel do. If she wants something (or someone), she uses her body to get it. But she uses something else, too, and that something remains a mystery to the characters. Zenia has large breasts but they aren't real. She's a home-wrecker and it's fun to hate her. I'd consider Margaret Atwood a feminist writer, meaning, I suppose, that her books pass the Bechdel test every time, and that she gives her characters, male or female, rich internal lives. Her novels are often about women and the issues that preoccupy them, from family to their bodies to friendships with other women. It's funny, then, that when thinking of vile women in fiction, I thought not only of Zenia, but also of Serena Joy, the steely Commander's wife in The Handmaid's Tale, and of Cordelia, the manipulative Queen Bee from Cat's Eye. With Zenia, though, her behavior seems motivated only by a need to lie, rather than by something more complex and sympathetic. I'd argue that the novel's comic tone allows for Zenia's larger-than-life, wonderfully vile presence in Atwood's oeuvre. Atwood is a feminist writer because she writes flawed female characters who, like real people, judge one another. Evil is not gender-specific, though the way we vilify others often is. There you have it, though this is certainly not an exhaustive list. Who are your favorite vile women in literature?
In her introduction to In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination, Margaret Atwood states the book is about her “somewhat tangled” relationship with science fiction from childhood through her teen years, continuing into her university studies and eventual academic career, and culminating as the subject of her numerous book reviews, essays, and subsequently, her fiction, with the novels The Handmaid’s Tale, Oryx and Crake, and The Year of the Flood. However, Atwood’s explorations in the book amount to much more than a personal preoccupation; in a voice that engages by blending storytelling and scholarly investigation, precise illuminations and humor, the author lures us into the subject. In Other Worlds is composed of three parts. The first contains three chapters based on Atwood’s Ellmann Lectures delivered in 2010, published here for the first time. The second section collects some of her other writings on specific works, ranging from the more obscure She by H. Rider Haggard to the Victorian classic, The Island of Doctor Moreau by H. G. Wells and more contemporary novels such as Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. The third and final part of the book showcases five of Atwood’s own sci-fi pieces; that the selections in the capstone section are brief and varied, offering a taste of the author’s imaginings in the genre and no more, are a testament to the book’s balance and sensibility. We’re left wanting more, and lucky for us, the author indulges our piqued intellectual appetite in her appendices which contain “An Open Letter from Margaret Atwood to the Judson Independent School District” addressing the district’s ban of The Handmaid’s Tale. The letter serves as a succinct example of the logical reasoning, wit, and matter-of-fact tone Atwood maintains throughout the book—a tone which entertains as well as informs. But I’ve ventured ahead of myself. What has Atwood provided us with in this volume of various collected works that is so compelling? Many in her audience will be literary readers and writers whose prior familiarity with “science fiction,” “speculative,” “sword and sorcery fantasy,” and “slipstream” will be limited at best, confined to long-ago high school reading assignments of 1984 and perhaps Fahrenheit 451. In Other Worlds is concise in its arguments, perhaps deceptively so, for the questions Atwood raises and the points she articulates run deep. The crux of her treatise resides in the three Ellmann lectures-turned-essays. In the first, “Flying Rabbits,” she traces back the comic book heroes and heroines of her youth to their counterparts in ancient mythology, and while this connection isn’t in itself a terribly surprising one, the particularities prove fascinating (how many have seriously pondered Wonder Woman’s lineage to Diana the Huntress, for example? Or exactly how the superpowers and shortcomings of mythological heroes are conferred on their comic book cousins?) As the author points out, “For every Achilles there’s a heel, a condition of vulnerability; for every Superman there’s a kryptonite, a force that negates special powers.” Perhaps the most memorable analysis in this chapter is Atwood’s Jungian deconstruction of Batman, his nemeses, and Robin in the sub-section “The Double Identity,” doubles being a favorite device of Victorian novels with fantastical figures like Dorian Gray, Jekyll and Hyde, to name a few; in the case of Batman, the Penguin and the Joker are Bruce Wayne’s “shadow” selves. Other subsections of this essay are “The Outfits” (on how special garments and talismans equate with shamanistic powers), “The Flying” (on the human desire to overcome bodily restrictions), and “Transformation and Tricks,” in which she peels back the why behind the human psyche’s need for these other worlds, superpowers, and all the mischief that goes along with the territory through the lens of her childhood self: “It was the notion of deceiving people that we really liked -- the idea that you could walk around among unsuspecting adults -- the people on the street in the comic books -- knowing something about yourself that they didn’t know: that you secretly had the power to astonish them.” Atwood’s connecting the dots throughout our cultural history as to how these “otherworldly” facets appeal and astonish makes for an enthralling ride. The subsequent chapters from the Ellmann Lectures continue this juicy foray into what makes other worlds, including utopias and dystopias, tick. Whether or not you consider yourself a fan of such works, Atwood’s investigation into archetypes, the influences of the 19th-century novel and romance on their sci-fi and speculative descendents and larger questions about storytelling itself prove an illuminating read. In “Burning Bushes,” she delves into the ways myths are created anew and emerge in other art forms; “For every question that myths address, SF has addressed also,” Atwood states. Thus follows a brief history of the science fiction genre as it evolved from its predecessor, scientific romances as the stories of H. G. Wells were dubbed, but Atwood’s closer introspection into the novel results in greater revelations. She reminds us that novels, preoccupied as they are with realism, are not the only types of prose works, something we are inclined to forget since the term “novel” fell into popularity. The speculative fiction of Jules Verne, the sci-fi of Wells, along with recent titles such as Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife and Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, are all in the direct tradition of the romance, not the novel, according to Atwood. There follows a nuts-and-bolts breakdown of what science fiction narratives can do that traditional novel can’t, suggesting that this is the reason for Western mythology’s migration to “Planet X” -- because we believe the fantastical can take place there, whether the story is about an alternative social structure, the consequences of advanced technology, etc. Consider the Star Wars films and Avatar. Which brings me to mention the indispensability of In Other Worlds to the prospective writer of any fiction which falls under Atwood’s “otherworldly” umbrella -- the writings collected here are by no means comprehensive on the topic, but they will get you on your way if you’re aiming to create a fiction that hails Verne as its predecessor over Austen, and therefore in need of digging up literary roots. Indeed, a chief pleasure in reading In Other Worlds is recalling some of the books one may have curled up with and read as a child, but long forgot; as Atwood recounts her girlhood “low” and “middle brow” encounters with Wonder Woman and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, I found myself recalling the SF tomes I’d similarly devoured as a child: Journey to the Center of the Earth, The Time Machine, and countless others. For as much as it is an in-depth study into this category of literature and how it came to be, In Other Worlds is very much a narrative of Atwood’s curiosities as a young reader and, finally, a writer; that this personal thread is an ever-present but subtlety-woven component within these essays is worthwhile to note. By the time one arrives at the chapter on utopias and dystopias, her story-behind-the-story of how she came to write The Handmaid’s Tale and two other works of dystopic fiction is just as revelatory as the analysis and insights throughout. And what drives the impulse to tell such stories? “I’m more inclined to think that it’s unfinished business, of the kind represented by the questions people are increasingly asking themselves: how badly have we messed up the planet? Can we dig ourselves out?” is Atwood’s reply. Only the future will tell.
For about a year, the books in our apartment threatened to swallow my husband and me. Adding another bookcase, like adding another lane to an already clogged freeway, didn't help--it only encouraged us to read more, and the piles kept growing. During the holidays, it got so bad that those stored on top of a shelf in the living room covered most of the framed French Connection poster on the wall above it; they even threatened to push the lamp off the edge. The books on top of the small shelf in the bedroom nearly blocked the light switch; soon we would either have to paw through the dark, or sleep with the lights on. Something had to be done. Although I agreed with Patrick that we needed more space, I was resistant to a book purge. For one, I like books-as-interior-decoration. Their uniformity of shape contrasts well with their variation in color (unless, you're one of these rubes who stores their books spine-in), and bookends are so elegant (I cherish my brass dogs from Restoration Hardware.) Plus, every few weeks I can avoid writing by rearranging and dusting the piles of novels scattered in each room. Why write my own when I have all of these published ones to keep me company? I also felt strongly that our books revealed to visitors our values and our identities; the fact that we were swimming in them emphasized their importance in our lives. The first thing I look at when I walk into someone's home is their bookshelf. That is, if they've got any--lord help me. On his goodreads profile, my friend Brian writes, "If you go home with someone, and they don't have any books, don't fuck 'em!" This has always struck me as wise advice for the literary bachelor or bachelorette, and I'd like to extend it further, away from the romantic and sexual: if you don't read, I don't want to be your friend...I don't even want you to serve me a drink at a bar. If a stranger came over to our apartment, and there weren't books, or--oh no!--not enough books, what would that say about me and Patrick? If my copy of Handmaid's Tale or his copy of The Power Broker weren't on display, how would anyone understand us? Some people have a cross in their home, or a mezuzah on their doorjamb. I've got nine books by Vladimir Nabokov. Right before Christmas, my father came over for dinner and with a sneer told us we should get rid of our library. "You're not actually going to re-read these, are you?" he asked. It should come as no surprise that he isn't a reader (I wish I could say, "If you don't read, I don't want to be your daughter"...but, alas, I have no choice in the matter.) Patrick thought my dad had a point; a lot of these books were just sitting on the shelves, untouched. We should try to get rid of half of our books, he said after my father left. "But I need them for teaching!" I cried. I teach classes from home, and I love to allude to a book during workshop, and then, in the next moment, hand it to the student. "You're not a librarian," Patrick replied, that witty asshole. So, one Sunday, we began. My first idea was that we would do each other's dirty work. I would purge the books that belonged to Patrick, and he would purge mine. Nothing would leave the apartment without the other's consent, but it was a good way to be objective about the matter. Patrick had no idea how much I'd enjoyed A Girl Becomes a Comma Like That, so it clearly couldn't mean all that much to me. That stung--but he was right, and into the exit line it went. It wasn't long before we began purging our own books, voluntarily. We were even a little frenzied. It was liberating, for instance, to finally give away Fortress of Solitude, which I must now publicly admit, I didn't like as much as everyone else did. It felt okay to pull my copy of Tom Jones from the shelf; if someone wanted to assume I hadn't read it, let them. Only I held the history of my reading past, of the semesters of college courses I diligently attended, reading everything (everything!) on the syllabus, taking sometimes useful, but more often ineffectual, notes in the margins. I didn't need the books themselves to remember my reader-selves of yesteryear. The pile of books to be purged grew larger and larger, covering the kitchen table, and the four chairs as well. The shelves were thinning out. I began to get a little spiritual about things. I liked the idea of passing on all these stories to new readers. Let them live on! I was in the service of humanity now! Of course, we didn't get rid of everything (sorry, humanity). Our favorites remained. Not only were Margaret Atwood and Robert Caro safe, so were Alice Munro, Joan Didion, Sam Lipsyte, James Joyce, and Anne Carson... and these were just a few of the authors who survived. Patrick and I had fun rearranging our two "favorites" shelves, one for long-beloved books, and one for newer books that had recently captured our imagination and hearts. We created a shelf specifically for authors we knew personally, from Kiki Petrosino to John Haskell; next time someone takes a gander at the collection, I am totally going to brag. We also migrated most of our poetry from the front of the apartment to the bedroom. (Upon moving in, we thought we might want to pull out a collection during a dinner party, to enliven it with a verse or two, but that never happened. Now, it seems more romantic and delicious to sleep and dream next to poems, rather than eat and surf the web next to them.) Our best change is "The Unread" (either a book section or the latest horror flick, coming to a theatre near you). I am happy to say, it's only a short pile, and it's in no danger of blocking that movie poster. This pile is easy to access, and usefully recriminating; it's difficult to defend a new book purchase when we have all of these waiting for us. Since the purge, I have already read one of these books (Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk) , and I'm halfway through another (The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris). It's been a little over a week since we've cleaned out and rearranged our bookshelves. To my surprise, I don't grieve the change. Three people have commented on how clean the place looks, and not one has noticed the lack of books. It's like a flattering new haircut that no one sees--they just think you look great. So where, you ask, did we send all of our unwanted books? Someone else might have tried to sell them online, or at a used bookstore, or scheduled appointments with literary-minded friends (the only kind worth having, as I've previously established). But we weren't so prepared: we loaded them into garbage bags and dropped them off at our local Goodwill on Hollywood Blvd. If you head over there soon, you will certainly find some gems.
I'm not ready this month.Seriously. I've only had 28 days of reading, a good number of which I spent failing to write a short story and traveling to Minneapolis. I've only read two books. And one of them took me three weeks. I'm just not ready for February to be over.I shouldn't complain, though - both books I read were fantastic and both dealt with much stronger versions of my current problem: running out of time and being dropped into situations without the proper preparation.Of course, in both What is the What (David Eggers) and The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood) this lack of preparation was life altering. My problem is that my simple blog post isn't being started until the eleventh hour. Big difference.What's intense about both of these books is the idea that there are authors who can so perfectly get inside the head of someone and spell out the anxieties involved in being relocated - in being thrown into a new situation with little, if any, warning, forced to live life under the gun, subservient because they don't know any different and are afraid to do otherwise. Who knows what lies outside of their life? Who knows if they'd even live to find out.In The Handmaid's Tale, Atwood creates a dystopian masterpiece - a country so frightened of itself that it has no choice but to obey. It's a breakdown of the social hierarchy, a primer into what could happen with information control and women's rights in a future that doesn't respect either ideal. It's frightening in its own right - women forced to be subservient because that's the only way they can figure out to keep lust on the backburner. The Handmaids are there to have their wombs occupied, but not to enjoy any second of it. It's scary.And, at times, it seems so real. But the brilliance of the story isn't the science fiction aspect - it's the loss that the protagonist feels. It's a powerless struggle against an old life - a women's lib upbringing filled with lesbian friends and understanding husbands. Imagine being stripped of all identity, separated from your spouse and child, forced to watch as people were sent away for not obeying, struggling to understand how to escape, how to continue living. How things got this bad.That's what Atwood really does in this book - she illustrates the internal struggle, between a physical life and a mental stability - the mind and the shell, the womb and the woman.Of course, not all displacement is fiction. David Eggers' What is the What chronicles the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Sudanese refugee who experiences his own type of sudden movement, from the gentle village he grew up in to the front lines of the war to the confusing spectacle of the United States.This is real. The story has been fictionalized to a slight extent, but for the most part Valentino's Sudan is real - a true to life picture of what can happen when the wrong people are in power. It's vividly recounted but not flowingly so. It's written in Valentino's voice, using Valentino's visions and painting Valentino's picture.What a picture it is. A young boy is forced to flee his village, his mother, his father, and join a walking group of other young boys - the Lost Boys of Sudanese lore. He's brought in as a soon-to-be Army boy. He's placed alongside the resistance forces. He's forced to find his place in a refugee camp, living in temporary shelters for a permanent amount of time. He's miserable. And he's got no escape. After all, where could he go?The story is interspersed with quips from his current American life. He eventually makes it to the United States, so you know the ending will be somewhat happy. But he finds the U.S. to be just as difficult, just as dangerous - just as utterly confusing as any war torn village outside of Kenya.I'd call it a coming of age story, but Valentino never had a chance to come of age. He was forced to grow up at the age of eight.So when I complain about not being prepared to write a simple book article, I can't really be taken seriously. Especially when my month of reading was filled with the type of stories that create cold chills and boiling blood - words that piece together the horrors of uncertainty and unfamiliarity. Sure, I had to jump head first to meet deadline. But my consequences were slight - an e-mail from Mr. Magee, a personal disappointment, a rushed article that's a few days late.I mean, my life wasn't on the line. That's pressure. That's displacement.Corey Vilhauer - Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan, Feb.
Best Novel: The Epicure's Lament by Kate Christensen - Hugo Whittier is a 40-year-old misanthrope living in self-imposed exile at Waverly, his ancestral home on the Hudson River. Hugo is rapidly smoking himself to death, but doing it with real style. When his estranged brother separates from his wife and moves in, he drags Hugo kicking and screaming back into the company of other human beings. Will he ruin Hugo's plan to smoke himself out of existence? This book is full of dark humor and wry observations on the loneliness, isolation, and mortality. Also, Hugo is a mean cook and gives one heck of a recipe for Holiday Sauce. I stumbled upon this book through a magazine article about Ms. Christensen, and I'm very happy I did.Runners Up (Fiction): East of Eden, by John Steinbeck (If I'm truly honest with myself, this was probably number one, but Edan already picked it, so that would be no fun. Plus, it's not like Steinbeck needs more heat.)The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret AtwoodThe History of Love by Nicole KraussI Sailed with Magellan by Stuart Dybek (So sentimental, but so, so good. The best story collection I read this year.)Best Non-Fiction: The Power Broker by Robert Caro - Next year will mark the first time in 3 years that I will have a non-Caro title as best non-fiction of the year. Unless, of course, he cranks out that fourth Lyndon Johnson book in record time. The Power Broker is impressive in its scale, its depth, and its incredible sense of drama. It's Caro's second best book (behind The Means of Ascent, Vol 2 of the Lyndon Johnson years), and worth every freakin hour it takes to read it. (As a bonus, if you don't like reading it, you can use it to tone your biceps and triceps...).Runners Up (Non-fiction):A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha PowerGuns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond
I'm glad to see my last post got people talking. I guess I have to get into specifics now. Keep in mind that I've only read about ten books this year because it took me all of January and February to read Robert Caro's massive biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. (Incidentally, if you're looking to tone up for the summer months, I recommend all of Caro's books. Even the paperbacks come in weighty volumes perfect for curls or bench presses). After that it was a real relief to read a couple of books people have been hounding me to read: Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and Marilynne Robinson's Housekeeping.I'd read Atwood's Cat's Eye before and like it a lot, but The Handmaid's Tale is a masterpiece. My girlfriend has been teaching it to her ungrateful undergraduates, and I read it and got a few free lessons on the fascinating language play that goes on in the text. I don't think I've ever read a book that was so filling for both my heart and my head.Housekeeping had been lying around my apartment, and, to be honest, I didn't want to read it. Nobody could really tell me what it was about or anything about it, for that matter, other than that they read it in college, it was beautiful, and they loved it. I read it in twelve hours. It's the kind of book that really ought to be read in a burst like that because its physical world is so distinct and so engrossing, it invites the reader to wander in and stay for awhile. I don't think I'd have liked it as much if I'd nibbled at it for a couple of weeks, but it was the perfect book for me at the perfect time. (Note: I was also, no doubt, caught up in the Marilynne Robinson zeitgeist. I heard her read from her new book Gilead, and for a while here in Iowa, it seemed like Marilynne was all people could talk about).After these two terrific novels, I read Man Walks Into a Room by Nicole Krauss. It's a shame that congress passed that law that mandates everyone who writes about Krauss to refer to her as Jonathan Safran Foer's husband in the first three sentences (There, I've done it... I fear the man), because she's an incredible writer. Read the prologue to the book and see what I mean.Of course no year of reading would be complete for me without a couple of books about genocide. Max had a great post on historians and journalists who write about the ugly moments in history, and I seem to be working my way through most of the books on his list. Two years ago I read Philip Gourevitch's We Wish To Inform You... about the Rwandan genocide. Last year it was Anne Applebaum's Gulag (a woman!), and this year it was Samantha Power's book A Problem from Hell. I confess that I forced myself to start this book (even while I was buying it I was apprehensive), but I didn't have to force myself to finish it. Power writes with clarity and precision about American foreign policy in a way that is easily understood without being too simplistic or dumbed-down. I saw Power on Charlie Rose last year and thought she was so smart and interesting. Her book didn't disappoint.And now I'm tearing through Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence (I'm ashamed to say I'd never read it). So I've only read a handful of books this year, but I must say that the women are walking all over the men (and that's with Robert Caro and JF Powers on Team Penis). I do find that my "To Be Read" list is still male-oriented, so if anybody has any suggestions of books by the fairer sex, let me know. I'm open to anything.
It's a good time for books right now. In my year and half at the book store, I haven't quite figured out the nuances of the publishing calendar, but it seems like spring is always the best time of year for new books. I suppose the publishers anticipate that people will have plenty of time to read during the summer. There were several interesting new releases this week: Dry is Augusten Burroughs' follow up to last year's Running with Scissors a memoir about his growing up in the care of a profoundly disturbed shrink. It is hilarious until you remind yourself that it's a true story. Not sure if Dry will live up to Running with Scissors but it's certainly worth reading if you enjoyed that book. Several great books about baseball have come out this spring (including Game Time a collection of essays by one of my favorite baseball writers Roger Angell). This week's baseball book is Moneyball by Michael Lewis which strives to explain how the Oakland A's and their general manager, Billy Beane, have managed to become successful while sporting one of the lowest payrolls in the Major Leagues. This has easily been the most interesting story in baseball over the last couple of years so it's not at all surprising to see a book that focuses on it. The big novel release of the last week or so was Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood author of, most notably The Handmaid's Tale, Cat's Eye, The Blind Assassin. I have never read Atwood, but several of my trusted fellow readers are most devoted to her work.Heard on the RadioNPR often broadcasts gushing reviews of the world's blandest music. In fact, their review of the last Red Hot Chili Peppers album was unequaled in both the reviewer's unabashed worship of the band and the grinding dullness of the music that accompanied it. Which is saying a lot, since typically I don't really have a huge problem with the Chili Peppers. On the hand, NPR regularly devotes air time to some very worthy books, and last week was no exception. Morning Edition devoted a long segment to interviewing Adrian Nicole LeBlanc author of Random Family. To write this remarkable book, LeBlanc spent more than ten years spending time with a family in a decaying neighborhood in the Bronx in order to chronicle their lives. She was able to draw a masterful picture of one troubled family among many. In her interview, it was especially interesting to hear how the assignment to write a single article for Rolling Stone blossomed into a ten year odyssey in the writing of her book. I also caught a tidbit of an interview with Mary Roach the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, which chronicles, in a light hearted way, the numerous ways in which society has been advanced by putting the dead to work. There are the obvious medical examples, but some rather strange examples, as well. Apparently, the first crash test dummies were actually dead bodies, strapped into cars and rammed into walls. Pretty bizarre. I also caught an interview with a couple of the guys (I'm not sure which ones) who put together the book Temples of Sound. This is a fun little illustrated encyclopedia of the most storied recording studios of our musical century. Fantastic pictures accompany text filled with the magic-moment-of-creation stories that all music fans love to read about. Temples of Sound, by the way, is put out by Chronicle Books, which accounts for its great look. When perusing the shelves look out for books put out by Chronicle; they are always interesting or funny and they are beautiful visually.Yes, but is it Art?The art book that caught my eye this past week is a monograph on the artist Gordon Matta-Clark who is most famous for slicing the facades off of derelict buildings. In keeping with the style that made Matta-Clark famous, Phaidon, the publisher of many popular art books, put out a book from which a section of the spine has been cut away to reveal the bare structural binding of the book. It is a wonderful tribute to an artist who died very young as well as a triumph of creative book design.What I'm Reading NowIn Nine Innings Daniel Okrent writes about a single baseball game. In the early '80s he followed the Milwaukee Brewers for well over a year in order that he would know this team more intimately then even their most rabid fan. Then he picked a single baseball game and used the knowledge he had gathered to write about it. The book is both a microscopic look at the elementary unit of America's pastime and a study of the many individuals involved with the game as a backdrop. A grand book, especially for a baseball fan.