The Puerto Rican drag queen is a recognizable personification of New York in the 1980s, the neighbor (and opposite) of the white, Gordon Gekko-style master of the universe with his slicked-back hair. In The House of Impossible Beauties, debut novelist Joseph Cassara brings this stock character into the foreground in order to recognize her humanity and her history. Based on the figures associated with the real-life House of Xtravaganza, the first Latinx house in New York’s 1980s ballroom scene, the novel follows a family of queer characters of various ethnic backgrounds and sexual identities through the tumult and crises of that time and place. Cassara immerses us in a New York that we may think we know from countless other novels and films, but which is, in fact, significantly more complex (and more urgently relevant to us today) than previously imagined.
I met Cassara last winter at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, where he was editing the final draft of the novel. He was kind enough to talk to me via email about the book’s origins, its political dimensions, and its composition process.
The Millions: What first drew you to this milieu? How does Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning fit into the development of the novel?
Joseph Cassara: I love the milieu of New York City in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. There was this perfect combination of grit and fabulousness. Like someone could spit in your face and you’d still be like, “Oh yeah baby, I’m in New Fucking York.” I love that as an aesthetic.
So I grew up in New Jersey—not far outside of the city—but most of what I know about NYC was, by proxy, through my family who all hail from the Bronx and Brooklyn. I’m Puerto Rican and Sicilian, and I was always a quiet kid, so for years, I was totally into the music, the sounds, the rich linguistic rhythms of New York and the stories I heard them tell about the ‘70s and ‘80s.
Then of course there’s the queer history aspect. I’m gay and I always feel sad when I realize how much of queer history is lost because it hasn’t been documented properly. Or it’s been purposefully erased. Now I realize that my modus operandi when writing is to try and resurrect queer stories and turn them into narratives that people can experience in a linear fashion, but when I first started writing this story, I didn’t realize it was going to be a novel. I had always loved Paris Is Burning and I thought I would write a short story that drew inspiration from the people we meet in the film. I was in my first semester of grad school at the time and I submitted the story for workshop. It was about 43 pages and my peers kept saying, much to my chagrin: no no no, this isn’t a story, it’s a novel, it clearly wants to be a novel.
The documentary served as a launching off point. Angel, Hector, and Dorian are based on real people. Paris Dupree and Pepper LaBeija were also real people who have minor appearances in the book. The artist Keith Haring is mentioned very briefly. On the other hand, Juanito and Daniel are completely fictionalized. Towards the beginning of Paris Is Burning there are two boys—one has his arm around the other’s shoulder. One has a purple spot on his neck, probably a hickey. They look so young to me now. When I was 18 and watching the movie for the first time, their youth didn’t startle me as much as it does now. I always imagined their faces when I was writing Juanito and Daniel.
TM: This is both a historical novel and a novel that takes a very specific subculture as its topic. What sort of research did you have to do to tap into the ball culture of 1980s New York?
JC: I watched the documentary about a million times. It felt like the ultimate treasure trove—not only do the subjects talk to the camera, but we also see them in scene. Sometimes they contradicted themselves, which is so beautiful and human. I was fascinated by how many levels of performance were taking place. My goal was to study these moments in the film as closely as possible so that I could render something similar on the page with precision. One of the novel’s main concerns is how queer people of color navigate the spaces around them, so it was important for me to see their bodies on screen, moving around the world.
Then there were the smaller things that came together to create the milieu. I curated an informal archive of photos. Some images had people from the documentary, while others showed the subway or the streets of NYC. For a while, I saturated myself in these images, sometimes as a way of justifying why I didn’t have to write that day. Like I could say, “Oh I’m technically not writing, but I’m being productive by looking at photos of telephone booths and people walking down the street in shoulder pads and this is research.” It sounds a little silly to say it that way, but I really think it helped allow my subconscious to run wild, which eventually helped my writing process. I’d also add small details to this collection, like what the Boy Bar matchbooks looked like, or the posters used to advertise parties at the Saint, or the comments people made about their experiences dancing at Paradise Garage. It was like a collection of primary sources that I used to inform my descriptions of the place and time.
I interviewed some people when I could. For example, one of the characters in the book has dreams of becoming a dancer. I know very little about dance. I took Ballet 101 in college to fulfill a physical education requirement, and I learned many things about myself in that class, none of which are related to grace or flexibility. So I have a friend who is a very talented dancer. He was trained in the Martha Graham method and was one of the cats in Cats: The Musical. I took him out for lunch one day and said, “Tell me everything you know about Martha Graham. Obsess about her. Just gush. Talk to me with dance jargon I won’t understand. Just talk.” And so he talked and I stored it all to memory so that I could tap into it later when writing.
TM: Did you have any reservations about writing transgender characters? It’s a community that has dealt with a lot of misrepresentation and misunderstanding, and we’re at a moment in the culture where there is an active discussion over who can tell whose stories.
JC: I think that the role of the novelist is to deeply inhabit the lives of characters who are different than ourselves, to practice a radical empathy and honestly represent that on the page for readers. (Unless, of course, the writer practices autofiction, then it’s a different set of rules, but that’s not your question here…) I’m not trans, so I knew that when I was writing a trans character, I would need to make sure I was being precise and truthful, and not exploitative. My hope is that by approaching it this way, clichés and stereotypes wouldn’t even become an issue, because my intent was to take each character and treat them as the beautiful, nuanced, complex human beings that they are. Within the larger context of the novel, I wanted to represent various shades of gender and sexual identity, so there are various queer characters whose expressions range from fem to butch. I thought it was important to show that there are many ways to be a person, and they are all beautiful and worthy of love.
In terms of the active discussion that’s taking place, I think it’s great that the dominant culture, which is generally composed of straight, white people, is starting to have this conversation. And acknowledge their, to be frank, lack of imagination. Because for too long, they have portrayed people of color and queer people as archetypes, or props, or servants, or non-existent. We were never really seen as human beings with the potential for complex and complete character arcs, so my goal with this novel was to actively combat that. Of course, I had to utilize certain tropes because I’m writing in a certain medium and in conversation with a specific literary tradition, but that didn’t stop me from trying to inhabit and represent my characters’ humanity. Each of the characters in this novel is a complex human being with hopes, dreams, desires, a sense of humor, and we see them struggle to survive in a white, straight world that simply refuses to welcome them.
TM: I was interested in how you handled gender in the novel. With characters like Angel and Venus, the narrator moves back and forth between male and female pronouns, depending on the circumstances. What was that decision process like?
JC: In regular day-to-day speech, queer people will code switch their pronouns, usually for comedic purposes. It’s like a form of irony because everyone in on the joke knows who uses what pronoun and that the shift is taking place. Like when a bossy gay guy walks into the room and people are like, “Who does she think she is?” or, “Oh boy, there she goes again.” For example, whenever I criticize Mike Pence, I use “she” as an ironic way to subvert power because he’s very homophobic and would never approve of the pronoun shift. So my point here is that when pronouns shift, there’s a lot of implicit work that is being communicated on a linguistic level.
In terms of craft, the pronomial shifts take place, for the most part, in the earlier sections of the novel, when Angel and Venus are respectively growing into their own. There’s a scene early on where Angel gets into a fight with her homophobic mother. Her mother demands that Angel take off the dress she’s wearing. When she complies, the pronoun shifts to “he.” I always thought of it as a moment where the form represents the content in a literal way. There’s an emotional shift that is also a shift in the language and it comes at a really distressing and heartbreaking scene. So much is contained in that pronoun shift. Later in the chapter, she’s talking to her brother, who she loves and feels comfortable around, and the pronoun shifts back. I think it’s a subtle and unspoken way of showing the reader what’s going on in her psyche in the moment.
TM: I was struck by the sort of grim pragmatism of the people in this world. There’s a lot of prostitution, for example. Dorian, who is a role model figure for Angel, actively encourages would-be queens to sell sexual favors in order to support themselves. You don’t shy away from depicting these scenes, which can be pretty upsetting. Did that give you pause, in the writing process?
JC: It didn’t give me any pause because I felt like those scenes were really important. So much of the book is concerned with the violence that is perpetrated against queer people of color. Those scenes were a chance for me to slow down and document it, to present the harsh reality of those situations for readers. There is no sugarcoating, just honesty about how these characters are treated in the world. For queer people of color, the statistics surrounding poverty, unemployment, HIV infection, drug use, murder, and suicide are so shockingly high. That enrages me because it’s not fair. But a statistic is a number, which feels distant, whereas a novel is a narrative that feels completely immersive. It’s much more upsetting to become attached to a character and then watch them deal with this shit because it feels more personal.
TM: I thought the narrative voice was really wonderfully done. It’s generally a close third for whatever character is the subject of the chapter, and adopts a lot of the slang and speech patterns of the characters, as well as their logic and decision-making processes. It’s so perfect for this project that I’m wondering what your prose would be like in a book about different people, in a different world. Was this a voice that took time to find, in the writing process? Is it a hard one to get out of your head, now that the book is done?
JC: I love voice on the page and I think a lot can be done on a craft level to inform our understanding of setting and characters by representing the cadences, musicality, and patterns of speech in the narratorial voice. What comes to mind are Toni Morrison’s Jazz, where the prose taps into the rhythms of jazz to evoke the sounds of Harlem in the early 20thcentury. Also, Junot Díaz’s Oscar Wao, whose narration has an energy that sizzles off the page and feels rooted in the speech patterns of the Dominican diaspora in New Jersey. I also love Annie Proulx’s Wyoming stories, because, my gosh, the voice in those stories feels so utterly of a specific place, it tears my heart into pieces. I’m always really excited when I come across narration that is very much borne out of the story’s setting and characters. It makes a book feel like everything is tied together in a way that feels integral. Everything is working in tandem to create the fictional world for the reader.
It didn’t take me long to find the voice for this novel. It was actually one of the first things I discovered while writing. There was this explosive energy to it. It captivated me, but there were also moments where I needed to calm it down a bit because it was too much. I think I would eventually like to return to this voice in the future, maybe for a collection of stories, but right now I’m working on a novel that is set in a different time and place. It requires a completely different voice and tempo. I’m trying to challenge myself as a writer to see what I can do next, how I can grow.
TM: Even though it’s set primarily in the 1980s, this novel feels pretty relevant to today’s gender identity politics. I’m sure that was something you had on your mind during the composition. Do you think a historical novel has any didactic advantages that a novel set today does not?
JC: I didn’t really think about politics at all. When I was composing the book, I really was in a bubble. I was in graduate school in Iowa City, and anyone who has ever experienced winter in the Midwest can tell you that it’s frigid. There isn’t a whole lot to do there except write, so I was holed up inside my apartment or the library, in a literal and figurative bubble. I was very focused on the book and the characters and I felt like I had such a singular focus that I wasn’t exactly tuned into the regular world. As I describe that now, I realize that may not have been the healthiest approach, but that’s just how it happened. I tried not to let the outside world influence what I was writing. I say that about politics, but I also wasn’t thinking about the publishing world either. That would have stressed me out too much.
I will also say that I’m not really interested in books that feel didactic. Maybe this is a generality, but didactic books don’t strike me as sufficiently complex because they already have a pre-set goal or point they want to get across. For me, the most interesting stories are the ones that don’t have any goals or points, they just show readers what a particular kind of life is like. As if the book is saying to the reader, “Well would you look at that? Ain’t that a sight?” So I didn’t have a didactic goal. I just wanted to have living, breathing, complex human beings on the page. And I wanted those characters to break the reader’s heart because their stories were tragic and unfair.
Given our present political moment, with the new administration’s policies, which seem guided by Pence’s virulent homophobia and transmisogyny, I see our attitude towards, and relationship with, LGBT issues shifting. I also think that there’s been a progressive wave over the past decade to welcome our LGBT brothers and sisters into the mainstream and to acknowledge their humanity and stories. We’re at an interesting, if not anxious, point in time.
TM: I’m interested in the social novel as a genre. They kind of go in and out of fashion. Do you consider this a social novel?
JC: I kind of see this novel as fusion of two literary traditions: that of the American Family Novel, plus the lineage of 20th- and 21st-century queer narratives. This question about the social novel is a bit tricky to answer. It reminds me of a question I was once asked on a panel about politics and queer writing. The question was, “Are all queer stories inherently political? Is it possible to write a queer narrative that isn’t political?” Wow, goodness, I don’t know. I feel like—and forgive me for some of these academic terms—sometimes living life truthfully as a queer person of color in this predominantly white hetero-patriarchy feels like a radical political act in and of itself. Can any artistic work produced by queer people of color be apolitical, or is it by nature of its producer, infused with social critique? These are fascinating questions that I think about often, but I don’t think I have an answer for you.
It’s like when a cereal company, or fashion brand, or department store, or what have you, airs a television ad with a same-sex or interracial couple—which is just representative of actual people and relationships in our society—they are treated like bold, transgressive political statements. Like, it’s a Cheerios commercial that is finally acknowledging the presence of people who aren’t white and straight. Are these ads inherently political, or does it only feel that way because of the environment that it’s created and received within?
TM: Who were your influences on this project? What author, what novels?
JC: I really love the Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar. He writes and directs all of his films and his aesthetic is very queer, very extra, very vulgar, kind of gritty, usually dark, and sometimes absurd. He’s a master. His best films taught me a lot about how to deploy humor and tragedy, sometimes in close proximity to each other.
Then there were the writers whose work I fell in love with. In no particular order: Virginia Woolf, Michael Cunningham, Miranda July, Junot Díaz, Colm Tóibín, Justin Torres, Edward P. Jones, Toni Morrison, Marilynne Robinson, Ann Beattie, Adam Haslett, Nicole Krauss, Joan Didion, Rivka Galchen, Jhumpa Lahiri, James Baldwin, Frank O’Hara.
Finally, the teachers who influenced the way I approach craft, and whose work I also return to in awe: Karen Russell, Stacey D’Erasmo, Ethan Canin, Lan Samantha Chang, Paul Harding, Margot Livesey, and Yiyun Li.
If any of those links were missing from the chain, I wouldn’t be the type of writer that I am today. And I look forward to a lifetime of discovering new voices and listening to the stories that I hear out in the world, when people open up and share their innermost secrets. I think that being a writer is so wonderful because we open ourselves up to the mysteries and wonders of the world. We can sit, observe, listen, and bring all of that into our fiction. It’s a beautiful way to live a life.
I first encountered Azar Nafisi as I was preparing to move from California to Connecticut. In Reading Lolita in Tehran, which I read just two months before departing, Nafisi describes her own “strange” feelings before she left Tehran for the United States. Although I cannot claim a move that momentous, that difficult, her thoughts resonated deeply with me.
Her latest book, The Republic of Imagination, explores the idea that books are important because when we get a glimpse of another person’s life, we can be made to feel connected to their emotions and experiences, and gain a new perspective on our own lives. Her new work emphasizes the importance of fiction in a country where many have begun to deem it a frivolous luxury or useless exercise, through the perspectives of three novels: Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Babbitt by Sinclair Lewis, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.
We spoke over the phone, I from my home in rural Connecticut, she at the Embassy Suites Hotel in Charleston, S.C., on her book tour.
The Millions: I wanted to ask you a few questions about what you’ve learned as a writer and a reader, looking at the three different countries you’ve inhabited: Iran and then America and then also the Republic of Imagination as a third country. Of course many things have changed since you first published Reading Lolita in Tehran about 12 years ago. Looking back on that length of time, how have your perceptions of your home country, Iran, changed during that time?
Azar Nafisi: Well, you know, they have not changed substantially in terms of what I thought about Iran’s history and culture and the people, also about the Islamic regime, because the changes that have happened in Iran are rooted in what was happening then. For example, you see Tehran’s streets are much, quote unquote, “nicer” and a lot of restaurants and you see women — of course, the situation of women is like the situation of weather here: you have a little bit of sunshine and then there’s a downpour or a tornado, so you never know. But Iranian women have managed to defy the system at least in terms of appearances. That has changed; if one goes to Tehran today women don’t look the way they did when I left Iran.
But the truth of the matter is that the laws have remained the same, and there is no real security until there is real reform and real change. As you can tell from reading Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, the human rights situation in Iran — the situation of journalists, writers, political prisoners — that also remains the same.
One of the traits I noticed in Iran was this constant defection from within the system. The former revolutionaries and people who were founders of the republic themselves becoming dissidents has accelerated. So for example, the former prime minister [Mir-Hossein] Mousavi, just to give you an example which everyone knows about, and Mehdi Karroubi, our former speaker of the house, are now, they are the ones who are suffering and under house arrest. That tells a lot about this progress towards at least certain segments of civil societies.
TM: In another interview you said the U.S. foreign policy should pursue dialogue not only with the regime in Iran but also with the Iranian people. So how do you think they could do this, especially in light of the recent nuclear agreement?
AN: First of all, the Iranian people — and I am not saying that I’m a spokesperson for them — they don’t really have a spokesperson abroad. That is one problem. So everyone is sort of becoming a self-appointed spokesperson for the people. So I’m not claiming to be that, but the way I see U.S. foreign policy, depending on who is in power, and usually a Democrat or Republican is in power, it sort of vacillates between just sheer belligerence and refusal for any form of dialogue, and then the pendulum goes the other way to sheer compromise with the system. What I really would have loved to see was first of all an understanding of the complexities and paradoxes of that society; and an understanding that in the long run, pragmatically, it is to the American people and American government’s well being to have a more open, flexible, and democratic system in Iran and to really encourage the democratic mind of people in Iran who are now either in jail or their voices are being silenced. You can have a fruitful dialogue with the Islamic regime without forgetting about the rights of the Iranian people.
That is not imposition on another culture. Iran, like other countries that violate human rights like China, like Saudi Arabia, are also benefitting from all the advantages of being members of the United Nations. Under the United Nations, nations swear allegiance to certain universal rights, and these are the rights that Iranian people have been fighting for long before Mr. Khomeini had his revolution; it wasn’t something that the shah granted so that the ayatollah can take away. It was something that people fought for and died for in the Constitutional Revolution at the beginning of the century.
What I’m trying to say is that the negotiations with Iran, which I support — there’s this sort of propaganda all around it, people either being for or against it. I don’t see it like that. I see that there should be negotiations, but the U.S. is negotiating from a position of strength, because Iran never comes to a table unless they feel weak, unless they feel that they are really in a bad position domestically. So while the U.S. is in a position of strength, while they are talking to the Iranian government and obviously compromising on certain issues, they should not compromise on the rights of the Iranian people. And they do. Our administration right now is not even talking about the Iranian Americans who are in jail. That is an insight into the weaknesses of the United States foreign policy, be it Republican or Democrat, and being manipulated. So that is what worries.
As a writer and a woman who believes in rights of women and personal liberty, I don’t take political sides, but I do have a position on the issue of human rights. I have seen that what makes tyrants afraid is not military might. The first people who are sacrificed in these regimes are journalists and writers and poets, and actually those who teach humanities. Those are at the forefront of the struggle and are targets.
TM: I also wanted to ask about how your own experiences under the regime in Iran have then shaped the way you approach American politics and your own level of civic involvement here.
AN: Iran taught me many things. One of the first things I realized was that individual rights and human rights are not God-given gifts to the West. This is an illusion some people in this country and in other democracies have; that they have certain traits that makes them deserve freedom of choice and other freedoms. I think that everyone — and I’ve seen that in Iran in terms of its history and in terms of my own life experiences in that country — that people want a decent life. Nobody hates, no matter what kind of culture you come from, the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When I talk about Iran, I don’t differentiate between rights in Iran and rights in America.
The second thing that the Islamic Republic taught me was that these countries we call totalitarian or tyrannical are only distorted and extreme cases of what we could become in a democracy. What a democracy can learn from countries that are more repressive is to understand that freedom is an ordeal. Coming to the United States I find myself again talking about the ordeals that we all face and the challenges we face here. And the challenge that I am trying to face in the U.S. right now is this complacency and conformity.
The last thing is that I realize how important it is to pay attention to culture and history, and that, even if you are thinking about the military conquest, the first thing you have to do is to understand, not to judge. That is why for me fiction becomes so crucial because that is what it teaches us, to first understand and then try to judge.
TM: Thinking about America now, you talked a little in your book about how a lot of Americans have become complacent and they’ve given up some of their freedoms, especially since 9/11. Why do you think Americans have become complacent and allowed that to happen? Another phrase you used in your book was that safety is an illusion, and I think in giving up our freedoms we’ve really prioritized this illusion of safety. Why do you think Americans have done that and have let that happen?
AN: I think that when we go through periods of too much prosperity and too little thinking, it can very easily be translated into a form of smartness and conformity. Now I was away from America for 18 years, so I am only speaking about what happened in this country in those 18 years from other people’s experiences or what I have read, but it seems to me that especially in the ’80s and right into the ’90s there was this transformation into the other side of the American Dream, which is a gross materialism. On one hand we have this mindset, on the other hand within the academia actually and among the intellectuals and policy makers we have this ideological mindset, and I think both of these mindsets, although they are very different in terms of positions they take, are very similar. Both of them are lazy. They don’t want to think — I mean intellectually lazy. To think and to imagine and to genuinely follow the truth or try to understand and reveal the truth is dangerous, it has its consequences. Once you know the truth, then you have to take action. You can’t remain silent. So most people would rather not know. Ideologies always do that.
I was so amazed when I returned to the United States and discovered how polarized this society has become, even in terms of the news — that you don’t listen to the news from people you don’t agree with. Fox News, for example, for me was a very new and strange and gradually scary phenomenon where you negate reality. There is no more news in most of our channels, from left to right. It is an imposition of your own desires and illusions and ideologies upon reality, so reality doesn’t matter. And that makes it easier, because when you and I think that the world is divided into good guys and bad guys, and we’re always on the side of the good guys, it is like Miss Watson in Huckleberry Finn, who believes that the world is divided into those who go to hell and those who go to heaven. And she obviously belongs to those who go to heaven, and in order to go to heaven, all you have to do is not to question, not to understand complexities, not to have curiosity, not to take risks; only see if somebody believes in your set of formulas. That is one thing that really worries me about America.
Alongside of that is this utilitarian pleasure-seeking, comfort-seeking mindset. You know, I think it is amazing, elections for us have turned into a sort of entertainment. People were a little happy watching the Democrats’ recent debate because it at least talked about issues. It frightens me when we watch Donald Trump, because we either want to laugh at him or we genuinely believe in him. Americans now, it seems to be a reign of ignorance. How you could think someone could be your president who is so ignorant of your own history and culture, as well as the history and culture of the world? This is no laughing matter at some point. We see that in our universities where our students want trigger warnings; they don’t want to read novels that make them uncomfortable. You keep hearing the word “uncomfortable.” And then the celebrity culture, we talk about Michelle Obama and Jonathan Franzen and Beyoncé and this phenomenon called Kim Kardashian. You are dissolving people’s individualities, what they really do in real life, into this generalized term. Michelle Obama is the First Lady, Franzen is a writer, Beyoncé is a singer, and Kardashian, God knows what she is. It’s this greed for everything that wants to be new.
In my book, the second chapter “Babbitt,” Babbitt like Henry Ford believes that history is bunk. Memory is bunk. And all they crave is new gadgets. We have all become like Babbitt, dying to know the latest Apple iPhone or iPad, staying up and queuing in front of the stores to get the new gadgets. The world is going up in flames, in churches people are killing people, our schools are no more secure and we are yet wanting to feel comfortable. I can go on forever, but that is why I said that we need to be able to reflect, to think, to take risks, and to imagine a world not just as it is, but as it should or could be. Otherwise how could you and I vote if we do not learn in schools our own history and the history of the world, our own culture and the culture of the world? How do we have the ability to think and make choices? These are questions that bother me. They are different from the questions that bothered me in Iran where my life was sometimes in danger, but I still feel that something very precious is in danger in this country.
TM: Building on that a little bit, one thing that I noticed in your book was you talked about political correctness. Some would argue that political correctness was born out of a need to redress grievances and show respect to those that have been marginalized, but in your book you point out that political correctness leads to “comfortable questions and easy, ready-made answers.” What alternative would you present to political correctness? How can we still show that respect without putting everyone’s ways of thought into a box?
AN: All of these matters like political correctness, like multiculturalism, came out of a desire to respect others and be curious about others. But the point is that you cannot create these things into a set of formulas, and you cannot assign people to a situation. I think that is dangerous. That is the difference between what I saw under conditions that were far more difficult; for example when we talk about or see documentaries on civil rights movements, when people were fighting for their rights very seriously, you had a conviction and despite the fact that the others or the society or the law tried to victimize you, you refused that victimized status. Nowadays someone who is wearing that status will condescendingly talk about others: “Don’t hurt their sensitivities.” It is not about hurting sensitivities, it is about changing mindsets. Mindsets are not changed by some thug calling women all sorts of names, or calling minorities all sorts of names, and then tomorrow coming on TV to apologize. Or by forbidding people to talk in a way or punishing them the way we are. All we are doing is not changing people’s mindsets, we are making them just become silent and build resentment and then they’ll come out on the attack when the time comes.
As a woman who comes from a particular place like Iran…let me just give you the examples of women in Iran. What women in Iran realized, in comparison with their own past and in comparison with what they desire, was that they were genuine victims of the regime. When you are forced to marry at the age of nine or stoned to death or are flogged, these things make you real victims; it’s not somebody calling you names. But we could have done two things: either just accept that victim status or to actively resist it by not becoming like our oppressors. I think that is the greatest lesson I have learned from James Baldwin. Baldwin talks about the most dangerous thing was not those white racists but the hatred that they stimulated in him, which made him become them.
So if we are victims of race or class or gender rather than constantly complaining or forbidding people to talk about these things, we should stand up and we should act so that people know we are not victims. We refuse that status. If I refuse that status, then whatever somebody says is not going to hurt me. That is what I mean by everybody wanting to be comfortable and find solutions by forbidding, but this forbidding has no end, because you’ll notice that the right is constantly bothered and sensitized about whether we will have another Christmas celebration or not or wants to ban Harry Potter or evolution from the schools; and the left might call The Great Gatsby misogynist or Huckleberry Finn racist, and want to make our job easy and kick them out. What I want to say to people is that the domain of imagination and thought is the only domain where blasphemy and profanity can exist. That is where we should be free to roam and to question and be questioned.
So my students should not only read those writers who for example were fighting against fascism, but they should also understand what Hitler was all about. That domain is the domain of free thought and freedom of the imagination, and we are limiting it by ideology.
That is what I was trying to practice in my classes. I would never begin with theory, because I didn’t want my students to be intimidated or influenced by somebody who they think knows better. So first of all I would have them read the text and talk about the text and come up with their own ideas about the text. Then I would ask them to read theories that I myself hated, but I would not tell them, I would have them read theories from all sides and come to their own conclusion. I don’t want my students to all take the same political positions that I do, but I want them to think and be able to defend their ideas and be able to have that intellectual courage to stand up for their principles.
TM: So if you could give a reading list of a few more works important to the Republic of Imagination, what would those books be?
AN: There are so many. First of all, I don’t believe I have explained it fully in my book; the point about my book was that I ended at a specific period in time because I felt that the 1960s were a time of transition both in terms of American culture as well as politics and society, and whatever we are dealing with now, both good and bad, is partly because of what happened in the ’60s and ’70s.
The second thing is that I had about 24 people on the list for this book, which I reduced to what you see now. For example, I wanted to talk about Herman Melville’s Bartleby; I love that guy who keeps saying, “I prefer not to.” If we talk about before the ’60’s, Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, and some of the lesser known, I believe, minor masterpieces, like Nathanael West’s Miss Lonely Hearts and The Day of the Locust; I think he beautifully predicts our society today. Of course I mentioned Stoner in my book, but I also love David Foster Wallace, I love Geraldine Brooks, and some of the works by Nicole Krauss. These are writers who are too close to my time and I need to digest them more in order to be able to write about them more. Of course mystery, I would love to write about Raymond Chandler and science fiction like Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick.
TM: Do you think you’d ever publish a list of those 24 people that you wanted to write about? Because I think you should!
AN: I’d love to! You know, one of my problems, and I mentioned it in one of my books, is that in terms of books, I’m very promiscuous. There are so many books that I want to write about. I was in Italy for my book last month and I kept thinking, “Oh my god, I want to write about so many of these books now!” I hope I will at least get a chance to write about some of them. It is so joyous to be able to share the books you love.
TM: How would you say that fiction influences and changes the future, from people’s hearts to the changes we make in our societies to even the inventions we create?
AN: Well you know, I believe that fiction, telling stories, is essential to our nature as human beings. If you go back to the first stories that are Greek and Roman mythology, to the Bible to the Qur’an, until you come to epic fiction and all of that, you notice that fiction comes out of curiosity, and curiosity is the first step towards change. Both science and literature are very much dependent on this curiosity. Because to be curious means to leave yourself behind and search for something that you don’t know, and enter a world like Alice and her Wonderland, enter a world that you have not visited before. And that experience, like traveling to other lands, learning other people’s languages, it changes you.
You might not notice the change in a very concrete way, but it changes your perspective on the world. It expands your perspective; it washes your eyes and you look at yourself through the eyes of other people. So I feel that that is one of the greatest contributions of fiction in terms of preserving our humanity. It also gives us continuity because it is the guardian of memory, and that is why I’m so amazed when I read something that was written some years ago and it seems as if they predicted what we are now.
The last thing of course is that fiction touches the heart. It makes you connect to other people through your heart and that experience of connection through the heart is also life changing — to be able to, for a minute even, become another person and then come back to your own being.
TM: You love fiction so much; would you ever consider writing a novel? Or have you decided nonfiction is more of what you want to write?
AN: Well, you know, maybe this is my weakness or obsession that I think for me fiction is the highest form of writing. To tell you the truth, sometimes I’m very scared. I mean, I write for myself; I have loads of pages and now computer files of all these things that I have written, but that is one part of it. The other part of it is that I was fascinated — since I wrote my first book in Iran — by these intersections between fiction and reality and how reality turns into fiction and vice versa, how they change one another. And I think for as long as I have that obsession, it will be difficult to make the leap. I don’t want to write fiction which is really just disguised biography. So I hope one day I will reach that stage before I die. Maybe I’ll write my last book as a novel and then die. I want nothing, nothing else in the world.
Azar Nafisi thinks the best way to pin down a culture is to take a look at its canonical works of literature. In The Republic of Imagination, as Adam Begley details in a review in the Times Literary Supplement, she examines a few of America’s classic novels, including Babbitt, Huck Finn and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. You could also read Jonathan Russell Clark’s review of the book for The Millions.
Literature –– no, the world –– needs more people like Azar Nafisi. A strident proponent of fiction, Nafisi has done much more than simply write about literature and its vital role in our lives, she’s taught it –– in America, England, Iran, and in lecture halls all over the world, in which she advocates for literature as an antidote to ideology. In her bestselling Reading Lolita in Tehran, she tells how she quit the university where she was teaching because of the potential intrusion of the totalitarian government. Then, she invited her students into her home, which one could be tempted to describe as Nafisi putting her money where her mouth is, if the mention of money in such a context weren’t so gratuitously irrelevant.
In that book, Nafisi brought the power of American fiction into the world of Iran. In her latest book, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, she brings lessons from Iran to America. In Tehran, her students valued the freedom to read in a profound and immediate way, since such activities were often forbidden, especially for women. In America, reading isn’t cherished in the same way; it’s old hat to us. Or, at least, so said an Iranian man named Ramin who came to one of Nafisi’s readings in Seattle. “It’s useless,” he tells her, “your talk about books. These people are different from us –– they’re from another world. They don’t care about books and such things. It’s not like Iran, where we were crazy enough to Xerox hundreds of pages of Madame Bovary and A Farewell to Arms.”
Is he right? Nafisi doesn’t think so, but her resulting project doesn’t end up explaining why Ramin isn’t right so much as passionately explain why he shouldn’t be right. Having become an American citizen in 2008, Nafisi has a real stake in the answer to Ramin’s question, and so much to contribute to a possible answer. Her book, then, tries valiantly, if not always successfully, to cover a lot of ground. In these pages we find discussions of the three books of the subtitle –– Huck Finn, Babbitt, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, but also many others, including a long epilogue focused on James Baldwin and J.D. Salinger –– as well as the founding fathers, conservatives, Common Core, the Iranian Revolution in 1979, her long-time friend Farrah, college friends Mike and Joanna, and numerous other personal anecdotes of life in America and Iran. It’s a testament to Nafisi’s considerable skill that she’s able to wrangle all this into a mostly cohesive unit. But wholeness actually seems a little beside the point, here, since what makes The Republic of Imagination so wonderful is Nafisi’s irrepressible conviction in the power of fiction to show us who we are.
But it’s more than that, too. Underneath her literary analysis and her personal reflections, Nafisi’s book carries an implicit argument about American values. For her, an American not by birth but by choice, the country she loves was both formed and created by its literature, the myths that both reflect us and instruct us. That’s where we belong, she says. And that’s what we should look to for guidance and difficult truths. Instead, she sees an America steeped in religiosity and jingoism. She quotes Mark Twain, “Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.” In other words, a true republic must be malleable, open to constant scrutiny and endless revision, and we as citizens must reciprocate by criticizing in the hopes of change and making the necessary changes in ourselves as well. Religion and fervent, uncritical patriotism simplify things. Or, as Nafisi puts it:
Ideology eliminates paradox and seeks to destroy contradiction and ambiguity. While it is generally ruthless to outsiders, it can be consoling when you are in the group that always wears the white hat no matter what.
In her long chapter on Huck Finn, Nafisi celebrates Huck’s “subversive character” and how Jim “questions the system of beliefs sanctioned by religious and social authorities.” (She even valiantly defends the book’s notoriously unsatisfying ending, or, as George Saunders put it, “The ending, oh my god, the ending.”) In Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, Nafisi sees the “iconically American” character of “lonely, dissatisfied career men, family men yearning to escape the seemingly desirable entrapments of their mundane lives.” The “standardized” Babbitt, in his desire to please, to be liked, to be successful, is contrasted with the figures in Carson McCullers’s The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, who are “solitary misfits who cannot create a bond.” They represent “a new kind of urban loneliness that will cast a long shadow over American fiction.” Huck and the characters of McCullers’s first novel stand on one side of American values, Babbitt on the other. Nafisi asks, “What if we let Babbitt win?”
Letting Babbitt win amounts to succumbing to ideology, to allowing the comforting sway of conformism, of strict allegiance, to win out over critical individualism. Literature, with all its complexity and nuance, its ambiguities and contradictions, is not a replacement for these ideas but rather an antidote to them. Literature is not an ideology; it is not a religion. It is something grander, more human and humane. For literature asks nothing of you. It doesn’t tell you how to live or who to love. It doesn’t tell you that you aren’t good enough or that you were born wrong. It doesn’t promise punishment for lack of adherence, and it doesn’t condemn those who don’t follow it. And the best part? Literature acknowledges its fiction, its artifice, its ultimate inability to express the capital-T Truth. Literature only promises an attempt, over and over from endless artists, to see the world as their author sees it, to add if only one speck of useful insight, of meaningful observation, to the great tradition of the written word. Literature doesn’t just invite criticism and contribution, it demands it –– the basis of literature is a kind of call and response. Each new author is in some way responding to all who came before them, before they even write one word. Ideally, literature is complete freedom, and as such it’s a messy world –– cheaters and philanderers run rampant as evil characters get away with evil deeds and good people’s values are compromised and deep-seated values are not only questioned but irreverently tossed out the window. If you’re looking for an easy road map to human ethics, literature ain’t the place for you. But this is Nafisi’s point. We shouldn’t look for the easy instructions, for unambiguous demands; we need to challenge every belief we have, to test them, strengthen them, or replace them if need be.
Growing up in Ohio, religion was a normal part of everyday life. As an atheist from a young age, I clung to literature for its confrontational attitude toward accepted values, but I always disagreed when people would say to me, “Well, books are your religion.” Because literature is not a synonym for religion; it’s not a replacement. It’s another territory altogether. In fact, it is as Nafisi describes it, a country. “So much of who we are,” she writes, “no matter where we live, depends on how we imagine ourselves to be.” She goes on to say:
Stories endure –– they have been with us since the dawn of history –– but they need to be refreshed and retold in every generation through the eyes and experiences of new readers sharing a common space that knows no boundaries of politics or religion, ethnicity or gender –– a Republic of Imagination, that most democratic republic of all.
And like a true republic, citizenship here requires work and thought and an open mind, because literature isn’t easy –– it can still offend, provoke, or cause controversy. Even then, we must engage and not simplistically condemn. As Philip Pullman once put it when I saw him speak at the Sheldonian Theatre at Oxford University, in response to a question about the “offensive” title of his book The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ:
Yes, it was shocking thing to say, and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. Uh, but no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if they open it and read it they don’t have to like it. And if you read it and dislike it you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me. You can complain about it. You can write to the publisher. You can write to the papers. You can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published or sold or bought or read. And that’s all I have to say on that subject.
Literature always gives you choices –– to act, to respond, to criticize, to protest –– and, more than that, it actually thrives on this process. Whereas ideology, religion, and jingoism flourish in rigidity, in adherence. As Salman Rushdie put it in The Satanic Verses, “unbendingess can also be monomania, he wanted to say, it can be tyranny, and also it can be brittle, whereas what is flexible can also be humane, and strong enough to last.”
I’m deeply appreciative of Azar Nafisi and her project of promoting fiction throughout the world. But more I’m grateful for her Republic of Imagination. My whole life I’ve been a citizen of a complex moral landscape, a rich world created by some of the greatest minds humanity has had to offer, peopled by every type of person from every type of culture –– I’ve always lived here, but now, thanks to Nafisi, I have a name for my adopted home.
Re-reading is a great way to check in on who I have become. I’ll pick up a book I remember adoring a quarter of a century ago to find myself either irritated by stylistic indulgence I once found so deep or enraptured by complex sentences I once struggled to parse. This year’s re-reading was more an affirmation that my predilections lie on a continuum. I spent a few weeks back in the world of Denis Johnson and found myself especially re-loving Angels and his smart, canny essays in the collection Seek. Carson McCullers’s hard, heartbreaking, cuttingly precise The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and Reflections in a Golden Eye were sneaky roundhouse punches once more. They flattened me. And then there was the double-take: I picked up the re-issue of Judith Rossner’s Looking for Mr. Goodbar that I remembered only as a titillating morality tale and a cultural catch phrase that embodied the retrograde idea that date rape is the woman’s fault. But reading it this time, I discovered a chillingly astute portrait of a sharp-edged, confused young woman wrestling with her libidinal yearnings in the wake of the sexual revolution. Goodbar is lurid to be sure, but it gets under the skin of its protagonist as well as any novel I admire and it unsettled me because of its nervy emotional accuracy, and precisely because of its queasy sexual politics. It makes readers question their knee-jerk impulse to distance themselves from the protagonist’s wreckage by blaming her. Somehow I missed all that when I was a sex obsessed fifteen year old trolling for the dirty parts.
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Thirty-six. This is the number of books I will have read, or re-read, in 2010, by the end of October. I keep a “Reading List” page on my website, and the other day, I found myself counting up my 2010 reading. I also found myself dividing 36 by 43, which is the number of weeks between January 1 and Oct 31. It comes out to .84. This is my rate of reading. In 2010, I have read .84 books per week.
Once upon a time I was good at math. If memory serves me right, I think I may have even gotten the highest score possible on a Calculus Advanced Placement exam. I wonder how different my life would be if I had become, say, an engineer; or an economist; or a CFO.
But I am none of those things. I am a writer. I also teach fiction writing. A few weeks ago, partially in response to Elif Batuman’s essay in the London Review of Books, “Get A Real Degree,” Bill Morris wrote a piece here called, “Does School Kill Writing?” Morris wrote: “School wasn’t my death as a writer, it was my birth… I’m dubious when people fret that school is killing writing – that college boys ruined newspapers and the growing horde of creative writing MFAs is ruining American fiction today.”
One of the comments on Morris’s post came from Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel:
I would be curious to read a piece on this subject someday from the POV of someone who actually teaches in one of these programs, someone who can talk about whether these programs are capable of transformation, or merely refinement […] whether they’re taking already-accomplished writers and just polishing them a little, or whether these programs can take merely capable writers and make them great. I think it would be an interesting perspective.
“I think the single most defining characteristic of a writer,” I found myself saying to a friend the other day, when she asked my thoughts on the teaching of writing, “I mean the difference between a writer and someone who ‘wants to be a writer,’ is a high tolerance for uncertainty.”
Last week, I attended a “lecture on craft” given by Jennifer Egan for Columbia MFA students. After her talk, in which she mentioned that she is an “unconscious writer”—meaning that her first drafts, written by hand on legal pads in nearly-illegible handwriting, are wholly unthinking in regards to craft (it’s in revision that she shapes and carves away and applies conscious craft-thinking)—a student raised her hand and asked what sorts of goals she sets, given said unconsciousness. “Five pages,” she said. “Every day I aim for five pages. It doesn’t matter how much time I spend. I’m after the pages.” I saw a number of students scribbling in their notebooks. I thought I heard a collective exhale of relief. Five pages. Something concrete, something quantifiable. Especially after Egan had also mentioned that she never thinks about point-of-view (the voice of a character or narrator always “just comes to me, fully formed”) and that she has no idea where her prescience re: technological anthropology (evident in both A Visit From the Good Squad and Look at Me) came from, since she herself is “lame” and “behind the curve” as a technology user.
When you teach writing, you have to have a sort of world-view about it, or else you’ll go a little nutty. Here’s mine: at a certain level, there is pretty-good writing (“capable,” in Emily’s words), there is really-good writing, and there is great writing. Most of us will move among these categories throughout our lives; we’ll aim for greatness and more often than not land somewhere along the way. If you are earnest in this endeavor, if you understand that your pretty-good writing can and must always be getting better, then I can’t see why I, as a teacher, shouldn’t encourage and help you along as best I can.
The truth is that your pretty-good writing may very well get published and make you famous; it’s happened before. Your great writing may never see the light of day. Your really-good writing may get published and be read by very few. You may write something great this time around and something pretty-good next time around and something not-very-good-at-all a few years down the road and never get published at all. It’s happened before. (Read this, and this, if you don’t believe me.) I don’t decide these things. I’m only here to help you write better, because I think it’s important and worthwhile.
As readers, each of us will necessarily put different books into each of these categories, and we may even change our minds about certain books over time. So I never give my students the once-over and think that only those who comprise the top two categories can or should be encouraged. There are many paths to a writing life; those paths twist and turn and are haunted by the cruelties of subjectivity, along with the inevitably erratic application of our gifts. I can forgive anyone’s so-called mediocrity, mine included, as long as the writer herself is not satisfied with it.
A writer friend of mine used to always report to me his short story in-progress word counts. I found this funny and endearing. When I was about halfway through a novel draft, I started tracking my word counts and reporting them on my blog. It wasn’t funny to me, though, and probably not endearing to anyone else; I needed markers, a sense of how far I’d come and how far I thought I had to go. I was in the wilderness on this draft. Around the same time, another novelist friend started reporting his word counts on Facebook. I commented on one of his word-count posts: “Let’s make it en vogue to track and report word counts!” He replied, “Yes!”
Some anecdotes from the lives/careers of some authors I’ve read just this past month, which remind me of the uncertainty of the writing life:
From the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Tolstoy’s stories: “Of the eleven stories in this collection, only four were published in Tolstoy’s lifetime.” Hadji Murad, Father Sergius, The Devil, and Alyosha the Pot are among the stories published only posthumously. (Hadji Murad!)
Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was published to wide acclaim when she was 23. She received two Guggenheim awards. Throughout her 20’s she suffered many illnesses and was paralyzed on her entire left side at the age of 31, shortly before she attempted suicide. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe was adapted into a play by Edward Albee (while she was alive), and later into a Merchant Ivory film (long after her death).
While writing his luminous novel Light Years, James Salter wrote to Robert Phelps:
I love this book. I’m writing it for myself and an audience composed of me’s […] It’s going to have many beautiful jumps, sauts, perhaps it will be a ballet […] Some things I love in it I love as one loves a woman.
The book received mixed reviews – two bad ones in the NY Times – and sold modestly.
Junot Diaz wrote, regarding the process of writing his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Brief Life of Oscar Wao, five years into it:
I started becoming convinced that I had written all I had to write […] that maybe it was time, for the sake of my mental health, for me to move on to another profession, and if the inspiration struck again some time in the future… well, great. But I knew I couldn’t go on much more the way I was going. I just couldn’t […] My fiancée was so desperate to see me happy (and perhaps more than a little convinced by my fear that maybe the thread had run out on my talent) that she told me to make a list of what else I could do besides writing […] It took a month to pencil down three things. (I really don’t have many other skills.) I stared at that list for about another month. Waiting, hoping, praying for the book, for my writing, for my talent to catch fire. A last-second reprieve. But nada. So I put the manuscript away. All the hundreds of failed pages, boxed and hidden in a closet. I think I cried as I did it.
The thing I feel that I cannot exactly teach, but can only hope to model and emphasize to student writers, is this tolerance for uncertainty; for a life that is indeed characterized by uncertainty. As when you learn to drive a stick shift, there is a kind of “friction zone,” where your inner imperative to write and your tolerance for uncertainty cross each other, and the energy balance of that intersection either sets you off into motion, or you stall. I have seen many talented would-be writers stall (especially on steep inclines). Some find their way to restarting (as, of course, Diaz did); others give up for good, they trade in for an automatic.
As a teacher, I try to exemplify and nurture a deep love of reading and of sentence-and-story-making—one’s only stay against doubt and the feeling of non-existence that will inevitably creep in. I try to give student writers enough “gas” to help them manage and master the friction zone, so that they come to know that feeling of ignition, of takeoff, both bumpy and smooth, and develop a liking for it, an abiding passion, even an addiction. When I sit down with a student and suggest that reading this book or that author may help him understand how to better execute a half-baked story idea, and that student eagerly seeks out those works, and keeps asking for more, I feel hopeful about that student’s future as a writer. On the other hand, when a student looks at me blankly and doesn’t even write down the suggestions—doesn’t seem to want to be nourished by literature and get better, but rather simply wants me to praise her originality as is—then I feel I can see the writing (trailing off) on the wall.
It’s hard to write well. But it may be even harder to simply keep writing; which, by the way, is the only way to write better. In the meantime, aim for five pages. Report your word counts. Track your rate of reading. Teach math on the side if you have to. Whatever you need to do.
Hang in there.
Image: Riforma della scuola via Funky64’s photostream
A few weeks ago, a friend of mine posted a goodreads review of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. In it, he wrote that he wished books with more than 10% of “teenage girl content” came with an advisory warning. This way, he could avoid them. This was puzzling to me. If a book had a label that said, “Warning! Teenagers Inside!” I would be more likely to pick it up. Doesn’t every reader, male or female, young or old, find that phase of life to be particularly dramatic, moving, screwed up, and beautiful? I loved the teenagers that populated Egan’s latest novel, especially Rhea, who narrates the chapter/story “Ask Me if I Care,” and not only because she’s a freckle-face like I was (am). She’s vulnerable and wise, and also incredibly naive, too. Her desires are painfully strong, and yet she cannot totally understand them.
Teenagers have a real drive to be independent, to discover and define (or defy) their identities. And yet, they’re also powerless. They have their parents’ will to contend with, and their friends’ complicated codes of behavior. They have the secret shames of the body. They long for the purity and ease of childhood even as they fling themselves into the dangers of adulthood. In short, they make for compelling characters.
Books about teenage boys, it seems to me, are often about a rage that is hard to control and understand. Jim Shepard’s Project X is a fine example of the genre. About a Columbine-style act of school violence, and the two eighth grade boys who perpetrate it, the novel is engrossing, compassionate, and oddly mundane in its faithful depiction of contemporary American adolescence. Whenever I think of Go-gurts, I think of this book.
I haven’t yet read Patterns of Paper Monsters by Emma Rathbone, but I want to. Narrated by seventeen year-old Jacob Higgins, who is sent to a juvenile correctional facility for committing a violent crime, the book has been described as sad and funny, and The Daily Beast promises “there’s no sappy uplift here.” At The New Yorker Book Bench blog, Eileen Reynolds writes that Jacob, “may be cut from the same cloth as Holden Caulfield, but he’s a good bit funnier and a lot less mopey than the angsty adolescent male narrators from many coming-of-age books that have followed Catcher in the Rye.” He sounds like a narrator I could fall in love with.
Though I like books about teenage boys, I prefer to read about teenage girls, most likely because I used to be one myself. Man, if I had been the narrator of a novel! What a weird and exhilarating book that would be! (See also: mortifying). I recently finished a novel manuscript about an adult woman looking back on her 16 year-old self. I (mostly) avoided reading books about similar milieus while I was writing it (for fear of undue influence), but I did, from time to time, consider some of my favorite teenage heroines. Here are just a few:
Jane Eyre. According to a footnote in my edition, Charlotte Bronte’s novel about the poor, unloved orphan who falls for that creep Mr. Rochester is probably the first occurrence of a first-person narration by a child in British literature. Perhaps that’s what renders this book so intimate and authentic. Jane is a complex, independent woman, and her storytelling is modern and hyper-conscious. I’ve always loved Jane’s bookishness, her honesty, and her plain looks. It’s her evolution from child to woman that provides us with a panoramic understanding of her character.
Mick Kelly. It’s been a long time since I’ve read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. I have a terrible memory, but this novel’s teenage protagonist is never really far from my mind. Mick dresses like a boy. She feels trapped in her small Southern town. She is composing a symphony in her head called “This Thing I Want, I Know Not What.” That phrase…God, it’s haunted me for years.
Thisbe Casper. Thisbe is the younger of the two teenage daughters in Joe Meno’s most recent novel, The Great Perhaps. She’s a fervent believer in God among a family of nonbelievers, and she also has a crush on her friend Roxie, which fills her with fear and shame. She’s aglow with all kinds of feelings, and I adore her. It’s no surprise that Thisbe was Meno’s favorite character in the book.
Chloe from Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love. The Feast of Love was on my list of favorite books of the decade, partially because of Chloe’s sections, which are narrated with a raw, kinetic energy. Chloe’s boyfriend is pierced-up Oscar with “the blond hair, the snaggle-toothed smile, the bomb-shelter eyes.” I’m not sure how old Chloe is (if it said in the book, I don’t remember), but she seems about nineteen to me — she’s got that reckless hopefulness in her. At the beginning of her first section, she says of her and Oscar, “We were swoon machines,” and I, the reader, swoon myself. I love that Baxter marries colloquialisms and cliche with striking, unique turns of phrase to get at a teenager’s way of moving through the world.
I’ve recently started Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans, a debut collection of stories about young African-American women (some of them teenagers) living on the east coast. In her laudatory review in the New York Times, Lydia Peelle writes, “Rather than limiting the collection’s gaze, this perspective amplifies the universal pitfalls of coming of age in 21st-century America.” I’ve only read the first story, “Pilgrims,” but the conflicts therein already support Peelle’s thesis. In a scene between the high school-aged narrator, her friend Jasmine, and some older guys they’ve met a club, there’s one finely-wrought moment. The girls have, of course, lied about their age:
“Man, look who we got here,” said the one in the passenger seat, turning around. “College girl with a attitude problem. How’d we end up with these girls again? Y’all are probably virgins, aren’t you?”
“No,” Jasmine said. “Like hell we are. We look like virgins to you?”
“Nah,” he said, and I didn’t know whether to feel pissed off or pretty.
This exchange captures so well what it feels like to be that age: wanting approval, and respect, and also wanting to be desired, even if you don’t feel that desire back. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Evans’s stories, to see how she deepens her exploration of this puzzling and complex demographic. Something tells me she will.
Writing this almost makes me want to write another book about a teenager. Almost — it’s not easy, throwing yourself into that world again. But I could read dozens of books about teenagers. Dozens! And those warning stickers? They’d help.
As it happens, I read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter right after finishing Out Stealing Horses. I felt almost forced to read the latter novel (the locus of a great storm of positive feedback), but I left it feeling disappointed in myself and in literature for our respective failures to engage and be engaged. Fatuously, one feels one’s lack of enthusiasm for a lauded novel makes somebody a philistine, but one can’t, unfortunately, be certain that it’s the other guy. It’s kind of a tight spot. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter was a fortuitous follow-up, the perfect antidote to a mood like this. The two novels share enough elements (youth and sorrow and accidental shootings) that I felt, not for the first time, as though my hand had been guided by uncanny forces–an owlish librarian in the sky.
The novels’ convergence served to throw them both into relief. I found Out Stealing Horses somewhat vague. It’s not Per Petterson’s fault that you have to explain things very clearly and slowly to me, but I was occasionally confused about what was taking place in the narrative. I found the story sad, but not inordinately compelling; it lacked something, the nature of which eluded me. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter provided a useful contrast; that novel, a mosaic of tragedy and disappointment on a grander scale, preserves an exquisite clarity of feature, for all the lives and happenings packed into it. Having read the latter, I feel okay about things again. Art is allowed to be conducted in a variety of styles, and readers allowed to choose which they prefer. I don’t know a lot about painting, but it seems to me like the difference between Monet and John Singer Sargent. The former is attractive, but smudgy; the latter bold and dark and clear. (Many might disagree with this comparison, since Petterson, like Hemingway, is understood to be master of a spare, clean, un-smudgy prose. But Petterson, like Hemingway, like Monet, leaves me sort of cold and confused.)
Carson McCullers attains a level of virtuosity on many fronts, but I was most taken with her depiction of relationships, many of which balance on a knife edge of propriety, wavering back and forth between the lovely and the weird and the outright perverse. It is, oddly, these pairings’ deviation from what we have decided is normal in life and art, that makes them feel so genuine. John Singer the deaf-mute and his beloved Greek, Biff the barman and Mick the tween, Mick and brother George, Portia and Highboy and Willie–these relationships are furnished with a wealth of touching and gruesome details that remind us of the varieties of human experience. Singer, all things to all men, is particularly puzzling and sad (and Christ-like, I suppose) in his slavish devotion to the dim-witted Antonapoulos. But most of us have loved someone who wasn’t the way we saw them, about whom we thought we could see something nobody else could. Figuring out who’s right and who’s crazy is everyone’s cross to bear. (This post is getting awfully Biblical. On a lighter note, consider Arrested Development: John Singer is Michael Bluth and Antonapoulos is Rita (the MRF) (sorry). And Mick, darling Mick, is something halfway between George Michael and Maeby.)
Mick Kelly is a premier young woman of fiction. Perhaps she felt so true to me because Carson McCullers was 23 goddamn years old when she wrote this novel. She knew of what she spoke. Like Virginia Woolf’s wicked Cam, Mick is very fierce and free. But she’s a good old soul, and she takes care of her brother. And like many fierce little girls, she eventually does it with a boy (by accident, really), puts on makeup, and goes to work. In one of my favorite passages in the novel, Mick (an ancient fourteen) gets off work at the ten-cent store and goes for a beer and an ice cream and a cigarette. “There were these two things she could never believe. That Mister Singer had killed himself and was dead. And that she was grown and had to work at Woolworth’s.” I find this very poignant. Most of us have those things we can’t ever believe; often, our job is one of them. I too, have found solace in a beer and an ice cream and a cigarette. Often, there is none better. The artists among you will commiserate with Mick’s plight as a working person:
Sometimes a quick little tune would come and go–but she never went into the inside room with music like she used to do. It was like she was too tense. Or maybe because it was like the store took all her energy and time. Woolworth’s wasn’t the same as school. When she used to come home from school she felt good and was ready to start working on the music. But now she felt she was always tired. At home she just ate supper and slept and then ate breakfast and went off to the store again. A song she had started in her private notebook two months before was still not finished. And she wanted to stay in the inside room but she didn’t now how. It was like the inside room was locked somewhere away from her. A very hard thing to understand.
I just love this novel. Formally and thematically it is put together so well. Elegant parallels abound. And it’s a great synthesis of American literature of the first half of the twentieth century. I don’t mean that it’s derivative, but that it brings together the things that are good about American literature (or literature full stop, I suppose)–the engagement of Richard Wright or Sinclair Lewis with the superb depictions of interior life of Sherwood Anderson, and the old-fashioned weirdness of Flannery O’Connor. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is bold and dark and clear, but even those things which remain inscrutable, like the reasons of the heart, McCullers shows us with a quiet, devastating sympathy.
Bryan wrote in with this question:I’m a 2007 graduate of Columbia. I majored in American Studies with a concentration in 20th century American literature. I’m a huge fan of the Millions. I’m attaching a recent reading list, if there’s any chance you’d be interested in giving a book recommendation [based on it], that would be totally awesome. Here goes:Currently reading:Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradRecently read (sep 07 – april 08):Elementary Particles by Michel HoullebecqA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave EggersMan In The Dark by Paul AusterPortnoy’s Complaint by Philip RothWhat We Should Have Known – n+1The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLook Back In Anger by John OsborneThe Road by Cormac MccarthyPages From A Cold Island by Frederick ExleyUltramarine by Raymond CarverThe Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan KunderaThe Country Between Us by Carolyn ForcheLiterary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice by Charles BresslerA Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O’ConnorGoodbye, Columbus by Philip RothWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood AndersonThe Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerMeditations In An Emergency by Frank O’HaraSwann’s Way by Marcel ProustThe Sound And The Fury by William FaulknerLife Studies and For The Union Dead by Robert LowellFor Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayIncidences by Daniil KharnsJourney To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineBryan’s recent reading list is an interesting one, and in discussions among Millions contributors, several interesting observations were made. Emily noted, for example, that it is a “very testosterone-y” reading list and added, “I think all testosterone diets are bad for the soul. (as are all estrogen diets).” Her prescription? Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Ben, meanwhile, noted several “upgrades” that Bryan might consider to the books above. Instead of Goodbye, Columbus, read Saul Bellow’s Herzog. If you’re going to read Exley, read A Fan’s Notes, and “Infinite Jest should be on there, probably the greatest work of 20th century literature,” Ben adds. Garth said that Bryan “needs urgently to read is Mating by Norman Rush, which is like an amalgam of Conrad, Roth, Proust, F. O’Hara, and Hemingway,” all authors featured on Bryan’s list.In thinking and discussing Bryan’s list, we also hit the idea of a “staff picks” for recent grads – a year out of school, Bryan qualifies, and with another round of graduates set to be expelled from academia, we figured that it might be both timely and useful. Below follows a handful of suggestions. This list is woefully incomplete though, so we ask you to help us out with your own reading suggestions for recent graduates in the comments.Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson recommended by EdanThis novel-in-verse is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged creature who lives on a red island; Carson’s version is a kind of coming of age story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles. If the form intimidates you, don’t let it: this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams recommended by EdanThree teenage girls, a bitch of a ghost, and the apathetic desert. The Quick and the Dead is an odd and very funny novel that has pretty much no narrative drive but is nonetheless a joy (no pun intended!) to read because of its wondrous prose.Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey recommended by EdanThis is a fun collection of essays that will feel far more entertaining than any criticism you read in college (though maybe not as mind blowing). The best piece in the book, I think, is Hickey’s argument for why Vegas (where he lives) is so terrific.George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London recommended by AndrewSo you’re holding your degree in one hand and, with the other, you’re untangling a four-year growth of ivy from your jacket. All the while maintaining that cool, detached air that you’ve been carefully cultivating. Well, before you join the real world and settle into the routine that will destroy your soul bit by bit, each and every day FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, take a breath, find a copy of George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, and shake your foundations one last time.Orwell was probably about your age – mid-twenties or so – when he found himself out of the army and living in the underbelly of Paris and then in London, living in poverty, working as a plongeur and doing other assorted subsistence-level jobs, and scraping by. A largely autobiographical account of those years, Down and Out in Paris and London exposes Orwell’s social soul. “I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny.”Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway recommended by MaxTo me, the post-college years are characterized by two often warring desires, to become a contributing member of society despite the horrifying drudgery of those first post-college jobs and to extend the second childhood of undergraduate life for as long as possible. Lucky Jim riotously encapsulates the former, as junior lecturer Jim Dixon finds himself surrounded by eccentric buffoonish professors and overeager students at a British college. He wants what many of us want: to escape the dull life before it traps us forever. The Sun Also Rises famously depicts the pitfalls of the other path. Brett and Jake and their burned out gang live life in a perpetual day-after-the-party fog. The Pamplona bullfights, aperitifs, and camaraderie may be tempting, but the attendant spiritual weariness gives pause.
Joan writes in with this question:I loved the regular Oprah Book Club and her Classics selections have made wonderful new or re-reading. The last Oprah Classic I know of is Anna Karenina, last summer. Can you tell me if there have been more recent Oprah Classics? Thanks so much.Much as I am tempted, I’ll spare my readership another discussion on the pros and cons of Oprah’s Book Club. (The short answer is that I think it’s good. You can read why here.) Oprah relaunched her famed book club in the summer of 2003 with John Steinbeck’s East of Eden and since then has recommended six books to her viewers. Oprah selected Alan Paton’s somewhat forgotten novel about South Africa, Cry, the Beloved Country in September 2003. She opened 2004 by recommending Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude followed by The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers in April 2004. In June of 2004 Oprah recommended Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I remember being struck by Oprah’s bookselling power when I saw dozens of copies of Anna Karenina for sale at New Jersey Turnpike rest stops that summer next to John Grisham and Sue Grafton novels. Oprah has made only one pick since then: Pearl S. Buck’s epic about China, The Good Earth. She hasn’t made a selection in a while so you may want to look out for a new Oprah pick soon. You can bookmark this page to keep track of all her selections. Thanks for the question!
Books aren’t too long, they’re too big. They don’t fit in your pocket or purse. You have to cram them into backpacks or shove them under your arm. And I’m not even talking about hardcovers (I can’t afford those); I’m talking about these big paperbacks. Sure, some of them look pretty but wouldn’t it be great to have a paperback stowed in my jacket pocket, ready for an idle moment? If you’ve ever been to a used book store, you’ve seen that they used to make books like this, small and pocket-sized. These books weren’t limited to the mysteries, romances, and mega-bestsellers that garner “mass-media” releases these days. On my bookshelves I have editions of The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers, for example. They aren’t the editions you’ll find by clicking the links I’ve provided, instead they fit very nearly in the palm of my hand. I’ve always been enamored by those little books, the Dells, the Bantams, the Penguins and the rest, but I’ve been thinking about these little books a lot more of late because I spend a lot of time on public transportation these days. And, frankly, it’s a pain to maneuver a big book around on a crowded bus or train. It’s no fun trying to extricate my book from my bag only to cram it back in hastily when I arrive at my destination. I can tell my fellow travelers experience the same difficulties, too. I would make a plea for publishers to bring back the pocket-sized books that I love, but I know that probably won’t happen. I’m told that publishing company consolidation in the 1980s and an ever-growing concern for the bottom line have made that impossible. But if you want to relive the glory days of the paperback, take a look at these very cool sites: The Paperback Revolution (a stunning presentation of the glory days of the paperback book) and Edward Gorey’s legendary covers for Anchor books (read the article and then click the link at the bottom to see the covers).