I was on book tour for much of the year. And when I tour, I read. I’m not sure how many books I got through exactly, but I read about quantum gravity, a few different translations of Beowulf, microbiology, and cave art. I read Elon Musk’s biography, meaning I can now more accurately predict the size and shape the coming apocalypse. I read many, many novels.
In looking at my read pile, I decided I needed a focus and narrowed in on Canadian books. But I immediately ran into a problem. What makes a book Canadian?
Margaret Atwood published Survival in 1972, a thematic guide to Canadian literature that searched for ways to define our national literature. Back then, American and British novels tended to dominate our bookshelves. Bookstores often had a curious shelf labelled Canadiana, where the local authors were tucked away.
We spent the next few decades searching for reasons to see ourselves as distinct. We often did this by pointing out who we were. When I was growing up in the ’80s, one of my favorite games was to name famous people who were actually Canadian and I still do this—Sandra Oh, Michael J. Fox, Drake, Pamela Anderson, and William Shatner. We hide so easily among others.
Since then, our ideas, our identities, and our writing have all expanded. Canadian literature, or CanLit, has its own hashtag (#canlit), but that’s about the only straightforward thing I can say about it. Now that it undoubtedly exists, we spend our time arguing about what it might be. The central question, as writer Russell Smith asked, “is it a literature that is made here, or set here, or addresses uniquely Canadian themes?” But for many, CanLit also stands for what needs to change. It’s a shorthand for an out-dated colonial point of view, structural racism and sexisim, a lack of diversity and opportunity.
So after thinking it through, I’ve decided why the books on my list are Canadian: They have little or nothing in common. Each is different from the other. There are no similar themes that stand out. The authors have their own identities that are best defined by them. If you asked each author if they are Canadian, I think they would answer yes—but likely with some kind of qualification, caveat, or hyphen. They might include a second citizenship, language, culture, or country. And maybe two or three.
I’m aware that this isn’t exactly a clear definition. I don’t need it to be. And similarly, I don’t think CanLit is a particularly useful term anymore. We’ve grown beyond the need to agonize about what we are. But more, the act of defining artistic work involves creating a boundary. Who gets to draw that literary line? I hope that no person nor group would assume that they have the ability to define our books. I will be wary if they do.
So, here are a few of my favorite novels published this year, written by authors who, when asked if they are Canadian, would probably answer, “yeah, and…,” and start telling a long and complicated and fascinating story about their identity:
The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O’Neill
When I interviewed O’Neill earlier in the year, I confessed to a certain kind of creative jealously. I’d like to say that I’ve since matured, however I’m a writer. Her prose sparkles, her way with the metaphor is unparalleled, and this, her third novel, has an intricate construction. You know when someone folds paper, cuts little holes in it, and—like magic—smooths out a perfect snowflake? Reading it feels like that, except add in some cigarettes, sex, and swearing. O’Neill often writes about Montreal, which in her words is, “totally funny, it’s wry, it’s dirty.” Also a perfect description of this book.
Brother by David Chariandy
A perfectly sculpted novel, each word is placed with a heart full of hip hop. It tells the story of an enduring love between two brothers, Michael and Francis, who live in the suburbs of Toronto (though the T-word is never mentioned). The book gives voice to black and brown men with beautiful and complex emotional lives. As said in The Walrus, the novel shows, “a very different picture than what CanLit usually peddles: comfortable and self-soothing narratives about our supposedly progressive cities.” Brother is already out in Canada. It just won one of our biggest awards, the Writers’ Trust Roger Fiction Prize. It will be out in July.
American War by Omar El Akkad
A novel that follows the life of Sarat Chestnut, who is six years old, in 2074, when a second civil war breaks out. Set in what used to be the South, it is told from that perspective. I went to the same Canadian university as El Akkad and asked about this choice. He explained that his work as a reporter often took him to the South. He would find himself talking to a certain kind of person, “incredibly hospitable, would give you the shirt off their back. But also deeply tied to some very old traditions, some of them good, some of them terrible, and god help you if you challenge those traditions.” He went on to explain that he was born in Egypt and grew up in the Middle East, “incredibly generous people who are also tied to some very old traditions, and god help you if you challenge those traditions.” In my view, that insight lays the framework for this brilliant book.
The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall
This novel came out in Canada in 2016 and in the U.S. this fall, but in our post-Harvey Weinstein world it feels more timely and urgent than ever. A family saga set in Connecticut, a respected teacher at a prep school is accused of sexual assault. The story follows the people who are closest to him, family and close friends. Without ever getting preachy, it draws an elegant line between rape culture, patriarchy, and privilege. I compared it to The Ice Storm or Ordinary People, but it has more contemporary companions, too, in The Interestings or The Woman Upstairs.
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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.
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.
[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.
I felt overstuffed and dull and disappointed, the way I always do the day after Christmas, as if whatever it was the pine boughs and the candles and the silver and gilt-ribboned presents and the birch-log fires and the Christmas turkey and the carols at the piano promised never came to pass. – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
The Bell Jar isn’t an obvious Christmas book but I always remember this scene and how it perfectly sums up that feeling when you’re a grown up of it mostly being disappointing.
I’m fortunate in that I had great Christmases growing up, so I love Christmas. There’s one thing you know about me. The other thing is I’m not that happy. I’m not that bad most days, I’m Wednesday Addams, more cynical that miserable, but my idea of a good day is if I get through it without crying or if I pet a dog or don’t spill anything down myself. Long gone are real notions of happiness. I will gladly take alive, safe, warm, fed, loved, petted a dog, over happy any day.
But I love Christmas and I always worry that I won’t have a happy Christmas. Most of the year I’m ok with not being that happy but at Christmas I want it.
Obviously a lot of this pressure to be happy comes from the movies and fiction we are surrounded by. When people think of festive fiction they think of Charles Dickens and The Kranks and The Grinch, which are all about Christmas miracles and warm fuzzies. You’re supposed to wear ugly sweaters and drink egg nog whatever that is and sing nonsense songs, preferably round a piano — shouting Mariah Carey in a karaoke bar doesn’t count. You’re supposed to be glad to see your family, eat a big dinner, fight with your siblings but then make up when you remember the time one of you got up in the night and opened your presents and then wrapped them back up again, because that happens.
But people forget that those stories are all about how awful Christmas is really and it’s only at the end that things turn out ok. It’s a Wonderful Life was based on the short story “The Greatest Gift” by Philip Van Doren Stern and is the perfect example of this. People love it for its hopeful message at the end but really it’s mostly about suicide. (It’s also important to point out that in this story the worst fate that could befall Mary is that she becomes a librarian.)
Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm is one of my favorite miserable holiday books and films. Set during the holidays in New England in 1973, everything is falling apart for the Hood family. The adults are fighting and cheating and barely holding it together and the children are going off the rails. The daughter Wendy turning A Charlie Brown Christmas up louder on the TV to drown out her rowing parents sums it up for me. And reminds me of the patron saint of miserable Christmases himself, Charlie Brown.
Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections is another holiday classic about a dysfunctional family who are summoned together for one last Christmas. Obviously it doesn’t work out because the dad is sick and they’re all nuts and this has become the classic Christmas scenario in both literature and film. The message being families and holidays just don’t mix.
Christmas with the Kranks is based on a John Grisham book called Skipping Christmas and it might be the only John Grisham book I’ve read. I’m sure you’ve seen the movie, it’s about how awful the holidays can be and how sometimes you just don’t feel like it only eventually you’re pressured into it and have to just give in, let Christmas take over.
My recent favorite Christmas book has to be the outstanding Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh. She truly sums up how bleak and depressing the holidays can be. “I had hard feelings around the holidays, the one time of year I couldn’t help but fall prey to the canned self-pity Christmas prescribes,” Eileen says, she also says she can’t be done with the charade of it. Which is exactly what it is. I won’t spoil it for you if you haven’t read it but you will never read about such a depraved Christmas party in your life.
Christmas is also something we do for other people. It’s something that can hold us together when we’re falling apart. Nothing makes me think this more than the wonderful book All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. This is a devastatingly beautiful book about two sisters, one of whom kills herself just before Christmas. Her death is imminent throughout the book so when it actually happens you almost feel relief then watch as the family push on. “We had to get a Christmas tree” says Yoli right after because that’s what you do. And later her daughter says “Let’s not have forced gaiety this Christmas” but she says “We’ll have a tiny bit”. Because that’s what you do.
One of my favorite writers, Augusten Burroughs, wrote a whole book dedicated to Christmas called You Better Not Cry and it’s a perfect balance of wonderful and awful. His stories make you laugh and cry and that’s what the holidays are about. I think once you dispel the myth that it’s all about being happy you are much more relaxed to just take it as it comes. If Raymond Briggs’s Father Christmas taught us anything it’s that the man in the red suit is pretty grumpy himself and I love him more for it. Bah humbug forever.
One year I was so worried I wasn’t going to be happy I just got very drunk because drunk people are always happy I thought only it turns out I’m not a happy drunk, I’m a shouty crying drunk. I realize I could do that skipping Christmas thing but that’s so passé now and I had a friend that did that who went to some party island and she still hasn’t come back but I can’t dance nor do I like the heat. But also, I love Christmas. I don’t want to skip it.
So when I say I’m dreading the holidays I mean I’m worried I won’t feel how I want to feel. I’m putting the pressure on myself really so I need to learn to give myself a break, to say ok, so it’s not going to be like the movies and books but it won’t be as mad as Eileen’s Christmas or as bad as Tiny Tim’s. Reading about dysfunction families at this time of the year makes me feel better about my own and that’s obviously the point. Christmas is going to be what it is and it will all be over soon anyway and then you can go back to being your miserable self and no one will make you wear a hat or sing a song or eat a Brussels sprout.
I just want an ok Christmas and for everyone else to be ok with that.
Image Credit: Pexel/freestocks.org.
Chicago gets two of its most famous nicknames from literature. Carl Sandburg deemed it the “city of broad shoulders,” while lifelong New Yorker A.J. Liebling tagged it the “Second City” in a 1952 New Yorker article. It’s a city that has given us or inspired novelists, poets, and journalists like Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel, Sandra Cisneros, Mike Royko, Margo Jefferson, Aleksandar Hemon, and more than a few other great books. It’s a shining example of a truly great, often terrible American city.
And then there are the Chicago suburbs. Everything around the city, all the way into Indiana and even up to Wisconsin, at some point or another has been labeled “Chicagoland.” These suburbs, more specifically the suburbs to the north of the city, have come to define what we see as the all-American suburbs in popular culture, for better — bucolic, quiet, safe — or worse — insular, bland, blindingly white.
When you think of the suburbs in American literature, your mind probably wanders first to John Cheever or John Updike or Richard Yates or John O’Hara — drunk WASPs along the east coast. The Chicago suburbs tend to enter the conversation when talking of 1980s movies, e.g., Risky Business or John Hughes’s famous “teen trilogy” of Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. But it’s the books about this collection of towns to the north of Chicago that set the stage for those movies.
“Glencoe is thirty miles up the lake from Chicago,” Rich Cohen writes in his memoir, Lake Effect. “It is a perfect town for a certain kind of dreamy kid, with just enough history to get your arms around.” Once you leave Chicago’s city limits, Glencoe is the fifth suburb you hit on your way north if you’re driving along the lake. Evanston, Wilmette, Kenilworth, Winnetka, Glencoe; followed by Highland Park, Fort Sheridan, Lake Forest, and then Lake Bluff. Keep driving fifteen minutes north from there, past the Great Lakes Naval Base, and you’ll hit Waukegan, home of Ray Bradbury and the basis for Green Town, where he set Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Farewell Summer. Although it’s a few scant miles north of Lake Bluff, Waukegan traditionally isn’t considered part of the North Shore. Lake Bluff’s median income, like other neighborhoods in the North Shore, is well over $100,000 per household; Waukegan’s is $42,335. Every town on the North Shore, save for Evanston and Wilmette, count over 90% of their populations as white. Near half of Waukegan’s population is Hispanic, with almost 20% African-American, and 30% white. The towns considered part of the North Shore are consistently called “affluent,” while 13.9% of Waukegan residents fall below the poverty line. You’re either on one side of the tracks or the other.
In Bradbury’s autobiographical fiction, the stand-in for early 20th century Waukegan was the all-American town; yet Bradbury didn’t shy away from commenting on the sinister aspects of the suburbs. A serial killer called the Lonely One stalks the residents of Green Town in Dandelion Wine (the chilling chapter was originally published in 1950 as “The Whole Town’s Sleeping”), while Something Wicked This Way Comes can be viewed as an allegory for growing up and realizing the world, the people you know, and the place where you live aren’t as innocent as you believed when you were a child. Bradbury, who was born in 1920 and whose family relocated to Arizona before his tenth birthday, was too young to know that Waukegan’s chief of police at the time was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and probably didn’t notice the town’s population grew nearly 75 percent between 1920 and 1930 as African-Americans moved to the area looking for manufacturing jobs. By the 1960s, those jobs started to dry up and the divisions between black and white, rich and poor became even larger — school and housing segregation pushed people into certain parts of town (the rich, mostly white citizens along the lake to the north; the poorer, black and Puerto Rican communities to the south). The “racial powder keg” exploded in the Waukegan riot of 1966. The things people tried to hide underneath Green Town finally came to the surface.
Hog Barbecuer for the World,
School Segregator. Mower of Lawns,
Player with Golf Clubs and the Nation’s Wife Swapper;
Bigoted, snobbish, flaunting.
Suburb of the White Collars…
So wrote “Carl Sandbag” in his poem, “Chicago Suburb” for Mad magazine in 1974. Around the time of the publication of the satirical poem, Dave Eggers was growing up Lake Forest. He’d famously go on to write about the experience of living in the suburb in his memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. According to Eggers, his family was “white-trashy” for the town; he was surprised, during an audition interview for MTV’s The Real World, that anybody had heard of it. “I didn’t know any rich people,” Eggers claims in his book.
“Once I thought that Lake Forest was the most glamorous place in the world. Maybe it was,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a 1940 letter to his daughter a few decades before the Eggers would move there. Lake Forest, just like the rest of the area to the north of the city, slowly started to grow in the years after the Civil War. German farmers settled what would become Wilmette. Methodist ministers would buy the land that would become Lake Bluff in 1875. 24 years earlier in 1851, another group of Methodists bought land to the north and founded Northwestern University and Garrett Biblical Institute. As an alternative, in 1857, rich Presbyterians came together for the founding of Lake Forest College. Soon enough, with the post-Civil War boom we today call the Gilded Age, secluded Lake Forest became a playground for the rich who could do their business in the city, but needed an escape. It was just the kind of place that Fitzgerald, who had fallen for Ginevra King, one of the more prominent young women from the Chicagoland area in the days leading up to the First World War, could obsess over.
A lesser-known author looked at the darker side of the supposedly tranquil Chicago suburbs. Judith Guest’s 1976 novel Ordinary People (the source text for the film directed by Robert Redford) serves as a perfect regional depiction of the things happening behind the closed doors of nice houses (think Updike’s Couples and Judy Blume’s “adult” novel, Wifey), Later, writers like Rick Moody (The Ice Storm), Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides), A.M. Homes (Music for Torching), and Karolina Waclawiak (The Invaders) would explore real suburban doom and gloom. Guest laid the groundwork for these later experiments.
Ordinary People describes a father who is trying to keep it all together after the death of his oldest son in a boating accident and the attempted suicide of his younger son. His suburban idyll was disrupted by “an unexpected July storm on Lake Michigan,” she writes:
He had left off being a perfectionist then, when he discovered that not promptly kept appointments, not a house circumspectly kept clean, not membership in Onwentsia, or the Lake Forest Golf and Country Club, or the Lawyer’s Club, not power, or knowledge, or goodness–not anything– cleared you through the terrifying office of chance; that it is chance and not perfection that rules the world.
Karen Hollander, the narrator in Kurt Anderson’s True Believers, is from Wilmette. In one passage, she talks of a place along the shore of the lake known as No Man’s Land, Illinois. An actual unincorporated area that “was the most urban, foreign-seeming place we could reach easily by bike,” for a kid in the early sixties. Anderson, who grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, says he knew of the city because of its high school, New Trier, which his own suburban high school emulated. While the story eventually moves on from Wilmette, Anderson perfectly captures the bored kids in the suburbs looking for things to entertain them, making their own fun. Running around during the Cold War years, pretending they’re spies and secret agents along the leafy streets of their hometown, getting their thrills from the part of town the narrator describes as the “sketchier” side of her little corner of the world — the underdeveloped area near the water. This part of Karen’s town is where you’ll find “the foundations of a couple of failed private clubs and casinos from the Depression and the charred remains of a Jazz Age roadhouse” dotting the landscape — cast away. Out of sight, out of mind is a major part of the suburban phenomenon. The suburbs were built on the idea of keeping people out, specifically poor, African-American, Jewish, and immigrant communities.
White flight away from cities is largely considered a post-war phenomenon, but the area where Anderson set his novel was shaping itself into an exclusive world for white and rich citizens even before the 20th century. Kenilworth’s history is one of the best examples of this. Founded by businessman Joseph Sears in 1889, the village that today is considered by Forbes the fourth most affluent place to live in America, has an ordinance stating, “Large lots, high standards of construction, no alleys, and sales to Caucasians only.” As of the 2010 census, there are only seven black residents living among Kenilworth’s 2,153 residents. Jews weren’t welcome either. In 1959, according to Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension Of American Racism, the Anti-Defamation League reported, “The North Shore suburbs…are almost completely closed to Jews,” and that “Kenilworth’s hostility is so well known that the community is bypassed by real estate agents when serving prospective Jewish purchasers.” Jews weren’t admitted into the town until the 1970s.
There were alternatives, however. The Middlesteins, Jami Attenberg’s bestselling 2013 family epic, takes place a little off the lake, away from the WASPs of Guest and Anderson’s novels, and peers into the life and times of Edie Middlestein. Her family made the move from the city to the suburbs sometime during the same post-war boom that saw countless American families leave behind the cramped apartments of the cities for the space, lawns, and backyards of the burbs. Attenberg’s novel struck a chord with me instantly as a native of the suburb where Edie’s family settled, Skokie, Illinois. Located just over the northwest shoulder of Chicago, Skokie isn’t a North Shore community. It rubs up against Evanston to the east and Wilmette to the north. Skokie, during the second-half of the 20th century, was known as “The World’s Largest Village.” A place that welcomed a large Jewish population who made it out of Europe alive after the Second World War, as well as a number of other immigrant and ethnic communities, including a 25.3 percent of its present-day population made up of people of Asian heritage according to the most recent census. A diverse city, especially compared to its neighbors to the east that stretch towards the north, Attenberg paints a picture of the promises the suburbs held, and continue to hold, to the people that move there, from the wealthy and established to immigrants and their American-born children. Early on in the book we see Edie’s family, a decade into their own suburban experience. There are some very minor cracks that, over time, grow into larger ones as Edie’s life progresses.
It’s film that has helped fix the area in the minds of most people as the quintessential suburbs. From Robert Altman’s A Wedding in 1978 and the Ordinary People adaptation two years later, both set in Lake Forest, to the boring house in Highland Park that Tom Cruise’s teenage character turns into a brothel in Risky Business, and John Hughes films like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, movies have helped solidify the Chicago suburbs as the American suburbs. Those films gave a very visual idea of what the suburbs are supposed to look like, the “rows of new “ranch-style houses either identical in design or with minor variations built into a basic plan, winding streets, neat lawns, two-car garages, infant trees, and bicycles and tricycles lining the sidewalks,” as sociologist Bennett Berger observed in “The Myth of Suburbia” for the Journal of Social Issues. A few decades after the post-war buildup of the suburbs, when living outside of cities had become more commonplace in America, the promises that suburbia held, the new way of living, a safer and more peaceful place for the “upwardly mobile” and “well educated” who “have a promising place in some organizational hierarchy,” as Bennett pointed out in the 1961 article, were starting to unravel. Books like Ordinary People and The Middlesteins show this; films often did not. In the cinematic version of the suburbs in the 1970s and 1980s, there are problems: teens can’t get the boy or girl they like to notice them, bullies bully, college looms on the horizon, parents seem totally oblivious, bills have to get paid, but all in all nothing too bad. Movies are there to sell fantasy, that everything is ultimately fine in the suburbs; books tell a different story. They tell you that marriages fall apart and habits consume people (The Middlesteins), security is just a myth (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), and that there’s a whole fascinating world beyond the city limits for kids just willing to go out on a limb and explore it (Lake Effect). The suburbs are an idea that you have to be willing to buy into. Once cracks start showing, you’re supposed to do your best to look away.
There’s an order to things once you make it out of the city, out to the wider spaces where the houses and people all look alike, an inherent dishonesty in the suburbs that somebody convinced America to look past long ago. The suburbs were supposed to be the reward for working so hard, for making it through. It was supposed to be paradise, the last place you needed to go in life, “You’ve reached your top and you just can’t get any higher,” as Ray Davies of The Kinks sings in “Shangri-La,” a song about his own country’s middle class in the years after the war. But as Cohen writes in Lake Effect, “What mattered to our parents could never matter to us. What mattered to us — a sense of style, of experience-collecting — seemed so simple and pure we were afraid to talk about it.” Things change; the facade slowly strips away and unveils the truth that no matter how well-kept or filled with smiling people, money, and good schools they may be, there’s something sinister about the suburbs.
Rick Moody is the author, most recently, of Hotels of North America. His other highly acclaimed works include the novels Garden State, The Ice Storm, Purple America, The Diviners, and The Four Fingers of Death; the fiction collections The Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven, Demonology, and Right Livelihoods; and the nonfiction books The Black Veil, and On Celestial Music: And Other Adventures in Listening. He is the recipient of the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction, the Addison M. Metcalf Award, a Guggenheim fellowship, and numerous other awards.
Hotels of North America, out this month from Little, Brown, embodies and interrogates a particularly American version of modernity. In addition to his new novel, Moody and I recently discussed literary theory, technology, and the writing process. Our conversation took place over email — sent and received, for the most part, late at night via smartphone.
The Millions: In The Black Veil you describe being “converted” after diagramming parts of Of Grammatology by Jacques Derrida. Does Derrida remain an influence? How would you say literary theory has informed your concerns as a writer?
Rick Moody: Theory was and is still important to me. I still really admire Derrida and feel that my contact with his early work in English — Of Grammatology above all others, but not to the exclusion of Dissemination, Glas, etc. — was life-changing for me. I also really loved Foucault and Barthes.
Do I keep up with theoretical developments now? I admire Avital Ronell’s writing a great deal, and clearly Žižek is of interest. But I think the rigorous epistemological thinking of continental philosophy in the ’60s and ’70s has given way to skepticism, in some quarters, and drives for something like ideological purity at other extremes. The world of theory, that is, is not as it once was. I happened to encounter it at a very fertile moment for the discipline (if that’s even the right word). What I loved above all was the language, the hair-splitting, the monstrous clauses, the paradoxes, the neologisms. It felt playful to me, like experimental fiction, which also exerted a powerful pull in those days. Though the purists would say theory was anti-modernist in some ways (thus post-modernist), it still felt new to me, revolutionary, and thus consonant with Pound’s modernist credo: make it new. I still want my work to be new in that way, today, if possible. I abhor repeating myself. And I still often think about philosophy. I am no expert, but the philosophical bedrock of theory is something I still am grappling with. This year: Heidegger.
TM: I love Derrida’s style — for the playfulness you mention, and for its rigor. Though it seems the skepticism you bring up was ushered in by Derrida himself (and de Man) — the infinite drift of language, the impossibility of “perfect communication,” the indeterminacy of meaning, etc. I guess my question for you is: how do you manage to approach writing in a way that moves beyond postmodern skepticism and exhaustion?
RM: This is a difficult question to answer. In a way, the answer is simply that I don’t feel skeptical in my person, in my voice, in my heart. This would be a loaded statement, because besides relying on “heart,” a decidedly dim-witted and timeworn cliché, the remark implies that there is a stable and perceptible Rick Moody who can with any assurance use the word “I.” I incline toward the idea that I am just a series of tendencies rather than a reliable person — a society of mind, as I think Marvin Minsky used to say. But let’s assume there is a sort of a Rick Moody, an effect of the work attributed to Rick Moody, and that his “heart” refers to something that we can more or less agree on — a preliminary set of assumptions maybe. This Rick Moody, at least for today, feels that skepticism is a remainder of continental philosophy, a rime thereof, but not an adequate or complete trace product. In Derrida, the style is the way out; the writing is the third term in the opposition between theory and practice. You know all the lingo, I don’t have to rehearse it here. The work produced is the solution to the problems laid bare in the work. It’s not what you do with the work, it’s the work itself, the process of it, that indicates the way out. I still believe in this, or it believes in me. The work believes in me. The books don’t matter, the reviews don’t matter, the career doesn’t matter, the students don’t matter, though I love the language of all these things. Only the process matters. I have no skepticism about that, and I’m not exhausted.
TM: How conscious are you of a work’s eventual audience — while writing, or during the editing process? Do you consider the reader at all, or does the work enjoy a kind of autonomy?
RM: I never think about audience. But as DeLillo says, I write with standards in mind. I write for the audience that shares the standards, whoever they are.
TM: Speaking of DeLillo, in an earlier interview you discussed his method of working in discrete chunks, which he then “glues together.” I was fascinated when I read somewhere that he composes with a single paragraph on each page in order to see the sentences more clearly. What’s the unit of composition in your novels? Does this differ from the unit of composition in the stories?
RM: The particular formal method of composition has changed with each book, as each suggests its own thematically-based approach. I will say that having a child has gotten in the way of work a bit — in that I rarely have a long span of consecutive work days now. With Hotels of North America, I therefore tried to devise a unit of composition that favored how I am able to work in this family-friendly moment, which unit of composition consisted of 500 to 1,500 word “reviews” usually written first thing in the morning. The narrative arc of this book was retrofitted at a later point, in rewrites.
That said, I just spent all summer working on a short story composed in the usual way: written (and rewritten) from beginning to end. And the idea for the next book is similarly organic, to write fast without overthinking. So each work proposes an approach, even as the actual infrastructural attack is more or less consistent. Word processor plus brain plus history of literature plus play plus hard copy plus red pen.
TM: I definitely have questions about Hotels of North America. In general, however, would you say your shorter fiction is more “sentence-centric” than the novels? I know you train a great deal of attention on the “novelistic” sentences, but I’m wondering how your focus changes with a longer text. A story like “Boys” (which comes up quite a bit, and which I love) seems to be nearly generated by its initial sentence, “Boys enter the house, boys enter the house.” Is this as often the case with your novels and novellas?
RM: There’s a story in the as yet unpublished collection #4, the title story, in fact, that repeats the theme-and-variations fugal structure of “Boys” called “She Forgot.” (I could write a whole sequence of these now, forgetting stories, so full is my family right now with acute forgetting disorders. I wish I could forget some of the forgetting.) I think it will be recognizable to people who like “Boys,” and also as a reply to a certain major work of conceptual prose writing that recently got its Library of America edition.
I do think short fiction is good for experiment. A failed idea there will only set you back a couple months. The strategy in the short story, for me, is this: follow the language, not the story, and see where it goes. Doesn’t mean there’s no story, because that’s too easy. But it means the stories are language first. A model would be late Beckett, or, differently, Amy Hempel.
TM: I’ll try to ask this next question in a way that isn’t reductive. [Hotels protagonist] Reginald Morse and Rick Moody the author share first and last initials. Are any other commonalities merely coincidental? What, if anything, did you smuggle in, and what might have leaked in? When you’ve drawn on your own experience, do you find the material transformed beyond recognition in the work?
RM: So do Wyatt Gwyon and William Gaddis share initials. To be frank, I didn’t realize Reg had the same initials until I was nearly done with the thing. There are other heavily freighted aspects to his name, from my point of view, that have nothing to do with this coincidence you allude to in the department of naming. After all, my initials are HFM, and his are REM.
Is he autobiographical in some way? More so, perhaps, than Morton the ape from The Four Fingers of Death, at least if adjudged by his life circumstances. But in a way I think Morton is the most autobiographical of characters in my work. Or, to put it another way: all characters are autobiographical, more or less. And all literary work is autobiographical, even abstruse nouveaux romans of the Robbe-Grillet or Sarraute variety. I don’t see how Hotels of North America is any more so than anything else I have written (I am the guy who wrote “Demonology,” e.g., or “Primary Sources,” not to mention The Black Veil). And, in the main, the goal was to try to figure out a way to make a novel, with character and narrative arc, from subliterary material: the hotel review form. I didn’t really think about Reg, except that I used whatever was easiest in terms of his life story, because the hard work was in having any story at all worked in around all the hotel stuff.
The rest of the autobiographical question — how much is him and how much me — is not inherently interesting to me. How much of Humboldt in Humboldt’s Gift is Delmore Schwartz? I don’t know, and I don’t go to that work for commentary on Delmore. I go to it for the sentences. I am hoping that those who read Hotels of North America are more interested in the slightly outlandish premise and the occasions of pathos that are admixed there than they are interested in crypto-autobiography. Or: if I really wanted to write a lot about myself, I’d just write another memoir…
TM: In a sense, your response dovetails with Morse’s purported desire (according to the “Rick Moody” of the afterword) that the work “be read for what it has to say about the world, not for what it has to say about Reginald Edward Morse.” What heavily freighted aspects of Morse’s name were you thinking of? The word “remorse” is an unavoidable association. Any connection to Samuel Morse, painter and telecommunications pioneer? Art and data transmission seem to be central concerns of Hotels of North America.
RM: I really like the Samuel Morse connection! That’s good! And yes obviously there is the other pun you allude to, lest one should think Reg is all bluster and condescension. I did have a good friend called John Morse in the first grade (this was at Ox Ridge School, Darien, Conn.). He was the gentlest young man, not one of those playground savages you often find among a random sampling of public school boys, even in such a rarified locale as Fairfield County. Anyway, once I was riding around with John Morse on our bicycles over by his house when we were set upon by a pair of Great Danes, larger than we were, and jet black. One knocked me right off my Schwinn Tornado, but having daintily sunk a few incisors into my posterior and its soft tissue, that hulking mass of Fairfield County wealth and privilege just stood there awaiting its mistress, an older lady who was very remorseless! She should have at least given me candy while I wept. Alas, no. Who felt the worst later that day, among the participants catalogued above? And does anyone but me remember that these events took place?
TM: I wanted to ask you about two quotes. In a review of the Tall Corn Motel in Des Moines, Reginald Morse calls the credit rating “that most American of data points.” Later, in a hilarious (though melancholy) section, Morse describes hotel pornography as being “at the heart of travel in America.” These passages suggest issues of connectivity and larger systems. Porn seems relevant in that Americans usually consume it alone, but also because of the increasing penetration of the delivery systems involved (cable, the Internet). Like the credit rating, opportunities for slaking desire via consumption seem inescapable now. I was wondering if you saw a connection between these systems, including the Interstate Highway System, I suppose, and the structure of the novel — each section is self-contained, yet branches out in multiple directions in an almost rhizomatic fashion.
RM: I was railing against the Internet in my workshop last night, castigating one of my very talented students for using multiple (fictional) Craigslist posts in his story. The Internet! Where humanism goes to die! Only in its absolute destitution, in the presumption there of delusion and id-driven belligerence, can there be any genuine truth to be found. And yet as Barthes points out: the site of total negation always contains the seeds of affirmation. I began the hotel reviews with the assumption that there was nothing human on the Internet to be found and then I set about constructing the opposite hypothesis. Whether this paradox is successfully employed here remains to be seen, whether total negation can result in affirmation, whether the black hole can emit heat. To address your question more directly: The lure of pornography and the obsession with FICO scores, etc., are like unto one another, yes. There is longing in each of the cases, on Reddit, on Experian, on YouPorn. Many users will be so blunted by human failure and by the narcotic effects of multi-national capital that they don’t even know what they are doing in these digital landscapes of auto-constructed fantasy. They don’t know what they are longing for, or they think longing is cheesy. Or they experience epiphany only in rhizomatic episodes, compulsive gaming fits, that rarely erupt into narrative arc in the conventional way. If identity consists of quantum mechanical tendencies and probabilities more than actual character, then a rhizomatic accumulation of isolated paroxysms of longing is more formally suggestive of character in this century, especially character interfacing with Internet, more so than the heroic narratives of individualism. It perhaps bears mentioning, now, that I have answered most of these questions in the middle of the night, on handheld device, during bouts of insomnia.
TM: What led you to use the first person for this novel?
RM: I assume you ask this because of my long-standing aversion to the first person. It is true: I dislike a certain kind of confessional and earnest first-person-narrated naturalism. I only get interested when the reliability of the first-person narrator is in question, when the reliability of narration itself is under scrutiny. There are any number of ways of doing this.
Your usage is interesting though: what “led me” to employ the first person? Sort of as if I had been, under duress, bludgeoning an intruder with a Teflon-coated fry pan! Or as if I had made use of a very bad chess opening: rook’s pawn! It’s a funny way to put it. I guess I was led to the first person by Ford Madox Ford and Nabokov and by some theoretical voices, critics, of narratorial practice, etc. I was also led there circuitously, having mostly employed either third person or what my student Liz Wood refers to as “sneaky first” for the vast majority of my published work between 1992 and 2005. Four Fingers of Death has some first (about half). I may simply have wanted to experiment with some new techniques. Travel broadens, as they say.
TM: As an author, what’s your take on “The Death of the Author?” I was practically handed the Barthes essay (as well as “The Intentional Fallacy”) with my MFA orientation materials, though since then I’ve encountered convincing arguments that don’t jettison authorial intention — quite the contrary. The phrasing “what led you” as opposed to “why did you choose” is perhaps a vestigial symptom of that earlier theoretical commitment; you’re right to point it out.
RM: That was never a Barthes essay that resonated with me exactly. I certainly feel a lot of forces speaking through the author, and it’s certainly the case that a stable, whole individual who is expressing her/himself is somewhat mythic, but “death” is the wrong word for the situation. It’s a bit overwrought. Maybe the allusion is to Nietzsche and Zarathustra. I feel very much alive. The language is the trace of it.
TM: You’ve spoken at length on the interrelatedness of music and prose. I’m curious whether visual art — particularly photography — has been a complementary influence on your work. Would you say your art criticism comes from the same place as your fiction?
RM: It’s funny how this isn’t a subject I have talked about much in public when my late sister was a photographer, my first girlfriend in college was a painter (and her family major collectors), my wife is a well-known visual artist, and I teach writing to visual artists very nearly half-time. I studied art history some at Brown, and I loved it. At all points in my development, the visual arts have been present, especially the lessons of the Northern Renaissance, Surrealism, Dada, AbEx, and conceptual art. Smithson and Judd, e.g., are people I think about a lot, and revere. I could name many other names, photographers included. In my creative inner sanctum, I travel freely among the 10,000 forms and don’t truly feel that the law of genre is a law that I must respect. I happen not to be gifted with talent in a specific medium of visual art, but my longing for contact with art has motivated all my writing on that subject, which in turn has surely been a source of material inspiration for fiction-making. The new book, in fact, comes directly out of my class in the art department at NYU, and through watching my wife think about her own conceptual footing. It is, in a way, a conceptual art project, in the way that Donald Barthelme was refractive of visual art. Doesn’t mean to be heavy-handed about it, or labored about it, but that influence is there, and I am glad to say it aloud.
John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” is the perfect read for the waning days of summer, when early evening thunderstorms break the heat, and when children play under moonlight — knowing their freedom will soon end. In the more than 50 years since it was originally published in The New Yorker, Cheever’s tale has become an undergraduate rite-of-passage, a staple of graduate writing programs, and a favorite of readers long out of the classroom. In the same way that James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” are often relegated to shorthand, Cheever’s tale has its own summary: a man’s decision to swim home is not what it seems. The genius of Cheever’s narrative is how it courts, but ultimately resists, myth. The story gestures toward The Odyssey, but remains painfully provincial and absolutely suburban.
When a story reaches iconic status, we trade the actual text for its themes. Granted, the thematic considerations of “The Swimmer” are nearly endless. It is a love letter to youth and sport; document of mid-century Protestant despair; a metaphor for our seemingly perpetual American economic downturn. “The Swimmer” could be put into conversation with Rick Moody’s The Ice Storm, contrasted with the Lisbon family’s superstitious suburban Catholicism in Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides, or perhaps best paired with Laurie Colwin’s fine story “Wet,” another tale of secrecy and swimming. It is also a quite teachable tale: no other work of short fiction better examples John Gardner’s potamological concept of fictional profluence than a story the main character of which travels by water.
“The Swimmer” begins passively enough: “It was one of those midsummer Sundays when everyone sits around saying, ‘I drank too much last night.’” “Midsummer Sundays” is so lithe and hopeful that it carries into the “whispers” about hangovers in the second sentence. The town church, golf course, tennis courts, and wildlife preserve are all full of the talk. Most blame it on the wine. The opening paragraph’s haze blurs into the location of the story’s first scene at the Westerhazy’s pool.
“The Swimmer” is a sad story, but its sadness is particular. Neddy’s story is surreal and finite. He is handsome, confident, and athletic, and yet a footstep away from the fiction of Thomas Pynchon. When Cheever writes that Neddy “was not a practical joker nor was he a fool but he was determinedly original and had a vague and modest idea of himself as a legendary figure,” the tongue is out of the writer’s cheek and pointed at the reader. Average comic writers pine for laughs. Brilliant comic writers embrace tragedy.
Cheever takes his time with tragedy. At the Bunkers’ pool, “water refracted the sound of voices and laughter and seemed to suspend it in midair.” Ned exists on another, mystical, almost psychotropic plane. He would get along well with Oedipa Maas. Of the party, Neddy “felt a passing affection for the scene, a tenderness for the gathering, as if it was something he might touch,” yet he does not wish to be deterred by the party chatter.
He soon reaches the Levy’s home. There are few architectures more soulless than an empty suburban space, and Cheever captures it: “All the doors and windows of the big house were open but there were no signs of life; not even a dog barked.” Having crossed eight pools — half of his intended journey — Neddy “felt tired, clean, and pleased at that moment to be alone; pleased with everything.”
Then comes the storm:
It was suddenly growing dark; it was that moment when the pin-headed birds seem to organize their song into some acute and knowledgeable recognition of the storm’s approach. Then there was a fine noise of rushing water from the crown of an oak at his back, as if a spigot there had been turned. Then the noise of fountains came from the crowns of all the tall trees. Why did he love storms, what was the meaning of his excitement when the door sprang open and the rain wind fled rudely up the stairs, why had the simple task of shutting the windows of an old house seemed fitting and urgent, why did the first watery notes of a storm wind have for him the unmistakable sound of good news, cheer, glad tidings?
There is a hint of the supernatural in this prosaic world. Michael Chabon has called “The Swimmer” a ghost story, and he is correct. All suburban stories are ghost stories.
Neddy leaves the cover of the Levys’ gazebo to see red and yellow leaves scattered across the grass and the pool, and “felt a peculiar sadness at this sign of autumn.” It is easy to read such lines and think that this wealthy man who lives in a wealthy area — he needs to cross a backyard riding ring on his way to the next pool — is not worthy of even our comic sympathy, but Cheever’s story has mysterious ways. Neddy is a pathetic soul. He is not simply a failure — he is unaware of his failure.
Look back to the first page of “The Swimmer.” From the dreary, town-wide hangover of Sunday morning emerges Neddy. His introduction follows the most syntactically simple sentence in all of valorized literature — “The sun was hot” — and his first action is sliding down a banister and giving “the bronze backside of Aphrodite on the hall table a smack, as he jogged toward the smell of coffee in his dining room.” Neddy is sound in mind and body. He greets the reader with a smirk.
While talking about the story, A.M. Homes notes “Life is incredibly surrealistic…So many things are so odd. You just have to be aware of it.” Homes sees the same literary moves occur in the fiction of Don DeLillo, particularly White Noise. Sarah Churchwell, likening Homes’s own work to the fiction of Cheever, explains that the latter’s “power comes from the bait and switch: he lures you into a complacent chuckle and then stabs you in the ribs.” Even Cheever felt that pain. He thought “The Swimmer” was a “terribly difficult story to write…Because I couldn’t ever show my hand. Night was falling, the year was dying. It wasn’t a question of technical problems, but one of imponderables.” Cheever “felt dark and cold for some time after I finished that story” — a lament the syntax and soul of which is baked into the syntax of “The Swimmer.”
The story’s second half contains a naked “elderly couple of enormous wealth who seemed to bask in the suspicion that they might be Communists,” Neddy’s athletic exhaustion, a visit to a “stagnant” public pool, changing constellations — and yet so much more. Don’t take my affectionate word for it. Find a copy of The Stories of John Cheever, sit in front of a window on a cloudy day, and re-read “The Swimmer.” Allow the story to bring you back to the temporary innocence of July and August. Experience the deep melancholy of its final paragraph as you get ready for the cold months ahead, but don’t worry: there is always next summer.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
It didn’t take long to discover that, as an introduction to Rick Moody’s writing, The Diviners is a poor choice, though at least I know that The Ice Storm, considered by many to be his best work and an exceptional novel in its own right, is still out there. I don’t have to give up on Rick Moody even though reading The Diviners was an exasperating, though occasionally exhilarating, experience.To sketch out the plot, we follow a cast of characters that are all connected, some loosely and some directly, to Means of Production, a New York based production company with a reputation for high-brow films, and its new, potentially blockbuster project, a miniseries called “The Diviners.” The miniseries itself is a cipher, the project has been invented out of thin air by production assistant Annabel Duffy and washed up action hero Thaddeus Griffin, but it is fitting and probably intentional that this novel is centered around a figment. At one time or another nearly all of the novel’s characters get excited about “The Diviners,” often viewing it as the solution for one work-related problem or another. The problem is, it is hard for the reader to get excited about the miniseries or, more importantly, the characters who are obsessed with it.There is something tongue in cheek about all this, obviously, a comment on a bloated culture seeing salvation in a bloated TV production – the novel’s main character, Means of Production head Vanessa Meandro, is quite literally bloated, if we missed the point, addicted to Krispy Kreme and mercilessly mean to boot. All of this action, which includes a number of side plots like an attack on a young gallery curator by a random brick wielding maniac and the descent of Vanessa’s mother into alcohol-fueled madness, is set in the days after the disputed Bush v. Gore election, when our boom economy was beginning to crack and the seriousness of terrorism and war awaited around the corner to put a stop to the frivolity.The problem is that Moody, in his excess — 576 pages, to be specific — comes off as one of those pleading killjoys, like a crusading vegetarian who is unpleasant to eat with or a person who doesn’t watch TV and tut-tuts those who do. Perhaps there is something compelling about the notion that our culture is vacuous, but really, hasn’t this statement been made so many times, and so much more subtly, before?Nonetheless, there is an unmistakable virtuosity in Moody’s writerly abilities. In every chapter he visits us upon another of his characters – some we visit two or three times or more – with set pieces that are inexhaustible in their creativity. One takes the form of a diary entry, another a police report, and another is the internal monologue of an autistic child.Perhaps most grandiose of all is when he alights again on nearly all of the book’s characters as they watch “Werewolves of Fairfield County,” a hit show in this alternative universe. He gives us nearly a blow by blow of this particular episode as we find that almost all of his characters can be joined only as they gaze at the television alone, together. And if that seems like a somewhat trite message, it felt that way too. For such complex, writerly book, the underlying message felt like it too should be complicated, not just one-note angst about our supposedly vapid culture.As the book ends most of the characters are all still chasing “The Diviners” and what it represents, deliverance from their empty lives. All through out the book, the diviner, that ancient holy finder of water, is returned to as a motif, and so it seems fitting that as the book nears its close, several of Moody’s creations are wandering in the desert, finding nothing.