Though it’s still taught in classrooms and studied by scholars to this day, Virgil’s Aeneid is less popular among readers than Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Mark Robinson makes a case for the Roman epic in a vivid animated video featured in Open Culture. “The Aeneid is a foundational epic in the Western literary tradition because of Virgil’s undeniable poetic skill in adapting classical Greek forms into Latin, and because of its influence on hundreds of poets and writers for hundreds of years after. […] Maybe the poem has also ‘survived to ask questions about the nature of power and authority ever since’ it was first published, to instant acclaim, in 19 BC.”
“Homer on parchment pages! / The Iliad and all the adventures/ Of Ulysses, for of Priam’s kingdom, / All locked within a piece of skin / Folded into several little sheets!”—Martial, Epigrammata (c. 86-103)
“A good book is the precious life-blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.” -—John Milton, Aeropagitica (1644)
At Piazza Maunzio Bufalini 1 in Cesena, Italy, there is a stately sandstone building of buttressed reading rooms, Venetian windows, and extravagant masonry that holds slightly under a half-million volumes, including manuscripts, codices, incunabula, and print. Commissioned by Malatesta Novello in the 15th century, the Malatestiana Library opened its intricately carved walnut door to readers in 1454, at the height of the Italian Renaissance. The nobleman who funded the library had his architects borrow from ecclesiastical design: The columns of its rooms evoke temples, its seats the pews that would later line cathedrals, its high ceilings as if in monasteries.
Committed humanist that he was, Novello organized the volumes of his collection through an idiosyncratic system of classification that owed more to the occultism of Neo-Platonist philosophers like Marsilio Ficino, who wrote in nearby Florence, or Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, who would be born shortly after its opening, than to the arid categorization of something like our contemporary Dewey Decimal System. For those aforementioned philosophers, microcosm and macrocosm were forever nestled into and reflecting one another across the long line of the great chain of being, and so Novello’s library was organized in a manner that evoked the connections of both the human mind in contemplation as well as the universe that was to be contemplated itself. Such is the sanctuary described by Matthew Battles in Library: An Unquiet History, where a reader can lift a book and test its heft, can appraise “the fall of letterforms on the title page, scrutinizing marks left by other readers … startled into a recognition of the world’s materiality by the sheer number of bound volumes; by the sound of pages turning, covers rubbing; by the rank smell of books gathered together in vast numbers.”
An awkward-looking yet somehow still elegant carved elephant serves as the keystone above one door’s lintel, and it serves as the modern library’s logo. Perhaps the elephant is a descendant of one of Hannibal’s pachyderms who thundered over the Alps more than 15 centuries before, or maybe the grandfather of Hanno, Pope Leo X’s pet—gifted to him by the King of Portugal—who would make the Vatican his home in less than five decades. Like the Renaissance German painter Albrecht Durer’s celebrated engraving of a rhinoceros, the exotic and distant elephant speaks to the concerns of this institution—curiosity, cosmopolitanism, and commonwealth.
It’s the last quality that makes the Malatestiana Library so significant. There were libraries that celebrated curiosity before, like the one at Alexandria whose scholars demanded that the original of every book brought to port be deposited within while a reproduction would be returned to the owner. And there were collections that embodied cosmopolitanism, such as that in the Villa of Papyri, owned by Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, the uncle of Julius Caesar, which excavators discovered in the ash of Herculaneum, and that included sophisticated philosophical and poetic treatises by Epicurus and the Stoic Chrysopsis. But what made the Malatestiana so remarkable wasn’t its collections per se (though they are), but rather that it was built not for the singular benefit of the Malatesta family, nor for a religious community, and that unlike in monastic libraries, its books were not rendered into place by a heavy chain. The Bibliotheca Malatestiana would be the first of a type—a library for the public.
If the Malatestiana was to be like a map of the human mind, then it would be an open-source mind, a collective brain to which we’d all be invited as individual cells. Novella amended the utopian promise of complete knowledge as embodied by Alexandria into something wholly more democratic. Now, not only would an assemblage of humanity’s curiosity be gathered into one temple, but that palace would be as a commonwealth for the betterment of all citizens. From that hilly Umbrian town you can draw a line of descent to the Library Company of Philadelphia founded by Benjamin Franklin, the annotated works of Plato and John Locke owned by Thomas Jefferson and housed in a glass-cube at the Library of Congress, the reading rooms of the British Museum where Karl Marx penned Das Kapital (that collection having since moved closer to King’s Cross Station), the Boston Public Library in Copley Square with its chiseled names of local worthies like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau ringing its colonnade, and the regal stone lions who stand guard on Fifth Avenue in front of the Main Branch of the New York Public Library.
More importantly, the Malatestiana is the progenitor of millions of local public libraries from Bombay to Budapest. In the United States, the public library arguably endures as one of the last truly democratic institutions. In libraries there are not just the books collectively owned by a community, but the toy exchanges for children, the book clubs and discussion groups, the 12 Step meetings in basements, and the respite from winter cold for the indigent. For all of their varied purposes, and even with the tyrannical ascending reign of modern technology, the library is still focused on the idea of the book. Sometimes the techno-utopians malign the concerns of us partisans of the physical book as being merely a species of fetishism, the desire to turn crinkled pages labeled an affectation; the pleasure drawn from the heft of a hardback dismissed as misplaced nostalgia. Yet there are indomitably pragmatic defenses of the book as physical object—now more than ever.
For one, a physical book is safe from the Orwellian deletions of Amazon, and the electronic surveillance of the NSA. A physical book, in being unconnected to the internet, can be as a closed-off monastery from the distraction and dwindling attention span engendered by push notifications and smart phone apps. The book as object allows for a true degree of interiority, of genuine privacy that cannot be ensured on any electronic device. To penetrate the sovereignty of the Kingdom of the Book requires the lo-fi method of looking over a reader’s shoulder. A physical book is inviolate in the face of power outage, and it cannot short-circuit. There is no rainbow pinwheel of death when you open a book.
But if I can cop to some of what the critics of us Luddites impugn us with, there is something crucial about the weight of a book. So much does depend on a cracked spine and a coffee-stained page. There is an “incarnational poetics” to the very physical reality of a book that can’t be replicated on a greasy touch-screen. John Milton wrote in his 1644 Aeropagitica, still among one of the most potent defenses of free speech written, that “books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul whose progeny they are.” This is not just simply metaphor; in some sense we must understand books as being alive, and just as it’s impossible to extricate the soul of a person from their very sinews and nerves, bones, and flesh, so too can we not divorce the text from the smooth sheen of velum, the warp and waft of paper, the glow of the screen. Geoffrey Chaucer or William Shakespeare must be interpreted differently depending on how they’re read. The medium, to echo media theorist Marshall McLuhan, has always very much been the message.
This embodied poetics is, by its sheer sensual physicality, directly related to the commonwealth that is the library. Battles argues that “the experience of the physicality of the book is strongest in large libraries”; stand amongst the glass cube at the center of the British Library, the stacks upon stacks in Harvard’s Widener Library, or the domed portico of the Library of Congress and tell me any differently. In sharing books that have been read by hundreds before, we’re privy to other minds in a communal manner, from the barely erased penciled marginalia in a beaten copy of The Merchant of Venice to the dog-ears in Leaves of Grass.
What I wish to sing of then is the physicality of the book, its immanence, its embodiment, its very incarnational poetics. Writing about these “contraptions of paper, ink, carboard, and glue,” Keith Houston in The Book: A Cover-to-Cover Exploration of the Most powerful Object of our Time challenges us to grab the closest volume and to “Open it and hear the rustle of paper and the crackle of glue. Smell it! Flip through the pages and feel the breeze on your face.” The exquisite physicality of matter defines the arid abstractions of this thing we call “Literature,” even as we forget that basic fact that writing may originate in the brain and may be uttered by the larynx, but it’s preserved on clay, papyrus, paper, and patterns of electrons. In 20th-century literary theory we’ve taken to call anything written a “text,” which endlessly confuses our students who themselves are privy to call anything printed a “novel” (regardless of whether or not its fictional). The text, however, is a ghost. Literature is the spookiest of arts, leaving not the Ozymandian monuments of architectural ruins, words rather grooved into the very electric synapses of our squishy brains.
Not just our brains though, for Gilgamesh is dried in the rich, baked soil of the Euphrates; Socrates’s denunciation of the written word from Plato’s Phaedrus was wrapped in the fibrous reeds grown alongside the Nile; Beowulf forever slaughters Grendel upon the taut, tanned skin of some English lamb; Prospero contemplates his magic books among the rendered rags of Renaissance paper pressed into the quarto of The Tempest; and Emily Dickinson’s scraps of envelope from the wood pulp of trees grown in the Berkshires forever entombs her divine dashes. Ask a cuneiform scholar, a papyrologist, a codicologist, a bibliographer. The spirit is strong, but so is the flesh; books can never be separated from the circumstances of those bodies that house their souls. In A History of Reading, Alberto Manguel confesses as much, writing that “I judge a book by its cover; I judge a book by its shape.”
Perhaps this seems an obvious contention, and the analysis of material conditions, from the economics of printing and distribution to the physical properties of the book as an object, has been a mainstay of some literary study for the past two generations. This is as it should be, for a history of literature could be written not in titles and authors, but from the mediums on which that literature was preserved, from the clay tablets of Mesopotamia to the copper filaments and fiber optic cables that convey the internet. Grappling with the physicality of the latest medium is particularly important, because we’ve been able to delude ourselves into thinking that there is something purely unembodied about electronic literature, falling into that Cartesian delusion that strictly separates the mind from the flesh.
Such a clean divorce was impossible in earthier times. Examine the smooth vellum of a medieval manuscript, and notice the occasionally small hairs from the slaughtered animals that still cling to William Langland’s Piers Plowman or Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Houston explains that “a sheet of parchment is the end product of a bloody, protracted, and physical process that begins with the death of a calf, lamb, or kid, and proceeds thereafter through a series of grimly anatomical steps until parchment emerges at the other end,” where holding up to the light one of these volumes can sometimes reveal “the delicate tracery of veins—which, if the animal was not properly bled upon its slaughter, are darker and more obvious.” It’s important to remember the sacred reality that all of medieval literature that survives is but the stained flesh of dead animals.
Nor did the arrival of Johannes Guttenberg’s printing press make writing any less physical, even if was less bloody. Medieval literature was born from the marriage of flesh and stain, but early modern writing was culled from the fusion of paper, ink, and metal. John Man describes in The Gutenberg Revolution: How Printing Changed the Course of History how the eponymous inventor had to “use linseed oil, soot and amber as basic ingredients” in the composition of ink, where the “oil for the varnish had to be of just the right consistency,” and the soot which was used in its composition “was best derived from burnt oil and resin,” having had to be “degreased by careful roasting.” Battles writes in Palimpsest: A History of the Written Word that printing is a trade that bears the “marks of the metalsmith, the punch cutter, the machinist.” The Bible may be the word of God, but Guttenberg printed it onto stripped and rendered rags with keys “at 82 percent lead, with tin making up a further 9 percent, the soft, metallic element antimony 6 percent, and trace amounts of copper among the remainder,” as Houston reminds us. Scripture preached of heaven, but made possible through the very minerals of the earth.
Medieval scriptoriums were dominated by scribes, calligraphers, and clerics; Guttenberg was none of these, rather a member of the goldsmith’s guild. His innovation was one that we can ascribe as a victory to that abstract realm of literature, but fundamentally it was derived from the metallurgical knowledge of how to “combine the supple softness of lead with the durability of tin,” as Battles writes, a process that allowed him to forge the letter matrices that fit into his movable printing-press. We may think of the hand-written manuscripts of medieval monasteries as expressing a certain uniqueness, but physicality was just as preserved in the printed book, and, as Battles writes, in “letters carved in word or punched and chased in silver, embroidered in tapestry and needlepoint, wrought in iron and worked into paintings, a world in which words are things.”
We’d do well not to separate the embodied poetics of this thing we’ve elected to call the text from a proper interpretation of said text. Books are not written by angels in a medium of pure spirit; they’re recorded upon wood pulp and we should remember that. The 17th-century philosopher Rene Descartes claimed that the spirit interacted with the body through the pineal gland, the “principal seat of the soul.” Books of course have no pineal gland, but we act as if text is a thing of pure spirit, excluding it from the gritty matter upon which it’s actually constituted. Now more than ever we see the internet as a disembodied realm, the heaven promised by theologians but delivered by Silicon Valley. Our libraries are now composed of ghosts in the machine. Houston reminds us that this is an illusion, for even as you read this article on your phone, recall that it is delivered by “copper wire and fiber optics, solder and silicon, and the farther ends of the electromagnetic spectrum.”
Far from disenchanting the spooky theurgy of literature, an embrace of the materiality of reading and writing only illuminates how powerful this strange art is. By staring at a gradation of light upon dark in abstracted symbols, upon whatever medium it is recorded, an individual is capable of hallucinating the most exquisite visions; they are able to even experience the subjectivity of another person’s mind. The medieval English librarian Richard de Bury wrote in his 14th-century Philobiblon that “In books I find the dead as if they were alive … All things are corrupted and decay in time; Saturn ceases not to devour the children that he generates; all the glory of the world would be buried in oblivion, unless God had provided mortals with the remedy of books.”
If books are marked by their materiality, then they in turn mark us; literature “contrived to take up space in the head and in the world of things,” as Battles writes. The neuroplasticity of our mind is set by the words that we read, our fingers cut from turned pages and our eyes strained from looking at screens. We are made of words as much as words are preserved on things; we’re as those Egyptian mummies who were swaddled in papyrus printed with lost works of Plato and Euripides; we’re as the figure in the Italian Renaissance painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s 1566 The Librarian [above], perhaps inspired by those stacks of the Malatestiana. In that uncanny and beautiful portrait Arcimboldo presents an anatomy built from a pile of books, the skin of his figure the tanned red and green leather of a volume’s cover, the cacophony of hair a quarto whose pages are falling open. In the rough materiality of the book we see our very bodies reflected back to us, in the skin of the cover, the organs of the pages, the blood of ink. Be forewarned: to read a book as separate from the physicality that defines it is to scarcely read at all.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
In early 2016, during a monthslong relocation to Barcelona, I fell under the spell of three contemporary masters of Spanish-language fiction: Javier Cercas, of Barcelona, Javier Marías, of Madrid, and Álvaro Enrigue, of Mexico and New York. Even now, back in the U.S., I feel with these writers the special connection you get when your reading life and your life-life come close enough to touch. And over the last couple years, I’ve managed to track each of them down for an interview. The first in this series was with Cercas; the third will be with Marías.
But the middle panel of the triptych is Álvaro Enrigue. His internationally acclaimed novel Sudden Death is a dazzling synthesis of fact and fiction in which a single tennis match ties together the fate of indigenous Mexico and the cultural revolutions shaking Europe at the time of the Conquest. Enrigue is also a scholar and the author of Hypothermia. I sat down to talk to him at a packed Greenlight Bookstore in 2017, on the occasion of Sudden Death’s paperback release. (The audio can be found at Greenlight’s website.) What follows is a lightly edited version of our discussion.
The Millions: Your novel, for all that it’s about a tennis match between Caravaggio and Quevedo, is also about exile and empire and vagabondage and translation, and of course, Mexico. So to start with, I’m wondering if you had any initial reflections you wanted to offer on immigration, cultural exchange, or Mexico itself at this particular moment in U.S. history, for which your book seems so suited …
Álvaro Enrigue: It’s interesting, because the seeds of this ugly thing that we’re seeing now were planted precisely when I was writing the novel, which were the years just immediately posterior to the crisis of 2008. I think it is obvious in the novel that I was really, like, politically angry at the time. It was the moment in which Northern Europe had begun to articulate this awful discourse about Southern Europe … as if England or Germany or Denmark could be anything without Greece, without Italy, without Spain, without the freaking South of France, without the material of Mediterranean culture.
Like, what would be of the European culture without that nuts Roman citizen who was St. Paul? What would be of Europe without tomatoes, which are Mexican? Without chocolate, which is Mexican? Without pasta, which is, quote “Italian,” which these Chinese Italians eat, before people begin to move around the world?
TM: You’d have a bunch of white guys in helmets just banging into each other.
AE: So this idea of calling the Mediterranean countries that can be considered the birthplace of whatever we have of culture … the idea of calling that accumulation of countries thieves just drove me crazy.
But now [in 2017] I can see that my indignation [of 2008] was really cute. [Laughter.]
Because subsequently we saw the stadiums, you know: “[Who’s going to pay for the wall?] Mexico!” It’s millions of guys that pee and poo and eat like me, shouting the name of my country, Mexico, as if I were stalking their children. Now I’m used to it, because one gets used to things, you know? But when it began to happen, we would turn off the TV at home so the children couldn’t see. So …
TM: This is so interesting to me—
AE: I don’t know if I have a posture; postures are for politicians—
TM: Postures don’t make for good conversation. But something you said that I hadn’t thought about is that while you were starting this book, you happened to find yourself in a place of political anger … and I mean, I remember writing in 2008, feeling this same sort of sense of political rage, and thinking there could be a connection between fictional history and present-day fact, like, somehow, oh, I know, I can talk about 2008 via the ’70s, 1977. And then I go flipping back through your book today, and you have a moment where Quevedo sort of bids goodbye to the Apollonian side of himself, and it’s like he embraces the dark half of himself where everything is bad, and one of the things you say is, he’s a nationalist, misogynist, homophobe—
AE: He became a monster.
TM: And I’m wondering if in some way you were writing, you know, the present moment in 2008, and also seeing its roots in the 16th century.
AE: Well, very obviously, you know? Not that it’s obvious in the novel or anything, but these ideas come from … well, that may sound too much like a seminar, which I don’t mean it to become by any means—but the first globalization happens precisely in that moment [in the 16th century]. What stood between Europe and China was Mexico City, Tenochititlán, What would make world commerce possible was the fall of Tenochtitlán. Because to cross through the south of Africa was incredibly dangerous, no? Once you passed the Canary Islands, that part of the Atlantic becomes tremendously difficult—
TM: And there are dragons, I think—
AE: Well, people remember that Magellan was eaten, you know? Like, the first guy who circled the world died, eaten by people. So it was not easy. [Laughs.] It was not an easy world. In a moment when Christopher Columbus was completely crazy, in the letters to Queen Isabel of Spain, he says that the purpose of crossing the Atlantic is to reconquer Jerusalem. Which is fascinating. “If we go the other way around,” he thinks, “and we cross this little thing, which is China—”
TM: “We’ll sneak up on them from behind.”
AE: Yeah, yeah, “We arrive from behind and surprise them!” [Laughter.] But there happened to be a little mass of land there.
Anyway, when [the Europeans] stand in front of the Americas, they discovered that maybe they could really make it to China that way. Of course, no one was thinking about Jerusalem—except Christopher Columbus, who had a pass from some monk. What everybody wanted was to connect Europe to China. So when Hernán Cortés is sent to map the coast of Mexico, what they are thinking about is that: opening up commerce with China.
Of course, history must be more beautiful than that, to be told to the children. So the conquest of Mexico becomes an epic in which men who are very manly defeat men who are very manly—what you write an Iliad about. But what they were after, really, was money. And when Mexico City falls, you just have to go a little bit more, to the Pacific Ocean and then you can cross it to China, with no storms, with no problems. There’s a reason why it’s called the Pacific, no? So what they were thinking about was that, and I think that many of the problems of the world we live in now, and more than anything, many similitudes (if that word exists) between that world and ours, come from the fact that there were these moments in which the world kind of crunched and the bad guys imposed a discourse.
Francisco Quevedo wrote a fantastic novel when he was young, called Vida del Buscón, which is very fun, very open, very politically critical of empire … and which shows this very fluid sexuality that was the usual trend in the 16th and early 17th century … and yet when he died, he would be writing this incredible text that we would call fascist. What happened in the middle there? Greed. That was the generation that discovered, “Huh, we can own the world. The world is something you can handle. We can circle it, and we can just extract all the gold we want.”
TM: And one of the ways that you’re binding all this stuff together in the novel is that you’re sort of tracing the movement of objects and people that seem to be connected. So that Anne Boleyn’s hair becomes a tennis ball, the ball gets used in the match … I don’t want to give away the game, as it were, but if you actually follow the objects in the book, part of what you start to see is that this enormous explosion you were just pointing to in Southern Europe, of culture, of ideas, of ambition, is in fact funded—economically but also culturally in some way—by the contact with North America.
I mean, you were just talking about this big sort of myth about manly men beating up other manly men and then taking their stuff. But it seems like in a lot of ways what was taken from Mexico becomes a much more dynamic and subversive and transformative element [for Europe] in the book than does the conquest itself. Like, as you write it, Caravaggio doesn’t become Caravaggio without an encounter with Mexico.
AE: Which was an obscenely nationalist gesture!
TM: Yeah, no, I love it. “No Mexico, No Caravaggio!”
AE: But the thing is, Caravaggio could have seen that mitre [an iridescent feather headdress that, in the book, inspires some of Caravaggio’s greatest effects]. He was in that environment, it was true that he painted these paintings for the owner of the mitre. So he could have seen it, or not. They were certainly miraculous objects.
TM: Can you talk a little about the mitre and the feather art used to make it, for people who haven’t yet read the book?
AE: Well, after the conquest, the Nahuatl artists of Mexico were not used to paint. Or they would make paintings, but instead of paint they would use tiny little bird feathers and put them together and produce shades of color, and create with that. It was a type of art that became very popular in the 17th century. It was very expensive to buy a piece made like that—you can imagine why, you know? It was incredibly demanding and difficult to do. And most of this art also is religious art, and I think that point is important, because for centuries those pieces went into museums, and were only there. And if you see these paintings, they are very, very impressive. More when you learn that they were not made with paint, but were made with feathers.
And there was, in 2006, maybe, in Mexico City, at the international museum of art, a big global exposition about these things, pieces of feather art that had been recovered from all over Europe and all over the world. The creator of that exposition is a friend of mine, a professor of art at Columbia University named Alessandra Russo. She was working with other researchers and historians, but she was in charge of certain parts of it.
So she was one day having lunch with the workers who were setting up the exposition, and they were sitting on the floor of the museum, and the guys tell her, Have you seen the paintings from here, now that you are sitting down here? They were eating a torta.
AE: A torta, a tamale, surely. And she turns to the pieces and discovers that if you are under them, looking up, they shine. They stop being a painting and become something that produces its own light. The feathers, even at 400 years old, were still capable of projecting the light of the window, reproducing it. And everybody becomes excited with the discovery, and puts some candles on the floor to see what happens, because that’s how those paintings were intended to be seen. And what they discover is that these things become simply hallucinatory.
TM: I can’t believe you didn’t put these workers in the novel! That’s a great story: “Look at that, up there!”
AE: [Laughs.] I have put them in a dozen interviews instead. It’s amazing.
TM: And so in the book … I don’t even know that “spoiler alert” is apposite to this book, but I will just say that Caravaggio has an encounter with this feather art, which is—
AE: You already spoiled it! [Laughter]
TM: Oh, it’s spoiled?
AE: I have been moving around all over the place with the book now for four years, and no one ever noticed that the book is not about people but about objects. That the characters are the objects, not the persons. It’s a novel in which you can have Galileo and Cortés and Caravaggio and Charles the First and so many important characters, because they are not really the characters. The true characters are the tennis balls … so you already spoiled it.
TM: I think you’re selling yourself a little short, though, on character. I think that Caravaggio is a fascinating character in the novel, and so is the daughter of the emperor, who has three names, one French, one Spanish, none of which I can pronounce. But what I was going to say is, the description of the featherwork is so extraordinary … I read the book when I was in Europe, and I found myself in Milan like three weeks later, and I kept saying, “It says right here in the book that this [featherpiece] is in the Duomo!” and no one knew what I was talking about. And it occurred to me that it could have been entirely fiction, a sort of Borgesian game. So I’m wondering, for example—actually I don’t want you to answer this question, but—you allege that the Anne-Boleyn-hair tennis ball is in a department of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, the Archives of Historic Sporting Equipment. I’ve spent a lot of time in that library, and I’ve never stumbled across these archives. [Laughter.] So I wanted to ask you: Clearly a huge amount of research went into this, but how much did you just make up?
AE: [Pause.] I don’t know anymore. [Laughter.] I don’t know anymore, but my editor is amazing, and the most patient human being ever, and she can give testimony of how many notations were in the last edited version of the book. It was by that time a nightmare. I hope she never tells about this, but I will tell it before she can, and be revealed as a clown: There were many times I would defend historical points that were completely imaginary! [Laughter.] I am a novelist; I have that privilege.
But most of the weirdest stuff is real. It is real that Galileo and Caravaggio were roommates—it’s absolutely real. It’s absolutely real that Galileo was writing his theory of the parabola as he saw Caravaggio playing tennis in the plaza. Many of those things are real. And in the novel, when there are conflicting versions, all of the lists come together. That is the wonder of the novel, you know? It is the great lesson of Cervantes: that you can put in whatever you want, and as long as it somehow relates to the story, it works.
TM: The novel has a very peculiar relationship to facts, just as a form. You can put real facts in a novel and they somehow become fictional, and you can make shit up in a novel, and if you put it across with conviction, it starts to seem more true than truth. And so, you know—
AE: There may also be generational deformation at work here, too. I did a Ph.D.—it’s one of those mistakes that writers make.
TM: Because you think, “Ah! I’ll have lots of time to write while studying for my Ph.D.”?
AE: Exactly. And: “It will not deform my incredibly innocent way of reading!” I did my Ph.D. in the ’90s. We would read historical books, as fictions. If you were going to become a professor, it was fantastic, because—this sounds like fiction but is real—fiction was forbidden in the Spanish colonies [of the 17th century]. You could publish and read fiction in the metropolis, but if you were outside of that, you couldn’t do it, it was illegal to write fiction. Of course, fiction was always written; the way the writers found to express themselves was writing historical fictions. So once this was established—
TM: Like the travel journals?
AE: Yeah, the travel journals, and these incredible histories of Latin American countries, this history of Paraguay that speaks about the Greek gods … they were obviously fiction books, but they were presented as history books, and the author could be giving fake stories, as I do, and readers saying, “No, no, no, this is real, this happened.” So I think that I have this period as formation; I don’t think that what comes from books is much more trustworthy than what comes from your head as a novelist. I just think that the historical data … statistically, you can prove it. That is the only difference. But the privilege of a novelist is that you can put things together in a way that the historian can’t. You don’t have to prove it statistically that people smoked cigars in Cuba in the 18th century; you can just put them there. But if you had everything in front of you, it’s quite probable that they would, you know? And I think that that’s the importance …
See, I feel really guilty about writing novels, because they’re useless.
TM: You should feel virtuous. The world needs more useless things.
AE: Yeah, and we would never accept that they are part of the industry of entertainment. It’s so elegant to be a novelist. Anyway, that would give a sense, a reason, to create novels: In them, you can still propose things to understand the world, without having to offer statistical information.
TM: So was the germ of this novel, Sudden Death, a particular factual discovery that you made, or was it a particular imaginative impulse? I had a fantasy as I was reading … there were a couple of times when I was reading that I came across something I wasn’t sure if you made up or not, but I thought: If that’s true, and he found that in a book, he must have thought, “A-ha! There’s a novel!”
AE: This is it: It was seeing one of the mitres, one of these feather-art mitres. I had been circling the idea for the rest of the novel for a long time, but it would be such a European novel, you know? And I don’t know, but I think Americans have as pretentious a relationship with Europe as Latin Americans do. I now find kind of antipathetic this Eurocentrism of Julio Cortázar, for example. The je ne sais quoi of the characters of Julio Cortázar—I find it annoying. It’s like, lily white.
TM: Not only the ennui, but also the je ne sais quoi!
AE: So the novel [I had in mind] was a very European novel. And the idea of how you introduce Mexico into that mess, that had a lot to do with everything at that moment. But the way you put your question, it was the mitres. And the idea of Caravaggio being a tennis player. For years, I had been researching to write a novel about Caravaggio, because as you say, this character, you could write novels all your life about him. He was such an extreme person.
TM: He’s almost an allegory for the novel as a form in some way, you know? He’s polysexual, he’s in many ways a brute and very unrefined, and in other ways he’s a genius.
AE: He’s sophisticated in his brutality.
TM: His attraction for the novelist as a figure to tell stories about just seems very intuitive to me.
AE: And he drinks from the water of the poetic theory of the Renaissance that demands a certain amount of reality in artwork. Since, like, immediately after Petrarch, there were these moral writings in Italy demanding that art stop being so affected—that art should be real, should represent life as it is, and no one had found the key to do it. I think that it’s not casual, not just coincidental, that at the moment when Caravaggio is inventing modern art, Cervantes, a few miles away in Madrid, is inventing the novel. I think that they are ways of portraying the world that are very similar in their craziness, in their sophistication, in this, like, moral fury, you know? Cervantes is a furious character. He’s as angry at everything as you are! As is Caravaggio. This resentment—of the poor man who will become important as an artist during his life but who, anyway, will never stop being angry—all of that is there in both of them.
TM: And the trick, and sort of the crux, is that somehow the anger doesn’t swallow up the style. Like, they’re both geniuses enough to preserve the stylistic impulse in the middle of this moral fury. You know? And they’re great stylists. And I think that’s in your book in a way, too. It’s a very political book, and I can see in it the skeleton of the very European book it almost was, but you’re such a great stylist—or else you’re a mediocre stylist but you have a great translator—that it turns into something that’s very warm and very human and very real.
AE: I am a great stylist. [Laughter.]
There is this thing that I think is essential, and that doesn’t always go well, and that is that modern art shows its structure. The Quixote is still the most postmodern book, even when it is the first modern book. Remember the beginning of the second part? Quixote gets a copy of Quixote, the first part, reads it, and says, “This was not like that!” [Laughter.] Right? “I don’t know who wrote this, but it was not like that! I defeated those guys. Everything’s wrong here, and everybody’s reading this? Let’s go out again to fix this problem.” So in the Quixote, the threads are completely visible, as they are in Caravaggio. And I think this is inherent to art.
In early 2016, I had a chance to take my wife and kids to Barcelona for a few months. It felt like a great time to be out of the U.S. in general—primary season!—but especially to be there on the Mediterranean, where winter is what we here call “spring.” I’d been abroad only a handful of times before, never for more than a couple weeks, and now I surrendered giddily to food and architecture and people, a whole different tempo of life. Perhaps not coincidentally, I fell in love with pretty much every book I opened there. I read Open City. I read Spring Torrents. I read Mercè Rodoreda, Catalonia’s answer to Clarice Lispector (and a shamefully neglected writer here at home). I read Isherwood and Saramago. Especially, though, I fell under the spell of three contemporary masters of Spanish-language fiction: Javier Cercas, of Barcelona, Javier Marías, of Madrid, and Álvaro Enrigue, of Mexico and New York. Even later, back in the U.S., I would feel with these writers the connection you get when your reading life and your life-life come close enough to touch. Over the last couple years, I’ve managed to track each of them down for an interview. The second in this series will be with Enrigue; the third with Marías.
The first is with Cercas, author of the international bestseller The Soldiers of Salamis and the acclaimed “novel with nonfiction” The Anatomy of a Moment, as well as the novels The Speed of Light and Outlaws. His new novel with nonfiction, The Impostor, tells the true story of Enric Marco, who passed himself off for a quarter century as a Holocaust survivor and leader of the resistance to Franco’s dictatorship. In her New York Times review, Parul Seghal wrote of the book’s “hot, charged energy” with the thrill of one discovering Cercas’s work for the first time. It’s a thrill I remember well myself.
The Millions: I wanted to start with a curious discrepancy. This summer, I picked up a copy of The Speed of Light in a used bookshop, and I was struck by the self-portrait you’ve embedded at the beginning there. As in many of your books, there’s a Javier Cercas character, and here he’s a young man in his mid-20s, a kind of writer manqué, but with no sense of what he might want to write. But then in Roberto Bolaño’s nonfiction collection Between Parentheses, he has an essay about you [“Javier Cercas Comes Home”] where he says, in essence, that he’s known you since you were 17 and you were always hunting big game, always going to write a masterpiece, and now you’ve come home to Gerona to do so. So which, I guess I’m asking, was the real you: the schlemiel or the focused, ambitious artist.
Javier Cercas: This is very easy, in fact. I was always an outcast. I’m an immigrant, a child of immigrants, from Extremadura. A guy without roots.
TM: Even in language, right? Your parents would have spoken Castilian, and now they’ve landed in Gerona, this city in Catalonia, where everyone speaks Catalan. You’re like the character Gafitas, in Outlaws.
JC: Yes. And I wanted to be a writer from the very beginning, when I was 14, I think. But because I was an outcast, it was like wanting to be an astronaut … a very weird thing to be. In fact, Bolaño was probably my first friend who wrote a book in Spanish—and he was something like 47 when he wrote that piece, 10 years older than me. And he still wasn’t famous yet the way he is today.
I’ll tell you a funny story about Bolaño. We were always on the phone, like boyfriend and girlfriend. One day, around the time when he began to be known, he calls me and says, “Javier, there is this anthology of young writers called Yellow Pages that’s just come out, and you’re not in it. You must have made a big enemy somewhere.” I told him, “No, no, that’s not true. The problem in fact is that no one even knows who I am!”
TM: As in “I should be lucky to have such enemies!”
JC: Well, a lot of that is just the way Bolaño saw the world, and it comes through in the piece you mentioned. He had that wonderful sense of literature as a fight.
TM: The novelist and the critic fencing on the beach in The Savage Detectives …
JC: Exactly. Anyway, for me, at that time, I knew I was a writer, or wanted to be a writer, but I was a complete outsider. I was completely outside of any literary milieu.
TM: Which is not such a bad way to be. So basically you were writing fiction for yourself while scraping by with journalism as a day job, like the Javier in your books, until Soldiers of Salamis came along and changed your life?
JC: No, I was in the university. Because I needed to earn my living, you know? This was my idea: being in the university, writing my books, and no one reading them. No one except Bolaño, my mother, and some friends. Which is normal! I have readers now, but that’s not normal. I had gone to America for a couple of years to study, and then I had been writing. But at the moment in my life when Bolaño wrote what he wrote about me, I was in a strong depression. I had come back to Gerona, you know, from the States, then Barcelona. At that moment, his piece was very important to me. And it was all lies!
TM: Prophecies, not lies.
JC: But yes, in any case, Soldiers was the book that changed everything.
TM: How did you come to the story of Rafael Sánchez Mazas? I mean, was it all at once, or was it something you had been carrying around? Or a combination: something you had been carrying around for a while that was then catalyzed suddenly by some other thing—the way the Sánchez Mazas story in the first half of book is catalyzed by the story of you and Bolaño and the search for Miralles in the second.
JC: The last of these, I think. I had the Sánchez Mazas story originally from his son, Sánchez Ferlioso, as the Javier Cercas character in the book gets it. I should say that all the characters in that book are real. It’s a false chronicle, so of course everything has to be real. Except for one character, who you’ll never guess.
TM: I surrender.
JC: The fortune teller, the girlfriend of Javier Cercas, who is completely made up. And of course—and this is completely true—that’s the one character who sued me. A real fortune teller in the town where the book is set sued me for using her in my book! The Bolaño part of the story, though, is a little different from the Sánchez Mazas story. Bolaño had told me that part, the story of Miralles, a long time ago. And it occurred to me that I could use it to tell the first story. I went to him and asked him for permission, expecting him to turn me down—
TM: Because in your mind it’s literary gold—
JC: Exactly. And of course he said, “No, no, this is not much of a story,” and he allowed me to have it.
TM: I sometimes think this is how books come about—that you discover you are the only one who sees the fictional value in a thing, and you almost have to write it because if you don’t, no one else will. Anyway, since before Soldiers, from your first work Relatos Reales, all the way up to The Impostor, you’ve been drawn to this borderland between fiction and nonfiction. What attracted you to it?
JC: Well, I thought from the beginning, pure fiction is always a lie, you know? In some way, the fuel is always reality. I wrote about this recently in an essay called The Blind Spot: that the novel is a wonderful genre where you can invent anything you want—that’s how Cervantes gave it to us. But that the fuel is reality. As for how to mix the two, each book has its own rules; it all depends on the book. To write a book is to create a game. You have to find the rules, to formulate the question in the most complex possible way. As in The Impostor: “Why did this guy, Enric Marco, the false Holocaust survivor, lie about the worst crime in history?” I’m always trying to write what I don’t know. And the first thing the writer must do is figure out the unique rules of the game. If two books have the same rules, one of them is bad.
JC: In the case of The Impostor, one rule was that it would be redundant to write a fiction about another fiction. Instead, I thought, let’s organize the book as a battle between the lies and the truth. And if people ask me, like the man on the radio [NPR’s Ari Shapiro] just now, “Why ‘novel without fiction?'” I think, “why not?”
TM: The “why not” is the freedom. And the rules are the constraints.
JC: Yes. You choose your constraints. And then you become a slave to them. There’s a moment in the book, I’ve been interviewing Enric Marco, picking apart his lies, and then at this one moment, this last lie, Marco says, hands on head, “Please leave me something.” But I couldn’t, because I was a slave to the rules. This was a difficult moment.
And yet when I actually sat down to do the writing, I was incredibly happy writing this book—which is not always the case.
TM: I wanted to ask you about heroism. We’ve talked about the method, but at least from Soldiers on, heroism is the subject—even in The Impostor, where it’s the image of the hero, or some debased idea of heroism, that seems to hold Marco captive and prod him into his many lies. Kitsch heroism, like the story he tells about playing chess with the concentration camp guard and refusing to lose, even though he knows it may cost his life. Are you aware of this as a through-line, heroism?
JC: I don’t know where it comes from. Probably my reading as a boy, adventure books. Stevenson. Verne. The Odyssey and The Iliad. But it’s a specific kind of heroism I’m interested in. Once Le Monde asked me and some other writers a question: What single word is most important for you? It’s a strange question, but the moment I hung up the phone, I knew the answer: the word “No.” Sort of quoting Camus: “The Man Who Says No.” My novels are about these kinds of heroes, people who say no, or try to say no.
TM: What you call, in The Anatomy of a Moment (following Hans Magnus Enzensberger) the “hero of retreat.” Like Prime Minister Adolfo Suárez there, who appears in that one moment or period as a very complicated sort of hero, and was far from heroic in all kinds of other ways.
JC: There is only one pure hero in all the books: Miralles in Soldiers of Salamis. He has to kill an enemy—a bastard—and still he says no. As for me, I would be among the members of parliament in The Anatomy of a Moment, ducking for cover. And then Marco in The Impostor, of course, is the man who says yes. He would love to be a hero, but can’t.
TM: Why do you think that is?
JC: Virtue is something secret, I think. When it becomes public, it’s no longer heroism. Yet Marco had to constantly be saying “I’m a hero, I’m a hero, we’re all heroes.” And of course, Marco is everyone. We are all, in a sense, this guy; he’s a perfect mirror of our time. This book says something awful: We prefer lies to the truth. Lies are beautiful.
TM: Sexy, maybe. Pretty. But not beautiful. Beauty is like virtue. Or is virtue.
JC: My question all along was, Why don’t people call him on his lies? And the answer is that people prefer pretty lies to the truth. The truth about Nazi camps is complex, dirty, and not beautiful. Claudio Magris wrote about Marco something like “He lied, yes, but for a good cause.” But that’s bullshit. What he was spreading was adulterated, romantic, heroic kitsch. And we prefer that. That’s why Donald Trump is in your White House.
TM: And in Spain, what was the reaction to this book? I knew when I first heard about it that American readers would be interested in it. We have the kind of relationship you’re describing with dirty parts of our own history, with slavery and exploitation, but we have this less complicated relationship, at least publicly, with the fight against Naziism. But in Spain, part of the “historical memory” movement you contributed to with Soldiers and write about in Anatomy and The Impostor has to involve negotiating the complicity of ordinary people with Francoism, with fascism. Marco, you suggest, offered a heroic version of “historical memory” that helped ordinary people feel virtuous. So what was the reaction domestically to your writing about Marco, and in a sense calling out the lies?
JC: The answer is quite easy. I have my readers in Spanish. So with them, I have no problem. But many other people were resistant to what I am saying in the book. Don’t get me wrong, “historical memory” is essential. What’s Faulkner’s line? The past is not dead. The past, of which we are living witnesses, is part of the present, without which the present is mutilated. The Spanish Civil War is the present. Francoism is the present.
But the truth is, necessarily, that most people accepted Francoism. And that most people adulterate or erase the worst part of their history. I recently read this suggestion by Tzvetan Todorov, that de Gaulle convinced the French people they were all Resistance: “Les français n’ont pas besoin de la verité,” he said. People tend to mask … and I understand that. But now, it is not possible. The movement for “historical memory” in Spain was insufficient, and became fiction: “We were all anti-Franco. We were all heroes.” It’s completely false—bullshit!
The reality is more complex and ugly: Fascism was supported by many people. And I don’t blame them. To be a hero is very difficult. You go to jail and die, is the usual outcome. Yet it shows a lack of respect to lie about it. If you lie about the past, you lie about the present. Another Faulkner line, from a letter, I think: “There is no such thing as was.”
A lot of Catalans and the Left, in particular, were mad at me for The Impostor. But it’s a national problem. We’re drowning in lies.
TM: Especially you, it seems. There’s a moment in the book, early on, that’s a curious one. You’re at a dinner, in Madrid I think, with Mario Vargas Llosa and some others, and the discussion turns to the just-unmasked Enric Marco, and someone suggests you have to write about him because he’s so much like a character in your books. You say something like, “Well we’re all impostors,” and someone says, “But especially you, Javier.” You don’t return to this line for many hundreds of pages in the book, but it seems to form some secret connection between you and Marco. Why are you, uniquely, an impostor?
JC: I’m going to tell you a secret, and it’s very interesting: There is one chapter in this battle between truth and lies that is invented. It’s a dialogue … I don’t know, a daydream or something. And the answer is there. Because there Marco can say what he really wants, can attack me. He says, OK, I lied. But you did, too. In fact, Marco wanted to be Miralles. But he tells me “You married fiction and fact, you became famous, a millionaire”—which is not true, of course—”But I did the same and I was a pariah. And remember,” he’s saying, “You are me. I am you.”
Of course, he’s lying.
TM: In the midst of a chapter you’ve invented.
JC: But that’s the idea. The book, really, is a fight between impostors.
Sportswriting didn’t start with early 20th-century newspaper columnists talking fast and wearing hats with the word “press” written on the brim. The origins of the genre go way, way back past the historical warning track— hunting stories in pictorial form are on the walls of Lascaux caves. But “ancient” sportswritings aren’t just of archaeological interest; they have quietly helped shape modern sports narratives in everything from newspapers to novels to blogs.
The works selected here have either epitomized new genres of sportswriting or contributed to the cultural influences of sports or sportswriting. Let’s start with the grimmest of these writers, who composed a long song about famous people dying.
The Iliad (800-700 B.C.)
Yes, The Iliad. The Trojan War may start with a fight over a woman, but soon Homer’s very human heroes are more interested in fame than in love, revenge, or politics. At this point, the war essentially morphs into a sporting competition, and the body count rises exponentially, featuring Sports Center-esque highlight reels in which individual heroes get hot and do improbably balletic damage to the enemy team. The Michael Jordan of the Greeks is Achilles, and within two minutes of action in Book 19, he stabs Dryops, spears Demouchos, dashes brothers Dardanos and Laogonos to the ground, slices Tros (who has come to beg for mercy), hews Echeklos’s head off, and stabs Deukalion through the arm. All good competition, men from good families, worthy enough to be named in the epic but forever posterized in song.
When the battle stops for Patroclus’s funeral, we even get an actual athletic competition among the heroes. With the Olympics, the Ancient Greeks invented sports as a form of war—official games designed to train citizens for battle. These links between sports and war live on in our imaginations and casual descriptive language (e.g., “Allen Iverson was a real warrior on the court” or “the epic battles between Oklahoma and Nebraska”). In addition, Homer presents the first “best-ever” athletic debate: Achilles had to vanquish Hector to cement his permanent fame, just as Muhammad Ali had to outlast Joe Frazier.
David and Goliath (630-540 B.C.)
Who knew that this Bible story would provide Jim Nantz with an infinitely replicable metaphor for each year’s early round NCAA tournament games? The slingshot isn’t cutting edge technology now, but this is a story about the moral superiority of the underdog, how the plucky, brainy guy can strategically outwit the big lunk, and so forth. In other words, it’s a paradigm for almost every moralized sports story you’ve ever read—and most sports stories are heavily moralized.
Similar to NBC’s coverage of the Olympics, there is much more backstory in 1 Samuel than actual combat, but, like Goliath himself and sports stories in general, the confrontation has taken on outsized proportions in the collective imagination. So we can easily imagine Bob Costas’s voice-over for the five-minute NBC “up close and personal” biography of David before the network cuts to the actual battle: “David was born a poor shepherd boy in Bethlehem. But when he found that he could protect his flock from lions and bears, he dreamed one day he could challenge a formidable champion like Goliath” (cut to a clip of Goliath slaughtering enemies and then to a close up of him crossing his arms, slowly nodding at the camera, and looking satisfied).
The Legend of Robin Hood (ca. 1100-1200 A. D.)
The legend of Robin Hood centers around a spectacular athletic performance: Robin shoots an arrow that literally splits the center of his competitor’s arrow. Thanks to sports stories (or legends), leadership is often defined by athletic feats, and Robin, clearly the best athlete available in the 12th century, eventually gets to help Richard the Lionheart reclaim England. (Skipping over Thomas Malory and numerous other medieval and Renaissance tales about knights and tournaments—you’re welcome.)
The slight problem here—for those few who still touchingly insist on historical accuracy—is that Robin’s story, like many sports narratives, changes over time. In one of the first known accounts, “Robin Hood and the Monk,” Robin is just a bad-tempered local yeoman (commoner) who actually assaults Little John for defeating him in the archery contest. As the Robin Hood tales became a legend, the arrow was split, and the outlaw was rebranded as a national hero. These changes are an early, influential example of the game of historical telephone with which we exaggerate athletes’ heroism over time until the stories assume mythic proportions (e.g. Babe Ruth’s alleged “called shot” World Series home run). But how will this process work in the foreseeable future when we have visual evidence qualifying our claims (looking at you, Stephen A. Smith)?
Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857)
Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays is by far the most influential sports novel ever, though, ironically, it has few actual sports scenes. The three major—and quite memorable—ones involve a young Tom Brown, newly arrived at Rugby School, bravely standing against older and larger players at soccer; a slightly older Tom becoming a rugby legend and leader by outboxing school champion “Slogger” Williams; and Tom as a head boy and cricket captain putting in younger and weaker players to help them work on their confidence. In two out of the three crucial sports scenes, therefore, winning is much less important than character and team building. If you think this is didactic, you are correct, but mid-century public schoolmasters and their novelistic publicists were really in the business of training obedient players for another team—the one that ran the British Empire.
The novel invented the modern school story, thus paving the way for thousands of similarly moralized sports tales designed for teenage readers and young adult literature as a genre. Sports scenes in these works function as the applesauce in which authors hide the pill of the moral lesson, lauding teamwork and school spirit over individualism and praising conformity and, often explicitly, Christianity over being an adolescent (an emerging and troubling developmental category). Indeed, at the heart of Tom Brown’s Schooldays is an all-knowing but distant schoolmaster and cleric, the real-life rugby head Thomas Arnold, who occasionally imparts pearls of wisdom to favored students but is often away on more important business, like, say, Dumbledore.
The Sun Also Rises (1926)
This is a novel by Ernest Hemingway about Americans traveling in Spain—very manly men. Except for the one who was wounded down there in the war. U.S. flag flying half-staff in Pamplona. You know what I mean. In sum, it’s a modernist literary masterpiece but also a moralized fable about masculinity and sports (in this case, bullfighting), and heavily influenced by works like Tom Brown. Indeed, sports-themed morality tales, in magazine, pulp, and novel form, saturated the American literary market for young male readers until the late 1950s.
But Hemingway was especially influential because he embodied the vision of manliness his writings promoted: he wrote in short sentences, went fishing and hunting, shot guns, got drunk, and punched other people. He became the first American literary author to be lionized as a famous sportsman, and the rugged outdoorsy persona of “Papa” Hemingway was a masculine icon for a generation of American men. But the author eventually couldn’t stand being “Papa” and shot himself.
Veeck—As in Wreck (1962)
In the 1960s and 1970s, a vanguard of nonfiction writers worked hard to relegate moralizing sports literature to the historical margins. One of the first and most influential of these works features that most modern of characters: a cheerfully unrepentant capitalist who revels as much in the business of baseball as in baseball itself. Imagine a great storyteller at the end of the bar who regales you for several hours on the ins and out of the baseball business: how to acquire teams, populate them with cheap but effective players, outwit other owners and the league office, placate mobsters, publicize games, and sell concessions. That’s Veeck—As in Wreck, essentially a transcription of maverick team owner Bill Veeck talking nonstop about the baseball business to Ed Linn, and no one could talk faster and longer than Veeck. In this book, we see the development of the modern sports team owner: self-publicizing, loud, and innovative, but always with an eye on the turnstile and additional revenue streams. And the book helped cement the ideal form for future sports blowhards (every single one of them less charming than Veeck): the as told to book.
The book starts out with the stunt that ensured Veeck’s fame—sending out 3’ 7” performer Eddie Gaedel to pinch-hit in a major league game in 1951. But the man who also brought us exploding scoreboards and Disco Demolition Night was never out of ideas, and Veeck details many other hilarious ones here (e.g. having players protest the crappy lighting at a competitor’s ballpark by sending them to the on-deck circle wearing miners helmets with lights shining). And as a bonus for romance literary types, the book features two sweet love stories: Veeck’s obsessive love for baseball and his pursuit of his second wife, Mary Frances Veeck, appropriately enough a publicist by trade, while he owned the St. Louis Browns. After they married, he proudly notes, she secretly set up an apartment for the family within St. Louis’s Sportsman’s Park while he was still plotting how to get her to agree to move in there.
Beyond a Boundary (1963)
C.L.R. James’s memoir Beyond a Boundary is important mostly to historians who study the interrelations among sports and politics, and the first half of his book looks backward to the history of cricket in the 195y and early 20th centuries (and proposes cricketer W.G. Grace as the first modern international sports celebrity). A West Indian revolutionary and cricket writer—now that’s a combination—James also argues in Beyond a Boundary that works like Tom Brown helped inaugurate the British “games cult,” which the Empire then imported to its colonies, often in the form of introducing cricket and soccer in local schools. James then intriguingly claims that the games cult spread Britishness throughout the empire more efficiently and peacefully than did the exercise of direct political or military power. Loose analogy fans (and sportswriting is a graveyard of loose analogies) can consider how the global reach of American culture—Hollywood; rock, pop, and rap; and the NBA—now popularizes the United States even in areas where different political and religious views predominate.
In the second part of the book, James shows how he cleverly turned this ruling-class sports ideology on its head by helping to lead a groundswell in 1960 to get one of the West Indian national cricket team’s best players and revered leaders, Frank Worrell, to be named the team’s first black captain. By the usual meritocratic sports arguments, James argued, Worrell deserved to be captain, and the team’s subsequent success under Worrell’s captaincy served as a pointed comment not only about entrenched racism in sports but also about self-government within the empire. As James suspected, his cricket writings may have done as much for West Indian independence as his well-known political writings, including The Case for West Indian Self-Government (1933).
Levels of the Game (1969) and David Foster Wallace’s Tennis Writings
It’s a twofer! John McPhee’s account of a 1968 U.S. Open semifinal match between Arthur Ashe and Clark Graebner is a great piece of writing, as are most things McPhee. For this book, McPhee had the two tennis players subsequently watch a videotape of the match and recount to him, in stunningly detailed fashion, their strategies during their contest. McPhee adds to the layering by detailing their cultural backgrounds; athletic training; and, interestingly, the long mutual acquaintance between them and their families. And he does all this without being intrusive or self-indulgent; he’s the Roger Angell of tennis (but not just tennis— see his brilliant profile of Bill Bradley, “A Sense of Where You Are”). Levels of the Game started out as a New Yorker essay, and this and other McPhee writings served as templates for many subsequent long-form, biographical profiles of sports figures published in magazines or on websites.
Some of the better recent McPhee-influenced sports profiles are from the late novelist David Foster Wallace. A talented junior tennis player himself, Wallace could also discuss tennis in fascinating detail, especially in justly celebrated essays on Roger Federer and journeyman pro Michael Joyce, and even in his endlessly annoying (and brilliant in its serial ability to annoy and then intrigue) novel Infinite Jest. But best of all is his essay on playing junior tennis in Illinois, “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” in which Wallace cannily analyzes an overlooked factor explaining why power tennis players essentially took over the pro game in the 1980s. While many other writers have related this shift to changes in racket technologies, Wallace focuses instead on the large-scale construction of court wind screens, which minimized wind bursts and hampered the ability of canny retrievers like himself to use the elements to lengthen points and get into the heads of the power players.
Ball Four (1970)
Let’s move on to another clever and insistent truth-teller, who, like Veeck, never lost his conversational fastball. Jim Bouton did not invent the “player writing an insider account of a year with a team” narrative. That honor goes to Reds pitcher Jim Brosnan and Green Bay Packer lineman and Vince Lombardi-worshipper Jerry Kramer. (Then journalists like George Plimpton, Roy Blount Jr., and David Halberstam got into the act.) But Ball Four is still the most influential of the genre; it exploded every cultural myth associated with heroic Tom Brown-influenced sports narratives, not to mention all assumptions about those narratives’ educational value. Baseball, for Bouton, was a war between venal management and immature, self-indulgent players, most famously embodied in the book by his memories of American icon Mickey Mantle, revealed as a drinker and voyeur (and therefore team leader).
Bouton is funny enough but, more important, brutally honest about everything. He casts himself as the team outsider, a weird knuckleballer who hangs out with the other nonconformists on the Seattle Pilots and even visits a protest on the Berkeley campus on an off day. Anyone who sits by himself in the locker room writing notes would never quite be treated by teammates as family (something about which Bouton is charmingly candid). But, irony alert, Bouton desperately wanted to be accepted by baseball people, including, or especially, Mantle. And unlike truth-tellers who have blown whistles and gone on to other public careers based on the perceived authenticity of their voice (e.g. John Kerry’s move from Vietnam protesting to politics), Bouton never left baseball and, in fact, kept making comebacks and attempting to rejoin his former New York Yankees family, even long after retirement. Bouton’s truth-telling was shocking in 1970; his obsessive need to belong to the baseball community is what poignantly resonates now.
The Boys of Summer (1972)
At some point in this period, baseball was crowned the most literary of U.S. sports, and Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer—the title, tellingly, coming from a line in a Dylan Thomas poem—epitomizes the successful marketing of such pretensions. Kahn had followed the mid-1950s Jackie Robinson-led Brooklyn Dodgers as a beat writer for the New York Herald Tribune, and the first half of his memoir speeds with rhetorical wit and narrative verve over the various athletic and political hurdles confronted by this fascinating group of players. But then Kahn switches gears and interviews the team members 15 years later, and the nostalgia hangs like 1972 SoCal smog. This is not to deny the pleasures of reading Kahn. He is certainly a keen observer of people, and his chronicle of a year in the minor leagues, Good Enough to Dream (1985), is quite affecting. But like other 1970s innovators Chris Evert Lloyd and Led Zeppelin, Kahn was saddled with less-talented imitators and a resulting genre that often bored. A generation of Kahn-lite, big metaphor sports books followed: think of every single thing John Feinstein ever wrote, not to mention, to adapt Jeff Van Gundy’s phraseology about Phil Jackson, Big Chief Vague Metaphor Ken Burns and his Baseball documentary, which not surprisingly featured Kahn as one of the talking heads.
Kahn’s memoir also plumbs the father/son angle so often exploited in sports literature: fathers and sons don’t like or even understand each other unless they are talking about sports. This ubiquitous American stereotype—think Shoeless Joe, the novel on which the movie Field of Dreams was based, or Fences—has itself motivated a lot of bad historical writing on generational conflicts. Ironically, The Boys of Summer does have lovely and affecting sections featuring Kahn’s James Joyce-reading New York literary mother that would themselves form the core of a charming memoir if they weren’t weighed down by the book’s testosterone-fueled nostalgia.
1980s Boston Globe Sports Omnibus Columns
American newspaper sportswriters deserve a shout-out. Anyone can appreciate Red Smith’s pithy summary of the 1958 Green Bay Packers’ 4-10-1 season, “They overwhelmed four opponents, under-whelmed ten, and whelmed one.” But we’re talking about influence, and nothing has been more influential on the past two generations of sportswriters than the Boston Globe sports section in the 1980s. These talented sportswriters—particularly Peter Gammons on the Red Sox, Bob Ryan on the Celtics, and Will McDonough on the Patriots—refocused their work on the culture and sociology of sports and invented a new medium for their musings: the Sunday paper omnibus column. Gammons started the trend, but the others picked it up, and now you have to look hard for a sports section or website that doesn’t prominently feature such columns (hello, Bill Simmons).
In the mid-1980s, I particularly enjoyed Ryan’s basketball columns, which ranged from insider Celtics info to general ruminations on the state of the game. Ryan could be catty about players, most especially at the time Celtics backup center and garbage-time regular Greg Kite. But if Ryan called BYU grad Kite “the least talented player in the NBA” or once claimed, echoing The Beatles, that the fourth quarter of one Celtics blowout was played for “the benefit of Mr. Kite,” he also speculated that part of Kite’s real role might be to help racially balance the team (still a consideration for ownership, as Boston, a very white and racist city, was only a decade away from its school busing riots). So even in-jokes were linked to larger concerns, and Ryan and Gammons in particular cast themselves as sociologists of the games they covered.
The Various Formats of Bill James (1977-Present)
Another New England writerly phenomenon, Bill James, rounds out our list. The obvious points here are that he revolutionized baseball by helping to introduce statistical thinking to fans and front offices and by re-engineering sportswriting to focus less on game summaries and interviews with players than on abstract questions (e.g. do batting averages really tell us much about hitters’ overall effectiveness?). But he also changed the business of writing with statistics for popular audiences. James’s delineation of problems within manageable chunks of writing containing digestible portions of statistics were exemplary instances of catering to—and capitalizing on—his audience’s short attention spans and math anxieties. Would Freakonomics or Malcolm Gladwell exist without Bill James?
Along with his spiky intelligence, James’s innovative publishing strategies—writing annuals, using subscription models, and creating online platforms for his work—have always been one step ahead of the curve and have forged a surprisingly large audience for him. And he himself is a role model and object lesson for all obsessed sports fans. Once an outsider crank who produced essays during his night shift as a security guard at the Stokely-Van Camp’s pork and beans cannery, James wrote his way into a front office job with the Boston Red Sox. Who else has changed thinking about a game and writing about sports so thoroughly recently? Why isn’t this man already enshrined in Cooperstown?
A Last Note on Influence
Cultural critics have often derided sportswriting as a willfully simplistic genre. But this critical line doesn’t address the ways in which sports-related imagery, metaphors, and ideas have saturated writings throughout history. At the very least, the works treated above have influenced other sportswritings, but let’s instead ask, more provocatively: What popular writings haven’t been influenced by sportswriting?
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Daniel Mendelsohn is one of the most prominent classicists in America today. A contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, he’s also a professor at Bard College. His 2006 book The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Memoir, among many other awards, recounts Mendelsohn’s attempt to discover what happened to six relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. It is also a book about storytelling and how we construct our identities and our relationship to the past, issues that recur throughout his work, including the memoir The Elusive Embrace. He has also translated the poetry of C.P. Cavafy and established himself as one of the most significant critics and cultural writers of the moment. Mendelsohn has the kind of wide-ranging mind one hopes for from a critic. He ends up writing about topics that one might expect, like the films 300 and Troy, but he’s clearly a pop culture junkie writing about Mad Men and George R.R. Martin and Patrick Leigh Fermor and the meaning of the Titanic.
His new book An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic is about his father. At the age of 81, Mendelsohn’s father, Jay, attended his son’s weekly seminar on The Odyssey, and when the class finished the two took a cruise retracing Odysseus’s steps through the Eastern Mediterranean. His father died not long after; the book is about teaching The Odyssey, about the last year of his father’s life, and about Mendelsohn trying to better understand his father. Which happens to be one of the themes of The Odyssey. An excerpt of the book appeared earlier this year in The New Yorker. We spoke recently when he was jet-lagged in Paris on book tour.
The Millions: Where did this book start? You wrote a travel article about going on the cruise with your dad not long after it happened.
Daniel Mendelsohn: All my books accidentally end up being books. As soon as my dad asked me to take the course, I thought I would do something with it because the experience at a certain level was just so amusing. I may have even called my editor at The New Yorker. When we were on the cruise, I think I started thinking that it was going to be a book. It was after he died that I looked back at what had turned out to be the last year of his life and saw that the whole thing was one story—the classroom and the cruise and the hospital. On the cruise I started to think it would be a book but I didn’t know at that point what the narrative was, what the shape of it was, but I knew I had a story. Several months after daddy died I started thinking, this is the book. I knew that I wanted to map the structure of this book onto The Odyssey somehow and figuring that out took me a while.
TM: Anyone who reads you knows that structure is very important to you, and I can only imagine how much time it took to figure out the right structure for the book.
DM: That’s a shrewd observation. I had a lot of material. The classroom was so funny at times and also so poignant at times. Then the cruise with the cave and the guy with the scar on his leg—and not getting to Ithaca. I thought, life is handing me a great story. The Lost took me one third as much time to write as did this book, although one could say it’s a much more gigantic story. It took me a very long time to figure out how to map this onto the structure of The Odyssey. It was not easy. It took a long time. People said, it’s taking a long time because it’s your dad and he’s passed away now and it’s so sad and emotional. I said, no, actually that’s not the reason. I love thinking about my dad every day. It was like a nice haunting. It was hard because I wanted to be echoing both the structure of The Odyssey and the development of the themes of The Odyssey. Going from this education of the son to this metaphorical emphasis on recognition at the end of The Odyssey and then at the end of my father’s story. That was not so easy.
In my review of the movie Troy with Brad Pitt I began by quoting Aristotle—which is probably too big of a stick to use on Brad Pitt. Aristotle has a very interesting observation about the other so-called epics about the Trojan War that did not survive. Every aspect of the Trojan War had an epic about it, from the judgement of Paris to the death of Odysseus. We only have The Iliad and The Odyssey. Aristotle said some of these other epics just weren’t that good, and the reason why is because they told the story in the order that the events happened, which is a mistake that Homer did not make. I realized about two years into writing this book I was making exactly that mistake. In other words, I told first the class, then the cruise, then my father’s illness, and death in that order. Each element was interesting, but it didn’t have an interesting structure. I never share my work while I’m writing except with my editor and a close friend and mentor of mine, Bob Gottlieb, who used to run Knopf and The New Yorker. This was literally only a year ago. I had hundreds of pages and Bob said, the problem is when you get to the end of the school year, you don’t want to go on. That’s the narrative, the class. You have to think of a way to work everything else into that. Literally the minute he said that I burst out laughing because of course, I need to do this Homerically, which is, to think of a way to fold the other aspects of the story into the classroom narrative. The class is the spine of the book. I have to talk about the cruise while we’re discussing Odysseus’ adventures at sea in the class. I have to talk about the illness and death when we’re coming to the end of the class. Then the whole thing fell into place and I was finished in two months.
TM: As soon as he said that, the structure presented itself to you.
DM: It clicked into place all at once. He said, you have to think of something and he didn’t know what it was, but the minute he said that, I thought, duh, you have to think like Homer.
TM: You make the point in the book that The Odyssey is much more narratively and structurally complex than most people understand.
DM: Oh my god, yes. The Odyssey is—in an almost postmodern way—aware of its own narrative devices. In fact it draws attention to its own constructed-ness, so to speak, in a way that is just amazing. I remember reviewing a very good book, that I quite liked, by Zach Mason called The Lost Books of the Odyssey for The New Yorker. I said this book is very clever and interesting, but you’re never going to be more clever than The Odyssey itself because it already anticipated all these games. One of the things I really wanted to make people aware of in this book—through getting to be a fly on the wall in the seminar—is how incredibly structured The Odyssey is and how alert it is to the tricks of narrative. All of my books, starting with my first memoir, are obsessed with narrative and truth-telling and the way that lived history becomes narrated. It’s very interesting to me. It’s a theme that binds all of my memoirs together certainly.
TM: I think thats true. Your books are about how we construct our identity through narrative.
DM: Precisely. When I was writing my first book, my grandfather, who reappears in The Lost, is sort of the figure of narrative. He is a great storyteller. In both books I become alert to the way in which the self fashioning through narrative can be misleading. Not necessarily in a sinister way. I think quite often people narrate themselves not with the intention of deception but because they honestly believe that this is who they are. That this is their story, if you see what I mean. I’m fascinated by this. It’s also a way of alerting my readers to the fact that even though these are true stories that I’m telling in my book, they are constructed as narrative. The story you’re reading is never the whole story because if you told the whole story, it would just be boring.
TM: I know you’ve written about this a lot, and I’ve written about it a little, but the fact that the memoir isn’t a recitation of events; it’s about the psychoanalysis of the self, it’s a consideration of what those events mean, it’s much more complicated than just what happened.
DM: The memoir is a highly crafted version of unedited reality. Nobody wants to hear a boring story. The Lost is highly obsessed with the dangers of narrative because I’m trying to get at a historical truth. When I was on book tour for The Lost, a woman in the audience very nicely said, I loved your book and I’m so glad that somebody has finally told the whole story of this one little town. I burst out laughing and I said, if I had told everything that I heard, it would be 2,000 pages long and unreadable. It’s not a matter of fact or fiction, it’s not a matter of you’re making it up or whatever—even if you’re just relating things that happened or things you heard, you’re shaping it, because people want to be enticed by a narrative. In this book I’m doing that very deliberately by evoking parallels with the themes and structure of structure of The Odyssey—which is itself a text which is very alert to the enchantment and seductions of narrative. It’s over-determined in a kind of fabulous way, but of course I don’t talk about the boring parts of the cruise or the days we just sat around waiting to get somewhere or the questions that people asked at the site of Troy that weren’t interesting. You’re always shaping and when you’re writing this kind of thing you are writing in a way to convey what you think are the insights that you have had about yourself. But of course who knows what you’re doing unconsciously, right? That’s for the critics to figure out.
TM: I think you were harder on yourself than you were on your father in a lot of ways.
DM: I take that as a huge compliment. I think when you’re writing memoir obviously the great danger is to glamorize yourself. Even through a kind of disingenuous negativity by saying, oh I’m so terrible. I think I’m pretty tough on both of us. The Lost was about the search for the identities of people I had never known. So in a funny way even though the subject matter was so painful, it was easier to write. This book was about my father, and for that reason I was bending over backwards to not sentimentalize either myself or my relationship to my father. I thought that was very important and I think it’s something he would have approved of given the kind of person he was. [Laughs.] He didn’t like mush. You’re probably right. I may have bent over too far, but the hero of this book is not me. The hero of this book is my father. It’s like those bunraku puppeteers who dress in black but you only look at the puppet? I wanted to be like those puppeteers, not intruding too much because it is about my father, although obviously through the lens of my relationship with him.
TM: I guess what I mean is that you don’t overdramatize anything, you’re not overly sentimental, and you write that when you were young you were embarrassed by him. You make it clear that this isn’t about a distant father and a dutiful son.
DM: Absolutely. When you write a memoir, you have an unwritten pact with the reader that you have to expose even the unattractive aspect of your narrative. I’m not talking about, I had a problem or I had an addiction. I mean really embarrassing things that make you squirm and might make the reader squirm, but I think you have to do that because that’s why the reader is on board. In particular, reading a book about a father-son relationship, I just felt I owed it to myself, I owed it to my father, and I owed it to the readers to put those mortifying, uncomfortable moments on the page because that’s the bargain you’re making. Look, no one has perfect relationships with their parents. We’re all embarrassed by our parents at some point in life, but only a few of us get to write about it. That’s the point hopefully when the reader will say, aha, I never really went there or talked about this, but I know what it’s like to have a parent you’re sometimes just mortified by. I don’t think it reflected well on me but I was 14. This is life and you have to be honest about it.
TM: As you were writing these moments seemed to present themselves. Like the man on the cruise with the injured leg. The emotional climax of the book is your father revealing himself to you and the class when you’re discussing Book 23, which was echoed in the very last scene of the book.
DM: I reflected on this a lot when I was writing The Lost when there were so many extraordinary coincidences. Truly amazing things happened that you wouldn’t believe if it were a novel. I had a long passage in The Lost where I reflect on that and I say it happens because to some extent you make it happen by putting yourself into this story. If you sit at home on your sofa nothing’s ever going to happen. Just by putting yourself out there you make things happen. You know what this is like as a writer when you’re working on a thing, suddenly everything becomes about that subject. Everything becomes irradiated because your perceptions and sensitivities are engaged. It’s not that more things are happening or more coincidences are happening, you’re just noticing things you never would have noticed before because you weren’t writing a book about them. I was just lucky because the one time my father really responded positively to The Odyssey was on the last day of class when he said this amazing thing. If you read the passage it’s not like he bears his soul, but for him…That’s a great vehicle for talking about how you turn experience into a narrative. What I had to do in order for that moment to feel like a climax, which is how you just described it. It is the emotional climax of the book, I would say. What I had to do was to create my father as a character in such a way that for him even to say that feels like a huge climax. Everything before then I have to choose out of everything that he said and did, those things which I thought illustrated his character in such a way so that by the time you get to that I think amazing moment where he started talking about my mother in class you’re like, whoa.
TM: And then you play with structure and time so that you jump to you relating it to your father and show her reacting to it.
DM: Here also I’m imitating slightly something that Homer does; he gives you reaction shots, as it were. I felt that to be an extraordinary moment in the classroom and I know that some of the students did, but then I choose to narrate the conversation that I had with my mother about that because she thought it was amazing too. It was a way of locking the significance of that moment both when it happened and afterwards. I didn’t have to describe the conversation I had with my mother—although that conversation leads to what I think is the second big emotional moment at the end of the book. I was trying very hard in this book to avoid over-dramatizing and that’s why you get in the conversation with mother as a throwaway remark the information that finally explains why my father didn’t go to the high school he always wanted to go to. For me that was a very big emotional moment, but I bent over backwards not to spotlight because I think it’s more devastating if you experience it the way I experienced it, which was in passing. It’s a throwaway remark from my mother because she’s not thinking about what I was thinking about at that moment.
TM: That’s also a narrative tool, to have a great emotional moment but not to dwell on it or emphasize it.
DM: That’s a thing that happens in the work that I admire the most. You’re not showcasing the big emotional moments and I think they’re more devastating for that reason. I always think of Proust where you meet Odette de Crécy early on in the novel. She’s a major character and the focus of a lot of narrative attention and you’re led to believe that this fancy aristocratic name that she has is one of these made up names that high-class courtesans gave themselves. I think it’s in the fourth or fifth volume where in passing the narrator meets the Count or Maquis de Crécy and you realize that Odette really was married to that guy. Every time I encounter that I’m just blown away by how brilliant it is. A thing that interests me is retrospective emotion, when you think oh my god that’s what that thing was and you get that kind of pang. I’m fascinated by that because to my mind it has 10 times the power of some big drumroll cymbals clashing kind of climax.
TM: It gets at this point, which is at the heart of so much classical Greek literature, that character is destiny.
DM: Right. It’s interesting when you think about what is this book about. Yes, it has a plot, which is the classroom and the cruise and the hospital, but like The Lost is a search narrative, the search here is just to know who my father was. You can say, well who cares who my father was, except that we all have fathers and mothers and we never quite understand them. This book I would say what it’s about is a series of gentle revelations about things that I never guessed about my father or why he did them. I thought I knew who he was and then through a kind of odyssey and sequence of events, people saying things—sometimes knowingly sometimes accidentally—reveal the key to major episodes of my father’s life. That’s about character. So much of Greek literature—particularly tragedy, my scholarly specialty—is about how events reveal character. That’s all that tragedy is about, one could say. That’s what this book is about. As with tragedy, you could say who cares about that person’s character, but you want to do it in such a way that it can be enlarged and become a metaphor for a certain type of experience. In this book the type of experience that I’m interested in is a child’s partial knowledge of parents and a child’s partial understanding of his parents’ marriage.
TM: You get at this in the book that so much of The Odyssey is about this father-son relationship and the education of a son into the wider adult world.
DM: I think that’s about as good a way you could put it.
TM: You’ve been teaching these works for years, I wonder if there’s been a shift in how students respond to Homer?
DM: It’s an interesting question. I don’t mean to be evasive, but I have two answers to that question. On the one hand, I don’t want to call it superficially but certainly the students now are interested in things because they’re being raised in a different culture than I was raised in, so they’re focusing on things that they have been trained to notice. I got here yesterday afternoon and a kid who graduated from UVA who I met and kept in touch with is in Paris so we had dinner together. He had just finished reading The Iliad and I said what did you think? What he was focused on was why aren’t there more female characters, why there aren’t more strong female characters, what is Achilles’s sexuality exactly, to what extent is the text explicit about his relationship with Patroclus. I thought well of course because he is a product of contemporary college education where—and I say this with approval—they’re focusing on issues of gender and sexuality. Every generation has its own focuses and lenses, let’s call them.
That said, at a whole other possibly larger level, I would say no, there is no difference. [Laughs.] I started teaching as a graduate student in 1989. The fundamental elements are still fundamental and it doesn’t matter what gender or sexuality you are—or what class, something contemporary students are rightly zeroing in on. Who are the slaves? Beyond that I think they’re all finally susceptible to the great power of both The Odyssey and The Iliad in the way they present in the strongest and also most stylish way the fundamental issues of human existence. That’s why they’re classics. I always like to say that the great advantage to teaching great books is that they are great. It’s not like we’re trying to sell you a bill of goods here. [Laughs.] We’re not trying to sell you a lemon and dress it up as a Cadillac, they really are great.
I had never really understood the extent to which The Odyssey is obsessed with familial relationships and particularly father-son relationships, as you were just saying. Even people who haven’t read The Odyssey know that it’s a famous story about a guy who’s trying to get home to his wife after 20 years away from home. But in terms of pure real estate, more of the poem is devoted to father-son relationships than to husband-wife relationships. I’ve never done a count, but my hunch is it’s just as much if not more so. The Greeks were obsessed with this as a patriarchal society. Surprise! Odysseus in the book has a double role. He is both a father to a son he doesn’t know and didn’t raise and who has found other father figures to be his father in his absence, but also at the end of the book there’s his old father that he has to reconcile with, come to terms with. As I think I point out in the book, the climactic reunion of The Odyssey is not Odysseus and Penelope, it’s Odysseus and his father. Even structurally the emphasis is clearly on that relationship. I understood this, of course. I taught it a million times, but somehow it just hit me this time around. Look, we all have parents. We all watch them getting old. Those of us who have children watch our children growing up. I think many people feel, did I miss something in my child’s growing up? This is a text that speaks very loudly and clearly and powerfully.
TM: One reason I ask is because the military has been sponsoring performances of Greek tragedies for soldiers and veterans and using them as a way to talk about war and trauma. I know The Odyssey is often talked about in a post-traumatic context.
DM: I’m not a big fan of those readings. It’s not because I don’t think they’re not true, but I think it leads to the possibility of a reductive reading and I am always militating for expansive reading rather than reductive reading. I reviewed one of those productions, of Euripides’s Herakles, which is adapted as a war hero with post-traumatic stress disorder. I think the danger of that is reducing the complexities of extremely complex works of art for the purposes of contemporary psychologizing. It’s not that I think they’re wrong, but because their emphasis is on trauma I don’t like the idea that people will think that’s what they’re about and thereby exclusive of other readings. Ajax suffers this kind of madness for reasons that are made very explicit in the text that have to do with hubris and Greek theology and the whole system of honor and heroism. I’ve spent my whole career trying to argue for the continuing, vivid relevance of these texts, but there’s more to the story than just this kind of interpretation. I have been certainly been keeping abreast of these performances before veterans and obviously the veterans are responding. If you get a group of soldiers and they’re crying during Ajax, I’m never going to argue with that. But there’s a much bigger picture. I’m a product of a certain moment in classical education when I was in grad school. One was constantly reminded that they were a very different and often strange civilization in comparison with our own. One can go down a slippery interpretative slope if you want them to be a perfect mirror of contemporary experience because they’re not. They had this wacky religion, they had very weird ideas about gender and sexuality, and you have to be careful about how you use them I guess is the point of this digression.
TM: When I talk with people who are adapting or interpreting classical stories, we talk about how pop culture stories are often fundamentally different from classical stories. Classically character was destiny, and in contemporary stories that means everything is awesome, I guess. I still remember your review of Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man musical and how she was trying to combine the comic book transformation with the mythical tradition of transformation and they don’t quite match up.
DM: Exactly. Listening to you one thing that flashes through my head is that maybe these Greek texts have a kind of hardness and durability because they don’t make a mistake which I think is the great mistake of so much popular entertainment—sentimentality. Modern superheroes are all essentially optimistic visions of transformation. The transformations are always empowering, where you need to only read two pages of Ovid’s Metamorphosis to understand that the ancient transformations are very problematic. The essential vision of life is pessimistic and these transformations are punishments, so [Taymor] was trying to conflate two essentially incompatible visions
TM: This is incredibly geeky but Spider-Man always fights people who go through animal-like transformations—The Lizard, The Rhino, Doctor Octopus—and they are flawed tragic characters caught up in this web of hubris and obsession. Who are then defeated by, I guess, a can-do American attitude?
DM: I think that’s a brilliant observation. The Greek dramatists would focus on the villain in the Spider-Man stories, not on Spider-Man. That’s so interesting because they’re all grandiose strivers who go wackily wrong—both physically and mentally because of their grandiose ambitions. Those characters would be of much more interest. Back to Taymor, you have made a much more interesting way of stating the issue that I was talking about in the Taymor production—the villains are so much more interesting.
Because the heroes are so obviously heroic, the drama about the American hero versus the Greek is they have these double identities. The drama is generated by the necessity of keeping the heroic identity secret. That’s the great anxiety. There is no inherent drama in the way the Greek mind would understand the word drama in these heroes. I’m not saying this is a lesser theme—especially today when we’re so alert to issues of identity and concealment. There is drama in that, but it’s not what a Greek dramatist would be interested in. Obviously identity and self-revelation are very interesting to Homer in The Odyssey.
TM: You wrote that great piece in The New Yorker about Mary Renault and your correspondence. I was curious if you planned to write more about it or do something with the piece?
DM: I do have an idea for a book. Bob Gottlieb suggested it to me after I wrote that piece and I always listen to him. A book with a title like My Old Ladies. I published that piece on The New Yorker website about this fabulous elderly French lady that I boarded with when I was in college. I could write about [my teacher] Froma. How continually I’ve come under the influence of these very strong older women. As I recall, that Renault piece was probably 14,000 words. I think to amplify it would be a matter of adding more detail but not more structure, so I don’t know that I’m going to revisit that but I would like to assemble some of these ladies in one place. I could write about my mother. It might be a fun book.
TM: I also read that you’re working on a book about reading the classics.
DM: That’s my next book, which I’ve thought about doing for a long time. When I’m on book tour, there’s a huge number of people who really want to know why these great texts are supposed to be so great. Not in a skeptical way, but a lot of people are like my father, for whatever reason they didn’t get to read the classics or they sped through them in high school and as adults they have some sense that these texts have tremendous amount to say but they need someone who’s going to be the professor. I thought it would be a good to write a book, which in some sense is like these pieces I’ve done for The New Yorker about The Iliad or Herodotus or Thucydides. A number of chapters on different authors or genres, and just say, here’s what it is, these are the issues, let’s sit down and look at them together.
TM: The description of An Odyssey sounds like the description of either a new sitcom or an Oscar nominated film, so I have to ask, have you sold the Hollywood rights?
DM: [Laughs.] As my grandmother would say, from your lips to God’s ears.
Teju Cole can seduce you a dozen ways. As a writer who refuses to be boxed in by the conventions of genre, he blurs the boundaries between fiction and memoir, sprinkling in just enough tidbits from his own life to leave you wanting more. His essays cover an astonishing range of subjects, from favorite writers like W.G. Sebald and James Baldwin to photography, travel and the politics of race and nationality. His interests veer between aesthetics and politics, and he writes about both as the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine.
The pleasure of dipping into Cole’s work is encountering an extremely fertile mind. He seems instinctively drawn to creative work that’s fragmentary in nature rather than fully-formed worlds. Perhaps it’s no surprise that he turned Twitter into an art form. But just when Cole developed a huge Twitter following, he abandoned it. “I try to find out what I can do in that space,” he told me, “and then without any compunction or regret I move on.”
His latest experiment is Blind Spot, a strange hybrid of photography book and essay collection. Cole has traveled everywhere and come back to tell us what he’s seen, and it’s all filtered through his distinctive perspective – part Nigerian, part American and thoroughly cosmopolitan.
He recently came to Madison to speak at the University of Wisconsin, and shortly before his lecture, he stopped by my recording studio for an interview. Like he always does, Cole was carrying a camera. This one was his small Fujifilm X70 digital camera, one of nine cameras he owns. I asked if he uses them all. “Yeah. It’s helpful to have different tools,” he said. “Each one makes you shoot a little differently and opens up another seam in your head.”
We talked about what he likes in photographs, his dislike of artistic boundaries, the complexities of racial identity, and his roots in both Lagos and New York.
Steve Paulson: You always seem to be looking around and taking photos of the places you go, but you’ve called your new book Blind Spot. What does that title refer to?
Teju Cole: Well, if you’re looking a lot, at some point you become aware of the limitations of looking. It’s just like being a writer. At some point you understand there are things that words can accomplish and then there’s a moment when words cannot help you. Looking has been so central to my way of being in the world that it goes a little bit beyond the conventional. But I was also very much into art as a kid. And I’ve got three university degrees and they’re all in art history.
Art history is basically about looking closely and trying to give an account of what you’re looking at from the art tradition. Then I got into photography more than a dozen years ago. And not long after that I really got into writing about photography and that entailed even closer looking than just taking photographs because now I have to interpret other people’s photographs.
SP: It sounds like you’re saying the more you look, the more you realize what you don’t see.
TC: Absolutely. You realize that in everything you’re looking at, you’re missing something and it becomes a haunting question. The other thing that happened was that sometime around 2011, just after my first book, Open City, was published in this country, I had an episode with my eyes. I woke up one morning and was blind in my left eye. I wasn’t in pain. I just couldn’t see and it was like a veil had fallen over my vision, and my right eye wasn’t doing so great either. So of course this is a nightmare for anyone.
SP: Especially for you, since you’re a photography critic.
TC: An art historian and a photography guy. This occlusion went away over the course of a couple of days. But doctors could not quite figure out what was going on. Eventually I got a diagnosis from this top specialist on retinal problems. He said I had something called Big Blind Spot Syndrome. It’s something I kept thinking about afterwards. Later, I had some surgery. The problem has come back again but only rarely. But I kept thinking about the blind spot. And it changed my photography
SP: How so?
TC: I was already looking intently, but I started to look more intently, more patiently. My photography got a bit more meditative and mysterious. I began to pay attention to the ordinary in a more focused way.
SP: What’s striking when I look at your own photographs – of back alleys, side streets, a tarp hanging over a shack – these aren’t the usual tourist photos we see.
TC: That’s right. Having eye trouble made the ordinary glorious. It’s just the way the sun falls across concrete or, like you said, a hanging tarp. It’s almost like William Carlos Williams’s poetry. I’m not the first person in photography to pay attention to such simple scenes, usually devoid of people and excitement. Certainly in American photography we’ve had pioneers like Lee Friedlander or Stephen Shore or William Eggleston, but the discovery for me was finding out the highly personal way I wanted to do this. Simply to make images out of the ordinary and then to draw the extraordinary narrative that might be lying behind that terrain or city if it was a place I was visiting.
SP: Does your approach to photography match how you look at the world? Is seeing the same thing as taking a picture of it?
TC: It’s getting closer. This aspect of my work — writing for the public and making images — has been going on for about a dozen years, and in that time I’ve understood more and more that all of it is of a piece. I used to think they were really separate. Now I realize that looking at the world, making images, writing about images, writing about things that are not images, all of it is an attempt to testify to having been here and seen certain things, having looked at the world with a kind eye but an eye that is not ignoring questions of justice and history. And that’s why Blind Spot is a book of text and images.
SP: Nearly every page of this book has one image and an accompanying bit of text that you’ve written, often just one paragraph. Sometimes you reference the picture you’ve taken, sometimes you don’t. What’s the connection between text and image?
TC: I wanted to make a book that was a little bit novelistic but with none of the things you expect from a novel. This book is not made up. These are stories drawn from real life — personal experience, philosophy, essayistic-type of speculations. Novels usually don’t have 150 color photographs. And yet I wanted to give it the energy of a novel or a documentary film, just a very peculiar one. So in one sense it was about the excitement of working in a new genre — a genre I was developing myself — the rhythm of text and image. But if you look at just the images all by themselves, they have a common visual language. They’re in color. I shot everything in film in 25 different countries. They usually have streetscapes or interiors, not a lot of people. When we have people, they’re turned away from us, so there’s a quietness that connects all the images. And if you read all the text in sequence, they have a kind of philosophical temperature that unites them. So this adventure was finding my way into a new form that I hope has a coherence. So if somebody goes through the book, they feel they’ve been through something strange and marvelous. It’s a strange album, a strange movie, a strange novel, but it’s none of those things because it’s actually just texts and images.
SP: What can text do and what can an image do?
TC: Text is very good at being explicit. When you write, you’re saying something in particular about the world. Images are specific about what was seen but not about what it means. When you put them together, you have the opportunity either to explain, which is usually not what I’m doing, or to create a kind of poetry. So you put the semantics of text together with the description of the image and they meet at an interesting angle. And out of that angle, I’m hoping and praying that some kind of poetry happens.
SP: And there’s a third thing you do. Often you’re not just describing the picture. You refer to favorite books and writers and artists. There are layers upon layers. Nothing is ever direct with you.
TC: [Laughs] Not really. Well, it’s all part of my world. This library contains The Iliad and The Odyssey. It also contains the Bible. I’m very interested in Christian theology. I think this is my most personal book to date and Christian teaching was a big part of my formation. And the moment I start thinking about how much I am seeing, how much I am missing, all this Christianity just comes in — not as an explanation but as a lens to understand it. Stories like Jesus healing the blind, and religious faith as a kind of seeing, as a form of prophecy. Religious faith is something I drifted away from because I realized that some of the claims it made about special vision did not hold true. Having believed was a kind of blind spot.
SP: Is your project to remove the blind spots, or to acknowledge that we all have blind spots?
TC: It’s really about acknowledgement. To go back to these very old texts was also a way to acknowledge the antiquity of these questions. There’s something elemental about a person walking down a street, so I talk a lot about walking in the book because walking is connected to photography but photography is connected to seeing. The kind of seeing we do has to do with us being upright creatures whose eyes are flat on our faces. We’re not like dogs close to the earth, with eyes on either side of the snout. So these are very old questions. At some point we were on all fours and then we stood up. Of course the book is haunted by frailty, eventually also by death. I wanted this book to be very contemporary but also to deal with what it means to be a human creature upon the earth. Somehow thinking about theology and Homer gave me access to that.
SP: You’ve taken these photos all over the world. I started jotting down some of these places: Lagos, where you grew up, Nuremberg, Tivoli, Nairobi, Auckland, Tripoli, Milan, Berlin, Zurich, Copenhagen, Seoul, Bombay, Sao Paolo, Brooklyn, Beirut, Bali. The list goes on and on. You must like to travel.
TC: I get to travel a lot. I take a lot of pleasure from it and I get a lot of productive discomfort from it. I only included photos I felt were relevant to the project of the book. I only included places where I made film photographs because I wanted a consistency of effect and appearance. Not because film is better than digital. For example, on this visit to Madison, I’ve only brought my small digital camera.
SP: So I have this image of you. You land in a new place and just start walking with your camera, not necessarily to any particular destination. Is this what you do?
TC: That’s pretty accurate. You know, what’s missing from this book is I don’t have any pictures of Iceland because when I went there, I didn’t take a film camera. I took a digital one. I have no pictures from South Africa. I have no pictures from Australia.
SP: What does film give you that you don’t get in a digital picture?
TC: I think it affords a certain kind of slowness in the thinking. I have only 36 shots on this roll. Do I really want to take this picture?
SP: You have to be more selective.
TC: Yes. But having shot with film for many years now, I think that has also started to affect my digital shooting. I’m not so happy-go-lucky anymore.
SP: I know people who deliberately do not take cameras when they travel because they worry they’re always going to be looking for the good shot rather than just having the experience. Does that resonate at all with you?
TC: I understand where that thinking comes from. One of the most wonderful writers on photography was the English writer John Berger, who died earlier this year. He was somebody whose work I very much cherished. And I got the opportunity to ask Berger about why he didn’t take photographs and he said he tried it very briefly — maybe in the 80s. He had a photographer teach him how to take and develop photos and then he realized that when he took photos of a scene, it kind of foreclosed the writing he wanted to do about that situation. His attention to detail went to the image rather than to the writing he was able to do about it. So he preferred to observe and draw and write. But I find that I’m able to do both.
SP: Do you carry around a notebook as well as a camera?
TC: I always have a notebook, a pen and a camera. These are my tools because the world is always giving you various phenomena. You’ve noticed that some of what I’m writing about is different from what I photographed. Sometimes they coincide. I don’t want my photography to be an illustration of the text. I want the photograph to hold its own. What is the light doing? How are the colors working? How do things balance? The narrative also has to meet the demands of storytelling, of obliqueness, of compression. It has to detonate in a certain way that might actually be adjacent to the photograph, not sitting right on top of it. Which is why I don’t really call these texts “captions.” They are voice-overs. They are running parallel. Each has to emanate its own energy.
SP: You’ve talked about these elusive and mysterious photos that you like to take. Is that also what you like to see in other people’s photography?
TC: I like a very wide range of things in photography. This is important for me as a photography critic not to be closed-minded. So I like photos of the kind that is related to my work. I particularly like Italian contemporary photography. But I also like spectacular street photographers who can nail a decisive moment. I sometimes do that but not a whole lot of it. I also like a good portrait.
SP: Even though you rarely take portraits.
TC: I love strong portraits. I think it’s a challenging art form. Irving Penn was a great portraitist but I would rather look at a portrait by Gordon Parks. It seemed to have more import. And I think Richard Avedon, whose style is not so far from Irving Penn’s, was a more successful portraitist. But Henri Cartier-Bresson was an even better portraitist. There was something about what was happening around his portrait that gave it more energy. The young contemporary photographer Christopher Anderson is an extraordinary portraitist and he gets a lot of magazine work because of this extraordinary ability to work with color and appearance when making images of people. I like conceptual photography. And at the same time I like photojournalists and spot news reporting. So I like all sorts. But this applies to writing as well.
SP: You also seem to be fascinated by memory.
TC: Memory is often a layer. A lot of my language can probably be located somewhere around 1915, between Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. I have a lot of faith in what can be achieved with a well-polished English sentence. Not that I try to make the language old- fashioned, but I like a clean sentence. But a lot of the reading I do is fragmented. One of my favorite authors is Michael Ondaatje and he uses sentence fragments a great deal.
SP: Why do you like fragmentary sentences?
TC: Because they can evoke the present in a very powerful way.
SP: So you don’t want a narrative that’s too self-contained and wraps everything up?
TC: But sometimes I do. Look at James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” Excellent sentences and they’re somewhat formal, even though the narrative is not formal. You get your epiphany at the end and you have these very powerful feelings. But if you read Running in the Family or The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, it’s jazzier. Those sentences are all over the place. Or if you read Anne Carson, who is a modern master of the fragment. A fragment is very often about mastery as well. It’s about saying I need just this much to convey. That can just be a delight. For me it’s about recognizing that great art comes in all kinds of forms. In Blind Spot I actually use more fragments than I’ve tended to use you, though I also still use a lot of well-polished sentences.
SP: There’s one page in Blind Spot that I want to quote because it raises some interesting questions. It’s about Lugano. You have a photo of a park bench, a statue of a horse and some buildings. And here’s the entire text that accompanies that image:
She said to me: Europe is getting worse. I still don’t understand why you want to move to Switzerland. I said to her: I don’t want to move to Switzerland. Quite the contrary. I like to visit Switzerland. When I’m not there, I long for it, but what I long for is the feeling of being an outsider there and, soon after, the feeling of leaving again so I can continue to long for it.
There’s so much in that passage: your love of travel, your feeling of displacement, wanting to be an outsider but probably also experiencing the cost of being the outsider.
TC: Yeah, but some very profound pleasures in it. Why is that text in Blind Spot? Because it encapsulates a misunderstanding. “Oh, you talk about Switzerland. You must want to live there. You want to be a Swiss citizen.” No. So I’m thinking through that response. What is another possible reason for wanting to be in Switzerland? Well, one way is to enjoy visiting without the desire to live there. It also fits in this book because Switzerland is one of the hidden themes of the book. And I keep going back there.
SP: It made me think of an essay you wrote about James Baldwin in Known and Strange Things. He lived in a tiny mountain village in Switzerland in the 1950s, basically in exile. He was the only black person in that village, and that’s where he went to finish writing Go Tell It On the Mountain. Maybe he had to go there to be able to finish this book about America.
TC: Precisely. There’s a way that outsiderness either in your own person or in your location can help you understand what you’re an insider to. Being a Nigerian-American in America helps me to understand Nigeria in a more intense way.
SP: Is it easier to write about Nigeria when you’re in the U.S.?
TC: No writing is easy, but it affords me a certain insight while looking at it from a distance. Being in Nigeria, having grown up in Nigeria, also illuminates my understanding of America even though I’m an American. That outsiderness helps. But the peculiar thing about having a couple of Switzerland essays in Known and Strange Things is that it’s a perfect illustration of the way that each of my books hands on the baton to the next book. So Known and Strange Things becomes a kind of prequel to Blind Spot. The final essay in Known and Strange Things is called “Blind Spot.”
SP: Which is about the experience of losing your vision.
TC: Yes. And then in a weird kind of way this blooms out into an entire book of photographs. But Known and Strange Things takes up in essayistic form many of the concerns that have been raised in novelistic form in Open City. What does it mean to live together? What are the responsibilities of looking at art? What should migration look like? Meanwhile, Open City itself is a kind of expansion on the out-of-placeness of the narrator who was at the center of Every Day Is for the Thief, which is the first book I wrote. So I dream of this organic flow of books.
SP: Even though the format of each of these books is really quite different. Some are fiction. Some are nonfiction. One has a lot of photographs. You seem to enjoy playing with form.
TC: Not only are they four books in four different genres, but each one is also considered peculiar within the genre that it’s supposed to be. Open City is strange for a novel. It’s a novel without a plot. And 400 pages of an essay collection that’s curiously personal and still you don’t know too much about me [laughs].
SP: There’s one other form that you’ve mastered. You turned Twittter into an art form and developed a huge following.
TC: Thank you. It was a creative space for me and I enjoyed it very much.
SP: You wrote a series of tweets that got a lot of traction called the White Savior Industrial Complex. This was in response to the Kony 2012 video that was all the rage a few years ago, about the African warlord who had an army of child soldiers.
TC: So many things were coming together publicly and I wondered, what’s my response to this? It allowed me to think about what we do when we do charity. What do we owe to the people to whom we’re doing some kind of mercy or favor? How much of it is tangled up in our own ego for wanting to be the savior? How much of this is actually racialized? If white Americans are going to Africa to go save, how is this related to the history of colonialism? How is this related to racial politics here in the U.S.? How is this related to being a white person and how you view black people? Does equality have any role to play if we’re helping people who are desperate, or does desperation absolve us of the need to treat people like equals? I thought these were good questions to ask. Yes, the title was provocative. The White Savior Industrial Complex got people’s hackles up a little bit.
SP: Because you were calling out people, including New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who writes a lot about this kind of thing.
TC: Right. I was calling people out. But the interesting thing about justice is that unless somebody pushes, nothing really happens. If black people don’t push and speak out, nothing changes in race relations. If women don’t speak out and make a fuss and make things a bit uncomfortable, gender relations don’t really move. As we say, it’s the person who wears a shoe that knows where it pinches. And so the person whose shoe is pinching has to make the complaint. So there’s a space for complaint. And Twitter was an interesting place to put those ideas out there.
SP: Are you still on Twitter?
TC: I’m not on Twitter. I’ve not tweeted in about three years.
SP: Why did you let it go?
TC: That’s exactly what I do with each of these genres. I try to find out what I can do in that space. I try to do good work there, and then without any compunction or regret I move on. And I try to find the next place to continue my exploration.
SP: What was it about the Twitter moment that appealed to you?
TC: An instantaneous public. The conveyance of compression and sentences into the minds of others. How much can we fit into this form? I think what any artist has to offer is really freedom. Freedom can be contagious. I chafe at excessive convention but I love to work within conventions and then try to push them and stop somewhere before the breaking point. So perfectly good English sentences but then I’m pushing against what is permissible. So with this new book, what does the photography book look like? Well, not like this, which has a lot of text. So is it a selection of essays? Is it a memoir?
SP: Your personal history has clearly shaped your writing. You were born in Michigan, but within a few months your family moved to Lagos, where you grew up. How long were you in Nigeria?
TC: For 17 years.
SP: Why did you come back to America?
TC: I came back to the Midwest, to Kalamazoo, for university. My father was deeply unimpressed with the state of Nigerian universities in the early 90s and he wanted me to go back to the U.S. I didn’t mind that, but I certainly did not arrive in the U.S. as a desperate and eager immigrant. We had very little money, but the privilege of choice was there. I got some scholarships and loans and then I had to start learning what it meant to be here as an American who was Nigerian. It was almost as if for the first time I was also learning that I was black. That did not need to be stated in Nigeria because everybody else around me was black, but I had to learn the racial politics of the U.S. and then I had to start experiencing in my own body the variegations of racial prejudice.
SP: So at first, you did not have the experience of most African-Americans?
TC: I did not. But I’ve been in the U.S. for 25 years. I’m a black guy in America, so within those first couple of years, there are many things I did not have a narrative for. What does it mean if I’m strolling around in a small town in Michigan and a car slows down, the window is wound down and someone shouts the N-word at me? And what does it mean in a university setting where somebody says to me, “Oh, you’re not like those other blacks”? All of this stuff had to be understood as a black person in America. In fact, I’m an American African but I’m also an African American.
SP: Wasn’t it years before you actually went back to visit Lagos?
TC: Yeah. It’s a little bit different from the narrator of Every Day Is for the Thief but there are some similarities. I went back to Nigeria after three years, but then I didn’t go back again for another dozen years. There was a big mental distance. I kept not having the money. I kept not having the time. I kept worrying about whether I would be able to go. I went back in 2005 and I’ve been back every year since then. It became a priority and I reestablished roots there.
SP: But you live in Brooklyn now.
TC: I live in Brooklyn. I live in the U.S.
SP: Do you consider Brooklyn home?
TC: Yes. That’s where my wife is. My brother lives there. My friends are there. My books are there. My office is there. So that’s home. I also consider Lagos home. My parents live there. It’s where I grew up. If I go to Nigeria, my room is there. The two most spoken languages in Lagos — Yoruba and English — are languages I’m fluent in. So there’s an at-homeness, but a home is also wherever there’s good wi-fi. That connects me to the world in a way that is irreducible and essential to my experience of the world.
SP: Do you consider yourself more Nigerian or more American?
TC: Neither. Split right down the middle. Or rather 100 percent of both. I feel very invested in Nigeria’s future. There’s a book I’ve been working on for a long time about Lagos, so I think a lot about Nigeria. I’m American and America is in crisis at the moment and I feel invested. Open City was definitely an approach to this question but I feel invested in what this country ought to be. I’m a citizen who is not a patriot. I’m a citizen in the sense of being invested in what we owe each other. What do we do to protect each other’s rights? What do we do about people who break our mutual agreement? What do sanctions and punishments look like? Those philosophical questions are very interesting to me. Our borders are interesting to me. If my money’s being used to kill foreigners in the theater of war, that’s my business. So I’m very American and I’m also very Nigerian.
SP: The two cities where you’ve spent the most time are Lagos and New York. Are they totally different experiences for you or do they have certain similarities?
TC: The commonalities are extensive. It is the experience of cosmopolitanism, which is maybe the fourth definition of home for me. And this is what I find in spaces in Lagos. And it’s what I find in New York — restaurants, clubs, bookshops, shopping malls, traffic, crazy people on the street, high fashion. Cities as a kind of problem-solving technology. If there are 16 million people in the same place, then we have to use resources in a way that makes sense in such a compressed space.
SP: What are the biggest differences between Lagos and New York?
TC: New York is much richer. Lagos might have 25 buildings of monumental scale and New York has 300. The sheer physical scale of New York never ceases to surprise me. And then there’s that thing of New York being a world capital. Lagos is the capital of Africa.
Don’t let people in Cairo or Johannesburg tell you different. Lagos is the place where the pop culture of Africa is being made. Lagos is the capital of Africa but New York is the capital of the world. So there is something about encountering this expansive, complex mutual togetherness in conversation. It’s possible in New York. So New York is almost not an American city. It’s a city that’s a vision of what the world looks like if these borders are not as they are right now.
This interview was conducted through the radio program To the Best of Our Knowledge. An edited radio version will air soon.
Although 1820 was more than a generation after the Revolutionary War, British critic Sydney Smith was perhaps still smarting when he wrote in The Edinburgh Review, “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” He claimed that the recently independent Americans have “done absolutely nothing…for the Arts, for Literature.” American writers have since been involved in a two-century process of crafting a rejoinder to Smith’s scurrilous assertion. We called this endeavor the “Great American Novel,” and since Smith’s royalist glove-slap the United States has produced scores of potential candidates to that exalted designation. But for all of our tweedy jingoism, the United States seems rare among nations in not having an identifiable and obvious candidate for national epic.
After all, the Greeks have The Iliad and The Odyssey, the Romans have The Aeneid, the Spanish have El Cid, the French The Song of Roland, Italy The Divine Comedy, and the British The Faerie Queene. Even the Finns have The Kalevala, from which our own Henry Wadsworth Longfellow cribbed a distinctive trochaic tetrameter in his attempt to craft an American national epic called The Song of Hiawatha. What follows is a list of other potential American epic poems, where the words “American,” “epic,” and “poem” will all have opportunity to be liberally interpreted. Some of these poems reach the heights of canonicity alongside our ”Great American Novels,” others most emphatically do not. [Editor’s Note: See our “Correction” to this list.]
The Four Monarchies (1650) by Anne Bradstreet
Anne Bradstreet’s collection The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America inaugurated what we could call “American literature.” Scholars have often given short shrift to her so-called “quaternions,” long poems encapsulating literature, history, theology, and science into considerations of concepts grouped in fours (like the four elements, seasons, ages of man, and so on). Her epic The Four Monarchies follows the influence of the Huguenot poet Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas in recounting the historical details of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, which are commonly associated with the four kingdoms of the biblical book of Daniel’s prophecy. While a committed Protestant (even if her private writings evidence a surprising degree of skepticism), Bradstreet was inheritor to a particular understanding of history that saw the seat of empire moving from kingdoms such as the ones explored in her quaternion, to a final fifth monarchy that would be ruled by Christ. It’s hard not to possibly see a westerly America as the last of these monarchies, as taking part in what John Winthrop famously evoked when he conceived of New England as being a “city on a hill” (incidentally that sermon was delivered aboard the Arbela, which was also transporting Bradstreet and her family to America). Reflecting on that passing from Old World to New, Bradstreet wrote that her “heart rose up” in trepidation, even if she ultimately would come to be the first poet of that New World.
Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton
Despite John Milton being one of “God’s Englishmen,” Paradise Lost is consummately American in its themes of rebellion, discovery, and the despoiling of paradisiacal realms. The poet’s radical republican politics seemed to prefigure that of the country in the way his native England never could embrace. A century later, in the burgeoning democracy across the Atlantic men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin read the Milton of the pamphlets Eikonoklastes (which celebrated the execution of Charles I) and Areopagitica (which advocated for freedom of speech) as a prophet of revolution. Scholarship about the poem has often hinged on how Lucifer, he who believes that it is “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven,” should be understood: as traitor or romantic rebel. For a monarchical society such as England’s, Milton was always more a poet for the radicals than he was one to be celebrated with a monument in the Poet’s Corner. As early Christians once believed Plato and Socrates prefigured Christ, I’ll claim that Milton prefigures America.
The Day of Doom (1662) by Michael Wigglesworth
Milton’s colonial contemporary Michael Wigglesworth has fared less well in terms of posterity, and yet his long apocalyptic poem The Day of Doom stood alongside John Bunyan and the Bible as the most read book in New England well into the 18th and 19th centuries. Wigglesworth epic was the first to fully capture the American public’s obsession with Armageddon (first sacred, now secular), depicting a shortly arriving Judgment Day whereby those who were “Wallowing in all kind of sin” would soon view a “light, which shines more bright/than doth the noonday sun” with the coming of Christ and the destruction (and redemption) of the world. Yet its deceptively simple rhyming couplets about the apocalypse betray an almost ironic, gothic sensibility. A critical edition of the book has yet to be published in our own day, yet the book was so popular that virtually no copies of its first printing survive, having been read so fervently that the books were worn to oblivion.
The Rising Glory of America (1772) by Philip Freneau with Hugh Henry Brackenridge
Four years before the Declaration of Independence was ratified in Philadelphia, the New York born Huguenot poet Philip Freneau stood on the steps of Nassau Hall at Princeton University with his Scottish born classmate Hugh Henry Brackenridge and declared that “here fair freedom shall forever reign.” Six years after that, Freneau found himself held captive for six weeks aboard one of the stinking British prison ships that filled New York Harbor, only to escape and write verse about the ordeal, confirming his unofficial position as the bard of the American Revolution. Those prison ships were notorious at the time, with the bleached skulls and bones of their cast-over victims washing up onto the shores of Long Island, Manhattan, and New Jersey into the early-1800s; as such, Americans thirsted for a soldier-poet like Freneau to embody the republican ideals of independence from British tyranny. Now, two centuries later, the “poet of the American Revolution” is all but unknown, except to specialists. But at the height of his esteem, patriotic Americans, in particular those of a Jeffersonian bent, saw Freneau as an American poet laureate whose verse could extol both the virtues of democratic governance, and the coming prestige of the “Empire of Liberty,” which was to be built upon those precepts. In Freneau’s writings, whether his poetry or his journalistic work for James Madison’s The National Gazette, he envisioned “America” as a type of secular religion, the last act in human history providentially heading towards its glorious conclusion “where time shall introduce/Renowned characters, and glorious works/Of high invention and of wond’rous art.” He may have failed in his goal of being counted among these “Renowned characters,” yet the “wondr’ous art” he predicted to soon arise in this new nation would eventually come to pass.
Proposed Second Volume (1784) by Phillis Wheatley
We do not know what her real name was. She was kidnapped from her West African home at age seven, and rechristened first “Phillis” after the name of the slave ship that pulled her across the Atlantic, and then “Wheatley” after the pious Boston family who purchased her as chattel. We cannot understand how the Puritan family was able to personally justify ownership of this girl who was translating Horace and Virgil at the age of 12. We do not have record of the hours-long examination she underwent at age 18 with the same number of men (including John Hancock and the Rev. Samuel Mather) to successfully prove herself the author of the volume Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The reading public refused to believe that she could have written verse evocative of John Dryden and Alexander Pope without confirmation from those white men who constituted that committee. We cannot tell how genuine her belief is that it “Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land” as a child on the Middle Passage, where almost a quarter of Africans died before they reached land. We do not know with what intonation she delivered the line “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, /May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train”. We cannot know what may have constituted the conversations between colleagues like the fellow slave Jupiter Hammon, or the Indian poet Samson Occom; we can only read their odes to one another. We do not know how much the shift in her celebrations of George III to George Washington evidence a change in ideology, or the necessary calculus of the survivor. We do not have record of the deprivations she experienced when finally manumitted but forced to work as a scullery maid, or of her husband’s imprisonment in debtor’s prison, or of her pregnancy (her child dying only a few hours after Wheatley herself died at the age of 31). We do not have her second book of poetry, nor its contents. We do not know if this lost epic sits in some sleepy college archive, or is yellowing in a Massachusetts attic, or rebound in some British library. We only know that in her Augustan classicism, her elegant couplets, her poetic voice always forced by circumstance to speak in her oppressors’ tongue, that we are reading one of the finest American poets of the 18th century.
Visions of Columbus (1787) and The Columbiad (1807) by Joel Barlow
In first his Visions of Columbus, and later The Columbiad, Barlow attempted to consciously write an epic befitting his new nation, whose drama he saw as equivalent to that of universal mankind. Borrowing the narrative structure of Paradise Lost, Barlow envisions a westerly angel named Hesperus as appearing to Christopher Columbus in a Castilian prison cell and revealing the future epic history of the continents he (supposedly) discovered. In The Columbiad Barlow wished to “teach all men where all their interest lies, /How rulers may be just and nations wise:/Strong in thy strength I bend no suppliant knee, /Invoke no miracle, no Muse but thee.” Columbus may have been a strange heroic subject for the eventually steadfastly secular Barlow, but in the mariner the poet saw not the medieval minded Catholic zealot of historical reality, but rather a non-English citizen of Renaissance republicanism (and thus an appropriate patron for these new lands). Barlow’s contemporary Percy Shelley famously wrote that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world; in Barlow’s case language, whether poetic or diplomatic, was central in the project of constructing these new men of the New World. Barlow had long rejected the religion of his youth, and saw in the United States a new, almost millennial nation, which would fulfill humanity’s natural inclination towards freedom, where “that rare union, Liberty and Laws, /Speaks to the reas’ning race ‘to/freedom rise, /Like them be equal, and like them be/wise.”
America: A Prophecy (1793) by William Blake
Already critiqued as turgid in its own day, Barlow’s The Columbiad has only become more obscure in the intervening two centuries. Yet what it loses in number of overall readers, the poem makes up for it in the genius of those who were inspired by it, with that mystic of Lambeth William Blake reading Barlow and penning his own America: A Prophecy in visionary emulation of it. Blake is deservedly remembered as a poetic genius, Barlow not so much. The non-conformist eccentric genius “looking westward trembles at the vision,” saw in the rebellion of “Washington, Franklin, [and] Paine” the redemption of all mankind. Inspired by a heterodox religious upbringing, the rich poetic tradition of England, the coming fires of Romanticism, and the particular madness and brilliance of his own soul, Blake composed the most emancipatory verse of his or any era. With his vocation to break the “mind forg’d manacles” which enslave all mankind, Blake saw the great 18th-century revolutions in America and France as not just political acts, but indeed as ruptures in the very metaphysical substance of reality. The narrative is typical Blake, encoded in a biblical language so personal that it remains inscrutable as it is beautiful. The angel Orc, rebelling against the anti-Christ surrogate Albion, prophecies that “The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations/The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up.” In a rejection of his servitude, this spirit of independence declaims, “no more I follow, no more obedience pay.” An Englishman writing in England with a heart more American than any of the revolutionaries he celebrates, Blake writes, “Then had America been lost, o’erwhelmed by the Atlantic, /And Earth had lost another portion of the Infinite;/But all rush together in the night in wrath and raging fire.” But Blake’s hatred of all kings was consistent, he rejected the idolatrous apotheosis of the god-president Washington, and as is the fate of all revolutionaries, America would ultimately break his heart. For Blake, no nation proclaiming liberty while holding so many of its people in bondage could claim to be truly independent. Freedom was still to be found elsewhere.
Madoc (1805) by Robert Southey
Because his and his friend Samuel Coleridge’s dreams of founding a utopia on the Susquehanna River would be unrealized, Southey’s American dreams remained in England, where he composed an unlikely epic charting a counterfactual history imagining epic battles between the Welsh and the Aztecs. The poem is based on legends surrounding the Welsh prince Madoc, who in the 12th century supposedly escaped civil war in his home country to travel west and dwell among the Indians of America. There is an enduring quality to these sorts of apocryphal stories of pre-Colombian trans-Atlantic contact. The Elizabethan astrologer John Dee used these legends as justification for English colonization of the Americas, explorers ranging from Spanish conquistadors to Jamestown natives claimed to have found blonde-haired Welsh speaking Indians, and in Alabama and Georgia historical markers reporting these myths as facts stood as recently as 2015. The undeniable excitement and romance of such a possibility is threaded throughout Madoc, which pits Celt against Aztec and druid against pyramid high-priest, with a council of Welsh bards naming the prince a “Merlin” to the Americas. The poem is ready-made for the cinematic treatment, even as its imaginary medieval battles allowed the once idealistic Southey to overlook the unequal violence of historical colonialism, and in the process to embrace an increasingly conservative politics. Yet the Arthurian fantasy of the story is inescapably fascinating, as Southey asks, “Will ye believe/The wonders of the ocean? how its shoals/Sprang from the wave, like flashing light…/language cannot paint/Their splendid tints!”
The Song of Hiawatha (1855) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Once Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the greatest American bard, the most accomplished of the Fireside Poets, whose verse celebrated Yankee independence and liberty. The question of what America’s national epic was would be easy for a good Victorian — it could be nothing other than Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. And yet the literary critical history of the 20th-century was not kind to the bearded old New Englander. The degradation has become such that current poet Lewis Putnam Turco derides Longfellow as “minor and derivative in every way… nothing more than a hack imitator.” In the years and decades after its composition, generations of American school-children memorized the opening lines of Longfellow’s poem: “On the shores of Gitche Gumee, /Of the shining Big-Sea Water, /Stood Nokomis, the old woman, /Pointing with her finger westward,/O’er the water pointing westward,/To the purple clouds of sunset.” The distinctive trochaic trimeter, borrowed from the Finnish epic The Kalevala gives the epic a distinct beat intentionally evoking an Indian pow-wow as imagined by Longfellow. Critical history has not only been unkind to Longfellow, it has also been unfair. While Freneau and Barlow consciously mimicked European precedents, and Southey constructed his own imaginary representations of the Aztec, Longfellow tried to tell an indigenous story as accurately as he could (even if his own identity may have precluded that as a possibility). Based on his friendship with the Ojibwa chief Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh and the Sauk chief Black Hawk, the poet attempted to use indigenous history and religion to craft a uniquely American epic. For much of its reception history American readers took the poem as precisely that. Longfellow’s tale sung of Hiawatha, a follower of the 12th-century Great Peacemaker of the Iroquoian Confederacy who preached in the western hills around Lake Superior and of New York and Pennsylvania. Though little read anymore, the poem still echoes as an attempt not just to write an epic for America, but also to transcribe a genuinely American epic.
“Song of Myself” (1855) by Walt Whitman
Both The Song of Hiawatha and “Song of Myself” were published in 1855; and while the former sold 50,000 copies upon release, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, self-published in a Brooklyn print shop, didn’t even sell out its small initial run of 800. Of the few reviews published, most seemed to repeat some variation of the critic who called the slender volume “reckless and indecent.” And yet a century and a half later it is Whitman whom we hold in the highest esteem, as America’s answer to Milton or Blake. For in Whitman we have the first genuine rupture in American literary history, with the New York poet following Milton’s lead in “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” For Whitman abandoned the conventional rules of prosody, loosening tongue and ligament to craft a lusty and hearty free verse equal parts Bowery dock-worker and King James Bible. So what, exactly, was Whitman’s epic about? In short, it took as its subject — simply everything. The poem is about the “marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west,” and “The runaway slave” who came to a house and “stopt outside,” and also “The young men” who “float on their backs” whose “white bellies bulge to the sun,” and “The pure contralto” who “sings in the organ loft,” and “The quadroon girl” who is “sold at the auction stand” and “The machinist” who “rolls up his sleeves,” as well as “The groups of newly-come immigrants.” He understood that in a truly democratic society the Golden Age platitudes of the traditional epic form could not truly confront the vibrant, egalitarian reality of lived experience, and so rather than sing of Columbus, or Washington, or Hiawatha, Whitman asks us to “celebrate yourself.” The “I” of “Song of Myself” is not quite reducible to Whitman as the author, and therein lies the genius of his narration, for he elevates himself in a sort of literary kenosis, becoming an almost omniscient figure for whom the first-person personal pronoun comes to almost pantheistically encompass all of reality. And though Whitman was a type of mystic, he was always consciously American as well, penning that most American of genres — advertisements for himself.
Complete Poems (c.1886) by Emily Dickinson
Dickinson is not the author of any conventional epic, nor would she have considered herself to be an epic poet. What she offers instead are close to 2,000 lyrics, so finely and ingeniously structured, so elegant in the relationship between line and image and rhythm, that taken as a whole they offer a portrait of a human mind anticipating death that is as consummate and perfect as any offered by any other poet. Like Leaves of Grass, the fragments of Dickinson scribbled on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper present an epic that is secretly, yet simply, the reader’s own life story. Dickinson belongs among that collection of the greatest philosophers, whose orientation towards truth is such that she is able to tell us that which we all know, but were unable to say. Take the line “I am Nobody! Who are you? /Are you – Nobody – too?” With her characteristic idiosyncratic punctuation (that capitalized “Nobody!”) and the strange, almost-ironic interrogative declaration. In her logical statement of identity, which is built upon negation, she offered a Yankee version of God’s declaration in Exodus that “I am what I am.”
The Cantos (c.1915-62) by Ezra Pound
His Cantos are the strangest epic, a syncretic alchemy of American history, Chinese philosophy, and ancient Greek poetry. Almost impenetrable in their hermeticism, Pound’s actual phrases were able to distill the essence of an image to their very form. Yet he was also an anti-American traitor, madman, war criminal, propagandist, and defender of the worst evils of the 20th century. He was an ugly man, but as a poet he could cut excess down to crystalline perfection: “The apparition of these faces in the/crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough.” Some 20 years after his infamous wartime broadcasts for the Italian fascists, a faded, broken, wrinkled, and ancient Pound found himself living in Venice. Sitting before the elderly man in that Venetian villa was a balding, magnificently bearded Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet and Jewish Buddhist, there to break bread with Pound. Ginsberg brought along some vinyl to play; he wished to demonstrate to Pound the distinct American speech that threaded from the older poet through Ginsberg and to that other Jewish folk troubadour, this one named Robert Allen Zimmerman. The younger poet, reportedly forgiving and gracious to a fault, claimed that Pound apologized for his anti-Semitic betrayals during the war. Yet this was not an act of contrition — it was a request for cheap grace. Beautiful verse can sprout from poisoned soil. We can still read him, but that does not mean that we need to forgive him, even if Ginsberg could.
John Brown’s Body (1922) by Stephen Vincent Benét
The writer from Bethlehem, Penn., attempted his classically structured epic poem at an unfortunate cultural moment for classically structured epic poems. Though it won a Pulitzer Prize a year after it was written, John Brown’s Body remains largely forgotten. Though Benét’s conservative aesthetics that call upon the “American muse, whose strong and diverse heart/So many have tried to understand” may seem retrograde, what’s actually contained is the fullest poetic expression of the definitional moment of American history. John Brown’s Body, which teaches us that “Sometimes there comes a crack in Time itself,” returns to slavery, the original sin of American history, and to the incomplete war waged to bring an end to the horrors of bondage. Benét, most famous for his story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (which if anything has reached the level of fable, its author’s name largely forgotten) attempted to craft an epic to commemorate the Civil War while its veterans still lived. His task is conscious, perhaps thinking of Barlow, Freneau, and others, he writes of his nation “They tried to fit you with an English song/And clip your speech into the English tale. /But, even from the first, the words went wrong.” The poem would be mere affectation if not for how beautiful lines of the poem could be, and if not for how important the poet’s task was, and if not for just how often he comes close to accomplishing it.
The Bridge (1930) by Hart Crane
From his apartment at 110 Columbia Heights the poet Hart Crane could see that massive structure that began to span from Brooklyn into lower Manhattan. Like Barlow, Crane borrows the character of Columbus, as well as other semi-mythic American personages such as Pocahontas and Rip Van Winkle in leading up to his own experience of seeing this new wonder of the world unite two formerly separate cities. Beneath the shadow of the bridge he asks, “How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest/The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him, /Shedding white rings of tumult, building high/Over the chained bay waters Liberty.” The poem was written as a rejoinder to the pessimism in that other epic, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Crane’s own life could be desperate: alcoholic and dead at 32 from his own hand after being savagely beaten by a homophobic crowd. Yet in The Bridge he tries to marshal that definitional American optimism, this sense of a New World being a place that can make new people. A contemporary critic noted that the poem, in “its central intention, to give to America a myth embodying a creed which may sustain us somewhat as Christianity has done in the past, the poem fails.” And yet whether this is said fairly or not, it misses the point that all epics must in some sense be defined by failure, the only question is how well you failed. By this criterion, in its scope, breadth, ambition, and empathy, Crane failed very well.
“Middle Passage” (c.1940) by Robert Hayden
Benét intuited that slavery was the dark core of what defined this nation, and that no understanding of who we could be can ever really begin till we have fully admitted to ourselves what we have been. The poet Robert Hayden concurred withBenét, and his “Middle Passage” was a black expression of the horrors and traumas that defined American power and wealth, a moral inventory that explicates the debt of blood owed to the millions of men, women, and children subjugated under an evil system. His epic is one of the fullest poetic expressions of the massive holocaust of Africans ripped from their homes and transported on the floating hells that were the slave ships of the middle passage, telling the narrative of “Middle Passage:/voyage through death/to life upon these shores.” No complete personal memoir of the middle passage survives (with the possible exception of 1789’s The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano) and so Hayden had to make himself a medium or a conduit for voices that were silenced by the horrors of slavery, writing of “Shuttles in the rocking loom of history, /the dark ships move, the dark ships move.” Hayden had certainly never been in the stomach of a slave ship himself, and yet he conveys the knowledge that “there was hardly room ‘tween-decks for half/the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there;/that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh/and sucked the blood.” “Middle Passage” is such a consummate American epic precisely because it enacts the central tragedy of our history, but its ending is triumphant, depicting the emergence of a new hybridized identity, that of the African-American. The conclusion of Hayden’s poem is inescapable: all that is most innovative about American culture from our music to our food to our vernacular to our literature has its origins in the peoples who were brutally forced to this land.
Paterson (1946-63) by William Carlos Williams
Of course a town like Paterson, N.J., could generate an epic five-volume poem, penned by her native son, the pediatrician-bard William Carlos Williams. True to his Yankee ethic, Williams’s philosophy was one that was vehemently materialist, practical in its physicality and imploring us to “Say it! No ideas but in things.” In Paterson Williams’s answered Eliot’s obscure Waste Land with a poetic rejoinder, one that rejected the later poet’s obscurity and difficult language with a paean to the lusty American vernacular every bit the equal of Williams’s fellow New Jerseyite Whitman. That language flowed as surely as the Passaic River across those five volumes, and over two decades of writing. What the poem provides is a thorough and deep history of this particular place, using it as a reflective monad to encompass the history of the entire country from colonialism, through revolution and industrialization into the modern day. In Williams’s epic the reader experiences, “The past above, the future below/and the present pouring down: the roar, /the roar of the present, a speech –/ is, of necessity, my sole concern.”
Howl (1955) by Allen Ginsberg
The Blakean New Jerseyite may have implored us to topple Moloch’s statue, but we used his poem to sell coffee, jeans, and computers. A criticism of the Beats was always that their modus operandi was more style than substance, a disservice to Howl, which when read free of the accumulated cultural debris that surrounds it is still thrillingly inspired. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked” (at a tender age I inscribed those very lines around the white edge of a pair of black Converse hi-tops with a purple felt pen). Howl can seem a mere product of the mid-century counterculture, but that doesn’t mean that his bop Kabbalistic vision of the sacred embedded within the grit and muck of marginalized people — the radials, and junkies, and queers, and addicts, and drunks — doesn’t remain profoundly beautiful. Ginsberg sings the song of “Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection/to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Dedicated to one of these lost children of America, Carl Solomon, who Ginsberg met in a Patterson mental hospital, Howl’s vision is profoundly redemptive, despite its depiction of an America that is more Babylon than “City on a hill.”
The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (1972) by Frank Stanford
The poet Frank Stanford marshaled that Southern history that hangs as thick as a blanket of lightning bugs on a humid July night in his brilliant The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. If not America’s great epic than it is surely the South’s, where the poem is all moonshine and Elvis Presley, yet not reducible to its constituent parts. Following the lead of modernists like E.E. Cummings, Stanford produced a massive poem devoid of punctuation and reproduced without any stanzas, one that never reached the heights of canonicity despite being celebrated by poets like Alan Dugan as among the greatest American works of the 20th century. The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You endures as a half-remembered phantom born out of a particular Southern dark genius, and now almost folk-myth as much as it is actual text, out of print for years at a time. Stanford, who killed himself with three pistol shots to the chest at the age of 30 in 1978 endures as a literary ghost, still searching for a deserving audience. As he wrote, “Death is a good word. /It often returns/When it is very/Dark outside and hot, /Like a fisherman/Over the limit, /Without pain, sex, /Or melancholy. /Young as I am, I/Hold light for this boat.”
The New World (1985) by Frederick Turner
Perhaps a central anxiety of American literature, which reflects on the endlessly novel and regenerative possibilities of this Golden Land, is that as the clock ticks forward we become less and less new. Hence the necessity to continually reinvent, to “make it new” as Pound put it. The Neo-Formalist poet Frederick Turner takes this injunction very literally with his provocative science fiction epic appropriately titled The New World. Set in a fantastic 24th century, Turner envisions a fractured and disunited states of America born out of the fissures and inconsistencies that always defined American cultural identity. There are now groups like the anarchic Riots, the Eloi-like Burbs, the theocratic Mad Counties, and the Jeffersonian Free Counties. What follows is an archetypal story of family feuding, exile, and messianism across these designated polities, and in the process Turner tells a narrative about America’s history by imagining America’s future. Invoking the muse, as is the nature of the epic convention, Turner writes “I sing of what it is to be a man and a woman in our time.” What follows is a circus-mirror reflection of America, brilliantly harnessing the potential of science fiction as a modern genre and using the vehicle of the seemingly moribund epic form to sing a new story. The future setting of Turner’s epic serves to remind us that this mode, so much older than America, will also outlive us.
The Forage House (2013) by Tess Taylor
As genealogy-obsessed as we may be, many Americans have an anxiety about fully recognizing their own reflections in past mirrors, with the full implications of where we’ve come from steadfastly avoided. Poet Tess Taylor writes, “At first among certain shadows/you felt forbidden to ask whose they were.” In The Forage House she crafts an American epic by writing a personal one; she interrogates the long-dead members of her own lineage, pruning the tendrils of her family tree and discovering that while genealogy need not be destiny, it also must be acknowledged. A native Californian, she is descended from both New England missionaries and Virginian slave owners, with one ancestor in particular, Thomas Jefferson, as enigmatic a cipher as any for the strange contradictions of this land. Jefferson may not have admitted that branch of his family tree sired through his slave Sally Hemings, but Taylor seeks out her black cousins. To do this isn’t an issue of political expedience, but one profoundly and necessarily urgent in its spiritual importance. Perhaps it is in the collection of people that constitute a family, and indeed a nation, where we can identify an epic worthy of the nation. Rugged individualism be damned, we’re ultimately not a nation of soloists, but a choir.
Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) by Claudia Rankine
The dark irony of the word “citizen” as the title of Rankine’s poem is that this postmodern epic explores the precise ways that this nation has never treated its citizens equally. Combining poetry, creative nonfiction, and a stunningly designed image, Citizen has the appearance of a photography magazine but the impact of a manifesto. The cover of the book depicts a gray hood, isolated in a field of white, presented as if it were some sort of decontextualized object or museum piece. But the hoodie calls to mind the murdered Florida teenager Trayvon Martin; Citizen ensures that we can never view an artifact as this out of context. The awareness that Citizen conveys is that this is a nation in which a black child like Martin, simply walking home from the store with iced tea and Skittles, can be killed by an armed vigilante who is then acquitted by a jury of his peers. But it would be a mistake to think that Rankine’s poem is some sort of sociological study, for as helpful as the adoption of terms like “privilege” and “intersectionality” have been in providing a means for political analysis, Citizen displays the deep, intuitive wisdom that only poetry can deliver — racism not simply as a problem of policy, but also as a national spiritual malady. From Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” to Citizen, conservative critics have purposefully obscured the purposes of these poetic sermons. Yet what Rankine attempts is profoundly American, for Citizen conveys that any America falling short of its stated promises is an America that betrays its citizens. As she writes, “Just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.” In answering what our national epic is, Uncle Walt said that “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem;” the importance of Citizen is that it reminds us that this poem has yet to be fully written.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
My friend and I have created this running joke about a blockbuster movie in which the hero — a slothful young man with a mysteriously absent father — spends every day at a Starbucks, dutifully banging out a few sentences of his unfinished novel. One day the barista spells his name wrong on a cup, but it’s actually a cryptic message, and soon a wall in the bathroom is sliding open to reveal a hidden passageway. Our hero descends beneath the Starbucks into a bustling, technologically sophisticated control room where, for centuries, a secret cabal of the greatest writers on Earth has been using its literary chops to save humanity from all sorts of apocalyptic threats. Of course the hero’s father belonged to this cabal, and of course there’s an alien tyrant determined to invade Earth and muck up its entire public library system or whatever, and of course our hero wipes the muffin crumbs off his t-shirt and ends up saving us all from annihilation — but most importantly he learns a lot about the craft of writing.
In a way, that story has already been done. Have you read The Secret History by Donna Tartt? It’s about gifted college students who become so passionately intellectual that they have no choice but to start killing each other, and it captivated me when I first read it. Or maybe you read Special Topics in Calamity Physics, in which a painfully brilliant student solves an elaborate murder mystery using her exceptional skills in the humanities? Or The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, which bravely explores how tragic and meaningful life can be when you’re a terribly erudite chimp? Or the warehouse of knowledge porn known as Wittgenstein’s Mistress?
And then we have The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt. I’ll tell you right now that I love this book, but I feel helpless to love it, and I wonder if loving it makes me a bad person.
This is what happens in The Last Samurai. Sibylla, a devastatingly smart and preternaturally rational young woman from America, goes to a party in London and meets a famous writer whose style she abhors, comparing it to Liberace’s. Disappointingly, she sleeps with him. (“I was still drunk, and I was still trying to think of things I could do without being unpardonably rude. Well, I thought, I could sleep with him without being rude.”) She ends up raising a child, Ludo, who can memorize The Iliad and teach himself foreign languages at age five. Ludo would be the crowning achievement of any comfortably situated Park Slope mom, but Sibylla, who struggles to pay the bills by transcribing old issues of magazines, can barely feed Ludo’s appetite for knowledge. She often resorts to playing an old tape of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, hoping it will provide Ludo with some admirable male role models. Ludo begs to know his father’s identity. Sibylla won’t tell him.
After his 11th birthday, Ludo finds a clue that leads him — secretly, without Sibylla’s help — to “Liberace.” But when he sees that Liberace is a hack, and that telling him the truth won’t do any good, Ludo keeps the big revelation about his parentage to himself. “If we fought with real swords I would kill him,” he thinks, quoting one of his favorite lines from Seven Samurai. Instead, Ludo takes off on other journeys throughout London, searching for surrogate father figures — a brilliant linguist who traveled the world, a charismatic physicist with a popular TV show, a reclusive millionaire painter. When Ludo finds them, he lies and says he’s their son. “A good samurai will parry the blow.” Hilariously, most of them believe it — it seems that “great men” have a tendency to sleep around. As the father figures try to explain themselves and dish out advice to their not-quite son, Ludo gains a variety of perspectives on how he might conduct his own life.
What worries me about The Last Samurai is how exceptional Sibylla and Ludo are, and how quickly I find myself identifying with them.
Sibylla’s work as an underpaid transcriber sounds backbreaking. She sits at a typewriter in a small London flat (which is so poorly heated that in winter she and Ludo ride the tube to stay warm) and labors for 36 hours at a stretch to preserve garbage publications like Advanced Angling, British Home Decorator and The Poodle Breeder for posterity. Meanwhile she has to ignore the emotional development of her absolute prodigy of a son because she’s too busy earning money to keep them alive. But when I read this, I’m happy! Because I feel like I’ve been there. Haven’t we all — especially those of us with a passion for language and typing — felt like a wage slave at some point, like an unheralded maestro, and doesn’t that memory lodge itself in our identities and become a part of who we are? So I read this heartbreaking passage about a single mother suffering in her cold London flat and I feel a vicarious joy, as if Helen DeWitt “gets” me.
And when Ludo takes his magnificent brain to public school for the first time, and discovers the exquisite agony of being misunderstood by a world of simpletons, I feel like Helen DeWitt “gets” me.
And when The Last Samurai jokes about the nobility of linguistics and the dreariness of Oxford University Press, then I really feel like Helen DeWitt “gets” me, because I used to be the linguistics editor at Oxford University Press.
The jacket copy for the new edition of The Last Samurai makes a big fuss about how, when the book was originally released in 2000, the publisher declared it was “destined to become a cult classic.” To which Garth Risk Hallberg replied, “Why not just, ‘destined to become a classic?’” By releasing this new edition, New Directions seems to be signaling that we’re ready to erase the word “cult” from the book’s reputation.
But I’m not so sure. I feel helpless to love The Last Samurai because it “gets” me. But how many other people can say that? How many linguistics editors are there at Oxford University Press? How many people, when they read about a devastatingly smart and coldly rational white woman who tells her tragically brilliant son that she would have committed suicide by now if not for the fact that she feels obligated to raise him, will smile and quietly rejoice because this is exactly the type of misfit they fancy themselves to be? Who is foolish enough to admit that they fantasize about being oppressed by their own superior intellect?
I think there’s something shameful about loving The Last Samurai. The novel gratifies the individual egos of a very specific type of reader. And isn’t that what a cult classic is — a book that people love, but only for themselves?
“A good samurai will parry the blow.”
What’s so damning about knowledge porn is that it’s often written with the same basic level of intelligence as any other work of mainstream literary fiction. Which ruins the whole premise! Here is a paragraph from Special Topics in Calamity Physics:
Dad picked up women the way certain wool pants can’t help but pick up lint. For years, I had a nickname for them, though I feel a little guilty using it now: June Bugs (see “Figeater Beetle,” Ordinary Insects, Vol. 24).
So we have a lamestream analogy about pants gathering lint, followed by a completely invented bit of “scholarship” that leads the reader nowhere but is meant to indicate that the narrator is actually brilliant. This is not what a smart person sounds like. You can’t footnote a cliché and call it genius. (Remind me to yell at you about the magician-heist movie Now You See Me and its ridiculously named sequel, Now You See Me 2, which commit the same infuriating error on a massive Hollywood scale.)
Fortunately for us, The Last Samurai is better than that. It’s a rare work of knowledge porn that actually conveys knowledge. Flip through the book and the first thing you’ll notice is Greek writing, or Japanese writing, or impossibly long strings of numbers. As Ludo studies, DeWitt folds his material into the text, and a patient reader will learn that, in Japanese, JIN is an exogenous Chinese lexeme, while hito is an indigenous Japanese lexeme; that in E.V. Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey (yes, it’s a real thing), Odysseus calls his companions “lads;” and that in the sum of any sequence n + (n+1) + (n+2) + (n+3) etc. is simply half of the sum of the sequence added to itself backwards. DeWitt doesn’t just tell us her characters are smart; she builds the truth of that assertion into the book, and she makes us smarter for reading it.
As a stylist, too, DeWitt stands above most peddlers of knowledge porn. Both Sibylla and Ludo, as narrators, pour forth in a primly accurate voice that often gives way to sardonic or slapstick humor. Sibylla marvels at the cheesiness of a western movie that rips off Seven Samuai: “Not ONE but SEVEN tall men in tights — it’s simply MAGNIFICENT.” Unsure of what to say in the note she leaves for Liberace after sleeping with him, she writes several pages analyzing the The Iliad in the original Greek, and then realizes, “I still did not have something on the page that could be concluded with an airy Ciao.” At one point Ludo mentions that Sibylla dressed him up like a hunchback so they could sneak into an age-restricted screening of The Crying Game. It’s a frequently delightful book, zany in the same way that Nell Zink is zany, as we watch the narrator’s extraordinary intelligence run out from under her and trip against the common things in life.
During the five pages when Ludo confronts his father Liberace, I underlined everything they said because DeWitt’s use of dialogue — with innovative elisions and subtle shifts in POV — is masterful. Structurally the novel grows up and out, just like Ludo, grasping at new relationships and open-ended questions even as the story is ending.
So if The Last Samurai belongs to a genre of books that perpetuate a seductive fantasy about the nature of intelligence, then it’s the best example of that genre I’ve ever seen.
And let me tell you another thing I love about The Last Samurai. It blurs the line between biological kinship and intellectual mentorship in a way that feels strangely mature and matter-of-fact.
From Sibylla’s perspective, raising Ludo seems an awful lot like a horror movie. She gives birth to this accidental child whose rapid intellectual development suddenly takes priority over her own (just like her being born ruined her mother’s goal of developing as a musician). But the child prodigy is basically a sociopath until he grows up, and in the meantime she is still responsible for feeding him, cleaning him, and providing him with the raw materials that his life’s work — whatever it may be — will be built upon. This is the horror that all mothers experience, just ratcheted up a notch because this particular child is smarter than Isaac Newton and Noam Chomsky combined. And that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is how easily Sibylla might fail, how easily Ludo could become a monster, how easily she might fall into despair and lash out at her son: “A chittering Alien bursts from the breast to devour your child before your eyes.”
When your child is not just smart, but freakishly smart — as Ludo putzes around like a child, Sibylla refers to him drily as “The Phenomenon” — you have a moral and social imperative to raise him well. Throughout the novel, Sibylla suffers from boredom and heartache and poverty and suicidal thoughts, but she never stops trying to raise Ludo responsibly. She forces Ludo to read a film critic’s take on a lesser Kurosawa film about a judo champion, hoping to teach him that there is no terminal state of contentment at the end of the hero’s journey; that “a hero who actually becomes is tantamount to a villain.” As Ludo’s fiendishly pedestrian schoolteacher puts it, Ludo “has got to understand that there is more to life than how much you know.”
The dramatic tension at the heart of The Last Samurai is this question of whether Ludo will ever learn that there is more to life than knowledge porn. And whether we will, too.
Unless you’re inhuman or illiterate, you’ve felt the frisson of joy delivered by an instance of perfect mimesis in fiction — that moment when a writer gets something so recognizably right that the act of recognition itself seems to confer a new reality upon the experience. Yes! you might say, that’s exactly how it is, and underscoring your pleasure there might be recognition of another sort: the writer’s recognition of your own experience of the world.
Then there’s the convincing depiction of experience that’s recognizable, yet once-removed. For simplicity’s sake, for the moment let’s stick with experience or behavior rather than natural occurrence. Someone you might not have known or seen or heard firsthand becomes, through the deftness of the writer’s rendering, distinctly and convincingly familiar. Yes, you might say in this case, that’s what it must be to be someone like that. That’s how he would talk. That’s just what would happen. Reading Zadie Smith’s NW, for instance, when a distressed Natalie (Keisha) wanders the streets of her old neighborhood with Nathan, who’s never managed to escape its dire demographics, you might — if you were someone like me — never have known someone quite like Nathan, but now you do. You can hear him say, as surely as if he’d been standing next to you, “Everyone loves a bredrin when he’s ten…After that he’s a problem…That’s how it is…There’s no way to live in this country when you’re grown.”
Or another type, one you’ve observed in one form or another, might become not just credible but comprehensible, as in the work of Curtis Sittenfeld in American Wife. You might have asked yourself (again, if you’re like me, sadly), How is it possible to be Laura Bush? A smart, educated, seemingly enlightened woman as the self-affirmed conjugal flak of a spoiled, failed child of privilege turned evangelical war-mongering anti-intellectual politician on the world stage? And in Sittenfeld’s fiction you might find an answer that resonates.
Move one step further away from what you know, and you may be confronted with a character who’s conceivable even though he or she might not exist. Yes, you say in this case, it’s entirely credible that a character might be made up of such components — now I see her! — yes! — that’s what she’d say or do! She might be Oedipa Maas of The Crying of Lot 49. Or Jack Gladney, pioneering the field of Hitler Studies in White Noise. Or David Foster Wallace’s Orin Incandenza. Or Charles Dickens’s Mr. Dick.
But what about experience that’s inconceivable to most of us — an act of genius, a moment of utmost extremity, a visit to the moon, a chat with Kim Jong-un, falling to the guillotine, challenging Julius Caesar? Anyone who has read The Iliad and understood that the pouting Achilles was a hero to Homer’s audience must know that what we understand to be verisimilitude, let alone storytelling and heroism, is in some philosophical, even existential way uncommunicable across time and culture. And when we realize that nothing resembling what we understand to be a novel was written in the West before the 1600s or in the East before 11th century, we have to concede that fiction as a conveyance of experience, a depiction of reality, a connection between writer and reader is susceptible to time and interpretation.
What do we want from it anyway, aside from the oh-get-me-from-here-to-there-already of plot, a perfectly acceptable demand for the satisfactions of seeing things make sense? This was a question that — oddly, perhaps — came up for me as I was reading Ethan Canin’s new novel, A Doubter’s Almanac. Canin is, in the old-fashioned sense, as Henry James said of Nathaniel Hawthorne, “a beautiful writer.” His clear predecessor is the F. Scott Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby, as he can so perfectly capture a thought, a gesture, a look, a detail, or an event as it means something to a character whose reflections he’s so precisely and evocatively conveyed that it means something to us. In this new book, the narrator is something of a mathematical savant, son of the not-at-all-somewhat mathematical genius whose story the first half tells and the second half retells from another perspective.
This is fiction that captures reality in a way that’s quite different from what I’ve described so far, because the reality that Canin is depicting is, for the most part, philosophical. The novel is steeped in a mathematical sensibility. In his father’s mind, Hans, the narrator, tells us, “all the other academic disciplines — including the physical sciences …were irrevocably tainted by their debt to substance.” And again and again we are asked to view the world as someone like Hans’s father, Milo, might — purely, you might say, without reference to its physical coordinates, though the physical coordinates are what orient Milo and make him aware of his gift, as we see when we first witness his extraordinary “positional aptitude” — his uncanny ability to know precisely where he is on the “plane of the earth” — a “sort of intrinsic, spatial mapping.”
“Mathematics is an invented science,” Milo tells Hans. “But strangely,” he continues, “the inventions of mathematics, which are wholly constructions of the mind, are in turn able to yield other inventions. That is why they seem more like discoveries than creations. In fact the distinction remains a debate…I also believe that this is why so many mathematicians feel that they have been privy to the language of God.”
He thought for a moment. ‘Although I should also say that I’ve thought of it in other ways, too. As the language of the mind, for example. Or even’—here he turned to me more thoughtfully — ‘as the language of language. The underlier of grammar. The skeleton of cognition. The rails on which the train of human advance steams up and down, one hill after the next.’
At this point, a mulberry twig falls onto the lawn in front of father and son. “Squirrels,” Hans says, looking up. The squirrels, of course, are the point. “Mathematics,” Milo says, “is like carving a wooden doll…and then, one day, you watch as your wooden doll gives birth to another wooden doll.” In its form and its fashion, the novel raises the question: do we look to fiction for the wooden doll or the squirrel?
In A Doubter’s Almanac, Ethan Canin gives us a truly convincing picture of what it’s like to experience the world as most of us, probably, don’t. This is life in the abstract, which, predictably, doesn’t work out very well for those who are privy to this intellectually elevated existence. When Milo has failed in worldly terms: “His mind, he realized, was his only friend.”
Though Canin wants us to care about Milo and his mathematically gifted children and grandchildren, what’s far more convincing is what’s familiar: “We watched a pair of red ants pitilessly drag a thrashing inchworm across the sand. It was like the ending of a great novel.”
An inchworm or mayflies or lily pads: Canin takes us back to that moment of mimesis that reminds us of our connection to someone else’s vision or experience of the world:
My mother looked up at the cloud of wings and feelers. ‘Mayflies,’ she said.
‘They seem to be committing suicide in pairs.’
’You’re right.’ She leaned back and let out a sigh. ‘They’re mating.’
There is in this novel a strange tension that makes me, at any rate, wonder what we ask of fiction anymore. Does it, as in the work of Lydia Davis or Diane Williams or perhaps even Jenny Offill, ask us to question how we experience reality — or whether we experience it differently than others might? Or does it allow us to confirm what we think we know? In A Doubter’s Almanac we have two worlds, and two forms of fiction, in uneasy coexistence, one that psychologist Jerome Bruner says establishes “not truth but verisimilitude” and one that — in Bruner’s view not fiction but argument — “verifies by eventual appeal to procedures for establishing formal and empirical proof.”
Just as, in a world that contains photography, a painter must reconsider the value of representationalism, a fiction writer in an age of the extraordinary documentation of television and the Internet, where every last little feature of reality might be found and viewed from virtually every angle, must reevaluate the merit of capturing every detail, every moment, of a story. Is that exquisite word picture of a person, a gesture, an instant — that yes! of recognition — what we want? Or do we want something different, something new, some sense that, with the same words, in the same world, we might, through the workings of fiction, find a way to rethink reality — and to find the familiar strange, the world an ever bigger, more interesting place?
Observing his daughter, the next generation of mathematical genius, admiring the carpet of lily pads on a slow spot in the river, Canin’s narrator remarks,
I think Emmy likes the mystery of the spot, too, the way she knows from the undulation of the green that the water is there but never actually sees it. The feeling is much like the joy of mathematics itself, the original secret of the guild: that the miracle of the universe can be worshipped without actually witnessing the divine.
I also think she might be counting the lily pads.
Worship the miracle of the universe, witness the divine, count the lily pads: what do we, as readers of fiction, want to do?
My friend Jay Parini once observed that when his reading isn’t going well, his writing isn’t going well. Not only did I find myself in total agreement, but I would go even further: when my reading isn’t going well, it’s as if I’m missing some essential nourishment in my life.
Jay’s comment set me thinking on an added benefit to finding and reading great books: it helps my own writing to hang around good company whose fine qualities might rub off on my own work.
So here are the books that were my best reading company in 2015.
It was a big reading year for me as I’m at a crossroads in my own writing. I can viscerally, sensuously, intuitively taste and touch and hear the novel I want to write, but I don’t yet know how to do it. So as I read, I am “taking notes” with that part of my brain that learns by a kind of osmosis, immersing myself in the element I want to learn to navigate. And if all that comes of this voracious and exploratory reading is a year of being nurtured by wonderful books, so be it.
First, before all else, how I’ve started my reading year for the last decade: every January, I reread T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets. The poem is as close to liturgy as poetry can get, and each time I read it, it surprises me: I’m taken once again on many journeys, through mythic landscapes, phrases open up, passages stir the mystery in me again. In the midst of celebrating the beginning of a new chapter of chronological time, I’m reminded of the timeless. I can hear myself struggling to describe why I feel compelled to reread this poem at the start of every year. Let’s just say that rereading Four Quartets is how I ritually kick off my reading year.
While we are in the realm of reading that opens up space for the spirit, I’ve been reading a lot of spiritual guides and memoirs in the last few years. (Favorite writers include John Main, Laurence Freeman, Thomas Merton, Martin Laird, Jacob Needleman.) My great find this year is a little book by David Whyte, Consolations, meditations on certain words which Whyte peels open, layer after layer, in search of core truths to be found there. For someone who has spent her life using writing as her “string through the labyrinth,” looking to words to light my way is nothing new, and Whyte’s book lit up touchstone words in surprising ways. Among my favorite entries are “Ambition” (“…left to itself always becomes tedious, its only object the creation of larger and larger empires of control; but a true vocation calls us beyond ourselves; breaks our heart in the process and then humbles, simplifies, and enlightens us about the hidden, core nature of the work that enticed us in the first place”); “Longing” (“…beckons us exactly because of the human need to invite the right kind of peril”); “Maturity” — which, at 65, I hope to reach soon (“is the ability to live fully and equally in multiple contexts, most especially, the ability, despite our grief and losses, to courageously inhabit the past, the present, the future, all at once”); “Solace” (“How will you shape a life equal to and as beautiful and as astonishing as a world that can birth you, bring you into the light and then, just as you are beginning to understand it, take you away?”).
My favorite nonfiction book of 2015 was Philip Roth’s memoir, Patrimony, about the his father’s final illness and death. I’ll admit that I know Roth’s work mostly through film adaptations of his novels. From those films, many of which I liked, I got the impression that Philip Roth was a master of the great American Male Novel. I’m not all that excited about spending reading time following the exploits of some guy who is looking to get screwed, make money, gain power, etc. An unfair bias, it turned out to be, in this instance. I loved this lucid and accurate look at the complex feelings and quandaries that arise from helping our parents at the end of their lives. Now I want to go back and give those Roth novels I know only through their movie versions a chance. I’d hate to miss the company of a fine writer out of a knee-jerk bias that might need to be revised, or at least ascertained, first hand.
Poetry is my first love, and I always start the day by reading a few poems. (I guess I do create ceremonies with reading time.) My favorite poetry books this year were Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wisława Szymborska, the Polish 1996 Nobel Prize winner in literature, a sly and clever poet with a vivid, incisive moral imagination. I also am a huge fan of Kate Daniels, a contemporary Southern poet who combines both lyricism and a talent for narrative. This year, I reread my favorite of her books, A Walk in Victoria’s Secret, poems that gorgeously document a variety of experiences of being inside a woman’s body. One more poetry book that you will have to wait until 2016 is Jay Parini’s New and Collected Poems, due out next March. Jay asked me to blurb the book, something I do not like to do: blurb books by friends. (Forgive me, readers, if I inject this additional commentary: but blurbing is a practice I think you should all rise up and beg to be discontinued as the blurber is more often than not reading in a compromised way, at least I’ve found it to be so, usually out of loyalty to a writer friend, or a colleague who is up for tenure, or a respected editor who needs to round up a chorus, or a friend of a friend who asks for the favor, or a relative who will be sitting across from you at the family Thanksgiving table.) But I said yes to Jay because I’ve always loved his poetry above all else he has written — and he has written a lot. And I swear that the poems in this collection are as good as I proclaim them to be in my blurb, particularly the newest poems, which have a depth and earned wisdom and simplicity and lyricism that confirm my estimation that Jay is first and foremost a remarkable poet.
Okay, let’s get to the favorite novels of 2015. This is where my reading was most demanding, because I was in search of books that accomplished what I wanted to be doing with my writing, not necessarily the same kind of writing, but writing that surprises me, novels that take me places I haven’t gone before in a novel, novels that are infused with the same charged language and incantatory rhythms of the best poetry. I’m especially enamored of short poetical novels, maybe because of the same reason I find Kate Daniels’s poetry so intriguing: I like those hybrids that combine two genres I’ve been immersed in most of my writing life: fiction and poetry.
Three favorite novels: Teju Cole’s Open City, narrated by a Nigerian immigrant and graduate student studying in New York City, a lyrical ramble through his thoughts, impressions, memories as he wanders through the city, encounters friends, muses on strangers, situations. While reading it, I was caught in the currents of his language and rhythms and perceptions, which all affected the way I moved through my own world. Not a traditional novel, for sure, but absorbing and so intelligent and seamless in the way it moves. Another favorite this year was Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, another short, unusual novel, very different, more staccato in its rhythms but as original in its perception. Written in journal form as posts from the embattled frontiers of a relationship by a very smart, funny, slightly spacey lover/wife/betrayed wife/new mother. The writing is spare — not an extra ounce here! Offill packs so much in these short entries. A whole relationship deconstructed and reconstructed in less than 200 pages. How did she do it? I’m still “taking notes.”
But my favorite of the three has to be Ransom by David Malouf, an Australian novelist whose work I had never read before. It was recommended to me by my aunt who described it as a novel about The Iliad characters, Achilles and Priam. I thought, oh no, been there, read that (college courses, undergraduate courses; later, courses I taught where the curriculum was mandated by the old guard). But as with Philip Roth’s Patrimony, was I ever wrong about this novel, which does spring from an incident in The Iliad, but unpacks it and creates a space of grace and transcendence in all that blood and gore, which is what I mostly recall about reading and teaching the classic epic. The novel is a short, lyrical evocation of an encounter between two grieving heroes. (Achilles has lost his friend Patroclus to the Trojan war, and Priam his son, Hector.) A convincing breakthrough happens in the midst of violence, elucidating a moment in The Iliad that I hadn’t ever thought about much and probably missed by blinking when it was passing. (Or more likely, by covering my eyes, metaphorically, fed up with all the killing and violence.) When I closed Malouf’s novel, I did what I find myself doing when I am deeply moved and transformed by a book, I opened it again, and immediately began rereading it.
Would that we could do in the world what a book like this does in the imagination: create such baffling complex beauty that we are believers again in our power to infuse the world with more sweetness, more light.
In keeping with my opening ritual, I’ll close the reading year by saying, Amen to that.
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During the summer of 2014, a snake terrorized residents and visitors of Lake Hopatcong, the largest lake in New Jersey. A breathless report from CBS New York claimed the snake was a 20-foot boa constrictor, and quoted the local animal control officer’s warning: “What we’re afraid of is the animals, small dogs, cats, raccoons — and I would advise people not to put their baby in the lake.” As if he were warning campers in a low-budget horror film from the ’70s, the officer continued: “You don’t want to touch it. You don’t want to go towards it. You don’t want to threaten it. It’s not going to come at a person unless it’s threatened, cornered, caught — then, it will squeeze you to death.”
A spokesman for the state Department of Environmental Protection was more realistic: “There’s no evidence at all, any scientific evidence, of such a creature.” But I wanted to believe. I told my wife about the snake. We live near the lake. Sussex County is a collection of lakes, rivers, and state land: the Vermont of the metropolitan area. My family used to own a restaurant on Lake Hopatcong’s Bertrand Island, home to an amusement park until the early 1980s. We should go see the snake, I said. My wife rolled her eyes, and looked at our twin daughters, still infants. We weren’t going anywhere.
Greg Watry went to the lake; he covered the search for The New Jersey Herald, the local paper. Watry told me that a snake expert had “claimed the snake swam through his legs, avoiding capture.” The expert said it was an anaconda. Watry said the snake even inspired a parody Twitter account, @HopatcongBoa, the anonymous owner of which never broke character during an interview.
Unamused local officials claimed the attention was affecting summer tourism. The search was abandoned, but not before the phantom snake reached national news. David Letterman included the creature in his opening monologue, quipping “I am certain that this snake is the only one that wasn’t involved in the bridge closing,” referring to a September 2013 scheme to close Fort Lee access lanes on the George Washington Bridge. The closing created a traffic nightmare in an area used to daily slogs. Later dubbed “Bridgegate,” the plan was hatched by David Wildstein, director of interstate capital projects for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. The position was created specifically for Wildstein, who was appointed by Christopher J. Christie, the governor of New Jersey.
I know the joke: all politicians are snakes. That doesn’t quite apply here. Chris Christie isn’t a snake. He’s a chimera.
I can’t say that I loved my summer job for the Morris County Department of Elections, but it was a formative experience. I first registered as a Republican because everyone was a Republican in Morris County, N.J. Even the Democrats. Daily office visits from politicians — replete with handshakes, laughs, pats on the back, and promises — changed my naive view of politics. Americans lament the partisan politics of Republicans versus the Democrats, but my summer working in the election office taught me it is actually the politicians versus the citizens. The politicians almost always won.
The year before I worked there, the election office had an infamous visitor. Documentarian and gadfly Michael Moore had tried to run a ficus for New Jersey’s 11th congressional district. Unfortunately, the tree was not a registered voter, and could not be listed on the ballot.
Some say Florida is the strangest state in the union, but New Jersey is the weirdest. From Weird NJ magazine to Double Trouble State Park to the Jersey Devil, the Garden State is an amalgamation of the odd, the exaggerated, and the incomprehensible. I say this with love. Yet New Jersey’s labyrinthine highways and shadowing from Philadelphia and New York City have created a geographical and cultural experiment. New Jersey is a state of wealth adjacent to poverty, of manicured suburbs near pockmarked urban streets — both close to swamp-bordered industrial plants. A hybrid state, New Jersey is the perfect breeding ground for a chimera.
“The Word in the desert / Is most attacked by voices of temptation, / The crying shadow in the funeral dance, / The loud lament of the disconsolate chimera.” So ends a stanza of T.S. Eliot’s long poem, “The Four Quartets.” Homer’s Chimera in The Iliad was the first written incarnation of the beast. Samuel Butler translates this “savage monster…who was not a human being, but a goddess, for she had the head of a lion and the tail of a serpent, while her body was that of a goat, and she breathed forth flames of fire.” The original Chimera scourged the Lycians until it was killed by Bellerophon. Chimeras are impossibilities made real. Rather than bellowing about beasts, we now use the word chimera to describe duplicities. Illusions.
These illusions are appropriate for the Garden State. In an essay for The Millions, fellow staff writer Bill Morris wonders about The New Jersey Novel. He writes: “New Jersey’s lack of defining character traits — its facelessness, its rootlessness, its lukewarmness — make it an ideal portal to get inside the soul of a nation that becomes more faceless, rootless and generic — more soulless — by the day, a nation where regional signifiers have been sanded smooth by interstate highways, franchise restaurants, big box stores, shopping malls, subdivisions, all the strangling, interchangeable links of the corporate chains. In contemporary America, anomie is a moveable feast, and its template was exported from New Jersey.”
Morris references “To See Ourselves as Writers See Us,” Bruce Weber’s consideration of the literary state of the state for The New York Times. Writing in 1995, Weber notes a literary evolution in New Jersey. A place that “never had much resonance” in comparison to the literary West and South had found its day: “The rootlessness of contemporary life may well have its roots here.” Weber quotes Rutgers University professor Michael Aaron Rockland’s perception: “My whole notion of New Jersey is that we live in a never-never land, where we pretend we’re living on a farm. The real centers of New Jersey are these office parks in the middle of nowhere. Life is not bad in New Jersey, not bad at all, but what every writer writes about is our trying to find a center in our lives.” Writer Gary Krist, a native of Fort Lee, said New Jersey “was like the rest of the world, except it had New York right there to give it an inferiority complex.”
New Jersey sounds ripe for drama and bickering, which is exactly what transpired between Chris Christie and David Wildstein. When Wildstein’s lawyer claimed that evidence existed to link Christie and the Bridgegate lane closures, Christie’s office released an email to family and friends, with a litany of claims “As a 16-year-old kid, [Wildstein] sued over a local school board election…He was publicly accused by his high school social studies teacher of deceptive behavior…He had a controversial tenure as Mayor of Livingston…He was an anonymous blogger known as Wally Edge…He had a strange habit of registering web addresses for other people’s names without telling them.”
Christie’s missive cites a Bergen Record article by reporter Shawn Boburg for evidence of Wildstein’s “tumultuous” nature. Boburg’s prophetic 2012 article, published a year before Bridgegate, actually paints Wildstein and Christie as confidants rather than combatants. Citing “longtime employees” of the Port Authority, Boburg claims that Wildstein was handpicked as the “perfect instrument to help shake things up” at the agency. Not simply an obscure blogger, Wildstein was smart, witty, and possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of New Jersey’s convoluted political history.
Boburg’s sources explain that Wildstein “seems to serve as the administration’s eyes and ears within the byzantine agency.” He is described as “intimidating, hardworking, intelligent, private and fiercely loyal to the governor.” Wildstein has since pleaded guilty to his involvement in Bridgegate, and has agreed to testify against two now-indicted Christie insiders, Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly. U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman’s indictment is fascinating: the bridge access lanes were closed to punish Mark Sokolich, the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee, who had refused to endorse Christie for re-election. The lane closures and traffic congestion were purposefully planned for the first day of school. In a state desensitized to corruption and political revenge, this was unique: in order to punish a politician, Christie’s insiders punished citizens.
Governor Christie himself has not been indicted in relation to Bridgegate. He continues to claim innocence, even demanding that the press apologize to him — the same way he once said The Wall Street Journal would apologize to the now federally-implicated Wildstein and Baroni. In a December 2013 press conference, Christie quipped that he “worked the cones” during the lane closures; “I was actually the guy out there, in overalls and a hat.” When the traffic study was revealed to be a sham, Christie visited Fort Lee to personally apologize to the mayor. Matt Katz, who has been covering Christie for the past five years, and whose biography of the governor is forthcoming, has raised questions about Christie’s evolving claims about his knowledge of the lane closures. A native of the Bronx, Katz is a Christie sage; his fierce objectivity and respect for the governor’s political acumen make his observations all the more damning.
After Bridgegate first made news, Christie commissioned an internal investigation, led by noted New Jersey attorney Randy Mastro. Mastro’s law firm has billed the state’s taxpayers nearly $8 million. Christie has been claiming that the Mastro Report cleared him of any wrongdoing, but Katz is skeptical. He explains that although Mastro’s team conducted “hundreds of interviews” as part of the report, no transcripts or recordings have been released. Only a U.S. District Court judge’s ruling has forced the law firm to make those notes available as part of Baroni and Kelly’s federal trial. The investigation has become an illusion of an illusion: another performance.
The Daily Beast’s Olivia Nuzzi is by turns hilarious and prescient when writing about Christie. Unlike national reporters who fawn over Christie’s storytelling ability, Nuzzi skewers his claims. She knows Christie’s history. One example: during his 1994 run for freeholder in Morris County, Christie claimed his opponents were being investigated by the prosecutor’s office. During the television ad, Christie, seated next to his wife and infant son, says “I propose a strict code of ethical conduct for all elected officials.” His claim was a lie. He lost a defamation lawsuit, and his apology ran in a local newspaper.
Yet Nuzzi and Katz are only joined by a handful of other local reporters in their diligence. Chris Christie owns the state media. The Star Ledger, the largest newspaper in the state, endorsed Christie for governor twice. A left-leaning paper that shares Christie’s animus toward public-sector unions, The Star Ledger rescinded its second endorsement and has since gone on the offensive, calling Christie a “liar,” but the damage has been done. Christie doesn’t need New Jersey anymore. The Garden State’s media has given this chimera the light and attention needed for his next political metamorphosis.
Slate’s John Dickerson has called Chris Christie a “performance artist,” but that title is a misnomer. The practical end of performance art is an extension of theater into the spheres of life; whether they practice stillness or subversion, performance artists do not use their art for mere service. Chris Christie is a politician. He is the prototypical politician. He wants to win. His every move and utterance is finely calibrated. His outbursts — telling a Hurricane Sandy activist to “sit down and shut up” or calling a former Navy SEAL an “idiot” — are not the slip-ups of an amateur; they are the myth-making of an intelligent, ambitious man.
Myths are necessary when reality is troubling. Only a chimera like Christie could run for president on his record. Standard & Poor’s, Moody’s, and Fitch — the three major credit rating forms — have, together, downgraded the state’s bond rating nine times during Christie’s tenure. Christie’s 2011 sweeping and signature reform of public worker health care and pension contributions was supposed to show his talent for bipartisan compromise, as well as his ability to break the backs of unions. While public workers increased their financial contributions, Christie’s lawyers recently argued that his own touchstone legislation, including the state’s pension funding, was unconstitutional. The state’s transportation fund is anemic. Christie’s presidential aspirations have caused him to be out of the state for nearly 40 percent of his second term — that absence has riled taxpayers, who have to foot the bill for his extensive security detail of state troopers. Not to mention his administration’s paltry settlement with Exxon Mobil over contamination at the company’s Bayway and Bayonne refineries.
While Lake Hopatcong visitors were afraid that a snake would eat their pets, Chris Christie traveled the state on a new round of town halls. Imagine a garrulous boxer in the round, with a microphone and adoring fans (Christie tends to hold town halls in areas that lean heavily Republican). As an actor, this is Christie’s element. Behind him: a banner that reads THE JERSEY COMEBACK HAS BEGUN. Taxpayers grimaced. The snake laughed.
Dave Powell writes that despite our initial impression of chimeras as violent beasts, they “are commonly rendered as vulnerable: depicted in either playful or serene poses, in a state of dying or suffering defeat, or as simply nonaggressive.” The chimeras of ancient Egyptian art were, of course, strange, but not threatening. The presence of chimeric danger began with Greek depictions. Powell documents an interesting shift: contemporary chimeras are something else entirely. Thomas Grunfeld’s “Misfit (doberman/calf” shocked Powell: “it is not just that the (life-sized) sculpture is constructed from real hide and fur, but also that it is set in a subtly naturalistic, relaxed pose.” In order to understand this odd union of fear and sympathy, Powell calls upon Masahiro Mori’s “uncanny valley” theories. Our emotional reaction to an entity that resembles a human peaks “shortly before one reaches a completely human ‘look’…but then a deep chasm plunges below neutrality into a strongly negative response before rebounding to a second peak where resemblance to humanity is complete.”
This melancholic strand to chimeric tales is captured well in “Chimera” by Karen Glenn. The narrator takes “rural roads deep into Nevada” to find a scientist’s creation: a sheep with a human heart. The narrator should recoil, but she can’t. She watches the sheep walk to her creator: “It’s something we all know— / how the heart keeps wanting, wanting / the unnameable, the impossible, yearning in the dark / like a sheep at night in a cold barn.”
Chris Christie’s emotional modulations have been described as operatic. He tells moving stories about the passing of his mother, his high-school years, his experiences as a prosecutor. Christie’s talent has never been a knack for policy; his gifts are of the thespian variety. His twists of truth are somehow endearing — until one feels the knife plunge into skin. Watch Christie during a one-on-one interview — his curious manner of focused but not unnerving eye contact and subsequent exhale before responses — and for a combative man, he seems rather vulnerable. Human. He is less the man you want to have a beer with, and more a man that you might confide in — until you see him jumping up and down in a luxury box with the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, or saying the teachers’ union uses students “like drug mules.” It could be argued that Christie’s emotional pivots are patently Sicilian, but they are absolutely New Jersey.
In the end, what do we want from our politicians? Who among us believes that we are not being lied to? When it comes to politicians behaving oddly, Christie is the rule rather than the exception. I am fascinated by how people criticize Christie’s treatment of the media and then praise Hillary Clinton, whose evasion of reporters includes her quite literal roping of the media at recent events.
I have long since discarded any political affiliation. I am an equal-opportunity skeptic. While it might seem that we are surrounded with politicians, citizens remain legion. It is in the people I believe. “Renewal becomes impossible,” James Baldwin reminds, “if one supposes things to be constant that are not — safety, for example, or money or power. One clings then to chimeras, by which one can only be betrayed, and the entire hope — the entire possibility — of freedom disappears.” Yet we return to the polls, the homes of these chimeras, for where else can we go? Although rare, the truly talented chimeras convince us anew. It is as when W.B. Yeats considers tragic theater: “into the places we have left empty we summon rhythm, balance, pattern, images that remind us of vast passions, the vagueness of past times, all the chimeras that haunt the edge of trance.”
As a public, we accept that we are lied to, but we need that lie to be sung — we want a narrative that we can hum. Chris Christie will likely not become the Republican nominee for president — conservatives neither trust nor like him — but his time in public office is a study in the power of the chimera. “Disbelief has eyes of different colors,” writes Bruce Bond in his own “Chimera” poem. In the political world of smoke, mirrors, and forced smiles, the chimera of Chris Christie is unique. His narrative, his performances, are an amalgamation of parts and poses — but if we look closely enough, we can see the ruptures between skin and soul, fiction and truth: “So dark, this ink, this emptiness between.”
Image Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore.
In Francine Prose’s introduction to BOMB: The Author Interviews, a collection of 35 interviews spanning 30 years, she repeats the word “conversation.” “Interview” suggests an uneven exchange, but “conversation” implies interaction between participants. Whether interview or conversation, the idea that two writers would sit and talk shop, and allow us to listen, is enticing.
The art of literary conversation, by whatever name, is certainly not new. Hannah Rosefield opened her review of John Freeman’s How to Read a Novelist to a larger discussion of our cultural obsession with the interview as a way to look behind the authorial mask. Rosefield is dismissive of Freeman’s collection of 55 profiles of novelists, calling them “weirdly artificial…as if the writer is sitting alone in a restaurant or, sometimes, in her glamorous apartment, addressing occasional comments to the atmosphere.” Literary hero worship.
Rosefield isn’t enthralled with interviews as a whole, but her discussion is insightful. Many contemporary writers are known for their disinterest in the form — ranging from the prolific and visible Joyce Carol Oates to the prolific and invisible Thomas Pynchon — but she traces the displeasure back to Henry James, who gave his first interview in 1904, nearly 30 years after he published his first novel.
The magazine that has become synonymous with interviews is The Paris Review, which, as Rosefield notes, published a long interview with E.M. Forster in their first issue, Spring 1953. John Rodden, author of Performing the Literary Interview: How Writers Craft Their Public Selves, the first book-length examination of the literary interview genre, thinks George Plimpton “virtually invented” the literary interview as a genre for the “little magazine.” The magazine’s “Paris editorial office on the legendary Left Bank and [Plimpton’s] talented group of young expatriate co-editors gave the magazine cachet with both the American literary intelligentsia and with European writers.” Plimpton “became the bridge figure linking the ‘highbrow’ French and the journalistic or ‘Hollywoodized’ American interview traditions.” In practical terms, the form was perfect and inexpensive (free) for an ambitious little magazine. For authors, interviews were faster and easier to complete than original essays. Plimpton didn’t care much for capturing unrehearsed moments. He “was the first editor to work on revision after revision of an interview, making it into a sculpted artwork.”
Only an unrealistic purist would scoff at such editing. Rodden considers interviews performance art, simply another, very public genre for writers to play within. He offers a useful, provisional taxonomy of five interview types. Traditionalists “put their work in the foreground.” Their interviews are plain, direct, and marked by “self-effacement.” They “eschew all inquires into their private lives, and sometimes even questions about the relation between their lives and their work.” In contrast, raconteurs are storytellers who thrive on anecdotes, digressions, and asides: “traditionalists downplay their personalities, however, raconteurs display them.” They are performers. (Plimpton was pure raconteur).
Advertisers are self-promoters who “exploit interviews…to make their personae into objects of interest and contention equal to or greater than their work.” Provocateurs manipulate the form even further by defying the conventions of typical exchanges. Finally, prevaricators are liars, whose contradictory selves muddle any sense of their conversational words holding worth beyond artistic performances.
Whereas the collected interviews from The Paris Review lean heavily on the single author as authority, the pieces in BOMB: The Author Interviews are entirely different beasts. Francine Prose is correct that these are conversations, and they become quite fluid. I do not think it is reductive to agree with Rosefield that interviews are written for writers; in fact, I think interviews are more useful to writers than craft essays or lectures that are chiseled toward theses: “What people really want to know is what it is that the writer does that enables her to transform ordinary words — the same ones non-writers use all day, every day — into art.”
In that way, writer interviews serve a strangely utilitarian purpose. They open the writer. They disarm her. The BOMB interviews evolve into meditations on art and action. “Inspire” might be a thin word in our cynical literary present, but dare I say that reading these conversations made me want to handwrite excerpts on index cards and lean them against books on my shelves. Rather than dismiss interviews for their performative components, I am more drawn to them as literary duets. A great interview as conversation reaches the sentiment Wallace Stevens dramatized in “Of Modern Poetry,” that moment when a poem performs for an “an invisible audience [that] listens, / Not to the play, but to itself, expressed / In an emotion as of two people, as of two / Emotions becoming one.” The conversations in BOMB: The Author Interviews are like “metaphysician[s] in the dark,” stripped of introductory context or description of body language. There are only words.
Here are snapshots of some of my favorite exchanges from this worthwhile anthology.
Patrick McGrath and Martin Amis
McGrath: Do you see [literature] decaying alongside everything else?
Amis: Literature? No. I mean, they say the novel is dead. Well, try and stop people writing novels. Or poems. There’s no stopping people. I suppose it’s conceivable that no one will know how to spell in 50 years’ time, but not while the books are still there. You don’t need a structure. The autodidact is omnipresent in fiction.
Roberto Bolaño and Carmen Boullosa
Boullosa: Women writers are constantly annoyed by this question, but I can’t help inflicting it on you — if only because after being asked it so many times, I regard it as an inevitable, though unpleasant ritual: How much autobiographical material is there in your work? To what extent is it a self-portrait?
Bolaño: A self-portrait? Not much. A self-portrait requires a certain kind of ego, a willingness to look at yourself over and over again, a manifest interest in what you are or have been. Literature is full of autobiographies, some very good, but self-portraits tend to be very bad, including self-portraits in poetry, which at first would seem to be a more suitable genre for self-portraiture than prose. Is my work autobiographical? In a sense, how could it not be? Every work, including the epic, is in some way autobiographical. In The Iliad we consider the destiny of two alliances, of a city, of two armies, but we also consider the destiny of Achilles and Priam and Hector, and all these characters, these individual voices, reflect the voice, the solitude, of the author.
Dennis Cooper and Benjamin Weissman
Weissman: How do you find the language for your books? Everything echoes everything else in a particular way. You’re able to make the most intense things happen in a single, seemingly nondescript sentence.
Cooper: It’s a combination of things. The writing has a very strong rhythm. It seems half of what I do is maintain rhythms and fuck with them. I choose words partially based on syllable count and on sound. You don’t notice all this reading it necessarily, but it’s structured like music. Every sentence length, the way it moves, sounds…it’s all calculated to create an effect. In Try, I was working with a hyper-real version of how I talk or the way inarticulate Californian kids speak. The way you might start to say something clearly then wander, confused, and you’ll stall, then you’ll take it back and rush forward in a different direction, then step back, and try to sum up your thought…all that movement is so beautiful. I try to mimic that a lot, make it recognizable, but brewing it up with a kind of poetry.
Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat
Danticat: I think most folks would want me to ask you, those of us who’ve been waiting with bated breath for this book: What the heck took you so long?
Díaz: What, really, can one say? I’m a slow writer. Which is bad enough but given that I’m in a world where it’s considered abnormal if a writer doesn’t produce a book every year or two — it makes me look even worse. Ultimately the novel wouldn’t have it any other way. This book wanted x number of years out of my life. Perhaps I could have written a book in a shorter time but it wouldn’t have been this book and this was the book I wanted to write. Other reasons? I’m a crazy perfectionist. I suffer from crippling bouts of depression. I write two score pages for every one I keep. I hear this question and want to laugh and cry because there’s no answer. What I always want to ask other writers (and what I’ll ask you) is how can you write about something so soon after it’s happened? What’s to be gained by writing about something — say, the death of a father and uncle, as you do in your new book, Brother, I’m Dying — when the moment is close?
Jeffrey Eugenides and Jonathan Safran Foer
Safran Foer: What wouldn’t you sacrifice for your writing?
Eugenides: I used to be scared of that line from Yeats, “perfection of the life or of the work.” I thought I’d never be able to make that choice, that I wasn’t disciplined enough, or committed enough. It sounded so painfully ascetic. But now I find that my work pretty much is my life. I don’t think I could operate without it. The lucky thing is that writing has only made me sacrifice things I can get along without: a frisky social life, a manly feeling of being “out in the world,” office gossip, teammates. You can be married and write. You can have a family and write. So you do have a life, after all. It’s waiting for you just outside your studio.
Brian Evenson and Blake Butler
Butler: Do you feel haunted by the things you delete?
Evenson: It’s starting to sound like that. I mean, all these possibilities of fiction accumulate. One way that a lot of my stories start is from reading something and seeing it go in one direction and thinking, Hey, I could take this in another direction. In fact, “The Second Boy” originated with a passage from Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives in which a boy falls down “a shaft or pit or chasm up the mountain.” The ambiguity of that phrasing opened something up for me. A lot of my stories come from the path that another story could have taken but didn’t take. They attempt to animate these moments that could have existed but didn’t.
Rachel Kushner and Hari Kunzru
Kushner: The polemical work is not a work of art; it’s something lower. It doesn’t transcend its objective to influence and explain.
Kunzru: It’s instrumentalized writing.
Kushner: Precisely. The novel ideally is not reducible to the political. It’s a journey toward meaning that transcends the frame of politics. Blood Meridian — just to think of a great novel that traverses the political — is not simply a book about the violent policies of the American government paying out for scalps on the Western frontier. It takes up subject matter that is inescapably political, but it builds of systemic violence a work that comes to rest only in the territory of art, where the thing built is so elegant and strange that it cannot be justified or even really explained.
Kunzru: I always get muddled between intention and effect. The author’s intention is never visible in a text — we know this as good poststructuralists. Also, we can read anything politically; we can read things that are silent about political issues against the grain. Maybe engagé is a useful word. I think the novel has to hold things open rather than close things down or collapse things onto a single polemic point of view.
Eldridge: Which brings me to teaching. Where do you begin with your graduate students at Columbia? What do you say on the first day?
Marcus: I try to stress how important it is, when you’re asking for the attention of a reader, that you’re doing the most intense, interesting, compelling, fascinating thing that you could possibly do. I focus on getting writers to recognize when they become bored while reading other people and why. And then why they might allow themselves that boredom when they’re writing. Students want to give themselves permission that as readers they won’t give to another writer. Graduate students in fiction are some of the least forgiving readers I have ever met. They tend to be very critical of almost everything.
Sharon Olds and Amy Hempel
Hempel: You also said one purpose of a poem is to cause another poem to be written. Does that work for you and for somebody reading your work?
Olds: I would think so. I often write poems after I’ve read poems. What I was thinking was that if you have a story all ready to be written and you don’t write it, maybe the next one won’t come down the chute. Was it Bill Matthews who said that we need to write our bad poems, because if we don’t write them, how will we get to the next one, which might be a good one? But of course, what you say is also true, that we inspire each other.
Tobias Wolff and A.M. Homes
Homes: How do you know when you’re finished with a story?
Wolff: When everything necessary is done, and I feel as if even another word would be superfluous — would, in a manner of speaking, break the camel’s back. That sense of completion comes about in different ways, and plot is only the most obvious of them. You should feel, when you’ve finished a story, that it has achieved a life independent of yours, that it has somehow gathered up the golden chain that connected you. This feeling is not always reliable. I often go back and revise endings that I was pretty sure about when I set the last period to the page. In writing, of course, everything is subject to revision. But I am guided, however roughly, by inexplicable instincts like the one I have just attempted to describe.
Sometimes subject matter is secondary. John McPhee, for example, can write about long-haul trucking or lacrosse, subjects I’ve got no interest in, and I’ll read each word and marvel at how he’s able to make the topics so compelling, rich, and human. Kerry Howley’s subject matter, in her potent and consuming debut Thrown, falls into the same disinterest bin as trucking and lax, but she brings such vigor and aliveness, such seductive use of detail and tension, that it’s impossible not to lose oneself in the bloody, funny, brutal, balletic world of mixed martial arts. In other words, I don’t care about cage fighting, ultimate fighting, MMA; Kerry Howley made me care.
Bored and disillusioned at an academic conference on phenomenology, Howley, an essayist who’s written for the Paris Review, the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic, and a graduate of the University of Iowa’s non-fiction program, wanders off for a break from the blowhards. She happens upon a sign that announces the Midwest Cage Championship, and takes a seat in the crowd. She’d never seen a fight before, and is taken in immediately, the blood and spectacle in righteous opposition to the chatter about Husserlian intentionality she’d just fled and academic ivory-towerdom in general. “It was as if someone had oil-slicked my synapses,” she writes, “such that thoughts could whip and whistle their way across the mind without the friction I’d come to experience as thought itself.” This first fight, witnessed by accident, is a path-changer, and Thrown is the account of Howley inserting herself into the lives of two cage fighters. Sean is an aging jab-eater, a fighter looking at his last chances who moves “like a fat man on hot coals”; Erik is a rising star, tall and lean, “a slippery-fast blossoming prodigy.” Howley gains her place as a “spacetaker,” a step up from a groupie, part of a fighter’s inner posse, with access to most aspects of their living, from the size of their burritos and videogame habits to fraternal feuds, possible parenthood, forehead sutures, and months and months of training for minutes of combat in the octagon.
She gets close to Sean and Erik both and masterfully builds tension in the lead-ups to fights–not only will they or won’t they or how well will they do, but will she still be welcomed into the fray. Howley is aware of the fragility of her role, how tenuous the position of spacetaker is–a trusted member of the group can be snubbed at any moment. It’s necessarily a physical book, and there’s sex between some lines: “I lay in bed at night picturing Erik thrown back in the swell, all his perfect plenitude, the pressure of his abundance, the way it would overbrim its boundaries at some unknown date and time. I could only wait, the energy all gathered and damned up in my limbs, for the moment of release I knew to be coming.” These fights for her are orgasm, are ecstasy.
What Howley finds during the first fight she stumbles on, and what she chases afterwards is exactly that experience of ecstasy, and she places the sport, and herself as a spectator, in a long tradition of ecstatic spectacle. The Lotus Eaters, the frenzied maenads, spirit questers on peyote. To experience this sort of ecstasy is to be removed from oneself, to be stripped of the body’s tired reminders of hunger, thirst, need. “The categories of sight and sound no longer applied,” Howley writes, “for a mind in the throes of ecstasy had expanded outward, beyond these rough tools of perception, to greet the universe without the interference of anything so frail as an eye or an ear.”
So it’s not just the drama of busted elbows, landed punches, and split brows, though Howley’s descriptions of bodies in fight are memorable; something much greater is at stake. There’s epic poetry in the cadence of her sentences, a Homeric sort of rhythm: “When the man in charge ran out of fighters he’d ask the fighters to fight again, and Sean always said yes. He never lost an amateur fight, not once. Thirty times he fought this way.” Howley signals with the elevated language, and with references to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, that what we’re dealing with here is not just two dudes kicking the shit out of each other on a mat, but something on the level of war and wandering of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and perhaps even more elevated than that.
It’s a brushing up against the eternal, the infinite, and it’s antithetical to paying bills on time, desk jobs, and high fiber cereal. One of the most striking aspects of the book, and one I found most compelling, is Howley’s disdain for conventional middle-class life. I suspect some will find it offputting when she writes: “I would not fraternize with the healthy-minded; better to leave them to their prenatal yoga, their gluten-free diets, their dull if long lives of quietest self-preserving conformism.” Or “Should I ever decide to spawn a nuclear family and enjoy their dull companionship between bouts of desk-ridden drudgery–to live, that is, in what Sartre called “Bad Faith–I shall return with all due haste to [my hometown]. But until then, I resist the temptation, lest the comfort and simplicity of a conformist life suck me back into its maw.” The fights and her fighters serve as antidote to the “entangling mundanities of the ordinary world.” There’s an electricity here, a welcome and unexpected fervency in opposition to the widespread messages we get regarding rest, weddings, carbohydrates.
We’re all of us looking for people to justify and reinforce our own choices (which is why some no doubt will feel scoffed at by Howley), and she justifies hers with a quote from Nietzsche: “A preference for questionable and terrifying things is a symptom of strength.” One’s left wondering what pulls Howley in those directions. Early in the book, she makes short and offhand mention of a fact about her parents which I had to read three times to make sure I understood, and it raised questions the answers to which could only be guessed at. What we know: Howley seeks to flee the self and the battles serve as an expressway to that end. But if fighting is a fleeing, so is storytelling: “All narrators are fiction,” Howley writes.
The book is about fighting, yes, about an extreme sport and some of the men involved, who maybe aren’t, after all, Odysseus or Hector, but possessing of a more earthbound sort of humanity and heroism. It’s about the the strong pull of home, the powerful binds of blood, and the press, everpresent, of time. In what we seek, Howley shows us what we fear. We flee ourselves–in fights, in sex, in the light hitting the trees in the late afternoon, in the bottom of a third glass of wine–to find something else, to escape time and entangling mundanities, in an effort, ultimately, to avoid the experience of being alone.
If the language of the pictorial arts is firmly lodged in descriptions of the narrative process — writers sketch out, paint, depict, trace, draw, color, outline — then the pictorial arts, in turn, seem to cry out for narrative, however doomed language ultimately is in its attempt to reproduce the particular alchemy of oil on canvas.
Among the most famous instances of narrative descriptions of art, or ekphrasia, are Homer’s description of Achilles’s shield in The Iliad, Rabelais’s characteristically bawdy, violent description of a mosaic depicting the god Bacchus rampaging through India, Auden’s consideration of the old masters, Wilde’s figurative and literal portrait of immorality and Robert Browning’s “My Last Duchess,” in which the Duke of Ferrara unveils the portrait of his unfortunate last duchess, she who was doomed by a blush:
Sir, ‘twas not
Her husband’s presence only, called that spot
Of joy into the Duchess’ cheek…
explains the jealous duke of his wife’s undiscriminating tendencies. A few dabs of red paint is all it takes to unloose the whole vengeful, deranged story, which makes the poem particularly illustrative of the ekphrastic urge to narrate, analyze, or recreate a given painting in another medium.
Sometimes this urge is so strong that it can compel an essay from even a half-remembered viewing. In his short piece on “Turner and Memory,” Geoff Dyer produces a typically sharp rumination on a particularly hazy Turner painting, <“Figures in a Building.” But as he admits at the outset: “I’m not entirely sure that this is the picture I am writing about.” What he does remember about the unfinished painting, an underground scene of darkness save for a revelatory “core of molten light” mysteriously radiating from some distant passageway, is precisely “the refusal of certain artworks to be reduced to memory.” Aesthetic rapture is experienced here as a half-remembered dream.
The same sense of thrilling uncertainty appears in another extraordinary and sui generis work of ekphrasis: Pierre Michon’s The Life of Joseph Roulin. “What can be done with him?” asks Michon in his novelized study of the postman with a “sultan’s beard” immortalized in several portraits by Van Gogh. And yet after reading a few pages of his luminous novella about Roulin’s portraits, a better question is “What can’t be done with him?”
Considering the contradictory renderings of the man Van Gogh drank with and painted in Arles, Michon confesses at the outset that Roulin is “a character of little help when one is foolish enough to write about painting.” Reservations aside, Michon soon launches into an ecstatic, incisive foolishness, losing himself in the “entire forest” of Roulin’s beard as he fleshes out the postman’s life. Roulin, Michon decides, is “a minor character in a Russian novel who’s forever hesitating between the Heavenly Father and the nearby bottle;” he is “the devoted muzhik, the grumbler, driving his boyar’s [Van Gogh’s] sled onward with strong prayers and mild impieties;” his “sacred cap” seems like it belongs to “some sort of icon, some saint with a complicated name, Nepomucen or Chrysostom.” Roulin is also an “outlaw prince,” nurturing beneath his civil servant exterior a love of the ferocity and “impeccable savagery” of the French republic’s violent origins.
If Michon’s imaginative exercise demonstrates anything, it’s that language can indeed hold its own against the vibrant swirl of Van Gogh’s brushstrokes:
I want…words [to] end up sprouting beards; they’ll appear in Prussian blue; they’ll be alcoholic and republican; they won’t make sense of one drop of the paintings; but with some luck, or by kidnapping, perhaps words will once again become a painting; they’ll be muzhik or boyar as the spirit moves me — and completely arbitrary, as usual—but will come visibly to light, manifest, and die.
Rimbaud’s colorful letters from his poem “Voyelles” suddenly don’t look as appealing — beardless and sober as they are.
Alessandro Baricco’s recently translated novellas, Mr. Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn, published in a single edition by McSweeney’s, don’t rise to the ecstatic heights of Michon’s study, but together they constitute a sly, atmospheric work about copying a fine arts method. Baricco is less concerned with forging a new language worthy of painting than with dramatizing an artist attempting such a feat. Chronicling a fatigued writer’s efforts to reinvent himself as a copyist, a profession that he himself admits doesn’t properly exist, Mr. Gwyn and Three Times at Dawn are the portrait and self-portrait, respectively, of a linguistic portraitist.
After publicly renouncing novel writing, the successful British writer Jasper Gwyn comes across an exhibition of paintings, “large portraits, all similar, like the repetition of a single ambition, to infinity.” Staring at the nudes, each “unfit for nakedness,” he is moved by the artists’ ability to “take home” the subjects, so much so that he decides on a new profession for himself as an executor of a new kind of written portrait:
It wasn’t a real profession, [Jasper] realized, but the word had a resonance that was convincing, and inspired him to look for something precise. There was a secrecy in the act, and a patience in its methods — a mixture of modesty and solemnity. He would not like to do anything but that: be a copyist.
That mixture of modesty and solemnity suggests that Gwyn is thinking of the medieval manuscript tradition, secluded monks preserving the wonders of Western thought — without, presumably, what must have been the soul-crushing boredom of such an endeavor.
But there is another, etymological explanation for Gwyn’s attraction to the profession and model of “copyist.” Copyist derives from copia, “to write in plenty,” that is, to write over and over again. The great Renaissance scholar Erasmus wrote a little primer on copia, or the abundant style as he calls it. While warning of the pitfalls of such a style, which he defines as “richness is subject matter and expression,” he generally lauds the stylistic and argumentative advantages of expansion: “The speech of man is a magnificent and impressive thing when it surges along like a golden river, with thoughts and words pouring out in rich abundance.” (An eloquent defense to be deployed when accused of being a windbag.)
Even before he knows precisely what this new vocation entails, Gwyn begins to prepare, by attuning himself to the “luxurious rhythm” and “elegant slowness” of life, “concentrating on every single gesture” and running his hand over the surfaces he encounters to “[rediscover] the infinite range between rough and smooth.” In other words, he must tap into the fullness of life so that he can somehow convey the fullness of the people he wishes to copy: it is an apprenticeship in copia.
Guided only by a vague sense of what he wants, Gwyn chooses a studio according to his specifications (high ceilings, unfurnished, exposed old water pipes, scraps of wallpaper clinging to the walls, a swollen wooden door), commissions a musical composition from a famous avant-garde composer to be played on loop, and orders artisanal “Catherine de Médicis” light bulbs custom-built to emit a “childlike” color and burn out after a period of time. Gwyn’s preparation of his studio is hypnotic, and Baricco’s flat style — the same which creates the hallucinatory effect of his previously translated novel, Silk — nicely captures the trancelike state of an artist compelled by a vision he does not yet understand. In this way, Gwyn resembles the recreating hero of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, who finds similar satisfaction in reproducing scenes from an apartment building down to the wafting smells of slightly burning bacon.
After having set up the apartment to his specifications, he studies his (nude) subjects for around 30 days for four hours each day, mostly in silence until he deems it right to ask them a question — one, we are vaguely told, is about laughing or crying. He then provides his well-paying subjects with a document, its paper and font and ink color and wrapping chosen with the same care as the artisanal bulbs. (In her review, The New York Times’s Rachel Donadio rightly mentioned Lucien Freud as an inspiration both for these fictional portraits and for Gwyn’s exacting methods.)
Gwyn’s first subject is a young woman who works for his literary agent and only friend. She is described in Ann Goldstein’s translation as “fat;” the original Italian, grassa, is similarly blunt. Not, in should be noted, rubicund, fleshy, or Rubenesque. Each of Gwyn’s subsequent sitters is cursorily introduced in the same clipped way; it is in Gwyn’s executed portraits, the contents of which are never divulged, that he will aesthetically flesh out the subjects. We only witness their reactions: intense gratefulness at receiving written versions of themselves that capture the full range and expression of their bodies and personalities.
The mystery of what the copyist produces is finally and neatly resolved, though the way Baricco explicitly accounts for the portraits’ emotional power in Mr. Gwyn’s closing scene slightly diminishes the novella’s seductive reticence. Indeed, the second novella, a triptych of scenes meant to demonstrate Gwyn’s unique style of portraiture, has its moments, but doesn’t quite explain all the fuss. Sometime a portrait is more alluring described rather than displayed.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Maybe it’s best to begin in 2007, with an article in the New York Times about a “new, free communications service called Twitter.” It’s one of those delightful Times tech pieces that looks so, well, ancient as it matter-of-factly chronicles a digital trend that’s become commonplace, even ubiquitous, in a relatively short space of years. It was published a few weeks after that year’s SXSWi festival, during which Twitter (age: 1) was the big hit. The takeaway quote is from science fiction writer Bruce Sterling: “Using Twitter for literate communication is about as likely as firing up a CB radio and hearing some guy recite The Iliad.”
Let’s look now, then, at Twitter (age: 8). We’ve obviously heard Sterling’s sort of derision plenty in the past decade (I’m contractually obligated to mention Jonathan Franzen here: it starts with his “ultimate irresponsible medium” comments and goes on (and on) from there) and we certainly still hear it today. But it feels a little useless to keep banging on about whether we should use Twitter: it’s so deeply interwoven into the fabrics of many of our personal and professional lives that the question feels a step out-of-date. Twitter is a medium now, irresponsible or not, and divorced from moral proclamations, it’s much more interesting to see how it’s being used. And whether, a thousand internet lifetimes since it made its debut in Austin, we’re still just as unlikely to fire up the CB radio and hear some guy recite The Iliad.
Perhaps the question will be answered by this year’s #TwitterFiction Festival (age: 3). It begins today, and it’s a co-production of the social network itself and some stalwarts of the analog book world, Penguin Random House and the Association of American Publishers. The pull quote: “The platform is a powerful tool for more than sharing news and telling the realities of everyday life. It’s a place where fiction thrives.” The cynical bit of me would take the opportunity to say, “Yes, fictions certainly do thrive on Twitter” — I think of all the disappointments of those unfurling hoaxes, fake things that turned out even faker, @Horse_ebooks and @GSElevator and that guy who “confronted” that awful woman on a pre-Thanksgiving flight a few months back. Or worse, actual misinformation, news misrepresented or outright misreported, for speed or, in rarer cases, with malicious intent. But there is good on Twitter, certainly, and beyond connections and communication, people are testing things out. Jokes hit big; poetry thrives; satire, in the form of the parody account, never seems to get old.
But then there’s fiction — and I am not completely convinced that it’s “thriving” on Twitter yet, but it’s certainly evolving well beyond the “experimental” stunt, and that’s exciting. One could argue that parody accounts are a mode of fiction — the #TwitterFiction Festival does, along with “Images/Vine,” amongst other categories — but I’m more interested in the ways that traditional written narratives can work with — and succeed within — the form. One of the earliest high-profile stories delivered via tweets was Rick Moody’s “Some Contemporary Characters” for Electric Literature in 2009. And then, three years later, the Twitter story a lot of us are most likely to cite: Jennifer Egan’s “Black Box,” in the 2012 (science) fiction issue of The New Yorker. That one was tweeted by The New Yorker fiction department in installments at announced times, much like the Moody story, but was also published in a linear format in the magazine itself. (The full disclosure here was that I had the miserable task of turning the print story to a web one — that was my role in the digital production department there for several years. Words can’t express how silly it felt wrangling tweets laid out in print into a non-Twitter — yet still digital — format.)
A smile is like a door that is both open and closed.
— New Yorker Fiction (@NYerFiction) June 3, 2012
Do either transcend gimmickry? Well, there are interesting things to look at with both of them. Moody told the Wall Street Journal that he composed his story in tweet-like spurts in the first place: “I wanted to try to write something very up-to-the-minute, that made use of the Twitter form, instead of writing something in the ordinary way and just carving it up into 140 character chunks (which is cheating, I think). The plot followed naturally upon this wish.” He likely faced the challenge of the economy of characters that plagues overly-wordy people like me every time we try to tweet, and Electric Lit praised him for the result, saying that, “The Twitter story helps to highlight the extreme attention to language a great short story writer is likely to pay.” Egan also gave herself constraints, but paradoxically, she drafted her digital story on paper — an image of her notebook shows sentences scribbled into wireframe-like grids. By way of introduction to the project, she cites a few different things she was trying to experiment with, the last of which was “serialization” on Twitter: “This is not a new idea, of course, but it’s a rich one — because of the intimacy of reaching people through their phones, and because of the odd poetry that can happen in a hundred and forty characters.” The cellphone novel, which emerged in Japan and continues to flourish both in and outside of East Asia, is now more than a decade old. Twitter, of course, originated from SMS messaging — it’s the reason for the character limit — and relinking these forms gives the conception of the story even more cohesion.
There’s no single correct way to use any social media platform. But for me, despite some of the successful elements of these stories, there’s just something about them feels…off. It’s in the delivery, not in the writing itself, because for me and for many on Twitter, the platform is more organic than this: there’s a spontaneity to its rhythms, to the memes and the quick exchanges, the truest expression of “viral,” for better or worse. If you follow a fair number of relatively active users, it often feels as though every tweet you manage to catch is a feat of pure chance: you switch tabs and navigate back a minute later and it’s “35 new Tweets,” and they unscroll in one enormous deluge, and then another pops in, and another. If you’re not on Twitter or have bad feelings about it, I’m likely not selling it to you here. But it’s sometimes that pure chance that’s so bewitching — some little gem that you just happen to catch can feel almost serendipitous.
All of this is compounded by the strange, somewhat warped sense of time in the digital age. I’ve been acutely aware of my five-hour displacement since moving across the ocean, and it’s more noticeable on Twitter than on other social media platforms — the list of accounts I follow is so American-centered (really even so East Coast-centered) that my feed is sparse and plodding for most of the business day — it’s lively in my late afternoon, and seems to heat up as I’m going to bed. I see the world unfolding in real time — but in someone else’s time. This has yet to stop feeling weird, and often a bit alienating. So I’ve been working to become a bit more active on social media here in my time-displacement, reaching out across a chasm that feels like it can be sewn up, at least a little bit, one tweet at a time. Then one afternoon in early January, I started to notice something curious happening on my Twitter feed. A series of seemingly — bafflingly! — connected retweets were popping up, a few of them from people I know but most of them from strangers, and they appeared to be telling a story.
. . . to the subway, I saw a man on the ground. He sat on the sidewalk, under trees, with his feet out to the quiet street.
— rünty reader (@runtyreader) January 8, 2014
The retweeter was Teju Cole, and the tweets told the story of a man collapsed on the ground, and a bystander who tries to help him. For one foolish moment, I believed that this was some totally miraculous game of exquisite corpse — that Cole was somehow curating a crowdsourced story that was being spun by a talented group of people on the spot. I later learned it was actually the exact opposite: he had used the crowd to tell a story — entitled “Hafiz” — that he had drafted beforehand. He told the Times that the piece was “a creative cousin to works like Shelley Jackson’s ‘Skin,’ a 2,095-word story that was told one tattooed word at a time on the bodies of 2,095 volunteers.” A retweet is nothing more than a single click — obviously nothing so extreme as a tattoo — but it is a curious device in itself, one Cole was interested in exploring. “I was fascinated by how clean a retweet can be, how you can make someone else present on your timeline,” he said. “This is usually a cause for anxiety (an anxiety people express with the plea ‘retweets are not endorsements’), but I thought it could also be an occasion for grace, for doing something unusual together.”
One of the participants was actually fellow Millions staffer Mark O’Connell, and I got in touch to ask about, as he put it, “the nuts and bolts.” “Like you, I was watching it unfold on my timeline for a while anyway and was really interested in what he was doing,” Mark told me. “He sent me a DM asking if I’d participate by tweeting a line he’d written, which I was totally happy to do, because it was cool to be a part of something clever and innovative like that.”
“How did he get into that position?” “He lay down there.” “Lay how? Did he bang his head?” “He lay down there like someone going to sleep.”
— Mark O’Connell (@mrkocnnll) January 8, 2014
Upon my further request, Mark got a bit more analytical, and he picked up on what Cole stated outright that he was going for — the disruption of a retweet on a timeline:
I think one of the reasons it worked as well as it did was that it actually used the medium to do something odd and original that could only really arise in that medium…I had a sense of the experience of my Twitter timeline being interrupted or unsettled in some quite interesting way. I remember noticing the retweets, and feeling that there was something that set them apart from everything else in my timeline — some quality of out-of-placeness that was more than just the ordinary out-of-placeness of retweets. I guess what I’m trying to get at is the sense that the story, or narrative, felt like an artfully estranging intrusion into a particular and familiar context. I think the ephemerality you mention is pretty crucial too; like, what I thought was maybe most interesting about it was the relationship between the initial appearances of these (for want of a better word) utterances in the timeline – that fragmentariness – and then the coming together of those fragments into a whole once you realized what was going on, and pursued them to their source – or maybe destination? But basically it was just gratifying and exciting to see the fragmentary experience of Twitter being turned to artistic account in that sort of way.
A few weeks later, we watched Cole playing with immediacy in real time, retweeting random peoples’ tweets with certain phrases in batches — they were collected later, as “A Ghazal In This Moment” and “A Ghazal For Now,” amongst others. There’s something crucial that’s lost when you look at them after the fact, though; this is all performance art, in a way, and the real coup is to see him in the act — in this moment, as it were.
But we can’t spend all day glued to our feeds. The Egan story can be revisited now and read in its entirety, though I found it strangely hard to find — The New Yorker’s put it back behind the paywall, so I wound up scrolling through two years of @NYerFiction tweets to find them. But if it’s simply a story split into pieces, I feel like the novelty of putting it up on Twitter has worn off — though it remains an interesting exercise, paring down character counts to refine language.
The #TwitterFiction Festival runs for four days, and while many (if not all?) of the participants appear to be pre-scheduled, that doesn’t preclude some spontaneity — and perhaps they’ve even got a few secret tricks planned. They’ve got a great and varied line-up on board, from Emma Straub to Alexander McCall-Smith, and they’ve been teasing at a variety of different approaches for weeks. Will they break any new ground? The surest way to tell is to watch your Twitter feed. All tweets may be archived forever in the Library of Congress, but if past Twitter fiction experiments are any indicator, the best way to feel a tweet’s full impact is to catch it just as your feed drops down and the notification pops up: “1 new Tweet.”
This month’s David and Goliath championship bout between Manny Pacquiao and Antonio Margarito may have brought boxing some new fans. Watching Pacquiao, outweighed some sixteen pounds, dazzlingly wallop the villainous but courageous Margarito, was nothing short of spectacular if not epic. Margarito, who had mocked Pacquiao trainer’s Parkinsons just before the match, met poetic justice for the first time in Cowboys Stadium.
It’s no wonder boxing has fascinated so many writers. The late Budd Schulberg, author of the novel and screenplay On the Waterfront, traces literature’s affair with pugilism back to Epeius and Euryalus’ fist-fight during the siege of Troy in The Iliad. He also describes Lord Byron fancying the sixty-round bare-knuckled fighting popular in his day. In the 20th century, A.J. Liebling in the New Yorker famously set the bar high for boxing journalism, employing obscured latinate words between steak and whiskey dinners in West Side dives. In fact, his haughty tones and smart aleck descriptions can even sound condescending to the world he described. (Joyce Carol Oates has gone as far as to say his boxing writing is racist.) Boxing was clearly a serious matter for manly men, a tradition followed by the new journalists, who seemed to have viewed the boxing piece as a rite of passage. Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson and Gay Talese, all wrote extensively about pugilism, but none of these portrayals of real life boxers nurse a bookworm’s dream of being a toughened fighter like fiction.
Ernest Hemingway was a master of fiction and a master of fictional boxing, a self-proclaimed boxing expert in Paris, who despite his lack of experience, trained poet Ezra Pound and coached the Spanish painter Juan Miro on his jab; unfortunately, his sparring matches with real boxers like Canadian Morley Callaghan got Hemingway pummeled. And yet despite his lack of talent, Hemingway continued following and writing about boxing. His stories “Fifty Grand” and “The Battler” are both based on pugilists, as is Robert Cohn from The Sun Also Rises.
There is plenty of bad boxing fiction, mostly old, mostly clichéd, mostly rotting away in used bins, or library sales racks, but then there are the gems, the ones that endure. In the last couple of years I’ve come across a few that are not just good boxing fiction but good fiction. They all inexplicably take place in California (where both Pacquiao and Margarito both trained before their match).
Fat City by Leonard Gardner is one of the best novellas I’ve read this year. It’s a noir novel without really trying to be one. No detectives, city nights, or hyperbolically dark dialogue, instead we have subtle descriptions, hazy characters; some of its patiently rendered urban landscape descriptions almost slip by, as the reader enters 1950s Stockton, on the beat street motels, between hot pans and dirty sheets. When not working odd jobs, the book’s protagonist Billy Tulley (a name vaguely reminiscent of late champ Gene Tunney) is boxing or being an alcoholic, a combination which you can imagine must be horribly painful, not to mention high unlikely. Still, Tulley sweats out his shakes at Ludo’s Gym where a sign reads: “PLEASE DON’T SPIT ON THE FLOOR GET UP AND SPIT IN THE TOILET BOWL” and where dialogue like this can be overheard in the changing room:
“You want to know what (sic) make a good fighter?”
“It’s believing in yourself. That the will to win. The rest condition. You want to kick ass, you kick ass.”
When not training, Tulley is sopping up booze into bars, where sometimes people even recognize him as the promising fighter he once was. But then, he gets into a tangle with a malevolent female — a must in any noir novel — something like a trashier version of Holy Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Somehow, despite the archetypal characters, the story, thanks to its effortlessly sleek story, manages to move. Tulley’s struggle to make himself ¨kick ass¨ in the face of alcoholism and loneliness is tragic, and perhaps tragically outdated in this era of athletic competitiveness, but is told in such a way that the reader can’t help but want to save Tulley from one punishment or another. I was only disappointed when I found out Gardner hadn’t written any other novels.
Gardners‘s gruesome tell-it-like-it-is portrait of working class in California reminded me of another book that brims with fisticuffs, Ham on Rye. I should preface my description of the novel by saying that I’ve never been a Bukowksi lover. Since high school I thought his old man alcoholic misogyny was kind of boring, but this book is different from his others: his fictional self is only a pre-teen , plagued by acne, no chance at being cool, but angry enough so he isn’t the catch of the day for his belligerent friends who endlessly pull at their crotches, compare wieners, and fantasize about every female near them. Bukwoski writes:
Each afternoon after school there would be a fight between two of the older boys. It was always out by the back fence were there was never a teacher about. And the fights were never even; it was always a large boy against a smaller boy and the larger boy would beat the smaller boy with his fists, backing him into the fence. The smaller boy would attempt to fight back but it was useless. Soon his face was bloody, the blood running down into his shirt.
What I think makes this particular pointdexter protagonist so interesting is that he’s tougher than a stale piece of jerky, as are all the other kids. In this world, “even the sissies took their beatings quietly.” Zealously narrated kiddy fight scenes run like well told bar stories:
They squared off. Wagner had some good moves. He bobbed, he weaved, he shuffled his feet, he moved in and out, and he made little hissing sounds. He was impressive. He caught Moscowitz with three straight left jabs. Moscowitz just stood there with his hands at his sides. He didn’t know anything about boxing. Then Wagner cracked Moscowitz with a right on the jaw.
The interchange continues until Moscowitz turns the fight around:
Moscowitz was a puncher. He dug a left to that pot belly. Wagner grasped and dropped. He fell to both knees. His face was cut and bleeding. His chin was on his chest and he looked sick.
Paradoxically these school fights, although bloody, are nothing compared to the beatings Bukowski gets from his dad. In fact, these fights seem almost cathartic, a good thing in comparison to the much more serious and scary adult world that surrounds them.
Nearly everyone’s seen the Clint Eastwood movie Million Dollar Baby starring Hillary Swank as a female boxer from the sticks, but not everyone knows it’s based on a short story by F.X. Toole. A fledgling writer most of his life, Toole was a cut man by trade, the guy in the corner who swabs and smears Vaseline on a fighter’s face, after having been told he was too old for a career in boxing. Although the stories in Rope Burns can be a bit repetitive (how many more down and out kids do we have to hear about) and sometimes cliché (see previous parenthetical remark), they have a lot of heart.
“Fightin Philly” describes a manager and his talented but injured light heavyweight fighter Mookie facing a title fight against a hardened Ugandan fighter in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Mookie has a leg injury. Like Yuri Foreman’s bout against Miguel Cotto in Yankee Stadium earlier this year — Foreman bravely, perhaps foolishly fought through two rounds wobbling — Mookie must fight his injury as much as his opponent. The match ends up even by the tenth round, or at least his corner man Con thinks. So, late in the fight – thanks to Con’s advice – Mookie manages to frazzle his opponent with a flurry attack that includes a low blow to frighten him. Afterward “he nailed him with big left hands and combinations to the head, which began to swell and make [the Ugandan] looked like a zombie.” Sadly, it isn’t enough and Mookie’s courage, training, and will aren’t enough. Maybe this story gets at me because I know someone like Mookie with 10-10 a professional record who insists on continuing to fight professionally.
Writers and boxers actually have something in common: nearly impossible odds at ever making it big; of course, it goes without saying that boxers get real bruises rather than just bruised egos. Toole definitely got this about boxing and literature, which is perhaps why he kept it up for so long. Unfortunately, he died before the movie adaptation of his book ever came out. Since his death, a posthumous novel Pound for Pound was published. I guess some guys just never go down.
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven’t read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I’ll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I’m looking forward to it). I haven’t read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest – I tend to avoid big books. I’m too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I’m a scared wimp, but I’m thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I’ve started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I’ve made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I’m also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven’t even read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven’t read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That’s right, I haven’t read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I’ve never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that’s about it. Aside from excerpts, I’ve never even read Homer.I’ll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I’m not exactly sure what I’m missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote – I’ve actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I’ve never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I’ve done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I’ve also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction – that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I’ve done quite well with modern British fiction, and I’ve also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I’ve delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic prose, I’ll actually finish Infinite Jest. It’s mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly “I Never,” there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I’ve never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story “Hills Like White Elephants”), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven’t read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine – not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors – my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer’s “A Reader’s Manifesto” at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers’ extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy’s “muscular” style were as much (more) than I’d ever need of McCarthy’s much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses – give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I’ve never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King… Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school… So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus… and that’s pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I’m not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading – secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I’ll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I’ve had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I’ve been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it’s the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I’ve never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I’ve long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I’ve only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I’d like to try Anna Karenina next. I’ve also never read Lolita. Updike’s passing this week reminded me that I’ve never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo’s books and Foster Wallace’s. By Philip Roth, I’ve read only Portnoy’s Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can’t even recall that I haven’t read, but I’ll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?
What to say about Harry Potter that hasn’t been said? One approach, I suppose, taking a page from the New York Times, would be to cover the coverage. I, for example, was delighted by the Times’ hypocrisy in covering as news the New York Post’s and New York Daily News’ early publication of movie reviews of Harry Potter 5 (these tabloids sent their reviewers to the Japanese premier, which took place before the American and European premiers), and then publishing their own early review of an illicitly purchased copy of The Deathly Hallows. It was not a “spoiler” – no major plot details given away – but there was, in the very fact of a review published on July 19th, inevitably and implicitly, a nanny-nanny-boo-boo quality to the piece.I have been rather under-whelmed by the reviews of the book (my own efforts included). One particularly aggravating feature is the gushing – and totally unexplained – lists of high literature to which Rowling alludes. I have seen Kafka and Milton on these lists. I would be beyond delighted to know where Rowling alludes to Kafka or Milton. Please post a comment if you know. The larger problem here is that the business (nay, the responsibility?) of a critic is to show and not tell – or, at the very least, to do both. That’s the business of good writing in general. (Even an editorial has a responsibility to tether the opinions it offers to substantial, justifying fact or theory of some kind.) I have been frustrated at the love-fest quality of Potter reviews generally: substantial observation falls aside for adulatory effusion.The following are a few (I hope) more substantial critical sallies at The Deathly Hallows and the series in general. I also forewarn those who have not finished the book that they read on at their own peril. Substantial details of the final book are discussed.Rowling’s gift as author is her masterful skill as an architect of plot. As she has said, she imagined Harry’s story as a seven-book series from the beginning and each book has been carefully seeded with clues and pre-history that become newly significant in subsequent installments. The Deathly Hallows, more than any of the other books (because it has all of the other books to draw on) achieves a higher degree of plot complexity. It is in this (alone), I would say, that she resembles Dickens: the complex interweaving of individual personal stories into a larger, coherent plot. Though I think that in basic concept, the Penseive (the ability to experience other people’s memories as an unseen observer), consciously or no on Rowling’s part, owes something to Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, wherein Ebeneizer Scrooge’s moral and spiritual re-awakening is facilitated by ghosts who squire him, also unseen, through his own past and future and other people’s presents.The Penseive is also Dumbledore’s means, particularly in The Half-Blood Prince, of teaching Harry to read meaning and significance in personal history, a task Harry must undertake alone in the seventh book, with Dumbledore gone. And Harry’s task in the seventh does not just involve “reading” Voldemort to figure out where the Horcruxes are, but making sense of Dumbledore’s own past, and his character and trustworthiness, in light of it. The question of whose version – whose reading – of events you take, and the troubling multiplicity of accounts about a single event, has been dramatized throughout the series by The Daily Prophet and particularly by the antics of the muck-raking Rita Skeeter (who pens a tell-all biography of Dumbledore in the Hallows). Rowling also dramatizes the difficulty and the importance of reading, and reading well, in Dumbledore’s mysterious bequest to Hermione of a copy of the wizarding fairy-tales of Beedle the Bard. When Harry is (rather fantastically) reunited with Dumbledore, Dumbledore again emphasizes the importance of what and how you read: “And his knowledge remains woefully incomplete, Harry! That which Voldemort does not value, he takes no trouble to comprehend. Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing.”While Harry and Dumbledore have taken the time to read Voldemort’s past – to “know thy enemy,” He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has failed to do his homework, which would have involved, very cleverly on Rowling’s part, the reading and comprehension of not only Beedle’s tale, but, in essence, Harry Potter – not the books themselves, perhaps, but some version of Harry’s life history. And one last observation on the limbo scene between Harry and Dumbledore: It reminded me of the final scene in Vanilla Sky, where a similar choice is made in a similarly surreal/psychic landscape. I also felt that the model for Harry’s particular strain of self-sacrifice resembles, in certain structural aspects, the story of Abraham and Isaac, wherein the absolute willingness to make a sacrifice of life, is the thing that frees you from actually having to make it.I applaud Rowling’s clever double-ending. That you think it’s over – are really and truly convinced that it’s over – and then have an even greater joy in finding that it’s not. But I also take issue with those who use the term “adult” too freely in their descriptions of The Deathly Hallows. In the best sense of the word, Harry Potter finishes as it began: as children’s literature. Consider, for example, the dead. Rowling does not kill off a single central character (Harry, Ron, Hermione); nor any from the slightly lower tier including Hagrid, Neville, Ginny, and Luna. The only Weasley she kills off is the one with a identical twin – and we get Percy back, so in total the Weasley numbers remain constant. The deaths of Tonks and Lupin (who appear very infrequently in this volume – so there’s less to miss) allow for the somewhat satisfying emergence of a Harry- and Neville-esque war orphan (their son, Teddy) for the next generation. And it also seems fitting that Lupin – and even Wormtail – join Sirius and James in the Great Beyond. Colin Creevy and Dobby – also possibly Hedwig – are innocents but they were never crucial players so far as character went (and, truth be told, Colin Creevy and Dobby had an irritating spaniel-esque quality that is often the mark of a dispensable minor character). My favorite Death Eater death was that of Bellatrix Lestrange: uber-anti-mother destroyed by ur-mother Molly Weasley. Snape dies, of course, but it’s a kindness given the tragically loveless life he leaves behind. And Dumbledore, who actually is dead, is functionally revived in this final volume by the limbo scene, Snape’s memories in the pensive, the crucial role of his pre-history, and the appearance of his doppelganger-ish brother. You lose no one you can’t live without, is what I mean, and even get a few back through redemption and other means.This is pure children’s lit – though Rowling’s Aeschylus epigraph may have led you to expect otherwise. Good triumphs over evil (if that’s not the crux of a child’s plot, what is?) and this triumph justifies and then eclipses the losses that made it possible. The world is made right and the survivors are not psychically broken by their efforts – they enjoy life again, they thrive. Especially for grown readers, one of the chief pleasures offered by Harry Potter and books like it, is their allowing us to experience – to believe in, however fleetingly or wistfully – the kind of idealism and heroism that most of us lose faith in, willingly or no, in adulthood.My parting thought concerns what I consider one of the most fascinating aspects of the children’s fantasy genre as Rowling practices it: Its striking correspondence to the ancient epic tradition, in all of its un-ironic hero- and nation-making high seriousness. I find it particularly suggestive that epic, a genre that emerged and defined early human civilization, is now relegated to literature for humans in the early stages of life (from infancy to infancy, one might say), though I have no substantial thoughts on what it means about us as a culture. Harry Potter borrows much from the ancient literary traditions of Homer and Virgil – visits to and from the dead, prophecies, fantastic beasts to be slain, enchantresses to be escaped, magical objects, tragic flaws, heroic friends lost in combat, battles, and choices of world-determining import. The difference is that heroism and glory in war are not ends in and of themselves in Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, as they are in the Illiad, Odyssey, and Aeneid. All of the sublime feats of daring and self-sacrifice that this last volume offers are done to keep the mundane yet magical manifestations of human love going: friendship, family, marriage, children, education. As the epilogue, with its glimpse of a new generation of Hogwarts students, parents, and teachers, demonstrates unquestionably, the purpose of heroism is not becoming a hero, but preserving the people, places, traditions, and values that gave you the strength to confront death and pain in the first place.As to the lasting power of this literary phenomenon – whether it is one for the ages – I think that cultural studies, at the very least, will see to it that future generations look back at Harry Potter. How and why did it (somewhat like, though far-surpassing, best-sellers of yore Robinson Crusoe, Pamela, Sherlock Holmes, Uncle Tom’s Cabin) become such a prodigy? As to literary merit, I think, as I said earlier, that Rowling’s skill as a plotter is tremendous: She has a gift for pacing and suspense, for the deft orchestration of clues and of characters’ plot-functions. She is not a stylist – the best that can be said about her literary style is that is transparent and unobtrusive. Of characterization, I would say that Rowling’s characters have an archetypal appeal (the arch, wise, and serene mentor; the affable and fiercely loyal but intellectually diminished sidekick/best friend; the brainy, bossy, dorky-yet-attractive-in-her-braininess female), but that character development is a bit thin – nowhere near so well done as the plotting.Ultimately, though, I think this will be enough to secure Rowling and Harry literary immortality. We shall see.
Kenyan writer and political dissident Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s seventh novel, Wizard of the Crow, is unquestionably a work of epic ambition – a quality American readers once found commendable, and perhaps still do. Its achievements are doubly impressive, in that Ngugi first penned this 300,000-word tale of tyranny and freedom in his native Gikuyu, and then translated it himself into English. The translation is supple and swift enough that the novel, at 760 pages, never feels like a slog, and colorful set-pieces abound. Any work that swings this hard for the fences, however, will be judged on runs produced. Readers who admire Wizard of the Crow’s world-historical reach – and Ngugi’s storytelling gifts – may emerge disappointed that it isn’t quite a homer.Ngugi sets his story in the fictional African country of Aburiria, a republic-in-name-only run by a nameless dictator. Decked out in military garb appliqued with the skins of great cats, “The Ruler” instantly evokes Kenya’s Daniel Arap Moi and Uganda’s Idi Amin… and one imagines the resemblance to actual persons is not “entirely coincidental.” Ngugi very much wants us thinking about the recent political geography of Sub-Saharan Africa. But Wizard of the Crow is no naturalist roman-a-clef. As the novel opens, the Ruler has contracted a Rabelaisian affliction – his body is inflating as rapidly and as wildly as Aburiria’s economy. In a typical feat of dialogic energy, Ngugi treats us to five rumored explanations why – thus grounding his third-person narrative directly in the voices of the Aburirian people.The country’s cabinet, scrambling to heal and appease the Ruler, is a political cartoon come to life. Machokali, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, has had his eyes surgically enlarged “to the size of electric bulbs… so that they would be able to spot the enemies of the Ruler no matter how far their hiding places.” Not to be outdone, the head of the secret police, one Silver Sikiokuu, has had his ears lengthened – the better to eavesdrop on potential conspirators. From the ministers’ jockeying for position emerges the book’s Maguffin, a giant construction project called Marching to Heaven (to be funded by a thinly disguised World Bank). If completed, it will allow the Ruler to talk directly to God, “to say good morning or good evening or simply, how was your day, God?”Ngugi gets great comic mileage from his politicians, and there is something oddly sympathetic about the paranoid machinations of Sikiokuu, in particular – as in the old Dan Ackroyd sketches where Nixon talks to the paintings on the West Wing walls. But here the novel’s refusal to settle for mere satire, its flirtation with psychological depth, opens up an instability; one starts to wonder why the Ruler, in a three-dimensional environment, remains flat, an object for fun.This instability deepens when Kamiti, a penniless college graduate, and Nyawira, a receptionist, begin to lay the groundwork for revolution. Kamiti’s depressive asceticism, Nyawira’s spirited sass, and the chemistry between the two (including some of the hottest foreplay I’ve read recently), move Wizard of the Crow firmly into a textured human reality. Ngugi enlivens their romance with some wonderful magical touches. The plot strand in which Kamiti poses as a powerful “Wizard of the Crow,” and then (to the consternation of the authorities) finds himself mysteriously growing into the role, would be enough to fill a lesser novel. And yet, as this book rolls on, the exploits of the Wizard of the Crow start to feel like a subplot. Dramatic cause and effect give way once more to satirical grandstanding.Satire, in my reading, is Ngugi’s least revelatory mode. Absent the historical specificity an actual location might have provided, we are treated to revolutionary platitudes, to the revelation that power corrupts and the World Bank and the mass media are accessories to the crime. Well, obviously, but…Here I find myself running up against the problem of translation. Gikuyu, as I understand it, is largely an oral language. Since deciding for ethical reasons to stop composing in his adopted English, Ngugi has heroically pioneered the use of Gikuyu for literary purposes. And thinking back to the schematics of Walter J. Ong’s Orality and Literacy (a useful companion text for Wizard of the Crow), I remember that the aims and techniques of the griot may differ greatly from those of the workshop-trained novelist. In particular, the oral poet’s mnemonic didacticism clashes with the “literary” desire for understatement.It seems no more fair to tax Ngugi with preachy dialogue, then, than it does to tax The Illiad with flashy similes. (I feel like John Updike missed the boat on this one in his New Yorker review.) Nonetheless, I can’t deny that the antic quality of the second half of Wizard of the Crow frustrated my desire to dwell with Kamiti and Nyawira – to see diasporic political generalities given flesh, as they are in Patrick Chamoiseau’s magisterial Texaco.Still, as hard as it is to discover such shortcomings in a book its author clearly intends as a masterwork, it’s equally hard to dismiss Wizard of the Crow out of hand. Ngugi is a masterful manipulator of narrative time and narrative voice, and the fleetness and charm of the telling tend to blur over some of the novel’s deficiencies. In a particularly moving bit of analysis near the end, Nyawira laments the way the West, with all of its problems, attempts to stamp the developing world’s heterotopic spaces with its own monolithic image, and it is possible to read this review as symptomatic of the problem, and the book as gesturing toward a solution. Wizard of the Crow clears a space within literary postmodernism for African traditions and African characters, and one can only hope Ngugi will use it as a platform for future works that bring his expansive vision to fruition. Haki ya Mungu!
A new book about a largely forgotten civil rights battle is getting good reviews. One Man’s Castle by Phyllis Vine tells the true story of an African American doctor in Detroit in 1925 named Ossian Sweet. The day he moved his family into a white neighborhood, his house was surrounded by an angry mob throwing rocks. Attempting to defend his family, Sweet fired on the crowd killing one of them. This AP review continues: “in a remarkable civil rights victory for the time, two all-white juries refused to convict them — recognizing the principle that a man’s house is his castle, regardless of race.” It sounds quite interesting.Everyone will be rushing out to see Troy this weekend, but you may want to flip through The Iliad if you want to get the real story.