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Most Anticipated: The Great 2023A Book Preview

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Welcome to our biannual Great Book Preview! We've assembled the best books of 2023A (that is, the first half of 2023), including new work from Nicole Chung, Tsitsi Dangarembga, Claire Dederer, Brian Dillon, Samantha Irby, Heidi Julavits, Catherine Lacy, Mario Vargas Llosa, Rebecca Makkai, Fernanda Melchor, Lorrie Moore, Jenny Odell, Curtis Sittenfeld, Clint Smith, Zadie Smith, Brandon Taylor, Colm Tóibín, and many, many more. At 85 titles, you may notice our 2023A list is a bit trimmer and more selective than in year's past. We wanted to make sure that our list comprises the books that we are truly anticipating the most—which is to say, we've carefully curated our selections to showcase the very best books coming out in the first half of 2023. We hope you enjoy! Love reading our Great Book Previews? Learn how you can support The Millions here. January Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor Part crime thriller and part saga of the powerful Wadia family, Age of Vice roams across India, from the dusty villages of Uttar Pradesh to the cauldron of New Delhi. Three lives intersect in this world of lavish estates, extravagant parties, drugs and seamy business deals: Ajay, the watchful family servant; Sunny, the playboy heir; and Neda, a journalist out to expose the consequences of corruption. The writing has authority. Kapoor, author of the novel Bad Character, grew up in northern India and has worked as a journalist in New Delhi. The result is an addictive, vivid spellbinder of a novel. —Bill Morris Decent People by De'Shawn Charles Winslow Winslow returns to the fictional Southern town of West Mills for a second time in this expertly-plotted and character-driven follow-up to his award-winning debut novel. In the 1970s, an investigation into a triple homicide reveals surprising and profoundly sad layers of reality for the townspeople of West Mills—the trauma and ramifications of segregation, class, deeply kept secrets, and underlying homophobia. A haunting, page-turning mystery, Decent People makes a must-read on anyone’s literary list. —Jianan Qian The Survivalists by Kashana Cauley In this debut novel, a perpetually single Black lawyer, Aretha, falls in love with Aaron, a coffee entrepreneur who shares a brownstone with a stable of bizarre roommates. When Aretha moves in with Aaron, she gets caught up in their household dramas, which range from illegal gun sales to half-baked schemes to prepare for the end of the world. It will not surprise people who’ve read Cauley's essays—or seen her work on The Daily Show, or read her excellent tweets—that The Survivalists is, according to Tom Perrotta, an “edgy” and “darkly funny” book. —Thom Beckwith Still Pictures by Janet Malcolm Malcolm was a master of reportage, able to dissect and decipher her subjects with startling precision. (Also one of my own writerly heroes.) She often mused on the relationship between journalist and subject; in much of her journalism, she judged her subjects from a cool distance. How, then, would she approach a memoir? What would a self-portrait by one of our most formidable portraitists look like? These were the questions that exhilarated me when I began Malcolm's posthumous memoir. Still Pictures is as much a look at Malcolm's own photos and memories as the nature of photography and memory, written with all her characteristic style and clarity. —Sophia M. Stewart The Half Known Life by Pico Iyer In this philosophical and theological travelog, Iyer searches the globe for paradise. Not for himself—he wants to understand the idea of paradise, that incentive and dream and goal that undergirds the world's religions. Maria Popova herself, the brilliant mind behind The Marginalian, has called Iyer "one of the most soulful and perceptive writers of our time" and I expect The Half Known Life will further cement that status. —SMS OK by Michelle McSweeney In this slim and lucid addition to the Object Lessons series, which explores the hidden lives of everyday objects, linguist and author Michelle McSweeney unpacks the phrase “OK,” coined 200 years ago and now ubiquitous in spoken English. As an object, “OK” reveals how technologies inscribe themselves into languages—originally, it was an acronym that stood for “all correct,” a phrase which marked some of the earliest printed newspapers as ready for publication. From there, McSweeney traces the word’s evolution through the present, illuminating the ways in which its meaning developed over time. —TB The 12th Commandment by Daniel Torday Torday presents a provocative and unexpected tale of contemporary Jewish life that owes less to Philip Roth and Saul Bellow than it does to Cynthia Ozick and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The 12th Commandment concerns the historical sect known as the Dönmeh, Turkish followers of a seventeenth-century Jewish pseudo-messiah who outwardly practice Islam but who are actually adherents of an esoteric kabbalistic faith. “Weird folk,” explains a character, “They’re like Jews and Muslims at the same time. Or something.” Unexpectedly set among an imagined group of Dönmeh in small-town Ohio, with a noirish murder plot driving the action, and The 12th Commandment will appeal to fans of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, but Torday’s unique imagination and vital vision are his own. —Ed Simon Forbidden Notebook by Alba de Céspedes, translated by Ann Goldstein The story begins when Valeria Cossati—a 43-year-old office worker, self-sacrificing wife, and mother of two—buys a thick black notebook and begins writing at night—her thoughts, experiences, and fury. What follows over the course of six months are reflections on motherhood and femininity in postwar Rome that were as urgent and revelatory in the 1950s, when the novel was originally published, as they are today in post-Roe America. In the words of Annie Ernaux: “Reading Alba de Céspedes was, for me, like breaking into an unknown universe.” —Jenny Wu Life on Delay: Making Peace with a Stutter by John Hendrickson I've been waiting for John to write this book since I first read his paradigm-shifting Atlantic article "What Joe Biden Can't Bring Himself to Say." Like Biden, John is a person who stutters. In Life on Delay, and with profound intelligence and insight, John examines his own stuttering life, as well as the lives of many other stutterers, to probe the many contradictions of disfluency. John has become something of a torchbearer in our community, and this book is going to be an essential contribution to the (currently very limited) literature of stuttering. I hate when people call certain books "important"—but this book is very important me, and will be important to a lot of people. We've been waiting a long time for a book like this. —SMS The Call of the Tribe by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by John King When I began my undergraduate studies, I was disappointed by how little nonfiction appeared on the syllabi of my Spanish literature classes. Then I encountered Llosa, a Nobel-winning nonfictioneer and intellectual heavyweight (and occasional novelist) who rose to prominence during the Latin American Boom. In The Call of the Tribe, he maps out the minds that shaped his own: Sartre and Adam Smith, Friedrich A. Hayek and Isaiah Berlin, and many more (mostly male) writers and thinkers. It's a pleasure—and a pleasurable challenge—to read Llosa on the roots of his ideology. —SMS The Once and Future Sex: Going Medieval on Women's Roles in Society by Eleanor Janega Ever since I visited the Cloisters for the first time earlier this year, I've been hungry to learn more about medieval life, and specifically women's place in it. Enter The Once and Future Sex, the subtitle of which quite directly addresses this yen of mine. Janega, a medievalist by training, makes middle-age sociology accessible, highlighting how archaic notions of femininity continue to shape modern womanhood in ways both subtle and overt. Beauty, sex, work, labor, motherhood, decorum—no aspect of women's lives goes unexplored in this rigorous study, which also highlights many of the era's subversive trailblazers. —SMS Black and Female by Tsitsi Dangarembga Zimbabwean writer Dangarembga explores the long shadow cast by imperialism in her own life, and the lives of all African people, in this volume of essays. The personal and political commingle (because, as all feminists know, they're one and the same) as Dangarembga excavates her own history and the history of her nation. The result is a clear-eyed look at what navigating life and art-making as a woman in Zimbabwe has taught her, as well as the possibilities and limits of a distinctly Black feminism, which she calls "the status quo’s worst nightmare." —SMS A Guest at the Feast by Colm Tóibín One of Ireland's greatest living novelists, Tóibín is known the world over for his fiction. That's why I'm so curious to read his new essay collection, to see how he transfers his mastery across genres. A (supposedly) great compliment is to be called a nonfiction writer with a "novelist's" sensibility—the implication being that nonfiction is best when it reads like fiction. (I disagree!) This isn't Tóibín's first foray into nonfiction (he's written books on Elizabeth Bishop; contemporary queer artists; and the fathers of famous Irish writers)—but it is one of his most intimate. This is clear from the book's outset, which features one of best opening lines I've read in a minute: "It all started with my balls." —SMS Vintage Contemporaries by Dan Kois I always love reading Dan Kois's criticism (if you haven't yet read him on Tár, please do yourself the favor—and prepare to have your mind blown) so I was thrilled to hear about his forthcoming novel, a coming-of-age set in New York City at the turn of the millennium that wrestles with art, friendship, and what it means to cultivate a creative life. Our very own Lydia Kiesling blurbed it and gave it what is in my book one of the ultimate compliments: "poignant without being treacly." A near-impossible literary feat—I can't wait to see (read?) Kois pull it off for myself. —SMS Your Driver Is Waiting by Priya Guns A retelling of the movie Taxi Driver featuring a ride-share driver? An incredible premise for a novel that explores work, class, and solidarity (or the lack thereof). Damani Krishanthan works for an Uber-like company, scraping by after her father dies during his shift at a fast-food restaurant. During a summer of uprising, she drives through throngs of protestors trying to make enough to cover rent. A relationship with a white wealthy protestor goes south, prompting a dramatic ending (considering its cinematic source material, I can only imagine). —Lydia Kiesling The Guest Lecture by Martin Riker Abby, a young economist, can't sleep the night before the talk she is scheduled to present tomorrow, optimism and John Maynard Keynes. A lapsed optimist struggling to support her family, she feels grossly unprepared to offer any insights into Keynes. With wry humor and true wisdom, Riker, co-founder and publisher of Dorothy, a Publishing Project, transforms one woman’s insomnia into an enchanting and playful exploration of literature, performance, and the life of the mind. —JQ After Sappho by Selby Wynn Schwartz At the turn of the twentieth century, three queer women—Rina Faccio, Romaine Brooks, and Virginia Woolf among them—make the same decision: They take up their pens or paintbrushes to define their lives and their identities on their own terms. Taking cues from the Greek poet, After Sappho, Schwartz's Booker-longlisted debut novel, reimagines the intertwined voices of those pioneering women artists in the collective first-person, whose courage and struggles never cease to inspire and encourage those who come after. —JQ Hanging Out by Sheila Liming We’ve all heard the admonitions to slow down, drop out, resist the rush—but what does that actually look like? “Hanging out is about daring to do nothing much and, even more than that, about daring to do it in the company of others,” writes Liming in her treatise on the subject, the follow-up to her 2020 book What a Library Means to a Woman on Edith Wharton and book collections. Hanging Out, an endearing and revealing book, is well-timed, but as she notes, “we were having a hard time hanging out well before COVID-19 came along.” She makes a compelling case for us to get together. —Nick Ripatrazone Call and Response: Stories by Gothataone Moeng This debut story collection joins a chorus of literary voices rising out of contemporary Africa. Set in the author’s native village of Serowe, as well as in Gabarone, the thrumming capital of Botswana, these stories are spun from the struggles of women seeking to reconcile ancestral expectations with imported dreams—a girl who hides her sexual exploits from her family while her older brother flaunts his conquests; a young widow who ponders the custom of wearing mourning clothes for a year; a woman who returns from America, ashamed to have given up on the land of opportunity. The great Namwalli Serpell praised the collection for its "sharply observed vignettes," which together amount to a "beautiful" book full of "deep insight." —BM Black Empire by George S. Schuyler Originally published in serial form in the 1930s, Black Empire is the masterwork of George S. Schuyler, a journalist, Harlem Renaissance man, socialist-turned-arch-conservative, and creator of acid satires. This novel is the story of Dr. Henry Belsidus, a Black genius who sets out to cultivate a global network that will reclaim Africa from imperial powers and punish Europe and America for their crimes against the world’s Black population. Schuyler’s earlier novel, Black No More, is a satirical romp about a Black man who turns his skin white. In all his work, Schuyler work confronts an abiding and urgent moral quandary: How far should one go to bring justice to an unjust world? —BM February Where I'm Coming From by Barbara Brandon-Croft Drawn & Quarterly has never let me down, and its winning streak won’t be snapped by this collection from the first Black woman to have a nationally-syndicated comic strip. In the witty and groundbreaking "Where I’m Coming From," which ran from 1989 to 2005, nine Black girlfriends deliver insights and punchlines in equal measure, touching on politics, race, relationships, and everything in between. Tayari Jones says that Brandon-Croft’s work has “aged beautifully,” hailing the collection as “both ahead of its time and right on time.” —Evan Allgood Brutes by Dizz Tate This surreal and ambitious debut novel, written partially in first-person plural and billed as “The Virgin Suicides meets The Florida Project,” follows a clan of teenaged girls in Falls Landing, Florida, as they grapple with the disappearance of the local preacher's daughter. Brutes’s adolescent cast, time-jumping narrative, and promise of violence evoke the hit show Yellowjackets. Mariana Enríquez calls it “a beautiful and deeply strange novel, full of dread and longing.” —EA City of Blows by Tim Blake Nelson I love movies, but Hollywood—both the city and the industry that undergirds it—has never much interested me. Honestly, celebrity culture in America baffles me. But when a Hollywood insider and an accomplished playwright—and, not to mention, a fine actor—decides to satirize the toxic culture of Tinsel Town, I’m in. Nelson's debut novel follows four men fighting for control of a script and a place in a rapidly transforming Hollywood. There’s something sustaining in a story that shows how beautiful people can be just as petty—just as ugly—as the rest of us. —Il’ja Rákoš Couplets by Maggie Millner Lovers of horny, rhyming poetry rejoice: Millner’s “love story in poems,” arrives a week before Valentine’s Day, just in time to tie your brain to its bedposts. Kink and queerness, power and polyamory—this debut by the senior editor of the Yale Review has it all. Read an excerpt in BOMB to see why Elif Batuman, Garth Greenwell, and Leslie Jamison are all head over heels for this clever, seductive story of coming out and coming of age. —EA The Black Guy Dies First by Robin R. Means Coleman and Mark H. Harris This collaboration between Coleman, a scholar, and Harris, a journalist and film critic, explores the history of Black horror films since 1968. Named for the well-known cinematic trope, the book spans cult classics like Spider Baby up to commercial and critical successes like Get Out. According to Kirkus Reviews, the book is written with “keen observation, a satirical eye, and a genuine love for the subject.” —Edan Lepucki Big Swiss by Jen Beagin "A sex therapist's transcriptionist falls in love with a client while listening to her sessions"—that was all I needed to hear to get excited about Beagin's third novel. Throw in blurbs from Melissa Border and A Touch of Jen author Beth Morgan, and I was all but convinced that Big Swiss will be weird and horny and unfettered in all the best ways. "Pick it up because you like cheese," Morgan urges, "stay for the brilliant sentences." —SMS Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop by Martin Puchner So many books these days are described as being "sweeping histories"; Culture, which promises in its subtitle to take us from our most primitive artistic impulses all the way to the machinery of modern-day fandom. But what intrigues me most about Puchner's latest isn't its scope—it's its driving question: "What good are the arts?" In my more hopeless moments, this question bubbles up inside me, and I'm chomping at the bit to hear Puchner's answer, grounded in history and informed by cultures around the world. —SMS Dyscalculia by Camonghne Felix Following her poetry collection Build Yourself a Boat, which landed a spot on the National Book Award longlist, Camonghne Felix makes her nonfiction debut with this memoir, which charts a life-changing breakup and its many consequences for her life. When the author ends up in the hospital, she draws a parallel between her troubles as an adult and her childhood diagnosis of dyscalculia, a condition which makes it difficult to learn math or estimate place value. As she starts to tally her romantic miscalculations, she asks a wide-ranging question: who gets the right to freely express their own pain? —TB All the Beauty in the World: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Me by Patrick Bringley A former New Yorker staffer turned museum guard is a pretty compelling tagline, to be certain, and Bringley delivers in this intimate and philosophical debut memoir—he muses on the artworks, coworkers, and museumgoers that surround him. Adding poignancy to the memoir's conceit, his observations are all permeated with profound grief as he reels from the death of his older brother. Bringly brings the Met to life on a grand scale and granular level. —NR The Wife of Willesden by Zadie Smith For her first foray into playwriting, novelist and essayist Smith reimagines Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale about the Wife of Bath for twenty-first century, northwest London. Alvita, a Jamaican-born British woman in her early fifties, tells her life story to strangers in a pub. In its review, The Guardian calls it “a celebration of community and local legends, of telling a good story and living a life worth telling. Not bad for an original text that’s 600 years old.” —EL Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism, and the World by Malcolm Harris I went to college in the Bay Area, where the allure of Silicon Valley was palpable. My classmates posted about their internships at Twitter and Microsoft, wore t-shirts with emblazoned with the logos of Google and Linkedin, and went on to get jobs with six-figure starting salaries. I remembered my dad's quaint stories of growing up in nearby Los Altos and struggled to reconcile that history with the present. Harris's comprehensive history of Silicon Valley, from railroad capitalism to free love to big tech, does just that. Palo Alto spans centuries in order to thoroughly demystifying the region's economics and unearth its enduring legacy of settler colonialism. Users by Colin Winnette I worked for years as a consultant at American-based IT companies with teams in Kyiv, and among those Ukrainians I knew who were handling the code, it was rare to find anyone who worshipped Steve Jobs, loved tech, or saw STEM work as anything particularly noble. No true believers in panaceas or "essential" tech. Here, in the fictional world of Winnette’s latest novel, we encounter a strong critique and timely caution that my Kyiv ITshnyks certainly understood well: the devastation that awaits when we entrust the mechanisms we’ve built to do our thinking, our feeling, and our living for us. —IR I Have Some Questions for You by Rebecca Makkai In her follow-up to her 2018 novel The Great Believers, a Pulitzer and National Book Award finalist, Makkai brings us to a New Hampshire boarding school. Film professor Bodie Kane has been eager to forget her four awful years there, which included a murder of a classmate by the athletic trainer. But when she's brought back to campus to teach a two-week course, everything she thought she knew about the case is thrown into question. Makkai plays with true-crime tropes to deliver a literary exploration of friendship. —Marie Myung-Ok Lee Oscar Wars: A History of Hollywood in Gold, Sweat, and Tears by Michael Schulman Michael Shulman is one of the great profile-writers of our time, and one of our best writers, period. (His New Yorker profiles of Jeremy Strong, Bo Burnahm, and Adam Driver long ago took up permanent residence in my brain.) What Schulman, a student of personality, could accomplish in a study of the Oscars—that most official of personality contests—is limitless. It's also just a perfect opportunity to spill so much celebrity gossip. I imagine devouring this book poolside, while sipping on a blue drink; a big umbrella overhead, a little umbrella in my glass. Slime by Susanne Wedlich, translated by Ayca Turkoglu  Primordial slime has long been considered a cornerstone of life on Earth; without it, the natural world would be unrecognizable. Slimy substances like mucous and slobber are also common features of fictional monsters in popular culture from Lovecraft to Alien. Munich-based science and nature journalist Susanne Wedlich’s ode to the semi-liquids that hold our world together—and our minds in awe—reminds us “we are sticky beings living in a sticky place” (TLS), whether we like it or not. —JW March Monstrilio by Gerardo Sámano Córdova What lengths would you go to get back someone you've loved and lost? Just for a bit, to look in their eyes one more time, or tell them what needed to be told? But play that possibility out to its inevitable conclusion and it’s difficult to envision anything good coming from it. In  Córdova’s horror debut, a grieving mother in Mexico City goes to unimaginable extremes to bring her late 11-year-old son back to life, only to discover that there are worse things than death. Grief, she learns, is not something to be trifled with, or worse, avoided. —IR Francisco by Alison Mills Newman Though it garnered plaudits from Toni Morrison when it was first published in 1974, Newman's autobiographical novel has long been out of print. Now, a reissue by New Directions—with a new foreword by Saidiya Hartman—promises to introduce a new generation of readers to Newman’s innovative and genre-bending story, which draws on the author’s experience as a young actress in 1960s Hollywood. —TB The Fifth Wound by Aurora Mattia In her new novel, the Mattia reinvents the roman à clef with a magical realist memoir that puts the dusty genre of autofiction to shame. Sifting from multiple narratives—and dimensions—The Fifth Wound is a romance, a meditation on transphobic violence, and a speculative tale of time travel, ecstatic visionaries, and mystical union. Transcending the limiting confines of not just society, but reality as well, and Mattia’s novel promises the reader an experience that recalibrates simplistic notions of truth and fiction, reality and illusion.  —ES Saving Time by Jenny Odell I love books that force me to recognize or reconsider the structure of existence—and Odell’s book does just this, in a way that's both enlightening and generative. Her previous book, How to Do Nothing, was a runaway hit about what happens when we subvert the temporal expectations that are placed upon us: “Letting go of one overwhelming rhythm, you invite the presence of others. Perhaps more important, you remember that the arrangement is yours to make.” Odell demonstrates how it's never too late to save the time we have left. —NR The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe In 1958, at the age of 27, Rona Jaffe published her first novel, a revolutionary portrait of three young women employed at a New York publishing house. Renowned for its frankness and honesty, particularly in its depictions of sexual harassment, The Best of Everything is, per Michele Moses, “what you would get if you took Sex and the City and set it inside Mad Men’s universe.” Now, for its 65th anniversary, Penguin Classics is reissuing the novel, complete with a new introduction by New Yorker staff writer Rachel Syme, who is the perfect voice to prime us for a retro romp through postwar New York and its attendant glitzy patina. —TB Raving by McKenzie Wark Wark's entry into Duke University Press's Practices series, which spotlights the activities that make us human, invites us into the underground queer and trans rave scene of New York City. A bombastic collision of sound and movement, raving is, to Wark, the ideal activity for "this era of diminishing futures." An avid raver herself, she blends academic analysis with her own first-hand accounts, all relayed with sensual, staccato prose. "Some come to serve looks; some come to leave their sweat on the dance floor," she writes. "I’m the latter kind. I want to be animate and animated on the floor." —SMS Still Life with Bones by Alexa Hagerty From 1960 to 1996, more than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed, and tens of thousands more disappeared, after an American-backed coup gave rise to a steady march of genocidal dictators. Decades later, anthropologists like Alexa Hagerty are working to exhume and examine the dead, piecing together their bodies and their stories in an urgent but potentially quixotic quest for resolution, and attempting to bring a sense of humanity to the forensic sciences. —EA How to Think Like a Woman by Regan Penaluna In her first book, journalist Penaluna, who has a PhD in philosophy, explores the oft-forgotten and under-taught feminist philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: Mary Astell, Damaris Masham, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Catherine Cockburn. Blending biography, criticism, and memoir, Penaluna explores the lives and beliefs of these thinkers, as well as the ways women—past and present—have been devalued within philosophy, academia, and history. How  to Think Like a Woman serves as an alternate philosophical canon, where women and their intellect are deeply and rigorously examined. —Carolyn Quimby Y/N by Esther Yi “Y/N,” short for “[Your/Name],” refers to a type of fanfiction that allows readers to insert their own names into brackets in the story, so as to imagine themselves in romantic scenarios with popular idols. In Esther Yi’s debut novel, our narrator devotes herself to writing fanfic about a K-pop star named Moon. When Moon suddenly retires and retreats from the spotlight, the narrator embarks on a transnational search that unveils the absurd innards of a Korean entertainment company, as well as the loneliness of modern life and the various fantasies we enact to try to escape it. Yi, a Leipzig-based writer, has earned comparisons to Elif Batuman, Thomas Pynchon, Yoko Tawada, and Marie NDiaye. —JW How Not to Kill Yourself: A Portrait of a Suicidal Mind by Clancy Martin Clancy Martin has tried to die by suicide more than 10 times. In How Not to Kill Yourself, he speaks frankly about these attempts and the thoughts that fueled them. In probing his own experiences, he inevitably comes to larger conclusions about the nature of the self-destructive mind and the philosophy of suicide. He also turns to other writers who have attempted suicide and written about it, from Yiyun Li to David Foster Wallace. Written with surprising tenderness and humor, this memoir-cum-critical-inquiry is a perspective-shifting study. Biography of X by Catherine Lacy With a title that recalls both Alex Haley’s biography of Malcolm X and Gertrude Stein’s consideration of her partner Alice B. Toklas, Lacey audaciously explores the contingencies of identity, memory, and history in her latest experimental novel. Lacey’s novel takes place in an alternative history where the American South separated from the United States and was governed as a fascist theocracy only recently being reabsorbed into the wider nation. Ostensibly The Biography of X is about the titular unknown, a celebrated but mysterious artist, and her widow’s account of that life as much as can be assembled. But with cameos by such twentieth-century luminaries as Sontag and Bowie, the novel is also a biography of American art and theory which understands that sometimes history is best understood at a slant. —ES The Last Catastrophe by Allegra Hyde This collection of 15 stories by the author of Eleutheria continues Hyde’s interest in humanity grappling with climate change. Alexandra Kleeman writes that these speculative stories are “dazzling, inventive, and glinting with dark humor.” Spaceships, AI, zombies, and body-switching abound. I, for one, am most excited to read the story about the girl growing a unicorn horn! —EL The New Earth by Jess Row A century which began with 9/11, and has so far seen economic collapse, a ground war in Europe, a global pandemic, and the rise of neo-fascism is painfully interesting. Jess Row’s latest novel interlays these interesting times on a family drama among the privileged Wilcoxes of the Upper East Side, from 2000 to 2018. The global perspective becomes synonymous with the vantage point of daughter Winter Wilcox, who on the eve of her wedding must grapple not just with her estranged family, but the ways in which her personal tragedies from years coincide with both parental secrets and historical injustices. “Disguising your origins is a deeply American impulse,” Row wrote in 2014, “but that doesn’t make it any less compromising,” a theme heartily interrogated in The New Earth.  —ES Chlorine by Jade Song Song's debut novel revolves around high-schooler Ren Yu, a competitive swimmer who spends her days in the pool. Her immigrant parents expect her to train hard and secure a college scholarship, but she aspires to transform into a mermaid, freeing herself from the terrestrial world. A spiky, sapphic coming-of-age that embraces fantasy and horror to explore girlhood and its discontents. —JQ In Search of a Beautiful Freedom by Farah Jasmine Griffin A new volume of collected essays both new and previously published by Farah Jasmine Griffin, the William B. Ransford Professor of English and Comparative Literature and African American Studies at Columbia. Following her last book Read Until You Understand: The Profound Wisdom of Black Life and Literature, these new and previously unpublished essays range in topic from Covid to the efforts to ban Toni Morrison to the life work of Odetta. Griffin's insights into Black music, feminism, and literature are unparalleled. —LK Affinities by Brian Dillon When I read Dillon's previous books, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence, I considered them a diptych: two close looks at two literary forms (the essay and the sentence) that were driven by what Dillon himself calls his own "affinity." It turns out, Essayism and Suppose a Sentence were really the first two entries in a triptych! His latest book, Affinities, centers on images, from photographs to paintings to migraine auras. Why do images make us feel the way they do? Why are we drawn to certain images over other ones? Dillon is one of my favorite writers, thinkers, and close-readers, and I can't wait to read him on the pleasures of looking. —SMS Above Ground by Clint Smith I long for a literature—especially a poetry—of joy; life is too short and bland without it. Smith’s new poetry collection teems with images of love and fatherhood. Great poetry comes in many modes and subjects, but there’s something unique about a book of verse that makes me want to hold my own children a little tighter, as I think of his description of delivering a bear hug: “my arms are still / open like a universe / in need of a planet / to make it worth / something.” Juxtaposed with lines of grief and recognition—“men attempting / to unlearn the anger on their father’s / tongues, the heat in their hands”—Smith’s songs of joy are that much sweeter. —NR Ada's Room by Sharon Dodua Otoo, translated by Jon Cho-Polizzi Otoo's debut novel is about four women, all with the same name: Ada, a mother in fifteenth-century West Africa; Ada Lovelace, the real-life programmer in Victorian England; Ada, a prisoner in a concentration camp in 1945; and Ada, a young Ghanian woman in present day. As Otoo connects their narratives across centuries, the linear confines of history break down and a profound sorority comes into focus. R.O. Kwon calls this one "thrillingly, astonishingly original." —SMS April This Is Not Miami by Fernanda Melchor, translated by Sophie Hughes Taking place in and around the Mexican city of Veracruz, this collection of crónicas—narrative nonfiction pieces that blend reportage with novelistic structures—explores the criminal underworld, shedding light on social problems that manifest in gory headlines. As in her novels Paradais and Hurricane Season, Melchor draws empathetic portraits of deeply unsympathetic figures, forcing her readers to understand the mindsets of monstrous characters. —TB Chain Gang All-Stars by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah Ever since the moment I finished Adjei-Brenyah’s surreal, satirical, and original debut story collection, Friday Black, I’ve been not-so-patiently waiting for whatever he wrote next. In his upcoming debut novel, two female gladiators fight to the death for their freedom on the hugely popular and controversial TV show, Chain-Gang All Stars, which airs on CAPE (Criminal Action Penal Entertainment). With his sharp eye for satire and reverence for humanity, Adjei-Brenyah’s latest explores the exploitation, violence, and false promises of the prison industrial complex, capitalism, and the country itself. —CQ Work-Life Balance by Aisha Franz, translated by Nicholas Houde This graphic novel, which was originally a comic series published by Colorama, concerns three friends who, disillusioned with their work lives, seek help from the same therapist. Franz, who lives in Berlin, was nominated for a Los Angeles Times book prize for her previous book, Shit is Real, which the Guardian called “a wise and funny journey through loneliness and confusion.” Her latest sounds just as promising. —EL Ordinary Notes by Christina Sharpe The latest book by scholar of English literature and Black Studies Christina Sharpe takes the form of a series of 248 notes on history, art, literature, and life whose meanings accumulate over the course of nearly 400 pages. At the center of the resulting polyphonic portrait of Black existence is the figure of Ida Wright Sharpe, the author’s mother. Saidiya Hartman calls Ordinary Notes "an exquisite text" that "demands everything of the reader and, in turn, offers us a vocabulary for living.” —JW A Living Remedy by Nicole Chung Chung's bestselling memoir All You Can Ever Know, published in 2018, cemented her as one of this generation's great chroniclers of family, both adoptive and biological: its limits and possibilities, what it means, how it shapes us. Her follow-up, which follows Chung as she mourns her parents and navigates the institutional inequities baked into American society, promises to be just as poignant. Blurbers Megha Majumdar, Julie Otsuka, Imani Perry, and Bryan Washington certainly think so. —SMS Second Star: And Other Reasons for Lingering by Philippe Delerm, translated by Jody Gladding A runaway hit in France, Second Star is a collection of vignettes about life's smallest and simplest moments, from washing your windows to peeling a clementine. With evocative descriptions of taste, touch, and sound, Delerm zeroes in on the sensations and pleasures that, while often overlooked or taken for granted, can make us feel most alive. Linger in the moment, he says, stay a while—be here, now. —SMS Romantic Comedy by Curtis Sittenfeld  I first encountered Curtis Sittenfeld in high school, when my dad's then-girlfriend gifted me a copy of Prep. It was smart and sexy and felt like a portal into womanhood, which I was on the precipice of. Sittenfeld knows how to write romantic comedy without ever slipping into the saccharine, the chivalrous, the cliche. (Also, Brandon Taylor is a fan!) So I can't wait for her new rom-com, about a comedy writer whose decision to swear off love is rocked when she falls for a pop star. —SMS Sea Change by Gina Chung Chung's debut centers on thirty-something Ro who feels stalled in her life—heartbroken after a breakup, father missing, mother remote, friends drifting away. She's also stagnating at her job at a mall aquarium, where one of her favorite sea creatures (and last remaining link to her father), an octopus named Dolores, is about to be sold to a wealthy investor intent on moving her to a private collection. Joseph Han called Ro one of his favorite Korean American characters of all time. —MML The One by Julia Argy Argy’s debut novel, about a woman who’s a contestant on a Bachelor-style dating reality show, has garnered some killer blurbs. Julie Buntin writes, “I could not stop reading Julia Argy’s smart, funny, and tender debut novel about falling in love and finding oneself on and offscreen,” and Claire Messud calls it “riveting, astute and darkly comic.” —EL Without Children by Peggy O'Donnell Heffington As a mother of three myself, I’m interested in why people become parents—or don’t. In Without Children, Heffington, a historian of gender, explores the long history of women who did not become mothers, for a variety of reasons. Situating what seems to some to be a modern phenomenon within a larger historical context, this one seems like an essential read. Ada Calhoun deems it a “timely, refreshingly open-hearted study.” —EL The Double Life of Benson Yu by Kevin Chong I hear the word “metafiction” and I usually figure I’m in for a cerebral workout and probably a headache. While Chong’s story of a graphic novelist focusing on his art in an attempt to process his difficult youth is indeed a workout, it’s also a hugely engaging, headache-free read about a world, Chinatown, and a creative outlet, graphic arts, that I know nothing about. Yes, there is a lot of darkness in this story, episodes that could present challenges to some readers, but ultimately the heft of this novel lies in its powerful reminder that unless we confront our demons, we’ll never exorcise them. —IR Arrangements in Blue by Amy Key An essay collection about unpartnered life set to the soundtrack of Joni Mitchell's Blue—so thoughtful of Amy Key to write a book specifically and exclusively for me! Looking back at her past romantic longings and collisions, Key considers the (inflated?) value of romantic love and finds her contradictory feelings on the matter reflected in Mitchell's lyrics. There's nothing poor-me about Arrangements in Blue; in Key's hands, solitary life becomes more capacious—and more complicated—than I ever thought possible. —SMS The Ugly History of Beautiful Things by Katy Kelleher In this deeply researched collection of essays, Paris Review contributor Katy Kelleher explores the hidden histories of our favorite luxury goods, revealing how even the most beautiful objects have dark, unsavory backgrounds. In a blend of historical, scientific and autobiographical writing, Kelleher explains why some red lipstick contains beetle shells, why certain perfumes include rodent musk, and why a fancy class of dishware is made with the ashes of cow bones. Along with helping us understand how these objects came to signify beauty, Kelleher reveals the price workers pay to bring them to us – and suggests a few ways we can ethically appreciate their products. —TB May Written on Water by Eileen Chang It is no exaggeration to say Eileen Chang has shaped our perceptions of modern cities in China. Before her, big cities were monstrous, with myriads of people often seen as sordid sinners. Chang portrayed Shanghai and Hong Kong as the intersections of tradition and modernity, of the East and the West. The pleasures of modernity embody new ways of life. The subtleties of everyday life signify people’s pursuit of happiness. Chang is sharp, rebellious, and unique. You will find even her examination of Shanghainese food eerily resonating. —JQ Homebodies by Tembe Denton-Hurst  When Mickey Hayward loses her coveted media job, she pens a scathing letter about the racism and sexism she's encountered in the industry. It's met with silence and soon forgotten, until a media scandal catapults the letter—and Mickey—back into the spotlight. This witty take on fame, media, and the institutions that rule our lives, Homebodies already garnered blurbs from Danielle Evans, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, and Bryan Washington. —SMS Quietly Hostile by Samantha Irby If you’ve read Irby’s previous collections, or even skimmed her Instagram, you’re likely waiting for her next book of hilarious essays. This one sounds promising: it has a skunk on the front and covers everything from working in Hollywood, to getting a “deranged pandemic dog” (per the jacket copy), to being turned away from a restaurant for being dressed inappropriately. I can’t wait! —EL Dances by Nicole Cuffy At the age of 22, Cece Cordell is catapulted to fame when she becomes the first Black principal dancer in the history of the storied New York City Ballet. But her achievement doesn’t feel right, and she she soon embarks on a journey to find a missing older brother— and the pieces of herself that have been devoured by the voracious machinery of the highly competitive ballet world. This debut novel by the author of a decorated work of short fiction, 2018's Atlas of the Body, is an examination of the physical and spiritual costs all artists must pay in the pursuit of their art. —BM Monsters by Claire Dederer How to separate the art from the artist? A question I—and most cultural critics—have been wrestling with for a long time now. In Monsters, Claire Dederer takes a stab. Inspired by her Paris Review essay, "What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?," Dederer takes on Hemingway and Picasso, Miles Davis and Roman Polanski, to construct a deeply personal theory of art, genius, and cruelty, written from the perspective of both a critic and a fan. I've been counting down the days to this one for a while. —SMS Dykette by Jenny Fran Davis In her blurb for Davis's debut novel, the writer Samantha Hunt tells me everything I needed to know: "Like a tightly rolled spliff passed around the room," she writes, "you will inhale Dykette." Following three queer couples on a 10-day country getaway, Dykette takes on desire, debauchery, and destruction through a distinctly queer—and propulsively entertaining—lens. —SMS Avidly Reads Screen Time by Phillip Maciak Phillip Maciak is one of the best TV critics alive right now, full stop. Whether he's writing about Girls or Station Eleven or Bluey, his criticism is always characterized by wit, insight, and a remarkable propensity for close-reading. So yes, I was over the moon to learn about his new book of cultural criticism and history, Avidly Reads Screen Time, about how we define screens and how they define us. There are three Mad Men screen caps within the book's first 30 pages, so, yeah, it's gonna be ridiculously good. —SMS Thinning Blood by Leah Myers Leah Myers is likely the last official member of the Jamestown S'Klallam Tribe as a consequence of blood quantum laws. In a work of memoir and family excavation of her ancestors lives' in the Pacific Northwest, Myers explores the meaning of legacy, documentation, belonging, and weaves between and together her own life, the lives of her ancestors, and the hypotheticals of future generations.  —LK King: A Life by Jonathan Eig Martin Luther King Jr. has, at this point, been flattened into an icon. The Selma to Montgomery march, "I Have a Dream," his assassination—this is what his life has been boiled down for many of us, and in the American imagination as a whole. King the leader, the orator, the pastor, the martyr—what about King the man? Eig's forthcoming tome on King, the first full biography in decades, contains new research and shines a fresh light on King's life, relationships, and interiority. —SMS A Life of One's Own: Nine Women Writers Begin Again by Joanna Biggs I've recently realized that I will read just about any book of nonfiction that has the word "women" in the title. A Life of One's Own is no exception, though the draw certainly does not end at its title. Biggs's latest combine memoir, criticism, and biography (my favorite literary concoction) to study how women writers across the centuries—Plath, Woolf, Morrison, et al.— have carved out freedom for themselves in their lives and work. (I suspect this one will be a great companion to the aforementioned How to Think Like a Woman.) —SMS The Late Americans by Brandon Taylor Everyone’s favorite Booker Prize shortlister, national bestseller, Story Prize winner, Henry James prefacer, litcrit-newsletter purveyor, tweet-sender, and sweater-enjoyer Brandon Taylor, returns in May 2023 with The Late Americans. Like his acclaimed 2020 novel Real Life, The Late Americans is set in a small midwestern college town; also like Real Life, it is more accurately set in its young characters’ exquisitely sensitive and private psyches. Its three protagonists, and a larger constellation of midwestern eccentrics, artists, and academics, confront and provoke one another in a volatile year of self-discovery leading to a trip to a cabin where they bid goodbye to their former lives—a moment of reckoning that leaves each of them irrevocably altered.  —Adam O'Fallon Price The Lost Journals of Sacajewea by Debra Magpie Earling Earling reimagines the well-trodden tale of Sacajewea and her role in the fateful expedition of Lewis and Clark in this historical novel. Endowed agency, authority, and interiority, Earling's Sacajewea rewrites the version of herself handed down through American history. Her life before the expedition comes into vivid focus, as do her complicated feelings about her role in charting the course for American imperialism. Night of the Living Rez author Morgan Talty praises this "transcendental work of literature" as "striking" and "elegant." —SMS On Women by Susan Sontag, edited by David Rieff Susan Sontag, Merve Emre—the collab of the century? I'll read anything by either writer, so I will of course be reading this. Sontag's takes on feminism, sexuality, beauty, fascism, aging, and more are the focus of this seven-essay collection, introduced by Emre and edited by Sontag's son David Rieff. Always drawn to the grey, the murky, the complicated, here Sontag considers the ubiquitous, amorphous forces that shape women's lives with her characteristic curiosity and authority. —SMS Lesbian Love Story by Amelia Possanza In her debut memoir, Brooklynite Possanza dives into the archives to recover the stories of twentieth-century New York lesbians. Sifting through records she finds role models and cautionary tales, juicy gossip and heart-wrenching regret. Writing with empathy, wit, and imagination, Possanza constructs a personal, political, and romantic history of lesbian life and love. —SMS June Where Are Your Boys Tonight?: The Oral History of Emo's Mainstream Explosion 1999-2008 by Chris Payne Emo exploded just as I gained consciousness as a human being with aesthetic tastes. For me, and many of my peers, emo music was a formative force in our lives, enunciating the frustration and darkness that many of us found ourselves newly harboring as adolescents. So I can't wait to read Chris Payne's oral history of the genre, which uses interviews with My Chemical Romance, Paramore, Panic! at the Disco, Fall Out Boy, and more to reconstruct emo's meteoric ascent and profound cultural footprint. —SMS Wannabe: Reckoning with the Pop Culture That Shapes Me by Aisha Harris Harris, host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, always has a take. Movies, TV, music—she's got an opinion and she's excited to tell you about it. Adapting her radio presence into book form, Wannabe sees Harris turning her talents for critique and criticism inward, looking at the media that has shaped her life and examining its effects. From Clueless to the Spice Girls, New Girl to Chance the Rapper, Harris teases out the connections between her identity and her love of pop culture with wit and elan. —SMS Rivermouth: A Chronicle of Language, Faith, and Migration by Alejandra Oliva Oliva is a writer, translator and immigration activist who has translated for people seeking asylum along the US-Mexico border since 2016. In this work of memoir and journalism, which won a 2022 Whiting Nonfiction Award, Oliva describes her experiences of translation, describes her own Mexican-American family's relationship to the border, and interrogates notions of citizenship and belonging. —LK I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home by Lorrie Moore Moore's first novel since 2009's A Gate at the Stairs, I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home (that title!) is a ghost story set in the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries about grief, devotion, and narrative. I'll be honest, I have no idea what this book is actually going to be about (the descriptive copy sums up the plot thusly: "A teacher visiting his dying brother in the Bronx. A mysterious journal from the nineteenth century stolen from a boarding house. A therapy clown and an assassin, both presumed dead, but perhaps not dead at all . . .") but the intrigue makes it all the more anticipated. —SMS Directions to Myself: A Memoir of Four Years by Heidi Julavits  My first introduction to Julavits was 2015's The Folded Clock, which I read the week after I first moved to New York, back in 2020. I've been waiting for her next book ever since. It's finally here—Directions to Myself sees Julavits studying what she calls "the end times of childhood." She writes about her son's upbringing as well as her own to find answers about motherhood, family life, and growing up. George Saunders calls it "an absolute stunner." I predict I'll feel the same. —SMS [millions_email]

Plot, Rhyme, and Conspiracy: Hari Kunzru Colludes with His Readers

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Hari Kunzru was anointed one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2003, just as his first book, The Impressionist, hit U.S. soil. In the nine years since, Kunzru’s four novels have more than justified this title. His only deviation from it, in fact, is that four years ago he picked up and moved across the Atlantic to New York. The American landscape, its culture, its myths and belief systems figure prominently in Kunzru’s latest novel, Gods Without Men, whose name comes from Balzac: "In the desert, you see, there is everything and nothing… It is God without men." And it’s the Mojave desert that acts as the geographic center for this sprawling series of narratives that unfold over a duration of more than two hundred years. In the two weeks since Gods Without Men's release, it’s already been praised by Siddhartha Deb as “one of the best novels about globalisation." Douglas Coupland, too, sang praises in his New York Times review and coined a new genre to classify it: Translit. Coupland writes, “Translit novels cross history without being historical; they span geography without changing psychic place. Translit collapses time and spaces as it seeks to generate narrative traction in the reader’s mind.” And according to Jacob Silverman, Kunzru's latest novel is “the fulfillment of the type of ‘networked novel’ that Kunzru has advocated for, one that he argues is particularly suited to our networked age.”  Last week when Hari Kunzru and I spoke, our conversation touched on the systems that inform the novel’s content and structure, the American West, and UFO mythology born from the convergence of spiritual tradition and technology. Befitting twenty-first century networks, noise, and disembodiment, we spoke via cell phone, he in Seattle and I in Chicago, connected via two New York numbers. On Thursday, March 22nd at 7pm, Hari Kunzru will visit WORD bookstore at 126 Franklin Street, Brooklyn, NY for an event co-hosted by The Millions. Visit the WORD website for further details and RSVP. See you there! The Millions: In your novel Transmission, you write: “As soon as there is a sender, a receiver, a transmission medium and a message, there is a chance for noise to corrupt the signal.” The noise occurs here when a laid off immigrant programmer deploys a computer virus that has international ramifications. Signal corruption (or interference) also factors in to Gods Without Men, for example, where a mathematical model used in derivatives trading appears to have the power to interfere with and collapse national economies. And on a structural level in the novel, there are gaps in narrative time and in lives, there are a number of unexplained disappearances and returns. Would you talk more about the way that signals, noise, and systems in general inform and organize your novels? Hari Kunzru: Yes, I can do that. I have a sort of dark past as a technology journalist and I’ve always been interested in communication systems, both as technological artifacts and as the building blocks of social life. In my book I’ve become very interested in the ways that we’re enmeshed in these systems, whether they’re technological strictly, or not. The dream of perfect information is an old one, and Transmission is organized around this technical notion of information and thought. [Claude] Shannon’s famous information theory pretty much summarizes this: there’s a sender, there’s a receiver, there’s a transmission medium, and the mathematical idea is for the signal to go from the sender to the receiver with no corruption and no loss of data. In any real world situation there is always noise. And the ways that our attempts to make meaning and transmit meaning to each other fall away into noise in that sense, are an enduring interest of mine. You’ve absolutely hit the nail on the head with linking that to the gaps and the silences and the ways that Gods Without Men is organized. I mean, Gods Without Men has become a more explicitly metaphysical, spiritual notion. The way I usually approach talking about the book is to say that it’s about people dealing with the unknown, and beyond just the simply unknown, it’s the idea that some things might be potentially unknowable. I mean, to go back to kind of pointy-headed stuff, Gödel’s incompleteness theorem states that in a mathematical system there are things that are true within that system that can’t be proved by that system so that you can never predict absolutely. And these mathematical systems are the most-nailed down, supposedly predictive tools that we have -- they’re kind of incomplete, their meaning kind of bleeds out into nothingness. And all sorts of weird stuff can come into those gaps, and all these ideas are really good for the novelist in particular. The exploration of these areas is the sort of thing that the novelist should be doing. TM: I really enjoyed how the structure resonated with those ideas. In a BBC interview with Tom McCarthy and Stewart Home... HK: Oh, you heard that? That was a funny interview. TM: ...you say that because of the Internet, we live in a “relentlessly subcultural world,” that there are many co-existent subcultures, and that this has changed the way that culture is perpetuated. I’m wondering, how has this altered our idea and perception of narrative? And are linear narratives outdated? HK: I think there are two thing things here. When I was talking about subcultures there I was basically -- I don’t know if you know Tom and Stewart’s work. I mean, we were set up in this interview to be supposedly coming from three separate places and the poor BBC people, we all knew each other from ages ago and actually had far more in common in our interests that might first meet the eye. TM: I’m aware of your former membership in the INS. HK: Ah, yeah, in the first iteration of the INS. Yeah, so you know about the INS -- Tom’s into avant-gardes, I think he’s a very retro figure in that way. And there’s the notion that there is a kind of modernist probe heading out into the future and dragging the rest of culture behind it. I think that’s not how it works anymore. There might have been a moment in the middle of the twentieth century where that was actually happening and this kind of modernist project was functioning in that straightforward way. But now, to skip to the way we actually receive information and the way we make culture, it’s very, very difficult to work out where an avant-garde might be if you were looking for such a thing. If there is an avant-garde, you know, it’s some ten guys in Nigeria. It’s very unlikely to be a bunch of university types in a cafe who want to make formally experimental literature. You know, it may be that that kind of world is one way, one place that new culture is happening, but it’s very difficult to make it this kind of one's-at-the-fore, everyone-else-behind thing. That’s one thing. The second thing you asked me was about form and linear narrative. And I’m certainly interested in the ways that traditional narrative doesn’t function properly at the moment. I like traditional narratives, I take pleasure in stories, I watch multi-part HBO dramas, and I go to Hollywood movies. But I appreciate them because of a formal thing, because we all know really instinctively now about how plots are supposed to work. You know when there’s supposed to be a reversal, you know when it’s supposed to tie up. Most films, and books to be quite honest, in the first few pages you know what kind of thing you’re reading and you know how it’s going to go. I mean, certainly in movies -- you know you’re watching a comedy, so you know the guy and the girl, they’re going to get together in the end. You know the shape of it. And it’s a sort of banal thing to say on one level, but that’s not how experience is actually shaped in the world. That’s how stuff happens in books; and characters in these kinds of stories behave like characters, they don’t behave like people. If you do try the more complex, in kind of fleeting ways, that experience actually happens to us, then you’ve got to screw with plot in some way. You know, you can still make books where stuff happens. I don’t think you necessarily have to be some kind of high postmodernist and refuse any kind of stability of meaning. One way I’ve found is through the use of silence and the use of incompleteness, because that demands a kind of active reading. It demands something from the reader -- a kind of collusion with the writer. You’ve got to decide what you think might have happened, you’ve got to decide why you think certain things are being placed side by side. Because, you know, in our Internet world, we’ve got a constant flux of stuff. You’re clicking on one thing and then one thing leads to another and leads to another. And yet, the kind of interesting thing about the novel is almost the most old-fashioned thing about the novel: you’re putting a boundary around a bunch of stuff. You’re taking some stuff out of the flow and saying, Look at this -- this is the reason all these things are between these covers, are within this boundary. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to go and tie it all up in the end in a neat way, but there’s still an interesting specific set of decisions made about putting it all together. So there are a number of ways that you can approach this, and various people have quite different approaches, but certainly in Gods Without Men I was interested in making something that was organized almost through rhyme rather than through plot. The different stories in the book echo each other, and hopefully start to work together to grow elements that are repetitious, and there are elements that are different. TM: Right, the book almost asks a reader to read meaning into the work. HK: Right, exactly. That’s exactly it. TM:  I’d like to talk more about the fragmentation and the vitiation of culture throughout the novel. Neither Jaz nor Lisa closely identify with their heritage but still wield it when making personal decisions. And in spite of Jaz possessing the trappings of a culture, he never escapes an awareness that he’s faking it, he forgets his immigrant roots. Or, there’s the military base where the Iraqi immigrants role-play in a model Iraqi town in order to train troops before they’re deployed. What role does culture play in these American lives? Is it a costume to try on, to wear on special occasions? Is there an integrity to this fragmentation? HK: That’s a question I’ve always had to deal with in a very personal way because of my own background. I’ve got an Indian dad and an English mom and I grew up a second-generation kid in London, and so the kind of way you position yourself in relation to culture is a kind of live question at all times. Since the ‘60s and through the ‘70s and ‘80s in particular, people were being taught that culture is basically, the world is basically a floating collection of signifiers and that you can pick and choose, and you can completely create yourself. And there’s some element of truth to that, in that there’s definitely an element of performance in the cultural identity that you end up with. I mean, it’s what you do and what things you choose to adopt. But at the same time you can’t. There are bodies at the basis of this. You know, there are things that you can’t get free of. I live in a body with quite brown skin compared to my brother and I have an Indian name and my brother was given an English name. My brother’s called Richard and no one would really think he was Indian from looking at him, and yet I’ve always been quite clearly identifiable as somebody who is half Asian. And so in between the idea that there is only one culture and that you inherit it and you live within the tradition and there’s no wiggle room, and the sort of PoMo idea that we’re all busy trying on new stuff, you know, new cultures like hats -- we’re floating in between that. And the business of fragmentation when it comes to culture, that’s a slightly different question again. I grew up being called mixed race and people would say things like, “Oh, it must be nice to have two cultures,” or, “It must be bad not to have one culture.” You’re existing in a split way, and yet that was never how I was experiencing it. It’s normal inside your head. You’re not flipping between one mode and another mode in some sort of troubled way. Even though there’s a lot of people who think of themselves as securely belonging to one culture who imagine that’s what it must be like. I mean, usually that’s only as a kind of complicated or mixie person, by the people who imagine that you must’ve lost something, or you must be a bit rootless and homeless, and you must be yearning for some sort of Little House on the Prairie-type origin. So culture is in play. You take traditions on and then you change the traditions by what you do with them. I mean, Jaz in this book is having quite extreme trouble because he’s made a quite extreme leap. His parents are from a village background in north India and he’s invented himself as a sort of wealthy Wall Street dude, and the gap he’s having to bridge is quite extreme. He has, maybe more than I ever had, a sense of strain from that. TM: That’s obvious. And it’s interesting to use the U.S. as the landscape for that to play out. HK: Yeah, it is different from how it is in the UK, for example. I’m really aware of how the whole race and identity stuff plays very differently here. It’s been quite fascinating for me to come from one context -- I’ve been living in New York for four years now -- and to look at how it goes here in the States. Because the founding myth of America is the melting pot. You know, you come from wherever and then by taking the Pledge of Allegiance you transform yourself into an American. The way you become an American is by assenting to this list of baseline values, or propositions. And beyond that, you don’t have to eat some food or dress a certain way or behave a certain way in order to say you’re American. You stand up and you salute the flag, and then off you go -- you’re an American. It doesn’t work that way in Britain because Britain started off as this colonial, imperial country with the belief that there’s only one way of being British. And then it had a massive influx of immigrants, mainly after the second World War. And people like me turn up, who are clearly British, but at the same time don’t have the kind of... you know, it’s a place where you didn’t have a set, I mean we don’t have a Britain Constitution, there’s not a set of things you have to assent to in order to be a British citizen. It’s all culture and precedent and how it’s always been done. If a bunch of people turn up who do stuff differently, that’s much more threatening to the identity of the country. And the multicultural story of Britain in the last five years has been remaking the whole identity of the country to fit all the new kinds of ways of being British that have turned up. It’s a totally different history from America. TM: The American landscape figures prominently in the novel. Although the chapters jump across time, from 1778 to 2009, and lives are lived across a multitude of locations, most of the novel unfolds in one geographic area, near the Pinnacles in the Mojave desert - -a landmark described as, where “three columns of rock shot up like the tentacles of some ancient creature, weathered feelers prob[e] the sky.” What is the significance of geography to the novel, and also, in its relation to the American dream and myths of UFOs, higher energies, and the supernatural? HK: I suppose the first thing to say is that it’s kind of doubled with New York City, and you know, New York is a place of verticals and the place of finance. I’m trying to say it has much more in common with the desert, the place of horizontals and spiritual questions. All of the Walter financial modeling kind of stuff is a way of talking about the idea of credit credos and markets based on faith, in that way when everybody decides to believe the value exists. But the main action of the book is in the desert. The desert has a kind of incredible hold on me as a person. I mean, I first ended up out there just after 9/11 and in the week after 9/11, when I got stuck in the U.S. I’d been on the West Coast for about six weeks and I was supposed to fly out on the 12th of September. And at one o’clock at a motel in West Hollywood I watched the second tower go down. I was supposed to bring this rental car back to LAX and I had this scary experience -- all the freeways were closed and the airport was closed and yet the rental car company wouldn’t take no for an answer. They wanted their car. I ended up getting a bit lost, and would kind of hang there on the far side of the street, and was driving around the perimeter. I had a beard at the time and I got pulled over by the cops. They were incredibly jumpy, got their guns out, and I think it was only my English accent at the time that sort of saved me. They just realized when I said, “Hello what seems to be the trouble?” that I was an idiot, and didn’t shoot me. But at that point I just didn’t want to be in LA anymore and I didn’t get to fly out, and so I went to Death Valley and drove around the Mojave for several days, actually ending up in Vegas, which is a whole other story and a very weird time to be in Vegas. But I was out in this moment filled with dash and worry, out in this place. And I went back years later, when I first came to live here, and that kind of got doubled up again. When I’ve been on my own out there, which I have quite a lot -- I think I’ve spent around three months in the last two or three years, just driving around different routes and hiking and just being out in this space -- it’s a very intense physical experience, just being out in this space. It has to do with light, with thin air, with light bouncing off the white. Midday in summer the contrast is less and the world is bleached out, the light is so intense. And you have that feeling that the gap between the land and the sky has gotten narrower. Also, of course, the desert in the imagination of America -- that great basin is the last barrier where if you’re heading West and you’re trying to get to California, that is the great obstacle that you have to cross. And there are all sorts of slight traces of westward pioneers. You find them in the name Joshua tree. The Mormons named those big yucca plants Joshua trees because they looked like somebody holding their hand up to heaven, imploring God. So the tradition of an intense spiritual striving is there. And on to that you get air space. It’s the place where you can head out to the desert and fence off a big area of land and make it into a bombing range or an aircraft testing range, or you can do your military maneuvers with the Marines. It’s land that gets very intimately bound up with the secret state. There’s Yucca Mountain, which is earmarked as a place where they’re going to store radioactive waste, there’s Area 51, you know the famous secret place that houses UFOs. When you drive around there you’re constantly coming across places you can’t go into. These huge areas of land look exactly like the land on the other side of the road, but are actually military, you know, Air Force or Naval land. I was driving in northern Nevada one time and you couldn’t drive straight through, and suddenly there’s a big sign that said Navy Seal Undersea Training Area. And I’m like, What the fuck? We are so far from water. There’s no doubt that this place had a lake in it, but for a while I was thinking I just don’t even understand what is going on anymore. Like, how is this place being used? And the UFO thing really comes out of the convergence of those two things. It’s the spiritual tradition meeting technology, meeting specifically airspace technology. And at the moment of the Cold War, you can track the history of UFO sightings very closely to how people were feeling about the Cold War and their worries about nuclear destruction. Initially all the aliens that people were meeting were described as being these peaceful humans who had come to save us from our technological destruction. And then later, once the big security state had built up in response to the Cold War, when everything was getting fenced off and people were becoming aware that there was this massive secret budget within the government that was perhaps not fully under control, that’s when all the alien encounters turned dark as well. It all becomes very paranoid and all the Greys turn up, you know, the classic E.T. types, Aliens, The X-Files. They’re like a projection of paranoia about the government. The UFO story eventually turns into a story about the people’s relationship to government when the government is keeping something secret from us. TM: When you were talking about the relationship of technology and spirituality, it made me think of a line in the novel about Schmidt that stood out to me: “The shape of his project became clear: how to connect the mysteries of technology with those of the spirit.” HK: That’s absolutely the center of what UFOS... I think you can call it a religion almost. I mean, UFO mythology is actually a kind of tech version of something that was already there. The one thing I found out when I was researching that completely fascinated me was that there was this spate of airship sightings across the West in the 1880s and 1890s, from west Texas all through the Prairie States and into the Southwest. People would report airships and this was a time before they were in use. There were occasionally even sightings of encounters with airmen who seemed human but not all together human, including one report of a crash where there was supposed to be a body that the local pastor had buried somewhere, I think in Texas. When a new technology comes along, it kind of turns up in this sort of spiritualized way in the imagination. I mean, you could almost say the same thing was happening in the early days of the Internet in the late ‘80s when William Gibson was writing about these kind of ghostly AIs becoming conscious. And at that point we were just realizing that the global network was becoming bigger than we could comprehend and understand and what would happen if it actually took on a life of its own. You know, with each new wave of tech that comes along, there’s an early stage where our ideas about the beyond and transcendence get really wrapped up with that. TM: What contemporary novels (besides your own, of course) do you think best speak to the times and the fragmentation of twenty-first century life? HK: There’s an Icelandic novelist called Sjón and he wrote a book called From the Mouth of a Whale, that’s actually set in sixteenth-century Iceland but it’s about the lone man of reason in this age of superstition. He’s a sort of proto-scientist. He’s been collecting natural specimens and trying to think through this stuff, and he’s stuck out there on the edge of the world and in this kind of crazy... it’s an extraordinary, extraordinary novel that came out a few years ago. It’s dull almost to say because everybody thinks it but Bolaño’s 2666 is very important in the use of gaps and the kind of active reading stuff that we were talking about before. Quite a lot of the work of Don DeLillo actually was the first stab at this stuff -- some of his 1980s work. I’m really interested in Libra, the book about the Kennedy assassination, that’s about how this plot takes on its own life, this conspiracy takes on its own life and without anybody really setting something in motion. The network takes over and things take the course and that’s a really important insight that he had in that book. And in a funny way, there’s a Chinese novel I’d like to recommend as well, by Nobel Prize winner Gao Xingjian, Soul Mountain. There’s a kind of genre to these Chinese books that are almost like Beat books in a funny way -- they’re about people getting the hell out of the city and going to find themselves through road trips. Soul Mountain is essentially about a guy who’s traveling in very rural, traditional parts of China and he retells lots of folk tales and meets various people, but it’s fragments, and sometimes it’s first person, sometimes it’s third person, sometimes it’s second person, so there’s a destabilization there. His way of using stories and his way of splitting up the self really interests me.

Fractured World: Hari Kunzru’s Gods Without Men

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Hari Kunzru’s fourth novel is his most ambitious yet. Like its predecessors it is a sprawling work that refuses to be bound by a straight, linear narrative, one-stranded plot or minimal cast. On this occasion, however, Kunzru has upped the ante to a dizzying degree. Gods Without Men revels in its multifariousness: we come up against a myriad of characters of diverse cultures, warped ideologies and clashing faiths; we skip time-zones and surf alternate realities. “Emotional teleportation” is what one character feels when blotting out his senses – “like staging his own extraordinary rendition, grabbing himself out of one time and place, hoping to land in another.” Kunzru inflicts a similar disorientation on the reader, playing a headshrinker who at the same time expands our mind. The effect is exhilarating. Due to its ambition the novel resists a neat précis. At its center are Jaz and Lisa Matharu, he Sikh, she Jewish, and their severely autistic son, Raj. When the boy vanishes in the Mojave Desert the parents are flung into turmoil. Privately their cultures clash, impeding their course of action; publicly they suffer from the media feeding-frenzy, eventually becoming accused of murdering their son. Their marriage deteriorates in a storm of acrimony and guilt, and after Raj miraculously reappears it is all they can do to repair the rift between them. With a nod to the real-life Madeleine McCann disappearance, Kunzru convincingly paints the relationship’s breakdown and each individual’s personal meltdown. When the couple are at their lowest ebb and merely going through the motions Jaz describes them both as “priests of a faith they no longer believed in.” Around them, Kunzru weaves a fiendish web of plots and subplots, always employing the desert as stage or backdrop. There is Nicky, the louche London rock star, “a scabrous cockney vampire” trying to break America, who needs a time-out from creative differences in the recording studio, not to mention his psycho, gun-toting producer; we are initiated into a mystical cult called the Ashtar Galactic Command which has set up base at the “Pinnacles” in the desert to commune with extraterrestrial forces; and in one of the novel’s virtuosic set-pieces we meet Laila and a group of Arab Americans who have elected to play the role of insurgents in a “fine grained simulation” to give Marines a foretaste of what deployment to Iraq will be like. (In this last section there is even a mock-beheading, all the more mocking and blackly comic because one of the executioners loses his dishdasha and has to improvise by wearing a Little Mermaid beach towel round his waist.) In the main Kunzru excels with his kaleidoscopic storytelling. When Jaz’s boss expounds on a new financial model his words double as justification for Kunzru’s choice of splintered narrative: There’s a tradition that says the world has shattered, that what once was whole and beautiful is now just scattered fragments. Much is irreparable, but a few of these fragments contain faint traces of the former state of things, and if you find them and uncover the sparks hidden inside, perhaps at last you’ll piece together the fallen world. This is just a glass case of wreckage. But it has presence. It’s redemptive. It’s part of something larger than itself. Kunzru’s second novel, Transmission, was told from the perspective of three characters. By employing far more, some of whom we meet, some not, the reader is tasked with making sense of those “scattered fragments” and working out how, if at all, they interconnect. While the fate of the missing child is the novel’s epicenter, the Pinnacles is its geographical hub, a meeting-point for each of those seemingly disparate plot strands. Schmidt, the founder of the UFOlogist sect, seeks to harness the “paraphysical energies flowing through the rocks.” Kunzru has mixed success with the exploits of his cult. Its members, led by Wolf and the slippery shape-changing Coyote, proclaim themselves not settlers but “unsettlers.” At the outset we see them attempting to subvert “negative energy vibrations” and prepare mankind for “full galactic consciousness;” later they are dabbling in drugs and reaping the benefits of free love. The manipulation of the duped followers is effective, but getting there means wading through agonizing chunks of cosmic gobbledygook concerning Space Brothers, Oracles, plus a machine called the Mux. “Under the guidance of Merku, Voltra and the other members of the Command, including Aleph, Lord Maitreya, Sananda-Jesus, the Comte de Saint-Germain and on occasion Director Ashtar himself, I have worked tirelessly to spread the word” - and so on. We return to familiar ground with Jaz and Lisa, before being swept off again to be introduced to a friar in 1778 and later a pilgrim in 1871. Such to-and-fro scene-shifting and time-traveling demonstrate Kunzru’s inventiveness while simultaneously evincing a kind of novelistic restlessness. Each new tale is the equivalent of watching a child prodigy playing one instrument after another, each one swapped calmly for the next, with seldom a duff note produced. We watch, we marvel, but we occasionally grow irritated by the showmanship and jarring of sounds. In Gods Without Men it is the voices that jar, simply because they are too many. Just as we are becoming engrossed in one of those scattered fragments, the section ends and the next tale picks up the baton and whisks it off in a completely different direction. What is intended as variety can seem instead rag-bag miscellany. We don’t mind floundering like so many of the drug-addled characters – the cult members on sugar cubes and blotters, Nicky’s artistic highs from his psychoactive peyote kicks – but the sheer busyness of the novel engenders a peculiar claustrophobia, its clutter hampering us from truly engaging in plots or connecting to characters. Mercifully, Kunzru is still, in the last analysis, able to rein in some of that abundance so as not to mar the entire novel. James Wood’s charge of hysterical realism has cut down a few literary reputations, and felled novels crammed with facts and hyperbolic happenstance but which do not know “a single human being.” Kunzru’s novels are packed with such vitality but ultimately he escapes censure by knowing when the facts clog the narrative’s impetus, and so when to quit. We hear that Deighton, an expert on the ethnology of the Mojave, “had worked with coastal tribes in Oregon and Washington State (it was his proud boast that he knew more about the mythology of salmon than any white man alive).” It is tempting to believe that Wood’s guilty parties, writers such as Don DeLillo and Zadie Smith, might have gone off on some tangent to embellish Deighton, authenticate him with fishy back-story. But for Kunzru this bizarre boast stays incarcerated in parentheses, and rightly so. Kunzru has been compared to DeLillo, if not for style then certainly thematic interests - conspiracy theories and apocalyptic cults, the function of terror, the disintegration of family and its dubious reassembly. My Revolutions, Kunzru’s 2008 novel about a man’s extremist past and its effect on the present, bears this out; as does Transmission from the moment an insidious computer virus is unleashed to wreak havoc on the world. Gods Without Men’s more immediate cousin is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. That novel was compared to a Russian doll, spawning tales within tales; Kunzru’s narrative, also fractured, is however more intricate, and resembles the description of his Arab actors in the desert – “tiny moving parts, like cogs in a watch.” Both writers operate like Kunzru’s coyote: “He had to mess with stuff, connect things together. He had a rage for transformation.” Kunzru used transformation as a conceit is his masterly debut, The Impressionist, in which his protagonist sloughed off and assumed a series of identities. In Gods Without Men Kunzru puts his whole cast through one transformation or another, whether as signed-up disciple in a cult or anguished parent sliding into madness and despair. It is an extraordinary novel. Closing it, we can be satisfied that the better sections easily outweigh those that are more whimsical and loose-ended. And we can only applaud Kunzru for that ambition and scope. Dawn, one of the disciples, learns, albeit with help from acid punch, “how to open up the world of existence and let the vastness of the Universe enter in.” Kunzru sets himself the same gargantuan task and succeeds, aided only by his considerable talent.

Tonight on Fourth Avenue…

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Tonight's installment of the Pacific Standard Fiction Series here in Brooklyn features two top-flight novelists: Joseph O'Neill, author of Netherland, and Hari Kunzru, author of My Revolutions and The Impressionist. Books will be for sale on-site, and drink specials will be chosen by dartboard. The reading starts at 7 p.m. at Pacific Standard, between Bergen and St. Mark's. Hope to see you there!Bonus links: James Wood reviews of O'Neill and Kunzru in The New Yorker.
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