Reading Jess Row’s White Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination is like reading three books in one. The first book is a memoir of Row’s artistic coming of age. The second book is a scholarly critique of white writing and how work by people of color is excluded, ignored, and otherwise neglected. The third book is a meditation on aesthetics, craft, and ideology in creative writing. All three books are imbricated in a way that the seams are hidden but felt.
I especially was taken with Row’s chapter on American Minimalism and the overarching and lasting (but eroding) influence of Gordon Lish. My interest lay in a compelling argument Row makes about Lish’s influence on minimalist writers like Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Amy Hempel, and Richard Ford. He claims minimalist writers aren’t “able to relax into something larger, even into idiomatic speech: the consecution method doesn’t permit that…What they are performing is a Morse code, a telegraphic effect: this is how we live, this is what the present entails. And: this is all that the present entails.”
Row and I talked recently about minimalism, race, empathy, and White Flights.
The Millions: Is White Flights a project built around empathy?
Jess Row: No, I don’t think so. I’m suspicious of empathy for a lot of the reasons you see coming up in books like Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. There was a great roundtable about empathy published in The Boston Review several years ago. And in it was this psychologist, Paul Bloom. His basic critique of empathy is that it tends to focus our political thinking on objects that we feel an immediate emotional connection with, and it excludes beings and subjects we don’t feel a direct emotional connection with. There are a lot of people in the world of creative writing who put empathy at the center of their thinking about why literature is important and why fiction is important. My thinking about that is always a little more skeptical. Obviously, when you create literary characters, to some degree you’re looking for a connection, a recognition of the fictional consciousness of the character, if you’re in that realm of psychological realism. But I always think that using empathy as a justification is too simple. It requires some clarification about what empathy means.
TM: Because the idea there is empathy is self-directed. It doesn’t come from outside of you.
JR: Yeah, empathy is also circumstantial. To some degree, social media feeds on this quality. If you’re constantly seeing things popping up in your feed about some outrage in the world, it could be they’re designed by the algorithm for other reasons not having to do with creating any narrative or hierarchy of meaning. You could have someone being cruel to kittens and have widespread environmental destruction or homes destroyed in East Jerusalem. In other words, empathy can create a distorted sense of where your attention should be in the world. It’s easy to manipulate in that way.
TM: The question is: Between logos, pathos, and ethos. Which one do you think is being used most? Overwhelmingly, it’s the emotional appeal, pathos. I wonder how much pathos is behind empathy, as opposed to, say, logic or credibility.
JR: One thing I write about in the book (very briefly) is the three definitions of love in Christianity, which come from classical Greek thought. Philia-love, romantic love, and agape-love. This is something that Martin Luther King talked about all the time. When he talked about racism in the United States, he constantly talked about the importance of defining your terms when you talk about love and racism. You’re not just talking about philia-love. You’re obviously not talking about romantic love. He said you always have to be talking about agape. You have to be talking about the largest concept of love. Cornel West says, “Justice is what love looks like in public.” That’s a great way of summing up agape in the black prophetic Christian tradition.
TM: You write “white American writers are almost never asked to bring their own sadness or their own bodies into play when writing about race or racism; their dreams, their sources of shame, their most nightmarish or unacceptable or crippling fantasies”—but it also seems that fear is to blame, because who wants to have a tin ear or come off sounding hurtful. Though, you also write that, “dealing with shame is meaningful.” Do you see fear playing a role like shame?
JR: What you say is important. They’re definitely connected. I think fear of being exposed as being insensitive or being exposed as being racist or just not thoughtful in your speech or whatever—I would say that fear is absolutely debilitating for white people, writers, teachers.
But I also think there’s a culture that sustains that feeling of paranoia: “No matter what you say, or try to engage in, you’re going to be criticized.” That’s why I say that I think that it’s really important to look at those feelings directly and ask yourself, Where did those feeling come from? Who is it that’s telling you that you can’t win? Who is it that’s encouraging these feeling of paranoia? And: For whom are those feelings politically useful?
In an academic setting, that paranoia around race is extremely useful to the institution because it enables administrators and leaders to essentially treat racial justice and questions around it as an area of diversity that can be farmed out to the vice president of diversity or whatever. And the rest of us don’t have to think about it.
Essentially, you hire people to do the uncomfortable work of raising awareness about these feelings and you yourself are feeling like you’re not—you, the white administration or professor or department chair—are not able to do anything about it because you’re afraid of saying the wrong thing. That paranoia is structurally built into the institution.
TM: Do you find that Lish’s minimalist aesthetic, through what you describe as “beautiful shame,” fetishized the poor or the downtrodden?
JR: I think those two things are related. And it’s always what I say about Lish: he pressured Carver to remove the direct reference to his own background. I think that Gordon Lish himself was never interested in fetishizing rural poverty, because I think his aesthetic interests were so different. His interests were late modern, Gertrude Stein, an obsession with the sentence as a self-fulfilling object. He was able to create this artistic aura, this sense of existential inner-poverty that translated easily to American literary culture into a larger way of fetishizing poor white people as the authentic or raw voices.
TM: That reminds me of Sarah Palin talking about the “real America” back in 2008.
JR: The fetishizing of the dirty realists in the 1980s, Tobias Wolff, John Dufresne, Richard Ford. Annie Proulx’s first book Heart Songs is in this category. A lot of things came together at same time: Lish’s approach to realism, the overwhelming popularity of Raymond Carver. But you also had the Reagan era, white American retrenchment, there was a broader cultural interest in white working-class authenticity that you have in Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp. If you look at Mellencamps’s hits, “Pink Houses,” “Small Town,” “Jack & Diane”—white t-shirts and blue jeans. That’s part of a wave of fetishization of American rural life that started in the post-war era and really flowered with the baby boomers because so many of them were moved away from that life. As soon as that way of life began to fade, it became a fetish for the up-and-coming suburban bourgeois class.
TM: Who would be an example of an author who goes past the fear and beautiful shame? You mention Dorothy Allison and Allan Gurganus as examples back in the 1980s and 1990s. What about today?
JR: The landscape of American fiction is fractured as compared to how it used to be. You don’t have one aesthetic that’s nearly as dominant as the minimalist aesthetic was in the 1980s. Are you asking about specifically white writers who are going beyond shame?
TM: Yes. I mean, I’m taking your book to be a call to stronger self-reflection, as a challenge. That is, for writers to ask, “In my next story, how will I deal with shame?” I’ve been super self-conscious about who I could write. I’m like a vestigial Platonist, a latent essentialist. I read you claiming that we need to stop thinking there’s an essentialist aspect to writing others.
JR: When you talk about being a vestigial Platonist, you have to think about Plato’s critique of poetry in The Republic. This is a central tension in Western aesthetics. Plato hated the idea of mimesis and mimetic art because of what you’re saying. It is anti-essential. If an essence can be replicated, what is it? Do we need it?
The central challenge in fiction is representing other lives and consciousnesses. That’s always the core artistic challenge. I think that, in some ways, American fiction writers have essentially sort of sat back and avoided the central artistic question that should’ve been discussed in the 1960s and 1970s: Given that the country is becoming so equal and more egalitarian (superficially, anyway) and poly-cultural, how do fiction writers deal with that? That was a big subject of American fiction in the early 20th century. Along with the kinds of cities there were and new immigrants, there was all this discussion of the social novel and naturalism. What happened after 1970 in American fiction is things went radically the other way, especially in the highbrow white aesthetic universe. Nobody wanted to talk about that stuff. No one wanted to talk about the crisis of representation. There were all these postmodern systems novels and the New Minimalists, but even the most ambitious novelists, like Don DeLillo, were flattening, reducing, altering, and manipulating surface difference to create some otherworldly universe.
No one was interested in the basic question about how you write a novel where a Chinese immigrant women falls in love with a black man from Mississippi. No one wrote that novel. That novel should’ve been written in the late ’80s. But that novel didn’t make the front page of The New York Times Book Review. People are writing that now. Atticus Lish’s novel Preparation for the Next Life is a little bit like that, which is ironic. In some ways, the central artistic question hasn’t been discussed because writers are always so weighted down with fear, paranoia, and anger, legitimate anger about the bad attempts at racial representation that have happened in the past.
TM: Do you think the blowback over William Styron’s The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) had something to do with that?
JR: I do. I wrote about this in the book a tiny bit. I’ve written about Styron and Nat Turner before. That was a huge thing for me. When I was 17, in my first writing workshop, my teacher told us, an all-white class, that white writers cannot write about race because Nat Turner proved that we will be punished for doing so. He was expressing the conventional wisdom at the time in his circles. This was 1992. The teacher of the class, Lee Abbott, a wonderful person, who knew Ray Carver and Richard Ford, was a short story writer very much of that time, of the late ’80s and ’90s. He was essentially expressing the literary consensus of the white American creative writing community. Of course, that had a huge effect on me. It basically convinced me that I could not do that. I spent years trying to write in an all-white way.
TM: Whatever “writing in a white way” means, right?
JR: Yeah. In my case, what it meant was relying only on white models. It meant I went through all of 20th-century American fiction and picked out the white prominent writers and tried to read all of them and tried to ignore everyone else. That was what was being taught in creative writing classes. I went to graduate school at the University of Michigan from 1999 to 2001, which is, in the greater scheme of things, not long ago. I don’t believe there was a single text by an African-American author taught in any of my classes. Maybe one in a craft class. One or two; that’s it. Nobody, none of my teachers in fiction workshop, made any but the most sort of marginal reference to a black writer.
TM: Five years later in the MFA program at Washington University in St. Louis, I definitely had African-American writers and writers of color included in my workshops and courses.
JR: You’re lucky. The way that I teach fiction workshops now couldn’t be more different, self-consciously so. Not just in racial representation but in looking at different aesthetics, which wasn’t really done much in any of my writing workshops. I never had a teacher who encouraged us to work with experimental texts.
TM: You mention how writers “outside of whiteness” use white writing as an anti-metaphysics. Like Colson Whitehead adopting DeLillo’s style in The Intuitionist or Monique Trong’s The Book of Salt. I think about when I first read Toni Morrison and wondered, “How in the hell do I learn to write like her? How can I do what she does?” And after reading your book, I wonder, about the reverse way that writers of color, borrowing rhetorical styles from white writers, can operate backwards, for white writers to work within African-American and non-white rhetorical styles?
JR: I think it’s hugely important for white writers to talk about how influenced they are by writers of color. It doesn’t happen nearly enough. The only way to start talking about American literature as a whole literature is to talk about the interplay among the different voices, and that just doesn’t happen enough. I talk about that issue in the book in many places. For me it came up so vividly when I read James Baldwin and was so intensely captivated by his novel Another Country. I said to my wife, “I want to write a novel exactly like this.”
That is a crucial artistic step forward, acknowledging the influence—and it should be obvious and go without saying, but it isn’t obvious and it doesn’t go without saying. Toni Morrison is held up as a larger-than-life person, an icon (which is all true), but for fiction writers she’s so important because of her technical skill and stylistic, artistic skill. As a humanist voice, yes, she’s important, but for fiction writers, it’s that she’s so good at writing. Her technical abilities and her innovations are hugely influential. When I read Beloved for the first time, which was not until graduate school, I suddenly understood why so many other writers I had seen were doing things or using the chapter beginnings or the kind of voice that they were using. “Oh, it’s because they’re influenced by Toni Morrison!”
This strikes me all the time whenever I hear discussions about American memoir and hybrid texts. “Is a memoir actually fiction?” Someone no one ever talks about is Maxine Hong Kingston. The Woman Warrior is the text that invented the modern American memoir, the text that started the whole movement toward so much of what is happening today. That text only gets acknowledged as quote-unquote multicultural literature. And, of course, it’s vital for Chinese-American culture. But for writers, it has so much to teach us about the overlay between autobiographical narrative and fictional narrative, and she does it so openly and skillfully, weaves in and out so skillfully.
Everybody should be learning from that—that should be the center of the canon.
In 2008, Anheuser-Busch ran a series of perplexing ads extolling Bud Light’s “drinkability.” What could it mean to say that a beer is able to be drunk? That it won’t kill you? That it does not taste completely terrible? That it is liquid, and so will run down your throat so long as you remain at least vaguely upright? “Bud Light keeps it coming.” Under most conceivable interpretations, “drinkable” seems insulting: this beer is not good, merely drinkable. It’ll do, I guess. The ads seemed premade for mockery, almost as if an agency staffed by craft-beer lovers had snuck a self-negating pitch past their clients. Unsurprisingly, the campaign was widely chalked up as a failure. One of Budweiser’s 2015 Super Bowl ads, which openly mocked craft beer — “proudly a macro beer,” “not brewed to be fussed over” — seemed comparatively savvy: if your product can’t be confused for good, then play the populist card and deride the good as elitist. (And sell Goose Island, and now Camden Town, with your other hand.) Seemingly this must have been the aim of the “drinkability” ads as well, even if they were too tin-eared to achieve it. “Easy to drink,” “won’t fill you up,” the ads also said. “Drinkable” must mean: doesn’t have too much taste, too distinctive of a flavor, won’t slow you down, offers nothing in need of savoring.
I have been reminded of these Bud Light ads repeatedly since when perusing, of all things, book reviews, where “readable” has risen to become the preeminent adjective of praise. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch: “brilliantly readable.” Jonathan Franzen’s Purity: “Superbly readable.” The Girl on the Train, Room, The Martian, Gone Girl: “compulsively readable” (too many hyperlinks to include). A micro-history of cultural gatekeeping: once told by the censors what we may read, then by critics what we should, we are now told merely what we can read. What could it mean to say that a novel is able to be read? Composed of words that you can pass your eyes over one after another and comprehend? “Readable,” like “drinkable,” seems almost an insult: this book isn’t good, but you’ll be able to finish it. Readable books are full of familiar characters, familiar plots, and most especially familiar sentences. They are built up out of constituent commonplaces and clichés that one only has to skim in order to process. Nothing slows you down, gives you pause, forces you to think or savor. Not too much description, or abstraction, or style. A little bit literary, perhaps, but not too literary. To praise a book as readable is really just to say that you won’t have to add it your shelf with the bookmark having migrated only halfway through its leaves, won’t find yourself secretly glad to have to return it to the library, only half finished, when your two weeks are up. A readable book holds out the promise that you’ll be able to resist putting it down to check your email, or to look for updates on Slate or ESPN, or to turn on the television, or to give in to Netflix. (“Compulsively readable” means “the screen rights have already been sold,” I’m pretty sure.)
“Readable” has become the chosen term of praise in our times precisely because so many of us find ourselves unable to concentrate as we once could or still aspire to. But to praise readability is to embrace the vicious feedback loop that our culture now finds itself in. Short on concentration, we give ourselves over to streams of content that further atrophy our reserves of attention. Soon a 1,000-word polemic seems too long to drag oneself through, and we resort to skimming. So websites post yet shorter articles, even warn you how many minutes they will take to read (rarely double digits; will they soon warn us how long one takes to skim?). Editors pre-empt their own taste, choosing not what they like, or think is actually good, but what they think they can sell. Teachers, even professors, shy away from assigning long or difficult books.
It might seem that “readable” is most at home as a term of praise of thrillers and beach reads. But this is definitional: an unreadable thriller isn’t a thriller at all. “Readable” is quintessentially a term of praise for the middlebrow: fiction that aspires to the literary, but doesn’t make its reader try too hard. Fiction that you read to console yourself that you can still read a real book, or at least an approximation of one. Maybe you’re with me so far — in the abstract, that is to say. But now it’s time to name names. The last year alone brought new books from many of our most celebrated middlebrow authors, which is to say our most celebrated authors: Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, and Jonathan Safran Foer. All eminently readable, all more (Chabon, Foer) or less (Smith, Lethem) diverting, all completely forgettable. None of these books would reward being reread, studied, taught. A provisional definition of literature: that which does.
It is no coincidence that even the literary sensations of our times sit, readably, at the margins of the middlebrow. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels: “compulsively readable.” You will be propelled through the text, unable to attend to anything else until finished. Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle: “intensely, irresistibly readable.” Zadie Smith says she “needs the next volume like crack.” Though seemingly meant as praise, Smith’s blurb actually captures well my own ambivalent feelings toward Knausgaard’s saga: after reading each new novel in a two-day binge I wonder why I had, if I took anything away from their style-less prose. (My own backhanded blurb for Knausgaard: great airplane reading.) Ferrante’s and Knausgaard’s projects are perhaps the most praised of our times, and this is so not despite, but because, they are not too literary. For all their wonderful insight into female relationships, the Neopolitan novels are essentially a soap opera, their plotting determined by one love triangle after another. The thousands of pages in Knausgaard’s My Struggle, though this wouldn’t seem possible, include remarkably little self-reflection, favoring the flat narration of events instead. But both projects are eminently readable, neither requiring nor inviting the reader to ever pause and think, easy enough to finish, but long enough to feel like an accomplishment. Any more style than this, and “readable” is needed to soften the potential intimidation. Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers: “unique in its style, yet immensely readable.” “Yet:” style and readability as contraries.
What novels are not readable? Finnegans Wake, Beckett’s trilogy, a still cut-up and unrestored William S. Burroughs? (Those are some books I’ve not only not finished, but never really been able to even start.) Here’s the rub: the unreadable is simply whatever the reader hasn’t been able to finish. William Gaddis’s second masterpiece JR becomes unreadable to even a self-styled curmudgeonly elitist like Jonathan Franzen simply because he couldn’t make his way through it. Franzen’s own novels, by contrast, are quintessentially readable. I read Purity, and before it Freedom, in two days; at no point did either invite me to pause and think. After being propelled through The Goldfinch, my only reaction was to wonder why I had wasted three days of my life on it. These are the definition of “readable” books: long, and thus in need of that consoling word, but unchallenging and middlebrow, false trophies.
Readable fiction is not the problem; rather, “readable” as a — especially as our highest — term of praise is. Readability tells one precisely nothing about the quality of a novel. There are good and bad readable books; high, low, and most definitely middlebrow ones. Given the tenor of our times, it is perhaps readable books that we need least, however. It is books that slow us down and teach us to concentrate again that we need. Books that force us to attend to language, and ideas, and the forgotten weirdness of the world. Don DeLillo, master of the gnomic, aphoristic sentence, each one calling for your attention, has said that he doesn’t think his first novel, Americana, would be published today, that any editor would have given up before making it through 50 pages. A great but strange book like Tom McCarthy’s Remainder was rejected by mainstream presses and only found life, slowly, through the art world. But these are the sorts of books we need. To embrace a literary culture of Tartts and Franzens, even Ferrentes and Knausgaards, may not be to settle for Budweiser. But it is to limit oneself to lager and pilsner when there are porters and stouts, black, white, and session IPAs, even sours and wilds to be had. It is to drink Stella and Bass when Dogfish Head, Lefthand, Nighshift, and countless others are readily available. The beer critic who claims that Budweiser, or even Yuengling, is actually worth your time is either trolling you, or a corporate shill. So too the literati if the best they can recommend is the latest readable bestseller. So: critics, reviewers, blurbers, tell us not what we are able to read, but what we should. It is no accident that The Underground Railroad, rather than the far superior Intuitionist or John Henry Days, finally allowed Colson Whitehead to break through, but, if you’re only now hearing of him, read those earlier books instead, or too. Read anything by Dana Spiotta, or Ben Marcus, or Lydia Davis, or Steven Millhauser. Read Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s hilarious and thoughtful Inherited Disorders. Read any of the novels recovered and republished each year by NYRB Classics. Read Teju Cole’s Open City, and Michel Houellebecq’s The Map and the Territory. Read the beautiful alliterative sentences of William Gass. Read Dexter Palmer’s Version Control, rather than the 102 more popular time travel books ahead of it on Amazon. Some of these books are readable, others less so, some awarded, others ignored, but it hardly matters. What matters is that they resist commonplace and cliché, that they slow you down, reward attention and concentration, transfigure language and, through it, the world. They have new ideas, and images, and phrases. What matters is that they are good. You should read them, whether or not you, or I, think you can.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The 2016 National Book Award winners were announced tonight in New York City. The big prize for Fiction went to Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. The #1 bestseller has drawn praise from both Obama and Oprah, and in his review for our site, Greg Walkin noted how “Whitehead’s brilliance is on constant display” throughout:
After five previous novels, each very different, this is the only thing we can count on. It’s hard to imagine a new novel farther from Whitehead’s last, the zombie thriller Zone One. The Underground Railroad shares some features with his debut work, The Intuitionist, and his second novel, John Henry Days; both novels confront issues of race and American history through less-than-straightforward methods — a Whitehead signature.
The Nonfiction award went to Ibram X. Kendi for Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. The Poetry award was won by Daniel Borzutzky for The Performance of Becoming Human. The winners in the Young People’s Literature category were John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell for March: Book Three. See our review of Book One in the series.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.
Ninety-Nine Stories of God
The Underground Railroad
Innocents and Others
Here I Am
The Sellout rocketed up our Top Ten this month, jumping from ninth position all the way up to third. In a few weeks, when longtime frontrunners The Sympathizer and Mr. Splitfoot retire to our Hall of Fame, look for Paul Beatty’s satirical novel to lead the pack.
Speaking of the Hall of Fame, both Girl through Glass and The Lost Time Accidents graduated this month, opening space for two new entrants on our list: Colson Whitehead’s universally acclaimed The Underground Railroad, and Jonathan Safran Foer’s somewhat less acclaimed Here I Am.
By now, Whitehead’s novel needs no introduction. The #1 bestseller has drawn praise from both Obama and Oprah, and in his review for our site, Greg Walkin noted how “Whitehead’s brilliance is on constant display” throughout:
After five previous novels, each very different, this is the only thing we can count on. It’s hard to imagine a new novel farther from Whitehead’s last, the zombie thriller Zone One. The Underground Railroad shares some features with his debut work, The Intuitionist, and his second novel, John Henry Days; both novels confront issues of race and American history through less-than-straightforward methods — a Whitehead signature.
Yet by contrast, Safran Foer’s Here I Am has drawn a wider spectrum of reviews, ranging from the simply mixed and relatively positive all the way over to Alexander Nazaryan’s Los Angeles Times piece, the thrust of which can be pretty well understood just from its title: “With joyless prose about joyless people, Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘Here I Am’ is kitsch at best.”
Meanwhile, one title — The Nest — dropped from our monthly list, opening a spot for Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond. In his review of the work for our site, Ian Maleney wrote that it “rests with no little charm somewhere between collection and novel without ever settling on one or the other,” and noted how “much of the book examines the strange process of alienation anyone might experience as they find themselves with time and space to interrogate their own behavior, private or otherwise.” That sounds appropriate for the start of Autumn, if I say so myself.
Colson Whitehead’s novel John Henry Days opens with differing versions of the same story, told by witnesses and observers, all recounting John Henry’s famous battle with the steam-powered hammer. No story is the same. For men wagering on whether John Henry would defeat the machine, Whitehead writes, “[e]ach wager was a glimpse into the man who made it;” just the same, each story — the details remembered or who won the contest, for example — is a glimpse into the storyteller. The power of the folk hero, it becomes quickly evident, lies not in what actually happened; John Henry Days is not after the real story, but what it means that America keeps telling the story of the black steel-driving man.
With his new novel, Whitehead has picked another well-known story often retold: the secret transportation network of slaves before the Civil War. Frederick Douglass (who famously escaped via a literal railroad) and Harriet Jacobs both wrote popular accounts of their slavery. Slave escapes play a large part in the plot of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, published in 1852, about the same time The Underground Railroad is set. Numerous accounts of slaves and escapes were later collected and preserved by the Works Progress Administration.
Whitehead has said that he relied upon many of these narratives, particularly the Works Progress Administration accounts, in writing The Underground Railroad, and many actual advertisements for catching runaway slaves preface the book’s chapters. But for this story — probably Whitehead’s finest — history is a stepping-stone.
The Underground Railroad’s prologue summarizes the life of Ajarry. Kidnapped from her home, she is transported across the Atlantic. Standing naked on a platform, her breasts are pinched by an agent, who acquires her for $226.00. She’s eventually sold and re-sold, from southern plantation to plantation, bondage to bondage, price rising with each transaction, “appraised and re-appraised, each day waking upon the pan of a new scale.” She births five children, one of whom, Mabel, survives into adulthood, and has a child of her own, Cora. Ajarry dies in bondage, “[a]s if it could have been anywhere else.”
The bulk of the novel then follows Cora, Ajarry’s granddaughter, a slave by birth on the Randall Plantation in Georgia, owned by the (respectively) cruel and distracted Randall Brothers. Mabel escaped the plantation when Cora was 10 or 11, only leaving her daughter a three-yard plot of okra and yams. As a result, Cora grows up bitter at having been left behind. But she also emerges as clever and conscientious, someone who “cursed herself for her smallmindedness.”
From her early days she suffers greatly, including as a victim of gang rape by her fellow slaves. When she is approached by Caesar, another slave on the plantation, to escape, she is at first reluctant (channeling her grandmother), eventually willing (channeling her mother). During their escape, they spar with and kill a white boy who tries to return them to the plantation, and are relentlessly tracked by Ridgeway, a slavecatcher who had never been able to successfully apprehend Mabel. They flee through South Carolina and beyond. Either outcome seems possible: that Cora will die a slave in the “ruthless mechanism of the world,” like Ajarry, or experience the “eddy of liberation,” like her mother.
By now, if you have read anything about this novel — perhaps that it was on President Obama’s Summer Reading List, or that it has been blessed by Oprah Winfrey, or that it has become a #1 New York Times Bestseller — you know its central conceit. For Cora’s escape, the Underground Railroad is an actual underground network of trains, schedules, handcars with pumps, and tunnels that gradually lead north. Some of the stations are elaborate constructions, with comfortable waiting areas and refreshments, and some are rundown holes with boxcars. The tunnels and conductors are under a repeat threat of discovery. For something fantastic (imagine the engineering feat), not a bit of it is lacking in verisimilitude; it possesses its own history and myth, spliced with just the right amount of mystery.
Whitehead’s brilliance is on constant display here. After five previous novels, each very different, this is the only thing we can count on. It’s hard to imagine a new novel farther from Whitehead’s last, the zombie thriller Zone One. The Underground Railroad shares some features with his debut work, The Intuitionist, and his second novel, John Henry Days; both novels confront issues of race and American history through less-than-straightforward methods — a Whitehead signature.
The Underground Railroad is a more frank confrontation, albeit with a dose of magical realism. As he did in John Henry Days, Whitehead has taken something emblematic of a period in American history and pulled a nifty trick: he has made it simultaneously real and ahistorical. In The Intuitionist, Whitehead freely played with elevators, which obtained the weight of metaphor but not the heft of a symbol. Every American schoolchild learns about the Underground Railroad. As Kathryn Schultz recently wrote, the story of the Underground Railroad that Americans know was “not quite wrong, but simplified; not quite a myth, but mythologized.” It assuages the national guilt; it reminds us of the noble struggle for freedom, and not the astounding moral failing that kept such an institution legal for more than a century. (In Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, slavery is often simply, and appropriately, talked of as “the law.”)
When, here, Whitehead revisits the greatest crime in American history, he thus also revisits its greatest attempt at commutation, the “mythologized” Underground Railroad, and all the compromises that made it necessary. As one character says, slavery produced “scars [that] will never fade.” America “[i]s a delusion, too, the grandest one of all,” built on “murder, theft and cruelty” — best personified by a slave boy on the Randall Plantation, who has been taught to memorize the Declaration of Independence but has no grasp of its meaning.
Toward the end of The Underground Railroad, Cora receives some advice. As she rides the railroad, she is instructed thusly: “Look outside as you speed through, and you’ll find the true face of America.” Of course, there is nothing to see from an underground track — only the dim of the subterranean world. Whitehead’s book asks: How can a country ever put such a period behind it? Putting the famous Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill won’t change the fact that American money was used to purchase people. “This isn’t Mississippi in the fifties, J.,” one character in John Henry Days tells the protagonist. “It’s always Mississippi in the fifties,” J. answers.
Besides the underground locomotives, Whitehead has sprinkled other touches of magical realism, or anachronisms, throughout this book, including ghosts, a skyscraper in 1850s South Carolina, and the Museum of Natural Wonders, which, among its exhibits, re-creates anodyne living dioramas of the human trafficking trade. For a time, Cora, believing she has found her freedom in South Carolina, works in the museum, participating in the slave ship display. She quickly finds out that, even in her freedom, “[t]ruth was a changing display in a shop window, manipulated by hands when you weren’t looking, alluring and ever out of reach.” These purposefully absurd sections are perhaps the closest thing to Whitehead’s older work, and his jocular tone; the rest of The Underground Railroad, rather, is sober and measured. “[I]t is a serious subject that didn’t seem to warrant my usual satire and joking,” Whitehead told Vulture.
The ironies are cruel ones, taken from life: the doctors who sterilize black people in South Carolina, where Cora first emerges after her travel on the railroad, and justify the procedure to black women as “a chance for you to take control over your own destiny.” In a one-off chapter, a grave robber reflects on stealing black bodies for the medical schools, observing, based on the obviously identical anatomy between whites and blacks: “In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man’s equal.”
The plotting is deft and sure-handed. But the story slows for poignant moments, like Cora’s frisson when she finally puts on a soft cotton dress in South Carolina. There, she guiltily enjoys one of the keys product that drove the entire system of bondage.
The inventiveness that characterizes elements of his plot extends to his voice in this novel. In interviews he has said it emerged complete from just writing the first section on Ajarry, and the resulting omniscient narrator’s words prove lapidary, perhaps including some of the best writing Whitehead has done. The prose, in short, is spectacular. Few books have demanded so much tabbing, so many bookmarks, and so many marginal notes — so often do crystalline turns of phrase and aphorisms materialize. Take this: “Freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close, but from outside, from the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Or this: “In liberty or bondage, the African could not be separated from the American.”
The Underground Railroad is ultimately a story about a motherless girl searching for some kind of protection and love, but often finding only exploitation. It is ruthless in its depiction of the antebellum world, but threads of hope also emerge from the bravery of many characters, and from the feat of the railroad itself: “The up-top world must be so ordinary compared to the miracle beneath,” the book goes.
As for Cora, as for America, the scars of slavery won’t fade:
Once Mabel ran, Cora thought of her as little as possible…[S]he realized she banished her mother not from sadness, but rage. She hated her. Having tasted freedom’s bounty, it was incomprehensible to Cora that Mabel had abandoned her to that hell.
Even if she finds her way out of hell, it’s clear that freedom doesn’t mean heaven. “The Declaration [of Independence] is like a map,” one character tells Cora. “You trust that it’s right, but you only know by going out and testing it yourself.”
This year is already proving to be an excellent one for book lovers. Since our last preview, we’ve gotten new titles by Don DeLillo, Alexander Chee, Helen Oyeyemi, Louise Erdrich; acclaimed debut novels by Emma Cline, Garth Greenwell, and Yaa Gyasi; new poems by Dana Gioia; and new short story collections by the likes of Greg Jackson and Petina Gappah. We see no evidence the tide of great books is ebbing. This summer we’ve got new works by established authors Joy Williams, Jacqueline Woodson, Jay McInerney, as well as anticipated debuts from Nicole Dennis-Benn and Imbolo Mbue; in the fall, new novels by Colson Whitehead, Ann Patchett, and Jonathan Safran Foer on shelves; and, in the holiday season, books by Javier Marías, Michael Chabon, and Zadie Smith to add to gift lists. Next year, we’ll be seeing the first-ever novel (!) by none other than George Saunders, and new work from Kiese Laymon, Roxane Gay, and (maybe) Cormac McCarthy. We’re especially excited about new offerings from Millions staffers Hannah Gersen, Sonya Chung, Edan Lepucki, and Mark O’Connell (check out next week’s Non-Fiction Preview for the latter).
While it’s true that no single list could ever have everything worth reading, we think this one — at 9,000 words and 92 titles — is the only 2016 second-half book preview you’ll need. Scroll down and get reading.
Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn: In a recent interview in Out magazine, Dennis-Benn described her debut novel as “a love letter to Jamaica — my attempt to preserve her beauty by depicting her flaws.” Margot works the front desk at a high-end resort, where she has a side business trading sex for money to send her much younger sister, Thandi, to a Catholic school. When their village is threatened by plans for a new resort, Margot sees an opportunity to change her life. (Emily)
Heroes of the Frontier by Dave Eggers: The prolific writer has made his reputation on never picking a genre, from starting the satirical powerhouse McSweeney’s to post-apocalyptic critiques on the tech world. But if there’s one thing Eggers has become the master of, it’s finding humor and hope in even the most tragic of family situations. In Eggers’s seventh novel, when his protagonist, Josie, loses her job and partner, she escapes to Alaska with her two kids. What starts as an idyllic trip camping out of an RV dubbed Chateau turns into a harrowing personal journey as Josie confronts her regrets. It’s Eggers’s first foray into the road trip novel, but it’s sure to have his signature sharp and empathetic voice. (Tess)
Multiple Choice by Alejandro Zambra: The Chilean writer Zambra’s new book is: a.) a parody of that nation’s college-entrance Academic Aptitude Exam, b.) a parody of a parody of same, c.) an exercise in flouting literary conventions, d.) all of the above. The correct answer is d.) — because this sly slender book, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, is divided into 90 multiple-choice questions suggesting that how we respond to a story depends on where the writer places narrative stress. The witty follow-up questions suggest that the true beauty of fiction is that it has no use for pat answers. For example: “What is the worst title for this story — the one that would reach the widest possible audience?” (Bill)
Ninety-Nine Stories of God by Joy Williams: Williams is the sort of writer one “discovers” — which is to say the first time you read her, you can’t believe you’ve never read her before; and you know you must read more. Ninety-Nine Stories of God is a “slim volume,” according to Kirkus, at the same time it lives up to its name: each of the very-short stories (yes, there are 99 of them) features God and/or the divine — as idea, character, or presence. In the world of Joy Williams, we can expect to meet a God who is odd, whip-smart, exuberant, surprising, funny, sad, broken, perplexed, and mysterious. I look awfully forward. (Sonya)
Home Field by Hannah Gersen: The debut novel from The Millions’s own Gersen has one of the best jacket copy taglines ever: “The heart of Friday Night Lights meets the emotional resonance and nostalgia of My So-Called Life”…I mean, right? Its story bones are equally striking: the town’s perfect couple — high school football coach Dean and his beautiful sweetheart, Nicole — become fully, painfully human when Nicole commits suicide. Dean and his three children, ages eight to 18, must now forge ahead while also grappling with the past that led to the tragedy. Set in rural Maryland, it’s a story, says Kirkus, built upon “meticulous attention to the details of grief,” the characters of which are “so full, so gently flawed, and so deeply human.” (Sonya)
How to Set a Fire and Why by Jesse Ball: Jesse Ball’s last novel, A Cure for Suicide, wrestled with questions of memory’s permanence, existence, and beginning again — all subjects that, according to The New York Times, “in the hands of a less skilled writer…could be mistaken for science fiction cliché.” Ball’s newest novel, his sixth, is something of a departure. How to Set a Fire and Why takes place in a normal-enough town peopled by characters who have names like Lucia and Hal. Don’t worry, though, Ball the fabulist/moralist is still very much himself; the young narrator muses on the nature of wealth and waste as she gleefully joins an Arsonist’s Club, “for people who are fed up with wealth and property, and want to burn everything down.” (Brian)
Problems by Jade Sharma: Problems is the first print title from Emily Books, the subscription service that “publishes, publicizes, and celebrates the best work of transgressive writers of the past, present and future” and sends titles to readers each month. They’ll be publishing two original printed books a year in conjunction with Coffee House Press. Sharma’s debut is described as “Girls meets Trainspotting,” about a heroin addict struggling to keep her life together. Emily Books writes, “This book takes every tired trope about addiction and recovery, ‘likeable’ characters and redemption narratives, and blows them to pieces.” (Elizabeth)
The Unseen World by Liz Moore: Ada is the daughter of a brilliant computer scientist, the creator of ELIXIR, a program designed to “acquire language the way that human does,” through immersion and formal teaching. Ada too is the subject of an experiment of sorts, from a young age “immersed in mathematics, neurology, physics, philosophy, computer science,” cryptology and, most important, the art of the gin cocktail by her polymath father. His death leaves Ada with a tantalizing puzzle to solve in this smart, riddling novel. (Matt)
The Trap by Melanie Raabe: Translated from the German, the English version of this celebrated debut was snaffled up by Sony at the Frankfurt Book Fair and is now on its way to a big-screen debut as well. A thriller, The Trap describes a novelist attempting to find her sister’s killer using her novel-in-progress as bait (this always works). (Lydia)
Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon: The Pushcart-winning author received a lot of praise for her debut, The Little Bride, and accolades are already flowing in for her latest, with J. Courtney Sullivan calling Lucy Pear, “a gorgeous and engrossing meditation on motherhood, womanhood, and the sacrifices we make for love.” It opens with an unwed Jewish mother named Bea leaving her baby beneath a Massachusetts pear tree in 1917 to pursue her dreams of being a pianist. A decade later, a disenchanted Bea returns to find her daughter being taken care of by a strong Irish Catholic woman named Emma, and the two woman must grapple with what it means to raise a child in a rapidly changing post-war America in the middle of the Prohibition. With poetic prose but a larger understanding of the precarious world of 1920s New England, Solomon proves herself as one of the most striking novelists of the day. (Tess)
Bad Faith by Theodore Wheeler: Kings of Broken Things, Wheeler’s debut novel about young immigrants set during the Omaha Race Riot of 1919, is coming in 2017 from Little A. The riot followed the horrific lynching of Will Brown. A legal reporter covering the Nebraska civil courts, Wheeler brings much authenticity to the tale. For now, readers can enjoy Bad Faith, his first story collection. (Nick R.)
Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan: Described in promotional materials as both Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Emma set in Singapore, Tan’s first novel explores “the contentious gender politics and class tensions thrumming beneath the shiny exterior of Singapore’s glamorous nightclubs and busy streets.” It is also the first novel written entirely in “Singlish” (the local patois of Singapore) to be published in America. The long-time journalist — Tan has been a staff writer at The Wall Street Journal, In Style, and The Baltimore Sun — previously published a memoir called A Tiger in The Kitchen: A Memoir of Food & Family, which was praised as “a literary treat.” (Elizabeth)
Pond by Claire Louise-Bennett: Published in Ireland last year, a linked series of vignettes and meditations by a hermitess. The Guardian called it a “stunning debut;” The Awl’s Alex Balk offers this rare encomium: “the level of self-importance the book attaches to itself is so low that you are never even once tempted to make the ‘jerking off’ motion that seems to be the only reasonable response to most of the novels being published today.” (Lydia)
An Innocent Fashion by R.J. Hernández: Ethan St. James was born Elián San Jamar, the son of multiracial, working-class parents in Texas. At Yale, he befriends two wealthy classmates, who help him reinvent himself as he moves to New York to work for the fashion magazine Régine. But once he’s there, things begin to crumble. It’s described as “the saga of a true millennial — naïve, idealistic, struggling with his identity and sexuality,” and an early review says that Hernández writes in “a fervently literary style that flirts openly with the traditions of Salinger, Plath, and Fitzgerald.” (Elizabeth)
Listen to Me by Hannah Pittard: Following up The Fates Will Find Their Way and Reunion, two-time Year in Reading alum Pittard hits us with a “modern gothic” novel about a faltering marriage and an ill-fated road trip. (Lydia)
My Name Is Leon by Kit de Waal: A former magistrate who has spent years doing family law and social work in England, de Waal publishes her debut novel at the respectable age of 55, bringing experiences from a long career working with adoption services to a novel about a mixed family navigating the foster care system in the 1980s. (Lydia)
Night of the Animals by Bill Broun: A strangely prophetic novel set in London, Night of the Animals takes place in a very near, very grim future — a class-divided surveillance state that looks a little too much like our own. A homeless drug addict named Cuthbert hears the voices of animals who convince him to liberate them from the London Zoo, joining with a rag-tag group of supporters to usher in a sort of momentary peaceable kingdom in dystopian London. The book is difficult to describe and difficult to put down. (Lydia)
Break in Case of Emergency by Jessica Winter: The fiction debut of Slate editor Winter, a seriocomic look at a woman trying to do what used to be called “having it all,” dealing with a job that sucks — a send-up of a celebrity non-profit — and uncooperative fertility. Publisher’s Weekly called it a “biting lampoon of workplace politics and a heartfelt search for meaning in modern life.” (Lydia)
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue: This is one of those debuts that comes freighted with hype, expectation, and the poisonous envy of writers who didn’t receive seven-figure advances, but sometimes hype is justified: Kirkus, in a starred review, called this novel “a special book.” Mbue’s debut, which is set in New York City at the outset of the economic collapse, concerns a husband and wife from Cameroon, Jende and Nemi, and their increasingly complex relationship with their employers, a Lehman Brothers executive and his fragile wife. (Emily)
The Nix by Nathan Hill: Eccentricity, breadth, and length are three adjectives that often earn writers comparisons to Thomas Pynchon. Hill tackles politics more headlong than Pynchon in this well-timed release. The writing life of college professor Samuel Andresen-Andersen is stalled. His publisher doesn’t want his new book, but he’s in for a surprise: he sees his long-estranged mother on the news after she throws rocks at a right-wing demagogue presidential candidate. The candidate holds press conferences at his ranch and “perfected a sort of preacher-slash-cowboy pathos and an anti-elitist populism” and his candidacy is an unlikely reason for son and mother to seek reunion. (Nick R.)
Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson: Although the National Book Award winner’s Brown Girl Dreaming was a young adult book, everyone flocked to lyrical writing that honed in on what it means to be a black girl in America. Now Woodson has written her first adult novel in two decades, a coming-of-age tale set in 1970s Bushwick, where four girls discover the boundaries of their friendship when faced with the dark realities of growing up. As Tracy K. Smith lauds, “Another Brooklyn is heartbreaking and restorative, a gorgeous and generous paean to all we must leave behind on the path to becoming ourselves.” (Tess)
Bright, Precious Days by Jay McInerney: This is the third of three McInerney novels following the lives of New York book editor Russell Calloway and his wife Corinne. The first Calloway book, Brightness Falls (1992), set during leveraged buyout craze of the late-1980s, is arguably McInerney’s last truly good novel, while the second, The Good Life (2006), set on and around 9/11, is pretty inarguably a sentimental mess. This new volume, set in 2008 with the financial system in crisis and the country about to elect its first black president, follows a now-familiar pattern of asking how world-historical events will affect the marriage of McInerney’s favorite cosseted and angst-ridden New Yorkers. (Michael)
Carousel Court by Joe McGinniss, Jr.: Each unhappy mortgage is unhappy in its own way. A man and his beautiful wife (“a face that deserves granite countertops and recessed lighting”) try to flip a house in a California development at the wrong time. Now “it’s underwater, sinking fast, has…them by the ankles, and isn’t letting go.” This is the bleak but gripping setup for McGinniss’s second novel (coming 10 years after The Delivery Man), a portrait of a marriage as volatile as the economy. (Matt)
Shining Sea by Anne Korkeakivi: Korkeakivi’s second novel — her first was 2012’s An Unexpected Guest — opens with the death of a 43-year-old WWII veteran, and follows the lives of his widow and children in the years and decades that follow. A meditation on family, the long shadow of war over generations, and myth-making. (Emily)
How I Became a North Korean by Krys Lee: Lee’s debut novel (following her praised short story collection, Drifting House), is set in and adjacent to North Korea. The novel follows three characters who meet across the border in China: two North Koreans, one from a prominent and privileged family, the other raised in poverty, and a Chinese-American teen who is an outcast at school. Together the three struggle to survive in, in the publisher’s words, “one of the least-known and most threatening environments in the world.” (Elizabeth)
Moonstone by Sjón: “One thing I will not do is write a thick book,” asserts Icelandic author Sjón, who seems to have done just about everything else but, including writing librettos and penning lyrics with Lars von Trier for Björk’s Dancer in the Dark soundtrack. Sjón’s novels often dwell in mytho-poetic realms, but Moonstone, his fourth, is set firmly in recent history: 1918 Reykjavik, a city newly awash with foreign influence: cinema, the Spanish flu, the threat of WWI. Moonstone deals with ideas of isolation versus openness both nationally and on a personal scale, as Máni navigates his then-taboo desire for men, his cinematic fantasies, the spreading contagion, and the dangers imposed. (Anne)
Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott: The fictional town of Cross River, Md., founded after our nation’s only successful slave revolt, serves as the setting for the 13 stories in Scott’s latest collection. Here, readers track the daily struggles of ordinary residents trying to get ahead — or just to get by. By turns heartbreaking, darkly funny, and overall compelling, Insurrections delivers a panorama of modern life within a close-knit community, and the way the present day can be influenced by past histories, past generations. Scott, a lecturer at Bowie State, is a writer you should be reading, and this book serves as a nice entry point for first-timers. Meanwhile, longtime fans who follow the author on Twitter are in no way surprised to hear Scott’s writing described as “intense and unapologetically current” in the pre-press copy. (Nick M.)
White Nights in Split Town City by Annie DeWitt: DeWitt’s first “slender storm of a novel” White Nights in Split Town City lands on the scene with a fury worthy of a cowboy western. To wit, Ben Marcus calls the book a “bold word-drunk novel,” that deals a good dose of swagger, seduction, and “muscular” prose (as corroborated by Tin House’s Open Bar). It’s a coming-of-age tale where a young girl’s mother leaves, her home life disintegrates, and she and her friend build a fort from which they can survey the rumors of the town. Laura van den Berg calls it a “ferocious tumble of a book” that asserts DeWitt as a “daring and spectacular new talent.” (Anne)
A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi: Hashimi, part-time pediatrician and part-time novelist (The Pearl That Broke Its Shell, When the Moon Is Low), offers readers an emotional heavyweight in her latest story, A House Without Windows. An Afghan woman named Zeba’s life changes when her husband of 20 years, Kamal, is murdered in their home. Her village and her in-laws turn against her, accusing her of the crime. Overcome with shock, she cannot remember her whereabouts when her husband was killed, and the police imprison her. Both the audience and Zeba’s community must discover who she is. (Cara)
Still Here by Lara Vapnyar: In her new novel, Russian-born writer Vapnyar dissects the lives of four Russian émigrés in New York City as they tussle with love, tumult, and the absurdities of our digital age. Each has technology-based reasons for being disappointed with the person they’ve become. One of the four, Sergey, seeks to turn this shared disappointment upside down by developing an app called Virtual Grave, designed to preserve a person’s online presence after death, a sort of digitized cryogenics. It could make a fortune, but is there anyone — other than Ted Williams or an inventive novelist – who could seriously believe that Virtual Grave is a good idea? (Bill)
Divorce Is in the Air by Gonzalo Torné: For his third novel (and first published in the U.S.), Spanish writer Torné gives us a man we can love to hate. Joan-Marc is out of work and alone as he sets out to make things right by coming clean with his estranged second wife, giving her a detailed account of his misspent life — from childhood scenes to early sexual encounters, his father’s suicide and his mother’s mental illness, and on through a life full of appetites indulged, women mistreated, and the many ways his first wife ruined him. The novel, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, becomes an unapologetic exploration of memory, nostalgia, and how love ends. (Bill)
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead: In 1998, Whitehead appeared out of nowhere with The Intuitionist, a brilliant and deliciously strange racial allegory about, of all things, elevator repair. Since then, he’s written about junketing journalists, poker, rich black kids in the Hamptons, and flesh-eating zombies, but he’s struggled to tap the winning mix of sharp social satire and emotional acuity he achieved in his first novel. Early word is that he has recaptured that elusive magic in The Underground Railroad, in which the Underground Railroad slaves used to escape is not a metaphor, but a secret network of actual tracks and stations under the Southern landscape. (Michael)
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer: It’s tempting to play armchair psychiatrist with the fact that it’s taken JSF 11 years to produce his third novel. His first two — both emotional, brilliant, and, I have to say it, quirky — established him as a literary wunderkind that some loved, and others loved to hate. (I love him, FWIW.) Here I Am follows five members of a nuclear family through four weeks of personal and political crisis in Washington D.C. At 600 pages, and noticeably divested of a cutesy McSweeney’s-era title, this just may be the beginning of second, more mature phase of a great writer’s career. (Janet)
Nutshell by Ian McEwan: “Love and betrayal, life and death come together in the most unexpected ways,” says Michal Shavit, publisher of the Booker Prize-winner’s new novel. It’s an apt description for much of his work and McEwan is at his best when combining elegant, suspenseful prose with surprising twists, though this novel is set apart by perspective. Trudy has betrayed her husband, John, and is hatching a plan with his brother. There is a witness to a wife’s betrayal, the nine-month-old baby in Trudy’s womb. As McEwan puts it, he was inspired to write by, “the possibilities of an articulate, thoughtful presence with a limited but interesting perspective.” (Claire)
Jerusalem by Alan Moore: For anyone who fears that Watchmen and V for Vendetta writer Moore is becoming one of his own obsessed, isolated characters — lately more known for withdrawing from public life and disavowing comic books than his actual work — Jerusalem is unlikely to reassure. The novel is a 1,280-page mythology in which, in its publisher’s words, “a different kind of human time is happening, a soiled simultaneity that does not differentiate between the petrol-colored puddles and the fractured dreams of those who navigate them.” Also: it features “an infant choking on a cough drop for eleven chapters.” Something for everyone! (Jacob)
Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: A new novel by the bestselling author of gems like Bel Canto and State of Wonder is certainly a noteworthy publishing event. This time, Patchett, who also owns Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn., takes on a more personal subject, mapping multiple generations of a family broken up by divorce and patched together, in new forms, by remarriage. Commonwealth begins in the 1960s, in California, and moves to Virginia and beyond, spanning many decades. Publishers Weekly gives it a starred review, remarking, “Patchett elegantly manages a varied cast of characters as alliances and animosities ebb and flow, cross-country and over time.” (Edan)
Deceit and Other Possibilities by Vanessa Hua: A one-time staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle who filed stories from around the world while winning prizes for her fiction (including The Atlantic’s student fiction prize), Hua makes her publishing debut with this collection of short stories. Featuring characters ranging from a Hong Kong movie star fleeing scandal to a Korean-American pastor who isn’t all he seems, these 10 stories follow immigrants to a new America who straddle the uncomfortable line between past and present, allegiances old and new. (Kaulie)
The Last Wolf & Herman by László Krasznahorkai: To get a sense of what Booker Prize-winning author Krasznahorkai is all about, all you need to do is look at the hero image his publishers are using on his author page. Now consider the fact that The Last Wolf & Herman, his latest short fictions to be translated into English, is being described by that same publisher as “maddeningly complex.” The former, about a bar patron recounting his life story, is written as a single, incredibly long sentence. The latter is a two-part novella about a game warden tasked with clearing “noxious beasts” from a forest — a forest frequented by “hyper-sexualized aristocratic officers.” All hope abandon ye who enter here. Beach readers beware; gloom lies ahead. (Nick M.)
Intimations by Alexandra Kleeman: Kleeman’s first novel, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine, earned her comparisons to such postmodern paranoiacs as Don DeLillo and Thomas Pynchon. Her second book, Intimations, is a collection of 12 stories sure to please any reader who reveled in the heady strangeness of her novel. These stories examine the course life in stages, from the initial shock of birth into a pre-formed world on through to the existential confusion of the life in the middle and ending with the hesitant resignation of a death that we barely understand. With this collection, Kleeman continues to establish herself as one of the most brilliant chroniclers of our 21st-century anxieties. (Brian)
Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch: The author of the international bestseller The Dinner, will publish Dear Mr. M — his eighth novel to date, but just the third to be translated into English. A writer, M, has had much critical success, but only one bestseller, and his career seems to be fading. When a mysterious letter writer moves into the apartment below, he seems to be stalking M. Through shifting perspectives, we slowly learn how a troubled teacher, a pair of young lovers, their classmates, and M himself are intertwined. With a classic whodunit as its spine, the novel is elevated by Koch’s elegant handling of structure, willingness to cross-examine the Dutch liberal sensibility, and skewering of the writer’s life. This is a page turner with a smart head on its shoulders and a mouth that’s willing to ask uncomfortable questions. (Claire)
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue: Set in 1850s rural Ireland, The Wonder tells the story of Anna, a girl who claims to have stopped eating, and Lib, a nurse who must determine whether or not Anna is a fraud. Having sold over two million copies, Donoghue is known for her bestselling novel, Room, which she also adapted for the screen to critical acclaim. But as a read of her previous work, and her recent novel Frog Music shows, she is also well versed in historical fiction. The Wonder brings together the best of all, combining a gracefully tense, young voice with a richly detailed historical setting. (Claire)
Black Wave by Michelle Tea: Expanding her diverse body of work — including five memoirs, a young adult fantasy series, and a novel — Tea now offers her audience a “dystopic memoir-fiction hybrid.” Black Wave follows Tea’s 1999 trek from San Francisco to L.A. in what Kirkus calls “a biting, sagacious, and delightfully dark metaliterary novel about finding your way in a world on fire.” The piece has received rave reviews from the likes of Eileen Myles and Maggie Nelson, which promise something for readers to look forward to this September. (Cara)
The Black Notebook by Patrick Modiano: Modiano, a Nobel Prize winner, used a setting that shows up often in his work to give atmosphere to his 2012 novel L’herbe du nuit (appearing in English for the first time as The Black Notebook): the underdeveloped, unkempt suburbs of Paris in the 1960s. The book follows a man named Jean as he begins an affair with Dannie, a woman who may or may not be implicated in a local murder. As their relationship progresses, Jean begins to keep a diary, which he then uses decades later in a quest to piece together her story. (Thom)
Sleeping on Jupiter by Anuradha Roy: Released last year in the U.K., Sleeping on Jupiter will hit the shelves in the U.S. this October. Longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize and winner of the 2016 DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, Roy’s latest novel follows the story of Nomita, a filmmaker’s assistant who experiences great trauma as young girl. When Nomita returns to her temple town, Jarmuli, after growing up in Norway, she finds that Jarmuli has “a long, dark past that transforms all who encounter it.” (Cara)
Reputations by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: Discussing The Sound of Things Falling, his atmospheric meditation on violence and trauma, with The Washington Post several years back, the Columbian writer Vásquez described turning away from Gabriel García Márquez and toward Joseph Conrad, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo: “All these people do what I like to do, which is try to explore the crossroads between the public world — history and politics — and the private individual.” That exploration continues in Reputations, which features an influential cartoonist reassessing his life and work as a political scourge. (Matt)
Umami by Laia Jufresa: A shared courtyard between five homes in Mexico City is frequently visited by a 12-year-old girl, Ana. In the summer, she passes time reading mystery novels, trying to forget the mysterious death of her sister several years earlier. As it turns out, Ana’s not the only neighbor haunted by the past. In Umami, Jufresa, an extremely talented young writer, deploys multiple narrators, giving each a chance to recount their personal histories, and the questions they’re still asking. Panoramic, affecting, and funny, these narratives entwine to weave a unique portrait of present-day Mexico. (Nick M.)
The Fortunes by Peter Ho Davies: Davies, the author of The Welsh Girl and a professor at University of Michigan’s esteemed MFA program, returns with a big book about American history seen through the lens of four stories about Chinese Americans. Publishers Weekly gave it a starred review, calling it “a brilliant, absorbing masterpiece,” and said it can be read as four novellas: the first is about a 19th-century organizer of railroad workers, for instance, and the last is about a modern-day writer going to China with his white wife to adopt a child. Celeste Ng says, “Panoramic in scope yet intimate in detail, The Fortunes might be the most honest, unflinching, cathartically biting novel I’ve read about the Chinese American experience. It asks the big questions about identity and history that every American needs to ask in the 21st century.” (Edan)
Loner by Teddy Wayne: David Federman, a nebbishy kid from the New Jersey suburbs, gets into Harvard where he meets a beautiful, glamorous girl from New York City and falls in love. What could go wrong? Quite a bit, apparently. Wayne, himself a Harvardian, scored a success channeling his inner Justin Bieber in his 2013 novel The Love Song of Jonny Valentine. This book, too, has its ripped-from-the-headlines plot elements, which caused an early reviewer at Kirkus to call Loner “a startlingly sharp study of not just collegiate culture, but of social forces at large.” (Michael)
Little Nothing by Marisa Silver: From its description, Little Nothing sounds like a departure for Silver, the author of the novels The God of War and Mary Coin. The book, which takes place at the turn of the 20th century in an unnamed country, centers on a girl named Pavla, a dwarf who is rejected by her family. Silver also weaves in the story of Danilo, a young man in love with Pavla. According to the jacket copy, Little Nothing is, “Part allegory about the shifting nature of being, part subversive fairy tale of love in all its uncanny guise.” To whet your appetite, read Silver’s short story “Creatures” from this 2012 issue of The New Yorker, or check out my Millions interview with her about Mary Coin. (Edan)
After Disasters by Viet Dinh: Four protagonists, one natural disaster: Ted and Piotr are disaster relief workers, Andy is a firefighter, and Dev is a doctor — all of them do-gooders navigating the after-effects of a major earthquake in India. Their journeys begin as outward ones — saving others in a ravaged and dangerous place — but inevitably become internal and self-transforming more than anything. Dinh’s stories have been widely published, and he’s won an O. Henry Prize; his novel debut marks, according to Amber Dermont, “the debut of a brilliant career.” (Sonya)
The Revolutionaries Try Again by Mauro Javier Cardenas: Cardenas’s first novel The Revolutionaries Try Again has the trappings of a ravishing debut: smart blurbs, a brilliant cover, a modernist narrative set amongst political turmoil in South America, and a flurry of pre-pub excitement on Twitter. Trappings don’t always deliver, but further research confirms Cardenas’s novel promises to deliver. Having garnered comparisons to works by Roberto Bolaño and Julio Cortázar, The Revolutionaries Try Again has been called “fiercely subversive” while pulling off feats of “double-black-diamond high modernism.” (Anne)
Perfume River by Robert Olen Butler: Butler, who won the Pulitzer in 1993, is still most well-known for the book that won him the prize, the Vietnam War-inspired A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. In his latest, a novel, he goes back to that collection’s fertile territory, exploring the relationship of a couple — both tenured professors at Florida State — who can trace their history to the days of anti-war protests. When the husband, Robert, finds out that his father is dying, he gets a chance to confront the mistakes of his past. (Thom)
The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride: McBride’s first novel, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, unleashed a torrent of language and transgression in the mode of high modernism — think William Faulkner, think James Joyce, think Samuel Beckett. James Wood described its prose as a “visceral throb” whose “sentences run meanings together to produce a kind of compression in which words…seem to want to merge with one another.” McBride’s follow-up, The Lesser Bohemians, is similar in voice, though softer, more playful, “an evolution,” according to McBride. Again the novel concerns a young woman, an actress who moves to London to launch her career, and who falls in with an older, troubled actor. (Anne)
Every Kind of Wanting by Gina Frangello: Each unhappy family is unhappy in it’s own way, but the families in Frangello’s latest novel are truly in a category all their own. Every Kind of Wanting maps the intersection of four Chicago couples as they fall into an impressively ambitious fertility scheme in the hopes of raising a “community baby.” But first there are family secrets to reveal, abusive pasts to decipher, and dangerous decisions to make. If it sounds complicated, well, it is, but behind all the potential melodrama is a story that takes a serious look at race, class, sexuality, and loyalty — in short, at the new American family. (Kaulie)
A Gambler’s Anatomy by Jonathan Lethem: Lethem’s first novel since 2013’s Dissident Gardens has the everything-in-the-stewpot quality that his readers have come to expect: the plot follows a telepathic backgammon hustler through various international intrigues before forcing him to confront a deadly tumor — as well as his patchouli-scented Berkeley past. Though it remains to be seen if A Gambler’s Anatomy can hit the emotional heights of Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, it will be, if nothing else, unmistakably Lethem. (Jacob)
The Mothers by Brit Bennett: The Mothers begins when a grief-stricken 17-year-old girl becomes pregnant with the local pastor’s son, and shows how their ensuing decisions affect the life of a tight-knit black community in Southern California for years to come. The church’s devoted matriarchs — “the mothers” — act as a Greek chorus to this story of friendship, secrets, guilt, and hope. (Janet)
Nicotine by Nell Zink: Zink now enters the post-New Yorker profile, post-Jonathan-Franzen-pen-pal phase of her career with Nicotine, a novel that seems as idiosyncratic and — the term has probably already been coined — Zinkian as Mislaid and The Wallcreeper. Nicotine follows the struggle between the ordinary Penny Baker and her aging hippie parents — a family drama that crescendos when Penny inherits her father’s squatter-infested childhood home and must choose “between her old family and her new one.” Few writers have experienced Zink’s remarkable arc, and by all appearances, Nicotine seems unlikely to slow her winning streak. (Jacob)
The Angel of History by Rabih Alameddine: I love a novel the plot of which dares to take place over the course of one night: in The Angel of History, it’s the height of the AIDS epidemic in San Francisco, and Yemeni-born poet Jacob, who is gay, sits in the waiting room of a psych clinic in San Francisco. He waits actively, as they say — recalling his varied past in Cairo, Beirut, Sana’a, and Stockholm. Other present-time characters include Satan and Death, and herein perhaps lies what Michael Chabon described as Alameddine’s “daring” sensibility…“not in the cheap sense of lurid or racy, but as a surgeon, a philosopher, an explorer, or a dancer.” (Sonya)
The Loved Ones by Sonya Chung: Her second novel, this ambitious story is a multigenerational saga about family, race, difference, and what it means to be a lost child in a big world. Charles Lee, the African-American patriarch of a biracial family, searches for meaning after a fatherless childhood. His connection with a caregiver, Hannah, uncovers her Korean immigrant family’s past flight from tradition and war. Chung is a staff writer at The Millions and founding editor of Bloom, and her work has appeared in Tin House, The Threepenny Review, and BOMB. Early praise from Nayomi Munaweera compares Chung’s prose to Elena Ferrante or Clarice Lispector, “elegant, sparse, and heartbreaking.” (Claire)
The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky: Dermansky’s Bad Marie featured an ex-con nanny obsessed with her employer and with a tendency to tipple on the job. The protagonist of her latest is a less colorful type: a struggling novelist suffocated by her husband, also a struggling novelist. When her former boss dies in a crash, Leah is willed the red sports car in which her nurturing friend met her end: “I knew when I bought that car that I might die in it. I have never really loved anything as much as that red car.” What is the idling heroine to make of the inheritance and the ambiguous message it contains? (Matt)
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood: Margaret Atwood joins authors Jeanette Winterson, Howard Jacobson, and Anne Tyler in the Hogarth Shakespeare series — crafting modern spins on William Shakespeare’s classics. Hag-Seed, a prose adaptation of The Tempest, follows the story of Felix, a stage director who puts on a production of The Tempest in a prison. If Felix finds success in his show, he will get his job back as artistic director of the Makeshiweg Festival. The Tempest is one of Atwood’s favorites (and mine, too), and Hag-Seed should be an exciting addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series. (Cara)
The Mortifications by Derek Palacio: Palacio’s debut novel follows his excellent, tense novella, How to Shake the Other Man. Palacio shifts from boxing and New York City to the aftermath of the Mariel boatlift, set in Miami and Hartford, Conn. Here Palacio’s examination of the Cuban immigrant experience and family strife gets full breadth in a work reminiscent of H.G. Carrillo’s Loosing My Espanish. (Nick R.)
The Fall Guy by James Lasdun: Lasdun is a writer’s writer (James Wood called him “one of the secret gardens of English writing;” Porochista Khakpour called him “one of those remarkably flexible little-bit-of-everything renaissance men of letters”). Now, the British writer adds to his published novels, stories, poems, travelogue, memoir, and film (!) with a new novel, a spicy thriller about a troubled houseguest at a married couple’s country home. (Lydia)
The Boat Rocker by Ha Jin: It’s not without good reason that Jin has won practically every literary prize the United States has to offer, despite his being a non-native English speaker — he is something of a technical wizard who, according to the novelist Gish Jen, “has chosen mastery over genius.” Steeped in the terse, exact prose tradition of such writers as Nikolai Gogol and Leo Tolstoy, Jin’s work is immediately recognizable. His newest novel, The Boat Rocker, follows in the same vein. It finds Chinese expatriate Feng Danlin, a fiercely principled reporter whose exposés of governmental corruption have made him well-known in certain circles, wrestling with his newest assignment: an investigation into the affairs of his ex-wife, an unscrupulous novelist, and unwitting pawn of the Chinese government. (Brian)
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple: Semple, formerly a writer for Arrested Development and Mad About You, broke into the less glamorous, less lucrative literary world with 2013’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (her second novel), which this reviewer called “funny.” In this novel she sets her bittersweet, hilarious, perceptive gaze on Eleanor, a woman who vows that for just one day she will be the ideal wife, mother, and career woman she’s always known she could be. And it goes great! Just kidding. (Janet)
No Knives in the Kitchens of This City by Khaled Khalifa: This novel, Khalifa’s fourth, illuminates the prelude to Syria’s civil war, and humanizes a conflict too often met with an international shrug. Tracking a single family’s journey from the 1960s through the present day, No Knives in the Kitchens of This City closely examines the myriad traumas — both instantaneous and slow-burning — accompanying a society’s collapse. As of this year, the U.N. Refugee Agency estimates there to be 65.3 million refugees or internally displaced persons around the world, and more than 4.9 million of those are Syrian. For those hoping to understand how this came to pass, Khalifa’s book should be required reading. (Nick M.)
Mister Monkey by Francine Prose: Widely known and respected for her best-selling fiction, Prose has had novels adapted for the stage and the screen. It’s impossible to say (but fun to imagine) that these experiences informed her latest novel, Mister Monkey, about an off-off-off-off Broadway children’s play in crisis. Told from the perspective of the actress who plays the monkey’s lawyer, the adolescent who plays the monkey himself, and a variety of others attached to the production in one way or another, this novel promises to be madcap and profound in equal measure. (Kaulie)
The German Girl by Armando Lucas Correa: This debut novel, set in the 1930s, follows a young Jewish family as it tries to flee Germany for Cuba. When they manage to get a place on the ocean liner St. Louis, the Rosenthals prepare themselves for a comfortable life in the New World, but then word comes in of a change to Cuba’s immigration policy. The passengers, who are now a liability, get their visas revoked by the government, which forces the Rosenthals to quickly abandon ship. For those of you who thought the boat’s name sounded familiar, it’s based on a real-life tragedy. (Thom)
The Explosion Chronicles by Yan Lianke: A decade ago, The Guardian described Lianke as “one of China’s greatest living authors and fiercest satirists.” His most recent novel, The Four Books, was shortlisted for this year’s Man Booker International Prize. The Explosion Chronicles was first published in 2013, and will be published in translation (by Duke professor Carlos Rojas) this fall. The novel centers on a town’s “excessive” expansion from small village to an “urban superpower,” with a focus on members of the town’s three major families. (Elizabeth)
The Trespasser by Tana French: In her five previous novels about the squabbling detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad, French has classed up the old-school police procedural with smart, lush prose and a willingness to explore the darkest recesses of her characters’ emotional lives. In The Trespasser, tough-minded detective Antoinette Conway battles scabrous office politics as she tries to close the case of a beautiful young woman murdered as she sat down to a table set for a romantic dinner. On Goodreads, the Tanamaniacs are doing backflips for French’s latest venture into murder Dublin-style. (Michael)
The Wangs vs. the World by Jade Chang: Entertainment Weekly has already expressed excitement about former journalist Chang’s novel, calling it “uproarious,” and in her blurb, Jami Attenberg deemed The Wangs vs. the World her “favorite debut of the year.” Charles Wang, patriarch and business man, has lost his money in the financial crisis and wants to return to China to reclaim family land. Before that, he takes his adult son and daughter and their stepmother on a journey across America to his eldest daughter’s upstate New York hideout. Charles Yu says the book is, “Funny, brash, honest, full of wit and heart and smarts,” and Library Journal named it one of the fall’s 5 Big Debuts. (Edan)
Martutene by Ramón Saizarbitoria: A new English translation of a work that the journal El Cultural has suggested “could well be considered the highest summit of Basque-language novels.” The novel follows the interlinked lives of a group of friends in the contemporary Basque country, and the young American sociologist who’s recently arrived in their midst. (Emily)
Him, Me, Muhammad Ali by Randa Jarrar: Jarrar, whose novel A Map of Home won a Hopwood Award in 2008, comes out with her first collection of short stories old and new. In the title story (originally published in Guernica in 2010), a woman whose father has recently died goes to Cairo to scatter his ashes. In accompanying stories, we meet an ibex-human hybrid named Zelwa, as well as an Egyptian feminist and the women of a matriarchal society. In keeping with the collection’s broad focus on “accidental transients,” most of the stories take place all over the world. (Thom)
The Terranauts by T.C. Boyle: In 1994, a group of eight scientists move into EC2, a bio-dome-like enclosure meant to serve as a prototype for a space colony. Not much time passes before things begin to go wrong, which forces the crew to ask themselves a difficult, all-important question — can they really survive without help from the outside world? Part environmental allegory, part thriller, The Terranauts reinforces Boyle’s reputation for tight plotlines, bringing his talents to bear on the existential problem of climate change. For those who are counting, this is the author’s 16th (!) novel. (Thom)
Swing Time by Zadie Smith: The Orange Prize-winning author of White Teeth and On Beauty returns with a masterful new novel. Set in North West London and West Africa, the book is about two girls who dream of being dancers, the meaning of talent, and blackness. (Bruna)
Moonglow by Michael Chabon: We’ve all had that relative who spills their secrets on their deathbed, yet most of us don’t think to write them down. Chabon was 26 years old, already author of The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, when he went to see his grandfather for the last time only to hear the dying man reveal buried family stories. Twenty-six years later and the Pulitzer Prize winner’s eighth novel is inspired by his grandfather’s revelations. A nearly 500-page epic, Moonglow explores the war, sex, and technology of mid-century America in all its glory and folly. It’s simultaneously Chabon’s most imaginative and personal work to date. (Tess)
Fish in Exile by Vi Khi Nao: A staggering tale of the death of a child, this novel is a poetic meditation on loss, the fluidity of boundaries, and feeling like a fish out of water. Viet Thanh Nguyen has described it as a “jagged and unforgettable work [that] takes on a domestic story of losing one’s children and elevates it to Greek tragedy.” (Bruna)
Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson: Lawson’s magazine debut was in the Paris Review with the title story of the collection. Other stories like “Three Friends in a Hammock” have appeared in the Oxford American. Fans of Jamie Quatro’s I Want to Show You More will be drawn to Lawson’s lyric, expansive dramatizations of Southern evangelical Christians, as she straddles the intersection of sexuality and faith. Her sentences, so sharp, are meant to linger: “The problem with marrying a virgin, he realized now, was that you were marrying a girl who would become a woman only after the marriage.” (Nick R.)
Valiant Gentleman by Sabina Murray: PEN/Faulkner Award-winner (The Caprices) Murray returns with her latest novel Valiant Gentlemen. Murray’s first novel, Slow Burn, was published when she was just 20 years old. Currently the chair of the creative writing department at UMass Amherst, Murray has also received fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. Her sixth book (seventh, including her screenplay), Valiant Gentlemen follows a friendship across four decades and four continents. Alexander Chee writes, “This novel is made out of history but is every bit a modern marvel.” (Cara)
Collected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: Written between the 1960s to the early years of this century, the 15 stories in this collection were selected, revised, and placed in order by the masterly Doctorow shortly before he died in 2015 at age 84. The stories feature a mother whose plan for financial independence might include murder; a teenager who escapes home for Hollywood; a man who starts a cult using subterfuge and seduction; and the denizens of the underbelly of 1870s New York City, which grew into the novel The Waterworks. They are the geniuses, mystics, and charlatans who offer both false hope and glimpses of Doctorow’s abiding subject, that untouchable myth known as the American dream. (Bill)
Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías: Marías, one of Spain’s contemporary greats, is nothing if not prolific. In this, his 14th novel, personal assistant Juan de Vere watches helplessly as his life becomes tangled in the affairs of his boss, a producer of B-movies and general sleaze. Set in a 1980’s Madrid in the throes of the post-Francisco Franco hedonism of La Movida, a period in which social conservatism began to crumble in the face of a wave of creativity and experiment, the novel calls to mind Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories and the paranoid decadence of Weimar Germany. Spying and the intersection of the domestic with the historical/political isn’t new territory for Marías, and fans of of his earlier work will be as pleased as Hari Kunzru at The Guardian, who called Thus Bad Begins a “demonstration of what fiction at its best can achieve.” (Brian)
Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? by Kathleen Collins: Collins is described as “a brilliant yet little known African American artist and filmmaker — a contemporary of revered writers including Toni Cade Bambara, Laurie Colwin, Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel, and Grace Paley.” The stories in this collection, which center on race in the ’60s, explore the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality in ways that “masterfully blend the quotidian and the profound.” (Elizabeth)
The Private Life of Mrs. Sharma by Ratika Kapur: Kapur’s first novel, Overwinter, was longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. This, her second, chronicles a changing India in which the titular Mrs. Sharma, a traditional wife and mother living in Delhi, has a conversation with a stranger that will shift her worldview. Described as a “sharp-eyed examination of the clashing of tradition and modernity,” Asian and European critics have described it as quietly powerful. The writer Mohammed Hanif wrote that it “really gets under your skin, a devastating little book.” (Elizabeth)
The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy: Recent reports of the author’s death have been greatly exaggerated, but unfortunately reports of delays for his forthcoming science fiction book have not. Longtime fans will need to wait even longer than they’d initially suspected, as The Passenger’s release date was bumped way past August 2016 — as reported by Newsweek in 2015 — and now looks more like December 2017. (Nick M.)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: For Saunders fans, the prospect of a full-length novel from the short-story master has been something to speculate upon, if not actually expect. Yet Lincoln in the Bardo is a full 368-page blast of Saunders — dealing in the 1862 death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, the escalating Civil War, and, of course, Buddhist philosophy. Saunders has compared the process of writing longer fiction to “building custom yurts and then somebody commissioned a mansion” — and Saunders’s first novel is unlikely to resemble any other mansion on the block. (Jacob)
And So On by Kiese Laymon: Laymon is a Mississippi-born writer who has contributed to Esquire, ESPN, the Oxford American, Guernica, and writes a column for The Guardian. His first novel, Long Division, makes a lot of those “best books you’ve never heard of” lists, so feel free to prove them wrong by reading it right now. What we know about his second novel is that he said it’s “going to shock folks hopefully. Playing with comedy, Afro-futurist shit and horror.” (Janet)
Difficult Women by Roxane Gay: If this were Twitter, I’d use the little siren emoji and the words ALERT: NEW ROXANE GAY BOOK. Her new story collection was recently announced (along with an announcement about the delay on the memoir Hunger, which was slated to be her next title and will now be published after this one). The collection’s product description offers up comparisons to Merritt Tierce, Jamie Quatro, and Miranda July, with stories of “privilege and poverty,” from sisters who were abducted together as children, to a black engineer’s alienation upon moving to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, to a wealthy Florida subdivision “where neighbors conform, compete, and spy on each other.” (Elizabeth)
Transit by Rachel Cusk: In this second novel of the trilogy that began with Outline, a woman and her two sons move to London in search of a new reality. Taut and lucid, the book delves into the anxieties of responsibility, childhood, and fate. “There is nothing blurry or muted about Cusk’s literary vision or her prose,” enthuses Heidi Julavits. (Bruna)
Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh: This first collection of stories from Moshfegh, author of the noir novel Eileen, centers around unsteady characters who yearn for things they cannot have. Jeffrey Eugenides offers high praise: “What distinguishes Moshfegh’s writing is that unnamable quality that makes a new writer’s voice, against all odds and the deadening surround of lyrical postures, sound unique.” You can read her stories in The New Yorker and the Paris Review. (Bruna)
Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki: Long-time Millions writer and contributing editor Lepucki follows up her New York Times-bestselling novel California (you may have seen her talking about it on a little show called The Colbert Report) with Woman No. 17, a complicated, disturbing, sexy look at female friendship, motherhood, and art. (Lydia)
Enigma Variations by André Aciman: New York magazine called CUNY Professor and author of Harvard Square “the most exciting new fiction writer of the 21st century). Aciman follows up with Enigma Variations, a sort of sentimental education of a young man across time and borders. (Lydia)
Let’s just get this out of the way up front: Téa Obreht is the real deal.
I am not the first to say this, nor, I suspect, will I be the last. Obreht, a Serbian-American who came to this country with her family as a young girl, was named last year by the New Yorker as one of the twenty best American writers under forty. She was twenty-four years old at the time, and her first novel, The Tiger’s Wife, hadn’t even come out yet. Since its publication last month, the book has been racking up rave reviews from grizzled veterans from across the literary universe, including Michiko Kakutani, the hangin’ judge of the New York Times book page, who called The Tiger’s Wife “a hugely ambitious, audaciously written work.” For once, the hype is deserved. The Tiger’s Wife is very much a first novel, awkwardly constructed in places and given to occasional longueurs, but still by far the most startling, bizarro-brilliant debut since Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist in 1999.
The Tiger’s Wife interweaves three central stories, each involving a young Serbian doctor Natalia Stefanovic and her grandfather, who was also a doctor. The first, and least successful, of these stories takes place after the Balkan War as Natalia and another young doctor cross into a neighboring region of her newly divided country to provide medicine for children orphaned by her side’s soldiers. Along the way, she learns that her beloved grandfather has died after embarking on a mysterious journey to a small town an hour’s drive where she is headed. The old man told the family that he was coming to see Natalia, and the rest of the novel is structured as a kind of detective story in which Natalia unravels for herself, and for the reader, why he may have done this.
Already, you can see part of the problem: This is one of those books in which all the important stuff has already happened. The war is over, the narrator’s grandfather is dead, and for large chunks of the novel Obreht marks time, filling pages with quirky small-town folk and an odd band of sickly, gypsy-like peasants digging seemingly random holes in a vineyard near where Natalia is dispensing her medicine. To make matters worse, Obreht often leaves out the details of the characters’ nationality and ethnic background. For instance, I have said that Natalia is Serbian, but that’s just an educated guess. She doesn’t reveal her nationality and refers to her home – which must be Belgrade – only as The City. Though she refers to a number of well-known atrocities, the cities and regions appear under invented names.
I can understand why Obreht, who was only seven when her family fled Belgrade in 1992, may have done this. She missed the war in her home country and may well feel squeamish about putting too fine a point on the crimes carried out by, and against, the Serbs. She may well also have decided – or may have been told by some editor who, if there is any justice in the world, is sitting in the bowels of the Random House building boxing his own ears – that by being coy with the facts, she could “universalize” the story, make it accessible to clueless American readers. But as a clueless American reader, I was just confused. At one point, when Natalia visits the small town where her grandfather died, a bartender who was the last man to see her grandfather alive warns her against poking around any further: “And I wouldn’t go door-to-door round here, Doctor…Not with that accent.” It’s a nice moment, but until the bartender spoke I’d forgotten that Natalia was a Serb walking unprotected around a province – Croatia? Macedonia? Bosnia? – that her countrymen had attacked a few years earlier.
So, as talented as Obreht is, for much of the novel I found myself admiring her book more than I enjoyed reading it. Then I came to the two stories that fill in her father’s history: “The Deathless Man” and “The Tiger’s Wife.” Every early review I’ve seen has resorted to calling these stories “fables” or “magical realism,” but that’s just because we don’t have a good term for what is so sui generis in Obreht’s work. These are fables, of a sort, but fables as they might appear in some cracked Disney film illustrated by Pieter Bruegel and Robert Crumb, with Salvador Dali coming in every now and then to touch up the scenery.
The Deathless Man is Gavran Gailé, who is cursed not only never to die, but also to know the precise moment of death for every person he meets. He carries a magic cup in his coat given to him by his uncle, who is Death, and as Gavran explains to Natalia’s grandfather, his uncle has charged him to make coffee for the gravely ill and read the grounds at the bottom of the cup after the drinker has finished:
In this cup, the lives of men come and go. Give the man coffee from this cup and you will see the journeys of his life…If he is sick, but not dying, the paths in the coffee will be still and constant. Then you must make him break the cup, and you must send the drinker on his way. But if he is coming to me, the paths will point away from the drinker, and then the cup must remain unbroken until he crosses my path.
Needless to say, Natalia’s grandfather, a man of science, a rationalist, is maddened by this imperturbable little fortune-teller and tries to prove that Gavran is a charlatan until, in a gorgeously rendered scene, they meet on a hotel balcony overlooking a besieged Muslim town that the doctor knows will be razed the following morning.
But it is the third story, the one of a woman who falls in love with a tiger, that vaults Obreht’s novel from the pleasingly quirky to the insanely great. Part allegory, part bildungsroman, this tale, told from the perspective of Natalia’s grandfather when he was a nine-year-old boy in the early months of the Second World War, follows a tiger freed from his cage when the zoo is destroyed by German bombs. The tiger, “yellow-eyed and bright as a blood moon,” is first sighted high on a ridge above the small mountain town where Natalia’s grandfather grew up, but soon the famished beast is making forays into the village where, as Natalia’s young grandfather soon learns, he is being harbored by the deaf-mute wife of the town’s coarse and violent butcher. This is a novel that moves crab-wise, by digression, and early on this can be annoying, but with “The Tiger’s Wife” sections, which arrive in small, savory slices wedged between the more bland chunks of framing plot, frustration turns to delicious anticipation. Even her most minor characters are given elaborate back stories, each one more baroque and wondrously implausible than the last, which, when taken together, create a vivid, indelible portrait of a village that could only exist in a story, but all the same is more real than any place you will ever visit.
This, finally, I think, is Obreht’s theme, that the stories we tell ourselves are more real than the world we see with our two eyes. This can have fatal consequences, as when the story we tell ourselves is that the Muslim family that has lived next to ours for generations, is in fact part of a barbarian horde that must be driven from the land. Obreht is all too aware of this dark side of storytelling, but she seems to be saying that we cannot live without stories, that we create them naturally, spontaneously, in order to understand those wild edges of our world we cannot make sense of with our eyes alone. In one early flashback scene, set during the bombing of Belgrade, Natalia’s grandfather takes her out onto the street to see yet another zoo animal, in this case an elephant, freed from his cage by war. “No one will ever believe this,” Natalia tells him as the elephant passes them by.
Her grandfather is incredulous:
“You must be joking,” he said. “Look around. Think for a moment. It’s the middle of the night, not a soul anywhere… Not a dog in the gutter. Empty. Except for this elephant – and you’re going to tell your idiot friends about it? Why? Do you think they’ll understand it? Do you think it will matter to them?”
The Tiger’s Wife is Natalia’s – and Obreht’s – answer: I can make them understand, they seem to be saying, I can make them care, but only if I tell the story well enough.
Not long ago my father emailed me a reading suggestion: Ayn Rand. He knew I was completing a book about the history of utopian thought – a project that stemmed from the fact that my father raised me on a street called Utopia Road – and he recognized Rand as falling within the constraints of the genre. He liked her, he said. He’d turned up his nose at her for fifty years, and regretted it. He claimed Rand’s utopian avatar, John Galt, reminded him of me.
I declined the suggestion. My father is an avid reader, but politically we’re nothing alike. He’s been trying to get me to read Ann Coulter and Liberal Fascism for years. I explained that I wasn’t likely to fall for Rand’s philosophy, and if he wanted to read a conservative utopia he should try Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia. (Islandia’s “conservatism” dates from a few decades back, when conservatism wasn’t so far from conservation – it’s all about preservation of the local in the face of globalization.)
My father wasn’t quite ready to let it go. When my girlfriend and I visited a short time later, he pulled out a Rand book, and dared me to read just one paragraph – part of a paragraph! As it happens, that one tiny slice of prose demonstrated that Ayn Rand wasn’t utopian at all; she was something much worse.
And all of this matters because we now have a candidate for the senate who is not only a follower of Rand, but named for her.
Here’s the chunk of writing my father asked me to read, from an introduction to an anniversary edition of Atlas Shrugged.
Incidentally, a sideline observation: if creative fiction writing is a process of translating an abstraction into the concrete, there are three possible grades of such writing: translating an old (known) abstraction (theme or thesis) through the medium of old fiction means, (that is, characters, events or situations used before for that same purpose, that same translation) – this is most of the popular trash; translating an old abstraction through new, original fiction means – this is most of the good literature; creating a new, original abstraction, and translating it through new, original means. This, as far as I know, is only me – my kind of fiction writing.
I read this a couple times – you sort of have to; it’s terrible – and then I attacked it. “Incidentally, a sidelong observation:” is redundant, I said. So is “creative fiction writing.” Rand’s “if/then” lacks a “then,” and there’s no opportunity to challenge the premise that fiction makes the abstract concrete. Most would argue the opposite, if they even agreed to think about it in these terms. Ditto the suggestion that a thesis can or should be abstract. Too, the punctuation of the passage is more than bad – it’s actually attempting to beguile the reader. Heavy, complex thinking requires complicated punctuation, Rand wants us to think, so the presence of complicated punctuation must indicate that the meaning here is heavy and complex. Actually, it’s not.
And that’s about as far as I got before my father and I wound up not in a screaming match, exactly – but something more like a hissing match. We hissed because the things we said were so vile no even we wanted to give them full voice.
“You used to be a writer,” my father hissed. “Now you’re just an elitist.”
But, wait – writers are often elitists, aren’t they? Wasn’t he wrong in suggesting that you sacrifice the first in becoming the second? And anyway, wasn’t Ayn Rand being at least a little elitist in claiming that her fiction is the only fiction that says new things in a new way?
More than her redundancies or punctuation, that’s the problem – because her elitism is not earned. She’s not, in fact, saying new things in a new way. Even my father knew this. He thought of her as utopian, which means she was operating within the boundaries of an established tradition. And he liked the book because he recognized the ideas in it – they weren’t new either. Atlas Shrugged is “known” ideas delivered in a “known” way. By Rand’s definition it’s “popular trash,” which pretty well describes the book’s publishing history.
And that’s what throws Ayn Rand into such a peculiar light today, when her philosophy is perhaps closer than it’s ever been to achieving actual power.
It’s fashionable at the moment to conflate Glenn Beck, the Tea Party movement, and, now, Rand Paul. What’s not been discussed so far is the wide range of open religious sentiment apparent in all of these. Ayn Rand was a famous atheist. Glenn Beck is a curious and dangerous mélange of talking head and televangelist. And the Tea Party wants to regard the Constitution as sacred document.
There’s a reason they’re all in bed together.
In In Utopia I make the argument that extreme conservative utopias (everything from Theodore Hertzka’s Freeland to a range of twentieth century novels suggesting that the path to peace runs through holocaust) are not really utopias at all. Rather, they are reconciliations to an imperfect world. These “utopias” reject the idea that government or planning of any kind can make the world a better place. Much better is a policy of not planning, small government, the invisible arm of the market, social Darwinism as nature’s intent, and so forth. In short, no plan is a better plan.
Here’s why that’s not utopian: that’s how civilization started. When cities emerged, when people began to live in close quarters and form communities, no one had a plan for how they should proceed. The result was Athens, brimming with disease, filth, and crime. Utopian thought begins with Plato and Aristotle offering up improvements – visions of planned societies.
“It has justly been said,” Martin Buber wrote, “that in a positive sense every planning intellect is utopian.”
So why can’t planning for no plan also be a plan? Well, it sort of is – but it’s a plan that assumes chaos will produce a perfect order. Who emerges from the chaos? The elites. Whether it’s greed repackaged as laissez-faire or racism thinly disguised as exceptionalism, conservative “utopias” rationalize worlds where the better few get the most while the numerous many struggle with little. Anymore, who really believes this makes the world better?
These days, not-planning-as-plan isn’t even earnestly meant. Ayn Rand was recently the subject of a new biography, and what her life reveals is that she has a whole lot more in common with L. Ron Hubbard (her career as a screenwriter matches Hubbard’s as a sci-fi guy) than she does with Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, or a host of earnest utopians who used an old literary genre to say some new things that did, in fact, make the world a better place.
It’s Hubbard that links Rand back to Beck and the Tea Party. They’re all fundamentalists of one kind or another, and they are the reason “utopia” is now largely synonymous with “scheme.” Like any false prophet, Rand must convince us that her message is new and true (when it’s old and false), and the fake sophistication of her language is as insidious as Glenn Beck’s alligator tears. These false utopians strive not to inspire action and progress, but to recruit followers. They found one in Ron Paul, and now we’re on to the second generation.
I’ll finish with the end of my own two-generation story.
After my father and I finished hissing at each other, my father, to his credit, agreed to read Islandia. I had to pester him by email a little, but he eventually ordered the book. A month passed before he wrote to say he’d loved it, every word, he ate it up – could I recommend more?
My heart swelled. This is what books – utopias or no – should do.
I’ve not heard back from my father since, but I have high hopes.
Back | 1. Note: Rand Paul himself has denied that he was formally named for Ayn Rand, so I’m taking some liberty here. He has claimed that he was named Randal at birth, went by Randy for much of his life, and his wife started calling him Rand. At the same time, he calls himself a “big fan” of Ayn Rand’s work, and admits that his father met the author. Rand Paul may not have been formally named for Rand, but his embrace of even a nickname amounts to an informal self-naming that is intended as homage – like a monk or a pope.
Pablo De Santis was born in Buenos Aires, studied Literature at the Universidad de Buenos Aires and subsequently worked as a journalist and comic-strip creator, becoming Editor-in-Chief of one of Argentina’s leading comics magazines, Fierro. De Santis is the author of the novel The Paris Enigma. He lives in Buenos Aires.The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead. This is just such an incredibly original novel. It’s bordering on a detective story and fantasy; it’s set in the 1970s and tells the story of the first black woman elevator inspector. From the narrative’s fantasy perspective, the novel’s elevator inspectors are divided into two groups: the pragmatic inspectors that strictly adhere to the study of an elevator’s mechanics and engineering, and the intuitionists, who rely on their sixth sense to diagnose the health and safety of each elevator. The novel’s protagonist is faced with the breakdown and fall of one of the elevators she had previously inspected and approved as safe. The elevator’s failure drives her to question her intuitionist methods. I read an interview where Colson Whitehead, who is still quite young, said that he started to write because he loved old Stephen King novels, which I could identify completely with.Literati by Barry McCrea. This is a fantastic novel set in Trinity College in Dublin, where a student discovers the sortes method: a guessing game that uses a randomly chosen page from any book as the oracle for any given situation. The game quickly becomes an obsession for those in the novel. It reminds me of another equally engrossing novel: The Course of the Heart by M. John Harrison.Beltenebros by Antonio Muñoz Molina This is one of this Spanish author’s best novels. The primary narrator travels to a city to kill a man, and as he makes his way toward his victim, he begins to recall his own past and the choices he’s made with such force, that we as readers experience his destructive mission from multiple perspectives. Other novels to read by Muñoz Molina are Winter In Lisbon and Full Moon.Three Musketeers by Marcelo Birmajer and The Book of Murder by Guillermo Martinez. These two excellent novels by Argentine authors have been published in English this year.Three Musketeers by Marcelo Birmajer narrates a detective story where the key to the novel’s mystery lies in Argentina’s violent past. Set in the 1970s, and centered around Buenos Aires’ Jewish population, many of whom formed guerilla organizations, the novel’s caustic yet melancholic humor makes this novel a superb read. Javier Mossed, the novel’s journalist narrator guides us through the novel.The Book of Murder by Guillermo Martinez is the story of a delayed act of revenge. It’s a great read with a philosophical edge. The author (who is also a mathematician) also wrote The Oxford Murders, which was made into a feature film by Spanish director Alex de la Iglesia.More from A Year in Reading 2008
The indefatigable Dan Wickett is the hardest working man in book blogging. He is a tireless advocate for “emerging” writers, small presses, and literary journals. How he found the time to compile this post for us, I’ll never know, but I’m glad he did.I divided my thoughts about authors that I read in 2006 into three categories. First up would be (what else from my end) Emerging Writers. Writers that fell into that category that I can’t wait to read more of would have to include:Dag Solstad – His Shyness & Dignity is not his first novel, but it is the first available in English, and it was the best book I read all year. Graywolf Press took the chance on bringing this Norwegian’s work to those of us without the skills to read his books in their original language, and they should be thanked.Benjamin Percy – His debut story collection, The Language of Elk, was published by Carnegie Mellon University Press in the middle of the year and shows readers a new vision of the current west, with most of the stories set in Oregon. Percy’s language crackles with masculinity and humor and the bizarre. Watch for him – he put a story in both BASS and Pushcart this year, has one coming in January’s Esquire and his second collection is coming from Graywolf Press in 2007.Robert Fanning – Are you kidding me? Wickett lobbed a poet into this list? Absolutely. Fanning’s The Seed Thieves is his first full length collection of poetry, thanks to Marick Press, and it is beyond just being solid. Fanning has a fantastic way about his phrasing and observations that work both on page, and if you are fortunate enough to have the opportunity to hear him read his work.Second up would be those writers who I already thought pretty highly of, that confirmed for me, once again, just how talented they were:William Gay with his novel Twilight from MacAdam/Cage. He follows up his previous two novels and short story collection with possibly his best yet. A frighteningly gothic near fairy tale about a young brother and sister combination and their efforts to expose a rather sordid mortician.Daniel Woodrell and Winter’s Bone, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie with Half of a Yellow Sun. Anybody reading this far into Max’s post has probably visited my site. Enough said as I’m pretty sure searching my blog for 2006 will show these two names and titles coming up way more than anything else.Tom Franklin with Smonk. The fever Franklin had that induced this story to come oozing out must have been 104 plus.Steve Yarbrough and Ron Rash with The End of California and The World Made Straight, respectively. These two gentlemen deserve accolades for not writing with any flash, or verbal pyrotechnics, but instead delivering captivating novels, time and time again by simply telling a great story, and doing so with, while excellent writing, not the need to make you notice it.Michael Ruhlman has once again delivered a fantastic book about cooking with his The Reach of a Chef. If you have ANY interest in the art of cooking, his books are all a must. And even if you don’t, you have more than half a chance at becoming enthralled anyway.Charles D’Ambrosio and Lee K. Abbott just may be the two best short story writers around and readers were fortunate enough to enjoy a new collection by D’Ambrosio (The Dead Fish Museum) and a Collected collection of Abbott (All Things, All at Once). There isn’t a mis-step in either, and above and beyond that, there are probably close to a dozen stories between the two works that are prize winning, year end anthology worthy.Lastly would be those writers that I found myself embarrassed to realize I’d never read their work prior to 2006, and in many cases had not even heard of them:Colson Whitehead – I had the opportunity to see him read in Ann Arbor earlier in the year and bought a copy of The Intuitionist, which I promptly read and loved. His other three books are high up in my TBR pile.Magnus Mills – I don’t know why I bought his The Restraint of Beasts – I thought I remembered his name from Jeff Bryant’s Underrated Writers Project from last year, but his name is not there. Whatever the case – I loved it and the follow up novel, All Quiet on the Orient Express as well. The rest of his novels and a short story collection reside in my TBR pile at this time.Rupert Thomson – Thanks to Megan for nominating his latest, Divided Kingdom, as an LBC nominee. Another one who I immediately began looking for his backlog of many novels to pad my TBR pile.Richard Powers – Oh well, at least I waited for a decent book to hop aboard – The Echo Maker – NBA winner. Thanks to Ed Champion for inviting me to the roundtable discussion of this wonderful title. There’s approximately 2100 pages of unread Powers’ novels on a shelf here now.Peter Markus – Even more ridiculous when you find out he resides less than 30 minutes from my house. Went to see the aforementioned Robert Fanning read earlier this year and Markus read some unpublished work from what should be his fourth book of short fictions that deal with brothers, mud, fish, and the moon. He was kind enough to give me a copy of his first, Good, Brother, which was reprinted by Calimari Press earlier this year. I read it that night and had ordered both The Moon is a Lighthouse (from a store in Japan – the only one I could find online) and The Singing Fish (also published, last year, by Calimari Press). The man is a unique writer, an amazing writer, and one I highly recommend you try to find. Plenty of his work is available online.Thanks Dan!