The Captive Mind, Czeslaw Milosz: In this searing collection, the Polish poet blends history, philosophy, and lightly fictionalized biography to explore the psychology of complicity and other moral ambiguities of his era. I think I’ll be haunted for the rest of my life by Milosz’s description of a young woman being rounded up for the camps while shouting that the small child running behind her and calling out to her is not her own -- as well as the sternness with which Milosz forbids his readers the consolation of judgment. This woman is young, he tells us, she is alive; she is not yet done living. It’s the brutality of Milosz’s empathy -- as well as the brutality of his clarity -- that makes this collection so powerful. Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America, Richard Perlstein: Written with novelistic verve and more deadpan humor than you might expect from a book about Richard Nixon, Perlstein’s account of the 37th president’s political rise casts modern American politics in an illuminating, and often frightening, context. With a cameo by a young Karl Rove as a puckish operative who lures hippies to opponents’ rallies with promises of free food and girls. Finally, three astonishing literary thrillers: Jennifer Egan’s The Keep, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and William Landay’s Defending Jacob. These books’ plots cover varied terrain -- The Keep follows the fallout of a childhood prank gone wrong, Gone Girl explores the sinister depths of a fatally flawed marriage, and Defending Jacob grapples with the harrowing legacy of family violence. But in each of them, the most terrifying aspect of the story winds up being the human mind’s capacity for denial, rationalization, and self-deception -- and in each of them, the notion of the mystery plot twist is upended by re-imagined parameters of the mystery itself. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
1. “Can the hoary trope of mistaken identity still play in the age of Google images?” asks Alex Witchel in the New York Times Book Review. Witchel is talking about the premise of Michael Frayn’s new novel Skios and soon answers herself: “Well, no,” she says, “but since the author is Michael Frayn...it’s tempting to cut him some slack.” Is it? Maybe — it’s fiction, after all, and that being the case Frayn can do whatever he wants — but as a reader, and a writer, I wonder about that slack. More generally, I wonder about works of fiction that take place in a world identical to that which you and I inhabit, except for one thing: technology is all but ignored. I’m not referring to Luddite authors here — to Jonathan Franzen's rejection of e-books and Twitter. I’m talking about whether a character in a literary novel set in the year 2012 need even be aware of Twitter, or at the very least, email. It isn’t hard to make a case against including technology in fiction. First, technology can be awkward to write about. Also, to read about. The jargon is clumsy: download, reboot, global positioning device. It’s embarrassing, really. So I understand an author’s impulse to avoid littering pages of otherwise lyrical prose with the bleep-boop-beep of tech speak. For this reason, authors often forgo current technologies when they want their characters to communicate with one another, or to reveal important, plot-forwarding information. I get it. What could be less romantic than a text message? Fiction allows for a certain level of restraint, after all, where the author need not include a protagonist’s every bathroom break or end each scene with the characters saying goodbye. Why then, if it’s common practice to avoid including other unglamorous functions of characters’ daily lives — like said bathroom break — is it necessary to show them texting and refreshing their inboxes? Think of it this way: in most cases, a bowel movement will not move the plot forward; an email will. Despite all the trouble technology might cause, when it’s absent from contemporary novels, a big white elephant appears on the page and starts ambling around. (Perhaps searching for an unprotected Wi-Fi network?) Usually these are good books, full of beautiful language and arresting characters that teach me what it means to be human. But, as was the case with Vendela Vida’s Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, the obvious absence of things like search engines and smart phones makes me pause and think, "Couldn't she have at least Googled her father's name before she set off to the Arctic in search of him?" In “A Kind of Vast Fiction” — an essay in the form of an email thread published in The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books (edited by Jeff Martin and The Millions’ C. Max Magee) — David Gates and Jonathan Lethem discuss strategies for including, and avoiding, technology in fiction. Midway through the conversation, after Gates admits to being wary of certain social networking sites, Lethem asks, “So you’re Googling and YouTubing, if not Twizzling or Fnorgling, fair enough. But are your characters doing the same? Do you find it as difficult as I do to get this un-Brave, no-longer-that-New World onto the page in any credible way?” Gates’s response is packed with insight: I have no idea how to handle this new mode of living (I guess “living” is the word) in fiction. I probably spend more time emailing and reading online than I do having non-virtual human contact — and I bet I’m not that unusual. If my characters were like that, would their lives be eventful enough to write about? On the other hand, if I write about people for whom the internet is — as far as the reader can see — peripheral or nonexistent, am I not essentially writing historical fiction? In the last story I finished, I used the expedient of sending my main character on a vacation where she’s sworn to limit her internet and cell phone use. And how do you deal with the problem of writing something that may be dated by the time the book comes out? My novel Preston Falls, which appeared in 1998, has a now-hilarious account of an email exchange — “He hit Send,” and so forth. And I just received a piece of student fiction which mentions Facebook and Skype in adjacent paragraphs; my instinct is that this is showing off, but maybe it’s no different from Jane Austen mentioning a fortepiano and a huswife on the same page. I’m interested in novels that render what Gates calls “this new mode of living” — those that successfully incorporate technology into their characters’ experiences. The following came to mind when I began to think about what recent works of fiction had either pulled this off or at least tried. 2. Consider Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding: The fact that they didn’t communicate by cell phone, didn’t chat or text, could reasonably be chalked up to the fact that they didn’t need to, they lived fifty yards apart and saw each other five days a week, but then again the students did little but chat and text, text messages were their surest form of intimacy, and to never have texted or been texted by Owen, not to know Owen’s number even for emergency purposes, not that this was an emergency, seemed suddenly to expose a great gulf between them. The above appears almost 300-pages into this 512-page novel. Though The Art of Fielding takes place on a college campus, this is one of the first mentions of texting in the book. And I can recall no mention of social networking in the first few hundred pages. This struck me as odd, perhaps because I recently spent two years on a university campus as a graduate student; I’m all too aware of how fiercely attached students are to technology. (I saw more bicycle accidents than I can count at USC because cyclists tend to keep both their hands and their eyes glued to iPhone screens while they ride.) So when these basic technologies are finally acknowledged in the book, the moment feels inevitable, as if the white elephant has at last grown impatient and begun to scuff his great foot, threatening to charge. But the above excerpt is more than a cursory reference to text messages. This paragraph-long neurotic meditation, written from the point of view of sixty-year-old Westish College president Guert Affenlight (who has fallen in love with a student), provides the book’s most profound thoughts on modern relationships. College student or otherwise, who hasn’t known the specific despair of being unable to get a hold of a lover? These days, to get a hold of means to text or to Skype or to email with an all caps subject line. Chad Harbach knows this. He might have fought it at first, but with this passage he illustrates that there is no way around mentioning technology — that if your characters aren’t going to use it they still need to acknowledge it. Because either way, it’s going to affect them: they are alive and in love in the Twenty-First Century. Now here are a few sections from early on in Jennifer Egan’s 2006 novel The Keep. In it, Danny has traveled from New York to stay at his cousin’s remote castle-cum-New-Age-resort, somewhere in Austria, Germany or the Czech Republic (he isn’t sure), where there is no internet or cell connection: Danny tried to get away after breakfast to set up his satellite dish. The need to be back in touch was getting uncomfortable, distracting, like a headache or a sore toe or some other low-grade physical thing that after a while starts to blot out everything else. And when he finally does get his satellite dish hooked up (is there any less elegant sounding piece of equipment than a satellite dish?), it soon falls into a mucky, black swimming pool and he in turn chucks his phone into the forest: Eventually Danny calmed down enough to start looking for his phone. The longer he groped in the cypress, pulling threads in his jacket and sending fat little birds squawking out into the air, the more precious that clunky plastic thing started to get in his head. Like a relic. Just to have it. And there it was, finally, caught between two branches. Danny felt like sobbing. He couldn’t resist holding the phone up to his ear one more time. Maybe that’s all a tad melodramatic, but isn’t it accurate that even in 2006 a person who’d been separated from his cell phone would be brought to some level of hysteria? It isn’t for nothing that there are two ways of being haunted by a missing cell phone: the phantom weight of it in your jeans pocket, and the phantom vibration of a call you couldn’t possibly have received. You miss the object — the gadget — and you miss what it represents. Egan’s use of technology in this book is successful because it speaks to both gadget lust and a longing to be in touch in a way that only technology can deliver. A quarter of the way into his 2009 novel Await Your Reply Dan Chaon plugs in a concise, seemingly arbitrary chapter written in the second-person. After briefly painting a portrait of “you” as an unknowing target of identity theft and victim of suburban malaise, the narrator says: You don’t feel particularly vulnerable, with your firewall and constantly updating virus protection, and most of the predators are almost laughably clumsy. At work you receive an email that is so patently ridiculous that you forward it to a few of your friends. Miss Emmanuela Kunta, Await Your Reply, it says in the subject line, and there is something almost adorable about its awkwardness. “Dear One,” the email begins. What follows is perhaps my all-time favorite fictionalized email, if not my favorite page of published writing of the last decade: a spam email claiming to have been sent by a nineteen-year-old girl from the Ivory Coast. The fact that the passage nearly brings me to tears each time I read it has to be proof that what we tag as technology (email and the like) is surely more human than machine. Or maybe it’s proof that Dan Chaon is a master of the art of fiction. I’d argue both. Technology propels the plot throughout Await Your Reply, a book about shedding and remaking identities. Chaon is smart enough to capitalize on the many ways that the internet and gadgets make this work more possible now than ever before. Where he excels is in knowing just how and where to aim his lens at these tools. Rather than blur the human element of the narrative, technology helps bring into focus an honest story about our modern life: computer viruses and stolen identities and missed connections: “Who falls for this?” you would like to know...But for some reason, driving home, you find yourself thinking of...Miss Emmanuela Kunta in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, the orphan daughter of a wealthy gold agent...and she walks along a market street...and she turns and her brown eyes are heavy with sorrow. Await your reply. If an email can demonstrate this kind of vulnerability and hope, then email it will be. Technology it will be. 3. It turns out that each of these instances of technology in fiction has to do with the way that technology connects characters. And what are characters if not people like us — people for whom the stuff of connecting with others is messy and hard and all we ever really want? Maybe, then, if this is the truth about technology, there shouldn’t be any slack given to those authors who forgo including it in their books. You might even say it’s foolish to miss the opportunity to show that technology is not a series of tubes, or a high-pitched beeping sound, or an awkward element to work around, but rather a vital part of the modern human experience. Image via Nate_Steiner/Flickr
1. The writing of good fiction requires, among many elusive talents, empathy and imagination. Put another way, the fiction writer must be like a trained actor, inhabiting the minds, emotions, and bodies of people whose essential makeup and experiences are quite different from his own. Write what you know has its limits, and many of us write to discover what we know, or to experience something of what we don’t know. Not to mention the fact that those empathic and imaginative muscles can get flabby; when we stretch them and work them, we stretch and work our whole intelligence. Lately my reading life has delivered up some interesting examples of empathic leaps; specifically, of writers who dare to leap the imaginative chasm of gender. Are they successful? How does one measure? 2. Annie Proulx comes to mind immediately. More often than not, her main characters are male. And not just that, her fictional worlds – like the brutal Wyoming plains in her collection Close Range – are distinctly male worlds, where words are few and primal energies prevail. The Wyoming stories are gritty and violent; their central dramatic features include castration, rape, attic-torture, drunkenness, rodeo gore, murder by tire iron. The one “female” story – that is, where the narrator is a woman – ends in a shootout (another woman character shooting her philandering boyfriend and -- possibly, we're not sure -- herself). One measure of these stories’ success, you could argue, is that the author’s identity, gender and otherwise, recedes as the characters and the place envelop us. And yet: I’ll never forget reading “Brokeback Mountain” in the New Yorker back in 1997 (eight years before Ennis del Mar and Jack Twist were immortalized on screen by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhall). The reading experience was breathtaking; I thought, my God, Did I really just read a gay cowboy story, rough sex and all? Who can forget: Ennis ran full throttle on all roads whether fence mending or money spending, and he wanted none of it when Jack seized his left hand and brought it to his erect cock. Ennis jerked his hand away as though he’d touched fire, got to his knees, unbuckled his belt, shoved his pants down, hauled Jack onto all fours, and, with the help of the clear slick and a little spit, entered him, nothing he’d done before but no instruction manual needed. They went at it in silence except for a few sharp intakes of breath and Jack’s choked, “Gun’s goin off,” then out, down, and asleep […] They never talked about the sex, let it happen, at first only in the tent at night, then in the full daylight, with the hot sun striking down, and at evening in the fire glow, quick, rough, laughing and snorting, no lack of noises, but saying not a goddam word except once Ennis said, “I’m not no queer,” and Jack jumped in with “Me neither. A one-shot thing. Nobody’s business but ours.” At the time, “Brokeback” was as stunning as it was heartbreaking. Was it more stunning that it had been written by a woman? Or perhaps less? It seemed that the editors, or Proulx herself, wanted us to consider the question: in the center of the second page of the opening spread, we saw a cartoon portrait of Proulx, gender-ambiguous at first glance, with the following caption: The author’s first stories, twenty years ago, were all about hunting and fishing – “hook-and-bullet material” – written for a men’s-magazine editor who thought he couldn’t publish a contributor called Annie. He suggested “something like Joe or Zack, retrievers’ names,” the author recalls. The compromise was initials: E.A. Proulx. The “E” somehow stuck. (The author won the Pulitzer Prize as E. Annie Proulx.) The author is now sixty-four, and “Brokeback Mountain” is the first story published by just Annie. In the late 1970s, Proulx had to pretend to be a male author to publish stories for a male audience; in 1997, writing an erotic gay-male love story for the intellectual set, she came out, officially, as a woman. Was October 1997 a moment when we decided that a woman could write whatever she damn well pleased (because look how well she’s doing it)? Or was the revelation of Proulx’s gender a way of making a groundbreaking story (for the New Yorker, anyway) go down easier? Do we ever really “forget” the author? Does she ever truly recede when we are reading gender-crossing works? Do we necessarily want her to? 3. There is the best-known example of Mary Ann Evans, aka George Eliot, the foremother of all women who’ve taken pen names in order to advance as an author. With her first fiction publication in 1858, Scenes of Clerical Life, she recorded in her journal speculations and letters she received regarding the secret (gender) identity of the author: Jan 2 - “Mrs Nutt said to [George Henry Lewes] ‘I think you don’t know our curate. He says the author of Clerical Scenes is a High Churchman.” Jan 17, letter from J.A Froude – “I can only thank you most sincerely for the delight which [your book] has given me, and both I myself and my wife trust that the acquaintance which we seem to have made with you through your writings may improve into something more tangible. I do not know whether I am addressing a young man or an old, a clergyman or a layman.” Feb 16 – “[Mr. John Blackwood] told us Thackeray spoke highly of the ‘Scenes’ and said they were not written by a woman. Mrs. Blackwood is sure they are not written by a woman.” Only a fellow writer by the name of Charles Dickens suspected: "In addressing these few words of thankfulness […] I am (I presume) bound to adopt the name that it pleases that excellent writer to assume […] but I should have been strongly disposed, if I had been left to my own devices, to address the said writer as a woman. I have observed what seem to me such womanly touches in those moving fictions, that the assurance on the title-page is insufficient to satisfy me even now. If they originated with no woman, I believe that no man ever before had the art of making himself mentally so like a woman since the world began.” With the publication, and popularity, of Adam Bede, published in 1859, Mary Ann Evans (Lewes) did finally step forward as the woman behind George Eliot. 4. What about Jean Rhys’s Mr. Rochester in Wide Sargasso Sea? He is a decidedly revised Rochester, less victim than Charlotte Bronte’s – proud, racist, ultimately vicious; misdirecting his emasculation rage (meant for his father) at Antoinette, Rhys’s woman in the attic. Is there a sense in which Rhys is always there, behind and inside Rochester? Look how a man can drive a woman to insanity, can destroy her life. Look at what goes through his mind, how he does it, let me show you. Rochester’s point-of-view – the majority of the book – is in this sense on some level Antoinette’s point-of-view; Woman’s point-of-view. 5. A random short list (from my bookshelf) of other notable females-writing-males: Joan Silber, half the stories in Ideas of Heaven Ann Patchett, Run Susan Choi, A Person of Interest Jennifer Egan, The Keep, stories in A Visit from the Good Squad Flannery O’Connor, the majority of her work Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake, a number of stories Rachel Kushner, sections of Telex From Cuba Marilynne Robinson, Gilead Mavis Gallant, the Steve Burnet stories 6. On the converse side of literary gender-crossing, there are a few exemplary stories by male writers I’d like to mention briefly. In “Family Happiness,” a story about rising and falling romance from the point of view of a young woman who marries an older man, Tolstoy gets the female first-person narrator so right and so true – thought, feeling, and action – there is no doubt in my mind that his disappearance from the reader’s consciousness is the goal, poignantly achieved. (One wonders if Anna Karenina might have been written in the first person, to equal or greater effect!) Daniel Mueenuddin’s linked collection, In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, features two heartbreaking stories of the Pakistani servant class – “Saleema,” along with the title story – both told from the third-person point of view of women. The protagonists Saleema and Husna are at the mercy of male power, which, in this context, is the same as societal power; both meet tragic ends. What’s interesting to me about having knowledge of the author’s male gender in this case is that, while I wouldn't cite anything particularly “male” in the telling, there is something in the fact of the male telling that dignifies the women in an important way. The stories are told truthfully, unhysterically; this is how it is, the (male) author posits. There is no guilt, no “message,” just the telling. I somehow have the urge to thank him. Finally, a most interesting example: Colm Toibin’s “Silence,” from his new collection The Empty Family. The heroine is a fictionalized (though researched) Lady Gregory, an Irish dramatist – married to Sir William Henry Gregory, a former governor of Ceylon and 35 years her senior – who came into her own as a writer when she became widowed. Toibin portrays Lady Gregory as a good aristocratic wife – “She had made sure that she was silent without seeming shy, polite and reserved without seeming intimidated” – yet also sharply observant, quietly ambitious, more concerned with Beauty as a form than its earthly incarnations. In the story (and in real life), she has an affair with the poet Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, and is more stimulated by the idea of the affair than the passion itself. This intellectualized intensity results in the writing of a series of love sonnets, which she convinces Blunt to publish under his own name (this is also true to life). At the story’s end, she dines with Henry James and passes on an altered version of her affair as fodder for the great writer’s fiction. How true to the real Lady Gregory Toibin’s characterization is, I don’t know, but I loved the way in which Toibin, the male writer, endowed the female character of a certain era with “inappropriately" male drives and talents, both confining and liberating her as a woman and artist. In other words, I felt a simultaneous intimacy with the male “frame” and with female intellectual desire within that frame, as observed/admired by a male writer. The layering is distinct from, say, Lizzie Bennett in Jane Austen’s world, where the world is itself seen through a female author’s gaze. 7. In literary gender-crossings, do we ever really forget the author? Do we necessarily want to? Predictably: yes, and no. (Image: Male/Female - Jonathan Borofsky from _o_de_andrade_'s photostream)
1. In “Hunger Was Good Discipline,” from A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes about his short story “Out of Season”: I had omitted the real ending of it which was that the old man hanged himself. This was omitted on my new theory that you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood. In a recent interview with Jennifer Egan at Guernica, the interviewer mentions a review of Egan’s 2006 novel The Keep in which the reviewer, Maureen McClarnon of Booklsut, declared the ending section unnecessary: The Keep is easily the best book I’ve read all year. Actually, allow me one small qualification: it’s the best if one disregards the last section […] the book has this excellent ending, but what’s with all of those extra pages? What, an entire extra section? […] I don’t think it was necessary, or that it made the book stronger; the last section is there to tie up some loose narrative ends that could have been left dangling. If the reader has fully bought in to the whole willing suspension of disbelief package for the duration of the book, why burst the bubble? The Guernica interviewer added that “most readers I’ve spoken with disagree.” Egan’s response to the review: “Whatever. To me, there was no question that it was the right thing to do. And it was probably the hardest part of the book to write.” During the dark days of revising and seeking publication for my novel, Long for This World, a friend and veteran (former) literary editor read the manuscript and encouraged me with her praise. I remember in particular her saying, “The ending is one of the strongest and most memorable I’ve read,” which I was especially glad to hear, because the ending felt right to me as well. During the Q&A at a recent reading, I called on a woman sitting in the far back who shouted boldly: “I really enjoyed the book, but I hit the ending like a brick wall. It felt unfinished.” To which I replied, “Um, well, I… guess it’s always better to leave people wanting for more?” 2. Christopher Allen Walker wrote here at The Millions: “It is as if writers are compelled to sacrifice their characters to the reader’s need for catharsis and redemption, found in the resolution of the plot.” If there is such thing as an “average reader” – and I’m not sure there is – then perhaps, yes, a survey would show that resolution is preferred over open-endedness. And yet my examples above show that readers (and writers) are quite mixed on this. Even Hemingway has fans and detractors, particularly in regards to his stories, the endings of which do sometimes feel like an amputated limb whose corporal existence lingers as a ghost-like sensation. It's tempting to imagine a linear spectrum of ending “types,” with tied-up-in-a-bow on one end, chopped-off-with-a-blunt-ax on the other. But really, there are so many different kinds of literary endings. What constitutes “satisfying” for different readers? I wonder if a particular reader tends to enjoy one kind of ending across the board, or is there a more complex alchemy of writer and reader that happens, book by book? As readers, do writers prefer the same kinds of endings that they write? 3. Picasso said that a great work of art comes together “just barely.” I’ve always loved this quote, because it implies that a work of art is a whole thing, as opposed to an assemblage of component parts. I’m guessing Jennifer Egan did not think of her ending as modular; in other words, she didn’t consider it “an ending” at all, but rather “the last XX pages of the work.” Often, when advising writing students about endings, I suggest that if the ending isn’t quite working, the revision needs to be focused somewhere earlier on, not as much (and certainly not exclusively) on the last section, page, or paragraph. That said, all this brings to mind an interesting example of an artist working toward an ending: the DVD of Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love includes outtake scenes, most of which are alternate versions of a particular middle section, and of the ending. Each of these scenes represents a drastically different ultimate emotional affect, and the mixing and matching of them does feel a bit like modular-furniture rearrangement (an apt metaphor for a filmmaker whose aesthetic is very designerly). Is the forbidden-love relationship between the main characters one of 1. (passionate) consummation or 2. (passionate) abstention? If the latter, does the tension/longing stay with 1. both characters long into the future, or 2. just with one of them? Do the characters 1. reunite or 2. never cross paths again? If the former, is it by chance or by design, and, either way, what is the emotional tenor / ultimate implication of that reunion? Wong shot many different possibilities; it seems he needed to play them out in order to decide. As much as I loved the film as is, watching all these possibilities and “doing the math” afterwards feels like the appropriate complete experience; it makes doubly clear that the final version -- the most minimal and the most poignant -- is the right one, the best one. 5. Here are some adjectives I often hear applied to endings: memorable surprise / twist heartbreaking / tear-jerking dramatic melodramatic resonant haunting anti-climactic ambiguous unresolved hopeful dark cheesy / sentimental ballsy sublime 6. Following are a few of my own favorite kinds of endings and some examples: Endings that make you go, HOW did the writer DO that? and thus make you want to re-read immediately: “The Point” by Charles D’Ambrosio, “Safari” by Jennifer Egan, and Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates each does something at the end that feels like a stomach-turning shift, and yet it works; you are jarred, but just the right amount. In writing classes, these endings are sometimes described as "surprising but inevitable." (This is perhaps the most common type of successful ending, so I’ll unpack it a bit.) In “The Point,” an adolescent narrator whom you’ve been with for 15 pages reveals/confesses something shocking to you. The narrative tone also shifts abruptly, from wry/humorous/lyrical to unflinching and direct. You should feel strong-armed by the author, but you don’t; you realize this is just what you’ve been wanting to know, and in just this voice, all along. In “Safari,” Egan’s omniscient narrator flashes forward from a present time in which the main characters are children, to a crystal-ball future. It’s disturbing, both in terms of what is revealed in the crystal ball, and also in terms of the reader’s stability; somebody is spinning the room on its horizontal axis, has switched your flat screen for a 3D Imax. When the narration returns to the present, you feel the buzz of the spin, but your feet re-plant on the ground; it works beautifully. In Revolutionary Road, at the very end of the novel, we finally get the female protagonist's (April Wheeler's) narrative point of view. Just for a moment – and at just the right moment – we are right inside her head. As with “The Point,” we realize it’s what we’ve wanted all along, and we marvel that the writer has engendered that craving, over the previous 200-some pages, at a slow simmer, so skillfully. Endings that leave you speechlessly marooned in emotion / sensation: John Cheever’s “Goodbye, My Brother,” and James Salter’s “Last Night” jolt you out of intellect into something you can’t think your way through or out of. Cheever does this with that stunning final image: I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful, and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea. Salter does it with an ostensibly neat and tidy closing paragraph that creates so much dissonance vis-a-vis the emotional disturbances of the story thus far (an affair, an assisted-suicide gone wrong), you find yourself trapped in a kind of feeling-thinking purgatory, your response relegated (arguably elevated) to the realm of pure sense. Endings that cannot be summed up in words: Certainly there are literary examples of this, but Kelly Reichardt’s film Wendy and Lucy comes to mind first. Perhaps this is a dog owner’s thing, but I remember a friend describing to me the ending, trying to reassure me (since I have low tolerance for dead-dog movies). “You’ll be all right,” she said. “Lucy [the dog] comes out just fine.” This is correct, strictly speaking, but there is nothing “just fine” about the ending of this movie. It’s emotionally and narratively understated, but wrenchingly sad; nowhere near “just fine.” Endings That Can Be Interpreted in More Than One Way: When very different readings of an ending can be equally resonant, that's what I call masterful. I am thinking of Walter Kirn's story "Hoaxer," a coming-of-age story in which a boy's ambivalent relationship with his unstable father comes to a head. On an outing with his father, the boy commits a definitive act; the act could be interpreted as a door-closing rejection, or as a claim on intimacy/connection. Either reading is both moving and disturbing in light of the story's intricate characterizations to that point. Amazing. The other example that comes to mind is Hemingway's notorious six-word story, which, according to Peter Miller, came about in this way: Ernest Hemingway was lunching at the Algonquin, sitting at the famous “round table” with several writers, claiming he could write a six-word-long short story. The other writers balked. Hemingway told them to ante up ten dollars each. If he was wrong, he would match it; if he was right, he would keep the pot. He quickly wrote six words on a napkin and passed it around. The words were: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Of course, the question the reader is left with is, why were the shoes never worn? There are countless ways to read this "ending," mostly tragic; and yet anything from miscarriage (tragedy) to mis-gendering (comedy) could explain it. As gimmicky and over-quoted as this story has become, it really is brilliant; inclusion and omission working together perfectly. Endings you can’t even remember because the rest of the book/story was so good: The unmemorable ending is sometimes a work’s strength. I feel this way about Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides (and I read this very recently), which is memorable for every gorgeous sentence and image, and for its dream-like, first-person-plural voice; decidedly not for its narrative Whodunnit or Whydunnit or even Howdunnit (a penultimate suicide scene). The novel doesn’t so much bring you to “an ending” as it does absorb you deeply all throughout, in an experience of language and longing, mystery and unknowing (reopening the book just now, though, I must admit that the last sentence is quite beautiful). I experienced Roberto Bolaño’s story collection Last Evenings on Earth, in a similar way. I would never describe a Bolaño story by saying, “This happens, then this, then it ends like this.” The stories seem to end for no other reason than that the story has now been told and there’s no more to tell; the “action” is in the story-telling itself, the rich emotional and psychological interplay between the Narrator and the Narrated. 7. How to end an essay about endings? Hmm... at this point, I take off my reader's hat and don my writer's (in this case, it's a Chilean chupalla -- a cheap imitation, of course). I suspect that writer and reader will often part ways when it comes to endings (even in the same person). As a writer, I tend to have more questions than answers with regard to my characters, my story, my subject. Will this satisfy the reader? The writer never knows, sometimes does not particularly care. In this case, my considerations have run their course. The End. [Image credit: Tiago Ribeiro]
There once was a little girl named Jenny, who lived in Chicago and went to nursery school with a little girl named Sally. Sally's family moved into the apartment below Jenny's family, and Jenny's mother and Sally's mother were pregnant with the girls' little brothers at the same time. Sally's little brother was named Paul, but Jenny always thought of him as "Sally's little brother," even after she moved to San Francisco, and grew up, and moved to New York, and became a writer. One evening in the not-so-distant past, Jenny, now the author of many well-regarded books of fiction, turned on the television, and who did she see on the screen but Sally's little brother! He was an actor, and he was on a television show, and this television show had brought him to Jenny's living room. Just like that. Meanwhile, a girl grew up in Los Angeles, reading a lot of books, wanting to be a writer. Okay, okay, it's me. After graduate school, I moved back to Los Angeles and kept writing. I went to Ohio for a semester to teach, and as the snow fell (and kept falling), I discovered and fell in love with the work of Jennifer Egan. I even wrote Ms. Egan a fan email, something I'd never done before. She actually wrote back. She signed her name "Jenny" and I felt a geeky thrill. Jenny! On a recent Saturday, back in Los Angeles, I held a writing class, and one of the students looked familiar to me, but I couldn't place him--had I seen him at Skylight? On my coffee table was an advance copy of A Visit from the Goon Squad. "Is this out yet?" the student asked, and I explained it wasn't yet, not until June. "But I'm interviewing her," I said--bragged, probably. "I am so excited!" I said. "Jennifer Egan is one of my favorite writers." The student smiled and just then I realized, Hey, he's on that TV show. "Jenny's my sister's oldest friend," he said. This was Paul, of course, Sally's little brother. Just like that, Paul, Jenny and I were connected, and it felt like a tiny miracle. It also felt like a page from A Visit from the Goon Squad, where characters move in and out of one another's lives, and where a minor character in one chapter becomes the protagonist in the next. When I met Egan for our aforementioned interview, she told me the story of how she knew Paul, saying that seeing him on TV was "the kind of odd surprise that I was trying to capture here,"--she pointed to her book--"the completely unexpected ways that people encounter and see each other over many years." We were sitting at a round picnic table outside Diesel Bookstore in Brentwood, where she would be reading that afternoon. I was born and raised in L.A., but I'd never been here before. A Visit from the Goon Squad has been called a novel-in-stories by many critics, including our very own Sonya Chung, whose perspicacious review describes the book as being "populated by has-beens, suicidals, idealists, divorcees (aka serial monogamists), romantics, and ex-prisoners, many of whom have been chewed up and spit out by the soul-less music and film industries, or the PR machine that fuels them." It's the best description of the book's content one might come by, but I'm not sure about the novel-in-stories label. Although each chapter can stand on its own, and though each differs in tone and form, the book still coalesced whole in my mind, its world burrowing into my imagination, as only novels can do. It was also readable like a novel, even with all of its formal shifts. It's a novel-of-the-future, maybe, and not just because one chapter is written in PowerPoint. When I asked Egan about the book's genre, she said, "It’s so decentralized that it doesn’t quite fit what I think we think of as novels being right now. And I don’t really care about the term. It doesn’t fit into a category comfortably...I didn’t really worry about an arc, because again, that feels more like traditional fiction." She wanted to put together a book whose principal was diversity, as opposed to unity. "I wanted to see how many tones and moods and technical choices I could get away with." (For instance: though ultimately unsuccessful, she tried to write a chapter in epic poetry.) Egan's goal, she said, was to make the book "a big cornucopia of craziness, and yet, have it all fit together into one story. I asked myself: Since the principal was one of surprise and revelation, and intimacy versus distance, my basic question was, Who is the person we see from a distance that we want to have revealed to us?" This decision to follow various characters at different points was inspired in part by Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time, and, also, The Sopranos. Of the HBO show, she said, "I loved the way there were all these different narratives that intertwined over a long period, and different characters were the main characters at different times. I wanted to play with that, and I felt like I hadn’t seen that very much in novels. I didn’t want the centrality of a conventional novel." She continued: Also, one thing that is particular to The Sopranos, is that it’s so much about the chasm between public and private life...there’s a cliché about mob shows, and Tony Soprano is totally a clichéd character in certain ways. And yet, the fun of the show is being thrust into his private life and feeling the weird contrast between those two. That was a lot of what I wanted to do with this book: take people who seem to be clichéd from a distance and break them open, and show all of their nuances and secrets. Bennie Salazar is definitely one such character: a teenage punk rocker in San Francisco who becomes a successful--and thus jaded--music executive, nursing past humiliations as he sprinkles flakes of pure gold into his coffee. As a consumer of culture, I've seen his type before, and yet, drawn by Egan, his history, pain and desires become specific and complex. I asked her how the Sopranos-approach to storytelling echoed or contrasted with Proust's, and she told me they were more alike than I might realize, partially because both are such long narratives. There's a similar "braiding of lives," she said. Everyone called The Sopranos novelistic and I really do understand why, because with Proust, similarly, there are people you see at a distance and then suddenly know closely, but then you just see in passing years later, and there’s something very surprising about them that you weren’t expecting. Proust plays with the way in which time itself creates and reveals surprise. That change is surprising, even though it’s so steady, so constant. If narrative itself is a depiction of time passing ("and then this happened; and then this happened"), one would assume that a narrative about the passage of time would consider the subject through the very mechanism its existence depends upon. Egan does just that. For instance, in "Safari" (and in the final passages of "Goodbye, My Love"), she employs an omniscient third-person point of view that pulls out of the present story to compress time and speed forward. This narrator can tell us about a character's future--an entire marriage, for instance, or the long term effects of someone's death on a family--in just a few sentences. The compression of time is heartbreaking in its efficiency, and it's a formal reflection of the thematic motif of the book. Wow, one thinks, life does pass in a blink of an eye. Egan said she'd always felt "tremendous excitement" when other authors used this point of view. She was also inspired to try it after one afternoon at the library, where she was doing research for another book, about the Brooklyn Navy Yard in the 1940s. She was reading letters by a woman who had worked there, written to her new husband. "Reading someone's letters you're just deeply inside someone's mind," she told me. I thought, “Gosh, I wonder if she’s still alive?” So I went over to the computer...and I sat down and Googled her, and within a second I was reading her obituary. It was so eerie to be sitting there, reading these letters by a woman who didn’t even have children yet, didn’t know what her life would be, full of hopes and plans, and then to read the end, in this kind of cool, news-writing voice. And then I went on, reading her letters, but I had this terrible sense of knowing the end when she didn’t know it. And I think that also interested me. I was interested in how the present feels when you keep pulling someone out of it. This notion of being pulled out of the present reminded me immediately of internet culture, and the ways in which we require constant connection with the world, even as it yanks from us direct, unmediated experience. (Nowadays, for instance, you can't go to a concert without someone in front of you taking photos of the band, probably to post on Facebook later that night--maybe you are that someone?) Like Don DeLillo before her, Egan explores the role and power of technology in our lives, but from a more humanistic, character-driven perspective. In Look At Me, fashion model Charlotte, whose face and career are ruined after a car accident, becomes a character-of-herself on a website called Ordinary People, a fictional progenitor of Facebook and Twitter. In The Keep, Danny drags a satellite dish to a Eastern European castle because he must be able to call everyone he knows back in New York City; otherwise, he might be forgotten. In her latest book, Egan imagines a future world where the young tell stories in a narrative genre more befitting their era ("Great Rock and Roll Pauses"--the aforementioned PowerPoint chapter), and where toddlers use hand-held devices with such dexterity that they become the most important and sought-after consumers. In his review of A Visit from the Goon Squad in the Washington Post, Ron Charles wrote that the this world was "corroded by technology." I asked Egan if that was the description she would use. "I don’t think so," she said. "I have concerns about technology—I think we all do—but I’m mostly just interested in it. As a user, I’m less interested in it as I am as a writer. The fetishization of connection itself is something that really fascinates me. Connection in itself essentially means you’re opening yourself up to whatever people want from you. All the time." She doesn't see her vision of the future as a dystopian one, and despite the warnings and concerns in the book, the humanity of her characters persists. It's telling that these chapters set in the future are so poignant. People can still feel, even if those feelings must be texted: if thr r childrn, thr mst b a fUtr, rt? This is where Egan's genius lies. She engages with philosophical questions and is formally daring, and yet, and yet!, her work is emotionally moving, the stories and characters always compelling. In his review of The Keep, Madison Smartt Bell said that Egan, "deploys most of the arsenal developed by the metafiction writers of the 1960’s and refined by more recent authors like William T. Vollmann and David Foster Wallace — but she can’t exactly be counted as one of them." His reason? Her "...unusually vivid and convincing realism. Egan sustains an awareness that the text is being manipulated by its author, while at the same time delivering character and story with perfect and passionate conviction." Perhaps this is what makes Egan a darling among critics and a bestseller. I asked Egan about her approach to storytelling. How important, I wondered, was emotional engagement? Without the emotional resonance and some sense of an interesting story, you got nothin’. Really. All the formal experimentation in the world will get you nowhere without that...Ideally, the formal experimentation should not be something you’re imposing on the material but it should grow out of the story you’re telling. And if it doesn’t, the question is, why are you doing it? The people and what they do and how it feels to the reader are the beginning and the end. I really feel that. Unfortunately, there seems to be an idea that you have to choose one or the other [experimentation or readability]. I don’t quite understand where that came from. If you look at the history of literature, it doesn’t bear out that dichotomy at all. As time has gone on, I have become interested in telling stories that are more complicated and less streamlined, and so I'm looking for more ways to do that as efficiently and powerfully as I can. Egan is currently reading 19th-century novels like David Copperfield. She recently read Middlemarch and was "electrified" by the narrative voice. She's excited by how unconventional these older novels are. "I feel like everyone has amnesia," she said. "Or maybe we read these books too young and all we remember are the stories and not how they’re told." She grinned. "But I just love these intervening, busy body, first person-third person 19th century narrators. I feel like I need to think about that for my next book." Did she just say, next book? omg. woot. I can't wait to read it, Jenny.
Jennifer Egan’s latest novel-in-stories is populated by has-beens, suicidals, idealists, divorcees (aka serial monogamists), romantics, and ex-prisoners, many of whom have been chewed up and spit out by the soul-less music and film industries, or the PR machine that fuels them. And if A Visit From the Goon Squad was a traditional story collection, Egan may have titled it Out of Body, after the 10th story-chapter; for we see these characters in blips over time, often muddling through an unsavory, perplexing present and looking back on youth from a vantage point both above and below ghosts of their former selves. The book, for example, opens with a one-night stand between two characters and ends with a fantasy revisitation, some years later: “Alex imagines walking into her apartment and finding himself still there – his young self, full of schemes and high standards, with nothing decided yet.” But Goon Squad is not a traditional story collection. Its form brings to mind Joan Silber’s Ideas of Heaven, a story cycle in which a minor character from each story becomes the protagonist of the story following (or is it that the protagonist of each story is plucked from the cast of minor characters in the previous story? A question of both process and intention, I suppose; thus the term “cycle.”) The difference is that Goon Quad is not so much a neat cycle (despite the return described above), as it is a 3-D ven diagram; with chapters/characters darting about both laterally and vertically in time, point of view, and detail. It is very much a New York City novel – six degrees of separation everywhere, more often two or three degrees, and not virtually, but in-the-flesh – and it is perhaps Egan’s most decidedly contemporary work, with its headlong dive into the convergence of media, product promotion, hyper-celebrity, and the atomization and gadgetization of our lives. Bennie and Scotty are high school friends in San Francisco who have a band called the Flaming Dildos. Rhea, Alice, and Jocelyn are their groupies. Scotty and Alice eventually marry, but then divorce. Jocelyn starts up an affair with an older man named Lou, who is a powerful music executive. Lou goes through two marriages, various girlfriends (and Jocelyn, too); his children are Charlene (“Charlie”) and Rolph, the latter of whom, emotionally troubled as he grows into adulthood, “doesn’t make it.” Later, Lou mentors Bennie, who himself discovers a band called the Conduits; the band hits it big, and Bennie founds a successful label in New York called Sow’s Ear Records. For 12 years, his assistant is Sasha (the woman in the opening chapter) – a kleptomaniac and multiple-suicide-attempt survivor whose college best friend Rob also attempts suicide (and also fails) and then drowns on Sasha’s then-boyfriend/eventual husband Drew’s watch. Bennie’s first wife Stephanie works for a PR grand dame named Dolly, and Stephanie’s brother Jules is a gossip journalist who’s just served five years in prison for attempting to sexually assault one of his subjects, a young starlet named Kitty Jackson. Later, as a jaded 28 year-old notorious in the tabloids for on-set tantrums, Kitty participates in a desperate, nearly fatal PR scheme to improve the image of a dictator – a scheme developed by Dolly, who is now persona non grata in the PR world because of a disastrous party she once threw in which an elaborate ceiling decoration went dangerously wrong (Dolly also does some prison time, six months for criminal negligence). Dolly’s daughter Lulu – 9 years old at the time of the Kitty Jackson scheme -- eventually becomes Bennie’s new assistant, post Sow’s Ear (and post-Stephanie) after Bennie’s gone back to producing indie musicians (and remarried to a young woman named Lupa). In the novel’s finale, Lulu teams up with Alex – Bennie’s new potential protégé, and Sasha’s one-night-stand from Chapter 1– to promote Scotty’s return to the music scene as an indie soloist. Phew. I drew a flow chart myself to sort it all out, which I found helpful. Take that, agents and editors who warn novelists against “too many characters.” And I haven’t even named here all the children. Ah, the children. The eponymous goon here may be time (“Time’s a goon,” the washed out, former lead singer of the Conduits says, as does Bennie later on) – time passes, time disorients, time wears and tears; and in no other universe does time trample on souls and bodies more ruthlessly than in that of entertainment – “This is the music business,” Sasha reminds Bennie. “Five years is five hundred years.” Egan’s eyes and ears for the world of appearances – glitz, glam, and all that is required to churn the celebrity machine – is acute (territory that Egan readers will recognize from her first story collection Emerald City and from her second novel Look At Me), and she does take particular interest in exploring the particular brand of ruin that befalls the formerly famous/pseudo-famous. But she’s also got her sights set on the future – on the children, on their particular experience of this same disorienting, media-fied and atomized world of experience-on-demand. How are they responding to all of it, and how are they being shaped? I’m not sure that Egan answers that question, as much as she asks it; but she does render child characters – and child flashbacks of adult characters -- with a striking reverence for both their genius and sensitivity. Lulu -- “Overhearing her daughter on the phone with her friends, Dolly was awed by her authority: she was stern when she needed to be, but also soft. Kind. Lulu was nine” – Rolph -- “At eleven years old, Rolph knows two clear things about himself: He belongs to his father. And his father belongs to him…Rolph closes his eyes and opens them again. He is in Africa with his father. He thinks, I’ll remember this night for the rest of my life. And he’s right” – Sasha at age 5 -- “...the child was spinning them out as a way of filling the time, distracting them both from whatever was going on inside that house. And this made her seem much older than she really was, a tiny little woman, knowing, world-weary, too accepting of life’s burdens to even mention them” – and Sasha’s daughter Allison and “slightly autistic” son Linc – these are the real stars of A Visit From the Goon Squad. And, to put a fine point on it, Egan gives us “Pure Language,” the final chapter: a futuristic glimpse into the inevitable creep of precociousness-meets-technology. In addition to the children themselves, I found the brother-sister relationships – and the portrayal of platonic love between male and female in general (between, for example, Bennie and Sasha, and Sasha and Robert) – moving and poignant. Chapter 12 is told from young Allison’s perspective, in “slide journal” form (a kind of poetic-diagrammatic Powerpoint), and provides for us a child’s view of her parents’ estrangement; which is at root the estrangement of her father from her beloved brother Linc, a mathematical/musical idiot savant, who intuits the goonishness of time even at his young age via his obsession with musical pauses: “[Linc’s] crying makes sounds like scraping / Hearing him cry makes me cry, too. / Dad tries to hug Lincoln but he flinches away and hunches his back into a ball. / Mom’s face is white and furious. / She leans close to Dad, and says very softly: / The pause makes you think the song will end. And then the song isn’t really over, so you’re relieved. But then the song does actually end, because every song ends, obviously, and THAT. TIME. THE. END. IS. FOR. REAL.” Fans of Egan’s previous novels will be intrigued and excited, I think, to delve into her work in this new (for her) collage, time-shifty, polyphonic form. What the form does have in common with a traditional story collection, however, is that each chapter on some level stands on its own and thus the reader experiences the same unevenness as when reading a series of stories. “Safari,” in my opinion, is far and away the novel’s strongest chapter (having read it in the New Yorker, I was primed and jonzing for Goon Squad); but its characters are not as narratively central as others, and so its strength tips the work in a slightly disorienting way. Without revisiting Charlie or Rolph or even Mindy, Lou’s girlfriend at the time, in any substantial way, we’re left a bit dissatisfied. I was myself eager to see how the novel-in-stories form would serve and showcase Egan’s particular talents as a sharp observer of modern families and culture, along with her idea-driven approach to fiction. In the end, Goon Squad delivers on all the pleasures of Egan’s gifts as we’ve seen them displayed in the past – crisp and pulsing prose, extraordinary psychological insight, finely-specified characters seen from various points of view, a dark and yet vibrant wit, and off-the-charts observational intelligence. But the strain apparent in much of Egan’s work, i.e. the plotty feeling of her plots, is also still evident here, perhaps even more so given the myriad strands she pulls together in order to connect all of her dots (credible degrees of separation notwithstanding). Egan’s work often contains hard turns of the steering wheel (I am thinking here of Phoebe’s one-in-a-million run-in with Wolf in Munich in The Invisible Circus, and Egan’s puppeteer’s handling of the characters/meta-characters in The Keep), and readers will feel steered and handled in Goon Squad as well. But as a student of mine has put it, “It feels a little like she’s putting a fat kid in a tutu; but boy, that kid can dance.” And: “It feels like she’s moving furniture; but you’re sort of in awe of the fact that she has the balls to put the sofa in the kitchen.” In my own work, I find I am also less interested in story than idea or character, and have been known to make strategic (some might say liberal) use of the coincidence; so it's inspiring to see Egan careen and maneuver with a sure hand. A Visit From the Goon Squad ultimately secures Jennifer Egan’s place as a personal touchstone for me, and I would guess for many emerging novelists. Her work is (skillfully, decidedly) equal parts brainy and empathic, hyper-realist and fantastical, gritty and luminous; it is both so-damned-good and identifiably flawed. I teach her stories often and encourage my students (and myself) with her example: “Be brave; sometimes you just need to grab the reins and try stuff.”
Update: Don't miss our newest "Most Anticipated" list, highlighting books for the rest of 2010 and beyond. There's something for every lover of fiction coming in 2010, but, oddly enough, the dominant theme may be posthumous publication. Roberto Bolaño's relentless march into the canon has inured us to the idea of the bestseller from beyond the grave (and of course, for as long as there have been literary executors, this has been nothing new), but beyond the four(!) new books by Bolaño we also have have potentially important works by the likes of Ralph Ellison and Henry Roth, intriguing new books from Robert Walser and Ernst Weiss, a guaranteed bestseller from Stieg Larsson, and, looming in 2011, the final, unfinished novel of David Foster Wallace. Perhaps, amid all this, it is a relief to hear that we have many exciting books on their way from those still with us, including Elizabeth Kostova, Joshua Ferris, David Mitchell, Jennifer Egan, Don DeLillo, Ian McEwan, Yann Martel, and many others.Special thanks to The Millions Facebook group for helping us compile this list.January (or already available) Three Days Before the Shooting by Ralph Ellison: Fitting that this book preview starts off with a posthumous novel. Ellison's unfinished opus will not be the the only posthumous work to grab readers attention in 2010, but it will be perhaps the one with the most history attached to it and maybe, in the accounting of those who manage the canon, the most important. Ellison famously struggled to complete a second novel after the landmark publication of The Invisible Man. After Ellison's death, Juneteenth was cobbled together by his literary executor John Callahan and met with decidedly mixed reviews. But, as a 2007 article in the Washington Post argues, Three Days Before the Shooting, the result of years of work by Callahan and co-editor Adam Bradley, was always meant to be the true Ellison second novel. Readers will soon find out if it's the masterpiece they've been waiting for for decades.The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris: If your debut effort (in this case, Then We Came to the End) gets nominated for a National Book Award, you are on the express train to literary stardom. Quickly, however, focus shifts to the sophomore effort. For Ferris, early signs look good. Word is that The Unnamed is dark in tone, darker than and by all early accounts dissimilar to TWCTTE. The protagonist Tim's affliction is that he's unable to stop walking. In an early review, Bookforum likes it and says "Ferris possesses an overriding writer's gift: a basic and consistent ability to entertain while spurring engagement." See also: Joshua Ferris writing at The MillionsMonsieur Pain by Roberto Bolaño: The frenzy of posthumous Bolaño publication will continue in 2010 with as many as four (that I was able to find) books by the Chilean author published. Bolaño has been unmistakably one of the biggest publishing stories of the last few years, and publisher New Directions has been capably and speedily adding title after title to the Bolaño shelf at your local bookstore. Monsieur Pain (January) is about a Peruvian poet with a chronic case of hiccups. Antwerp (April) has been described as both a prose poem and a crime novel. The Return (July) is a new volume of short stories, as is The Insufferable Gaucho (August?), which was apparently the last book Bolaño delivered to a publisher. And look for more Bolaño in 2011. Garth may need to start updating his Bolaño Syllabus on a quarterly basis.Fun with Problems by Robert Stone: Fun with Problems will be Stone's first collection of short fiction in twelve years. And his first book since his 2007 memoir Prime Green: Remembering the Sixties (see Garth's review).Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd: Boyd's novel is already out in the UK where it has been receiving characteristically good notices. "There are tantalising hints of a broader ambition in William Boyd's wide-ranging new thriller," said The Guardian. The book is ostensibly about a man on the run, but Boyd, in an interview with Edinburgh Festivals alluded to the depth that The Guardian picked up on, "It's a chase. And the drive is that the man is being hunted. But like the last four of my novels, it's also about identity, about what happens when you lose everything that makes up your social identity, and how you then function in the modern city."The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova - The follow-up to Kostova's big selling The Historian (the first ever first novel to debut at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list) promises to be just as densely detailed as its predecessor, weighing in at a hefty 576 pages. Recently departed Kirkus has some quibbles with the plot machinations, but says "lush prose and abundant drama will render logic beside the point for most readers." PW adds "The Swan Thieves succeeds both in its echoes of The Historian and as it maps new territory for this canny and successful writer." See Also: Elizabeth Kostova's Year in ReadingIn January, Archipelago Books will publish a translation of Ernst Weiss' Georg Letham: Physician and Murderer some 70 years after the novel's appearance in German. Enthusiasts of German-language literature have compared Weiss favorably with his contemporary Thomas Mann and his friend Franz Kafka, but he has remained something of an unknown on this side of the Atlantic. Already, Joel Rotenberg's translation has begun to remedy this neglect. An excerpt appeared in A Public Space a while back. (Garth)February Point Omega by Don DeLillo: Anticipation for DeLillo's forthcoming book has been decidedly truncated. Publisher Scribner first tweeted about DeLillo delivering the manuscript in June, and the book will hit shelves a scant eight months later. One reason for the quick turnaround might be the book's surprising slimness, coming in somewhere between 117 pages (says PW) and 128 pages (says Scribner). Imagine: reading an entire DeLillo novel in an afternoon, or perhaps just over lunch. So will the book's slight profile belie some interior weightiness? A recently posted excerpt may offer some clues, and PW says "Reading it is akin to a brisk hike up a desert mountain—a trifle arid, perhaps, but with occasional views of breathtaking grandeur."Reality Hunger: A Manifesto by David Shields: We've already discussed Shields' forthcoming "manifesto" quite a lot at The Millions. It was first noted, in glowing terms, by Charles D’Ambrosio. This prompted me to dig deeper in a longer look at the book. From my sleuthing, and noting blurbs by J.M. Coetzee, Jonathan Lethem, and others, I posited "the intriguing possibility that a book of ideas will capture the popular interest [in 2010]." The book now sits on my desk, and while haven't yet jumped in with both feet, I can report that it is both structurally (a lettered and numbered organization scheme whose logic is not immediately discernible) and stylistically (deep thoughts, reminiscences, aphorisms, and pop culture nuggets abound) unique. It will be interesting to see if readers decide the book coalesces into a successful whole. This just in - British publisher Hamish Hamilton reports that Zadie Smith will be writing up the book in The Guardian soon. See Also: David Shield's Year in ReadingThe Infinities by John Banville: Banville follows up his Booker-winning effort The Sea with a novel with a rather unique conceit: it is narrated by the god Hermes. The reviews hint at further oddities. In The Guardian, for example, "Old Adam, a physicist-mathematician, has solved the infinity problem in a way that's not only led to some useful inventions – cars that run on brine, for example – but also proved the existence of parallel universes, a category that includes the one he inhabits. In this novel, Sweden is a warlike country, and evolution and relativity have been discredited."Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett: Haslett made a big splash in 2002 when his debut effort - a collection of short stories called You Are Not a Stranger Here - was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. Union Atlantic, his first novel, takes the depths of the recent financial collapse as a backdrop (which explains why a work of literary fiction is getting notice from publications like American Banker). PW gave it a starred review and insinuates it might be a seminal novel of that particular historical moment. Esquire recently published the novel's prologue. It begins, "Their second night in port at Bahrain someone on the admiral's staff decided the crew of the Vincennes deserved at least a free pack of cigarettes each."March Solar by Ian McEwan: McEwan's new novel was discussed extensively in Daniel Zalewski's New Yorker profile of McEwan in February 2009. More recently, the magazine published an excerpt from the novel. The book's protagonist is a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, and it appears that the book's chief drama will arise in his becoming embroiled in the climate change "debate." The book is also being called a satire, but, to the extent that several of McEwan's books have elements of satire, it's unclear whether Solar will be much of a departure for McEwan. The excerpt in the New Yorker would seem to indicate it'll be a typical, and probably quite good, effort.The Ask by Sam Lipsyte: Lipsyte had a breakout hit with Home Land in 2005. His follow-up novel was reviewed recently in The Quarterly Conversation, which says "let’s be frank: this is a hard novel to review. The Ask makes for your heart with its claws so efficiently that it leaves you torn and depleted. How are you to review a book that simply frightens you?" Ultimately, TQC decides The Ask "isn’t quite as good as Home Land. The latter was nearly perfect in idea and execution—an ’80s high-school movie gone sick with nostalgia for its own John Hughesian past. The Ask is more generationally diffuse. While just as snot-blowingly funny as its predecessor, The Ask is more devastating in its pitilessness."The Surrendered by Chang-Rae Lee: Bookdwarf read this one recently and says Lee "offers no easy endings or heartwarming coming-together, instead bringing to life a powerful, unpredictable, and occasionally painful story."Burning Bright by Ron Rash: Rash's follow-up to Serena is a collection of stories. The book's title story appeared in Ecotone in 2008.One More Story: Thirteen Stories in the Time-Honored Mode by Ingo Schulze: Garth has been talking about Schulze here for at least two years. Most recently he wrote "The East German setting of New Lives, and its uroboric epistolary structure – starting late in the story, slowly filling in the background – made for slow going at first, but the ethical intensity of its restaging of Faust has haunted me since I read it." The English (and somewhat illogical) title of Schulze's new book would seem to obscure the unifying theme of the new collection, whose title, translated directly from the German original, is Cell Phone: Thirteen Stories in the Old Style. According to an abstract for a paper in the journal German Monitor, "the cell phone functions in many stories as a threatening symbol of exposure to pressures and problems that make East(ern) Germans feel ill at ease."So Much for That by Lionel Shriver: More hot button issues. Just as Ian McEwan's forthcoming novel is informed by climate change, Shriver's latest takes on the healthcare debate. The Bradshaw Variations by Rachel Cusk: Cusk's novel is already out in the U.K. where Hilary Mantel wrote, "It is the author's mix of scorn and compassion that is so bracing. Sometimes she complicates simple things, snarling them in a cat's cradle of abstraction, but just as often, a sentence rewards with its absolute and unexpected precision."Silk Parachute by John McPhee: This new collection by McPhee is built around what FSG's promotional material calls "McPhee’s most anthologized piece of writing." "Silk Parachute" is, especially for the typically measured McPhee, a brief, tight, funny and emotional essay (It's available here as a .doc file). The rest of the new collection is composed of McPhee's recent New Yorker essays on lacrosse, "long-exposure view-camera photography, the weird foods he has sometimes been served in the course of his reportorial travels, a U.S. Open golf championship, and a season in Europe 'on the chalk' from the downs and sea cliffs of England to the Maas valley in the Netherlands and the champagne country of northern France." Since McPhee's most recent collections have had fairly strong thematic threads running through them, this more loosely tied book sounds like a bit of a departure.Long for This World by Sonya Chung: And, of course, Millions contributor Sonya Chung will see her debut novel Long for This World arrive in March. Sonya wrote about the peculiar challenges of settling on a book design in a recent essay.April The Notebook by Jose Saramago: Nobel Laureates can do "blooks" too. The Notebook is the collected entries from 87-year-old Saramago's blog, O Caderno de Saramago. The book, "which has already appeared in Portuguese and Spanish, lashes out against George W. Bush, Tony Blair, the Pope, Israel and Wall Street," according to the Independent, in its report on the book's Italian publisher dropping it for criticizing Prime Minister Silvio Burlusconi. Despite his age, Saramago is a busy man. In addition to The Notebook, there's an August release date in the U.K. for a new novel, The Elephant's Journey, which "traces the travels of Solomon, an Indian elephant given by King John III to Archduke Maximilian II of Austria," and Cain, "an ironic retelling of the Bible story," was recently published in Portuguese and Spanish.Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey: Carey's new book is based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville and wields two narrators. Olivier, the de Tocqueville "character" is, like de Tocqueville, the heir apparent of a wealthy family. Parrot is his clever servant who also happens to be a spy and all around rake. Early reviews from Australia, where the book is already out, have been strong. The Sydney Morning Herald called it "a tour de force, a wonderfully dizzying succession of adventures and vivid, at times caricatured, characters executed with great panache."The Dead Republic by Roddy Doyle: This book wraps up Doyle's The Last Roundup trilogy (previously: A Star Called Henry and Oh, Play That Thing!). This time Henry Smart has gone to Hollywood and then back to Dublin. A bomb blast there turns him into an accidental hero.What Becomes by A.L. Kennedy: This short story collection is already out in the U.K. The Spectator likes it: "The hardest thing about the advent of a new collection of stories by A.L. Kennedy... is the search for synonyms for 'brilliant.'"Beatrice and Virgil by Yann Martel: Though Martel's previous effort, Life of Pi, was far from universally loved, the book became something of a literary phenomenon, putting up sales impressive even for a Booker winner. As a result, nearly a decade later, Martel's follow up is one of the most heavily anticipated books of the year. As before, it seems Martel will be trading in talking animals, a taxidermied donkey and monkey. More details: The book is about the Holocaust, reportedly. It's Canadian publisher has called it "shocking." And Martel is comparing it to Animal Farm.The Big Short by Michael Lewis: Original set for November 2009, the publication of Michael Lewis’ much anticipated chronicle of the financial crisis, The Big Short has been pushed back to April. In October 2008, when economic uncertainty was at its height and fears were voiced in some rarefied quarters about the possibility of some sort of structural collapse, we wrote, “The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.” There have already been many books about the collapse and what caused it, from The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown to The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, but many readers have been waiting for a book by Lewis, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine at the height of the crisis. Some readers may be weary of the topic by the time the book comes out, but it’s sure to garner some interest. Noir by Robert Coover: An excerpt of this new novel by "pioneering postmodernist" Coover was published a while back in Vice. It is introduced thusly: "Noir is a short novel starring you as Philip M. Noir, Private Investigator. It began as a story about a dockside detective in pursuit of something—like truth or beauty, the ineffable—and became over the course of its writing a kind of companion piece to Ghost Town, which played with the western genre and mythology the way this one plays with the hard-boiled/noir genre and urban myth. It was the French who discovered and defined noir; consequently, this book will have its first publication in Paris, in French, in the spring of 2008."May The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis: This book, long in the works, has been evolving as Amis has struggled to write it. In 2006, he told The Independent it was, "blindingly autobiographical, but with an Islamic theme." As it turns out, the autobiographical bits were causing Amis trouble. He told the National Post in August 2009, "it turned out it was actually two novels, and they couldn’t go together. So I wrote The Pregnant Widow, [that’s] one half of it, and the other half I started, and it will be very autobiographical, the next one." Subsequent comments from Amis appear to indicate the two book solution is still the plan. Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis: Imperial Bedrooms is reportedly a sequel to Ellis' first novel Less Than Zero. First sentence of the novel? "They had made a movie about us."The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer: Orringer received more than the typical notice for a debut short story collection when her 2003 How to Breathe Underwater was named a New York Times Notable Book, landed on various other lists, and picked up a small prize or two. It's looking like that promising first effort may translate into a "big" novel for Orringer in 2010. Library Journal reported a 60,000-copy first printing for The Invisible Bridge - the book follows a trio of Hungarian brothers in Budapest and Paris before and during World War II - and it carries with it a blurb from Michael Chabon ("To bring an entire lost world... to vivid life between the covers of a novel is an accomplishment; to invest that world, and everyone who inhabits it, with a soul... takes something more like genius.")The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson: Larsson's nordic crime fiction (which has won Larsson posthumous stardom in the States) isn't exactly in The Millions wheelhouse, but, with nary a mention on the site, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo vaulted into our Millions Top Ten and has stayed there. When Millions' readers get behind a book, it's often worth taking notice. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is the final book in Larsson's "Millennium Trilogy" (Dragon was the first and The Girl Who Played with Fire, the second). Though just becoming well known in the U.S., Larsson was the second top-selling author in the world in 2008. Part of Larsson's sudden success is his odd path to (posthumous) publishing fame. Larsson was a journalist and activist who died of a heart attack. The manuscripts of his novels were found after his death. He had apparently written them just for fun. Five years later, the books are a publishing sensation.Private Life by Jane Smiley: There's not much info on this one yet other than that it follows a Missouri woman's life, from the 1880s to World War II.The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman: Pullman (famous for his His Dark Materials children's series) will once again be courting controversy with this new book. According to The Guardian, "The book will provide a new account of the life of Jesus, challenging the gospels and arguing that the version in the New Testament was shaped by the apostle Paul." In addition, the book will be released on Easter in the U.K. and is part of Canongate's "Myths" series of books. Pullman also wrote an introduction to that series.The Microscripts by Robert Walser: The pothumous publication of Nabokov's The Original of Laura, reproducing, front and back, the notecards on which Nabokov hat charted this unfinished work, was met with no small amount of scorn. This year, another posthumously published book, based off of notecard scrawlings, may be met more favorably. The story behind Walser's Microscripts is fascinating. From the New Directions blog: "Walser wrote many of his manuscripts in a highly enigmatic, shrunken-down form. These narrow strips of paper... covered with tiny ant-like markings only a millimeter or two high, came to light only after the author’s death in 1956. At first considered a secret code, the microscripts were eventually discovered to be a radically miniaturized form of a German script: a whole story could fit on the back of a business card... Each microscript is reproduced in full color in its original form: the detached cover of a trashy crime novel, a disappointing letter, a receipt of payment."June The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell: After Black Swan Green, a departure from the frenetic, layered Cloud Atlas which was broadly considered one of the best novels of the last decade, Mitchell fans may be pleased to hear that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is being described as a return to form. It's long (512 pages) and set in Japan in 1799. The Guardian says, "Mitchell returns to the big canvas with this historical novel set in a Japanese outpost of the Dutch empire."An American Type by Henry Roth: Here's another interesting posthumous publication. Roth is revered for his 1934 novel Call It Sleep and his 1990s "comeback" effort, the Mercy of a Rude Stream cycle, and so news of this book, "discovered," according to the publicity materials, "in a stack of nearly 2,000 unpublished pages by a young New Yorker editor," will surely interest readers. A little more detail from the publicity materials: "Set in 1938, An American Type reintroduces us to Roth’s alter ego, Ira, who abandons his controlling lover, Edith, in favor of a blond, aristocratic pianist at Yaddo. The ensuing conflict between his Jewish ghetto roots and his high-flown, writerly aspirations forces Ira, temporarily, to abandon his family for the sun-soaked promise of the American West."A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan: This new novel by National Book Award nominee Egan sounds like it's as ambitious and layered as Look At Me--and I'm sure it'll be as addictively readable as The Keep. According to Amazon, it centers on the life of Bennie Salazar, "an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs," and the narrative traverses various eras and locales, "from the pre-Internet nineties to a postwar future." Color me intrigued. (Edan)July Update: Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart: A reader points out in the comments that Shteyngart has a new book coming out and since we absolutely would have included it had we known about it, here it is. A recent item at The Rumpus has the scoop: "His new novel is set slightly in the future. When he started writing it a few years ago, he envisioned a world where the world’s economy had collapsed and the central banks had to bail out the Big Three automakers. As that came to pass, he had to keep changing his novel, which got bleaker and bleaker. And now it’s set in 'a completely illiterate New York,' he said. 'In other words, next Tuesday.'" August Sympathy for the Devil: This is a long way off so it's hard to say how good it will be, but it sounds pretty cool: an anthology of stories about the devil from the likes of Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Kelly Link, China Mieville, Michael Chabon, and others.I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson: Petterson has been on the road to international literary stardom for a few years now and that means his new novels get translated into English with relative alacrity. This means that English-speaking readers will get to see I Curse the River of Time, first published in Norwegian in 2008, later this year. The book won the Norwegian Brage prize and, according to a "sample translation" on Petterson's agent's website, it begins: "I did not realize that my mother had left. There was too much going on in my own life. We had not spoken for a month, or even longer, which I guess was not that unusual, in 1989, when you consider the things that went on around us back then, but it felt unusual." September C by Tom McCarthy: At Ready Steady Book in September 2007, Mark Thwaite asked McCarthy: "What are you writing now?" And McCarthy responded: "Pathetically, my answer to this question is the same as it was when you last asked it over a year ago. I’m just under half way through a novel called C, which is about mourning, technology and matter. I’m writing it very slowly. It’s called C because it has crypts, cauls, call-signs, cocaine, cyanide and cysteine in it. And carbon: lots of carbon."Unknown Nemesis by Philip Roth: News of this novel was announced nearly a year ago, but there is no release date thus far and not much is known about it beyond that it's "a work of fiction set in the summer of 1944 that tells of a polio epidemic and its effects on a closely knit Newark community and its children."Freedom by Jonathan Franzen: Jonathan Franzen's follow-up to The Corrections, Freedom, is likely to cause a stir when it appears, most likely in the fall. Among the prominent media narratives - the backlash, the backlash-to-the-backlash - will be the length of the novel's gestation. Really, though, in novelist time (as distinct from internet time), nine years is a mere blip - particularly when you publish two books of nonfiction in the interim. Far more remarkable is how tight-lipped Franzen has managed to be about the novel's content. From various obscure interviews, we've managed to cobble together the following: 1) The novel has something to do with U.S. politics, of the Washington, D.C. variety. 2) Franzen's original conception of how those politics would intersect with the narrative changed radically in the writing, likely shifting from an "inside baseball" look at bureaucracy toward the personal. 3) Germany, where Franzen has spent some time recently, "will play an important role in the novel." 4) After two New Yorker short stories notable for their smallness and misanthropy, the excerpt from the novel that appeared last year was notable for its return to the more generous ironies that endeared The Corrections to our "Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) panel." (Garth)The Pale King by David Foster Wallace: Wallace's unfinished opus is sure to be a blockbuster when it appears - April 2011 is the latest word on a release date. The Howling Fantods, home to all things DFW, has been staying on top of the story. A recent report contained a number of tidbits, including this: "The subject of the novel is boredom. The opening of the book instructs the reader to go back and read the small type they skipped on the copyright page, which details the battle with publishers over their determination to call it fiction, when it's all 100% true. The narrator, David Foster Wallace, is at some point confused with another David F. Wallace by IRS computers, pointing to the degree to which our lives are filled with irrelevant complexity."There are many other exciting books coming out in 2010 not mentioned here - let us know what books you are most looking forward to in 2010 in the comments section below.
The "staff picks" shelf in any good independent bookstore is a treasure trove of book recommendations. Unmoored from media hype and even timeliness, these books are championed by trusted fellow readers. With many bookselling alums in our ranks, we offer our own "Staff Picks" in a feature appearing irregularly.Gates of Eden by Ethan Coen recommended by AndrewA treat for fans of the multiple-Oscar-winning Coen brothers, and for anyone who likes to spend some time in that grey area where the darkly comic and the absurdly tragic intersect. Published ten years ago, this collection of prose from the Ethan half of the Coen brothers comes from the same delightfully twisted mind that gave us rapid-fire gangster pastiches like Miller's Crossing, and tough-talking old-time men-of-action like Michael Lerner's studio honcho in Barton Fink.There's a story of a boxer who never manages to lay a punch and who gets caught up in a war between rival gangsters. Another tale takes us back to Minneapolis (the Coen's home town) where the Mafia have decided to set-up shop. There are some plays in this collection too, loaded with savagely funny dialogue. You can almost hear Steve Buscemi or John Goodman or John Turturro or any of the other Coen regulars sinking their chops into these characters.The White-Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty recommended by GarthThis is one of those novels I loved so much circa my senior year of high school that I'm almost afraid to reread it, in case it's not as great as I remembered. Thumbing back through the first few chapters, I'm noticing that Beatty shares a riff-intensive prose style with Colson Whitehead and Jonathan Lethem. Unlike those writers, however, he seems more inclined to pursue satire than high art. Still, Beatty's natural emotional pallette - a kind of pissed-off innocence - and his poet's eye for the absurd, pushes his story beyond the didactic. Narrator Gunnar Kaufman may transform himself from scholarship athlete to celebrity-poet-messiah (see? I said it was satire), but he remains, underneath, someone we know and care about... especially when we ourselves are pissed-off innocents. Is it premature to recommendThe White Boy Shuffle as a graduation present?The Keep by Jennifer Egan recommended by EdanThe Keep by Jennifer Egan manages to be both inventive and readable, character and plot driven, playful with genre conventions but also straightforward in its prose style. Egan draws you into a Gothic tale of an old, creepy castle, and the reunion of two cousins with a vicious secret between them, but it's not long before the narrator announces himself as an outsider to the story (or is he?!), pulling another, wholly different, storyline into the mix. The threads of the various plots converge marvelously at the novel's end, and you can't help but love how fun this book is - fun and smart.The Modern Gentleman: A Guide to Essential Manners, Savvy & Vice by Phineas Mollod and Jason Tesauro recommended by TimothyNot all self-help books are beholden to the latest new-age or pop psychology craze. In The Modern Gentleman: A Guide to Essential Manners, Savvy & Vice, authors Phineas Mollod and Jason Tesauro offer timeless, entertaining tips on how today's man can improve his wardrobe, grooming habits and love of literature, while keeping in mind his affinity for sexual intimacy, a day at the track and alcohol consumption. The book's wit is second only to its practicality, from how to host a memorable dinner party to advice on handling inquiries from a potential mate about past lovers (charts included). The Modern Gentleman also makes for lively conversation when guests spot it casually displayed among coffee table reading material.Some choice excerpts:Honking - When lively conversation in the cabin boils over in delight, give a medium burst to alert the heavens to such joy.Swearing - There's a high degree of cliche among cursers. Mix and match the filthy classics to create a string of fresh phrases that highlight your keen wit and local tongue.Hiccoughing - If at the cinema, suggest the hiccougher overstuff his mouth with buttery popcorn until breathing is labored and then insert one Milk Dud for good measure. While this procedure may prove ineffective, it is delicious.Bow ties - Never divulge to a rogue the bow tie's true ease of knot - let's keep it between us gentlemen, shall we?This book is both a lyrical masterpiece and a cultural gem.