There are a few digs at you, reader, in Purity, Jonathan Franzen’s big new novel. Here’s one buried in the musings of Andreas Wolf, the sociopathic leader of a data-dumping transparency project — one analogous to but at odds with WikiLeaks: “The more he existed as the Internet’s image of him, the less he felt like he existed as a flesh-and-blood person. The Internet meant death.” Have you read a take or a tweet excoriating Jonathan Franzen? You inhabit a world “governed…by fear: the fear of unpopularity and uncoolness, the fear of missing out, the fear of being flamed or forgotten.”
Ironically, the Internet — the thing with which Franzen’s opprobrium is most frequently associated — is also the vehicle by which his utterances become collectively memorable. The Internet is why I know, for example, that 20 years ago, Franzen expressed anxiety about cultural irrelevance in the type of tone-deaf revelation primed to annoy less-famous writers and destined to become characteristic: “I had already realized that the money, the hype, the limo ride to a Vogue shoot weren’t simply fringe benefits. They were the main prize, the consolation for no longer mattering to the culture.”
No one should be permanently lashed to his or her remarks of decades past, but Franzen, with his frequent public grumping, invites a certain amount of scrutiny. And despite the easy prey of Franzen’s Vogue shoots, that essay, “Perchance to Dream,” published in Harper’s in 1996, contains an artist’s statement that remains the tidiest, most cogent thesis on the project of Franzen’s writing: “It had always been a prejudice of mine that putting a novel’s characters in a dynamic social setting enriched the story that was being told; that the glory of the genre consisted in its spanning of the expanse between private experience and public context.”
Of course, nailing the “public context” was a source of considerable anxiety:
I’d already worked in contemporary pharmacology and TV and race and prison life and a dozen other vocabularies; how was I going to satirize Internet boosterism and the Dow Jones as well while leaving room for the complexities of character and locale? Panic grows in the gap between the increasing length of the project and the shrinking time increments of cultural change…
With Purity, the project is long, the cultural change significant, time of the essence. Time presses in all of Franzen’s novels, for reasons of health — human or environmental — or economics, or plate tectonics. In his latest, several plot devices add urgency: there’s a home on the verge of foreclosure, a sensational news story in danger of being scooped, more data in need of the “disinfecting” sunshine of the aforementioned Wolf’s Sunlight Project.
If there’s anything that denotes a Franzen text, it’s a socio-cultural rant, and the slightly Bill-and-Ted-like deployment of the adjective “excellent.” Here’s Walter Berglund of Franzen’s last novel, Freedom, telling the employees of an Appalachian body-armor plant what’s what:
‘You, too, can help denude every last scrap of native habitat in Asia, Africa, and South America! You, too, can buy six-foot-wide plasma TV screens that consume unbelievable amounts of energy, even when they’re not turned on. But that’s OK, because that’s why we threw you out of your homes in the first place, so we could strip-mine your ancestral hills and feed the coal-fired generators that are the number-one of cause of global warming and other excellent things like acid rain.’
Or Chip of The Corrections, foaming at the sister who is just trying to get him upstairs for a parental lunch:
‘I’m saying the structure of the entire culture is flawed. I’m saying the bureaucracy has arrogated the right to define certain states of mind as “diseased.” A lack of desire to spend money becomes a symptom of disease that requires expensive medication. Which medication then destroys the libido, in other words destroy the appetite for the one pleasure in life that’s free, which means the person has to spend even more money on compensatory pleasures. The very definition of mental “health” is the ability to participate in the consumer economy. When you buy into therapy, you’re buying into buying. And I’m saying that I personally am losing the battle with a commercialized, medicalized, totalitarian modernity right this instant.’
Franzen, for all that he attracts online derision, knows that nobody is irredeemable who has a sense of humor (as he told the Guardian in a recent profile, he considers himself a “comic novelist”). Comic, ranting males abound in his last two novels, but Purity as a whole is comparatively humorless in ways that are both intentional and not; humor’s absence, on the intentional front, is what damns the leaker Wolf and a cruelly drawn character named Anabel Laird, the mother of the novel’s heroine, Purity “Pip” Tyler.
Purity is baggy — comprising several deep, character-driven sections linked together by a series of unlikely events. Wolf’s segments are in a jarring, significantly darker key than that of Franzen’s previous fiction. Wolf wrestles throughout the book with a second self he calls “the Killer;” in some especially gross moments he almost channels Jonathan Littell’s seemingly placid, ultimately depraved Nazi narrator in The Kindly Ones. Here’s Wolf recalling his troubled mother: “He remembered remembering, when he saw her pussy in the rose garden, that this wasn’t the first time he’d seen it — that something he’s thought was a disturbing dream from his early childhood hadn’t actually been a dream.” Or here, exercising his sexual frustrations about Pip: “It was a relief to stop fighting the Killer and submit to the evil of his idea; it turned him on so much that he went to the spot on the floor where Pip had stood naked and used the panties she’d left to milk himself, three times, of the substance he hadn’t spent in her…”
Purity’s “public context,” as Franzen put it in 1996, also feels more urgent than that of his previous work; there’s a polemic built into Wolf that his character is finally a bit too flimsy to support. You’d think that someone like Wolf would worship the Internet for its purifying possibilities; but its potentiality is more obliterating — more like the state in George Orwell’s Oceania — than it is a vehicle for liberation. In Wolf’s conception, the Internet is aligned with the totalitarian system that characterized the East Germany of his youth: “If — and only if — you had enough money and/or tech capability, you could control your Internet persona and, thus, your destiny and your virtual afterlife. Optimize or die. Kill or be killed.” In a keystone passage, Franzen intersperses a description of East Germany under Socialism with the tech orthodoxies and infelicities of the present day:
The real appeal of apparatchikism was the safety of belonging. Outside, the air smelled like brimstone, the food was bad, the economy moribund, the cynicism rampant, but inside, victory of the class enemy was assured. Outside, the middle class was disappearing faster than the icecaps, xenophobes were winning elections or stocking up on assault rifles, warring tribes were butchering each other religiously, but inside, disruptive new technologies were rendering traditional politics obsolete. Inside, decentralized ad hoc communities were rewriting the rules of creativity, the revolution rewarding the risk-taker who understood the power of networks. The New Regime even recycled the old Republic’s buzzwords, collective, collaborative. Axiomatic to both was that a new species of humanity was emerging. On this, apparatchiks of every stripe agreed. It never seemed to bother them that their ruling elites consisted of the grasping, brutal old species of humanity.
It’s unclear, ultimately, why Wolf, with his mistrust of the Internet’s role in society, has spent so much time, so much effort, to set up his Bolivian hacker’s commune. (Because he’s a little insane, basically.) And his Sunlight Project, apart from the spectacular descriptions of its setting in a Bolivian valley, takes place essentially in front of a green screen, cobbled together with references to a “private fiber-optic line,” a “network of malcontents and hackers,” “facial-recognition software,” or an “impenetrable maze of electronic red herrings to protect the source.”
Perhaps due to generational differences, something about Franzen’s “public context” has never quite rung true to me — his college freshman’s September 11th in Freedom didn’t match my freshman self, staring blank-faced at the television in week two of college. But it has also never much mattered to me, because I think Franzen’s ability to convey the private experience is often transcendent and perfect. I can just look at the final paragraph of The Corrections and start crying — Alfred and Enid and the ice chip and the changes she’s going to make in her life. Goddamn.
But in Purity, like Freedom, the world is sometimes only an echo of a world that should be familiar. Gertrude Stein said of Oakland that there was “no there there,” and Franzen seems content to take her at her word. Pip, too, occasionally lacks a “there;” in the end she works as a character — you root for her happiness — but Franzen includes oddly few context clues for her. Who were the friends that Pip slowly broke up with via aloof text messages and hangout-cancellations? What clothes did they wear; what things did they read; what shows did they watch? Barring financial constraints, would Pip see Magic Mike XXL in the theater? $130,000 in student loans is alleged to loom over Pip, clouding her future happiness, but the day-to-day math of her straitened circumstances is missing, with none of the lovingly crafted accounting of pitiful finances that resulted in Chip Lambert’s memorable salmon-down-the-pants scene in The Corrections. Nothing about the description of the Oakland squatters’ domicile that Purity inhabits — or her co-residents — necessarily convinces the reader that Jonathan Franzen has embedded with Occupiers and freegans.
Purity sang for me in its least overtly culturally relevant moments — like the complex romantic history of Pip’s mentor (and Wolf’s brother/foil) Tom Aberant, or that of his partner Leila Helou, who blooms into brilliant life for one section and then more or less fades away. There’s the twisted romance of Tom and Pip’s mother, Anabel, put forth in a memoir saved on Tom’s hard drive as “A river of meat.” Like Patty Berglund in Freedom, Tom’s explosive personal document drives events in the text. This is a vengeful — on Franzen’s part, it seems — piece of writing that describes Tom’s long marriage with a comically unhinged harpy. Anabel is an artist; for much of their marriage she is at work on a decade-long performance piece visually documenting every centimeter of her own body: “You need to do whatever it takes to be finished,” Tom tells her. “You know I’ve never finished anything in my life,” she says.
She beat her fists on her offending head. It took me two hours to talk her down and then a further hour to emerge from the sulk she’d put me in by suggesting that my aesthetic was vulgar. Then, for three hours, I helped her block out a rough schedule for completing her project, and then, for another hour, I began the transfer of important thoughts from the first of her forty-odd notebooks into a new notebook, written by me. Then it was time for her three hours of exercise.
It’s cruel, but it works. We never get Anabel’s point of view, although Pip more or less corroborates Tom’s account with her experience of being Anabel’s dutiful child. But unlike Tom, Pip has access to Anabel’s most endearing feature: “The pure, spontaneous love in that smile, every time she’d caught sight of Pip…Her mother had needed to give love and receive it…Was that so monstrous?”
In a recent article in Harper’s, William Deresiewicz lamented the neoliberalism that has taken over the university campus. “For all its rhetoric of freedom and individual initiative, the culture of the market is exceptionally good at inculcating a sense of helplessness. So much of the language around college today…presumes that young people are the passive objects of economic forces. That they have no agency, no options.” Franzen gives Pip a healthy dose of agency, considering the challenges posed by her financial situation and her difficult mother, but he also gives her a Dickensian surprise, making a millennial fairy-tale out of the story that somewhat corroborates Pip’s oblivious young-person-ness: “The flight, in a too-small jet, dodging thunderstorms, cured Pip of any desire for future air travel. She expected death the whole way. What was interesting was how quickly she then forgot about it, like a dog to whom death was literally unimaginable…”
As Pip hits tennis balls with a young man in a touching, chaste courtship, Franzen gives us all tacit permission to stop caring about the big stuff; it’s nearly an acknowledgement that the big stuff, globally speaking, is never really what matters in his novels — not nearly so much as love, anyway: “All over the state, reservoirs and wells were going dry, the taste and clarity of tap water worsening, farmers suffering, Northern Californians conserving while Orange County set new records for monthly consumption, but none of this mattered for the hour and a half that she was on the court with Jason.”
Franzen’s last book was The Kraus Project, an annotated translation of essays by the Viennese writer Karl Kraus. In one of these, Kraus lashes out against a style of brief, impressionistic journalism ascendant in his day. “Writing feuilletons means twining curls on a bald head,” Kraus grumped, and thus provided a point of entry for Franzen’s own celebrated brand of grumping. By coincidence, mere days after the release of Purity, New Directions will publish a collection of feuilletons by Joseph Roth, the great Austro-Hungarian novelist and journalist — and a contemporary of Kraus — beautifully translated by Michael Hofmann. Roth was a master of shedding light onto the “public context” in the uneasy interwar moment when Germany was gearing up for the great smash-up, when “in these assembly halls, where people used to go to smooch and drink, they [were] now daubing swastikas and Soviet stars on grimy walls.”
I read this haunting compilation — one which utterly gives the lie to Kraus’s denigration of the feuilleton form — concurrently with Purity. About Germany in this awful, pregnant moment, Roth wrote:
Anyone who has sat at the bedside of a sick patient will know that the hours are not all pathos and anguish. The sick man will talk all kinds of nonsense, ridiculous, trivial, unworthy of himself and his condition. He is missing the regulating consciousness. That’s just want is missing in Germany: the regulating consciousness.
I can’t say how well Franzen writes Germany — according to Roth in 1923, it is the “least understood nation in all of Europe” — but I know that he is interested in the “regulating consciousness.” The noble art of journalism practiced well, the good sense of Pip, whatever it is that keeps Tom from strangling Anabel, whatever it is that’s lacking from Andreas Wolf’s strange brain — these things are that consciousness embodied. Franzen is also, I think, interested in creating the kind of luminous societal prophesy that animates Roth’s short, wondrous pieces. But Roth himself knew the pitfalls of that effort:
From time to time I think of describing the ‘German,’ or defining his ‘typical’ existence. Probably that isn’t possible. Even when I sense the presence of such a thing, I am unable to define it. What can I do, apart from writing about individuals I meet by chance, setting down what greets my eyes and ears, and selecting from them as I see fit? The describing of singularities within this profusion may be the least deceptive; the chance thing, plucked from a tangle of others, may most easily make for order. I have seen this and that; I have tried to write about what stuck in my senses and my memory.
I think Jonathan Franzen is a wonderful novelist. I don’t know him, but I often feel like he knows me, and for that I love him. His work is most vulnerable to attack when it tries too visibly to be the chief diagnoser and prognosticator of “the culture.” It is most meaningful when it deals in those “singularities within the profusion.” Still, it endeavors always to do both — and therein, I think, lies its essential goodness, its essential purity.
I’m sure there is a point after which it is universally felt to be tedious to read about someone’s baby. I had, in fact, no intention of mentioning mine when I sat down to write this essay, which has nothing to do with babies and which a more serious person would have managed to produce without thinking about themselves at all, progeny or no progeny. But the fact remains that all the reading I did this spring I did with a small baby occupying much of my time and psychic energy in ways I have yet to fully understand. I didn’t have postpartum depression; I had postpartum elation, which then settled into a sort of dismal feeling — perhaps my normal condition — after I resumed work and my hair fell out and my boobs departed and my period returned and it was just time to go about my business as though something very altering had not recently taken place.
I mention this because I am sensitive to bummers right now — am possibly a bummer myself — to the extent that for several months I was unable to reader Harper’s magazine, where every article was about melting ice caps and war and hideous injustice. And yet somehow during this time, when reports of reality were too painful to allow into my own comfortable nest, I read two unbearably sad books, books I heard about again and again until it seemed necessary to read them myself. From the reverence with which people spoke about them, I understood them to be tremendous bummers, but beautiful, transcendent ones, offering up almost baptismal benefits to their readers.
The first of these was Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a 700-pager following the lives of a group of close friends in New York City. I read Yanagihara’s The People in the Trees, which I found very, very good, and I expected to be similarly impressed by A Little Life, if not overwhelmed and made over in its image.
It’s always unsettling to find yourself totally at odds with an opinion that seems to be shared by many people with whom you might be expected to agree. A Little Life has stayed with me, not because I found it so sad, but because I found it so strangely bad, and have spent significant time wondering if what I perceive to be its badness is in fact a function of a bold narrative experiment that, to quote James Wood on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled, “invents its own category of badness,” and thus deserves a very particular set of laurels. I am not being facetious; I was so impressed by Yanagihara’s other novel that it was conceivable to me that she might be up to some kind of perverse occult experiment with this one. I admired how dark The People in the Trees was, how gross, how resolute.
There is darkness, and grossness, and resoluteness in A Little Life, but its resoluteness is to a very particular, self-important sort of melodrama. The level of authorial commitment necessary for keeping this up over 700 pages is, paradoxically, what kept me interested in the novel even though I found it maddening and sometimes silly.
A Little Life has been lauded as a subversive masterpiece depicting the irreparable spiritual and physical damage of sexual abuse, of which the novel is unflinching in its portrayal, if irritatingly coy in the pace with which it unveils its horrors. Its protagonist and the victim of its suffering is Jude St. Francis, abandoned as a baby, taken in by pedophilic monks; rescued by the Feds, taken in by a pedophilic social worker; escaped; taken in by a pedophilic sociopath; rescued by a saintly social worker; sent to college; taken in by a saintly law professor; taken in by the delightful, suspiciously accomplished bunch of bright young men who become his star-studded adoptive family.
Jude is ravaged by his godawful past, and outstanding in spite of it (also very physically beautiful, it is suggested again and again). Both his misery and his excellence are exaggerated to occasionally cartoonish proportions; a new wound opening up on his legs every few pages; a new superhuman feat of professional prowess; a new demonstration of endless warmth and love for his friends; a new horror from his past suggested with a kind of lurid reticence: “He had heard stories from Brother Luke — he had seen videos — about things people did to one another: objects they used, props and weapons. A few times he had experienced these things himself.” Jude is a Mary Sue of suffering; the blood that flows from his unceasing bouts of self-harm is a stigmata.
I was not moved by the style which Yanagihara chose to put this story forth. The creepy, formal voice she sustained throughout the The People in the Trees revealed that she is a writer with a great deal of technical control. This makes the high melodrama in A Little Life all the more baffling. Here is Jude’s friend JB, following a conflagration with Jude and his best friend Willem:
Oh god, he thought. Oh god. What have I done?
I’m sorry, Jude, he said in his head, and this time he was able to cry properly, the tears running into his mouth, the mucus that he was unable to clean away bubbling over as well. But he was silent; he didn’t make any noise. I’m sorry, Jude, I’m so sorry, he repeated to himself, and then he whispered the words aloud, but quietly, so quietly that he could hear only his lips opening and closing, nothing more. Forgive me, Jude. Forgive me.
Or here’s Jude, describing one of the acts of sadism that defined the first half of his life:
Back at the house, the beating continued, and over the next days, the next weeks, he was beat more. Not regularly — he never knew when it might happen next — but often enough so that coupled with his lack of food, he was always dizzy, he was always weak: he felt he would never have the strength to run again.
There are other odd narrative choices, like the rare first-person accounts of the man who eventually adopts Jude dotted throughout an otherwise third-person omniscient voice. There is the seemingly random hopping back and forth between the third-person present tense — “One weekend at the end of September, he drives out to Caleb’s friend’s house in Bridgehampton, which Caleb is now occupying until early October. Rothko’s presentation went well, and Caleb has been more relaxed, affectionate, even. He has only hit him once more, a punch to the sternum that sent him skidding across the floor…” — and the third-person past: “The days slipped by and he let them. In the morning he swam, and he and Willem ate breakfast.”
Moments and decades pass with these disorienting leaps, in a way that, like much about this novel, hovered right on the border between something that felt deliberate and interesting, and something that felt bungling.
There are the odd names, made odder by their frequent appearance in list form, in a number of permutations, at art galleries, at restaurants, at house parties, in Willem’s affirmations for Jude:
You’re Jude St. Francis. You are my oldest, dearest friend. You’re the son of Harold Stein and Julia Altman. You’re the friend of Malcolm Irvine, of Jean-Baptiste Marion, of Richard Goldfarb, of Andy Contractor, of Lucien Voigt, of Citizen van Straaten, of Rhodes Arrowsmith, of Elijah Kozma, of Phaedra de los Santos, of the Henry Youngs.
(There are two people in the novel named Henry Young; there is only one person named Citizen van Straaten.) The novel’s extended cast reminded me of a less waspy but no less elite version of Donna Tartt’s fancy people, who have the names of animals and are sometimes two-dimensional. That said, one of A Little Life’s virtues is that it is comfortably populated with multiple people of color, achieving effortlessly that thing over which, for example, the show Girls struggled so mightily.
If there is a subversive brilliance to Yanagihara’s novel, I found it in the way that she makes the reader, or this reader, embody the qualities of the main villain of Jude’s adult life, his cinematically evil boyfriend Caleb, who is repulsed by weakness and made savage by Jude’s use of a wheelchair. I called Jude a Mary Sue up there; why didn’t I use the male equivalent, a Marty Stu or a Gary? This brings me to the only defense of this novel to which I am somewhat receptive — Garth Greenwell’s claim that A Little Life is “the great gay novel.” Greenwell argues that “to understand the novel’s exaggeration and its intense, claustrophobic focus on its characters’ inner lives requires recognizing how it engages with aesthetic modes long coded as queer: melodrama, sentimental fiction, grand opera,” a point that is well-taken. What I saw as a sort of unlikely friendship of a too-good-to-be-true crew of loving overachievers, all of them rich and famous in their own right, all of them helplessly devoted to Jude, Greenwell sees “the communities of care formed by LGBT people in response to the AIDS crisis.”
I see the way in which this novel may be speaking to a mode of friendship and male experience to which I don’t have access, and I see that, from certain angles, my sense that this novel was long and overwrought was the result of some latent instinct to belittle “modes long coded as queer,” the same one that is finally exasperated rather than moved by Jude’s fatal insecurity and damage. But Greenwell loses me with his closing comparison to the “great gay art” of Marcel Proust and Pedro Almodóvar. Almodóvar’s genius, apart from the great beauty of his aesthetic (think of Penélope Cruz lip-syncing Volver), lies in his use of high camp to beatify a rag-tag assortments of losers and rebels. A Little Life lacks any measure of humor — fundamental to Almodóvar’s work — and its prose, which is simultaneously breathless and strangely bloodless, can’t compare to Almodóvar’s mastery of his medium. And let’s leave Proust — his miniaturist’s perfection — out of this altogether.
A Little Life eventually becomes a hostage situation; things happen that are so sad that, even if you are me and skeptical of the whole enterprise, you shed tears when they happen. But despite all of its open wounds and razor cuts and burned skin and exposed muscle and grotesque sexual violence, and even my tendency this spring to be left sobbing by a sad commercial, I found it a curiously sterile, curiously anodyne experience.
When I finished A Little Life, I read the second book I had seen similarly venerated, and which I also found to have a relentless quality. About Atticus Lish’s Preparation for the Next Life, one Amazon reviewer cautioned: “Have prozac at hand or at least a city park and dont do what the author does which is only look at the shards of glass, the rotten garbage, the yellow crabgrass. Look at least at one thriving graceful tree.” It’s true that the squalor starts right away, as Lish opens on the daily life of his protagonist Zou Lei, a half-Uighur, half-Han Chinese illegal immigrant to the United States, who is employed in a China Buffet-type joint.
They gave her a shirt with an insignia and visor, the smell of vaporized grease in the fabric. Everyone told her you have to be fast because the bossie watching you. They didn’t speak each other’s dialects, so they spoke English instead. Her first day, her worn-out sneakers slipped on the grease. She dropped an order, noodles popping out like worms, and that night she lay with her face to the wall, her jaw set, blinking…Squatting, she washed her clothes in the bathtub, wringing them out with her chapped, rural, purple-skinned hands, and hanging them up on the shower curtain rod with the others’ dripping laundry, the wet sequined denim and faded cartoon characters.
Lish makes the stakes of this unpleasant little existence evident immediately by having Zou Lei picked up by the police, and thrown into a carceral limbo where bodily harm, perpetual imprisonment, and spiritual annihilation are only a piece of paperwork or some guard’s malicious whim away. These dismal stakes are evident right away, and so is Lish’s commitment to an immersive immediacy of place and experience; I soon found the novel so moving and threatening and lovely that I would look up in the train to see if other people’s eyes were shining too.
There’s an abrupt macho fever to Lish’s writing that is the reverse of the style of A Little Life and which, had you described it to me, I would have predicted disliking intensely. But I found it hypnotic:
She started moving with the crowd, looking above their heads and seeing that she was going into a Chinatown, a thicket of vertical signs, the sails of sampans and junks, too many to read, a singsong clamor rising. No English. There were loudspeakers and dedications and banners for Year of the Dog. Voices all around her, calling and calling. Here, here, here, come and see! Someone spitting in the street. Crying out and running along next to her, pushing and pleading, grabbing the sleeve of her jacket. They put flyers in her hands and she dropped them. Missing teeth, younger than they looked. Illegals from the widow villages. Body wash, foot rub, Thai-style shower, bus to Atlantic City. A neon sign for KTV turned on in the dusk. The saw the endless heads of strangers, the crewcut workmen, running crates of rapeseed out the back of a van.
I don’t read very much poetry, but a few poems imprinted on me at a young age. I thought often of T.S. Eliot’s “Preludes” while reading this novel, imagining Lish as a remote god who had “such a vision of the street/ As the street hardly understands,” who writes “the conscience of a blackened street/ Impatient to assume the world.” And I was “moved by fancies that are curled/ Around these images, and cling:/ The notion of some infinitely gentle/ Infinitely suffering thing.”
It would be so easy for a book like this to be only brutal, or racist and othering in its brutality. And it is very brutal: Zou Lei falls in love with Skinner, a traumatized Iraq veteran whose head is filled with horrors: “What had been done to the bodies was not possible to reconstruct. They had been wrenched by giant hands, smashed, severed, filled with gas, perforated, burned, flung across space. A limb lay on a seat…A pile of organs, a liver in the red clothes…Everything had been blasted free of its identity…” But there remains something gentle and expansive in Lish’s characterizations. Here is Zou Lei, making a home of sorts with Skinner:
She was not the mother type. When she collected their empties one day and took them to the redeemer, it was because she was enterprising, not because she felt she should clean up after him. With the dollar and change she made, she bought a chicken skewer and saved it for them to eat together, half each, the meat cold by the time she had walked there with it through the small houses covered in Spanish graffiti. She was logging all these miles and it was good. Spring was coming, the big wheel of the city starting to turn.
I sort of hate to make so much out of an out-of-left-field novel about immigrants by a white man who is both a literary outsider and a pedigreed scion — a bald, muscular Marty Stu, if you will. It feels like a cliché. But I am powerless to deny that I found Preparation for the Next Life a beautiful, vital book. When I began reading, the continual squalor, the sense of doom, the guilty feeling in the pit of my stomach that made me close a Mother Jones tab made the book seem meaningful to me in a way that that A Little Life, although sad and similarly relentless, couldn’t do. I thought about them as a pair. What makes a book moving, and what makes a book mawkish?
In A Little Life, the dirt is on the inside, hiding in a shadowy group of monks and suburban pedophiles, and in the psyche if their victim; in Preparation for the Next Life, it’s on the outside — it’s on our streets and our food and our national conscience. Preparation is dealing in a physical squalor, the literal residue and dregs of crowded urban life, in a way that sometimes brought to mind, oddly, Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer.
But where Miller upholds a sort of exuberant filth, a gleeful comic nihilism that leaves you feeling itchy from bedbugs but energized and ravenous, Preparation is as humorless, in its way, as A Little Life. More than that, Lish’s novel is implicating: Have you eaten at a grimy Chinese joint? Have you unthinkingly tossed out the Styrofoam clamshell box and the plastic bag stapled with a scribbled receipt, without wondering who put it there? Did your tax dollars fund the Iraq war — the war that both brings Zou Lei’s love to her and destroys him? In Yanagihara’s novel, squalor and degradation are the ruinous individual exception in a world of summer houses and talent and hard work that gets you somewhere; in Lish’s, they are the baseline condition of the life we have made on our planet.
I considered the depressing books I know and conducted a small Twitter survey. There’s An American Tragedy. There’s Native Son and The Bell Jar and The Kindly Ones and Of Mice and Men. There’s McTeague and Sophie’s Choice and Rabbit Run and House of Mirth. And there’s the destroying queen of sad books, Beloved, which I re-read in the course of my survey, my baby asleep in her pack n’ play, and felt things happen inside of my heart and brain. That novel is as huge as mother-child love; its horror has texture — the “pulsating…baby’s blood that soaked her fingers like oil.”
And talk about implicating. As with A Little Life, people in Beloved do things that must be the absolute limit of human awfulness; unlike Yanagihara’s novel, though, Beloved’s awfulness has an exponential, an infinite quality — right from its very dedication, “Sixty Million and more.” And even though A Little Life describes horror that in some ways is a systemic horror, and even though its protagonist is caught up in an underground network of monsters that must also exist in real life, it never manages to feel like more than one person’s exceptional, uncanny bad luck. There is no context in which to put Jude’s suffering but the frantic love of his friends and family.
Obviously, a novel that documents the individual’s response to American slavery, or American poverty, or the fallout of the Iraq War, is a different beast than a novel that documents the individual’s response to his own very particular and comparatively finite set of circumstances. A Little Life is the latter kind of novel. And perhaps it is logical that, at a time when even people who are staggeringly well off in the scheme of things can’t buy a home or feel assured of college for their children, a novel about a group of friends comprising a famous artist, a movie star, a “starchitect,” a corporate lawyer, and all of their well-to-do friends — a story that is intentionally stripped of historicity and chronological markers — would have to really bring it in order to seem tragic.
But if there’s any kind of suffering to arouse sympathy and pity in human hearts across class lines, it’s the kind endured by Jude. And yet I still came up against some barrier, beyond the absurd names, beyond the tense-jumping, that kept me from feeling Yanagihara’s novel the way it was meant to be felt. Perhaps I have some kind of liberal hypocrites’ need for a political angle, some guilt around which to marshal all of my ineffectual sorrow.
But let’s return for a moment to my recent quavering heart — my avoidance of the news, my pile of unread magazines. How did I cope with these devastating novels, when a 1,500-word article often proved too much for me this spring? Here is the cowardice of the novel-reader. While Preparation for the Next Life indeed made its way to a terrible crackup, it still ended on a redemptive note — a new life built around that time-honored American impulse to go West. Beloved, too, makes a little room for life to creep in: Paul D holds Sethe’s hand and says, “me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” Any redemption available in A Little Life is far more abstract — a purring cat, a blooming flower.
I accuse A Little Life of melodrama, but maybe, in my newly maternal state, I’m the sentimental fool needing succor — something that gives the lie to Henry Miller’s tossed-off prophesy: “We are all alone here, and we are dead.”
This year I read articles about the San Francisco housing market and the Oakland housing market and the rise of the tech class and the death of the middle class, and I had anxieties. But I was fortunate to have a job, so I subscribed to three magazines, two of which I read. I read trend pieces in which I recognized myself because I have student loans and no car and no house and no offspring. I read online guides for how to introduce cats to babies, in case the latter condition should change. I read laments on the death of the humanities and felt morose. I read tweets where people said they didn’t like Frances Ha and felt misunderstood. I read the numbers on the scale and learned that I am fatter than I was the last time I wrote my Year in Reading. I read warnings about sitting being the new smoking and wondered if smoking will become okay by comparison. I read the ingredients in my lotion and wondered if they are giving me a rash. I read a WebMD thing about my rash and wondered if my lotion would be harmful for a baby. I read Amazon reviews for natural flea treatments and learned that there are none.
When I wasn’t reading a bunch of depressing shit, I read some strange and wonderful things. I read Dissident Gardens and thought it was so overwhelmingly wonderful that I read The Fortress of Solitude right away, and was underwhelmed by comparison. I read half of William Vollmann’s An Afghanistan Picture Show, which was not wonderful, and then I read all of his article about not being The Unabomber, which was. I read Ross Raisin’s Waterline. I read The Kindly Ones and wanted to talk to someone about it, but it’s old news and everyone is arguing about whether The Goldfinch and The Circle are bad or good. So I read four-year-old commentaries by Garth Risk Hallberg and Andrew Seal and had an imaginary talk with them both, and I think we all felt good at the end.
I read the memoir of Donald Antrim and felt very moved by his description of an outlandish kimono constructed by his mother, and wondered what it would be like to be the mother of Donald Antrim, or to have the mother that Donald Antrim had. I read an interview with Charles Manson, but did not care to consider what it would be like to be his mother. I read Tortilla Flat. I read Cannery Row. I read the Granta collection of under-40-year-olds and felt sort of stunned and worthless at the end. A story by Tahmima Anam about Dubai and falling continues to haunt me at odd moments. I read another story about falling, by Lionel Shriver, and got the spooky feeling I always get from Lionel Shriver, that she found the diary I would never actually keep, containing all my most awful thoughts. I wondered if Lionel Shriver is a witch. I re-read Of Human Bondage for the utter joy of it. I re-read Lucky Jim. I re-read Bridget Jones’s Diary. I got a cold and stayed home sick and re-read both memoirs of Beverly Cleary, and wished that I could stay home all week. I re-read Betsy was a Junior. I re-read The Adventures of Augie March, and wondered how it could have failed to show up on this list.
I read more things than I anticipated about Miley Cyrus. I somehow also read an interview with the woman whose husband committed infidelity with Kristen Stewart, accompanied by a picture of her nipples. I watched the music video for “Blurred Lines” and felt for a moment how very much people must hate women to come up with this shit. I realized that some of my favorite books by women are actually by men. I resolved to read more books by women. I felt obscurely annoyed at society for necessitating extra work on my part to correct its imbalance. I felt annoyed at myself for having this thought. I read The Group, which was a revelation. I read The Dud Avocado. I read The Conservationist and The Debut. I read The Affairs of Others and some good stories by Kate Milliken. Now I note that my reading list, like Ms. Cyrus, has a race problem–another thing requiring redress.
Next year I’ll do better, in this and all other matters.
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While plugging away at a novel in some dark corner or café table, a writer can only hope and trust that following the energy of obsession will lead the narrative to a vital destination. And yet when the novel’s timing and focus coincide with significant events on the nation’s stage, there’s also some serendipity involved. And so it goes with Nicholas Mennuti, whose fiction has long been preoccupied with the new forms of Internet surveillance. Mennuti’s story “Connected,” which was published in Agni in 2008, told the story of an intelligence agent who becomes obsessed with the subject he’s monitoring. This summer Mennuti’s first novel, Weaponized, written in collaboration with screenwriter David Guggenheim, proved to be all too prescient in its imagining of government surveillance systems in place. In the novel, Kyle West, a government contractor and genius programmer, hides out in Cambodia after he’s outed as the mastermind who devised the U.S.’s secret surveillance program software. At the time of Weaponized’s publication, Edward Snowden had just released classified documents revealing the extent of PRISM and other U.S. Internet surveillance programs and was still holed up at the Moscow airport seeking asylum. And regardless of chance, it seems that in this case Mennuti had his finger on the pulse of the techno-zeitgeist.
Weaponized, too, has its own pulse and inner rhythm: this thriller pulled me in and kept me turning pages with its quick pacing and intelligence. Mennuti and I corresponded during the summer months about the Snowden scandal and just what makes him weary regarding Internet surveillance and personal privacy, the burdens and pleasures of writing genre (vs. literary) fiction, and what he’s learned from masters like John le Carré and Graham Greene, as well as the perpetual issues of exile, identity, public versus private, plotting, and pacing that inform his writing.
The Millions: Surveillance and, specifically, surveillance states figure prominently in your fiction. In your story “Connected” an intelligence agent becomes obsessed with the woman he’s monitoring, and now in your novel, Weaponized, the programmer Kyle West has created advanced surveillance software that the U.S. government uses to spy on its citizens. Can you talk more about your interest in surveillance and how (as we’ve recently discovered) events in your novel parallel the government’s existing surveillance programs, specifically with regard to Edward Snowden and the US PRISM program?
Nick Mennuti: I think my ongoing relationship to surveillance themes stems from two factors. First, there’s my love of ’70s and early ’80s Hollywood paranoid thrillers like The Conversation, 3 Days of the Condor, All the President’s Men, Blow Out, Prince of the City, The Parallax View. And some of the ’90s versions like Kathryn Bigelow’s Strange Days too.
But, and this is probably the bigger one, as writers, we really are essentially voyeurs, so commenting on surveillance culture allows me to sort of auto-critique my own psychopathology. I’m a voyeur who is writing about other voyeurs. Clearly, I find this far too comfortable, because I’ve mined the hell out of it for fiction, as you’ve noted.
I used it in “Connected” and now again in Weaponized, but I did switch around their relationships to the surveillance state, per se. In “Connected” my protagonist is inside the system. In Weaponized, he’s running from the system he helped create. Kyle’s scenario is slightly more ironic and certainly less tragic.
Regarding PRISM and now XKeyscore and all the other code words that Snowden has revealed — it didn’t take Cassandra to see that one coming. Our government never stops using a program if it’s working for them, no matter what the outrage. All they do is take it further underground and go off the books.
That’s what I posited in Weaponized, after the whole Bush uproar that we would further privatize wiretapping and rely less on the NSA, which has partially happened (Snowden worked for Booz Allen after all). What’s going to happen next is further automation and less relying on humans to monitor all of this, and that’s what Weaponized was kind of getting at. Eventually, the machines will watch us. Because machines can’t defect to Russia.
I don’t think I have an overriding interest in Internet security/surveillance; I just think it’s the new telephone. It’s the new bug on your car’s dashboard. If you write tech thrillers, you have to use the tools of the trade, and the Internet was a gift to all of us.
And of course, I’m going back into surveillance again. My new book is all about East Berlin in the ’80s. So I’m pre-Internet this time.
In fact, I’m beginning to worry that surveillance for me is what psychiatry and discipline were for Foucault. The themes that dog your career no matter how hard you run. Although, I’m not sure how hard I’m running — or that Foucault did, for that matter — it’s just that this societal shift really got under my skin that I can’t shake.
TM: You have a mixed background of training as a screenwriting, as a fiction writer with high literary aspirations, and now as a thriller novelist — who just sold the film rights. Would you talk more about the difference between writing genre fiction and literary fiction as well as the commonalities that you perceive? I recall you once said your genre fiction has a literary sheen. Please divulge.
NM: Did I say my genre fiction has a literary sheen? I can sure be pretentious! And thanks for exposing The Millions world to it.
TM:, Is that really pretentious? I didn’t think so. I thought you were attempting to describe your authorial intentions. Honestly, I would prefer to read genre fiction with literary ambitions than genre fiction with a demotic sheen.
NM: I’m kidding. I actually think genre fiction could use a little more pretentiousness at times. I think the difference between genre fiction and literary fiction varies for a lot of people, but I’ll try and give you my own definition.
Genre fiction frequently relies on well-mined archetypes both on a character and narrative level. Even the best genre fiction is mining the same tropes. Guys like John le Carré and Graham Greene, even at their most trenchant and deconstructive, retain certain genre tropes. One man against the system. Usually a romance with someone from the other side. And narrative momentum really is the essential thing in genre.
In literary fiction the archetypes still exist, but you have more to choose from and they’re far more malleable. Plus, people are willing to tolerate more experimentation and purplish prose in literary fiction (and I mean “purplish” in the best way possible). Genre fiction is meant to be very accessible and sort of shorn of linguistic personality. Even at its best, the prose is supposed to be very workmanlike. The author is supposed to disappear in service of the story.
And that’s where I sometimes get into trouble and where I think my “literary sheen” comes into play. I have trouble staying the hell out of my work. I’m all over the place. I’m not deliberately trying to alienate the reader, but I think both my genre and my literary fiction aren’t designed to lack personality. And this is way, way more of a problem in genre fiction.
TM: Your shelves are filled with books of serious philosophy, European history, literary fiction — for example, the contents of just one stack include Aristotle’s Poetics, Bataille’s Visions of Excess, Highsmith’s Ripley novels, Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear, Fritz Lang’s Interviews, Littell’s The Kindly Ones, Genet’s Querelle, Blanchot’s The Space of Literature, Martin Amis’s House of Meetings, and Peter Gay’s Freud: A Life for Our Times. Even in this fast-paced thriller you’ve dropped in ideas from Cioran and Freud, among others. And you’re probably even better versed in film than you are in literature. Could you talk about the books and films that have most influenced your own writing, and specifically what you channeled for Weaponized?
NM: I’m kind of a sponge. I just look for what fascinates or inspires me, and there’s no plan. There’s no strategy to my reading or my watching. That said, once I decide what I’m going to work on, my reading and watching become very focused. They have to — otherwise I’d never start working. I’d just keep going through the shelves.
Cioran and Freud both spent significant time as exiles, so that was important to me for Kyle in Weaponized. I wanted to draw upon the literature of the exile. So you end up with Highsmith, Conrad, Greene, Hemingway, Duras, and that ilk. They’re all part of the literary DNA of Weaponized.
For movies, I really studied Michael Mann and Hitchcock very closely. Mann in particular because he knows how to use landscapes and architecture to express psychological states — and that was key for me in Weaponized. I wanted you to experience the state of being an exile in Cambodia in a subjective way. Mann and Hitchcock really are the kings of subjective cinema and to be more specific—subjective thriller cinema, which obviously Weaponized owes a great deal to.
When I’m not in depth on a particular project my reading is all over the place, but it’s usually going to contain some liberal dose of J. G. Ballard, Thomas Pynchon, Robert Stone, Michel Houellebecq, Martin Amis, Alan Glynn, William Gibson, Thomas Mann. And then I do like cultural theory, science, and politics a great deal. I’m also an avid consumer of what Ballard called “invisible literature” (internal documents from corporations and PR firms, filled with awe-inspiring statistics and data-analysis) and the Internet is really a great place for that. I spend far too much time every day searching out esoteric ramblings and numbers online.
TM: I’m interested in the idea of identity and the disintegration of the public / private dichotomy, with regard to your novel. In Weaponized, it’s evoked with the surveillance program that Kyle West creates. However, despite having developed the U.S. government’s surveillance software, West shuns revealing personal information about himself. He hates appearing on the television news and having information about his personal life disclosed publicly. His foil, Julian Robinson, seems quite the opposite, charming and comfortable in his own skin despite his chameleon-like ability to transform his identity. And of course, the two end up trading identities. Could you talk more about this paradox in relation to the book, and what identity means now, and what it will become?
NM: Identity is a huge concern for me because it really is the common human denominator. No matter what advances we make in technology, it’s going to stay the same. Humans crave recognition. And we construct ourselves through the eyes of others. We become who we are by how people see us, recognize us. So no matter how diffuse we get socially — we’re still going crave this. What I think we’re seeing now is people negotiating the new boundaries of recognition and some really kamikaze it.
I sometimes think the amount of social media is really just a sign of how desperate for interpersonal recognition we really are. And it’s become a sort of cultural blackmail. If you want recognition, you have to use it. I’m not even sure if exhibitionism as a psychological trait really exists anymore. I think we’re all exhibitionists now whether we want to be or not. I mean people are posting amateur porn and their deepest thoughts and anxieties on a 24/7 basis with no let-up. But it’s not exhibitionism, really, and it’s not over-sharing. It’s just trying to construct a self in the new digital era. It’s a constant process of negotiation and whatever application allows you to best construct a self survives. It really is like Darwinism in that sense. Poor MySpace.
I think one of the reasons literature has been having so much trouble is that maybe we need new words. We have new numbers to express the new world. We have quantum numbers. No one can understand them except a few, but we have those numbers. But do we have those words yet? Can we get them? And maybe the new literature will have to be a formal creation instead of a lexical one. I don’t know.
Robinson is uniquely qualified to live in a quantified world because his identity is fluid. He’s able to adapt to whatever the form requires. Kyle has adapted technologically — well, he’s done better than that — but he’s still living in the 20th century in regard to identity, to the sovereign self. He’s fixed. He’s rooted. And of course that’s probably how he ended up on the run in the first place.
To be honest, I’m way more Kyle than Robinson in those terms. I’m not ready to surrender my identity to a bunch of pixels.
TM: You’ve said elsewhere that with Kyle West you inadvertently created a pseudo-doppelganger for Edward Snowden, as both are seeking to escape the consequences of their actions with regard to their government’s surveillance system. The greatest difference is the offence — Snowden merely leaked the information about the secret surveillance programs to the public while West created the software that made this kind of government surveillance possible. It seems that you were rather prescient in this respect, so I’ll ask, what do you think is most important to keep in mind both with regard to the Snowden case and the government’s ability and willingness to eavesdrop on every part of our lives?
NM: The first thing to remember is that the government has never, ever respected your privacy. At least not since post-WWI and the Communist threat in America. They’ve been opening your mail for years. They’ve been wire-tapping without warrants for years. The only difference is that it’s easier now.
The Internet was created as a doomsday device for Continuance of Government. It has always had a military function, just like the highway system in the U.S. The Internet may seem like the Wild West, but I don’t think it’s ever been as free as people would like to think.
I think we’re going to see more and more Snowdens and Mannings because the government classifies SO MUCH these days. You’re a leaker if you divulge classified information — well, what do you do when most things are classified? Manning just did a data dump on WikiLeaks. Half that stuff should never have been classified. Some of it deserved classification, but a lot didn’t. So I think the culture of leaking has been facilitated by a government that’s more and more reliant on classifying everything in its path to punish people.
I chose to make Kyle the victim of a leak as opposed to the leaker because as a writer I found that more provocative. How do you get people to feel for that guy? As you’re well aware, I love ambiguity in my characters and to me Kyle is more ambiguous than Snowden. I can make a case for Snowden. It’s harder to make one for Kyle and that excites me as a writer.
TM: The question of a disregard for ethics is central to the narrative, too. Kyle West and Julian Robinson and Andrei Protosevitch are all powerful men who do what they do because they can. Protosevitch says that he’s ruthless because no one has ever stopped him. The same applies to Robinson and West — they readily remove themselves from the ethical equation and personal responsibility in the ways they pursue power. West is perhaps more self-aware and conscious of an ethical imperative than Robinson — it seems to be both his downfall and his redemption. Do you see a need for a stronger ethics of accountability? Or is it a lost cause at this point?
NM: I certainly see myself — as clichéd as this sounds — as an ethical writer. I hope that ethical accountability isn’t a lost cause, although it depends on what day of the week you ask me.
In my opinion, the problem is that the people who need to be held accountable — we know who they are, thank you — are not. And that is a habitual matter of process. So if the people we expect to be held accountable escape responsibility, then what are all of us regular folks supposed to think? And I’m not just talking about our government. I’m talking about religion. I’m talking about finance, the law, all of it. All of the purported moral barometers have proven to be naked underneath and we can’t find a reason to be good — for lack of a better word.
At the same time, we’ve never been more self-entitled, and I don’t blame us entirely. We’ve had it drummed into our heads that we have to happy. We are almost demanded to be happy unless. And we are largely not. And I think people began to assume that leading an unethical life may provide a shortcut to at least short-term fulfillment. It’s working for our leaders. It’s a vicious cycle. We’re desperate to be happy and no one is giving us any guidance as how to behave.
I agree though. Kyle, at bottom, is an ethical human being. Flawed, but trying. And I choose to think that’s how most of us really are.
TM: I thought I’d introduce something Evgeny Morozov wrote into the equation. He argues: “NSA surveillance, Big Brother, Prism: all of this is important stuff. But it’s as important to focus on the bigger picture — and in that bigger picture, what must be subjected to scrutiny is information consumerism itself — and not just the parts of the military-industrial complex responsible for surveillance. As long as we have no good explanation as to why a piece of data shouldn’t be on the market, we should forget about protecting it from the NSA, for, even with tighter regulation, intelligence agencies would simply buy—on the open market — what today they secretly get from programs like Prism.” Morozov also states that ethics is removed from the equation — that market forces have replaced morality.
What is your response to this, with regard to the previous question on ethics, and also his argument that information consumerism is a greater danger than government surveillance programs?
NM: I both agree and disagree with his diagnosis. You cannot separate the military-industrial complex, surveillance, and capitalism. Because the thing is that surveillance is the newest notch on the military-industrial complex. The twilight is coming on traditional means of warfare. Unless something utterly catastrophic happens, I just can’t see another ground invasion occurring.
The military-industrial complex is tremendously adaptable. They can see the writing on the wall and they know that Systems Intelligence is going to replace traditional Human Intelligence and also standard means of warfare. It’s why the CIA has transformed itself from an intelligence gathering organization to an international hit squad. They are getting with the program. Systems Intelligence finds the target and the CIA whacks them.
That said, I think Morozov has a point in that information overload and market forces have rendered us basically morally agnostic.
Ironically, both our culture and the NSA — and this is something I tried to get at in Weaponized — have the same problem. We have lost our moral compasses because of filtering issues. We have too much de-contextualized data and no way to process and filter it all. You end up with everything being weighted equally. Which produces an utter vacuum.
So, although I agree with Morozov philosophically, I disagree with his separation of government surveillance from capitalism. And I think he knows you can’t, which is why he decided to put the burden on us. You can argue that point; you can’t really argue the other one.
TM: Plot, pacing, and structure are central to your fiction as well as to your conception of what makes good story. You could probably teach a semester-long class on this, but let’s say you have to compress the lesson down to a two minute craft talk on how these elements function within a story and how to approach them as a writer — what would you advise?
NM: I think those factors are what make a good genre story and also what makes a certain “type” of literary fiction story work. And if you can write like Amis or Nabokov you can get away with certain things that us lesser mortals cannot. We lesser mortals need to follow some rules.
My first rule is just to outline. Outline. And then do a little more outlining. I know some people feel that it kills the spontaneity, but I find it frees me up. If I know the story when I start in, I feel like I can really concentrate on the characters, the prose, the mood. If I know where I’m going, I can really play on the margins. And I actually love the margins more than the meat sometimes.
Plot, structure, and pacing are all interrelated. Plot is clearly the first thing and needs to be differentiated from story. Story is — what is this thing about? Plot is — how am I going to get there, to tell this story in individual beats. Structure is — the most effective means to do so, to maximize drama. And pacing ties into structure. You just need to make sure there’s room to breathe between the big story beats.
Really most writing just comes down to one thing: What is the most effective way to dole out the pertinent information for this particular scene or moment?
I can be obsessive about construction, but I secretly think it’s because I don’t like to rewrite. I like to rewrite prose and dialogue — but I HATE having to rebuild a story from the ground-up once I’m halfway through the book.
I’m not offering any of those tips as a panacea. I’ve just seen too many writers get 2/3 of the way into a book and realize that the plot is not working. And you lose a year trying to save what you love, while reshaping the whole thing. That’s my nightmare. And I’ve been there.
In 2006, a young American expat named Jonathan Littell published one of the most audacious literary debuts in recent memory: a 900-page novel about the Holocaust, narrated by an aging ex-SS Officer. It was called Les Bienveillantes, and except for a few German bureaucratic terms, it was written entirely in French. (Littell had produced a cyberpunk novel in English at age 21, but subsequently renounced it as juvenilia.) Given its choice of protagonist, Les Bienveillantes might have seemed to be what marketers call “a tough sell,” but it went on to win the Prix Goncourt – France’s most prestigious literary award – and to move some 700,000 copies. It was subsequently translated into 17 languages, including English, where it became The Kindly Ones.
Meanwhile, a young Frenchman named Laurent Binet was tearing his hair out. Binet had been toiling away on a work-in-progress that turned out to have striking similarities with Littell’s succès de scandale. Where The Kindly Ones featured cameos from Adolf Eichmann, Heinrich Himmler, and Reinhard Heydrich and concluded with a physical assault on the person of the Führer, Binet’s novel-in-progress focused on many of the same characters, and culminated in Heydrich’s assassination. These resemblances were superficial, of course. Littell’s nervy postmodern update on the historical novel had affinities with William T. Vollmann’s blend of research, pastiche, and hallucination. Binet’s owed more to W.G. Sebald…and maybe Jacques Roubaud, insofar as he had already taken the step of writing himself into the book. Still, he seemed to have landed in a writer’s nightmare, akin to that of the studio exec who realizes in postproduction that a version his movie Armageddon has just appeared under the title Deep Impact. What’s a good postmodern to do? Well, write that into the novel, too.
Among chapters devoted to the plot against Heydrich and chapters devoted to his own research and aesthetic anxieties, Binet began to interpolate passages covering, in real-time, his reading of The Kindly Ones and his fears about what it meant for his book. These fears would prove unjustified; in 2010 his novel was published under the title HHhH (an acronym for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich” – “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”). But his French publisher, Grasset, redacted all passages concerning The Kindly Ones, apparently for fear of offending Littell’s admirers in the public, the press, and the académie Goncourt – which awarded HHhH its prize for first novels.
This month, an English translation of HHhH arrives in U.S. bookstores, trailing blurbs by the likes of Martin Amis, Bret Easton Ellis, and Wells Tower. This edition, too, is missing the Littell material. But Binet and his translator Sam Taylor have graciously allowed The Millions to publish the lost pages of HHhH for the first time anywhere. Their tone of comical anxiety and competitive ardor – of wishing at once for a colleague to succeed and to fail – will be familiar to many writers. Unsurprisingly, Binet ends up judging Littell harshly, as did many American critics, including this one (although I should confess that I still think about The Kindly Ones often). More important than their literary judgments, though, or their portrait of the artist as a young man, are the still controversial questions about representation and the Holocaust these pages candidly take up. Even relegated, as it were, to the margins of the published work, these questions transform the historical thriller at the heart of HHhH into a powerful meditation on the ethics of storytelling. — Garth Risk Hallberg
The Kindly Ones
Next to me on the sofa is Jonathan Littell’s weighty tome The Kindly Ones, which has just been published by Gallimard. The (false) memoirs of an old SS veteran, it is nine hundred pages long. Having created a massive buzz in the press, and sold out in most bookstores, this novel is crushing all its competitors on the bestseller list. Not only that, but its success is apparently causing problems for the entire publishing industry, as it is so long that it is lasting readers from September to Christmas, so they aren’t buying any other books.
There is a savage review of the book in Libération, with the headline “Night and Mud.” But even this review hails the author’s depth of research simply because Jon Littell uses SS ranks. Apparently, if one writes “I caught a Scharführer by the sleeve: ‘What’s happening?’ — ‘I don’t know, Obersturmführer. I think there’s a problem with the Standartenführer ,’” that is enough to produce a “heady feeling of realism.” I’m not sure if the journalist who wrote this is being ironic or not, but I’m afraid he isn’t. I remember having made a joke on this subject in one (invented) line during one of my chapters on the Night of the Long Knives. But anyway…
One of the book’s severest critics is Claude Lanzmann (although he also recognizes its good qualities), but according to his detractors, that’s because he believes himself to be the only person in the world (along with Raoul Hilberg) with the right to talk about the Holocaust. I met Lanzmann once: he is, in the flesh, a courteous man with an impressive presence. If you judge him solely on his public statements, though, you might easily regard him as narrow-minded. In this case, however, I think he shows great judgment when he criticizes Littell for his character’s “invasive psychology.” Not a good sign. But he, too, acclaims the author’s research: “Not one error; flawless erudition.” Well, all right, if you say so.
Apart from these examples, everything else is ecstatic. In Le Nouvel Observateur: “A new War and Peace”; in Le Monde: “one of the most impressive books ever written about Nazism.” And so on.
But the highest praise comes on the back cover of the book, where Gallimard has not skimped on the name-dropping: Eschyle, Visconti, even Grossman’s Life and Fate. Talk about bringing out the big guns.
Obviously, the book is up for every literary prize in the galaxy.
So I begin to read it, feeling simultaneously suspicious and excited. After three pages, my feelings have turned to puzzlement. It is quite badly written, and yet at the same time it is so very literary. This is not at all how I imagined an eighty-year-old SS veteran speaking or thinking. And, of course, I am allergic to interior monologues, at least when we are supposedly talking about history.
I am saying all this now, before continuing with my reading, because I am sure that, when it comes down to it, I am going to devour this book.
Let’s begin with the first line of Jonathan Littell’s novel: “Oh my human brothers, let me tell you how it happened.”
I don’t like this line. But the point here is not, for once, my personal tastes. Let’s look more closely at that opening: “Oh my human brothers.” With these first four words, we already know the book’s thesis. By beginning in this way, Littell deliberately places his novel in the lineage of Hannah Arendt. He is proposing the idea that evil is not the prerogative of monsters, but that it emanates from people like you and me. I subscribe to this thesis, of course, but I fail to see how its validity can be demonstrated in a novel. Even a nine-hundred-page novel.
From the moment when you create an imaginary character — a character who belongs to you, whom you can make say anything you want (“Oh my human brothers,” for instance), a puppet whom you are able to manipulate in any way you wish — it is easy and all too artificial to use this character to illustrate whatever theory you have in mind. A character may illustrate, certainly, but it cannot demonstrate anything. If you wish to suggest that the SS were sickened by the horrors they committed, you make your protagonist vomit at inconvenient moments. If you wish to suggest that the SS loved animals, you give him a dog. And then, to make it more real, you give the dog a name. Fritz?
But what interests me about the SS — if I wish to understand something about that troubled era, if I wish to extract something from all of that which can help me understand man and the world — is what they did, not what Jonathan Littell thinks they might have done.
The problem with this type of historical novel is that it shamelessly mixes the true with the plausible. That’s fine if I know about the episode in question. But if I don’t, I am left in limbo: perhaps this is true, or perhaps it’s not.
I wonder how Jonathan Littell knows that Blobel, the alcoholic head of Sonderkommando 4a of Einsatzgruppe C in Ukraine, had an Opel. And I wonder whether Lanzmann, before deciding that The Kindly Ones did not contain “a single error, a single flaw,” checked this detail. If Blobel really drove an Opel, then I bow before Littell’s superior research. But if it’s a bluff, it weakens the whole book. Of course it does! It’s true that the Nazis were supplied in bulk by Opel, and so it’s perfectly plausible that Blobel possessed, or used, a vehicle of that make. But plausible is not the same as known. I’m talking rot, aren’t I? When I tell people that, they think I’m mental. They don’t see the problem.
Perhaps Blobel had an Opel, or perhaps he had a BMW. And if Littell has invented the make of Blobel’s car, perhaps he has invented all the rest. The dialogue, for example. I find it surprising that an SS officer could exclaim: “Il a pété les plombs!” [“He’s blown a gasket!”] Littell’s entire book can teach me only one thing: how this writer imagines Nazism. And I am not really interested in that, particularly when the depiction is so dubious. I want to know how things really happened, so I expect him to tell me — at the very least — when an episode is true and when it is his invention. Otherwise, reality is reduced to the level of fiction. I think that is wrong.
So, irrespective of the Opel question, Jonathan Littell’s novel — as compelling as it may be (I am still at the beginning) — lost all credibility as a reflection on history from the moment its author chose to use a fictional protagonist. Which is a shame because, after all, it does seem quite well-researched.
I will, of course, apologize if it turns out that Blobel really did drive an Opel. But fundamentally, it wouldn’t change a thing.
Littell’s Portrait of Heydrich, p. 58
You might have guessed that I was a bit disturbed by the publication of Jonathan Littell’s novel, and by its success. And even if I can comfort myself by saying that our projects are not the same, I am forced to admit that the subject matter is fairly similar. I’m reading his book at the moment, and each page gives me the urge to write something. I have to suppress this urge. All I will say is that there’s a description of Heydrich at the beginning of the book, from which I will quote only one line: “His hands seemed too long, like nervous algae attached to his arms.” I don’t know why, but I like that image.
More on The Kindly Ones
Just a few more words. Let’s agree on this: an interior monologue, if designed to reveal to us the psychology of an imaginary character, is at best an amusing farce. If it is supposed to allow the reader access to someone’s thoughts, it becomes downright risible. An interior monologue can only ever reveal the psychology of two people: the author and the reader. And that is already quite a lot, let me tell you!
Having said that, I must admit something: I did not know that most of the cars used by the SS were Opels. Did they sign a contract with the firm? That is what I would like to ask Jonathan Littell. Or Lanzmann.
But, to return to the interior monologue, there is a real problem with The Kindly Ones: the tone of the imaginary SS veteran’s supposed confession is unbelievably neutral, almost like a history book. It is the kind of tone I myself try to adopt when I describe horrors, in order to avoid the twin traps of pathos and grandiloquence (not that I always succeed). But what is the point of writing in the first person if you are going to erase practically all trace of subjectivity? From time to time, it’s true, the narrator reminds us of his existence with little, discreetly ironic remarks. These don’t seem very plausible to me, but still. Interior monologues are everywhere! But it is not even the psychological implausibility that bothers me; it is just the pointlessness of the procedure. Putting an idea, no matter how interesting, in the head of an invented character… I cannot bring myself to do it; I find it completely puerile, even if it is a dramatic convention.
One Last Word?
All right, this is my last word on this, I promise. I have just read my chapters about The Kindly Ones to my half brother. He pointed out that many historical novels use fictional inventions, sometimes with interesting results. Of course, I cannot deny that. For Alexandre Dumas to use historical material for its novelistic possibilities, and for him to mix it with his own invented stories, does not shock me at all. Everything depends on the author’s intention. If it is to tell a beautiful and exciting story, without any other pretention, then that is perfectly fine; I would happily surrender to the pleasure of the novel. But I heard Jonathan Littell speaking on the radio, and apparently this was not his intention: he really did want, as I’d suspected, to understand evil. As Alexandre (my brother, not Dumas) put it, tackling a speculative question with a supposedly historical angle by way of an invented character (and, I repeat, even with solid research as backup) is “entropic.” I don’t really understand that word, but I know I agree with him. In fact, I think that what he means by “entropic” is something between “centripetal” and “tautological.” So, upon closer examination, the term is inappropriate, which is a shame because it struck me as quite eloquent. But never mind, the idea remains the same. What I am saying is that inventing a character in order to understand historical facts is like fabricating evidence. Or rather, as my brother says, It’s like planting false proof at a crime scene where the floor is already strewn with incriminating evidence.
I am not saying that all invented characters are worthless. I would happily swap Napoleon, Kutuzov, Julius Caesar, or Heydrich for Josef K. Or even the real Mark Antony for Shakespeare’s Mark Antony. As soon as fictional characters are loosened from their historical roots, they are able to become universal — even if (and perhaps because) they differ from their historical models: Richard III, Rameau’s nephew, Zaitsev in Life and Fate, Edison in Tomorrow’s Eve, and so on. But in all these cases, we are not interested in what kind of car they drive.
A Littell Mistake, p. 209
Despite all this, I did end up getting into The Kindly Ones. In other words, I finally managed to abandon myself to the innocent pleasures of reading, except for my brain’s never-ending production of critical and metacritical thoughts.
But, while lazing in the bath, book in hand, feeling vaguely guilty about the idea of spending my weekend in this way when I have a thousand things to do, what should I read, on page 209? In the course of his story, Littell writes that Heydrich “was wounded in Prague on May 29”! I cannot believe my eyes. Okay, okay, it’s only a date. But for me, it’s a bit like being told that the Bastille was stormed on July 12, or that the United States declared its independence on July 6.
I had been so close to trusting Littell that, when I saw this, I even came up with an excuse for him: it is possible, after all, that news of the assassination attempt was not divulged until two days afterward, and that even members of the SD, such as the narrator, were not informed immediately. But that doesn’t make sense, because the story is supposedly being told by an SS veteran, years later, when the facts and dates are well known.
Of course, this doesn’t discredit all of Littell’s work. In the context of his book, it is a small and inconsequential error, probably nothing more than a simple typo. But I think again of Lanzmann: “Not a single error,” he said! And I had believed him. This makes me think about the way we accept — daily, constantly, unthinkingly — the arguments of authority. I truly have a great deal of respect for Lanzmann, but the moral of this story is that everyone — even the world’s most authoritative specialist — can make a mistake.
This makes me think of a specialist on the life and works of Saint-John Perse (the most famous specialist in France and, I imagine, in the world) who declared on the radio, with the learned assurance typical of French universities, that the poet was a “hardline” anti-Munich campaigner in 1938 when he was working at the Quai d’Orsay. This seems somewhat surprising, given that he was one of the two diplomats who had accompanied Daladier at the agreement’s signing! Open any history book that mentions Munich, and you can check just how deeply Alexis Léger, the Foreign Office’s general secretary, was implicated in this infamous agreement. But evidently this great specialist did not consider it useful to consult even one book, preferring to rely on a biographical note written by . . . the subject himself! According to Saint-John Perse / Alexis Léger,
In spite of his personal opposition to the so-called policy of ‘appeasement’ and to Hitler’s well-known hostility towards him, the general secretary [talking about himself in the third person!] reluctantly agreed to attend the Conference as the Quai d’Orsay’s representative, as the Foreign Secretary had not been summoned to this meeting of government heads.
Apparently, our specialist did not wonder what Saint-John Perse / Alexis Léger meant by “reluctantly.” Was he dragged to Munich against his will, surrounded by policemen? Was his family threatened? Was it really impossible to contemplate resigning in protest of a policy that went so strongly against his personal beliefs? Was there really no choice, once the agreement had been signed, than to adopt that contemptuous, arrogant attitude toward the Czechs? Did he at least have the decency to resign after the agreement was signed in order to register his disapproval? Clearly, French literature specialists do not feel any great obligation to study history in much depth. But this does not prevent them sounding categorical. The end result is that this myth is taken up and spread by all the country’s literary authorities. And the students swallow it. In any case, literary types rarely differentiate between fable and reality, so when it comes down to it, they couldn’t care less about Alexis Léger’s diplomatic career. But this does not prevent them from repeating, with the perfect assurance of those in the know, that Saint-John Perse, this great Nobel Prize winner, was a “hardline” anti-Munich campaigner. If he was anti-Munich, you have to wonder what a pro-Munich campaigner would look like. A German.
So anyway, Saint-John Perse, Littell . . . you must always be suspicious, of everybody! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
It’s not my fault, but well-intentioned friends send me everything they can find about Jonathan Littell, and I am yet again forced to return to the subject. Things are not going well at all. I have just read the account of a speech he gave at a Normale Supérieure school, where he said: “Evil is committed by people like us, people who sleep, who shit, who fuck, and who have the same relationship as we do to the body and to the fear of death, with thought coming afterwards. All killers are like us.”
Fair enough. In fact, I agree completely. Here again is Hannah Arendt’s thesis, and here, again, I cannot deny its truth. But it is a very strange speech to justify his book, precisely because Littell seems to have done his utmost to invent the most singular character possible. Let us recall, for those few unfortunates who have not been able to read The Kindly Ones, that the SS veteran Aue is an intellectual who sleeps with his sister, kills his parents, actively participates in genocide, sucks off Robert Brasillach, survives a bullet in the head, is never separated from his Flaubert, and enjoys rolling in his shit from time to time. For a guy who is just like you and me, that is quite a list!
Do you often carry your Flaubert around with you?
The vise is tightening around my book. The warning shot was in fact a nuclear attack. The atomic bomb was Littell, his Prix Goncourt, his million copies sold, and all the newsprint he’s generated in reviews and exegeses. (Only this week, a reading guide called The Kindly Ones Decoded has come out.) What publisher of any kind of renown would want to publish a book on roughly the same theme in the decade to come? What publisher would be prepared to look like a follower, while taking the risk of publishing someone who is more or less unknown? There is more to lose than to gain: unsold copies if the book is a failure, being accused of opportunism or even cynicism if it’s a success. And that’s without even considering that the horde of critics who’d decreed that The Kindly Ones was the novel of the century will not want to go back on their decision (although, knowing them, this problem is surmountable).
My editorial problems don’t end there. For years, I have been writing to the tranquil rhythm of my own erratic inspiration, but no one warned me that I was in a race against the clock. The longer I wait to finish my book, the greater the risk that I will arrive after the battle has ended. Someone told me on the phone the day before yesterday that a biography of Heydrich has just come out, written by a German whose name I have never heard, Mario Dederichs. It is translated into French and is already on the bookshelves at Gibert. I felt both excited and slightly ill. I was thrilled at the chance to learn new anecdotes and facts about Heydrich, but at the same time, I have to admit, it gets on my nerves a bit. And today, in a bookshop in Normandy, I discover a novel by Georges-Marc Benamou, entitled The Ghost of Munich, featuring frequent appearances by Alexis Léger / Saint-John Perse. If this continues, everything I have to say will already have been said! I am avidly reading Benamou’s book: in literary terms, it has no merit, but it is pleasant to read all the same, and I am learning new things. At least, I think I am. No matter what, I know I have to stop reading. I need to hurry up and finish telling my story because I am convinced, probably irrationally, that I am the only person capable of writing it. This could seem pretentious, obviously. But I do not want my story to be wasted — it’s as simple as that.
A poster on an Internet forum expresses the opinion that Max Aue “rings true because he is the mirror of his age.” What? No! He rings true (for certain, easily duped readers) because he is the mirror of our age: a postmodern nihilist, essentially. At no moment in the novel is it suggested that this character believes in Nazism. On the contrary, he is often critically detached from National Socialist doctrine — and in that sense, he can hardly be said to reflect the delirious fanaticism prevalent in his time. On the other hand, this detachment, this blasé attitude toward everything, this permanent malaise, this taste for philosophizing, this unspoken amorality, this morose sadism, and this terrible sexual frustration that constantly twists his guts… but of course! How did I not see it before? Suddenly, everything is clear. The Kindly Ones is simply “Houellebecq does Nazism.”
Yesterday, I met a young woman who works in a library. She told me about an old lady, a former Resistance fighter, who regularly borrows books. One day, the old lady took home Littell’s The Kindly Ones. Soon afterwards, she brought it back, exclaiming: “What is this shit?” When I heard this, I thought straightaway that it would require a great deal of willpower not to put this anecdote in my book.
With the increasingly important role of intelligent machines in all phases of our lives–military, medical, economic and financial, political–it is odd to keep reading articles with titles such as Whatever Happened to Artificial Intelligence? This is a phenomenon that Turing had predicted: that machine intelligence would become so pervasive, so comfortable, and so well integrated into our information-based economy that people would fail even to notice it.
—Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines
1. Things are in the Saddle
Sometime in the sixth century, Saint Benedict of Nursia, founder of the Benedictine monastery in Italy, required his monks to pray at seven scheduled times throughout the day. Given this rather assiduous prayer regimen, it is perhaps unsurprising that Christian monks — requiring a more exact form of timekeeping — were the ones who propelled innovations in clock technologies. Ultimately, the mechanism they produced would have unexpected consequences on the world outside the hallowed confines of the monastery. By the fourteenth century, the mechanical clock was a staple of the European urban landscape, a clanging device that monitored the hours and announced the day’s exigencies. Applying new pressures of punctuality and scheduling to life, the clock dramatically revamped how people worked and traveled and leisured. It operated as a haunting reminder of time’s inexorable progress. As T.S. Eliot said, “Because I know that time is always time/and place is always and only place/And what is actual is actual only for one time and only for one place.” A simple ticking device changed reality.
Throughout history the best minds have debated about the ways in which technology has impressed itself on humanity. In The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr outlines the argument rather nicely. On one side are “technological determinists” who believe that the technologies we use autonomously determine the type of people we become, without our consent. By way of example, one could point to the invention of the clock, or other seminal technologies. Marx wrote, “The windmill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist.” Emerson posited, “Things are in the saddle/ And ride mankind.” On the other end of the debate are “technological instrumentalists” who contend that our technologies are “the means to achieve our ends; they have no ends of their own.” In the post-millennial world, the debate is one of paramount importance, but is rarely given serious attention and compelling dramatization in the contemporary literary novel. This is not to say that contemporary novelists aren’t interested in the subject (see Jonathan Franzen’s “Liking is for Cowards: Go for What Hurts” or Zadie Smith’s “Generation Why”). Or that historians and sociologists haven’t turned the subject into something of an intellectual G-spot (see Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, Sherry Turkel’s Alone Together, or Carr’s The Shallows).
2. A Master of a Language that Never Rears its Head
Such questions about technological determinism occupy a vital space in the artistic medulla of the Portuguese novelist Gonçalo M. Tavares. Since 2001, Tavares has been publishing plays, story collections, essays, and novels while concomitantly snagging a whole bevy of literary prizes. Born in 1970, the Portuguese novelist’s Jerusalem won the 2005 Jose Saramago Prize and inspired the Nobel Prize-winning Saramago himself to rather hyperbolically state that “in thirty years’ time, if not before, [Tavares] will win the Nobel Prize, and I’m sure my prediction will come true…Tavares has no right to be writing so well at the age of 35. One feels like punching him.” It is perhaps unsurprising then that I approached Tavares’ books with equal amounts of skepticism and expectation, since there was simply no way a writer who’s only in his early 40s could be generating this kind of revelatory and cornea-brightening work without my having heard whisper and murmur of it. Turns out I was wrong. His books made me want to throw an envy-inspired uppercut, too.
His novels Jerusalem, Learning to Pray in the Age of Technique, Klaus Klump: A Man, and Joseph Walser’s Machine (out this month in paperback from Dalkey Archive Press) constitute the twisted and ruminative series called The Kingdom, which explores the pathology of political ambition, the logic of human cruelty, the collateral damage of madness, and the senescence of morality in the technological age. Though soul-withered and psychotic, his characters are also breathtakingly smart and often interrupt the narrative action to pontificate on moral relativism, power, politics, and the telos of the individual. Combine the villainous unction of Hannibal Lecter with the grisly impulses of Patrick Bateman and you’ll have a composite psychological sketch of Tavares’s more disturbing creations. His less menacing characters range from the schizophrenic and mentally unstable to the pathologically detached. But his characters aren’t simply fictional renderings of Oliver Sacks’s patients. Instead, Tavares creates an assemblage of people who take the prevailing ethics and logics of society — capitalism, corporatism, and intellectual technology — and radicalize them in an effort to muse about what would happen to humanity if our political and economic efficacy trumped the importance of our souls.
3. As if Humans Were Substances that Thought, Substances with Souls
Joseph Walser’s Machine is a slender though pithy meditation on the ways in which systemic routines — economic, medical, industrial, and political — scour the human psyche to a bloodless husk. Like all Tavares’ novels, Machine is set an unidentified European city and is populated by characters with vaguely Germanic-sounding names. The year is unknown, but the psychic aura of the book suggests late-millennium panic. An odd hybrid of social critique, philosophical tract, and black comedy, Machine opens with an oblique snapshot of Joseph Walser’s life. “He was a strange man… He wore a simple pair of pants, almost like a peasant’s, and his hazel-colored shoes were absolutely out of style… Walser was a collector. Of what? It’s too early to say.” His days are existentially moored by routines: He gets up in the morning, shaves, eats a sensible breakfast, goes to his job in a factory owned by the most important business man in the city, reprieves for lunch around two, and walks home around six. Walser maintains a somnambulant existence in which the events of the outside world constitute a predictable landscape, a scheduled set change on a choreographed stage. Everything is ordinary, nothing spontaneous. Even the threat of war that looms over his city gets regarded as just another variable in the cyclical rhythms of history: “The technique of influencing men by frightening them about things that don’t exist yet is ancient. It’s happening again. There’s talk of a military unit approaching with great appetite.” Numb to these expected political events, Walser similarly views other people — his wife Margha, his boss Klober Muller, and his friends — with pathological blankness. Consider Walser’s impassive discovery of his wife’s affair with Muller. He fails to confront either of them and instead resumes the quiet fulfillment of the rote. Another staple of his routine is the weekly Dice Game he plays with his coworkers, some of whom eventually plan and execute an act of terrorism against the occupying army, which, even though it’s intended to be a catalyst for disorder, only further confirms that this type of violent resistance is to be expected during wartime. Because the Dice Game allows the men to gamble on chance, it seemingly offers a necessary break from the deadening routines of daily life. But the omniscient narrator explains the paradox of the game: “There was nothing lacking, everything was there already, in the game, nothing new could crop up to disrupt the proceedings. There were six numbers struck to the die and they weren’t going anywhere. There was no seventh cipher, no seventh hypothesis. Six was the limit.” It seems then the habitual decision to submit to chance and unpredictability every week is, for Walser, just another kind of routine. All this perhaps explains why his emotional potential amounts to that of a storefront mannequin. Other people misconstrue his silence and carelessness toward the outside world as a faculty for proletarian obedience.
Walser’s relationship with his machine is the only bond in his life that demands his precise attention:
Walser had long since operated the machine with unceasing concentration, since, from the beginning, he’d realized the following: if the machine could, in the worst case, as a result of a mistake, kill him, him the honorable citizen Joseph Walser, in peacetime, the most tranquil of times, while lazy children played in the parks on Sundays, then he, Joseph Walser, was, after all, at war, for he was dealing with a dangerous friend, a friend that was potentially an enemy, a mortal enemy, because it could — not in a few months or a couple of days, but in a second — turn into that which seeks to inflict bodily harm. The foundation of his very existence — this machine — which supported his family and was, therefore, what saved him, day after day, from being some other person, eventually his own negative, the opposite of the Man that he thought himself to be… but in saving him day after day, the machine also constantly threatened him, without abeyance.
This almost symbiotic relationship with his machine imbues Walser’s life with meaning. In fact, whenever he turns it off, he is overcome by an acute apprehension, wondering whether his own heart has stopped. Eventually, the machine makes good on its threat and severs Walser’s index finger, a gruesome incident that occurs while his friends from the factory detonate a bomb on a nearby street, which momentarily sends the city into hysterics. In the face of such chaos, the citizens begin the expected triage and abide a municipally enforced emotional prudence — carrying out routines to create some semblance of normal life. Walser’s own routine involves collecting shards of metals broken off from various mechanisms and storing them in his study as a kind of shrine to technological rationality. It is his way of constructing meaning — a personal logic — out of entropy. Despite the backdrop of war and the privations of his personal life, Walser all the while behaves with the chilly equanimity of a heart surgeon. At one point, he considers himself to be a great man because he is “prepared to not love anyone…” Such a formulation of human greatness allows him to commit twisted actions — having sex with his dead friend’s wife, stealing the belt off the corpse of recently murdered man, which he adds to his metal collection — the consequences of which converge in one of the strangest endings to a novel I’ve read, up there with Don Delillo’s Americana, Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones, or Tom McCarthy’s Remainder.
What should by now be rather obvious is that Joseph Walser isn’t intended to strike us as a flesh-and-blood human being. This is not to suggest that Machine eschews the aesthetics of Realism, though. Instead, Tavares plumbs the internal life of a character who has or is slowly metamorphosing into a machine, a type of person whose morality is not a divine deliberation of how best to live, but is a mechanical operation. If the requested action is executed successfully — regardless of whether we find that action laudable or opprobrious — then the action is good. Such is the compassionless morality of Tavares’s Kingdom, where people value machines more than they do human beings. These characters are atomized individuals who are slaves to their own base desires, who fail to see themselves as part of a collective.
I teach literature and writing at a small college in Wisconsin, and oftentimes center my composition courses on discussions about how digital technologies are changing our definitions of communication, friendship, love, and morality. We read Jaron Lanier and Nicholas Carr, Martin Buber and Ray Kurzweil. APA studies about how Facebook increases narcissistic tendencies among its users, a documentary about Internet Addiction Recovery Camps in Asia, and Thomas de Zengotita’s essay from Harper’s about “the numbing of the American mind” are a few examples of the vast catalog of arguments we encounter throughout the semester. Thoughtful and at times intimidatingly smart, my students have curious reactions to these texts. They at once confirm the desensitization to reality and the ablation of serious thought that digital technologies eventuate, while at the same time praising the convenience, efficiency, and sleekness of their smartphones, which they often utilize in class to fact-check my lectures (a practice that fills me with a kind of searing dread). Recently, my students and I were discussing the ways in which texting and Facebook posts and Instant Messaging reduce our expectations of human interaction — one should note that the majority of my students absolutely abhor making actual, vox-a-vox phone calls. They related anecdotes about text message conversations gone awry (“I couldn’t tell if he was being sarcastic!” or “I thought she was pissed at me!”). One student recalled a face-to-face conversation she recently had with her friend. She had said that friend is the kind of funny where whenever you’re around her you find yourself clutching your stomach and begging her to stop. Anyways, the friend told a joke, and instead of laughing, instead of giving the friend some expressive indication that she thought the joke was that delicious blend of irreverence and wisdom, my student sat there stone-faced and saw a familiar acronym fill up the IMAX of her head. It read: “LOL.” As she bravely recounted the anecdote, speaking with that special intensity that attends a kind of personal revelation, she seemed preoccupied in a haunted way.
Now, I’m not saying that my student bears even a remote likeness to a single one of Tavares’ characters. In fact, she’s a terribly nice person who I have faith will do important things with her life. But we shouldn’t disregard the seriousness of the incident, for it speaks to the subtle and disturbing ways in which technologies sometimes limit or reduce our appreciation of reality, our ability to sensitively apprehend and partake in reality. While it’s easy to sneer or bristle at Tavares’ characters, to close his books and say, “Boy, that was weird,” I don’t think these are meant to be portraits of the cold and the sociopathic, the damaged and the damned. What makes these books necessary, urgent, and arguably genius is Tavares’ unapologetic presentation of characters who follow contemporary society’s prevailing ethics—the ethics of efficient machines—to their logical and devastating ends: a world without what Tavares calls “the efficient distribution of divine breath.” Told in pellucid prose, Joseph Walser’s Machine is a terrifying and mesmeric novel, offering a dark premonition of where we might be headed and what we might become.
2012 is shaping up to be another exciting year for readers. While last year boasted long-awaited novels from David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami, and Jeffrey Eugenides, readers this year can look forward to new Toni Morrison, Richard Ford, Peter Carey, Lionel Shriver, and, of course, newly translated Roberto Bolaño, as well as, in the hazy distance of this coming fall and beyond, new Michael Chabon, Hilary Mantel, and John Banville. We also have a number of favorites stepping outside of fiction. Marilynn Robinson and Jonathan Franzen have new essay collections on the way. A pair of plays are on tap from Denis Johnson. A new W.G. Sebald poetry collection has been translated. And Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer have teamed to update a classic Jewish text. But that just offers the merest suggestion of the literary riches that 2012 has on offer. Riches that we have tried to capture in another of our big book previews.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at 8,400 words strong and encompassing 81 titles, this is the only 2012 book preview you will ever need.
January or Already Out:
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus: No venom seems more befitting an author than words, words, words. In Ben Marcus’s Flame Alphabet, language is the poison that youth inflict on adult ears. Utterances ushered from children’s mouths have toxic effects on adults, while the underage remain immune to the assault. The effects are so harmful that The Flame Alphabet’s narrator, Sam, and his wife must separate themselves from their daughter to preserve their health. Sam sets off to the lab to examine language and its properties in an attempt to discover an antidote and reunite his family. Marcus’s uncharacteristically conventional narrative makes way for him to explore the uncanny eccentricities of language and life. (Anne)
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the dyspeptic bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence but compensates by introducing a “sickly old tortoise” named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. “If people really think that (is plagiarism),” Houellebecq sniffed, “then they haven’t the first notion what literature is.” Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. (Bill)
Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson: One of our most prescient and tuned-in writers of science fiction is coming out with his first collection of non-fiction. Distrust That Particular Flavor gathers together articles and essays William Gibson wrote, beginning in the 1980s, for Rolling Stone, Wired, Time, The Whole Earth Catalog, The New York Times and other publications and websites. There are also forewords, introductions and speeches, even an autobiographical sketch. While these pieces offer fascinating glimpses inside the machinery of Gibson’s fiction writing, their central concern is technology and how it is shaping our future, and us. “What we used to call ‘future shock,'” Gibson writes, “is now simply the one constant in all our lives.” (Bill)
The Last Nude by Ellis Avery: With starred reviews from both Booklist and Library Journal, Ellis Avery’s second novel The Last Nude imagines the brief love affair between the glamorous Art-Deco Painter Tamara de Lempicka and the young muse for her most iconic painting The Beautiful Rafaela. Set in 1920s Paris, among the likes of Jean Cocteau, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, and a fictional American journalist named Anson Hall (a sort of Ernest Hemingway type), Avery explores the costs of ambition, the erotics of sexual awakening, and the devastation that ensues when these two converge. Critics have praised The Last Nude as riveting, elegant, seductive, and breathtaking. (Sonya)
Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander: Auslander has made a name for himself with side-splitting appearances on This American Life and his equally funny memoir Foreskin’s Lament that have marking out a fruitful career as a Jewish humorist. Auslander’s new book is his first novel, which New York says is “kind of about the lighter side of collective Holocaust guilt” Kirkus, meanwhile, has called the book, which explores the Holocaust as “an unshakable, guilt-inducing fixture in the life of any self-aware Jew,” “Brutal, irreverent and very funny. An honest-to-goodness heir to Portnoy’s Complaint.” (Max)
Smut by Alan Bennett: Given the existence of Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes, a new book entitled Smut would seem to have a lot to live up to—at minimum, it should descend into dimensions so filthy and moist that they would cause Baker’s own thunderstick to droop in disgusted admiration. Instead, the absurdly prolific, versatile, and esteemed writer of The History Boys and The Madness of King George provides a pair of very English stories about the sexual adventures of two middle-aged, middle-class British women. So, rather than a lightspeed journey smack into a rigid “Malcolm Gladwell,” Smut is, in the words of the Guardian, a “comedy of false appearances.” And that’s probably not such a bad thing. (Jacob)
Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts by William H. Gass: Random House will publish Gass’s latest collection of non-fiction this January. In Life Sentences, his tenth non-fiction book, Gass explores the work of a number of his own favorite writers, with essays on Kafka, Proust, Stein, Nietzsche, Henry James and Knut Hamsen. Gass, the author of Omensetter’s Luck and The Tunnel, is a central figure in postmodern literature, and his critical essays have been hugely influential (he coined the term “metafiction” in his 1970 essay “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction”). (Mark)
At Last and The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn
Edward St. Aubyn is probably neck-and-neck with Alan Hollinghurst for the title of “purest living English prose stylist.” However, where Hollinghurst traces a line of descent from the prodigious Henry James, St. Aubyn’s leaner style harkens back to the shorter comic novels of Waugh and Henry Green. For 20 years, he’s been producing a semiautobiographical series whose chief interest – one of them anyway – is seeing all that fineness applied to the coarsest of behaviors: abuse, addiction, abandonment. Booker nominations notwithstanding, readers on these shores have paid little attention. Then again, Hollinghurst took a while to find his audience, too, and with the publication of the final “Patrick Melrose novel,” At Last, St. Aubyn should finally get his due. Latecomers can prepare by immersing themselves in the new omnibus edition of the previous titles: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk. (Garth)
Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan: In addition to being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Edugyan’s sophomore novel was and nominated for all three of the major Canadian literary prizes, and won the Scotiabank Giller award for best Canadian novel published this year, whose jury said “any jazz musician would be happy to play the way Edugyan writes.” Praised by The Independent for its “shimmering jazz vernacular, its pitch-perfect male banter and its period slang,” Half-Blood Blues follows the dangerous exploits of an interracial jazz band in Berlin, Baltimore, and Nazi-occupied Paris. (Emily K.)
The Recognitions by William Gaddis: Fifty-seven years after its first publication, Dalkey Archive Press reissues William Gaddis’s classic with a new introduction by William H. Gass. Gaddis’s mammoth work of early postmodernism (or very late modernism, depending on who you ask) is one of the key entries in the canon of American postwar fiction, and a major influence on the likes of David Foster Wallace. Set in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the novel is a thoroughly ruthless (and ruthlessly thorough) examination of fraudulence and authenticity in the arts. Given its influence on postmodern American fiction, Dalkey Archive Press seems a natural home for the novel.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander: Nathan Englander, 41, burst onto the literary scene in 1999 with his widely praised collection of short stories For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. This February he releases his second collection of stories, eight in all, that draw on themes from Jewish history and culture. The title story, about two married couples playing out the Holocaust as a parlor game, appeared in the December 12 edition of The New Yorker. The collection as a whole is suffused with violence and sexual desire. In a starred review Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “[Englander] brings a tremendous range and energy to his chosen topic. (Kevin)
Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated by George Szirtes: What is it with Hungary? It may not have produced the highest number of Nobel Peace Prize candidates, but it almost certainly boasts the highest population-density of contenders for the Nobel in Literature. There are the two Péters, Nádas and Esterhazy. There’s Imre Kertesz, who deservedly took home the laurels in 2002. More recently, English-language monoglots have been discovering the work of László Krasznahorkai. Susan Sontag called The Melancholy of Resistance, “inexorable, visionary”…(of course, Susan Sontag once called a Salade Nicoise “the greatest light lunch of the postwar period.”) More recently, James Wood hailed War and War and Animalinside as “extraordinary.” Satantango, Krasznahorkai’s first novel, from 1985, now reaches these shores, courtesy of the great translator George Szirtes. Concerning the dissolution of a collective farm, it was the basis for Bela Tarr’s 7-hour movie of the same name. (Garth)
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo: Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a staff writer for The New Yorker and an astute chronicler of America’s poor, turns to India for her first book, a work of narrative nonfiction exploring Annawadi, a shantytown settlement near the Mumbai airport. Behind the Beautiful Flowers follows the lives of a trash sorter, a scrap metal thief, and other citizens of Annawadi, and delves into the daily life and culture of a slum in one of the world’s most complex and fascinating cities. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly says “Boo’s commanding ability to convey an interior world comes balanced by concern for the structural realities of India’s economic liberalization…and her account excels at integrating the party politics and policy strategies behind eruptions of deep-seated religious, caste, and gender divides.” (Patrick)
Varamo by Cesar Aira: With a new book out in translation seemingly every time you turn around, the Argentine genius Cesar Aira is fast achieving a Bolaño-like ubiquity. And with more than 80 books published in his native land, there’s more where that came from. Aira’s fascinating writing process, which involves never revisiting the previous day’s writing, means that his novels lack the consistency of Bolaño’s. Instead, you get an improvisatory wildness that, at its best – as in Ghosts – opens up possibilities where there had seemed to be brick walls. Varamo, recently reviewed in The Quarterly Conversation, features “a Panamanian civil servant [who] conceives and writes what will become a canonical poem of the Latin American avant-garde.” The great Chris Andrews translates.
Flatscreen by Adam Wilson: “But maybe Mom’s not the place to start…” So begins the fast, funny debut of Adam Wilson, who’s recently published fiction and criticism in The Paris Review and Bookforum. The story concerns the unlikely…er, friendship between ADHD adolescent Eli Schwartz and one Seymour J. Kahn, a horndog paraplegic and ex-TV star. In the channel-surfing argot that gives the prose much of its flavor: Think The Big Lebowski meets Catcher in the Rye meets that old cable series Dream On. (Garth)
No One Is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel: A graduate of the MFA program at UC Irvine, Ramona Ausubel brings us a debut novel about a remote Jewish village in Romania. The year is 1939, and in an attempt to protect themselves from the encroaching war, its residents—at the prompting of an eleven-year-old girl—decide to tell a different story, to will reality out of existence, and imagine a new and safer world. Last April, Ausubel published a strange and beautiful story called “Atria” in The New Yorker, and I’ve been anticipating her novel ever since. (Edan)
Stay Awake by Dan Chaon: Once called “a remarkable chronicler of a very American kind of sadness” (SF Chronicle), the author of Await Your Reply has slowly built a reputation as one of the most incisive writers of our time, specializing in characters who are dark, damaged, and perplexing, but making the reader feel protective of and connected to them. Populated with night terrors, impossible memories, ghosts, mysterious messages, and paranoia, Stay Awake heralds Chaon’s return to the short story with delicate unease. (Janet)
Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room by Geoff Dyer: Geoff Dyer shows no signs of slowing down after seeing two stunning books of essays published in the U.S. in 2011, Otherwise Known As the Human Condition and The Missing of the Somme. This English writer, blessed with limitless range and a ravishing ability to bend and blend genres, is coming out with a peculiar little book about a 30-year obsession. It’s a close analysis of the Russian director Andre Tarkovsky’s 1979 movie Stalker, and Dyer calls it “an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.” Even so, Dyer brings some sharp instruments to the job, and the result is an entertaining and enlightening joy. (Bill)
The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal: A book in the form of a duel. In 2003, John D’Agata was commissioned to write an essay about a young man who jumped to his death from a Las Vegas hotel. The magazine that commissioned the story ultimately rejected it due to factual inaccuracies. Is there a difference between accuracy and truth? Is it ever appropriate to substitute one for the other in a work of non-fiction? The Lifespan of a Fact examines these questions in the form of a seven-year correspondence between D’Agata and his increasingly exasperated fact-checker, Jim Fingal; the book is composed of the essay itself, Fingal’s notes on the essay, D’Agata’s responses to the notes, Fingal’s responses to the responses. (Emily M.)
Dogma by Lars Iyer: Lars Iyer’s debut novel Spurious was published last year to considerable acclaim, and was short-listed for The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. Spurious concerned a narrator named Lars Iyer, also a writer, his friend W., their certainty that we’re living in the End of Times, their longing to think a truly original thought, the mold that’s taking over Lars’ apartment, their parallel searches for a) meaning and b) a leader and c) quality gin. Dogma—an altogether darker work, the second in a planned trilogy—picks up where Spurious left off. (Emily M.)
The Guardians: An Elegy by Sarah Manguso: In this brief book, Manguso, who already has a memoir – the acclaimed Two Kinds of Decay – two poetry collections and two short story collections under her belt, offers a rumination on a friend named Harris who had spent time in a mental institution before killing himself by stepping onto the tracks in front of a commuter train. Kirkus says the book asks the question: “How does the suicide of a friend affect someone who has come perilously close to suicide herself?” (Max)
When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson: The exalted author of Gilead and Home claims that the hardest work of her life has been convincing New Englanders that growing up in Idaho was not “intellectually crippling.” There, during her childhood, she read about Cromwell, Constantinople, and Carthage, and her new collection of essays celebrates the enduring value of reading, as well as the role of faith in modern life, the problem with pragmatism, and her confident, now familiar, view of human nature. (Janet)
Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton: In his new book, Alain de Botton argues for a middle ground in the debate between religious people and non-believers: rather than dismiss religion outright, he suggests, a better approach would be to steal from it. de Botton, himself a non-believer, suggests that “while the supernatural claims of religion are of course entirely false,” religious doctrines nonetheless contain helpful ideas that an atheist or agnostic might reasonably consider borrowing. (Emily M.)
Arcadia by Lauren Groff: Previewed in our July 2011 round-up of most anticipated books, Arcadia follows Bit Stone, a man who grows up in an agrarian utopian commune in central New York that falls apart, as they generally do. The second half of the novel charts Bit’s life as an adult, showing how his upbringing influenced and shaped his identity. A starred review in Publishers Weekly says, “The effective juxtaposition of past and future and Groff’s (Delicate Edible Birds) beautiful prose make this an unforgettable read.” Hannah Tinti calls it “an extraordinary novel.” (Edan)
Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru: Hari Kunzru’s always had an interest in counterculture. His last novel, My Revolutions, concerned ’60s-era unrest and its consequences. That countercultural energy not only pervades the plot of his new novel; it explodes its form. Structured in short chapters ranging over three hundred years of history and several dozen different styles, Gods Without Men has already been likened to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – but with “more heart and more interest in characterization” (The Guardian.) And the centrifugal structure gives Kunzru license to tackle the Iraq War, Eighteenth Century explorers, hippie communes, and UFOs. (Garth)
Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret: Etgar Keret’s choice of position while writing–facing a bathroom, his back to a window–reveals much about his fiction. He stories are absurd, funny, and unearth the unexpected in seemingly everyday situations. Many stories from his forthcoming collection are set on planes, “a reality show that nobody bothers to shoot,” and deal in wishes and desires. In “Guava,” a plane crashes, a passenger is granted a last wish and is then reincarnated as a guava. Another story involves a wish-granting goldfish, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, and a Russian expatriate who seeks to avoid having strangers knock on his door. Keret’s stories are brief inundations of imagination, an experience that holds true for Keret as much as it does for his reader. Keret says he becomes so immersed while writing that he’s unaware of his surroundings, regardless of his view. (Anne)
Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison: As a young writer, Harrison gained fame for her tales of incestuous love, which turned out to be based in part on her own liaison with her father, which she described in her controversial memoir, The Kiss. Now, Harrison tackles a different kind of troubled family in this tale of doomed love between Masha, the daughter of Rasputin, and sickly Aloysha, son of the deposed Tsar Nicholas II, while the Romanovs are imprisoned in St. Petersburg’s Alexander Palace in the months following the Bolshevik Revolution. (Michael)
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway: Nick Harkaway’s second novel—his first was the sprawling and wildly inventive The Gone-Away World—concerns a clockwork repairman by the name of Joe Spork, a quiet single man in his thirties who leads an uneventful life in an unfashionable corner of London, and a nearly-ninety-year-old former spy by the name of Edie Banister. Their worlds collide when Spork repairs an especially unusual clockwork mechanism that effectively blows his quiet life to pieces and immerses him in a world, Harkaway reports, of “mad monks, psychopaths, villainous potentates, scientific geniuses, giant submarines, determined and extremely dangerous receptionists, and threats to the future of conscious life in the universe.” (Emily M.)
The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: After a run of bestsellers, including the Columbine-inspired We Need to Talk About Kevin, which was recently made into a movie with Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly, Shriver is digging into her bottom drawer to publish an old novel rejected by publishers when she wrote it in 1998. The New Republic, written when Shriver still lived in strife-torn Northern Ireland, is set on a non-existent peninsula of Portugal and focuses on terrorism and cults of personality. (Michael)
The Sugar Frosted Nutsack by Mark Leyner: It’s been 14 years since Leyner’s last literary release, The Tetherballs of Bougainville, though he’s been busy co-authoring the series of ponderously quirky human anatomy readers that started with Why do Men Have Nipples: Hundreds of Questions you’d Only Ask a Doctor After Your Third Martini. With The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, Leyner returns to fiction, takes on the geographical and cultural contradictions of Dubai, and writes down the mythology of what he’s calling our “Modern Gods.” Also included: a cameo from the Mister Softee jingle, and a host of “drug addled bards.” (Emily K.)
The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits: The fourth novel from Believer editor Julavits tells the story of an academy for psychics and the battle between two powerful women, the masterful Madame Ackermann and her most promising — and hence threatening — student Julia Severn. After Ackermann forces Julia to relive her mother’s suicide, Julia flees to Manhattan where she works a humdrum job in exile. Soon, her talents are needed to track down a missing artist who may have a connection to her mother. Powell’s Bookstore included a galley of the book as a pairing with Erin Morgenstern’s enormously popular The Night Circus, noting that The Vanishers “has magic, darkness, whimsy, and flat-out great writing.” (Patrick)
New American Haggadah edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander: This new translation, brought to us by Foer and Englander (with design work by the Israeli “typographic experimentalist” Oded Ezer), represents an unusual confluence of youthful, modern American Jewish thought. Featuring essays and commentary by an intriguingly diverse group (Tony Kushner, Michael Pollan, Lemony Snicket), the New American Haggadah should deliver an infusion of fresh intellectual energy into the traditional Seder narrative. (Jacob)
Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Adam Levin works on his short game with this follow-up to his 1,030-page debut novel The Instructions. Hot Pink is a collection of short stories, many of which have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly and Tin House. From his own descriptions of the stories, Levin seems to be mining the same non-realist seam he excavated with his debut. There are stories about legless lesbians in love, puking dolls, violent mime artists, and comedians suffering from dementia. Fans of The Instructions’ wilder flights of invention (and devotees of the legless lesbian romance genre) will find much to anticipate here. (Mark)
Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008 by John Leonard: For anyone who aspires to write book reviews – that orphaned form stranded halfway between Parnassus and Fleet Street – the late John Leonard was an inspiration. Tough-minded, passionate, at once erudite and street, he was something like the literary equivalent of Pauline Kael. I’m assuming here we’ll get a nice selection of his best work. (Garth)
The Cove by Ron Rash: For the poet, novelist and short story writer Ron Rash, this could be the break-out novel that gives him the name recognition of such better-known Appalachian conjurers as Lee Smith, Robert Morgan, Fred Chappell and Charles Frazier. The Cove, set in the North Carolina mountains during the First World War, is the story of Laurel Shelton and her war-damaged brother Hank, who live on land that the locals believe is cursed. Everything changes when Laurel comes upon a mysterious stranger in the woods, who she saves from a near-fatal accident. “Rash throws a big shadow now,” says Daniel Woodrell, “and it’s only going to get bigger and soon.” (Bill)
Farther Away: Essays by Jonathan Franzen: From Franzen, a collection of essays and speeches written primarily in the last five years. The title essay generated considerable attention when it appeared in The New Yorker in April. In it, Franzen told of his escape to a remote, uninhabited island in the South Pacific following the suicide of his friend David Foster Wallace. Two pieces in the collection—“On Autobiographic Fiction” and “Comma-Then”—have never been published before. Others focus on environmental devastation in China, bird poachers in Cyprus, and the way technology has changed the way people express intimate feelings to each other. (Kevin)
Immobility by Brian Evenson: Genre-bender Evenson (Fugue State, Contagion) returns with an inventive mystery centering around a brilliant detective wasting away from an incurable disease and, consequently, frozen in suspended animation for years. Thawed out by a mysterious man, he must solve an important case with enormous stakes, and he must do it all in time to be frozen again before his disease kills him. There’s little information out there on this book, but he has described it as “another weird noir.” (Patrick)
The Secret of Evil by Roberto Bolaño: Published in 2007 as El Secreto del Mal, The Secret of Evil is a collection of short stories and essays culled posthumously from Roberto Bolaño’s archives. Due this April, the collection joins the steady torrent of Bolaño material that has been translated and published since his death. The stories revisit characters from The Savage Detectives and Nazi Literature in the Americas, and feature other members of Bolaño’s now familiar cast. Some have argued that the embarrassment of posthumous Bolaño riches has occasionally bordered on, well, the embarrassing, but Bolaño’s English-language readers hope for the best. (Lydia)
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 by Susan Sontag: Susan Sontag said that her books “are not a means of discovering who I am … I’ve never fancied the ideology of writing as therapy or self-expression.” Despite her dismissal of the personal in her own writing, Sontag’s life has become a subject of cultural obsession. The first volume of her journals captivated readers with tales of youthful cultivation, spiced with reading lists, trysts, and European adventures. In the interim since, we’ve fed on reflections like Sigrid Nunez’s Sempre Susan and Phillip Lopate’s Notes on Sontag. As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, Sontag’s second volume of journals, picks up in 1964, the year of “Notes on Camp” (which also marked her debut in the Partisan Review) and follows as she establishes herself as an intellect to reckon with. (Anne)
HHhH by Laurent Binet: Winner of the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, Laurent Binet’s first novel was recommended to me by a Frenchwoman as an alternative to Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones or William H. Gass’ The Tunnel. In fact, it sounds like a blend of the two. It concerns the assassination of Hitler’s henchman Reinhard Heydrich – and a writer’s attempt to navigate the straits of writing about the Holocaust. (Garth)
Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001 by W.G. Sebald. This collection was published last November in the UK to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Sebald’s death. Translated and edited by Iain Galbraith, it brings together much of his previously uncollected and unpublished poetry. Writing in The Guardian, Andrew Motion cautioned against seeing these poems as having been “written in the margins” of the novels. The collection, he wrote, “turns out to be a significant addition to Sebald’s main achievement–full of things that are beautiful and fascinating in themselves, and which cast a revealing light on the evolution and content of his prose.” (Mark)
Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift: With promising reviews from The UK — “… an exemplary tour guide of unknown English lives, a penetrating thinker, a wonderful writer of dialogue and description, a nimble craftsman” (The Telegraph), “ quietly commanding… burns with a sombre, steady rather than a pyrotechnic flame” (The Independent) — Swift’s ninth novel signals a return to the themes of his 1996 Man Booker prize winning Last Orders: Wish You Were Here chronicles a man’s journey to Iraq, in 2006, to collect his estranged soldier brother’s body, and examines the resurfacing of a both personal and international history. (Emily K.)
Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin: In the grand expatriate tradition, Baldwin went to Paris looking for la vie en rose and found himself in a McDonald’s. The editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me There moved his family to Paris for a copywriting job and soon learned that it’s not all croissants and cathedrals. Learning to live with constant construction, the oddities of a French office, the omnipresence of American culture, and his own inability to speak French, Baldwin loses his dream of Paris but finds a whole new reality to fall in love with. (Janet)
The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller: Nobel winner Herta Müller has written a novel about a young man in a Soviet labor camp in 1945. Müller’s own mother, a Romanian-born member of a German minority in the region, spent five years in a Soviet camp, although Müller’s novel is based upon the accounts of other subjects, particularly the poet Oskar Pastior. Despite its provenance and heavy subject matter, the novel, which is already out in German, has received middling reviews from German critics. (Lydia)
Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd: Out in April, Waiting for Sunrise, the newest novel from British author William Boyd will take readers to pre-WWI Vienna and on to the battlefields of Europe. The novel follows the fortunes of a British actor cum spy, as he visits the analyst’s couch, meets intriguing beauties, has coffee with Freud, and battles ze Germans. Exciting stuff from the author of Any Human Heart, a Whitbread winner and Booker shortlister. (Lydia)
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens: Perhaps because Christopher Hitchens was writing so honestly and movingly of his illness right up until his death, we were surprised when it came, even though it seemed clear all along that his cancer would be fatal. Hitchens’ essays, in his final year, helped humanize and soften a writer who welcomed conflict and whose prose so often took a combative stance. This memoir, planned before his death, is based on those last Vanity Fair essays. The UK edition is said to be coming out “early this year” and Amazon has it listed for April, while the timing of the US edition is unclear. (Max)
Home by Toni Morrison: Morrison’s latest is about a Korean War veteran named Frank Money who returns from war to confront racism in America, a family emergency (Money’s sister, in crisis, needs to be rescued and returned to their hometown in Georgia), and the after effects of his time on the front lines. Morrison, 80, has been reading excerpts from the novel at events since early 2011. At an event in Newark in April, she read a few pages and remarked, “Some of it is soooo good — and some of it needs editing.” (Kevin)
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel: Those of us who gobbled up Hillary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall eagerly await the release of its sequel, the ominously-titled Bring Up the Bodies. In Wolf Hall, we saw the operatic parallel rise of both Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn in the court of Henry VIII. In Bring Up the Bodies, Anne’s failure to produce a male heir, and Henry’s eternally wandering attentions, present Cromwell with the challenge of his career: protecting the King, eliminating Anne, and preserving his own power base. How we loved to hate Anne in Wolf Hall; will her destruction at the hands of the king and his chief minister win our sympathies? If anyone can effect such a complication of emotional investment, Mantel can. (Sonya)
The Passage of Power by Robert Caro: The much-anticipated fourth volume of Caro’s landmark five-volume life of Lyndon Johnson appears just in time for Father’s Day. This volume, covering LBJ’s life from late 1958 when he began campaigning for the presidency, to early 1964, after he was thrust into office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, comes ten years after The Master of the Senate, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. The new volume, which focuses on the gossip-rich Kennedy White House years, will no doubt be another runaway bestseller. (Michael)
Canada by Richard Ford: Richard Ford fans rejoice! A new novel set in Saskatchewan is pending from the author of the Frank Bascombe trilogy. The first of Ford’s novels to be set north of the border, Canada will be published in the U.S. by Ecco, with whom Ford signed a three-book deal after his much-publicized 2008 split from Knopf. The novel involves American fugitives living on the Saskatchewan plains, and according to Ford it is inspired structurally by The Sheltering Sky. Ford, who calls himself “a Canadian at heart” talked about the novel and read an excerpt on the Canadian Broadcasting Company program Writers and Company. (Lydia)
The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger: Freudenberger is famous for taking a knockout author photo and for catching all the breaks (remember the term “Schadenfreudenberger”?), but she has turned out to be an interesting writer. The Newlyweds, which was excerpted in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 series, is loosely based on the story of a Bangladeshi woman whom Freudenberger met on a plane. The woman, a middle-class Muslim, married an American man she’d met through the Internet, and the novel follows their early years of marriage in fictional form, marking Freudenberger step away from stories about young women and girls and toward those about grown women living with the choices they’ve made. (Michael)
The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey: Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey returns in May with The Chemistry of Tears, his first novel since 2010’s much-loved Parrot and Olivier in America. As in Parrot, Carey again stokes a conversation between past and present, albeit more explicitly: in the wake of her lover’s passing, a present-day museum conservator throws herself into the construction of a Victorian-era automaton. If the parallel between the sadness of death and the joy of rebirth might seem a tad “on the nose,” expect Carey, as always, to swath the proceedings with sharp observation, expert stylistics, and a sense of genuine sorrow. (Jacob)
Railsea by China Mieville: The British fantasy writer China Mieville, as we noted in a recent career retrospective, is an equal-opportunity plunderer of the high and the low, everything from fellow fantasy writers to mythology, folklore, children’s literature, epics, comics, westerns, horror, Kafka and Melville. Never has his kinship with Melville been more apparent than in his new young adult novel, Railsea, in which a character named Sham Yes ap Soorap rides a diesel locomotive under the command of a captain obsessed with hunting down the giant ivory-colored mole, Mocker-Jack, that snatched off her arm years ago. Fans of Mieville’s previous YA novel, Un Lun Dun, should brace themselves for another whiplash ride. (Bill)
A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava: Is self-publishing the new publishing? Not yet. Still, De La Pava’s audacious debut, called “one of the best and most original novels” of the last decade by Open Letters Monthly and subsequently heralded by the blogosphere, may upend some assumptions. This one began life as a self-publication, and though many self-published authors seem to feel they’ve written masterpieces, this might be the real thing. It’s simultaneously a Melvillean tour of the criminal justice system, a caper novel, and a postmodern tour de force. Now that University of Chicago press is reissuing it, heavy-hitting critics like Steven Moore are starting to take notice. (Garth)
The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel: This spring brings a third, dazzling novel from our very own Emily St. John Mandel. It’s 2009, and disgraced journalist Gavin Sasaki, “former jazz musician, a reluctant broker of foreclosed properties, obsessed with film noir and private detectives and otherwise at loose ends,” returns to his native Florida where he gets embroiled in the mystery of an ex-girlfriend and her missing daughter—who looks a lot like Gavin. The Lola Quartet has garnered high praise from booksellers like Joe Eichman of Tattered Cover, who says, “This sad, yet sublime, novel should bring Emily St. John Mandel a widespread readership.” (Edan)
The Lower River by Paul Theroux: Theroux’s latest is about sixty-year-old Ellis Hock who retreats to Malawi, where he spent four Edenic years in the Peace Corps, after his wife leaves him and his life unravels back home in Medford, Massachusetts. The book appeared first as a short story in The New Yorker in 2009. In it Theroux returns to a theme he’s mined so successfully throughout his prolific career—the allure of ex-pat life, and the perils of living as an outsider in a foreign country. (Kevin)
Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain: In this follow-up to his PEN/Hemingway award-winning short story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, Fountain delivers a satirical novel about a 19-year-old soldier from Texas, home on leave and, along with his army squad, a guest of honor at a Dallas Cowboys game. Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn, calls it “A Catch-22 of the Iraq War.” Here’s a more in-depth description of the novel. (Edan)
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif: Booker longlister Mohammed Hanif wrote Our Lady of Alice Bhatti on the heels of his celebrated debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes. His second novel, also set in Pakistan, tells the story of Alice Bhatti, a spirited crypto-Christian nurse of lowly origins who works at the Karachi Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments and endures all manner of indignities at the hands of her colleagues and compatriots. Part absurd and unfortunate love story (between the titular Alice and a body-builder ruffian), part searing social commentary from a promising writer. (Lydia)
In One Person by John Irving: Irving returns to first-person voice for the first time since A Prayer for Owen Meany to tell the story of a lonely bisexual man working hard to make his life “worthwhile.” The story is told retrospectively as the man, approaching 70, reflects on his life and his early years growing up in a small Vermont town in the 1950s. The novel is being described as Irving’s “most political novel” since The Cider House Rules. (Kevin)
The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa: This historical novel by the Nobel Laureate “sits in the tradition of Vargas Llosa’s major novels […] in its preoccupation with political issues and its international scope,” according to Faber, who released it in Spanish this past fall. The Dream of the Celt explores the life of Irish revolutionary Sir Roger Casement, who was knighted by the British Crown in 1911, hanged five years later for treason, and disgraced as a sexual deviant during his trial. His crime: mobilizing public opinion against colonialism by exposing slavery and abuses in the Congo and Peru to the world. At a lecture, Vargas Llosa said that Casement made for a “fantastic character for a novel” — if for no other reason than the influence he had on the eponymous dark view that filled his friend Joseph Conrad’s own best-known novel. (Sonya)
The Red House by Mark Haddon: Early reviews tell us that Mark Haddon’s The Red House renders modern family life as a puzzling tragicomedy. Enough said for this reader, but here’s a little more to entice the rest of you: a brother invites his estranged sister and her family to spend a week with him, his new wife and stepdaughter, at a vacation home in the English countryside. Told through shifting points of view, The Red House is “a symphony of long-held grudges, fading dreams and rising hopes, tightly-guarded secrets and illicit desires” with the stage set “for seven days of resentment and guilt, a staple of family gatherings the world over.” Just what we all need (a little catharsis, anyone?) after the holidays. (Sonya)
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti: In spite of its name, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is neither etiquette book, self-help manual, nor philosophical tract. It’s a novel and yet it’s a novel in the way that reality TV shows are fictions, with Heti as the narrator and her friends as the cast of supporting characters (even some of their conversations have been transcribed). With the Toronto art scene as the backdrop, Heti ponders big questions by way of contemporary obsessions–genius, celebrity, blow jobs, what is the difference between brand and identity, how is a story told? Read an excerpt (via n+1) to whet your appetite. (Anne)
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: Jess Walter’ 2009 novel The Financial Lives of the Poets is one of the funniest books ever written about the assisted suicide of the newspaper business. His sixth novel, Beautiful Ruins, unfolds in 1962 when a young Italian innkeeper, gazing at the Ligurian Sea, has a vision: a gorgeous blonde woman is approaching in a boat. She’s an American movie starlet. And she’s dying. Fast forward to today, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a Hollywood studio’s back lot searching for the mystery woman he last saw at his seaside inn half a century ago. The publisher promises a “rollercoaster” of a novel, which is the only kind Jess Walter knows how to write. (Bill)
New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and their Families by Colm Tóibín: Family has always been a presiding theme in Colm Tóibín’s fiction. With this forthcoming essay collection, he explores discusses its centrality in the lives and work of other writers. There are pieces on the relationship between W.B. Yeats and his father, Thomas Mann and his children, J.M. Synge and his mother, and Roddy Doyle and his parents. The collection also contains discussions of the importance of aunts in the nineteenth century English novel and the father-son relationship in the writing of James Baldwin and Barack Obama. (Mark)
Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays by Denis Johnson: Johnson is, of course, best known for beloved and award-winning fiction like Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke, but he also spent a decade (2000-2010) as the playwright in residence for the Campo Santo Theatre Company in San Francisco, a relationship that began when the theater staged two stories from Jesus’ Son. While there, he wrote six plays that premiered at the theater, two of which are collected here. Soul of a Whore is about the Cassandras, a classicly Johnson-esque family of misfits and outcasts, while Purvis is about the real FBI agent Melvin Purvis who went after John Dillinger and Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. (Max)
Broken Harbor by Tana French: According to this goodreads interview with the author, Broken Harbor will be the fourth book in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series; this time it’s Scorcher Kennedy–a minor character from Faithful Place–whose story takes center stage. On Irish writer Declan Burke’s blog, French summarizes the premise this way: “A family has been attacked and the father and two children are dead, the mother’s in intensive care and Scorcher, who is still not one hundred per cent back in everyone’s good books after making a mess of the case in Faithful Place, has been assigned this case with his rookie partner.” (Edan)
A Million Heavens by John Brandon: Brandon’s first two novels — Arkansas and Citrus County — both focused on criminals, but with his third he turns his attention to a comatose piano prodigy. Lying in a hospital bed in New Mexico, he is visited by his father while a band of strangers assemble outside, vigilants for whom he is an inspiration, an obsession, or merely something to do. Watched from afar by a roaming wolf and a song-writing angel, Brandon’s collection of the downtrodden and the hopeful become a community. (Janet)
Office Girl by Joe Meno: At a glance, Joe Meno’s Office Girl might seem like something you’d want to skip: there’s the title, which calls to mind the picked-over genre of office dramedy, with its feeble gestures of protest beneath fluorescent lights. The doe-eyed specter of Zooey Deschanel somehow also looms. But you’d be wrong to dismiss anything by Meno, author of The Great Perhaps, Hairstyles of the Damned, and The Boy Detective Fails. His latest promises to return us to a postcollegiate moment when a simple sideways glance can reveal the fallacy of our dreams—and how we stubbornly choose to focus instead on the narrowing path ahead. (Jacob)
Mother and Child by Carole Maso: Carole Maso houses beautiful American sentences in unusual, experimental structures – her masterwork, AVA, is an underground staple. The forthcoming Mother & Child is apparently a collection of linked short-shorts, whose two protagonists are, one has to figure, mother and child. (Garth)
You & Me by Padgett Powell: Padgett Powell’s eighth work of fiction is a novel called You & Me that consists of a conversation between two middle-aged men sitting on a porch chewing on such gamey topics as love and sex, how to live and die well, and the merits of Miles Davis, Cadillacs and assorted Hollywood starlets. Since his 1984 debut, Edisto, Powell has won comparisons to Faulkner and Twain for his ability to bottle the molasses-and-battery-acid speech of his native South. One early reader has described You & Me as “a Southern send-up of Waiting for Godot.” Which is high praise indeed for Samuel Beckett. (Bill)
Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu: A short story collection from the author of the highly praised debut novel How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, involving a computer-generated landscape, a zombie that appears—inconveniently—during a big-box store employee’s graveyard shift, a company that outsources grief for profit (“Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you”), and the difficulty of asking one’s coworker out on a date. (Emily M.)
Lionel Asbo: The State of England by Martin Amis: Martin Amis is dedicating his new novel to his friend Christopher Hitchens, who died in December at 62 after a much-publicized battle with cancer. Amis’s title character is a skinhead lout who wins the lottery while in prison, and a publishing source tells the Independent on Sunday that the novel is “a return to form” that is by turns “cynical, witty, flippant, cruel and acutely observed.” Among the plump targets of this dark satirist are the British press and a society in thrall to sex and money. Sounds like we’re in for a straight shot of 100-proof Amis. (Bill)
The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle: Victor LaValle, the award-winning author of Slapboxing with Jesus and The Ecstatic, as well as the ambitious and monster-fun Big Machine, returns this August with a new novel, The Devil In Silver. In 2009, LaValle told Hobart Literary Journal: “It’s the story of a haunted house, in a sense, but I guarantee no one’s ever written a haunted house story quite like this.” Sounds like another genre-bending delight to me. (Edan)
Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk: In 2001, the acclaimed English novelist Rachel Cusk published a memoir called A Life’s Work, a highly praised – and vilified – examination of the pitfalls of becoming a mother. At the time she said, “I often think that people wouldn’t have children if they knew what it was like.” Now comes Cusk’s third work of non-fiction, which flows from A Life’s Work and examines marriage, separation, motherhood, work, money, domesticity and love. The British publisher says, “Aftermath is a kind of deferred sequel, a personal/political book that looks at a woman’s life after the defining experiences of femininity have passed, when one has to define oneself all over again.” (Bill)
Fall 2012 or Unknown:
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: East Bay resident Michael Chabon has spent the past several years working on his novel of Berkeley and Oakland, titled Telegraph Avenue for the street that runs between the two communities. Chabon titillated readers with an essay on his adopted hometown for the Ta-Nehisi Coates blog at The Atlantic, which reveals nothing about the plotline but assures us that the new work will be, if nothing else, a carefully conceived novel of place. Chabon had previously been at work on an abortive miniseries of the same name, which was said to detail the lives of families of different races living in Oakland and Berkeley. (Lydia)
Ancient Light by John Banville: Having published a string of popular crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black over the last five years, John Banville returns again to serious literary fiction with Ancient Light. In the novel, the aging actor Alexander Cleave remembers his first sexual experiences as a teenager in a small Irish town in the 1950s, and tries to come to terms with the suicide of his daughter Cass ten years previously. With 2000’s Eclipse and 2002’s Shroud, Ancient Light will form the third volume in a loose trilogy featuring Alexander and Cass. (Mark)
The Book of My Life by Aleksandar Hemon: The brilliant Aleksandar Hemon (MacArthur Genius, PEN/Sebald winner) is reported to be working on his fifth book and first collection of non-fiction pieces. The title, The Book of My Life, alludes to, and will presumably include, his 2000 New Yorker essay of the same name–a short, powerful description of his mentoring literature professor turned war criminal, Nikola Koljevic. This will be Hemon’s first book since the familial tragedy documented in his heartrending 2011 essay “The Aquarium,” also for The New Yorker. (Lydia)
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub: If you spent any time on the literary part of the internet in the past year, the name Emma Straub will ring out to you. She’s a regular contributor to Rookie Mag, among other places, and Flavorwire called her “The Nicest Person on Twitter” (Sorry, Bieber). Her debut novel is about a Midwestern girl who moves to Los Angeles and, at great cost, becomes a movie star in 1940s Hollywood. Straub’s story collection Other People We Married, originally published in 2011 by 5 Chapters Press, will also be rereleased by Riverhead Books early in 2012. (Patrick)
Alt-Country by Tom Drury: There isn’t much information on Drury’s fifth novel, but rumor has it that Alt-Country will be the third installment of tales about the residents of fictional Grouse County, Iowa, where The End of Vandalism and Hunts in Dreams are set. The book is tentatively slated to come out in the fall of 2012. Let’s hope Drury revisits not only Tiny and Joan, but also Dan and Louise, as well as the many odd and memorable minor characters that people his fictional Iowan landscape. (Edan)
Your Name Here by Helen DeWitt with Ilya Gridneff: This long, compendious, delirious “novel” – co-authored with a rakish Australian journalist – should by all rights have been DeWitt’s follow-up to The Last Samurai, but publishers apparently balked at the novel’s enormous formal dare. So the enterprising Miss DeWitt simply began selling .pdfs on her website – a kind of late-capitalist samizdat. Jenny Turner of the London Review of Books wrote a long review of the novel a couple years back that makes it sound like absolutely essential reading. And N+1 ran an excerpt. Now Noemi Press has shouldered the considerable challenges of publishing the whole thing. And if you’re one of the lucky few who has the .pdf already, the money you PayPaled to Helen will be deducted from the cost of the printed book. There’s no telling how many complications are involved in getting there, but in the end, everybody wins! (Garth)
Is Google making us stupid? Is reading in America a dying pursuit? Will novel srviv in age of twtr? String together enough of these think-piece propositions, and you begin to notice a pattern. Ostensibly open-ended, their very existence presumes an answer in the affirmative: yes, Google is making us stupid…at least, too stupid to entertain the possibility that this is other than a yes/no question.
If the presumption is correct, we might reasonably expect to see it reflected in the evolving form of the literary novel. Just last month, in a cover story on Jonathan Franzen, Time’s Lev Grossman postulated that “the trend in fiction over the past decade has been toward specialization: the closeup, the miniature, the microcosm.” And in practice, a young writer presenting her manuscript to editors quickly surmises that the working definition for a novel is no longer Randall Jarrell’s “a prose narrative of a certain length that has something wrong with it,” but “a prose narrative of 235 to 325 pages that we can bring out as a paperback original.” Joshua Cohen, the 29-year-old author of several books, recently told The New York Observer that, of the eight publishers who passed on his novel Witz (800 pp), “One of them told me they would publish it if it was 200 pages…. One said 10 years ago they would have done it, back when people read novels.”
But if, as Grossman suggests, the “literary megafauna of the 1990s” no longer roam the earth, how to explain Time’s interest in Freedom (576 pp)? Moreover, how to explain the thicket of big novels that surround it on the shelves of America’s bookstores – not only Witz, but also A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book (675 pages), and Brady Udall’s The Lonely Polygamist (599 pp), and Rick Moody’s The Four Fingers of Death (725 pp), and Karl Marlantes’ Matterhorn (592 pp), and Ralph Ellison’s Three Days Before the Shooting (1136 pp), and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (560 pp), and Javier Marías’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy (1255 pp) and Adam Levin’s The Instructions (1030 pp)? Surveying those shelves, one begins to suspect that the spread of micro-designations like “literary megafauna” (or less charitably, “phallic meganovels”), rather than the plenitude or scarcity of the species in question, is the true marker of our changing culture.
Not so long ago, the phrase “long novel” was no less redundant than “short novel.” The serial publication practices of the 19th Century nudged the Victorian novelist toward amplitude. Multiply 16 (the number of pages in a signature) by two (the number of signatures in an installment) by 20 (the number of installments favored by Dickens and his publishers), and you get 640 serial pages – the length, give or take, of Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit, and Bleak House. Not to mention Vanity Fair and Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda… Soon, Trollope would be conceptualizing his novels explicitly as two- or three-volume affairs. My Oxford World Classics edition of Barchester Towers retains its two-volume pagination; it runs from 1 to 271, and then from 1 to 280. Toward the end of the second volume, the author begins to make asides about having to reach a certain page count.
In the age of offset printing, the long novel is more heterodox. Not much unites Moody and Marías and Mantel, other than the fact that they are currently stacked half-read on my nightstand. (There’s nothing like the birth of a child to foreground the sheer length of a book in one’s mind.) To yoke these writers together is thus to risk several kinds of reductionism. Most importantly (and speaking of Trollope): one doesn’t want to conflate geometric greatness with the aesthetic kind. Some of the best novels I’ve read recently are shorter than American presses tend to publish. (In the Spanish-speaking world, in particular, the short novel seems to have thrived in a way it hasn’t Stateside. A parallel essay may be warranted). Still, the current profusion of long novels would seem to complicate the picture of the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span.
Publishers’ willingness to take a chance on a long book circa 2010 may be directly connected to chances taken in the past. The fierce bidding, in 2007, for Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (992 pp), a demanding work in translation, surely owes something to the rapt reception of Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives (600 pp) and subsequent widespread anticipation for 2666 (912 pp). McSweeney’s may be hoping The Instructions repeats the success of Chris Adrian’s The Children’s Hospital (615 pp). And David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1104 pp) continues to have a remarkable second life on the backlist, which is still the publisher’s bread and butter. Biographical books and articles by David Lipsky and D.T. Max, as well as copious online discussion, sustain interest in the book. A clerk at a local bookstore told me last week that, for the last two months, it’s been flying off the shelves. Indeed, après Jest, doubters may catch a whiff of decadence, or at least self-consciousness, around the efforts of Cohen, Levin, and other candidates for wunderkindency.
To be even more crassly economic, in the slog of the Great Recession, the long novel offers readers a compelling value proposition. One may revile all the works of William T. Vollmann, and admire those of the Mexican novelist Mario Bellatin, but even at 55 bucks, Imperial (1344 pp) offers a wildly higher hours-to-dollars ratio (it’s roughly one-to-one) than The Beauty Salon (72 pp). (Well, Imperial isn’t actually a novel, but it feels weird to discuss long books and exclude Vollmann’s megaliths.) To put it another way: Ann Beattie’s Walks With Men (102 pp) will cost you about as much as a trip to the local multiplex, and last about as long. And let’s not forget that publishers can charge more for a long book than a short one. This helps explain why the Harry Potter novels kept getting longer and longer… On the other hand, barring a guarantee of Potter-like sales, publishers hate big books, as Cohen learned the hard way. They’re expensive to print, to ship, and to warehouse. And, to compound the problem, reviewers hate long novels. How much easier to say of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists (288 pp) than of, say, Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men (1191 pp), “It’s so good I had to read it twice.”
For a deeper explanation of the long novel’s enduring health, we have to look toward something harder to quantify: the construction of the reader. The more we’re told we’re becoming readers of blogs, of texts, of tweets, of files the more committing to a big book feels like an act of resistance. To pick up a novel in excess of 600 pages is to tell oneself, “I am going to spend twenty-four to forty-eight hours of my life with a book, rather than the newspaper, the internet, or the smartphone. I am going to feel it in my muscles” (Some will object here that lugging Infinite Jest on the subway is more a way of saying, “Look at me!” But surely matters of style, and of gender, are at play here; no one levels the same charge at readers of Marguerite Young.) The desire to escape the hive-mind of cyberspace – to be, once more, a solitary reader – may also be at play in the rise of “the Kindle-proof book”: the book so tailored to the codex form that it can’t yet be reproduced electronically. Think of The Original of Laura, or of Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, or of New Directions’ editions of B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, or Anne Carson’s Nox (actually more of a scroll), or Robert Walser’s Microscripts.
At the very least, the current boom, or miniboom, in big books should tell us that novelists still believe in this kind of reader. In the end, this may be enough to ensure her survival; just as the audience shapes the writer’s habits, the writer, by the demands she chooses to make on her imaginary readers, calls her audience into being. One of the underappreciated things about Franzen is that he writes as if the novel still (as Benjamin Kunkel puts it) “dominate[s] the landscape like a mountain range.” And lo and behold, there he is on the cover of Time!
One doesn’t want to draw a veil over the various corporate machinations that made that possible. At the end of the day, though, a large number of readers are, like their 19th Century antecedents, currently reading and thinking about and talking about a work of fiction whose physical dimensions signal a corresponding largeness of intellect and spirit. Surely, we can agree that that’s a good thing. For amid all the debatable, slippery stuff about our evolving consciousness, the relationship between the novel and a certain quality of attention appears to be inescapable. Whether in long or otherwise demanding books, or in long or otherwise demanding sentences, or in prodigious subtleties of perspective, writers of the 21st century continue to seek out an audience possessed of that attention. And, in defiance (so far) of predictions to the contrary, readers keep rising up to meet them.
Behind my desk, in my bedroom, there is a large bookcase divided into 25 cubes. On the wall facing my desk there are three bookshelves. Instead of a table, there is also a shelf at my bedside. Beside my desk is an additional bookcase, the Billy model from Ikea, with six shelves. All this shelf space amounts to about 56 feet.
I have turned my attention to my bookshelves and not what stand on them because I am reorganizing my personal library. I need to know how much space I have for my books, in order to accommodate the existing space for a logical, efficacious, and personalized classification system for the books I own, which currently amount to just short of 500 volumes. My endeavor, of course, is not a very great one. I do have a considerable number of books, but by no means is my collection large or unwieldy. I’m only 20, and as such my library is not a lifetime’s library — it is only the nucleus of a true library, with burgeoning interests, mistakes, discoveries, a few treasures, and several shortcomings.
As for the organization of the books, well, I must say that in its current state the classification is far from optimal. Most of last semester’s books are still on the shelf above my desk and deserve integration with the rest of my collection, instead of groupings by course reading material. My French books are all together in the Billy bookcase, which results in separating the Penguin edition of Chekhov’s Ward No. 6 and Other Stories, 1892-1895 from the French translation of Chekhov’s (or, as it were, Tchekhov’s) plays, published by Folio in two paperback volumes.
Similarly, the current state of my books creates rifts between ideas and eras, or tensions where there shouldn’t be any. For instance my enormous paperback of Allen Ginsberg’s Collected Poems lies on a shelf above my desk because I was too lazy to make room for it in the cubes. Thus Ginsberg is a room apart from his friend Kerouac (if their belonging to the Beats shouldn’t be enough to bring them together, Ginsberg even took the pictures on the cover of On the Road, which I think calls for neighboring spots on my shelves). In the cubes there are other inconsistencies: Junot Díaz is between the single volume Chronicles of Narnia and Anne Michaels; Hemingway shares his shelf with Amitav Ghosh, Toni Morrison, and Nabokov — I can’t think of any reason why those authors should rub covers.
Likewise, when I see Eco’s The Name of the Rose on one shelf and his collection of essays On Literature on the opposite wall, I know it is time to take all the books out, dust off the shelves, and start again from scratch.
The first step in reorganizing my personal library is finding a system. Of this, there are many, some more improvised than others. In his bible of bibliomania, The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel explores the different facets of the library, and also the different ways to organize books. For his own collection of 30,000 books, which he keeps in his château in France, Manguel has chosen to divide his books by language, and then place them alphabetically. Rather drab for me, I think, considering the small size of my own book collection.
Some book collectors have been more original. Take Samuel Pepys for instance, the great 17th century diarist, who maintained a personal library (which still exists) of 3,000 books exactly, not a volume more. What is, perhaps, the most astounding feature of Pepys’ library is the way in which the books were organized: by size. All his volumes were numbered from 1 to 3,000, from smallest to biggest, and placed in that order in his bookcases, each volume bound in matching leather, and each book resting on a little wooden stilt matching the cover, to create unity in height — gentlemanly elegance.
What may be acknowledged about any organizational system is that they all have certain limitations. Even the Dewey Decimal System, used by the majority of public libraries in the world — which divides human knowledge into ten decimals, in turn subdivided into ten categories, and so on — is limited when it comes to books with split subjects (take the excellent Time Among the Maya, by Ronald Wright, which is part travel journal in Mesoamerica, part history book on the Mayas).
But I am looking for a more intuitive organizational system, something flexible and creative. An article in The Guardian’s online book section discussed “bookshelf etiquette,” organizational systems like grouping books by theme or color. One of the propositions was to place books together by potential for their authors to be friends. I choose a different path: all of an author’s books are together (no matter the language), authors that go well together go together, other books are placed by association of genre or style. I will start with that in mind, and see where it brings me.
I remove books from my shelves. I grab multiple spines between my thumb and fingers, slide out the volumes and pile them on my desk, on the floor — soon my room is like a messy cave of paper and multicolored covers and spines. The wall behind my desk is bland, covered in empty cubes, spacious and clean. I am reminded of a time, not so long ago, when my entire book collection did not even fit on the six shelves of a Billy bookcase.
As I take the books out of their bookcases, crack open a few to see if the words inside still have the same ring, and admire the beauty of some covers, I start to understand that there are some books I do no want anymore. There is a vital difference between books you do not need and books you no longer want to have. I would willingly keep a book I hated if it had a nice cover (and I do, like Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes, a silly collection of short stories with a stunning, elegant cover). The books I am ready to give away are books I don’t care about: they are ugly, I have had them for too long, I have never read them and never will — they simply become a waste of space.
Take How to Read Novels Like a Professor, a paperback I bought a couple of years ago, in an attempt to uncover some of literature’s secrets before entering University. I drop the book with the other giveaways. A few days later I pick it up again and this passage catches my attention: “Books lead to books, ideas to ideas. You can wear out a hundred hammocks and never reach the end. And that’s the good news.” I certainly agree with that. No English major would be supposed to be caught dead with such a preposterously titled book in their library, and maybe that’s the reason why I wanted to give it away in the first place. I decide to keep it in my collection after all — for now.
In the end I’ve put aside two dozen books in the giveaway pile. By no means am I kidding myself that I’m actually getting rid of a large chunk of my library. I admire people who are able to rid themselves of books they love, give books away selflessly so that others can enjoy them. I know I could never do such a thing.
I admit, with a hint of guilt, that I have not read all the books I own. Not even close. The majority of them, yes (I hope), but far from all of them. Despite the incredible amount of reading left for me to do before I really know my library, almost every week I buy more books.
Part of the problem lies in my appreciation for books as objects, as elegant collectibles. I like not only to read them, but to look at them, touch them. Larry McMurtry has phrased it rather elegantly in his memoir, titled simply, Books:
But there can be secondary and tertiary reasons for wanting a particular book. One is the pleasure of holding the physical book itself: savoring the type, the binding, the book’s feel and heft. All these things can be enjoyed apart from literature, which some, but not all, books contain.
While I have shelves full of books I have not read at home, I keep on thinking about which books I’m going to buy next. Although minor, this problem does create a fair amount of anxiety, essentially caused by the fact that I simply don’t read enough. Furthermore, as I reorganize my books I realize there are many I would like to reread soon. (At the top of my list: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows…) Sometimes I wish I were that man in the Twilight Zone episode who finds himself in the ruins of a public library, with lots of food and all the time in the world to read all the books he wants.
My library is also the most personal of filing systems, with countless mementos flattened between the covers of the books. There is a card from a blood-drive marking a page in Greenblatt’s biography of Shakespeare, reminding me of when I can give blood again. I slam away the congratulations card from the English department of my college which awarded me a prize in Shakespeare studies (oddly, the quote on the card is by Anaïs Nin) in the bard’s complete works (leatherbound, gold page edges). A business card from the Winding Staircase, a charming Dublin bookstore, falls out of De Niro’s Game, which I read in Ireland. Between my Oscar Wildes I find a touching card from my parents, given to me when I turned 18. I choose a better place for it: between the pages of a book on self-fashioning in the Renaissance they bought for me at Shakespeare and Company, in Paris, a place I have only been to in my dreams.
I have finally emptied all my shelves. It was long — and tedious. Not in the physical sense, but in one that is, of sorts, moral. Removing all those books was the undoing of something that was set, a collection which, it seems, had built itself up, slowly, purposefully, into a cohesive whole. The work of an oyster.
After the toil of the unmaking, now I have to rebuild my library up — restock the shelves that now stand cleared, poised, filled only with light and shadows. After some consideration, the first book I place back on the top left cube, is Beowulf, masterfully translated by Seamus Heaney, the beginning of literature in English. I have to rifle down the spines of a few piles before I finally locate it.
Next up goes Tolkien. I cannot resist — without him I’m not sure Beowulf would even be taught in schools at all. His translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, first, to soften the transition, and then The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Tree and Leaf, and The Children of Hurin. Then I place Herodotus, whom my girlfriend assures me thinks exactly like Tolkien. I am startled by my audacity. There is a jump from 10th century Anglo-Saxon manuscript to 20th Century fantasy writer to the father of history, a fifth-century Greek — my system is either creative or blasphemous.
My girlfriend came to help me. Her presence was motivating — I have done more work in half an hour than in the last week. The Canterbury Tales are inserted between Beowulf and Tolkien by her recommendation, I add Peter Ackroyd’s The Clerkenwell Tales beside it. A cube inspired by military history starts with Thucydides and ends with a biography on George Washington — yet George Orwell, Alan Moore, and Annie Proulx all end up on it by association. From the look in my girlfriend’s eyes I know she thinks this is starting to look like a madman’s library. Nothing new there, bibliomania is a psychological disorder, I am told.
Putting Sylvia Plath with her husband Ted Hughes feels wrong, so we try to find a new lover for her. I think of Byron as a joke, my girlfriend proposes Mary Shelley as a fellow tortured female writer. The offer is accepted and Plath serves as transition into gothic fiction. Ironically, Byron ends up just after Shelley anyway (they shared more than shelf-space in their lives, after all), and before Polidori and Stoker. Books start to place themselves on their own.
There is a cube for my books about books: Anne Fadiman and Manguel, Borges (which I can no longer dissociate from the latter), 501 Must-Read Books, A Gentle Madness, The Companionship of Books, and others go here. There is a cube, or half of it, at least, for Faber friends: Eliot, Hughes, Graham Swift, Kazuo Ishiguro. Edgy writers (Bukowski, Tony O’Neill, Mark SaFranco, Writing at the Edge) share their cube with erotic fiction (The Gates of Paradise, Delta of Venus, the Marquis de Sade, Wetlands by Charlotte Roche, La vie sexuelle de Catherine M.) — Neil Strauss buffers between them.
I go on like this, a few minutes every day. Slowly, surely, books leave my floor, my desk, my bed, my bathroom, and regain their place on the shelves in some kind of order. Some associations are obvious — others, not so much.
Finally the cubes are filled again. I can breathe a bit more in my bedroom. I enjoy looking at the neat rows of spines, follow the literary path of my own twisted organization system. Still, there are many flaws on my shelves, mainly caused by lack of room (or perhaps because the number of books is too great). Some books just don’t “fit” anywhere, others would go well in too many places. Ian McEwan, for instance, ends up sharing his shelf with female writers like Doris Lessing, Emily Brontë, and Virginia Woolf. I have to think of the shelves as a work in progress in order to live with their limitations.
Then, of course, there are also some things I love about the new shelf-arrangement: the various degrees of moral and social incorrectness in the cube that starts with Oscar Wilde, then moves to Thomas Hardy and D. H. Lawrence; how A Moveable Feast rubs covers with John Glassco’s Memoirs of Montparnasse; and that His Dark Materials finally stands beside my three editions of Paradise Lost.
Over my desk I place essays on philosophy and literature. My heavy anthologies — costly books with a fair amount of repetition (parts of The Canterbury Tales appear in at least three of them) and some textbooks I keep as reference — go in the sturdy Billy. I also shelve my art books there, like my Janson’s History of Art, as well as some exhibition catalogues, which map out my travels: the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, the Ivan Mestrovic Gallery in Split.
Lastly, I put back my books in French. I keep them together, two compact shelves of ivory spines. I have always wondered at the uniformity of French covers, often white, usually bland. I start with Don Quixote, move down to Alexandre Dumas, the Arsène Lupins which belonged to my father, then Québecois literature. The next shelf is mostly from France: Sartre, Camus, Flaubert, and Littell (which I put beside the latter because of the masterful description in Les Bienveillantes of the narrator reading L’Éducation sentimentale as he walks through fields devastated by war), and contemporary authors like Makine, Folco, and Pennac.
Now my shelves are full again, or almost. I have given away enough books to leave two empty shelves — one in the Billy and the topmost shelf above my desk — waiting to be filled by new acquisitions (which certainly won’t be long in coming).
This adventure in bookshelf etiquette helped me take control of my library, rediscover what I have, solidify my appreciation for my books — the majority of which are probably going to follow me for the rest of my life. I have realized how many books I own but have not read (The Portrait of a Lady, Nicholas Nickleby, War and Peace, Beyond Black…), but I know that I am not quite ready for some of them, and they can wait a while longer. I dream of owning and reading all of Atwood, Munro, Updike. There are many books I should own but do not: I have nothing by J.M. Coetzee, or Ovid, or Paul Auster. I have Bolaño’s 2666, but not the Savage Detectives; Waugh’s Vile Bodies but not Brideshead Revisited; Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, but not Love in the Time of Cholera. My book collection is full of hopes and holes.
Thus I have a second library, in my mind, of which my real, physical book collection is only the tip (to use that famous iceberg metaphor). Underneath my shelves lie all the books I want, all the books I should have (dictated by the canon, or recommendations from friends and famous people), all the books I need, like Borges’ fabulous Library of Babel, extending out into book-lined room after book-lined room, infinitely.
Now, you will have to excuse me, but I have to stop this business — I have some reading to do.
[Image source: Stewart Butterfield]