I read a lot, and so do you. We read books, and we read about books. Still, with surprising frequency, a writer comes across your screen, and you’re surprised you’ve never encountered his or her name or work previously.
This was the case for me with Laird Hunt, whose seventh novel, The Evening Road, was published by Little, Brown last month. Having followed the controversy around Lionel Shriver’s remarks at the Brisbane Writers’ Conference last fall (and having commented myself on the process of writing across race and gender in interviews), when I learned that Hunt, who is white and male, has written three novels featuring female first-person protagonists, two of whom are black, I took notice. And wondered why I hadn’t come across consideration of his work in this context earlier. In an interview about his 2012 novel Kind One, a Pen/Faulkner finalist, Hunt had said:
My approach to writing about people who are, in different ways, unlike me…is to speak of not for. In other words I’m not talking about appropriation here, but about acknowledging and actively advocating…a larger, truer, more exciting sense of our shared humanity.
Five of Hunt’s novels were published by the venerable and very indie Coffee House Press in Minneapolis (only recently has he published with a corporate house); this struck me as possibly contributing to his quietish presence in the literary media. In any case, with the release of The Evening Road, Hunt’s work may begin the shift to center stage.
Seven novels. In addition to being specifically interested in the above-mentioned two, I am struck by Hunt’s range — subject matter, setting, form, voice, conceptual and moral interests — over a long career. The earlier novels — The Impossibly, The Exquisite, and Ray of the Star — form a loose group: experimental in form, set in current times and urban environments, engaged in relational and conceptual puzzles. Laird himself suggested such a grouping in a 2006 interview, and included his second novel, Indiana, Indiana, an elegiac, Midwestern family saga:
I think of The Exquisite more as a brother or sister of The Impossibly, rather than as a son or daughter. Looking at it that way, I might suggest that Indiana, Indiana is a cousin of those two texts, a cousin that would have had more fun playing with The Exquisite than The Impossibly…even if The Exquisite wouldn’t, I imagine, be caught dead with it.
The Evening Road and Kind One are set in the periods of Jim Crow and slavery, respectively. In Kind One — inspired, says Hunt, by Edward P. Jones’s The Known World, which plumbs the little-known history of black slaveowners in the antebellum south — a white woman named Ginny Lancaster narrates her past story as both abused and abuser; we hear later the first-person voice of Zinnia, one of two slave girls (sisters) whom Ginny tormented, directly and indirectly, and who subsequently revolted, shackling Ginny in a shed without food for long periods. Neverhome features a nontraditional female — a married woman who pretends to be a man in order to soldier for the Union during the Civil War. In The Evening Road, we hear two distinct first-person accounts — by a white woman named Ottie Lee and a 16-year-old black girl named Calla Destry — of events surrounding a lynching in a fictional Indiana town called Marvel.
What I admire, and what is simultaneously difficult, about The Evening Road is its portrayal of the contradictions that riddle human nature and that ultimately fuel systematic acts of violence and injustice. White characters condone, participate in, find “festive” the spectacle of a lynching, while at the same time digress from that sanctioning in moments of more evolved humanness. There is a critical scene in which a group of white characters steals a wagon from a black family, and two of the white characters express their sincere regret:
He had served in the war and seen cornflowers [black men] fresh up out of Africa stand up and fight the kaiser with their bare hands and American cornflowers stand up to fight when no one else would…No one ought to have taken a wagon and left folks trying to get to a prayer vigil to set in the dark by the side of the road.
Yet those characters go along and board the wagon, and their giddiness about the lynching returns soon enough. It’s an affecting portrayal of sincerity and complicity together, disturbing — and too familiar — in its plain accuracy. In addition, these white characters have painful stories of their own: Ottie Lee, the white female narrator, was the strongest voice for stealing the wagon, and we learn shortly after that as a child she was nearly killed by her mentally unstable mother on multiple occasions.
Laird’s recent novels remind us that within the tradition of historical fiction, approaches to telling historical stories are diverse. A review at Vulture of The Evening Road describes the novel, admiringly, as “More bonkers Americana than straight historical fiction.” In a New York Times review, Kaitlyn Greenidge — whose NYT Op-Ed piece about the Lionel Shriver controversy last fall became a lucid and important rallying voice for many writers of color, myself included — criticized The Evening Road for being unrealistic; specifically for “attempt[ing] to prettify the violence” of a lynching, for example inventing terminology — “cornflower” — for racist epithets (Hunt has spoken about this particular choice as both part of his writing process and ultimately an expression of the novel’s “alt world ontology”). Greenidge’s critique implies a belief that a novel concerning true acts of injustice — acts that have been systematically minimized or ignored in order to dehumanize entire groups of people — has a responsibility to the hardest of hard facts. And while Greenidge doesn’t say so explicitly, her critique raises for me the question of whether that responsibility is heightened when the writer is a member of the racial group who committed and has benefited from the acts.
Hunt is a white man more or less from Indiana. His varied, peripatetic background — stints and partial education in Singapore, Hong Kong, San Francisco, Indiana, The Hague, London, and Paris as a youth and young adult, then New York, where he worked for the United Nations, and on to Denver for most of his adult life — amounts to an unusually heterogeneous map of influences. For five years, he worked as a press officer for the United Nations. As a translator, French is the non-English language most in his ear, yet a crafted, lyrical 19th-century American dialect(ish) makes the music of four of his novels.
Hunt engaged in this robust exchange with me, in the midst of a busy tour schedule. We talked about inventing literary language, whiteness and complicity, historical surrealism, and the dual challenges of reviewing and being reviewed.
The Millions: Your seven novels cover such a wide range of subject matter and style. I’ve suggested — as have you — that your work might be “grouped” into two phases. When you consider your novelistic journey, what do you see in terms of continuities, kinships, pivots, departures, etc?
Laird Hunt: My split trajectory as a writer is absolutely informed by my split trajectory as a person. I did seventh grade in London and eighth in rural Indiana. Even after I had settled in then, on my grandmother’s farm, I spent my summers in Hong Kong, which is where my stepmother is from and my younger sister grew up. When I set to writing seriously I kept going deeply into the distinct archives my mind had built around these two sets of experience. Still, just as I was keeping my hand in with Indiana during the years I was mostly publishing city novels set in something much like now, I am continuing to draw on my lengthy and varied urban experience in projects that are growing up quietly but insistently as I spelunk in the shallower and deeper pockets of the past of rural America.
At a reading last night in Denver I announced, in a sudden moment of exhaustion, that with the publication of The Evening Road I had finished this exploration I undertook, for better or worse, of crucible moments in individual and national life. Almost as soon as I said it I remembered that the novel on witches I am currently completing, which is told by a female narrator and touches on questions of race, erasure, agency, and rebellion, will make me a liar when/if it is published.
TM: Coffee House Press published your first five books; with Neverhome and The Evening Road, you’re with a larger corporate publisher, Little, Brown. Some might perceive this as a “promotion,” but I wonder if you do. What has this pivot/departure meant for you — professionally, creatively — if anything?
LH: Coffee House is one of the most amazing literary presses on the planet, and I wouldn’t trade my years of having had the honor of appearing on their lists for anything. The move to Little, Brown has been exciting and in all ways quite seamless. I am still writing exactly those books I feel I need to write and am being fully supported as I do so. Support of course means receiving tough edits and essential feedback off the page too. Having friends in Minneapolis AND new ones in New York is an awfully pleasant side benefit.
TM: In response to an interview question about Kind One and writing female characters in a context of racial injustice, you said: “[I]t’s time to do better. It has been time for a good long while now.” Four years on, and in the midst of heated cultural-political polarization — are we doing better? Worse? Both?
LH: We are far, indeed very far away from where we need to be as a country. I believe very deeply that we stand a better chance of getting there, if individually — with care and determination — we do our best to grapple with our past. And to own up to what we inherit from said past and how we perpetuate it. I do these things with fiction. Others do it other ways. Or plough some intriguing middle ground between essay, poetry, history and fiction.
Do I think we will get there? Wherever there is? I am somewhere between “I don’t know” and “I do.”
TM: Whose work in particular would you cite as inspiring?
LH: There is a great deal of passion and brilliance at work out there. See Renee Gladman’s recent Calamities. Or John Keene’s Counternarratives. Or Karen Tei Yamashita’s Circle K. Cycles. Or a curious little book like The Correspondence by J.D. Daniels.
TM: Given your wide and varied background and work as a translator, tell us about your sense of home, and language, and the voices in your writerly ear.
LH: At just this moment the voice, so to speak, of the pianist Girma Yifrashewa is in my ears and rare is the occasion that I don’t have something equally extraordinary and transporting coming through headphones or earbuds as I write. This has been the case for me almost since my earliest days as a writer, and I’m certain it has impacted on this question. Also, I went through a long period of reading a lot of poetry and even publishing work that wasn’t quite poetry (let’s be very clear), but had some linguistic charge, in poetry magazines, so some residual sonic eddies live on in my ear.
Add to that the fact that I spent years living in places surrounded by people who didn’t speak English the way I do or speak English at all, then went to live with someone who had a very marked Central Indiana accent. My best friends during the five years I spent working as a press officer at the United Nations were from Kenya and Guyana, and just about everyone in the English press service (colleagues from Ghana, Nigeria, the Gambia, the Netherlands, England, New Jersey, the Bronx, Brazil, etc.) had their own way of shaping English. Which is to say the meaningful layers have accumulated as they do for all of us. When I’m digging in on voice it always feels like there is a lot to draw on. And it should be stressed, especially in the case of these three most recent books, that because the voices are composites and constructions, rather than faithful imitations of actual speech patterns from the past, it is useful to have more than just one way of getting things said in my ear.
TM: Is there a sense, then, that you are creating a language/vernacular — not so unlike what, say, Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings? Tell us a bit about that approach, as opposed to actually attempting to imitate speech patterns?
LH: There is a precursor to the voices I am working with in these novels in the character of Opal in Indiana, Indiana. We know her in the novel as the great love of the main character, Noah, and get direct access to her mainly through letters she writes him. These letters are adaptations of prose poems I wrote years ago in the wake of traveling to San Francisco and Paris. Something about their almost giddy, forward-rushing quality and the melancholy hiding in their corners, made them perfect for Opal. Still, you wonder if you have gotten something right.
In this case I had a kind of answer when I visited a museum attached to the Logansport State Hospital, the real-world equivalent of the hospital where Opal is for many years in the book. One of the exhibits was comprised of the letters of a brilliant young woman, an aspiring composer, who found herself at the hospital in the early 20th century. The letters are not Opal’s but, wow, they were awfully close both in tone and content and even in some of their constructions. It wasn’t the same but it felt the same.
All this to say you can get to something that richly evokes the past for the 21st-century eye and ear by going at it otherwise. I have rarely felt more sunk in the past than I have in the pages of Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell novels, and they are extraordinarily unlike the past as we would encounter it by reading diaries and other documents from that time. Then there is an approach like Paul Kingsnorth’s in The Wake. Kingsnorth creates what he calls a “shadow tongue” that is neither modern nor old English and the resultant hybrid brings the world most vividly to life. This is the sort of thing I am going for, trying for, failing better at.
TM: White characters like Ottie and Ginny are compelling in their human dimensionality, and also disturbingly complicit in racial violence. Is your ultimate vision of white conscience a dark one?
LH: In one of the scenes in Kind One, the ghost of a murdered slave returns to the narrator, Ginny Lancaster, as she lies in a misery of her own making. Before Ginny, the ghost dances a terrible dance in which eyes and ears and mouths sprout in frightening profusion from his body. He calls this dance “The Way of the World.” In the wagon-stealing scene in The Evening Road, Ottie Lee makes an awful, self-damning choice that speaks pretty loudly to this “way” and to how unambiguously she is a part of it and is perpetuating it. This doesn’t mean, and it almost never does, that she isn’t capable at other moments of compassion and doing the right thing. Her companions are all stretched along this spectrum and slide back and forth depending on the situation.
I don’t know how we get off this road of whiteness and onto some other. I do know that it’s real and we can’t afford abstractions when we discuss it and think about it and fight it.
TM: In these combative times under this new political regime, some on the progressive left would say that empathizing with oppressors — trying to understand where Trump supporters are coming from — is folly. Tell us about your specific hope/interest in alternating between white and black narrators in these novels about slavery and its legacy.
LH: I think more than “folly,” as you put it, what I have heard or at least understood from the progressive left, of which I am a part (so we’re not all the same) is that it’s best not to undertake this sort of endeavor at all. As in just don’t do it. As soon as I start to hear proscription of this sort, especially around the arts, I want to get in there and see what’s going on. How much great work would be gone if its author had not tried to go into the bad as well as the good?
Think of all the characters in Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad who would have to be zapped because they are flawed, complex, and on the wrong side of things. Even some of the worst of the worst in that novel, the relentless slave catcher, say, are allowed a story, a narrative, a past. They aren’t just unexamined caricatures. Their dimensionality doesn’t let them off the hook: to the contrary. It’s just that instead of being told they are bad, we readers get to understand the textures of that badness and draw our own conclusions.
TM: You’ve been writing in the tradition of historical fiction for some time now. How would you describe your fiction’s relationship to historical truth? Is Kaitlyn Greenidge correct that certain situations would have been much more dangerous for black people in 1930s Indiana than is depicted in The Evening Road? Are the benign, sometimes harmonious encounters between black people and white people fantastical creations born of “a sort of reconciliation fantasy?”
LH: Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go; Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle; Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren; Toni Morrison’s Beloved; Percival Everett’s I Am Not Sidney Poitier; Octavia Butler’s Kindred; Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior; Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber; George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo; Paul Beatty’s The Sellout; and Whitehead’s already mentioned Underground Railroad are just a very, very few of the novels that have effectively used the tools of fantasy, sci-fi, fable, allegory, satire, and humor to look at very serious subject matter. These are the kinds of sources of inspiration I have gone to as I have written or considered the implications of my own recent novels. I would have thought The Evening Road, with its giant pigs; corn-based vocabulary; impossible prayer vigils; flag forests; a town called Marvel at its middle; hallucinations in foul beauty parlors; conversations with angels over breakfast; and bloodhounds wearing neckties, would have made clear its method and its lineage very quickly. Just as, to greater or lesser degree, the previous two novels did.
I do the work I do then put it out there. Others get to critique it. I review more than enough to know how much time and effort goes into writing a thoughtful take on something. That’s an act of generosity. If someone has taken the time to read one of my books, and has issues with it, I’m always ready to listen.
Around the time Charles Bock’s first novel emerged in 2008, life looked pretty great. Beautiful Children, a novel of youth and Las Vegas, was released to great fanfare, including a rave review on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. Charles and I had become friends during our time as residents at the Vermont Studio Center; I had the privilege of seeing very early drafts of Beautiful Children and beholding its evolution over the course of 10 years. To writers like myself, Beautiful Children was a bright example of what a writer’s perseverance could achieve. Charles was married to Diana Colbert; they were happy and in love, and they soon had a doted-upon baby girl. For a while the most obvious challenge he faced was how to follow up Beautiful Children.
Then one day Diana wasn’t feeling well, and thinking it was a bug, she went to the doctor. Within hours their lives were upended. Diana was diagnosed with leukemia. Chemotherapy, bone marrow transplants, and insurance battles followed. Two years after her diagnosis, Diana passed away, their daughter just shy of three.
What does a writer do when confronted with such wrenching tragedy? When the writer is Charles Bock, he writes a book. Alice & Oliver embraces both the pain of loss and the reality that life chugs forward even when the worst has happened. While Bock speaks openly about the fact that Alice & Oliver is rooted in his own experience, he is nonetheless a writer preoccupied with style and language and the function of narrative — Bock is “good with structure,” as Garth Risk Hallberg wrote here in 2008; the result of his efforts here is not exactly an autobiographical novel.
I corresponded with Bock via email about the writing of Alice & Oliver and how the book and his personal life have been woven together.
The Millions: Charles, let’s assume that any reader who makes it past the front cover of Alice & Oliver knows your story, and knows that this novel was inspired by events from your life: your first wife, Diana, receiving her cancer diagnosis when your daughter was an infant, and the horror of losing her so early in your lives together and with a young child. Alice & Oliver was a book you obviously needed to write. What would have happened if you hadn’t written this book?
Charles Bock: It’s an interesting hypothetical. Let’s go with the assumption that I would have written some other book, or had some other writing project. My guess is that all the emotions would have been channeled and translated into whatever other project I was working on. Now, how that might have worked out, I can’t say. We’ve both taught students, or known talented writers, who might not have been working on the right thing. The student whose escape from his/her homeland and childhood memories are obviously the story for her to write, but who can’t take it on just yet and is writing a coming-of-age romance. With any luck, a writer does connect with that internal imperative, the thing they must work on. George Saunders’s short stories being an example in that no matter how fantastic the world he creates, or how bizarre the terrain might be, certain ideas about selflessness get through. So even if I had been writing some kind of caper novel about art forgery in the 1800s, my guess is that all the larger emotions and ideas — love, selflessness, care-giving, generosity — that dominate Alice & Oliver would have seeped through. Fairly early on during Diana’s illness, I knew I had to write about it. So this never really came up.
TM: Diana was a truly lovely person. The first time I met her, not five minutes had gone by before I thought to myself, “Charles is very lucky.” And I remember when I learned of her diagnosis, and especially considering you two had such a young child, my reaction to her diagnosis was that it seemed shockingly unfair. “This is not fair” is something one of your characters utters, while drinking with Oliver early in the book, but the novel manages not to dwell on the unfairness of Alice’s cancer. How did your characters manage to so gracefully avoid feeling stuck in the unfairness of their situation? How might knowing them help readers get through similar situations?
CB: The thing, of course, is that it all is unfair. In terms of real life events, I was angry, I did wallow, quite a bit. I put up the best front I could, but of course my anger and fear came out in all sorts of ways. The truth is, we were all under ungodly amounts of stress. I fought a ton with hospitals and doctors, new-age types who wanted to help, and even could get into it with random people who might look at me on the street. For long stretches in the years afterwards, I had weird mood swings. In the middle of teaching my writing workshops, reading this or that emotive sentence out loud from a story could send me into tears. A lot has happened in the years since. But I’m still not over how unfair it is that Diana does not get to watch her daughter grow up, that her daughter does not get to know or remember her birth mother. Often, at bedtime my daughter will tell me that she misses her birth mommy, that it’s not fair. What can I do but answer, you are right, it’s not fair, you get to be unhappy about that, you have every right to be unhappy.
But that’s not all that we get to be. Her, me. Or the characters in the book.
Does yelling about how unfair it is help make anything fair? When you’re done acknowledging cosmic injustices, does self-pity solve one stupid thing? The facts on the ground are still the facts. Very early on in the novel, Oliver helps center his wife. He says something to the effect of, Let’s not worry about hypotheticals. Let’s focus on the tasks in front of us, the day ahead, we’re going to get through this thing, so what do we have to do right now to do that? Alice dabbles in Eastern ideas, which very much focus on the moment. Doing this helped prevent any wallowing from the characters. I didn’t want to have characters feeling sorry for themselves. Very early on I also made the conscious decision that I didn’t want an angry book. Characters could feel anger, but I didn’t want anger, or self-pity, or what have you, to derail plot, momentum, development, really anything. My goal was always the larger, better struggles. It is unfair, yes, so what do we do? What is there that we can do?
Once this turn gets made, then characters — or people — can start to concentrate on what truly matters: the moments we have, the people we care about.
TM: Beautiful Children, your first novel, took you a decade and eight drafts to complete. What did you learn from that experience that influenced the writing of your second novel?
CB: This is going to sound hokey, but it’s true anyway. I learned to trust in the experience of writing, the larger, long-term process. That dyad of trust and process just keeps appearing in the world, you know? Whether a person come to them through Eastern ideas of selflessness to the larger good, through a basketball coach screaming the main thing has to be the main thing, through the example of your parents showing up to work every day for 40 years to unlock their store and get to work, through the 12 steps of a recovery program, or the simple belief in your feelings for another person, all sorts of different roads lead to trust and to process, and these two things play a huge role in my writing. During a long-term project like writing a novel, you don’t necessarily need, at every moment, to have huge amounts of faith in the wide-angle vision of how that novel is going. You just need to take care of shit in that moment. Wash the food, eat the food, wash the bowl.
An example. While organizing the outline to Alice & Oliver, figuring out some signposts to guide my way, a truth became obvious: the back third of the book — which deals with the born marrow transplant and its difficulties — was going to be really emotionally difficult for me. Now, at whatever point — probably gradually but then all at once — I also realized that this rear section also was going to require a structural switch, one that, with any luck, would make the novel more dramatic and direct and even more intense. So, organization gets to a decent point; I’m starting to write; however good I think that rear section can be, there’s still no way in hell I’m put back together enough to take on writing through that bone marrow transplant, and all of its emotional complications. I didn’t have distance from Diana’s second transplant, let alone from her passing. But I also didn’t need to have it. I wasn’t going to write that part of the book anytime soon. Time was going to pass, I knew this. I knew its passage would provide me with a little protection. I also trusted that the aesthetic imperatives and character demands inside the book would grow as I worked, they’d come to occupy whatever place in my psyche. Certain immediate emotions or connections from real events were also going to recede, some, into my subconscious. It was unavoidable, just as my present life also was going to have its own immersive, daily demands. All this had to happen, I told myself as much, even if there was no way to be prepared for it.
It still was emotionally taxing. And I certainly wasn’t ready for how the experience would turn. Because time would work the other way as well. Looking at my notes for the transplant would still bring so much pain; but there would be a large part of me that needed to remember and wanted to be put through that wringer. The memories, no matter how hard, were still better than the forgetting, because forgetting wiped away the details, the love, the bad meals, the quarrels, the humor and tenderness, the true marrow of it all.
Being able to trust in the large process — over and over again, in different iterations (edits, rewrites, etc.), in so many areas of the novel — was hugely helpful. So I was indeed fortunate that I’d been through this during the 100 years and 50,000 drafts it took to get Beautiful Children done.
Honestly, I can’t imagine trying to write Alice & Oliver as a first novel, without the experience of the first book behind me.
TM: Readers who remember the Manhattan of a few decades ago are likely to experience a delightful nostalgia when reading Alice & Oliver. Tell me a little bit about the decision to set the novel in the Manhattan of the ’90s, and situating Alice and Oliver specifically in the Meatpacking District.
CB: It’s really gratifying that you say it was delightful to read, because that was a big part of what I wanted to do. Back during the ’80s, when I was a teenager in Vegas, I used to go to the local grocery store and read Spy magazine and Details and Andy Warhol’s Interview. Those gave me a vision of a certain kind of Manhattan, one where freaks and stockbrokers did lines together at Danceteria and Jean-Michel Basquiat and Jay McInerney and Jama Tamowitz (not her name, should have been) commandeered the back table at Nell’s. I wasn’t part of that downtown scene, but it was fun to imagine Alice coming to the city back then and maybe on the scene’s margins. I ended up moving the novel back 15 or so years from real events, having it take place during the ’90s, specifically 1993 to 1994, in New York City. This is on the other side of the famed downtown ’80s scene, on the cusp of a new era, I think. The first Web browser is about to become commercially available. Forty Second Street is all porno and weirdness, but Disney is moving a store into Times Square.
It’s a time and place that in my mind is still close enough to reach back and touch, although honestly it’s not that close any more. There are organizational and macro reasons why putting the book in this period made sense to me — the change gave me some more distance from the real events of my life, which gave me more license and creative room with the characters, for instance. It also tied in with the book’s ending and the impermanence of time, its effect on all of us. Just for that reason, putting Alice and Oliver in an illegal loft in the Meatpacking District makes for a great backdrop. The Meatpacking District back then was a place where big slabs of meat actually got packed and shipped, Hogs & Heifers was just a shitty bar where the owner and his biker pals really did used to ride their Harleys around inside. Sex workers and after-hour clubs pretty much ruled the night. Now that district is gone, it’s the High Line and shopping and big glass towers. Manhattan itself has more than followed suit.
I wanted to have fun with the weird gritty absurdity of that period, but wanted to do it with the right touch, a backdrop tinted with that gorgeous patina of nostalgia, kind of the same way that nostalgia for a different version of the city suffuses Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Honestly, the nature of the project, a young mother with cancer, is naturally so emotional, my own personal connection and investment is so high. So I knew this was going to deal with the biggest ticket items. I wanted some breathing room, some joy — for me, for the characters, for the readers. Stuff that would hit pleasure notes. Simple things like references to early chat rooms and the nascent Web and the CD-ROM-loaded magazines that used to stuff mailboxes. By my thinking, they added to the book, helped to form this fascinating and fun backdrop. And so far, it’s been gratifying: early readers who happened to live in Manhattan or Brooklyn back then have always made sure to tell me about the references that hit them right — the crowd at Florent or the line for the Village Voice classifieds on Tuesday afternoon at Astor Place, or maybe inside references from college radio culture, like “Shut up, little man!” (Those who recognize the story behind the story get a thrill and a treat. If not, that’s fine, you’re in the story, all good).
I also got to do some cool and more serious things with that time frame. It’s right after the great ACT UP wars on AIDS, in the aftermath, and I wanted that in the novel. I also wanted to acknowledge the racial tension that Rudy Giuliani had used to get elected mayor (at the time he had a lot of support, New York magazine’s political coverage was pretty fawning for a while). It was a subtle way of getting in just how far we’d come in some ways, and how little progress we’d made in others.
TM: Well, as someone who lived in lower Manhattan in the ’90s, I smiled at so many of these references, and there was real pleasure in that. Structurally, you made an interesting choice to begin the novel more or less at the moment of Alice’s cancer diagnosis. It seemed there would be nowhere to go but down. But there was also the spunkiness of the characters as we get to know them, and that buoyed this reader throughout the reading of the book. Did it feel risky to begin the book at this point in the story?
CB: Yeah. It’s a gamble. But that’s fine. The diagnosis was such an odd an immersive experience, one second a woman’s feeling a bit under the weather and assuming she has a bug, the next she’s being told she has to be rushed to a hospital and admitted and tested for cancer. It’s impossible to believe. I made a connection to thriller page-turners and wondered if I could try to recreate that immersive rush, where a reader couldn’t put the book down. So it did begin the novel at a high point and a breakneck pace. But even as I was doing that, I kept thinking of the beautiful passage that starts The Known World, where Edward P. Jones describes the rain beginning and falling on the trees, and the character Moses’s reaction, and his grief about his wife. It doesn’t take place four pages in probably, and it’s so gorgeous that pretty much any reader has to be addicted and hooked. I just love that book and that passage. So hey, were there spaces in the early pages of chaos where I might have moments like that? Was it similarly possible to drop in the seeds and clues that would grow into character traits? The stakes are so high, the level of suspense is so high, that it seemed to me possible to create some bonds with the reader. Then I could expand on those bonds and have the book open up. If that happens, then like you said, all the character traits have been set and we’re ready to follow these characters, to expand their worlds some.
These are some of the formal questions of how you open a novel, how do you ask artistic questions and come up with strategies that can keep a person engaged. It’s not enough to write a pretty sentence, although, yes, we all love pretty sentences. I tell my students that there’s checkers, and there’s chess, and then there’s three-dimensional Star Wars chess. Why not play the game at the highest possible levels? That doesn’t mean bluster and showing off. Rather, it means connecting with the best possible way to tell your story. In Alice & Oliver the connection between the suspense of that diagnosis day and the idea of a thriller was the key, it was organic, and there was a logic to what could happen, how the book could expand, from there. Again, I don’t know that something being risky is a reason not to do it. It’s a reason to figure out the risks and to react the best you can.
TM: It’s almost impossible to discuss this book without focusing on events from your life. Do you kind of wish people like me would quit asking you personal questions?
CB: Let’s be honest, it’s really hard to get attention for a novel. You work years on it and then there’s a cycle of a week — a month if you are extremely lucky — when there’s any attention on it, and even then you start to worry that anyone who consumes those pieces is going to decide that the interview, feature, or review is enough, they know about that book, they don’t need to read it. So it creates a weird place. I’m very thankful that anyone is asking any questions about this book, and that it’s getting any interest. That itself is seen as a form of currency in this business. I also want to be professional and answer questions. In my case there’s a hugely personal aspect to this book, so it logically follows, who wouldn’t ask personal questions. I understand as much. Being asked personal questions is part of this gig. I also know it is up to me to decide how to respond. The fact is, I didn’t write a memoir, and the reasons for this are concrete. Still, I do want to answer you, and to charm, and entertain, and intrigue, and impress, enough that you — and readers — will be interested, will want to check out my book. So, what happens in response to a personal question, or at least what happens today: I write an answer that deconstructs and, essentially, deflects the question.
TM: In that case — one more personal question! Surrounding the release of Alice & Oliver, you’ve been rehashing your first marriage in a very public way. But you are recently remarried, and the experience of writing about one relationship while beginning another must be fraught. Can you talk about that?
CB: Two years after Diana passed away, I was lucky enough to meet and fall in love with the writer Leslie Jamison. I don’t know how or why she fell in love with me, let alone agreed to take on so much (grief, widower, five-year-old daughter), but she did. And every day I sacrifice a live goat in thanks. We’ve married, and she’s given my daughter an amazing maternal figure. My daughter calls her mommy (now she has two mommies, Mommy Diana in heaven and Mommy Leslie here). We all have the best time together, we’re building our family. I feel very lucky and very happy. We have a loving home. Leslie happens to be a genius and a superstar in her own right; if she walks into a room full of Nobel Prize winners, she’s still going to be the smartest person in the room. She’s also hugely generous and decent, and she helped immensely with this novel, reading and editing and chopping down various drafts. My feeling is that she and Diana have a ton in common, and would have gotten along tremendously well. And each woman is different, each relationship is different. More than once I’ve been asked about what it’s like writing about Diana while building a new, loving relationship. What I’ve found is that all I can do is to try and apply my appreciation for life and for the love I had, as well as lessons I learned during that time (mistakes I made, things I wish I could have done over, all of it) to my current day. So I do. But I also am in something new that has its own momentum and fun and energy and challenges as well. After Diana passed, I never would have guessed this could happen. But Leslie really helped put me back together and make me whole again. So every day I try to honor Diana’s memory and also to do right by Leslie. I try to be a good father, a good husband, a good friend, a good teacher and writer, doing good work. I’m lucky that I got to fall in love twice, with two amazing women. The fact is, time does move forward and there’s no choice about this. You do what you can.
As is frequently the case, having met and yakked with young novelist and NYU writing mentor Darin Strauss back in 2002, on the occasion of the publication of his second novel The Real McCoy, he and I kept in touch and resumed our conversation for his 2010 memoir Half a Life.
Though, for a number of reasons, Strauss’ tome is not my kind of story — the memoir recounts a profound event in his life when, as a teenager, he runs into and kills a bicyclist — as Strauss is a bright, thoughtful, and engaging conversationalist, I was pleased to talk with him again. In the course of the chat that follows, we talk about this event that has been central in his life, its aftermath, why he wrote the book, readers’ responses, his own post-publication conclusions, and a wide swath of topics, literary and non-literary.
Robert Birnbaum: If I didn’t know you as a writer of three well-regarded novels, why would I want to read this book, a memoir?
Darin Strauss: Well, I think this book [Half a Life] has had more commercial appeal than my novels. I am not a fan of memoirs in general. I am a novelist and I will remain a novelist but I think this story — I should say what it’s about. I was in a car accident in high school — I was driving in the far left lane. A young girl on a bicycle on the shoulder swerved across two lanes of traffic into my car and she died.
RB: Does the sentence “I killed her” apply to this?
DS: Well, yeah. That was the thing I couldn’t say for a long time. The first sentence of the book is, ”Half of my life ago I killed a girl.” Which is something it took me 20 years to be able to say. I think she was at fault but I was driving a car and hit her and she died — it’s linguistic cowardice to avoid that sentence.
RB: Saying you killed her doesn’t assess responsibility. Blame is a separate issue.
DS: Yes, I think I blamed myself in the past more than I do now. But to answer the first question, the reason I wrote the book is because of the response I got. I did something on This American Life about the accident. Which was the first time that I had done anything publicly about it. The first time I told anyone besides the people close to me was on National Public Radio. I thought I would just do a radio thing about it, but I got hundreds of emails asking me for the text saying they thought it would help them or someone they knew who was going through some sort of grief. And so I thought I should maybe do it as a book — I was always as a kid going through this wishing there was something I could read that would help me. There isn’t anything specifically for people who are survivors of these accidents. Which police call dart-out accidents. And there are 2,000 of those a year and people who are in these dart-outs, or no fault deaths as the insurance companies call them — people who are not at fault are more likely to suffer post-traumatic stress. And so, there was no book for me and so I thought I will write a book for the 18-year-old me who didn’t have the book. And the response has been amazing. Overwhelming. I got emails from people who were coming back from Iraq suffering PTS, or someone whose brother committed suicide. There’s something beneficial in reading a story about someone who is going through grief if the story is told honestly.
RB: What is the benefit?
DS: There are things that I hadn’t seen written about that I wanted to write about. The performative nature of grief — how people don’t feel sad 100% of the time but have to pretend that they do because society expects you to act a certain way. How also we have inappropriate thoughts at these moments, inappropriate actions. I hadn’t seen that written about or examined enough so I wanted to look at that. It’s funny, my editor said I should cut something out of the book that was about that. The girl cut in front of my car. I hit her. She died. But as she is lying there in the street some pretty 18-year-old girls came over to me and asked me if I was okay. I can only explain it by saying I was in shock, but these girls were cute and I started flirting with them. As the bicyclist is dying in the street waiting for the ambulance. That’s something I was always embarrassed about but felt I should write about because it was one of those inappropriate moments that I think reveals something about the way we were designed not to deal with grief. But the book’s editor wanted to cut that out because it made me look too unsympathetic.
RB: Isn’t that the point?
DS: If the book is only about me trying to look sympathetic then there is no reason to write the book. I didn’t want to write an advertisement or a piece of propaganda for me. I wanted to write about the young me as I would write about a character in a novel. And look at all that person’s flaws and hold them up to the light. Because I think that’s what we get out of good fiction, too. Good fiction teaches you how to live. What I turn to good fiction for is not the plot really — that’s what hooks you into the story. But it’s the observation of how people go through the world. And you learn by seeing people be imperfect and so that’s what I wanted to do. Hopefully — I didn’t set out to write a self-help book but if —
RB: Those tend not to hit their target. Are there stories that shouldn’t be told? Or needn’t be? Years ago Stephen Dixon wrote a book called Interstate, in which two infants are shot and killed in a drive-by and the father who is driving the car descends into a pit of despair. My son had just been born and I just couldn’t read past the first chapter.
DS: I remember the book — it’s the first chapter played out again and again, with different ways the father would handle it. Yeah I think there are some stories that are — but even that handled really well could be great.
RB: Even handling it well —
DS: I know what you are saying. That’s why memoirs for the most part turn me off. When memoir opens itself up to criticism it’s because it’s prurient or self-aggrandizing or salacious in some way. So this was an attempt not to — I wanted to make it an anti-memoir. I was going to do the book with Penguin but I ended up doing the book with McSweeney’s —
DS: I said, I don’t want to write a memoir, I just want to write about this accident and what I learned from it. And I want to do that because people responded really well to the This American Life thing. I wanted to examine it a little more deeply than I did on the radio. (I am actually embarrassed now — having written the book I think the early piece was kind of glib.) But I am not sure how long it’s going to be — it might just be 50 pages. It’s just going to be about the accident. My editor said, that’s great but it has to be 200 pages. We are happy to print it — we need for it to be a viable paperback. It’s got to be 200 pages. I said, what if the story is only 50 pages? He said, well you can pad it. I said, forget it, but then Dave Eggers contacted me or maybe it was Eli [Horowitz] — and McSweeney’s said they would publish it at 50 pages. I said, that’s great, and it ended up being 200 pages. It’s longer than I thought it would be but it’s still a short book.
RB: Why are there no chapter headings or numbers or titles?
DS: I wanted it to have a disjointed feeling in the manner that you feel when you go through something like this that life comes at you in a disjointed way.
RB: Can you start anywhere in the book and move backward or forward?
DS: I don’t think so — I hope that there is an arc to it. The challenge was to — every book is a magic trick. Every realistic novel pretends to be realist but is actually a complete fabrication. The trick is to make it seem like it’s not. [In] this book [it] was more difficult to do that because I wanted to remain truthful and to be respectful of the girl in the incident, but also I was very aware that I wanted it to be a good reading experience — not just to be a therapy exercise for myself. So I thought, I have to make an arc and a dramatic structure and all that but I wanted it to be less visible. And wanted it to be somewhat disjointed especially in the beginning because that’s the way we experience these things. So hopefully it was mirroring that.
RB: How firm is that border between fiction and non-fiction?
DS: Ah, I’m not a non-fiction writer for the most part, so my wife who is a journalist would laugh and say, “Are you sure you are not making things up? Are you being truthful?” So that was the real challenge — to remain absolutely faithful to the facts. I didn’t want to make anything up.
RB: Two of your novels were based on historical figures or characters —
DS: Chang and Eng, my first book, which was about two famous conjoined twins, I took a lot of liberties.
RB: I noticed you refrained from using “Siamese twins.” [laughs]
DS: Yeah, because I was corrected a lot. People from Thailand are sensitive about that. I sold the book to Thailand — it’s not very often there’s an American book about Thailand. They were going to make a big deal of it and fly me out for a Thai book festival, and then they translated it [laughs] and I kept hearing from the translators that they were having a lot of problems: ”You’re making stuff up here. This is not what happened in Thailand back then.” And so I never got the invite. I took a lot of liberties with old Siam, too. I wrote that book when I was 26 and broke and couldn’t afford to fly there. So I bought a Let’s Go Thailand and used that as my research and invented stuff. Which is okay. A novelist doesn’t have to tell the truth. The beginning of Kafka’s Amerika is the Statue of Liberty holding up a big sword. There is a debate of whether he was trying to make a point or he didn’t know.
RB: Alan Furst, who rigorously researches his novels, says he doesn’t take any liberties because as he says, “a lot of blood was shed” in these stories. And beyond that readers still have unwarranted expectations —
DS: I think we talked about this four years ago [more like nine years]. There is a quote from [E.L.] Doctorow where he said, “that historical novelists should do the least amount of research they could get away with.” The key part of the sentence is what you can get away with. You don’t want to make ridiculous mistakes. You don’t want to embarrass yourself or take the reader out of the situation. But you can take liberties because it says “novel” on the book.
RB: More and more it says, “Such and Such, a novel.” And less and less do people pay attention.
DS: It’s true. Although writers go into a publisher and say “novel,” and the publisher kind of slides out into another room. I have a number of students trying to sell novels and they have been told to say it’s a memoir, it’s easier to sell memoirs. But Doctorow once told me that he received a letter from someone saying, “In Arizona there aren’t X kind of cactuses which you had in your book.” He said, “There are in my Arizona, madam.” Which is a dashing way of saying he screwed up but he didn’t care.
RB: Tom Franklin [for Hell at the Breech] pointed out that readers would heckle him about armadillos and the shape of a cigarette tin.
DS: Yeah, yeah. Bellow said he was tired of being crucified on the cross of American Realism. Hopefully a novel gets to deeper truths than the shape of a Lucky Strike container. But you do want to be truthful enough — if it’s not plausible the reader will lose confidence and then the book is lost. I was just talking to someone about Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, where she apparently makes tons of mistakes about Boston geography, saying something like Harvard was in Porter Square and things like that. Which took Boston readers out of the book. I didn’t notice it because I am not from Boston. So I thought it was a great book.
RB: Who am I to say something is irresolvable. But I was reading an essay by Curtis White [The Middle Mind] and he refers to William Shawn as the publisher of the New Yorker. I didn’t think it made the rest of his remarks without value, but I wondered about what editors or fact checkers were doing.
DS: I know there are fewer and fewer fact checkers. My wife works at Newsweek and they hire younger and younger people and they have fewer and fewer people to catch mistakes at these magazines. There has been a loosening of standards across the board but that’s a different conversation.
RB: There is always Edward Jones — he spent 12 years writing The Known World, intending to research from a long list he had, and he never used that list. And he most definitely made stuff up. But I dare you to identify it.
RB: [chuckles] Though a history professor from Texas was upset that in my various online citations of my chat with Jones I had no problem with his approach.
DS: I don’t know why people come to fiction with that expectation — that it’s going to be the same as a biography or something. And have the same standards of factualness when it’s a fairy tale — what Nabokov called his books. Peter Carey told me when he writes about his hometown he purposely puts in mistakes just to piss people off. That’s kind of funny.
RB: The other side of the coin is that you can get a certain kind of pleasure out of a book that is about a place with which you are familiar. I loved [the late lamented] Eugene Izzi, a Chicago crime story writer, or I suppose people in Boston like Robert Parker and they expect everything to be as they know it.
DS: A lot of Jon Lethem’s popularity came from taking Brooklyn as his literary subject before anyone else had, and people turned to Motherless Brooklyn — I’m from Brooklyn now so it feels his territory because he wrote about it. So there is a pleasure for natives in reading about their home turf.
RB: So we have variable valences of why we derive pleasure from reading — some are higher than others but when we talk about this stuff we are supposed to say smart things —
DS: Yeah hopefully we turn to books for the writing or the moral truths or whatever you get out of it but there is something nice about saying, “Oh I know that street.”
RB: I find I have learned more history from Gore Vidal, Edward Jones, Alan Furst, John le Carré, John Lawton, and Philip Kerr than as an undergraduate history student.
DS: I was talking to a writer friend David Lipsky. He wrote a book called Absolutely American about West Point and the book about David Foster Wallace where he traveled with him [Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself] — kind of a new way of doing biography. It got good reviews, but I am not sure reviewers understood how revolutionary it could be. Even when people say the novel is in trouble and there aren’t as many readers, which people have been saying as long as there has been a novel around, I am sure more people read about the French-Russian war than read War and Peace, but nobody goes back to read the newspapers. These made-up stories are the way future generations find out about these things. I am sure more people read Libra by Delillo about [Lee Harvey] Oswald than anything else.
RB: Than the Warren Commission Report [laughs].
DS: Exactly. Or anything. If you think about it like that then we have a certain responsibility to be honest.
RB: There is a mistake about the way history is taught — the emphasis is on minutiae and not narrative — not the juicy stories about human frailty and foibles. And what do you know after you know all the details?
DS: Look at the political discourse. It seems like people know nothing.
RB: I see signs calling for the impeachment of the president. And I am sure that the sign carriers know nothing about impeachment. The House decides there is to be a trial —
DS: — based on crimes and misdemeanors. It’s not like saying we don’t like the guy. It’s like if the president is unpopular he should be impeached. The memories are so short — the Clinton impeachment was 10 years ago or so. He was impeached but not forced to leave office. I don’t what it is — there is something narcotized about this country.
RB: I look at James Howard Kunstler’s website ClusterFuck Nation and he decries the public conversation, and he recently asked, “Where did all the sensible people go who used to stand up against the kind of radical silliness that is so prevalent now?”
DS: It’s very strange. Where are the country club Republicans who were fiscally conservative but didn’t want to get rid of public education or meddle in social issues? Didn’t want to overthrow the government?
RB: Sold out? Went to ride their horsies? They supported McCain.
DS: The thing about McCain that was so weird — there’s a great McCain piece by David Foster Wallace — he was honorable enough to do the right thing —
RB: — once in his life.
DS: But in the worst circumstances. To have his fingers broken and to refuse medication — after all this torture to say, “I’m not the first in line so [other] people should go home before me.” Which is the most noble thing I can imagine. And then to totally sell out, which makes me think if you can stand up to Viet Cong torture but not attack ads, it says something interesting about power.
RB: And that we are more complicated. I think in some twisted way McCain feels entitled because of his war experience. He is convinced of his own nobility and that the rest of it is just politics. And in a way it is just politics.
DS: It is just politics although he did bring Palin onto the national stage. And so if she is the next president we have him to thank.
RB: My son brought home a chart from school in which he was asked to evaluate himself in ten categories and his teacher would also. The point of the exercise was whether the world was better off with you in it. His self-score was 96 and his teacher scored him 89. They were obviously close, but the class participation was scored a 5 by the teacher. I bring this up because how we see ourselves is a fluctuating thing. And I wonder about this when I try to assign a value to a book like yours. If I understand you correctly the people who benefit from this book are people who have had a similar experience.
DS: Most people have had a similar experience — it doesn’t have to be as spectacular. Everyone carries something that they are guilty about.
RB: You’re extending the franchise of this book.
DS: I’m telling the response I have gotten. People that carry something they are guilty about around or feel a grief they don’t know how to express. It’s been more universal than I thought. Which has been nice. It’s strange for a fiction writer. If you write a novel and people email you it’s generally, I liked it or didn’t like it. Not, here’s my terrible story please tell me what you think. I was doing Philadelphia NPR, and they took callers and each call was sadder than the one before. One woman called in saying her son was killed in a car accident and she had never seen grief written about in that way and she thanked me. That was weird since I wasn’t sure that people who lost kids in car accidents were a demographic for the book. And then a guy called in whose daughter was killed in a car accident and his wife was made quadriplegic and he is taking care of his wife now and his daughter is gone. I didn’t know what to say and he asked me if he should reach out to the driver. I said, “I am only a story teller, I don’t know. If it would make you feel better I think you should.” It sounds like Dr. Phil but I didn’t know how to respond.
RB: Well, you wrote the book – need you say anymore? Or what more is there to say?
DS: I don’t think so but these kinds of books open you up to that. Right before I published I heard from A.M. Homes, who wrote a really good memoir, and she said, ”Be prepared. It’s exhausting.” And Dave Eggers who edited the book with me —
RB: He has his own story.
DS: He said you have to prepare yourself. People want to talk to you in a way that they don’t with novels. In a way, it’s better if they don’t meet the novelist because the novel stands as its own thing and meeting the novelist can muddy the feeling you get from the book. But if you are writing about yourself, people want to meet you and talk to you to see if you compare to the you in the book or how you are now after you have written the book. So it’s much more intimate.
RB: With the expectation that you have some expertise.
DS: Surprisingly that’s happened a lot. Maybe I just choose subjects that are arcane. My first book about twins — anytime conjoined twins are separated around the world I would get a call from some reporter asking about conjoined twins. And I would say, I’m a novelist.
RB: The world’s foremost authority —
DS: — on Siamese twins. For my third book, a novel called More Than It Hurts You about Münchausen by proxy where a mother injures a child, I was on Good Morning America talking about Münchausen’s disease with an expert. I kept saying I’m happy to go on TV but I’m no expert on this. But maybe that’s not true — Roth said one of the jobs of the novelist is to be smarter on the page than he is in real life. So I had to become an expert — at least temporarily.
RB: It does also speak to the efficacy of the so-called talking cure.
DS: That’s been one of the moving things. I kept a file with hundreds of emails now and a number of them have said, I haven’t told anyone this. I’ve never met you but I haven’t told my husband or something like that. That’s a validation of the talking cure. I had terrible experiences with therapy. Another reason I wrote the book — to figure out what I think about this. That’s the way I do it. Since I’m a writer, to understand how I see something I write it down. It’s much more effective than therapy — sitting at the computer working my way through something.
RB: People certainly organize their perceptions of the world differently — some effortlessly. To me everyday is a new day, almost like starting over again.
DS: Maybe that’s why people look for help — they don’t know how to organize their lives into stories until they see someone else do it. With this book I stumbled into therapeutic cures that I didn’t know about. Not that the book should be therapy for me. If it’s just therapy for me then I should write it and not publish it. I hope it has value beyond being cathartic for me. In this disorder called complicated grief therapy, which is a fancy way of saying people are sad, the therapy for that is that you are to talk into a tape recorder and say what makes you sad and then play it every night for 16 weeks. It sounds like torture — it’s thought to be effective because you have a tape, a physical object that you can turn off and put away. I didn’t know about it until I was researching the book. But writing the story every day and turning the computer off at night was a version of that therapy. The book is like my tape. And then talking about it to you and on the radio and to crowds at readings is like A.A. — making a public confession. So to me it was a great therapy. You said something about organizing life; my friend David Lipsky was saying anyone who teaches writing by saying you should show and not tell is going to fail. As he put it, “life is showing all the time, what literature does is tell you what that show means.” Movies are a show, life is a show. What books can do is tell in a way the others can’t.
RB: Where do these clichés come from, like “write what you know”? What do you know?
DS: Exactly. It’s bad advice for other reasons too. If you only write what you know, you will never know anything new. That’s the weird thing about our education system — right now in the Army they force you to take classes all the time as an adult. Which makes sense — why only be taught for 16 years of your life and then never be taught anything again? That’s to last you for 70 years. Why is that the method? Why wouldn’t you want to keep learning?
RB: There is some science that holds if you continue to learn that is in fact a benefit to your brain.
DS: Yeah, I read about a study that said you should try to switch things up every week just to keep your mind active without taking a course. Open doors left-handed one week and right-handed the next — just to teach yourself even in the most minor way something new to keep your brain active.
RB: When I drive to places I try to take different routes each time. I leave enough time so I may get lost or just wander around. So when will you be done with this?
DS: I was taking to Dani Shapiro who was nice enough to review the book for the Times. I didn’t know her beforehand, but I thanked her for the review and we got to talking and she was saying memoirs kind of never end. A novel is over when your next novel comes out but people still talk to her about the memoir she wrote ten years ago. Because it’s personal, and you are opening up your closet. We’re a voyeuristic society. I find most memoirs distasteful — it’s strange I ended up writing this. I thought, I will never write about this, I am a novelist. Not only that but I don’t read non-fiction a lot so I would never want to write a memoir. Something about this story was very insistent, asking to be told. I realized in writing the book that I had been writing about this all along. The girl’s parents at her funeral told me, we will never blame you — don’t worry about that. But whatever you do in life you have to live it twice as well because you are living for two people. And then they sued me for millions of dollars after that. After they said they wouldn’t blame me. The important thing from that is I took that very seriously, living for two people. I think that’s why I wrote Chang and Eng. That book deals with how we are different people at once. The end of the book — “this is the end that I have feared since we were a child.” So the “I” and the “we” means they are both one and two people. My second book was about a guy who lives in NYC and becomes an imposter and doesn’t tell anyone about his past. I had this accident in high school, went to college, and then moved to NYC and never told anyone about this. My third book is about a family from the suburbs with a secret that no one knows — I was growing up in the suburbs and had this secret, so obviously this has been informing my writing, in a way I hadn’t realized, forever. I wonder how stark a line it will draw in my fiction.
RB: Have you started the next novel?
DS: I have — I wanted something light after this. We’ll see. Writers often have this one thing they obsess about. Roth seemed to be writing the same book for a time — now he is writing obsessive books about being older. I wonder if my obsessions will change — a lot of writers have their one subject and keep writing around it, circling it. Bellow, no matter where his books were set, wrote about what it means to be a thinking person in a society where thinking people are not valued. And Updike had his pet obsessions — they seemed to be about a good boy being naughty. What does that mean? Bellow also said he didn’t want to go there because he didn’t want to know why he was writing what he was writing. Now I know and I wasn’t Bellow to begin with.
RB: Have been teaching since we last spoke?
DS: I went to Columbia as an adjunct for a while and came back when this new director of the creative writing program [of NYU] Deborah Landau, who amazingly re-energized, not even re-, she energized NYU faculty and brought in a bunch of people. I was lucky to be hired by her. She brought in Junot Díaz and Zadie Smith and Jonathan Safran Foer — she brought in this amazing constellation of people. On the poetry side she brought Anne Carson and Charles Simić. It’s an amazing place to work. I have my office there because I can’t work at home — I have three-year-old twin boys. And I go to work and it’s almost stiflingly overwhelming because you know these incredible people are doing incredible work — that’s both energizing and terrifying.
DS: In some ways it’s beneficial to the writing — it forces you to return to first principles all the time. You have to tell students why you think something works and why it doesn’t. It gives voice to your aesthetic in a way that helps you form it. Also, it keeps you open-minded because you are reading people who have a different aesthetic. And you try to help them not by saying how you would write it yourself but try to get them to figure out how to be more successful in what they wanted to do. It can also be stultifying. It’s like when you try to walk up the stairs if you spend the day telling people, ”Well you put one foot in front of the other, and then you lift up your knee and move it forward and put the other foot down.” When you walk the stairs next you will be pretty self-conscious about it. It’s a balancing act.
RB: You use novels in your courses.
DS: In the Crafts classes — I often use books that I think are flawed. I teach Marry Me by Updike which is a good book but not his best.
RB: Glorious failures?
DS: Yeah. I wouldn’t say the book is a failure — but when you see a great writer make mistakes it can be instructive. I teach some all-out masterpieces. I shouldn’t say this but with modern academia you are also expected to have from many different — from both genders and a lot of different ethnic groups. You have to fill those slots.
RB: You feel that is an obligation? Are you conscious of it?
DS: Yes, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing — you want students from all different backgrounds to feel you are not being exclusionary. But I wouldn’t teach an author I don’t like.
RB: Right, it’s not like the choices are limited.
DS: I teach Jhumpa Lahiri and Zadie Smith. I like Zadie’s work better.
RB: I wasn’t impressed by Lahiri’s stories. I liked the film of her novel, The Namesake.
DS: Her stories are well-constructed. They are ingenious but they aren’t exciting language-wise.
RB: How well-read are your students?
DS: It varies. A lot of undergrad students are well-read, but I am often shocked at how they are not. A lot of people want to be writers who don’t care about why or how to get there. So when you come across someone who is paying a lot of money to go to grad school and one assumes they are trying to make that their life, it’s very strange to see that they haven’t read that much.
RB: Assuming it is a prerequisite of being a decent writer?
DS: Yes. It’s kind of like saying I want to be a professional baseball player but I don’t watch or practice much baseball. I just want to put on the glove and play. It’s fine if you are doing it as a social activity. When you make a commitment to be a writer then it’s strange you wouldn’t want to learn about it.
RB: Despite the warnings and evidence, your students still aspire to become writers?
DS: Yes, that’s something I feel guilty about in teaching in these programs.
RB: How many students have you had over the last ten years or so?
DS: 30 a year for nine years. Whatever that is.
RB: 270. Of those, how many have published one book?
DS: Two so far. But a lot of them were undergrads and they are not 30 yet. I think more will do that. It’s a good grad class if two or three publish.
RB: And what are the rest doing?
DS: I don’t know. That’s what’s scary about these programs. They are expensive, although NYU is good about giving money and they are working on making it free for everyone. Then I would feel less guilty about it. You can get a lot out of learning how to write and learning to be a reader.
RB: That’s one self-justification of teachers — you get better readers.
DS: Michael Thomas [Man Gone Down] tells all his students that if they are taking these courses to be writers, it’s a bad idea. This will help you become a smarter reader and if you chose to become a writer, good luck.
RB: Being a smarter reader is a great benefit.
DS: It sure is. But the issue is, is it worth the money? NYU is very competitive to get into — 30 fiction students out of about 800 are accepted.
RB: Like the Writer’s Workshop.
DS: Yeah, and once you are in that circle of fire you are expected to get somewhere. Maybe two out of 30 will publish one book and one of those two will have a career. It’s very tough.
RB: To quote Fats Waller, “One never know, do one?”
RB: Thomas hasn’t been heard from since he won the IMPAC award in 2007.
DS: That was recently. He teaches at Hunter.
RB: That’s an interesting place. They have —
DS: — Peter Carey —
RB: — Colum McCann.
DS: A small department [Tom Sleigh and Gabriel Packard]. McCann won the National Book Award last year and Peter was nominated this year and they are both really, really good.
RB: McCann is Mr. Exuberant.
DS: He really lives up to the image of the Irish raconteur, try to go out drinking with him and you won’t make it home. A great writer. Peter, too. He was a teacher of mine at NYU. It ended up working out for me, but when students ask if should they get an MFA I never give an unqualified yes.
RB: If someone asked me I’d ask, what are the choices? Go into plastic.
DS: I did a reading with Jennifer Egan and she hasn’t gotten her [MFA] and she wondered if she missed out. It hasn’t hurt her. She is having a good career. I tell students if they need the time to write and have people read their stuff then it’s great. I was talking to someone taking a course from Oscar Hijuelos, and he was considered the worst one in the class and the teacher was hard on him saying he shouldn’t be a writer and then something switched and one day he came in with the beginning of his first book and he was great all of a sudden. There shouldn’t be anyone who is an arbiter, saying you can’t write because sometimes it takes people a while.
RB: Isn’t it the same with editors and buying books? Think of all the stories about writers who have gotten 20 to 30 rejections and then one editor says, “Yeah” and they are off.
DS: Proust had to self-publish the first volume of Remembrances of Things Past. One of the things that’s great about him is that everyone said his sentences are too long, that’s why we can’t publish him, [both laugh] so at the beginning of the second book, the sentence is one of the longest in the entire book. What a great fuck you.
RB: It’s fascinating that these literary chats are an attempt to regularize an exploding array of characters and stories. It seems like an untameable beast. As we talk here, what are we explaining or clarifying? The best stuff is maybe what we can’t explain.
DS: That’s true. Writing can be taught to a degree. The best thing it can do is save you years of self-discovery — which may not be a good thing. Maybe you should learn on your own. You can teach people tricks you have learned from reading but obviously you can’t teach talent. Maybe you can help students achieve the maximum from their talent.
RB: Talent can be overrated. There’s something to be said for perseverance.
DS: Lethem who taught at NYU said this to me once: talent was kind of meaningless. Whether you publish or write good books it’s the people who keep trying, keep trying. There’s that Malcolm Gladwell theory — which sounds kind of glib — 10,000 hours at something will make you great at it. I don’t know where that number comes from but it’s probably true. If you sit in the chair for 10,000 hours and that translates over four or five hours a day for eight years, six, seven days a week —
RB: Well, that’s from the outside, from an external observer. Our sense of that time must be indescribably different.
DS: The first 7- or 8,000 hours are fumbling around being terrible — people who are talented might not progress because they are too embarrassed to do the apprentice period. They can’t allow themselves to be bad.
RB: Or someone tells them they are crap and they believe it.
DS: Or someone tells them they are great and they believe it. You really have to get in there in those hours whatever the magic number is, and force yourself to work hard. When I was a grad student it wasn’t the most talented people who moved on — it was the people who could take their first draft and make it a second draft. For example everyone at that level can do a pretty good first draft. It’s people who listen to criticism and say, “Fuck that, I’m good enough” who don’t go on to make a good first draft into a great second draft.
RB: Writing fiction must be about delayed satisfactions — writers take five, eight, twelve years to finish a novel.
DS: The problem with Foer and Zadie Smith being as good as they are – and I think they are both really good writers and I’ve heard they are good teachers – they are dangerous examples because of their early success.
RB: Don’t try this at home, kids.
RB: There seems to be an attitude about Foer in the literary world. Have you noticed that? Jealousy?
RB: In addition to the normal quotient of anti-Semitism? [laughs]
DS: I ran into Jonathan Wilson, a professor of mine, and he was planning on giving talks on new takes on anti-Semitism. I asked, what was he going say? He said, “It exists.” [laughs] If there is bad feeling toward Jonathan [Foer] it’s because he has outsized success. That’s hard for people to take. I’m sure a lot of the anti-Franzen griping is the same thing. You make the cover of Time and people will grumble — that’s the way it is.
RB: I remember getting into it with a writer when they retracted a review of Foer’s second novel and came up with a negative one.
DS: I hate when people retract reviews. My first book was badly reviewed in the Washington Post for what I thought were silly reasons. The reviewer didn’t like three things about the book — I named certain characters after my friends (I thanked friends in the afterword) and very minor characters had similar names. The reviewer asked, “Is he playing games or writing a serious book?” I thought, well why are those things in opposition? Second, how am I as a white male in the 20th century qualified to write about Asians in the 19th century? And third, she claimed five words I used were not in currency in the 1800s. She was wrong about that. Those words were found in Shakespeare. I was really pissed off. I was doing an interview somewhere and this reviewer who is also a novelist was there also, doing an interview. And they said such and such is here, she wants to meet you. I said that’s okay and I sneaked out the back.
DS: And she came around and ran into me in the parking lot. She said, “Hey I am so-and-so and I gave your book a bad review.” I said, “Yeah, I remember.” She said, “I’m really sorry I kind of liked the book. I was in a bad mood and my husband is Asian, and I thought I should say something about that.” I thought it was crappy she liked the book —she was entitled to her opinion but to apologize for it was even worse.
RB: Do you write reviews?
DS: I wrote a few that I regret — not that the book was good. It’s not good karma to write negative reviews. I am going to stop doing it. I wrote a good review of Aleksandar Hemon’s The Lazarus Project, which I thought was a good book — that was fun.
RB: As I have said many times, I think book reviewing, especially in newspapers, is a degraded enterprise.
DS: [Martin] Amis has a great quote about that. He said something like, “Reviews are the only forum where the practitioner is working in the exact same mode as the art itself but generally doing it less well.” You don’t have movie critics making a movie about the subject of their reviews. So yeah, I think it’s degraded. There was a recent review of Roth where the reviewer wrote, “I never read any Roth until this book was assigned. I dismissed him without thinking about it.” This is Philip Roth, maybe the greatest living American writer. Not having read Roth, having dismissed him, shouldn’t that disqualify the reviewer?
RB: I recently reviewed the new Cynthia Ozick and according to the dust jacket it was an homage and reworking of Henry James’ The Ambassadors. I hadn’t read that book. It bothered me that other than an epigram from The Ambassadors, I had no clue of anything Jamesian. I see that quite often, that certain stories are tied to an older work. Why tell the reader — if they are familiar with the referred-to book they should recognize it and if not they should not be distracted?
DS: On Beauty is supposed to be an homage to an E.M. Forster book, which I never read. But I liked Smith’s book. It might be a way to spark your imagination. Doctorow’s Ragtime’s plot was lifted from a 19th century novella by Kleist.
RB: And you know this, how?
DS: I took a class from him and he said so.
RB: But was it on the dust jacket?
RB: Does it improve your enjoyment of Ragtime? What does it do for the reader if he knows?
DS: It’s a way of coming clean. Lifting plots is as old as Shakespeare but now people are so afraid of even the whiff of plagiarism they feel if they are upfront about it it’s okay. It’s okay whether you own up to it or not because there are only 36 stories out there anyway, and certainly Zadie and Doctorow made something new. But I don’t know why people feel that compunction to own up to stuff. This is something that I have noticed that’s new — even novels are listing all the books used for research. But why bother, it’s a novel.
RB: Over the weekend I read a book that very much resembles [Cormac] McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men — an unstoppable psychopathic killer searching for the protagonist — even when that came to mind I wasn’t put off because the writing was crisp and propulsive. But I could already imagine reviewers taking the author to task for lack of originality.
DS: When I said there were 36 plots, that’s based on this crazy French book called The 36 Dramatic Situations — the author, Georges Polti, spent his life doing a scientific study of writing and came up with the fact that there are only 36 possible stories and there is a wide berth within those. Number 1 is revenge and number 1A is revenge, father against son. You know there is a limited scope within which to work, so what? Why not do what Shakespeare did and use famous stories? There is something energizing about having every plot and format to work with.
RB: Do you ever think about what you would have done if your writing hadn’t panned out?
DS: Oh wow! Well, when I was a kid I thought I might be a lawyer —
RB: — and then you were sued —
DS: — and then I was so turned off by the lawsuit — I wasn’t angry with the parents, they had just lost their daughter and were very vulnerable. But I was certainly angry with the lawyer — he knew they had no case and he actually screwed them over because he told them they could make millions. But they ended up getting the most nominal sum from the insurance company just to make them go away. Which they could have gotten at the outset. And so they had to take five years of legal fees out of that. So they received almost nothing. It was just awful. The police said I wasn’t at fault, five witnesses said I wasn’t at fault. He tried to say I was drunk — 10 o’clock in the morning on a Saturday. Then he tried to say that the policeman who said I wasn’t drunk, was drunk.
DS: It was just an awful experience, dragging me through the mud. And so I thought I am not going to be a lawyer, that’s an awful thing. But I don’t know what I would have done. I don’t know that I could do anything else, so it’s hard to say.
RB: Sold insurance?
DS: I could have done something like that.
RB: A trader or speculator?
DS: That might have been more satisfying. Writing is great in so many ways — being your own boss —
RB: As Shaw said, you don’t have to dress up.
DS: Yeah, so in all the obvious ways it’s great. It is also a job where you are never not working. So I kind of envy those people who are 9 to 5.
RB: How much has your writer life changed now that you are a writer dad?
DS: A lot. The book is short —
DS: The book is short. I started it when my kids were one — to have one-year-old twins in the house means all hands on deck.
RB: One of the challenges of journalism is to write within a word limit.
DS: Thank you so much for having me back.
RB: My pleasure.
Image credit: Robert Birnbaum
In E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime, a young man finds himself in the presence of Evelyn Nesbitt, the famous “It Girl” of the 1920s, and falls into a room “clutching in his hands, as if trying to choke it, a rampant penis which, scornful of his intentions, whipped him about the floor, launching to his cries of ecstasy or despair, great filamented spurts of jism that traced the air like bullets and then settled slowly over Evelyn in her bed like falling ticker tape.” In Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter, the madams of New Orleans are categorized by their staffs of various racial mix. “Ann Jackson featured mulatto, Maud Wilson featured high browns, so forth and so on. And them different stables was different colors. Just like a bouquet.” In Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Joe Kavalier first meets Rosa Saks, whom he will later marry, as she sleeps naked on a bed, a scene he draws in Conte crayon on an overdue notice from the New York Public Library. “Fifty-three years later . . . the drawing of Rosa Saks naked and asleep was found . . . in a Barracini’s candy box, with a souvenir yarmulke . . . and a Norman Thomas button.” In Bruce Olds’ Bucking the Tiger, Doc Holiday describes sex as “crest after crest of the most coilsprung and soaring carnality, shanks asplay, thighs agape, cunt akimbo, slicker than a skyful of starglide.” All of the details in these references—the jism falling through the air like ticker tape, a Barracini’s candy box, a skyful of starglide, the dated but somehow lovely phrase “high browns”—lead to one conclusion. History is a whore.
Ron Hansen has made a career of pimping history for its details. Although his best novel, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award, dealt explicitly with real historical figures, Hansen has scattershot most of his fiction with just-as-real historical settings. Each of them is made real, in the sense of authenticity, in the sense of perception, by the well-researched minutiae of everyday life, the ambrotype photographs, the cuspidors, the bootjacks, the coal-oil lanterns, all of them specific to each story’s particular time period. Mariette in Ecstasy takes place primarily at a monastery in upstate New York during the early part of the 20th century. “Wickedness,” an excellent short story from Hansen’s collection Nebraska, centers a series of vignettes around the infamous Midwestern blizzard of 1888. Desperadoes recounts the life and times of the Dalton gang in the Old West during the late part of the 19th century. Even Hansen’s novels with contemporary settings, Isn’t It Romantic? and Atticus, borrow either their storylines or their stylistic voice from works of yesteryear, the former modeled after Preston Sturges’s comedies and the latter a modern take on the Biblical story of the prodigal son.
In his most recent work, Exiles , Hansen sets his eye, with its historian’s acuity for the factual tempered by its novelist’s astigmatism to the fictional, on Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J. (1844-1889), a Jesuit priest, Roman Catholic convert, and English poet who has posthumously become known as one of the best innovators of traditional verse. The first of the novel’s dual narratives depicts Hopkins throughout the different stages of his life. Initially, he is shown as a young seminarian, “a gregarious loner, an entertaining observer, a weather watcher,” who at first denies but later accepts his love of poetry. The few poems he writes over the years are consistently rejected by publishers. Finally, Hopkins is portrayed as a middle-aged man, dying of typhoid but keeping the faith, “steadied, poised, and paned as water in a well,” who would not live to see his poetry canonized decades later as one of the most significant forebears of modernism. The second of the dual narratives dramatizes the true story of a shipwreck. Five Franciscan nuns, exiled by Bismarck’s Falk Laws against Catholic religious orders, forced to seek sanctuary in the distant state of Missouri, die tragically when their steamship runs aground near England. Hansen includes Hopkins’ poetic ode to the event, “The Wreck of the Deutschland,” a literal and figurative union of the two narratives, in the appendix to Exiles.
The novel begins with the two narratives, that of Hopkins and that of the nuns, occurring at the same time but in different locations, Hopkins a theological student in Wales and the five nuns fellow members of a German convent. Throughout the rest of the book, however, the narratives diverge in time and place, one spanning the many years that encompass the failures and rejections of Hopkins’ life, the other focusing on the few nights leading up to and including the wreck of the Deutchsland. Hansen fully understands the advantages of coupling two storylines. The narrative involving the nuns serves as a sort of superheroic origin story for Hopkins, rekindling his love of poetry and inspiring some of his best work. The narrative involving the nuns also serves as a stereophonic counterpart to the tragedies suffered throughout Hopkins’ life, paralleling the “wreckage” of his being denied priesthood and publication for so many years. According to those conditions, generally and apparently and ideally, the combination of each narrative is meant to create a single story not only as enlightening and seamless as the flashbacks to Dr. Jonathan Osterman’s fateful laboratory accident in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen, but also as harmonious, dulcet, quiet, and melodic as the duet of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton on “Islands in the Stream.”
Exiles’s dual narratives, unfortunately, don’t work that well. Despite his reputation as a masculine writer, given his two best-known books are westerns, given also his prose tends to venerate hardware and toolkits, Hansen is remarkably adept at creating believable, unique, impressive characters that are female, particularly Mariette in Ecstasy’s titular, monastic protagonist. The five nuns in Exiles are no different. Within just half of an already short novel, each of them, not unlike the pupils of Jean Brodie in her prime, becomes a distinct person, made particular through abstraction. One sister, for example, who is known most commonly as “the pretty one,” is vividly described as having been “ill so often at age ten that Mastholte’s doctor told her mother to have Lisette lie on a seaweed mattress, but Frau Dammhorst soon found underneath the seaweed Dutch elm branches that her strange, pretty daughter had put there to disturb her sleep so she could ‘ease the pain of the souls in Purgatory.’” Within the other half of the novel, Hopkins, the focus of the book in as much as Miss Brodie is of her own, remains an obscure entity, made abstract through particularization. One scene, for example, which showcases the complexities of his psyche, ends with the reductive line, “Hopkins accused himself of a snorting, sour, unspiritual tone to some of his conversations, prayed for those who’d died, were injured, or lost loved ones in the shipwreck, but thanked God for the beauties and contrarities of nature, the tonic of outdoor exercise, and the cheer and solace of his Jesuit brothers.”
Another problem concerns the novel’s layout. In the first, less successful half, the passages for each of the narratives are longer and slower, less scene-based, and include fewer shifts back and forth between them, while in the second, more successful half, the passages are shorter and quicker, more immediate, one cutting to the other in better illustration of their subtextual connections. It should be noted these issues are only minor. Hansen’s strengths as a writer have never been for the broader components of narrative structure—Desperadoes, his exquisite, violent, beautiful debut, underutilizes its framing device; Atticus, his tender portrait of a father’s love, awkwardly shifts its point of view—but rather, he excels at using phrases, words, and sentences, those details of language, to make his fiction into a kind of poetry. Exiles has a hell of a fitting subject.
Since the posthumous publication of his collected works in 1918, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ stature has grown steadily within the literary establishment, so much so that today he is credited with several poetic neologisms, including “inscape,” the distinctive and essential quality unique to any given thing, “sprung rhythm,” a use of stressed and unstressed syllables in poetry that mimics the natural rhythm of human speech, and “instress,” the force by which the essential quality of a thing creates an external impression. Hopkins’ poetry was intimately connected to his spirituality. Hopkins’ poetry was a way for him to speak with God. So, to do justice to the poet that British literary critic F.R. Leavis said “is likely to prove, for our time and the future, the only influential poet of the Victorian age, and he seems to me the greatest,” an author would need a generous understanding of religious faith and a sizeable if not commensurate poetic sensibility.
Ron Hansen, the “Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.” Professor of Arts and Sciences at Santa Clara University as well as a Catholic Deacon in ministry for the Diocese of San Jose, California, is up to the task. His authorial voice, by inclination and by disposition, is an authoritative voice, as though spoken from behind a lectern, and his writing style, pious as it is poetic, shows a reverence for God equaled only by its reverence for language. “He had long had haunting his ear the echo of a new rhythm,” Hansen writes in Exiles, paraphrasing a letter written by Hopkins, “that would re-create the native and natural stresses of speech.” The most interesting aspect of such a sentence is that Hansen describes how Hopkins mimicked others’ use of language and, more importantly, that Hansen does so by mimicking Hopkins’ own use of language.
Elsewhere, the novel’s prose bears the stigmata of Hopkins’ poetry. Images such as, “The knuckling flames consumed the wicks of the votive candles,” “Gold, Teutonic calligraphy,” and, “Their eyes silvering with tears of bliss,” are beautiful examples of poetic inscape. A description like, “The swell’s comb morseling into fine string and tassel before bursting on the rocky spurs of the cove and breaking into white bushes of foam,” utilizes sprung rhythm. Phrases such as, “Language his bloody knife,” “Wakening gaslights,” and, “Boats sliding with satiny, Elysian motion,” are lovely examples of poetic instress. Throughout Exiles, Hansen uses Hopkins’ poetic techniques not only to recreate the historical setting but also to explore the workings of a poet’s mind. It is at that juncture between language and consciousness that the thick, industrial shellac of caricature dissolves into the fine, vivid oil paint of characterization. Consider this passage describing one of the rectors who taught Hopkins:
“Father Rector,” as he was called, was a manly, rattling, genial, ever-courteous man from County Slip, Ireland, a shrewd, scientific professor of moral theology who’d studied at the English College in Rome, served as a Superior in British Guiana and Jamaica, and published two scholarly books on the Athanasian creed, yet welcomed contradiction in class and the nickname of “the Governor,” delighted in jokes and singing, and so worried about the seminarians’ health that he stayed at their bedsides when they were ill, tipping into their mouths his mother’s cure-all of hot milk, brandy, and a beaten egg.
In such a simple description, the broad, dull, and usual tapers to the specific, the memorable, the unusual. Trivial characteristics like “manly” and “ever-courteous” and “shrewd” shift to more precise, albeit dryer biographical details like “served as a Superior in British Guiana” and “published two scholarly books on Athanasian creed,” all of which are concluded by the wonderful, telling, intimate, gorgeous bit about the rector tipping a “cure-all of hot milk, brandy, and a beaten egg” into the mouths of ill students. Such mobilization in the degree of details sets apart Hansen’s writing from the source material of Hopkins’ poetry and the framework of historical fiction. Exiles is not simply an imitation of poetry. Exiles is not simply a recreation of history. In reference to historical fact, George Santayana’s saying goes, “Those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it,” but in reference to historical fiction, a better saying would be, “Those who don’t add something new to the past are simply repeating it.”
Among the many characteristics of historical fiction, one of the most noteworthy is the tendency to assimilate, digest, and transfigure the various tropes of other genres. What are Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, Oakley Hall’s Warlock, Charles Portis’s True Grit, and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man if not westerns elevated by fine literary craftsmanship? Andrew Sean Greer’s The Confessions of Max Tivoli and Frazier’s Cold Mountain are romances as much as they are historical novels. Samantha Hunt’s The Invention of Everything Else, Steven Milhauser’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, and Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle are fantasies. Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Umbarto Eco’s The Name of the Rose are at once postmodern and historical works of fiction. What are Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, E.L. Doctorow’s Billy Bathgate, Michael Chabon’s The Final Solution, and Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 if not crime novels provided with scope and novelty by meticulous research?
These examples are a testament not only to historical fiction’s malleability but also its inherent advantages and disadvantages: Historical fiction can be adapted readily to other genres because its advantages can resolve other genres’ limitations and its disadvantages can be resolved by other genres’ attributes. Hansen’s Exiles, a religious romance as well as a historical novel, exemplifies those abilities.
One feature of historical fiction is the flash-forward, a technique used recently and amply in Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, as well as in much of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work, particularly the famous first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude. The auxiliary verb “would” and its variations play a crucial part in the flash-forward. “Thirty-three years later,” Hansen writes of a minor character in Exiles, “Frederick would become the Bishop of Honduras, and he would drown in 1923, at age eighty-nine, when the overloaded paddleboat he was on sank in eighteen feet of water. But now the doctor said in his soothing voice, ‘Well, the sea can be very wild.’” The passage’s narrative leap into the future creates a thematic link, that of fate, that of irony, connecting two disparate episodes of a person’s life. “In a hundred years,” Hansen writes of one of the five nuns on the Deutschland, “no less than two of Catharina Fassbender’s relatives would become international opera stars, and the harbinger of that singing talent was heard in her lovely contralto.” Again, by mentioning the future continuance of the nun’s lineage and by mentioning it in a scene aboard a ship the reader knows will sink, the author allows the machinations of fate and irony to limn the inevitable tragedy of a character’s death. In Exiles as well as in other historical fiction, the use of flash-forwards lends the narrative a sense of omniscience and authority. It also helps the narrative avoid one of the genre’s most common mistakes, the trompe l’oeil effect, a tendency to make the reader aware of a book’s artificiality by way of its blatant immersion in a past time. Think vinyl-like scratches added to a cover of some 19th-century Irish ballad. Think portraits of upper-crust families painted in the style of a Dutch master. With flash-forwards the reader is shown the past but also told they are being shown the past, thereby, incongruously but effectively, making the past they are being shown seem less artificial.
Another characteristic of historical fiction is the use of different found documentation, including correspondence, radio transcripts, court records, newspaper articles, brochures, medical tests, receipts, interviews, grocery lists, and personal diary entries. The very diversity of such a list attests to the convention’s expediency in conveying breadth—of time and of place, of emotion and of experience, of people and of things—not only within a fictional world but also in terms of the larger context of reality. In Exiles, Hansen writes how one of the seaman on the sinking ship “looked up . . . in pining silence and with a ‘helpless expression that gave me a chill all through, for I knew it meant nothing else but that death was coming.’” Note how the shift to first-person creates greater immediacy. The addition of the seaman’s own words, with his antiquated syntax, with his resignation to death, reminds the reader, expeditiously, palpably, excitingly, that this really happened to someone. Despite the benefits of found documentation, however, it can often lead an author to the Merchant-Ivory recidivism of letting attention to historical accuracy obstruct, overwhelm, or obscure the goals of a fictional narrative. One of the reasons the five nuns seem more dynamic than Hopkins may be that, because so little is known of the five women and because so much is known of the one man, Hansen is less constrained in the former case by strict adherence to the facts. On the whole, though, Hansen avoids the pitfall of excessive accuracy by never making the entire book an assemblage of research, by exploring the interiority of his characters, by imagining what might have happened, by never letting his reportage commandeer his artistic intentions.
Still another feature of historical fiction is the technique of making common objects into dramatic artifacts. Specificity is the trick. The same way AMC’s Mad Men revels in gender inequality and skinny ties, the same way HBO’s Deadwood rejects Latinate words and the authority of law, Exiles is packed with common objects made into dramatic artifacts through specificity, such as a morning paper: “The front page, as always, was filled with three- and four-line advertisements for Newcastle, Silkstone, or Wall’s-End coal, Bailey’s elastic stockings, ladies’ abdominal belts, Pulvermacher’s Patent Galvanic Chain Bands, Antakos corn plasters, Iceland Liniment for chilblains, and ‘Want Places’ appeals from wet nurses, scullery maids, and cooks, each wanting to supply testimonials about their skills and finer qualities.” The book contains “Staffordshire pitchers” and a “lucifer match” next to “Turkish towels” and “the pine and fir planks” commonly known as “deal.” Even the modest steamship Deutschland has “a grand saloon paneled with bird’s-eye maple and buttressed by oak pilasters inlaid with rosewood, and with leafy, gilt capitals. Hanging between brass gaslights were eight oil paintings by Franz Hunten, each a mediocre seascape of shipping and fishing vessels in full sail. Empire sofas and thirty armchairs were matched with Biedermeier tables and hand-painted cabinets.” Although such “fetishistic” details can at times become overwhelming, the previous passage being a good example, most of the time they don’t merely give the writer an opportunity to flaunt his research and bore the reader with inconsequential esoterica. They recreate the world of a historical period, and they create a whole world unto themselves. Such “fetishistic” details allow both writer and reader to suck each other’s pinkie toes, throw on a bit of leather, and, within the high-class brothel of fact and fiction, get their respective nut.
In the preface to Stay Against Confusion, a collection of essays that includes his first assessment of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poetry, Ron Hansen writes of religion presenting a narrative “helping the faithful to not only remember the past but to make it present here and now.” In the same preface, Hansen quotes Robert Frost on how a poem “begins in delight and ends in wisdom, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification of life—not necessarily a great clarification, such as sects and cults are founded on, but in a momentary stay against confusion.” Historical fiction could be said to be a stay against the confusion of time. How does it do so? Historical fiction, like history itself, like God, like any good story, is all in the details. Ron Hansen knows that real history is the jism flying through the air like ticker tape. It’s a Barracini’s candy box. It’s the phrase “high browns.” Even when his subject is a 19th-century celibate priest, Ron Hansen knows that real history is a skyful of starglide, beautiful for its language, damn sexy, and limitless with potential.
I’m bad at picking such things as the favorite book I read this year. There are so many. What to choose? An already well known book such as The Known World, by Edward P. Jones, or a lesser-known one, such as Alberto Manguel’s All Men Are Liars? Or some poetry, like Robert Bringhurst’s Selected Poems? Or perhaps Lisa Moore’s February, or Alice Munro’s latest collection, Too Much Happiness?
No: best to avoid living authors. The others hear about it and think you don’t like them. So my choice is Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, the urspring of the modern thriller. I read this book with one eye and a flashlight when I was too young to appreciate it, so I was pleased to revisit it as an adult, and pleased also to discover why it hasn’t been out of print since its first publication in 1860.
An intricate story told from the point of view of many characters, including a tombstone; a mystery to be solved; a sinister but compelling villain; a noble and athletic young hero; and a resolute and courageous female protagonist – all this and landscapes too. And a madhouse. And a boathouse! What pleasures!
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In my eighth-grade U.S. History class, each student read a novel written by an African-American writer, about African-Americans. There were a few books to choose from, but the only ones I remember are Native Son by Richard Wright and Roots by Alex Haley. Because the latter was so long, no one chose it. No one but me, that is. I had never heard of it, nor the adapted mini-series, but the book was big and intimidating, and I was nothing if not a nerd and a show-off. In my certainly-revised memory, I pick up a copy from the pile, and the class gasps with admiration and foreboding. I carry it back to my desk, head held high.
A little background. I’m white (shocking, I know), and I went to a mostly white, public elementary school in Laurel Canyon, that rock ‘n roll, bohemian enclave in Los Angeles with its bungalows and crumbling mountain-sides. (In recent years, it’s gotten much fancier.) Back then, I felt left out that my parents weren’t British, or former addicts, or ostrich-owners (don’t ask), or screenwriters. If you think my name is odd–well, you didn’t know Chantilly, or Swan, or America, or Ole, a kid who was only there for a few months before disappearing to who-knows-where. In the sixth-grade, Spike Lee’s X came out, and a couple of students wore those baseball caps with the letter X on the front–I’m not sure they knew what it meant. A few had that shirt that read, “Love knows no color.” This was the same year as the L.A. riots. Our graduation dance theme was “Rebuilding the Peace.” The teachers decorated the tables with tiny wooden hammers.
Around that same time, my father got a subscription to The New Yorker. (For the cartoons. I’m serious.) I remember one cover had something to do with Malcolm X, and there were these small illustrations of white faces on it, with the words “white devil” floating around them. I saw this magazine in the bathroom a few times a day for a week, and it stung and confused me every time. I didn’t understand it. Why were they devils? Was that even okay to say? Was I a white devil? What the hell did I do?
The next year, I went to junior high in west L.A., a bigger and far more racially diverse school than the one I had graduated from. Because everyone was different at this school, because I was different, I began to truly understand what difference meant. People sometimes identified me as “white girl” in the hallways, and it made sense. After all, I was white. Really white: I burned easily, I wore Converse and shorts from the Gap, and my parents listened to The Grateful Dead. Twice I was asked, snickering, if my name was Becky. I learned some Spanish slang. I learned that some kids went to school on Saturday, to master their parents’ native tongues. A boy in English class pointed out that Black History month was the shortest month of the year–and that blew my mind. It had never occurred to me.
It was at this school, with my sense of self and the world all shook up, that I read Roots. Haley called his book “faction”–fiction mixed with fact, and later genealogists debunked his claim that the book told his actual family history. None of that mattered to me then–or matters now. My teacher had assigned it as a novel, and like all good fiction, it felt authentic. I devoured the book, and I couldn’t get it off my mind. I can still remember how I felt reading the section on the slave ship, Kunta Kinte packed in with hundreds of other slaves: the darkness, the suffering, the stench of bodies. I had learned about the Middle Passage in school, but it wasn’t until it was translated into narrative that it affected me so. I was appalled and frightened by a history I already knew, for the story of slavery is far more powerful than a “unit” on it.
In the eighth grade, I began to understand that I, and every American, had inherited something shameful. I began to connect race to history to power, and it was all because of a book.
Reading narrative requires empathy. The character’s perspective becomes your own, and through this relationship you begin to feel as another person would. As I read Roots, I felt what Kunta Kinte felt, saw what he saw, and by becoming him, I understood intimately the horrors of slavery. It’s why nonfiction slave narratives, like those of Harriet Jacobs and Frederick Douglass, were so important to the abolitionist movement, and why fictional slave narratives persist today.
But stories also require complicity: the reader participates in the action of the story simply by imagining and interpreting it. As Zadie Smith points out in this short interview:
Fiction is like a hypothetical area in which to act. That’s what Aristotle thought—that fictional narrative was a place to imagine what you would do in this, that, or the other situation. I believe that, and it’s what I love most about fiction.
I agree with Smith here, and it’s why I don’t like books that make that arena of ethics too simplistic. I don’t need my characters to be heroic; in fact, I prefer them not to be. Their choices should be difficult, their situations complicated, and if they emerge from events unaffected or unscathed, then they do not seem authentic. They stop mattering to me.
But what if a novel’s “hypothetical area in which to act” is a historical landscape that places pressures on its characters that we haven’t experienced ourselves? What if that landscape is the antebellum South? My empathy is immediately ignited by these stories, but so too is my complicity. As a white reader, I’m simultaneously made to understand the experience of slavery, and I also must wrestle with how I’m implicated in that past. For although I identify with the book’s main characters, there’s another part of my brain that knows I can’t. If this book were made into a movie, I think, I’d look more like the overseer’s wife than the protagonist. I know I’m not the only one who’s experienced that awful feeling. On goodreads a few months ago, some dolt wrote that he hated books about slavery because, and I paraphrase: “I wasn’t the one to rape your great, great, great grandmother!” In other words, it wasn’t his fault slavery happened, he didn’t want to hear any more about it. And that’s the thing: slave narratives keep us hearing about it, they keep that chain between the past and the present alive. For me, reading one can be complicated and uncomfortable business, and it’s partly why I continue to seek them out.
But only partly. In Victor La Valle’s Year in Reading post, he wrote:
I don’t know about you, but when I read that book takes place during slavery my defenses go up immediately. It’s going to be “serious” and “important” and “teach us something” and….oh, I’m sorry, I almost fell asleep.
He’s right–“serious” and “important” are sometimes just synonyms for “boring.” But good books about slavery are readable, very much so. Is it wrong to say they’re entertaining? Well, they can be. This isn’t “tea towel” fiction, it’s fiction where the stakes are high, and people’s lives are at risk. There are secrets. There is real fear. The power dynamics between characters are complicated and fascinating, or they should be. People are fighting for a sliver of self that isn’t owned and denigrated by another person, and that makes me care and keeps me turning the pages.
One novel for which this is especially true is The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, the very book that LaValle recommended in his post. James’s novel takes place not in America, but Jamaica, at the turn of the 19th century. Told in dialect, it’s about a young female slave named Lilith who participates in a plot to overthrow her plantation master. Though it takes some time to get used to this voice and particular syntax, it’s wholly absorbing once you do, perhaps because the language is a kind of bridge into this past. The prose pulls you into Lilith’s consciousness, which reflects the violent and brutal world in which she lives.
And let me tell you: The Book of Night Women is one of the most violent and brutal books I have ever read. One day I read it for four hours straight, and the world was all wobbly and terrible after I put it down. Its unflinching depiction of slavery reminded me of something from Wyatt Mason’s profile of Edward P. Jones, whose novel The Known World, about black slaveholders in antebellum Virginia, explores the tangled, contradictory ways that slavery can involve and affect an entire community. In that novel, which I (and many others) consider a masterpiece, Jones quotes census numbers and scholarly texts–all of them made up. Mason writes:
What research on the subject Jones undertook was, in fact, quickly derailed after he happened upon an account of a white slave owner who spent her days abusing one of her black slaves, a little girl, by beating her head against a wall. “If I had wanted to tell the whole story of slavery, Americans couldn’t have taken that,” Jones told an interviewer. “People want to think that there was slavery, and then we got beyond it. People don’t want to hear that a woman would take a child and bang her head against the wall day after day. It’s nice that I didn’t read all those books. What I would have had to put down is far, far harsher and bleaker.
Marlon James, on the other hand, did seem to read all of those books, and his novel faces those harsh realities head on. But Jones and James’ books are similar in that their characters are multidimensional, no matter their race, and the smallest dramas are specific and deeply felt, which makes these historical backdrops all the more real for a contemporary reader. In the Book of Night Women, for instance, Lilith becomes romantically involved with her Irish overseer, Quinn. He believes, as an Irishman, that he understands oppression as she does, but she knows that can’t be (and we, as readers of this narrative, know it, too). Their relationship is tender and sexy at times, and weird and upsetting at others. And usually it’s all of those qualities simultaneously, and you feel at once turned on, repelled, skeptical, nervous, grateful and vulnerable.
Kindred by Octavia Butler asks the reader to feel myriad emotions, too, and it proves literally that a character cannot emerge from important events unscathed. Butler’s book is not only about slavery, it’s about time travel. That’s right: its main character, a black woman named Dana (actually her full name is Edana–which I loved), is again and again sent against her will to nineteenth-century Maryland to keep her white ancestor, Rufus, safe. If he dies too soon, she will never be born. The book’s premise reminds me of the comedian Louis CK’s routine about being white. (“Black people can’t fuck with time machines!” he jokes. “A black guy with a time machine is like, “Hey, nothing before 1980, thank you, I don’t want to go.”) Every time Dana returns from these trips as a slave, only a few minutes or a few hours have passed in her real life in 1970’s L.A. Nevertheless, she carries her experience of slavery on her body–she returns injured, scarred, and by the end of the book (it’s also where the book opens), she returns to the present without an arm. In other words, the past will always interfere with the present. She can’t fully understand this history without it damaging her.
Dana’s white husband Kevin is also taken into the past with her, and it’s here that the book is most compelling and thought-provoking to me. In Maryland, Dana and Kevin must play slave and master in order to spend the night together, and after Kevin’s trapped in the past for years, he takes on the same speech patterns as the whites during that time. The couple want to believe that their personal relationship can remain pure, that the political and social climate of slavery won’t infect their interactions, but that’s impossible. The very first time Dana returns from Maryland, she momentarily mistakes Kevin for a white southerner, out to hurt her, and she is frightened of him. The past has already trespassed onto the present, where she is supposed to feel safe and equal. It happens quickly.
With Kindred, I identified with Dana, even if, were I to time travel back to antebellum Maryland, my problems would probably be more similar to Kevin’s. But like Dana, I’m a woman who lives in Los Angeles. Like Dana, I’m a writer. And like Dana before she time travels, I’ve read about slavery, and so I can only approach it as a reader. Because Dana is a modern woman, she is wearing pants when she is transported, and in antebellum Maryland, characters ask her why she’s dressed as a man. They want to know why she talks as she does. And how she learned to write. They wonder aloud if she thinks she’s white–she sure does carry herself that way. Maybe Dana’s belief in her own equality ties her more strongly to me, a contemporary female reader, than race ties her to the black slaves in antebellum Maryland. Or it only does, until a point. Or it does and it doesn’t, at the same time. Either way, Butler has performed a kind of identity magic trick with her novel. By experiencing this world as Dana does, as any contemporary person would, I too must suffer at the hands of slavery.
When we’re younger, it feels like the only books we’re given about black people are about slavery, just as the only books we’re given about Jewish people are about the holocaust. There’s a danger there, as we might be led to believe these are the only stories such writers are allowed to tell. Not at all. As many contemporary black authors have proven, there are a zillion ways to write the black experience, and using slavery as a subject is just one of them. But writers like Marlon James, Edward P. Jones and Octavia Butler (and others, like the inimitable Toni Morrison–my God, have you read A Mercy?) prove that the fact of slavery is still upon us, it still haunts us, and that it can be told and retold in powerful, surprising and evocative ways that engage a reader. Or this reader, at least.
March 12, 2010
Five months from today, my first novel, You Lost Me there, is being published. Max from The Millions emailed me today wondering if I’d write something come publication time. I stared at the kitchen table. I drank a delicious Diet Coke. (Superfluous—all Diet Cokes are delicious.) How about, I suggested, a pre-publication diary?
I’ve always been curious about what it’s like for writers in that period before a first book appears. The back-room deals, the marketing plans. Perhaps, I suggest to Max, the subhed could read, “The Ecstasy and Agony of My First Novel Being Published.” Ecstasy because getting a novel published is an extraordinary thing! It’s a meteor landing in the backyard. It burns down the swing-set. It completely freaks me out. And agony because, obviously, such a thing would be terrifying. JEREMY WHO THE FUCK BURNED DOWN THE SWING SET.
You Lost Me There took me four years to write. Before it, I wrote two other novels, one that was junk and another that received many polite rejection notices from big publishers. What happens if this book is judged to be corrosive to the Earth? What if little girls cry when they read it?
This summer, a new David Mitchell novel and a new Gary Shteyngart novel will arrive on shelves, both of which I will rush out to purchase. A new Andrea Levy, new Tom McCarthy (Remainder—!!!), new Jennifer Egan. Six billion terrific “debut” novels will appear, I’m sure, in a year when many terrific novels have already been published. And then there’s Franzen. Franzen. For years, publishing executives have stage-whispered over lunch, “When will Franzen return to rezap our cojones?”
I am ridiculously lucky and deliriously happy to be so seriously fucked.
March 13, 2010
I’ve never kept a diary before. My wife and I live in the woods on the rural fringe of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We moved here after stints in New York and Paris because we wanted to be around nature again. We have blueberry bushes, a gigantic fig tree, and thousands of ticks. Behind our house is an acre of forest. On its back side, there’s a guy with a lumber business who wields a much bigger, louder gun than I do. Mine is my wife’s dead grandfather’s BB gun, which we use to frighten away deer, whereas the neighbor’s gun is a shoulder-mounted cannon that he fires whenever he likes. Eleven o’clock tonight, I’m reading on our porch and the neighbor blasts five shots in a row. KAPLOW5. Does he wear night-vision goggles? In my fantasy he says to himself while reloading, in a Rue McClanahan voice, You sweet little motherfucker.
March 15, 2010
Nice day. Brisk. This afternoon, I submitted the final changes to the novel’s manuscript. My editor’s assistant bears with me. After this, I’m warned, I’ll be charged for every changed word, something like $20/sentence. I need to send brownies to my editor’s assistant.
March 16, 2010
I’ve been working on two other books for two years. One’s a novel about Tijuana. It will be completed in 2044, by which time David Mitchell will have already written it and written it better. Also working on a nonfiction book about Paris, or at least a proposal for one. I can’t seem to get it right, the proposal. It propels me away from my desk. Today I called a local author who’s become a friend. “Book proposals are hell,” she said. “They fuck you.” “Fuck you up?” I said. “No,” she said, “they fuck you.” She didn’t want to talk about it after that.
March 18, 2010
Worked late last night and went to bed happy. No crickets, no frogs, dead silence. Then this morning I erased the file I’d been working on. Who needs book proposals when I’m so competent at self-fucking? I should begin sleeping with a caffeine drip.
March 19, 2010
Sent brownies to my editor’s assistant.
March 20, 2010
Played tennis with another local author, Nic Brown. Per capita, I believe the Raleigh-Durham area to possess more writers than Brooklyn. Nic’s second book, a wonderful novel, Doubles, comes out in July. At one point in his book, there’s a doubles tennis team named Brown and Baldwin who aren’t very good. Today, Nic beat me 6-0. During a break I socked him in the head with a ball. I felt bad about that until bedtime.
March 21, 2010
If I’m not writing, reading, exercising, or talking on the phone, I worry about money. Ergo, I really, really love writing, reading, exercising, and talking on the phone.
March 22, 2010
7:43 a.m., the neighbor with the shotgun was out pounding squirrels. I saw him through the trees. Black cargo pants, tall desert boots, no shirt, American eagle/flag bandanna skullcap, and a pair of mirrored yellow Oakley sunglasses. Like he’s defending America while playing right field. Twice at night I’ve see him across the road in the woods, feeding trees into a big red splitter under construction lights.
Inchworm snuck into the picture
March 23, 2010
My brother-in-law and his wife had a baby. Wonderful day.
March 24, 2010
Awful day. Lost six hours to a panic meltdown. Anxiety is a future that hasn’t happened yet, but makes no other future seem possible. I made coffee, did some push-ups, and went for a walk. No problem can’t be solved by caffeine, push-ups, and a long walk in the woods.
March 25, 2010
Drizzling rain and severely windy. Did a lot of email, including asking an artist to help me make a video trailer for my book, Aya Padrón, a wonderful photographer based in Maine. Perhaps her pictures, I suggested, will get people excited about reading my novel, once rendered into YouTube format? Though, really, who the fuck knows. Does anyone know how to flog books online? Social-media flavor crystals don’t seem to be the answer.
March 26, 2010
No expression on America’s Defender today. Maybe he’s sad. He’s standing there holding some type of shotgun, staring at me. He pumps the gun, turns around, and goes back into his house.
March 29, 2010
Lovely spring weather. Spent an hour writing thank-you notes to various people at Riverhead, my publisher. I’ve heard nightmare accounts from other writers about their publishers. Let it be said, Riverhead is a dream, every employee.
March 31, 2010
On my birthday I have a tradition of taking the day off to bum around and get drunk and read stuff. I keep it classy. This year, my friend Melissa asked me to keep tally of what I consumed in chronological order. It went:
– 4 coffees
– 2 paper newspapers (News and Observer, Wall Street Journal)
– 1 Diet Coke
– 2 breakfast tacos
– 3 slices of vanilla cake with vanilla frosting
– 1 glass of milk
– 1 turkey, avocado, bacon sandwich
– 1 espresso
– 1 novel (The Wings of the Sphinx, Andrea Camilleri)
– 2 shots of tequila, 2 beers, 2 glasses white wine
– 1 cheese plate
– 1 slice of vanilla cake with vanilla frosting
– 1 glass of milk
– 1 magazine (The Atlantic Monthly)
– 1 coffee
– 1 glass of champagne, 2 glasses red wine, 2 glasses white wine
– 4 rounds of tapas
– 1 shot of tequila, 1 beer
– 1 college basketball game
– 1 slice of vanilla cake with vanilla frosting
– 1 glass of milk
– Half of Inspector Morse episode #31
April 2, 2010
Panic about the novel is set to low simmer. The next novel and the non-fiction book proposal aren’t flying, they’re flunking. Anxiety is causing my fingernails to reverse course and grow inward. What if You Lost Me There is perceived to be a bomb, would it be so bad? Playing around today, I figured out that Michiko Kakutani is an anagram for “Atomic Haiku Kink.” Michiko alone becomes, “Hi I Mock.”
April 4, 2010
Sunny day. Spotted two snakes, several lizards, and a pie-sized snapping turtle under our fig tree. Went to mow the yard, but the mower crapped out, so I called my wife’s uncle, a race-car driver with an elaborately equipped garage, and we threw the mower in his truck, grabbed some tools, cut a new spring, and refit the mower cap. Very satisfying afternoon.
April 7, 2010
Dread, the proper noun, is a pussy. Dread can’t stand Real Shit. When Real Shit turns up at the party, Dread resumes playing wall-flower, all envy. In a way, I’m thankful for today’s Real Shit, of a private nature that I’m not comfortable revealing here, but anyway, it’s a reminder. A novel’s only a novel. I’m extremely grateful for what I’ve got here in this world. My wife, my family, my health. And I am also thankful for Diet Coke and András Schiff.
April 8, 2010
Got off the phone. It happened again. In conversation and correspondence with other writers, two books routinely come up from the last couple years, as in, Dude, have you read this yet? David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder. To the list, I would add Chimamanda Adiche’s Half of a Yellow Sun and Edward P. Jones’s The Known World.
I find it weird to meet writers who aren’t also big readers. Met one the other day at a bar and I looked at him queerly. He said he couldn’t find the time. This reminded me that readers are probably my people first, before writers. Writers are more likely to be dicks. Look at all the thug authors, unsmiling and posing so hard on their book jackets. I spent way too many afternoons in seventh grade reading Piers Anthony and Dragonlance books (and every one of my sister’s Babysitter Clubs) to pretend I’m a thug.
I just remembered I’m neither smiling nor appearing particularly thuggish in my own author photo. What’s really happening in that photo is I’m trying not to laugh, which is what happens when you’re trying to obey instructions not to smile or frown but to smile with your eyes and seem appealing. Not easy!
April 11, 2010
Dark outside. Woke up at four a.m. during a panic attack. Rocked myself back to sleep with visions of Andy Murray’s service returns.
April 13, 2010
Today I spoke to Daniel Wallace’s class of fiction-writing students. Daniel Wallace is the local king of novelists and a very nice guy. One of his students, after hearing about my work schedule, asked when I sleep. I told them something eloquent like, “Sleep is dumb.” Which is me paraphrasing Diddy, who says things like, “Don’t sleep, there’s too much to do,” and “Let’s go!” However, let’s call bullshit, bullshit. These poor kids only had a Pepsi machine in the lobby of the building, no Coke. Who could blame them for napping?
April 16, 2010
Ahoy! You Lost Me There was chosen by Entertainment Weekly for their summer list. I yelped when I received the news. My publicist and editor were as surprised as I was, especially by the caption, “a much-hyped debut novel,” since this is the first piece of “hype” we’ve seen. My book won’t appear for another four months. Have I already jumped the shark? I wet myself. Nearly.
April 19, 2010
First gunshot of the day, 8:42 a.m. Lesson relearned by the end of the day: nonfiction book proposals are hell. Very long walk followed by tequila.
April 29, 2010
Today we received the following email, from a newsgroup for people in our area:
A friend moved to a cabin across the road. On Monday afternoon she and her father were in her yard when they heard some close-range gunfire, said it sounded like a semi-automatic. Bullets were hitting the trees and even the house. She and her father lay flat until the shooting stopped, then called the sheriff’s department. If you have any information, could you please call the County Sheriff’s Office?
May 3, 2010
Finished Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano today walking around a New Urbanist community while Rachel went to the gym. Hard to imagine Lowry, with his extremely powerful imagination, imagining someone finishing his book in these circumstances.
May 4, 2010
9:43 a.m., first shot of the day. Ran into the squirrel hunter on the road yesterday. He waved. Warning sign of impending assassination? Vultures circled the house this afternoon, at least thirty of them.
May 12, 2010
Vultures are circling the house again, which means something died in the woods. After four hours, I’m nowhere with writing. Maybe ten satisfying lines. I wrote on my left wrist, WWDJD? (What Would Denis Johnson Do?)
Caught myself in the afternoon chasing a squirrel down from the side of the house while yelling Old Dirty Bastard lyrics at him, “Shame on you, if you step to!” First gunshot today, 10:12 a.m.
May 15, 2010
Finished the non-fiction book proposal and shipped it. Good riddance and good luck, dear proposal. Had drinks tonight with another writer, a friend of a friend swinging through town. I asked him what he writes. Among other things, he said, he’s the author behind a much beloved children’s series (that shall remain nameless). I.e., he’s the most current ghostwriter handling the work. I told him how I used to love the series when I was a kid. “Oh it’s different now. You’d hate it. The main characters are hackers,” he said. “They bust terrorists.”
May 16, 2010
Half the day I spend in my imagination, half I spend in car repair.
May 17, 2010
First advance review of You Lost Me There appeared today, a paragraph in Publishers Weekly. They’re giving it a pass. The anonymous critic found my book, among other things, to be “a highbrow melodrama.”
Afterward, my head’s hitting the kitchen table every ten minutes, spilling brain fluid. I’ll be thinking something else, then wham, my head hits the table. Melodrama? What’s so wrong with melodrama anyway? I told my editor never to send me another review, good or bad. Full of self-pity, I wondered, what do reviews offer anyway other than fluff jobs or despair? I moped until lunch, then I really started feeling bad for myself. In one month’s time my book had gone from “much-hyped” to passé. Maybe there’d still be time for a comeback?
The hardest part about jumping the shark is getting humped by its mouth.
May 21, 2010
Aya Padrón, the Maine photographer, loved the book and has decided to go shoot some pictures on Mount Desert Island, where the novel’s set. Wonderful news. Then I found out that You Lost Me There was recommended by TIME magazine for summer reading. Well, we flipped out.
May 24, 2010
Three days in New York with my sister. My sister lives in Brooklyn and we spent the weekend eating and drinking. Deviled eggs, I discovered, are in vogue in Manhattan right now, and now there’s a hatchery in my lower intestine. Diary note from the return flight, “New York is an office-park with a very good food court.” First gunshots this morning at 8:28 a.m. Good to be home.
May 25, 2010
Two events occurred simultaneously. 1) I found an egg on the counter; 2) a squirrel appeared on the window, clawing at the screen. I went outside and threw the egg at the squirrel. I hit a tree.
June 7, 2010
Woke up with dread around my neck like a chinstrap. Terrible hangover gave me a pork brain. Everything is horrible, only Publishers Weekly knows the future. I made coffee and it tasted like balsa wood. Worked from 6-10:30 am, then went back to bed to take a nap, but I couldn’t sleep for a panic attack about bad reviews to come, i.e., the end of the universe. (God, I’m pathetic.) Called my wonderful agent, PJ Mark, and if you account for our conversation based on what was actually said, rather than what was meant, I called PJ in order to apologize for calling him.
Went for a walk and listened to a radio show about tumors. Tumors are endlessly fascinating. Everything is interesting, inside I’m blank and unknowing.
June 9, 2010
Threw a can of generic diet cola at a squirrel because I hate both the fuckers, squirrels and generic diet sodas.
June 14, 2010
A week since I opened this diary. Well, diary, I spent the past week floating on air. Really floating. Received an offer on that nonfiction book and I’m still floating. Wolves briefly held at bay for a few more months. Writing is my peppermint-flavored heroin.
June 21, 2010
Yesterday something died in the woods. We could tell by the smell. This morning, Rachel barely made it to the car without barfing. It’s the smell of rotting flesh, of ninety-six-degree heat producing cheeseburger. I spent half an hour this morning beating the undergrowth for Death. Quite a sight, I had a black and white winter scarf wrapped around my head for a makeshift mask. Didn’t find Death.
June 22, 2010
Smell’s gone. Goodbye, Death. Thank you, vultures.
June 28, 2010
Had an article published on Slate about how frequently the phrases “a dog barked in the distance” and “somewhere, a dog barked” appear in novels, something I started noticing in college. Today, @dankois wrote on Twitter that he loved the new David Mitchell novel except for two instances where “a dog barked in the distance.” He added the hashtag, #thanksalotrosecransbaldwin. I felt the need to apologize.
July 7, 2010
There are endless sneaky ways to feel no good. Especially in the early hours, when Despair hides surface-to-air missiles in the couch and aims them at my amygdalae. This morning, I read a letter Nicholson Baker wrote to John Updike twenty-five years ago and I just felt awful. It’s one hell of a letter. Very Bakeresque. Me, I admire authors who keep digging after the same thing book after book. Baker, Ishiguro, Greene, Murakami. I mean, none of them’s a Philip Roth, a Coetzee, but who is? I go out into the woods and dig a hole with the toe of my boot to bury some coffee grounds and egg shells. No gun blasts.
July 12, 2010
Shotgun man just rode by my kitchen window on his motorcycle, stars and bars flying off the back. He was wearing tiny running shorts, tennis shoes with socks pulled up to his knees, and that’s it. Moustache blowing in the wind.
July 14, 2010
This afternoon, there was a thump on the front porch. The FedEx guy was walking back to his truck while I eyed the package. I knew what it was. Can I be a thug about this and still say I cried when I opened it and saw my book for the first time? Do thugs never cry? Who said thugs can’t be happy, can’t be true to themselves and their Lucy Lius?
July 20, 2010
Great advance review came in from the American Library Association. Thank you, Booklist! Libraries and librarians the world over, I honor you. Otherwise, my anxiety is causing acid reflux. I’ve started buying big bottles of chocolate milk. It is delicious, so sweet and so cold, and so fatty.
July 23, 2010
Book trailer went live today on YouTube. I love the novelty of book trailers. Why not? Why shouldn’t novels be sold every which-way? Look at the Shteyngart trailer, look at Sloane Crosley’s videos. We need more of this, not less.
Three years ago, I worked in advertising for 18 months and participated in a few big-scale shoots. One involved me interviewing Sir Sean Connery at his private Bahamas retreat. Highly ulcerous. Beforehand, the island faxed us a dress code requiring that men wear slacks and keep their shirts tucked in at all times. The filming was done in the afternoon after the photo shoot, and I can testify that the dock in the following picture was constructed that morning. I can also say that Sir Sean Connery was extremely nice. I’d say he was more nervous than me, but then he’d also been posing on a beach for three hours in ninety-degree weather in a wool sweater and a tuxedo.
July 26, 2010
Only way to get up in the morning and work steadily is to imagine there aren’t six million writers doing the same exact thing at the same moment with more imagination. That is one reason why I no longer live in New York.
July 29, 2010
Shit is really swinging. Reviews, interviews, news of reviews slated, online thingies solicited, and all are wonderful! I say yes to everything! And when I run my tongue over the gift horse in my mouth, I swear it’s chocolate and I pray it’s not squirrel inside. As you read these words I am very likely somewhere south of you, breathing into a paper bag. I am the luckiest bastard in the world.
August 3, 2010
We invited a farmer to visit and have his way with our fig tree. He brought a stepladder about sixteen feet too short; our fig tree is as tall as the house. He climbs up the tree and picks eight baskets full. The plan, he tells me, is to sell everything at a nearby farmer’s market, and in return he’s offering me trade in homemade sausage and cheese. Ne Fuck Pas Avec Les Benefits de La Semi-Rural Life. Evening lesson: Chocolate milk and tequila do not mix.
August 5, 2010
Self-Googling is never not shameful. Lots of push-ups today, some not very good work, a not very good nap, and I read a very good novel by Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver. Can NYRB Classics publish no wrong?
August 8, 2010
No gun shots in a week. Non-book stuff today: caught a pro-am tournament in Durham and watched NBA players battle in a tiny gym while listening to Gucci Mane. Man—or, as pronounced down here, mane—I wish I were athlete enough to get away with wearing shower sandals with dark socks pulled up to my knees.
August 10, 2010
So, this is what they call sleep deprived. Interviews have gone strangely, some wonderfully, some odd. One reporter called and we immediately went to tape for a radio broadcast while my mouth was full of a tomato sandwich. Most common question I’ve heard when people learn I’ve got a book coming out, “Are you touring?” The answer is, not really. I.e., I’m doing three readings in North Carolina and one in New York in September. But I wonder about the impulse behind the question. When did “author tour” become so popular a notion? What does happen when authors tour? I have no idea. Backyard amateur wrestling? Masked group sex? Eyes Wide Shut recreated nationwide in English department conference rooms? Diary, if I ever author-tour, it will be all of that, and commemorative T-shirts will be given out for free.
August 11, 2010
Last day of the diary. Diary, it’s been fun. To anyone reading, I hope you were entertained, I hope you laughed and cried, and I hope that was enough. Tomorrow my book will be published and shelved in stores, and we can socially-communicate regarding its inability to out-swim the hype shark. In the evening, I will visit one of my local bookstores, Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill (one of the events I’m doing), and they will serve (red) wine, (white) wine, and pabst (blue) ribbon. Perhaps I should invite my neighbor, America’s Defender.
I went running this afternoon to burn off some nerves. I saw him, my shotgun-toting neighbor, drinking beer outside his buddy’s trailer. He waved. I waved. I called out, “How you doing?” He yelled back, “Good man, good.”
Well, that’s exactly how I’m doing, times a thousand.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.
The Big Short
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
War and Peace
The Girl Who Played With Fire
Out of Sheer Rage: Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence
With four books — The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, The Mystery Guest, Let the Great World Spin, and The Interrogative Mood? — graduating to our Hall of Fame, we have plenty of room for newcomers on our latest list. The late Stieg Larsson, whose The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is already in our Hall of Fame, has the rest of his trilogy make the list, The Girl Who Played With Fire and the recently released The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.
Meanwhile, David Mitchell’s new novel, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which was released only a few days ago, debuts tied at number five, and Geoff Dyer’s 1998 bio of D.H. Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, which was recently championed by David Shields in these pages, debuts in the last spot on the list.
And it’s Shields’ controversial Reality Hunger that’s still holding on to our top spot.
See Also: Last month’s list
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
Let the Great World Spin
The Mystery Guest
The Big Short
The Interrogative Mood
War and Peace
Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, which appeared at the top of our panel’s list and number eight on our readers’ list in our “Best of the Millennium (So Far)” series last year. We’ve been learning more about Franzen’s next novel, Freedom, out later this year.
Near Misses: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, The Known World, Twilight of the Superheroes, Then We Came to the End
See Also: Last month’s list
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
Let the Great World Spin
The Mystery Guest
The Big Short
The Interrogative Mood
War and Peace
Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, which appeared on both our panel’s list and our readers list in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. Our panel’s winner in the same series, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, stays in the top spot. We’ve been looking forward to Franzen’s next novel, Freedom, out later this year.
Our only debut this month is a classic. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace landed on lots of reading lists after we published Kevin’s thoughtful meditation on the book and what it means to be affected by great art.
Near Misses: Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace, Asterios Polyp, The Known World, Tinkers, Solar, Twilight of the Superheroes
See Also: Last month’s list
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for March.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories
Let the Great World Spin
The Big Short
The Interrogative Mood
The Mystery Guest
Graduating to our Hall of Fame this month is David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, which was the readers’ favorite in our "Best of the Millennium (So Far)" series last year. That allows our panel’s winner in the same series, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections, to take over the top spot. Of late, readers have begun looking forward to Franzen’s next novel, Freedom, out later this year.
Our only debut this month is Michael Lewis’ look at the financial crisis of the last two years, The Big Short. Of the hundreds of books on the topic, Lewis’ was one of the most widely anticipated, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine at the height of the crisis.
Near Misses: Asterios Polyp, The Known World, War and Peace, Then We Came to the End, Union Atlantic
See Also: Last month’s list
I originally thought I wouldn’t write about the Publishers Weekly Top 10 Books of 2009, a list that quickly became infamous not for who’s on it, but who isn’t. Namely: women. I noticed the absence immediately, but I was more puzzled than troubled. Come on, PW, have you not read Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson? This year, readers and critics have gone gaga for lady authors, from Hillary Mantel to Jayne Anne Phillips, and so it was strange that none would be included on the list. It didn’t seem like these editors would have to consciously choose a woman–it would just happen, like breathing. Perhaps I’m naive, or I just like lady authors too much.
I was happy to see Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon and Big Machine by Victor LaValle included, two novels I liked a lot and have championed here on The Millions. But, I also felt sad for these two wonderful writers: would they want to be associated with this list? Chaon and LaValle certainly deserve our attention, but the kind of attention they got from PW, I fear, is a reminder that they use the men’s room. See, that’s what’s happened: the maleness of the list is all people can talk about. A cynical part of me wonders if Publishers Weekly went with these picks precisely because of the outrage they were sure would follow. Nothing increases visibility–and web traffic–like outrage.
Lizzie Skurnick’s take on the list is compelling and worth a read; she writes about the topic with both perspicacity and good humor, and she (rightfully, I think) suggests that the term “ambitious”– as it’s defined by critics and prize judges–is questionable, partially because it is gendered. Like Skurnick, I also don’t find the list of notable books by women on the Women in Literature and Literary Arts (WILLA) website all that helpful, either. The wiki nature of the list means that the only requirement to get on this list is that you don’t use the men’s room. You see, women write good books, and they also write very bad ones. One’s gender, like one’s ethnicity, isn’t a sign of your literary merit or lack thereof. And anyway, ladies don’t really need this list. We’re doing pretty well for ourselves. After all, women read more than men, and women writers sell more books than male writers. And we do win prizes. Don’t forget that this year’s Nobel prize winner for literature was female, and that Elizabeth Strout won the Pultizer. In 2004, all of the National Book Award nominees for fiction were female. I remember my annoyance at how much gender was discussed that year. “What about the books themselves?” I kept crying. But, look at me now, lamenting that only sausages got invited to the Top 10 Publishers Weekly party.
My double standard, I suppose, comes from the fact that there’s a long and undeniable history of women not getting critical recognition for their writing. I read nearly equal numbers of male and female writers (I keep a record. Seriously.) but I’ve met numerous male readers (many of them booksellers), who rarely, if ever, read books by women. This argument also extends to work by writers of color. Books by white men are considered universal, while books by women, or people of color, aren’t. A male author wins a prize because he deserves it. A Latina woman wins a literary prize because, well… there was pressure… it was time. That’s a dangerous and unfair line of reasoning, for it undercuts the talent and accomplishment of these writers.
Edward P. Jones won the Pulitzer for The Known World, not because he’s a black dude, but because he wrote an exceptional, brilliant novel. Yes, by giving Jones the prize, the Pulitzer committee championed and validated a narrative about African-Americans, by an African-American, and that is significant. But the writer’s race was not the reason he won the prize.
Which brings me to why I’m writing about this when I figured I wouldn’t. Last week, the National Book Award winners were announced, and all of them were white men. You might expect me to be upset by this, but I wasn’t. A few people I follow on Twitter were, however, and on her blog, author Tayari Jones wrote a genuine and heartfelt reaction to the awards (she attended the ceremony): “I will admit that I don’t know what to make of it. I know how it felt to be a woman writer of color that evening. I had a number of weirdly marginalizing personal encounters that evening. I arrived in high spirits and left feeling a bit deflated.” This reaction makes a lot of sense to me, and I respect it. But it also must be acknowledged that the judging process was fair–or as fair as can be (Jones does acknowledge this in her post).
The judges for each genre–fiction, nonfiction, poetry and young people’s literature–don’t talk to one another. That is, if the fiction judges choose a white male writer to win, they don’t know that the nonfiction judges have as well. Furthermore, the list of nominated books was varied and interesting, and the judges were diverse. (Quite frankly, I’d read anything deemed the best by fiction committee Jennifer Egan, Junot Díaz, Charles Johnson, Lydia Millet and Alan Cheuse.) So I’m all right with the results this year, as discomfiting as they might have been, coming on the heels of that terrible PW list. (And, perhaps it’s worth reiterating: do we even need the prizes? Do we need to “put a ring on it” so to speak?)
I’m most weary of lamenting this year’s National Book Award winners because it sets up an expectation for next year’s winners to be chosen on the basis of something other than literary merit. And if a woman and/or person of color wins the award, the last thing I want to hear is, “Oh, the judges felt pressure,” or, “It was time…” That kind of discourse is insidious.
In a dream world, the winners and best-of lists would always be diverse and surprising, and equality would just happen because people read widely, without any ingrained, problematic notions of what’s universal or ambitious or important. Now, the question is: how can we make that a reality?
Of Lists, Generally
Most Emailed Articles. Most Beautiful People. 100 Best Singles. 50 Greatest Novelists Between the Ages of 31 and 33. Verily, as William H. Gass observes in his wonderful essay collection Tests of Time – which made the New York Times Notable Books List even as it missed Bestsellers by a mile – we are nowadays “obsessed by hierarchies in the form of lists.”
The etiology of this obsession is elaborate enough that a list of the Top 10 causes would not begin to exhaust it. Still, near the head of such a list, as Gass suggests, would have to be “our egalitarian and plural society,” which renders questions of value both vital and vexed. And somewhere nearby (just above, or below, or beside?) would be our access to a venue where the itch to list can be almost continuously scratched: the Internet. Online tools for the gathering and measuring and dissemination of data have made list-making so ridiculously easy as to be ubiquitous. Kissing listservs and bookmarks and blogrolls goodbye would be something like turning your back on the Internet altogether.
Still, for a certain kind of mind, the lists Gass is referring to – lists that not only collect objects but rank them – would seem to give rise to at least three problems (which appear here in no particular order):
They are always incomplete – either arbitrarily circumscribed or made on the basis of incomplete information. Who has time to listen to every Single of the Decade? To gawk at every Beautiful Person?
They present a false picture of the world, wherein “best” appears to be a fixed and ascertainable property, like the color of money, rather than, like its value, a contingency. What does “Third Best Living Drummer” mean, exactly?
They involve judgment, and therefore judges. Who has the authority to say what makes the cut and what doesn’t? Who has the audacity? Who has the right?
Thus, every list carries with it, as a built-in feature, the seeds of its own refutation. Indeed, it’s probably its hospitality to debate that makes the “Best Of” list so popular in the first place. In a familiar online dynamic, passions get stirred – one can agree (yes! great list!) or dissent (Where is x? Why no y?) or inveigh against list-making itself – but nothing is finally settled. In any case, the list, like the broader medium, holds up a mirror to one’s own preoccupations. As with any mirror, it is fearsomely hard to look away.
Of One List, More Particularly
We at The Millions have experienced first-hand what one might call “the fascination of the list.” (Fascination, n. From the Latin for bewitchment; same root as fascism.) For the better part of a decade, we’ve watched other venues trot out their literary lists, and, in addition to grumbling about the arbitrariness and banality of the results, have wondered why they didn’t resemble more closely the lists we ourselves would have made. A more principled (not to say puritanical) editorial posture might have led us to eschew the whole list-making enterprise. Yet when we noticed that the first decade of the Aughts was drawing to a close, we decided, rather than leaving the “Best of the Decade” cataloguing to institutions we didn’t quite trust, to do it ourselves. Almost immediately we discovered, or remembered, what may be the number one reason for the proliferation of lists. Making lists, – as Gass knows – is fun.
We realized from the get-go, of course, that listing the best books published in the first 10 years of the 21st Century would be an act of hubris. Why not soft-pedal it? We decided, however (and tried to state explicitly in our introduction to the series), that the spirit of the exercise was not to put to rest a conversation about taste and literary merit, but to provoke one. “Some More or Less Recent Books Some People Like,” an accurate if unwieldy title, was less likely to generate debate than “Best of the Millennium,” so we braced ourselves and went for it.
Our next challenge was figuring out how to assemble the list. Being the little-d democrats we are, we decided that any list of “The Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far)” should be arrived at by voting. This meant – logically, unfairly – that books a lot of people had read were more likely to appear on our list than the unjustly neglected classics-in-the-making some other list might discover. But it didn’t mean, as the omissions of Zadie Smith, Claire Messud, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jhumpa Lahiri, Peter Carey, Margaret Atwood, and Michael Chabon attested, that popularity alone was sufficient to get them there.
Notwithstanding this constraint, we hoped to honor works in translation. However, because our readership is overwhelmingly English-speaking, we chose to restrict our list to books available in English. This raised a whole set of issues about the speed and frequency of translation – natürlich. On the other hand, readers who elected to call us on it would also be calling attention to the parlous state of translation in the U.S. And perhaps someone better equipped than ourselves would undertake a list of the untranslated books that should have appeared.
Now for a starting point. Jan. 1, 2000 seemed a nice, round number, but proved to have odd properties. It eliminated from contention The Savage Detectives and The Elementary Particles, which found their way into English after that date, but not Suite Française, which seemed somehow less millennial.
To assemble a panel of voters, we contacted novelists, critics, novelist-critics, and editors who knew The Millions well enough to return our emails. (We forbid them from voting for themselves.) The resulting panel was destined to be demographically skewed in all sorts of important ways. It skewed coastal, it skewed white, it skewed thirtysomething and fortysomething, and it skewed toward writers and reviewers working in the genre of literary fiction. It skewed, that is, much as our site and our readership skews. This seemed to us both a minus and a plus.
We also decided, doubtless due to some unexamined numerological prejudice, to limit the number of votes each panelist got to five.
Can Anything Be Learned from a List?
For all that, the results of our survey pleased us in three ways. First, the ballots were more heterogenous than anything we’d have come up with on our own. Roughly 160 titles got mentioned in the balloting, a number of which none of us had heard of. The most frequently mentioned book by a substantial margin, The Corrections, only received a plurality of votes. Appearing alongside it among the Top 20 vote-getters were three works in translation (from three different languages), four paperback originals, five short-story collections, and five books originated by independent presses. From the point-of-view of the possible, rather than the ideal, our Top 20 and Readers Survey and Honorable Mention and Best of the Rest lists seemed evidence of more diversity and life in the novel than has been widely rumored to exist.
Where it was homogeneous (70% of the writers have been published in The New Yorker), the Top 20 list seemed to document a number of tendencies that have been noted elsewhere, and to mark them as worth discussion. Perhaps most interesting was the preponderance of titles that cross-bred the realist patrimony of literary fiction with elements of other genres – science fiction, detective novels, and fantasy. Less widely noticed was how many of our top 20 titles made free – for better or for worse – with techniques that would as recently as the Clinton Administration have been considered avant-garde.
Moreover, the Best of the Millennium lists sparked conversations, both in our comment-threads and elsewhere. Conversations about translation. Conversations about corporate publishing. Conversations about who the hell did we think we were. Where these conversations were in progress already, the proximity of a list – a piece of potential evidence to mull over – seemed to increase the volume and the heat.
Among these conversations were, as we had hoped, many about books that didn’t make the Top 20. Some readers took up the gauntlet we’d thrown down and compiled their own lists. Others supplied overlooked titles: Gould’s Book of Fish; Tree of Smoke; The Last Samurai. (I would have liked to vote for these last two myself. And The Line of Beauty. And Against the Day. And The Wire. And True History of the Kelly Gang.) I can’t speak for our readers, but I don’t think there’s a single Millions contributor whose personal “To Be Read” list wasn’t shaken up as a result of this series.
Even some readers who rejected outright the listing impulse couldn’t resist commenting at length, as a lengthy debate between Andrew Seal and Edmond Caldwell (later continued at Dan Green’s The Reading Experience) illustrated. This back-and-forth, which had proceeded from the suggestion that our Top 20 reflected a certain parochialism, grew more and more parochial itself. It seemed by turns to confirm the theory that lists offer a mirror of the beholder’s preoccupations, to demarcate the narrowness and/or breadth of online literary discourse, and to do all of the above at the same time. Yet it was impassioned, and alive.
Of Lists, Personally
As the “Best of the Millennium” discussion went on, however, I began to think that the most interesting datum to arise from the whole project spoke volumes about our current understanding of aesthetic experience. It was this: while I could grant dissenters their passions, some of them were unable to grant mine. “The panelists can’t possibly have felt the way they claimed to have felt The Corrections” was the tenor of these comments. It was not the first time I’d heard this line of reasoning, if that’s the right word.
As Carl Wilson notes in Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, there’s a tendency among the commentariat to view aesthetic experience through the prism of Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction – to assume (brace yourself: I’m about to vulgarize this) that people mostly love the things they love for what loving those things says about them. This may be true, in a sense broad enough to be almost tautological. People who responded to The Corrections – people who were, yes, moved by it – may have been united, among other things, by their desire to be united by a novel that moved them, and moved by a novel that united them. But to push this anodyne observation into an accusation of illegitimacy or blindness is to fashion it into a boomerang: it redounds upon the one hurling it, and promptly plants itself in her forehead. That is, it makes her appear far more attuned to where a work sits on the popularity-backlash curve – and far more anxious about what her own position thereupon may say about her – than the reader who simply allows herself to be, or not to be, seduced.
To put it another way, the Bourdieuvian posture – I’ve come to think of it as the Who-Are-You-Going-to-Believe,-Me-Or-Your-Lying-Eyes? school of criticism – may be as much an infection as a diagnosis. It seems to have invaded, unexamined, online discourse about books, movies, music, and art. And it seems to prompt the very flocking pattern – hype, backlash, counterbacklash – it purports to expose. At any rate, insofar as it annihilates its own object, it is transparently poor ground for any debate about value.
I prefer Kant’s definition of aesthetic experience, which, being unequal to The Critique of Pure Reason, I’ve nicked from another Gass essay: the experience of
purposiveness without purpose – either in the look of a utility that has been retired or in an accidental object that seems rationally shaped to perform an undefined task.
That last bit – an object “rationally shaped to perform an undefined task” seems to me a fair descriptor of the five books I’ve loved the most this decade: The Corrections, Twilight of the Superheroes, The Known World, Mortals, 2666. And, to the extent that our “Best of the Millennium” experiment has proceeded by accident and happenstance, it seems a decent sketch of the series itself. Perhaps we gravitate toward lists because they are themselves a kind of aesthetic experience, whether pleasurable or infuriating. At any rate, we hope you’ve found ours useful, though for what we wouldn’t presume to say.
The Known World, Edward P. Jones’ gorgeously written novel, turns the world of race relations as we know it upside down. The lines that divide the races in his antebellum are not so much blurred as crooked, doglegged, and doubling back on each other. And race is only one vector: family, power, history. and love are also in play here. Jones’ refashioning of antebellum history is profoundly subversive and profoundly satisfying. In his telling, our nation’s story is one of contradictions and cruel ironies, halting progress and lost opportunities. I hope that someone, some day, will write a novel just as good about race relations in our current vexed era. If they do, I imagine they will conclude that Mr. Jones had it right all along.
This winter, Millions contributors Emily Colette Wilkinson and Garth Risk Hallberg both happened to pick up the M.T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation. Via email, we conducted a bicoastal conversation about Octavian Nothing, Volume I: The Pox Party, which we’re sharing with you this week in three installments. Part 1 focused on Form and Style. Part 2 focused on Historical and Geographic Setting. N.B.: Today’s installment contains plot spoilers.Part 3: Audience, Character, and ConclusionGarth: What makes a kids’ book a kids’ book, in the popular sense of the phrase? After having thought about this a lot, the answer I’ve come up with is: kids’ books often have a kind of “educational” component adult novels can get away with bypassing. This is a way of broaching the topic of audience. You mentioned earlier, Emily, that you wondered about the audience of this book, and I wanted to suggest that the question of audience may persist even if you ignore, for example, Anderson’s debt to Adorno (as one can easily do.)Emily: Yes, I think I agree with your idea that didacticism is what makes this YA, but I still find myself wondering what I would have made of this book in my early teens – I wonder if I would have liked it, or even understood it. In my own teaching at the university level, I have seen students struggle with 18th-Century literature. Of course, there are a lot of children’s books that abstract their plots and characters from philosophy and history that is more adult (Narnia’s Christianity, Jane Langton’s use of American transcendentalism in The Hall Family Chronicles, Jenny Davidson’s use of an alternative history of Europe (if Napoleon had won at Waterloo) in The Explosionist, Matthew Skelton’s use of Faust legends and the history of Gutenberg and his press in Endymion Spring). But I feel like Octavian is harder – the style is harder, the form is harder – even if the history itself will probably be more familiar. I like the idea of younger readers liking this book, but I am, nonetheless, a little surprised by it.Garth: This may be one of those things you’re not supposed to ask for from books about American slavery, Sept. 11, Naziism, and so forth, but I thought that the subtlety of Anderson’s moral sense lagged at times behind his technical gifts. Octavian offers an essentially monochromatic vision of the institution of slavery. He does a great job revealing the way it was bound up in the culture, extending the responsibility to most participants of that culture, but he leaves little room for gradations of evil. The ironies are often negations, rather than complications or paradoxes. Juxtaposed with his extraordinary formal achievements, this made me wonder, for whom was this book was written? Younger readers may find fusillades of prose flying by over their heads, while older readers may be disappointed by the lack of moral complexity. It may be argued that melodrama is one of the archaic conventions Anderson is playing with here, but Harriet Beecher Stowe got there in the 19th Century, and did it more convincingly. I should issue another spoiler alert here, by the way. I think we might have to give away some of the book’s secrets to discuss our criticisms.Emily: I wouldn’t say I have criticisms of Octavian as much as I have questions because it is a difficult book.Garth: Maybe this is a way of exposing myself as overly hungry for irony in the novels I read. But for me, the problem of moral certainty (and its potential solutions in Volume II of Octavian Nothing) is grounded in the characters themselves. After watching Anderson painstakingly reconstruct the cultural environment within which anyone found slavery sane, I was disappointed to see Mr. Gitney, the head of the Novanglian College of Lucidity collapse into simple villainy. I was more interested in him when he seemed merely compromised and self-deluding. Similarly, the virtuous Private Evidence Goring, who befriends Octavian, was a little too virtuous for me. He had this kind of Rousseauvian innocence – he seems genuinely colorblind, and naturally assumes his friend Octavian’s equality. He’s like a son of the soil. Could he really be uncontaminated by the pervasive ideology of slave-owning? I wanted at least to see him be really dismissive of a woman, or something. I guess I wanted him to be capable of change.Emily: I share your disappointment in Mr. Gitney. The one aspect of this book that I found kind of clunky was the way Gitney pursued his experiment on Octavian. He aims to discover if Africans have the same intellectual and moral capacities as Europeans, but that would necessitate having a European subject raised alongside Octavian in the exact same conditions. The betrayal of the rationalist empiricism that Gitney claims to defend is glaringly obvious – but not to him. Maybe a way around our dissatisfaction is to think of Gitney and Goring as allegorical figures? Goring as the bright, naive, fresh-faced idealism of a soon-to-be nation; Gitney as… well, maybe the inhumanity of which science and commerce are capable? Something like that? And Octavian – who I think will develop into a flesh and blood, three-dimensional character in future volumes – is trying to orient himself in the midst of all of these?Garth: Ah. This might explain my lack of feeling for Gitney and Goring. I don’t have much of a taste for allegory.Emily: Though, in truth, I was not so bothered by Goring as a character, allegory aside. Perhaps because I am more at home with the idioms of the eighteenth century, his character did not seem false to me – kind of Tom Jones-y, though a bit more religious. I found his naive idealism appealing and believable. A matter of taste, I think. I can appreciate irony but do not require it in my reading. Indeed, I have been known – forgive me, Oscar Wilde – to cry uncontrollably when Dickens describes Tiny Tim’s empty stool and crutch leaning against the wall in A Christmas Carol. My occasional problems with sensibility aside, though, I think allegory might be the key here.Garth: Dr. Trefusius, Octavian’s tutor, was a much more interesting character to me, because his complicated relationship to “the peculiar institution” recalled the Jeffersonian one I sketched in Part 2 of our conversation. Trefusius is hopelessly compromised and complicit, but is not beyond redemption. Indeed, his is the kind of character who necessitates redemption. Likewise Bono, the slave you mentioned earlier, who almost forms a dyad with Dr. Trefusius. His clear-sightedness comes at the cost of his optimism. I suppose I think this kind of muddled moral position has more to teach us, because it’s the one we’re more likely to find ourselves in – beneficiaries of institutions that would bother our consciences, if we allow ourselves to see them for what they are. But here I’m starting to sound like I’m asking for more didacticism. Perhaps didacticism in literature is a paradox. For the bald didactic “moral” can only teach us so much. It precipitates a gestalt shift; we can only learn it once. Whereas putatively amoral irony and ambiguity constitute an ongoing lesson in what life is like. This is what’s so remarkable about Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, by the way. It has volumes to teach us about how one human being can tolerate owning another. Speaking of character, what did you think of Octavian himself?Emily: Octavian is hard to grasp, elusive, there is a lack of emotion about him, a lack of self-knowledge that makes him seem something like autistic at times (added to his encyclopedic knowledge of natural and classical history, there’s a bit of a Rain Man effect). This might have bothered me more if it didn’t remind me of some of Defoe’s best heroes and heroines, particularly Robinson Crusoe, and also Coetzee’s equally emotionally opaque Foe. With the exceptions of Evidence Goring and Dr. Trefusis, all of the characters in Volume I strike me as emotionally broken and joyless, either by slavery or by a deformed and deforming commitment to a perverse version of rationalism.Garth: With Octavian, Anderson clearly wants to do something with the idea of scientific observation (in which his protagonist is trained) versus engagement, but Octavian’s tendency to become a transparent eyeball at key dramatic moments made it increasingly difficult for me to get a read on his character. I longed for a dawning complexity befitting the maturity of the language, but Octavian became less plausible to me the older he got. That is, I think I saw what Anderson was up to, but had some trouble suspending disbelief. I would have liked to have seen more of a moral duality in Octavian himself: struggling with his own urge to dominate others, to lash out in violence at weaker characters, to achieve Oedipal one-ness with his mother… you get the picture. Though perhaps the point is that observation versus engagement is itself a moral quandary. I wanted, finally, to see Octavian as a particular human personality, rather than as an Everyman shaped by forces beyond his control. I’m hoping this is what Part II is for…Emily: My question is whether Octavian can get beyond this broken, stunted, deadened quality in future volumes and if such an evolution can be convincing. Garth: So maybe this is a good point to leave off the discussion. This has been fun, Emily. Maybe we should do it again.Emily: Indeed!Bonus Link: A 2008 profile of M.T. Anderson from The Washington Post
Wells Tower’s short stories and journalism have appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, The Paris Review, The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, The Washington Post Magazine, and elsewhere. He received two Pushcart Prizes and the Plimpton Prize from The Paris Review. He divides his time between Chapel Hill, North Carolina and Brooklyn, New York. His first collection, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned, will be published in March.Last spring, it started seeming insane that I’d never read Moby Dick, which, naturally, knocked me over. I’d been warned about the unending contemplations of harpoon hawsers, the glutinous curds in the sperm whale’s skull-milk, etc., etc., but I hadn’t braced adequately for the rabid exuberance of Melville’s language. Every sentence is like a maxed-out steam calliope. Melville could herniate himself describing a pencil. Also, he’s hilarious, e.g., that scene where the Pequod’s bearing down on the crippled whale whose maimed rear fin causes the water to bubble, simulating flatus, and Stubb cries, “Adverse winds are holding mad Christmas in him, boys.”Other books that astounded me included Allan Gurganus’s short story collection White People (which deserves a place alongside the stories of Yates and Cheever for its gorgeously tooled sentences and huge, hurting heart), Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, The Known World by Edward P. Jones, Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Dusk by James Salter, Charles Portis’s The Dog of the South, Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave, and The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts, which reveals E. Pound’s inspired vandalisms against the early versions.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Recently there’s been a ruckus regarding the blatant pursuit of literary fame, especially where the n+1 editors are concerned. In the current issue of Poetry, Adam Kirsch plumbs the depths of literary ambition and the desire for personal recognition, and classifies Keith Gessen’s All The Sad Young Literary Men as “a chemically pure example of the kind of literary ambition that has less to do with wanting to write well than with wanting to be known as a writer.” Kirsch uses Gessen’s blatant ambition, both the theme and the generating force behind his novel, as the springboard to consider the writer’s desire for acknowledgement. While Kirsch criticizes Gessen’s “naive directness,” it becomes obvious that if Gessen’s work is a vehicle for recognition and status, he has done well for himself. Not only was Gessen lauded at the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 soiree recently and a co-host of the New New York Intellectual series at the New School, but he continues to write for esteemed periodicals like the New York and London Review of Books and receive acknowledgement, if not praise, from established critics, Kirsch included. Gessen is certainly not the first writer to wear his ambitions on his sleeve. He follows in a long line of writers, including Laurence Sterne. Sterne claimed he wrote Tristram Shandy, “not to be fed, but to be famous.” And become famous he did. Not only did he have a race horse and a country dance named after his novel, but he became a celebrity. His popularity did not wane with the less favorable reviews of the later portions of his serialized work, because, according to the Columbia History of the British Novel, his fans “wanted not just the book but the man behind the book (one reader said ‘I’d ride fifty miles just to smoke a pipe with him’).” Perhaps if Gessen were more honest about his ambitions, we could find something humorous, or at least endearing, in it all. Perhaps then his readers would write in that they’d want to have a smoke with him too.And yet, despite all odds, there are the writers who seem indifferent to fame. Edward P. Jones is one of those. In his essay, “We Tell Stories,” he divides writers into two groups: those who aspire to “be invited to a lifetime of cocktail parties” and those who write because of some “bizarre compulsion.” If Gessen falls into the first group, Jones (by his own admission) falls into the second. This was apparent on Thursday evening, when Jones read from an enclave on Tenth Street known as the Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, in what by appearances was once a living room, replete with a fireplace and mantel, a multi-paned front window, and a crowd of attentive readers sitting on folding chairs. From his second book of short stories, All Aunt Hagar’s Children, Jones read about temptation (in the form of the Devil himself, appearing at a Safeway off Good Hope Road) and transformation (going blind, literally, in the blink of an eye).In person, Jones is humble and unassuming, and he sounds calm and wise, if not quite comfortable speaking in front of a large audience. His voice came alive when reading the scene from the bus in “Blindsided,” where Roxanne first goes blind, a scene that deftly combines compassion, humor and desperation. One senses that Jones’s imaginative generosity would be constrained if he paid more mind to increasing his literary status than developing his characters and telling their stories. While speaking about writing The Known World, he posits that if he’d read forty books to research his novel as he’d initially planned, “the characters may have taken a back seat.” And this, to Jones as well as to his readers, would have been detrimental, because “the research doesn’t matter if the characters aren’t there.”Jones’s humility and lack of ambition were enough to make the man sitting next to me comment in disbelief. Perhaps it is precisely this long gestation – Jones’s long periods spent growing and developing his characters – his willingness to stand back, and his lack of desire to conquer literary heights that has made his work so remarkable and the lives of his characters, even in his short stories, stretch far beyond, one feels, the pages they’re written on. While Jones hinted at currently searching for new characters, the only thing he admitted to working on was “getting back to Washington in one piece.” He spoke a few times of a woman in the desert, as if he’s tilling and planting the seeds for his next crop. We can wait.Jones tramples the idea of literary celebrity. If Gessen worships at the altar of literature, and through writing hopes to elevate himself, Jones hopes to deflate such notions of becoming a literary chosen one. To Jones, writing is an act of compassion and communication, and his process not so different from any other task: “And we are not noble, just human. We get up to our day, however wonderful, however horrible, as they have been doing since there were white blank pages, before the blank computer screen, when there were only grunts and hand gestures, and we tell stories.”Besides, good writing is timeless, and literary celebrity is often short-lived. There is backlash, capricious fashion, and the the vicissitudes of time. The quest for literary renown isn’t new, nor is praise from the literary world consistent. A little article entitled “Literary Fame,” appearing in the Buffalo Courier and reprinted in the November 12, 1890, New York Times, speaks of fleeting fame, specifically Herman Melville’s, and how easily one can slip from favor. A year before Melville’s death, so little was said of him that most people already thought him dead:Forty-four years ago, when [Herman Melville’s] most famous tale, “Typee,” appeared, there was not a better known author than he, and he commanded his own prices. Publishers sought him, and editors considered themselves fortunate to secure his name as a literary star. And to-day! Busy New York has no idea he is even alive, and one of the best-informed literary men in the country laughed recently at me statement that Herman Melville was his neighbor by only two blocks. “Nonsense!” said he. “Why, Melville’s dead these many years!” Talk about literary fame! There’s a sample of it.