The Life of Objects

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A Year in Reading: Emily St. John Mandel

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When I think of all the books I read and loved this year — and there have been so many — I think the one I found most striking was Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers. It was the sheer originality of the thing, the absolutely unique style and voice. It might fairly be described as a western for people who think they don’t like westerns. Two brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, make their living as hired killers in the employ of a shadowy man known only as the Commodore, on the Gold Rush-era western frontier. But while Charlie enjoys killing, Eli, the narrator, is troubled by their ever-rising body count, and finds himself beginning to question the Commodore’s explanations for why the men they’re hired to kill have been marked for death. It’s a mesmerizing, precisely-written, sad, and very violent tale, with unexpected flashes of humor.

Others: Susanna Moore’s The Life of Objects was a marvel of clarity and beauty, as was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. I’d somehow never read The Great Gatsby before this year. I almost wrote “I don’t know why it took me so long,” but obviously I do know what took me so long: I was busy reading other books. The elegance of the work stays with me, its clockwork plot. I’ve been reading about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life this year, thinking about talent and dissipation.

Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis was profoundly beautiful and disturbing and continues to haunt me. Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker was a delight. It’s hard to imagine two books less similar than Necropolis and Angelmaker, but the common thread, I realize, is that both writers are willing to take considerable risks. They walk their respective tightropes successfully.

I loved Lauren Groff’s Arcadia. Her novel is impressive in the way that The Great Gatsby is impressive: you recognize, reading it, that you’re in the presence of a writer with absolute command over her material. It’s a beautifully written book.

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Susanna Moore, Cheryl Strayed, and the Place Where the Writers Work

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It was Hans Weyandt at Micawbers Books in St. Paul who pressed the slim blue advance review copy of Susanna Moore’s latest novel into my hands. It was good, he said, although he understood if I didn’t want to add any extra weight to my suitcase, and if I hadn’t heard of her, she was a very good writer. I hadn’t heard of her, but that’s no surprise. I don’t feel that I’m as well-read as I should be. Further, my suspicion is that 10 percent of the novelists get 90 percent of the publicity, and while very good books can and do rise to the top and catch the attention of the reading public, the correlation between talent and exposure is casual at best.

I did an event at Micawber’s that night, returned to my friend’s house and ate pizza, slept for a few hours on her living room floor and then woke up at three a.m., showered and dressed and slipped out with my suitcase to catch the 4:15 train to the airport. The stars were so bright as I was leaving Minneapolis.

By five thirty a.m. I was on a flight to the next city. This was the Midwestern tour: five cities in five days, condensed in such a manner so that I’d only have to take three days off from my day job. The size of my American publisher’s tour budget was somewhat smaller than the size of the tour I wanted — they’d already sent me out to the South and Ohio in the late spring, and they’re sending me to Florida twice — so I put five days worth of flights and cheap hotel rooms on a credit card and hoped the checks I’d been expecting from my French and Canadian publishers would arrive soon. I just wanted to be able to say I’d done everything I could for the book.

Two years ago I missed an event because of a canceled flight, which has left me endlessly paranoid, so I booked all of my flights in the early mornings when cancellations and delays are least likely. Paying for your own tour makes the stakes seem especially high. Each day began with an early-morning flight to a new city and ended with an event at a bookstore, an airport hotel. I slept four or five hours a night, went through airport security on autopilot, revived myself with coffee and dark chocolate-covered espresso beans in early-morning airports, spent sleep-deprived but pleasant days writing in cafes in strange cities, met at least two dozen booksellers, talked about my book every night, was so tired by the end that I had to carefully talk myself through the motions of getting ready for bed in that last airport hotel room in Milwaukee (“Now you’re going to brush your teeth”), could not possibly have continued at that pace for even one more day, and was improbably happy.

I try not to accumulate much when I travel, because I only fly with carry-on luggage, but I respect Hans’s literary taste, and Susanna’s book seemed worth carrying with me. I read it when I got home. He was right. The book’s wonderful.

Susanna Moore’s The Life of Objects is set mostly in Germany, over the course of the Second World War. Has any conflict in history been mined more thoroughly for fiction than the Second World War? Possibly not. I’ve lost track of how many World War II novels I’ve read. It can’t be easy to find a new angle.

Or perhaps, I thought while I was reading The Life of Objects, a new angle isn’t necessarily important. Perhaps all that matters is that the book must be extremely good, and The Life of Objects is exquisite. It’s the simply written story of a girl, Beatrice, who longs to escape the confines of the Irish village where she lives. It’s the kind of backwater where everyone knows everyone else, her sole career opportunity lies in working in her parents’ store, and despite her yearning for knowledge and her love of books, there is no possibility of a higher education. She begins making lace because making lace is a way to make the world disappear, and her work catches the attention of a visiting aristocrat.

She’s plucked out of the village, offered a household position with the aristocrat’s friends in Germany, the Metzenburgs. The year is 1938. When war breaks out they retreat to their country estate. The Metzenburgs, Dorothea and Felix, are possessed of both glamor and exquisite taste. Felix, in particular, is devoted to his objects: the paintings, the sculptures, the jewels. As the political situation worsens, Dorothea suggests that they leave, but Felix will never leave his objects and Dorothea will never leave Felix. Moore writes in a measured and elegant style. The Life of Objects combines elements of fairytale — there’s a place on the grounds that all but qualifies as an enchanted forest — and the kind of realism that brushes up against the edge of horror.

The novel is a subtle and brilliant chronicle of a slow slide out of normalcy into deprivation and surrealism, and of a character’s transformation from a passive and dependent girl to a bold and independent adult. The writing is a miracle of clarity and beauty. It’s the kind of book I read and think, this is why I do this, and this is what I’ve come for. This is why I travel so hard, why I work seven days a week, why I write in the subway, why I usually close myself in my office on weekends instead of seeing my friends. Why all of us work so hard. It’s because it’s possible to write books like this, and because books like this exist in the world.

I know a lot of writers, which means there are days when my social media feeds are clogged with relentless self-promotion. Everyone’s written a book, and everyone wants you to buy it.

This is a delicate point, because we do need to sell our books. Selling books is how we make our living, or at least part of our living. But there are days when I wish we could all just take a deep breath in the midst of all the hustle and remember what matters, because my personal opinion is that what matters the most is the work, not the sales numbers. I think that the fact that most of us will never be very well-known and will never make The New York Times bestseller list doesn’t matter as much as whether or not our books are any good. The marketplace is important but not that important, at least in the sense that I doubt anyone ever lay on their deathbed and thought, I wish my sales numbers had been better.

What matters is good writing, what matters is that there are people who love books enough to press them into your hands in far-off cities. We are here for the books, but I think it’s easy to get distracted by our longing for success and forget this.

Cheryl Strayed has had a remarkable year, a one-in-a-million kind of year, a year with a bestselling memoir that got optioned by Reese Witherspoon and picked for Oprah’s book club. Almost every bookstore I’ve walked into from Kentucky to Toronto has had the memoir, Wild, prominently displayed. I secretly cheer it on every time, because I think it’s a good book and because while I’ve only met Cheryl once, she seems very kind, and character matters a lot to me.

“The most annoying thing to come of this past truly good year,” she wrote recently on Facebook, “is the narrative that I ‘came out of nowhere,’ that I was ‘an unknown writer’ before WILD was published. Actually, I came out of a literary community of readers and writers who knew me quite well. Before WILD, I’d published a novel as well as many essays that were read by a national audience. I bristle at this narrative not so much on my own behalf, but rather on behalf of the many writers I love, admire, respect and read. There is a strong and vibrant literary culture that exists and thrives in this nation and it does not exist in a place called nowhere, whether you know about it or not. It’s the place where the writers work.”

I liked this Facebook status a great deal. I love writing, and love working in solitude for long hours. But it brightens my working days and evenings further sometimes to think of all the other writers in our separate rooms, all of us trying to create something lasting in the place where the writers work.

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