Russian movie producer Svetlana Migunova-Dali is working with U.S. producer Grace Loh, who produced Hot Tub Time Machine, to adapt Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita for the big screen. They say they’re working with a feature film budget of up to $100 million, and they want A-list actors to fill out the cast.
In Reif Larsen’s first novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, the eponymous Spivet faults a chemistry teacher for falling short of his profession’s duty. Petty and competitive, he has failed, in Spivet’s words, to “distribute wonder.” Like so many in that novel, the formulation lodged itself in my memory, stowed away for future theft. It occurs to me now, however, that the phrase is best repeated to describe Larsen himself, whose extraordinary second novel, I Am Radar, an epic about genocide, performance art, and puppetry, has just been published.
Larsen, as game and thoughtful an interviewee as he is novelist, agreed to talk with me about Radar and my own forthcoming debut, The Poser, a novel about a man born with the compulsion and ability to imitate anyone he meets.
Jacob Rubin: I Am Radar spans radically divergent places, many of which, though not all, are undergoing or on the verge of genocide. There is Cambodia of the ’70s, Congo in 2010, the Bosnian War, Norway of the ’70s, and (perhaps most horrific) New Jersey in 2010. From the outset, did you know these places would make up the book? Were there other settings you considered? At what point in the process, did you know that the performance art group Kirkenesferda would be the novel’s linchpin?
Reif Larsen: During the first three years I was writing Radar I had no idea where this book was going. I originally started in what is now part three, then quickly realized I had to go both back in time but also laterally in space and story. The book really felt like it had this willful mind of its own, which I know is a schizophrenic thing to say because there was no one making this all up but me, but at times I really felt like I was riding this bucking bronco and just trying to hang for dear life. And the book was like: “We’re going to Cambodia, motherfucker.” And I was like…“Okay, fine whatever, you say. Just don’t kill me.” Obviously the cheerful through line of genocide limited some of the places I could potentially set the book in. Also, all of these places I’d had some kind of prior interest in or history with. (My roommate during grad school was writing a book about Cambodia. My friend had been going to the Congo for years making movies.) So the book just started gobbling these places up like a hungry monster. And in the end, I did get to visit all of them too, which was slightly uncanny, particularly when I’d written a scene in a place I’d never been to and then actually went to that place. I was constantly racked by a kind of fictional déjà vu.
Kirkenesferda came about organically. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to establish this group that was there but not there. A kind of ghost — formed by a literature around it, by images and references and anecdotes, and this weird, Borgesian book of all books that obsessively documented the history of the group but which itself cannot be found. There is a line from the novel: “After a while the reader cannot help but wonder how anyone could be so committed to something if it were not, at least in some sense, true. Devotion, at its core, must be a kind of truth.” So I wanted to press this notion of “devotion as confirmation” to its inevitable breaking point.
JR: Let me ask you about curiosity, which seems paramount in your work. In The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, we have Spivet’s joyful, compulsive mapmaking. In Radar, it’s reflected both in the performance group’s mission and in the novel’s radical inclusiveness. I’m thinking, in particular, of the brilliant elucidations of real world phenomena, such as talking drums, quantum mechanics, telegraphy, puppetry, radiography, Morse code, among much else. What is your research process like? I realize the answer here is probably “both,” but which comes first — do you have the inkling that you’ll want to write about a certain place (ie. Cambodia in the ’70s) and then study it, or do you come to experience a place (Norway, for instance) and then feel the itch to set something there?
RL: As you suspected, there’s often a crazy interrelationship between my research and writing. Something will get stuck in my craw years before I ever write a word of the book — in this case it was a micro puppet show I witnessed down a dark staircase in Prague — and it will remain stuck, and I’ll keep coming back to it and usually this is a good sign I’m going to have to digest it via fiction somehow. Usually it’s not a one-to-one correspondence and not at all clear how that little morsel of observation will manifest itself on the page. Often the original reference will become quite veiled. I’ve been accused of writing “anti-autobiographical” fiction.
But then, just as often, my interests come out of the story itself. I will be writing a sentence and the father brings out a Morse Key and I’ll be like, “Shit. Gotta go learn about telegraphy.” For me, it’s always very important to be open to these kinds of messages (Morse or otherwise). The book will tell you what it’s interested in and then you have to go meet its demands. I was also amazed about the inclusivity of this particular book. The challenge was to cover that much ground and still make it feel like a novel, which I wasn’t really sure I did until the thing was finished, five years later. Still not quite sure, actually.
Along these lines, what was your process for researching Giovanni’s imitations? Part of the brilliance of this conceit is that imitations are the stuff of good fiction — noticing these inexplicable details that are there but not there, “the thread” that is unique to only this character. You are forcing yourself to write to specifics, to write compelling descriptions, but also to mine that vital territory of what separates a description of a person from the person itself. So I could see you writing this book armed with only the research of living on this planet as an observant being, but did you do other work as well?
JR: I did do some research, mainly about clothes in the 1940s and some of the history of Hollywood and of the Red Scare in Hollywood, as echoes of that period make their way into the book. In terms of the impressions themselves, as you suspected, I relied mainly on observation, experience, and caffeine. It was fun, though, to dramatize natural qualities of the writer (gesture obsession, hyper-observation) without Giovanni literally having to be one.
To get back to process for a sec, once you’ve assembled some of the research and let the book lead you to where it wants to go, do you think at all about genre? In the same way the best sci-fi bridges those liminal gaps between existing science and the science of, like, 12 hours from now, I Am Radar pulls at the bounds of what seems currently feasible. Did you think of it as science fiction?
RL: As a storyteller, I get very confused by the notion of genre. Even now, if you put a gun to my head I would be hard-pressed to tell you what it is. If there is a talking robot is it science fiction? If there is a dwarf with an axe and a cappuccino is it fantasy? I mean what even is YA anymore? Smaller words? Less complex emotional situations? No sodomy? Mostly genre is a shortcut for publishers and readers looking to categorize stories. Good writers rarely take shortcuts so genre doesn’t seem to be a very helpful discourse for us. A story is a story is a story.
JR: I want to ask about the theme of the exceptional. Radar, like The Selected Works of TS Spivet, explores precocity and its consequences. Many of the oddballs, eccentrics, and foundlings (some literal) who comprise Kirkenesferda are prodigies of a kind. I guess my question is about precocity and family. The precocity seems to give these collaborators joy and a kind of destiny at the price, often, of emotional orphanhood. How often does genius for these characters represent an expression of who they are, and how often does it represent a flight from home, or, at times, a burden parentally imposed?
RL: I’m not sure how to answer this question entirely — I, like many, am obsessed with the unanswerable questions of nature v. nurture and what is inherited and what is created on our own. It’s probably the most fundamental question of our humanness. But I do think you’ve pinned me to a familiar theme that comes up in my writing, which are these people who are imbalanced in some way — they present a particularly extraordinary skillset in one dimension, but then offer suffer an emotional imbalance because of it. Imbalanced characters are much more interesting to write about and throw up onto the canvas. There’s some purchase there and the imbalance leads to movement across the page. But the precocity that you’re referencing does allow for a sort of celebration of the strange; these characters have access to unusual or profound habits or thought processes that give you an excuse to tunnel deep into a mind or a scene or situation.
The same could be said, I suppose, about Giovanni, yes? He’s a great example of an imbalance in a character — a great skill at mimicry but paired with this interpersonal stuntedness. And I think you trace his growth so well over the course of the book. We really feel like we grow with Giovanni as he accepts, masters, and succumbs to his gifts. We feel his pitfalls and his triumphs. As a writer, how do you pace such growth on the page? How do you make it believable?
JR: Oh, definitely, yes. There’s a Buddhist adage about this, the exact wording of which I’m forgetting now, but it’s something like, the worn pocket leads to enlightenment more readily than the gilded robe (I write horrible fortunes cookies on the side). The idea, I think, is, “your strength is your weakness” because you will almost certainly rely too much on your strength, which creates an imbalance, a problem. This is certainly the case with Giovanni who is, in the end, impaired by his gift.
In terms of tracing growth, I think that’s really a matter of rhythm, of merciless rereading, of seeing when certain moments feel like they should come, and then engineering things as best you can to have that moment come maybe slightly before it’s expected. Like a lot of white people, I love rap music, and I’ve noticed really skilled rappers often complete the run of breath just slightly before the downbeat. Jay Z does this a lot. If he hit the beat exactly, it would feel late somehow. I became a bit obsessive about trying to do that with paragraphs and scenes.
What about getting started, inspiration? You’ve said that Susan Sontag’s decision to stage Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo in 1992 was a seed for Radar. How did that seed begin to flower? Were there others?
RL: This is an example of one of those things that got stuck in my craw before a word ever hit the page. I had read an article Sontag wrote about her time putting on Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo during the war and it struck me as so absurd, almost offensive, in its audacity: to believe that this city under literal siege, where crossing every intersection became a life or death situation because of the snipers, where there was no running water, where people were saving a single onion so that it would last for weeks — why would you go to this place and believe that putting on Godot could possibly be a good idea? But Sontag did and her actors risked their lives to be in the show and the theatre was in terrible shape and people came and after the war they named a street after her. But that knife edge between the sublime and the offensive was something I wanted to explore: the human necessity to put on this existential farce while real horrors were knocking on the door. It gets at the deepest questions of why we feel this strong, totally inexplicable will to create art. We will turn our lives upside down just so we can create art. And these are very personal questions for me because not a day goes by that I do not have some kind of deep doubt about why I’m spending my life writing silly books when there are people in real need out there. And yet I continue to write.
But while we are on this topic: let me ask you…what were the seeds for The Poser? What’s been your own experience acting or on the stage? Often first novels are famous for the writer throwing everything into it (is Radar actually a first novel?) but what I admired about your book was how controlled it felt. The boundaries of the world and the story were delineated in this very self-assured way. Did you spend a lot of time editing down the book?
JR: That Sontag story is fascinating, and Radar explores that dialectic of futility/essentiality so well. I do have some history with performance. I was a rapper in a college hip-hop group in the early-2000s and have done stand-up comedy, so I think a lot about the stage and performance. Years ago I used to entertain at kids’ parties as a juggler, which is my humblebrag way of saying I was a sex symbol. I think I like the disguise the stage demands and the way that disguise allows for the truth. The whole mask thing. It’s a very simple paradox, really, but is somehow, for me, inexhaustible.
I’m glad it felt controlled, thank you. Earlier iterations were less so. This is sort of The Poser 3.0. As I worked through each incarnation of the book, I felt myself becoming more ruthless. I was like Walter White by the end of it. I cut hundreds of pages from the book. A whole section about Giovanni’s childhood. Cut. The asperity of cutting becomes its own sort of decadence. My editor had to stay my hand from cutting more. I wanted to get rid of everything remotely extraneous. The faux America in which the book takes place seemed to require a radical sparseness or the kind of heightening that sparseness ensures. Roberto Calasso has a nice bit about Franz Kafka, how in Kafka a “cabinet” is, like, the only cabinet in the world. It is the platonic Cabinet. In cutting things down, I wanted the nouns in the book to feel like that: the sole furnishings of a concrete abstraction.
This makes me wonder about a certain tradition of literature and its influence on you. Radar is inflected throughout by a Nabokovian sense of play. Elsewhere you’ve written about Orhan Pamuk. How important is a sense of the meta-textual and gamesmanship for you in writing and reading? Would you describe Vladimir Nabokov and Pamuk as influences on Radar? Were there novels you frequently reread or revisited while working on Radar?
RL: I feel like our generation of writers has been washed by the rains of postmodernism and come out the other side cleaner and a little wiser, but largely our own selves still. We can admire and applaud Roland Barthes and Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, but I get this sense from our peers that we’re maybe ultimately not that interested in turning the camera on the whole game and have that be it. In of itself this maneuver is not that interesting and feels like it’s been done before: “Yes! It’s a farce! Fiction is a mirage!” etc. Now that we’ve gotten this out of our system, I think we have permission to almost go back to telling stories. Because it turns out telling good stories — even if you’re propping them up on all kinds of canned maneuvers of realism — is, and will always be, really very hard.
That said, I remain interested in the mechanics of how we do what we do, almost like a boy picking apart an insect to see how all the parts connect. And, in this particular book, I was interested in not just postmodernism for postmodernism sake, but I was shooting for a kind of “quantum fiction,” based on the science of quantum mechanics, whereby you purposefully leave things in a state of indeterminacy — you don’t fundamentally address whether a character is alive or dead. And the trick is to do this so that it has an emotional impact, and isn’t just a game. All maneuvers of these sort I believe have to be working on a pathological level — they can’t just hit the reader in the brain, they have to hit them in the heart. And this is where a lot of postmodernists for me fell short.
I read many books doing research for Radar and quite a few novels. I have to be careful reading fiction while writing fiction because I find there’s a lot of spillover. I’m too exposed. I start copying whomever I’m reading in the moment. But this book took so long to write that I couldn’t avoid fiction altogether and there were a number of books that lent me great wisdom in the process. Many of them are listed in the bibliography, but some important ones were: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Graham Green’s The Quiet American, Danilo Kis’s Garden, Ashes, Miroslav Krleža’s The Return of Philip Latinowicz, and Willem Frederik Hermans’s Beyond Sleep.
What about you? Were their books that you turned to while writing The Poser? And what’s your relationship to other people’s fiction when you’re deep into writing your own?
JR: I’ve been meaning to read Garden, Ashes for years. This reminds me to do it. I am sort of a picky reader when I’m writing. Often I read the same passages from favorite books over and over until I’ve sucked all the word fuel out of them. Some specific works, though, did help as I was writing. Remainder by Tom McCarthy, when I was doing a later pass, helped me with some alienated descriptions of human gesture and attitude. I read some Steven Millhauser, too, who is so good at creating mysterious, seductive landscapes immanent with danger. I think I was also influenced by Robertson Davies’s The Deptford Trilogy, which has sort of lightly magical properties and a crisp, evocative prose style I liked. Otherwise, I often return to Thomas Bernhard, Barry Hannah, and Denis Johnson, and sometimes the poetry of Dave Berman and Emily Dickinson.
RL: So now that you’ve written your first book, what advice would you give to writers who are attempting to do the same?
JR: More and more, I think, solutions to writing problems are found away from the desk. Attention to an obstacle, I think, is like sunshine to a succulent: the more you marshal your energies against it, the more the obstacle tends to grow. Whereas if you go take a nap or throw a javelin or something, the obstacle might very well shimmer and disappear. Mind you, this is advice I almost never take myself, but when I do, it always seems to help.
It is easy to get discouraged, and there is no wonder why. There is much about writing that is unhealthy in a very real and clinical sense. Sitting, as we all now know, kills billions of people. The time spent away from regular company, required for the practice, can’t be good for serotonin or dopamine levels, not to mention vitamin D. Staring at the screen, even from the perch of an ergonomic chair, is terrible for your eyes, wrists, back, and shoulders. Of course, any real labor is a million times worse. It’s just, anyone privileged enough to think of writing a novel could likely entertain any number of careers that would provide at least decent remuneration, status, and some recognition, even the rare, implausible shot at improving the world. So, if despite this very real discomfort and uncertainty, you feel better writing than not — well, then you damn better keep writing.
And you? Any tips on approaching a second novel? Asking for a friend…
RL: Hmmm. The second novel is where things get tricky. All I can say is that it was much more difficult than the first. You become more aware of all the things you aren’t capable of doing. Also, maybe this will change with future books, but I wasn’t really sure how to apply my experience of the first book to the second. I had to learn how to write the ecosystem and logic of the new book and almost had to start from square one again. But I would say: don’t shy away from it. Take the more difficult path because who knows when you will ever write another?
In Germany, in the late 1790s and early 1800s, university curators and other supervisors struggled with the balance of power between faculties and centralized administrators. As William Clark details in his book, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University, private correspondence between administrators and specialists carried the most weight in promotions and hiring.
“A 1795 article in Berlinische Monatsschrift recommended that sovereigns should not consult universities corporately in formal correspondence,” writes Clark. Instead, “a sovereign should consult with a few scholars via confidential correspondence.”
Clark quotes a contemporary history professor who pointed out an eternal truth: “Although the faculties of learned academies recognize the men who most merit a vacant position, they are still seldom or never inclined to suggest the most capable fellow they know.”
The University of Göttingen would be the first to shift away from the correspondence model and inaugurate the era of “publish-or-perish.” But the letter of recommendation, that grim genre of guarded praise and veiled contempt, is still as ubiquitous as ever.
The protagonist of Julie Schumacher’s seventh book, Dear Committee Members, a professor of creative writing named Jay Fitger, is deluged by these requests. In his hands, the letter of recommendation becomes a means of expressing his wider dissatisfaction with his career and his life, only perfunctorily addressing the question of his students’ and colleagues’ “reliability,” “relevant experience,” and “preparedness.” Fitger eschews form in both senses of the word. His letters are incisive instead of workmanlike, garrulous instead of discreet.
Some of the targets of Schumacher’s piquant satire will be familiar: exploitative graduate program schemes that saddle students with debt and unrealistic expectations; automated human-resource systems; and the strained relationship between the university’s idealists (read: humanities professors) and pragmatists (read: bottom-line administrators), the latter of which will willingly trade a nationally-renowned Department of Slavic Studies for a more attractive salad bar.
But Fitger’s letters are also laced with subtle observations about the writing life. The friends he met in the “the Seminar” (which seem to be modeled on Gordon Lish’s courses at Columbia and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop), writers who were once poised for glory, have experienced setbacks. One novelist’s life story is Job-like, including the sudden death of a wife, but with the manuscript of his magnum opus in place of the seven children.
Schumacher hints that Fitger, a middle-aged man (who happens to be a professional writer), has come to the recognition that the choices he made as a egotistical young aspirant have poisoned his relationships with friends, mentors, and former lovers. Schumacher doesn’t allow any “all-for-the-art” grandstanding for Fitger either, whose career has nosedived since his early success. Instead, with refreshingly honesty, the letters are shot through with palpable regret. He’s still patiently, vainly, attempting to undo the damage 20 years later. A writer who long ago exhausted his own talent, he is especially invested in a shy young writer who is working on a “Bartleby-in-a-Bordello” updating of Herman Melville. The story, which unfolds tragicomically, is redemptive gesture for Fitger.
At one point, Fitger rails against an MFA program (in what is ostensibly a letter of recommendation for a prospective student) by claiming, fairly, that the program exploits the naïveté of students. He writes, “The point of this digression…is not to discourage the practice of writing: What, after all, is a writer’s life without a dose of despair,” before listing off all the “formidable” obstacles of the contemporary writers. But he finishes by saying, the writing life “despite its horrors, is possibly one of the few sorts of life worth living at all.”
Earlier this year, Eric Bennett claimed in The Chronicle of Higher Eduction that the Cold War axis of humanist academics and Pentagon spooks shaped the ideological clay feet upon which MFA programs stand: “Creative writing has successfully embedded itself in the university by imitating other disciplines without treading on their ground.”
Of course, Cold War politics also shaped a much worse example of the writing life: the exceedingly horrific and efficient system of patronage and intimidation administered by the Soviet Union. The persecution of Boris Pasternak, Isaak Babel, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Osip Mandelstam, and many other writers, journalists, and intellectuals underlines the fact that Soviet government was deeply insinuated in the art world, as sponsor as well as censor.
Finally published in 1967, 28 years after its author died, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita cleverly dovetails the persecution of Yeshua (Jesus of Nazareth) by Pontius Pilate in ancient Palestine and the literary-bureaucratic order of 1930s Soviet Russia. In the latter plot, “Professor Woland,” a satanic figure, terrorizes a group of obsequious, craven hacks belonging to the writer’s organization, MASSOLIT, who mostly pander to the secular, brutal Stalinist regime. (For Bulgakov, those two adjectives do tandem duty.)
During their assault on literary Moscow, two demons visit the headquarters of the Soviet writer’s union, Griboyedov’s House, a stand-in for the Gorky House. During the Communist era, the House brought together writers from throughout the Soviet world to meet, teach, and write great literature.
“You know, Behemoth, I’ve heard many good and flattering things said about this house. Take a look at it, my friend! How nice to think that a veritable multitude of talent is sheltered and ripening under this roof!”
“Like pineapples in a hothouse,” said Behemoth…
“And a sweet terror clutches your heart when you think that at this very minute the author of a future Don Quixote, or Faust, or, the devil take me, Dead Souls may be ripening inside that house!”
If Bulgakov’s fictionalized account and Ismail Kadare’s fictionalized memoir Twilight of the Eastern Gods are accurate, though, the Soviet Goethes and Soviet Gogols weren’t doing much creative “ripening” in the house. Instead, they were carousing, drinking heavily, and engaging in mercenary character assassination against rivals, students, allies, supervisors, cronies, family, and friends.
Ismail Kadare’s Twilight of the Eastern Gods is a brilliant non-fiction treatment of Soviet literary culture during the later Leonid Brezhnev years, a non-fiction response to Bulgakov’s novel. As a promising Albanian writer, Kadare was invited to Moscow, where he met the odd mix of Party sycophants and belles-lettrists that was the Soviet intelligentsia.
Of course, the explicit goal of the House was to build a Soviet literature that would undermine nationalist culture, but the reverse-refugee program is comical. Siberian and Ukrainian writers, one Russian notes, have the real problem of enforcing literary convention on a surrealistically unconventional existence:
Can you imagine living your whole life in six-month-long days and nights, and then being required to divide your time into artificial chunks when you sit down to write? For instance, [a Ukrainian writer] couldn’t write ‘Next morning he left’ because ‘next morning’ for him meant in six months’ time.
Kadare also writes about how the literary history of the city was being distorted by the intense political scrutiny:
Not a single Soviet novel contained anything like an exact description of Moscow. Even characters who lived there or were visiting always remained in some imaginary street, as I did in my dreams, and almost never turned into Gorky Street, Tverskoy Boulevard, Okhotny Road, or the environs of the Metropole Hotel…and if they did wander into it they seemed stunned: they heard nothing, and saw nothing — or, rather, they had eyes and ears only for the Kremlin and its bells.
Literary-political events unsettle the young Kadare’s mock-idyll. The first occurs in 1958: Boris Pasternak is awarded the Nobel Prize, in part for his novel, Dr. Zhivago. Kadare’s own interaction with the book begins auspiciously when he finds the illegal manuscript in one of the rooms at Gorky House. Having accidentally read a few incoherent and scattered pages surreptitiously, Kadare then witnesses the full force of the Soviet media machine as it pummels its dissident and newly-minted Nobel laureate.
Forgoing political outrage, he renders the melancholy disquiet of the anti-Pasternak media blizzard evocatively. He writes:
All the same, newspapers, radio and TV carried on campaigning.
Doctor…Doctor…the wailing of the transcontinental wind made it seem as if the entire, and now almost entirely snow-covered Soviet Union was calling for a man in a white coat. Doctor…Doctor…Sometimes, at dusk or in the half-light of dawn, you could almost hear the deep-throated moaning of an invalid waiting for the arrival from who knew where of a doctor who had so far failed to turn up.
Then, as quickly as it began, the smear campaign stops: no one talks about Pasternak or the Nobel Prize again. A “spontaneous” demonstration is held, under the suspicion that the West secured the prize for Pasternak to undermine to Soviet culture. (Recently declassified CIA documents have shown that, apparently, they were right.) It is eventually decided that Pasternak will have to turn down the prize.
Sometime later, an artist from Moscow becomes infected with smallpox in Delhi, while sketching an Indian princess. Once news of the infection spreads, the Soviet government immediately quarantines the possibly infected. Muscovites rush to vaccination clinics. During the panic, the young Kadare spots a friend who had seemingly given him a cryptic warning, “for me — or rather, for my country.”
The friend demurs, then confesses that there are rumors that Russian-Albanian relations are cooling. Gorky House suddenly turns on the young, anonymous Albanian writer. They fear contagion: because of spurious rumors about faraway political machinations, his one-time mentors and colleagues quickly ostracize and marginalize Ismail Kadare, a great 20th-century novelist. If he had been embraced, his work would have inevitably been co-opted or at least compromised by his sponsor-censors.
Reading Twilight of the Eastern Gods, I thought about another writer who had the similar mixed blessing of being banished from his home country, Witold Gombrowicz. In his Diary, he offered as an archetype the great French humanist François Rabelais, “a writer who had no idea whether he was ‘historical’ or ‘ahistorical.'” (I would add “national” or “internationalist,” “reactionary” or “revolutionary.”.) The author of Gargantua and Pantaguel “had no intention of cultivating ‘absolute writing’ or of paying homage to ‘pure art,’ or, too, the opposite of that, articulating his epoch. He intended nothing at all because he wrote the way a child pees against a tree, in order to relieve himself.”
Gorky House was formative for Kadare. But being rejected by its writers was hardly an obstacle. In fact, the Soviet literary elite might have been doing Kadare a favor by disfavoring him. The concerns of that circle have proven to be parochial, venal, insular. Yet, it produced Kadare, who has managed to craft a nuanced, luminous memoir to commemorate the time when Moscow cried with “the deep-throated moaning of an invalid.”
As a kid, video games taught me just as much about writing as novels did. The thousands of hours I spent with my head in books were matched by the thousands of hours I spent at my computer. In my child brain, they didn’t seem as if they were disparate forms belonging to different centuries. I’m not sure I even recognized the difference.
I played games for the storytelling, to the degree that no one in middle school actually considered me to be completely a “gamer.” I didn’t really care about winning or being good. What interested me were the stories.
When I played strategy games like Civilization, the kingdoms I built did not consist of representative pieces on a chessboard. In my head, even as early as age 7, the cities were real. Families lived in them. They had cultures and identities and backstories invented with each subsequent turn. I had feelings about them. My districts, armies, and generals were built not just for effectiveness but aesthetic design and sociological meaning.
My outings as a fighter pilot in space simulators had dramatic and cinematic arcs to them, missions experienced not as sets of objectives but as short stories, as chapters. The gleam of the fake pixelated gray of the bulkheads and the pulsing neon lights of the cockpit instruments were just as important as the scoreboard.
In the first two first-person shooters I played, I rarely completed levels successfully, instead treating the labyrinths of Doom or Dark Forces as Kafkaesque wanderings interrupted by existential shootouts. I was fascinated by how the story was introduced, how the narrative progressed over shifting environments, with layered escalations of both difficulty and design.
There were times when it was almost as if the games I was playing and the books I was reading were in conversation. Half-Life meant Huxley and Diablo II meant Dante. In the 7th grade, I took Latin and read Roman History just to give my obsession with Caesar III more context. William Gibson forced me to go back and re-experience Syndicate. Sim City 2000 directly caused me to steal my father’s copy of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker. Max Payne, my first experience with any sort of noir, meant Patricia Highsmith and Raymond Chandler.
By the time I was in high school, I was confused as to why such a small collection of books were explicitly influencing games. When I first read The Handmaid’s Tale, I could not understand why there was not a video game version lurking somewhere in a dark corner of the digital universe, or even vague homages in the totally unrelated omnipresent sci-fi dystopias that were the setting for so many games. In what can only be described now as adolescent naivety, it was unthinkable to me that male-dominated, technologically-centered works like Ender’s Game or Snow Crash were so in sync with the video games being developed, but As I Lay Dying and Pride and Prejudice were somehow unworthy.
In the 15 years since my 12-year-old boy gamer heyday, video games have become the most dominant form of media on the planet, though you would not be able to tell by reading contemporary literature. Aside from the efforts of Austin Grossman and Ernest Cline, the few works of fiction that do confront gaming’s prominence tend to be on the borderlines of genres not always considered “literary,” or works of experimental literature more interested in turning the form of the novel into a game than using the novel to explore what the rise of gaming means to the human experience.
What is particularly sad about this state of affairs is that the literary world and the video games world could greatly benefit each other. Even a conversation, let alone the beginning of real collaborations and dialogues, would help each contend with their respective shortcomings.
The book publishing industry needs to carve out a more interesting, necessary space for itself in the digital world. All too frequently “technology” is considered one big amorphous blob, or worse, treated with indifference. Barely enhanced e-books, predictably executed apps, and promotional Twitter accounts for dead or Luddite authors seem to represent the extent of most publishers’ innovative efforts. Even in terms of pure content, contemporary fiction too often fails to fully evoke 21st-century life and contend with its burgeoning issues. We writers disproportionately focus on the past, or worse, replicate the form and structures of centuries gone without appetite for the risk, resistance, and failure innovation entails.
The video games community, despite its tremendous financial success and cultural relevance, has its own significant problems. Despite the best efforts of a growing cadre of games critics, journalists, writers, and theorists, not to mention a legion of talented independent developers, the industry is plagued by issues of cultural legitimacy and a real struggle to grow out of repetitive content. American cultural institutions largely ignore the entire medium, the exceptions often taking the form of desperate half-hearted attempts to appeal to a younger demographic (such as MoMA’s addition of 14 mostly-retro games to its collection), or outright hostility (such as the late Roger Ebert’s 2010 statement that “video games can never be art,” a stance he subsequently softened after getting dissents from readers). Meanwhile, big budget games like Call of Duty and Halo follow the same tired patterns of gameplay and storytelling with little real innovation aside from graphical improvements and the ever-evolving appropriations of Hollywood clichés.
Games writing luminaries such as Leigh Alexander, Luke Plunkett, Tom Bissell, Cara Ellison, and John Walker have explored and debated every facet of what a video game is and should be, including the Sisyphean tasks of attacking the mainstream industry for its utterly regressive gender politics, lack of diversity, and unwillingness to explore subject matter other than the same tried and true action movie content patronizingly marketed to the worst imagined 12-year-old boy archetype. But this growing field of theory and criticism has only been so successful in forcing the form to confront its demons.
Over the past year, I made a concerted effort to begin meeting, talking, and collaborating with members of the games industry. I went to conferences, events, and explored the social networks of the few friends I had working in the field. During this time, every game developer I came across, whether her company was big or small, her projects commercial or experimental, expressed a desire to be taken more seriously as an artist and creator. And there was a tangible feeling that they are not there yet.
When I attended the Game Developers Conference for the first time in March 2013, I was stunned at how receptive everyone was to the presence of a random aspiring novelist. Mainstream behemoths and indie game developers alike asked me how they might more “literary” or “novelistic.”
Producers of big budget titles told me how much they wished they had better written content within their games, but seemed to have no idea how to access the pool of what one Creative Assembly designer called “all those surely unemployed creative writing MFAs living in Brooklyn.” There may be a kernel of truth in his statement. There is certainly unutilized talent in the literary world capable of writing the pants off of a lot of what passes for dialogue or in-game text in many mainstream video games. Aside from the few individuals with both gaming and literary backgrounds (like Austin Grossman), the games industry has little framework for how to judge the abilities of those who are not already writing for games or designing them outright. So far, no developer has been explicitly willing to take the risk to start evaluating or hiring Iowa grads. “It would be nice if we could figure out how to do it,” Chris Avellone of Obsidian Entertainment told me, “but without a record of actually writing for games in some capacity, it’s very difficult to hire someone.”
At the same time, employees of mainstream developers continually express great interest in how to cultivate more serious topics and subject matter.
“How did books get to be so respected?” an Electronic Arts VP asked me at that same GDC last year, as though this suspect level of gravitas must be the result of a viral marketing campaign and not a cultural evolution that took place over hundreds of years.
Tin-eared dialogue aside, there is actually an impressive literary consciousness to be found within certain tracts of the video games community. In a conversation with Anthony Burch (Borderlands 2), Susan O’Connor (BioShock and Bioshock 2), and Aaron Linde (Gears of War 3), three supremely talented games writers, we shared our disappointment that there had never been a violent action game written by Bret Easton Ellis, and that no game designer had ever gone to David Foster Wallace and said “what do you want to make?”
“Blood Meridian would make for a hell of a videogame,” Burch told me recently. “McCarthy explores the depths of human evil and bloodlust; an interactive version could allow the player to explore their own personal capacity for those same things. I’d love to see a P.G. Wodehouse videogame. Wodehouse’s books, unlike most videogames, were centered around people but never included any violence or sex. I’d love to see his sensibilities transplanted into games. Just imagining a Telltale-style [a developer famous for making episodic adventure games] Jeeves and Wooster game makes me slightly giddy”
I then asked him how the games industry could attract better writing talent.
“Start making games that allow for greater narrative depth,” he replied. “If most of your game’s script consists of battle dialog (imagine writing 50 different variations of the phrase, “incoming grenade!”), that’s not going to attract top talent. If, however, your game allows the world to react to the player’s actions in interesting ways, or if your story reveals itself to the player in ways only games can achieve, then you might well find writing talent jumping at the chance to do something challenging, different, and risky.”
Underneath conversations like this lurks the reality that being a “games writer” is too often considered a secondary position in the making of a game. Designers, producers, and programmers tend to control a greater share of narrative structure and destiny than you might expect, with writers simply crafting made-to-order textual content.
Nevertheless, if my wanderings in the game world have convinced me of anything, it is that within even the worst cliché of the demographic “gamer,” there is a prospective reader of literary fiction. Not unlike the most ambitious and challenging novels, video games feature unreliable narrators, shifting perspectives, digressions that become their own plot lines, fragmented timelines, the use of magic, myth, hallucination, and multiple outcomes. These are commonalities rather than eccentricities, and gamers are undaunted, even treating narrative difficulties as worthy challenges.
Game designer Jane McGonigal calculated that as a planet we play three billion hours of video games a week. Millions of people have come of age experiencing storytelling predominantly through this medium. Millions of people have fake killed millions of other fake people. Millions of people have conquered the world or prevented it from being conquered, have built and run impossibly vast megacities, have followed the stories of countless heroes and villains.
We should try to write some novels for them.
Twelve- to 18-year-old males are not the only people playing video games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is 30 years old, and 45 percent are female. Yet there can be no doubt that most games are still marketed toward a young, overwhelmingly male demographic, with companies convinced this is necessary to their bottom line despite the growing mountain of evidence to the contrary.
This disproportionate focus leaves substantial room for the games industry to acquire new customers. There are whole swaths of potential players whom the video games industry has tacitly abandoned with sexism, repetition, and an inability to embrace new narrative and content.
We should try to make games for them.
We should be making novels into video games, video games into novels. Publishers should collaborate with indie game developers, trading them a platform and content in exchange for labor and a new form of adaptation. Literary magazines and libraries should sponsor gamejams. The games industry should fully embrace the thousands of works of classic literature open to them in the public domain.
Even without structured efforts to that end, there is some hope that within the flourishing realm of “indie games” the medium is maturing and embracing more literary themes and modalities.
At the booths of the Independent Games Festival, Calvino and Borges were household names. When I mentioned Edwin’s Abbott’s Flatland to the developers of Super Hexagon and Super Space, they rolled their eyes as if they were literature PhDs who had just been asked at a dinner party if they had heard of James Joyce. The makers of 2014 IGF Finalist Paralect have acknowledged the direct influence of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. But the scope of this interest and knowledge is limited to a small set of authors.
Whereas in the past indie games were simply a subcultural sideshow and barely an influence on the larger industry, the rise of digital distribution has allowed small or individual independent developers to have the opportunity to reap real financial success while still remaining divorced from large development budgets and battles over the same predefined market share.
In the past year, award-winning games such as Papers Please (a game of passport control in a fictional communist satellite state) and Starseed Pilgrim (a game of gardening riddled with floating poetry), both developed by singular individuals, proved that indie games with atypical premises can succeed in the market and, more importantly, provide players with involving experiences that feel worthy of printed literary companions.
Gone Home, a game in which you explore your empty childhood home, is often described by players and reviewers as being novelistic, inherently like a book. As of February, it had sold 250,000 copies (in a scant seven months on the market). Not bad for the gaming equivalent of an indie novel released on a small press. Imagine if a self-published literary fiction novel about growing up in the mid-90s in the Pacific Northwest grossed 250,000 copies.
In the video games world, the performance of a game like Gone Home represents a nice, feel-good story, but still pales in comparison to the mainstream titles. For reference, Grand Theft Auto V sold almost 27 million copies in the last four months of 2013, grossing over a billion dollars in its first three days of sales.
While it’s easy to dismiss mainstream games like Grand Theft Auto V or Call of Duty as shallow, or not on par with any notion of being literary classics, it is difficult to imagine Miguel de Cervantes not enjoying a virtual romp through the virtual medieval world in Assassin’s Creed, let alone the glee Italo Calvino would feel upon witnessing Sim City. It’s easy to forget that video games, even the most boring or decadent ones, are realizing what were once only the high-minded fantasies of The OULIPO and other pre-digital experimental writers.
When the Dante’s Inferno video game was released in 2010, it caused several editions of The Divine Comedy to shoot up Amazon’s sales charts. It did not really matter that the game was nowhere close to being a perfect adaptation or embodiment of the epic poem. A friend of mine who teaches middle-school English in Cleveland, Ohio, almost wept recounting how a group of her students brought a copy to class.
“Kids ask me all the time about which author influenced Bioshock (Ayn Rand) or why Spec Ops: The Line failed in its attempt to remake Heart of Darkness,” she said. “My adult friends do too. But they rarely pester me to find out who won the Man Booker.”
With works both new and old, the literary community is in the unique position to take a role in an adolescent art form’s coming of age. And if game developers were to start directly pursuing writers with backgrounds outside of their comfort zone, the result could be an era of unprecedented collaboration and innovation for not just one industry, but two.
Image Credit: Pexels/Pixabay.
When it comes to this year’s Winter Olympics, it’s almost Biblical: in the beginning there was Twitter, and the tweets were about toilets. Whether as a result of poor planning and corruption — or whether as a call-back to the uniquely Soviet production quota issues that led to backwards high heels and sticky raincoats — the facilities in Sochi have been the butt of jokes across the internet since the first reporters touched down weeks ago. The issues are legion: there are missing pipes; there are innovative seat covers; and everywhere there are reminders that privacy is a lie.
(Of course, these superficial issues belie much more systemic and widespread problems, and I hope that the journalists decrying the last-minute paint jobs are going to be equally vocal about Russia’s deeply unsettling human rights issues.)
Yet and still, I’ll admit that my Millions colleague Janet Potter and I have indulged our affinity for Schadenfreude by cataloguing some of the more outrageous entries popping up on our Twitter timelines. (The best typically bear the hashtags #SochiProblems and #RatchetOlympics.) All the while, I’ve found myself subconsciously pairing the absurdities with their analogues from the canon of Russian literature. And as I’ve come to learn, the Russian masters saw the writing on the wall well before the Olympic torch made its way to the Black Sea’s coast. Below, I offer a brief compendium of classic quotations paired with some of the more incredible and regrettable sights that Sochi has to offer.
“Such complete, absolute ignorance of everyday reality was touching and somehow repulsive.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Idiot
Sochi menu. Not a joke. pic.twitter.com/OAnXN9h5rk
— Eugene Gourevitch (@gourev) February 5, 2014
“Death can only be profitable: there’s no need to eat.” – Anton Chekhov, “Rothschild’s Fiddle”
— Liz Clarke (@lizclarketweet) February 6, 2014
“There was no answer to any of these questions, except one, and that not a logical answer and not at all a reply to them. The answer was: ‘You’ll die and all will end. You’ll die and know all, or cease asking.’” – Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace
— Wayne Drehs (@espnWD) February 6, 2014
“It is no use to blame the looking glass if your face is awry.” – Nikolai Gogol, The Inspector General
— Steph Stricklen (@StephStricklen) February 6, 2014
“By words a man transmits his thoughts to another, by means of art he transmits his feelings.” – Leo Tolstoy, What Is Art?
— The Straits Times (@STcom) February 6, 2014
“’No strangers allowed. Go away.’
‘I don’t understand…’
‘Understanding is strictly forbidden. Even dreams have the right to dream. Isn’t that so? Now go away.’” ― Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Memories of the Future
— The Atlantic Cities (@AtlanticCities) February 6, 2014
“Always to shine,
to shine everywhere,
to the very deeps of the last days,
and to hell with everything else!
That is my motto—
and the sun’s!” ― Vladimir Mayakovksy, “An Extraordinary Adventure…”
— U.S. Figure Skating (@USFigureSkating) February 7, 2014
“In fact, I’m beginning to fear that this confusion will go on for a long time. And all because he writes down what I said incorrectly.” – Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
— Baiba Rubesa (@rubesita) January 25, 2014
“Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel.” – Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago
Russian deputy PM on Sochi (through a translator): "There are no jobless people here." Also said there will be a Russian Disneyland here.
— SeanFitz_Gerald (@SeanFitz_Gerald) February 6, 2014
“Are some less lucky, or do all escape?
A syllogism; other men die
But I am not another: therefore I’ll not die” – Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
I was taking a shower and the door got locked/jammed….
— Johnny Quinn (@JohnnyQuinnUSA) February 8, 2014
— Johnny Quinn (@JohnnyQuinnUSA) February 8, 2014
“And over the village slipped the days, passing into the nights; the weeks flowed by, the months crept on, the wind howled, and, glassified with an autumnal, translucent, greenish-azure, the Don flowed tranquilly down to the sea.” – Mikhail Sholokhov, And Quiet Flows the Don
— Sochi 2014 (@Sochi2014) January 29, 2014
“And everything that he saw before him / He despised or hated.” – Mikhail Lermontov, “The Demon” (Note: Russian)
— Mark Connolly (@MarkConnollyCBC) February 6, 2014
“—The point is Americans are always scared about something—frightened they’ll be kicked out of their job or their wife’s going to get raped or their car stolen…they’re scared stiff the whole time…
—Still, they don’t have these queues.
—No, they don’t have the queues, that’s true.” – Vladimir Sorokin, The Queue
Sochi residents standing in a line to enter live site where opening ceremony will be broadcast. Entry is free. pic.twitter.com/taLBCzibIW
— Артем Тихомиров (@tyomson1) February 7, 2014
“Respect was invented to cover the empty place where love should be.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
— Jeanessa Garcia (@JeanessaPR) February 10, 2014
“If you have pain in one tooth, rejoice that it is not all your teeth that are aching.” – Anton Chekhov, “Life is Wonderful” *
— The Verge (@verge) February 7, 2014
* Alternate: “The formula ‘two plus two equals five’ is not without its attractions.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground
“The illusion which exalts us is dearer to us than ten thousand truths.” – Alexander Pushkin, “The Hero” (as quoted in Chekhov’s “Gooseberries”)
— Aayush Sidd (@ayush_1901) February 7, 2014
“…as I was sifting through a heap of old and new ‘identity cards,’ I noticed that something was missing: my identity.” ― Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Autobiography of a Corpse
— Lisa LaFlamme (@LisaLaFlammeCTV) February 7, 2014
I was recently reading Paper Towns by John Green, and the young characters happened upon John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on vinyl. One of them was unfamiliar with Coltrane, which prompted his friend to say, “Trane’s playing is literally the most convincing proof of God’s existence I’ve ever come across.” The next day I was listening to A Love Supreme at my desk over and over for hours.
It’s not the first time a work of art had steered me towards something new. After I read The Hare with the Amber Eyes, I went to the Art Institute to see a Renoir that one of the book’s (real-life) characters had owned. And I somewhat blame my penchant for living on a dime in small, urban apartments by how taken I was, as a 14-year-old living in Indiana, by that enchanting 90-second opening of An American in Paris.
So I put the question out to my Millions colleagues: What works of art have you been introduced to by other works of art? The books, music, and films we love can be like trusted friends, recommending new authors or introducing us to kimchi. We all know that art changes lives in major ways, but how has it changed your life in minor ways?
— Janet Potter
Edan Lepucki: Literature doesn’t often lure me to other art, though I am comfortable blaming The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats for stoking my childhood dream to live in an apartment building. How exotic and mysterious! (Because I grew up in L.A., snow seemed downright impossible, and I didn’t even think to long for it.) I once (er, twice) put ice cream in my coffee after reading Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love; in it, the coffee shop owner Bradley talks about how the sweet concoction brightens your day — it does. I have made tacos after reading Kate Christensen’s Trouble, and I’m looking forward to following recipes from her forthcoming book, which is, fittingly, a food memoir called Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites. If I ever have a real down-and-out nervous breakdown,I plan to spend my nights sleeping on a chaise lounge by my swimming pool (which I shall also procure), a la Maria in Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays.
Sonya Chung: My excuse is that I went to boarding school. We lived in a small New England town, and we had no television. This was during the late 80s, and pop culture essentially passed me by, especially music (I have not, to this day, seen MTV). Ever since, it’s been a kind of effort to connect with music, to organically happen upon what I like and want to listen to.
More often than not, it’s happened through film. I found Bonnie “Prince” Billy through the film Old Joy, The Cranberries via Wong Kar-wai’s Chungking Express, Aimee Mann via Magnolia, John Legend and The Fugees via Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Cat Stevens via Harold and Maude, Dianne Reeves via Good Night and Good Luck. I started listening to Eminem after 8 Mile, Pearl Jam after seeing Cameron Crowe’s Pearl Jam Twenty, JT after The Social Network, more Bob Marley after seeing Marley, Bill Withers after Still Bill. It’s weird, I know — late to the party, possibly diluted, like reading the book after the movie comes out (and I haven’t even mentioned all of the music that I heard first on Glee). I suppose it’s my later-life version of that contextual thing that happens in youth: every song reminds you of a memorable night, or person, or emotion, and the music becomes a part of you, because you didn’t just listen to it, you experienced it; which is just how music, or a musician, sparks something for me through the medium of film — as an experience, a sense of interest or connection, that bears exploring. With good music, I figure, the party goes on; better late than never.
Nick Moran: Maybe I’m too suggestible, but I’ve a habit of absorbing bits of books I read. I used to think it was like literary osmosis — natural, spontaneous — but I’ve since noticed a primary trigger: food. In this respect, perhaps it’s more like literary Inception — involuntary, unconscious. Food references grab my attention even when they’re wildly inappropriate. I bought a doughnut right as I started reading Skippy Dies. I ordered fugu twice in Japan because I read People Who Eat Darkness on the plane over. I’ve tried to read on a full stomach, but it does me no good. Months later, these references might come back to me. It’s been over two years since I read Origins, but I’m still near-manic when I see pregnant women in public. Eat more salmon! I wish I could scream. (I’ve since disbarred myself from reading about childbirth.) The other day I finished reading The Westies, T.J. English’s salacious overview of Manhattan’s Irish mafia, and now I’m trying to eat a meal at all of the bars mentioned. Sometimes I reflect on this development shamefully. I really want to eat a meal where Mickey Featherstone shot a guy? And yet there’s nothing I can do. I am too easily swayed. I am biddable. One thing I know: it’ll get worse before it gets better. Next I’m reading The Master and Margarita. I’m told there are pickles. I’m told there are sausages.
Hannah Gersen: Several years ago, I fell under the spell of the poet Forrest Gander’s novel, As A Friend, which tells the story of an intense and ultimately tragic friendship between two men. At the center of the story is a charismatic young poet, Les, who everyone in the novel falls in love with, and who I quickly fell in love with, too. Some reviewers suggested that Les was based on the poet Frank Stanford, so I decided to track down some of his poems — it was my way of getting more of the Les character. His poems are intense and cinematic, full of dialogue and dialect, quick cuts and sneaky images. Death lurks at the edge of everything Stanford writes, but in his poems death is like a movie villain — you get a little thrill from seeing him.
Before reading As A Friend, I’d never heard of Stanford, but I soon learned that he was a favorite among poets, a cult figure who produced seven volumes of poetry before killing himself a few days before his 30th birthday. He grew up in Memphis and the Ozarks of Arkansas, an isolated mountain region, and his poems seem to come from a secret pocket of America. Stanford’s strangest and possibly most famous work is a long, messy epic called The Battlefield Where The Moon Says I Love You. I bought a copy of it, but admit I have never sat down and tried to read the whole thing in earnest, partially because it is so long (over 15,000 lines), but also because I think it might induce delirium. One day I’ll read it — actually, probably one night — but until then I am happy to reread Stanford’s shorter poems, as well as Gander’s As A Friend.
Elizabeth Minkel: I was eighteen. I suppose that’s as good an excuse as any. But I found myself, just before Christmas my freshman year, making plans to leave a cloistered liberal arts college in New England and head to New York. To study jazz. Jazz. There might have been a guy involved. But by then, my obsession with the music had overshadowed any of that — I was listening to it constantly, reading about it and puzzling over it and romanticizing it, wasting all of my money at the used CD shop in town, until one day, I popped into the used bookstore across the street and found the book. I’d never heard of Geoff Dyer, funny to think of that now, but the title was enough: But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz.
I read it without stopping; I took it all in one breath. It’s as uncategorizable as anything Dyer’s ever written, but the back cover bills it as a series of vignettes, and that’s good enough: the stories are meant as echoes of their subjects’ music: Lester Young, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk. It was the first one, about Lester Young — “He was disappearing, fading into the tradition before he was even dead. So many other players had taken from him that he had nothing left” — that got me. By the end, I was gone. But that was the funny thing: this book did the exact opposite of what I’d meant it to do when I’d picked it up. But Beautiful knocked my world back into orbit: it reminded me that I’d spent most of my life deeply enamored of books. This is the book that made me want to write — write anything at all. By the spring, I was an English major.
In the comments: Tell us about works of art that introduced you to other works of art.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
Could geeking out over a mutually beloved novel surpass even alcohol as the ultimate social ice-breaker? In my three months of solo travel in India, shared literary interests have opened the doors to several new friendships. Quite like the bond formed between travelers on similar journeys, the bond formed around a favorite novel is one of shared immersive experience, usually open to impossibly wide interpretations. When we meet someone else who’s “been there,” there’s a biting urge to know exactly what the other person saw, what scenes remain strongest in her memory, what crucial knowledge or insight was retrieved, and what her experience reveals or changes about our own?
If we try to extend this “traveler’s comparison” to other narrative mediums — television programs, movies, plays — it can often lose some of its steam. Why is this? Relative limitlessness in physical and emotional sensory potential is the privilege and burden of the reader. The book, more so than any other form of narrative media, rings true, more synonymous, with the limitlessness and loneliness to be found while facing the open road or holding a one-way airline ticket to Azerbaijan. In my hypotheses, it is the loneliness quality in particular, physically and intellectually inherent to the act of reading, that lays the bedrock for the powerful social bonding achieved through literature. The limitlessness is critical too, as it promises a bounty of fertile avenues for conversation, but it’s the loneliness of the reader — or, as Rainer Maria Rilke might say, it’s how “two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other” — that assigns to a very special category those friendships formed over books.
Enjoying a good work of literature entails getting lost. Vast and foreign is the journey, and we wouldn’t have it any other way. If the book is good, then the intelligence that guides us through the story will appear many degrees superior to our own. Even in the case of a child narrator like Harper Lee’s Scout Finch, or an impaired one, like Christopher John Francis Boone — the autistic 15-year-old narrator of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident Of the Dog in the Night-Time — the narrative intelligences of our books should leave us feeling a bit pressed intellectually, a bit outmatched, amazed ultimately by the talent of the author who brought such an exquisite intelligence to life. It should be our expectation as readers to be transported into a compellingly drawn, but very foreign and unique reality. Our guide, the local aficionado, attempts to help us understand everything we’re taking in, though we’ll inevitably overlook and misunderstand things from time to time, sometimes big, important things. Reading Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, for me, was an experience similar to that of using one’s brain; I was able to intellectually command perhaps 10 percent of the content at hand. If this was part of Pynchon’s intent for his novel, I commend him for crafting an impressive and very odd reflection of the human condition. Yes, reading is both a richly gratifying and lonely act, at both intellectual and sensory levels, which is why meeting someone with whom we share a favorite book has a way of jump-starting our social batteries, even on our more quiet nights.
Maya Dorn, a 41-year-old copywriter, musician, and avid reader from San Francisco, uses shared literary interests as a litmus test for social compatibility. “Liking the same books is like having the same sense of humor — if you don’t have it in common, it’s going to be hard to bond with someone. You risk ending up with nothing to talk about.” Maya specifically cites Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, as popping up again and again on the fringes of her social circles. Funny she mentioned that title; though I’ve not read The Master and Margarita, it was recommended to me a month prior to meeting Maya, at a café in Goa, where a vacationing Russian day-spa owner — stoned to a point of spare, clear English and silky slow hand gestures — explained to me the premise of Bulgakov’s post-modern “Silver Age” classic. “It’s about different type of prison, a prison of the mind!” The Russian pointed meaningfully at his own head. Sharing such intensely themed, café-table book-talk with a strange Russian proved quite an adventure in itself, with our caffeine jitters occasionally morphing into anachronistic, Cold War-era paranoias of Pynchonesque mirth. He was the first Russian I’d met abroad.
Currently I’m 100 pages out from finishing Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, quite a relevant book for this topic, as so many of Eugenides’ principal characters’ social lives are influenced by literature. Clearly Eugenides sees the unique social potency of books as a given fact, something that can be leveraged as a plausible plot-building tool. College seniors, Madeleine Hanna and Leonard Bankhead, sow the early seeds of the novel’s epic romance while discussing various books in a Semiotics 211 seminar. The two of them quietly ally with one other, colluding intellectually against the opinions of the cerebral and pretentious Thurston Meems. Madeleine and Leonard criticize the gratuitous morbidity of Peter Handke’s A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, while Thurston extols the text for its originality. A bit later on in the story (spoiler alert) it is nothing other than a brief, semi-drunken bout of book chatter that opens the door for Madeleine’s unlikely one night stand with the villainous Thurston:
‘A Lover’s Discourse.’
Thurston squeezed his eyes shut, nodding with pleasure. ‘That’s a great book.’
‘You like it?’ Madeleine said.
‘The thing about that book,’ Thurston said. ‘Is that, ostensibly, it’s a deconstruction of love. It’s supposed to cast a cold eye on the whole romantic enterprise, right? But it reads like a diary.’
‘That’s what my paper’s on!’ Madeleine cried. ‘I deconstructed Barthes’ deconstruction of love.’
In the story-world of The Marriage Plot, literature maintains a power to broker alliances and define enemies. Books are also cited in the mediations of religious and political debate. Books influence career paths, and weigh in profoundly on other critical, life-defining decisions faced by Eugenides’ characters. At one point in the novel, Eugenides finds it perfectly reasonable that nothing other than a positive social experience — three young women bonding at a conference on Victorian literature — would be enough to inspire his protagonist, Madeleine, to pursue a career as a Victorian scholar.
The Marriage Plot isn’t really about books so to speak — I say this despite the title itself being an allusion to the standard plots that recurred throughout the great Victorian-era novels — nevertheless, Eugenides is most comfortable and successful in using the phenomenon of literary community to facilitate settings and move his plots. The success of The Marriage Plot may help illustrate and confirm that the social utility of literature may be by its own right capable of assuring literature’s imminent survival.
As Eugenides’ novel illustrates, the social reach of literature doesn’t end with discussions of stories and novels. Academic texts and non-fiction contribute peripheral influence to communities of all kinds, even those not squarely centered around literature. Avid reader and rock climber, Joe White, of Leeds, England cites Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void as indispensable to his adventurous social circle. “Though I can’t recall ever forming a particular personal bond over just one book,” Joe says, “being heavily involved in climbing and mountaineering fraternities has led me to form many friendships based around that specific activity, and the literature that surrounds the activity often provides talking points or focal points for the community. Pretty much everyone’s read Touching the Void, I mean, it’s not only relevant to climbing, but it’s an amazing story in its own right.”
I recently happened into a brief but enjoyable encounter with the esteemed Joyce Carol Oates. She was promoting her memoir, A Widow’s Story, and was fielding questions from her audience. Amid the 100-plus crowd, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to ask her one:
Ms. Oates, in a recent interview you spoke of the unique type of distress that comes from having one’s work rebuked in a public forum. You cited the experience of your contemporary, Norman Mailer, after having his second novel, Barbary Shore, denounced by the literary critics of the day, making, as Mailer put it, “an outlaw out of him.” But could you speak to the opposite side of this dichotomy — what might you share with us concerning that unique thrill and gratification that comes from producing a superior work of art, a work you know to be beloved by people all over the world. Do those who love your work weigh as heavy on the writer’s mind as those who detract from it?
Oates, took some time in silence to prepare her response.
“Art is a communal experience,” she replied.
As far as directly quoting the writing legend, the exact integrity of my recollections end with that phrase, but I can attest that she expounded for some time on the personal connections to be achieved through these special artifacts, books, these “communal experiences.” But does the act of reading, at a glance, feel in any way communal? Or does it feel, in fact, quite the opposite? Even members of the most ambitious and tightly-knit book clubs tend to do their actual reading in solitude. As such, when the noise of the world becomes occluded by the bestseller between your hands, it’s easy (and perhaps optimal?) to forget that so many others are journeying across this exact same text. You can’t see your companions now, your fellow patrons. They’re nowhere on your radar. You have no idea who they are or that they exist at all. Nevertheless, as you read, your fellow adventurers are out there waiting to meet you, biding their time behind a chance encounter, a well-fated introduction, a tweet, or a blog post, or an otherwise interesting article of prose. You didn’t realize it, but so much mystery, so much anticipation has amassed behind your new friendship, a cosmos-load of potential energy. You didn’t know it — you were too engaged with the mind behind the words — but through all the sentences, the pages, the lovely, lonely hours past, a part of you secretly longed for a flesh-and-blood friend with whom you could share your experience. When you meet your friend, you’ve met an instant confidant. You unburden yourselves on one another, reliving the adventures, revisiting those daunting and glorious experiences you dearly miss, refining and refreshing your perspective in the silver gazing pool of another soul, one that’s triumphed through similar loneliness. Book-bonding is soul-mating, pre-arranged through art, fun-filled and beautiful as a wedding.
Image Credit: Flickr/nSeika
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life the like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: New, Used, or Antequarian?Edan: My preference is for new books – to me, reading someone’s yellowed copy of Pride and Prejudice feels too much like wearing that same someone’s stinky sneakers. Well, maybe it’s not that bad, but I can never drum up the same kind of lust for the used as I can for the new. This might have its origins in childhood trips to Children’s Book World in West L.A. where I went to attack L.M. Montgomery’s entire oeuvre, or to get the latest installment of the Babysitter’s Club series. My appreciation for the new became part of my job at Book Soup; there I spent a lot of time stacking smooth hardcovers and shiny paperbacks, and oohing and aahing over what the receiver unpacked next. Even now I can’t help but fix displays at my local bookstore – it’s just too pleasurable to handle all those new novels.For me, buying a new book is an event, and after a day or two of reading, I write my name, and the month and year, on the book’s inside cover. I rarely get rid of the new books I buy; the connection is too deep. I love starting with a stiff and shy paperback, and ending with something dog eared, scribbled on, and creased – in that process, the book becomes read, and becomes mine.Andrew: I know I’ve been in a good used-book shop if, upon leaving, I begin to muse what it would be like to quit my job, buy the shop in question, and become Andrew Saikali, bookseller, Esq. Then reality usually sets in, and I forget this fanciful notion.Second-hand book shops are like an extended version of my den – they are what it would resemble if I had the resources. So, for me, because of the experience of buying used, coupled with the cost-savings, second-hand books trump even the shiniest new books. That said, on occasion I’ll comb the city looking for a just-released title, price be damned. (Bob Dylan’s Chronicles was a case in point.)While I admire antiquarian books – taunting me as they do from their snobby little perch behind the glass, behind lock and key – I’ve always resisted the temptation to splurge. However, if anyone wishes to initiate me into the rarified world behind that glass, my birthday is in April. You’ve missed this year’s, but you can begin to think about next year’s. I also like imported wine and fine chocolate.Kevin: I don’t know if the problem is with me or with used book stores, but either way, the relationship always ends in disappointment. I want to like used book stores, to see them as little pockets of virtue in the miles and miles of new, shiny waste sold by other stores on the block. I want to admire the shy, balding hippy who runs the place, and his quiet young apprentice, who volunteers five hours a week for unlimited free trade-ins. In my first year in every city I’ve ever lived in, I’ve made the rounds of the local used bookstores. Usually my initial trip is also my last. My latest such dalliance was with two places down in Old City Philadelphia. Not wanting to leaving empty handed, I walked out with a frayed history of colonialism in Latin America and a collection of Vonnegut short stories. Both are sitting just where I left them when I came home, in a stack at the foot of my bed. One problem with big chain bookstores, I suppose, is the way they press books upon you, with table displays and prominent shelf placements. It’s hard to discern value that way, too, as hard as it is to determine the same among the undifferentiated clutter of most used book stores. That’s why, all in all, I prefer hand-me-downs from friends, and the library.Emre: I find it hard not to get new, crisp books. There is a certain delight in slowly molding a novel’s spine until the covers bend for a comfortable one-hand-hold read. And, they smell good. That said, I prefer used books when reading not-so-recently published works. I appreciate three qualities in used books: artwork and fonts from a different era, notes by various previous owners (I enjoy the conversation regardless of whether we agree or not) and the randomness that often characterizes how I get them. So far they have – through friends, hole-in-the-wall bookstores or sidewalk vendors – introduced me to Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and The Sirens of Titan, and Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo, among others. As for collecting and caring for vintage books, I got nothing. Some sort of book karma seems to be recycling everything that passes through my hands.Emily: Although I love a good rare books room (nothing like the feel of vellum and a little paleographic challenge), I don’t own anything much that’s worth more than the paper it’s printed on. I do own a first edition of Mary McCarthy’s first novel The Company She Keeps, but that wasn’t more than fifty dollars. No, the most expensive book in my collection, coming in at a whopping $92 plus shipping, is (try to contain your jealousy) the out-of-print Life, Letters, and Philosophical Regime of the Third Earl of Shaftesbury, edited by Benjamin Rand (1900). It’s a discharged copy from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and falling apart in spite of the fact that quite a few of the pages were uncut when it arrived. This purchase was practical: The Stanford library didn’t have a copy and since I didn’t make it to see the manuscript version of Shaftesbury’s regimen at the National Archives in London, this was the most expedient solution. In general, I’m pretty cheap when it comes to books. My most recent acquisition, for example, was a copy of La Princesse de Cleve (1678) by Madame de Lafayette, considered by some literary historians to be the first European novel. And that was free! (The only treasure in box of books left outside a used bookstore after hours.) Probably my best “find” after a copy of Colley Cibber’s classic (and then, perhaps still, out of print) early eighteenth century play The Careless Husband that I found on the sidewalk in Park Slope.Max: All three types of books speak to me. I blossomed as a reader thanks to used bookstores in Washington, DC and Charlottesville, where the books were cheap and I could easily compile the oeuvre of whoever I was obsessed with at the moment, Vonnegut or John Irving or Hemingway. But I’ve soured a bit on used books because too often used bookstores are hobbies of hoarders and impossible to navigate, or they are too polished and expensive. I will always love, however, the pocket paperbacks of the 50s to the 70s. I love the cover designs across those eras and I love being able to have a book with me, quite literally in my pocket, without having to schlep it awkwardly under my arm.But new books are in most cases better. I find them incredibly tempting with their shiny covers and crisp pages, though, as noted, I do get a bit weary of lugging hardcovers. As for the antiquarian books, I sometimes fancy the idea that it might be fun to be a book collector, but I know I do not have the temperament for it. I cannot see books as objects in that way, and, with the few books of value I have accumulated over the years, I fret about what I am supposed to do with them… sell them? Lock them in a safe? They sit in a box so that they won’t get wrecked. And that’s no place for books to be.So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: Used, new, or antiquarian?
About a year ago, The Millions readers recommended that I read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita after I wrote about Crime and Punishment – which was not so much a commentary on Dostoevsky’s fantastic writing, but a plea for more excellent Russian literature. As happens with a lot of books I end up reading, I stumbled upon the novel per chance: a friend visiting me in DC had a copy he intended to read, but gave it to me as a travel companion.Enter the devil – or Messire, as his servants respectfully call him. Set in Moscow, ostensibly sometime in the 1920s or 1930s, and in Yershalayim right before and after the Crucifixion, Bulgakov’s eccentric satire brings the ruler of the shadows into the lives of unassuming citizens.As a heavily censored author in communist Russia, Bulgakov mocks the bureaucracy, hints at literary and political persecution, and employs the tightly regulated social life under Stalin to create a colorful scene of chaos.It all begins when Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz urges the poet Ivan Homeless to revise his latest piece in a way to demonstrate that religion is bogus – namely by explaining that Jesus never existed. A curious stranger joins the debate and, taken aback by the suggestion that the devil does not exist, begins prophesizing about Berlioz’s fast-approaching death. When the chubby publisher succumbs to his fate as foretold, Ivan loses it. And soon, many people in Moscow do too.Surrounded by an incredible retinue comprising an odd-looking fellow in a pince-nez suit; a talking, drinking and mischievous black tom; a beautiful and often naked red-haired woman; and a vicious, stocky, short man with a fang protruding from his mouth, Messire – or Woland as others call the devil – rules Moscow for a brief few days, amusing himself and his entourage and terrifying many others.But the devil’s show is not inherently evil, rather it is a collection of minor acts that play on the actors’ vices: bribery, free-goods and personal favors go a long way for the citizens of a cash-strapped USSR. And while Bulgakov amuses his reader with Woland’s deeds and his victims, he introduces the Master and his lover, Margarita. And, he solemnly tells the story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate.The Master, who is banished to an insane asylum after his novel about the Crucifixion is deemed unfit for publishing and subjected to scathing reviews by literary authorities, might just symbolize the author. For The Master and Margarita shared the same fate as the Master’s piece on Pilate – it was published in 1967, 27 years after Bulgakov died.But the similarities do not stop there. Like the Master who burns his manuscripts, Bulgakov, in an effort to convince Soviet authorities to let him emigrate, destroyed his “book about the devil,” and later rewrote the novel from memory. At the time of his death, the work was still not in its final form.Bulgakov dictated revisions and additions to his third wife, Yelena Shilovskaya, even from his death bed, and it was she who brought the work to light. Much like Margarita in the novel, who relentlessly pursues her Master and his writings, aiming to both satisfy her desire to know how the story in Yershalayim unfolds and share the masterpiece with the world.The Master is not the sole teller of this story, however. As time winds back and forth between certain parts of the book, the reader hears the story from Woland, the Master and a narrator from ancient times. One is, all of a sudden, observing the painful contemplations of Pilate, his disgust for the post in the Middle East and the brewing tensions in Yershalayim. I’m not much for Christian history, but from what I can tell Bulgakov sheds a different light on to the whole situation. This becomes manifest later on as the reader sees the symbiotic tie between the devil and Jesus as they decide certain characters’ fate.The Master and Margarita shows the folly of Soviet repression, but it does not stop at mere cynicism and irony. Bulgakov also illustrates that the devil might watch out for Jesus, and vice versa, i.e., there are more gray areas even in the scripture than one might ordinarily perceive.The gripping plot surely helps with the read, but Bulgakov’s genius is in the subtle theories and observations he advances throughout this page-turner, forcing a reader to think about what it all means as a grin maliciously spreads across his face.PS: I was reading the book on the bus in DC one evening. A kid, probably about five, saw the cover and remarked, “The cat has a snake’s tongue. That’s stupid.” Clearly the subtlety was lost on the child, but I still find the comment very amusing. This brings me to a stylistic note: The version I have has the black tom in a suit looking over his left shoulder and slithering his split tongue; similarly, The Heart of a Dog – also by the same author – features a dog in a suit, with his tongue out, and looking over his right shoulder. Just a random note…