I didn’t read much during the first half of the year. Trying to finish up my own novel left me so exhausted, and at one point, so repelled by the creation of fiction that I could barely even look at a book. Which all seemed very much like something out of O. Henry: I’d started writing fiction because I love to read it and yet found myself unable to read because of what I was writing.
Funnily enough, the book that broke this curse was Enchantments: A Modern Witch’s Guide to Self-Possession by Mya Spalter. I picked it up because I aspire to project the appearance of self-possession—fake it until you make it, as they say. It’s a short book designed to remind its reader just how much power our intentions, habits, and rituals assert in our lives. I’m at my most functional when I’m fully engaged with this fact.
I read My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh, and the idea of taking a full year off from my own life to sleep was so appealing that it made me a little worried. At the time, I was feeling exhausted from writing, from work, from the news, from the bizarre way that time seemed to behave in 2018—somehow the beginning of the year feels like it was an eon ago. And yet, I don’t feel that I’m allowed to waste my own time, which makes me wonder if I suspect it doesn’t really belong to me.
I read two books of poetry this year, the first of which being Maps by John Freeman. As you might be able to tell from the title, it’s a strongly setting-oriented collection, and the focus on location was pleasantly grounding for me, even when the poems dealt with violence, grief, and other difficult subject matter. The second book was a re-read: IRL by Tommy Pico, who has been my closest friend for the last decade and a half. I revisited this book because I miss him—for the first time since we met we are no longer living in the same city; his departure was a quietly cataclysmic event that dominated the emotional landscape of my 2018. I love this book as I love Tommy, who is just as insightful and funny in person as he is on the page.
This year, I finally finished The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, which I’ve been reading since 2014. It’s a deeply weird book—the devil and his entourage show up in Soviet Moscow to torture the literati class, and Jesus and Pontius Pilate also appear in a few chapters. I doubt I would’ve kept reading it had it not been recommended to me by some good friends of mine whose taste I really like and respect. There was so much affection for me in this recommendation and so much affection for my friends in my desire to see the book through to the end. Which I’m glad I did. As it turned out, I ended up really liking and respecting the novel as well.
I read There, There by Tommy Orange, which made me extraordinarily jealous—I don’t know how someone writes so convincingly from multiple perspectives. I feel I will never be able to do this well, so of course it’s a feature of the next writing project I’m planning. Because of this project, which features a con artist, I read Fingersmith by Sarah Waters for inspiration. And I also read Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell, because I think I’d like to set it in 1940s New York.
I bought The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling because when I heard her read an excerpt from it, I felt mesmerized by the prose. Kiesling is an arresting writer on the sentence level, which is a talent that makes me as jealous as the ability to write from multiple perspectives. I loved this book because of the way it depicts a mother’s love for her child: unsentimentally, honestly, and intensely. And as a form of love that can be lonely, even though the object of it is always present.
I read XX by Angela Chadwick, which is also about motherhood. I turned 34 this year, and don’t yet have children but want them, so I found myself thinking about motherhood quite a bit in 2018. In the novel, two women, Rosie and Jules, participate in a clinical trial that allows Rosie to get pregnant through a process called ovum-to-ovum fertilization—meaning that they’re both genetic parents to their child. In the world of the novel, as it would be in the real world, this is highly controversial for many reasons, not the least of which being that participants in the trial can only have female children. I love this premise and Chadwick plays it out through characters that are very emotionally compelling.
Earlier this month, I read Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata, as I was coming home from a trip to London to visit my grandmother, who’d had a small stroke earlier in the year (she’s fine). It is a short, light book about a woman who feels that nothing “normal” (marriage, children, professional ambition) is right for her. Instead, she believes that her reason for being is to serve the needs of the convenience store she works in and its customers. I loved this novel because it made me laugh when I really needed it.
2018 was an excellent year for new books. There were a few others that I remember reading and wholeheartedly enjoying: If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim, Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley, Heavy by Kiese Laymon and a galley of Cygnet by Season Butler, which will be out in 2019. I read more than a dozen books in the second half of the year, which is a lot for me because I’m not a particularly fast reader. I read so much because I wasn’t writing, which means my year in reading illustrates something very true about me: I either go all out or I don’t go at all. In 2018, I became inescapably aware of this, and as the year comes to a close, I’m trying to develop better habits that will lead me toward a more balanced 2019. Here’s hoping.
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At 10 I wanted to be an artist, practiced a hysterical form of Christianity, talked to trees, and turned a sunset at a local park into a visionary experience. My great-aunt lured me to Evangelical Christianity with the strangeness of Gospel stories where Jesus always ended up angry at his disciples’ failure to understand. I sympathized with being misunderstood, and latched on. Besides, Christianity was a forbidden fruit in Soviet Russia so I had to worship in secret. This was unnerving but also alluring. I was a breathless romantic who wanted to be surprised by a knight on a white horse. From the early ‘80s to the early ‘90s, my childhood was formed by the images, atmosphere, and allusiveness of Soviet songs.
I grew up in an artistic family where emotions flew high. I was the kind of imaginative child who could spin an entire tale from an oblong stain on the kitchen table. But there’s more to it than that. My family was not always idealistic or romantic, especially not in New York in the early ‘90s when they were too busy looking for a job or navigating the Byzantine rules of the pluperfect in English. So I attribute at least half of my preteen sensibility to growing up on Soviet songs that embarked on flights of fancy, made an idol of hope, and regaled its young audiences with a strange perspective on time.
Remembering my childhood now that I have a child of my own, I realize that it’s not so bad for childhood to be a land of illusion, ideological and otherwise. After all, “illusion” comes from illudere which means to “play with”—so every kind of illusion can become a playground for imagination. To harbor illusions is to hope, to dream, to construct imaginary landscapes and characters. But illusion does more than stimulate the imagination; it can also stimulate emotional development as the child dares to imagine a better existence or learn to face her fears.
The earnestness with which they approached the pains of childhood, as well as the equally painful idea that childhood is bound to end—stayed with me through adulthood. Even now, I see the flood of irony in our culture as a certain anxiety about emotional engagement; funny that the Soviet songs’ simple lyrics seem more emotionally mature to me that a lot of mainstream fiction published in The New Yorker.
These songs were also making me self-aware. While enveloping me in the fog of whimsy and illusion, Soviet songs also showed me how to notice of the work of mythmaking, the snares of narrative, the “ardor of art.” The songs taught me to dream while distrusting the hopefulness of dreams. Hopeful yet often uneasy about what’s to come, they made me interrogate my future—and my childhood—in ways that were revealing and even frightening. To cope with this ambivalence, I started making art. Perhaps the best way to harness illusions is by creating your own.
1. “The Winged Swing”
The Soviet songs of my childhood were replete with images of clouds, the sky, or even flight. “The Winged Swing” begins with a boy’s melodious voice over some shimmering piano chords and then is backed up by a lush children’s chorus along with some ’80’s electronic percussion. This is the main song from the 1980 miniseries The Adventures of the Elektronic (about a robot boy posing as his human double) and it includes the following lyrics:
The beginning of the April
Snow in the park begins to thaw,
And the jolly winged swing
Is beginning to take off.
Everything has been forgotten,
Frozen heart inside the chest,
Just the sky, the wind and gladness
Will be awaiting us ahead!
The winged swing is a pretty straightforward metaphor for something that takes you away from your troubles and literally brings you closer to “sky, wind, and gladness,” allowing you to come closer to the beautiful unknown. Weirdly, the swing also makes you painfully aware of the end of childhood:
Childhood won’t last forever,
It will be over in the end,
Kids will turn into grown men,
Each will go his own way.
But so far we are still children,
We have time for growing yet,
Just the sky, the wind and gladness
Will be awaiting us ahead!
This cultivated, somewhat maudlin nostalgia for childhood becomes even stranger when you consider that the robot singing the song about the swing is posing as an 11-year-old boy in a local Soviet school and that his audience—within the fictional framework of the film and outside of it—consists of other children. Why does the winged swing take us out of the painful present, make us realize we’re children, and move us towards the future? And what is Soviet about this whole set-up?
Addressing the stars of Soviet literature at the Soviet Writers Congress in 1934, the Central Committee Secretary Andrei Zhdanov gave an important speech that codified Soviet aesthetics for decades to come. In this speech, he argued that Socialist Realism was to depict reality in its revolutionary development. (If writers didn’t conform to this aesthetic policy, they would be unpublished and shunned.) This demand is a contradiction in terms, and a fascinating one: it’s already difficult to depict “reality,” whatever we believe this reality to be, but what exactly is its “revolutionary development”? Zhdanov, Maxim Gorky, and others dictating Soviet aesthetic policy saw no contradiction since they saw the reality of the Soviet Union—its rapid industrialization and growth, as well as its high-ranking literacy—as being precisely in line with the goals of the 1917 October Revolution. So for Party officials, all art had to reflect the ways in which Soviet society followed revolutionary goals. But the way this policy trickled down to the producers of mass art and media was to cause a permanent confusion between past, present, and future. In children’s media, “revolutionary development” became simplified to a vision of the future that was immanent in the present but still had to be aspired to.
Thus, the “winged swing” is a metaphor for a kind of faith—in the system, or in a better life—that will literally propel children to the future of “gladness.” They will leave aside both the troubles of the present and the realization that adulthood is inevitable. Paradoxically, what gives the winged swing momentum is the very nostalgia for the childhood from which it’s taking us away. This song impacted me precisely because of this mélange of sadness and hopefulness, vague and manufactured as it may be.
As a child, I felt a certain nostalgia about endings. The end of summer, the season of our dacha with its many hours of shadow-dappled indolence spent making a long-legged man out of Play-Doh, watching the family of hedgehogs drink milk out of a saucer on the attic balcony and easing my phobia of the attic, practicing my TV-announcer skills on the pear trees in the orchard, watching the electric-green dragonfly drag its exotic body across the train platform. The end of an illness when I wouldn’t be pampered anymore. The end of a train ride, even.
And hope, joy? There was always hope, a kind of banal hope, that it would all repeat, that it would all be as wonderful as before. The tension between this hopefulness and its counterpart, a sinister air of foreboding, an anxiety about what’s to come, is at the crux of the way the songs I listened to defined my Soviet childhood.
The ambivalence of Soviet songs stemmed from their bittersweet treatment of childhood as a time of possibility but also of losses, present and future. The 2015 American Disney film Inside Out made headlines in the world of popular culture because it valorized sadness as the emotion that help the child protagonist come to terms with big changes in her life. But children’s media in the Soviet Union had been aware of this at least 35 years ago. As strange as it can sound, making a child nostalgic for her own childhood can be beneficial in forging self-awareness, specifically, the understanding that this period in her life is not permanent. Perhaps this self-inflicted nostalgia also doubled as a wink towards the childhood of the Soviet Union—the Russian Revolution, whose aims were betrayed at its inception.
Some of the songs of my childhood pointed not towards the future but towards the eternal Now. The 1962 song “May There Always Be Sunshine!” was written by the famous children’s writer Korney Chukovsky, who claimed that the refrain was composed in 1928 by the four-year-old boy Kostya Barannikov. Written by a child, the song was about a child and performed by a child, and thus, seemed to give children agency. “May There Always Be Sunshine” juxtaposed a children’s choir with a march rhythm and a child solo singing the refrain. Translated into English, the song was adopted by Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie and became an anti-war anthem:
“Bright blue the sky,
Sun up on high –
That was the little boy’s picture.
He drew it for you,
Wrote for you, too
Just to make clear what he drew.
May there always be sunshine,
May there always be blue skies,
May there always be mommy,
May there always be me!”
The song ends with “Down with all war!/ We want no more./ People stand up for you children.
Sing everyone -/ Peace must be won,/ Dark clouds must not hide the sun.” A couple of years after the Soviet invasion of Hungary and a few years before its invasion of Czechoslovakia, it seems sentimental and downright disingenuous to associate the Soviet Union with peace. Yet singing about peace—even if such peace is a counterfactual—can become the first step to envisioning it as a viable possibility.
Commenting on two impossibly “hopeful” texts, the late philosopher Richard Rorty bids us to “concentrate on the[ir] expressions of hope. We should read both [The New Testament and The Communist Manifesto] as inspirational documents, appeals to what Lincoln called ‘the better angels of our nature’, rather than as accurate accounts of human history or of human destiny.” In other words, it’s not as important that The New Testament and The Communist Manifesto do not reflect humanity’s faults in a viable, realistic way; what’s more important is that they show us a different way to be. These documents are aspirational and idealistic; they are literally visionary in displacing the reality of the present moment with a dream of a better (more virtuous, more just) future.
“May There Always Be Sunshine” also hovers in the uncertain verb tense of dreams—the conditional/subjunctive/future. Singing about peace might not help achieve it, but it might help us envision a world where peace is, indeed, possible, against all odds. It’s a dream of a child who wants herself, mommy, and blue skies to persist in the Eternal Now, which is especially poignant given that 1962—the year the song was written—was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the heart of the nuclear threat.
In the 1980s, I was secretly an Evangelical Christian. I believed in the parables of The New Testament and the miracle math of feeding a crowd of 3,000 with five loaves of bread. I believed in the vision of the lion lying down with the lamb and turned a blind eye to apocalypse. I also believed The Little Prince was real. After I read The Master and Margarita in the early ’90s, I believed that “to each will be according to their own belief.” Yet this, too, was a fierce belief like any other. I was drunk on belief, and the idea that belief—my belief!—has consequences. “May there always be…” always excites me with its ellipses, but the first part of the phrase, the invocation of a hidden force, is even more inebriating.
Many Soviet children’s songs also thrived on nostalgia as well as a longing for the idyllic future. The classic 1966 cartoon Cheburashka is about a misfit toy that is “an animal unknown to science.” The Cheburashka birthday song created its memorable tune through the accordion riding on top of some gentle percussion. With monkey ears and the body of a cub, Cheburashka is a lovable misfit who wants a friend and resists all labels. One of its musical numbers became the iconic birthday song for children of all generations to come. These are the coveted wishes of the birthday girl or boy:
“A wizard will suddenly appear
In a blue whirlybird,
And will show me free movies.
He’ll say Happy Birthday
And just before he flies away
He’ll probably leave 500 ice cream cones for me.”
In a country where children’s programming only appeared for two hours a day on a meager two channels in the ’80s and where you had to stand in a long line for an ice cream cone (you also had to wait in line for milk, butter, toilet paper, and many other items), the pleasures were simple.
The “Blue Train” song is even more iconic; nostalgic for the past, it heralds the Soviet promise of a better future ahead as the train propels Cheburashka and his best friend Crocodile Gena into the unknown:
“Slowly the minutes swim far away,
And even though we’re a little sad to let the past go
The best is, of course, yet to come!
Smoothly, smoothly, the far road runs along
And runs up right against the skyline
Everybody, everybody, believes in the best
The blue train rides and rides along.”
“Blue Train” matched the energetic melody of the accordion with the train’s rhythmic to-and-fro; the cartoon ends with the characters riding off into the future we’re not privy to as they sing along to Crocodile Gena’s accordion. As a child in the United States, I longed for the future. I harbored wild fantasies of all the adult things I would do at 12, of trips to Manhattan for “real” chocolate and artisanal bread and the FAO Schwartz Toy Store, of the thrill of high school with its boys and high heels and all the books I would read and the poems I would write. It is a little sad to be living your childhood believing that “the best is, of course, yet to come!” because, in a way, this diminishes the life that you’re living right now. But “hope is the thing with feathers,” and dreaming of a better life really did save me from the doldrums when I was an awkward big-nosed 15-year-old who dressed exclusively in black and read Jean-Paul Sartre. Like “real” Communism for the Soviets, adulthood seemed sweet with promise unattainable, or at least very far away.
I don’t remember what I ate or who I talked to, but I do remember that in sophomore year, I was high on William Shakespeare monologues, scribbles in the school library, trips to the Brooklyn Heights Starbucks cafe (my writing haunt) and the Promenade. I didn’t so much dream of the future but surround myself with the dreams of others—Virginia Woolf’s short story about a perfect piece of colored glass, Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha and The Glass Bead Game, Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths, and even a dream gone wrong, Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. The prison house of language became my playground; my future, consciously or unconsciously, became enmeshed with stringing together (or pulling apart, for closer inspection) the glass beads of words and meanings, my own and those of others.
Now I can’t help falling into old habits and keeping to the mantra that “the best is yet to come.” At 34, dealing with my mom’s recent death, meager job prospects, and Donald Trump’s presidency, this is becoming harder to believe than it had been at 15. But I can’t help dreaming, wishing, and hoping. Such hope is often painful in the face of the unpalatable present. Yet it also gives me the capacity to dream of a future that makes a laughable illusion of the present—through the process of making art.
While “Blue Train” propels us to a beautiful future, “The Beautiful Faraway” plays with our assumptions about time yet suddenly turns very serious in terms of the speaker’s inner journey. The song appears in the 1985 miniseries The Guest from the Future, which is about a girl from the future who travels to the present and a boy who lives in the year 1984 and travels to the future. The song confides in the listener with its child singer, intimate guitar accompaniment, and some flutes chiming in while the singer implores the future to not be cruel:
“I’m hearing a voice from the wonderful future
The morning’s voice in silver dew
I’m hearing a voice, and the glittering path
Makes my head spin like a carousel from my childhood.
Oh wonderful future,
Don’t be cruel to me.
Towards a wonderful future,
I’m beginning my journey.”
While the voice from the future is beguiling, it also asks “What have I done today to earn tomorrow,” implying the future will only be wonderful if consequences from the present make it so. The song makes childhood a state that is always and already absent, or at least receding into the past as the future, however wonderful, makes its way into the present. The sense of responsibility for the future—and not knowing exactly what this responsibility entails—always made me slightly anxious as I listened. Maybe this was because I didn’t have many responsibilities as a child, and even the knowledge that more will come was anxiety-inducing. Just as in “Winged Swing,” the foreboding tone of “The Beautiful Faraway” was winning over its hopefulness.
In a strange sense, this song rendered the future as well as beauty itself more abstract and weirdly interchangeable. Was the Beautiful Faraway beautiful because of its abstract positioning in the future? Or did it reside in the future precisely because that was the space for beauty? It was hard to tell. If childhood entails dreaming of the beautiful future and also making sure it comes to be through responsible actions, the song also made childhood come to terms with its own absence. The dream becomes an act of erasure, and the song doesn’t hide it since the narrator is “… hearing a voice, and…hastening towards its call/ On a road with no footprints.” This road with no footprints is the road of childhood. It seems to exist only to bring us closer to the impossible future. And then it is no more.
When I was six, I entertained myself by taking an empty box of chocolates and, Joseph Cornell-style, inserting a miniature character in each empty niche. I would make princesses out of matchsticks with cotton and loose strips of fabric; attach buttons to tall clothespins to make a lopsided face; adorn an empty niche with a shard of glass found on an Odessa beach at night. I didn’t even need dolls or stuffed animals to keep myself amused.
Yet, at other times, dreaming made it impossible to be present or connected to the everyday world. For one thing, my dreams were solitary and didn’t require a companion; so detailed was my fantastical inner life that any intrusion would shatter its fey fragility. And I was encouraged to while my days with my dreams by my parents, sister, and grandparents. Of course, this fueled my imagination, but also became the reason why I only learned to wash by myself at age 11, would fail to make my bed every morning, and never really had any responsibilities.
5. Irony vs. Art
Thus ends the whirlwind tour of the Soviet songs that formed my childhood. Beautifully orchestrated, at times schmaltzy, they imbued me with a sense of longing for my own childhood (almost like the 1960s Soviet bard song “Nostalgia for the Present”). This childhood was like Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s God, a sphere whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. It was a void that didn’t have any definable characteristics except for longing itself, a space where I could long for an opaque future that also provided a convenient escape from the past. Childhood was a space to dream, even if the dreams I conjured—of kissing my best friend, getting an American Barbie, growing up—were vacuous. They were vacuous because they were born of the collective unconscious of Soviet childhood and were not especially unique to me. But they also provided me with the ability to connect with others, and this was significant. Dreaming the same dream as other little girls made me feel less alone.
And now I’m going to assert something very strange: that Soviet songs (and Soviet popular culture) encouraged me to make art because of their unironic belief in hope. To be capable of enacting even inner change through art-making, you first need to believe that this change is at least possible, that art is even worth making in an age when, most likely, no one will pay you for it and it won’t reach a whole lot of people. To be an artist you need to have hope even when your vision of hope comes against all odds, when others will judge you as naïve for such hopefulness.
According to David Foster Wallace, the so-called “New Sincerity” movement was a cultural response to postmodernist irony and cynicism; its heroes are the anti-rebels “who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that’ll be the point. Maybe that’s why they’ll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval.”
Interestingly, New Sincerity became relevant in the post-Soviet context as scholar Michael Epstein employed it in response to the sense of absurdity permeating Soviet culture. According to Epstein, “Postconceptualism, or the New Sincerity, is an experiment in resuscitating ‘fallen’, dead languages with a renewed pathos of love, sentimentality and enthusiasm.” Because their emotional kernel speaks to a bygone era in the Soviet story, the outmoded languages of Soviet songs should re-emerge for analysis and scrutiny. They speak to the hopefulness of childhood, as well as to our genuine fear as to what will happen if we give in to such hope.
I had such hope because of my Soviet upbringing. Irony doesn’t have to be the opposite of hopefulness, but too much skepticism—the very precondition for irony—can wither ambitions and narrow artistic horizons. At 12 I began writing breathlessly and badly, manically overestimating my abilities, overreaching my boundaries of knowledge and life experience. I was naïve as to the power of language to effect real change in the world and even more naïve about romantic love. But sometimes I think that realistic expectations and the whip of irony would have helped me achieve one thing only: failure.
On the surface, it seems like the Soviet songs I mentioned here aim to imbue us with hope, a confidence in the future. Yet on deeper inspection, they also show the future to be a kind of “confidence game”—constantly receding, never certain, only definite because of a break from the past. The songs make childhood into a state that is defined by perpetual dreaming. The etymology of “child” comes from Proto-Germanic *kiltham (source also of Gothic kilþei “womb,” inkilþo “pregnant.”) In a way, children are pregnant with the future, with the confidence of what’s to come. They are professional dreamers, and this is fascinating and anxiety-inducing at once. Paradoxically, their dreams almost always have to do with the displacement of childhood by a shadowy future self. (Children always play at being doctors and firemen, mommies and daddies, almost never other children.)
On my daughter’s second birthday, my father played “Blue Train” on the accordion and we all sang the Cheburashka birthday song about the wizard descending on a blue helicopter as she blew out the candles. Will she be taken in by songs about “The Beautiful Faraway” and “Winged Swings,” or will she find their sentiments groundless? I really can’t say. But one thing is clear—even now, so many years after my own childhood came and went, I still find myself humming to the tune of “May there always be sunshine.”
I’ve tried to come up with so many different themes for this year and the way I read my way through it. The year I read all the Russians! The year I read all the sad white woman poetry! The year I tried and failed to read all the books I’ve been hoarding under my sofa! And all of those are true, but none of them are all the truth. For me, reading comes in waves; these are the ones I’ll remember from 2017.
There was the week I spent in March reading The Master and Margarita on a river bank while my family kayaked in circles. My surprise when I discovered the book was infinitely more fixated on Pontius Pilate than on tequila is both embarrassing and, I maintain, not wholly unreasonable. My surprise when I found myself silently rooting for a demon cat on rampage in Soviet Moscow was just fun. Mikhail Bulgakov’s satire is biting, his characters insane, and his story strangely and deeply moving. I recommended the book to everyone I talked to for months, and I recommend it now. And as a kind of bonus, The Master and Margarita somehow, eventually, led me to Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, now one of my all-time favorite essay collections.
Later, over the long Texas summer, I filled the days and nights with women writers and what must have been gallons and gallons of sparkling water. Anne Carson’s Glass, Irony and God felt like a miracle to me—why hadn’t anyone recommended it before?—and I fell through Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, Jane: A Murder, The Argonauts, and The Art of Cruelty in a matter of days. I read Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, a sharp and challenging look at how we’re failing to respond to the migration crisis striking Central America and the U.S. Then I picked up the collected poems of H.D. for a cooling dose of classicism and a biography (or three) of Joan of Arc, who reminded me how to fight.
It was also over the summer that I looked around my apartment and realized (not for the first time) that I own far too many books I’ve never read and keep accumulating more. I spent the next few months trying to read through all the books stacked around and under and over all my furniture. That meant a lot of Graham Greene—The End of the Affair and The Power and the Glory, both immeasurably powerful books I’ve already stacked in my reread pile—and finally finishing Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, which I resisted and resisted until it undid me completely. It also meant trying to force my way through a tattered old copy of the Essays of Elia, for some reason, which made me abandon the whole project.
There’s one book, though, that I’m thinking about more than any other as we all collapse towards the end of 2017: Eula Biss’s On Immunity: An Inoculation. Though first released in 2014, when the national conversation about vaccination was much bigger than, say, any talk of an immigration ban, I’m willing to argue this book has grown more significant over the years, not less. Biss’s elegant explanation of our interconnected fates, her careful consideration of what we owe one another and her gentle (and not-so-gentle) unraveling of our isolating, protectionist instincts is a powerful reminder that we don’t—and can’t—move through this world alone.
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It’s tough being a novelist of ideas these days. Just ask Scarlett Thomas. Her newest novel, The Seed Collectors, is laugh-out-loud funny for pages at a time. As British reviewers noted, it fits securely into the great tradition of the modern British comic novel represented by P.G. Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, Muriel Spark, Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis, and Terry Pratchett, and offers considerable further satisfactions. The blurbs are from William Gibson and Neil Gaiman. And yet it looked like the book would not even come out in North America until it was picked up by the venturesome but tiny Soft Skull Press. Far worse British novels have been published in the United States and Canada; far worse British novels have won the Booker Prize. So why did the best novel yet from the most ambitious novelist in the United Kingdom almost fail to get published in North America?
The Seed Collectors is the saga of an extended family the members of which are (un)happy in their own ways; Anna Karenina updated by both Amises. That saga starts with the death of Aunt Oleander. Oleander has bequeathed a mysterious seed pod to each of her Gardener grandnephews and nieces — Clem(atis), an Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker; Charlie, a botanist at Kew; and Bryony, a part-time real estate broker and graduate student — and to Fleur Meadows, her longtime factotum at Namaste House, her New Agey retreat. It seems that the seed pods, retrieved from a Pacific island by the vanished middle generation of Gardeners, confer enlightenment — but also death.
Fleur is the only major character to reach enlightenment; she consumes her seed pod and — shades of The Master and Margarita — finds herself capable of astral flight, able to see all things at once as if she’s become Jorge Luis Borges’s Aleph. For the rest, sex will have to do. “There is quite a lot of sexing in it” — a comment on the journal of one of the vanished pod seekers — applies to the book as a whole. Little wonder that the family tree at the start of the book needs to be revised by the end.
The Seed Collectors is a departure for Thomas. Her three most recent novels, PopCo (2004), The End of Mr. Y (2006), and Our Tragic Universe (2010), were first-person narratives about young, unattached women on knowledge quests, all told with humor and inventiveness, but broadly similar. In The Seed Collectors she widens her canvas to encompass at least seven major characters including a child and a bird, a gallery that showcases her mastery of “free indirect style.” Consider the Namaste House pet robin, Thomas’s tribute to Levin’s dog in Anna Karenina, who thinks — don’t all robins? — in a quasi-medieval dialect:
Through the bedroom window he can see that Fleur is nesting, Fleur often nests. But she never lays any eggs. That man in her nest has made it yblent. Did he make Fleur put out the firedangerfish? Did he eat the other macarons? Did he make her cry out in the night, as she so often does now?
But Thomas’s real comic masterpiece is Bryony. Thomas has never written a character remotely like her before. Surrounded by the ascetically inclined, Bryony is all id and no superego: fat, spendthrift, alcoholic, shopaholic, able to resist anything except temptation, and dedicated to ludicrously self-defeating schemes for self-improvement. She is all these things, and she is magnificent. Her 15-page rampage through Selfridge’s onto Oxford Street and the train home (starting with extreme shopping, escalating through way too much wine, eating the children’s candy, inappropriate flirting with hooligans, and ending with toilet masturbation — yes, there’s a lot of sexing in this book) is the novel’s tour de force; her progress from one appalling yet hilarious act to the next is a high-wire act on Thomas’s part, requiring a virtuosic command of tone and structure. If there is anyone in greater need of enlightenment yet less susceptible to it, they are not to be found in this book:
There are 165 calories in this glass of wine, but Bryony won’t log it in her food diary later because it isn’t very nice and she didn’t really mean to have it. When she gets home she’ll have 250mls of Chablis and she’ll log that instead…Fuck it. She just won’t fill in her food diary at all today. She’ll start afresh tomorrow. That means she can drink all the Chablis when she gets home.
More important, Bryony does monstrous things to her family out of self-absorption (pulling her daughter Holly from tennis camp out of pique, choosing wine over her husband, James, when he gives her a foolish ultimatum), No wonder Holly develops an eating disorder. No wonder James pours a kettle of boiling water over his head. But, but …We’ve all reached for that last glass of wine or Twinkie while saying to ourselves “I’ll start cutting down tomorrow.” Bryony is no different, except that she takes self-indulgence beyond comedy into the realm of menace to those closest to her. We may laugh at her or we may cringe, but she’s never uninteresting.
Why did it take this book almost a year to find a publisher? I believe that a combination of industry-specific reasons and more significant cultural attitudes are to blame. The state of American publishing is a problem for any writer without a preexisting mass following. Certainly with the death of the mid-list, an idiosyncratic British writer can expect trouble with American audiences (though Paul Murray’s similar The Mark and the Void at least got published in the United States—and reviewed, with an interview, in The Millions). And in a tweet on June 29, 2015, Thomas summarized some of the reasons publishers gave for rejecting the novel: “Too weird, British, far too much sex, ‘unlikeable’ characters who drink too much…” We can only take Thomas at her word here, but “too weird, British, far too much sex, ‘unlikeable’ characters who drink too much” could once have been part of a rave reader’s report on, say, Money, or (“British” apart) Gary Shteyngart’s Absurdistan. It’s impossible not to notice that these are books by male authors centered on powerful male voices. Would Thomas have had less trouble if she were male and her main character had been Bryan rather than Bryony? I’m inclined to think not in this particular case; Thomas doesn’t mention the issue, and her defiance of literary convention is extreme enough to make an American publisher nervous. (This issue deserves a full discussion, which might begin by noting that Bridget Jones is a less extreme version of Bryony in many ways, but her self-deprecating first-person voice and the Jane Austen–derived structure of Bridget Jones’s Diary, promising a happy ending, ensure that Bridget is reader friendly. Thus, a very different woman writer achieved worldwide success with a fairly similar female character; there are lessons here.)
In fact, Thomas’s unconventionality, perhaps her greatest literary virtue, has paradoxically diminished her appeal to some of the very readers who should love her. Readers seem to have particular trouble getting their heads around her notion of the “storyless story” (as a character in Our Tragic Universe calls it, “a vagina with teeth”). For example, in a piece ostensibly arguing for the publication of The Seed Collectors, Laura Miller opined that the book’s difficulty in finding a U.S. publisher was largely due to the failure of Our Tragic Universe to engage Miller and her friends as much as its predecessor, The End of Mr Y. (The friends’ opinion: “Nothing happened.”) Where Mr Y was a science-fiction thriller that featured a lengthy chase through a Victorian, computerless cyberspace, Our Tragic Universe deals with a young writer of sharecropped science fiction (think the Star Trek series) living her coincidence-inflected life on the Devonshire coast. It is, Miller complains, “a book about stories that tries mightily to avoid telling a story,” one that “deliberately avoids introducing the sort of mechanical crises, complications, and adventures that would make the proceedings more conventionally exciting.” A succinct statement of the idea of the storyless story; but it’s hard, Miller concludes, “to see why masses of people would want to read it.”
Although this is exactly the kind of book I want to read, Miller seems to align herself with Jonathan Franzen’s statement that “fiction is storytelling, and our reality arguably consists of the stories we tell about ourselves.” But Franzen’s assumption is optional, and Thomas’s signature strength as a novelist is showing how. From her early novel Going Out — where the young protagonist Julie observes, “In real life nothing means anything. Stuff just happens and there is no structure…Not all events are stories.” — she has acknowledged that “stories give events meaning” (as Luke, the other protagonist of Going Out, responds) while battling the distortion of meaning that results from formula, cliché, and convention.
Meg in Our Tragic Universe is depressed that her own writing is the equivalent of “flat-pack furniture,” screwing pieces together according to a recipe “in exactly the way anyone would expect.” The storyless story is a protean concept in Thomas’s hands, but the reader will find Our Tragic Universe much more tractable if it is defined as the rejection of the flat pack: non-IKEA writing.
The Seed Collectors may appear less storyless — it has a beginning, middle, and end, and teems with stories the way a forest teems with trees — but look closer. Along with conventional stretches in “free indirect style,” the book contains voiceless elements such as lists and elements the voice of which comes from nowhere, such as a series of metaphysical puzzles for the reader akin to koans. At least one of the lists is Charlie’s and at least one of the puzzles is Fleur’s, but neither can be the narrator, because so much happens that they could not know. The Seed Collectors may not have an identifiable narrator, confirming Edward Champion’s insightful suggestion that “the novel, which we have believed all along to be thoroughly structured, has perhaps been a lifelike unstructured mess all along.” If so, the plot itself would mirror one of the book’s principal themes, the exuberant unstructured living mess that is nature, specifically the plant world. Whatever else it is, The Seed Collectors is not flat-pack writing, and is all the more exciting for it.
Somewhere James Wood claims that “broadly speaking, there are two great currents in the novel: one flows from [Samuel] Richardson and the other from [Henry] Fielding.” Among many other inadequacies, this distinction ignores the current that flows from Laurence Sterne, the patron saint of non-IKEA writing. Tristram Shandy is more than the fount of postmodernism and metafiction. By using these techniques, Sterne reminds us that fictions are made out of words and therefore rejects a crude Richardsonian realism. Sterneans are above all playful; at the same time, they create characters readers can care about: Tristram Shandy, Leopold Bloom, Bryony Croft. As a Sternean, Thomas is more interested in rubbing words and ideas together and seeing what sparks they throw off than in telling stories that reinforce what we already think and end happily for likeable characters.
Not so long ago, a novel like The Seed Collectors would have been enthusiastically received in North America. What is a writer like Thomas to do in the Age of Franzen? Kudos to Soft Skull Press for the courage to bring out The Seed Collectors — but such a small press, however estimable, just doesn’t have the resources to ensure mainstream success. Thomas may have to resign herself to cult status on these shores.
But at least The Seed Collectors is finally available in the United States and Canada; you can judge for yourself. And if you don’t like sophisticated work that makes us laugh and think at the same time? There’s always Purity.