For my first ever Year in Reading at The Millions, I will only be featuring books which I checked out from the local public library in my sleepy Massachusetts town a few miles north of the Red Line’s terminus. Constructed in 1892 and modeled after the Renaissance Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome, I’ve made this sandstone building a regular part of the itinerary on my way back from Stop ‘n Shop. The library has a resplendent mahogany reading room, the edges lined with framed 17th century drawings, with the back walls decorated with an incongruous painting of Napoleon’s ill-fated Russia campaign and a North African souk scene, all oranges and lemons in the sun. This room contains all of the new novels that come through the library, and after moving to Massachusetts and getting my card I made it a point to come every other week, and to take out more books than I had time to read.
I will not be considering books that I bought at the Harvard Co-Op or Grolier Poetry Bookshop, which without the deadline of a due-date tend to pile up next to my chair where they get chewed on by my French bulldog puppy. Nor will I write about books which I’ve taught these past two semesters, or which I published appraisals of and benefited from the generosity of publisher’s review copies. I’m also excluding non-fiction, preferring for the duration of this essay to focus entirely on the novel as the most exquisite vehicle for immersing ourselves in empathetic interiority to yet be devised by humans. And while there were seemingly endless books which I dipped into, reread portions of, skimmed, and started without finishing, holding to Francis Bacon’s contention in my beloved 17th century that “Some books are to be tasted… some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously,” I’ve rather chosen only to highlight those which the philosopher would have categorized as books that are “to be swallowed… to be chewed and digested.” Looking over the detritus of that complete year in reading, and examining that which was digested as a sort of literary coprologist, I’ve noticed certain traces of things consumed – namely novels of politics and horror, of imagination and immortality, of education and identity.
Campus novels are my comfort fiction, taking an embarrassing enjoyment in reading about people superficially like myself and proving the adage that there is nothing as consoling as our own narcissism. By my estimation the twin triumphs of that genre are my fellow Pittsburgher Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys and John Williams’s Stoner, the later of which remains alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as among the most perfect examples of 20th century American prose, where not even a comma is misplaced. While nothing quite reached those heights, the campus novels which I did read reminded me of why I love the genre so much – the excruciating personal politics, the combustible interactions between widely divergent personalities, and the barest intimations that the Ivory Tower is supposed to (and sometimes does) point to things transcendent and eternal.
Regarding that last, utopian quality of what we hope that higher education is supposed to do, I recently read Lan Samantha Chang’s All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost. The director of the esteemed University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Chang’s slender novel follows the literary careers of the poets who all trained together in the graduate seminar of Miranda Sturgis at fictional Bonneville College. Chang uses the characters of Bernard Sauvet and Roman Morris to interrogate how careerism, aesthetics, and competition all factor into something as seemingly rarefied as poetry. Roman has far more professional success, but is always haunted by the aridness of his verse; his is an abstraction polished to an immaculate sheen, but lacking in human feeling. Bernard, however, is a variety of earnest, celibate, very-serious-young-man with an affection for High Church Catholicism that Chang presents with precise verisimilitude, and who toils monastically in the production of an epic poem about the North American Jesuit martyrs. It’s a strange, quick read that risks falling into allegory, but never does.
A very different campus novel was Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, which details over the course of one semester a brief affair between creative writing professor Ted Swenson and his talented, if troubled, student Angela Argo. Intergenerational infidelity is one of the most hackneyed themes of the campus novel, and Prose’s narrative threatens to spill into the territory of David Mamet’s Oleanna. A lesser writer could have turned The Blue Angel, which is loosely based on Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film classic, into a conservative, scolding denunciation of gender politics; the twist being that it’s a woman whose delivering invective against the movement towards great accountability concerning sexual harassment. No doubt the novel must read very different after #MeToo, but the text itself doesn’t evidence the sympathy for Ted which some critics might accuse Prose of. As a character, Ted is nearer to Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert from Lolita, albeit less charming. When read as the account of an unreliable narrator, The Blue Angel isn’t a satire of feminist piety, but to the contrary an exploration of Ted’s ability to rationalize and obfuscate, most crucially to himself.
Ryan McIlvain’s novel The Radicals is only superficially a campus novel; its main characters Eli and Sam are both graduate students at NYU, but the author’s actual subject is how political extremism can justify all manner of things which we’d never think ourselves capable of, even murder. Reflecting back on the first day they really connected (at that most David Foster Wallace of pastimes – a tennis game), Eli says of Sam “I couldn’t have known I was standing across the net from a murderer, and neither could he,” which I imagine would be the sort of thing you’d remember when reflecting on the halcyon days of an activist group that turned deadly. McIlvain’s prose is a minimalist in a manner that I’m traditionally not attracted towards, but which in The Radicals he imbues with a sense of elegant parsimony. The politics of The Radicals is weirdly hermetically sealed, lower Manhattan during the early Obama years more a set piece for McIlvain to perform a thought experiment on the psychology of insular, extreme groups. Sam, initially the less committed of the two, though whom we’re given indications of his character during a disturbing road rage incident in the opening pages of the book, ultimately becomes the leader of an anarchist cell that emerges out of a movement which seems similar to Occupy Wall Street. As the group stalks through the Westchester estate of an executive implicated in the ’08 financial crash, we’re presented with a riveting account of how ideology can quickly veer into the cultish.
There is an elegiac quality to McIlvain’s novel, a sort of eulogy for Occupy, though of course the actual movement never fizzled out in a spasm of violence as The Radicals depicts. A more all-encompassing portrait of American politics in our current moment is Nathan Hill’s The Nix (2017). Hill’s book is a door-stopper, and for that and other reasons it has accurately drawn comparisons to the heaviest of Thomas Pynchon’s novels. The Nix follows the story of another ill-fated creative writing instructor, the unfortunately named Samuel Andresen-Anderson, though unlike Prose’s protagonist his vice isn’t sleeping with his students, but an addiction to a World of Warcraft-type video game. Samuel is only one of dozens of characters in the book, including his ‘60s radical mother who is in legal trouble for throwing rocks in Chicago’s Grant Park at a right-wing presidential candidate who evokes Roy Moore, his entitled student who functions as a millennial stereotype that somehow avoids being overly cliché, the musical prodigy of his youth whom he still pines for, her Iraq War veteran brother, and even the interior monologues of Allen Ginsberg and Hubert Humphrey. Hill’s most immaculate creation is the trickster-god of a book agent Guy Periwinkle, a mercurial, amoral, nihilistic Svengali who reads as an incarnation of the era of Twitter and Facebook.
The narrative threads are so many, so complicated, and so interrelated that it’s difficult to succinctly explain what The Nix is about, but to give a sense of its asynchronous scope the novel ranges from Norway on the eve of World War II, the stultifying conformity of 60’s Iowa, the ’68 Democratic National Convention (and the subsequent protests), suburban Illinois in the ‘80s, New York during the anti-war protests of 2003, as well as the Iraq War, and the imagined alternative universe of 2016. Its concerns include political polarization, the trauma that family can inflict across generation, the neoliberal university, and video-game addiction. Few novels capture America as it is right now with as much emotional accuracy as The Nix, but it’s all there – the rage, the vertigo, the exhaustion. Of course, haunting the pages of The Nix is a certain Fifth Avenue resident, who is never mentioned, but is very much the embodiment of our garbage era. More than that, Hill performs an excavation of the long arc of our contemporary history, and the scenes with Samuel’s mother in ’68 draw a direct connection between those events of a half-century ago and today, so that the real ghost which permeates the novel is less the mythical Norwegian sprite that gives the book its title, than that other “Nix” whose presidency set the template for a corrupt, compromised, polarized, spiteful, and hateful age.
Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic covered similar political and economic ground as both The Radicals and The Nix do, though as channeled through the mini-drama between upwardly mobile, self-made banker Doug Fanning and his new neighbor, the retired school-teacher Charlotte Graves. Union Atlantic follows Charlotte’s war of attrition against both Doug and the McMansion that he’s building in their tony Boston suburb. There is something almost Victorian about Haslett’s concerns; Doug’s journey from being raised by an alcoholic single mother in Southie to becoming a millionaire banker living in a Belmont-like suburb has a bit of the Horatio Alger boot-strap story about it, save for the fact that his protagonist never rises to the same heights of sympathy. Haslett portrays the contradictions of Massachusetts with admirable accuracy – the liberalism and the wealth, the Catholic city and the Protestant suburbs, the working class and the Boston Brahmins. As a nice magical realist touch, Charlotte is in the process of losing her mind, hearing her dogs speak to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X. I couldn’t help but be charmed by a dog who sputters invective in the tongue of the colonial Puritan theologian, saying things like “You dwell in Memory like some Perversity of the Flesh. A sin against the gift of Creation it is to harp on the dead while the living still suffer.”
A chilling evocation of those themes of sin and memory is supplied by Nick Laird in Modern Gods, though not without a bit of melancholic Irish wit. Laird provides a novel in two parts; the first concerns the wedding of Allison Donnelly to a man whom she later discovers was involved with the Ulster Unions in an act of spectacularly horrific violence during the Troubles, the second her anthropologist sister Liz’s trip to the appropriately named New Ulster in Papua New Guinea where she is involved in BBC documentary about the emergence of a cargo cult competing against the American evangelical missionaries who’re trying to convert the natives. Laird’s focus is on the horrors of sectarian violence, and the faith which justifies those acts. He could be writing of either the cargo cult, the evangelical missionaries, or the Ulster Protestants when he describes the “imagery of sacrifice and offering, memorials and altars … disguised as just the opposite, a sanctuary from materialism… a marketplace of cold transactions.” Laird’s most sympathetic (and disturbing) character is the cult leader herself, a native named Belef (just “belief” with the “I” taken out…) who appears as a character out of Joseph Conrad, and whose air of cold malice is as characteristic and as evocative of old Ulster as it is of new.
Cults from The Radicals to Modern Gods are very much on authors’ minds in our season of violent political rallies and epistemological anarchy, and so they’re a concern as well in Naomi Alderman’s science fiction parable The Power, where we see the emergence of a religion in opposition to the machinations of the patriarchy. Part of a tradition of feminist dystopian science fiction that finds its modern genesis in Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale (that author not for nothing prominently blurbing The Power). Alderman imagines an alternate world in which women are suddenly endowed with a physical strength that completely upends traditional gender roles, causing radical shifts in power from eastern Europe to Saudi Arabia, the Midwest to London. Alderman writes with narrative panache, moving rapidly between various intertwined plots and across wildly divergent voices, including that of the abused foster girl Allie who becomes the the leader of the new faith and christens herself Mother Eve; Roxie, the daughter of a Cockney-Jewish gangster; an American politician named Margot Cleary and her daughter Jocelyn; a Nigerian journalist named Tunde (who is the only major male character in the novel); and the Melania-like first-lady of Moldova, Tatiana Moskalev, who offs her piggish husband and establishes a female-sanctuary in her former country. The Power is a thought-provoking book, and one with some exquisite moments of emotional Schadenfreude, as when newly self-liberated women riot against repressive regimes in places like Riyadh, and yet it’s not a particularly hopeful book, as the new order begins to replicate the worst excesses of the old.
The Power is only one book in our current renaissance of feminist science fiction, written in large part as a response to the rank misogyny and anti-woman policies of our nation’s current regime. In The Guardian Vanessa Thorpe explains that this is a “matching literary revolution,” which sees a new “breed of women’s ‘speculative’ fiction, positing altered sexual and social hierarchies.” Louise Erdrich provides one such example in her Future Home of the Living God which reads as a sort of cracked, post-apocalyptic nativity tale. In a premise like that of P.D. James’s Children of Men, though without the implied reactionary politics, Erdrich presents the diary of Cedar Hawk Songmaker, college student and the adopted Ojibwe daughter of crunchy, upper middle-class Minnesota liberals. Cedar Hawk finds herself pregnant during an autumn when it seems as if evolution itself has started to reverse, as all manner of primeval beings hatch from eggs, one of which is the proverbial gestation of a theocratic government reacting to the ecological collapse. Erdrich remains one of our consummate prose stylists, and Cedar Hawk is an immaculate creation (in several different ways). A precocious and intelligent student, Cedar Hawk is a Catholic convert who grapples with women’s spirituality, and Erdrich presents a book that is both Catholic and vehemently pro-choice (while also understanding that to be pro-choice isn’t to be anti-pregnancy).
Genre fiction is perhaps the best way to explore our current moment, where the “Current Affairs” section and “Science Fiction” are increasingly indistinguishable. Erdrich and Alderman write in a tradition of literary speculative fiction which recalls recent work by Atwood, Chabon, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, and Jim Crace, but old fashioned hard science fiction with all of its intricate world-building never loses its charms. Sam Miller provides just that in his infectiously enjoyable Blackfish City, which follows the intertwined stories of several characters living in a floating, mechanical city above the Arctic Circle in an early 22nd century ravaged by climate change. Despite hard science fiction’s reputation for being all about asteroid mining colonies and silvery faster-than-light starships, the reality is that from Samuel Delaney to Octavia Butler, science fiction has always been more daring in how it approaches questions of race and gender than conservative literary fiction can be. Miller’s novel provides a detailed, fascinating account of how the geothermal powered city (which is operated by a consortium of Thai and Swedish companies) actually works, but his thematic concerns include economic stratification, deregulation, global warming, and gender fluidity. That, and he has depicted neuro-connected animal familiars that communicate with their human partners, including a polar bear and an orca whale. So, there’s that!
Science fiction isn’t the only genre attuned to our neoliberal, late capitalist, ascendant fascistic hell-scape – there’s also horror, of course. Paul Tremblay offers a visceral, thrilling, and disturbing account of a home invasion/hostage situation in his horror pastoral The Cabin at the End of the World, which makes fantastic use of narrative ambiguity in rewriting the often-over-played apocalyptic genre. One of the scariest novels I read in the past year was Hari Kunzru’s postmodern gothic White Tears. The strange ghost tale has been discussed as if it was a simple parody of white hipster culture’s appropriation of black music, and yet White Tears grapples with America’s racial history in a manner that evokes both William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Kunzru’s story follows the fraught friendship of Seth and Carter, who share a love of lo-fi Mississippi Delta blues music, both listening to and producing songs as an act of musical obsessiveness worthy of R. Crumb. Carter crafts a faux Robert Johnson style number attributed to an invented musician he christens “Charles Shaw,” based off of a recording of random, diegetic patter between two men playing chess in Washington Square Park which Seth picks up on one of his forays through New York to preserve ambient sound. The two discover that the fictional bluesman might be more real than they suppose.
The complexities and contradictions of American culture are also explored in Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean, which though perhaps not a horror novel itself is still a loving homage to the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. La Farge’s novel is an endlessly recursive frame-tale which follows a series of inter-nestled narratives ranging from the (fictional) homosexual relationship of Lovecraft with a young Floridian named Robert Barlow, to New York author Charlie Willett’s obsession with finding a lost pornographic work of the master himself, which is of course titled The Erotonomicon. Along the way the reader confronts questions of artifice and authenticity, as well as a consideration of the darker reaches of Lovecraft’s brilliant, if bigoted, soul. Le Farge moves across a century of history, and from the horror author’s native Providence to Mexico City on Dia de los Muertos, from northern Ontario to the Upper West Side, with a cameo appearance from Beat novelist William S. Burroughs. La Farge’s novel isn’t quite weird fiction itself, but he writes with an awareness that Lovecraft’s cold, chthonic, unfeeling, anarchic, nihilistic stories of meaninglessness are as apt an approach to our contemporary moment as any, where Cthulhu’s tentacles reach further than we’d care to admit and the Great Old Ones always threaten to devour us. Facing the uncertainties of terrifying push notification, reflect on the master himself, who wrote that the “oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
La Farge’s narrative progresses Zelig-like through 20th century literary history, its story encompassing fictionalized accounts of the intersection of both experimental and genre writing. I’ve always been drawn to picaresque, delighted by the appearance of historical figures as they arrive briefly in a story. Matt Haig’s masterful How to Stop Time has plenty of cameos in the life of its main character Tom Hazard, from William Shakespeare and Captain Cook to Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Tom isn’t quite an immortal, but in all the ways that matter he nearly is. Haig describes an entire secret fraternity of incredibly old people called the “Albatross Society” who vampire-like scurry about the margins of history. A Huguenot refugee who comes of age in Elizabethan England, Tom’s narrative follows his yearning to discover the missing daughter of his dead wife, the former a near-immortal like himself. Haig’s is a risky gambit, jumping from the 16th century to the 21st, yet he performs the job admirably, and as somebody who cashes checks from writing about the Tudor era, I can attest to the accurate feel of the Renaissance scenes in the book. Word is that a film adaptation is on the way, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (predictably), but more than even its cinematic action about secret societies and historical personages, How to Stop Time offers an estimably human reflection on what it means to grow old, and to lose people along the way.
As the nights grow dimmer and the temperature drops, the distant beginning of the year seems paradoxically closer, the months folding back in on themselves as the Earth reaches the same location in its annual terminus around our sun. January’s reading seems more recent to me than those summer beach indulgences when I got sand from Manchester-by-the-Sea in the creases of my library books, and so I end like an Ouroboros biting its own tale with the first book of 2018 which I read: Paul Kingsnorth’s enigmatic fable Beast. Founder of the Dark Mountain Project, which encourages artists and writers to grapple with what they see as an approaching climate apocalypse, Kingsnorth has been writing increasingly avant-garde prose in reaction to our inevitable demise. His main (and only) character Edward Buckmaster seems to be the same protagonist from his earlier novel The Wake, albeit that earlier novel takes place in the Dark Ages and is written in an Anglo-Saxon patois that is equally beautiful as tedious, while Beast by all intents seems to be broadly contemporary in its setting.
I’m unsure as to whether they’re the same character, or if Edward is to be understood as the reincarnation of his namesake, but both novels share a minimalist, elemental sensibility where the very nature of prose and narrative are stripped to bare essentials. Beast follows the surreal ruminations of Edward as he phases in and out of consciousness in a cottage on the English moors, in a landscape uninhabited by people, while he both stalks and is stalked by some sort of fantastic creature. The nature of the animal is unclear – is it a big cat? A wolf? Something else? And the setting is bizarrely wild, if not post-apocalyptic feeling, when compared to the reality of the urbanized English countryside. Beast is as if Jack London’s Call of the Wild was rewritten by Albert Camus. It’s the sort of “Man vs. Nature” plot that I always want to like and which I rarely do – save for this time, where I very much did enjoy Kingsnorth’s strange allegory. At least it feels like an allegory, but the nature of its implications are hard to interpret. Proffering a hypothesis, I will say that reading Beast, where boredom threaded by a dull anxiety is occasionally punctuated by moments of horror, is as succinct an experiential encapsulation of 2018 as any.
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In the frontmatter of Rebekah Frumkin’s debut novel, The Comedown, the reader is presented with two genealogy charts: one for the Marshalls, and one for the Bloom-Mittwochs. These are wild, unpruned, tangled family trees—more than a few names appear on both. Frumkin sets herself the task of filling in the stories behind these names, and in the more than 300 pages that follow, she does precisely that.
The Comedown tracks the Marshalls, who are black, and the Bloom-Mittwochs, who are white and Jewish, over multiple generations. The two families are tied to one another by a briefcase full of money, which is to say, a plot device. When a hit job goes awry, a payment to the drug dealer Reggie Marshall ends up in the possession of one of his customers, Leland Bloom-Mittwoch Sr. His and Reggie’s descendants spend much of the novel chasing after it. “A briefcase,” one character says. “That’s symbolic. Like in a dream.” The briefcase is a classic MacGuffin, an artificial goal that gives the story purpose. But, breaking with authors like Rachel Cusk, for whom writing conventional fiction feels “fake and embarrassing,” or Karl Ove Knausgaard, who wrote in his My Struggle series that “the thought of a fabricated character in a fabricated plot made me feel nauseous,” Frumkin isn’t ashamed to milk her MacGuffin for all its worth. She knows that narrative is artifice, but she also knows it’s fun.
After a wonderfully dramatic prologue that finds Leland Sr. jumping off a hotel roof in Tampa to his death, Frumkin gives us a chapter centered on his first wife, Melinda Provouchez. We see Melinda as an adolescent in the ’50s and ’60s, traumatized by her mother’s binge eating; Melinda as an overweight mother in 2009, watching over her son in the hospital; Melinda as a student at Kent State in 1970; and Melinda’s search for the briefcase, also in 2009.
Each chapter is dedicated to a single character who, in most cases, will not be the primary focus again. This structural gambit unfortunately results in a compartmentalized narrative. All 13 protagonists get their own chapter, with only one or two repeats. And because the chapters are structured like character sketches, every 15 or 20 pages the reader must reset and make mental space for a new set of personality quirks and childhood memories. As a result, much of the novel is given over to flashbacks and exposition. Each chapter demands the escape velocity of a short story.
There is something democratic about Frumkin’s approach, giving nearly equal time to all the players, from the family patriarchs and matriarchs to Lee Jr.’s video game-obsessed, gender-nonbinary lover. But not all of the characters exert the same pressure on the story, and after a while the every-character-only-once model begins to feel like more of a constraint than an armature. The novel has less of a plot than a series of reoccurring motifs, the briefcase among them, nested in the character sketches. The Comedown soars, however, when characters we’ve already met, and who have left strong impressions—like Leland Sr.—appear in other characters’ chapters, not as reference points but in actual scenes, creating a more cohesive universe.
Leland Sr. serves as the novel’s true connective tissue. Unlike the self-assured intellectuals and defiant neurotics of Philip Roth novels, Leland is an exasperating drug addict. If he has a predecessor in American fiction it is Eugene Henderson of Henderson the Rain King, or better yet Tommy Wilhelm in Seize the Day, the Saul Bellow protagonists who, unlike Charlie Citrine or Moses Herzog, lack the wherewithal to self-diagnose, and self-medicate, with philosophy. But Bellow gives his novels over to these men; in The Comedown, Leland is one voice among many.
Drugs, medicinal and recreational, shape the lives of almost every character. The Marshalls and the Bloom-Mittwochs are dealers, users, addicts, and abusers. Frumkin is attuned to the states these drugs induce, both within the user and without. A memorable chapter devoted to Lee Jr. (not to be confused with Leland Jr. or Leland Sr.) follows his plan to drug his half-brother (that’s Leland Jr.) against his will while under the influence of shrooms. Frumkin nimbly captures the anxiety, paranoia, and vulnerability of that experience. “He had the staticky, hippocampal impression that they were trapped in a snowdrift,” Lee thinks in the moments after stoned sex with a girl in his dorm, as missed calls and texts pile up on his phone.
Devi was still on top of him and he was holding her, one hand at her back, one at her ass, as though she were in a front-slung papoose….She was breathing heavily. The room’s palette was set on a higher saturation than it had been when he and Devi had started…she was thinking about how fucked up he was, and how fake he was, and how little he deserved her… He was getting a shitty Pygmalion vibe from the whole thing and gently pushed her off him.
Frumkin is whip-smart and funny. The writing is compulsively readable without being pedestrian. Sentences seem to vibrate. Here is Frumkin describing Temple Chaim Sheltok:
Unlike the more modern synagogues in north Florida—the no-frills cement ones built by the Jewish retirees who’d floated south from New York and New Jersey, with Reform rabbis who wore guayabera shirts and kept kosher one day a week—the Temple Chaim Sheltok predated both World Wars.
Compare that to Zadie Smith’s description of the Glenard Oak school in White Teeth:
It had been built in two simple stages, first in 1886 as a workhouse (result: large red monstrosity, Victorian asylum) and then added to in 1963 when it became a school (result: gray monolith, Brave New Council Estate).
Both writers have a flair for detailing the social histories of buildings, neighborhoods, and families with an arch sense of humor deployed by a winking, not-entirely-objective third-person narrator.
The Comedown is, in many ways, a throwback to the turn of the millennium. Like Smith, Frumkin’s debut employs a large, multiracial cast to explore issues of identity and history. But they most resemble one another on the level of style. Frumkin’s writing often calls to mind “hysterical realism,” James Wood’s term for the frenzied, information-rich novels of the late ’90s and early aughts by writers like David Foster Wallace, Don DeLillo, and Smith. These were novels that suffered, in Wood’s view, from an “excess of storytelling.” “The big contemporary novel is a perpetual-motion machine,” he wrote. “…Stories and sub-stories sprout on every page, as these novels continually flourish their glamorous congestion.”
Wood succeeded in identifying the symptoms of this style, but whether or not they describe a disease is a question of taste. Diedre (not Deirdre—Frumkin loves a quirky name) Bloom-Mittwoch’s chapter opens like this:
What had been happening in Diedre’s life prior to the summer of 1985, the month of July, when [Leland Sr.] drove up to the Shell where she worked in his 1976 green Ford Pinto, dressed in resort-owner pants and a guayabera, pupils massive behind a pair of expensive-looking Ray-Bans? She had been living with her girlfriend Trish in an efficiency above Sol’s Delicatessen…Trish who played drums in a hardcore band called Damocles Anthem that was moderately famous in the Orlando underground scene, playing places like Club Space Fish and D.I.Y. Records.
Wood might argue, as he did of White Teeth, that details like these “vandalize each other.” And he might be right. (There’s that guayabera shirt again.) But this style has its advantages, namely that, when used well, it infuses a writer’s prose with a great deal of intelligence and energy, which is certainly the case in The Comedown. It’s rare that a novel this smart is such an engrossing read.
In recent years, piece after piece has been written about whether white writers can (or should) write black characters, whether men can (or should) write female characters, and what we should make of sensitivity readers who comb novels for offensive material. Frumkin reminds us that these thorny questions of could and should are often a straightforward matter of imagination, empathy, and research. All of her characters are rendered with depth, portrayed with amusement and affection. Frumkin’s witty, third-person voice is as comfortable with the drug-dealing Reggie Marshall as it is his Melville scholar wife, Tasha; she can describe a tripping Lee Jr. just as well as she can Leland Jr., who works at a mutual fund and plans to invest in the very drug that Lee sprinkles on his fettuccine Alfredo.
The Comedown is not, however, a work of gritty realism aiming to portray the lived realities of a diverse set of characters. It is a fundamentally comic novel (and a very funny one at that). Frumkin’s arch style sometimes risks flattening the individual characters under the force of her voice. But in a world of Cusks and Knausgaards, Teju Coles and Ben Lerners—all wonderful novelists in their own right—a novel like The Comedown, with its wide-angle lens and authoritative third-person style, is a reminder of what good old-fashioned fiction can do.
Frumkin, like recent debut novelists Nathan Hill (The Nix) and Tony Tulathimutte (Private Citizens), writes like someone who grew up on Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Franzen, among others, writers whose generation-defining novels appeared at the turn of the millennium. The result is a number of new voices bucking the autofictional trend, breathing new life into the energetic, pyrotechnic, neo-Dickensian novels that Wood so famously knocked, where the unit of measurement is not the sentence or the paragraph but the anecdote. This is good news for the story-starved reader. Narrative is back, and it’s wearing new threads.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.
Men Without Women: Stories
What We Lose
The Seventh Function of Language: A Novel
The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake
Lots of action this month as our Hall of Fame absorbs three mainstays from the past six months: Lincoln in the Bardo, A Separation, and Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living. This marks George Saunders’s third entry into the Hall of Fame. He’d previously reached those hallowed halls for Tenth of December and Fox 8.
Meanwhile, The Nix dropped from our list after two months of solid showings. If he’s reading this (because who isn’t?) then hopefully Nathan Hill can look to two other titles on this month’s list for solace. Both The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake as well as Otessa Moshfegh’s Eileen are examples of books that have graced our monthly Top Ten one month (June, in this case) only to drop out for another (July), and then reappear (August). If they can do it, so you can you, Nix fans!
The remaining two spots were filled by new novels from Laurent Binet and Victor LaValle.
The Seventh Function of Language: A Novel, which was highlighted in both installments of our Great 2017 Book Preview, was expected to provide “highbrow hijinks.” In her review for our site this month, Shivani Radhakrishnan confirms that it delivers in this respect. Calling Binet’s novel “a madcap sharply irreverent French theory mash-up that’s part mystery and part satire,” Radhakrishnan goes on to contextualize it among other works in detective fiction and theory, which, she writes, have a good deal in common and which, she writes, intertwine to great effect here:
The new book turns Roland Barthes’s accidental death in 1980 into a murder investigation set against French intellectual life. With a cast of characters that includes Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Julia Kristeva with guest appearances by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Umberto Eco, and John Searle, it’s no surprise Binet’s book is way more dizzying than most detective stories. What is shocking, though, is how it manages to respect the theories and mock the theorists all at once.
The Changeling, too, was highlighted on this site in one of our monthly mini-previews. At the time, Lydia Kiesling implored readers to check out LaValle’s second novel, which she described as “a book that somehow manages to be a fairy tale, an agonizing parenting story, a wrenching metaphor for America’s foundational racist ills, and a gripping page-turner to usher in the summer.” If you’re still not sold, you can check out an excerpt from the book, or read our interview with the author from last year.
Skulking just beyond our list – like some expectant, lovelorn dolphin admiring a human home-wrecker as he swims – is Alissa Nutting’s Made for Love, which I reviewed a month ago, and which I encourage you all to buy and read so that this sentence makes sense.
“What do you like to read?” It’s a perfectly reasonable question, but it always makes me flinch. I am a reader—that is my identity before anything else, including writer, partner, or mother—but I have no idea how to answer that question.
First of all, just right off the bat, the question assumes that I am a coherent person from moment to moment with a consistent and legible taste in literature. That I chase after books which satisfy some sort of personal criteria for literary bliss, and as I read, I measure the pages in front of me against this ruler. Fair enough. One of my friends looks for books about messy, tangled family dynamics that end with all the loose strands woven in: The Nix by Nathan Hill. Another only reads books with a strong sense of place: The Greenlanders by Jane Smiley or The Shipping News by Annie Proulx. A third prefers introspective or philosophical novels with a spiritual dimension: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. They wield these criteria like extensions of their names: “I am the one who reads [fill in the blank].” But I have no—and I mean no—such criteria. I’ll read anything.
But a very specific anything. I’ve never in my life read randomly. I’ve never—not once—walked into a bookstore and come out with a book I hadn’t heard of before. Usually I am in the midst of a reading project. Some of these are self-determined, like when I mined a vein about evolution and the link between animal behavior and ecosystem in The Beak of the Finch by Jonathan Weiner and The Song of the Dodo by David Quammen. And some choose me, such as when Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet demanded that I read the novels of Christa Wolf. Sometimes I read to draw closer to a person—and sometimes that even works. My grandmother recently began reading again after emerging from a years-long depression, so I’ve been reading and sending to her a steady stream of David Balducci thrillers and novels about the Greatest Generation like John Crowley’s Four Freedoms.
Part of the problem is in the word “like,” that little heart we tap ten thousand times a day. I like lots of things, so many things, but I am not guided by what I like. I regularly read books that I know I’ll dislike, not to hate-read, but because I’m just plain curious—because there is something in there I need that is not pleasure.
After reading Claire Dederer’s memoir, Love and Trouble, and feeling disappointed by its surprisingly timid take on the dissatisfactions of middle-aged marriage, I picked up Sarah Dunn’s The Arrangement, a novel about the rueful complications that ensue when a couple decides to open their marriage for six months. My suspicion that any chance of the characters developing true dimensionality would be sacrificed in the quest for a punchline was amply confirmed. The book read like a novel-length screenplay treatment with nary a moral qualm and, strangely, no sex. But that was entirely beside the point for my reading project. Female desire is having a literary moment—have you noticed?—and I wanted to know the content of that conversation. Now I know.
You can see how exceedingly rule-bound my reading is. And yet I still haven’t described it to you, haven’t even come close to a polite, conversational answer to the question, “What do you like to read?” It is a deeply uncomfortable subject for me.
We’ve come now to the real risk at the heart of any honest answer to this question, the social stakes of it all. I sound like an incorrigible snob: I can see right through all the books that most people like; I am better than they are; I am guided not by pleasure pleasure but by some higher impulse.
That’s not it, though. Perhaps there is a distinction to be made between readers and Readers. Between people who read books, just as easy as that, and people who use books to build their entire selves. The distinction here has nothing to do with the number of books read per month, hierarchies of taste, or education. Those who are simply readers are people who are made happy by books, people who like to talk about what they’ve read, people for whom joining a book group makes sense, because it is straightforward for them to translate the solitary act of reading into a social connection.
Readers with a capital R, on the other hand, read from a sense of absence, of pursuit, of perturbation. Reading is too deeply personal to discuss with others, in part because it is the personal: reading as interiority. I read to listen to myself think. When a book is open in front of me, I am anonymous to the author, oblivious to my own face, and completely self-conscious: criticism as life.
As Pierre Bayard theorizes in How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read (a book whose mordant wisdom is not captured by that inapt title), reading must always entail loss. Bayard is about as far away from Roland Barthes’s plaisir du texte as a Frenchman can get. For him, we are forever searching for a book that can never precisely match our own “inner book,” what he calls a “phantasmagorical object that every reader live to pursue, of which the best books he encounters in his life will be but imperfect fragments, compelling him to continue reading.” And, for some of us, to begin writing.
Yet even those best books, the ones that interlock with our own need for them, are always receding from us, never again coinciding with the text we first read, disintegrating in memory. A constituent part of reading—for the Reader, at least—is this “anguish of madness.” I am reminded of Audrey Niffenegger’s The Night Bookmobile, and the character Alexandra’s harrowing quest to inhabit the chamber containing every single book she’s ever read. Those of us who read to voice our own interior monologues are doomed—yet also privileged. Ours is an urgent project that will take a lifetime to complete, and our material will never be exhausted.
I’ve recently come up with a standard answer to the question, “What do you like to read?” and I experimented with it at a book club I visited when they read my book and at a dinner party with new friends. “I like novels with unreliable narrators,” I said. “Like me.” Both times I got puzzled looks and head tilts. Failed experiment. But you know what I mean, don’t you? You know what it feels like to be both disordered by and constructed of books, right? If the answer is yes, nod your head from behind your book.
What do I like to read? Anything, but not everything. What do I like to read? Books that I like to analyze. What do I like to read? I’ll know it when I see it. Or, better, I’ll become the person who wants to read that book when I see it.
Image: Wikimedia Commons
I’d like to present to you a semi-regular column: Books & Mortar! Which will look at the fabulous world of tucked-away independent bookstores, a pulsating nationwide constellation of literary delights that, heaven forbid, you might walk past without knowing it’s there.
For instance, Key West, the southernmost point in the U.S., is the home of Jimmy Buffett, tarpon fishing, turquoise waters (and drinks), spring breakers, pirate stories, great Cuban food, and crazy-beautiful sunsets. But it also has a storied literary history, with residents including Elizabeth Bishop, Ralph Ellison, Tennessee Williams, Richard Wilbur, John Williams. It’s where Wallace Stevens famously attempted to punch Ernest Hemingway at the Sloppy Joe’s bar, with mixed results. And more recent writers have called Key West home: Ann Beattie, Tom McGuane, Joy Williams (also, her book The Florida Keys: A History and Guide is one of the most masterful works of travel writing that you’ll ever want to read).
And now it has Books & Books Key West, a locally owned independent that opened in 2016 and is also (voluntarily—haha) nonprofit. This 1,200 square foot store is housed and affiliated with The Studios of Key West, an arts and cultural organization that, among other things, runs an artists’ residency. Books & Books Key West thus also carries a terrific selection of art supplies.
Oh, and one of the cofounders and owners is someone you may have heard of: Judy Blume.
The Millions: What was the genesis of this amazing store?
Judy Blume: George [Cooper, Blume’s husband] and I wanted a full service indie bookstore in Key West. When we came to town 20 years ago there were five bookstores. Four years ago we were down to one used store. We tried to get Mitchell Kaplan of Books & Books, the great Miami area bookseller, to open a store in Key West. He wanted to but ultimately he couldn’t make the numbers work. Rents in Key West are very high and we’re more than three hours by car from Miami. Finally, Mitch said, “If you and George can find a way to make it work I’ll be there for you.” George is on the board of The Studios of Key West, a non-profit arts center who had just renovated a beautiful art deco building in Old Town with a 1200 square foot corner storefront. The perfect place for a non-profit indie bookstore! We (George) convinced the board of the Studios it was worth a shot. Everything happened so fast it feels like a dream when I look back. We opened in February 2016. I laugh now at how little we knew about running a bookstore. We learned on the job. We’re affiliated with Mitch’s stores but we’re non-profit and financially independent. We call Mitch’s Coral Gable store our “Mothership.” They do our buying (though we can order or reject any books we want.) They set up our store with handsome refurbished fixtures from one of their stores. Their staff came down for two weeks to set us up with our initial order and to train our staff, including George and me (we have three paid employees now) and our volunteers. During “season” our volunteers are especially important to us. They are great readers. One knows poetry. One worked in a bookshop in London. I miss them terribly when they leave for their summer homes but we are so lucky to have our three hardworking, loyal, friendly, fun employees. Our first season, George and I worked seven days. This past season we were able to take two days off a week, and we’re thinking of working four days a week next season.
TM: Does your bookstore have a mascot? A bookstore cat?
JB: The idea of having a bookstore cat is appealing but because we’re on a busy corner we’re concerned about any animal—cat or dog—running out into the street. One day, when we first opened, a hen came into the store. Chickens are protected in Key West and roam freely around town. We stayed calm, though we were thinking, OMG, if that chicken gets scared and starts flying around she’s going to poop on our books! Lucky for us, she wandered around, then with some gentle urging, walked out the way she walked in. Maybe she was looking for a good book? We leave our door open in nice weather. Customers bring in their own dogs. We keep a water bowl outside and treats by the register. This works best when it’s one dog at a time. Usually they ask if it’s okay and usually we say yes (if it’s a nice dog). So far only one has peed on our floor and the customer, a tourist, walked out before we knew it. Good our floor is concrete.
TM: What’s the most surprising thing you have found about being a bookseller?
JB: How much there is to learn, how hard you work every day, not just with customers but in the back room. The number of boxes that arrive weekly is staggering. We see our UPS delivery guys almost every day. Receiving new books and returning others (I had to learn to be tough because, as a writer, I never want to return books) takes us a huge amount of time. One of our two managers is always on that. Then there’s keeping up with the dusting. Everyone is expected to dust. If we had a cat, I’d give her a cloth, too. The time flies by. I usually go home exhausted but very happy and can’t wait to go back again the next day.
TM: You and your husband George are co-founders. How do you divide up the duties?
JB: I’m on the floor, chatting with customers, helping them find the right books, even working the register (not my strong point but I’m very proud of what I’ve learned to do). Every day I “pet” the books, move them around, change the window displays. Tuesdays are “new book” days. That’s when I get to put out the books that are date-sensitive, which means moving around all the books on the new and notable table.
George is in the office most of the time. He’s our CFO, making sure it’s all going well. And so, far, fingers crossed, it’s been a success.
TM: Authors are beginning to open up bookstores all over the place: Louise Erdrich in Minneapolis, Ann Patchett in Nashville. Larry McMurtry is a long-time bookstore proprietor. Do you think you’re part of a trend?
JB: I didn’t know about all the authors opening bookstores when we started, but it’s good news!
TM: What’s a day in the life of Judy Blume, bookseller like?
JB: Rush, rush, rush—to get to the store. We’re open 10 to six, seven days a week. I ride my bike unless it’s rainy. Tuesdays and Thursdays I come directly from the gym. When we opened the store, we thought our customers would be 75 percent locals and snowbirds, and 25 percent tourists. In fact, it’s about 80 percent tourists and 20 percent locals. The tourists have been great. They sometimes buy a stack of books and send them home. They ask for restaurant recommendations. And they’re always—always—thrilled to be in Key West. Of course we love our locals, too. So there’s a lot of chatting about books, Key West, and whatever else is on their minds. By the end of the day I’m exhausted (or did I say that already?). All I want is to eat dinner and go to bed.
TM: Do people freak out when they find out the lovely woman who just hand-sold them a novel is the beloved Judy Blume?
JB: Yesterday a couple came in and George and I were chatting with them about their used bookstore in another Florida city. George (that devil) asked if they carried Judy Blume books and before I could stop them from answering, always afraid they’ll say something like—I would never carry those books!—she said “Oh yes, a lot.” At which point I said, “I’m Judy”—and she was so taken aback I was worried she might faint. But all ended well. In the beginning, before there was so much publicity, people did freak out. Once I had to prove who I was by showing the customer my photo on the back of In the Unlikely Event. She studied it, studied me (I admit I was having a bad hair day and I’m often red-eyed and itchy nosed from something—the books, the dust, the building? It was clear she didn’t believe me and I was sorry I’d gotten into the conversation in the first place. Now, people come in because they’ve heard it’s my store. The trolleys, the tour buses, the concierges at the hotels, all let them know about Books & Books @ the Studios. And we’re grateful. George and I joke that I’m the Southernmost (everything in Key West is the “southernmost”) Shamu. You know, have your photo taken with Shamu (remember the whale, the one time star of Sea World?) Because we’re a non-profit, I don’t do photos unless the customer is actually buying something. It doesn’t have to be my book but it has to be something. People have been very understanding. Still, it embarrasses me to have to tell a customer our rules.
TM: What’s the best kind of bookstore customer?
JB: Anyone who’s friendly, loves to read, and finds a book or three to buy. Or maybe it’s a young person who says she doesn’t like to read who leaves the store with her nose in a book.
TM: The worst?
JB: Let’s say the most challenging. That would be a customer who wants a certain book but can’t think of the title or the author’s name. The cover is blue, or has a spot of blue, or maybe the type is in blue. She/he will think it’s new, will remember seeing it on our table last week, but it could have been she/he has just read about it. We’ll go around together looking at all the places that book might be. Sometimes we’ll actually find it. Hallelujah!
TM: What book do you want to tell the world about right now?
JB: Right now it’s What to Do About the Solomons, by Bethany Ball, a first novel I loved. It’s funny, sexy, and original. I’m also talking up Edgar and Lucy, by Victor Lodato. Emily (one of our managers) and I both loved it. And, of course, my favorite book of the year, The Nix, by Nathan Hill. You don’t want to miss this debut novel. George agrees.
TM: Are there other staff who are also writers?
JB: George has published two non-fiction books, both based on historical crimes. He’s a big help when someone wants a non-fiction book on a certain subject. That’s because he’s a reader. It’s more important to have staff who know and love books than staff who writes them.
TM: One of the great things about a bricks-and-mortar store is not only the individualized book picks, but also the author events. What were some of the fun ones this year?
JB: We had our first big events between January and April this year. Jami Attenberg, Kay Redfield Jamison, Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt. We had kids’ authors Meg Cabot and Rachel Vail. Since summer is our slow season we won’t have any more events until next fall/winter.
TM: What’s a favorite bookstore—NOT YOUR OWN?
JB: We visit bookstores wherever we go these days. In Santa Fe we’re fans of Collected Works. But, of course, our absolute favorite is Books & Books in Coral Gables. And their food (they have a cafe) is scrumptious!