Odysseys come in all shapes and forms, from epic to personal. Three recent odysseys range in time and theme from ancient to dystopian. Daniel Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey launches from Homer’s epic, 2017 National Book Award-winner Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing road trips to the Mississippi State Penitentiary, and Jesús Carrasco’s Out in the Open follows a young boy’s harrowing escape from abuse across an unnamed landscape. No matter their geography, these books share exceptional writing, mining vast expanses of the human experience.
Mendelsohn’s An Odyssey is, unsurprisingly, a roadmap to Homer’s Odyssey (which, incidentally, has just received a new translation by Emily Wilson). It introduces relevant scholarship and translations, discusses how the epic shaped the Western canon, sprinkles in choice etymology as well as descriptions of Mendelsohn’s Classics training, and provides a multitude of other, arresting details.
And yet. An Odyssey is really a braided memoir woven with three strands: the semester that Mendelsohn’s 81-year-old father, Jay, asked to audit Daniel’s Odyssey class at Bard, a subsequent cruise by father and son that retraced the Homeric voyage, and the roadmap of The Odyssey. Jay Mendelsohn died shortly thereafter, framing not only his fatherhood and his life, but also An Odyssey.
The memoir’s architecture is remarkable. Its structure presented Mendelsohn with a difficult challenge that he discussed in a recent interview with The Millions. Mendelsohn chose to echo Homer’s “ring composition,” in which the narrator begins the story, then pauses and loops back to some earlier moment
… a bit of personal or family history, say—and afterward might even loop back to some earlier moment … that will help account for that slightly less early moment, thereafter gradually winding his way back to the present, the moment in the narrative that he left in order to provide all this background.
Mendelsohn loops back to early memories of his father and gradually fills in a man of fierce discipline and determination. Dad was a passionate reader and do-it-your-selfer; the more difficult and unpleasant something was for him, “the more likely it was to possess…the hallmark of worthiness.”
Mendelsohn takes us from beginnings to endings. In Dad’s first class, Daniel unfolds the “Homeric Question,” an ancient debate about how Homer’s epics came into being. There was no single Homer, rather—
… the bards who performed the epics, itinerant singer-performers … at once reproduced material that earlier poets had composed while refining it and adding new material of their own…
The epic’s opening reflects that oral tradition—“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twist and turns/driven time and again off course….” [Robert Fagles translation].
Initially, Daniel cringes at having his father in his classroom. Proclamations from Jay—Odysseus is no hero because “he’s a liar and he cheated on his wife!”—call into question the wisdom of trying to teach Dad. But the memoir gradually evolves into an interrogation of the Mendelsohn father-son dynamic. Mendelsohn the son travels a road of discovery that is a crescendo of revelations about his father. Daniel unearths secrets and inconsistencies that cause him to rewrite not only the received wisdom from Jay, but his own self-concept; just as much of Homer’s The Odyssey is “devoted to father-son relationships….”
“Who really knows his own begetting?” Telemachus [Odysseus’ son] bitterly asks early in the Odyssey. Who indeed? Our parents are mysterious to us in ways that we can never quite be mysteries to them.
Mendelsohn’s readers journey with Odysseus down to ghost-filled Hades and back up to the end of Homer’s poem, where Mendelsohn notices Homer’s continued ”preoccupation with the rites of burial.” In The Odyssey’s final book, Homer summons Hades again, recounting a conversation between the ghosts of Achilles and Agamemnon.
It is hard not to feel, in this final book of the poem, that in its repeated climactic references to tombs and burials… [that] the Odyssey is “burying” the Iliad…
Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward’s most recent novel, is another kind of ghost-riddled odyssey, written in prose as lyrical and expressive as a bard’s singing. Jojo, who anchors the book, is the son of a black mother, Leonie, and a white father, Michael, imprisoned upstate. Jojo lives with his black grandparents—Mam, who is dying, and Pop, who serves as Jojo’s guiding light. Leonie comes and goes, in thrall to addiction and to her longing for Michael. At 13, Jojo takes responsibility for his toddler sister, Kayla (named Michaela for her absent father), and struggles to become a man.
I follow Pop out of the house, try to keep my back straight, my shoulders even as a hanger; that’s how Pop walks. I try to look like this is normal and boring so Pop will think I’ve earned these thirteen years….
The voyage in Ward’s novel is the trip to pick up Michael, set for release from the Mississippi State Penitentiary—Parchman—where Pop did time decades ago. Along the way, Leonie stops to buy gas—but doesn’t provide Jojo with enough money to buy food for him and Kayla—and at a sinister house to pick up Misty and Leonie’s next fix. There, Jojo steals a pack of saltines and two bottles of juice—
I open my stolen bottle and drink the juice down, then pour half the other bottle into Kayla’s sippy cup. I hand one cracker to Kayla and slide one into my mouth. We eat like that: one for me and one for her…. Neither of the women in the front seat pay us an attention.
It’s not hunger, or heat, or Kayla’s vomiting on Jojo, or Leonie and Misty getting high, or the blinding, torrential rain during the car trip. It’s absence—Leonie’s from her children—as well as the ghosts of the dead—family and others—that thread this trip with adversity. In a version of ring composition, Ward loops the dead in with the living, entangling brothers with sisters, fathers with sons. As the car pushes on, Ward fills in hellish, heartbreaking details from the family’s past, details that are also congruent with our nation’s past.
There’s the ghost of Given, Leonie’s murdered brother, who haunts Leonie when she’s high. There’s Richie, a dead boy, with whom Jojo is acquainted from hearing Pop’s Parchman stories—
Richie wasn’t built for work. He wasn’t built for nothing, really, on account he was so young. He ain’t know how to work a hoe, didn’t have enough years in his arms for muscle…
The four riders—Leonie, Misty, Jojo, and Kayla—arrive at Parchman, reunite with Michael and begin the return trip. It turns out they’ve picked up Richie’s ghost as well—visible only to Jojo. Richie recites vivid memories of Jojo’s absent, dead father, River, whom Richie loved. Richie knows Jojo is River’s son—
… by the way he holds the little sick golden girl [Kayla]: as if he thinks he could curl around her, make his skeleton and flesh into a building to protect her from the adults, from the great reach of the sky, the vast expanse of the grass-ridden earth, shallow with graves.
I want to tell the boy in the car this. Want to tell him how his pop tried to save me again and again….
But I don’t tell the boy any of that. I settle in the crumpled bits of paper and plastic that litter the bottom of the car.
The return trip is as emotionally harrowing as the trip to Parchman. Michael has no interest in Jojo, and Leonie’s primary interest is in Michael. Not until Leonie is stopped for “swerving,” and a cop handcuffs Leonie and points a gun to Jojo’s head does Leonie realize—
It’s easy to forget how young Jojo is until I see him standing next to the police officer. It’s easy to look at him, his weedy height, the thick spread of this belly, and think he’s grown. But he’s just a baby.
If the unburied are buried by the conclusion of Jesmyn Ward’s novel, it is in hearing their stories told, where dogs are not like Odysseus’s faithful old dog, Argos (who recognizes Odysseus after a 20-year absence, then dies in peace), but instead are vicious killers; where Mam’s agonizing death from cancer is less painful than the violence inflicted on her family members. Where Jojo grows up, caring and grounded, without a mother or a father, because his grandfather loves and mentors him.
Jesús Carrasco’s debut novel, Out in the Open (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) presents a third odyssey. An unnamed boy flees an unnamed village through a dry, merciless landscape that feels like Carrasco’s native Badajoz, Spain.
From inside his hole in the ground, [the boy] heard the sound of voices calling his name, and as if they were crickets he tried to pinpoint the precise location of each man within the bounds of the olive grove….Tensing his neck, he raised his head so as to hear better and, half closing his eyes, listened out for the voice that forced him to flee.
The boy is escaping the village bailiff’s sexual abuse, suborned by his father who himself uses a leather belt—
Afterward, the only witnesses would be the thick stone walls that supported the roof that kept the rooms cool. A communal prelude to his father’s worn leather belt. The swift copper-colored buckle slashing dully through the fetid kitchen air.
Hiding and moving only at night, the boy soon runs out of food and drink. He spots an old goatherd who, with basic human decency and limited language, teaches the boy how to survive “out in the open.” The deepening relationship between boy and man is built with deceptively simple encounters among the goats. Over time, the boy ends up caring for the failing old man.
They woke before dawn and set off along the towpath. The old man riding the donkey, his head drooping, and the boy leading the way, with a stick in one hand and the halter in the other.
Part dystopian allegory, part primer on the power of humanity, Out in the Open’s meticulous attention to detail affirms that a child damaged by trauma can forge a path forward with the right kind of mentor.
“Mentor,” Mendelsohn tells us, was what Athena named a so-called friend of Odysseus whom she conjures to provide Telemachus with “an experienced and trusted adviser.” In giving the boy a substitute for his absent father, Athena connects him not only to Odysseus, but also to “all his ancestors, male and female.” Jojo, too, has a mentor in the steady guiding presence of his grandfather, connecting Jojo across generations.
The word mentor stems from the Greek word menos, usually translated as “heroic strength.” “But really,” says Harvard Professor Gregory Nagy, “menos is not just strength of any kind—it is mental strength…a mentor is someone who gives mental strength to someone else.” And thus, Out in the Open’s old goatherd centers the fleeing boy so that he can free himself from his abusers.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Daniel Mendelsohn is one of the most prominent classicists in America today. A contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, he’s also a professor at Bard College. His 2006 book The Lost: The Search for Six of Six Million, which received the National Book Critics Circle Award for Memoir, among many other awards, recounts Mendelsohn’s attempt to discover what happened to six relatives who were killed in the Holocaust. It is also a book about storytelling and how we construct our identities and our relationship to the past, issues that recur throughout his work, including the memoir The Elusive Embrace. He has also translated the poetry of C.P. Cavafy and established himself as one of the most significant critics and cultural writers of the moment. Mendelsohn has the kind of wide-ranging mind one hopes for from a critic. He ends up writing about topics that one might expect, like the films 300 and Troy, but he’s clearly a pop culture junkie writing about Mad Men and George R.R. Martin and Patrick Leigh Fermor and the meaning of the Titanic.
His new book An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic is about his father. At the age of 81, Mendelsohn’s father, Jay, attended his son’s weekly seminar on The Odyssey, and when the class finished the two took a cruise retracing Odysseus’s steps through the Eastern Mediterranean. His father died not long after; the book is about teaching The Odyssey, about the last year of his father’s life, and about Mendelsohn trying to better understand his father. Which happens to be one of the themes of The Odyssey. An excerpt of the book appeared earlier this year in The New Yorker. We spoke recently when he was jet-lagged in Paris on book tour.
The Millions: Where did this book start? You wrote a travel article about going on the cruise with your dad not long after it happened.
Daniel Mendelsohn: All my books accidentally end up being books. As soon as my dad asked me to take the course, I thought I would do something with it because the experience at a certain level was just so amusing. I may have even called my editor at The New Yorker. When we were on the cruise, I think I started thinking that it was going to be a book. It was after he died that I looked back at what had turned out to be the last year of his life and saw that the whole thing was one story—the classroom and the cruise and the hospital. On the cruise I started to think it would be a book but I didn’t know at that point what the narrative was, what the shape of it was, but I knew I had a story. Several months after daddy died I started thinking, this is the book. I knew that I wanted to map the structure of this book onto The Odyssey somehow and figuring that out took me a while.
TM: Anyone who reads you knows that structure is very important to you, and I can only imagine how much time it took to figure out the right structure for the book.
DM: That’s a shrewd observation. I had a lot of material. The classroom was so funny at times and also so poignant at times. Then the cruise with the cave and the guy with the scar on his leg—and not getting to Ithaca. I thought, life is handing me a great story. The Lost took me one third as much time to write as did this book, although one could say it’s a much more gigantic story. It took me a very long time to figure out how to map this onto the structure of The Odyssey. It was not easy. It took a long time. People said, it’s taking a long time because it’s your dad and he’s passed away now and it’s so sad and emotional. I said, no, actually that’s not the reason. I love thinking about my dad every day. It was like a nice haunting. It was hard because I wanted to be echoing both the structure of The Odyssey and the development of the themes of The Odyssey. Going from this education of the son to this metaphorical emphasis on recognition at the end of The Odyssey and then at the end of my father’s story. That was not so easy.
In my review of the movie Troy with Brad Pitt I began by quoting Aristotle—which is probably too big of a stick to use on Brad Pitt. Aristotle has a very interesting observation about the other so-called epics about the Trojan War that did not survive. Every aspect of the Trojan War had an epic about it, from the judgement of Paris to the death of Odysseus. We only have The Iliad and The Odyssey. Aristotle said some of these other epics just weren’t that good, and the reason why is because they told the story in the order that the events happened, which is a mistake that Homer did not make. I realized about two years into writing this book I was making exactly that mistake. In other words, I told first the class, then the cruise, then my father’s illness, and death in that order. Each element was interesting, but it didn’t have an interesting structure. I never share my work while I’m writing except with my editor and a close friend and mentor of mine, Bob Gottlieb, who used to run Knopf and The New Yorker. This was literally only a year ago. I had hundreds of pages and Bob said, the problem is when you get to the end of the school year, you don’t want to go on. That’s the narrative, the class. You have to think of a way to work everything else into that. Literally the minute he said that I burst out laughing because of course, I need to do this Homerically, which is, to think of a way to fold the other aspects of the story into the classroom narrative. The class is the spine of the book. I have to talk about the cruise while we’re discussing Odysseus’ adventures at sea in the class. I have to talk about the illness and death when we’re coming to the end of the class. Then the whole thing fell into place and I was finished in two months.
TM: As soon as he said that, the structure presented itself to you.
DM: It clicked into place all at once. He said, you have to think of something and he didn’t know what it was, but the minute he said that, I thought, duh, you have to think like Homer.
TM: You make the point in the book that The Odyssey is much more narratively and structurally complex than most people understand.
DM: Oh my god, yes. The Odyssey is—in an almost postmodern way—aware of its own narrative devices. In fact it draws attention to its own constructed-ness, so to speak, in a way that is just amazing. I remember reviewing a very good book, that I quite liked, by Zach Mason called The Lost Books of the Odyssey for The New Yorker. I said this book is very clever and interesting, but you’re never going to be more clever than The Odyssey itself because it already anticipated all these games. One of the things I really wanted to make people aware of in this book—through getting to be a fly on the wall in the seminar—is how incredibly structured The Odyssey is and how alert it is to the tricks of narrative. All of my books, starting with my first memoir, are obsessed with narrative and truth-telling and the way that lived history becomes narrated. It’s very interesting to me. It’s a theme that binds all of my memoirs together certainly.
TM: I think thats true. Your books are about how we construct our identity through narrative.
DM: Precisely. When I was writing my first book, my grandfather, who reappears in The Lost, is sort of the figure of narrative. He is a great storyteller. In both books I become alert to the way in which the self fashioning through narrative can be misleading. Not necessarily in a sinister way. I think quite often people narrate themselves not with the intention of deception but because they honestly believe that this is who they are. That this is their story, if you see what I mean. I’m fascinated by this. It’s also a way of alerting my readers to the fact that even though these are true stories that I’m telling in my book, they are constructed as narrative. The story you’re reading is never the whole story because if you told the whole story, it would just be boring.
TM: I know you’ve written about this a lot, and I’ve written about it a little, but the fact that the memoir isn’t a recitation of events; it’s about the psychoanalysis of the self, it’s a consideration of what those events mean, it’s much more complicated than just what happened.
DM: The memoir is a highly crafted version of unedited reality. Nobody wants to hear a boring story. The Lost is highly obsessed with the dangers of narrative because I’m trying to get at a historical truth. When I was on book tour for The Lost, a woman in the audience very nicely said, I loved your book and I’m so glad that somebody has finally told the whole story of this one little town. I burst out laughing and I said, if I had told everything that I heard, it would be 2,000 pages long and unreadable. It’s not a matter of fact or fiction, it’s not a matter of you’re making it up or whatever—even if you’re just relating things that happened or things you heard, you’re shaping it, because people want to be enticed by a narrative. In this book I’m doing that very deliberately by evoking parallels with the themes and structure of structure of The Odyssey—which is itself a text which is very alert to the enchantment and seductions of narrative. It’s over-determined in a kind of fabulous way, but of course I don’t talk about the boring parts of the cruise or the days we just sat around waiting to get somewhere or the questions that people asked at the site of Troy that weren’t interesting. You’re always shaping and when you’re writing this kind of thing you are writing in a way to convey what you think are the insights that you have had about yourself. But of course who knows what you’re doing unconsciously, right? That’s for the critics to figure out.
TM: I think you were harder on yourself than you were on your father in a lot of ways.
DM: I take that as a huge compliment. I think when you’re writing memoir obviously the great danger is to glamorize yourself. Even through a kind of disingenuous negativity by saying, oh I’m so terrible. I think I’m pretty tough on both of us. The Lost was about the search for the identities of people I had never known. So in a funny way even though the subject matter was so painful, it was easier to write. This book was about my father, and for that reason I was bending over backwards to not sentimentalize either myself or my relationship to my father. I thought that was very important and I think it’s something he would have approved of given the kind of person he was. [Laughs.] He didn’t like mush. You’re probably right. I may have bent over too far, but the hero of this book is not me. The hero of this book is my father. It’s like those bunraku puppeteers who dress in black but you only look at the puppet? I wanted to be like those puppeteers, not intruding too much because it is about my father, although obviously through the lens of my relationship with him.
TM: I guess what I mean is that you don’t overdramatize anything, you’re not overly sentimental, and you write that when you were young you were embarrassed by him. You make it clear that this isn’t about a distant father and a dutiful son.
DM: Absolutely. When you write a memoir, you have an unwritten pact with the reader that you have to expose even the unattractive aspect of your narrative. I’m not talking about, I had a problem or I had an addiction. I mean really embarrassing things that make you squirm and might make the reader squirm, but I think you have to do that because that’s why the reader is on board. In particular, reading a book about a father-son relationship, I just felt I owed it to myself, I owed it to my father, and I owed it to the readers to put those mortifying, uncomfortable moments on the page because that’s the bargain you’re making. Look, no one has perfect relationships with their parents. We’re all embarrassed by our parents at some point in life, but only a few of us get to write about it. That’s the point hopefully when the reader will say, aha, I never really went there or talked about this, but I know what it’s like to have a parent you’re sometimes just mortified by. I don’t think it reflected well on me but I was 14. This is life and you have to be honest about it.
TM: As you were writing these moments seemed to present themselves. Like the man on the cruise with the injured leg. The emotional climax of the book is your father revealing himself to you and the class when you’re discussing Book 23, which was echoed in the very last scene of the book.
DM: I reflected on this a lot when I was writing The Lost when there were so many extraordinary coincidences. Truly amazing things happened that you wouldn’t believe if it were a novel. I had a long passage in The Lost where I reflect on that and I say it happens because to some extent you make it happen by putting yourself into this story. If you sit at home on your sofa nothing’s ever going to happen. Just by putting yourself out there you make things happen. You know what this is like as a writer when you’re working on a thing, suddenly everything becomes about that subject. Everything becomes irradiated because your perceptions and sensitivities are engaged. It’s not that more things are happening or more coincidences are happening, you’re just noticing things you never would have noticed before because you weren’t writing a book about them. I was just lucky because the one time my father really responded positively to The Odyssey was on the last day of class when he said this amazing thing. If you read the passage it’s not like he bears his soul, but for him…That’s a great vehicle for talking about how you turn experience into a narrative. What I had to do in order for that moment to feel like a climax, which is how you just described it. It is the emotional climax of the book, I would say. What I had to do was to create my father as a character in such a way that for him even to say that feels like a huge climax. Everything before then I have to choose out of everything that he said and did, those things which I thought illustrated his character in such a way so that by the time you get to that I think amazing moment where he started talking about my mother in class you’re like, whoa.
TM: And then you play with structure and time so that you jump to you relating it to your father and show her reacting to it.
DM: Here also I’m imitating slightly something that Homer does; he gives you reaction shots, as it were. I felt that to be an extraordinary moment in the classroom and I know that some of the students did, but then I choose to narrate the conversation that I had with my mother about that because she thought it was amazing too. It was a way of locking the significance of that moment both when it happened and afterwards. I didn’t have to describe the conversation I had with my mother—although that conversation leads to what I think is the second big emotional moment at the end of the book. I was trying very hard in this book to avoid over-dramatizing and that’s why you get in the conversation with mother as a throwaway remark the information that finally explains why my father didn’t go to the high school he always wanted to go to. For me that was a very big emotional moment, but I bent over backwards not to spotlight because I think it’s more devastating if you experience it the way I experienced it, which was in passing. It’s a throwaway remark from my mother because she’s not thinking about what I was thinking about at that moment.
TM: That’s also a narrative tool, to have a great emotional moment but not to dwell on it or emphasize it.
DM: That’s a thing that happens in the work that I admire the most. You’re not showcasing the big emotional moments and I think they’re more devastating for that reason. I always think of Proust where you meet Odette de Crécy early on in the novel. She’s a major character and the focus of a lot of narrative attention and you’re led to believe that this fancy aristocratic name that she has is one of these made up names that high-class courtesans gave themselves. I think it’s in the fourth or fifth volume where in passing the narrator meets the Count or Maquis de Crécy and you realize that Odette really was married to that guy. Every time I encounter that I’m just blown away by how brilliant it is. A thing that interests me is retrospective emotion, when you think oh my god that’s what that thing was and you get that kind of pang. I’m fascinated by that because to my mind it has 10 times the power of some big drumroll cymbals clashing kind of climax.
TM: It gets at this point, which is at the heart of so much classical Greek literature, that character is destiny.
DM: Right. It’s interesting when you think about what is this book about. Yes, it has a plot, which is the classroom and the cruise and the hospital, but like The Lost is a search narrative, the search here is just to know who my father was. You can say, well who cares who my father was, except that we all have fathers and mothers and we never quite understand them. This book I would say what it’s about is a series of gentle revelations about things that I never guessed about my father or why he did them. I thought I knew who he was and then through a kind of odyssey and sequence of events, people saying things—sometimes knowingly sometimes accidentally—reveal the key to major episodes of my father’s life. That’s about character. So much of Greek literature—particularly tragedy, my scholarly specialty—is about how events reveal character. That’s all that tragedy is about, one could say. That’s what this book is about. As with tragedy, you could say who cares about that person’s character, but you want to do it in such a way that it can be enlarged and become a metaphor for a certain type of experience. In this book the type of experience that I’m interested in is a child’s partial knowledge of parents and a child’s partial understanding of his parents’ marriage.
TM: You get at this in the book that so much of The Odyssey is about this father-son relationship and the education of a son into the wider adult world.
DM: I think that’s about as good a way you could put it.
TM: You’ve been teaching these works for years, I wonder if there’s been a shift in how students respond to Homer?
DM: It’s an interesting question. I don’t mean to be evasive, but I have two answers to that question. On the one hand, I don’t want to call it superficially but certainly the students now are interested in things because they’re being raised in a different culture than I was raised in, so they’re focusing on things that they have been trained to notice. I got here yesterday afternoon and a kid who graduated from UVA who I met and kept in touch with is in Paris so we had dinner together. He had just finished reading The Iliad and I said what did you think? What he was focused on was why aren’t there more female characters, why there aren’t more strong female characters, what is Achilles’s sexuality exactly, to what extent is the text explicit about his relationship with Patroclus. I thought well of course because he is a product of contemporary college education where—and I say this with approval—they’re focusing on issues of gender and sexuality. Every generation has its own focuses and lenses, let’s call them.
That said, at a whole other possibly larger level, I would say no, there is no difference. [Laughs.] I started teaching as a graduate student in 1989. The fundamental elements are still fundamental and it doesn’t matter what gender or sexuality you are—or what class, something contemporary students are rightly zeroing in on. Who are the slaves? Beyond that I think they’re all finally susceptible to the great power of both The Odyssey and The Iliad in the way they present in the strongest and also most stylish way the fundamental issues of human existence. That’s why they’re classics. I always like to say that the great advantage to teaching great books is that they are great. It’s not like we’re trying to sell you a bill of goods here. [Laughs.] We’re not trying to sell you a lemon and dress it up as a Cadillac, they really are great.
I had never really understood the extent to which The Odyssey is obsessed with familial relationships and particularly father-son relationships, as you were just saying. Even people who haven’t read The Odyssey know that it’s a famous story about a guy who’s trying to get home to his wife after 20 years away from home. But in terms of pure real estate, more of the poem is devoted to father-son relationships than to husband-wife relationships. I’ve never done a count, but my hunch is it’s just as much if not more so. The Greeks were obsessed with this as a patriarchal society. Surprise! Odysseus in the book has a double role. He is both a father to a son he doesn’t know and didn’t raise and who has found other father figures to be his father in his absence, but also at the end of the book there’s his old father that he has to reconcile with, come to terms with. As I think I point out in the book, the climactic reunion of The Odyssey is not Odysseus and Penelope, it’s Odysseus and his father. Even structurally the emphasis is clearly on that relationship. I understood this, of course. I taught it a million times, but somehow it just hit me this time around. Look, we all have parents. We all watch them getting old. Those of us who have children watch our children growing up. I think many people feel, did I miss something in my child’s growing up? This is a text that speaks very loudly and clearly and powerfully.
TM: One reason I ask is because the military has been sponsoring performances of Greek tragedies for soldiers and veterans and using them as a way to talk about war and trauma. I know The Odyssey is often talked about in a post-traumatic context.
DM: I’m not a big fan of those readings. It’s not because I don’t think they’re not true, but I think it leads to the possibility of a reductive reading and I am always militating for expansive reading rather than reductive reading. I reviewed one of those productions, of Euripides’s Herakles, which is adapted as a war hero with post-traumatic stress disorder. I think the danger of that is reducing the complexities of extremely complex works of art for the purposes of contemporary psychologizing. It’s not that I think they’re wrong, but because their emphasis is on trauma I don’t like the idea that people will think that’s what they’re about and thereby exclusive of other readings. Ajax suffers this kind of madness for reasons that are made very explicit in the text that have to do with hubris and Greek theology and the whole system of honor and heroism. I’ve spent my whole career trying to argue for the continuing, vivid relevance of these texts, but there’s more to the story than just this kind of interpretation. I have been certainly been keeping abreast of these performances before veterans and obviously the veterans are responding. If you get a group of soldiers and they’re crying during Ajax, I’m never going to argue with that. But there’s a much bigger picture. I’m a product of a certain moment in classical education when I was in grad school. One was constantly reminded that they were a very different and often strange civilization in comparison with our own. One can go down a slippery interpretative slope if you want them to be a perfect mirror of contemporary experience because they’re not. They had this wacky religion, they had very weird ideas about gender and sexuality, and you have to be careful about how you use them I guess is the point of this digression.
TM: When I talk with people who are adapting or interpreting classical stories, we talk about how pop culture stories are often fundamentally different from classical stories. Classically character was destiny, and in contemporary stories that means everything is awesome, I guess. I still remember your review of Julie Taymor’s Spider-Man musical and how she was trying to combine the comic book transformation with the mythical tradition of transformation and they don’t quite match up.
DM: Exactly. Listening to you one thing that flashes through my head is that maybe these Greek texts have a kind of hardness and durability because they don’t make a mistake which I think is the great mistake of so much popular entertainment—sentimentality. Modern superheroes are all essentially optimistic visions of transformation. The transformations are always empowering, where you need to only read two pages of Ovid’s Metamorphosis to understand that the ancient transformations are very problematic. The essential vision of life is pessimistic and these transformations are punishments, so [Taymor] was trying to conflate two essentially incompatible visions
TM: This is incredibly geeky but Spider-Man always fights people who go through animal-like transformations—The Lizard, The Rhino, Doctor Octopus—and they are flawed tragic characters caught up in this web of hubris and obsession. Who are then defeated by, I guess, a can-do American attitude?
DM: I think that’s a brilliant observation. The Greek dramatists would focus on the villain in the Spider-Man stories, not on Spider-Man. That’s so interesting because they’re all grandiose strivers who go wackily wrong—both physically and mentally because of their grandiose ambitions. Those characters would be of much more interest. Back to Taymor, you have made a much more interesting way of stating the issue that I was talking about in the Taymor production—the villains are so much more interesting.
Because the heroes are so obviously heroic, the drama about the American hero versus the Greek is they have these double identities. The drama is generated by the necessity of keeping the heroic identity secret. That’s the great anxiety. There is no inherent drama in the way the Greek mind would understand the word drama in these heroes. I’m not saying this is a lesser theme—especially today when we’re so alert to issues of identity and concealment. There is drama in that, but it’s not what a Greek dramatist would be interested in. Obviously identity and self-revelation are very interesting to Homer in The Odyssey.
TM: You wrote that great piece in The New Yorker about Mary Renault and your correspondence. I was curious if you planned to write more about it or do something with the piece?
DM: I do have an idea for a book. Bob Gottlieb suggested it to me after I wrote that piece and I always listen to him. A book with a title like My Old Ladies. I published that piece on The New Yorker website about this fabulous elderly French lady that I boarded with when I was in college. I could write about [my teacher] Froma. How continually I’ve come under the influence of these very strong older women. As I recall, that Renault piece was probably 14,000 words. I think to amplify it would be a matter of adding more detail but not more structure, so I don’t know that I’m going to revisit that but I would like to assemble some of these ladies in one place. I could write about my mother. It might be a fun book.
TM: I also read that you’re working on a book about reading the classics.
DM: That’s my next book, which I’ve thought about doing for a long time. When I’m on book tour, there’s a huge number of people who really want to know why these great texts are supposed to be so great. Not in a skeptical way, but a lot of people are like my father, for whatever reason they didn’t get to read the classics or they sped through them in high school and as adults they have some sense that these texts have tremendous amount to say but they need someone who’s going to be the professor. I thought it would be a good to write a book, which in some sense is like these pieces I’ve done for The New Yorker about The Iliad or Herodotus or Thucydides. A number of chapters on different authors or genres, and just say, here’s what it is, these are the issues, let’s sit down and look at them together.
TM: The description of An Odyssey sounds like the description of either a new sitcom or an Oscar nominated film, so I have to ask, have you sold the Hollywood rights?
DM: [Laughs.] As my grandmother would say, from your lips to God’s ears.
The dead chase the living in Sing, Unburied, Sing, Jesmyn Ward’s new novel about the legacy of trauma. In Ward’s last novel, Salvage the Bones, the main character is preoccupied with the mythological tale of Medea, a woman left heartbroken. Here, Ward traces an American highway odyssey, from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to Parchman Farm, the notorious state penitentiary. Bouncing between the past and present, between ghosts and breathing bodies, between drug-induced fantasy and raw, heartbreaking reality, Sing, Unburied, Sing follows a family that seems to descend from earlier novels like Beloved and As I Lay Dying, uniting past and present suffering. Ward’s fiction is about inherited trauma in a deeply divided society, where the oppressor and the oppressed share a legacy.
All of Ward’s characters in Sing, Unburied, Sing live with trauma. Pop, the patriarch of the family, grandfather to Jojo and Kayla, remembers his time in Parchman Farm penitentiary and his friend Richie, a young boy who died there. Mam, his wife, is dying from cancer. Their grandson, Jojo, takes care of his younger sister, Kayla, while their neglectful mother, Leonie, deals and consumes drugs. Leonie is haunted by the ghost of her brother, Given, who was shot and killed as a teenager; he appears when she is high, often looking disapproving. When Michael, Leonie’s lover, and Jojo and Kayla’s white father, is set to be released from Parchman, Leonie takes her two children on a journey across Mississippi to bring him back. Along the way, the dead are revived, and they fight to return from the prison with them.
Ward allows the reader to imagine the persistence of ghosts in every facet of this family’s life. Ghosts exist in Pop’s stories, they arrive in a drug-induced haze, they sit like birds on the trees around their home and sing. These ghosts are physical manifestations of the family members’ psyches and symbolic of collective trauma endured by previous generations. They bring with them a restlessness, anger, and desperation—depicted with visceral emotion in the figure of Beloved, decades ago. Toni Morrison’s Beloved, too, was a marker of the pain her mother had endured. But unlike the haunted house in the first few pages of Beloved, where even the sideboard would react to a house’s inhabitants, the ghosts of Sing, Unburied, Sing float, existing as part of the history of a given space without making a direct impact on the space itself. The ghost of Given appears only to Leonie at first, his arrivals and departures indicative of Leonie’s own guilt at her inability to be a good mother and daughter.
While ghosts of the past trouble the present, magic and ancestral mythology eludes Leonie, a loss that stings deeply. Mam, bedridden for most of the novel, is Leonie’s connection to her spirituality, her conduit to her faith. Mam comes to Leonie in her dreams “calling on our Lady of Regla. On the Star of the Sea […] she was holding me like the goddess, her arms all the life-giving waters of the world.” The Lady of Regla, a syncretic Catholic-Yoruba figure, brings mythological stakes to their journey to Parchman, the “Star of the Sea” meant to guide voyagers home. But, unlike The Odyssey, in which the gods and the supernatural often intervene to help the hero along his journey, Leonie and her children face their journey alone. Leonie’s ability to see her brother’s ghost is not a gift, it is a burden weighing down on her through the journey, a source of guilt and remonstrance. Ghosts and supernatural creatures are restricted to imagination and memory in this novel, they cannot intervene. The characters are left to their own devices without hope of supernatural intervention.
The narrative has a persistent tone of hopelessness, much like the mood of the doomed and destructive families of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner’s families were living in a collapsing post-Civil War world where their legacies were in decline. “The reason for living is to get ready to stay dead,” Addie Bundren said, emotions repeated in Sing, Unburied, Sing where the living are engrossed by stories of the dead, and Mam waits for death with resignation.
The ghost story fits into a realistic framework, because Ward places limits around ghostly intervention. These limits allow the reader to question the position of ghosts in relation to the characters. Are they truly present? Or are they in the characters’ minds? Does it even matter when the deeper, larger grief is prevalent in both the living and the dead?
As Baby Suggs says in Beloved: “Not a house in the country ain’t packed to its rafters with a dead Negro’s grief.” Ward’s work is full of stories of the dead, specifically of young black men. In her memoir Men We Reaped, published in 2013, she wrote about the tragic and violent deaths of men in her life, including her own brother.
In Sing, Unburied, Sing, Parchman Farm represents collective grief and trauma, as a space where slavery is still alive and well. Like Faulkner resetting time in The Sound and the Fury, Ward blurs time, inserting memories into the present. “[How] could I conceive that Parchman was past, present, and future all at once?” says one character. The past in Parchman Farm is the main catalyst for the story. Pop relates his experiences there to Jojo in the beginning of the novel, and Jojo is fascinated by this history. For Jojo, Pop’s dark past marks an entrance into manhood, where he aspires to arrive at one day. But for Pop, a man bearing the burden of imprisonment, saving his grandchildren from similar fates is a primary concern. Jojo ultimately faces Pop’s past when he arrives at Parchman Farm. For the older and younger men in Ward’s novels, history lives on in their bodies, and the stories they transmit through them. So Jojo finds Pop’s world not just through his second-hand version of events, but by arriving at the space that imprisoned and traumatized their family.
By invoking Morrison and Faulkner for new readers, Ward excavates not only the suffering of her characters, but also the long tradition of fiction about slavery, fiction that grapples with racial injustice that extends into the present. Often the book relies too much on old symbols. Pop’s memories of Richie and the actions causing the young boy’s death draw almost too heavily upon the inspiration of Beloved.
Suffering is a continuous process of engagement with trauma, facing, fighting, and sometimes succumbing to it. In the foreword to Beloved, Toni Morrison described writing about slavery in a way that kept memory alive: “the order and quietude of everyday life would be violently disrupted by the chaos of the needy dead.” The dead in Sing, Unburied, Sing are needy because they have no choice. Trauma demands attention, yet that attention brings chaos into the characters’ lives. The act of writing and reading such stories also demands that oppressor and oppressed address their positions in an unjust society. Literature and history occupy the same role, as record-keepers of injustice, and of experiences. These records allow us to understand why past and present trauma are ultimately spokes in the same wheel.
Teju Cole can seduce you a dozen ways. As a writer who refuses to be boxed in by the conventions of genre, he blurs the boundaries between fiction and memoir, sprinkling in just enough tidbits from his own life to leave you wanting more. His essays cover an astonishing range of subjects, from favorite writers like W.G. Sebald and James Baldwin to photography, travel and the politics of race and nationality. His interests veer between aesthetics and politics, and he writes about both as the photography critic for The New York Times Magazine.
The pleasure of dipping into Cole’s work is encountering an extremely fertile mind. He seems instinctively drawn to creative work that’s fragmentary in nature rather than fully-formed worlds. Perhaps it’s no surprise that he turned Twitter into an art form. But just when Cole developed a huge Twitter following, he abandoned it. “I try to find out what I can do in that space,” he told me, “and then without any compunction or regret I move on.”
His latest experiment is Blind Spot, a strange hybrid of photography book and essay collection. Cole has traveled everywhere and come back to tell us what he’s seen, and it’s all filtered through his distinctive perspective – part Nigerian, part American and thoroughly cosmopolitan.
He recently came to Madison to speak at the University of Wisconsin, and shortly before his lecture, he stopped by my recording studio for an interview. Like he always does, Cole was carrying a camera. This one was his small Fujifilm X70 digital camera, one of nine cameras he owns. I asked if he uses them all. “Yeah. It’s helpful to have different tools,” he said. “Each one makes you shoot a little differently and opens up another seam in your head.”
We talked about what he likes in photographs, his dislike of artistic boundaries, the complexities of racial identity, and his roots in both Lagos and New York.
Steve Paulson: You always seem to be looking around and taking photos of the places you go, but you’ve called your new book Blind Spot. What does that title refer to?
Teju Cole: Well, if you’re looking a lot, at some point you become aware of the limitations of looking. It’s just like being a writer. At some point you understand there are things that words can accomplish and then there’s a moment when words cannot help you. Looking has been so central to my way of being in the world that it goes a little bit beyond the conventional. But I was also very much into art as a kid. And I’ve got three university degrees and they’re all in art history.
Art history is basically about looking closely and trying to give an account of what you’re looking at from the art tradition. Then I got into photography more than a dozen years ago. And not long after that I really got into writing about photography and that entailed even closer looking than just taking photographs because now I have to interpret other people’s photographs.
SP: It sounds like you’re saying the more you look, the more you realize what you don’t see.
TC: Absolutely. You realize that in everything you’re looking at, you’re missing something and it becomes a haunting question. The other thing that happened was that sometime around 2011, just after my first book, Open City, was published in this country, I had an episode with my eyes. I woke up one morning and was blind in my left eye. I wasn’t in pain. I just couldn’t see and it was like a veil had fallen over my vision, and my right eye wasn’t doing so great either. So of course this is a nightmare for anyone.
SP: Especially for you, since you’re a photography critic.
TC: An art historian and a photography guy. This occlusion went away over the course of a couple of days. But doctors could not quite figure out what was going on. Eventually I got a diagnosis from this top specialist on retinal problems. He said I had something called Big Blind Spot Syndrome. It’s something I kept thinking about afterwards. Later, I had some surgery. The problem has come back again but only rarely. But I kept thinking about the blind spot. And it changed my photography
SP: How so?
TC: I was already looking intently, but I started to look more intently, more patiently. My photography got a bit more meditative and mysterious. I began to pay attention to the ordinary in a more focused way.
SP: What’s striking when I look at your own photographs – of back alleys, side streets, a tarp hanging over a shack – these aren’t the usual tourist photos we see.
TC: That’s right. Having eye trouble made the ordinary glorious. It’s just the way the sun falls across concrete or, like you said, a hanging tarp. It’s almost like William Carlos Williams’s poetry. I’m not the first person in photography to pay attention to such simple scenes, usually devoid of people and excitement. Certainly in American photography we’ve had pioneers like Lee Friedlander or Stephen Shore or William Eggleston, but the discovery for me was finding out the highly personal way I wanted to do this. Simply to make images out of the ordinary and then to draw the extraordinary narrative that might be lying behind that terrain or city if it was a place I was visiting.
SP: Does your approach to photography match how you look at the world? Is seeing the same thing as taking a picture of it?
TC: It’s getting closer. This aspect of my work — writing for the public and making images — has been going on for about a dozen years, and in that time I’ve understood more and more that all of it is of a piece. I used to think they were really separate. Now I realize that looking at the world, making images, writing about images, writing about things that are not images, all of it is an attempt to testify to having been here and seen certain things, having looked at the world with a kind eye but an eye that is not ignoring questions of justice and history. And that’s why Blind Spot is a book of text and images.
SP: Nearly every page of this book has one image and an accompanying bit of text that you’ve written, often just one paragraph. Sometimes you reference the picture you’ve taken, sometimes you don’t. What’s the connection between text and image?
TC: I wanted to make a book that was a little bit novelistic but with none of the things you expect from a novel. This book is not made up. These are stories drawn from real life — personal experience, philosophy, essayistic-type of speculations. Novels usually don’t have 150 color photographs. And yet I wanted to give it the energy of a novel or a documentary film, just a very peculiar one. So in one sense it was about the excitement of working in a new genre — a genre I was developing myself — the rhythm of text and image. But if you look at just the images all by themselves, they have a common visual language. They’re in color. I shot everything in film in 25 different countries. They usually have streetscapes or interiors, not a lot of people. When we have people, they’re turned away from us, so there’s a quietness that connects all the images. And if you read all the text in sequence, they have a kind of philosophical temperature that unites them. So this adventure was finding my way into a new form that I hope has a coherence. So if somebody goes through the book, they feel they’ve been through something strange and marvelous. It’s a strange album, a strange movie, a strange novel, but it’s none of those things because it’s actually just texts and images.
SP: What can text do and what can an image do?
TC: Text is very good at being explicit. When you write, you’re saying something in particular about the world. Images are specific about what was seen but not about what it means. When you put them together, you have the opportunity either to explain, which is usually not what I’m doing, or to create a kind of poetry. So you put the semantics of text together with the description of the image and they meet at an interesting angle. And out of that angle, I’m hoping and praying that some kind of poetry happens.
SP: And there’s a third thing you do. Often you’re not just describing the picture. You refer to favorite books and writers and artists. There are layers upon layers. Nothing is ever direct with you.
TC: [Laughs] Not really. Well, it’s all part of my world. This library contains The Iliad and The Odyssey. It also contains the Bible. I’m very interested in Christian theology. I think this is my most personal book to date and Christian teaching was a big part of my formation. And the moment I start thinking about how much I am seeing, how much I am missing, all this Christianity just comes in — not as an explanation but as a lens to understand it. Stories like Jesus healing the blind, and religious faith as a kind of seeing, as a form of prophecy. Religious faith is something I drifted away from because I realized that some of the claims it made about special vision did not hold true. Having believed was a kind of blind spot.
SP: Is your project to remove the blind spots, or to acknowledge that we all have blind spots?
TC: It’s really about acknowledgement. To go back to these very old texts was also a way to acknowledge the antiquity of these questions. There’s something elemental about a person walking down a street, so I talk a lot about walking in the book because walking is connected to photography but photography is connected to seeing. The kind of seeing we do has to do with us being upright creatures whose eyes are flat on our faces. We’re not like dogs close to the earth, with eyes on either side of the snout. So these are very old questions. At some point we were on all fours and then we stood up. Of course the book is haunted by frailty, eventually also by death. I wanted this book to be very contemporary but also to deal with what it means to be a human creature upon the earth. Somehow thinking about theology and Homer gave me access to that.
SP: You’ve taken these photos all over the world. I started jotting down some of these places: Lagos, where you grew up, Nuremberg, Tivoli, Nairobi, Auckland, Tripoli, Milan, Berlin, Zurich, Copenhagen, Seoul, Bombay, Sao Paolo, Brooklyn, Beirut, Bali. The list goes on and on. You must like to travel.
TC: I get to travel a lot. I take a lot of pleasure from it and I get a lot of productive discomfort from it. I only included photos I felt were relevant to the project of the book. I only included places where I made film photographs because I wanted a consistency of effect and appearance. Not because film is better than digital. For example, on this visit to Madison, I’ve only brought my small digital camera.
SP: So I have this image of you. You land in a new place and just start walking with your camera, not necessarily to any particular destination. Is this what you do?
TC: That’s pretty accurate. You know, what’s missing from this book is I don’t have any pictures of Iceland because when I went there, I didn’t take a film camera. I took a digital one. I have no pictures from South Africa. I have no pictures from Australia.
SP: What does film give you that you don’t get in a digital picture?
TC: I think it affords a certain kind of slowness in the thinking. I have only 36 shots on this roll. Do I really want to take this picture?
SP: You have to be more selective.
TC: Yes. But having shot with film for many years now, I think that has also started to affect my digital shooting. I’m not so happy-go-lucky anymore.
SP: I know people who deliberately do not take cameras when they travel because they worry they’re always going to be looking for the good shot rather than just having the experience. Does that resonate at all with you?
TC: I understand where that thinking comes from. One of the most wonderful writers on photography was the English writer John Berger, who died earlier this year. He was somebody whose work I very much cherished. And I got the opportunity to ask Berger about why he didn’t take photographs and he said he tried it very briefly — maybe in the 80s. He had a photographer teach him how to take and develop photos and then he realized that when he took photos of a scene, it kind of foreclosed the writing he wanted to do about that situation. His attention to detail went to the image rather than to the writing he was able to do about it. So he preferred to observe and draw and write. But I find that I’m able to do both.
SP: Do you carry around a notebook as well as a camera?
TC: I always have a notebook, a pen and a camera. These are my tools because the world is always giving you various phenomena. You’ve noticed that some of what I’m writing about is different from what I photographed. Sometimes they coincide. I don’t want my photography to be an illustration of the text. I want the photograph to hold its own. What is the light doing? How are the colors working? How do things balance? The narrative also has to meet the demands of storytelling, of obliqueness, of compression. It has to detonate in a certain way that might actually be adjacent to the photograph, not sitting right on top of it. Which is why I don’t really call these texts “captions.” They are voice-overs. They are running parallel. Each has to emanate its own energy.
SP: You’ve talked about these elusive and mysterious photos that you like to take. Is that also what you like to see in other people’s photography?
TC: I like a very wide range of things in photography. This is important for me as a photography critic not to be closed-minded. So I like photos of the kind that is related to my work. I particularly like Italian contemporary photography. But I also like spectacular street photographers who can nail a decisive moment. I sometimes do that but not a whole lot of it. I also like a good portrait.
SP: Even though you rarely take portraits.
TC: I love strong portraits. I think it’s a challenging art form. Irving Penn was a great portraitist but I would rather look at a portrait by Gordon Parks. It seemed to have more import. And I think Richard Avedon, whose style is not so far from Irving Penn’s, was a more successful portraitist. But Henri Cartier-Bresson was an even better portraitist. There was something about what was happening around his portrait that gave it more energy. The young contemporary photographer Christopher Anderson is an extraordinary portraitist and he gets a lot of magazine work because of this extraordinary ability to work with color and appearance when making images of people. I like conceptual photography. And at the same time I like photojournalists and spot news reporting. So I like all sorts. But this applies to writing as well.
SP: You also seem to be fascinated by memory.
TC: Memory is often a layer. A lot of my language can probably be located somewhere around 1915, between Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. I have a lot of faith in what can be achieved with a well-polished English sentence. Not that I try to make the language old- fashioned, but I like a clean sentence. But a lot of the reading I do is fragmented. One of my favorite authors is Michael Ondaatje and he uses sentence fragments a great deal.
SP: Why do you like fragmentary sentences?
TC: Because they can evoke the present in a very powerful way.
SP: So you don’t want a narrative that’s too self-contained and wraps everything up?
TC: But sometimes I do. Look at James Joyce’s short story “The Dead.” Excellent sentences and they’re somewhat formal, even though the narrative is not formal. You get your epiphany at the end and you have these very powerful feelings. But if you read Running in the Family or The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje, it’s jazzier. Those sentences are all over the place. Or if you read Anne Carson, who is a modern master of the fragment. A fragment is very often about mastery as well. It’s about saying I need just this much to convey. That can just be a delight. For me it’s about recognizing that great art comes in all kinds of forms. In Blind Spot I actually use more fragments than I’ve tended to use you, though I also still use a lot of well-polished sentences.
SP: There’s one page in Blind Spot that I want to quote because it raises some interesting questions. It’s about Lugano. You have a photo of a park bench, a statue of a horse and some buildings. And here’s the entire text that accompanies that image:
She said to me: Europe is getting worse. I still don’t understand why you want to move to Switzerland. I said to her: I don’t want to move to Switzerland. Quite the contrary. I like to visit Switzerland. When I’m not there, I long for it, but what I long for is the feeling of being an outsider there and, soon after, the feeling of leaving again so I can continue to long for it.
There’s so much in that passage: your love of travel, your feeling of displacement, wanting to be an outsider but probably also experiencing the cost of being the outsider.
TC: Yeah, but some very profound pleasures in it. Why is that text in Blind Spot? Because it encapsulates a misunderstanding. “Oh, you talk about Switzerland. You must want to live there. You want to be a Swiss citizen.” No. So I’m thinking through that response. What is another possible reason for wanting to be in Switzerland? Well, one way is to enjoy visiting without the desire to live there. It also fits in this book because Switzerland is one of the hidden themes of the book. And I keep going back there.
SP: It made me think of an essay you wrote about James Baldwin in Known and Strange Things. He lived in a tiny mountain village in Switzerland in the 1950s, basically in exile. He was the only black person in that village, and that’s where he went to finish writing Go Tell It On the Mountain. Maybe he had to go there to be able to finish this book about America.
TC: Precisely. There’s a way that outsiderness either in your own person or in your location can help you understand what you’re an insider to. Being a Nigerian-American in America helps me to understand Nigeria in a more intense way.
SP: Is it easier to write about Nigeria when you’re in the U.S.?
TC: No writing is easy, but it affords me a certain insight while looking at it from a distance. Being in Nigeria, having grown up in Nigeria, also illuminates my understanding of America even though I’m an American. That outsiderness helps. But the peculiar thing about having a couple of Switzerland essays in Known and Strange Things is that it’s a perfect illustration of the way that each of my books hands on the baton to the next book. So Known and Strange Things becomes a kind of prequel to Blind Spot. The final essay in Known and Strange Things is called “Blind Spot.”
SP: Which is about the experience of losing your vision.
TC: Yes. And then in a weird kind of way this blooms out into an entire book of photographs. But Known and Strange Things takes up in essayistic form many of the concerns that have been raised in novelistic form in Open City. What does it mean to live together? What are the responsibilities of looking at art? What should migration look like? Meanwhile, Open City itself is a kind of expansion on the out-of-placeness of the narrator who was at the center of Every Day Is for the Thief, which is the first book I wrote. So I dream of this organic flow of books.
SP: Even though the format of each of these books is really quite different. Some are fiction. Some are nonfiction. One has a lot of photographs. You seem to enjoy playing with form.
TC: Not only are they four books in four different genres, but each one is also considered peculiar within the genre that it’s supposed to be. Open City is strange for a novel. It’s a novel without a plot. And 400 pages of an essay collection that’s curiously personal and still you don’t know too much about me [laughs].
SP: There’s one other form that you’ve mastered. You turned Twittter into an art form and developed a huge following.
TC: Thank you. It was a creative space for me and I enjoyed it very much.
SP: You wrote a series of tweets that got a lot of traction called the White Savior Industrial Complex. This was in response to the Kony 2012 video that was all the rage a few years ago, about the African warlord who had an army of child soldiers.
TC: So many things were coming together publicly and I wondered, what’s my response to this? It allowed me to think about what we do when we do charity. What do we owe to the people to whom we’re doing some kind of mercy or favor? How much of it is tangled up in our own ego for wanting to be the savior? How much of this is actually racialized? If white Americans are going to Africa to go save, how is this related to the history of colonialism? How is this related to racial politics here in the U.S.? How is this related to being a white person and how you view black people? Does equality have any role to play if we’re helping people who are desperate, or does desperation absolve us of the need to treat people like equals? I thought these were good questions to ask. Yes, the title was provocative. The White Savior Industrial Complex got people’s hackles up a little bit.
SP: Because you were calling out people, including New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, who writes a lot about this kind of thing.
TC: Right. I was calling people out. But the interesting thing about justice is that unless somebody pushes, nothing really happens. If black people don’t push and speak out, nothing changes in race relations. If women don’t speak out and make a fuss and make things a bit uncomfortable, gender relations don’t really move. As we say, it’s the person who wears a shoe that knows where it pinches. And so the person whose shoe is pinching has to make the complaint. So there’s a space for complaint. And Twitter was an interesting place to put those ideas out there.
SP: Are you still on Twitter?
TC: I’m not on Twitter. I’ve not tweeted in about three years.
SP: Why did you let it go?
TC: That’s exactly what I do with each of these genres. I try to find out what I can do in that space. I try to do good work there, and then without any compunction or regret I move on. And I try to find the next place to continue my exploration.
SP: What was it about the Twitter moment that appealed to you?
TC: An instantaneous public. The conveyance of compression and sentences into the minds of others. How much can we fit into this form? I think what any artist has to offer is really freedom. Freedom can be contagious. I chafe at excessive convention but I love to work within conventions and then try to push them and stop somewhere before the breaking point. So perfectly good English sentences but then I’m pushing against what is permissible. So with this new book, what does the photography book look like? Well, not like this, which has a lot of text. So is it a selection of essays? Is it a memoir?
SP: Your personal history has clearly shaped your writing. You were born in Michigan, but within a few months your family moved to Lagos, where you grew up. How long were you in Nigeria?
TC: For 17 years.
SP: Why did you come back to America?
TC: I came back to the Midwest, to Kalamazoo, for university. My father was deeply unimpressed with the state of Nigerian universities in the early 90s and he wanted me to go back to the U.S. I didn’t mind that, but I certainly did not arrive in the U.S. as a desperate and eager immigrant. We had very little money, but the privilege of choice was there. I got some scholarships and loans and then I had to start learning what it meant to be here as an American who was Nigerian. It was almost as if for the first time I was also learning that I was black. That did not need to be stated in Nigeria because everybody else around me was black, but I had to learn the racial politics of the U.S. and then I had to start experiencing in my own body the variegations of racial prejudice.
SP: So at first, you did not have the experience of most African-Americans?
TC: I did not. But I’ve been in the U.S. for 25 years. I’m a black guy in America, so within those first couple of years, there are many things I did not have a narrative for. What does it mean if I’m strolling around in a small town in Michigan and a car slows down, the window is wound down and someone shouts the N-word at me? And what does it mean in a university setting where somebody says to me, “Oh, you’re not like those other blacks”? All of this stuff had to be understood as a black person in America. In fact, I’m an American African but I’m also an African American.
SP: Wasn’t it years before you actually went back to visit Lagos?
TC: Yeah. It’s a little bit different from the narrator of Every Day Is for the Thief but there are some similarities. I went back to Nigeria after three years, but then I didn’t go back again for another dozen years. There was a big mental distance. I kept not having the money. I kept not having the time. I kept worrying about whether I would be able to go. I went back in 2005 and I’ve been back every year since then. It became a priority and I reestablished roots there.
SP: But you live in Brooklyn now.
TC: I live in Brooklyn. I live in the U.S.
SP: Do you consider Brooklyn home?
TC: Yes. That’s where my wife is. My brother lives there. My friends are there. My books are there. My office is there. So that’s home. I also consider Lagos home. My parents live there. It’s where I grew up. If I go to Nigeria, my room is there. The two most spoken languages in Lagos — Yoruba and English — are languages I’m fluent in. So there’s an at-homeness, but a home is also wherever there’s good wi-fi. That connects me to the world in a way that is irreducible and essential to my experience of the world.
SP: Do you consider yourself more Nigerian or more American?
TC: Neither. Split right down the middle. Or rather 100 percent of both. I feel very invested in Nigeria’s future. There’s a book I’ve been working on for a long time about Lagos, so I think a lot about Nigeria. I’m American and America is in crisis at the moment and I feel invested. Open City was definitely an approach to this question but I feel invested in what this country ought to be. I’m a citizen who is not a patriot. I’m a citizen in the sense of being invested in what we owe each other. What do we do to protect each other’s rights? What do we do about people who break our mutual agreement? What do sanctions and punishments look like? Those philosophical questions are very interesting to me. Our borders are interesting to me. If my money’s being used to kill foreigners in the theater of war, that’s my business. So I’m very American and I’m also very Nigerian.
SP: The two cities where you’ve spent the most time are Lagos and New York. Are they totally different experiences for you or do they have certain similarities?
TC: The commonalities are extensive. It is the experience of cosmopolitanism, which is maybe the fourth definition of home for me. And this is what I find in spaces in Lagos. And it’s what I find in New York — restaurants, clubs, bookshops, shopping malls, traffic, crazy people on the street, high fashion. Cities as a kind of problem-solving technology. If there are 16 million people in the same place, then we have to use resources in a way that makes sense in such a compressed space.
SP: What are the biggest differences between Lagos and New York?
TC: New York is much richer. Lagos might have 25 buildings of monumental scale and New York has 300. The sheer physical scale of New York never ceases to surprise me. And then there’s that thing of New York being a world capital. Lagos is the capital of Africa.
Don’t let people in Cairo or Johannesburg tell you different. Lagos is the place where the pop culture of Africa is being made. Lagos is the capital of Africa but New York is the capital of the world. So there is something about encountering this expansive, complex mutual togetherness in conversation. It’s possible in New York. So New York is almost not an American city. It’s a city that’s a vision of what the world looks like if these borders are not as they are right now.
This interview was conducted through the radio program To the Best of Our Knowledge. An edited radio version will air soon.
Poetry was, and continues to be, the thorn in my literary side. For many years, verse and rhyme poked at me, guarding themselves from my attempts to understand. So I kept the world of poetry at arms length. They seemed to offer me confusion in the place of benefit.
The words iamb and trochee crashed around in my ears during my university poetry course. Even the mention of poems flooded my mind with images of Petrarchan sonnets and archaic language. When I could muster enough attention, the mechanics of poetry complicated things.
The most enjoyment I found in poetry came from Homer’s The Odyssey and John Milton’s Paradise Lost, which, for a lazy reader, can be read similar to novels. I was surprised then, when I came across Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Beginning their jointly published Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge and William Wordsworth wrote in their preface:
The principal object, then, which I proposed to myself in these poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible, in a selection of language really used by men; and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain coloring of imagination
The truism ruling my mind was poetry felt too poetic; it concerned at the same time matters unimportant, or much too important for me. Reading these words, my opposition to poetry met its first challenge. According to Romantics, the good poem must extend an invitation for the reader to enter the dance. The focus is on the everyday. The only qualifier is they share the same “coloring of imagination.”
For Coleridge, imagination was an acquired taste. Following the death of his father, he found himself a schoolboy in London as a rambunctious, young child. An exceptional scholar, his schoolmates still described him as lonely and wistful.
Coleridge spent many years as a political radical. Always in the midst of action, he spent years under the noise and disturbances of London. In 1795, Coleridge met Wordsworth and in the encounter, changed his poetic style. His work reflected “situations from common life” and his tone grew more relaxed.
Leaving London, he relocated to rural life. Coleridge’s move to Nether Stowey accompanied the period of his changing tone. The young poet found refuge from the pressure of city life within the small village. He was free to experience nature—the consuming subject of Romantic poetry. The move was, in many ways, the result of his fascination with the new world presented by Wordsworth. His cottage is also where he first introduces his readers to the frost.
My excitement from the preface fueled my study of Coleridge’s poems. When I arrived at “Frost at Midnight”—I heard the verses as if they were describing my journey through the collection of poems:
The frost performs its secret ministry, unhelped by any wind. The owlet’s cry came loud—and hark, again! Loud as before”
The city boy is now relating his move to the countryside. Wordsworth writes of his friend Coleridge, “thou, my Friend! Wert reared in the great City, ‘mid far other scenes,” speaking of his upbringing in London. The poet is accustomed to life in the city. He relates the process by which he grew accustomed to the natural world—expressed by the cold of the frost.
Frost is chilling and harsh, usually not associated with the realm of poetry. Still, Coleridge is a preacher of its ministry. Reading Coleridge, I understand we share the bond of allowing what is unfamiliar to captivate and overtake—I learn to lean in to the secret ministry of the frost as I wrestle with a new poem.
In spite of (and maybe because of) my initial difficulty in reading poetry, I allowed myself to be drawn in by the poems in the Lyrical Ballads. The world of poetry opened. That which was previously foreign and even distasteful became an object of pleasure.
‘Tis calm indeed! So calm, that it disturbs and vexes meditation with its strange and extreme silentness.
The cottage where he lives in Nether Stowey is new and unfamiliar. The cry of the owl seems louder than in the streets of London. There is too much time to think and there is not enough noise to fill his mind. The poet steps into life in nature, into a new setting—to find discomfort. But the discomfort doesn’t seem to bother. Rather, Coleridge celebrates the vexation and the strangeness. Central to the ministry of the frost, then, lies difficulty. The reward of intimacy with what was previously foreign can only come about through a harrowing process. This explains my affinity for the Romantics and Coleridge. My initial efforts in the realm of poetry disturbed and vexed; Coleridge offered comradery with his experience with the ministry of the frost.
My first poetic breakthrough was understanding the difference between iambic and trochaic meter. With a pen in hand, I drew dashes and dots above the lines in William Blake’s “The Lamb” to show stressed syllables. I chose a corner in the library to assure no one would see me violently mouthing “little lamb” and protruding a finger with each syllable. I shouted when, at last, I correctly identified Blake’s meter.
The practice was my frost. Uninviting and unfamiliar—the exercise somehow became a ministry. Difficulty which once challenged now intrigued. The poet wrestled with his new environment, seeking only to turn discomfort to peace. Following his example, I hurried into memorizing various rhyme schemes and mastering new poetic vocabulary. Enjambment, spondee, volta.
My feet were planted in unfamiliar terrain, only to discover a fresh vitality, and growing enjoyment of verse and rhyme.
Today, Coleridge and his poems draw from me the consent to feel—rather than to understand. His reminder is to step into new terrain—encouraging me to tackle the metaphysics of John Donne and even the disjointed work of Ezra Pound. I must dismantle the mental trap where it is so very easy to place poems, and surrender to a willingness to not understand. The invitation from “Frost at Midnight” is not to explain, but to experience.
“Frost at Midnight” is addressed to Coleridge’s son, Harley. The frost performs its secret ministry, says Coleridge, and so wonderful is this ministry that he shares it with an infant who can neither understand or respond. The ministry is communal. He calls the daring boldness out of his son as Wordsworth called it out of him.
But thou, my babe! Shalt wander like a breeze by lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Harley roams breezily through sandy shores and lakes, unfamiliar to his father, Samuel. He connects with ease to the ancient mountain, skipping the disquiet with which the poet arrived at Nether Stowey. This is where the poem become my invitation. The call, for me, is to continue wandering. My initial distrust of rhyme and meter will turn to affection; changing within me the same way Samuel entrusts his son, Harley, to nature.
“Frost at Midnight” works as an invitation, but also encourages as a benediction.
All seasons shall be sweet to thee
I find it hard not to snatch the phrase away from Harley, and stand in the way to receive the encouragement myself. Needed encouragement to be sure, for sometimes not all seasons—in my case, poetry—are sweet to me. My mind may never be able to comprehend the dense metaphors of Donne or make sense of the changing perspectives of T.S. Eliot. Still, I find company with Coleridge and his preaching of the frost’s ministry, received as a token of consolation.
Vexation and intrigue are potent when they work together. Discomfort, too, can be a strong catalyst, as it was for Coleridge in coming to terms with a new life in the countryside and a new way of writing poetry. Years later, I find myself sharing his invitation to be lulled by the unfamiliar. My reward comes in my growing connection with poetry—my highest literary hurdle. But Coleridge’s verses remind me the unmapped spaces are best for exploring. He calls it the ministry of the frost. I call it studying poetry.
Image Credit: Pixabay.
How many seminal works of 20th-century literature were created by refugees? Just judging by the Nobel laureates who were exiles from their homeland — a list that includes Thomas Mann, Elias Canetti, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czesław Miłosz, and Joseph Brodsky — one might assume that themes of exile and homelessness permeated the modernist literary canon.
But that wouldn’t be true. Many writers continue to inhabit their native soil in their imagination long after they have moved beyond its borders. Thomas Mann never wrote a novel about the plight of a German exile on the shores of Malibu. Alas, I wish he had. Solzhenitsyn continued to devote his energies to writing about Mother Russia even after spending 18 years in southern Vermont. The model for these writers is the great James Joyce, who left Dublin in 1904 only to obsess about it for the rest of his life. For every writer who grappled with the refugee experience in fiction, as did Singer, you will find a half dozen who skirted over it with indifference, even as they lived through the trauma of a displaced life.
As strange as it sounds, if I were forced to identify the defining literary works on the subject, almost every one on my list would be an old epic or scripture: The Odyssey (oddly enough, Joyce’s own role model for Ulysses) with its account of the hero’s exile from Ithaca; The Aeneid, with its tale of refugees from Troy; Paradise Lost, which opens with Satan and his crew receiving an eviction notice from Heaven; and, of course, the Book of Genesis, which kicks into high gear when the protagonists are sent packing from the Garden of Eden.
But these are not novels, and none of them deal with the modern experience of exile. For that I turn to Vladimir Nabokov and his novel Pnin. This Russian émigré would seem an unlikely candidate to focus on the plight of refugees. Nabokov left his homeland behind at the end of his teen years, was educated at the University of Cambridge, and was so successful at assimilation that he learned to write the Queen’s English better than the Queen — and her subjects too. If one is seeking a success story from the ranks of the displaced, Nabokov is the ideal candidate. Not only did he survive as a writer in his new language, but he became that greatest of rarities, an American literary lion who was also a bestseller.
Yet Pnin arrived at bookstores before Nabokov had tasted these successes. And even literary acclaim could never assuage the bitterness of displacement and family tragedy. Nabokov’s father was killed in 1922 by another Russian exile and his brother Sergei later died in a German concentration camp. Around the time of his father’s death, the young author’s engagement to Svetlana Siewert was broken off because of her parents’ concern that Nabokov could not earn enough to support their daughter. His subsequent marriage to Véra Evseyevna Slonim brought with it subsequent risks because of her Jewish antecedents. When Nabokov left for the in the U.S. aboard the SS Champlain on May 19, 1940, he had already spent two decades of nomadic existence as a man without a country. He was not coming to America to seek fame and fortune, but rather as a last desperate move to escape the Nazis, who would enter Paris in triumph a few days later.
These experiences set the tone, of bitterness mixed with nostalgia for a vanished world, that permeates the pages of Pnin. The main character, Timofey Pavlovich Pnin, is a comic figure on the campus of Waindell College. His old-fashioned continental ways and thick Russian accent are mimicked and ridiculed. His improvisations and mispronunciations turn familiar terms into extravagant variants — for example, his order of whisky and soda ends up sounding like “viscous and sawdust.” When asking for the receipt in a restaurant, the best he can come up with is a request for the “quittance.” His appearance, his gestures, and his general lack of awareness of American manners are fodder for campus gossip and mockery.
Pnin has much to offer the college community, but his Old World erudition is not valued at Waindell. The students have little interest in what he teaches, and the faculty treat him as an amusing distraction. Nabokov clearly turned to his own life story as the basis for this book, and I suspect that many of the jokes at Pnin’s expense are drawn from those the author experienced firsthand. His willingness to turn his quasi-autobiographic protagonist into a comic figure is extremely brave — readers can’t help wondering whether they are getting an invitation to laugh at Vladimir Nabokov himself.
But as the book progresses, the tone gradually shifts. During the first hundred pages, you might even assume that this is a comic novel. But as the tragedy of Pnin’s life unfolds, in flashbacks and reminiscences, the reader is shocked into a deeper awareness of the reality of the refugee’s life in exile. The more we understand Pnin, the better we grasp how the whole fabric of his existence has been torn apart by the whims of history. The novel ends with us watching a professor offer a caustic impersonation of Pnin that goes on and on and on. But, by this juncture, we are no longer laughing.
Pnin, like any refugee, is just one many. He is, as Nabokov reminds, a small part of “the active and significant nucleus of an exiled society which during the third of a century it flourished remained practically unknown to American intellectuals.” And why were these individuals so greatly misunderstood? Well, for the very same reasons that refugees are feared today: because of the danger they pose to society. For Americans of the Cold War years, “the notion of Russian emigration was made to mean by astute Communist propaganda a vague and perfectly fictitious mass of so-called Trotskyites (whatever these are), ruined reactionaries, reformed or disguised Cheka men, tided ladies, professional priests, restaurant keepers, and White Russian military groups, all of them of no cultural importance whatever.”
For Nabokov, who usually makes his views known indirectly in his novels, such plain-spokenness is unusual. This is a raw novel from a polished author, but raw in the best sense of them all. Nabokov may have been a great success at mastering the nuances of English and navigating through the U.S. publishing industry, but he had deep scars from his forced nomadic life, and refused to hide them in the course of this deeply moving book. In many ways, this novel is a deeply personal as his memoir Speak, Memory.
Although Nabokov is far better known today for Lolita, Pnin was his breakout book, the work that brought him to the attention of the U.S. literary community. Even before he could secure an American publisher for Lolita, Pnin found a receptive audience and got rave reviews. His previous writing in English had garnered little notice, but now he was seen as a rising literary star. The first printing of Pnin sold out in just one week, and Newsweek proclaimed Vladimir Nabokov as “one of the subtlest, funniest and most moving writers in the United States today.”
You could still read Pnin for the humor today, but I think that misses much of the point. Nabokov originally wanted to call this book My Poor Pnin, and I suspect that he found more to weep over than laugh about in his refugee’s story. Nabokov would occasionally return to themes of nomadism and exile in later works — in Pale Fire, or even Lolita, which is very much a novel of wandering and homelessness. But in their evocation of the lost life of the exile, they never match the power of this 60-year-old book.
Nor did any other writer of that era. There are other outstanding 20th-century novels that address the plight of the immigrant. W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz, Willa Cather’s My Ántonia and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club make it on my shortlist of must-read books on the subject. And in the 21st century, the refugee novel has emerged as a important category of fiction in works by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Mohsin Hamid, and others. But Nabokov’s Pnin gets my nod as the great forerunner of these works, the 20th-century masterwork on displacement in a time of sociopolitical upheaval. In a tumultuous period that found millions forced out of their homeland, and even more dead because they stayed behind, Nabokov was the most acute at turning these cumulative tragedies into a deeply personal novel that rings true on every page. In the current day, when exiles find themselves even less welcome wherever their sad fate sends them, we do well to remember that earlier generation, and how much we owe them. Perhaps we should also consider how often we still misunderstand the refugee’s plight. This book is a very good place to start that process.
Although 2016 has gotten a bad rap, there were, at the very least, a lot of excellent books published. But this year! Books from George Saunders, Roxane Gay, Hari Kunzru, J.M. Coetzee, Rachel Cusk, Jesmyn Ward? A lost manuscript by Claude McKay? A novel by Elif Batuman? Short stories by Penelope Lively? A memoir by Yiyun Li? Books from no fewer than four Millions staffers? It’s a feast. We hope the following list of 80-something upcoming books peps you up for the (first half of the) new year. You’ll notice that we’ve re-combined our fiction and nonfiction lists, emphasizing fiction as in the past. And, continuing a tradition we started this fall, we’ll be doing mini previews at the beginning of each month — let us know if there are other things we should be looking forward to. (If you are a big fan of our bi-annual Previews and find yourself referring to them year-round, please consider supporting our efforts by becoming a member!)
Difficult Women by Roxane Gay: Gay has had an enormously successful few years. In 2014, her novel, An Untamed State, and an essay collection, Bad Feminist, met with wide acclaim, and in the wake of unrest over anti-black police violence, hers was one of the clearest voices in the national conversation. While much of Gay’s writing since then has dealt in political thought and cultural criticism, she returns in 2017 with this short story collection exploring the various textures of American women’s experience. (Ismail)
Human Acts by Han Kang: Korean novelist Kang says all her books are variations on the theme of human violence. The Vegetarian, her first novel translated into English, arrested readers with the contempt showered upon an “unremarkable” wife who became a vegetarian after waking from a nightmare. Kang’s forthcoming Human Acts focuses on the 1980 Korean Gwangju Uprising, when Gwangju locals took up arms in retaliation for the massacre of university students who were protesting. Within Kang tries to unknot “two unsolvable riddles” — the intermingling of two innately human yet disparate tendencies, the capacity for cruelty alongside that for selflessness and dignity. (Anne)
Transit by Rachel Cusk: Everyone who read and reveled in the nimble formal daring of Outline is giddy to read Transit, which follows the same protagonist, Faye, as she navigates life after separating from her husband. Both Transit and Outline are made up of stories other people tell Faye, and in her rave in The Guardian, Tessa Hadley remarks that Cusk’s structure is “a striking gesture of relinquishment. Faye’s story contends for space against all these others, and the novel’s meaning is devolved out from its centre in her to a succession of characters. It’s a radically different way of imagining a self, too — Faye’s self.” (Edan)
4321 by Paul Auster: Multiple timelines are nothing new at this point, but it’s doubtful they’ve ever been used in quite the way they are in 4321, Auster’s first novel since his 2010 book Sunset Park. In his latest, four timelines branch off the moment the main character is born, introducing four separate Archibald Isaac Fergusons that grow more different as the plot wears on. They’re all, in their own ways, tied up with Amy Schneiderman, who appears throughout the book’s realities. (Thom)
Collected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: Doctorow is known for historical novels like Ragtime and The Book of Daniel, but he also wrote some terrific stories, and shortly before his death in 2015 he selected and revised 15 of his best. Fans who already own his 2011 collection All the Time in the World may want to give this new one a miss, since many of the selections overlap, but readers who only know Doctorow as a novelist may want to check out his classic early story “A Writer in the Family,” as well as others like “The Water Works” and “Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate,” which are either precursors of or companion pieces to his novels. (Michael B.)
Enigma Variations by André Aciman: The CUNY Professor New York magazine called “the most exciting new fiction writer of the 21st century” returns with a romantic/erotic bildungsroman following protagonist Paul from Italy to New York, from adolescence to adulthood. Kirkus called it an “eminently adult look at desire and attachment.” (Lydia)
Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin: Martin ran the online magazine Scratch from 2013 to 2015 and in those two years published some terrific and refreshingly transparent interviews with writers about cash money and how it’s helped and hindered their lives as artists. The magazine is no longer online, but this anthology includes many of those memorable conversations as well as some new ones. Aside from interviews with the likes of Cheryl Strayed and Jonathan Franzen, the anthology also includes honest and vulnerable essays about making art and making a career –and where those two meet — from such writers as Meaghan O’Connell and Alexander Chee. It’s a useful and inspiring read. (Edan)
Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh: A long, dull day of jury duty in 2008 was redeemed by a lunchtime discovery of Unsaid magazine and its lead story “Help Yourself!” by Moshfegh, whose characters were alluring and honest and full of contempt. I made a point to remember her name at the time, but now Moshfegh’s stories appear regularly in The Paris Review and The New Yorker, and her novel Eileen was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize. Her debut collection of stories, Homesick for Another World, gathers many of these earlier stories, and is bound to show why she’s considered one of literature’s most striking new voices. (Anne)
Glaxo by Hernán Ronsino: Ronsino’s English-language debut (translated by Samuel Rutter) is only 100 pages but manages to host four narrators and cover 40 years. Set in a dusty, stagnating town in Argentina, the novel cautiously circles around a decades-old murder, a vanished wife, and past political crimes. Allusions to John Sturges’s Last Train From Gun Hill hint at the vengeance, or justice, to come in this sly Latin American Western. (Matt)
Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran: Set in Berkeley, Sekaran’s novel follows two women: Soli, an undocumented woman from Mexico raising a baby alone while cleaning houses, and an Indian-American woman struggling with infertility who becomes a foster parent to Soli’s son. Kirkus called it “superbly crafted and engrossing.” (Lydia)
A Mother’s Tale by Phillip Lopate: One day in the mid-’80s, Lopate sat down with his tape recorder to capture his mother’s life story, which included, at various times, a stint owning a candy store, a side gig as an actress and singer, and a job on the line at a weapons factory at the height of World War II. Although Lopate didn’t use the tapes for decades, he unearthed them recently and turned them into this book, which consists of a long conversation between himself, his mother, and the person he was in the ’80s. (Thom)
The Gringo Champion by Aura Xilonen: Winner of Mexico’s Mauricio Achar Prize for Fiction, Xilonen’s novel (written when she was only 19, and here translated by Andrea Rosenberg) tells the story of a young boy who crosses the Rio Grande. Mixing Spanish and English, El Sur Mexico lauded the novel’s “vulgar idiom brilliantly transformed into art.” (Lydia)
Selection Day by Aravind Adiga: If Selection Day goes on to hit it big, we may remember it as our era’s definitive cricket novel. Adiga — a Man Booker laureate who won the prize in 2008 for his epic The White Tiger — follows the lives of Radha and Manju, two brothers whose father raised them to be master batsmen. In the way of The White Tiger, all the characters are deeply affected by changes in Indian society, most of which are transposed into changes in the country’s huge cricket scene. (Thom)
Huck Out West by Robert Coover: Coover, the CAVE-dwelling postmodern luminary, riffs on American’s great humorist in this sequel to Mark Twain’s classic set out West. From the opening pages, in which Tom, over Huck’s objections, sells Jim to slaveholding Cherokees, it is clear that Coover’s picaresque will be a tale of disillusionment. Unlike Tom, “who is always living in a story he’s read in a book so he knows what happens next,” Huck seems wearied and shaken by his continued adventures: “So many awful things had happened since then, so much outright meanness. It was almost like there was something wicked about growing up.” (Matt)
Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin. Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa called Schweblin “one of the most promising voices in modern literature in Spanish.” The Argentinian novelist’s fifth book, about “obsession, identity and motherhood,” is her first to be translated into English (by Megan McDowell). It’s been described “deeply unsettling and disorientating” by the publisher and “a wonderful nightmare of a book” by novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez. (Elizabeth)
Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson. Wilson’s first novel, The Family Fang, was about the children of performance artists. His second is about a new mother who joins a sort of utopian community called the “Infinite Family Project,” living alongside other couples raising newborns, which goes well until eventually “the gentle equilibrium among the families is upset and it all starts to disintegrate.” He’s been described by novelist Owen King as the “unholy child of George Saunders and Carson McCullers.” (Elizabeth)
Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke: Clarke’s award-winning short story collection Foreign Soil is now being published in the U.S. and includes a new story “Aviation,” specifically written for this edition. These character-driven stories take place worldwide — Australia, Africa, the West Indies, and the U.S. — and explore loss, inequity, and otherness. Clarke is hailed as an essential writer whose collection challenges and transforms the reader. (Zoë)
American Berserk by Bill Morris: Five years ago, a Millions commenter read Morris’s crackling piece about his experience as a young reporter in Chambersburg, Penn., during the 1970s: “Really, I wish this essay would be a book.” Ask, and you shall receive. To refresh your memories, Morris encountered what one would expect in the pastoral serenity of Pennsylvania Dutch country: “Kidnapping, ostracism, the paranormal, rape, murder, insanity, arson, more murder, attempted suicide — it added up to a collective nervous breakdown.” Morris has plenty to work with in these lurid tales, but the book is also about the pleasure of profiling those “interesting nobodies” whose stories never make it to the front page, no matter how small the paper. (Matt)
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: For Saunders fans, the prospect of a full-length novel from the short-story master has been something to speculate upon, if not actually expect. Yet Lincoln in the Bardo is a full 368-page blast of Saunders — dealing in the 1862 death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, the escalating Civil War, and, of course, Buddhist philosophy. Saunders has compared the process of writing longer fiction to “building custom yurts and then somebody commissioned a mansion” — and Saunders’s first novel is unlikely to resemble any other mansion on the block. (Jacob)
The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: This sequel to the Nobel Prize-winning South African author’s 2013 novel The Childhood of Jesus picks up shortly after Simón and Inés flee from authorities with their adopted son, David. Childhood was a sometimes thin-feeling allegory of immigration that found Coetzee meditating with some of his perennial concerns — cultural memory, language, naming, and state violence — at the expense of his characters. In Schooldays, the allegorical element recedes somewhat into the background as Coetzee tells the story of David’s enrollment in a dance school, his discovery of his passion for dancing, and his disturbing encounters with adult authority. This one was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. (Ismail)
To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell: Millions staffer and author of Millions Original Epic Fail O’Connell brings his superb writing and signature wit and empathy to a nonfiction exploration of the transhumanist movement, complete with cryogenic freezing, robots, and an unlikely presidential bid from the first transhumanist candidate. O’Connell’s sensibility — his humanity, if you will — and his subject matter are a match made in heaven. It’s an absolutely wonderful book, but don’t take my non-impartial word for it: Nicholson Baker and Margaret Atwood have plugged it too. (Lydia)
The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen: Pulitzer Prize Winner Nguyen’s short story collection The Refugees has already received starred pre-publication reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, among others. Nguyen’s brilliant new work of fiction offers vivid and intimate portrayals of characters and explores identity, war, and loss in stories collected over a period of two decades. (Zoë)
Amiable with Big Teeth by Claude McKay: A significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance, McKay is best-known for his novel Home to Harlem — which was criticized by W.E.B. Dubois for portraying black people (i.e. Harlem nightlife) as prurient — “after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath.” The novel went on to win the prestigious (if short-lived) Harmon Gold Medal and is widely praised for its sensual and brutal accuracy. In 2009, UPenn English professor Jean-Christophe Cloutier discovered the unpublished Amiable with Big Teeth in the papers of notorious, groundbreaking publisher Samuel Roth. A collaboration between Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards, a long-awaited, edited, scholarly edition of the novel will be released by Penguin in February. (Sonya)
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li: The Oakland-based Li delivers this memoir of chronic depression and a life lived with books. Weaving sharp literary criticism with a perceptive narrative about her life as an immigrant in America, Your Life isn’t as interested in exploring how literature helps us make sense of ourselves as it is in how literature situates us amongst others. (Ismail)
Autumn by Ali Smith: Her 2015 Baileys prize-winning How to Be Both was an experiment in how a reader experiences time. It has two parts, which can be read in any order. Now, Smith brings us Autumn, the first novel in what will be a Seasonal quartet — four stand-alone books, each one named after one of the four seasons. Known for writing with experimental elegance, she turns to time in the post Brexit world, specifically Autumn 2016, “exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take.” (Claire)
A Separation by Katie Kitamura: A sere and unsettling portrait of a marriage come undone, critics are hailing Kitamura’s third book as “mesmerizing” and “magnificent.” The narrator, a translator, goes to a remote part of Greece in search of her serially unfaithful husband, only to be further unmoored from any sense that she (and in turn the reader) had of the contours of their shared life. Blurbed by no fewer than six literary heavyweights — Rivka Galchen, Jenny Offill, Leslie Jamison, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Karl Ove Knausgaard — A Separation looks poised to be the literary Gone Girl of 2017. (Kirstin B.)
Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez: This young Argentinian journalist and author has already drawn a lot of attention for her “chilling, compulsive” gothic short stories. One made a December 2016 issue of The New Yorker; many more will be published this spring as Things We Lost in the Fire, which has drawn advanced praise from Helen Oyeyemi and Dave Eggers. The stories themselves follow addicts, muggers, and narcos — characters Oyeyemi calls “funny, brutal, bruised” — as they encounter the terrors of everyday life. Fair warning: these stories really will scare you. (Kaulie)
Universal Harvester by John Darnielle. Darnielle is best known for the The Mountain Goats, a band in which he has often been the only member. But his debut novel, Wolf in White Van, was nominated for a number of awards, including the National Book Award for Fiction. His second novel, set in Iowa in the 1990s, is about a video store clerk who discovers disturbing scenes on the store’s tapes. (Elizabeth)
300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso: It’s as if, like the late David Markson, Manguso is on a gnomic trajectory toward some single, ultimate truth expressed in the fewest words possible — or perhaps her poetic impulses have just grown even stronger over time. As its title suggests, this slim volume comprises a sequence of aphorisms (“Bad art is from no one to no one”) that in aggregate construct a self-portrait of the memoirist at work. “This book is the good sentences from the novel I didn’t write,” its narrator writes. (Kirstin B.)
The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso: Set in South Africa, Omotoso’s novel describes the bitter feud between two neighbors, both well-to-do, both widows, both elderly, one black, one white. Described by the TLS as one of the “Best Books by Women Every Man Should Read.” (Lydia)
Running by Cara Hoffman: The third novel from Hoffman, celebrated author of Be Safe I Love You, Running follows a group of three outsiders trying to make it the red light district of Athens in the 1980s. Bridey Sullivan, a wild teenager escaping childhood trauma in the States, falls in with a pair of young “runners” working to lure tourists to cheap Athenian hotels in return for bed and board. The narrative itself flashes between Athens, Sullivan’s youth, and her friend and runner Milo’s life in modern-day New York City. According to Kirkus, this allows the novel to be “crisp and immediate,” “beautiful and atmospheric,” and “original and deeply sad.” (Kaulie)
Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom: Academic and Twitter eminence McMillan Cottom tackles a subject that, given a recent spate of lawsuits, investigations, and closings, was front-page news for a good part of 2016. Drawing on interviews with students, activists, and executives at for-profit colleges and universities, Lower Ed aims to connect the rise of such institutions with ballooning levels of debt and larger trends of income inequality across the U.S. (Kirstin B.)
Abandon Me by Melissa Febos. Febos’s gifts as a writer seemingly increase with the types of subjects and themes that typically falter in the hands of many memoirists: love (both distant and immediate), family, identity, and addiction. Her adoptive father, a sea captain, looms large in her work: “My captain did not give me religion but other treasures. A bloom of desert roses the size of my arm, a freckled ostrich egg, true pirate stories. My biological father, on the other hand, had given me nothing of use but life…and my native blood.” Febos transports, but her lyricism is always grounded in the now, in the sweet music of loss. (Nick R.)
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: A sweeping look at four generations of a Korean family who immigrates to Japan after Japan’s 1910 annexation of Korea, from the author of Free Food for Millionaires. Junot Díaz says “Pachinko confirms Lee’s place among our finest novelists.” (Lydia)
Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin: Following in the literary tradition of Charles Baudelaire, Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allan Poe, Elkin is fascinated by street wanderers and wanderings, but with a twist. The traditional flâneur was always male; Elkin sets out to follow the lives of the subversive flâneuses, those women who have always been “keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.” In a review in The Guardian, Elkin is imagined as “an intrepid feminist graffiti artist,” writing the names of women across the city she loves; in her book, a combination of “cultural meander” and memoir, she follows the lives of flaneuses as varied as George Sand and Martha Gellhorn in order to consider “what is at stake when a certain kind of light-footed woman encounters the city.” (Kaulie)
Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: In an unnamed city, two young people fall in love as a civil war breaks out. As the violence escalates, they begin to hear rumors of a curious new kind of door: at some risk, and for a price, it’s possible to step through a portal into an entirely different place — Mykonos, for instance, or London. In a recent interview, Hamid said that the portals allowed him “to compress the next century or two of human migration on our planet into the space of a single year, and to explore what might happen after.” (Emily)
The Idiot by Elif Batuman: Between The Possessed — her 2010 lit-crit/travelogue on a life in Russian letters and her snort-inducing Twitter feed, I am a confirmed Batuman superfan. This March, her debut novel samples Fyodor Dostoevsky in a Bildungsroman featuring the New Jersey-bred daughter of Turkish immigrants who discovers that Harvard is absurd, Europe disturbed, and love positively barking. Yet prose this fluid and humor this endearing are oddly unsettling, because behind the pleasant façade hides a thoughtful examination of the frenzy and confusion of finding your way in the world. (Il’ja R.)
White Tears by Hari Kunzru: A fascinating-sounding novel about musical gentrification, and two white men whose shared obsession with hard-to-find blues recordings leads them to perdition. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called White Tears “perhaps the ultimate literary treatment of the so-called hipster, tracing the roots of the urban bedroom deejay to the mythic blues troubadours of the antebellum South.” (Lydia)
South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion: Excerpts from two of the legendary writer’s commonplace books from the 1970s: one from a road trip through the American south, and one from a Rolling Stone assignment to cover the Patty Hearst trial in California. Perhaps the origin of her observation in Where I Was From: “One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in 1970, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it.” (Lydia)
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg: A novel about a 39-year-old woman taking stock of her life, from the best-selling author of The Middlesteins and St. Mazie. This one prompted Eileen Myles to ask “Is all life junk — sparkly and seductive and devastating — just waiting to be told correctly by someone who will hold our hand and walk with us a while confirming that what we’re living is true.” Evidently so. (Lydia)
Ill Will by Dan Chaon: Dustin Tillman was a child when his parents and aunt and uncle were murdered in his home, and it was his testimony that sent his older, adopted brother, Rusty, to jail for the crime. Forty years later, he learns that Rusty is getting out based on new DNA evidence. As that news sends tremors through Dustin’s life and the life of his family, he buddies up with an ex-cop who has a theory about some local murders. As often happens in Chaon’s book, you’ll be gripped by the story and the characters from the first page, and then all of a sudden you suspect that nothing is as it seems, and you’re sucked in even further. (Janet).
The Accusation by Bandi: For readers interested in a candid look at life in North Korea, The Accusation — originally published in South Korea in 2014 — will immerse you via the stories of common folk: a wife who struggles to make daily breakfast during a famine, a factory supervisor caught between denouncing a family friend and staying on the party’s good side, a mother raising her child amidst chilling propaganda, a former Communist war hero who is disillusioned by the Party, a man denied a travel permit who sneaks onto a train so he can see his dying mother. Bandi is of course a pseudonym: according to the French edition, the author was born in 1950, lived in China, and is now an official writer for the North Korean government. The stories, written between 1989 and 1995, were smuggled out by a friend — and will be available to us via Grove Press. (Sonya)
The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti: This new novel by the editor of One Story magazine follows a career criminal who goes straight to give his daughter a chance at a normal life. But when his daughter, Loo, gets curious about the 12 mysterious scars on her father’s body, each marking a separate bullet wound, she uncovers a history much darker than she imagined. Twelve Lives is “is one part Quentin Tarantino, one part Scheherazade, and twelve parts wild innovation,” says Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth. (Michael B.)
The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge: Fiction meets history in The Night Ocean’s series of intricately nested narratives. A psychologist’s husband, obsessed with a did-they-or-didn’t-they affair between horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and a gay teenage admirer, disappears while attempting to solve the mystery. Set over a 100-year period and spanning latitudes from Ontario to Mexico City, this novel from New Yorker contributor La Farge promises to pull Lovecraft’s suspense into the present day with flair. (Kirstin B.)
Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth: Unferth is an author about whom many overused litspeak cliches are true: she is incisive, bitingly funny, and — here it comes–— whipsmart. A National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for her memoir, Revolution, her short stories have been published in Granta, McSweeney’s, and the Paris Review, and are collected here for the first time. (Janet)
Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout: “As I was writing My Name Is Lucy Barton,” said Strout, the New York Times bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize winner, of her 2016 novel, “it came to me that all the characters Lucy and her mother talked about had their own stories.” Anything is Possible was written in tandem to Lucy Barton. For Strout’s many devoted readers, this novel promises to expand on and add depth to the story, while exploring themes for love, loss, and hope in a work that, “recalls Olive Kitteridge in its richness, structure, and complexity.” (Claire)
Devil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Set in post-colonial Kenya, this troubling allegory from the perennial Nobel candidate explores the evil that men do and the hope that serves as its only antidote. Written while in prison, the book’s proverbial structure and unapologetically political message — think Karl Marx delivering liberation theology in East Africa — follow a young Kenyan woman, Jacinta Wariinga, who, despite grave injustice, is determined to see neither her spirit nor her culture crushed. This is the original 1982 translation from the Gikuyu language, now being rereleased as part of the Penguin Classics African Writers Series. (Il’ja)
Marlena by Julie Buntin
I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of Buntin’s remarkable debut novel, about an intense friendship between two young women in rural Michigan, and I agree with Stephanie Danler, author of Sweetbitter, who calls it “lacerating.” Aside from a riveting story and nuanced characters, Buntin has also delivered an important story about addiction and poverty in middle America. In its starred review, Booklist called it “Ferrante-esque.” (Edan)
American War by Omar El Akkad: El Akkad is an award-winning Canadian journalist, whose reporting has ranged from the war in Afghanistan to the protests in Ferguson, Mo. His brilliant and supremely disquieting debut novel opens in 2074, at the outbreak of the Second American Civil War, and follows a young Louisiana girl, Sarat Chestnut, as time and conflict gradually transform her from a child into a weapon. (Emily)
The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch: In a new kind of world, we need a new kind of hero and a reimagined Joan of Arc from Yuknavitch seems like just the thing. Following her widely lauded The Small Backs of Children, this novel takes place in the near future after world wars have turned the Earth into a war zone. Those surviving are sexless, hairless, pale-white creatures who write stories on their skin, but a group of rebels rally behind a cult leader named Jean de Men. Roxane Gay calls it, “a searing condemnation, and fiercely imaginative retelling.” (Claire)
The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron: Our own Cameron returns with a new novel about two women separated by, oh, only 40,000 years: Girl, the eldest daughter in the last family of Neanderthals, and present-day archeologist Rosamund Gale, who is excavating Neanderthal ruins while pregnant. How these two stories echo and resonate with one another will be just one of its delights. Such an ingenious premise could only come from the writer who brought us The Bear, which O, The Oprah Magazine deemed “a tender, terrifying, poignant ride” and which People gave 4 stars, saying “it could do for camping what Jaws did for swimming.” (Edan)
Startup by Doree Shafrir: Probably you know Shafrir by her byline at Buzzfeed — her culture writing always whipsmart, current, and grounded. Shafrir’s debut novel sounds like more of the same: three people working in the same Manhattan office building with colliding desires, ambitions, and relations, head for major conflict and reckoning as scandal sucks each of them into a media-and-money vortex. Hilarity, a mindfulness app, and an errant text message are also involved. Looking forward to this one. (Sonya)
What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah: This debut collection of short stories, which takes its name from a story published in Catapult in 2015 to wide acclaim — one that seamlessly blends magical realism and a kind of sci-fi, resulting in a one-of-a-kind dystopia — announces the arrival of a brilliant new talent. Don’t take our word for it: one story, “Who Will Greet You at Home,” appeared in The New Yorker and was a National Magazine Award finalist, and others are already drawing high praise from across the publishing community. These stories explore the ties that bind us together, but in magical, even subversive forms. (Kaulie)
Void Star by Zachary Mason: In Mason’s second novel, three people living in wildly different circumstances in a dystopian near-future are drawn together by mysterious forces. The future that Mason imagines in Void Star is not particularly startling — extreme climate change, ever-widening class divisions, and AIs who have evolved well beyond the understanding of the humans who created them — but what sets Void Star apart is the stunning and hallucinatory beauty of Mason’s prose. Both a speculative thriller and a meditation on memory and mortality. (Emily)
Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke: I tell as many people as possible how cool I think Radtke is, so that when she blows up I’ll have proof that I was ahead of the curve. Besides having her own career as a writer and illustrator, she is the managing editor of Sarabande Books (where she not only published Thrown by Kerry Howley — one of my favorite books of the last 5 years — but designed its killer cover). Her first book is graphic memoir/travelogue about her life, family history, and a trip around the world in search of ruins. (Janet)
Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard: The author goes home in Gerard’s thorough, personal, and well-researched collection of essays on Florida, its inhabitants, and the ways they prey upon each another. As far as Floridian bona fides, it doesn’t get much more Sunshine State than growing up on the Gulf in an Amway family, and truly in the book’s eight essays, Gerard covers more of the state’s ground than Walkin’ Lawton Chiles. (Nick M.)
Kingdom of the Young by Edie Meidav: A new collection of the stories by novelist who brought us Lola, California, Crawl Space, and The Far Field. The stories have invited comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov, Clarice Lispector and Italo Calvino. (Lydia)
Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami: The seven stories in Murakami’s new collection concern the lives of men who, for one reason or another, find themselves alone. In “Scheherazade,” a man living in isolation receives regular visits from a woman who claims to remember a past life as a lamprey; in “Yesterday,” a university student finds himself drawn into the life of a strange coworker who insists that the student go on a date with his girlfriend. (Emily)
The Purple Swamp Hen by Penelope Lively: Across her many wonderful books, Lively has ranged from low farce (How It All Began) to high feeling (Moon Tiger), from children’s literature to a memoir on old age. Now comes her fourth story collection, the first in 20 years. The title story draws on reliably entertaining source material: the meretricious lives of Roman rulers. Robert Graves turned to a stammering Claudius for his narrator, Lively to a less exalted personage: a purple swamp hen. Other stories involve trouble: a husband and wife working their way out of it, and a betrayed wife doing her best to cause some for her husband. (Matt)
Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki: Our own Lepucki has always had keen insight into the psyches of women — particularly so-called “difficult” protagonists. Her first novel, California, may have been about a family surviving the end of society, but it was really a post-apocalyptic domestic drama full of sharp wit and observations. Her sophomore effort is more grounded in reality but equally cutting. Lady is a writer struggling to raise her two kids and finish her memoir when she hires S. to help, but the artist becomes more than just a nanny for Lady’s eldest troubled son. (Tess M.)
Trajectory by Richard Russo: In this new collection, Russo, a 2016 Year in Reading contributor, takes a break from the blue-collar characters that readers have come to know from his bestselling novels Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls to spin tales of struggling novelists trying their hands at screenwriting and college professors vacationing in Venice. No matter. Readers can still count on Russo to deliver deeply human stories of heartbreak leavened by gently black humor. (Michael B.)
The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris: The book after Ferris’s Man Booker shortlisted To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a collection of short stories. The title story, first published by The New Yorker in 2008, is about a couple who invite a boring couple over to dinner (“even their goddam surprises are predictable,”) only to be surprised when the boring couple manage to surprise by not showing up. The collection pulls together stories that promise the, “deeply felt yearnings, heartbreaking absurdity, and redemptive humor of life,” for which Ferris is so well known. (Claire)
The Leavers by Lisa Ko. Ko’s debut novel has already won the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction, a prize created and selected by Barbara Kingsolver. The contest awards a novel “that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships,” and Ko’s book certainly fits that laudable description. The novel is the story of Deming Gao, the son of a Chinese-American immigrant mother who, one day, never returns home from work. Adopted by white college professors, Deming is renamed and remade in their image — but his past haunts him. (Nick R.)
Isadora by Amelia Gray. The endlessly inventive Gray (whose story “Labyrinth” from The New Yorker is a gem) creates a fictional interpretation of Isadora Duncan, once described as the “woman who put the Modern into Modern Dance.” A dancer who mixed the classical, sacred, and sensual, Duncan is the perfect subject matter for Gray; if a writer can expertly resurrect the Theseus myth at a small-town fair, then she can do justice to a life as inspiring — and troubled — as Duncan’s. (Nick R.)
Chemistry by Weike Wang: In this debut novel, a graduate student in chemistry learns the meaning of explosive when the rigors of the hard sciences clash with the chronic instability of the heart. A traditional family, a can’t-miss fiancé, and a research project in meltdown provide sufficient catalyst to launch the protagonist off in search of that which cannot be cooked up in the lab. If the science bits ring true, in her diabolical hours, the author doubles as a real-life organic chemist. (Il’ja R.)
No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal: Satyal’s novel takes place in a suburb near Cleveland and tells the story of Harit and Ranjana, who are both Indian immigrants that are experiencing loss. Harit’s sister has passed away and he’s caring for his mother; Ranjana’s son has left to college and she’s worrying her husband is having an affair. These two characters form a friendship amidst grief and self-discovery in a novel that is both heartfelt and funny. (Zoë)
Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley: The New Yorker stalwart (whose title story “Bad Dreams” appeared in the magazine in 2013) comes out with her third collection of short stories in the past decade. In one set in 1914, a schoolteacher grapples with the rising power of the women’s suffrage movement; in another, a young housesitter comes across a mysterious diary. In general, the stories let tiny events twirl out into moments of great consequence — in the title story, a young child’s nightmare turns out to be the hinge of the plot. (Thom)
One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul. Ah, the current frontrunner for Most Relatable Title of the Coming Year. The Canadian writer’s debut essay collection is “about growing up the daughter of Indian immigrants in Western culture, addressing sexism, stereotypes, and the universal miseries of life.” Fans of her work online will be eager to see her on the printed page. Canadian journalist (and Koul’s former journalism professor) Kamal Al-Solaylee said of her writing, “To me, she possesses that rarest of gifts: a powerful, identifiable voice that can be heard and appreciated across platforms and word counts.” (Elizabeth)
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan: In her debut novel, Alyan tells the story of a Palestinian family that is uprooted by the Six-Day War of 1967 and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. This heartbreaking and important story examines displacement, belonging, and family in a lyrical style. (Zoë)
So Much Blue by Percival Everett: In Everett’s 30th book, an artist toils away in solitude, painting what may be his masterpiece. Alone in his workspace, secluded from his children, best friend, and wife, the artist recalls memories of past affairs, past adventures, and all he’s sacrificed for his craft. (Nick M.)
The Accomplished Guest by Ann Beattie: 1976 was a good year for Beattie: she published her first story collection, Distortions, as well as her debut novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter. Forty years and roughly 20 books later, Beattie has a new collection of stories, closely following last year’s The State We’re In, linked stories set in Maine. One defining trait of Beattie’s short fiction is her fondness for quirks: “However well you write, you can become your own worst enemy by shaping it so highly that the reader can relate to it only on its own terms. Whereas if you have some little oddities of everyday life that aren’t there to be cracked, it seems to me that people can identify with it.” (Nick R.)
Hunger by Roxane Gay: A few years ago, Gay wrote Tumblr posts on cooking and her complex relationship with food that were honest yet meditative. It was on the cusp of her breakthrough essay collection Bad Feminist. Now she may be a household name, but her second nonfiction book delves into the long-running topic of the role food plays in her family, societal, and personal outlook with the same candor and empathy. (Tess M.)
The Last Kid Left by Rosecrans Baldwin: The Morning News cofounder and author of Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down returns with a murder mystery/romance/coming-of-age story set in New Hampshire. (Lydia)
Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim: Lim has long been publisher of the small, avant-garde Ellipsis Press, whose authors, including Joanna Ruocco, Evelyn Hampton, Jeremy M. Davies, and Lim himself, are remarkable for their unique voices, their attention to language and experimentation. Together they make a significant if lesser-known body of work. Dear Cyborg, Lim’s third novel, will be his first with a major press (FSG). Tobias Carroll has said, “Lim’s novels tread the line between the hypnotically familiar and the surreptitiously terrifying.” With comparisons to Tom McCarthy and Valeria Luiselli and praise from Gary Lutz and Renee Gladman, Lim’s work is worth seeking out. (Anne)
The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro: In this follow-up to Cutting Teeth, about a zeitgeisty group portrait of Brooklyn hipster moms, Fierro turns back the clock to the summer of 1992 when a plague of gypsy moths infests Avalon, an islet off the coast of Long Island, setting in motion a complex tale of interracial love, class conflict, and possible industrial poisoning at the local aircraft factory. Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year, says Fierro, director of Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, has written “a novel to slowly savor, settling in with her characters as you would old friends.” (Michael B.)
The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton: A debut novel about the Egyptian revolution from filmmaker and activist Hamilton, who has written about the events of Tahrir square for The Guardian and elsewhere. (Lydia)
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: The Odyssey has been repeatedly invoked by early reviewers of Sing, Unburied, Sing, which follows its protagonist on the journey from rural Mississippi to the state penitentiary and beyond. In the hands of a less talented writer, that parallel might seem over-the-top, but in the hands of one of America’s most talented, generous, and perceptive writers, it’s anything but. (Nick M.)
The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy: What does Niels Bohr’s take on quantum mechanics have to do with Johann Sebastian Bach and the suicide of a young New Orleans woman? Perhaps nothing. Or perhaps this, overheard at an advance reading — from 2015 — of Cormac McCarthy’s long-awaited new novel: “Intelligence is numbers; it’s not words. Words are things we made up.” That semi-colon haunts me. From Knopf: a “book one” and “book two” by McCarthy are set for a March 2017 release. A week later the story changes. Maybe July. Perhaps December. With McCarthy, the calculus remains inscrutable but the wait worth it. (Il’ja R.)
And So On by Kiese Laymon: We’ve learned virtually nothing new about this book since our last preview, but continue to expect it in 2017. As I said then, “Laymon is a Mississippi-born writer who has contributed to Esquire, ESPN, the Oxford American, Guernica, and writes a column for The Guardian. His first novel, Long Division, makes a lot of those ‘best books you’ve never heard of’ lists, so feel free to prove them wrong by reading it right now. What we know about his second novel is that he said it’s ‘going to shock folks hopefully. Playing with comedy, Afro-futurist shit and horror.’” (Janet)
The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet: A madcap critical theory mystery by the author of HHhH. In the new novel, a police detective comes up against the likes of Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Julia Kristeva. It sounds bonkers. (Lydia)
Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang: Zhang’s got range: the poet/Rookie writer/essayist/ and now fiction writer has a voice that’s at once incisive and playful and emboldened. “If I fart next to a hulking white male and then walk away, have I done anything important?” she asks in her chapbook Hags, when wondering about ways to fight imperialism; she has written of encounters with white privilege as a Chinese American, of messiness and feelings and depression, of errata and text messages and Tracey Emin, and of resisting Donald Trump. Zhang’s sure to bring this force to her first collection of short stories, Sour Heart, which will be the first book published by Lena Dunham’s Lenny imprint. (Anne)
Made for Love by Alissa Nutting: Hazel ran out of her husband and moved into her father’s retirement community, a trailer park for senior citizens. She’s laying low for a while. Things are complicated, though. Her husband is the founder and CEO of Gogol Industries, a tech conglomerate bent on making its wares ubiquitous in everyday life, and he’s determined to use the company’s vast, high-tech resources to get her back. Meanwhile, did I mention Hazel’s father is obsessed with a realistic sex robot? (Nick M.)
What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons: A debut novel from Apogee Journal cofounder and contributing editor at LitHub. Thandi loses her South African mother and navigates the process of grieving and growing up in Pennsylvania. (Lydia)
And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell: Millions Year in Reading alum and New York magazine’s The Cut columnist O’Connell will bring her signature voice to a collection of essays about motherhood billed as “this generation’s Operating Instructions.” Readers who follow O’Connell’s writing for The Cut or her newsletter look forward to a full volume of her relatable, sometimes mordant, sometimes tender reflections on writing and family life. (Lydia)
This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins: Jerkins is way too accomplished for her age, but her range of skills and interests – 19th-century Russian lit, postwar Japanese lit, speaker of six languages, editor, assistant literary agent — is so awesome I just can’t begrudge her. Jerkins writes reportage, personal essays, fiction, profiles, interviews, literary criticism, and sports and pop culture pieces. Now she has an essay collection coming out: This Will Be My Undoing. Some of her previously published essays include “The Psychic Toll of Reading the News While Black”, “Why I Got a Labiaplasty in My 20s”, and “How Therapy Doesn’t Make Me a Bad Christian” — all of which may or may not be collected in the new book; but you get a feel for the great stuff we can expect. (Sonya)
Sharp by Michelle Dean: Dean has made a name for herself as an astute feminist journalist and critic for the likes of The Guardian, the New Republic, and The Nation. Her work often focuses on the intersection of crime, culture, and literature. So it’s fitting that her first book is nonfiction on other powerhouse female critics. (Tess M.)
When I started running, I was stately, yes, but too plump, and I took to the roads in the morning to take in the crisp air and give myself a bit more margin of error to drink beer. About half a decade later — a year ago now — I found myself waving goodbye to my wife on a chilly, wet October morning as she drove out of the empty parking lot of Mount Vernon, once George Washington’s estate on the banks of the gray Potomac River, back to our warm home, 19 miles away, and our kitchen, and two cats, myself left with just a bag of water on my back, an MP3 recording of an Irishman reading seeming gibberish for 35 hours — i.e., James Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness dirge Finnegans Wake — and a GPS watch to track it all. And, of course, space-age sprays and pastes slathered on my peaks and valleys to prevent chafing.
I was training to run my first marathon — 37 and falling apart, bald and still too fat in most places, but human adaptability is a glorious thing, and somehow after training all of the hot summer it seemed the old meat machine would be able to finish the race. Knock on wood. Trust your training. Never trust a fart. Etc. I’d made it through the acute brutalities of a DC summer (85% humidity at 5:45 am, and hot) with just one long run left. After this last monster, the worst that remained would somehow be just a non-issue 12 miler, then taper taper taper (for non-runners: heal up) and ta da, the race, and then done. I would get my body back, and my weekends, and my mornings.
Forget the aches and the pains and the miles. The time commitment alone was real and grueling: Almost three hours of weekday mornings spent running before work, and then a long run on Sunday of another two and a half to three hours.
A month or so into the 18-week grind, though, I found that the gift of this training was the gift of reading. Hours and hours of long runs, just get those miles in, and after a while music is too complicated, the rhythms — too often the slightest bit off — make feet fall wrong. So: audiobooks. That summer I “read” better and more by listening than I had been able to in years. As a younger man I had swallowed whole catalogues of author after author. Since 2004 or so, though, I hardly read a book or two a year.
I’ll spare you and myself the excuses — this problem (like so many other things) was my failing and not the world’s. But eight miles on a Wednesday morning, or a Sunday 15…that’s real time, for real “reading,” available nowhere else in my life. And God bless it. Over the course of the summer I “read” story after story from a Haruki Murakami collection Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, and all of Rachel Kushner’s Flamethrowers, and a good lot of Jonathan Franzen’s Purity.
So back to that Mount Vernon parking lot morning. I had reached the emotional (if not literal) end of my training. One more long run and I‘d be done. All that would be left would be to stay loose and rest up for the marathon. But things had gone too well, and I wanted more. The running books I’d read said not to push past 20 miles in your training runs, certainly not for your first marathon. The reason: there’s no gain to be found in pushing into or through the awful last six miles, where your body and soul leave you with nothing but the one, two of foot in front of foot dragged by acid-soaked muscles and the thought that there is beer and something else at the end but I forget what. For the sake of your emotional wellbeing, just do that once. Save that unique joy for race day.
Like I said, I felt things had gone too well. So, for this last run, I wanted to up the mental game somehow, maybe simulate the brutality of the last six miles without running them. What better way to test my fortitude than by hammering my head with the legendarily impenetrable Irish jibberish of Finnegans Wake? If I can run 20 yammering nonsensical miles, then an extra six with folks cheering most of the way instead: easy, right? Maybe easier.
It seemed a good morning for my project, I thought, as my wife and I drove to Mount Vernon, cold and gray and wet. Irish weather, maybe, myself having never seen Dublin. And, frankly, good running weather too. Better a chill and a wind you can fight with the fire inside than the crushing of the sun and heat.
I stepped out of the car into the dreary Mount Vernon parking lot and put on the silly safety-vest-looking backpack full of water. My wife took the wheel and drove quietly out of the parking lot, a full and sane day ahead of her. I waved to the tail-lights as they dimmed in the mist and, trotting off towards home, I pressed play.
The running was fine and predictable, the first couple miles just working through the accumulated tightness of the preceding months and past each joint’s initial grumbles. The book pushed quickly through the first page or two that had punished me repeatedly for daring to start reading it a couple times over the years. As the minutes passed, a sort of awareness of scene filtered through the earbuds, if only barely. Early on, for example, a museum guide walked us (the readers) through what must have been pages of exhibits of I’m not quite sure why it mattered. For example:
“This is the flag of the Prooshi- 11
ous, the Cap and Soracer. This is the bullet that byng the flag of 12
the Prooshious. This is the ffrinch that fire on the Bull that bang 13
the flag of the Prooshious.?”
This is Derek’s sullen resignation.
But then we moved on through the miles, the book and I, past the museum, and…
Not as bad as I thought. Somehow, easier? Easier even than a narrative book? I’ll admit there were times over the hundreds of miles this summer when I was not laserbeam focused on the intricacies of Murakami’s blind willow dream, or, in Flamethrowers, the Moto Valero slipping turning tumbling across the salt flats, or men of various ages, nationalities, and levels of familial relation leering at Franzen’s Pip. Moments when I’d catch and hold an image then let it envelop me as my feet kept hitting ground, caught frozen smiling in the wave before it broke and rolled back, my attention and any context washed away with it. Or the realities of the run took over: when stop lights or carb packets or blessed cold water was king, the audiobooks slipped to Charlie Brown teacher sounds and rhythm in the background. But here was a book that was all a waterfall of images sound and rhythm and yes on some level so much more, but on a run it could be just sound and rhythm, and if you catch a bit in English here and there all the better. And if not, it just enveloped me as I swerved along that last long run by the river, beating the bending path back to my castle.
Other than the museum guide, the first surprise of Finnegan’s Wake to wash over me was the rap music. Multiple times in first five miles (at my pace, the first hour of the book) I found myself thinking back to “Alphabet Aerobics” by Blackalicious. And I could swear that Joyce namechecked at least a couple lyricists in the first 100 pages: Black Thought, and Meth. I was surprised somehow to not hear the names Raekwon or Ghostface Killah, even though the book’s random access style shares more DNA with the Chef and Ghost than with Method Man. But one does not get greedy when writing a paragraph about anachronistic name dropping. Run on.
In college I read Ulysses with and for and because of the secondary texts and concordances and the desk and time big enough to hold it all. Peek under the page and see the scaffolding made of strings. Pull a string and pull into your lap The Odyssey or Shakespeare or the intricacies of then-contemporary Irish politics. Delight in the architecture and in your own appetite for a “difficult” book. Impress your friends and wow (bookish) lovers. On the run two decades later, however, my ears were just big enough to hold the dance of syllables, if that, but in that: liberation. I could not be expected to figure it out. And to be clear, I didn’t. No place for concordance here. No strings or scaffolding.
Here’s what happened (I think) in what my MP3s call the first 100 pages or so: the world was created, as were people, as was Dublin. People had a lot of sex. People did a lot of drinking, and got drunk. At least one person, and likely more, peed, seemingly (hopefully) outdoors. I’m pretty sure I may have secreted to the bushes myself in the course of those pages. Men stood trial for their offenses. Maybe the peeing was the offense, or one of them, or maybe not. I faced no censure myself for peeing into the bushes. Not even a judging glance.
And a few miles on, after the rap, there were other echoes, this time literary. First, of Joyce. There was a cyclops in Ulysses and a guy named Bloom, and both, or the sound of both, in the Wake. And did I hear Dedalus? Like Ulysses’s Bloom, another Joyce avatar. But then echoes of other books, as I passed other stretches I’d run before training for this race. Here, on this stretch of path near the parkway, was where Pip rode the bus out to see her mother, and here next to the airport I remember the dinner where it became clear that Valero’s mother in Flamethrowers was truly awful. And later on, foot after foot, echoes too outside of the other books even, because here on this bridge earlier in the summer it was too hot and my water ran out in 87 degrees and I started to get deep chills in the beating summer sun, which I’m not a doctor but I took to be a bad sign. Hard not to flash on that.
Exactly halfway through, a pub. “Stop,” the sirens wail.
Many miles on, deeper echoes too of my life before all that. I grew up here and once back up over the bridge into the city I’m seeing that little stage near the Washington Monument where I swear I conducted a marriage of two women in front of thousands of people before a Fugazi concert in 1995. So many Fourth of July chaos evenings chasing explosions of fireworks friends and beer. The parades and inaugurations I cheered or screamed at (W. Bush and Obama, both — just align my reactions with yours, and read on). All of this, and every heaving sweating awful summer run coming back with every step across DC soil. So deep in, but almost home. Riding the rhythm of the Wake but long past the words.
And then, the gutpunch realization that I owed the gods 20 miles but home was just over 19 from where I started. With three miles left the legs were tightening, and the red light stops more frequent, and with the tank so low how to push on when home was just a left turn away? But one of the few things I think I remember from Ulysses and The Odyssey is that one is not home until it is earned, that physical proximity was not enough and it was the extra that makes it real. So once at my house, 19.4 miles from Mount Vernon, and .2 from a ferociously needed shower, I kept on straight and not left, looping the park by my house in a stumble, and pushing a bit more, to get somehow to 20 miles, legs barely there, stopping immediately once the last decimal turned, and
done. and stop this Irish mumbling, phone. I want my brain back. Just a block or two to the door. My wife had mentioned breakfast of bacon and fruit, even though it was past noon. And there was leftover pizza as well. And there, my door, my house. Home.
I stumbled to the door, legs aching but still my heart was going like mad. My wife opened the door, and I saw the bacon and pineapple and pizza warming in the oven, and she asked me would I go clean up while she poured me a beer and yes I said yes I will Yes.
And that was last year. I ran the race, the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon, and finished, although I was not fast. My wife made signs and popped up five places along the way and passed me a dry pair of socks halfway through. They were magic, those socks, and now I know to pack a pair or two for this year. As I finish writing this, I’m wrapping up training for the 2016 Marine Corps Marathon. One 20-mile training run down, and the second this weekend. I ran the first with a friend. I may run the second with Joyce again for old times’ sake. My wife and I have (lovingly and amicably) separated, and my training runs now also echo the many morning miles we had shared over the last few years. And I cannot wait for it all to be over, the training, and then for it all, next year, to begin again just right where it left off.
Image Credit: Flickr/daniMU.
There’s a wonderful short story collection out now called Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. It’s something of a linked collection, in that the longer stories that make up the bulk of the book all seem to be narrated by the same unnamed woman, formerly of England but now living in a cottage in the west of Ireland, doing not much more than letting her mind wander as she probes the confines of her modest home. These stories do not build upon one another in the sense of creating a continuous plot. Rather, they offer separate investigations into the life of this woman, self-contained and comprehensible in any order. What’s more, between these longer stories sit pieces that might be described as “micro” or “flash” fictions, which are not set in the cottage and are not clearly narrated by the same woman. These shorter pieces are aesthetically linked to the longer stories — the entire book is written in the same distinctive style of prose — but are otherwise unrelated. The reading experience is unusual and illuminating, and upon completion I thought to myself, “Wow, what a lovely little collection of stories.”
I was flummoxed, then, to discover that there is some confusion as to the book’s genre. Meghan O’Rourke’s review of Pond in The New York Times Book Review appears under the headline “A Debut Novel Traces a Woman’s Life in Solitude.” Novels appear to be O’Rourke’s only points of reference for Bennett’s work. She writes that Pond reminds her of “the kind of old-fashioned British children’s books I read growing up,” and “David Markson’s avant-garde novel ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’…” In another review for The Times, Dwight Garner acknowledges the short story-ness of Bennett’s book even as he insists that the work is a novel: “‘Pond’ is a slim novel, told in chapters of varying lengths that resemble short stories. There’s little in the way of conventional plot.” Hmm. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Garner was describing a short story collection.
This phenomenon of misidentifying a story collection as a novel is surprisingly common, both in book reviewing and in polite conversation. A number of people seem to use the term “novel” as a synonym for “book,” and because of this I sometimes see even works of nonfiction referred to as novels. (I won’t call anyone out on this point, since it’s really quite embarrassing.) More often, the word “novel” is applied to collections when all of the stories within feel strongly of a piece (and consequently are favorites of the creative writing workshop). The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is one example. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson is another. The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald is a third. To be fair, these works frequently fail to identify themselves with the word “stories” on their book jackets (as does Pond). But a reader with the most basic sense of literary genre should be able to see them for what they are.
A novel and a short story collection are very different forms. A novel tells one long narrative. It cannot be divided without surrendering its functionality. Sometimes it is segmented into chapters or sections, but these cannot (at least not all of them) stand alone as shorter independent works. They rely on each other for coherence of plot and theme. A collection, on the other hand, is composed of several shorter, discrete narratives that can stand independently of each other without forsaking their coherence. The order in which you read them is not essential to understanding them, nor would it matter if you read three at random and never looked at the rest. In the hands of a skilled author, it is sometimes true that a group of these stories may become more than the sum of its parts. The stories may act as vignettes in the life of a person or a community, and in so doing produce a sense of immersion somewhat reminiscent of a novel. We call these “linked collections” or “story cycles.” But they are not novels, nor are they attempting to be novels. (A “novel-in-stories,” as you’ve probably suspected, is purely a marketing trick.)
When reviewing a linked collection, a reviewer will sometimes (bafflingly) simulate confusion as to whether the book is a collection or a novel or something in between. (Ian Maleney, in his review of Pond for The Millions, says that the book, “rests with no little charm somewhere between collection and novel without ever settling on one or the other.” Nice try, Maleney.) These reviewers often like to pretend that the author has somehow invented a third genre. But you and I aren’t so easily fooled, reader. We know that there is nothing new under the sun. As James Nagel points out in his 2001 book The Contemporary American Short-Story Cycle, the form has been with us for a century at least. Works like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Jean Toomer’s Cane, and Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time presented a cohesion of intent that, at the time of their publication, tempted reviewers to insist that they must be more than simple collections of stories. (In Our Time even contains interstitial shorts between longer stories, just like Pond.) Nagel writes:
[T]he fact of the matter is that the short-story cycle is a rich genre with origins decidedly antecedent to the novel, with roots in the most ancient of narrative traditions. The historical meaning of “cycle” is a collection of verse or narratives centering around some outstanding event or character. The term seems to have been first applied to a series of poems, written by a group of Greek writers known as the Cyclic Poets, that supplement Homer’s account of the Trojan war. In the second century B.C., the Greek writer Aristides wrote a series of tales about his hometown, Miletus, in a collection entitled Milesiaka. Many other early classics also used linked tales, Homer’s Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Arabian A Thousand and One Nights among them…Throughout these early works two ideas became clear in the concept of a cycle: that each contributing unit of the work be an independent narrative episode, and that there be some principle of unification that gives structure, movement, and thematic development to the whole.
Perhaps because the average reader prefers novels, encountering few story collections (or none at all), a linked collection is enough to give him pause. But a linked collection is still a collection and not a novel, just as a tall man is still a man and not an ogre. Our most prestigious American literary prize, the Pulitzer, recognizes this fact. Known for its first three decades of existence as the Pulitzer Prize for a Novel, it was renamed the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948 so that it could be awarded to a debut author named James A. Michener for his Tales of the South Pacific. That book is a linked story collection, though the Pulitzer jury might have gotten away with pretending it was novel if Michener hadn’t conspicuously placed the word “Tales” right in its title. Since then, short story collections have been eligible for the award, though to date only six others have won it. (For the sake of comparison, there have been seven years since 1948 when no prize for fiction was awarded at all.)
It may seem defensive or pedantic to insist on these designations. Why does it matter? I hear you ask, reader. Books are just books. No one is saying one form is better than another. All things being equal, perhaps that would be that case, and a book’s genre would be so nonessential as to not require specification. But things, of course, are never equal. It is far easier to publish a novel these days than a collection of short stories, so much so that many pragmatic writers have essentially abandoned the form. Fantastic short story writers end up spending their careers producing middling novels, and our literature is poorer for it. So in those rare cases when a short story collection does manage to be published (and reviewed, and sold, and read by a large number of people), to deny that collection its genre — to call it a novel, as though the world really needs another novel — is to rob the medium of short fiction of a hard-earned victory.
Even more nefarious is when publishers themselves mislabel collections as novels. Printing the word “novel” on a book cover makes it very difficult for malcontents like me to argue that the book is anything otherwise. Tom Rachman’s excellent 2010 book The Imperfectionists is a collection of 11 self-contained stories following various employees of an international newspaper based in Rome. Only the thinnest of interstitials about the history of the newspaper (again, like In Our Time) provided cause for Dial Press to term the book “a novel.” Also published in 2010 was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which Knopf called “a novel” but which I like to call “the most recent short story collection to win a Pulitzer Prize.” The book’s shifts in point of view, style, tense, and time period caused reviewers to marvel at what a unique and unusual novel it was, though such shifts are common in the genre of the short story collection. Egan almost certainly benefitted from the book being called a novel, but now that the dust has settled and the prize money has been spent, it’s probably in Egan’s best interest that posterity regard the book for what it actually is. Goon Squad is a bad novel, but it’s a phenomenal short story collection, one that perfectly embodies Nagel’s notion of “independent narrative episode[s]” linked by “some principle of unification.” (Plus, thinking of the book as a collection is the only way to make that 70-page Power Point section look like a fun narrative experiment instead of a saccharine bit of self-indulgence. Take that, Egan!)
Both The Imperfectionists and A Visit from the Goon Squad were bestsellers, and I certainly don’t begrudge Rachman or Egan their success. What is painful is the notion that the audiences of these books did not realize that they were enjoying story collections. The publishing industry is constantly telling short story writers that their work can’t sell, but instances like these seem to suggest that the publishing industry is not particularly interested in fostering an appetite for short story collections among its readership. If you liked Goon Squad, then you like short fiction, but you may be unaware of that fact because you think that you read novel. It’s refreshing, then, when an author resists the urge to have his work mislabelled as a novel, as Junot Díaz did in the case of This Is How You Lose Her. In an interview with Gina Frangello at The Rumpus, he explains:
[T]here’s little question that short stories, like poetry, don’t get the respect they deserve in the culture — but what can you do? Like Canute, one cannot fight the sea, you have to go with your love, and hope one day, things change. And yes, I have no doubt this book could have been easily called a novel — novel status has certainly been granted to less tightly-related collections of stories. By not calling this book a novel or a short story collection, I guess I was trying to keep the door open to readers recognizing and enjoying a third form caught somewhere between the traditional novel and the standard story anthology. A form wherein we can enjoy simultaneously what is best in both the novel and the short story form. My plan was to create a book that affords readers some of the novel’s long-form pleasures but that also contains the short story’s ability to capture what is so difficult about being human — the brevity of our moments, their cruel irrevocability.
I disagree with Díaz’s premise that the book represents a new, third form (This Is How You Lose Her is a simply another linked story collection, in the proud tradition of the many linked story collections that have come before it), but you get the point. A linked collection does things that a novel does not, things that are worthy and vital and capable of standing on their own merit. A collection replicates the chaotic, fragmentary messiness of life in a way that a novel can’t: life, which doesn’t follow one large narrative but seems to be the aggregate of many smaller ones. A day is not a chapter. A day is a story, with its own peculiar conflicts, themes, motifs, and epiphanies.
There has been much in the past few years to inspire confidence in the idea that the short fiction collection might finally attain the readership it deserves as a indispensable American art form. This Is How You Lose Her was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. In 2013, George Saunders’s Tenth of December repeated both feats. The 2014 National Book Award was given to Phil Klay’s collection Redeployment. In 2015, it went to Adam Johnson’s collection Fortune Smiles. Collections by Nathan Englander and Kelly Link have been finalists for Pulitzers in recent years (though both failed to attain the lofty heights of Michener’s and Egan’s). Alice Munro’s 2013 Nobel Prize felt, for many writers of short fiction, like a long overdue nod to a worthy form and its incorrigible practitioners.
And yet short fiction collections remain incredibly difficult to sell. They remain under-published, under-reviewed, and under-read. Aspiring authors are encouraged to set aside their stories and get to work on something longer, lest they be condemned to the periphery of publishing, out in the brambles with the poets and their chapbooks. Even George Saunders, the story writer who famously does not write novels, is writing novels now. Perhaps Claire-Louise Bennett is glad to have Pond called a novel, and I should stop making trouble where trouble needn’t be made. But if the best hope for a short story writer is that reviewers and readers mistake her work for a novel, than fiction has reached a truly dispiriting place. Perhaps novelists will soon be hoping their work is mistaken for memoir, and fiction as a concept will disappear entirely.
I guess we’ll see. In the meantime, I encourage you, dear reader, to go to your local bookstore and pick up a copy of Pond, or any other short story collection, and free yourself from the tyranny of sustained narrative. You’ll enjoy the experience. Trust me.
And maybe, while you’re in there, you can hide a couple novels behind the cookbooks.
Critical reappraisal is an essential feature of our culture, as the passage of time allows us to better analyze an artist’s or genre’s merit without the fog of hype or trends. Once scorned, impressionism eventually gained recognition as one of painting’s greatest movements; jazz went from dangerous irritant to dynamic American art form. The list of creators and creations that go from disdained to celebrated — from Moby-Dick to Chuck Close to hip-hop — seems to have no end. And to that list, one more cries out to be added: the paperback masterwork Knight Rider #2: Trust Doesn’t Rust.
Ignored in its day as a piece of spinner-rack schlock, the 1984 book, by Glen A. Larson and Roger Hill, has aged magnificently. Trust Doesn’t Rust was a novelized episode of Knight Rider, the hourlong NBC action drama that made David Hasselhoff a household name from Leipzig to Berlin. The 1980s were a golden age of such novels, from Dallas: This Cherished Land to Halloween III: Season of the Witch. Most were dubious attempts to cash in on a property’s popularity. But Trust Doesn’t Rust — much like the indomitable Hasselhoff — transcended its medium.
For those who have somehow forgotten, Knight Rider told the story of ex-military spy Michael Knight (portrayed by Hasselhoff) and the artificially intelligent KITT (portrayed by, in Wikipedia’s words, “1982 Pontiac Trans Am”). While most of the show’s episodes focused on freeway chases and orgiastic fireballs, Trust Doesn’t Rust had more on its mind: it was a prescient cautionary tale about the dangers of technology.
Trust Doesn’t Rust’s tragic villain is KARR, a Trans Am that was, like KITT, built by Knight Industries. Unlike KITT, however, KARR suffers from a programming error that makes him unstable, dangerous, and vulnerable to exploitation. When a pair of hoods activate KARR for use in a crime spree, it is up to — who else? — Knight and KITT to stop them. The divergent paths of KITT and KARR is the poignant story of East of Eden’s Cal and Aron, retold with muscle cars.
If this sounds ludicrous, I ask: isn’t anything ludicrous when you sit down to explain it? Isn’t The Odyssey just a story about a king who escapes from an island, and there’s all these gods and things, and he’s like, “I’m gonna go do some stuff?” Isn’t The Great Gatsby essentially about a guy who meets another guy, who seems pretty cool, and the guy — the first guy, not the pretty cool one — wants to hang with him? Isn’t Fifty Shades Darker, when you get down to brass tacks, about boners and whatnot?
It’s all in how the material is handled. And in Trust Doesn’t Rust, it’s handled with the effortless grace of Michael Knight taking a hairpin turn at 110. In Larson and Hill’s gifted hands, the story is elevated from stuck-on-the-toilet pastime to something crackling with vitality. Consider the introduction of the two thieves: Tony — a “streetwise young tough” and Rev — a “Skid Row winehead” — as they creep into a darkened warehouse:
Two shadows drifted across the face of the sign affixed to the building wall. The sign was comparatively new: red letters on white metal. Red letters usually meant authoritative, intimidating warnings to keep out. Neither of the shadow figures were concerned with the niceties of trespassing. The first shadow flowed across the sign and was gone; the second stopped, blacking out the message.
Not only do Larson and Hill establish the pair’s cravenness — unlike most criminals who break into off-hours industrial sites, they aren’t “concerned with the niceties of trespassing” — they educate by reminding us of the meaning of red letters, a lesson that can never be reinforced enough. And is the blacking-out of that message a metaphor for Rev’s utter disregard for authority? Is it a harbinger of doom? Was it just something they wrote to meet the word count demanded by MCA Publishing? Master’s theses have been written on less.
And what of our hero, the “relaxed and jocular” Michael Knight, who was “arrogantly handsome in a rough-hewn, rip-cord way”? While the televised Knight was the Platonic ideal of an autonomous crimefighting sportscar’s driver, Trust Doesn’t Rust allows the character to breathe, adding yet more nuance to Hasselhoff’s characterization:
Michael woke up inside an ambulance. A pert, blond paramedic was applying a bandage to his forehead. There were dots of blood on her tunic.
Michael tried to sit up and was slammed down by pain. It felt like someone had driven a cement nail into his skull just above the left eye.
“How’s Scott? He said. “The guard?”
“Guarded condition,” said the paramedic… “Hold still for a few more seconds and give the Elmer’s glue a chance to set.”
“I’ve always admired women in uniform,” he mumbled.
In one brief, magical passage, we come to understand Knight deeply, fundamentally; like Richard Price, Larson and Hill allow pitch-perfect dialogue and pinpoint description to carry the day. We learn that Knight is tough — he copes with the dreaded “cement nail” sensation –compassionate — he asks after the guarded-condition guard — and, like Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man, always able to deliver a rakish quip, no matter his predicament. He is, quite simply, a mop-topped God of Fuck.
Needless to say, Trust Doesn’t Rust’s action sequences are superb. For the climactic scene — KARR plunging headlong into the Pacific — the televised version of Trust Doesn’t Rust used footage from the film The Car, which Gene Siskel declared “The Cinematic Turkey of 1977.” Fortunately, the novel relies on Larson and Hill’s Chabonesque narrative skills:
KARR smashed into the cliffside and went end over end against the craggy rocks, its armored alloy keeping it ridiculously intact. Not even the windshield broke. Then it smacked the blue surface of the water upside down, and sank like a hammer.
A hammer — an object used to build, to construct, to create — is invoked to describe the evil auto’s demise. It is the sort of brilliant, low-key irony that Larson and Hill have threaded throughout their opus. And it is what makes Trust Doesn’t Rust an unjustly forgotten classic. So do yourself a favor: the next time you see a moldering pile of paperbacks in a Dumpster or crack-den rumpus room, dig through in search of Trust Doesn’t Rust. Immersing yourself in Larsen and Hill’s airtight prose and rousing storytelling will make you feel like one of the thieves, upon his realization that KARR could be used for ill purposes:
A limitless vista of opportunity opened up inside of Tony’s head. It was composed mostly of visions of solid food, potent booze, and — as he had said — wild, wild women. It seemed terrific.
No, Tony. It is terrific.
Although 1820 was more than a generation after the Revolutionary War, British critic Sydney Smith was perhaps still smarting when he wrote in The Edinburgh Review, “In the four quarters of the globe, who reads an American book?” He claimed that the recently independent Americans have “done absolutely nothing…for the Arts, for Literature.” American writers have since been involved in a two-century process of crafting a rejoinder to Smith’s scurrilous assertion. We called this endeavor the “Great American Novel,” and since Smith’s royalist glove-slap the United States has produced scores of potential candidates to that exalted designation. But for all of our tweedy jingoism, the United States seems rare among nations in not having an identifiable and obvious candidate for national epic.
After all, the Greeks have The Iliad and The Odyssey, the Romans have The Aeneid, the Spanish have El Cid, the French The Song of Roland, Italy The Divine Comedy, and the British The Faerie Queene. Even the Finns have The Kalevala, from which our own Henry Wadsworth Longfellow cribbed a distinctive trochaic tetrameter in his attempt to craft an American national epic called The Song of Hiawatha. What follows is a list of other potential American epic poems, where the words “American,” “epic,” and “poem” will all have opportunity to be liberally interpreted. Some of these poems reach the heights of canonicity alongside our ”Great American Novels,” others most emphatically do not. [Editor’s Note: See our “Correction” to this list.]
The Four Monarchies (1650) by Anne Bradstreet
Anne Bradstreet’s collection The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung up in America inaugurated what we could call “American literature.” Scholars have often given short shrift to her so-called “quaternions,” long poems encapsulating literature, history, theology, and science into considerations of concepts grouped in fours (like the four elements, seasons, ages of man, and so on). Her epic The Four Monarchies follows the influence of the Huguenot poet Guillaume de Salluste du Bartas in recounting the historical details of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, which are commonly associated with the four kingdoms of the biblical book of Daniel’s prophecy. While a committed Protestant (even if her private writings evidence a surprising degree of skepticism), Bradstreet was inheritor to a particular understanding of history that saw the seat of empire moving from kingdoms such as the ones explored in her quaternion, to a final fifth monarchy that would be ruled by Christ. It’s hard not to possibly see a westerly America as the last of these monarchies, as taking part in what John Winthrop famously evoked when he conceived of New England as being a “city on a hill” (incidentally that sermon was delivered aboard the Arbela, which was also transporting Bradstreet and her family to America). Reflecting on that passing from Old World to New, Bradstreet wrote that her “heart rose up” in trepidation, even if she ultimately would come to be the first poet of that New World.
Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton
Despite John Milton being one of “God’s Englishmen,” Paradise Lost is consummately American in its themes of rebellion, discovery, and the despoiling of paradisiacal realms. The poet’s radical republican politics seemed to prefigure that of the country in the way his native England never could embrace. A century later, in the burgeoning democracy across the Atlantic men like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Ben Franklin read the Milton of the pamphlets Eikonoklastes (which celebrated the execution of Charles I) and Areopagitica (which advocated for freedom of speech) as a prophet of revolution. Scholarship about the poem has often hinged on how Lucifer, he who believes that it is “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven,” should be understood: as traitor or romantic rebel. For a monarchical society such as England’s, Milton was always more a poet for the radicals than he was one to be celebrated with a monument in the Poet’s Corner. As early Christians once believed Plato and Socrates prefigured Christ, I’ll claim that Milton prefigures America.
The Day of Doom (1662) by Michael Wigglesworth
Milton’s colonial contemporary Michael Wigglesworth has fared less well in terms of posterity, and yet his long apocalyptic poem The Day of Doom stood alongside John Bunyan and the Bible as the most read book in New England well into the 18th and 19th centuries. Wigglesworth epic was the first to fully capture the American public’s obsession with Armageddon (first sacred, now secular), depicting a shortly arriving Judgment Day whereby those who were “Wallowing in all kind of sin” would soon view a “light, which shines more bright/than doth the noonday sun” with the coming of Christ and the destruction (and redemption) of the world. Yet its deceptively simple rhyming couplets about the apocalypse betray an almost ironic, gothic sensibility. A critical edition of the book has yet to be published in our own day, yet the book was so popular that virtually no copies of its first printing survive, having been read so fervently that the books were worn to oblivion.
The Rising Glory of America (1772) by Philip Freneau with Hugh Henry Brackenridge
Four years before the Declaration of Independence was ratified in Philadelphia, the New York born Huguenot poet Philip Freneau stood on the steps of Nassau Hall at Princeton University with his Scottish born classmate Hugh Henry Brackenridge and declared that “here fair freedom shall forever reign.” Six years after that, Freneau found himself held captive for six weeks aboard one of the stinking British prison ships that filled New York Harbor, only to escape and write verse about the ordeal, confirming his unofficial position as the bard of the American Revolution. Those prison ships were notorious at the time, with the bleached skulls and bones of their cast-over victims washing up onto the shores of Long Island, Manhattan, and New Jersey into the early-1800s; as such, Americans thirsted for a soldier-poet like Freneau to embody the republican ideals of independence from British tyranny. Now, two centuries later, the “poet of the American Revolution” is all but unknown, except to specialists. But at the height of his esteem, patriotic Americans, in particular those of a Jeffersonian bent, saw Freneau as an American poet laureate whose verse could extol both the virtues of democratic governance, and the coming prestige of the “Empire of Liberty,” which was to be built upon those precepts. In Freneau’s writings, whether his poetry or his journalistic work for James Madison’s The National Gazette, he envisioned “America” as a type of secular religion, the last act in human history providentially heading towards its glorious conclusion “where time shall introduce/Renowned characters, and glorious works/Of high invention and of wond’rous art.” He may have failed in his goal of being counted among these “Renowned characters,” yet the “wondr’ous art” he predicted to soon arise in this new nation would eventually come to pass.
Proposed Second Volume (1784) by Phillis Wheatley
We do not know what her real name was. She was kidnapped from her West African home at age seven, and rechristened first “Phillis” after the name of the slave ship that pulled her across the Atlantic, and then “Wheatley” after the pious Boston family who purchased her as chattel. We cannot understand how the Puritan family was able to personally justify ownership of this girl who was translating Horace and Virgil at the age of 12. We do not have record of the hours-long examination she underwent at age 18 with the same number of men (including John Hancock and the Rev. Samuel Mather) to successfully prove herself the author of the volume Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. The reading public refused to believe that she could have written verse evocative of John Dryden and Alexander Pope without confirmation from those white men who constituted that committee. We cannot tell how genuine her belief is that it “Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land” as a child on the Middle Passage, where almost a quarter of Africans died before they reached land. We do not know with what intonation she delivered the line “Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain, /May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train”. We cannot know what may have constituted the conversations between colleagues like the fellow slave Jupiter Hammon, or the Indian poet Samson Occom; we can only read their odes to one another. We do not know how much the shift in her celebrations of George III to George Washington evidence a change in ideology, or the necessary calculus of the survivor. We do not have record of the deprivations she experienced when finally manumitted but forced to work as a scullery maid, or of her husband’s imprisonment in debtor’s prison, or of her pregnancy (her child dying only a few hours after Wheatley herself died at the age of 31). We do not have her second book of poetry, nor its contents. We do not know if this lost epic sits in some sleepy college archive, or is yellowing in a Massachusetts attic, or rebound in some British library. We only know that in her Augustan classicism, her elegant couplets, her poetic voice always forced by circumstance to speak in her oppressors’ tongue, that we are reading one of the finest American poets of the 18th century.
Visions of Columbus (1787) and The Columbiad (1807) by Joel Barlow
In first his Visions of Columbus, and later The Columbiad, Barlow attempted to consciously write an epic befitting his new nation, whose drama he saw as equivalent to that of universal mankind. Borrowing the narrative structure of Paradise Lost, Barlow envisions a westerly angel named Hesperus as appearing to Christopher Columbus in a Castilian prison cell and revealing the future epic history of the continents he (supposedly) discovered. In The Columbiad Barlow wished to “teach all men where all their interest lies, /How rulers may be just and nations wise:/Strong in thy strength I bend no suppliant knee, /Invoke no miracle, no Muse but thee.” Columbus may have been a strange heroic subject for the eventually steadfastly secular Barlow, but in the mariner the poet saw not the medieval minded Catholic zealot of historical reality, but rather a non-English citizen of Renaissance republicanism (and thus an appropriate patron for these new lands). Barlow’s contemporary Percy Shelley famously wrote that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world; in Barlow’s case language, whether poetic or diplomatic, was central in the project of constructing these new men of the New World. Barlow had long rejected the religion of his youth, and saw in the United States a new, almost millennial nation, which would fulfill humanity’s natural inclination towards freedom, where “that rare union, Liberty and Laws, /Speaks to the reas’ning race ‘to/freedom rise, /Like them be equal, and like them be/wise.”
America: A Prophecy (1793) by William Blake
Already critiqued as turgid in its own day, Barlow’s The Columbiad has only become more obscure in the intervening two centuries. Yet what it loses in number of overall readers, the poem makes up for it in the genius of those who were inspired by it, with that mystic of Lambeth William Blake reading Barlow and penning his own America: A Prophecy in visionary emulation of it. Blake is deservedly remembered as a poetic genius, Barlow not so much. The non-conformist eccentric genius “looking westward trembles at the vision,” saw in the rebellion of “Washington, Franklin, [and] Paine” the redemption of all mankind. Inspired by a heterodox religious upbringing, the rich poetic tradition of England, the coming fires of Romanticism, and the particular madness and brilliance of his own soul, Blake composed the most emancipatory verse of his or any era. With his vocation to break the “mind forg’d manacles” which enslave all mankind, Blake saw the great 18th-century revolutions in America and France as not just political acts, but indeed as ruptures in the very metaphysical substance of reality. The narrative is typical Blake, encoded in a biblical language so personal that it remains inscrutable as it is beautiful. The angel Orc, rebelling against the anti-Christ surrogate Albion, prophecies that “The morning comes, the night decays, the watchmen leave their stations/The grave is burst, the spices shed, the linen wrapped up.” In a rejection of his servitude, this spirit of independence declaims, “no more I follow, no more obedience pay.” An Englishman writing in England with a heart more American than any of the revolutionaries he celebrates, Blake writes, “Then had America been lost, o’erwhelmed by the Atlantic, /And Earth had lost another portion of the Infinite;/But all rush together in the night in wrath and raging fire.” But Blake’s hatred of all kings was consistent, he rejected the idolatrous apotheosis of the god-president Washington, and as is the fate of all revolutionaries, America would ultimately break his heart. For Blake, no nation proclaiming liberty while holding so many of its people in bondage could claim to be truly independent. Freedom was still to be found elsewhere.
Madoc (1805) by Robert Southey
Because his and his friend Samuel Coleridge’s dreams of founding a utopia on the Susquehanna River would be unrealized, Southey’s American dreams remained in England, where he composed an unlikely epic charting a counterfactual history imagining epic battles between the Welsh and the Aztecs. The poem is based on legends surrounding the Welsh prince Madoc, who in the 12th century supposedly escaped civil war in his home country to travel west and dwell among the Indians of America. There is an enduring quality to these sorts of apocryphal stories of pre-Colombian trans-Atlantic contact. The Elizabethan astrologer John Dee used these legends as justification for English colonization of the Americas, explorers ranging from Spanish conquistadors to Jamestown natives claimed to have found blonde-haired Welsh speaking Indians, and in Alabama and Georgia historical markers reporting these myths as facts stood as recently as 2015. The undeniable excitement and romance of such a possibility is threaded throughout Madoc, which pits Celt against Aztec and druid against pyramid high-priest, with a council of Welsh bards naming the prince a “Merlin” to the Americas. The poem is ready-made for the cinematic treatment, even as its imaginary medieval battles allowed the once idealistic Southey to overlook the unequal violence of historical colonialism, and in the process to embrace an increasingly conservative politics. Yet the Arthurian fantasy of the story is inescapably fascinating, as Southey asks, “Will ye believe/The wonders of the ocean? how its shoals/Sprang from the wave, like flashing light…/language cannot paint/Their splendid tints!”
The Song of Hiawatha (1855) by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Once Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was the greatest American bard, the most accomplished of the Fireside Poets, whose verse celebrated Yankee independence and liberty. The question of what America’s national epic was would be easy for a good Victorian — it could be nothing other than Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha. And yet the literary critical history of the 20th-century was not kind to the bearded old New Englander. The degradation has become such that current poet Lewis Putnam Turco derides Longfellow as “minor and derivative in every way… nothing more than a hack imitator.” In the years and decades after its composition, generations of American school-children memorized the opening lines of Longfellow’s poem: “On the shores of Gitche Gumee, /Of the shining Big-Sea Water, /Stood Nokomis, the old woman, /Pointing with her finger westward,/O’er the water pointing westward,/To the purple clouds of sunset.” The distinctive trochaic trimeter, borrowed from the Finnish epic The Kalevala gives the epic a distinct beat intentionally evoking an Indian pow-wow as imagined by Longfellow. Critical history has not only been unkind to Longfellow, it has also been unfair. While Freneau and Barlow consciously mimicked European precedents, and Southey constructed his own imaginary representations of the Aztec, Longfellow tried to tell an indigenous story as accurately as he could (even if his own identity may have precluded that as a possibility). Based on his friendship with the Ojibwa chief Kah-Ge-Ga-Gah-Bowh and the Sauk chief Black Hawk, the poet attempted to use indigenous history and religion to craft a uniquely American epic. For much of its reception history American readers took the poem as precisely that. Longfellow’s tale sung of Hiawatha, a follower of the 12th-century Great Peacemaker of the Iroquoian Confederacy who preached in the western hills around Lake Superior and of New York and Pennsylvania. Though little read anymore, the poem still echoes as an attempt not just to write an epic for America, but also to transcribe a genuinely American epic.
“Song of Myself” (1855) by Walt Whitman
Both The Song of Hiawatha and “Song of Myself” were published in 1855; and while the former sold 50,000 copies upon release, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, self-published in a Brooklyn print shop, didn’t even sell out its small initial run of 800. Of the few reviews published, most seemed to repeat some variation of the critic who called the slender volume “reckless and indecent.” And yet a century and a half later it is Whitman whom we hold in the highest esteem, as America’s answer to Milton or Blake. For in Whitman we have the first genuine rupture in American literary history, with the New York poet following Milton’s lead in “things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” For Whitman abandoned the conventional rules of prosody, loosening tongue and ligament to craft a lusty and hearty free verse equal parts Bowery dock-worker and King James Bible. So what, exactly, was Whitman’s epic about? In short, it took as its subject — simply everything. The poem is about the “marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west,” and “The runaway slave” who came to a house and “stopt outside,” and also “The young men” who “float on their backs” whose “white bellies bulge to the sun,” and “The pure contralto” who “sings in the organ loft,” and “The quadroon girl” who is “sold at the auction stand” and “The machinist” who “rolls up his sleeves,” as well as “The groups of newly-come immigrants.” He understood that in a truly democratic society the Golden Age platitudes of the traditional epic form could not truly confront the vibrant, egalitarian reality of lived experience, and so rather than sing of Columbus, or Washington, or Hiawatha, Whitman asks us to “celebrate yourself.” The “I” of “Song of Myself” is not quite reducible to Whitman as the author, and therein lies the genius of his narration, for he elevates himself in a sort of literary kenosis, becoming an almost omniscient figure for whom the first-person personal pronoun comes to almost pantheistically encompass all of reality. And though Whitman was a type of mystic, he was always consciously American as well, penning that most American of genres — advertisements for himself.
Complete Poems (c.1886) by Emily Dickinson
Dickinson is not the author of any conventional epic, nor would she have considered herself to be an epic poet. What she offers instead are close to 2,000 lyrics, so finely and ingeniously structured, so elegant in the relationship between line and image and rhythm, that taken as a whole they offer a portrait of a human mind anticipating death that is as consummate and perfect as any offered by any other poet. Like Leaves of Grass, the fragments of Dickinson scribbled on the backs of envelopes and scraps of paper present an epic that is secretly, yet simply, the reader’s own life story. Dickinson belongs among that collection of the greatest philosophers, whose orientation towards truth is such that she is able to tell us that which we all know, but were unable to say. Take the line “I am Nobody! Who are you? /Are you – Nobody – too?” With her characteristic idiosyncratic punctuation (that capitalized “Nobody!”) and the strange, almost-ironic interrogative declaration. In her logical statement of identity, which is built upon negation, she offered a Yankee version of God’s declaration in Exodus that “I am what I am.”
The Cantos (c.1915-62) by Ezra Pound
His Cantos are the strangest epic, a syncretic alchemy of American history, Chinese philosophy, and ancient Greek poetry. Almost impenetrable in their hermeticism, Pound’s actual phrases were able to distill the essence of an image to their very form. Yet he was also an anti-American traitor, madman, war criminal, propagandist, and defender of the worst evils of the 20th century. He was an ugly man, but as a poet he could cut excess down to crystalline perfection: “The apparition of these faces in the/crowd;/Petals on a wet, black bough.” Some 20 years after his infamous wartime broadcasts for the Italian fascists, a faded, broken, wrinkled, and ancient Pound found himself living in Venice. Sitting before the elderly man in that Venetian villa was a balding, magnificently bearded Allen Ginsberg, the Beat poet and Jewish Buddhist, there to break bread with Pound. Ginsberg brought along some vinyl to play; he wished to demonstrate to Pound the distinct American speech that threaded from the older poet through Ginsberg and to that other Jewish folk troubadour, this one named Robert Allen Zimmerman. The younger poet, reportedly forgiving and gracious to a fault, claimed that Pound apologized for his anti-Semitic betrayals during the war. Yet this was not an act of contrition — it was a request for cheap grace. Beautiful verse can sprout from poisoned soil. We can still read him, but that does not mean that we need to forgive him, even if Ginsberg could.
John Brown’s Body (1922) by Stephen Vincent Benét
The writer from Bethlehem, Penn., attempted his classically structured epic poem at an unfortunate cultural moment for classically structured epic poems. Though it won a Pulitzer Prize a year after it was written, John Brown’s Body remains largely forgotten. Though Benét’s conservative aesthetics that call upon the “American muse, whose strong and diverse heart/So many have tried to understand” may seem retrograde, what’s actually contained is the fullest poetic expression of the definitional moment of American history. John Brown’s Body, which teaches us that “Sometimes there comes a crack in Time itself,” returns to slavery, the original sin of American history, and to the incomplete war waged to bring an end to the horrors of bondage. Benét, most famous for his story “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (which if anything has reached the level of fable, its author’s name largely forgotten) attempted to craft an epic to commemorate the Civil War while its veterans still lived. His task is conscious, perhaps thinking of Barlow, Freneau, and others, he writes of his nation “They tried to fit you with an English song/And clip your speech into the English tale. /But, even from the first, the words went wrong.” The poem would be mere affectation if not for how beautiful lines of the poem could be, and if not for how important the poet’s task was, and if not for just how often he comes close to accomplishing it.
The Bridge (1930) by Hart Crane
From his apartment at 110 Columbia Heights the poet Hart Crane could see that massive structure that began to span from Brooklyn into lower Manhattan. Like Barlow, Crane borrows the character of Columbus, as well as other semi-mythic American personages such as Pocahontas and Rip Van Winkle in leading up to his own experience of seeing this new wonder of the world unite two formerly separate cities. Beneath the shadow of the bridge he asks, “How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest/The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him, /Shedding white rings of tumult, building high/Over the chained bay waters Liberty.” The poem was written as a rejoinder to the pessimism in that other epic, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. Crane’s own life could be desperate: alcoholic and dead at 32 from his own hand after being savagely beaten by a homophobic crowd. Yet in The Bridge he tries to marshal that definitional American optimism, this sense of a New World being a place that can make new people. A contemporary critic noted that the poem, in “its central intention, to give to America a myth embodying a creed which may sustain us somewhat as Christianity has done in the past, the poem fails.” And yet whether this is said fairly or not, it misses the point that all epics must in some sense be defined by failure, the only question is how well you failed. By this criterion, in its scope, breadth, ambition, and empathy, Crane failed very well.
“Middle Passage” (c.1940) by Robert Hayden
Benét intuited that slavery was the dark core of what defined this nation, and that no understanding of who we could be can ever really begin till we have fully admitted to ourselves what we have been. The poet Robert Hayden concurred withBenét, and his “Middle Passage” was a black expression of the horrors and traumas that defined American power and wealth, a moral inventory that explicates the debt of blood owed to the millions of men, women, and children subjugated under an evil system. His epic is one of the fullest poetic expressions of the massive holocaust of Africans ripped from their homes and transported on the floating hells that were the slave ships of the middle passage, telling the narrative of “Middle Passage:/voyage through death/to life upon these shores.” No complete personal memoir of the middle passage survives (with the possible exception of 1789’s The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano) and so Hayden had to make himself a medium or a conduit for voices that were silenced by the horrors of slavery, writing of “Shuttles in the rocking loom of history, /the dark ships move, the dark ships move.” Hayden had certainly never been in the stomach of a slave ship himself, and yet he conveys the knowledge that “there was hardly room ‘tween-decks for half/the sweltering cattle stowed spoon-fashion there;/that some went mad of thirst and tore their flesh/and sucked the blood.” “Middle Passage” is such a consummate American epic precisely because it enacts the central tragedy of our history, but its ending is triumphant, depicting the emergence of a new hybridized identity, that of the African-American. The conclusion of Hayden’s poem is inescapable: all that is most innovative about American culture from our music to our food to our vernacular to our literature has its origins in the peoples who were brutally forced to this land.
Paterson (1946-63) by William Carlos Williams
Of course a town like Paterson, N.J., could generate an epic five-volume poem, penned by her native son, the pediatrician-bard William Carlos Williams. True to his Yankee ethic, Williams’s philosophy was one that was vehemently materialist, practical in its physicality and imploring us to “Say it! No ideas but in things.” In Paterson Williams’s answered Eliot’s obscure Waste Land with a poetic rejoinder, one that rejected the later poet’s obscurity and difficult language with a paean to the lusty American vernacular every bit the equal of Williams’s fellow New Jerseyite Whitman. That language flowed as surely as the Passaic River across those five volumes, and over two decades of writing. What the poem provides is a thorough and deep history of this particular place, using it as a reflective monad to encompass the history of the entire country from colonialism, through revolution and industrialization into the modern day. In Williams’s epic the reader experiences, “The past above, the future below/and the present pouring down: the roar, /the roar of the present, a speech –/ is, of necessity, my sole concern.”
Howl (1955) by Allen Ginsberg
The Blakean New Jerseyite may have implored us to topple Moloch’s statue, but we used his poem to sell coffee, jeans, and computers. A criticism of the Beats was always that their modus operandi was more style than substance, a disservice to Howl, which when read free of the accumulated cultural debris that surrounds it is still thrillingly inspired. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked” (at a tender age I inscribed those very lines around the white edge of a pair of black Converse hi-tops with a purple felt pen). Howl can seem a mere product of the mid-century counterculture, but that doesn’t mean that his bop Kabbalistic vision of the sacred embedded within the grit and muck of marginalized people — the radials, and junkies, and queers, and addicts, and drunks — doesn’t remain profoundly beautiful. Ginsberg sings the song of “Angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection/to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” Dedicated to one of these lost children of America, Carl Solomon, who Ginsberg met in a Patterson mental hospital, Howl’s vision is profoundly redemptive, despite its depiction of an America that is more Babylon than “City on a hill.”
The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You (1972) by Frank Stanford
The poet Frank Stanford marshaled that Southern history that hangs as thick as a blanket of lightning bugs on a humid July night in his brilliant The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You. If not America’s great epic than it is surely the South’s, where the poem is all moonshine and Elvis Presley, yet not reducible to its constituent parts. Following the lead of modernists like E.E. Cummings, Stanford produced a massive poem devoid of punctuation and reproduced without any stanzas, one that never reached the heights of canonicity despite being celebrated by poets like Alan Dugan as among the greatest American works of the 20th century. The Battlefield Where the Moon Says I Love You endures as a half-remembered phantom born out of a particular Southern dark genius, and now almost folk-myth as much as it is actual text, out of print for years at a time. Stanford, who killed himself with three pistol shots to the chest at the age of 30 in 1978 endures as a literary ghost, still searching for a deserving audience. As he wrote, “Death is a good word. /It often returns/When it is very/Dark outside and hot, /Like a fisherman/Over the limit, /Without pain, sex, /Or melancholy. /Young as I am, I/Hold light for this boat.”
The New World (1985) by Frederick Turner
Perhaps a central anxiety of American literature, which reflects on the endlessly novel and regenerative possibilities of this Golden Land, is that as the clock ticks forward we become less and less new. Hence the necessity to continually reinvent, to “make it new” as Pound put it. The Neo-Formalist poet Frederick Turner takes this injunction very literally with his provocative science fiction epic appropriately titled The New World. Set in a fantastic 24th century, Turner envisions a fractured and disunited states of America born out of the fissures and inconsistencies that always defined American cultural identity. There are now groups like the anarchic Riots, the Eloi-like Burbs, the theocratic Mad Counties, and the Jeffersonian Free Counties. What follows is an archetypal story of family feuding, exile, and messianism across these designated polities, and in the process Turner tells a narrative about America’s history by imagining America’s future. Invoking the muse, as is the nature of the epic convention, Turner writes “I sing of what it is to be a man and a woman in our time.” What follows is a circus-mirror reflection of America, brilliantly harnessing the potential of science fiction as a modern genre and using the vehicle of the seemingly moribund epic form to sing a new story. The future setting of Turner’s epic serves to remind us that this mode, so much older than America, will also outlive us.
The Forage House (2013) by Tess Taylor
As genealogy-obsessed as we may be, many Americans have an anxiety about fully recognizing their own reflections in past mirrors, with the full implications of where we’ve come from steadfastly avoided. Poet Tess Taylor writes, “At first among certain shadows/you felt forbidden to ask whose they were.” In The Forage House she crafts an American epic by writing a personal one; she interrogates the long-dead members of her own lineage, pruning the tendrils of her family tree and discovering that while genealogy need not be destiny, it also must be acknowledged. A native Californian, she is descended from both New England missionaries and Virginian slave owners, with one ancestor in particular, Thomas Jefferson, as enigmatic a cipher as any for the strange contradictions of this land. Jefferson may not have admitted that branch of his family tree sired through his slave Sally Hemings, but Taylor seeks out her black cousins. To do this isn’t an issue of political expedience, but one profoundly and necessarily urgent in its spiritual importance. Perhaps it is in the collection of people that constitute a family, and indeed a nation, where we can identify an epic worthy of the nation. Rugged individualism be damned, we’re ultimately not a nation of soloists, but a choir.
Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) by Claudia Rankine
The dark irony of the word “citizen” as the title of Rankine’s poem is that this postmodern epic explores the precise ways that this nation has never treated its citizens equally. Combining poetry, creative nonfiction, and a stunningly designed image, Citizen has the appearance of a photography magazine but the impact of a manifesto. The cover of the book depicts a gray hood, isolated in a field of white, presented as if it were some sort of decontextualized object or museum piece. But the hoodie calls to mind the murdered Florida teenager Trayvon Martin; Citizen ensures that we can never view an artifact as this out of context. The awareness that Citizen conveys is that this is a nation in which a black child like Martin, simply walking home from the store with iced tea and Skittles, can be killed by an armed vigilante who is then acquitted by a jury of his peers. But it would be a mistake to think that Rankine’s poem is some sort of sociological study, for as helpful as the adoption of terms like “privilege” and “intersectionality” have been in providing a means for political analysis, Citizen displays the deep, intuitive wisdom that only poetry can deliver — racism not simply as a problem of policy, but also as a national spiritual malady. From Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” to Citizen, conservative critics have purposefully obscured the purposes of these poetic sermons. Yet what Rankine attempts is profoundly American, for Citizen conveys that any America falling short of its stated promises is an America that betrays its citizens. As she writes, “Just getting along shouldn’t be an ambition.” In answering what our national epic is, Uncle Walt said that “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem;” the importance of Citizen is that it reminds us that this poem has yet to be fully written.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
My friend and I have created this running joke about a blockbuster movie in which the hero — a slothful young man with a mysteriously absent father — spends every day at a Starbucks, dutifully banging out a few sentences of his unfinished novel. One day the barista spells his name wrong on a cup, but it’s actually a cryptic message, and soon a wall in the bathroom is sliding open to reveal a hidden passageway. Our hero descends beneath the Starbucks into a bustling, technologically sophisticated control room where, for centuries, a secret cabal of the greatest writers on Earth has been using its literary chops to save humanity from all sorts of apocalyptic threats. Of course the hero’s father belonged to this cabal, and of course there’s an alien tyrant determined to invade Earth and muck up its entire public library system or whatever, and of course our hero wipes the muffin crumbs off his t-shirt and ends up saving us all from annihilation — but most importantly he learns a lot about the craft of writing.
In a way, that story has already been done. Have you read The Secret History by Donna Tartt? It’s about gifted college students who become so passionately intellectual that they have no choice but to start killing each other, and it captivated me when I first read it. Or maybe you read Special Topics in Calamity Physics, in which a painfully brilliant student solves an elaborate murder mystery using her exceptional skills in the humanities? Or The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, which bravely explores how tragic and meaningful life can be when you’re a terribly erudite chimp? Or the warehouse of knowledge porn known as Wittgenstein’s Mistress?
And then we have The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt. I’ll tell you right now that I love this book, but I feel helpless to love it, and I wonder if loving it makes me a bad person.
This is what happens in The Last Samurai. Sibylla, a devastatingly smart and preternaturally rational young woman from America, goes to a party in London and meets a famous writer whose style she abhors, comparing it to Liberace’s. Disappointingly, she sleeps with him. (“I was still drunk, and I was still trying to think of things I could do without being unpardonably rude. Well, I thought, I could sleep with him without being rude.”) She ends up raising a child, Ludo, who can memorize The Iliad and teach himself foreign languages at age five. Ludo would be the crowning achievement of any comfortably situated Park Slope mom, but Sibylla, who struggles to pay the bills by transcribing old issues of magazines, can barely feed Ludo’s appetite for knowledge. She often resorts to playing an old tape of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, hoping it will provide Ludo with some admirable male role models. Ludo begs to know his father’s identity. Sibylla won’t tell him.
After his 11th birthday, Ludo finds a clue that leads him — secretly, without Sibylla’s help — to “Liberace.” But when he sees that Liberace is a hack, and that telling him the truth won’t do any good, Ludo keeps the big revelation about his parentage to himself. “If we fought with real swords I would kill him,” he thinks, quoting one of his favorite lines from Seven Samurai. Instead, Ludo takes off on other journeys throughout London, searching for surrogate father figures — a brilliant linguist who traveled the world, a charismatic physicist with a popular TV show, a reclusive millionaire painter. When Ludo finds them, he lies and says he’s their son. “A good samurai will parry the blow.” Hilariously, most of them believe it — it seems that “great men” have a tendency to sleep around. As the father figures try to explain themselves and dish out advice to their not-quite son, Ludo gains a variety of perspectives on how he might conduct his own life.
What worries me about The Last Samurai is how exceptional Sibylla and Ludo are, and how quickly I find myself identifying with them.
Sibylla’s work as an underpaid transcriber sounds backbreaking. She sits at a typewriter in a small London flat (which is so poorly heated that in winter she and Ludo ride the tube to stay warm) and labors for 36 hours at a stretch to preserve garbage publications like Advanced Angling, British Home Decorator and The Poodle Breeder for posterity. Meanwhile she has to ignore the emotional development of her absolute prodigy of a son because she’s too busy earning money to keep them alive. But when I read this, I’m happy! Because I feel like I’ve been there. Haven’t we all — especially those of us with a passion for language and typing — felt like a wage slave at some point, like an unheralded maestro, and doesn’t that memory lodge itself in our identities and become a part of who we are? So I read this heartbreaking passage about a single mother suffering in her cold London flat and I feel a vicarious joy, as if Helen DeWitt “gets” me.
And when Ludo takes his magnificent brain to public school for the first time, and discovers the exquisite agony of being misunderstood by a world of simpletons, I feel like Helen DeWitt “gets” me.
And when The Last Samurai jokes about the nobility of linguistics and the dreariness of Oxford University Press, then I really feel like Helen DeWitt “gets” me, because I used to be the linguistics editor at Oxford University Press.
The jacket copy for the new edition of The Last Samurai makes a big fuss about how, when the book was originally released in 2000, the publisher declared it was “destined to become a cult classic.” To which Garth Risk Hallberg replied, “Why not just, ‘destined to become a classic?’” By releasing this new edition, New Directions seems to be signaling that we’re ready to erase the word “cult” from the book’s reputation.
But I’m not so sure. I feel helpless to love The Last Samurai because it “gets” me. But how many other people can say that? How many linguistics editors are there at Oxford University Press? How many people, when they read about a devastatingly smart and coldly rational white woman who tells her tragically brilliant son that she would have committed suicide by now if not for the fact that she feels obligated to raise him, will smile and quietly rejoice because this is exactly the type of misfit they fancy themselves to be? Who is foolish enough to admit that they fantasize about being oppressed by their own superior intellect?
I think there’s something shameful about loving The Last Samurai. The novel gratifies the individual egos of a very specific type of reader. And isn’t that what a cult classic is — a book that people love, but only for themselves?
“A good samurai will parry the blow.”
What’s so damning about knowledge porn is that it’s often written with the same basic level of intelligence as any other work of mainstream literary fiction. Which ruins the whole premise! Here is a paragraph from Special Topics in Calamity Physics:
Dad picked up women the way certain wool pants can’t help but pick up lint. For years, I had a nickname for them, though I feel a little guilty using it now: June Bugs (see “Figeater Beetle,” Ordinary Insects, Vol. 24).
So we have a lamestream analogy about pants gathering lint, followed by a completely invented bit of “scholarship” that leads the reader nowhere but is meant to indicate that the narrator is actually brilliant. This is not what a smart person sounds like. You can’t footnote a cliché and call it genius. (Remind me to yell at you about the magician-heist movie Now You See Me and its ridiculously named sequel, Now You See Me 2, which commit the same infuriating error on a massive Hollywood scale.)
Fortunately for us, The Last Samurai is better than that. It’s a rare work of knowledge porn that actually conveys knowledge. Flip through the book and the first thing you’ll notice is Greek writing, or Japanese writing, or impossibly long strings of numbers. As Ludo studies, DeWitt folds his material into the text, and a patient reader will learn that, in Japanese, JIN is an exogenous Chinese lexeme, while hito is an indigenous Japanese lexeme; that in E.V. Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey (yes, it’s a real thing), Odysseus calls his companions “lads;” and that in the sum of any sequence n + (n+1) + (n+2) + (n+3) etc. is simply half of the sum of the sequence added to itself backwards. DeWitt doesn’t just tell us her characters are smart; she builds the truth of that assertion into the book, and she makes us smarter for reading it.
As a stylist, too, DeWitt stands above most peddlers of knowledge porn. Both Sibylla and Ludo, as narrators, pour forth in a primly accurate voice that often gives way to sardonic or slapstick humor. Sibylla marvels at the cheesiness of a western movie that rips off Seven Samuai: “Not ONE but SEVEN tall men in tights — it’s simply MAGNIFICENT.” Unsure of what to say in the note she leaves for Liberace after sleeping with him, she writes several pages analyzing the The Iliad in the original Greek, and then realizes, “I still did not have something on the page that could be concluded with an airy Ciao.” At one point Ludo mentions that Sibylla dressed him up like a hunchback so they could sneak into an age-restricted screening of The Crying Game. It’s a frequently delightful book, zany in the same way that Nell Zink is zany, as we watch the narrator’s extraordinary intelligence run out from under her and trip against the common things in life.
During the five pages when Ludo confronts his father Liberace, I underlined everything they said because DeWitt’s use of dialogue — with innovative elisions and subtle shifts in POV — is masterful. Structurally the novel grows up and out, just like Ludo, grasping at new relationships and open-ended questions even as the story is ending.
So if The Last Samurai belongs to a genre of books that perpetuate a seductive fantasy about the nature of intelligence, then it’s the best example of that genre I’ve ever seen.
And let me tell you another thing I love about The Last Samurai. It blurs the line between biological kinship and intellectual mentorship in a way that feels strangely mature and matter-of-fact.
From Sibylla’s perspective, raising Ludo seems an awful lot like a horror movie. She gives birth to this accidental child whose rapid intellectual development suddenly takes priority over her own (just like her being born ruined her mother’s goal of developing as a musician). But the child prodigy is basically a sociopath until he grows up, and in the meantime she is still responsible for feeding him, cleaning him, and providing him with the raw materials that his life’s work — whatever it may be — will be built upon. This is the horror that all mothers experience, just ratcheted up a notch because this particular child is smarter than Isaac Newton and Noam Chomsky combined. And that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is how easily Sibylla might fail, how easily Ludo could become a monster, how easily she might fall into despair and lash out at her son: “A chittering Alien bursts from the breast to devour your child before your eyes.”
When your child is not just smart, but freakishly smart — as Ludo putzes around like a child, Sibylla refers to him drily as “The Phenomenon” — you have a moral and social imperative to raise him well. Throughout the novel, Sibylla suffers from boredom and heartache and poverty and suicidal thoughts, but she never stops trying to raise Ludo responsibly. She forces Ludo to read a film critic’s take on a lesser Kurosawa film about a judo champion, hoping to teach him that there is no terminal state of contentment at the end of the hero’s journey; that “a hero who actually becomes is tantamount to a villain.” As Ludo’s fiendishly pedestrian schoolteacher puts it, Ludo “has got to understand that there is more to life than how much you know.”
The dramatic tension at the heart of The Last Samurai is this question of whether Ludo will ever learn that there is more to life than knowledge porn. And whether we will, too.
Fifty years ago this month, The New Yorker published a bizarre short story by J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, written in the form of a 28,000-word letter from a seven-year-old child at summer camp. No one could know it at the time, but this story was to mark one of the longest and most fascinating silences in literary history. Shortly after the story appeared, Salinger retreated into his reclusive rural New Hampshire home, and never published anything again in his lifetime.
The story, titled “Hapworth 16, 1924” in a disorienting merging of date and location, remains something of a baffling enigma: branded as unreadable by critics, and never republished, only the most dedicated Salinger devotees bother to track it down and slog through it. Indeed, the negative reaction to the story is thought to have been the catalyst for Salinger’s retreat from publication, even though he personally believed it to be “a high point of his writing.”
“Hapworth” is the final story (although the first chronologically) in Salinger’s Glass series, a sequence of short stories revolving around a family of hyper-intellectual New Yorkers. Despite, the swift ascension to the status of American classic for The Catcher in the Rye (just five years after it was published it was being compared to everything from Homer’s Odyssey to Ulysses and The Great Gatsby) Salinger’s reputation gradually declined as he began to focus on the Glass stories, losing more and more fans with each subsequent publication.
One of the most common criticisms leveled against the Glass stories was that Salinger was writing them purely for himself, at the price of alienating his readers. Salinger even admitted as much, stating “I write just for myself and my own pleasure,” and “there is a real enough danger, I suppose, that sooner or later I’ll bog down, perhaps disappear entirely, in my own methods.” Thus, “Hapworth” came for many to represent the culmination of this, and the ultimate in insufferable self-indulgence, with its endless verbosity and preposterous length. Even within the story, Salinger appears to acknowledge this, with his narrator warning us that “This is going to be a very long letter!” and later urging the reader “Please, please, PLEASE do not grow impatient and ice cold to this letter because of its gathering length!”
This length is perhaps the greatest obstacle for readers aiming to tackle “Hapworth.” However, it is not just the practical side of reading such a long story filled at times with impenetrable language and incoherent structuring, but more the implications that come with the fact that we are told this letter has been authored by a seven-year-old.
The narrator, Seymour Glass, is frequently held up as bastion of human intelligence in the earlier Glass stories, and even as something approaching an enlightened spiritual guru. But “Hapworth” takes this concept to a level well beyond the far-fetched, endowing its child protagonist with the power to accurately predict the future, recall past lives, and write with the vocabulary of a PhD candidate. One of the most critically derided passages of the story takes up around a quarter its length and consists entirely of Seymour’s absurd and entirely age inappropriate list of requested reading material: “the complete works again of Count Leo Tolstoy […] any thoughtful books on human whirling or spinning […and] both the French edition and Mr. Cotton’s wonderful translation of Montaigne’s essays.” Likewise, Seymour’s request to his father to share any “imaginary sensual acts [which] gave lively, unmentionable entertainment to your mind” has proved another source of eye-rolling disbelief for readers, leading many to the assumption that “Hapworth” is simply some kind of curious in-joke between Salinger and his imaginary Glass family.
However, such an interpretation, though valid, is simplistic, and with so little having been written on “Hapworth,” it seems that the 50th anniversary offers a chance to reexamine the story, and see if the overwhelmingly negative critical consensus is not somewhat hyperbolic.
When “Seymour: An Introduction” (the immediate predecessor to “Hapworth” in the Glass series) was published in 1959 it attracted more negative reviews than any of Salinger’s previous stories, but since then some critics have argued that Salinger was well ahead of his time, including Eberhard Alsen, in his A Reader’s Guide to J.D. Salinger, suggesting he in fact “anticipated by a decade the self-reflexive trend in American postmodernist fiction.” Roger Lathbury, who attempted to republish “Hapworth” in 1997 and even met and exchanged letters with the reclusive author, posits a similar theory for “Hapworth,” arguing that Salinger was “trying something new, arguably something different than any other American writer: to reconcile non-material (Eastern) ways of transcendence with the particulars of American daily life.” Lathbury contends that this accounts for its unusual style — “a letter that is not a letter” — and that to write what Salinger wanted to write necessarily required “a seismic shift in sensibility.”
Salinger addressed this exact concept in an earlier story entitled “Teddy,” which also takes a child prodigy with spiritual gifts as its protagonist: “It’s very hard to meditate and live a spiritual life in America.” Likewise, the form of “Hapworth” is recycled from an earlier unpublished story, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls,” which is also presented as a letter written home from summer camp. Thus, one might hypothesize that”Hapworth” represents an attempt by Salinger to readdress his earlier fiction, and more radically alter his style, moving away from the traditional structures of the American short story to reflect his spiritual Eastern-influenced themes.
This would explain “Hapworth’s” rambling and meandering style: rather than forcing his story into a conventional linear structure, it follows the contours of the mind. However, unlike the modernist form of stream-of-consciousness, “Hapworth” is both internal and external at the same time: in addressing his letter to his family, Seymour the narrator is communicating externally; but, at the same time, large portions of the letter seem to be directed at himself. And perhaps the same could be said for Salinger: through “Hapworth” he is addressing both the reader and himself.
Amid all of this, however, the story does have a strange kind of structure, though it is one of circularity. Moments from the beginning have their corresponding counterparts at the end, and yet nothing is really tied up neatly. For instance, in the letter’s opening, Seymour expresses his belief that it is every individual’s moral duty to act kindly without hope of reward: “without examining […the recipient of a good deed’s] face or combing it for gratitude;” and just before signing off he mentions an acquaintance’s need “to see the grateful recipients’ faces in person when he does them a favor.” Here Salinger is trying to reconcile the moral ideal with the imperfection of human nature. And indeed, despite Seymour’s almost superhuman abilities, “Hapworth” reveals a “humanness” in the character that is rarely glimpsed in the other Glass stories.
However, the presentation of such “humanness” is arguably Salinger’s undoing. By revealing too much of Seymour, who had previously been conspicuously physically absent from most of the Glass stories, Salinger shatters the enigma, and reveals the man behind the curtain. It is clear this was his intention, as the story revolves around the conflict between the spirit and body, but for many devotees of the Glass saga, uniting the saintly Seymour of the previous stories with the angry and pretentious Seymour of “Hapworth” is too great an ask.
Still, Salinger fans will find plenty of interest in “Hapworth,” not least the familiar upbeat style — a balance of the intellectual and the colloquial — complete with the trademark tautology and adjectival listing that came to define much of Salinger’s later work. And one could also argue that while revealing Seymour’s imperfection — “Do not think me infallible! I am utterly fallible!” — spoils the mystery of the character, it also opens up new enigmas, such as the possibility that the letter is inauthentic, and is in fact authored by Buddy, Seymour’s younger brother.
Buddy’s voice is apparent via a brief introduction before the letter begins, in which he assures us twice that he intends to type up an “exact copy,” which is what we will read. This over-assurance is immediately suspicious, and the opening line, in which Seymour states “I will write for us both,” might also serve as evidence. Inconsistencies in the text, such as Seymour’s not knowing the address his parents are staying at, reinforce this hypothesis, but, once again, there is no concrete proof, only further and deeper mystery.
This is the crux of “Hapworth” — it defies interpretation, and in this way stands as Salinger’s ultimate embodiment of the Glass family’s ideals. Just four years earlier he had admitted that Buddy was his “alter-ego,” blurring the lines between fiction and reality, and here we see him bringing the ideals of his fictional world into the reality of his work as a writer. In Franny and Zooey, Salinger quotes at length from Swami Prabhavananda: “You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work.” “Hapworth” can be seen as a culmination of this ideal, as it represents Salinger writing purely for himself, and for the pleasure of the work. The fact that he continued to write for the rest of his life, but ceased publishing, also meant he was rejecting considerable “fruits:” Franny and Zooey spent 25 weeks at the top of The New York Times fiction bestseller list in 1961-1962, for instance.
Whether or not any of this was intentional on Salinger’s part is purely speculative, but one cannot deny that he took considerable risks with “Hapworth,” and that, as Roger Lathbury has argued, “For refusing to repeat his popular successes, Salinger deserves respect and honor.” Thus, ironically, the very complaint critics had of his later work (that it was becoming too self-involved) is the very thing that makes it unique — no other American writer ever created so complete a retreat into his or her fictional world.
The story itself remains ambiguous, and a thorn in the side of Salinger fans and scholars alike. Nonetheless, the exaggerated critical drubbing it received should not put new readers off, and it remains, undeniably, a true original. Within “Hapworth 16, 1924,” J.D. Salinger praises this very quality — “Close on the heels of kindness, originality is one of the most thrilling things in the world, also the most rare!” — suggesting perhaps that this was his primary goal. In that sense, at least, he succeeded.
“Hapworth 16, 1924” was published in The New Yorker on June 19, 1965 and has never been republished. It is available to read in The Complete New Yorker.
All quotations by Roger Lathbury are from personal email correspondences.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
In high school I had to read a lot of William Faulkner. An ambitious literature teacher fresh from Davidson College introduced us to The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying, and Light in August in a single semester. Of course it was torture, subjecting the linear teenage mind to such non-linear narration, but something about Faulkner stuck, and one day on winter break, as a storm dropped a thin blanket of snow on Atlanta, I picked up The Reivers.
Suddenly Faulkner changed. So accessible. So clear. So page-turning. I would later read critics who breezily called the Pulitzer Prize-winning book lighthearted, narratively simple, and, for these reasons, atypical Faulkner (“affectingly wistful,” Jonathan Yardley wrote). It was, as they say today, a fun read, maybe (it was implied) too much so for a heavyweight such as the bard from Oxford.
But later in life I returned to Faulkner much in the way you return to the music of your youth. And on closer inspection it struck me that nothing about The Reivers was simple. In fact, the book, a thematic wolf in sheep’s clothing, was (and remains) one of the weightiest road-trip novels ever written. The Reivers, in essence, gets very meta about movement.
The Odyssey, On the Road, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — these books capture long-duration mobility as a backdrop to drama. But in The Reivers, movement itself is the drama, not to mention the quickening pulse of Yoknapatawpha, a place where, the closer you look, the more the characters materialize by gathering moss.
The book opens with a mobility upgrade. Boon Hoggenbeck steals (reives — it’s a Scottish term) Lucius Priest’s grandfather’s car so he can drive from Jefferson to Memphis to visit a prostitute named Miss Corrie. Before Boon departs, Lucius, aged 11, convinces him to bring him along for the ride. En route, they discover that Ned McCaslin, a black man who tends to Lucius’s grandfather’s horses, is hiding in the back seat. As the car fills with characters, The Reivers indeed becomes affectingly wistful, with Huck Finnish coming-of-age excitement leavening the trip.
Matters become a little heavier in Memphis. Boon drops Lucius at Miss Reba’s brothel and goes searching for his “girlfriend.” Ned, in the plot’s pivotal scene, secretly barters the stolen car — the first car in Yoknawpatapha County (where it’s 1905) — for a horse — “Coppermine” — he plans to train up and race hard at a local track (under the new nom de guerre “Lightening”). With the proceeds, Ned vows to buy back the vehicle and allow the dividends to speak to his considerable equine expertise.
Critics have long characterized The Reviers as a soft critique of modernization. It’s certainly that. Horses and mules haul so many themes around Faulkner’s novels that it seems appropriate for him to grant the beasts an 11-hour paean (this was his last novel), which he does by favorably juxtaposing the car’s defects with the horse’s reliability.
One example stands out. Midway to Memphis, Priest’s hijacked car gets stuck in a mud hole. The men struggle to wedge it out with iron bars and a plank of wood, but the vehicle — “so huge and so immobile” — proves to be “too fixed and foundational.” Defeated, Boon pays the mud hole’s owners a few bucks to have the car dislodged by a couple of mules, animals he later describes as “already obsolete before they were born.”
What follows is as arresting as anything Faulkner ever wrote. In an instant, the car morphs from an icon of progress into a “mechanical toy rated in power and strength by the dozens of horses.” It’s no longer a shiny symbol of a modernizing South, but an instant fossil, something you’d discover in layers of bedrock, an object that’s “helpless and impotent in the almost infantile clutch of a few inches of the temporary confederation of two mild and specific elements — earth and water.” The horse, an animal Faulkner deeply understood, triumphs over the car.
But Faulkner is hunting more substantial game here. He’s after the very morality of movement itself. In Western thought, the link between movement and morality is by no means self-evident or routinely explored. But to migrate, by definition, is to go astray. And to go astray is to err — to be errant — and, in turn, to be flawed, or at least radically open to its possibilities. The Reivers honors this definition, allowing movement to constitute error — personal, historical, collective error — as well as make possible its upshot: redemption.
But error comes first. After the travelers are disengaged from the mud hole, they eat fried chicken and ham and assess the near future. “When we crossed Hell Creek,” Boon explains, “we crossed Rubicon” and “set the bridge on fire.” They feel the frisson of liberation: “the very land itself seemed to have changed…the air was very urban.” Only automotive power — such a novelty in 1905 — allows them to barter the past for a future characterized by “the mechanized, the mobilized, the inescapable destiny of America.”
But such liberation comes at a cost. When the trio eventually finds the main road to Memphis — “running string straight into distance” — the world they once knew blurs into confusion. The geography outside the gunmetal doors — “the Sabbath afternoon, workless, the cotton and corn growing unvexed now, the mules themselves sabbatical and idle in the pastures” — becomes lost to Lucius, who recalls, “I couldn’t look at it…I was too busy, too concentrated.” Hurdling through space in metallic containment quietly erodes a sense of place and the integrity such a feeling nurtures. “It was Virtue who had given up, relinquished us to Non-virtue,” Lucius remembers thinking as the car kicked up dust. “The country itself was gone.”
And then they stop at Miss Reba’s. “You’ll like it,” Boon tells Lucius.
Lucius doesn’t like it. Lucius is horrified. His experiences at the brothel culminate in a coming-of-age sequence that includes a badly cut hand, copious tears, and the tectonic realization that “I knew too much, had seen too much; I was a child no longer now; innocence and childhood were forever lost, forever gone from me.”
But what never leaves Lucius is the potential for redemption. Redemption in The Reivers is embodied in the noble form of the horse. The relationship that Lucius and Ned develop with Lightening — the bartered horse that Lucius eventually rides in two mile-long circles — restores “the country itself” to a non-automotive pace and routine. It’s on the sweaty back of Lightening — a horse maintained with mechanical precision by Ned — that Lucius transcends his fate and recovers his virtue.
The Reivers ends with this moving restoration. On the way to the race, Ned and Lucius must load Lightening onto a train car. Once in the container, the “horse’s hot ammoniac reek…and the steady murmur of Ned’s voice” blend into something “concentrated” and ineffable. Lucius, a nervous wreck about the race, says he “actually realized not only how Lightening’s and my fate were now one, but that the two of us together carried that of the rest of us, too, certainly Boon’s and Ned’s, since on us depended under what conditions they could go back home.”
Lucius and Lightening, when the first ride begins, careen down the track “as though bolted together.” With that unification, all characters return home the wiser, knowing, as Grandpa Priest would soon tell Lucius, “nothing is forgotten.”
Today, more than 50 years after The Reivers was published, a cottage industry exists to teach us to slow down and simplify the hectic pace of contemporary life. Think Shop Class as Soul Craft, You are Not a Gadget, or Last Child in the Woods. It’s easy to dismiss this genre of literature as a wistful — that word—blend of nostalgia and self-help. Reading The Reivers though, saps the impulse to mock. Although Boon is quick to note to that “if all the human race ever stops moving at the same instant, the surface of the earth will seize,” he also learns that slowing life down enough to watching mules on sabbatical can save your soul from the perils of speed.
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, Janet and Mike discuss Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman. It is about a young woman who may be dead. But maybe she’s not. Or maybe she was not dead at the beginning of the book but is dead at the end. We’re not entirely sure, but we love it.
Topics discussed in this episode: Mexico, border crossing, sinkholes, Gabriel García Márquez, death, family, peace, journeys, immigration, the end of the world, The Odyssey by Homer, childhood, badassery, New Orleans, The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.
Filmed for this episode, but edited out by C. Max Magee: Janet and Mike debut their new comedy novelty band, Millions of Laffs!, with a song performed on kazoo and ukulele about the National Book Critics Circle Awards and pizza.
When you’re trying to keep up with the best new writers out there, it’s easy to forget the debt we owe to the classics. So let’s go back to the beginning: Why Homer Matters, a new book by Adam Nicholson on the father of all poets, explores the question of who Homer was, and whether or not he was even one person. You could also read Frank Kovarik on the parallels between The Odyssey and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.
Sometimes subject matter is secondary. John McPhee, for example, can write about long-haul trucking or lacrosse, subjects I’ve got no interest in, and I’ll read each word and marvel at how he’s able to make the topics so compelling, rich, and human. Kerry Howley’s subject matter, in her potent and consuming debut Thrown, falls into the same disinterest bin as trucking and lax, but she brings such vigor and aliveness, such seductive use of detail and tension, that it’s impossible not to lose oneself in the bloody, funny, brutal, balletic world of mixed martial arts. In other words, I don’t care about cage fighting, ultimate fighting, MMA; Kerry Howley made me care.
Bored and disillusioned at an academic conference on phenomenology, Howley, an essayist who’s written for the Paris Review, the New York Times Magazine, the Atlantic, and a graduate of the University of Iowa’s non-fiction program, wanders off for a break from the blowhards. She happens upon a sign that announces the Midwest Cage Championship, and takes a seat in the crowd. She’d never seen a fight before, and is taken in immediately, the blood and spectacle in righteous opposition to the chatter about Husserlian intentionality she’d just fled and academic ivory-towerdom in general. “It was as if someone had oil-slicked my synapses,” she writes, “such that thoughts could whip and whistle their way across the mind without the friction I’d come to experience as thought itself.” This first fight, witnessed by accident, is a path-changer, and Thrown is the account of Howley inserting herself into the lives of two cage fighters. Sean is an aging jab-eater, a fighter looking at his last chances who moves “like a fat man on hot coals”; Erik is a rising star, tall and lean, “a slippery-fast blossoming prodigy.” Howley gains her place as a “spacetaker,” a step up from a groupie, part of a fighter’s inner posse, with access to most aspects of their living, from the size of their burritos and videogame habits to fraternal feuds, possible parenthood, forehead sutures, and months and months of training for minutes of combat in the octagon.
She gets close to Sean and Erik both and masterfully builds tension in the lead-ups to fights–not only will they or won’t they or how well will they do, but will she still be welcomed into the fray. Howley is aware of the fragility of her role, how tenuous the position of spacetaker is–a trusted member of the group can be snubbed at any moment. It’s necessarily a physical book, and there’s sex between some lines: “I lay in bed at night picturing Erik thrown back in the swell, all his perfect plenitude, the pressure of his abundance, the way it would overbrim its boundaries at some unknown date and time. I could only wait, the energy all gathered and damned up in my limbs, for the moment of release I knew to be coming.” These fights for her are orgasm, are ecstasy.
What Howley finds during the first fight she stumbles on, and what she chases afterwards is exactly that experience of ecstasy, and she places the sport, and herself as a spectator, in a long tradition of ecstatic spectacle. The Lotus Eaters, the frenzied maenads, spirit questers on peyote. To experience this sort of ecstasy is to be removed from oneself, to be stripped of the body’s tired reminders of hunger, thirst, need. “The categories of sight and sound no longer applied,” Howley writes, “for a mind in the throes of ecstasy had expanded outward, beyond these rough tools of perception, to greet the universe without the interference of anything so frail as an eye or an ear.”
So it’s not just the drama of busted elbows, landed punches, and split brows, though Howley’s descriptions of bodies in fight are memorable; something much greater is at stake. There’s epic poetry in the cadence of her sentences, a Homeric sort of rhythm: “When the man in charge ran out of fighters he’d ask the fighters to fight again, and Sean always said yes. He never lost an amateur fight, not once. Thirty times he fought this way.” Howley signals with the elevated language, and with references to Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, that what we’re dealing with here is not just two dudes kicking the shit out of each other on a mat, but something on the level of war and wandering of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and perhaps even more elevated than that.
It’s a brushing up against the eternal, the infinite, and it’s antithetical to paying bills on time, desk jobs, and high fiber cereal. One of the most striking aspects of the book, and one I found most compelling, is Howley’s disdain for conventional middle-class life. I suspect some will find it offputting when she writes: “I would not fraternize with the healthy-minded; better to leave them to their prenatal yoga, their gluten-free diets, their dull if long lives of quietest self-preserving conformism.” Or “Should I ever decide to spawn a nuclear family and enjoy their dull companionship between bouts of desk-ridden drudgery–to live, that is, in what Sartre called “Bad Faith–I shall return with all due haste to [my hometown]. But until then, I resist the temptation, lest the comfort and simplicity of a conformist life suck me back into its maw.” The fights and her fighters serve as antidote to the “entangling mundanities of the ordinary world.” There’s an electricity here, a welcome and unexpected fervency in opposition to the widespread messages we get regarding rest, weddings, carbohydrates.
We’re all of us looking for people to justify and reinforce our own choices (which is why some no doubt will feel scoffed at by Howley), and she justifies hers with a quote from Nietzsche: “A preference for questionable and terrifying things is a symptom of strength.” One’s left wondering what pulls Howley in those directions. Early in the book, she makes short and offhand mention of a fact about her parents which I had to read three times to make sure I understood, and it raised questions the answers to which could only be guessed at. What we know: Howley seeks to flee the self and the battles serve as an expressway to that end. But if fighting is a fleeing, so is storytelling: “All narrators are fiction,” Howley writes.
The book is about fighting, yes, about an extreme sport and some of the men involved, who maybe aren’t, after all, Odysseus or Hector, but possessing of a more earthbound sort of humanity and heroism. It’s about the the strong pull of home, the powerful binds of blood, and the press, everpresent, of time. In what we seek, Howley shows us what we fear. We flee ourselves–in fights, in sex, in the light hitting the trees in the late afternoon, in the bottom of a third glass of wine–to find something else, to escape time and entangling mundanities, in an effort, ultimately, to avoid the experience of being alone.
“One lie I tell is that we care, generally—human beings—about each other. We could not, I tell myself in the moments just before the night’s dark hour, create The Odyssey or King Lear or Thomas and Beulah without a profound sense of The Other. Surely, were it true this thing’s a joke, nothing more, and a cruel one at that, we’d have no Dickinson, no Yeats, no freakin’ Rumi, read by Bly, loud on an old tape deck while I shower.” Pablo Tanguay on the art of lying.
There are two new documentaries that add to the rising chorus – of filmmakers and journalists, writers and artists, even businessmen and politicians – who are proclaiming that the same old song about Detroit is played-out. It’s time for a new tune, these people are saying, one that goes beyond the tired cliché that the Motor City is nothing but miles of abandoned factories, boarded-up houses, and empty prairie.
The first of these documentaries, American Revolutionary, opens with a shot of a little white-haired lady pushing her walker up to the massive Packard plant in Detroit, an abandoned auto factory in a state of such rococo decay that it helped spawn a lurid genre of photography known as “ruin porn.” “The devastation is so fabulous, so incredible,” the woman says, gazing at the rotting factory with a mixture of awe and horror familiar to anyone who has been to Detroit in recent years. “This is a symbol of how great things fail. It’s obvious that what used to work doesn’t work anymore.”
The woman’s name is Grace Lee Boggs, the documentary’s 98-year-old title character, a Detroit-based activist and writer who lived through the city’s glory years and its long decline and now, in the twilight of her life, is still busy nurturing and enjoying the undeniable signs of its rebirth. “American Revolutionary” is the work of Grace Lee, a Korean-American filmmaker who first met Boggs while making The Grace Lee Project, her 2005 documentary about women who share her oppressively common name. The Grace Lees of this world, according to Grace Lee the filmmaker, are “thousands of interchangeable drones.”
If so, Grace Lee the activist is the exception who proves the rule. Born into a middle-class Chinese American family, she first became aware of discrimination against African Americans while living in Chicago. Her urge to unite workers led her to Detroit, where she fell in love with and married a black autoworker from North Carolina named James Boggs. Together they began to agitate to revolutionize American society – pushing for workers’ rights, civil rights, and, eventually, women’s rights. And so Grace Lee Boggs became that rarest of insiders, an Asian American woman deeply involved in a movement dominated by black men.
As the civil rights and Black Power movements gained momentum in the 1960s, she evolved from a hard-core Marxist into a hard-nosed pragmatist. She was initially partial to fiery Malcolm X over mellifluous Martin Luther King Jr., but, like so much of her thinking, this changed with time. One of the most telling shifts in her thought was her revelation about what the civil rights movement was all about. “I realized that black people did not want to become equal to whites,” she says. “They wanted to become equal to their idea of themselves.”
Whether she was writing books, lecturing, forming political parties, or helping young people plant gardens and paint murals, Boggs, to her credit, never abandoned some of the core beliefs she shares with so many black Detroiters. On camera she tells a stunned Bill Moyers that by the 1960s the Detroit Police Department had become “a white occupation army.” And what happened in Detroit in July of 1967 – a conflagration that scorched great swaths of the city and left 43 people dead – was not a race riot. It was, Boggs says, “a rebellion.”
That rebellion helped make Detroit the first black-controlled city in America In 1974 a former union organizer and state senator named Coleman A. Young was elected the city’s first black mayor – or “Mayor Motherfucker,” as he liked to be called. He would rule the city with an iron grip and a salty tongue for the next twenty years. Though it didn’t ignite white flight – Detroiters had begun moving out to the suburbs in the early 1950s – there’s no denying that the summer of 1967 accelerated the city’s decline. Coleman Young, depending on your point of view, either greased the city’s skids or did everything in his limited power to apply the brakes.
Detroit’s demise, as Boggs sees it, can’t be pinned on any one event or any one man. It was a collective failure to change after the seizure of political power by blacks. Instead of coming together, people split into warring camps: blacks vs. whites, city vs. suburbs, management vs. organized labor. “A rebellion is an outburst of anger,” Boggs says, “while a revolution is an evolution toward something greater. Just being angry and resentful does not constitute a revolution.” She adds wistfully, “Changing was more trouble than not changing.”
That may be changing, at long last. People are discovering what Boggs has known for half a century – that there’s more to Detroit than crime, ruin porn, racial strife, and economic woe. The city’s music scene has always been unkillable, and now alongside it there is a proliferation of start-up businesses, urban gardens and farms, a growing creative class, a booming downtown and a healthy auto industry. Let’s not forget abundant cheap real estate. As the city struggles to emerge from bankruptcy, everyone agrees that the good old days are not coming back. As Boggs puts it, “It’s time for a new dream.” Among the ashes, there are enough sprouts to suggest that the time just might be at hand.
If it is, it will be because of groups like the Navin Field Grounds Crew, the subject of a new documentary called Stealing Home by Jason Roche, a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy. The film is an homage to a crew that could come together only in Detroit: people who took it upon themselves to maintain a vast patch of grass at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull near downtown – simply “The Corner,” in local parlance – the field where the Detroit Tigers played baseball from the late 19th century until 1999, when they decamped to a shiny new ballyard downtown. The powers that be then went about demolishing the grandstands of the stadium – originally Bennett Park, then renamed Navin Field, Briggs Stadium, and, finally Tiger Stadium – one of the most cherished pieces of the city’s soul.
The Navin Field Grounds Crew is headed by Tom Derry, a native Detroiter who grew up going to ballgames at The Corner. After the demolition was complete, he cajoled a group of fellow Tigers fans to spend their weekends picking up trash, pulling weeds, raking the infield dirt, and mowing the outfield grass where Al Kaline and Willie Horton used to roam. “Something happens to you when you’re here – a tingling,” Derry says, trying to explain the allure of a place he regards as “sacred ground,” but which the city sees as a nothing more than a parcel that might one day become the site of a big-box store.
Despite the city’s hostility to their cause, the Grounds Crew has gotten media attention from ESPN The Magazine, the New York Times, even Australian TV. In keeping with the If-you-mow-it-they-will-come mantra popularized by the movie Field of Dreams, tourists now come to The Corner from all over the world to play pickup games, snap pictures, and swap memories.
Stealing Home is not flawless. Though I love baseball and have been a Tigers fan since I was in short pants, I have to admit that the sight of middle-aged guys riding sit-down lawnmowers doesn’t always make for riveting viewing. And the documentary sometimes has a high quotient of gas, such as one guy likening baseball to Homer’s Odyssey, and another, a “mythologist” no less, proclaiming that all humans share “an irresistible longing to connect to their roots.” Fortunately, Roche has also woven in archival footage that takes us beyond the bromides and the outfield wall – images of bustling auto plants, civil rights marches, and the bloody summer of 1967.
The last word belongs to a member of the Grounds Crew, who sums up the movie’s message nicely: “This shows what Detroiters can do when we come together.”
Indeed it does. The Navin Field Grounds Crew is emblematic of what’s happening in a broken city where a lot of people have come to the realization that the old ways are gone forever and the only way to get some things done is to do them yourself. And so Detroiters pamper an old ballfield, they spruce up parks the city can’t afford to maintain, they patrol neighborhoods the city can’t afford to police, they turn entire neighborhoods into works of art, they plant gardens, start businesses, renovate houses that haven’t slid beyond salvation. In a word, they figure out a way to endure.
The current DIY ethic was explained to me in 2012, when I was in Detroit on a newspaper assignment and wound up talking to George Royce, a waiter by day and a rock ‘n’ roll drummer by night, who had recently moved from upstate Michigan into a downtown loft. “There’s a bizarre combination of things here in Detroit,” Royce told me. “Exquisite grand architecture and other buildings that are broken down. Extreme wealth and extreme poverty right next to each other. The people who live here usually have something going on. They’re artistic, they’re handy, they’re self-starters. People who are finicky don’t come to Detroit You’ve got to have self-sufficiency.”
Yes, but why do they come here? “They come,” Boggs says, “to be part of this new world.”
Only a true Pollyanna would try to minimize Detroit’s staggering problems. But buying into the dreary old ruin-porn narrative is, in its way, as myopic as rosy optimism. Despite their many differences in approach, subject matter and tone, these two documentaries arrive at the same conclusion, one that may hold the key to the salvation of Detroit and countless other troubled American cities. The conclusion, in Boggs’s words, is this: “The changes are not going to come from the top.” No, the changes are not going to come from governments or corporations or philanthropists; the changes are going to come from the below, from the street, from individuals and small groups who believe that what they do can make a difference. Even if what they do is as humble as fixing up an abandoned house, or showing kids how to plant a garden, or taking care of a patch of sacred ground.
Image via davescaglione/Flickr
I recently read Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism, in which she spoke with American Communists past and present (1977), and asked what they had to say about it all. Her accounts described people who were perpetually waiting for “the revolution around the corner”; eventually, the revolution proved to be too long in coming. In Gornick’s book, the power that Communism offered its adherents really came through, sometimes in a creepy way, as people described a willingness to abandon spouses and families in service of the party’s aims. But I don’t think I’ve read a book that better conveys the sheer ordering power of ideology, any ideology, than Invisible Man, wherein the advent of Communism, christened “The Brotherhood” by Ellison, actually has a perceptible effect on the novel’s form.
The first half of Invisible Man is meandering chaos as the narrator encounters people who hugely affect his movements in the near- and the long-term. Casting an eye around your frame of reference, you reach for comparable narratives, like the Odyssey or the Divine Comedy, where itinerant heroes have adventures, or bump into people and listen to them say astonishing things at length. But Invisible Man has something else going for it, a nightmarish sense of powerlessness. This is partially a function of events; nothing goes the way it is meant to for the narrator and, by extension, his reader. He is invited to deliver his graduation speech to a gathering of white town fathers, and instead gets thrown into the boxing ring with a bunch of other terrified black boys. At college, he is assigned to ferry around an important white benefactor, and by solicitously catering to the man’s whims, ends up in a black dive full of rioting mental patients and prostitutes. In this interlude I felt that molasses-like feeling characteristic of bad dreams. The narrative brilliantly impels anxiety through its disjointed quality, which it shares with one of Ellison’s great influences, “The Waste Land”:
“What is wrong with this gentleman, Sylvester?” the tall one said.
“A man’s dying outside!” I said.
“Yes, and it’s good to die beneath God’s great tent of sky.”
“He’s got to have some whiskey!”
“Oh, that’s different,” one of them said and they began pushing a path to the bar. “A last bright drink to keep the anguish down. Step aside, please!”
The narrator is then duly punished for letting the benefactor go astray. He is sent to New York, gets a job (no thanks to his evil college president), gets blown up, gets electrically lobotomized, and gets discharged back into the world without knowing his ass from his elbow:
Things whirled too fast around me. My mind went alternately bright and blank in slow rolling waves. We, he, him — my mind and I — were no longer getting around in the same circles. Nor my body either. Across the aisle a young platinum blond nibbled at a red Delicious apple as station lights rippled past behind her. The train plunged. I dropped through the roar, giddy and vacuum-minded, sucked under and out into late afternoon Harlem.
And then the Brotherhood appears, to bring order to the chaos. Discovering the narrator’s remarkable powers as an orator, they send him for his training in the science of social change. Maybe I’m imagining it all, but once I arrived at this point in the novel, I lost my sense of anxiety and impotence. Not only the substance of the narrator’s life, but the text itself, took a form I could more easily follow. That’s the beauty of Marx’s ideas; a man can get control over his own story. Sooner or later, though, he will realize that someone else is writing the story for him: “The world was strange if you stopped to think about it; still it was a world that could be controlled by science, and the Brotherhood had both science and history under control.”
Soon, like many people in the twentieth century, the narrator finds that for all their science, the Brotherhood is thinking at a scale that has ceased to be relevant to the particular circumstances of men like him, or his Harlem neighbors, who worry about getting evicted or shot by the police. The people he calls “the transitory ones”:
…ones such as I had been before I found Brotherhood — birds of passage who were too obscure for learned classification, too silent for the most sensitive recorders of sound; of natures too ambiguous for the most ambiguous words, and too distant from the centers of historical decision to sign or even to applaud the signers of historical documents. We who write no novels, histories or other books.
Reading Invisible Man, I thought about The Adventures of Augie March, which was published a year later, and which also describes meandering and haplessness in the face of unforeseen circumstances. Bellow and Ellison were friends and roommates, and their novels form a pair of sorts. But Bellow’s meanderings seem so often to lead to opportunity; they can be described as “rollicking.” In America it is the privilege of the white man to rollick, even if he is a poor Jew born into moderate squalor. The black man, in this novel at any rate, can only be fucked around; his hope, in this novel, is to discover his own way of doing things. I say “man” because a woman in this novel can only be fucked, full stop; she does haven’t much hope of decent treatment, by the novelist or anyone else. Too obscure for learned classification, women are chattel and bait.
I felt Ellison’s novel invited me to compare its narrator to Augie March and feel sorrowful for the injustice inherent in American life, but Ellison may have protested this. In his great essay “The World and the Jug,” a riposte to the critic Irving Howe, Ellison criticized Richard Wright for his belief in the novel as a weapon. “True novels,” Ellison wrote, “even when most pessimistic and bitter, arise out of an impulse to celebrate human life and therefore are ritualistic and ceremonial at their core. Thus they would preserve as they destroy, affirm as they reject.” And Invisible Man does end, somehow, on an affirmative note, even though the narrator is living underground and philosophizing from some kind of vast coal scuttle. The reader’s chaos and disorientation returns, but this time, things seem like they are in hand:
In going underground, I whipped it all except the mind, the mind. And the mind that has conceived a plan of living must never lose sight of the chaos against which that pattern was conceived…Thus having tried to give pattern to the chaos which lives within the pattern of your certainties, I must come out, I must emerge.
As with American Communism, there is something of a pall over Ellison’s legacy — a sense of things left undone, a general wanting in his solidarity with other black writers and intellectuals. He repudiated the influence of Wright on his literature, when Wright gave him his first leg up as a young writer. He is said to have taken a dim, threatened view of later generations of black writers. But it seems to me that Ellison, as a black writer, was never quite allowed, by himself or others, to relax comfortably into the quirky individuality, even dickishness, that was the birthright of his white authorial contemporaries.
Invisible Man was Ellison’s only novel, his other work a smattering of stories and essays. Among his essays, he is chiefly remembered for the aforementioned stirring and dramatic exchange with Howe, a white man who, evidently, was not expecting pushback when he praised, with offensive qualifications, Invisible Man in an essay about Richard Wright and James Baldwin:
What astonishes one most about Invisible Man is the apparent freedom it displays from the ideological and emotional penalties suffered by Negroes in this country — I say ‘apparent’ because the freedom is not quite so complete as the book’s admirers like to suppose. Still, for long stretches Invisible Man does escape the formulas of protest, local color, genre quaintness and jazz chatter.
Howe’s assessment of Black writing, as something dictated by the social conditions that “formed a constant pressure on his literary work…with a pain and ferocity that nothing could remove,” prompted an exchange that would go three rounds and would lead Ellison to lob this stinger: “Many of those who write of Negro life today seem to assume that as long as their hearts are in the right place they can be as arbitrary as they wish in their formulations.” Referendums on the relative fairness of Ellison’s and Howe’s remarks continue to be published today.
I thought of Ellison when reading a modern-day exchange about race between public intellectuals — Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jonathan Chait. In a powerful essay in The Atlantic, Coates refutes the belief, shared by conservatives and progressives, in some derelict streak in black culture, and points instead to white supremacy as one of the “central organizing forces in American life.” In the context of Coates’s argument, Ellison might seem to willfully downplay this force, emphasizing in his response to Howe that his own influences took the form of Marx, Freud, Eliot, Pound, Stein, and Hemingway, books which “were to release me from whatever ‘segregated’ idea I might have had of my human possibilities.” But in Coates’s piece I heard strong echoes of Ellison’s rejection of white attempts to universalize and pathologize the black experience, as here:
Oddly enough, I found it far less painful to have to move to the back of a Southern bus, or climb to the peanut gallery of a movie house — matters about which I could do nothing except walk, read, hunt, dance, sculpt, cultivate ideas, or seek other uses for my time — than to tolerate concepts which distorted the actual reality of my situation or my reactions to it…I could escape the reduction imposed by unjust laws and customs, but not that imposed by ideas which defined me as no more than the sum of those laws and customs.
While Ellison evidently wanted to be remembered more for his fierce advocacy of the individual and the artist and his need for representation — “All novels are about certain minorities: the individual is a minority,” he once told The Paris Review — his writing to Howe here is a resonant comment on the right of people to say who they are, rather than be told. In this he speaks even for the obscure birds, those men out of time, about whom the Invisible Man asked in his thrilling final line: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you”? And still today, people do not hear.
The review of Invisible Man in the New York Times began, amazingly, “Ralph Ellison’s first novel, ‘The Invisible Man,’ is the most impressive work of fiction by an American Negro which I have ever read.” Ellison never completed his gargantuan second novel, Juneteenth, which was Frankensteined and published after his death to thin reviews. For whatever reason, he paid the cost of being, as he put it “an individual who aspires to conscious eloquence.” But if Invisible Man is the most fully-realized embodiment of your conscious eloquence, that’s a hell of a legacy. How else might that Times review have begun? “The most impressive work of fiction by an American”? It would not have been an audacious claim.
When I was growing up, there were few books on my parents’ bookshelves and most of those were in Greek or French, with a smattering of volumes from the Time-Life series (the ones on jazz and opera). But among the very small handful of books in English, there was one with a thick spine of military green and one word printed in a thin, elongated font: Ulysses. When I was about ten, I first took the book down from the shelf. I’d been raised on my father’s bedtime stories from The Odyssey and a family-cultivated belief that the heroes of ancient Greece were my ancestors. I flipped to the first page, but I couldn’t make anything of it at all. That first sentence looked like normal English. It had no words I didn’t recognize. But something about it was off (was “Buck” someone’s name or a noun? And what was a “Stately plump”?). And as I moved on deeper into that first page, I became more confused.
I don’t remember now whether I paged through to the other sections I would come to know as “Laestrygonians,” “Oxen of the Sun,” or “Circe”. If I had, I would most certainly have had even more reason to do what I did then, at age ten: put the book back, shaking my head and vowing to try again in a few months. For years afterwards, I would pull Ulysses off the shelf every few months or so, start reading, become confused, and replace the book, deciding that I was still not ready to understand it.
The funny thing is that the only reason my father owned the book in the first place was that he belonged to the Book of the Month Club and he had chosen this particular tome, instead of his usual crime novels, thinking it was about the Greek hero. Which it is, in a way, but not in the way my father expected. So that made two of us who couldn’t understand Joyce’s masterpiece. My father’s Greco-chauvinistic book-buying was as far as he got into Joyce’s oeuvre. But I eventually went on to study Joyce in college and graduate school, and to spend one summer reading every page of Finnegans Wake, watching the words flicker into meaning every now and then as I prepared to write my dissertation.
For many years, June 16, Bloomsday, found me in cities ranging from Monte Carlo to Milwaukee, at the annual Joyce conferences that were my scholarly bread and butter. The conferences spanned several days, and depending on the calendar each year, it wasn’t always possible to set the keynote address on the 16th itself. This meant that, for all the intense focus on Ulysses and Joyce’s other works during the days around Bloomsday, the day of Ulysses’ narrative often got lost in the more general hubbub of the conference. Someone would invariably exclaim, while in line at the cash bar or to see that year’s Derrida protégé, “It’s the 16th!” and the rest of us would beam with pleasure for a moment.
I never happened to be at a Joyce conference in one of Joyce’s home cities—Dublin, Trieste, or Zurich. Mine were Copenhagen, Venice, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Monte Carlo, a nice mixture of the exotic and the mundane (no offense to Philadelphia or Milwaukee, but Venice they’re not). Monte Carlo is where I missed the sighting of Princess Caroline, but did witness one of the most memorable scholarly Joyce spats of the 90s, over the publication of a new edition of the sacred tome. But the geography never mattered. Even if we weren’t in Dublin where people dressed as Leopold and Molly, Stephen Dedalus, and Buck Mulligan decorated the streets, we brought the world of Ulysses to, say, the Tivoli, or the Grand Canal, or the Art Museum and the Rocky statue. We clambered into a gondola making jokes about Gertie MacDowell’s exposed drawers, and we circled the Tivoli Ferris wheel over and over, commenting on Joyce’s confirmation that there is nothing new under the sun.
Does this mean that Ulysses has a universal reach and a universal appeal? That it applies to all of us everywhere and anywhere? Well, ok. But who makes jokes about James Joyce in the real world, anyway? I mean, you had to be there. But most people aren’t, and with good reason.
The Joyce conferences were, in a way, the wrong way to celebrate Bloomsday, since they required you to be surrounded by people with rarefied intellectual concerns. We were all Stephens then, with not enough of us taking Leopold’s approach to life, mixing rumination and delight. So this Bloomsday, I’ll open one of my copies of Ulysses and I’ll start out with stately plump Buck Mulligan. I’ll touch down briefly in the melodious bar of “Sirens,” and I’ll let Molly’s long sentence carry me from Gibraltar to Dublin to Howth and to that lovely final affirmation that could be in any city at all. And I’ll think of my father, whose loyalty to his country and his culture opened the door for his daughter to enter into a new world.
In the era of O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain, it is puzzling that more attention has not been paid to the extensive parallels to The Odyssey in Toni Morrison’s Beloved. The most celebrated novel by America’s most recent Nobel laureate, Beloved has itself been turned into a feature film, in addition to being heavily scrutinized by the academy. Yet little has been written about how Beloved makes use of Homer’s epic poem—more sneakily than Joyce does in Ulysses or the Coen brothers do in O Brother, but arguably more profoundly than other texts that have received more notice for doing so.
Perhaps the interpretive omission can be attributed to the apparent absence, in Beloved, of a central Odysseus figure—a journeying hero in the mold of Ulysses Everett McGill, W. P. Inman, or even Leopold Bloom. Nevertheless, from its opening chapter Morrison’s novel makes clear that its story ought to be placed next to Homer’s. Like the Odyssey, Beloved begins in a haunted house. Penelope and Telemachus are haunted by parasitic suitors who lay waste their home in jealous pursuit of the woman of the house, who languishes in torment up in her chambers. Sethe and Denver’s house, similarly, is tormented by a jealous ghost driven by a parasitic desire for Sethe. Sethe has been cut off from her community and eventually falls into a despair as deep if not deeper than Penelope’s. Denver, like Telemachus, lives a lonely existence in this troubled household, waiting with uncertain hope for the return of a father she has never met and who may in fact be dead. Both works begin in media res—after the father’s mother (Anticleia in the Odyssey, Baby Suggs in Beloved) has already died of grief—and, in fact, chronologically near the end of the period of time that their stories will cover.
So is Halle Suggs the Odysseus of Beloved—a father and hero who, unlike Odysseus, never returns home? Or is it one of the other “Sweet Home Men,” Paul D, who shows up at 124 Bluestone Road in the first chapter of Beloved? Like Odysseus, Paul D enters a troubled home and does battle with the troubling forces. “God damn it! Hush up! … Leave the place alone! Get the hell out!” he yells, engaging in his own slaughter in the hall as he smashes the ghost into retreat with a table. Like Odysseus reuniting with his long-lost wife after dispatching the suitors, Paul D goes to bed with Sethe (who has a chokecherry tree of scars on her back instead of Penelope’s olive-tree-rooted bed) after winning the battle with the ghost of 124.
Unlike Odysseus, however, Paul D has indeed won only a battle, not the war. The suitors troop down to the underworld, apparently never to trouble Odysseus and his family again, but in Beloved the ghost is back, in stronger form, just a few chapters later. Paul D himself is not quite sure that he is Odysseus—whether he adequately fills out the form of heroic manhood embodied by other Sweet Home men like Halle or Sixo. “Now there was a man,” Paul D reflects post-coitally next to Sethe, thinking of Sixo; “Himself lying in the bed … didn’t compare.” Shattered by his own Odyssean wanderings and trials, Paul D lacks the arrogant self-assurance (and, one might add, the ready supernatural assistance of Athena) that underlies Odysseus’ “spirit tempered to endure” (all Odyssey quotations are from Robert Fagles’s 1996 translation). Paul D compares himself constantly and invidiously to Halle and Sixo: “[I]t was always clear to Paul D that those two were men whether Garner said so or not. It troubled him that, concerning his own manhood, he could not satisfy himself on that point.”
If readers have often failed to see Paul D as a version of Odysseus, that may be because Paul D himself fails to do so.
As in Homer, the suitors cannot be vanquished without the maturation and heroism of Telemachus, so in Beloved a crucial turn occurs when Denver takes action. Nearly the same age as Telemachus and, like him, on the cusp of adulthood but stunted in an artificially prolonged childhood, Denver must leave home in order to bring about a change. Just as Telemachus, guided by Athena, must leave the confines of Ithaca to seek the assistance of Nestor and Menelaus, so Denver, guided by the spirit of Baby Suggs, holy, must “leave the yard; step off the edge of the world, leave the two behind and go ask somebody for help.”
Telemachus visits his father’s old war comrades; Denver visits the people of Cincinnati who used to know her grandmother and mother before the catastrophe that Stamp Paid refers to as “the Misery.” During their travels, both Telemachus and Denver are recognized by their resemblance to their forebears. Helen notes of Telemachus, “To the life he’s like the son of the great Odysseus, ”and Lady Jones quickly asks Denver, “You Baby Suggs’ kin, ain’t you?”
For both characters, the journeys and the encounters lead not only to an improvement in their home lives but also to personal maturity. Telemachus tells his mother, upon his return, “the boy you knew is gone.” He is right, as we see when he demonstrates the ability to string his father’s bow (as well as the self-restraint to avoid doing so, for the good of their plan). For Denver, too, her trip outside the yard “inaugurate[s] her life in the world as a woman.” Her increasing connections with her community give her a new sense of “a self to look out for and preserve,” and ultimately she emerges as an independent and motivated young woman, holding down a job, planning to attend Oberlin College, and even catching the eyes of young men.
The community that Denver reconnects with brings about the final slaughter in the hall at 124 Bluestone Road. A group of women, convinced “that rescue was in order,” triumphs in the climactic confrontation with the ghost. They come together in song that takes them back to the powerful spiritual services Baby Suggs used to give in the Clearing, and their music is “a wave of sound wide enough to sound deep water and knock the pods off chestnut trees,” and powerful enough to drive away the malevolent spirit of Beloved.
One must remember that Odysseus does not rout the suitors alone, either—the assistance of his son, his swineherd, his cowherd, and of course Athena, is essential. In any case, what this African American community needs, the novel suggests, is not a solitary hero driven by vengeance, but cooperation driven by empathy and love.
Does that mean that this is an Odyssey that has no need of an Odysseus? No. In fact, after the defeat of Beloved, Paul D re-emerges as a necessary and worthy male hero. The penultimate chapter of the novel recapitulates Paul D’s Odyssean struggles to escape the South: “In five tries he had not had one permanent success. Every one of his escapes … had been frustrated…. he never stayed uncaught.” Of whose travels is this long and winding road reminiscent if not Odysseus’? “Now his coming is the reverse of his going,” and Paul D makes his way back to 124 and the woman he was interrupted in the midst of forging a loving relationship with. As Athena tells Zeus, “the exile must return!”
Paul D’s return saves Sethe’s life. He finds her exhausted and hopeless on Baby Suggs’ deathbed, nearly dead of grief like Anticleia, and promises her a new life as he takes her hand in his: “Sethe … me and you, we got more yesterday than anybody. We need some kind of tomorrow.” Yet Paul D needs Sethe as much as she needs him. Sethe redeems Paul D’s past humiliations because she was there for some of them, tenderly looking away from him “so he did not have to feel the shame of being collared like a beast. Only this woman Sethe could have left him his manhood like that.” Sethe, Paul D discovers, has the power to restore his sense of manhood, even heroism. In other words, she gives him the possibility of being the Odysseus that he himself doubted he could be.
As a result, Paul D “wants to put his story next to hers,” a notion that directly parallels the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope, when “the royal couple, once they’d reveled in all/the longed-for joys of love, reveled in each other’s stories.” The potential strength of a conjugal relationship such as this one is confirmed for Paul D by his memory of Sixo’s remarks about his own mate, the Thirty-Mile Woman: “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.” Sixo’s paean to sexual love recalls Odysseus’ own paean to marriage:
No finer, greater gift in the world than that…
when man and woman possess their home, two minds,
two hearts that work as one. Despair to their enemies,
a joy to all their friends. Their own best claim to glory.
Another possible reason that the extensive parallels between the Odyssey and Beloved have gone mostly unremarked is that the novel’s richness allows multiple interpretive frames to be placed usefully over the text. Beloved certainly does not wear its Odyssey on its sleeve as brazenly as do O Brother or Ulysses, and, perhaps unlike those works, it can be read insightfully without reference to Homer. On the other hand, the connections between the Odyssey and Beloved in no way diminish Morrison’s novel. Instead, the similarities and differences between the works accomplish something important. By making Beloved a reworking of the Odyssey, Toni Morrison puts her story next to Homer’s—placing the lives and struggles of African Americans past and present into an epic context. She places these experiences alongside a story that is central to Western civilization, thereby asserting their own worthiness and importance in that tradition.
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven’t read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I’ll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I’m looking forward to it). I haven’t read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest – I tend to avoid big books. I’m too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I’m a scared wimp, but I’m thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I’ve started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I’ve made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I’m also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven’t even read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven’t read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That’s right, I haven’t read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I’ve never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that’s about it. Aside from excerpts, I’ve never even read Homer.I’ll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I’m not exactly sure what I’m missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote – I’ve actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I’ve never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I’ve done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I’ve also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction – that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I’ve done quite well with modern British fiction, and I’ve also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I’ve delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic prose, I’ll actually finish Infinite Jest. It’s mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly “I Never,” there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I’ve never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story “Hills Like White Elephants”), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven’t read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine – not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors – my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer’s “A Reader’s Manifesto” at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers’ extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy’s “muscular” style were as much (more) than I’d ever need of McCarthy’s much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses – give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I’ve never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King… Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school… So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus… and that’s pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I’m not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading – secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I’ll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I’ve had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I’ve been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it’s the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I’ve never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I’ve long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I’ve only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I’d like to try Anna Karenina next. I’ve also never read Lolita. Updike’s passing this week reminded me that I’ve never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo’s books and Foster Wallace’s. By Philip Roth, I’ve read only Portnoy’s Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can’t even recall that I haven’t read, but I’ll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?
The Suitors, a debut novel by Ben Ehrenreich, draws from Homer’s Odyssey and James Joyce’s Ulysses. The story is another rewrite of those famous epics – there are so many, but then again it’s a fertile place to start – set, as PW puts it, “in a never-never land equal parts contemporary America and classical antiquity.” Ehrenreich is best-known as a widely published journalist whose work regularly appears in the Village Voice, LA Weekly, and The Believer. Ehrenreich is the son of participatory journalist, Barbara, author of the best-selling Nickel and Dimed, in which she tried to get by on minimum wage.Jeffrey Ford’s excellent novel The Girl in the Glass is currently being discussed in exhaustive detail at the Litblog Co-op blog, but he’s got a new book out, too. The Empire of Ice Cream is a collection of stories. Ford, as I recently had the pleasure of discovering, is like very few others writing today. Though he might be labeled as a writer of “speculative fiction,” his work doesn’t really need a label at all, as it is sure to be enjoyed by anyone who likes a good story told well. To see what I mean, check out a few stories from The Empire of Ice Cream: “The Annals of Eelin-Ok,” “The Empire of Ice Cream,” and “A Man of Light.”Kate Grenville’s novel, The Secret River, has already won the 2006 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and has been shortlisted for the Miles Frankin Prize awarded to the year’s best Australian novel. The Secret River is a historical novel about the convict settlement of Australia and follows the story of a particular convict named William Thornhill. The Guardian writes: “There isn’t much underlying moral ambiguity in this book: the costs of settlement are appalling, which makes Thornhill its villain, even while he carries its sympathetic weight.” Grenville previously won the Orange Prize in 2001 for her novel The Idea of Perfection.