We know that ghosts cannot speak until they have drunk blood; and the spirits which we evoke demand the blood of our hearts.—Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Greek Historical Writing, and Apollo (1908)
Thirteen years ago, when I lived briefly in Glasgow, I made it a habit to regularly attend the theater. An unheralded cultural mecca in its own right, overshadowed by charming, medieval Edinburgh to the east, the post-industrial Scottish capitalI was never lacking in good drama. Also, they let you drink beer during performances. Chief among those plays was a production of Sophocles’s Antigone, the final part of his tragic Theban Cycle, and one of the most theorized and staged of dramas from that Athenian golden age four centuries before the Common Era, now presented in the repurposed 16th-century Tron Church. Director David Levin took the Attic Greek of Sophocles and translated it into the guttural brogue of Lowlands Scotts, and in a strategy now deployed almost universally for any production of a play older than a century, the chitons of the ancient world were replaced with business suits, and the decrees of Creon were presented on television screen, as the action was reimagined not in 441 BCE but in 2007.
Enough to remind me of that headline from The Onion which snarked: “Unconventional Director Sets Shakespeare Play in Time, Place that Shakespeare Intended.” The satirical newspaper implicitly mocks adaptations like Richard Loncraine’s Richard III which imagined the titular character (devilishly performed by Ian McKellen) as a sort of Oswald Mosley-like fascist, and Derek Jarman’s masterful version of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, which makes a play about the Plantagenet line of succession into a parable about gay rights and the Act Up movement. By contrast, The Onion quips that its imagined “unconventional” staging of The Merchant of Venice is one in which “Swords will replace guns, ducats will be used instead of the American dollar or Japanese yen, and costumes, such as…[the] customary pinstripe suit, general’s uniform, or nudity, will be replaced by garb of the kind worn” in the Renaissance. The dramaturgical perspective behind Levin’s Antigone was definitely what the article parodied; there was nary a contorted dramatic mask to be found, no Greek chorus chanting in dithyrambs, and, as I recall, lots of video projection. The Onion aside, British philosopher Simon Critchley would see no problem with Levin’s artistic decisions, writing in his new book Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us that “each generation has an obligation to reinvent the classics. The ancients need our blood to revise and live among us. By definition, such an act of donation constructs the ancients in our image.”
Antigone, coming from as foreign a culture as it does, still holds our attention for some reason. The story of the titular character—punished by her uncle Creon for daring to defy his command that her brother Polynices’s corpse be left to fester as carrion for the buzzards and worms in the field where he died because he has raised arms against Thebes—would seem to have little to do with Tony Blair’s United Kingdom. When a Glaswegian audience hears Sophocles’s words, however, that “I have nothing but contempt for the kind of governor who is afraid, for whatever reason, to follow the course the he knows is best for the State; and as for the man who sets private friendship above the public welfare—I have no use for him either” a bit more resonance may be heard. Critchley argues that at the core of Greek tragedy is a sublime ambivalence, an engagement with contradiction that classical philosophy can’t abide;as distant as Antigone’s origins may be, its exploration of the conflict between the individual and the state, terrorism and liberation, surveillance and freedom seemed very of the millennium’s first decade. Creon’s countenance of the unthinkable punishment of his niece, to be bricked up behind a wall, was delivered in front of a camera as if George W. Bush announcing the bombing of Iraq from the Oval Office on primetime television. “Evil sometimes seems good / To a man whose mind / A god leads to destruction,” Sophocles wrote. This was a staging for the era of the Iraq War and FOX News, of the Patriot Act and NSA surveillance, and of the coming financial collapse. Less than a year later, and I’d be back in my apartment stateside watching Barack Obama deliver his Grant Park acceptance speech. It was enough to make one think of Antigone’s line: “Our ship of fate, which recent storms have threatened to destroy, has come to harbor at last.” I’m a bad student of the Greeks; I should have known better than to embrace that narcotic hope that pretends tragedy is not the omnipresent condition of humanity.
What could Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus possibly have to say in our current, troubled moment? Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is Critchley’s attempt to grapple with those disquieting 32 extant plays that whisper to us from an often-fantasized collective past. What survives of Greek tragedy is four less plays than all of those written by Shakespeare; an entire genre of performance for which we have titles referenced by philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, with only those three playwrights’ words enduring, and where often the most we can hope for are a few fragments preserved on some surviving papyri. Critchley emphasizes how little we know about plays like Antigone, or Aeschylus’s Oresteia, or Euripides’s Medea; that classicists often hypothesized that they were born from the Dionysian rituals, or that they focused on satyr psalms, the “song of the goats,” giving tragedy the whiff of the demonic, of the demon Azazel to whom sacrifices of the scapegoat must be made in the Levantine desert.
Beyond even tragedy’s origin, which ancient Greek writers themselves disagreed about, we’re unsure exactly how productions were staged or who attended. What we do have are those surviving 32 plays themselves and the horrific narratives they recount—Oedipus blinded in grief over the patricide and incest that he unknowingly committed but prophetically ensured because of his hubris; Medea slaughtering her children as a revenge on the unfaithfulness of her husband; Pentheus ripped apart by her frenzied Maenads in ecstatic thrall to Dionysius because the Theban ruler couldn’t countenance the power of irrationality. “There are at least thirteen nouns in Attic Greek for words describing grief, lamentation, and mourning,” Critchley writes about the ancients; our “lack of vocabulary when it comes to the phenomenon of death speaks volumes about who we are.” Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is Critchley’s attempt to give us a bit of their vocabulary of excessive lamentation so as to better approach our predicament.
Readers shouldn’t mistake Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us as a conservative defense of the canon; this is no paean to the superior understanding of the ancients, nor is its highfalutin’ self-help. Critchley’s book isn’t Better Living Through Euripides. Easy to misread the (admittedly not great) title as an advertisement for a book selling the snake-oil of traditionalist cultural literacy, that exercise in habitus that confuses familiarity with the “Great Books” as a type of wisdom. Rather, Critchley explores the Greek tragedies in all of their strange glory, as an exercise in aesthetic rupture, where the works of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides configure a different type of space that renders a potent critique against oppressive logic. His task is thus the “very opposite of any and all kinds of cultural conservatism.” Critchley sees the plays not as museum pieces, or as simple means of demonstrating that you went to a college with diplomas written in Latin, but rather as a “subversive traditionalism” that helps us to critique “ever more egregious forms of cultural stupefaction that arise from being blinded by the myopia of the present.” This is all much larger than either celebrating or denouncing the syllabi of St. John’s College; Critchley has no concern for boring questions about “Western Civilization” or “Defending the Canon,” rather he rightly sees the tragedies as an occasion to deconstruct those idols of our current age—of the market, of society, of law, of religion, of state. He convincingly argues that any honest radical can’t afford to ignore the past, and something primal and chthonic calls to us from those 32 extant plays, for “We might think we are through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.”
Critchley explains that the contemporary world, perhaps even more so than when I watched Antigone in Glasgow, is a “confusing, noisy place, defined by endless war, rage, grief, ever-growing inequality. We undergo a gnawing moral and political uncertainty in a world of ambiguity.” Our moment, the philosopher claims, is a “tragicomedy defined by war, corruption, vanity, and greed,” for if my Antigone was of its moment, then Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us could only have been written after 2016. That year, and the characters it ushered into our national consciousness, can seem a particular type of American tragedy, but Critchley’s view (even while haunted by a certain hubristic figure with a predilection for the misspelled tweet) is more expansive than that. In his capable analysis, Critchley argues that tragedy exists as a mode of representing this chaos; a type of thinking at home with inconsistency, ambiguity, contradiction, and complexity. It’s those qualities that have made the form suspicious to philosophers.
Plato considered literature in several of his dialogues, concluding in Gorgias that the “effect of speech upon the structure of the soul / Is as the structure of drugs over the nature of bodies” (he wasn’t wrong), and famously having his puppet Socrates argue in The Republic that the just city-state would ban poets and poetry from their affairs for the aforementioned reason. Plato’s disgruntled student Aristotle was more generous to tragedy, content rather to categorize and explain its effects in Poetics, explaining that performance is the “imitation of an action that is serious, and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself…with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” Aristotle’s view has historically been interpreted as a defense of literature in opposition to Plato, whereby that which the later found so dangerous—the passions and emotions roiled by drama—were now justified as a sort of emotional pressure gauge that helped audiences purge their otherwise potentially destructive emotions. By the 19th century a philosopher like Friedrich Nietzsche would anticipate Critchley (though the latter might chaff at that claim) when he exonerated tragedy as more than mere moral instruction, coming closer to Plato’s claim about literature’s dangers while ecstatically embracing that reality. According to Nietzsche, tragedy existed in the tension between “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” poles; the first implies rationality, order, beauty, logic, and truth; the second signifies the realm of chaos, irrationality, ecstasy, and intoxication. Nietzsche writes in The Birth of Tragedy that the form “sits in sublime rapture amidst this abundance of life, suffering and delight, listening to a far-off, melancholy song…whose names are Delusion, Will, Woe.” For the German philologist that’s a recommendation, to “join me in my faith in this Dionysiac life and the rebirth of tragedy.”
As a thinker, Critchley Agonistes is well equipped in joining these predecessors in systematizing what he argues is the unsystematizable. Faculty at the New School for Social Research,and coeditor for The New York Times philosophy column “The Stone” (to which I have contributed), Critchley has proven himself an apt scholar who engages the wider conversation. Not a popularizer per se, for Critchley’s goal isn’t the composition of listicles enumerating whacky facts about Hegel, but a philosopher in the truest sense of being one who goes into the Agora and grapples with the circumstances of meaning as they manifest in the punk rock venue, at the soccer stadium, and in the movie theater. Unlike most of his countrymen who recline in the discipline, Critchley is a British scholar who embraces what’s called “continental philosophy,” rejecting the arid, logical formulations of analytical thought in favor of the Parisian profundities of thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Emanuel Levinas, and Martin Heidegger. Critchley has written tomes with titles like The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas and Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity: Essays on Derrida, Levinas, & Contemporary French Thought, but he’s also examined soccer in What We Think About When We Think About Football (he’s a Liverpool fan) and in Bowie he analyzed, well, Bowie. Add to that his provocative take on religion in Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology and on death in The Book of Dead Philosophers (which consists of short entries enumerating the sometimes bizarre ways in which philosophers died, from jumping into a volcano to love potion poisoning) and Critchley has announced himself as one of the most psychedelically mind-expanding of people to earn their lucre by explaining Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein to undergraduates.
What makes Critchley such an engaging thinker about the subjects he examines is both his grounding in continental philosophy (which asks questions about being, love, death, and eternity, as opposed to its analytical cousin content to enumerate all the definitions of the word “is”) and his unpretentious roots in working class Hertfordshire, studying at the glass-and-concrete University of Essex as opposed to tony Oxbridge. Thus, when Critchley writes that “there is an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry,” it seems pretty clear that he’s a secret agent working for the latter against the former. He rejects syllogism for stanza and embraces poetics in all of its multitudinous and glorious contradictions. The central argument of Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is that the form “invites its audience to look at such disjunctions between two or more claims to truth, justice, or whatever without immediately seeking a unifying ground or reconciling the phenomena into a higher unity.” What makes Antigone so devastating is that the title character’s familial obligation justifies the burial of her brother, but the interests of the state validates Creon’s prohibition of that same burial. The tragedy arises in the irreconcilable conflict of two right things, with Critchley explaining that Greek drama “presents a conflictually constituted world defined by ambiguity, duplicity, uncertainty, and unknowability, a world that cannot be rendered rationally fully intelligible through some metaphysical first principles or set of principles, axioms, tables of categories, or whatever.”
This is the central argument: that the “experience of tragedy poses a most serious objection to that invention we call philosophy.” More accurately, Critchley argues that tragedy’s comfort with discomfort, its consistent embrace of inconsistency, its ordered representation of disorder, positions the genre as a type of radical critique of philosophy, a genre that expresses the anarchic rhetoric of the sophists, rather than their killjoy critic Socrates and his dour student Plato. As a refresher, the sophists were the itinerant and sometimes fantastically successful rhetoricians who taught Greek politicians a type of disorganized philosophy that, according to Socrates, had no concern with the truth, but only with what was convincing. Socrates supposedly placed “Truth” at the core of his dialectical method, and, ever since, the discipline has taken up the mantle of “a psychic and political existence at one with itself, which can be linked to ideas of self-mastery, self-legislation, autonomy, and autarchy, and which inform the modern jargon of authenticity.” Tragedy is defined by none of those things; where philosophy strives for order and harmony, tragedy dwells in chaos and division; where syllogism strives to eliminate all contradiction as irrational, poetry understands that it’s in the complexity of inconsistency, confusion, and even hypocrisy that we all dwell. Sophistry and tragedy, to the recommendation of both, are intimately connected; both being methods commensurate with the dark realities of what it means to be alive. Critchley claims that “tragedy articulates a philosophical view that challenges the authority of philosophy by giving voice to what is contradictory about us, what is constricted about us, what is precarious about us, and what is limited about us.”
Philosophy is all arid formulations, dry syllogisms, contrived Gedankenexperiments; tragedy is the knowledge that nothing of the enormity of what it means to be alive can be circumscribed by mere seminar argument. “Tragedy slows things down by confronting us with what we do not know about ourselves,” Critchley writes. If metaphysics is contained by the formulations of the classroom, then the bloody stage provides a more accurate intimation of death and life. By being in opposition to philosophy, tragedy is against systems. It becomes both opposite and antidote to the narcotic fantasy that everything will be alright. Perhaps coming to terms with his own discipline, Critchley argues that “it is necessary to try and think theatrically and not just philosophically.” Tragedy, he argues, provides an opportunity to transcend myths of progress and comforts of order, to rather ecstatically enter a different space, an often dark, brutal, and subterranean place, but one which demonstrates the artifice of our self-regard.
A word conspicuous in its absence from Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us is that of the “sacred.” If there is any critical drawback to Critchley’s argument, it seems to be in the hesitancy, or the outright denial, that what he claims in his book has anything to do with something quite so wooly as the noumenal. Critchley gives ample space to argue that, “Tragedy is not some Dionysian celebration of the power of ritual and the triumph of myth over reason,” yet a full grappling with his argument seems to imply the opposite. The argument that tragedy stages contradiction is one that is convincing, but those sublime contradictions are very much under the Empire of Irrationality’s jurisdiction. Critchley is critical of those that look at ancient tragedy and “imagine that the spectators…were in some sort of prerational, ritualistic stupor, some intoxicated, drunken dumbfounded state,” but I suppose much of our interpretation depends on how we understand ritual, religion, stupor, and intoxication.
His claims are invested in an understanding of the Greeks as not being fundamentally that different from us, writing that “there is a lamentable tendency to exoticize Attic tragedy,” but maybe what’s actually called for is a defamiliarization of our own culture, an embrace of the irrational weirdness at the core of what it means to be alive 2019, where everything that is solid melts into air (to paraphrase Marx). Aeschylus knew the score well; “Hades, ruler of the nether sphere, / Exactest auditor of human kind, / Graved on the tablet of his mind,” as he describes the prince of this world in Eumenides. Critchley, I’d venture, is of Dionysius’s party but doesn’t know it. All that is argued in Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us points towards an awareness, however sublimated, of the dark beating heart within the undead cadaver’s chest. “To resist Dionysius is to repress the elemental in one’s own nature,” writes the classicist E.R. Dodds in his seminal The Greeks and the Irrational, “the punishment is the sudden complete collapse of the inward dykes when the elemental breaks through…and civilization vanishes.”
Absolutely correct that tragedy is in opposition to philosophy; where the latter offers assurances that reason can see us through, the former knows that it’s never that simple. The abyss is patient and deep, and no amount of analysis, of interpretation, of calculation, of polling can totally account for the hateful tragic pulse of our fellow humans. Nietzsche writes “what changes come upon the weary desert of our culture, so darkly described, when it is touched by…Dionysius! A storm seizes everything decrepit, rotten, broken, stunted; shrouds it in a whirling red cloud of dusty and carries it into the air like a vulture.” If any place best exemplifies that experience, and this moment, it’s Euripides’s The Bacchae, to which Critchley devotes precious little attention. That play depicts the arrival of that ambiguous god Dionysius to Thebes, as his followers thrill to the divine and irrational ecstasies that he promises. It ends with a crowd of those followers, the Maenads, mistaking the ruler Pentheus for a sacrificial goat and pulling him apart, his bones from their sockets, his organs from their cavities. Until his murder, Pentheus simultaneously manifested a repressed thrill towards the Dionysian fervor and a deficiency in taking the threat of such uncontained emotion seriously. “Cleverness is not wisdom,” Euripides writes, “And not to think mortal thoughts is to see few days.” If any didactic import comes from The Bacchae, it’s to give the devil as an adversary his due, for irrationality has more power than the clever among us might think.
Circling around the claims of Critchley’s book is our current political situation, alluded to but never engaged outright. In one sense, that’s for the best; those demons’ names are uttered endlessly all day anyhow. It’s desirable to at least have one place where you need not read about them. But in another manner, fully intuiting the Dionysian import of tragedy becomes all the more crucial when we think about what that dark god portends in our season of rising authoritarianism. “Tragedy is democracy turning itself into a spectacle,” and anyone with Twitter will concur with that observation of Critchley’s. Even more important is Critchley’s argument about those mystic chords of memory connecting us to a past that we continually reinvent; the brilliance of his claim about why the Greeks matter to us now, removing the stuffiness of anything as prosaic as canonicity, is that tragedy encapsulates the way in which bloody trauma can vibrate through the millennia and control us as surely as the ancients believed fate controlled humans. Critchley writes that “Tragedy is full of ghosts, ancient and modern, and the line separating the living from the dead is continually blurred. This means that in tragedy the dead don’t stay dead and the living are not fully alive.” We can’t ignore the Greeks, because the Greeks aren’t done with us. If there is anything that hampers us as we attempt to extricate the Dionysian revelers in our midst, it’s that many don’t acknowledge the base, chthonic power of such irrationality, and they refuse to see how violence, hate, and blood define our history in the most horrific of ways. To believe that progress, justice, and rationality are guaranteed, that they don’t require a fight commensurate with their worthiness, is to let a hubris fester in our souls and to court further tragedy among our citizens.
What Medea or The Persians do is allow us to safely access the Luciferian powers of irrationality. They present a more accurate portrayal of humanity, based as we are in bloodiness and barbarism, than the palliatives offered by Plato in The Republic with his philosopher kings. Within that space of the theater, Critchley claims that at its best it “somehow allows us to become ecstatically stretched out into another time and space, another way of experiencing things and the world.” Far from the anemic moralizing of Aristotelian catharsis—and Critchley emphasizes just how ambiguous that word actually is—that is too often interpreted as referring to a regurgitative didacticism, tragedy actually makes a new world by demolishing and replacing our world, if only briefly. “If one allows oneself to be completely involved in what is happening onstage,” Critchley writes, “one enters a unique space that provides an unparalleled experience of sensory and cognitive intensity that is impossible to express purely in concepts.” I recall seeing a production of Shakespeare’s Othello at London’s National Theatre in 2013, directed by Nicholas Hytner and starring Adrian Lester as the cursed Moor and Rory Kinear as a reptilian Iago. Dr. Johnson wrote that Othello’s murder of Desdemona was the single most horrifying scene in drama, and I concur; the play remains the equal of anything by Aeschylus or Euripides in its tragic import.
When I watched Lester play the role, lingering over the dying body of his faithful wife, whispering “What noise is this? Not dead—not yet quite dead?” I thought of many things. I thought about how Shakespeare’s play reflects the hideous things that men do to women, and the hideous things that the majority do to the marginalized. I thought about how jealousy noxiously fills every corner, no matter how small, like some sort of poison gas. And I thought about how unchecked malignancy can shatter our souls. But mostly what I thought wasn’t in any words, but was better expressed by Lester’s anguished cry as he confronted the evil he’d done. If tragedy allows for an audience to occasionally leave our normal space and time, then certainly I felt like I was joined with those thousand other spectators on that summer night at South Bank’s Olivier Theatre. The audience’s silence after Othello’s keening subsided was as still as the space between atoms, as empty as the gap between people.
I am a jealous person — jealous of the vacations I see on Instagram, of my sister’s perfect hair, of the latte the man next to me just ordered — but it took me a long time to realize I was a jealous reader and writer. In fact, I didn’t know that literature was something I could be envious of until I read Marina Keegan’s The Opposite of Loneliness. There, in the last essay of the collection, a piece titled “Song for the Special,” Keegan addresses her “unthinkable jealousies.” “Why didn’t I think to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway? I should have thought to chronicle a schizophrenic ballerina,” she writes. “It’s inexcusable.”
Like Keegan, I was angry that Michael Cunningham thought to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway first — The Hours should have been mine! Come to think of it, “Song for the Special” should have been mine! And it spread from there.
I’m jealous of ridiculous things: of Little Women, and of the original Mrs. Dalloway, if it comes down to it, and of Alice in Wonderland and of Walden. I’m jealous of Atonement and of Housekeeping. I’m jealous of every writer who’s written a feature for The Atlantic and of every Paris memoir that’s ever been published, especially the ones that involve a lot of food. I am full of unthinkable jealousies.
When I described this to a friend he corrected me. “You’re not jealous,” he said. “You’re envious. You want to have written these books, sure, but it’s not like you feel you rightfully should have.”
He’s wrong, though. I do.
My strongest jealousies have a certain logic to them. The books I’m most jealous of aren’t necessarily the ones I most admire. I love The Brothers Karamazov and I love the Oresteia, but I can’t say either inspires jealousy or envy or anything else, really, aside from a kind of awe. They exist outside me, and I can’t conceive of any alternate reality in which I might have written them. But Meghan Daum’s Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House? I’m jealous of that, just as I’m jealous of her first collection, My Misspent Youth. Truthfully, I’m jealous of most literary essayists, especially those who write about their homes or homely yearnings. Why? The through line is just me, that I want to have written their work. And sometimes, late at night, I allow myself to think that maybe I could have, if only they hadn’t gotten there first.
As an earnest undergraduate, I used to write obsessively about houses and their connection to identity; my scraped-together thesis covered A Room of One’s Own and Fun Home, two more books I envy. Life Would Be Perfect tackles the same questions I struggled to answer with more grace, insight, and humor then I could have ever hoped to muster at 22, if ever. When I found Daum’s memoir, too late to use it for my paper, I was unimaginably jealous. I could have written that book, or at least one very like it! All I needed was more time (and maybe an MFA)! But Daum had beaten me to it, and my handful of essays looked punier than ever. The problem wasn’t really that someone had written about refinished floors with the same zeal I felt, of course. My jealousy was largely just a cover for my terror. How could I ever write something original when someone had already explored, written, and published all of my ideas and interests?
The grand irony is that Life Would Be Perfect if I Lived in That House is very much a book about envy. It’s a memoir about obsession, insecurity, and identity creation, but the source of all this trouble is “a shabby yet elegant prewar apartment in Manhattan,” not a memoir published by a talented stranger. Daum’s admission that she “sometimes found it difficult to read the Sunday paper without writhing in envy” at the luxury real estate listings and that simply “walking by certain edifices…without feeling the ache of rejection” became impossible works pretty well as a description of literary jealousy. Just replace “luxury real estate listings” with “bestseller list” and “edifices” with “the shelves of the local Barnes & Noble.”
Life Would Be Perfect charts a struggle with identity and jealousy, but here the relationship between the two isn’t necessarily destructive. Daum’s real estate envy drives her to move from Manhattan to Nebraska to L.A., creating a livable and even enjoyable life as she goes. Her jealousy ultimately incites action, not paralysis. She is not erased. The envied apartment and life are still attainable, and Daum goes after them. This time there’s a way out of the seemingly infinite jealousy loop, and she takes it.
Not all jealousy is so easily converted into action, however. Like any explosive material, it has its dangers as well as its uses, as art and history tell us again and again. Why did Cain kill Abel? Why did Medea murder not only Jason’s new bride but her own children? And why does Antonino Salieri, a passionate but mediocre Austrian court composer and the focus of Miloš Forman’s stylish film Amadeus, break down once he recognizes the overwhelming talent of a young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart?
“From now on we are enemies, You and I,” Salieri spits, not at Mozart but at a crucifix, in a scene at the heart of the film. He isn’t angry at the prodigy; here it’s God who’s the enemy. “You chose for Your instrument a boastful, lustful, smutty, infantile boy, and gave me for award only the ability to recognize the incarnation,” Salieri complains. “Because You are unjust, unfair, unkind, I will block You, I swear it.” And he does, eventually killing Mozart with sheer overwork and nervous exhaustion. God gave Salieri “only the ability to recognize the incarnation” of ability, the desire for brilliance but none of the brilliance itself. What could be worse? What could be more relatable for a reader and aspiring writer?
In “An Ode to Envy,” a TED Talk, senior editor at the New York Review of Books and remarkable essayist Parul Sehgal points out that without jealousy there wouldn’t be much literature to speak of. No William Shakespeare, no Anna Karenina, no Brothers Karamazov, no Madame Bovary, no Marcel Proust. One of the wonders of fiction, she argues, is its ability to accurately capture and reflect our jealousy. The power and dark appeal of envy, so often blurred in real life, are fully revealed in our greatest novels. Sehgal adds that jealousy itself is creative work. “When we feel jealous we tell ourselves a story,” she explains. “We tell ourselves a story about other people’s lives, and these stories make us feel terrible because they’re designed to make us feel terrible. As the teller of the tale and the audience we know just what details to include…Jealousy makes us all amateur novelists.”
But what about those of us who deal in nonfiction? What does essayistic jealousy look like? Is it possible that our jealousy is simultaneously less creative and more painful then its fictional counterpart? Is it possible that it’s less jealousy and more insecurity? Less Sehgal and more Salieri?
When we say, “all of my ideas have already been had,” what we’re expressing isn’t jealousy, it’s doubt in our own creativity, in our worthiness to write about anything at all. Never mind that originality in the broadest sense is hardly possible, and never mind that the beauty of most good essayistic writing lies in the writer’s ability to both make the specific feel universal and, paradoxically, turn the commonplace into something momentarily extraordinary. When we say “I should have written that,” what we mean is “How unjust, unfair, unkind that you were faster, smarter, and more fortunate than I. How terrible that I have nothing more to offer.” We’re not amateur novelists at all, just whiners.
Sehgal has a suggestion, drawn from “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons,” a Sherlock Holmes story in which the bumbling detective Lestrade finally allows himself to admire Holmes’s incredible abilities rather than resenting his genius. “What if jealousy really is just a matter of geometry, just a matter of where we allow ourselves to stand?” Sehgal wonders. “What if we don’t have to resent somebody’s excellence, [but instead] we can align ourselves with it?”
Easier said then done, sure, but as an idealistic goal it’s better than nothing, and certainly far better than Salieri’s murderous vision. It works particularly well when one is wrestling with awe in the face of true talent and real brilliance. It works considerably less well if one is frustrated by more possible comparisons, by mere issues of timing and semi-plausible “if onlys.”
For this second, more practical problem of jealousy, Meghan Daum again offers a solution. In the foreword to the 2015 edition of My Misspent Youth, the essay collection that made her career, Daum tells a story about the title essay. Immediately after finishing a first draft “in a two-week fury,” Daum came across a strikingly similar essay by Vince Passaro in Harper’s. “Reading his story,” she writes, “I felt even more certain I was on to something…I was also certain that no one would ever publish my essay now because it had effectively already been published.”
It is at this point that many writers’ basest instincts would kick in, but Daum gets to work. There’s no sense of frustration or injustice, no hint of insecurity. She isn’t jealous; she is a writer. So, she “rewrote [the essay] several times,” changing the focus to something more unique to her experience, separating it from the more general essay that preceded it. An easy solution? No, but a simple one.
Daum’s approach is infinitely more practical than my own patented sulking, but I don’t think it will ever totally replace it. Four million Google results on writerly jealousy say this is a plague without cure, though it does have the benefit of giving us all something to commiserate about. So long as we’re human and flawed, we’ll be jealous. So long as there are writers in every coffee shop and on the staff of every magazine and behind the cover of every one of the thousands of fresh books printed each year, there will be people for us to envy. Just, please, nobody else write about their homes for a while, okay? I think it’s my turn.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.
The books I remember most clearly from this year are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the books I spent the most time reading. In the months after graduating with my BA in English, I’ve had to adjust to a slower, more leisurely reading pace — without the terror of a morning class it’s become near impossible to force myself through 200 pages of Anna Karenina in a single night, and so my readings have begun to stretch into longer (and, it must be said, more enjoyable) projects.
The first and most important of these drawn-out readings was St. Augustine’s Confessions, which I selected at random from a used bookstore and began the week after graduation. I was struck — am still struck — by how modern the writing feels, at once straightforward and exquisitely lyric, speaking with both confidence and vulnerability. The confessional aspect of nonfiction writing, especially memoir, has been the subject of considerable discussion, and reading slowly — very, very slowly — through this original work of profound self-exposure has given the modern conversation a new depth for me. It’s also been a lesson in voice, address, and purpose — after all, Augustine is very clear about who and what he’s writing his Confessions for — and in the power of literature to connect personalities across time and experience, since I feel unaccountably close to this 4th-century African bishop.
Another favorite work this year predates even the Confessions, perhaps an indication that reading contemporary literature should be my New Year’s resolution. But ever since I was assigned The Oresteia in my final university literature course I haven’t been able to get it out of my head. The dark chaos of Agamemnon has been especially powerful, and I’ve fallen wholly in love with its tangles of language and meaning, with the unexplainable contradictions at the heart of the play and with Cassandra, the woman doomed to be forever misunderstood. The trilogy as a whole has its charms, and the emphasis Aeschylus placed on the possibility of progress, of clarity arising from chaos, has been comforting as I work to shape a life out of the usual post-grad 20-something confusion of my present circumstances. Even so, that chaos has a kind of beauty — something the Agamemnon both celebrates and fears, as do I.
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2014 has already offered a literary bounty for readers, including new books by E.L. Doctorow, Lorrie Moore, Teju Cole, and Lydia Davis. The second-half of 2014 is looking even more plentiful, with new books from superstars like Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Ian McEwan, Marilynne Robinson, Denis Johnson, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and quite a few more. Here at The Millions, we’re especially excited that three of our long-time staff writers — Edan Lepucki, Bill Morris, and Emily St. John Mandel — will soon have new books on shelves. All three books are winning impressive advance praise.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at over 8,000 words strong and encompassing 84 titles, this is the only second-half 2014 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
California by Edan Lepucki: Millions staffer Edan Lepucki’s first full-length novel has been praised by Jennifer Egan, Dan Chaon, and Sherman Alexie, and championed by Stephen Colbert, who’s using it as a case study in sticking it to Amazon. A post-apocalyptic novel set in a California of the not-too-distant future, California follows a young couple struggling to make it work in a shack in the wilderness — dealing with everyday struggles like marriage and privacy as much as dystopian ones likes food and water — until a change in circumstance sends them on a journey to find what’s left of civilization, and what’s left of their past lives. (Janet)
Motor City Burning by Bill Morris: Bill Morris made his literary debut 20 years ago with Motor City, a novel set amid the rich history of 1950s Detroit. Since then, he’s pursued various other interests, writing a novel set in Bangkok and contributing frequently to The Millions as a staff writer. But as anyone who follows Bill’s essays can tell you, his hometown is rarely far from his mind. Now, with the Motor City much in the news, he returns to explore class, race, bloodshed and baseball in the 1960s. (Garth)
The Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique: Tiphanie Yanique follows her much lauded story collection, How to Escape From a Leper Colony, with “an epic multigenerational tale set in the U.S. Virgin Islands that traces the ambivalent history of its inhabitants during the course of the 20th century.” That’s according to Publishers Weekly, who gave The Land of Love and Drowning a starred review. Yanique’s debut novel has been receiving raves all over the place; in its starred review, Kirkus called it, “Bubbling with talent and ambition, this novel is a head-spinning Caribbean cocktail.” (Edan)
Friendship by Emily Gould: Gould, who put the gawk in Gawker in the middle part of the last decade, turns to fiction with a debut novel that at times reads like a series of blog entries written in the third person. In the novel, two friends, Bev and Amy, are trying to make it as writers in New York when Bev gets pregnant. The question of whether Bev should keep the baby, and what Amy should think about the fact that Bev is even considering it, turns the novel into a meditation on growing up in a world built for the young. (Michael)
Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann: Vollmann has over 30 years and damn near as many books earned a reputation as a wildly prolific novelist. Still, almost a decade has passed since his last full-length work of fiction, the National Book Award-winning Europe Central. Here, he offers what may have started as a suite of ghost stories… but is now another sprawling atlas of Vollmann’s obsessions. Stories of violence, romance, and cultural collision are held together by supernatural elements and by Vollmann’s psychedelically sui generis prose. (Garth)
High as the Horses’ Bridles by Scott Cheshire: To the distinguished roster of fictional evangelicals — Faulkner’s Whitfield, Ellison’s Bliss — this first novel adds Josiah Laudermilk, a child-prodigy preacher in 1980s Queens. Cheshire makes huge leaps in time and space to bring us the story of Laudermilk’s transformation into an adult estranged from his father and his faith. (Garth)
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: The second novel from Rebecca Makkai (after 2011’s The Borrower) moves back and forth in the 20th century to tell a story of love, ghosts, and intrigue. The house for which The Hundred-Year House is named is Laurelfield, a rambling estate and former artists’ colony in Chicago’s wealthy North Shore. Owned by the Devohr family for generations, it now finds Zee (née Devohr) and her husband returning to live in the carriage house while she teaches at a local college and he supposedly writes a poet’s biography. What he does instead is ghostwrite teen novels and uncover family secrets. (Janet)
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway: Having written about ninjas, spies in their eighties and mechanical bees in his last two novels, Nick Harkaway is in a tough spot if he wants to top himself this time around. All the indications are that he may have done it, though — Tigerman sees a powerful United Nations carry out a cockamie plan to wipe out a former British colony. The protagonist, a former British soldier, takes it upon himself to fight for his patch of the old empire. (Thom)
Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya: Yelena Akhtiorskaya is one of New York’s best young writers — funny and inventive and stylistically daring, yes, but also clear-eyed and honest. Born in Odessa and raised in Brighton Beach, she’s been publishing essays and fiction in smart-set venues for a few years. Now she delivers her first novel, about two decades in the life of a Ukrainian family resettled in Russian-speaking Brooklyn. An excerpt is available at n+1. (Garth)
The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: “And then one day when the lake ice had broken and geese had come again, two brothers, twins, stole a little boat and rowed together out towards Nizhi.” In an alternate Russia, twin brothers Yarik and Dima work together at Oranzheria, the novel’s titular “sea of glass” greenhouse, until their lives veer into conflict. Weil’s exquisite pen and ink illustrations “frame the titles of all 29 chapters and decorate the novel’s endpapers,” making the book, literally, a work of art. If The New Valley, Weil’s lyric first book of linked novellas, is any indication, this new book will be memorable. (Nick R.)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: Murakami’s previous novel, 1Q84, was a sprawling, fantastical work. His latest is just the opposite: a concise, focused story about a 37-year-old man still trying to come terms with a personal trauma that took place seventeen years earlier — when he was unceremoniously cut out of a tight knit group of friends. The novel has less magical strangeness than most Murakami books, and may be his most straightforward tale since Norwegian Wood. (Kevin)
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas: Thomas spreads his canvas wide in this 640-page doorstop of a novel, which follows three generations of an Irish American family from Queens, but at heart the book is an intimate tale of a family’s struggle to make its peace with a catastrophic illness that strikes one of its members at precisely the wrong moment. Simon & Schuster spent more than a million dollars on this first novel whose author was then teaching high school in New York, thus assuring that the book will either be the fall’s Cinderella story or a poster child for outsized advances given to untested authors. (Michael)
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: Is it “the year of Roxane Gay?” Time suggested it in a review of Gay’s new novel, An Untamed State; when asked (in a self-interview) how that made her feel, she said, “First, I tinkled on myself. Then my ego exploded and I am still cleaning up the mess.” It’s as good a glimpse as any into the wonder that is Roxane Gay — her Twitterstorms alone are brilliant bits of cultural criticism, and her powerful essays, on her blog, Tumblr, and at various magazines, leave you with the sense that this is a woman who can write dazzlingly on just about any topic. In her first essay collection, we’re promised a wide-ranging list of subjects: Sweet Valley High, Django Unchained, abortion, Girls, Chris Brown, and the meaning of feminism. (Elizabeth)
The Kills by Richard House: House’s vast tetralogy, at once a border-hopping thriller and a doorstopping experiment, was longlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize in the U.K. Taking as its backdrop the machinery of the global war on terror, it should be of equal interest on these shores. (Garth)
Before, During, After by Richard Bausch: Since 1980, Richard Bausch has been pouring out novels and story collections that have brilliantly twinned the personal with the epic. His twelfth novel, Before, During, After, spins a love story between two ordinary people – Natasha, a lonely congressional aide, and Michael Faulk, an Episcopalian priest – whose affair and marriage are undone by epic events, one global, one personal. While Michael nearly dies during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Natasha’s error on a Caribbean shore leads to a private, unspeakable trauma. As the novel unspools, Before and During prove to be no match for After. (Bill)
Your Face In Mine by Jess Row: Possibly inspired by the ageless Black Like Me, Jess Row tells the story of Kelly Thorndike, a native Baltimorean who moves back to his hometown and discovers that an old friend has gotten surgery to change his race. At one time a skinny, white, Jewish man, Martin is now African-American, and he’s kept his new identity secret from his friends and family. Martin tells Kelly he wants to come clean, and the two become mired in a fractious, thought-provoking controversy. (Thom)
Flings by Justin Taylor: “Our faith makes us crazy in the world”; so reads a line in The Gospel of Anarchy, Taylor’s novel about a Florida commune of anarchist hippies. The original sentence comes from Don DeLillo’s Mao II, an appropriate literary mentor — Taylor is equal parts hilarious and prescient, capable of finding the sublime in the most prosaic, diverse material. On the first page of the collection’s title story alone: labor history, love, and “an inspired treatise on the American government’s illegal 1921 deployment of the Air Force to bomb striking mine workers at Blair Mountain, West Virginia.” (Nick R.)
Augustus by John Williams: There are things that are famous for being famous, such as the Kardashians, and then there are things that are famous for being not famous, such as John Williams’s Stoner. Since its publication in 1965, the “forgotten” work has enjoyed quite a history – metamorphosing from under-appreciated gem into international bestseller and over-praised classic. Indeed, it’s forgivable at this point to forget that Williams’s most appreciated work was actually his final novel, Augustus, which split the National Book Award and earned more praise during its author’s lifetime than his other books put together. Interestingly, readers of both Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing will here encounter an altogether new version of the John Williams they’ve come to know: Augustus is an epistolary novel set in classical Rome. It’s a rare genius who can reinvent himself in his final work and earn high praise for doing so. (Nick M.)
Alfred Ollivant’s Bob, Son of Battle by Lydia Davis: In the early 1900s, Bob, Son of Battle became a popular children’s tale in England and the United States. Focused on a young boy caught up in a rivalry between two sheepdogs on the moors between Scotland and England, the story eventually found its way into Lydia Davis’s childhood bedroom. Alas, the years have not been kind to the thick Cumbrian dialect in which it was written (“hoodoo” = “how do you do” and “gammy” = “illness,” e.g.) and the work fell out of popularity as a result. Now, however, Davis has updated the work into clear, modern vernacular in order to bring the story to an entirely new generation of readers, and perhaps the next generation of Lydia Davises (if one could ever possibly exist). (Nick M.)
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven is Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, and if pre-publication buzz is any indication, it’s her best, most ambitious work yet. Post-apocalyptic tales are all the rage this season, but Mandel’s intricate plotting and deftness with drawing character makes this novel of interlinked tales stand out as a beguiling read. Beginning with the onslaught of the deadly Georgian flu and the death of a famous actor onstage, and advancing twenty years into the future to a traveling troupe of Shakespearean actors who perform for the few remaining survivors, the novel sits with darkness while searching for the beauty in art and human connection. (Anne)
The Secret Place by Tana French: People have been bragging about snagging this galley all summer, and for good reason: Tana French’s beautifully written, character-driven mysteries about the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad are always a literary event. Her latest concerns a murder at an all girls’ school, and detective Frank Mackey’s daughter Holly might just be a suspect. My fellow staff writer Janet Potter said The Secret Place is damn good, and if you’re smart you will trust Janet Potter. (Edan)
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: David Mitchell has evidently returned to his genre-, time-, and location-bending best with a novel that weaves the Iraq War with punk rock with immortal beings with the End Times. This is a novel that had Publisher’s Weekly asking, “Is The Bone Clocks the most ambitious novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque?” A tall order, either way. A thrill, either way. (Lydia)
Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham: The creator, producer and star of the HBO series Girls — and also, it must be stated, an Oberlin College graduate — has penned a comic essay collection à la David Sedaris or Tina Fey… though something tells me Dunham’s will be more candid and ribald. As Lena herself writes: “No, I am not a sexpert, a psychologist, or a registered dietician. I am not a married mother of three or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise. But I am a girl with a keen interest in self-actualization, sending hopeful dispatches from the front lines of that struggle.” Amen, Lena, amen! (Edan)
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters: After her masterful handling of the haunted house story in The Little Stranger, Waters again taps into the narrative potential of domestic intrusion. This time, it’s lodgers rather than ghosts who are the nuisance. In 1922, a cash-strapped widow and her spinster daughter living by themselves in a large London house let out rooms to a young couple. Annoyances and class tensions soon ignite in these combustible confines, and from the looks of it, the security deposit won’t even begin to cover the damages. The novel promises to be a well-crafted, claustrophobic thriller. (Matt)
The Children Act by Ian McEwan: McEwan’s thirteenth novel treads some familiar ground — a tense moral question sits at the heart of the narrative: whether it is right for parents to refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds. Discussing the novel at the Oxford Literary Festival this past spring, McEwan said that the practice was “utterly perverse and inhumane.” It’s not the first time McEwan has expressed displeasure with religion: in 2005 he told the Believer he had “no patience whatsoever” for it; three years later, he made international news discussing Islam and Christianity, saying he didn’t “like these medieval visions of the world according to which God is coming to save the faithful and to damn the others.” (Elizabeth)
10:04 by Ben Lerner: Ben Lerner follows the unexpected success of his superb first novel Leaving the Atocha Station with a book about a writer whose first novel is an unexpected success. Which is actually something like what you’d expect if you’d read that superb and unexpectedly successful first novel, with its artful manipulations of the boundaries between fiction and memoir. The suddenly successful narrator of 10:04 also gets diagnosed with a serious heart condition and is asked by a friend to help her conceive a child. Two extracts from the novel, “Specimen Days” and “False Spring,” have run in recent issues of the Paris Review. (Mark)
Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood: Some fans will remember well the titular story in Atwood’s forthcoming collection, which was published in the New Yorker in December of 2011, and which begins, in Atwood’s typical-wonderful droll fashion: “At the outset, Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” With this collection, according to the jacket copy, “Margaret Atwood ventures into the shadowland earlier explored by fabulists and concoctors of dark yarns such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle…” If you aren’t planning to read this book, it means you like boring stuff. (Edan)
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel: Just this month, Mantel was made a dame; the reigning queen of British fiction, she’s won two of the last five Man Booker Prizes. But Mantel’s ascension to superstardom was long in the making: she is at work on her twelfth novel in a career that’s spanned four decades. This fall sees the publication of her second collection of short stories, set several centuries on from the novels that earned her those Bookers. Her British publisher, Nicholas Pearson, said, “Where her last two novels explore how modern England was forged, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher shows us the country we have become. These stories are Mantel at her observant best.” (Elizabeth)
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill: In his first novel since his 2008 PEN/Faulkner-winning Netherland, about a Dutch immigrant in post 9/11 New York, O’Neill tells another fish-out-of-water tale, this time about a New Yorker who takes a job as a “family officer” for a wealthy family in Dubai. Surrounded by corruption and overwhelmed by daily life in the desert metropolis, the narrator becomes obsessed with the disappearance of another American in what Publishers Weekly calls “a beautifully crafted narrative about a man undone by a soulless society.” (Michael)
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan: William Finnegan is both a journalist’s journalist and one of the New Yorker’s most consistently engaging voices. Over the years, he’s written about everything from apartheid in South Africa to the broken economy at home (Cold New World now looks prophetic). My favorite of his New Yorker pieces, though, is an insanely long memoir about surfing (Part 1; Part 2) that, legend has it, was crashed into the magazine just before the arrival of Tina Brown as editor. Two decades on, Finnegan returns to this lifelong passion, at book length.
Wittgenstein, Jr. by Lars Iyer: With their ingenious blend of philosophical dialogue and vaudevillian verve, Iyer’s trilogy, Spurious, Dogma and Exodus, earned a cult following. Wittgenstein, Jr. compacts Iyer’s concerns into a single campus novel, set at early 21st-century Cambridge. It should serve as an ideal introduction to his work. (Garth)
The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim: No one makes chaos as appealing a spectacle as Antrim, whether it’s unloosed on the dilapidated red library from The Hundred Brothers, its priceless rugs, heraldic arms and rare books threatened by drunken siblings and a bounding Doberman; the pancake house from The Verificationist; or the moated suburban neighborhood from Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. His latest is a collection of stories written over the past fifteen years, each of which was published in the New Yorker. The Emerald Light in the Air demonstrates that Antrim’s controlled anarchy translates beautifully to the shorter form. (Matt)
Hold the Dark by William Giraldi: Having built a reputation for critical savagery following the hatchet he sank into a pair of Alix Ohlin books in the Times in 2012, Giraldi puts his own neck on the line with this literary thriller set in a remote Alaskan village where wolves are eating children. Billed as an “Alaskan Oresteia,” the novel follows a pair of men, one an aging nature writer, the other a returning soldier, who come to learn secrets “about the unkillable bonds of family, and the untamed animal in the soul of every human being.” That sound you hear is the whine of blades touching grindstones across literary America. (Michael)
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas: The title of Christos Tsiolkas’s fifth novel — his first since the international bestseller, The Slap — is a nickname for Daniel Kelly, an Australian swimming prodigy so ruthless in the water that he gets likened to the sharp-toothed, predatory fish. But Daniel’s Olympic ambitions are thwarted by a crime whose nature Tsiolkas hints at but shrewdly withholds. This novel, like all of Tsiolkas’s work, is a vigorous, sometimes vicious argument about what it means to be Australian. As one character concludes, “We are parochial and narrow-minded and we are racist and ungenerous and…” It gets worse, gorgeously worse. (Bill)
Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones: You’re showing your age and (lack of) internet bona fides if you admit that you’re unfamiliar with Jones’s work. For years now the Buzzfeed LGBT editor has been lighting it up at his day job, and also on Twitter, with a ferocity befitting his name. Now, after earning praise from D.A. Powell and after winning a NYC-based Literary Death Match bout, Jones will use his debut collection to prominently display his poetry chops. (Ed. note: check out an excerpt over here.) (Nick M.)
Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück: The UK publisher (Carcanet) of Louise Glück’s newest collection — her twelfth — describes the poems as “a sequence of journeys and explorations through time and memory.” Macmillan describes it as “a story of adventure, an encounter with the unknown, a knight’s undaunted journey into the kingdom of death; this is a story of the world you’ve always known… every familiar facet has been made to shimmer like the contours of a dream…” In other words, Glück’s newest work is interested in a kind of reiterative, collage-like experience of narrative — “tells a single story but the parts are mutable.” (Sonya)
Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg: In Goldberg’s latest novel, infamous Chicago mafia hit man Sal Cupertine must flee to Las Vegas to escape the FBI, where he assumes the identity of… Rabbi David Cohen. The Mafia plus the Torah makes for a darkly funny and suspenseful morality tale. Goldberg, who runs UC Riverside-Palm Desert’s low residency MFA program, is also the author of Living Dead Girl, which was an LA Times Fiction Prize finalist, and the popular Burn Notice series, among others. The man can spin a good yarn. (Edan)
Happiness: Ten Years of n+1 by Editors of n+1: Happiness is a collection of the best pieces from n+1’s first decade, selected by the magazine’s editors. Ten years is a pretty long time for any literary journal to continue existing, but when you consider the number of prominent younger American writers who have had a long association with the magazine, it’s actually sort of surprising that it hasn’t been around longer. Chad Harbach, Keith Gessen, Benjamin Kunkel and Elif Batuman all launched their careers through its pages. Pieces by these writers, and several more, are included here. (Mark)
Neverhome by Laird Hunt: According to letters and accounts from the time, around 400 women disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War. Years ago, Laird Hunt read a collection of one of those women’s letters, and the idea for this novel has been germinating ever since. It tells the story of Constance Thompson, a farm wife who leaves her husband behind, calls herself Ash and fights for the Union. Neverhome is both a story about the harrowing life of a cross-dressing soldier, and an investigation into the mysterious circumstances that led her there. (Janet)
My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner: Brian Turner served for seven years in the US Army, spending time in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq. Since then, he has published two collections of poetry — Here, Bullet and the T.S. Elliot Prize-shortlisted Phantom Noise — both of which draw heavily on his experiences in those wars. His new book is a memoir about his year in Iraq, and about the aftermath of that experience. Turner also makes a leap of conceptual identification, attempting to imagine the conflict through the experience of the Iraqi other. Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, has praised it as “brilliant and beautiful”, and as ranking “with the best war memoirs I’ve ever encountered”. (Mark)
Wallflowers: Stories by Eliza Robertson: Robertson’s stories — often told from the perspectives of outsiders, often concerned with the mysteries of love and family, set in places ranging from the Canadian suburbs to Marseilles — have earned her a considerable following in her native Canada. Her debut collection includes “We Walked on Water,” winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and “L’Etranger,” shortlisted for the CBC Short Story Prize. (Emily)
On Bittersweet Place by Ronna Wineberg: On Bittersweet Place is the second publication from Relegation Books, a small press founded by author Dallas Hudgens. The novel — Wineberg’s first, following her acclaimed story collection Second Language — concerns Lena Czernitski, a young Russian Jewish immigrant trying to find her place in the glamour and darkness of 1920s Chicago. (Emily)
The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis: Following on the heels of the acclaimed The Free World, Bezmozgis’s second novel is about 24 hours in the life of Baruch Kotler, a disgraced Israeli politician who meets the Soviet-era spy who denounced him decades earlier. (Kevin)
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran: The feminist journalist and author of How to Be a Woman, once called “the UK’s answer to Tina Fey, Chelsea Handler, and Lena Dunham all rolled into one” by Marie Claire, is publishing her first novel. It follows Johanna Morrigan, who at 14 decides to start life over as Dolly Wilde. Two years later she’s a goth chick and “Lady Sex Adventurer” with a gig writing reviews for a music paper, when she starts to wonder about what she lost when she reinvented herself. (Janet)
On Immunity: An Innoculation by Eula Biss: When Biss became a mother, she began looking into the topic of vaccination. What she had assumed would be a few hours of personal research turned into a fascination, and the result is a sweeping work that considers the concept of immunity, the history of vaccination — a practice that sometimes seems to function as a lightning rod for our most paranoid fears about the chemical-laden modern world in which we find ourselves, but that has its roots in centuries-old folk medicine — and the ways in which we’re interconnected, with meditations on writers ranging from Voltaire to Bram Stoker. (Emily)
Yes, Please by Amy Poehler: The Leslie Knopes among us cannot wait for Poehler’s first book of personal stories and advice, in the vein of Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? In Poehler’s delightful New Yorker essay about her job at an ice cream parlor, she wrote, “It’s important to know when it’s time to turn in your kazoo.” Wise words from one of America’s most beloved comics and actresses. (Anne)
The Peripheral by William Gibson: William Gibson fans rejoice, for his first novel in four years is upon us. The novel follows an army veteran with futuristic nerve damage wrought during his time in a futuristic kill squad. (Technically, according to Gibson, it’s a novel taking place in multiple futures, so it’s probably more complicated than that). You can watch him read the first two pages here. If William Gibson were a tense, he’d be future-noir. (Lydia)
Lila by Marilynne Robinson: Marilynne Robinson published her brilliant debut novel Housekeeping in 1980 and then basically went dark for a decade and a half, but has been relatively prolific in the last ten years. After re-emerging with 2004’s gorgeous and heartbreaking Gilead, she followed up four years later with Home, a retelling of the prodigal son parable that revisited a story and characters from Gilead. James Wood’s description of the relationship between the two books is exact and lovely: “Home is not a sequel [to Gilead],” he wrote, “but more like that novel’s brother.” With her new novel, Robinson has given those books a sister. The novel tells the story of Lila – the young bride of Gilead’s narrator, Rev. John Ames – who was abandoned as a toddler and raised by a drifter. (Mark) (Ed. Note: You can read an excerpt over here.)
Dan by Joanna Ruocco: Joanna Ruocco’s kaleidoscopic fictions have been likened to Donald Barthelme’s for their dark humor and uncanny occurrences that revel in wordplay. Her stories “map the unmappable wrinkles of the mind,” says Laird Hunt, and by bridging disparate ideas creates a synesthesia. In Dan, Ruocco’s latest novel, the character Melba Zuzzo finds herself in a rut while living in a male-dominated town in the foothills of a mountain. What ensues is a “slapstick parable” that according to her publisher, Dorothy Project, evokes both the “unabashed campiness of Thomas Pynchon” and the capacious imagination of Raymond Roussel. (Anne)
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James: Marlon James follows his stunning and brutal The Book of Night Women with A Brief History of Seven Killings, which depicts the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley, “spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters — assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts.” Irvine Welsh calls it “an amazing novel of power, corruption and lies. I can’t think of a better one I’ve read this century.” (Edan)
Citizen by Claudia Rankine: “Often a division is made between politics and poetry, and I like to think this is a moment when the intersection is recognized,” remarked poet Claudia Rankine, about recently winning the Jackson Poetry Prize. In her lyric hybrid work, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine investigated media’s role in our private lives, taking on television, pharmaceutical marketing, depression, race, and identity in the post–9/11 era. Citizen, her follow-up book, deals pointedly with race and racial aggression in the media and the everyday — from the classroom to the playing field and the public stage — as it traces the effects of racism in our so-called “post-race” age. (Anne)
Some Luck by Jane Smiley: Still best known for her 1991 Pulitzer-winner A Thousand Acres, Smiley returns to Iowa farm country in this ambitious family saga set in the first half of the 20th century. Some Luck is the first installment in a trilogy spanning 100 years in the lives of the Langdon family, starting from its rural Iowa roots in 1920 and following the clan as its five children spread out across America in a time of epochal change. The second volume, Early Warning, is due in spring 2015, with the final volume, which brings the story up to December 31, 2019, set to appear next fall. (Michael)
Reunion by Hannah Pittard: In Pittard’s second novel — her first was 2011’s The Fates Will Find Their Way, lauded here and just about everywhere else — a failed screenwriter on the verge of divorce agrees to join her family for a reunion in Atlanta after her estranged father commits suicide. It’s a nuanced and intriguing study of family and love, money and debt, failure and success, starring one of the most likable flawed narrators to come along in some time. (Emily)
A Different Bed Every Time by Jac Jemc: Six years ago Chicago-based author Jac Jemc started a blog to track the rejection letters she received. But recently the blog’s been rather quiet — due to a slew of acceptances, it seems. Jemc’s first novel, My Only Wife, was published in 2012 and nominated for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham award; it depicts a husband’s obsession with recalling memories of his wife who disappeared five years earlier. When Jemc’s follow-up collection, A Different Bed Every Time, hits shelves, expect to encounter stories showcasing Jemc’s playful and poetic sensibility, in a book that Laura van den Berg deems “mythic and essential.” (Anne)
300,000,000 by Blake Butler: Blake Butler deploys words like chemicals that merge into phrases, coalescing in alternate existences, with familiar worlds distorted. In Butler’s third novel, There is No Year, a family survives a disease but is still subject to a scourge of infestations and other horrors and mysteries, including a house with secret passageways and the existence of a duplicate “copy family.” Butler began his latest novel, 300,000,000, as a retaliation against the hype surrounding Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. The result? A portrait of American violence, told through the minds of a Manson-like cult figure and the policeman responsible for figuring him out, while tracking a trail of violence and descent into psychosis. (Anne)
Sister Golden Hair by Darcey Steinke: In Steinke’s new novel, a coming-of-age story set in early-70’s Virginia, twelve-year-old Jesse’s family is on the brink of collapse: her father has recently been defrocked, and her mother is coming undone. When her father was a pastor, Jesse felt that they were a part of something — “We were at the center of what I thought of as THE HOLY, and our every move had weight and meaning” — but they’ve drifted into a life of vertiginous weightlessness. (Emily)
Quick Kills by Lynn Lurie: Lurie’s first novel, Corner of the Dead, featured a photojournalist traumatized by the atrocities committed by the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru during the 1980s. In Quick Kills, the narrator is a young girl who finds herself on the other side of the camera, the exploited subject of a predatory photographer: “There is fear in my eyes. I see the fear clearly even in the blurred snapshot.” This slim work looks to be an unsettling rumination on art, pornography and sexual violence. (Matt)
Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère: This biography of Éduard Limonov, published in France in 2011, won the prestigious Prix Théophraste-Renaudot, which is typically awarded to a novel. Limonov’s life makes for good novelistic material: he is founder of the National Bolshevik Party, which “believes in the creation of a grand empire that will include the whole of Europe and Russia, as well as Northern/Central Asia, to be governed under Russian dominance” (Wikipedia), and FSG’s English translation (by John Lambert) will be released under the in-case-you-didn’t-know title Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia. Typical of Carrère, he approaches his subject essayistically, wrestling with his own attractions/repulsions vis-à-vis the epic Limonov. (Sonya)
The Heart Is Strange by John Berryman: To mark the centenary of John Berryman’s birth, FSG is reissuing much of his poetry, including his book The Dream Songs. They’re also publishing a new collection, featuring three uncollected pieces along with older examples of his work, that spans the length of his career. From his juvenalia, to the landmark “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” to his later poems, The Heart is Strange puts Berryman’s talents on display, which means a new generation will start using the phrase “heavy bored.” (For a primer on Dream Songs, check out Stephen Akey’s Millions essay.) (Thom)
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber: Faber’s latest novel – which David Mitchell called his “second masterpiece” after The Crimson Petal and the White – touches on interstellar space travel, cataclysmic events, romantic love, and religious faith. Such broad territory seems befitting for an author claimed simultaneously by the nations of Scotland, Australia, and the Netherlands. (Nick M.)
Hiding in Plain Sight by Nuruddin Farah: Farah is back with another trilogy after his acclaimed Blood in the Sun series. Once again, he explores identity, obligation, family ties, and how politics can interrupt it all. After Bella’s brother is killed by Somali extremists, she has to give up her life as a famous fashion photographer and raise his children as if they were her own. Yet when the children’s mother returns, Bella must decide what matters more — her family or herself. (Tess)
The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson: In an interview last fall, Johnson described his new novel as “kind of a spy story with what we might call serious intentions, on the order of Graham Greene.” Johnson, whose 2007 novel Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award, has written a post-9/11 spy thriller concerning a trio of travelers in west Africa; one is a self-styled soldier of fortune, another is being trailed by two spy agencies and Interpol, and all three are hiding secrets from one another. (Emily)
Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford: I was gleeful to learn that Frank Bascombe will return to us after eight years and the threat of oblivion. At a reading in April, Ford reintroduced Bascombe as a 67-year-old Jersey-dweller ruminating on his former home, tipped on its side by Hurricane Sandy. Let Me Be Frank With You will comprise four novellas, each narrated with, undoubtedly, that unmistakable Bascombe verve. (Lydia)
Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet: After the high hilarity of her satirical early work, Lydia Millet reached new emotional depths in her last three novels. This new novel, concerning the discovery of mermaids and the ensuing scramble to cash in, looks to achieve a new kind of synthesis. (Garth)
Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter: Lindsay Hunter’s first story collection Daddy’s is described by its publisher Featherproof Books as a “collection of toxic southern gothics, packaged as a bait box of temptation.” Her second collection Don’t Kiss Me, published by FSG (who says big houses don’t publish story collections?) is, according to the Tin House blog, “a heterogeneous story collection that holds together… peculiar voices that tend to overlap in areas of loss, self-pity, and hilarity.” Hunter is a practitioner of the short-short form and founding host of a flash fiction reading series; no surprise that her debut novel Ugly Girls would be “voice-driven with [a] breakneck pace.” Roxane Gay (on Twitter) called it “gorgeously hopeless.” (Sonya)
Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare: Originally published in 1978 and appearing in English for the first time this year, Twilight of the Eastern Gods is the fictional account of the prolific Albanian novelist’s time at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow, to which Kadare was recruited in 1958. A kind of factory meant to produce top Socialist writers, the Gorky Institute’s prescribed style and disagreeable faculty instead caused Kadare to rethink his calling. Like his other novels, Twilight promises to be a wormhole into strange times. (Lydia)
A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin: Beneath the quiet poetry of Ha Jin’s sentences is a searing novelistic ambition; in A Map of Betrayal, the story of a double-agent in the CIA, he explores a half-century of entanglements between China and the U.S., and the divided loyalties that result. (Garth)
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews: The premise of Toews’s sixth novel, released to critical acclaim in Canada earlier this year, is simple and devastating: there are two adult sisters, and one of them wants to die. She’s a wildly successful and in-demand concert pianist, but she longs for self-annihilation. It’s a premise that could easily be grindingly unbearable, but Toews is a writer of considerable subtlety and grace, with a gift for bringing flashes of lightness, even humor, to the darkest of tales. (Emily)
Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 by Alice Munro: If our guide to Alice Munro wasn’t enough, Family Furnishings will feature 25 of her best stories from the past 19 years. It’s the first anthology of her work since Selected Stories (1968-1994) and should fill the Munro oeuvre for both lifelong fans and those who found her after her Nobel Prize win last year. Despite her larger-than-life reputation now, these stories remind us what makes Munro one of the best short story writers in the first place — her ability to illuminate quotidian problems and intimacies in small-town Canada. (Tess)
Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles d’Ambrosio: In 2005 Charles D’Ambrosio published an essay collection, Orphans, with a small press, and the book won a devoted following. The entire print run consisted of 3,500 copies, but all of them, D’Ambrosio writes in his introduction to Loitering, managed to find their way into the hands of readers, “a solace to me like the thought of home.” In Loitering, which consists of the eleven original essays from Orphans and a number of new pieces, D’Ambrosio considers subjects ranging from the work of J.D. Salinger to the idea of home. (Emily)
Why Religion is Immoral: And Other Interventions by Christopher Hitchens: Since his death from cancer in 2011, Christopher Hitchens has refused to leave the party. His voice — erudite, witty, proudly biased — can be heard again in this new collection of his unpublished speeches, a follow-up to his late-life bestseller, God Is Not Great. The word “interventions” in the new book’s title is critical because Hitchens’s great theme — his opposition to all forms of tyranny, including religious, political and social — led him to support the misinformed and disastrous military invention against the Iraqi tyrant, Saddam Hussein. Hitchens wasn’t always right, but as this new collection ably demonstrates, he was never dull. (Bill)
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck: One of the most significant German-language novelists of her generation, Erpenbeck follows up the celebrated novel Visitation with a heady conceit located somewhere between Cloud Atlas and Groundhog Day. The End of Days follows a single character, born early in the 20th Century, to five different deaths: the first as an infant, the second as a teenager, and so on. In each case, her life illuminates the broader history of Europe, which remains ever in the background, dying its own deaths. (Garth)
Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: In Rash’s poem, “Preserves,” a family discovers a beautiful springhouse after a funeral, where “woodslats bowed with berry and vegetable.” Rash’s work is suffused with this sense: a pastoral world is dying, and his sentences are its best chance at resurrection. Longtime fans of Rash’s elegiac prose are happy this craftsman is finally getting his deserved recognition. His novel, Serena, will reach theaters later this year, and star Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. In Above the Waterfall, set in North Carolina, a terrible crime brings together a sheriff and a park ranger. The territory might be familiar, but this poet-novelist always delivers. (Nick R.)
The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Mehgan Daum: Thirteen years after it was published, My Misspent Youth holds up as a perennially interesting book of essays, not to mention the final word on being young and broke in New York. In her new collection, Meghan Daum looks at a host of modern anxieties, including the modern wedding industry, Joni Mitchell and the habits of digital natives. Though a lot of her material is funny in the vein of Nora Ephron, there’s gravity here, too — as there is in “Matricide”, which tackles the death of her mother. Our own Matt Seidel recently featured Daum’s editor in a piece on editors’ first buys. (Thom)
The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya: Ludmila Ulitskaya only began writing novels after her scientific credentials were revoked for translating a banned novel. The Russian author’s commitments to art, activism, and speaking her mind have led her to become one of Russia’s most popular living authors. These same concerns guide her fiction, too — called smart, prickly, and with harsh wit — and in this, her latest novel, The Big Green Tent, is no exception. When a poet, a pianist, and a photographer try to transcend oppression in post-Stalinist Russia, their ultimate destinies are far darker than their author’s. (Anne)
Skylight by José Saramago: This is Saramago’s so-called “lost work,” which was written in the 1950s, but rediscovered after the Nobel laureate’s death in 2010. The novel features the interconnected stories of the residents of an apartment building in Lisbon in the 1940s. (Kevin)
The First Bad Man by Miranda July: If you’re like me, and think about the various Miranda July short stories like favorite tracks on a beloved album, you might be surprised that The First Bad Man is her debut novel. Her short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, was published six years ago and won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award; since then, she has, amongst other varied projects, released an acclaimed feature film and a book project inspired by the people behind various PennySaver ads. The novel, which centers around a woman “with a perpetual lump in her throat,” chronicles what happens when, after taking her boss’s selfish, cruel daughter, her “eccentrically ordered world explodes.” (Elizabeth)
Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: Sara Gerard’s star is rising. The NYC-based bookseller slash art-mag-employee slash writer drew attention last fall with “Things I Told My Mother,” an essayistic inquiry into women’s representation in society, spawned by a topless walk the author took through Times Square. This kind of intensity and boldness guide all of Gerard’s work — whether concerning other writers, or her own bout with anorexia, addiction, and a stint jumping freight trains, and now in her first novel Binary Star. Binary Star interweaves astronomical research with a story about an unnamed anorexic who burns through her intensely dysfunctional life like a star burns fuel, never to be replenished. (Anne)
Outline by Rachel Cusk: Some travelers collect stories as much as souvenirs. In Cusk’s latest novel, a woman writer travels to Greece to teach a creative writing workshop but learns just as much from the tales her fellow travelers tell her. As she listens, she weaves their stories into a narrative of loss, creativity, family life, and intimacy. To keep with the storytelling tradition, the Paris Review serialized the novel, but FSG will publish it for a full narrative experience. (Tess)
Glow by Ned Beauman: Beauman’s previous novels, The Boxer Beetle and The Teleportation Accident — the one a fanciful look at eugenics and fascism, the other a genre-bending wonder about an avant-garde set designer in 1930s Berlin — each displayed a learned, diabolical imagination at work. His latest appears just as unhinged. Enrolled in a “continuous amateur neurochemistry seminar” and suffering from a sleep disorder, its hero experiments with the designer drug, “glow,” which opens up a gateway into a Pynchonian universe: a disappeared friend, pirate radio stations, and a nefarious Burmese mining company. (Matt)
There’s Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: In his first story collection in 15 years, Charles Baxter, a son of the Midwest and venerated writer of fiction, poetry and essays, gives us inter-related tales that are tidily bifurcated into two sections, one devoted to virtues (“Chastity,” “Charity,” “Forbearance”), the other to vices (“Lust,” “Sloth,” “Avarice”). Characters re-appear, performing acts both virtuous and loathsome, in stories that are set mostly around Minneapolis but also roam to New York, Tuscany and Ethiopia. The collection’s title is a typical “request moment” that animates the stories, resulting in a murder, a rescue, a love affair, an assault, even a surprising gesture of kindness. (Bill)
Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris: I was such a big fan of Amelia Morris’s hilarious, entertaining, and useful food blog, Bon Appétempt, that I tracked her down and asked her to teach for my writing school, Writing Workshops Los Angeles. Now Amelia has penned a compelling and funny memoir about becoming an adult and an artist — both in and out of the kitchen — that is sure to bring her even more devoted readers. If you like Laurie Colwin and MFK Fischer and, I don’t know, total goofballs baking cakes while making weird faces, you’ll love Amelia Morris and Bon Appétempt. (Edan)
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: “What I want is to create stories that shift around when you reread them.” Few can shake readers awake as well as Link, which makes short fiction her ideal form. She has been called the “George Saunders of the fairy tale,” but simply being Kelly Link is enough. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, gets its title from the sense that in fiction, “there’s a kind of cathartic, discomforting joy — a pain/pleasure — in people behaving badly.” Her previous fantastical tales have been populated by librarians, cellists, aliens, and fainting goats. Link aims to surprise, which makes her work absolutely pleasing. (Nick R.)
Find Me by Laura van den Berg: Laura van den Berg’s fictions often unfurl just beyond the real, with their madcap mix of zany and dreamlike set-ups. Case in point, van den Berg’s recent story collection, The Isle of Youth, was peopled by yacht thieves, a mother-daughter magician team, and newlyweds who survive a plane crash. Her first novel, Find Me, continues this surreal, at times catastrophic streak, as it follows Joy, a grocery clerk, cough-syrup addict who’s immune to an ongoing plague of memory illness. Joy’s resulting hospital stay and cross-country journey plotline sounds like a surreal mash-up of Stephen King’s The Stand and Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps. (Anne)
The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa: The 2010 Nobel Prize winner trains his eye on corruption and urbanization in modern day Lima in his latest novel. According to CityLab, “The story follows two parallel tales: an elite Lima businessman who decides to punish his undeserving heirs, and a self-made man in Vargas Llosa’s adopted hometown, Piura, who resists an extortionist demand.” (Kevin)
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In a recently published interview, Mary Gaitskill described Kim Gordon’s voice as having “a poignant, vulnerable quality, but there’s also something feisty that’s going to keep pushing.” The same could be said of Kate Zambreno’s authorial voice on her blog Frances Farmer Is My Sister, which she began the last day of 2009, heralding in the new year with a literary cri de coeur. The third quality I’d add to the mix is a fierce intelligence with which she dishes regularly and knowingly on literature, art, theater, and the avant-garde, ranging from Cixous, Artaud, Joan of Arc, and Jane Bowles to True Blood. Zambreno’s first novel O Fallen Angel was published earlier this year and reads like the bastard offspring of an orgy between John Waters’s Polyester, Elfriede Jelinek’s Lust, and Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Lily Hoang said of the book, “O Fallen Angel examines the suburban family with ruthless elegance. Here is a novel, done and undone, a brazen mirror reflecting the 21st century.” Zambreno is also an editor at Nightboat books, and the author of a forthcoming book of essays from Semiotext(e), borne of her posts on Frances Farmer Is My Sister.
The Millions: Your first post on Frances Farmer Is My Sister, entitled “My Vomitous Blog Manifesto,” aligns your blog with Eileen Myles’s “Everyday Barf” and Dodie Bellamy’s “Barf Manifesto“–two essays that inspired you to step away from objective criticism to write a more intimate form of narrative. You describe Bellamy’s “Barf Mainfesto” as a call “for writing that is vomitous, that is chaotic,” where Bellamy “is decrying the ‘oppressiveness’ of the essay form,” a form that you find ill-suited to your writing inclinations. More than six months have passed since. Has your writing been liberated, how has it changed?
Kate Zambreno: Yes, definitely. So, yeah, in Dodie Bellamy’s “Barf Manifesto,” she performs this personal ecstatic reading of Eileen Myles’s essay “Everyday Barf,” in the context of her self in the world and her friendship with Myles, which upon reading it liberated for me what an essay could perform, what criticism could be. I was feeling at the time a weird sense of stuckness… I had just moved to Akron, Ohio from Chicago because my partner got a job and I had recently torpedoed an essay I was supposed to write for the Poetry Foundation on Theresa Hak Kyung Cha and Dictee. It was the first time I had ever totally bombed a deadline, almost like I was performing hara-kiri on my dutiful deadline-oriented journalist girl-self. I couldn’t bear to write an essay without including what I felt reading Dictee, this quite pivotal work for me, a work about mothers and Cha to me was a literary mother in a way, and I was experiencing both anxiety of authorship and influence to be all Gilbert/Gubar about it… and I was worried that I would sound unscholarly and illiterate, basically, that the Poetry Foundation and its poetics-versed readership wouldn’t be interested in my weird wanderings.
I was writing all sorts of these block-like reviews 500 words for various places, and I loved the opportunity to engage with contemporary literature and to get these shiny pretty books in the mail! but always felt like I had to bury my self and my complex associations with the text in order to write these objective capsule reviews. I wanted to write about how a text made me feel, and to write about myself as a reader experiencing the text, how I spilled some hot sauce on a certain page, that I was on the rag when I was reading it, that my hands were down my pants when I was reading it, all the libidinal and emotional experiences of reading, the ecstasy of experiencing literature, the way a book fucked with my head or changed my life, and then also tying reading into my process as a writer. So, I think there was this period of liberation, I came unbound in the blog, and wrote and wrote and wrote and read and read and read and vomited it all up.
TM: Despite your definitively pro-vomit stance, you apologized for your “vomit” twice during the first month of the blog’s existence. Your self-consciousness made me think of advice Diane Williams gave in a writing workshop about how, as writers, we had to learn to smear ourselves on the page. Have you grown more accustomed to writing pieces that are less contained and more revealing, ie, smearing yourself, ie embracing the vomit?
KZ: Oh I love that! Smearing ourselves on the page. Perhaps as young girls we are taught to be polite, to not make a mess (we cannot have ungroomed or undisciplined bodies or texts), to not talk about ourselves too much, so there is some residual ambivalence and anxiety there. I think I was so self-conscious originally (and still am on the blog, in such a public forum) because of a sense of guilt that writing is supposed to be perfectly manicured and neat and clean, and often I have typos galore and sometimes I will refuse capitalization and will generally commit hostile crimes against the English language. Also this fear of madness always, that some will think that my meanderings are the work of a manic girl of a madwoman of a depressed person and not of a writer, being a novelty not a novelist. Why Virginia Woolf channeled her insane rhythms into Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway, so readers wouldn’t think it was too close to the self, how she was often so close to the fire. So I apologize for fear of seeming like Artaud’s glossolalia, although often I channel that. Very ambivalent. But I am glad I think that I am so self-conscious in the blog, I think to wipe away that uncertainty and anxiety is in a way whitewashing the unsure self from the process of criticism, for I think we all worry, especially those of us so outside of the institutions, those of us who don’t use the institutionalized language of criticism.
Your last question—am I more accustomed to writing pieces that are more revealing?—is quite interesting. When I began the blog, I included less of the self, of the body, or at least of my quotidian, and then that began to seep in, the memoir, and now the essay collection is about half memoir. It’s taken a while to really make my criticism include an embodied self—that was a process, is still a process. Now I’m in a period where I fear I am writing too much of the self, not enough criticism.
TM: You classify texts as either inherently anorexic or bulimic, an idea that takes the barf essays into account as well as Chris Kraus’s Aliens and Anorexia, which proposes anorexia as a form of empowerment through rejection of the body and the cultural imperative to eat. The anorexic text is concerned with the paucity of language, about silences and “the impossibility of speech” whereas the bulimic text purges, “screams, insists on being heard, on externalizing this internal violence.” Is there room for middle ground, for a robust text that’s confident and hearty? Or is the writer’s impulse (or specifically the female writer’s impulse) inherently diseased–either purging what’s within or grasping at, gasping for words?
KZ: I really try to unwrap this in the essay collection, my ideas about this anorexic versus bulimic aesthetic, and I know that in a way I’m playing with fire, reclaiming types of feminine self-destruction as radical aesthetic strategies. I don’t think all texts are inherently anorexic or bulimic, but locate both of these as potential radical modes, both potential forms of resistance, while also wondering why in contemporary poetics and the world of small-press experimental literature the most dominant form appears to me to be anorexic. And wondering why bulimic texts by women are rarely published in the margins or in the marketplace, wondering why they are less written, and why, when so many of the so-called “genius” contemporary male writers are given permission to write what could be classified as bulimic (from Henry Miller to the system novelists, Pynchon, Gass, Gaddis, DFW, etc. etc. to all of the current crop of prodigies named Jonathan with their doorstop tomes). Actually Chris Kraus’s Aliens and Anorexia doesn’t really have much to do with my notion of an anorexic aesthetic. I do write about the work in the same online essay however, I think, as I place Chris Kraus’s work in this sort of fictocriticism or New Narrative movement.
New Narrative is decidedly bulimic, which I also classify as having the aesthetic not only of purging but privileging the verbal, and having something in common not only with l’ecriture feminine, this idea of writing the body and voice and taboo, but also the Surrealist mode of automatic writing. Even though Chris’s work does look at anorexia and Simone Weil’s philosophy of decreation as a possibly radical and reactionary act of expression, her writing is so much about writing the abject body and the relentless self, as opposed to writing that enacts the disappearance of the self, such as, say, Danielle Collobert’s notebooks. I love your last comment – the female writer’s impulse as being inherently diseased, Anne Sexton’s infected sentence that Gilbert and Gubar write to in their essay on Victorian women writers in Madwomen in the Attic (they also write about the anorexia of the Victorian women writer but don’t tie that into an aesthetic strategy). I really celebrate and welcome writing that is about externalizing and vomiting out violence as opposed to internalizing it, although am fascinated and compelled by both forms of expression.
TM: In Hillel Schwartz’s Never Satisfied, a cultural history of dieting, weight, and fantasies, Schwartz aligns a culture’s perception of fat with its attitude towards dieting: “Why people choose to diet, when they diet, how they go about dieting–these are determined by prevailing fantasies about the body, its weight and its fat.” He goes on to say that in societies (like ours) where fatness is “active, itinerant, and individual,” dieters persevere in battles against fat. Keeping this in mind, would you care to divine what the prevalent attitudes towards both bulimic and anorexic texts mirror in our contemporary culture?
KZ: Well, to look at this from a feminist perspective, I think that a fear of fat in our culture is a buried disgust and fear of the female body. So perhaps a female writer’s impulse to carve away one’s language as much as possible reflects this social construct that women are supposed to take up as little space as possible. However, I do think a sort of extreme abbreviation, like Danielle Dutton’s Attempts at a Life or the works of Jenny Boully, is a radical act as well, and a possible means of resistance to the marketplace-mandated forms of narrative, character, story, plot, etc. I will say that my 70-page novel, O Fallen Angel, was published after I sent it out to one place, Chiasmus Press, while I have 200-page-plus manuscripts that I have had an unbearable time getting published. There’s an urge for manuscripts to be more economical, an economy of expression, but I think this is linked to economics, to the costs required for small presses to publish larger books, but also perhaps tied into something insidious in our culture relating to the female body and our disgust of women who are too mouthy, too brash, too unwieldy, too angry, too confrontational, too, yes, fat.
TM: You recently finished a book-length manuscript based on the blog that will be published by Semiotext(e) next year. Has the experience of turning your blog into a book affected your vision of the blog? And where would you place your blog in the continuum of your written work, which includes literary criticism, a novel, this forthcoming book, and other unpublished manuscripts?
KZ: You’re asking me these questions at this time when I’m having a total identity crisis with the blog, with this very public and intimate form of expression, and wondering how much it’s affecting the necessary private and internal space I have to access and allow myself to be in in order to write book projects. I’m not the first blogger of this sort who muses over whether or not to take a hiatus or suicide the blog, but it’s very omnipresent right now, this concern. Also, yes, when I began the blog I had no plan for any of the essays to be a book, and now that they have formed the basis for the book, part of me wonders whether I should continue or in what way I should continue the blog.
I think that the blog and the essay collection–which go hand in hand, as the blog is in a way a notebook or a draft of the essay collection–will function as an explanation and defense of my other writing, and the writing that I revere, and my particular aesthetic. So it all feeds into each other. I often write in the blog about my creative works, the ones that are unpublished and this one slim lonely one that has been published, and a lot of my obsessions that I write about critically and passionately in the blog I also write to in my, what do I call them…creative projects? Well that’s not correct because I think my criticism is creative and I think my creative projects are critical. It’s all in the same messy, disordered, frantic body, the body of work. Although really I feel this is all a major preparation, a preparing of the body, a cleaning and waxing of the body to become someday a lyric essayist. I am really a lyric essayist I feel, very deeply, trapped in the body of a messy, disordered, bulimic writer. To me that is the writing I cannot perform, I cannot manage to clean myself or my texts, and perhaps this is all draft and baggage for the one singular work that will be like a page of the most magical important potent language.
TM: I’d like to hear more about the inspiration for your novel, O Fallen Angel, and specifically the inspiration you derived from Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion, which he based on a scene from The Oresteia. Of his painting, Bacon said, “I tried to create an image of the effect it [The Oresteia] produced inside me.” One connection that came to mind is that it seems you attempt to recreate the effect that mainstream suburban, Midwestern culture produces within you. Reading the novel with Bacon in mind made me think of his screaming popes via the religious oppression, the psychiatric disturbances, and the authorial vitriol and scorn doled throughout. Were they somewhere in the back of your mind while writing too?
KZ: With Bacon, yes, I was trying to channel the effect that his paintings produced within me… I am really interested in what Deleuze has to say about Bacon’s figures, how Bacon is painting these chaotic nervous systems, and in a way with a book like OFA I thought of myself as a portraitist I guess, but with language, exorcising both Bacon’s triptych as well as the portraits of Marlene Dumas, and trying in a way to paint not characters but nervous systems, flayed and flawed and committing desperate acts of self-immolation. I lived for a bit in London and I became obsessed with the Bacon room at the Tate Britain, his orange paintings especially filled me with such a delirious violence, and I think I am always trying to write to them, write to his diseased mouths and paralyzed figures. The scream in general fascinates me, those who have had their language stolen from them, how to reproduce that on the page—Munch’s Scream and Helene Weigel’s grotesque mouth wide open in Mother Courage—and especially with this project I was interested in writing these figures—I keep on calling them figures! but that’s what they are to me, or grotesques, grotesques I care for, not characters—that are completely inarticulate or stricken with a sort of wordless riot, as my Maggie character is, my modern hysterical Dora-daughter, or my Malachi prophet, my homeless Septimus Smith from Mrs. Dalloway, and yes Mommy too. Mommy is deeply, deeply unhappy but she lacks any way to articulate this, to express any individual expression, she is a member of Kant’s minority, who just wants to be a cutesy cow grazing on Snax Mix.
Through all this I am channeling my own feelings of impotence, of alienation, of desperation the feeling sometimes that most are mute and deaf and dumb to all of the horrors of existence, preferring to exist in their banal languages and worlds, in many ways in terms of an exercise in language I was trying to write to the banality of cliches, how they mold our minds, and of the banality of the exclamation point, the emoticon. Everyone who reads it gets that this is a novel set in Midwestia, in suburbia, and it is, sure, that’s where the impulse began, my environment, but it’s just as much to me a novel about liberals in cities who easily accept the status quo and would rather discuss American Idol or some shit than gay rights or rights for women or the environment and really really about a country at war and pretending not to be at war. It’s an extremely political novel, a novel screeching against the war and the banality of evil. A friend said to me: Mommy is the Bush Administration. And yes! Yes that’s true. I really loved that. But it’s not just the Bush Administration. It’s not just the convenient enemies I was trying to write to in this book, and failing, and I will always try to write to, again and again. Not just the Red States and Midwestia but the society at large.
And it’s great you bring up The Oresteia because besides Mrs. Dalloway it’s the other text I’m trying to rewrite in O Fallen Angel, not just Bacon purging the Furies and the scream of Clytaemestra and Cassandra in many of his triptychs, but also that, in many ways I frame the book like a Greek tragedy, with choruses, and I will always try to rewrite The Oresteia in any work of this type, in all of my political work. And I love Bacon’s screaming popes, all of his patriarch paintings, his blue businessmen. I think Mommy is the real patriarch in this novel, so she’s not a screaming pope, she uses manipulation and sweet expressions and not brute force, along with the furniture and her statues she will try to rearrange her children’s minds.
TM: To a review in The Rumpus that criticized your lack of empathy for your characters, you responded: “If anything it’s a novel about ALIENATION, and I am in many ways alienating my readers, drawing from theater–Brecht’s A-effect, Artaud’s notion of the plague, Karen Finley. But I think it’s a disappointing conventional read to expect all novels to be about characters, a novel in which character and relationships are privileged, and I think of that as a sort of MFA-itis.” I understand this to mean that you believe MFA programs are overly influential and at their worst, a homogenizing force in the way they shape their students’ narrative expectations. Javier Marías once said that if he were ever to start a writing school, translation would be its touchstone. What would a writing program designed by Kate Zambreno look like?
KZ: Yes, I think MFA programs can be homogenizing forces and churn out literature that is hygenic and functional. But of course not all MFA programs are like this. I think my main problem is how many MFA programs for fiction are structured, and who is hired in most of these programs, who does the hiring, and how hybridity or dancing along genres is really discouraged in many programs, in my totally limited observation because I neither have an MFA nor did I study creative writing as an undergraduate. But it seems the focus of most creative writing fiction programs is still realism, still a traditional focus on character and plot, and a focus on the story that is about the human heart (an idea I’m stealing from the writer Steve Tomasula). So I think at least in fiction programs works that are engaging with philosophy or with theory or are queer or feminist or radical or about the body and trauma and abjectness or are totally weirdo-schizo-whatever, you know, fucking with form, trying to invent new forms, any textual transgressions, any beautiful little monsters, are probably shredded in workshop.
A review of O Fallen Angel said that if the novel had been workshopped, that the teacher would freak out, basically. And I think it would have been savaged in most MFA fiction programs and any rawness or rough edges or anything instinctual about it would be sort of smoothed away to attempt to reach approval by committee, both in the workshop and then in some sort of thesis situation. So I think in my writing program I would really try to steer away from the notion of a piece “working” or “functioning” because a text is not supposed to work, lawnmowers are supposed to work and cut grass, a text is supposed to make you explode, agitated, or at least feel something, feel and then think, think and then feel, act, not just pat the pretty language or sigh and feel a little wistful or a little good about yourself or whatever. So I would want my writing program to be a radical laboratory, it would be about changing society through the text.
As Camus has said, if you want to be a philosopher, write novels. Some of the most exciting urgent public intellectuals and philosophers are creative writers. In my totally hypothetical writing program I would encourage students to be completely promiscuous in their reading, to read philosophy and theory and become obsessed with art and film, to become obsessed with something outside of their craft, like I don’t know, a different religion or anything outside of themselves, but then to burrow deep inside of themselves too, to learn new languages and read anything but the obvious books, then maybe read the obvious ones again, read in translation, engage with the world and have experiences. Fuck up a lot. Write about it. Go on weird travels. Always bring books with you. Write about the travels and the books that you’re carrying with you. And as opposed to the workshop process there will be readings and mentor relationships set up and others will rigorously engage with your work but never offer prescriptions, only guidance. A program that is what Woolf has called a writing apprenticeship, to learn how to inhabit the necessary private space of a writer, to be a writer, not just how to get a story published in X, Y, or Z publication. But I would also want activism to be a prominent feature. Not that I consider myself any authority to head such a writing program. I would want to be in such a program. There will be no teachers! Everyone will be students! No degrees! No diplomas! Just writing books and learning how to be a citizen of the world.
TM: You reviewed your novel, O Fallen Angel, for the blog We Who Are About to Die. It’s an insightful and entertaining introduction to the book. In it you claim: “My characters don’t touch each other, but they want to connect and they’re all suffocating in their cells. It is a stupid, terrible book, about the stupid and the terrible.” While this statement is simultaneously ironic and earnest, self-conscious and comic (if all four qualities can coexist at once), it demands the question, why write a stupid and terrible book about the stupid and the terrible?
KZ: Well, for the first statement, the book being stupid and terrible, I think in many ways for this project I was interested in really bad writing, I guess this is how I’m influenced by Acker, in cliches, in the smiley face Maggie uses to sign her suicide note, there’s a line ending a Maggie section “The first cut is the deepest,” which I’m totally quoting from that Cat Stevens song, tunneling inside Maggie’s head, and at this moment of total self-annihilation over an ex-lover Maggie is really trying to be deep and poetic but she’s just a photocopy, a profound but then ultimately banal photocopy of a pop song, and I’m interested in all that, how our brains are colonized with well-tread language, yet we’re convinced we’re terribly profound and individual. When I read that line at readings people always are kind of silent, but I find it so funny—like look! look how bad and awful this is! this is really bad writing! but people are silent because I think they’re a bit embarrassed for me, which I love. And look how mean I’m being, how cruel! It’s a terrible, terrible book!
My view of humanity at least in this novel is cruel and caricatured, I am playing with these grotesques, and when you think of Bakhtin on Rabelais and the grotesque, the grotesque is cruel and mean and just completely destructive humor. I am more interested in this book and my political writing in general at this moment in the destruction, the total annihilation, as opposed to finding a sort of corrective or moment of optimism. So it’s a terrible book, it’s about terrible things, and it says terrible things.
But besides this authorial act of spraying acid, the family I write about in the book are grotesques, they are caricatures, and they seem innocent and normal and average, but I am saying that amidst all of this banality there’s something really dangerous in terms of how we swallow horrible things happening because they make us uncomfortable and ignore all the fucked-up-ness and like let’s talk about The Bachelor as opposed to Haiti and as a society we’re still totally totally repressed, as represented in this book by the Mommy character. Everything’s airbrushed but underneath everything’s shit. It’s one view of the world, it’s not the only one, it’s certainly a pretty dystopic and scathing one.
I’m circling back to that Rumpus reviewer’s critiquing me for not being empathetic—I think being political is being empathetic, by calling attention to who is actually silenced and oppressed, and how the family functions as the oppressor as well as other oedipal structures, other mommies and daddies—government, religion, etc. But it’s funny the idea that I’m not empathetic to the people doing the normalizing and oppressing and silencing. Fuck it. I’m not. When the British modernist Anna Kavan started writing her tripped-out dystopic works after, you know, being institutionalized and then living through the bombings in England and seeing the effects of war, she said to her publisher, Peter Owen, “That’s just how I see the world now.” And I always think about that.
“You couldn’t tell that story in the same words that Americans used to order pizzas, let alone in little pictures.” – Jay Cantor, Great NeckI.Last fall, a preview for a movie called The Boy in The Striped Pajamas began running in American theaters. The film’s marketing team had no doubt noticed that October offered their picture a bit of an open market: the summer blockbusters had just blasted 2008 Oscar-winner The Counterfeiters from collective memory, and 2009 contenders The Reader and Defiance (and Good and Valkyrie and Adam Resurrected) had yet to be released. What bound The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to these competitors was its historical backdrop: the near-extinction of the European Jews. Harder to assess, from the preview, was the use to which that backdrop was being put.Exterior: CONCENTRATION CAMP. A YOUNG GERMAN stumbles upon a JEWISH BOY, who sits behind a barbed-wire fence. JEWISH BOY is gaunt, shaven-headed.JEWISH BOY: “The soldiers…they took all our clothes away.”GERMAN BOY: “My dad’s a soldier, but not the sort that takes peoples’ clothes away.”Cut to: David Thewlis, looking every inch the Nazi officer.Cut to: Montage of the two boys, the child of Nazis and the child of Jews, chatting and playing chess, forging a FORBIDDEN FRIENDSHIP from opposite sides of barbed wire.The solemn dialogue and sumptuous cinematography suggested noble cinematic aspirations. And yet it was hard not to see The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, compressed to two minutes and sandwiched almost parenthetically between teasers for the latest James Bond and the latest Judd Apatow, as merely a variation on an equally generic Hollywood product: the redemption flick. By the time it appeared on the marquee of my local theater, the movie’s title had been shortened to BOY IN PJs (to fit between Saw 5 and The Secret Life of Bees), and every time I walked past the marquee, it nagged at me, as the preview did. People died, I thought – real people – and this is the best you could do?I can see now that I was overreacting; film is itself, of necessity, a form of abbreviation. Even Claude Lanzmann’s 9-hour documentary, Shoah, left things out. BOY IN PJs was merely the next logical step in the journey that begins whenever we put history onto the screen or onto the page: a metonymic drift in which pajamas stand for prisoner’s garb, which stands for the loss of freedom, which stands for the loss of life.Then again, the theater was less than a block from the synagogue. And so, though it seemed a little late in the day to protest the muffling of history under the dead hand of costume drama, I waited in vain for someone at least to ask the theater owners to restore the missing letters to the movie’s title. Didn’t anyone care about this stuff anymore?II.After the Holocaust, the philosopher Theodor Adorno declared in 1949, writing poetry became “barbaric.” Like many of Adorno’s pronouncements, this one was best understood as a provocation to think, rather than as a doctrine demanding fealty. A generation of writers including Primo Levi and Paul Celan found ways to violate the letter of Adorno’s law, and seemed more like heroes than barbarians as they did so. Still, in the second half of the Twentieth Century, those who would represent the Holocaust – and those who would consume those representations – at least had to contend with Adorno’s spirit. For fifty years, almost instinctively, we extended to the 6 million dead a reverence that was disappearing from the rest of the culture.Among the constituent gestures of this reverence – among its rituals – was an effort to hold the Holocaust separate – separate from language, separate from cliché, separate from the always already compromised field of aesthetics, separate from other mass murders. Or to connect it only to very specific historical narratives: about the sufferings of the Chosen People, about the evils of appeasement. Those who failed in their observances were widely condemned. In 1963, for example, when Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem portrayed its subject not as a transhistorical and theological monster, but as a morally deficient human being, the Anti-Defamation League asked American rabbis to decry the book before their congregations. A group of touring intellectuals-for-hire dubbed Arendt “The Rosa Luxembourg of Nothingness.” Three decades later, when Roberto Begnini’s Life is Beautiful inaugurated the genre of Holocaust kitsch, the Cahiers du Cinema refused to review it.For committed free-thinkers, the limitations of reverence as a philosophical position appeared obvious. (“Piety,” once a virtue, tends to carry exclusively negative connotations among those who don’t like to be told what to do.) But, on balance, it created a productive anxiety for the arts. The supreme difficulty of doing justice to so much suffering and so much death before such a tough audience inspired more than one writer’s finest work; anxiety is what gave productions as reticent as W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants and as scabrous as Mel Brooks’ The Producers their ethical charge. (Not, anxiety compels me to add, that it was any consolation.)That anxiety endures to this day… at least in the pages of our leading periodicals. In The New York Times and The New Republic and The New York Review of Books and Slate, bright and engaged critics such as Jacob Heilbrunn, Ruth Franklin, Daniel Mendelsohn, and Ron Rosenbaum regularly consider whether new novels and memoirs and movies about the Holocaust are worthy of their grave subject. But the current superabundance of aestheticized Holocausts beggars our capacity for judgment, to say nothing of our capacity for outrage. The controversy over Angel At The Fence – a concentration-camp memoir revealed last December to be fraudulent – burned itself out in a week.In fact, in 2009, reality has again outrun the intellectuals, as it tends periodically to do. As the youngest survivors of the Nazi era enter their eighth decade, the apposite question is no longer the ethical one – how should we represent the Holocaust – but the anthropological one – how do we. And it appears that, for better or worse, we have begun to represent the Holocaust the way we do everything else.Jonathan Littell’s mammoth new novel The Kindly Ones, is not only a case in point; it is an apotheosis. In a single coup, the book erases the lines that held the Holocaust apart from other literary subjects and bound it to its own standards of representation. And so, more than any other recent cultural event – more than The Reader, more than BOY IN PJs – it affords us a measure of what we gain, and what we lose, when we drag the supreme example of human suffering into contact with the great muddy stream of mass culture.It may seem unfair to front-load a reading of a single novel with so much historical baggage. Upon the book’s publication in French, Littell himself reminded Pierre Nora in Le Débat that his main concern was that the book “work… as a literary vehicle.” But it is Littell who, by writing a 975-page novel from the point-of-view of a sexually damaged S.S. officer, has invited the burdens he must now carry. His work can achieve its totalizing ambitions only to the extent that it exhausts every facet of its monstrous subject. That Littell manages to embody so completely the difficulties of finding a new literary approach to his subject thus testifies, perversely, to some degree of success. For The Kindly Ones, which seeks to drag readers through the heart of historical darkness, does us at least this kindness: it brings us valuable news about the way we live now.III.Some of the The Kindly Ones’ success in France can be attributed to the sheer improbability of its existence. Written from the point-of-view of an S.S. officer, in French, by the retiring, American-born son of the spy novelist Robert Littell – a descendent of European Jews – the book offered the press a multiplicity of hooks and angles. And there was the matter of its sheer size. If Moby-Dick represents the exhaustive aspirations of a certain strain of American fiction, contemporary French writers have tended to labor in the more streamlined shadows of Duras and Camus. French readers received Littell’s 2.5-pound book with the ecstasy of liberated prisoners, snapping up something like 750,000 copies and awarding him the 2006 Prix Goncourt.For all of its idiosyncrasies, however, The Kindly Ones is, in its narrative arc, an almost archetypal first novel. It traces four years in the life of a young man named Dr. Maximilian Aue, who in that time journeys from innocence (of a sort) to experience. While still in law school, Aue is pressured to join the S.S. As an officer, he becomes a kind of Zelig figure, managing to get himself entangled in many of the war’s most significant events. Flashbacks recording Aue’s growing up, and his early ambivalence about his military career, are at first apportioned sparingly. In the main, narrative time marches arm-in-arm with history. Aue is attached to the einsatzkommandos that conduct mass shootings at Babi Yar and elsewhere; gets transferred to the Caucasus at the apex of Hitler’s Russian campaign; is injured in the Battle of Stalingrad; travels on leave to Vichy Paris; inspects Auschwitz; dines with Eichmann; takes orders from Himmler; and ultimately fulfills his destiny in a bunker as the Allies take Berlin.Compacted into a single paragraph, this synopsis tests the bounds of credulity. Yet one of the book’s remarkable achievements – likely its finest – is the way it re-connects the most thoroughly documented pieces of the Holocaust to an almost incomprehensibly vast historical whole. Over the hundreds of pages covering the Eastern Front, Littell allows the signal events of Aue’s biography to mingle with the quotidian: meals, illnesses, boredom, trauma, politics. At this human scale, the horrors Aue participates in loom even larger than they do from the bird’s eye of history. Death registers in a way that transcends statistics – not only as the end product of the Final Solution but as a condition of existence. It haunts the footsoldiers on both sides of the Eastern Front, and the officers, and the partisans, and the Jews. Exposed to forced marches and disease and rape and murder in something approaching real-time, we come to feel – as opposed to intellectually acknowledging – the pervasive grimness of total war.Presenting the Holocaust in this context also affords readers a deeper understanding of the ideological mechanisms of genocide. We are allowed to see how appeals to military necessity lay the groundwork, in the minds of the S.S. men and in the language that they speak, for the Final Solution. Littell exposes us to a dizzying range of anti-Semitisms, from the apoplectic to the anti-Communist to the somewhat resigned.The Jews themselves, alas, seem mostly like an unindividuated mass, but perhaps this is how they seem to our narrator. Littell allows room for this interpretation early on by giving us several moments that run counter to it, as when Aue personally supervises the execution of an elderly Jew, a theologian, who has turned himself in in the Caucasus:The old man fell like a marionette whose string has been cut all at once. I went up to the grave and leaned over: he was lying at the bottom like a sack, his head turned aside, still smiling a little. . . I was trembling. “Close that up,” I curtly ordered Hanning.After several pages of conversation with his victim, Aue has come to see him as a person, rather than as a part of a mass, and has hesitated. And why only hesitated? The gap between “trembling” and “curtly” contains the mystery that the book should be seeking to unravel.IV.What we don’t get, in the half of the novel devoted to the Eastern Front, is enough attention to that mystery. Or at least, not as much as we’ve been led to expect by the book’s prologue. There Aue, elderly and living under an assumed identity in postwar France, addressed us directly, defiantly… intimately. Now, on the Front, he has acquired the flat address of the camera.This movement away from interiority complicates Littell’s attempt to do for morality what he has managed to do for history: that is, to bring the Holocaust into view not as a singularity, but as part of a larger whole. And this is arguably the more crucial of Littell’s projects, as it is the only one for which the novelist’s tools surpass the historian’s. The essential unanswered question about the Holocaust – presumably one of the reasons for this novel’s being – is not how, but why.Littell knows that cordoning evil off from history lets us off the hook. (I am not like you, Stalin thinks, looking at newsreels of Hitler. I have reasons.) And so The Kindly Ones seeks to suggest the incredible complexity and variety of forces that add up to genocide, and how they embed themselves in the daily life of human beings. “I am just like you!” Aue insists at the end of the prologue.Yet, at the moments when this identification matters most, our narrator becomes inaccessible. The first time we see Aue kill with his own hand, he speaks of “an immense, boundless rage, I kept shooting at her and her head exploded like a fruit, then my arm detached itself from me and went off all by itself down the ravine, shooting left and right.” And then we get this:A sentence of Chesterton’s ran through my head: I never said it was always wrong to enter fairyland. I only said it was always dangerous. Is that what war was, then, a perverted fairyland, the playground of a demented child who breaks his toys and shouts with laughter, gleefully tossing the dishes out the window?How are we to interpret these trite metaphors? As a form of intellectual dissociation? As the falsification of memory by the latter-day narrator, looking back with the benefit of hindsight? Certainly not as a credible psychological account of a man “just like us” who has just killed for the first time. And what of the lurid cinema of that “exploded fruit?” Is Aue actually a sadist? A schizophrenic? An aesthete? A fraud? These are not mysteries, they are problems. Generally, we would look to style resolve them, but in the passage above, this is hardly possible.Indeed, style itself is a problem – one that grows as The Kindly Ones rumbles on. Acronymic Befehlsprache bleeds from dialogue into narrative. Descriptions of nature and weather, presumably meant to startle us by their incongruity, never rise above the anodyne: cows low, bees buzz, snow blankets the countryside. And the gray laziness of Littell’s descriptive mode ripens to a Koontzian purple in the presence of death. “The skull was resting against a stone,” Aue tells us at one point,quite clean, its empty sockets swarming with beetles, its gnawed lips baring yellow teeth, washed by the rain: and the skull had opened, revealing the intact flesh of the mouth, a thick, almost wriggling tongue, pink, obscene.Those last two hectoring adjectives turn whatever effect the sentence was to have had into parody. Littell seems eager enough to tell us what Aue feels – “boundless rage,” “vague anguish,” – or, in the venerable tradition of undergraduate fiction, to register those feelings in the form of intestinal discomfort or loss of consciousness, but he never develops a vocabulary for showing us, in modulations of the point-of-view, how Aue is changing or being changed by his work.The conspicuous opacity of the narrative voice Littell has settled into by the novel’s midpoint makes it impossible to understand the frequent lapses into hamhandedness as conscious effects. Perhaps something has been lost in Charlotte Mandell’s translation – or perhaps the lapses betoken a commitment to the poetics of Maurice Blanchot – but one comes to wonder whether they are simply bad writing, of a sort we’re unaccustomed to seeing in connection with the Holocaust. We might even be willing to overlook it, were we operating in the genre of historical novel. But Littell is after bigger game. (I’m just like you!) And because literature cannot avoid having an aesthetic dimension, Littell’s weaknesses of style will have grave consequences for the second half of The Kindly Ones, where he concentrates the book’s most obviously aesthetic elements: its plot, its exploration of character, and its self-negating elaboration of its themes.V.The entire novel – thus far powerful in its scale, but uneven in its portraiture – is supposed to turn, I think, on the scene, 400-odd pages in where Aue gets shot in the head in Stalingrad. The careful reader will notice that this is the precise point at which Aue’s copious, and copiously chronicled, bowel problems – his chronic diarrhea and literal nausea – begin to abate. It also marks an inflection point in his career prospects. Aue’s sensibility changes, too. Whatever has attenuated his appetite for violence – and for self-disclosure – has apparently been amputated. And so, after a long fever-dream fantasia on his incestuous love for his twin sister, he goes home to see his hated mother and stepfather. At the end of his visit, they’ve been hacked to death. With an axe.The title The Kindly Ones is an allusion to Aeschylus’ Oresteia, and with this murder, the previously subtle parallels come jostling to the foreground. In the last 450 pages of the novel, set largely in Germany and Poland, Max’s flight from his own “Kindly Ones” – a.k.a. his pursuing Furies – will take center-stage. Daniel Mendelsohn, who knows from Aeschylus, has mounted a credible argument that the novel constitutes is a meditation on two very different conceptions of justice: the Hellenistic and the Judeo-Christian. Yet Littell’s approach to evil in this second half of the book – one part phrenology, one part fatalism, one part Freud – explains away the very mystery that drew us into Aue’s exploits on the Eastern Front: the mystery of why. Also overlooked by Mendelsohn is the slackness that now pervades every paragraph. Even if the Oresteian parallel were to justify the inclusion of Aue’s masochistic homosexual encounters and his sadistic incest fantasies, would it necessitate treating them in such tedious detail? An onanistic orgy at a deserted country house goes on for 40 pages:The mattress was as clean as the sheets. So I set about soiling it myself, squatting with my legs wide apart, the ghostly body of my sister open beneath me, her head turned slightly aside and her hair pulled back to reveal her small, delicate, round ear that I loved so, then I collapsed in slime and abruptly fell asleep, my belly still sticky. I wanted to possess this bed, but it was the bed that possessed me.This isn’t transgression; this is an embarrassment.The embarrassment need not extend from author to narrator. After Stalingrad, we are meant, I think, to see Aue’s poisoned conscience leaking out and poisoning his world, and some of what Aue presents as fact is surely fantasy. Perhaps, like us, Aue is not capable of living with his crimes short of a complete mental breakdown. But the plot depends upon other, equally clumsily rendered elements (again, elements from The Oresteia). To dismiss the cartoonishness of the prose as simply an index of Aue’s grip on reality is to introduce an Escherian instability into the text.Rather, what I think we discover, in the second half of The Kindly Ones, is the inevitable dark side of our new era of Holocaust discourse. Artists young enough to ask interesting questions about, say, the eating habits and family lives of the Nazis, are artists whose aesthetic standards have been formed, not in the charnel-house of history, but in our fluid, polymorphously perverse popular culture. Littell may see himself as a student of Parisian deep-thinkers, but he’s learned at least as much from Hollywood. For where else but in the town that originated the terms “shock value” and “money shot” does the gross-out gag register as an end-in-itself? And where but in the movies would Littell’s commercial autoeroticism – insert sausage into rectum, insert penis into pie – register as shocking?VI.It seems we cannot erase the line of reverence that held the Holocaust apart from the rest of history without also eroding the line that kept it unpolluted by the rest of our culture, with its increasing shamelessness and ephemerality. Indeed, they were the same line. In 1995, William H. Gass’ monumental The Tunnel committed far less outré, and far more disturbing, discursive violations; ultimately, though, the book was still tethered to Adorno-esque notions of “the fascism of the heart,” and so it added to the common store of literature, even as its claims to departure from that literature collapsed. Fifteen years later, The Kindly Ones, authentically escaping from literary precedent, loses its bearings in the stylistic fog of horror movies, pornography, and advertisements. By the laughable last pages, Littell’s scatology registers mostly as shtick. Which is, you’ll notice, an anagram of kitsch.Notice also that we are miles away from talking about the concentration camps – Aue’s professional concern in the second half of The Kindly Ones. Under the old dispensation, writing about the Holocaust was seen as brave precisely because one owed it to one’s subject to also be good. Under the new one, you can dedicate your novel to “the dead” and still have your readers walk away remembering mostly the masturbation fantasies. If no one will honor your bravery, it’s only because you’ve managed to annihilate the source of any risk you might have run.Such is our current situation. We’ve moved from the Eichmann in Jerusalem controversy to the Angel at the Fence kerfuffle, from The Drowned and the Saved to BOY IN PJS. We’ve crossed the great divide between reverence and “meh.” This movement is called postmodernism, and in abler hands than Littell’s, it may yet prove itself capable of finding new ways to speak about the unspeakable. And yet it’s worth remembering that its direct forerunner, Friedrich Nietzsche, called not for the abandonment of all values, but their revaluation. The example of The Kindly Ones suggests that that revaluation becomes more difficult, not less, in the absence of something to rebel against. When nothing is sacred, there can be no sacrilege.We might say, of Littell, après lui, le deluge, but of course the deluge has already begun. Ethically, The Kindly Ones’ mash-up of Life and Fate and American Psycho represents no worse an offense than this season’s crop of Oscar movies, which give us the Holocaust as The Magnificent Seven, as The Green Mile; as “Hot for Teacher.” Harper Collins paid around a million dollars for the translation rights to The Kindly Ones, no doubt anticipating a wave of profitable outrage from prudish American reviewers. Indeed, the novel’s jacket copy promises “provocation and controversy.” In the end, though, the only meaningful provocation is how little controversy this intermittently powerful, sloppily written, and morally incoherent book is likely to cause: how commonplace it now seems.Is it too late to ask for our anxiety back?