In an essay for the Los Angeles Review of Books, the writer and Iraq War veteran Roy Scranton outlined what he called “the myth of the trauma hero.” It goes like this:
Every true war story is a story of trauma and recovery. A boy goes to war, his head full of romantic visions of glory, courage, and sacrifice, his heart yearning to achieve heroic deeds, but on the field of battle he finds only death and horror. He sees, suffers, and causes brutal and brutalizing violence. Such violence wounds the soldier’s very soul.
After the war the boy, now a veteran and a man, returns to the world of peace haunted by his experience, wracked by the central compulsion of trauma and atrocity: the struggle between the need to bear witness to his shattering encounter with violence, and the compulsion to repress it. The veteran tries to make sense of his memory but finds it all but impossible. Most people don’t want to hear the awful truths that war has taught him, the political powers that be want to cover up the shocking reality of war, and anybody who wasn’t there simply can’t understand what it was like.
The truth of war, the veteran comes to learn, is a truth beyond words, a truth that can only be known by having been there, an unspeakable truth he must bear for society.
So goes the myth of the trauma hero.
Scranton locates the origins of this myth in the 18-century Romanticism that valued individual experience above all else. He tracks the myth through two world wars, Vietnam, and up to the United States’s most recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The last few years have seen an outpouring of memoirs, novels, and films about these two wars, and many of the most commercially and critically successful offer their own take on the trauma hero. Scranton, however, finds this myth dangerous, saying that it “serves a scapegoat function, discharging national bloodguilt by substituting the victim of trauma, the soldier, for the victim of violence, the enemy.” He doesn’t fault the writers of such narratives as much as their readers, eager to honor the tales told by trauma heroes, and in so doing avoid hearing stories of war that detail the victims of violence, and — more to the point — those responsible for it.
The Infernal, a novel by Mark Doten, seeks to tell that kind of story, one that accounts for those involved in the War on Terror at nearly every level, from the grunts lugging 80-pound packs to the residents of dusty villages on the other side of the world to the highest echelons of American power. I fear that this description, however, might give the impression that the book has the dutiful, even-handed tone of an episode of Frontline. That is not the case. The Infernal is certifiably insane, a monstrous, cartoon nightmare of a book.
Open up the book, and you’ll find a “Dramatis Personae” section, like in a 19th-century Russian novel. This one doesn’t track family trees and patronymics, however; characters include Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, and Mark Zuckerberg, as well as more inscrutable entries for “The Omnosyne” and “The Memex.” What is going on? Is this a postmodern swipe at American society like Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, a novelization of the Rosenberg trial that featured Richard Nixon as its protagonist? A gloss on celebrity like Bruce Wagner’s Dead Stars, in which Michael Douglas appears as a hologram of a character? The action and language of The Infernal are of the moment, but you might have to go all the way back to the novel’s namesake to get an idea of what Doten is up to. In The Inferno, Dante Alighieri placed all his enemies from 14th-century Florence in Hell, where they gave accounts of their sins while suffering elaborate, ironic punishments. Doten wants to place these historical figures in his fiction where they will be forced to explain themselves, as this is unlikely to happen in the real world.
The novel begins in the Akkad Valley of Iraq, at a geological formation known as Al-Madkhanah, or the Chimney. Strange clouds appear at the peak of the Chimney. A patrol of soldiers goes to investigate. One of them climbs to the top, where he discovers a boy burned almost beyond recognition. The soldiers return the boy to a base. He cannot speak, sign, or communicate in any way. But the Commission, a shadowy organization that seems to catalog and thus control the world, needs the information that the boy has. They decide to bring the traitor Jimmy Wales out of prison so he can use his invention, the Omnosyne, to extract a confession from the boy.
Jimmy Wales? Isn’t that the guy who created Wikipedia? That is indeed who he is IRL, as they say, but in the universe of The Infernal, Wales was a student at Dr. Vannevar Bush’s Institute for Youth Advances, where he helped create the Memex, a worldwide network of knowledge that served as a kind of precursor to the Internet, except it was only available to the Commission. Wales broke with Dr. Bush and the Institute, however, when he invented the Omnosyne, an information-gathering tool that is half lie detector, half torture device. To use the Omnosyne, an elaborate system of wires are inserted into the subject’s tongue and spine, extracting the essential information from his very nerves and bones. The wires are hooked up to what looks like a typewriter, printing out the subject’s confession in Omnotic Code, which only Wales can decipher. Once he created the Omnosyne, however, Wales killed a dozen instructors at the Institute for Youth Advances, at which point the Commission placed him in jail for life and mothballed the Omnosyne. The Commission is desperate for the Akkad Boy’s confession, however, so they bring Wales and his device to the Akkad Valley.
Due to the invasive nature of the Omnosyne, an extraction results in the death of the subject. This is deemed acceptable, as the Akkad Boy’s confession will surely prove invaluable. When Wales hooks him up to the Omnosyne and begins the extraction, however, the pages that are printed out in Omnotic Code give not the boy’s confession, but rather the confessions of a host of different people, all involved in the War on Terror in one way or another: Osama Bin Laden, L. Paul Bremer, an Iraqi woman named Noor, and on and on. These polysyllabic confessions form the text of The Infernal, which can read as if William Faulkner were blogging about current events, as in this passage written from the perspective of Bremer, Presidential Envoy to Iraq.
Not much in the way of running water, friends, mostly this here’s a porta-potty town, Jay told us, I told Condi on the cell.
Meanwhile Saddam flew past . . .
Meanwhile Saddam flew right past us . . .
And meanwhile Saddam in statue form, poster form, some billboards, too, and murals of Saddam, that sonofabitch just kept on flying on past us, One hell, I said, one hell of an Ozymandian tribute, Jay with no idea, Florida State University, then Shippensburg, never overcame those early obstacles…
Elsewhere, Osama Bin Laden, holed up in a cave, has his followers construct a new dialysis machine, which quickly devolves into violent slapstick; two drone-strike survivors named Rashid and Hakim stumble around like Laurel and Hardy; US Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez crawls through the air ducts of Guantanamo; Iraq War Veteran Tom Pally hobbles around his ranch house on an artificial leg, trying to make dinner plans for his and his wife’s anniversary, instead getting accosted by the vengeful maitre d’ of the restaurant. In the background of all this, there are intimations of a New City coming into being, a realm of pure information that the Commission plans to upload themselves into, leaving behind the corporeal world.
At this point in the review, I’m guessing that you either really want to read The Infernal, or you really don’t. It seems like an ideal object for the enthusiastic scholarship of a devoted cult, and I sincerely look forward to the WikiLink page that will explain all of the book’s mysteries. But Doten has written his idiosyncratic book about events that will be familiar to many, perhaps even overly familiar, and it’s worth asking why.
Part of an answer may lie in Doten’s biography. Doten is currently the literary editor at Soho Press, the publishing house whose renaissance The Millions covered last year. Before that, Doten was an associate editor at The Huffington Post, working for the site at its very beginning in 2005. (Andrew Breitbart was one of the site’s cofounders, though he soon left after a falling-out with Arianna Huffington, and The Infernal has a great, nasty joke made at his expense.) Doten is sure to have edited hundreds, maybe even thousands, of stories about the War on Terror and its many players, to the point where they very well might have seemed less like human beings and more like hallucinations, the characters in a compensatory power fantasy dreamed up by a traumatized, vengeful public. That’s not the kind of story you can tell as a journalist, however, and it’s possible Doten looked to the role of novelist as a way of telling the deeper, spiritual truth about our disastrous recent history, the kind of truth that fiction is still best-equipped to tell.
Debts to postmodern fiction aside, the book that The Infernal most reminded me of was George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Packer’s book is nonfiction, drawing on extensive interviews with ordinary citizens (remember when journalists did that?) as well as secondary sources for accounts of big name movers and shakers, but it’s structured very much like a novel, using the stories of its constituent characters to tell a larger, cohesive story about our current social reality, and what led to it. In fact, Packer explicitly modeled his book on novelist John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, an account of the tumultuous events of the early part of the 20th century. Packer’s goal in the book is quixotic, using the tools of serious journalism to try and offer a diagnosis of the sickness afflicting the body politic, the reporter doing the work of the artist.
Doten also thinks that 21st-century America is sick, but The Infernal isn’t a diagnosis. It’s a bloodletting. As the Omnosyne extracts the Akkad Boy’s confession and the voices of those in power and the powerless inculpate themselves with every profession of innocence, the reader has the sense that all the lies and deceit of the last dozen years, the courage shown and the suspicion that it meant little, have been brought together in one place, between the covers of a single book. Here’s hoping that people open it.
 A little inside baseball: Scranton’s essay is, in part, a response to George Packer’s essay on recent books about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars for The New Yorker. Scranton takes Packer to task for only considering works that fulfill the trauma hero myth “while ignoring works that don’t fit that frame, such as John Dos Passos’s epic U.S.A. trilogy.” Writer, read thyself.
This year, for the first time since I was 18, I suffered a bout of what you might call Reader’s Block. It hit me in the spring and lasted about six weeks. The proximate cause was an excess of work, hunched hours in front of a computer that left me feeling like a jeweler’s loupe was lodged in each eye. I’d turn to the door of my study — Oh, God! An axe-wielding giant! No, wait: that’s just my two year old, offering a mauled bagel. And because the only prose that doesn’t look comparably distorted at that level of magnification belongs to E.B. White, Gertrude Stein, and whoever wrote the King James Bible, I mostly confined myself to the newspaper, when I read anything at all.
This hiatus from literature gave me a new compassion for people who glance up from smartphones to tell me they’re too busy to read, and for those writers (students, mostly) who claim to avoid other people’s work when they’re working. Yet I found that for me, at least, the old programmer’s maxim applies: Garbage In, Garbage Out. I mean this not just as someone with aesthetic aspirations, or pretensions, or whatever, but also as a human being.
The deeper cause of my reader’s block, I can admit now, was my father’s death at the end of May, after several years of illness. He was a writer, too; he’d published a novel when he was about the age I am now, and subsequently a travelogue. And maybe I had absorbed, over the years, some of his misapprehensions about what good writing might accomplish, vis-a-vis mortality; maybe I was now rebelling against the futility of the whole enterprise. I don’t know. I do know that in the last weeks before he died, those weeks of no reading, I felt anxious, adrift, locked inside my grief.
Then in June, on some instinct to steer into the skid, I reached for Henderson the Rain King. It was the last of the major Bellows I hadn’t read. I’d shied away partly for fear of its African setting, but mostly because it was the Saul Bellow book my father would always recommend. I’d say I was reading Humboldt’s Gift, and he’d say, “But have you read Henderson the Rain King?” Or I’d say I was reading Middlemarch, and he’d say “Sure, but have you read Henderson the Rain King?” I’d say I was heavily into early Sonic Youth. “Okay, but there’s this wonderful book…” There were times when I wondered if he’d actually read Henderson the Rain King, or if, having established that I hadn’t read it, he saw it as a safe way to short-circuit any invitation into my inner life. And I suppose I was afraid that if I finally read Henderson and was unmoved, or worse, it would either confirm the hypothesis or demolish for all time my sense of my dad as a person of taste.
But of course the novel’s mise-en-scène is a ruse (as Bellow well knew, never having been to Africa). Or if that still sounds imperialist, a dreamscape. Really, the whole thing is set at the center of a battered, lonely, yearning, and comical human heart. A heart that says, “I want, I want, I want.” A heart that could have been my father’s. Or my own. And though that heart doesn’t get what it wants — that’s not its nature — it gets something perhaps more durable. Midway through the novel, King Dahfu of the Wariri tries to talk a woebegone Henderson into hanging out with a lion:
“What can she do for you? Many things. First she is unavoidable. Test it, and you will find she is unavoidable. And this is what you need, as you are an avoider. Oh, you have accomplished momentous avoidances. But she will change that. She will make consciousness to shine. She will burnish you. She will force the present moment upon you. Second, lions are experiences. But not in haste. They experience with deliberate luxury…Then there are more subtle things, as how she leaves hints, or elicits caresses. But I cannot expect you to see this at first. She has much to teach you.”
To which Henderson replies: “‘Teach? You really mean that she might change me.’”
“‘Excellent,'” the king says:
“Precisely. Change. You fled what you were. You did not believe you had to perish. Once more, and a last time, you tried the world. With a hope of alteration. Oh, do not be surprised by such a recognition.”
The lion stuff in Henderson, like the tennis stuff in Infinite Jest, inclines pretty nakedly toward ars poetica. Deliberate luxury, burnished consciousness, a sense of inevitability — aren’t these a reader’s hopes, too? And then: the deep recognition, the resulting change. Henderson the Rain King gave me all that, at the time when I needed it most. Then again, such a recognition is always surprising, because it’s damn hard to come by. And so, though I’m already at 800 words here, I’d like to list some of my other best reading experiences of 2014 (the back half of which amounted to a long, post-Henderson binge). Maybe one of them will do for you what that lion did for me.
Light Years, by James Salter
Despite the eloquent advocacy of my Millions colleague Sonya Chung, I’d always had this idea of James Salter as some kind of Mandarin, a writer for other writers. But I read Light Years over two days in August, and found it a masterpiece. The beauty of Salter’s prose — and it is beautiful — isn’t the kind that comes from fussing endlessly over clauses, but the kind that comes from looking up from the page, listening hard to whatever’s beyond. And what Light Years hears, as the title suggests, is time passing, the arrival and inevitable departure of everything dear to us. It is music like ice cracking, a river in the spring.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark
I’ve long known I should read Muriel Spark, but it took the republication of some of her backlist (by New Directions) to get me off the fence. Spark shares with Salter a sublime detachment, an almost Olympian view of the passage of time. This latter seems to be her real subject in Miss Jean Brodie, inscribed even in the dazzling structure of the novel. But unlike Salter, Spark is funny. Really funny. Her reputation for mercilessness is not unearned, but the comedy here is deeper, I think. As in Jonathan Franzen’s novels, it issues less from the exposure of flawed and unlikeable characters than from the author’s warring impulses: to see them clearly, vs. to love them. Ultimately, in most good fiction, these amount to the same thing.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
This was a popular novel among grown-ups when I was a kid, and so I was pleasantly surprised to discover how stubborn and weird a work it is. And lovable for all that. Kundera keeps us at a peculiar distance from his protagonists, almost as if telling a fairy tale. Description is sparing. Plot is mostly sex. Also travel. At times, I had to remind myself which character was which. In a short story, this might be a liability. Yet somehow, over the length of the novel, through nuances of juxtaposition and patterning, Kundera manages to evoke states of feeling I’ve never seen on the page before. Political sadness. Emotional philosophy. The unbearable lightness of the title. All of this would seem to be as relevant in the U.S. in 2015 as in 1970s Prague.
The Infatuations, by Javier Marías
Hari Kunzru has captured, in a previous Year in Reading entry, how forbidding Javier Marías’s novels can seem from a distance. (Though maybe this is true of all great stylists. Lolita, anyone?) Marías is a formidably cerebral writer, whose long sentences are like fugues: a theme is introduced, toyed with, pursued to another theme, put down, taken up again. None of this screams pleasure. But neither would a purely formal description of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. The tremendous pleasure of The Infatuations, Marías’s most recent novel to appear in English, arrives from those most uncerebral places: plot, suspense, character. It’s like a literary version of Strangers on a Train, cool formal mastery put to exquisitely visceral effect. “Don’t open that door, Maria!” The Infatuations is the best new novel I read all year; I knew within the first few pages that I would be reading every book Mariás has written.
All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld
This haunting, poetic novel manages to convey in a short space a great deal about compulsion and memory and the human capacity for good and evil. Wyld’s narrator, Jake, is one of the most distinctive and sympathetic heroines in recent literature, a kind of Down Under Huck Finn. Her descriptions of the Australian outback are indelible. And the novel’s backward-and-forward form manages a beautiful trick: it simultaneously dramatizes the effects of trauma and attends to our more literary hungers: for form, for style. It reminded me forcefully of another fine book that came out of the U.K. this year, Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing.
Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
I’d be embarrassed at my lateness to the Thomas Cromwell saga, were I not so glad to have finally made it. Mantel’s a serious enough historical novelist not to shy away from those conventions of the genre that usually turn me off; the deliberate pacing of her trilogy-in-progress requires some getting used to. But more than a chronicler, Mantel is a novelist, full-stop. She excels at pretty much everything, and plays the long game brilliantly. By the time you get into the intrigues of Bring Up the Bodies, you’re flying so fast you hardly notice the beautiful calibration of the prose, or the steady deepening of the psychology, or the big thoughts the novel is thinking about pragmatism and Englishness and gender and the mystery of personality.
Dispatches, by Michael Herr
If you took the horrific public-burning scene from Wolf Hall, multiplied that by 100, put those pages in a hot-boxed Tomahawk piloted by Dr. Strangelove, and attempted to read them over the blare of the Jefferson Airplane, you’d end up with something like Dispatches. It is simultaneously one of the greatest pieces of New Journalism I’ve ever read and one of the greatest pieces of war writing. Indeed, each achievement enables the other. The putatively embedded journalism of our own wars already looks dated by comparison. Since the publication of Dispatches in 1977, Herr’s output has been slender, but I’d gladly read anything he wrote.
White Girls, by Hilton Als
This nonfiction collection casts its gaze all over the cultural map, from Flannery O’Connor to Michael Jackson, yet even more than most criticism, it adds up to a kind of diffracted autobiography. The longest piece in the book is devastating, the second-longest tough to penetrate, but this unevenness speaks to Als’s virtues as an essayist. His sentences have a quality most magazine writing suffocates beneath a veneer of glibness: the quality of thinking. That is, he seems at once to have a definite point-of-view, passionately held, and to be very much a work in progress. It’s hard to think of higher praise for a critic.
Utopia or Bust, by Benjamin Kunkel
This collection of sterling essays (many of them from the London Review of Books) covers work by David Graeber, Robert Brenner, Slavoj Zizek, and others, offering a state-of-the-union look at what used to be called political economy — a nice complement to the research findings of Thomas Piketty. Kunkel is admirably unembarrassed by politics as such, and is equally admirable as an autodidact in the field of macroeconomics. He synthesizes from his subjects one of the more persuasive accounts you’ll read about how we got into the mess we’re in. And his writing has lucidity and wit. Of Fredric Jameson, for example, he remarks: “Not often in American writing since Henry James can there have been a mind displaying at once such tentativeness and force.”
The Origin of the Brunists, by Robert Coover
The publication this spring of a gargantuan sequel, The Brunist Day of Wrath, gave me an excuse to go back and read Coover’s first novel, from 48 years ago. As a fan of his midcareer highlights, The Public Burning and Pricksongs and Descants, I was expecting postmodern glitter. Instead I got something closer to William Faulkner: tradition and modernity collide in a mining town beset by religious fanaticism. Yet with the attenuation of formal daring comes an increased access to Coover’s capacity for beauty, in which he excels many of his well-known peers. Despite its (inspired) misanthropy, this is a terrific novel. I couldn’t help wishing, as I did with much of what I read this year, that my old man was still around, that I might recommend it to him, and so repay the debt.
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June is sickly sweet; it’s insipid. Is that because it’s so warm, or because it rhymes so easily? June / moon / spoon / balloon… But while Robert Burns happily rhymed his “red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June” with a “melody / that’s sweetly played in tune,” Gwendolyn Brooks burned off any sugar in the terse rhythms of “We Real Cool”: the rhyme she finds for “Jazz June”? “Die soon.”
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
June is called “midsummer,” even though it’s the beginning, not the middle, of the season. It’s the traditional month for weddings — Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is overflowing with matrimony — but it’s also the home of another modern ritual, graduation day — or, as it’s more evocatively known, commencement, an ending that’s a beginning. It’s an occasion that brings out both hope and world-weariness in elders and advice givers. It brought David Foster Wallace, in his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address reprinted as This Is Water, perhaps as close as he ever came to the unironic statement his busy mind was striving for.
But the graduation speech is an especially potent scene in African American literature. There’s the narrator’s friend “Shiny” in James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, speaking to a white audience like “a gladiator tossed into the arena and bade to fight for his life,” and there’s Richard Wright, in his memoir Black Boy, giving a rough speech he’d composed himself instead of the one written, cynically, for him. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is invited to give his class speech before the town’s leading white citizens, only to find himself instead pitted in a “battle royal” with his classmates, while in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a young student follows a white dignitary’s patronizing words to the graduates with an unprompted and subversive leading of the “Negro national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (whose lyrics, to bring the tradition full circle, were written by none other than James Weldon Johnson).
Here is a selection of June reading for the beginnings and endings that midsummer brings:
McTeague by Frank Norris (1899)
One of American literature’s most memorable — and most disastrous — weddings ends, after an orgy of oyster soup, stewed prunes, roast goose, and champagne, with Trina whispering to her groom, McTeague, “Oh, you must be very good to me — very, very good to me, dear, for you’re all that I have in the world now.”
Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
Five days after Joyce met Nora Barnacle on a Dublin street, and one day after she stood him up, they went on their first date. Eighteen years later, he celebrated that day — June 16, 1904 — with a book.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (1942/2004)
After reading Colette’s account of the migration out of Paris forced by the German occupation, Némirovsky remarked, “If that’s all she could get out of June, I’m not worried,” and continued work on her own version, “Storm in June,” the first of the two sections of her fictional suite she’d survive the Nazis long enough to complete.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (1948)
It’s a “clear and sunny” morning on June 27 when the men, women, and children of an unnamed village assemble to conduct their annual choosing of lots.
“The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara (1959)
Writing during the lunch hour of his job at the Museum of Modern Art, O’Hara gathered the moments of his afternoon into a poem: the train schedule to Long Island, a shoeshine, the “quandariness” of choosing a book, the sweat of summer, and the memory of how Billie Holiday once took his breath away.
Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin (1964) and “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” by Eudora Welty (1963)
On the day (June 12, 1963) Medgar Evers was assassinated, Baldwin vowed that “nothing under heaven would prevent” him from finishing the play he was working on, about another notorious murder of a black man in Mississippi, while Welty, on hearing of the murder in her hometown of Jackson, quickly wrote a story, told from the mind of the presumed killer, that was published in The New Yorker within weeks.
Jaws by Peter Benchley (1974)
Is the greatest beach read the one that could keep you from ever wanting to go into the water again?
Blind Ambition by John Dean (197?)
We know the story of the June 1972 Watergate break-in best from All the President’s Men, but Dean’s insider’s memoir of how it quickly went wrong, co-written with future civil rights historian Taylor Branch, is an equally thrilling and well-told tale.
The Public Burning by Robert Coover (1977)
We’ve never quite known what to do with The Public Burning, Coover’s wild American pageant starring Nixon, a foul and folksy Uncle Sam, and the Rosenbergs, whose June execution is at its center: it’s too long, too angry, too crazy, and, for the publisher’s lawyers who said it couldn’t be released while its main character, the freshly deposed president, was still alive, it was too soon.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick (1979)
Sleepless Nights begins in a hot, blinding June but soon fragments across time, into memories from the narrator’s life — which closely resembles Hardwick’s — and stories from the lives of others, a method that has the paradoxical effect of heightening time’s power.
Clockers by Richard Price (1992)
It’s often said that no modern novel can match the storytelling power of The Wire, but its creators drew inspiration from Price’s novel of an unsolved summertime murder in the low-level New Jersey crack trade, and for their third season they added Price to their scriptwriting team.
When the World Was Steady by Claire Messud (1995)
Bali is hot but dry in June, while the Isle of Skye is gray and wet, at least until the weather makes yet another change. Messud’s first novel follows two English sisters just on the far side of middle age who find themselves on those distant and different islands, reckoning with the choices they’ve made and suddenly open to the life around them.
“Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx (1997)
Meeting again nearly four summers after they last parted on Brokeback Mountain, Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are drawn together with such a jolt that Jack’s teeth draw blood from Ennis’s mouth.
Three Junes by Julia Glass (2002)
Three Junes might well be called “Three Funerals”–each of its three sections, set in summers that stretch across a decade, takes place in the wake of a death. But the warmth of the month in Glass’s title hints at the story inside, and the way her characters hold on to life wherever they find it.
Image via circasassy/Flickr
Miniatures on a Broad Canvas
At the National Book Awards ceremony in New York City on November 2, E.L. Doctorow received the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. On that night he joined a rarefied posse of past recipients that includes Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Joan Didion, Philip Roth, Gore Vidal, Stephen King, Tom Wolfe, John Ashbery, and Elmore Leonard, among others. The award formalized something legions of readers have known for more than half a century: E.L. Doctorow is a national treasure.
While I wouldn’t presume to single out one of Doctorow’s dozen novels or story collections as his “best” book, I do think it is fair to say that, so far, his best known and best loved work is the novel Ragtime. And I would argue that this has also been his most influential book, the one that has done more than all the others to change the way American authors approach the writing of novels.
Ragtime, like so much of Doctorow’s fiction, is pinned to a particular, acutely rendered moment in American history. In other novels he has taken us back to the Wild West (Welcome to Hard Times, 1960), the Civil War (The March, 2005), post-bellum New York City (The Waterworks, 1994), the Depression (World’s Fair, 1985, winner of the National Book Award; Loon Lake, 1980; and Billy Bathgate, 1989), and the Cold War (The Book of Daniel, 1971).
In Ragtime he takes us back to the years immediately preceding the First World War, when America and much of the world lived in a state of dreamy innocence, oblivious that twinned calamities loomed. The book’s theme, as I read it, is that such innocence is an untenable luxury, then and now, and its inevitable loss is always laced with trauma, pain, and bloodshed. To heighten the trauma, Doctorow first builds a nearly pastoral world. Here is the novel’s serene opening:
In 1902 Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle, New York. It was a three-story brown shingle with dormers, bay windows, and a screened porch. Striped awnings shaded the windows. The family took possession of this stout manse on a sunny day in June and it seemed for some years thereafter that all their days would be warm and fair.
In just four deceptively simple sentences, Doctorow has established the novel’s tone and central strategy. The key word in this passage is seemed, for it hints that this stout manse will not be able to provide the stability it promises. More subtly – and crucially – Doctorow also establishes a slippery narrative voice, which will be a key to the novel’s success. When we learn that “Father” built this house, we assume that the man’s son or daughter is narrating the story. Later references to “Grandfather” and “Mother” and “Mother’s Younger Brother” and “the Little Boy” reinforce the familial sleight of hand. But three sentences after the intimate introduction of “Father,” Doctorow switches to the impersonal third-person plural and tells us that after “the family” took possession of the house, it seemed that “their” days would be warm and fair. It is a deft shift of focus, a quiet, barely noticeable pulling back, but it gives Doctorow the freedom to have it both ways – to paint miniatures on a broad canvas. The strategy is crucial to everything that will follow.
The novel was stylistically innovative in other ways. The paragraphs are long, unbroken by quoted dialog. This allows Doctorow to immerse the reader in the seamless atmosphere of a particular place and time. In the middle of the novel’s long opening paragraph, Doctorow plays the gambit that will become the novel’s signature and the source of its enduring influence on the way many American novelists work right up to today: he starts injecting historical figures into his fictional world.
The gambit unfolds like this: “Across America sex and death were barely distinguishable. Runaway women died in the rigors of ecstasy. Stories were hushed up and reporters paid off by rich families. One read between the lines of the journals and gazettes. In New York City the papers were full of the shooting of the famous architect Stanford White by Harry K. Thaw, eccentric scion of a coke and railroad fortune. Harry K. Thaw was the husband of Evelyn Nesbit, the celebrated beauty who had once been Stanford White’s mistress.” A few lines later Emma Goldman, the revolutionary, strolls onto the page. Soon after that, Harry Houdini wrecks his car, “a black 45-horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout,” in front of the family’s house in New Rochelle. Five pages in, and Doctorow is already off to the races.
In the course of the novel we’ll meet the muckraking journalist Jacob Riis, Sigmund Freud, Theodore Dreiser, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Henry Ford, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, and Emiliano Zapata. With one exception – a luncheon meeting between Ford and Morgan – the appearance of these historical figures feels unforced and plausible. Doctorow’s historical research is obviously prodigious, but the reader never feels that the author is emptying his notebook or showing off. The historical details, such as Houdini’s “black 45-horsepower Pope-Toledo Runabout,” are chosen carefully and slipped into the narrative without fanfare. In other words, Doctorow’s mastery of his material and his narrative voice prevents the novel’s central conceit from sliding into mere schtick.
From Kohlhase to Kohlhaas to Coalhouse
All writing comes from other writing, and of course E.L. Doctorow was not the first writer to populate a fictional narrative with historical figures. It just seemed that way to many people when Ragtime was published, to great fanfare, in the summer of 1975.
But as Doctorow happily admitted in an interview in 1988, Ragtime sprang from a very specific source – an 1810 novella called Michael Kohlhaas by the German writer Heinrich von Kleist. The parallels between the two books are unmistakable. In Kleist’s novella, the title character is based on an historical figure, a 16th-century horse dealer named Hans Kohlhase, who seeks justice when he is swindled out of two horses and a servant, a campaign that wins the support of Martin Luther but eventually leads to Kohlhass’s violent death; in Doctorow’s novel, the black musician Coalhouse Walker mounts an equally fierce campaign for justice when his pristine Model T is desecrated by a company of racist firemen, a campaign that wins the support of Booker T. Washington but eventually leads to Coalhouse’s violent death.
“Kleist is a great master,” Doctorow told the interviewer. “I was first attracted to his prose, his stories, and the location of his narrative somewhere between history and fiction… Ragtime is a quite deliberate homage. You know, writers lift things from other writers all the time. I always knew I wanted to use Michael Kohlhaas in some way, but I didn’t know until my black musician was driving up the Broadview Avenue hill in his Model T Ford that the time had come to do that.”
Ragtime’s Ragged Spawn
I read Ragtime not as a conventional historical novel – that is, a novel that hangs its fictions on a scaffold of known events – but rather as a novel that makes selective use of historical figures and events to create its own plausible but imaginary past. Yes, Doctorow did his research and he includes factual renderings of numerous historical figures and events, but these are springboards for his imaginings, not the essence of his enterprise. Put another way, Doctorow is after truth, not mere facts. But as he set out to write the book he understood that a prevailing hunger for facts had put the art of conventional storytelling under extreme pressure. He explained it this way in a 2008 interview with New York magazine: “I did have a feeling that the culture of factuality was so dominating that storytelling had lost all its authority. I thought, If they want fact, I’ll give them facts that will leave their heads spinning.” And when William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker, refused to run a review of the novel, Doctorow remarked, “I had transgressed in making up words and thoughts that people never said. Now it happens almost every day. I think that opened the gates.”
I think he’s right. Doctorow’s selective use of historical figures and events lends Ragtime its air of verisimilitude without robbing him of the freedom to imagine and distort and mythologize. It is, for a writer of fiction, the best of all possible worlds. Small wonder, then, that Doctorow’s strategy, radical in 1975, is now so commonplace that it’s impossible to keep up with the torrent of novels, short stories, and movies that owe a debt to his act of transgression.
(For an interesting take on how transgressions can become commonplace, go see the 100th-anniversary recreation of the Armory Show, currently at the New York Historical Society. Works by Duchamp, Matisse, and Gauguin that shocked America in 1913 – the precise moment when Ragtime is set – are now part of the Modernist canon, tame and acceptable.)
Colum McCann, the decorated Irish writer now living in New York, is among the many writers who have come around to Doctorow’s way of writing novels. McCann’s early fiction is loosely based on historical events but populated with fictional characters. Then in 2003 he published Dancer, a fictional telling of Rudolf Nureyev’s life. McCann’s National Book Award-winning novel from 2009, Let the Great World Spin, pivots on Philippe Petit’s mesmerizing high-wire walk between the Twin Towers in 1974. Earlier this year, McCann published TransAtlantic, a triptych that fictionalizes the stories of three journeys across the ocean by actual historical figures: the aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown; the abolitionist Frederick Douglass; and the former U.S. Senator and peace envoy George Mitchell. In an interview with The Guardian, McCann explained his shift toward historical figures and events over the past decade by citing a maxim from the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz: “The real is as imagined as the imaginary.” It follows that the imagined is as real as the real. McCann added, “I said about 12 years ago that writing about biographical figures showed a sort of failure of the writer’s imagination.” And then? “Absolutely busted. Because then I wrote Dancer…and then more or less ever since I’ve been hovering in this territory.”
He’s not alone. Here is a list, far from exhaustive and widely varying in quality, of Ragtime’s progeny, with some of the historical figures who appear in each work: Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates (Marilyn Monroe); Cloudsplitter by Russell Banks (John Brown); Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips (the mass-murderer Harry F. Powers); Hollywood by Gore Vidal (William Randolph Hearst, Warren Harding, Marion Davies, Douglas Fairbanks – not to mention Vidal’s more conventional historical novels such as Lincoln, Burr and 1876); The Public Burning by Robert Coover (Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, the Marx Brothers); Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel (King Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Sir Thomas More); The Women by T.C. Boyle (Frank Lloyd Wright); DaVinci’s Bicycle by Guy Davenport (Picasso, Leonardo, Joyce, and Apollinaire); Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler (Zelda and Scott, Hem, Ezra Pound); Dead Stars and Still Holding by Bruce Wagner (Michael Douglas, the Kardashians, a Russell Crowe look-alike and a Drew Barrymore look-alike); The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson (Franco, Truman, Stalin, Churchill, Mao); and the movies Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks meets Elvis, Bear Bryant, JFK, LBJ, and Richard Nixon) and Zelig (Woody Allen brushes up against Babe Ruth, Adolph Hitler, and others in this faux documentary, with added commentary from the real-life Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, and Bruno Bettelheim).
The last three items on this list illustrate the dangers of the strategy Doctorow pursued in Ragtime. In each of these three works, the central character encounters historical figures by pure chance and for no good reason, other than to amuse the reader or audience, or show off the filmmaker’s technical wizardry. There is nothing organic or plausible about any of these contrived encounters, and they drag the works down to the level of mere schtick.
On the other end of spectrum is one of Ragtime’s worthiest successors, the under-appreciated 1990 novel Silver Light by David Thomson, a writer best known for A Biographical Dictionary of Film. The novel takes the central conceit of Ragtime – fictional characters interacting with historical figures – and then gives it a delicious twist. Using the medium he knows so well, the movies, Thomson gives us a rambling cast of characters, a mix of real and imagined people and – here’s the twist – the actors who played some of them in movies. It was not until I read the extensive Note on Characters at the end of the book that I understood the histories of these people. The character Noah Cross, for instance, was lifted directly from the 1974 movie Chinatown. The (real? imagined?) character Susan Garth is the cantankerous 80-year-old daughter of a cattle rancher named Matthew Garth, who was played by Montgomery Clift in the 1948 Howard Hawks movie Red River, which was based on a Saturday Evening Post story by Borden Chase. Thomson makes superb use of this layered source material. In a scene that goes to the heart of such fiction, Thomson puts Susan Garth on the Red River set outside Willcox, Arizona, in 1946 with Hawks, Clift, and John Wayne. No one on the movie crew is aware that Susan is the daughter of the character Clift is playing in the movie. She has told Hawks her name is Hickey, and when Clift arrives on the set, Hawks performs the introductions:
“Miss Hickey…may I introduce Mr. Clift, our Matthew Garth?”
The spurious father and the unknown daughter shook hands, worlds and fifty years apart.
“Interesting role you’ve got,” said Susan.
“Well, look,” grinned Clift, tolerantly, “this is just a Western, you know.”
“Still,” she persevered, “the real Garth. He was an unusual fellow.”
“Hey, Howard,” whined Clift, “was Garth a real person? Is that right?”
Delicate and dangerous, Howard saunteringly rejoined them. “There are no real people,” he told them. “See if they sue.”
There are no real people; there are only the ones we can imagine truly. When I read Hawks’s made-up words, I could hear echoes of Clifford Geertz and Colum McCann and E.L. Doctorow and every writer on my incomplete and ever-growing list.
The I’s Have It
This homage to Ragtime would not be complete without mention of two related strains of fiction. In the first, a writer places a historical figure at center stage and then attempts to channel that character’s voice and enter his mind. One of this strain’s early avatars was the wildly popular 1934 novel I, Claudius, in which Robert Graves set out to refute the conventional view that the man who ruled the Roman Empire from 41 to 54 A.D. was a stuttering, doddering idiot. (Graves followed it a year later with Claudius the God.) Jerry Stahl took on a similar revisionist challenge in 2008 with I, Fatty, a look into the dark soul of the supposedly sunny silent-movie star Roscoe Arbuckle. Other figures from history, literature, and myth who have become titles of I, ______ novels include Hogarth, Iago and Lucifer. And then there are such masterpieces of ventriloquism as Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang, Margeurite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, and Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (whose narrator, fictional 111-year-old Jack Crabb, recounts his encounters with such historical figures as Gen. George Armstrong Custer, Wyatt Earp, and Wild Bill Hickok).
In the Epilogue to Little Big Man, Ralph Fielding Snell, the fictional character who tape-recorded Jack Crabb’s reminiscences of the West, offers this caveat about their veracity: “So as I take my departure, dear reader, I leave the choice in your capable hands. Jack Crabb was either the most neglected hero in the history of this country or a liar of insane proportions.” Or maybe he was both. Does it matter? This novel, like Ragtime, is distinguished not by the facts it relates, but by the truths it reveals.
The second strain is something that has come to be known as “self-insertion,” which sounds like a sexual kink but is actually the increasingly common practice of writers inserting themselves, as characters with their own names, into their novels and stories. The practice – gimmick? – has proven irresistible to Ben Marcus, Jonathan Ames, David Foster Wallace, Kurt Vonnegut, Bret Easton Ellis, Douglas Coupland, Philip Roth, and Nick Tosches, among others. As the wave of postmodernism became a tsunami, this trend was probably inevitable; mercifully it’s not yet universal. I can’t imagine coming across a character named E.L. Doctorow in a novel by E.L. Doctorow. His imagination is too rich and too demanding to allow such a thing.
Too Much Like Work
With the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination now upon us, it’s worth noting that the events in Dallas in November of 1963 continue to inspire a steadily growing shelf of American fiction, movies, and TV shows. Among the writers and filmmakers who have mined the assassination for fictional ends are Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer, William F. Buckley, Oliver Stone, Bobbi Kornblit, J.G. Ballard, and Stephen King. For readers operating under the illusion that novelists and filmmakers use historical figures and events as crutches for a hobbled imagination, listen to Stephen King’s thoughts on the research that went into the writing of his novel, 11/22/63: “I have never tried anything like that before and I’m not sure I would ever want to try it again because, man, it was too much like work.”
E.L. Doctorow has been doing that hard work for more than half a century, producing novels and stories that have illuminated the American soul by bringing American history to life. It’s why he deserves his Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It’s what makes him a national treasure.
The first half of 2013 delighted us with new books by the likes of George Saunders, Karen Russell, and Colum McCann, among many others. And if the last six months had many delights on offer for book lovers, the second half of the year can only be described as an invitation to gluttony. In the next six months, you’ll see new books by Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt, Marisha Pessl, Norman Rush, Jonathan Lethem, and none other than Thomas Pynchon. And beyond those headliners there are many other tantalizing titles in the wings, including some from overseas and others from intriguing newcomers.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at 9,000 words strong and encompassing 86 titles, this is the only second-half 2013 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda: Crime writer Dennis Lehane chose Pochoda’s lyrical and atmospheric second novel for his eponymous imprint at Ecco/Harper, calling it “gritty and magical.” Pitched as a literary thriller about the diverse inhabitants of Red Hook, Brooklyn, Visitation Street has already received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal. Lionel Shriver says, “I loved it,” and Deborah Harkness calls it “marvelous.” (Edan)
Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff: Rakoff was the author of three books of essays, the winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and a beloved regular on This American Life who died last year shortly after finishing this book. A novel written entirely in verse (a form in which he was masterful, as evidenced here), its characters range across the 20th century, each connected to the next by an act of generosity or cruelty. (Janet)
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman: Waldman recently weighed in for us on the centuries-old Richardson vs. Fielding debate. Now, in her first novel, she expertly plays the former’s psychological penetration off the latter’s civic vision. The titular Nathaniel, one of Brooklyn’s sad young literary men, seeks to navigate between his public ambitions and his private compulsions in a series of romantic encounters. Those without 718 area codes shouldn’t let the milieu scare them off; questions of whether Nate can heed the difficult imperatives of the conscience—and of how Waldman will pull off a whole book from the man’s point of view—keep the pages turning, while generating volumes of quotable insight, in the manner of The Marriage Plot. (Garth)
Fin & Lady by Cathleen Schine: A country mouse moves to the city in Cathleen Schine’s ninth novel. The mouse is Fin, an orphaned eleven-year old boy, and the city is Greenwich Village in the 1960s. Under the guardianship of his glamorous half-sister, Lady, Fin gets to know both the city and his wild sister, and encounters situations that are a far cry from his Connecticut dairy farm upbringing. As with many of Schine’s previous novels, Fin & Lady explores changing definitions of family. (Hannah)
My Education by Susan Choi: Reflect upon your sordid graduate school days with a novel of the perverse master-student relationship and adulterous sex triangle. Professor Brodeur is evidently the kind of man whose name is scrawled on restroom walls by vengeful English majors—rather than end up in the sack with him, Choi’s protagonist Regina instead starts up an affair with his wife. Later in the novel and in time, Regina reflects on this period in her life and the changes wrought by the intervening 15 years. Choi was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her second novel, American Woman. (Lydia)
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw: The third novel from the winner of the 2005 Whitbread First Novel Award follows the lives and business ventures of five characters in Shanghai, each representing various—and at times dichotomous—social strata. There’s Phoebe, the poor and unsophisticated migrant worker from Malaysia; and there’s Yinghui, the rich and ambitious businesswoman. There’s Gary, the waylaid pop star; and there’s Justin, the scion of a wealthy real estate family. Lastly there’s Walter, the eponymous billionaire, who meddles behind the scenes with the lives of almost everybody. Altogether, their multi-layered, intersecting lives contribute to make “Shanghai itself [into] the book’s real main character,” writes Jill Baker in the Asian Review of Books. It’s a city “luring in people hoping for a second chance or … any chance at all.” (Nick)
Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano: It’s a rare first novel that can appeal to partisans of both S.E. Hinton and Julio Cortázar, but Lotería does just that. The story 11-year-old Luz Maria Castillo begins telling us from her room in a state institution is deceptively plainspoken: Here’s how I got here. But as the story proceeds in fragments, keyed not to chronology but to a deck of cards from Lotería (a kind of Mexican bingo), things get shiftier. Color reproductions of the cards introduce each chapter, making the book, if not exactly Kindle-proof, then at least uncommonly handsome. (Garth)
The Unknowns by Gabriel Roth: Gabriel Roth’s debut novel follows Eric Muller from his lonely high school days as a computer geek to his millionaire success in Silicon Valley as a computer geek. Slightly disoriented by his newfound abilities to make money and bed women, Muller wryly observes his life as if he is that same awkward teenager trapped in a dream life. When he falls in love with Maya, a beautiful woman with a mysterious past, he must choose between the desire to emotionally (and literally) hack into it, or to trust his good fortune. (Janet)
The Hare by César Aira: A recent bit of contrarianism in The New Republic blamed the exhaustive posthumous marketing of Roberto Bolaño for crowding other Latin American writers out of the U.S. marketplace. If anything, it seems to me, it’s the opposite: the success of The Savage Detectives helped publishers realize there was a market for Daniel Sada, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and the fascinating Argentine César Aira. The past few years have seen seven of Aira’s many novels translated into English. Some of them, like Ghosts, are transcendently good, but none has been a breakout hit. Maybe the reissue of The Hare, which appeared in the U.K. in 1998, will be it. At the very least, it’s the longest Aira to appear in English: a picaresque about a naturalist’s voyage into the Argentinean pampas. (Garth)
Night Film by Marisha Pessl: Pessl’s first novel since Special Topics in Calamity Physics, her celebrated 2006 debut, concerns a David Lynchish filmmaker whose daughter has died in Lower Manhattan under suspicious circumstances. Soon, reporter Scott McGrath has launched an investigation that will take him to the heart of the auteur’s secretive empire: his cult following, his whacked-out body of work, and his near impenetrable upstate compound. With interpolated web pages and documents and Vanity Fair articles, the novel’s a hot pop mess, but in the special way of a latter-day Kanye West album or a movie co-directed by Charlie Kaufman and Michael Bay, and the climax alone—a 65-page haunted-house tour-de-force—is worth the price of admission. (Garth)
Cannonball by Joseph McElroy: McElroy was writing the lights out in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and in the last few years has been rediscovered by a younger generation of readers, who justly class him with Thomas Pynchon—a writer of a wildly different sensibility, but a similar, world-devouring ambition. Hell, he even did a Year in Reading. If 2011’s Night Soul is any indication, McElroy’s can still intrigue, baffle, and stop the heart, often all at once. This, his first novel in many a moon, concerns the Iraq War, among other things, and it’s hard to think of an author more suited to reimagining the subject. (Garth)
Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat: The author of a string of heartbreaking novels about the strife-torn Caribbean nation of Haiti, including The Farming of Bones and The Dew Breaker, Danticat here tells the story of a young motherless girl whose poverty-stricken father considers giving her away a wealthier family. Hailed by Publishers Weekly as “magical as a folk tale and as effective and devastating as a newsreel,” the novel paints a stark portrait of village life in Haiti. (Michael)
Remember How I Told You I Loved You? by Gillian Linden: Gillian Linden’s debut collection of linked stories follows a young woman through college, careers, love affairs and marriages— “from delayed adolescence to (delayed) adulthood.” The publisher, Little A (Amazon’s new literary fiction imprint), describes the collection as “a sharp and intimate take on romance and infidelity, trust and betrayal,” written in a “deadpan narrative, cool and precise.” Linden’s story “Pests” was recently published in The Paris Review. Linden will join the ranks of several talented literary writers that Little A has published since its launch in March — including A.L. Kennedy, Shawn Vestal, and Jenny Davidson. (Sonya)
The Infatuations by Javier Marias: Marias’s only competitor for the title of Spain’s Most Important Living Writer may be Enrique Vila-Matas. Each of his last few books with New Directions, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, set a new high-water mark—most recently, the mammoth trilogy Your Face Tomorrow. Now he’s made the jump to Knopf, which means you’re about to hear a lot about him. And deservedly so, it would seem: The Infatuations has already been called “great literature” in Spain and “perhaps his best novel” in the U.K. Is there any reason on earth you wouldn’t want to read the greatest novel of Spain’s greatest living writer? Of course there isn’t. Now get thee to a bookshop! (Garth)
The Color Master by Aimee Bender: Ogres, tiger-mending and playing at prostitution—yep, it’s time for Aimee Bender to once again enchant us with her whimsical and magical fiction. Her next story collection comes out just three years after the publication of her bestselling novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, and it looks like the book is a return to form for Bender. Publishers Weekly says that even the tales that resemble children’s storybooks “are haunted by a taut, sardonic melancholy,” noting that her “mood pieces” about female friendship are the strongest of the bunch. (Edan)
Elect H. Mouse State Judge by Nelly Reifler: To Kafka’s “Josephine, the Mouse-Singer” and Bolaño’s “Police Rat” and Mrs. Frisby and that one A.M. Homes story where the kid gets it on with a Barbie doll, we must now add Nelly Reifler’s first novel. It’s a fast-paced caper—politician’s kids get abducted, private eyes go searching—but with a major twist: H. Mouse is a mouse, and both perps and dicks are dolls. Shrewdly, Reifler serves this concoction neat; what could have been cheap thrills give way to weirder and more surprising effects. (Garth)
The Rathbones by Janice Clark: The Rathbones is the most sui generis debut you’re likely to encounter this year. Think Moby-Dick directed by David Lynch from a screenplay by Gabriel Garcia Marquez…with Charles Addams doing the set design and The Decembrists supplying the chanteys. Initially the story of the last surviving member of an eccentric 19th-Century whaling dynasty, it becomes the story of that dynasty itself. I should also say that this was the single most exciting thing I read in manuscript in graduate school, where the author and I studied together. Clark writes a beautiful prose line, and the story, like the ocean, get deeper, richer, and stranger the farther out you go. (Garth)
A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories by Robert Walser: For a long time, Walser addicts—which is to say, pretty much anyone who has come into contact with this intoxicating writer—had to make do with the novel Jakob van Gunten (but what a novel!) and a slim edition of selected stories. But, half a century after his death, the Swiss master of smallness and obscurity is finally getting the treatment he deserves. Microscripts was one of the best books I read in 2012. The tireless Susan Bernofsky has also given us versions of The Tanners, The Assistant, and a collection of Berlin Stories. In this volume, Damion Searls translates a group of stories about school life—also the engine of much of Jakob van Gunten’s exquisite comedy. (Garth)
Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain: Lately, it’s seemed that the “literary” first novel had become a genre unto itself: a certain page-limit, a certain definition of scope, a certain set of problems, modestly conceived and modestly transcended. If so, Crain’s stately, wry, and generous first novel breaks the mold. Certainly, there’s a classic coming-of-age narrative here. But as the back-cover blurbs attest, the adventures of American Jacob Putnam in Czechoslovakia right after the Iron Curtain’s fall recall Henry James as much as they do Ben Lerner. Crain’s broad social canvas and his deep interest in the lives of other people are marks of distinction. (Garth)
The Novel: An Alternative History (1600-1800) by Steven Moore: The first volume of Moore’s magisterial survey advanced a theory of the novel as inherently experimental and multicultural, and much older than is generally acknowledged. It’s not that Jane Austen moves to the margins and Gertrude Stein to the center, but that Austen and Stein become recognizably part of the same story. And though Moore hews closer, necessarily, to synopsis than to close-reading, his project is an invaluable desk reference for the catholic reader. In volume 2, he turns his sights to the era that inspired the argument in the first place, a period that begins with Don Quixote. (Garth)
The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: At The Age, Cameron Woodhead writes: “With The Sound of Things Falling, Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez has created a story that can be appreciated purely for the dramatic way it dives into the black hole of his country’s past—the drug cartels and paramilitaries that scarred a generation—although the supple thought-weave of the prose won’t be lost on anyone with a taste for more reflective fiction.” Woodhead also compares Vasquez to Graham Greene, W.G. Sebald, and Robert Bolaño—all writers who give us an expansive sense of a country’s history and legacy through the lives of compelling individuals. The protagonist is a Colombian lawyer named Antonio whose memory takes him back to a long-ago acquaintance with the ex-pilot Ricardo LaVerde and a series of mysterious (and yes, violent) occurrences. Vásquez, who is 40, has published four previous novels, but prefers to not count the first two, which he wrote in his early 20s; so “officially,” Sound is his third novel. (Sonya)
The Virgins by Pamela Erens: This smart, unsettling novel is narrated by a middle-aged man obsessed by the star-crossed love affair of two classmates at his boarding school thirty years ago. Erens, author of one previous novel, The Understory, displays an uncanny gift for writing honestly about pot-toking, hormone-addled adolescents while granting them the full range of human emotion one expects from a novel for adults. The novel is from indie press Tin House Books, a spinoff of the well-known literary magazine that has quietly built a reputation as a home for first-rate literary fiction. (Michael)
The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood: Alex Marwood is the pseudonym of British journalist Serena Mackesy, and The Wicked Girls is her dark and beautifully executed first novel. In the mid-eighties, two eleven-year-old girls meet for the first time and become friends. By the end of the day, a younger child has died at their hands. Twenty-five years later, with new lives and changed identities, the two women encounter one another in a seaside town where a serial killer is active. A haunting meditation on crime and punishment. (Emily)
The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd: Loyd, formerly the fiction editor at Playboy, moves to the other side of the desk with a first novel of elegant intensity. A young widow in Brooklyn has bought her apartment building, and so become an accidental landlord. Or do people still say landlady? At any rate, her straitened existence is challenged by the arrival of a fascinating new tenant, with emotional transformation the ultimate issue. Loyd’s burnished, spare sentences conceal hidden volumes of emotion, and in its different moods, the book may put readers in mind of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland or of a more hopeful version of Claire Messud’s recent The Woman Upstairs. (Garth)
Brief Encounters with the Enemy by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh: Sayrafiezadeh’s acclaimed memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, chronicled a childhood being raised by an Iranian father and American Jewish mother united by an extreme devotion to the Socialist Workers Party. Three years later, Sayrafiezadeh, whose fiction has appeared in Granta, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review, among other places, publishes his first short story collection. The everyday trials of his characters, some of them grappling with the rippling effects of a nameless war (“this could be any war, or perhaps the next war,” Sayrafiezadeh told The New Yorker) “are transformed into storytelling that is both universally resonant and wonderfully strange.” (Elizabeth)
The Hypothetic Girl by Elizabeth Cohen: From Other Press, a collection of stories that “captures all the mystery, misery, and magic of the eternal search for human connection” via tales about the bizarre and inarguably ubiquitous world of online dating. Says Amazon: “With levity and high style, Cohen takes her readers into a world where screen and keyboard meet the heart, with consequences that range from wonderful to weird.” For anyone who’s been submerged in this wonderful weird search, these stories are likely to ring a therapeutic bell. Or, in some cases perhaps, a gong. Look out for an essay from Cohen in July, and an excerpt in early August, at Bloom. (Sonya)
MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood: MaddAddam concludes the dystopian trilogy that Atwood began ten years ago with Oryx and Crake and continued in 2009 with The Year of the Flood. Booklist calls MaddAddam a “coruscating finale in an ingenious, cautionary trilogy of hubris, fortitude, wisdom, love, and life’s grand obstinacy.” (Emily)
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon: Since his 1997 comeback, Pynchon’s been uncommonly productive…and, more characteristically, all over the map. I thought Mason & Dixon his best book; Against the Day vastly underrated; and Inherent Vice fun but disposable. Proximity to the present moment can be a telling index of the quality of a Pynchon project, so the setting here—New York’s Silicon Alley on the eve of the dot-com crash—gives one pause. But Pynchon’s ability to “think the present historically” in his last two books was the best thing about them, so maybe he still has much to tell us about the way we live now. (Garth)
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King: Thirty-six years later, it’s here: a sequel to The Shining. Dan Torrance, the tricycle peddling protagonist of the original horror classic, is now middle-age and working in a nursing home in New Hampshire where he uses his ebbing mental powers to comfort the dying. The story picks up when Dan tries to save Abra Stone, a twelve-year-old girl with gifts like the ones he used to have, who is in danger from a group called The True Knot, which travels the country consuming children with the gift of The Shining. (Kevin)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri: Lahiri’s second novel (and fourth book) comes heaped with expectations and describes the relationship between two formerly inseparable brothers born in mid-century Calcutta. The first, Udayan, is drawn into revolutionary politics; the second, Subash, leaves his native country to make a better life for himself as a scientist in the United States. But tragedy strikes Udayan and Subash returns home where he gets to know Udayan’s former wife and reconnects with childhood memories. (Kevin)
Someone by Alice McDermott: An excerpt of Alice McDermott’s new novel, Someone, appeared in the New Yorker as a story of the same name. The story is about Marie, who is seventeen years old in 1937, when a boy from her Brooklyn neighborhood turns her head, fondles her breast, promises marriage, and then spurns her for a better-looking girl. In the story, the titular Someone is the person who, Marie’s brother promises, will one day love her. McDermott told The New Yorker’s Deborah Treisman that the novel is the story of “one unremarkable woman,” because “novels about unremarkable women, especially those written by unremarkable women, seem a thing of the past.” Who you calling “unremarkable,” Alice McDermott? (Lydia)
Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai: In the last few years, American readers have rapidly awakened to Krasznahorkai’s important place in the republic of world letters. He is one of few working novelists who still aspires to mastery, in the Modernist sense, and each of the three previous novels translated into English has been a masterpiece. Those books were set in Europe and New York. Seiobo, published in Hungarian in 2009, reveals a different side of the Krasznahorkai oeuvre: his decades-long engagement with East Asia. It’s a major feat of editing and translating, and the publication date been pushed back. Those who can’t wait should check out the excerpt in Music & Literature. (Garth)
Enon by Paul Harding: Harding’s 2009 debut, Tinkers, won him the Pulitzer Prize and instant acclaim as one of the most profound writers of our time. Enon follows Charlie Crosby, the grandson of Tinkers protagonist George Washington Crosby, through a year of his life after a devastating loss. Inhabiting the same New England landscape so intricately rendered in Tinkers (Enon is the town where George Crosby died), Enon is a story about small moment and big questions. (Janet)
John Updike: The Collected Stories by John Updike: This two-volume collection spans the arc of a life’s work. One hundred and eighty-six stories are presented in their final versions and in definitive order of composition, established for the first time by archival research: from “Ace in the Hole” (1953), written when Updike was still a student at Harvard, to “The Full Glass” from 2008, the final year of his life. In his poem “Spirit of ’76,” written during his final illness and published in The New Yorker three months after his death, Updike wrote:
I see clear through to the ultimate page,
the silence I dared break for my small time.
No piece was easy, but each fell finished,
in its shroud of print, into a book-shaped hole. (Emily)
Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta: American fiction’s favorite lighthearted chronicler of suburban angst delivers his first collection of short stories since Bad Haircut, his first book, nineteen years ago. In Nine Inches, Perrotta, the author of the Hollywood-friendly novels Little Children and The Leftovers (currently under development as a HBO series), returns to familiar themes of fractured families and the undercurrent of disappointment that lurks just below the placid surface of suburban life. Perrotta knows his way around a punch line, so expect some chuckles to go along with your quiet desperation. (Michael)
The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: When it came out in the UK and Ireland this Spring, Coetzee’s new novel was received with an even more potent combination of admiration and confusion than his work is normally met with. Reviewing the book in the Telegraph, Michael Preston asked whether it was “possible to be deeply affected by a book without really knowing what it’s about?” (The fairly obvious answer: yes.) A man and a five year old boy arrive in a sort of refugee camp, where they are assigned new names and ages. The boy speaks in riddles and claims to be able to perform miracles. Together, they search for the boy’s mother, and endure a series of odd bureaucratic encounters. The inscrutable spirit of Kafka has often flickered across Coetzee’s pages, and that spirit seems to loom large here. (Mark)
The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell: Daniel Woodrell, a master of “country noir” fiction, makes rare use of autobiography in his new novel, The Maid’s Version. While growing up in West Plains, Missouri, Woodrell listened to stories his grandmother told about a mysterious dance hall explosion in town in 1928 that killed 39 people. In the novel, a grandmother tells her grandson about working as a maid for the family that was implicated in the blast but never held responsible. The novel is “very lyrical and not completely chronological,” Woodrell told an interviewer, “because it’s the story of a family and the after-effects on the family and the grandmother trying to get justice or revenge.” (Bill)
Levels of Life by Julian Barnes: Julian Barnes’s new book is not a novel, and not a memoir, and not a collection of essays, although it appears to contain elements of all three. The collection begins with a brief history of hot air ballooning and the characters involved in its development and lured by its attractions. Part two is an imagined romance between Sarah Bernhardt, who was in life one of the people from the latter category, and Colonel Frederick Burnaby, intrepid ballooner (who is, incidentally, documented on the delightful website “Great British Nutters”). In the third part of his new book, Barnes ties these curious introductory portions into a memoir of his profound grief following the loss of Pat Kavanagh, his wife of 30 years. (Lydia)
Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker: Last year, Nicholson Baker treated the Internet to a cluster of peculiar, melancholy protest songs about Bradley Manning and the Obama administration’s drone assassination program. The venture was out of character in a way that was, weirdly, entirely characteristic of Baker. The songs appear to have been, at least in part, an aspect of a method writing exercise for his new novel, Traveling Sprinkler—a sort of sequel to 2009’s The Anthologist, in which Paul Chowder sat around having a lot of thoughts about poetry while failing to write the introduction to a poetry anthology. In the new novel, Chowder sits around trying to write protest songs. Very few writers are as interesting as Baker on the theme of men sitting (or standing) around, so this looks promising. (Mark)
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem: Of the greats of his generation, Lethem is one of the few who’s gotten steadily better, novel by novel. Fortress of Solitude is a better book than Motherless Brooklyn, and in my read, Chronic City is even better than that—the highs less high, but the consistency more consistent. It’s also worth noting that Lethem’s always been a political writer (science-fiction being among other things a way of thinking about the possible) and has been more so lately. Expectations for Dissident Gardens, then—a generation-spanning saga centered around Leftists from Sunnyside Queens—should be very, very high. (Garth)
Mood Indigo by Boris Vian: Few of Vian’s novels have been translated, but L’Ecume des Jours is appearing in English for the third time, with a third title (Mood Indigo, Froth on the Daydream, Foam of the Daze, take your pick). Still, we should be grateful for what we are given—Le Monde named L’Ecume number 10 on the 100 best books of the century. Vian (d. 1959), published under his own name and the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan. He was a trumpeter in the Hot Club de France, devotee of Duke Ellington, ingester of peyote, consort of Sartre (until Sartre consorted with his wife). Written in 1947, L’Ecume is a sad, fanciful love story (which, the Harvard Crimson wrote in 1969, read like “perceptions at a stoned-soul picnic,” in a good way). Mood Indigo received the Michel Gondry film treatment last spring. (Lydia)
Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush: The decade-in-the-making follow-up to Mortals (one of our Best Novels of the Millennium) is also a departure. The first of Rush’s books not set in Botswana, it’s shorter by half than either of his previous novels, and when I got a galley in the mail, the jacket copy—comfortable fortysomethings at a Big Chill-style reunion near the start of the Iraq War—made me even more nervous. Was the Rush magic still there? Then my wife started reading it, then started putting it down to laugh, and finally began forcing me to listen to her read whole passages aloud for the sheer pleasure of the phrases. Note to Mr. Rush: You had me at “berserk industry.” (Garth)
His Wife Leaves Him by Stephen Dixon: A 600-page depiction of a jilted lover’s interior thoughts might not be your idea of an enjoyable book, but in the hands of a writer as talented as Stephen Dixon, it’s certainly one worth reading. In his own description of the novel, he’s noted that it’s about “a bunch of nouns” such as “love, guilt, sickness, death, remorse, loss, family, matrimony, sex, children, parenting, aging, mistakes, incidents, minutiae, birth, music, writing, jobs, affairs, memory, remembering, reminiscences, forgetting, repression, dreams, reverie, nightmares, meeting, dating, conceiving, imagining, delaying, loving.” Indeed these words convey the complexity of a life rendered whole, of a relationship’s threads and effects laid bare, and of honest memories enlivened by an acute and unrelenting ache. When a relationship dies, all that remains are remembered details, and in the words of Jim Harrison, “death steals everything except our stories.” (Nick)
Local Souls by Allan Gurganus: For his first book in a decade, Allan Gurganus returns to the imagined town of Falls, N.C., where he set his first and best-known novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. His new book, Local Souls, which owes more to Flannery O’Connor than to Nikolai Gogol, is three linked novellas set in the contemporary New South, with its air-conditioning and improved telecommunications, its freer sexuality and looser family ties. However, some old habits prove hard to break—including adultery, incest and obsession—in these tales that unfold in a Dixiefied version of Winesburg, Ohio. (Bill)
Between Friends by Amos Oz: Born in Jerusalem in 1939, Amos Oz spent three decades living on a kibbutz because city life was not “radical” enough for him and, as he puts it in his new book of stories, Between Friends, he wanted to live among “people with patience and doubts and compassion.” These eight stories, set in the imaginary Kibbutz Yikhat during the 1950s of Oz’s youth, spin around the shortcomings of idealism and the fragility of all utopias. In the end, the stories affirm Oz’s long-held belief that both on the kibbutz and throughout the larger Middle East, the only hope lies not in conflict, but in compromise. (Bill)
The Brunist Day by Robert Coover: Aside from being a terrific year for first novels, 2013 may be remembered for its efflorescence of major work from the eminences grises of postmodernism. So far, we’ve gotten Gass’s Middle C, Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, and McElroy’s Cannonball. Now Coover, author of a couple of the great postwar novels (e.g., The Public Burning), returns with a thousand-page sequel to his very first book, The Origin of the Brunists. I haven’t been this excited to read new Coover…well, since I started reading Coover. The folks at Dzanc Books should be commended. (Garth)
Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway: This isn’t the story of a family business, à la Dombey & Son, but rather a buddy-cop detective vehicle—except the cops aren’t exactly buddies, and most of what gets detected is random violence and existential unease. Ridgway is a brilliant stylist from Ireland, and the early word from the U.K. is that he’s hit his stride here, in a kind of deadpan avant-pop tour of contemporary London. (Garth)
Duplex by Kathryn Davis: Davis’s earlier novel, The Thin Place, is set in a place where the membrane between the real world and the spirit world is extremely thin. Most of her work, which includes six previous novels, sits at this same juncture, combining real and imagined worlds. Duplex is the story of Mary and Eddie, two children growing up in a duplex outside time, while “adulthood”—a world of sorcerers, robots, and slaves—looms ahead. (Janet)
Goat Mountain by David Vann: In his writing across a variety of forms—short stories, novels, memoir, and reportage—David Vann has returned repeatedly to the same deep well of themes: nature, thwarted masculinity, family, and violence. In his third novel Goat Mountain, an eleven-year-old boy goes on a deer-hunt with his father and grandfather, and things, as they tend to do this writer’s work, take a devastating turn. There’s a rawness and obsessional urgency to Vann’s writing that makes this ongoing project of recasting and development among the most compelling in contemporary literature. (Mark)
At the Bottom of Everything by Ben Dolnick: Dolnick’s third novel is about a dark secret that tears apart a boyhood friendship and how the two are brought back together as adults to reckon with what happened long ago. The jacket copy calls it “a tale of spiritual reckoning, of search and escape, of longing and reaching for redemption—a tale of near hallucinatory power.” Dolnick, who writes for NPR and the New York Times, has also written a Kindle single called Shelf-Love, about his fanaticism for Alice Munro. (Edan)
The Traymore Rooms by Norm Sibum: Poet Norm Sibum’s 700-pager should be on the radar of all the maximalism-starved readers who landed A Naked Singularity on our Top 10 list in 2012—though the book might more rightly be likened to something by William Gass or Alexander Theroux. Plot isn’t Sibum’s thing, exactly, but his erudition (considerable), sense of character (eccentric), and mood (quietly splenetic) more than compensate. The novel concerns a group of aging friends who share haunts in downtown Montreal. They talk, fight, love, and try to make sense of a historical moment that has disappointed their youthful hopes. And apart from an overreliance on that contemporary workhorse, the absolute phrase, the prose is a consistent pleasure. (Garth)
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: In a 2002 interview with The Guardian, Tartt said she couldn’t “think of anything worse than having to turn out a book every year. It would be hell.” She seems to have settled into a pattern of turning out a book every ten or eleven years instead. In her third novel, The Goldfinch, a young boy named Theo Decker survives an accident that kills his mother. In the years that follow, he finds himself drawn to things that remind him of her, including a painting that draws him eventually into the art underworld. (Emily)
Identical by Scott Turow: Every three years, with metronome-like regularity, bestselling lawyer-author Scott Turow comes out with another well-turned legal thriller set in corruption-rife Kindle County. Three years after 2010’s Innocent, Turow is right on schedule with a new thriller focusing on a pair of identical twins, one a candidate for mayor in Kindle County, the other a convicted murderer just released from prison after serving 25 years for killing his girlfriend. This is Turow country, so nothing is as it seems and the plot turns on a re-investigation of the decades-old murder that sent one of the brothers to prison. (Michael)
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert: Elizabeth Gilbert’s return to fiction (she wrote that little-known memoir called Eat Pray Love) is a sprawling historical novel about Alma Whittaker, the daughter of a botanical explorer, and talented scientist in her own right, and her relationship with Utopian artist Ambrose Pike. As the jacket copy says, “Alma Whittaker is a witness to history, as well as maker of history herself.” The book spans the globe and two centuries, and it sounds like a big and exciting artistic departure for Gilbert. (Edan)
Solo (James Bond) by William Boyd: At this year’s London Book Fair, venerated author William Boyd announced the one-word title of his forthcoming James Bond novel, which reflects the spy’s solitary and unauthorized mission. The book is an authorized sequel to Jeffery Deaver’s novel, Carte Blanche, published in 2011. At the Book Fair, Boyd said that key action takes place in Africa, the US and Europe, and remarked that Bond “goes on a real mission to real countries and the world he’s in is absolutely 1969. There are no gimmicks, it’s a real spy story.” (Edan)
Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III: The four interlocking stories within Andre Dubus III’s sixth book explore the “bottomless needs and stubborn weaknesses of people seeking gratification in food and sex, work and love.” These highs and lows are depicted by Mark, a Massachusetts man who’s recently discovered his wife’s infidelity; by Marla, an overweight young woman who’s just found a lover; by Robert, who’s just betrayed his pregnant wife; and by Devon, a teenager terrorized by a dirty picture she’s posted online, and whose story comprises the collection’s titular novella. (Nick)
Cartwheel by Jennifer DuBois: Jennifer DuBois follows her decorated first novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, with Cartwheel, a novel with loud echoes of the recent murder trial, conviction and eventual acquittal of Amanda Knox. Cartwheel’s protagonist, Lily Hayes, is an American arriving in Buenos Aires for a semester abroad. Five weeks later she’s the prime suspect in her roommate’s brutal murder. Questions arise. Is Lily guilty? More importantly, exactly who is Lily Hayes? “Cartwheel will keep you guessing until the final page,” the publisher promises, “and its questions about how much we really know about ourselves will linger well beyond.” (Bill)
The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna: Aminatta Forna made her name with The Devil That Danced on the Water, her memoir about her father’s execution for treason in Sierra Leone. In her new novel, The Hired Man, a naive middle-class Englishwoman named Laura arrives with her two teenage children in the Croatian town of Gost, planning to renovate an old house. She enlists the help of an introspective handyman named Duro, and before long the haunted memories of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s come bubbling up from the past. Ill-equipped to understand the dark local history, Laura will come to see that there is great power in overcoming the thirst for revenge. (Bill)
Heart of Darkness (Illustrated) by Matt Kish: In October 2011, Tin House books published Matt Kish’s Moby Dick in Pictures, with artwork for each page of text taken from the Signet Classic Paperback. Now, Heart of Darkness will get similar treatment, although this project has 100 illustrations to Moby Dick’s 552. The New York Post showcased some wonderful images from the upcoming publication. Matt Kish, a librarian by day, prefers “illustrator” to “artist,” he says, “There’s a lot of artists out there, they’re real assholes, and if you haven’t gone to art school, if you haven’t had an MFA, if you haven’t had a gallery show, if you cant put together some rambling artist statement, you’re not worthy of that term.” Looks like art to me. (Lydia)
Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips: The creepy-sounding plot of Jayne Anne Phillips’s fifth novel is based on a true-life 1930s story of a con man who insinuated himself into the life of a young, impoverished widow only to murder her and her three children. Like Phillips’s previous novel, Lark & Termite (a 2009 National Book Award Finalist), parts of the story are set in rural West Virginia, where Phillips herself is from. With a reporter protagonist who sets out to investigate the crime after the fact, there are shades of In Cold Blood. (Hannah)
At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón: Peruvian native Daniel Alarcón’s stories thrive on equal parts revolution and spectacle, as evidenced in his first collection, War by Candlelight, as well as in his first novel, Lost City Radio, where the emcee of a popular radio show reunites loved ones separated during a recent civil war. In At Night We Walk in Circles, the Whiting Award-winning Best Young American Novelist draws inspiration from stories told to him by prisoners jailed in Lima’s largest prison. Alarcón again situates his novel in a South American state, where the protagonist flounders until he’s cast in a revival of touring play penned the leader of a guerilla theatre troupe. (Anne)
The Last Animal by Abby Geni: This debut collection of short stories is thematically linked by characters who “use the interface between the human and the natural world to contend with their modern challenges in love, loss and family life.” Geni, who is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a winner of the Glimmer Train Fiction Open, has received early praise from Dan Chaon, who says, “These are sharp, incisive, thoughtful, and utterly original stories” and from Jim Gavin, who calls these stories “Haunting and beautiful.” (Edan)
Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont: Is it strange that an author many wouldn’t hesitate to call the greatest living American writer has yet to be the subject of a major critical work? Pierpont remedies this with a book described as “not a biography…but something more rewarding: an attempt to understand a great writer through his art.” The New Yorker staff writer should prove a fascinating non-biographer: her previous book was Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, and while her current subject has been accused of sexism many times throughout his long career, David Remnick reported that at a celebration of Roth’s eightieth birthday in March, Pierpont “took it upon herself to survey the variety, depth, and complexity of Roth’s female characters — a strong, and convincing, rebuke to years of criticism that the books are misogynistic.” (Elizabeth)
How to Read a Novelist by John Freeman: Former Granta editor John Freeman’s first book, The Tyranny of Email, considered the ways that email collapsed great distances between us. In it he argues for a more nuanced and discerning form of communication through conversation—an art form that he showcases in his latest book, How to Read a Novelist. In more than fifty interviews and author profiles of literary titans such as Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace, and Doris Lessing, Freeman’s conversations and observations uncover these authors’ obsessions, quirks, and nuances of character as if they’re characters themselves. According to Freeman, a novelist requires observational distance, something to be considered in light of the subject of his first book: “it’s the miraculous distance that I think makes the writers who they are.” (Anne)
The Karl Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen: Karl Kraus, as immortalized in Walter Benjamin’s essay of the same name, was an incendiary aphorist and, in his one-man journal Die Fackel (The Torch), a critic who rivaled Nietzche for implacability. His influence on the culture of pre- and interwar Austria and Germany can’t be overstated; writers from Broch to Canetti are in his debt. Yet aphorisms are notoriously hard to translate, and to date, no really good volume of Kraus has been available to lay readers in English. Jonathan Franzen’s decision to attempt one is as likely to provoke grousing as most everything he does, but I, for one, salute his berserk industry. (Garth)
The Most of Nora Ephron by Nora Ephron: Ephron died a year ago and this fall Random House is bringing out a wide-ranging collection of her writing edited by Robert Gottlieb. The screenplay to When Harry Met Sally will be in there, as will her famous piece on being flat-chested, blog posts on politics and dying, and the screenplay to her last work, Lucky Guy. (Kevin)
The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble: Drabble’s eighteenth novel—her first since 2006—is set in 1960s London. It centers on Jessica, an anthropology student who, after becoming pregnant during an affair with a married professor, is forced to raise a daughter alone, her own life’s trajectory fracturing as a result. “One thing I have never been very good at is creating ‘good’ mothers,” Drabble said in a 1978 The Paris Review interview. “I’d written books and books before someone pointed out that I was perpetually producing these ‘bad’ mothers.” The “prismatic” novel is told from the perspectives of “the mothers who surround Jess,” examining “unexpected transformations at the heart of motherhood.” (Elizabeth)
Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal: Lore Segal is a treasure-house of wit and a power-house of style. Lucinella, reissued as part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella Series, was one of the best books I read in 2009. Now Melville House returns to the well for her first novel since the Pulitzer finalist Shakespeare’s Kitchen. The plot involves a suspicious surge in the incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease among patients (characters from previous Segal novels among them) at a Manhattan emergency room in the period after September 11. Even the catalog copy brims with insight: “terrorist paranoia and end-of-the-world hysteria masks deeper fears about mortality.” You’re welcome, America. (Garth)
The Night Guest by Fiona MacFarlane: Penguin Australia is calling Macfarlane “a new voice” and “a writer who comes to us fully formed.” It’s true that The Night Guest, which will be published in October, is Macfarlane’s debut novel; but she’s been publishing stories for some time now, and here you can read a Q&A about her story “Art Appreciation,” published in The New Yorker this past May. The Night Guest centers around the mysterious arrival of Frida at the isolated beach house of Ruth, a widow, but “soars above its own suspense to tell us, with exceptional grace and beauty, about ageing, love, trust, dependence, and fear; about processes of colonization; and about things (and people) in places they shouldn’t be.” (Sonya)
Every Short Story: 1951-2012 by Alasdair Gray: Exactly what it says on the tin: the comprehensive volume (nearly 1,000 pages!) offers up more than half a century of the Scottish fantasist’s short fiction, including sixteen stories published here for the first time. Known for his dark humor and wild imagination, the stories span the broad range of his fascinating career. Whimsical drawings are interspersed throughout, the stories as much visual works as literary ones. “Illustration and typography play a major part in his work,” says The Guardian. “He doesn’t just write books, he creates them.” It’s probably worth noting, too, that The Guardian has also described Gray as a “a glorious one-man band, the dirty old man of Scottish letters.” (Elizabeth)
Personae by Sergio de la Pava: In the wake of A Naked Singularity’s success, the University of Chicago Press is likewise reissuing de la Pava’s self-published second novel, Personae. In most ways, it’s as different from its predecessor as grits from greens—a Cloud Atlas-y series of nested genre pieces covering the whodunit, the interior monologue, and the theater of the absurd. But fans of the earlier book will recognize de la Pava’s fearlessness and wild ambition, along with the ventriloquistic range that made the Jalen Kingg letters so moving. An excerpt is available at The Quarterly Conversation. (Garth)
The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson: Winterson’s new novella, published to critical acclaim in the UK last year, takes on the trial of the Lancashire Witches in 1612, when a group of destitute outcasts, mostly women, were put on trial for witchcraft. “What is clear amid the poverty and brutality here,” the critic Arifa Akbar wrote in The Independent, “is that other-worldy evil is far outweighed by the harm that human beings inflict.” (Emily)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton: The author of the critically acclaimed debut novel The Rehearsal returns with a literary mystery set in 19th century New Zealand. When Walter Moody arrives on the coast of New Zealand, hoping to strike it rich in the gold fields, he stumbles upon a gathering of men who have met in secret to discuss a number of apparently coincidental recent events: on the day when a prostitute was arrested, a rich man disappeared, a down-on-his-luck alcoholic died, and a ship’s captain canceled all of his appointments and fled. The prostitute is connected to all three men, and Moody finds himself drawn into their interlinked lives and fates. (Emily)
A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor: When Flannery O’Connor was in her early 20s and a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she kept a journal which focused on her relationship with her faith. Recently discovered, this journal should be a fascinating prospect for anyone with an interest in O’Connor’s writing, inseparable as it is from her Catholic belief in sin and redemption. It dates from 1946-47, around the time she was writing the stories that would converge into her debut novel Wise Blood. It looks to have been an exercise in bringing herself closer to her God through the act of writing: “I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them. My attention is always fugitive. This way I have it every instant.” (Mark)
Death of the Black-Haired Girl by Robert Stone: Steven Brookman is a brilliant professor at an elite college in New England. Maud Stack is his promising and alluring young student. You know where this is going. Unfortunately, however, Professor Brookman is a married man, and Maud Stack’s passions are “not easily contained or curtailed.” In this tale of infidelity and its affects on human relationships—as well as on the institutions in which they reside—Robert Stone makes clear that almost nothing is black and white, and that when it comes to “the allure of youth” and “the promise of absolution,” all roads may lead to madness. (Nick)
A Permanent Member of the Family by Russell Banks: Russell Banks—the author of The Sweet Hereafter and The Darling (among many others) and an acknowledged master chronicler of the tragedies of American life—will publish his first collection of short stories in fifteen years. The book is composed of twelve stories, six of which appear for the first time. The two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist’s last novel, Lost Memory of Skin, documented the straitened lives of a group of sex offenders living under a Florida causeway. (Lydia)
Report from the Interior by Paul Auster: Last year Auster released Winter Journal, a personal history of the author’s own body. This fall he will publish a companion piece of sorts that depicts the world as he saw it as a child growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s. (Kevin)
The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg: Laura van den Berg brings her mystical touch to her second collection of short stories, following her highly praised first collection, What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us, which was shortlisted for The Frank O’Connor International Award. From a writer who professes to “freaking love coming up with zany plots,” The Isle of Youth delivers with stories of magicians, private detectives, and identity-trading twins. (Hannah)
Hild by Nicola Griffith: Nicola Griffith, British novelist and former poster child for the woes of American immigration policy (in 1998, The Wall Street Journal called her “a lesbian science-fiction writer,” like it’s a bad thing). Her newest novel Hild takes place in seventh-century Britain in the Synod of Whitby, where the people were deciding what kind of Christians to be. The name “Hild” refers to the person we now know as St. Hilda, who presided over the conference during which the Synod debated the relative merits of Celtic and Roman Christianity. In an interview with her editor, Griffith reported that the source material on St. Hilda is basically limited to five pages in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, so she was compelled to do a ferocious amount of research to recreate the world and customs, if not the life, of this early English figure. (Lydia)
Collected Stories by Stefan Zweig: Pushkin Press anointed 2013 as “The Year of Stefan Zweig,” in order to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the famed Austrian author’s death by a wartime suicide pact. Zweig’s fictions are oft fueled by seduction, desire, and affairs of the heart, mettle which helped make him an author of international renown during his tumultuous lifetime. Pushkin is singlehandedly attempting to reinvigorate Zweig’s reputation by issuing a series of rereleases and a handful of new translations of his works. An ideal introduction for the unacquainted comes in the form of Zweig’s Collected Stories, featuring twenty-three stories translated by Anthea Bell. (Anne)
Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow: Speaking of eminences grises… From The March to Homer & Langley to that cover version of Hawthorne’s “Wakefield” that ran in The New Yorker a few years back, Doctorow just keeps swinging. The product description on Amazon is sketchy, but the talk of a main character “speaking from an unknown place and to an unknown interlocutor [about] the circumstances that have led him to commit a mysterious act” sound downright Beckett-y, while the title makes me secretly hope Doctorow’s returning to science fiction (after suppressing his previous effort, Big as Life). (Garth)
A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald: W.G. Sebald’s collection of six essays was originally published in German in 1998, three years before his untimely death. The collection is an homage to six writers and artists (“colleagues,” he calls them, and “Alemmanic”), all of whom meant something to Sebald: Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller, Robert Walser, and Jan Peter Tripp. Already out in the United Kingdom, the essays are apparently solidly in the Sebald tradition—which, as I understand it, defies attribution of stolid nouns like “criticism,” “fiction,” or “biography,” rejoicing instead in the patterns and echoes of what one critic called “half-reality.” (Lydia)
Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball: Chronically saddled with the designation of “experimental author,” Jesse Ball has written three novels, including The Way Through Doors, a book of poems and flash fiction, and a co-written prose poem, each work demonstrating a gift for quiet, powerful prose and a loose relationship with realism. His first hardcover release, Silence Once Begun, tells the story of a man who confesses to a string of crimes in writing, then never speaks during his arrest or interrogation, and the journalist who becomes obsessed with his case. (Janet)
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee: Best known for his haunting stories of Korean history and American immigrant life, Korean-American novelist Chang-rae Lee tries his hand at speculative fiction, setting his new novel in a dystopian future in which America is in steep decline and urban neighborhoods have been turned into walled labor colonies that provide fresh produce and fish for the surrounding villages where the elite live. In the novel, Fan, a woman laborer, sets out in search of a vanished lover and finds herself crossing the lawless Open Counties, where the government exerts little control and crime is rampant. (Michael)
Perfect by Rachel Joyce: Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was a national bestseller and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Her highly anticipated second novel has two narratives, one about two boys in the early 1970s and their obsession with the two seconds added to clock time to balance with the movement of the earth, and one about a present-day man who is debilitated by his obsessive-compulsive routines. Blogger Kate Neilan loved it, saying, “Rachel Joyce should be praised from the rooftops for Perfect; there’s not a thing I’d change about it.”
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus: “With Ben Marcus, as with Beckett, such disruptions are signs of literature itself being stretched and tensed, pressed to express the process of a writer testing his limits,” says David Winters in his Millions review of Marcus’s recent novel The Flame Alphabet. Marcus has long been a champion of experimental writing and innovative uses of language, as demonstrated by the stories he selected for the unmatched Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. His forthcoming Leaving the Sea is the first collection of Marcus’s short stories. Expect nothing except more boundary pushing and an exquisite sense of the unexpected. (Anne)
As Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon opens on Broadway, I find myself free-associating, as is my habit… in this case, on the subject of presidential fiction.Frank Langella, the actor who portrays Nixon in the play, has spoken in several interviews about the odd empathy he feels for our 37th president, who was by all accounts a psychological mess. The closest I’ve ever come to feeling empathy for Nixon was reading Robert Coover’s The Public Burning. Starring Tricky Dick in his vice-presidential incarnation, this novel about the Rosenberg trial is one of the high-water marks of postmodern fiction. Hell, even JFranz likes it. (I’m joking, Mr. Franzen. Joking.) Aside from its idiom, the book’s major achievement is its main character, who grows more ingratiating as he grows more loathsome. Potential libel suits stalled publication, according to the introduction by William H. Gass. We can only be grateful that they did not prevent it.Nixon’s belief in history as a pageant starring himself seems crucial to the development of a subgenre I’ve been calling, pace Matthew Sharpe, “historical fantasia.” (See recent works by Mark Binelli, Chris Bachelder, and Lydia Millet, for examples). If The Public Burning is a foundational text, Philip Roth’s Nixon novel Our Gang is a minor addition to the canon. Amusing stuff, and interesting as historical artifact, but inessential. Still, it further expanded the range of approaches the contemporary writer may take to historical figures.Straddling the line between fiction and journalism, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 harnessed a Roth-like fury to a more revealing analysis of the mechanisms of power. On celluloid, Oliver Stone’s Nixon (IMDb) attempted to get behind the mask, with mixed results. More recently, back in the world of letters, Gerald Reilly’s O. Henry Award-winning story “Nixon Under the Bodhi Tree” was said to explore the life of…an actor getting ready to play Nixon. Which brings us full circle to Frost/Nixon.And what of the other presidents? Gore Vidal had some success with Lincoln, David Foster Wallace notched an early triumph with “Lyndon,” (in Girl with Curious Hair) and DeLillo achieved a then-career-best with his reconstruction of the Kennedy assassination (Libra). I even recall a lovely A.M. Homes story about The Gipper.But the cast of characters in what is arguably the worst administration since Nixon’s strikes me as devoid of literary interest. Practically the only enduring contribution of this crew to America’s writers is its patented brand of cant. George Saunders has mastered the idiom. Hart Seely managed to turn Rumsfeld’s arrogant evasions into a book of poems. I myself, if you’ll forgive the plug, published a monologue called “The Love Song of Ari Fleischer” in 2004. But behind the words lurk people who have, for seven years, refused to grant room for ambiguity, complexity, and doubt – preconditions for the moral universe in which modern literature is possible. Instead, we get a stilted reduction whose protagonists, depending on who’s reading, are either simply Good, or simply Wicked. We get Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint. We get “Stuff Happens” and “Guantanamo” – bracing theatrical experiences, but not dramas per se. A mark of the current administration’s moral failure, and perhaps of its artistic triumph, is that it has sterilized many of the avenues for protest against itself. It brings out the worst in us, and has, by its relentless aestheticization of every aspect of American life, made the aesthetic feel insufficient. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps some artist or press secretary somewhere is even now working up a giant masterwork that illuminates W as a tragic hero caught on the horns of history. Somehow, though, I’m not convinced such a work would ring true. Anyway, I’m not holding my breath.See Also: HST on the Campaign Trail, Kennedy’s favorite fiction, Clinton’s favorite books.