The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial

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A Year in Reading: Adrienne Celt

At some point in the middle of this year, I began worrying that my education was wearing off. Not that I was getting stupider, exactly, but that in the years-long absence of coursework, my reading was becoming less rigorous and my choices more predictable, too much in thrall to whatever was on the literary radar.

At the same time, I began experiencing serious anxiety for the first time in my life. I know what you might be thinking: These things are probably not unrelated. Indeed, I generally began to visualize lots of worst-case scenarios, hoping, I guess, that I’d be allowed to prepare for them if I was smart enough to imagine them.

One preparation (this, for death; no big deal) has been to download an app called WeCroak, which periodically sends me a push alert that says “Don’t forget, you’re going to die” and then encourages me to click into the app to get a melancholy quote. The quotes can be wishy-washy, but they’re often quite good; the best one so far was from a Muriel Spark novel called Memento Mori—which I also happened to read this year—in which a mysterious stranger keeps calling up London’s elderly and telling them, “Remember, you must die.”

The app’s full quote speaks to my desire to anticipate problems early and often: “It is difficult for people of advanced years to start remembering they must die. It is best to form the habit while young.”

This would be grim, except that it’s true. Remembering the inevitability of death a little bit every day instead of all at once, at the end, seems to take the pressure off. And similarly, reading with greater variety all through the year helps me feel less dumb at Christmas.

In pursuit of this, I’ve been reaching for writers like Spark, like Iris Murdoch, like Joy Williams and Karen Tei Yamashita, who invite the bizarre and the morbid into their work with a welcoming hand. While traveling in France, I read two Murdoch novels: A Severed Head and The Bell, both of which made me laugh out loud on the train, while simultaneously giving me an existential stomach ache. They are the ordinary world, stitched through with dark thread; reality, slapped on the stinging ass. Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange seems to tilt the other way, depicting a world boiling over with pestilence, through which a joyful note nonetheless continues to sound.

As for Joy Williams, I read The Quick and the Dead in a series of bubble baths in the month when I was recovering from surgery, and I wouldn’t mind doing so every year, even if it meant an annual slice of the knife. (I’m almost being sincere about this. Joy Williams is a flavor that pairs well with trauma.)

I had a book come out this year, too—which might account for the anxiety—and as a result I couldn’t help also reading a bunch of new work; not only because the writers belonged to my publishing cohort (if you will) (will you?), but also because they were exciting and excellent. Rachel Lyon’s Self-Portrait with Boy, Danielle Lazarin’s collection Back Talk, R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries, Rebecca Kauffman’s The Gunners, Alice Hatcher’s The Wonder That Was Ours (which uses collective consciousness in a way I’ve never seen before), Laura van den Berg’s outstanding, protracted fever dream The Third Hotel. Back-to-back, I read Meaghan O’Connell’s And Now We Have Everything and Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, and the fact that I have not yet reconciled my own conflicting desires in the arena of procreation can, at least, not be blamed on them.

Speaking of nonfiction, Chelsea Hodson’s Tonight I’m Someone Else is a collection of essays that engages so openly—lovingly, pugnaciously—with its own ideas that it filled me with professional envy. You can be metatextual with an essay in a way that’s not so easy in fiction, taking a concept and interrogating the fact that it occurred to you, without sounding obnoxious or twee. A fictional narrator can theoretically do the same, but because that narrator is invented, there’s always an added layer of ironic remove between them and the reader. Shelley Jackson’s novel Riddance perhaps comes close to bridging the gap, forcing its ideas about ghosts, mortality, and the nature of inquiry through the sieve of the body and all of its orifices. It perseveres, framing and re-framing its question through the mouth, through the voice, through the ear, through the land of the dead and the concept of child endangerment. It’s pretty wild.

Moving on: Books I’ve loved this year that actually come out next year include Erika Swyler’s Light from Other Stars, which gave me the same feeling I had at 11 or 12, watching Contact for the first time: an un-cynical joy and wonder; Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey, which was rightly pitched as Veronica Mars at a school for magicians (!); Kat Howard’s collection Cathedral of Myth and Bone, which guided me through stressful periods in the fall with the nudging reminder that the fantastic is in our DNA, in stories if not in actual fact; and Women Talking by Miriam Toews, which is searing, cunning, redemptive, perfect.

I’m a bit stunned that, given our current cultural penchant for autofiction (see: Rachel Cusk’s Kudos and Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend, both of which I read and adored) more Americans didn’t read the 2017 translation of Delphine de Vigan’s Based on a True Story, which is spooky and intimate, not to mention clever as hell. French Exit by Patrick deWitt is like contemporary P.G. Wodehouse except sadder and with better swears (the fucked witch!). The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinman is a book of ideas (what does it mean to shape the narrative of your ambition? What do you owe to your sources of inspiration? Was Nabokov a dick?) and a thrilling true crime story. The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson is about murder, and it made me feel dark and content at a time when I was previously just feeling dark. Daphne du Maurier will never bore me.

Finally, Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi was the first book I read this year, sitting on my couch with a yard of gauze in my ear, unable to turn my head. It tells the story of a curse that runs through generations of men and women, manifesting both subtly—bad choices, bad luck—and vibrantly—full-body possession!—as people just try to live their fucking lives. Many, many worst case scenarios, and yet it filled me up with hope.

More from A Year in Reading 2018

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

Uncomfortable Territory: The Millions Interviews Meaghan O’Connell

When my friend Amelia Morris and I decided to start a podcast about motherhood called Mom Rage, my first thought was, “We need to get Meaghan O’Connell on the show!”

O’Connell’s first book, And Now We Have Everything: On Motherhood Before I Was Ready, recounts her accidental pregnancy at age 29, her harrowing birth story, and the angst and anxieties of early motherhood. She writes honestly and with humor about looking at her own body in the mirror soon after returning from the hospital, about her complicated feelings surrounding breastfeeding, and about the time she fled a library story time, unable to connect with the other moms.  When she writes, “I couldn’t figure out whether motherhood was showing me how strong I was or how weak. And which one was preferable,” I nod with recognition, and I cheer when she writes, “What if everyone worried less about giving women a bad impression of motherhood?” Meaghan is a brilliant writer. I am so glad she became a mother so that she can convey on the page all the muck of parenting that seems—while it’s actually happening to me—impossible to convey.

As hosts of Mom Rage, Amelia and I start every show sharing our own struggles and frustrations as parents, and we investigate the unfair expectations and assumptions placed on mothers. We then interview a guest: authors, healthcare professionals, and regular parents just trying their best. Meaghan fulfills two of those three categories. We talk to her in episode 4.

After our podcast conversation, which focused on parenting and her expectations for her soon-to-be-born second child, I sent Meaghan some questions via email. These were about the craft of writing a book like hers; they were my way of asking, “How did this masterpiece come to be?” She was kind enough to shed some light on her process.

The Millions: You were penning regular columns on parenting for The Cut before your memoir came out. Were you writing the memoir alongside these essays? I’m curious how the shorter work informed the book, and how writing about parenting related to parenting itself. More to the point: How does writing help you process motherhood?

Meaghan O’Connell: I was. The book came out of the regular freelance writing I was doing and then became its own, separate thing. I would have loved to only write the book but couldn’t afford to do that. So it was a year or two or three of being completely immersed in this subject, for better or worse. At the beginning it was where my brain was anyway, so it was very convenient in a sense. Like being paid to think about what I was already thinking about in the first place.

Web writing became a sort of farm team for my brain. Some of it ended up being adapted into the book; some just led to deeper thinking; some was about getting things out of my system. It was also nice to publish little things along the way, proof of life, getting to feel like I was part of the conversation, etc.

I thought writing a book would be so much more overwhelming than writing a column, but I was surprised by how much safer it felt. Just spending the time on it, in what felt like a secret document. And then the year of editing that went into it! It is overall much less terrifying than writing 1,000 words in two to three days and then seeing it online with a comments section under it. That is a different kind of fun!

Writing helps me process everything. There is a sweet spot for me with essays where I know I have a lot of ideas about something, but they’re only 60-80 percent formed, and getting to that last 20 percent can happen in the writing. Or maybe it’s just 10 percent more and you leave the rest open because certainty is a lie. That’s what’s been funny about doing interviews. If I could easily talk about this stuff in a way that is neat or cogent, I would not have needed to write a book about it.

TM: What was your process for putting this memoir together? Was each chapter considered a discrete section, planned ahead of time as a separate essay, or was it all in your head as an overall arc?

MO: Well, I will start by saying I never thought of it as a memoir! It’s certainly autobiography, and I wouldn’t argue it’s not a memoir, but the m-word has really only come up now that the book is out.

In the writing (and selling) of the book, it was always “essays.” Granted, some chapters (technically the word “chapter” is not in the book either! But I keep falling back to it, so maybe that is a tell) are more essayistic than others, meaning there is more of an attempt to figure something out, with a central question or a central idea, and others are more story-ish.

So to answer your question, there wasn’t an arc. I thought of the book as a series of distinct essays around different ideas or experiences: pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, sex, gender roles, etc. The list was always changing, and it was never as neat as that. But still.

The structural challenge all along, though, was that the birth is a natural climax. But it couldn’t be at the end. I had a few talks with editors about putting it at the beginning. It wasn’t supposed to matter whether it was chronological. Part of me wanted everything out of order.

But then you write all these words, and I really wanted it to feel like a cohesive BOOK, not just a bunch of essays “packaged” as a book as a career move (you know the sort of book I mean). I wanted it to be its own world. I wanted it to be propulsive. Or I was afraid to want this and resisted it, feeling it beyond me, until I sent the first draft to my editor. I got the sort of feedback that you dread but more so because you know it’s true, that you have work to do, that it’s not quite there yet, etc.

The trick for this particular book was how to have each essay/chapter have a mini-resolution but not enough of one where the book loses momentum. It also took me a long time to figure out how to end it in a way that could carry all the emotional weight that came before but not be false or too tidy or undermining. I think at one point I literally Googled “suspense.” I was semi-resentful initially at having to even think about this stuff—what was I, a fiction writer?—but really, I was just in uncomfortable territory, doing something I didn’t know how to do yet.

Then one day on a walk it came to me as almost a revelation: I could structure the last chapter the same way I did the pregnancy chapter (“Holding Patterns”)—short, numbered sections written in the present tense. This form can feel like a cheat to me, and I think people use it when it isn’t justified, so I hesitated. But when I realized it would solve the bigger problem—of resolution and suspense and so on—I just went for it. It wasn’t as simple as cutting the last few paragraphs of every essay that came before and adding them to this last one, but in many cases that’s exactly what I did. And it still feels like a cheat, but I think it works enough to not matter. I don’t know how else I would have solved the structure of the book.

TM: What books on motherhood and parenting did you look to as you were writing yours? I certainly felt a spiritual connection to Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, which you quote in the epigraph: “Oh dear, they say. Poor baby. They do not mean me.” I’m curious what other books lit your path, and why they spoke to you.

MO: Well, once I started writing mine I actively avoided reading anything too similar, but I read them all already and had the books sort of ringing in my head, spurring me on.

I read all of Rachel Cusk’s other books, for instance. And Maggie Nelson’s. I remember reading a passage in The Red Parts that unlocked something for me—I’m looking through the book now and nothing jumps out, and I don’t even remember what I took away from it. What I remember and miss now, being out of that stage of the writing process, was the feeling of something being unlocked. It was always a little beyond language, just a sense of possibility, a door opening in my brain after I’d been hitting a wall. Despondency giving way to hope.

I read a lot of Sylvia Plath, which I guess is funny. Her journals, her poetry. Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman, which is a genius book. Then a lot Anne Sexton poetry. I also read Knausgaard. Book 5 and then reread Book 2.

I mean if Sylvia Plath can write Ariel and if Knausgaard can write My Struggle…

As a person, I am self-conscious and shy and I second-guess myself, but as a writer I am trying to break out of that, to be unabashed and unapologetic (about being abashed and apologetic) in a way I wish I could be in life. I think I turned to writers who really know how to wield and twist the knife, to remind myself that in this realm, I can be that way, too.

TM: It feels like we’ve gotten some terrific mother-centric literature in the past few years. Moms are really enjoying some cultural relevance right now!  Any hypotheses of why that is?

MO: I could answer this a dozen different ways and none would be the full picture. But from a publishing perspective—maybe the least interesting but most straightforward way to look at this?  My theory is that there were a few breakout hits three to five years ago and we are currently in the next wave of that. Of bigger houses acquiring books that might have seemed like more of a risk before Graywolf published The Argonauts (2015) and On Immunity (2014), for instance. A book of personal essays by an unknown entity about something “ordinary” is a hard sell in publishing, but it’s maybe easier than it’s ever been? Again, look to 2014: Graywolf published the breakout Empathy Exams and Harper Perennial published Bad Feministin an interview for Scratch, Roxane Gay said her advance for that book was $15,000.

I also remember the rave New York Times review for Elisa Albert’s After Birth, written by the inimitable Merritt Tierce, as a particular MOMENT. That was March 2015.

2014 was the year I had my son. So all of this was happening as I started writing my own book. Whether writing about this stuff was respectable, or intellectual, or ART, felt like less of a question than it had ever been. I imagine other writers had the same experience.

TM: Because this is The Millions, I must ask: What’s the last great book you read?

MO: Well, this being The Millions, I have a very relevant answer: Lydia Kiesling’s forthcoming novel, The Golden State. I love the voice and prose style so much, I could have stayed swimming in it forever. It’s the perfect mix of bleak and funny and angry and desperate and tender. Also motifs such as string cheese, cigarettes, small-town restaurants, road trips, work emails—I JUST LOVED IT.

For more about Mom Rage, be sure to access all the episodes here.

A Year in Reading: Brit Bennett

Best Debuts: My debut novel was released this year, so I read a ton of debuts, mostly to reassure myself that all great debuts — like all great novels, really — are promising and flawed. As a reader, I look for debuts that excite me and make me anticipate the author’s next book, so some of my favorites this year were Desert Boys by Chris McCormick, Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, and Here Comes the Sun by Nicole Dennis-Benn.

Favorite Overall Reads: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead is a brilliant reinvention of the slave narrative genre, a story with huge personal and historical stakes. We’ll be reading this one for a while. I also loved Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, which is inventive and lyrical and meditative, a coming-of-age story driven forward by the beauty of its language, not plot.

Couldn’t Put It Down: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I love books that reset their terms partway through the story, and this book does so in dramatic fashion. What begins as a historical queer romance becomes a crime thriller and the entire world of the novel resets in a fascinating way.

Best Post-Olympics Read: You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott. A creepy, unsettling page-turner, both a domestic thriller and exploration of the darker aspects of women’s gymnastics: the toll that intense competition takes on young girls and the punishing brutality of a beautiful sport.

Obligatory Maggie Nelson Post: I’m late to the Maggie Nelson party, but I read The Argonauts and The Red Parts this year, two books that made me think and feel deeply. I love her ability to always write with expanding empathy, as she delves into the personal and the political, invoking theory and pop culture and literature.

Best Conversation Starter: Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud, because everyone I’ve talked to seems convinced that he could fake his own death even though, as Elizabeth Greenwood proves, death fraud is extremely difficult to pull off. This book is a fun exploration into a bizarre topic, but it also speaks to deeper existential desires. In a world of constant connection, who hasn’t wanted to disappear and start over?

More from A Year in Reading 2016

Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now.

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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