All first-person narrators are unreliable. This is less a structural feature of storytelling and more a structural feature of the human condition. We lie to ourselves, we lie to others, and even if we mean to tell our story with complete honesty, we can never fully understand it. As the saying goes, approximately: The proof that we’re unreliable narrators is the fact that everyone is the star of their own story.
Certain kinds of genre storytelling, perhaps, get close to full reliability, as they are more concerned with driving plot than revealing character—we can essentially trust that Katniss Everdeen is reliable, since she exists mainly as a vehicle for telling the story of the Hunger Games she competes in. There would be no point, from Suzanne Collins’s point of view, in having her narrator fudge the truth. This is not meant as a slight—simply that the purpose of a great deal of sci-fi, fantasy, and thriller fiction is to drive plot, not to communicate hidden complexities of character. But in the realm of what we broadly consider literary fiction, character is paramount and true reliability is impossible.
In fact, as many critics have remarked before, the most truly reliable literary narration is a kind of very consistent unreliable narration. The go-to example of reliably unreliable narrators is Lolita’s dissembling monster, Humbert Humbert. For the novel’s 400-plus pages, Humbert engages the reader in a pas de deux of hideous charm, seducing and repelling again and again, via his theatrical biography of child rape. The act of reading Lolita is fundamentally the act of decoding Humbert’s narration, a narration as reliably encoded as the diary he keeps in Charlotte Haze’s guest room. We are pulled in with his language until just close enough to be revulsed at the object of his language. And we understand that the project is, despite its purported intent as a confession and object of psychological study, an act of self-justification—the self-justification of pedophilia, not mainly via sympathy or historical precedent, but through a larger project of aestheticizing it, transforming assault into art. It is, finally, an act and artifact of Satanically grand egotism.
Mr. Stevens, in The Remains of the Day, is another archetypally reliable unreliable narrator. The novel’s clockwork unreliability functions as a kind of equation that can be used to solve all of Mr. Steven’s statements of non-fact and pitiful delusion. Once we understand that Lord Darlington was a Nazi and that Stevens was in love with Miss Kenton, we know that for almost everything he says about them, we should believe the opposite: He is not going on his countryside jaunt to incidentally visit Miss Kenton; he does not especially want to “banter” with people; he is not proud of his service to Lord Darlington, whom he does not believe was a good man.
Characters like Humbert and Mr. Stevens provide the reader a level of confidence and certainty of motivation mostly unavailable with conventional narrators. Someone who always lies, after all, is as easy to understand as someone who always tells the truth. Less intelligible might be a narrator like Holden Caulfield, who is not, from a narratological standpoint, strategically unreliable—that is, if and when he’s lying, he isn’t employing it for conscious effect or advantage. Caulfield, like most normal people, is full of flattering illusions about himself, dumb notions of how to live, unfounded prejudices, and so on, but they aren’t importantly arrayed around a guiding principle/theme/blindspot like Humbert’s pedophilia or Mr. Stevens’s professional and romantic regrets.
Still, there is Holden’s dead brother, and the fact that the narration is being told to a spectral psychologist. The reader, and the novel itself, understands that something is amiss even if Caulfield doesn’t, fully. While most first-person narratives are not as structurally deceitful as Lolita or Remains of the Day, most do consciously incorporate an element of uncertainty in the narrator’s telling of their story. This uncertainty has a rhythm and tone as much a part of the reading experience as the author’s descriptive tendencies, their syntax and diction.
In this sense, paradoxically, while all first-person narrators may be unreliable, most first-person narratives are reliable—or, perhaps better put, intelligible. That is to say, the character’s blind spots and deceptions are congruent with the general aims and architecture of the text; more than congruent, they are an essential part of it.
But there’s a rare category of book that seems to misunderstand its own narrator. Either the narrator is unreliable and the book itself doesn’t understand it, or else the book understands the fact of its narrator’s unreliability, but misjudges its nature.
An example of the first case is The Big Sleep. Philip Marlowe is meant to be a fairly honest reporter of his own story—a bit of a haunted loner, maybe, but more or less what he seems: tough, sardonic, and scrupulous. This scrupulousness is often dramatized through his uncorruptibility vis-à-vis women, in particular, Carmen Sternwood, who throws herself at him throughout the novel to no effect. Well, to some effect, actually. After Carmen appears nude in his apartment, Marlowe relates the following: “I went back to the bed and looked down at it. The imprint of her head was still in the pillow, of her small corrupt body still on the sheets. I put my empty glass down and tore the bed to pieces savagely.”
Raymond Chandler’s seeming intent here—to characterize Marlowe as a private, sexually principled man—badly overshoots his mark; still, on a surface reading, this reaction is consistent with the book’s conception of Marlowe as, fundamentally, a straight arrow. Drape a gold crucifix around his neck and he would be more recognizable as a moral crusader, a Christian brother cleaning up Sodom. Sure, he drinks quite a bit, and his crime-fighting methodology exists in a shadowland outside of regular law enforcement, but his spine is as erect as any Midwest rotarian standing at the podium. More than money, or professional curiosity, Marlowe seems motivated by a kind of prim, abiding disgust at the perverted world of the Sternwoods and Arthur Geiger and Eddie Mars. Among the many types who make Marlowe sick: the rich, pornographers, and gamblers.
But mainly loose women and gay men. Gynophobia and homophobia are the twinned engines of fearful disgust that drive the novel’s emotional logic. In the Carmen scenes, we sense a narrator who is less inured to female advances than terrified and enraged by them. Likewise, gay men—a group the novel takes special pains to belittle. “A pansy,” says Marlowe, to the young man he’s preparing to wrestle, “has no iron in his bones.” A murder victim’s house has “the nasty, stealthy look of a fag party.” Homosexuality in Chandler’s 1930s Los Angeles, as it was most places in America at the time, was taboo, verboten. But even by those standards, there is a spectral seediness to depictions of homosexuality in The Big Sleep that feels unusual, accompanied by a visceral horror at vice’s general omnipresence, as though L.A. is a rotting log with maggots writhing underneath. Arthur Geiger, a gay pornographer, runs a smut library on Santa Monica Boulevard, trading in pictures of “such indescribable filth” that Marlowe—and the narrative eye—has to turn away.
And yet he turns back, again and again, with a fascinated revulsion that on multiple reads seems less homophobic than bristlingly homoerotic. Again and again, he is drawn to Arthur Geiger’s house, the locus of the novel’s main motivating crime, like a moth to its hated, cherished flame. These movements hold special significant in the work of Chandler, a writer who famously did not plan his stories ahead of time and who himself claimed to be confused by his novels’ labyrinthine plots. They chart a kind of map of the narrative subconscious, and no location is more central than Geiger’s bungalow, with its frou-frou chinoiserie and bedroom occupied by Geiger’s secret young lover—Marlowe returns to this locale no fewer than seven times, mimicking The Big Sleep’s helpless attraction to its own subsumed queerness. On this point, Marlowe, and the narrative he spins, are truly unreliable, and The Big Sleep reads like nothing so much as the journal of a gay man remaining unaware of his sexuality at all costs.
A different example of unreliable unreliability might be found in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer. The book is aware, mightily, of its narrator Binx Bolling’s strangeness. A stockbroker in New Orleans, Binx is a flaneur and artiste at heart, a dreamy loner who spends his days in the movies, and we are given to know that he is in a kind of despair despite his protestations of enjoying the simple, all-American life. But the novel itself misjudges its main character. By my estimation, Binx revels, wallows, in an ersatz version of artistic ennui and emotional instability authentically embodied by his suicidal, bipolar cousin Kate. In habit, he is a fairly normal, privileged white man of his time who likes making money, who genially harasses a procession of his secretaries into sleeping with him, who presumes his comfortable place in the catbird seat of the social order. And yet he also wants to feel special, outside this world as well as a part of it, so he cultivates a sense of himself as a seeker via some mumbo jumbo about The Search and a related array of cutesy little mental routines. He takes full part in normal society while scorning it—no episode from the book is more illustrative of Binx’s unconscious character than his origin story as a frat boy, wherein he casually insults another pledge to mark himself as a member of the inner circle, then spends four years drinking beer by himself on the front porch while silently judging his brothers to be fools. The book ends with him sleeping with his unstable, vulnerable cousin, whom he marries and with whom he purports to have found a kind of complacent, co-dependent happiness.
The epigraph of the book by Kierkegaard—“The specific quality of despair is this: it does not know it’s despair”—might be modified for Binx: “The specific quality of an asshole is this: they do not know they’re an asshole.” Neither, it seems, does The Moviegoer, or at least not to the extent it should. Binx’s narration is truly unreliable, unreliably unreliable, as the story he occupies misunderstands him much as he misunderstands himself. The reader must decode not only Binx’s misperceptions but the misperceptions of a narrative with an incomplete command of its narrator.
In this sense, unreliably unreliable novels can present both the greatest challenge and the most fun as an active reading experience. Authors like Kazuo Ishiguro create texts that are gratifying puzzles, a kind of curated escape room for attentive readers to explore and solve. Most normal, less structurally unreliable narration, is more like a detective story, with the reader cast as sleuth piecing together clues about the narrator’s true self—the self as a mystery that is never fully or decisively solved. But books like The Big Sleep and The Moviegoer are more like faulty maps of the wilderness in which the reader finds herself stranded. You have to find your own way, interpreting the weather and wind and direction, charting your own course in spite—in defiance—of the book.
“I have this feeling, that all it will take will be one moment, even a tiny moment.”
When Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature I was slightly disappointed. I was a “Harukist”—over the preceding eight months, I had been religiously reading the novels and short stories of Haruki Murakami. As a series they are recognizable as a related body of work with the same ideas, motifs, often a central piece of music and a certain brand of whiskey appearing with regularity. But with each new book, Murakami follows the growing roots of his literary tree to a new colony. To me, he seemed to have done just as much, if not more than Ishiguro and in a similar vein.
As with a lot of things in life though, I was uninformed. A conversation with a friend led us both to the conclusion that, despite our surprise, neither of us had read one of Ishiguro’s novels, nor did we know a lot about him. A quick Google search led me past The Booker Prize winning Remains of the Day, after reading a quote in which Ishiguro almost admitted he was bored writing it. In an interview with The Times Literary Supplement, he stated that writing Remains of the Day was almost too easy—“a bit like pushing a button all the time.”
Eventually, I arrived at The Unconsoled—conversely, James Wood’s comments that the novel had “invented its own category of badness” piqued my interest. While the conflicting conclusions of John Carey, describing it as a “masterpiece” led me to decide the novel would be my entry point into Ishiguro, albeit with the expectation of not finishing a book that has infuriated many. Instead, I found a book that struck me on a deeply personal level, through a story that paints a startlingly clear picture of the current trajectory of bewildering modern life.
The Unconsoled follows Mr. Ryder, an internationally renowned pianist, over the course of three days, as he arrives for a performance in a city in central Europe. Ryder’s three days are a cacophony of engagements most of which he cannot recall ever having agreed to. Indeed, as the people of the city begin to look to Ryder as the solution to all of their problems, the narrative becomes more and more baffling. Ideologically and physically labyrinthine, Ishiguro projects Ryder through a series of ever expanding, constantly changing events.
A series of encounters extensively developed but never fully resolved—this city in central Europe is malleable and ouroboric. For example, Ryder’s son Boris seems to function as a kind of a narratorial lighthouse, a source of happiness, relief, anger, and guilt, who he is constantly dragged away from by the people of the city and their needs. Regardless of how he makes Ryder feel, Boris is a reminder of Ryder’s role as a father—a redundant aspect of his character for the city, but a crucial part of his humanity.
In one instance, Boris is left in a cafe as Ryder is whisked away to the Sattler Monument for a press opportunity, after this his return to his son is further interrupted by musician Christoff’s insistence he attend a lunch. Ryder’s growing anxiety about having left his son melts away only as the lunch finishes, with the realization that he has been having lunch at the cafe he started in. In this novel, crescendoing bewilderment is often met with the briefest moments of relief (often via discovered geographical convenience), before Ryder is rapidly propelled into yet another tangled social web.
As a protagonist, Ryder is stripped of his control over himself—he becomes the focal point for a city of individuals wrapped up in their own concerns. With this in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that Ishiguro began writing this novel after an 18-month press tour for Remains of the Day—a connection that allows the tentative planting of one foot in the real world, with regards to this surreal novel. Ishiguro has spoken of his writing a mixture of the unreal and familiar, which has made me think that Ryder’s experience of this central European city, published 23 years ago, is a useful analogy for the direction in which modern life is heading.
As a result, literary critic John Carey’s assessment of the novel being about stress is a useful starting point. In an interview with Charlie Rose, Ishiguro described the novel as being about the idea that we expectantly live our lives leading up to one big performance. A performance he simply defines as the one great event of our life we hope for and look forward to. An event that is surrounded by anxiety and demands our attention, but one that life does not stop for. We see this in Ryder, as he navigates the days preceding the concert, his thoughts are sidelined by the people of the city. Characters lost in their own concern look to Ryder as a tool to solve problems. He is foiled by his renown and the fact that he is in the city to perform amidst an artistic crisis, which makes him recognizable and accessible. There is an unwilling messianic quality to Ryder who is abused as a kind of whiteboard for the problems of the people.
It is this idea of accessibility relieving Ryder of his free will that is crucial. In the world of the book everyone knows one another intimately, all aware of the machinations of the city. Indeed, in some passages, Ishiguro even goes so far as to transplant his protagonist into the minds of others. Everything becomes public, an idea accentuated by the claustrophobically shifting geography of the novel—deployed by Ishiguro as a kind of temperature control for Ryder’s fluctuating levels of frustration, stress, and anxiety. One episode sees Ryder awoken and driven to an evening party in only his dressing gown. After dinner, as he is about to return to bed, he discovers he is already and always has been at his hotel. Often when Ryder appears to have left a place, he will go through a door after an event and find himself back where he left from.
Ryder’s experience of this intimate, gossip-ridden, self-obsessed city is accentuated because of his celebrity. A celebrity comfortably replicated by the way we use technology. Indeed, this technology thrusts us into the center of our own small community and makes us accessible regardless of where we are. We represent ourselves with a variety of online profiles that serve different functions and are interacted with in different ways. Similar to the way Ryder serves a variety of both perceived and pre-empted functions for the people of the city.
The fact that these profiles are never “turned off” means you lose the element of control over how and when people contact you. It conjures the same access-all-hours situation that assaults and irritates Ishiguro’s protagonist. Often multiple events appear without warning, detracting from the importance of Ryder’s performance and contributing to his lack of agency and rising anxiety. We are presented with a character who is overwhelmed and unable to locate his sense of priority—an experience replicated by opening and unlocking your phone to a mountain of notifications from a variety of communicative platforms—a situation presented through the interiority of the narrative. The protagonist’s actions are often introduced with lines like, “Suppressing a sense of panic, I set about formulating something to say that would sound at once dignified and convincing.” Ishiguro gives us a character who feels harassed and, despite his acclaim, rendered inadequate by the demands of those around him—reflective of the kind of stress that can accompany the unnatural levels of interaction technology and social media bring.
Despite his renown, Ryder is rarely assured as he stumbles through social encounters, which in turn, elicit the kind of strong reactions that are emblematic of the sensitivity of the Internet. So Ryder’s predicament seems to be similar to ours: he is the centre of a small, inescapable community to which he feels obligated and is open all hours. Of course, the novel is an accentuation of real life. Our interactions with this “community” can be beneficial and are often treasured, yet, they have the ability to cause bewilderment, anxiety, and stress, while also being a distracting from the important things in life. This is best exemplified by Ryder constantly being pulled away from Boris, his son—a representation of truly important duty, and whose company the protagonist is his most emotional and human in.
Thankfully, the novel represents a world more accentuated than our own. In the book, Christoff, a mechanical cellist, is the musical predecessor socially dismantled by the new artistic beginning Ryder symbolizes to the city. His social destruction is based on the precedential hope of Ryder calling out the error in his musical philosophy. Ishiguro usefully convolutes Ryder’s motivation for contradicting Christoff: “I could feel, almost physically, the tide of respect sweeping towards me.” The protagonist is encouraged by the mob and crucially by what they expect of him. Ironically, a rare scene in which Ryder is finally assured represents one of the fullest realizations of his lack of agency—even in his area of expertise he still succumbs to the demands on the city.
So the idea is formed of two aspects. The first is accessibility and knowledge, seen in the way we are always available online to our small community and the manner in which Ryder is viewed as a tool, to be utilized, for a town in crisis. The result of this is pressure, to constantly respond and engage with what is going on around us, made immediate by the Internet, however distracting it may be. At the moment, we are privileged enough not to be in Ryder’s situation stagnantly spinning like a hamster on a wheel.
The novel also goes beyond this: with the idea of expectation and precedent. The public nature of our lives means there is recorded history to our actions. Ryder is expected to be the advent of something new and better for the art world in the city. Even before his arrival, they have created a character for him, a mold to fill. In the same way that social media encourages experience rating and expected precedents. Indeed, the precedent set by three, four, or five stars alters experience in the same way Ryder is seen to be pushed and pulled even in the subject in which he is an expert. There is a dangerous circularity to living up to expectations, especially when this behavior is well received.
Currently, technology and social media are similar to the most basic definition of Ryder’s distractions. Put simply, the fact that he has to go to a lunch, or take a photo for the press. Upon his arrival in the hotel lobby, in the opening pages, he no longer decides where he goes or what he does, which contributes to a rising distraction from his performance and an anxiety presented in bewilderment and lack of action. And it’s the same for us: problems and engagements via technology can distract from being human by creating an overbearing sense of duty on a social and working level.
The Unconsoled, however, is more complex than this—it is wonderfully and terrifyingly forward looking. Ryder is often the center of events because of who he is and throughout the novel he is prodded and poked, cajoled and encouraged into behaving a certain way. He becomes a symbol of how the people of the city expect him to be. Any forays he makes into being himself are often met with strong negative reactions. When Mr. Hoffman, the hotel manager, questions Ryder’s reluctance to change rooms, he puts the pressure on the protagonist. Indeed, he accuses Ryder of being oddly attached to the room when in reality, it is he who is strangely insistent on the room change. Ryder is consistently forced into a behavioral corner, an easily comparable situation to a life increasingly dominated by the way we are being presented and recorded via the Internet.
The Unconsoled explores the slippery slope of anxiety caused by accessibility and perceived responsibility. In this sense, it can work as an analogy for the direction in which we are heading—as we make ourselves more available and knowable via technology and the Internet, we become subject to the same kind of pressures Ryder experiences due to his fame. And resultantly, subject to unending levels of additional social pressure. Ultimately, at the heart of this inescapable, complex maze of a novel is a character who is constantly losing control of himself because of his inability to disengage.
Fiona Mozley, the author of Man Booker shortlisted and Dylan Thomas Prize longlisted Elmet, wrote her debut novel while travelling between Peckham, in South London, and her nine to six job in Central London. She missed the landscape of northern England, which is where she grew up and where Elmet is set. Jotting down notes on her smartphone and laptop, she attempted to evoke this landscape during her daily commute, allowing a temporary respite from the daily grind.
Though we seldom see people writing on trains, many commuters read or browse aimlessly on their smartphones. Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer of The Millions, spoke of her subway writing habit in “Writing on Trains.” “With a combined total of six hours spent on a subway a week, it felt like extra time,” she says. Mandel sought out other writers who wrote on trains, including memoirist Julie Klam and novelist Joe Wallace. Klam appreciated the need to beat the clock and get down thoughts before her station, as opposed to the long hours she’d spend writing at home on her Mac.
Many authors cite smartphones and the Internet as hindrances to creative writing. When Nobel Prize-winner Kazuo Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day, he did nothing but write from nine am to 10.30 pm for four weeks, during which time he wouldn’t go near his phone or email. In his popular book On Writing, Stephen King suggested writers eliminate distraction; “There should be no telephone in your writing room,” he wrote, “certainly no TV or video games for you to fool around with.”
Analogue writing setups of the past would offer fewer opportunities for distraction; the view from the open window and the kettle perhaps being the most enticing. Joyce Carol Oates, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Amy Tan still write their first drafts longhand, while Cormac McCarthy still types his manuscripts on an Olivetti Lettera 32.
When used productively, modern day technology can be transformed from a creativity-killing distraction to a convenient tool to note down those epiphanies or observations that would otherwise be forgotten.
If Werner Herzog’s documentary Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World holds any truth, modern technologies will soon become more integrated into our daily life. “You could essentially in the not too distant future, tweet thoughts,” Marcel Just, the D.O. Hebb University Professor of Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University tells Herzog. “So not type your little tweet, but think it, press a button, and all of your followers could potentially read it.” One day we might be able to transcribe words directly from our minds onto the page. The importance of writing, in the traditional sense, is evolving. Perhaps the romantic notion of putting a pen to paper might start to wane, as we see the value of being able to pluck ideas straight from the unconscious mind.
Unlike many in her field, Fiona Mozley embraced the convenience of technology. “When I started writing Elmet I used a Chromebook–one of those cheap laptops made by Google, which require the use of online apps,” she tells me. “That meant that the only word-processor available to me was Google Docs. That made it very easy to write on either my laptop or my phone as it was all the same document.”
“I find variety to be a real aid to writing,” she continues. “If I’m in a rut, I find the best remedy is moving to another location or altering my media. So if I’ve been writing for a while on my computer and I get stuck, I’ll go and pick up a pen and paper, or vice versa. The phone writing is really just tied to that overall process.”
The author wrote the first few paragraphs of her debut novel in spring 2013. She had just visited her parents for the weekend in West Yorkshire, a region previously known as Elmet, a Celtic Kingdom, between the fifth and seventh centuries. It was early on a Monday morning and she was returning to London by train. The importance of trains and train tracks in Elmet is emphasized even in the opening paragraphs:
I cast no shadow. Smoke rests behind me and daylight is stifled. I count railroad ties and the numbers rush. I count rivets and bolts. I walk north. My first two steps are slow, languid. I am unsure of the direction but in that initial choice I am pinned. I have passed through the turnstile and the gate is locked.
I still smell embers. The charred outline of a sinuous wreck. I hear the voices again: the men, and the girl. The rage. The fear. The resolve. Then those ruinous vibrations coursing through wood. And the lick of flames. The hot, dry spit. The sister with blood on her skin and that land put to waste. I keep to the railways track. I hear an engine far off in the distance and duck behind a hawthorn.
“The novel is all about isolation and marginalization, and being invisible in plain sight,” explains Mozley, “so it’s important that there are the trains running from London to Edinburgh just meters away from the little house in the copse, but none of the people on those trains knows anything about the lives being led there.”
While writing the early sections of her first draft, Mozley was working for a travel company in Central London and would jot down ideas on her smartphone during her journeys to and from work. Mozley says:
the sentences and paragraphs I wrote on my phone during my commute were very useful for keeping up the momentum. Sometimes when you’re writing–particularly if you’re working full time–you can have periods of writing nothing at all. Even if I found myself unable to write full sections, jotting ideas down on my phone meant that I felt a constant sense of progression.
Later in the writing process, Mozley got a MacBook and started using the popular writing app Scrivener. “It’s designed specifically for long writing projects, whether they’re novels or PhDs,” she says, “I find it to be a useful way of organizing chapters, drafts and research. There is an accompanying app for phones called Scrivo, which I also have. However, I don’t write much on my phone anymore because I don’t have a daily commute.”
Despite its contemporary context, reading Elmet, one cannot fail but notice that otherworldly quality. Writing the novel was a means of escapism for Mozley, who was not particularly content living in London. She elaborates:
London is a wonderful city, but it is a very difficult place to live unless you have an incredibly high salary or you come from a rich background. I have friends from university who still live there, who will never be able to afford a flat or house that they don’t share with several others. When I lived in London, there were five of us sharing a house and we didn’t have a communal living area because we’d had to turn it into an extra bedroom. For a while I shared a bedroom with a friend to keep the costs down. This kind of thing is typical, and while you could say that it’s normal or acceptable when you’re straight out of university, this is the kind of situation that my friends will be in for the foreseeable future, into their forties or even beyond. These are people with degrees from the University of Cambridge, and people who have good jobs – they’re just not lawyers or bankers. I left London a few years ago and returned to Yorkshire, where I have a much better quality of life. It would be a shame for London, however, if all the writers and artists are forced out. With Elmet, I wanted to experiment with the idea of a rent strike. I wanted to toy with the idea of all renters getting together and refusing to pay their landlords. They all just decide to live in their houses for free.
As a university graduate with no formal qualification in creative writing, and without external incentives or a deadline, the writing of Elmet came from within. It was something to distract from Mozley’s daily commute and financial hardships. She initially wrote with no long-term goals of publication:
I really had no idea what I was going to do with my life, so I wrote Elmet in order to have something outside of myself to think about. I guess you could call it “writing as therapy,” but it ended up being much more public. The otherworldly quality was always deliberate. Although it’s a contemporary novel, some of its major concerns are the thrall of history, the weight of the past, and the ways in which those things inform contemporary ways of life.
That deliberate otherworldly quality is effective in that we can imagine what lies beyond the train tracks and the fields that once belonged to the Celtic Kingdom of Elmet; and we can for a moment feel what the narrator Daniel sees and feels. Flexibility regarding the process enabled the author to record her astute observations and ideas with whatever she had to hand, as she felt them. As a consequence, the fictional Elmet feels like a world fresh from the unconscious mind.
While Elmet was still a work in progress, Mozley took on a role at a literary agency, where she realized that books are written by people not too different from herself. “In a way, I think I had always felt so removed from the sorts of people who become professional writers that it almost seemed like a fantasy profession,” she explains, “like ‘sorcerer’ or ‘superhero,’ not something that people actually did.” After working at the agency, however, writing professionally seemed a more attainable, realistic goal. Now writing with readers in mind, Mozley thought about what she wanted to convey to readers with Elmet:
I like fiction that provokes a sensory response. I wanted to address a number of issues in Elmet, and I would like to make people think, but primarily I want to make people feel. I’m fascinated by the idea that you can write words on a page that someone else goes on to read, and then that person might laugh out loud, or sweat with anticipation, or their breathing might quicken. I love the idea that fiction can have a physical response.
Mozley’s taste in literature is eclectic, to say the least. Her favourite opening to a novel is found in A Passage to India by E. M. Forster, while one of her favorite endings is in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. “I also read a lot of medieval literature, which unfortunately a lot of people find to be quite inaccessible,” she says. “I suppose Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight might be a good place to start because there are lots of modern editions. It’s not my favorite, though. That would probably be a short Middle English narrative called Cheuelere Assigne, which contains bestiality, swan transformations, and family drama.”
Upon leaving the literary agency, Mozley returned to her hometown of York, where she combined working part-time in a book shop with a doctorate in Medieval Studies.
With this new found confidence, a willingness to write using everything she had at hand at every opportune moment, and the tone imparted to her by the historical documents she worked with during her PhD, Mozley brought us Elmet—a lyrical novel that speaks simultaneously of a country for which I have nostalgia as an expatriate, and a place that seems to belong to the realm of dreams. John, described as a giant, has built a house with his own hands in an isolated wood set in the rugged landscape of rural Yorkshire. He earns money through underground fights, which he seldom loses. He protects his children, the narrator Daniel and his elder sister Cathy, from the real world, which at times seems cruel and unjust. Together they roll cigarettes, hunt for their food—tend to the house as their father goes out for days on end. As readers, we come to realize that their ancient way of life is threatened by the land ownership laws of modernity. And all of this takes place beyond the rail tracks, across the fields, in a place to which you or I will unlikely ever venture.
Fiona Mozley is currently halfway through her second novel. “I’m not saying much,” she says, “but I will say that it is very different from Elmet!”
The novel’s superiority over the short story has long been a subject of contentious debate among writers, readers, and publishers, and is in no danger of being resolved to anyone’s satisfaction in the near or distant future. The New York publishing world’s privileging of the novel over the short story, with a few notable exceptions, helps to assure the novel’s primacy among today’s prose forms, and booksellers likewise feature more novels on their frontlist and new paperback tables than short story collections.
Certainly there are other reasons why novels, along with memoirs (putative autobiographies, in which their authors often employ the conventions of the novel), are the dominant prose forms on offer in bookstores, but if more short story collections were published by corporate publishing houses, it seems a reasonable assumption that their sales and marketing departments would then necessarily be tasked with promoting them with the same publicity muscle and marketing ingenuity used to promote long-form fiction titles.
Some readers complain that the short story doesn’t allow them to fully inhabit the fictional world the author has created because they feel as if the story is over almost as soon as it begins, but this has always struck me as a hollow reproach, one easily remedied by more careful reading, by slowing down and calling on all five senses instead of proceeding solely with the devouring eye that savors little of what it alights upon.
In the last couple of years, a number of debut collections have broken through the proverbial glass ceiling most short story writers confront, even with a large publishing house behind them, and have garnered considerable acclaim and review attention, among them titles by Carmen Maria Machado, Jenny Zhang, and Ottessa Moshfegh.
Another writer who could justifiably take his place alongside the new generation of short story masters is Matthew Lansburgh, whose collection of linked stories, Outside Is the Ocean, was selected by Andre Dubus III for the 2017 Iowa Short Fiction Award, and was recently named a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and the Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction.
One of the more notable formal qualities of this addictive, deeply imaginative, and often very funny debut is that despite its classification as a story collection, it could be described as a novel with equal accuracy. Many of the stories in Outside Is the Ocean were published in journals as stand-alone stories, but taken as a whole, the book’s narrative moves with the fluidity and authority of a novel, most of the stories alternating between two point-of-view characters, Heike, a German woman who emigrated to the U.S. as a young woman, and her son, Stewart, a young academic whose estranged, bullying American father divorced his mother when he was still a small boy.
Outside Is the Ocean is novelistic in scope, spanning 42 years, with the earliest story set in 1967 and the latest in 2019—the force of Heike’s big personality reverberating through every story. In order to escape the unreasonable expectations she has of their mother-son relationship, and her recriminations when he can’t meet them, Stewart flees to the other side of the country as soon as he reaches adulthood and eventually becomes a college professor in Boston.
Stewart’s father, Raymond, is also an academic whom he sees rarely, and in the stories where Stewart does visit his father, he is treated with hostility if he fails to behave or perform exactly as his father demands. Although it would be easy to portray both Raymond and Heike in a villainous light, Lansburgh manages to suffuse the stories that focus on them with pathos, ensuring they are fully realized, complicated characters whose sorrows and disappointments ultimately feel as immediate as Stewart’s do.
Via email and Google Docs, Lansburgh and I recently corresponded about Outside Is the Ocean and his formation as a fiction writer.
Christine Sneed: Which story did you begin with? (I’m guessing you didn’t proceed chronologically from 1967 to 2019). And how did these characters and their stories take root?
Matthew Lansburgh: You’re right that I didn’t write all the stories in the collection chronologically, but the stories I first began working on were in fact the earliest from a chronological perspective. I started these stories well over a decade ago when I first tried to write about my parents. Initially, I began writing what I thought might be a kind of memoir—mostly as a way for me to try to understand my childhood and the people who raised me. This process of making sense of my past through crafting and recrafting scenes in various permutations led me to realize that fiction would be a better vehicle to tell my story. One of the most important lessons I learned early on is that how you tell your story is the most important decision a writer makes. The first five years of working on this book were really about exploring the various ways I could structure and frame my material. In the end, I ended up letting go of the idea that I needed to be true to the facts, and I began to fabricate and embellish and let my imagination take over.
CS: Outside Is the Ocean has been marketed as a story collection, but it’s more novelistic than David Szalay’s latest novel, the Man Booker Prize finalist All That Man Is, which is thematically linked but has almost no overlapping characters. It’s hard not to assume Szalay’s book was marketed as a novel for the sole purpose of bringing more readers to it (which isn’t, all things being equal, a bad thing, considering how hard it is to sell books today). Why do you think there’s such a preference for novels over short story collections among readers and most publishers?
ML: I’m glad to hear you think Outside Is the Ocean feels novelistic—thank you! I think the fact that the book follows the lives of a recurring cast of characters and that the reader can see how those characters’ lives evolve over time does make it feel more like a novel than many short story collections. When people ask me whether I had any literary models in mind as I worked on my book, I often mention Olive Kitteridge, which was marketed as a novel-in-stories.
As for why it is that many readers and publishers favor novels over short story collections, I’m guessing the reason is that people like the idea of escaping into another world that is fully realized and allows the reader to transcend the confines of his or her reality. We all know, however, that the best short stories do in fact provide this kind of escape—in an hour or two, rather than over a much longer timespan. Indeed, I would argue that given the increasingly diminished attention spans we all have these days, short stories should be more popular than ever. Perhaps a book of linked short stories offers the best of both worlds: bite-size narratives that can be consumed one sitting at a time, over the course of several days or weeks?
CS: Did the fact that you were aware of the novel’s popularity over the short story guide the way you wrote and structured OItO?
ML: I wish I could say that I wrote Outside Is the Ocean with some kind of master plan, but the truth is it felt like I was stumbling along during most of the writing process. Some of the key factors that shaped the book’s form had nothing to do with the “market,” but rather with where I was in my life: this is the first book I tried to write and I found the idea of writing one short story, followed another and another, less daunting than tackling a novel (so many of us start with stories, I suppose); I also wrote most of the book while I had a full-time day job, and I found working on a series of shorter pieces easier to navigate than than a single 300-page project. Once I’d gathered together a critical mass of stories and realized they involved the same characters in various settings and circumstances, I did begin to think about what it might take to create a book-length work, but that came later on.
CS: I’m guessing, based on your reply to question #2, that you read more novels than story collections, though perhaps I’m wrong? Do you intend to write more short stories? (Maybe you’re working on some at present).
ML: Yes! I love writing short stories and hope to write them for many years to come, though recently I’ve been spending most of my time working on a novel. (The novel is quite different from Outside Is the Ocean in terms of its tone and sensibility—it’s about a misfit with horns who gets fired from his corporate job and ends up working at Chipotle!) As for my reading habits, I think I pick up story collections and novels in approximately equal numbers. I tend to dip into lots of books, because I’m always curious to see what contemporary writers are up to.
CS: William Trevor and Alice Munro have written novels, though in Munro’s case, only one, Lives of Girls and Women, which could probably still be considered a story collection, but they’re best known for short stories and are considered masters of the form. Do you see Outside Is the Ocean as a book in conversation with authors like Trevor and Munro? You mention Elizabeth Strout above, but I’m curious about your other influences.
ML: Alice Munro and William Trevor are absolutely in my pantheon of favorite writers. Stories like “Runaway” and “The Bear Came Over the Mountain” as well as “Folie à deux” and “An Afternoon” will, I’m certain, remain in my consciousness and inform who I am until I die. I’m embarrassed to say that I’m a slow reader: I’ve always wished I was someone who could read a novel a week, but that just isn’t how I’m wired. As a result, I’ve never gravitated toward large, sprawling novels—the books I connect with most powerfully are usually collections of short stories or shorter novels. I love everything I’ve ever read by Flannery O’Connor and Janet Frame. I also love Coetzee (Disgrace, Waiting for the Barbarians), Nabokov (Lolita), Salinger (especially Nine Stories), Ishiguro (Remains of the Day!!!!), and Anne Carson (Autobiography of Red). Now that I’m answering this question, I’m realizing the list of writers I admire is quite long and includes more people than I can reasonably list here, including Jorge Luis Borges, Virginia Woolf, Federico García Lorca, Gabriel García Márquez, Haruki Murakami, Raymond Carver, Lorrie Moore, Edward P. Jones, and Tony Doerr.
CS: You mentioned above that you began writing Outside Is the Ocean as a memoir but realized that fiction was a better vehicle for this particular story. I kept thinking as I read that Heike and Raymond would be extremely challenging parents to have, and Heike especially is larger than life and almost pathologically maddening at times. What were the main challenges of writing characters who were based on people you knew very well?
ML: Because the material’s seeds are so personal, I do feel like writing the stories served as a form of catharsis. Working through draft after draft of some of the pieces often felt like a kind of therapy, as if the process of conjuring various permutations of certain scenes allowed me to revisit and reexamine events from my past, imagining different fact patterns and possible paths along life’s decision tree. As I mentioned above, the end result is fiction, but the emotions underlying and informing the narrative moments came from my lived experience—I suppose that’s often the case for most writers. I think one of the reasons so many people aspire to write is that putting words on the page can provide an opportunity for us to grapple with things that have happened to us and to understand not only who we are but who the people in our lives are.
As for Heike and Raymond, I think the biggest challenge posed by using my mother and father as the basis for these characters was allowing myself (forcing myself) to let go of reality and let my imagination run free. The characters in the book are different in important ways from my parents and ended up being distinct people. One of the things I struggled with in revision was how to make Heike and Raymond as three-dimensional as possible: to avoid caricature and cliche. This was especially difficult in the case of Raymond who existed for several years on the page as the prototypical angry, domineering father. Writing “The Sky and the Night” was definitely a turning point in my understanding of who Raymond could be. That was one of the last stories I wrote, and it felt like a bit of a breakthrough emotionally.
CS: You earned your MFA in creative writing from NYU, and I’m wondering if in the writing workshops you participated in, most of your classmates were writing short stories (and were they encouraged to do so, rather than writing a novel while in the program)?
ML: I loved my experience at NYU. The program is incredibly flexible, and they allowed me to take classes part-time. (I was enrolled in the program over a period of five years, taking just one class a semester and sometimes skipping semesters altogether.) The faculty is superb, and I had a chance to study with Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, Amy Hempel, Colson Whitehead, E.L. Doctorow, Hannah Tinti, and Darin Strauss. The professors who led our workshops didn’t encourage one form over another. It seemed to me about 60 percent of the students were working on stories, the rest novels. In general, I think the students who were the most ambitious and “connected” were, more often than not, working on novels. I guess they figured out early on that it would be easier to sell a novel than a collection of stories.
CS: You likely worked on many of the stories in Outside Is the Ocean while at NYU—did any of your classmates or professors suggest that you write this book as a straightforward novel, i.e. a book with many fewer stand-alone chapters? Was this something you tried?
ML: I did indeed work on many of the stories in the collection while I was a student at NYU. As I recall, only one or two people suggested that I think about what the stories might look like if they were combined into a more traditional novel, but I did try to see whether that approach might work. In the end, none of those attempts got traction (I tried to write the entire book from Heike’s POV, for example, but that started to feel too claustrophobic). In the end, I think the story format offered more flexibility by allowing me to use multiple voices, points of view, and narrative postures.
CS: Do you ever encounter readers who say, “I think you’re a good writer, but I’m straight and just can’t identify with gay characters?” I’m asking this because the topic comes up in writing workshops, i.e. some readers won’t or can’t read from a subject position other than their own. Stewart, who is gay, is of course central to the book and it’s his perspective through which so many of the stories are filtered. His sexuality, however, is only one aspect of who he is.
ML: Ha! I think if I did come across someone who said that I might spray some Chanel Eau de Parfum in their hair. I know that there are probably many people out there who still hold these kinds of views, but, fortunately, I rarely interact with people like that at this point in my life. I live in New York City where it seems just about everyone is gay or wants to be gay.
In all seriousness, I have to say I’ve been thrilled by how supportive and enthusiastic the book’s readers have been (including a number of straight, white, cis dudes—some well over 60—who told me they’ve enjoyed it). The reception I’ve received has been quite heartening, especially given the fact that when the book came out, I really only expected the gays and women to be interested in reading it. Many of the readers (including the straight dudes) have even said they were able to identify with many of the characters in the book. Responses like this have made my fragile heart burst into song.
CS: Despite the undercurrent of sadness that pervades many of the stories in Outside Is the Ocean, there are so many comic moments in this book. Would you say that comedy comes naturally to you?
ML: It always makes me happy to hear that readers find parts of the book funny. Humor is important to me—both on the page and in life itself. My father was a jokester, and I think I inherited his somewhat zany way of looking at the world. It was one of his best qualities. A lot of my writing does have a comic dimension, but Outside Is the Ocean is, for the most part, quite serious, so I’m glad to hear you found moments of levity along the way.
I do think that comedy comes naturally to me. Sometimes people don’t always share my sense of humor, but I see the world as a strange place, full of ridiculous situations and things that often don’t make sense. My father was a difficult person, someone who could be quite scary and sometimes menacing, but he could also be whimsical and funny. In retrospect, I think I developed humor as a kind of coping mechanism to help calm him down and defuse tension. It worked much better than bursting into tears or trying to match his fury with my own.
CS: You wrote above that you’re working on a novel about a man with horns. Where on earth did this character come from?
ML: Yes, I’ve been working on this novel, on and off, for about five years. One of the book’s central characters is a woman with wings who grew up in Croatia and who works in Coney Island. My protagonist, Karl, becomes infatuated with her, and I figured I needed to make him special too. I gave him horns in the second draft of the book. They’re not big horns—just little ones. Most people don’t even know they’re there.
CS: One final question: what has been the hardest part of launching a new book into the world and how have you handled it?
ML: Getting people to read it. Getting reviews in national publications. There are so many good books out there, so to ask people to take a chance on a book that hasn’t been promoted with a big-budget marketing campaign has been a bit of an uphill battle.
On the plus side, many of the people who’ve read Outside Is the Ocean have become enthusiastic supporters. I feel very fortunate that some very well-respected writers (such as yourself!) have taken the time to read my book and have responded so positively to it. It means a lot to me.
“Throughout the Crash, I wrote free-hand, not caring about the style or if something I wrote in the afternoon contradicted something I’d established in the story that morning. The priority was simply to get the ideas surfacing and growing. Awful sentences, hideous dialogue, scenes that went nowhere – I let them remain and ploughed on.” Newly minted Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro on writing The Remains of the Day in four weeks.
The 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature and its 9m Swedish krona purse ($1,095,939.52) was awarded to Kazuo Ishiguro in a ceremony broadcast live online. The British author has written seven novels, most recently The Buried Giant, and in 1989 he won the prestigious Man Booker Prize for The Remains of the Day. As of this morning’s standings on popular British betting site Ladbrokes, Ishiguro was not in the top-three most likely Nobel laureates, and so his victory comes as a surprise – albeit a much more mild one than last year’s left field selection of Bob Dylan.
Ishiguro’s novels have long been favorites of Millions readers. His name has popped up in many of our Year in Reading entries, and his sixth novel, Never Let Me Go, earned a spot on our 2009 “Best of the Millennium” series. “They say that most novelists end up writing the same book over and over again: a truth which manifests itself differently in the work of different novelists,” wrote Elif Batuman. “In the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro, it takes the form of an incredibly elegant formal unity.”
His work also takes the form of surprise, as noted by Millions editor Lydia Kiesling:
It is a great thing to be surprised by a novelist. … The surprise in a large part of Kazuo Ishiguro’s work is that he changes the very quality of the world in some subtle but deeply alarming way; suddenly the sky is a gray shade, your own voice vibrates at a slightly different frequency, and an atonal humming sound wafts on the breeze.
The bar for participating in post-Nobel activities was set unbelievably low last year, when surprise winner Bob Dylan went two months before even acknowledging his honor. It’s doubtful this year’s winner will continue that trend.
For me, 2016 began — as most years do — in coldest Canada. “Edmonton,” as Wikipedia tells me, “is the most northern North American city with a metropolitan population over one million.” Last week, the temperature dropped so much that they made public transport free.
Edmonton sprawls, and because it’s always so damn cold, the transit system becomes a necessary part of staying alive. If anything, the city is as much connecting infrastructure — tunnels, ravines, subways, indoor walkways, sprawling malls — as it is actual living space. Here, we are constantly in motion, and we are also constantly stuck. During warmer weather, I take long walks along suburban highways with a book and often run into nobody. I read George Eliot’s Middlemarch five summers ago that way, and Edmonton’s flattening landscape has since merged for me with scenes of, for instance, Dorothea crying alone in Rome.
In 2016, I read for my English PhD qualifying exams — which meant revisiting Middlemarch, though in vastly different climes. (Edmonton is obviously the more felicitous place to read about Eliot’s provincial town.) I have actual lists of what I read this year. Turns out, I love making lists. (Less loved: Following them.)
The only books I read in 2016 that were published in the same year were Alexander Chee’s Queen of the Night, Ruth Franklin’s Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, Claire Jarvis’s Exquisite Masochism: Marriage, Sex, and the Novel Form, and D.A. Miller’s Hidden Hitchcock.
More often, I was reading the greatest hits of British literature from Walter Scott’s Waverley (1814) onward. All I know about Scott is that he grows on you. During these last few months, I’ve begun describing how it feels like we’re living in historical novel time, which maybe only confirms that Waverley will never stop being relevant. I read William Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847) — another historical novel — and for a week, fell asleep to documentaries about Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. There are a lot. Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton (1848) and George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss (1860), and Middlemarch (1863) are also about very recent history. The Victorians loved historical novels. I wonder what kinds of novels these next few years will produce.
I’m not a good reader of poetry, but Arthur Hugh Clough’s historical long poem Amours de Voyage (1849) has something for everybody. It’s about the Roman Revolution, and is framed as a series of juicy letters. Speaking of, I started rereading Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Clarissa (1748) after reading Frances Ferguson’s shatteringly good essay “Rape and the Rise of the Novel” (1987). I didn’t finish Clarissa, but there’s always next year.
I read a lot of Victorian sages in 2016, and for what it’s worth, a lot of their work feels relevant too. Walter Pater might be my favorite — especially his essay “Style” (1888). William Morris is a close second. Say what you will about Thomas Carlyle, but Sartor Resartus (1833) is incredible.
Due to its focus on canonicity, exam prep often involves rereading. There will always be some things, however, that one will not reread: I never revisited James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), I watched the BBC Bleak House (2005) starring Gillian Andersonand crossed Charles Dickens’s novel off my list.
Alternately, there are also some things that one finally reads for the first time. In my case, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902), Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (1959), Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day (1989), and Derek Walcott and Kamau Brathwaite poems. At some point I think I described Heart of Darkness to someone as “an oldie, but a goodie.” The most rigorous of critical reflection.
There was literary criticism too. I learned this year that tracking and reproducing other people’s arguments is often more difficult than we know. I combed through Fredric Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism (2013), and am maybe just starting to “get” it. It’s enormously productive, I believe, but there’s a bit of Stockholm syndrome in reading it too. By the end of November, I had drunk the cool-aid on two particular texts: Georg Lukács’s The Theory of the Novel (1916) and the final chapter of Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis (1953). Things I never thought I’d want to do: read more Lukács over Christmas break.
Two more recent novels that mean a lot to me (and which I shoe-horned onto my lists) are Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (2000) and Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life (2013). They’re by no means deep cuts, but if you haven’t read them, I couldn’t recommend them enough! The night of my exams, I was celebrating with friends and two of them remarked how they despised Life After Life. This came as a surprise, but it’s also a response that I want to think more about—because I ~~love~~*~*~* it. I keep selling When We Were Orphans as the Ishiguro novel that is better than both the one about clones and the one about the English butler. If Ishiguro’s historical novel (about WWII, the opium wars, and the golden age of detective fiction) could speak, it would ask, “Girl, why you so obsessed with me?”
I’m not sure if the Year in Reading tends toward synthesis or sprawl, but I know I personally incline toward the latter. Happily, some of the novels I read this year seemed to welcome this. Emily Brontë’s messy and muddling Wuthering Heights (1847) is still, like, The Best Novel. It’s just the best! It’s so bonkers!! I want someone to make a Wuthering Heights game, in which one (of course) never gets to leave Wuthering Heights. I finally finished Henry James’s The Golden Bowl (1904) and, did you know, this dizzying, late James novel can be broken down into less than 30 clearly defined scenes? This was somehow a revelation to me. So much stuff in The Golden Bowl! Metaphors upon metaphors involving — among bowls — other stuff! Stuff stuff stuff. Yuge, yuge objects. And yet — static scenes, a 30-scene-roadmap for a Hollywood 90-minuter, carefully set out, as though there were some logic to all this madness.
Immediately after my exams, I picked up Ed Park’s Personal Days, which both merits rereading and, really, everyone’s reading.
And finally, a year in reading is incomplete without Eve Sedgwick’s crucial essay “Paranoid Reading or Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You” (2003). I’ve read this essay more times than I can count and it always teaches me something new.
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I imagine one of the reasons The Great Gatsby remains so popular today must be because it taps into something deep inside the human literary soul. A man rises from obscurity, wins all the battles (throws all the parties), and ultimately falls in a tragedy of his own making. How long has that essential plot been with us? The answer, as anyone who’s taken a world history course could tell you, is a very, very long time. Even today, several hundred years after the divinely appointed monarch became an anachronism in the West, we can’t stop telling stories about that great man, the king.
In The Secret Chord, Pulitzer Prize-winner Geraldine Brooks (March, 2006) goes way, way back into that tradition to bring us a novelistic retelling of the biblical King David, the man who killed giants, composed the Psalms and united the tribes of Israel into a kingdom.
Brooks’s David is a man of contradictions. “He could be a predator at noonday and a poet by dusk,” says Natan, Brooks’s narrator. He’s extraordinarily touched by the divine and a great hero to his people, but he commits many acts of brutality and benefits from even more to achieve his crown. Though his life (if he truly existed, it was maybe 3,000 years ago) was chronicled in a 2,500-year-old book, in Brooks’s hands David feels both timeless and fully alive, as charismatic and dangerous as any of our modern Chosen Ones. She presents a hero who “dwelt in the searing glance of the divine, but who sweated and stank…built a nation, made music that pleased heaven, and left poems in our mouths that will be spoken by people yet unknown.” Who doesn’t want to read about someone like that?
Brooks’s fifth novel takes its title from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and revolves around the famous tryst described in that song. David sees Batsheva (the names are spelled from their Hebrew originals) bathing on the roof and, overthrown by her beauty in the moonlight, commits adultery and a murder that bring about the near downfall of his dynasty. Woven around this thread is David’s whole life story, as recounted by his lifelong prophet, Natan.
The story doesn’t stray from its source material in the books of Samuel and Kings in any significant way. As a young man, David is pulled away from tending his sheep so he can be anointed the new king of the Israelites by the prophet Samuel. He slays Goliath, joins the court of King Saul, and loves Jonathan, Saul’s son. As king, he marries many women, fathers many sons, wins many battles. In punishment for the Batsheva affair, David’s horrid sons turn against him and each other, spurring several years of family and dynastic strife.
In Brooks’s previous novels, she has taken a very specific moment in history and turned it outward to examine a host of concerns. Here the scope seems both larger and more personal. The details of daily life in Iron Age Israel, outside of war and food, are sparse, as they have to be. There are few primary sources to consult when you go back this far. But the characters never feel foreign or unknowable. The story takes David’s faith and Natan’s prophecies at face value, but it never feels overly pious. Natan’s express mission is to make his king known to readers “as a man.”
There are times when Brooks’s decision to relate the entire story of a very eventful life in 300 pages feels like a series of missed opportunities. Natan recounts events from a distance — some scenes are related by other characters in dialogue, some are seen from afar in visions and others are recalled years after they happened. We get moments in summary that cry out to be part of a living, breathing scene. Take this line: “I was at the audience, and I sensed his manipulation, but I did not grasp where it was leading.” A different novel might spend pages leading up to this kind of realization; The Remains of the Day makes an entire book out of it. Later, distraught by David’s hand in Uriah’s death, Natan takes to the desert. While wandering there, he has visions of how the remaining years of David’s life will play out. For all this, arguably the most key passage in the book, we get two pages.
Natan is a prophet, a true seer. As such, he takes a vow of celibacy and lives apart from other people. “The truth is, the people abide my kind, but no one loves us,” he realizes at age 10, after his first vision. “We grow used to the turned shoulder, the retreating back, the bright conversation that sputters to a murmur when we enter a room, the sigh of relief when we leave it.” And so what other way, he might ask us, would a man such as him tell a story such as this? The form suits the storyteller. Still, at times I couldn’t help but wish for the “simple joys and intimacies” Natan holds himself apart from.
In their place, we gain a breadth of knowledge that lets us see how everything is connected. We understand how being unloved as a child makes David too permissive with his own children; how after being so blessed during his rise to power, he can callously abuse that power later in life. It’s rewarding, to feel like we know this man as well as Natan does. The book holds both coming-of-age tale and classic tragedy.
Fans of Brooks’s previous books may be surprised by how overwhelmingly male The Secret Chord is. All of her previous novels have central female characters. The Secret Chord stays firmly focused on David, Natan, and, later, Shlomo (Solomon). This is not to say an author must always write the same kind of book or isn’t free to choose her subjects. Several women do appear throughout the story, most notably David’s famous wives Mikhal, Avigail, and Batsheva, and all live and breathe as characters in their own right. But for the large majority of the book, we’re in a men’s world of war, chieftainship, and brutality.
Brooks’s past books are mostly about ordinary people who push against the circumstances of their time to make their lives extraordinary. The characters in The Secret Chord are extraordinary from day one and spend the rest of their lives struggling to maintain the great responsibility that comes with it. But Brooks treats these characters with the same good will and strong narrative she did with the others. David can be quite harsh and misguided, yet enthralling and charming for all that. Natan’s outsider status may place him in kinship with the women of Brooks’s other novels, and he draws our sympathy with his clear-eyed confessions.
Is it escapism to read about such a powerful figure when most of us lead lives of quiet inconsequentiality? Or is reading this book a way to hear that ancient chord in the chorus of literature, linking us to humanity throughout the ages?
Kazuo Ishiguro writes novels set in a diversity of realms — the Japanese underworld, the Central Europe of Franz Kafka, the English countryside of Oswald Mosley. But no matter their territory, his stories share a few key features: they all deal with the complexities arising from a seemingly simple proposition, and they are all sad as shit. A butler takes a trip to solve his staffing issues; he faces the be-waistcoated shambles of his life. A woman reflects banally on her schooldays, while organs are harvested all around. A man arrives in a city to give a concert — he can’t do it, but why?
In The Buried Giant, an elderly man and woman set out on a visit to their son. But this journey is a production. They live in a way-back-England where Christians and pagans and ogres mingle. Their village, and all neighboring villages, have been enveloped in a mist that makes everyone forget what they have done and what they are about to do (Ishiguro is the king of maddening obstacles). This mist is, according to various theories, the result of God himself forgetting his people, or the enchanted breath of an elderly dragon named Querig. Mist notwithstanding, the couple, Axl and Beatrice, are spurred by some deep and nameless instinct to visit a son they only vaguely remember, convincing themselves en route that he is eagerly anticipating their arrival. Along the way they also get mixed up with mythical characters, Arthurian and older, and contemplate the nature of their love for one another.
At some moments, I felt I had found an apocryphal eighth Chronicle of Narnia, written by a particularly cheerless, possibly aphasic disciple of C.S. Lewis. While Ishiguro’s “turn to fantasy” has been compared to J.R.R. Tolkien and, heaven forfend, George R.R. Martin, the Christian allegory and honor-bound Britishness of Lewis is where I think the novel is more at home. If you remember Eustace Scrubb and Jill Poole and Puddleglum making their way across the terrible moor and through the ruined giant city, you’re there with Beatrice and Axl as they struggle across the Great Plain where the giant lies buried, always on the lookout for enchantments. Even the narrative perspective nods, intentionally or no, to Lewis, in its occasional breaks to address the reader, breaks that are just enough to remind you that you aren’t alone in the room. The third-person omniscient narrator Ishiguro employs for much of the novel places the reader in time in much the same way that Lewis’s did: “Once inside it, you would not have thought this longhouse so different from the sort of rustic canteen many of you will have experienced in one institution or another.” Compare to Lewis’s friendly signposts: “You have never seen such clothes, but I can remember them,” or “They came out on one of those rough roads (we should hardly call them roads at all in England)”.
If, in a Narnian finale, everyone gets to be together again, in an Ishiguran one, everyone is destined to be apart. But in any case, Ishiguro’s “turn to fantasy,” if that’s what we want to call it, is not what is odd about this novel, which is of a piece with his established weirdness, his postmodern genre flirtations.
Ishiguro has a reputation for spare, even aggressively unadorned prose. In the very perfect novel The Remains of the Day, Stevens the butler explains the beauty of England, in what might be a uniquely oblique authorial humble brag:
And yet what precisely is this ‘greatness’? Just where, or in what, does it lie?…I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.
The Buried Giant is so restrained that it sometimes has a soporific effect not unlike the mist that is its central proposition. Moreover, there are some strange and disorienting perspectival shifts. We are with Beatrice and Axl very closely at the beginning, seeing things from Axl’s point of view as they are relayed by a seemingly featureless and disinterested narrator (“As she said this, softly into his chest, many fragments of memory tugged Axl’s mind, so much so that he felt almost faint.”). It is jarring then, half-way through the novel, when this perspective shifts to another character, or gives over to the first-person musings of Gawain (“Was she not that way, the one I sometimes remember when there stretches before me as much land, empty and companionless, as I could ride on a dreary autumn’s day?”). The story becomes difficult to follow when the action picks up, at a monastery full of monks who engage in a perverse and memorable bird-related form of penitence; we occasionally jump forward slightly in time and then recover lost ground using the past perfect tense (“They had met in the chilly corridor outside Father Jonus’s cell.”) Since they are written by Kazuo Ishiguro, these shifts must at heart be measured and purposeful — but they seem haphazard; they are sometimes confusing.
Unless you have utterly professionalized as a reader, the books you read are always going to be about what is going on in your life, to the extent that deluded readers like myself will see the hand of divine providence or some otherwise cosmic coincidence in their reading. I think that had I been in another frame of mind I may have dismissed this novel, placed it on a lower shelf in the Ishiguro cabinet of curiosities. But I happened to finish The Buried Giant the day after I returned to work from maternity leave, with a 10-week-old baby still at home. So, for one, I am in a state of high emotion such that I was inclined to read the novel as a love story about old people and dead children, and weep accordingly. (Without spoilers, I will say that the ending of the novel is very much like a very sad poem by Billy Collins called “Bermuda”). The final line is the book’s loveliest: “Wait for me on the shore, friend, I say quietly, but he does not hear and he wades on.”
In The Buried Giant, the mist functions as a prophylactic against bloodshed — the Britons and Saxons had hitherto been embroiled in perpetual and gruesome war — but it does not feel like benevolence. In an interview published in The Times, Ishiguro said that he wanted to write about collective memory without the limitations of a contemporary setting: “I wanted to put it in some setting where people wouldn’t get too literal about it, where they wouldn’t think, oh, he’s written a book about the disintegration of Yugoslavia or the Middle East.” Grotesque human behavior is always lurking around the edges of the novel and in the memories of its characters, as one of the knights graphically explains:
But they know in the end they will face their own slaughter. They know the infants they circle in their arms will before long be bloodied toys kicked about these cobbles. They know because they’ve seen it already, from whence they fled. They’ve seen the enemy burn and cut, take turns to rape young girls even as they lie dying of their wounds. They know this is to come, and so must cherish the earlier days of the siege, when the enemy first pay the price for what they will later do. In other words, Master Axl, it’s vengeance to be relished in advance by those not able to take it in its proper place. That’s why I say, sir, my Saxon cousins would have stood here to cheer and clap, and the more cruel the death, the more merry they would have been.
If an imagined world at the back of a wardrobe gave C.S. Lewis the basis for drawing all of Christianity, Ishiguro found a way to amplify his Arthurian moment to a universal scale. The Buried Giant is about war and memory, but it is also about love and memory, and you don’t need to have lived through an atrocity to get it. While the various knights are concerned with the mist’s implications for tribal enmities, the real constant in the story is Beatrice and Axl’s marriage. Whatever wrongs they may have committed against one another are in the past; what we see now is Axl’s constant use of the endearment “princess,” the way he doesn’t want to leave her side. The problem is that all of their past happiness is obscured by the mist, along with all of the wrongs.
Memory has been on my mind lately. Our weeks home with the baby were an enchanted time, the joys and the terrors achieving religious proportions. Life was a welter of soft skin and wooly socks and blankets and delight, interrupted here and there by the jagged edge of existential dread, the raw surprise of a sore nipple against a flannel shirt, or a torn muscle, or a panic about measles. Every day of my precious 10 weeks I told myself “you have to remember this.” But as I approached the moment when I would have to resume my business casual and normal life, the feelings began to ebb; the memory of the newness and wonder of those first days lost a bit of its technicolor brilliance. I look at pictures on my phone and am surprised by the little face as it was on day two and day five and day 21. I can call back the moment of her birth and picture how the room was arranged, but I can no longer examine it from different angles; I can no longer feel just exactly how I felt. This is terrible, but I suppose it is also a mercy; you can’t go about your ordinary life in that kind of heightened state.
Another thing that is terrible: I had heard all about how hard it is for many new mothers to leave their infants at home in exchange for workplace squabbles and awkward half-hours spent half-clad, crying and seething alone with breast pump in a dingy supply closet. But that part was fine; it wasn’t until I returned home that first day, my steps quickening to a run up our dark street toward my baby, that I felt for the first time the mute and terrible pull that must be at the root, I suppose, of parenthood — the feeling that made Beatrice and Axl up and set off across the bewitched Great Plain to their son. And it wasn’t until I got home to find the baby already asleep that I faced up to the new arrangement of my life and felt the profound devastation of being apart, a feeling that I could only pray would fade, even as part of me felt it shouldn’t fade — because shouldn’t I feel that it’s terrible, if it is in fact terrible? Shouldn’t I live with the badness, and try to correct it? This is exactly the choice with which the characters in The Buried Giant must contend.
Ishiguro often writes about memory, about the deeply revisionist histories of people who are only poking around the edges of the truth of their lives. Already, as I type this, a seasoned working mom with a week under my belt, each homecoming is increasingly less fraught, the deep sense of futility and sadness I felt on that first day away from the baby has faded, just as that raw, panicked love I felt those first few days after birth has faded, just as the pain in my nether-regions has faded. Ishiguro wrote about the erasure of misery and joy from our memory. But in an ordinary life you don’t need a dragon’s breath to wipe all that away. It’s time that does it, and it only takes a moment.
In high school I had a zine with my friend Vanessa. It included our poetry and short stories, and for the cover of the first issue we used a label maker to spell out its title. After we’d put out one or two issues, I received a polite request from a man in prison, asking me to send him a copy. He paper-clipped two dollars in cash to his request. For some reason, I put the letter aside. From time to time, I took out the request, read it, and then put it back. Years later, I spent the money.
To borrow a phrase from Bennie Salazar, the record producer in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, this is one of my “shame memories.” Sometimes when I can’t sleep, or when I’m having a particularly low day, I think about the guy in prison who wanted to read my zine, and I wonder why I never sent it to him, why I spent his two bucks on lip balm or a soda or whatever. What shames me the most is that there was no reason why I didn’t send him the zine. I just…didn’t. I had planned to, but something, perhaps the teenage trifecta of distraction, malaise, and self-absorption, held me back. I’m also ashamed that I think about this so much. As if my juvenile zine really mattered all that much to anyone.
Lately, I’ve been thinking: If I were a fictional character, would readers hate me?
In her essay “Perfectly Flawed” Lionel Shriver writes, “Surely if fiction recorded the doings only of good campers who anguish about climate change and buy fair trade coffee, novels would be insufferably dull.” I agree. As a reader, my only rule is that a character be interesting. I also have a taste for the quote-unquote unlikeable set: Eva Khatchadourian from Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin; Sheba and Barbara from Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal; Undine Spragg from Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country. I love that they’re barbed, delusional, judgmental, thorny, damaged, and/or vulnerable. As Roxane Gay writes, “I want characters to think ugly thoughts and make ugly decisions. I want characters to make mistakes and put themselves first without apologizing for it.”
Every couple of months there’s a new defense of unlikeable characters (see: Claire Messud’s take) or likeable ones (see: Jennifer Weiner’s), and this conversation often returns to our cultural expectations of women. Recently, Emily Nussbaum wrote about “The Female Bad Fan” for The New Yorker. These are “the fans of shows with female protagonists, both comedies and dramas, who crave not bloodshed but empowerment.” Nussbaum writes:
The Mindy Project is a sitcom about a woman poisoned by rom-coms, but it offers up its own romantic-comedy pleasures. Female viewers, especially, have been trained to expect certain payoffs from romantic comedies, vicarious in nature: the meet-cute, the soul mate, and, in nearly every case, a “Me, too!” identification. Without “Me, too!,” some folks want a refund.
I’ve come across something similar with my own novel, California, which is marketed as a literary post-apocalyptic novel, but is also a study of a young marriage. While many readers tell me they like the wife, Frida, many do not. Readers on Goodreads or Amazon have expressed this opinion, but so have a couple critics: in the Washington Post, for instance, Sara Sklaroff remarked that Frida “isn’t much of a heroine. She’s annoying, self-centered and tragically naive.” I was surprised that Sklaroff hated Frida as much as she did, and even more puzzled that she didn’t also have trouble with Cal, Frida’s husband; to me, they’re both flawed. I was surprised, too, that character likability was a central focus of the review.
To be honest, the negative reactions to Frida have given me a wee bit of a complex. I’ve found myself wondering about my own actions, about the way I’ve hurt this or that person, or felt slighted about some insignificant thing someone said to me. The way, in college, I asked, “What’s with the hat?” to a Mennonite at the movies. The shame memories are running on repeat these days, is what I’m saying.
Frida isn’t like me: she is impetuous and secretive, she acts based on emotion and intuition, and she’s a slacker. Cal isn’t like me either: he is more hesitant, reserved, and adaptable than I am. These characters frustrated and disappointed me, but I always found them compelling. Likability wasn’t part of the equation; I simply wanted to write about these two specific people, alone and together in the woods, mourning their pasts and trying to stay hopeful. If anything, I was interested in setting a small-scale drama within an “end-of-the-world” situation. What if, at the end of the world, we aren’t our best selves–we’re just ourselves?
(This summer I read The Hunger Games and though I’d love to be as brave as Katniss, I doubt I would be. Maybe the post-apocalyptic genre has trained us to expect characters to break free from the shackles of pettiness and resentment and grief in the face of world-ruin. I’m interested in the characters who don’t or can’t do that.)
I decided to ask two fellow writers about their experience with the “unlikeable” issue. Jean Hanff Korelitz told me that by the time her new novel, You Should Have Known, came out in March, readers’ dislike for her protagonists had “risen to a general din…even from readers who liked the novel very much.” She went on:
‘I just didn’t like her’ is a phrase I read over and over again on Goodreads and Amazon, about the protagonist, Grace Sachs (a woman who has so many problems — missing, probable murderer and adulterer husband, exploding career, global humiliation, etc.– that reader reviews would be pretty far down on the list).
The whole phenomenon made me take stock of the female characters I’ve gravitated to over the years: Lizzie Bennet? Becky Sharp? The strange, probably mentally ill narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping? Would I truly have wanted to take a spa weekend with any of them? When had that become a requirement for appreciating a fictional character?
When I asked Jean what’s on her mind as she creates a character, she said, “I seem to have this compulsion to take women who appear strong, fortunate, “self-actualized,” and rip them to shreds, then see what they make of themselves after that, how they claw their way back.” She continued:
I think there’s an essential feminism at work here…not that I am in the habit of quoting Therese Giudice (she of the indelible “ingredientses” for the cookbooks she — God help us — writes), but her most recent Real Housewives tagline — “You never know how strong you are until it’s the only choice you have…”–could serve the protagonists of most of my novels. Women really are strong when they have to be. And that, to me, is far more compelling than finding your “bestie” in the pages of a novel.
Since receiving Jean’s words of wisdom, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to see in fictional characters, no matter the gender: I want them complex and realistic, and also surprising. And for female characters, it’s particularly important to me that they have the freedom to be whatever they need to be, whether it’s strong, or weak, or ice-cold, or vulnerable, or all of the above. After all, my real-life best friend can be all of those things, and I still love her.
Author Emma Straub helped me put this all in perspective. A small contingent of readers don’t seem to like her character Franny, who is the matriarch of Emma’s novel The Vacationers. (Which is weird to me, as Franny is funny, an excellent cook, and she’s being pretty pleasant in the wake of her husband’s infidelity.) Emma is wonderfully sanguine about the issue:
I certainly never intended to make my characters either likable or unlikeable — my goal with the characters in this book was to make them as real as possible. Warts and all. I always liked them, but I don’t think that’s even the point. I wasn’t surprised when some readers didn’t, because I saw them as three-dimensional human beings, and god knows it’s hard to find one of those that you don’t find in some way lacking or imperfect. I truly could not care less if readers feel differently.
I also think there’s a big difference between a character being unlikeable (whatever that means) and it being unpleasant to spend time reading about them. I have put down many books because I didn’t like the experience of reading them, but that has nothing at all to do with whether or not the characters in those books seemed like people I would want to hang out with. That’s my question, I suppose, for the people who keep bringing this horseshit up. Are they complaining about not enjoying the book, or that they don’t want to have tea with the characters? Because if it’s the former, for godssake, stop reading!
I grew up in a house built on horror novels, so I’ve spent my entire life reading books about serial killers and pedophiles and assorted other creeps. Are those unlikeable characters? To some people, probably.
Traditionally, the Unlikeable Character in fiction is created with authorial intention. You, as the reader, recognize the cues that the person you’re reading about is alienating or reprehensible, and it’s clear that such characterization is part of author’s aesthetic project. (Unreliable Characters, a la the infamous butler in Remains of the Day, are also traditionally revealed this way). But what if a character isn’t Unlikeable, but unlikeable? What if you just didn’t like him or her? That’s a valid personal response, and certainly a good a reason as any to stop reading. But it’s such a personal response that it’s irrelevant to the critical gaze.
Part of me is embarrassed that I unintentionally wrote characters that are so insufferable–at least to some readers. It’s like holding a glass up to a door, behind which strangers are describing how terrible you–or worse, your children!–are. I can’t help but keep eavesdropping.
At the same time that I emailed Jean and Emma, I also sought out readers who couldn’t stand Frida. This was part anthropological experiment, part focus group. I felt like, if I could just get some answers, I might understand my own book a little better.
I stumbled upon Susan’s review on Goodreads. In it, she details how much she couldn’t stand any of the characters in California. It’s a very funny rant, which begins, “I don’t remember ever before reading a book where I so hated all of the pieces yet so very much enjoyed the book as a whole.”
When I asked Susan when exactly her antipathy began, she told me, “I actually disliked Frida from almost the first page. She immediately seemed crass and spoiled to me.” In the first scene, the reader learns that Frida treasures a turkey baster, purchased before leaving Los Angeles, which even Cal doesn’t know she possesses. Susan said, “The turkey baster was so bizarre… I got what it was about, but the fact that it was so frivolous and silly, combined with the fact that the very first thing I learned about her was that she was keeping secrets (STUPID secrets!) from her husband just turned me off.”
Susan’s reactions fascinated me. One, that frivolity would be damning, rather than revealing, or that a reader would require a secret be grave, especially when it’s between a husband and wife. I’m reminded of the time someone told me they hate to dance, as in, they never ever feel the urge to move to music, even when alone. Wow, I thought, people sure are different from me!
(Susan also hated that Frida “seemed to be entirely defined by the men in her life.” I hate that, too.)
Susan had some choice words for Cal: “The truth is, I actually hated Cal more than Frida. I thought he was a pompous pseudo-intellectual hipster ass.” Sheesh, Susan, tell me how you really feel! Generally, she interpreted Cal and Frida through the lens of their white privilege. That interpretative model poses a powerful question about characterization: how much is our identity, and our actions, dictated by race and class? But, then again, if a reader traces everything about Frida and Cal back to their white privilege, that means I’ve failed, in some way, to make them fully human. It also might suggest that there’s a lower tolerance for white privilege in the post-apocalyptic landscape; some readers want the end-of-the-world to slough off such burdens. (To me, Frida and Cal are victims of late-capitalism, and also products of it. Aren’t we all.)
Another reader, Shayna, answered my call on Tumblr for anyone who hated Frida. She said she was bothered by Frida’s decision to take a Vicodin while pregnant. And, again, she took issue with Frida withholding information, especially from Cal. She wrote, “I just found this so stupid and selfish.” It’s true, Frida does some pretty stupid and selfish stuff, as does Cal. I suppose, as a writer, I’m interested in the stupid, selfish choices we make.
Hearing from Shayna and Susan brought me some peace, for I can’t control how people react, nor should I want to. I am honored that my novel elicited strong reactions to my characters, and I’m heartened that both readers enjoyed the book despite (or because of!) these reactions. Both agreed that there’s often a double-standard for female characters. Shayna said, “A women is whiny or bitchy and ruins the story whereas a male is mean or surly and [that] just makes him interesting or an anti-hero.”
Susan said, “I am a huge, huge fan of Gillian Flynn, the primary reason being that she’s not afraid to write female characters who are evil, psychotic, violent, and messed up in every possible way. I find that so much more empowering and compelling as a female reader to hear about those women than about the perfect, nice, likeable, and usually totally unrealistic female characters you find in most novels.”
Susan’s tastes align with mine, and with many other readers’. Right now there are so many complex female characters for us to encounter on the page and screen, particularly quote-unquote unlikable ones, from Amy Elliott-Dunne of Gone Girl, to the (less murderous) Hannah Horvath of Girls. I, for one, can’t turn away from these women, and I won’t.
I won’t turn away from the characters who stem from my own dark, muddy mind, either.
Image via amysjoy/Flickr
It’s been fifteen years since I’ve been able to stomach John Irving’s novels, and yet I keep buying his new books. His most recent novel, In One Person, sat on my nightstand for six months before I finally cleared it off in a fit of New Year’s resolutions. I felt guilty as I placed it on my bookshelf near Last Night In Twisted River, Irving’s previous novel, also abandoned. I had gotten both in hardcover, unable to wait for the paperback editions — unable to wait even as I knew I would be unlikely to finish them. The last Irving novel I finished (and enjoyed) was 1998’s A Widow For One Year.
My reading of In One Person followed a typical pattern. First, there was a period of comfort as I settled into Irving’s slightly askew fictional world, happily noting familiar milieus (New England, private boarding schools, wrestling teams), and subjects (sexual outsiders, small town politics, literary awakening). But boredom crept in as the plot began to take shape. It wasn’t so much that I could predict what was going to happen. (Even a mediocre Irving novel delivers when it comes to plot twists and secret revelations.) It was more that I felt trapped, as if I were seated next to a dinner party bore, the kind who has to tell his anecdotes just so, and won’t stand for questions or interruptions. In One Person is told in the first person, a point of view that allows for ambiguity, but Irving doesn’t like to leave anything open to interpretation. From the beginning of In One Person it’s clear who is good and who is hiding something; who is going to meet a bad end and who is going to be saved. Irving even alerts readers to his jokes, using italics and exclamation points on every page. Much of In One Person concerns the theater, and as I read Irving’s highly punctuated dialogue, I began to think of him as a director who gives line readings.
As I put In One Person aside, I wondered if I was just too old for John Irving. Maybe his books had always been this didactic, but when I was younger, I didn’t mind as much. Or maybe I had outgrown Irving’s old-fashioned storytelling techniques; maybe, as the author David Shields has suggested, we’re all getting sick of the narrative grunt work that fills the traditional novel, the acres of backstory and scene-setting that authors like Irving must deploy at the beginning of their epics — what Shields calls “the furniture-moving, the table-setting.” Or maybe my boredom with Irving had to do with television: maybe I’d been getting my nineteenth-century novel fix from soapy serials like Mad Men and Downton Abbey.
Or maybe John Irving’s books just weren’t as good as they used to be.
I decided to find out, taking all my Irving novels down from my shelves and getting the rest from the library — an errand that required a special trip to my library’s Central Branch. As I carried my Irving novels home, I felt the glimmer of the anticipation I used get as a teenager, when I checked out one of his books. I could see those old Irving covers in my mind’s eye, the ones with just his name and the title in a large font, because that was all you needed to know; there was no need for cover art, hinting at what the novel was “about.” Irving would let you know what it was about in due time. All you had to do was read.
I started reading John Irving when I was thirteen. My mother recommended The World According to Garp in a moment of exasperation. I was at a difficult age, reading-wise — too old for children’s books, but too unseasoned a reader to navigate the adult section of the library. My mother gave me novels from her own library, classics she thought appropriate for a young girl: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Pride and Prejudice, and Ethan Frome. The only one I liked was Ethan Frome — a novel about a terrible accident, set in New England. Maybe that’s why my mother thought I would like The World According to Garp.
“This book is probably not appropriate for someone your age,” she said. And then she added, cryptically. “It’s about castration anxiety. So don’t be alarmed.”
It was summer, and I remember I read the book in two afternoons, sitting underneath the locust tree in our backyard. I had never read anything so funny or with such vivid characters. The settings, too, were fascinating to me, especially the scenes that took place in the fictional New Hampshire boarding school of Steering Academy. My family had lived in Exeter, New Hampshire, for several years, and so I recognized that Steering was based on Exeter Academy. The recognition thrilled me. Even though I knew that authors often incorporated real-life people and places into their work, it was the first time I’d made the connection myself.
Looking back, I am surprised by how little I knew of writers’ lives — or maybe, how little I conceived of them. Even though I knew by then that I wanted to become a writer, I still thought of books in terms of their titles and their subject matter, not their authorship. Reading John Irving changed that. Maybe because Irving had written about a place where I had actually lived, it was easier to imagine him as a real person, living in the same world as me and writing about it. Or maybe it was because so many of Irving’s books contained writer characters and descriptions of the writing process. Whatever the reason, I began to pay attention to the contemporary literary world, noticing what books were being published and what other people thought of them. For the first time it occurred to me to care about the order in which books were written and to think about a writer’s output holistically. I did this with Irving, working backwards through his early “literary” novels, and then reading the bestsellers that followed Garp: The Hotel New Hampshire, The Cider House Rules, and A Prayer for Owen Meany. (Owen Meany was my introduction to the library’s waitlist.)
When his eighth novel, A Son of the Circus, was published, I was surprised to find that I didn’t like it enough to finish it. Still, when A Widow For One Year came out four years later, I asked my parents to buy it for me in hardcover as a twentieth birthday present. The book was published in May, the same month as my birthday, and I read it as a reward at the end of my semester. And what a reward! It was a long, absorbing reading experience, especially the book’s first section, a novella-like passage that unfolds over the course of one summer, and tells the story of a grieving couple who have given up on their marriage, but not on the memory of their dead teenage sons. The custody battle over their remaining child, a young girl — who in later sections becomes the novel’s writer-protagonist — is understandably complex, but in a completely unexpected and heartbreaking way. I thought it was one of Irving’s best books, maybe even better than Garp.
By then I was in college, an English major, and I had learned, among other things, that academia did not smile upon John Irving. It was a snobbery I didn’t understand until I pressed Garp into the hands of a new boyfriend. I don’t know what I was thinking. His favorite novel was The Remains of the Day. Upon finishing Garp, all he said was, “It’s not very subtle, is it?”
My boyfriend was one of those young men to whom taste is everything, and his opinion meant more to me than it should have. When he said “not very subtle”, I heard “trashy.” Crushed, I decided to stop by the office of a professor who had given A Widow For One Year a favorable review in The New York Times. I don’t know what I expected this professor to tell me; I suppose I wanted him to legitimize my love for Irving. He ended up elaborating upon what he had written in his review, praising Irving’s ability to write good action sequences, particularly violent ones. Walking back to my dorm, I thought about the many violent scenes in Irving’s fiction, how they are always a little bit slapstick — never choreographed and slick, like in the movies, or poetic, as in “grittily realistic” literary novels. It was this comic element, I thought, that made Irving seem crude, and maybe even trashy; but to me, the injection of humor — however broad — was what made Irving an honest and humane writer, one who was not writing “unsubtle” scenes to arouse or provoke, but to represent the absurd sloppiness of life.
Later that year, I took my first fiction-writing class, where I tried to write a story in the vein of Irving, about a gentleman farmer who flies planes for fun. One day the farmer crashes his hobby-plane into his hobby-field and dies upon impact. Instead of feeling sorry for his widow, everyone says she and the children are better off without such a stupid dilettante father. The widow moves to Baltimore and something happens there, I can’t remember what. The point is, it was supposed to be a funny story, but it came out very bleak and sad. I tried to use an all-knowing and transparently authorial narrator, as Irving often does, but this only irritated my classmates, who were accustomed to narration in the close third person and wrote things in the margins like “Who is narrating this story?? It should be one of the characters.” In short, I learned first hand just how hard it is to write like John Irving. You would think that would have made me respect him even more. Instead I began to think of him as a bad influence.
In the years that followed, I approached Irving’s new novels with caution and was almost relieved when I didn’t like them. It’s only recently that I’ve wanted to return to his work, and I’m not sure if it’s out of loyalty to him, or to my younger self.
It’s always humbling to admit to changes in your own taste. Over Christmas, I found myself cringing with the release of Les Miserables, as snippets of the soundtrack played during television commercials and trailers. Why, out of all the music I could have burned onto my adolescent brain, had I picked Les Miserables? I thought I would feel the same annoyed regret as I skimmed old Irving novels, but the experience was more like getting back in touch with an ex-boyfriend — there was irritation, yes, but a lot of affection, too.
In my rereading, I was struck, first of all, by how cozy and self-contained Irving’s novels are. It was easy to peer into old favorites, to smile at the inside-joke chapter headings and emblematic sayings like “Keep passing the open windows,” (The Hotel New Hampshire) and “Good night you princes of Maine, you kings of New England,” (The Cider House Rules). I’ve read Garp a half dozen times, so I wasn’t surprised that I could dip in and out of it at will, but I found that I could also make myself at home in novels of Irving’s that I knew less well. Opening A Prayer for Owen Meany, I read a passage in which the narrator describes his grandmother’s love of Liberace. This was not a part of the book I remembered, but after just reading those few pages — which included some of Owen Meany’s infamous all-caps opining — I was able to recall a whole universe of characters and situations. The best Irving novels work like that; they create their own parallel worlds, underpinned by repetition — repetition of phrases, situations, descriptions, and motifs. And, as Irving fans love to note, the repetitions often continue across books; he doesn’t hesitate to recycle milieus and symbols that work for him, even if they’re quite specific. (Vienna, bears, wrestling…) Every writer does this to some degree, but with Irving it’s more noticeable, because the atmosphere of a John Irving novel is such a key part of its appeal.
Another thing I noticed while rereading was how clear Irving’s writing is, sentence by sentence. Critics don’t give Irving much credit for his prose style, maybe because his zany plots and characters overshadow it. (Or maybe it’s his enthusiastic use of italics and exclamation points.) But I was impressed by how gracefully he writes, even when he’s being “unsubtle.” There is a transparency to his exposition that is not easy to achieve, but Irving does nothing to draw attention to his effort. In contemporary fiction, this lack of preciousness is rare. Irving’s style has only become simpler over the years. It’s almost as if he decided to keep his prose straightforward so that his plotting could become more elaborate.
Which brings us to plot. If there’s one thing John Irving wants you to know about his literary technique, it’s that he plans his storylines in advance, and that he always knows the ending of the book before he starts writing. In every interview, going back at least twenty years, he hammers this point home, going so far as to reveal the last sentence of his novels-in-progress. In 1986, while he was working on A Prayer For Owen Meany, he told The Paris Review, “The authority of the storyteller’s voice — of mine, anyway — comes from knowing how it all comes out before you begin. It’s very plodding work, really.”
I find Irving’s choice of the word “plodding” interesting, because that’s exactly how I would describe parts of Owen Meany, a novel whose narrator is so prone to woebegone foreshadowing that the plot sometimes feels soggy. Plodding might also be the word I would use to describe the experience of reading (or rather, trying to read) Irving’s last three novels. Even though the prose was as easygoing as ever, and the settings and characters as richly imagined, the storytelling felt overdetermined, with all the plot elements neatly arranged, all the coincidences pointing in the same direction. This seems to be Irving’s artistic aim, though. In a recent interview with Portland Monthly, Irving explained his method this way: “My novels are predetermined collision courses; the reader always anticipates what’s coming — you just don’t know the how and the when, and the small details”. In another interview, Irving revealed the last sentence of his next novel: “Not every collision course comes as a surprise.”
If only there were more surprises in Irving’s fiction! It’s a writing workshop cliché to say, “if there’s no surprise for the writer, then there’s no surprise for the reader,” but in Irving’s case, that diagnosis seems apt. The irony is that Irving sees his tightly controlled plotting as evidence of his advanced skill. At a reading I attended, shortly after the publication of In One Person, he addressed fans who prefer his earlier works to his later ones, saying that they were welcome to choose favorites, but from his point of view, his later works were superior, because he was so much better at crafting stories. He compared his recent novels to well-tailored suits, explaining that they were just better-fitting, that he was the tailor, and he should know.
As a reader who prefers his earlier novels, I found this comparison annoying, the implication being that I preferred shiny off-the-rack suits. The more I thought about it, however, I realized it was an apt metaphor. Irving’s late novels are perfectly tailored, they do fit better — in fact they fit like straightjackets. There is no room for the reader to move around, to get comfortable.
A funny thing happened while I was writing this essay: I got sucked into a John Irving novel in the old way. The novel was The Fourth Hand, a book I attempted when it was first published in 2002, but abandoned halfway through, irritated by its depiction of women. Rereading it now, I can guess what was offensive to me in its opening chapters, which include a female character whose salient quality is her bralessness, and a scene at a feminist convention where the participants are described mostly in terms of their looks. I almost gave up on the book a second time, but I could see that at least some of Irving’s misogyny was intentional, that he was trying to illustrate the crass mindset of his thoughtless protagonist, Patrick Wallingford. The Fourth Hand is about Wallingford’s transformation from a superficial, vain, person to a kind, loving one. Naturally, it’s a love story, with the bizarre coincidences and twists of fate you would expect from any romantic comedy (or John Irving novel). It’s also a newsroom satire: Patrick Wallingford is a TV anchorman whose career, as well as his soul, is at stake. It’s a funny, messy, uneven book, with a convoluted-borderline-nonsensical storyline, and a lot of recycling from Irving’s previous novels. Oh, and did I mention that Wallingford is missing his left hand? (In the words of my mother, it’s about castration anxiety, so don’t be alarmed.) The Fourth Hand is definitely not a “tailored suit” novel and that’s probably why I ended up liking it — it had some of that old Irving sloppiness.
The ending of The Fourth Hand is subdued and melancholy, and includes an unexpected discussion of Michael Ondaatje’s novel, The English Patient. Wallingford reads the novel when he’s trying to impress the woman he’s fallen in love with. But whenever he tries to discuss the book with her, he chooses the wrong parts to admire. He can’t seem to figure out what she likes about the book, or what it means to her, and finally decides that reading experiences are not something that can be easily shared, observing that good novels “are comprised of a range of moods you are in when you read them or see them. You can never exactly imitate someone else’s love of a movie or a book.”
To Wallingford’s observation, I might add that you can never exactly replicate your own reading experiences, and that books and authors are colored by age and experience, for good and for ill. As I was rereading Irving, I was aware that my formative experience of reading his novels made it hard for me to be objective about his later work. John Irving could write his best book next year, and it probably wouldn’t be as good as Garp was, the first time I read it. Sometimes you just have to be grateful for the time you had with an author, and then move on.
Illustration by Bill Morris
I’ve always had a soft spot for the sweeping multi-generational family saga. I’m continually amazed that a good writer can will us to abandon one protagonist for another, the father for the son; we hesitate, but a hundred pages later, we’ve forgotten the earlier generations as quickly as history does itself. But there’s something a little cruel in this sort of book: it’s not history — it’s a novel, and its ironic circumstances are wholly constructed. The innocent early days, the invariable fall, the important details that get distorted and misplaced over time: the author is setting us up, and the book would be innocuous — even pointless — if we weren’t eventually let down. These books are inherently about loss: the characters we meet at the beginning will die, or if they don’t, something else will be lost to the passage of time.
Alan Hollinghurst’s new novel, The Stranger’s Child, is one of those sweeping multi-generational family sagas, and, of course, Hollinghurst is one of those writers who can do most things remarkably well. It’s as beautifully written as his previous books, but it feels like a departure: the last four have been relatively stationary affairs in comparison, centering around young, gay Englishmen with a lot of time on their hands, and the narratives are largely expository and internal. I’ve read three out of four — the friend who eagerly pressed Hollinghurst on me years ago agreed with the critics and told me to skip The Spell — and of them, the 2004 Booker Prize-winning The Line of Beauty had been my (well, everyone’s) hands-down favorite.
But The Stranger’s Child seems as if it’s been written for me — or, at least, someone with my proclivities — with its somewhat traditional subject and straightforward narrative, a plot that moves on dialogue rather than description, and a pervasive Englishness, reserved and class-bound, that encompasses whole swaths of 20-century British literature. Parts of it, to my delight, feel very much like Brideshead Revisited fanfiction — in the best possible way, of course. (Who didn’t want more of “those languid days at Brideshead,” to actually see what Charles and Sebastian were surely getting up to that summer?)
The book’s been repeatedly compared to the work of Evelyn Waugh, E. M. Forster, and, as with Hollinghurst’s previous novels, Henry James, as well as that of contemporaries like Ian McEwan (for Atonement, which, on the surface, has many similarities) and Kazuo Ishiguro (for The Remains of the Day). But Hollinghurst brings a precise elegance to the genre, building upon the novels that came before it. In an essay on Atonement written a decade ago, Geoff Dyer said that, “It is less about a novelist harking nostalgically back to the consoling certainties of the past than it is about creatively extending and hauling a defining part of the British literary tradition up and into the twenty-first century.” Hollinghurst, rarely transgressive, occasionally labeled as “fusty,” but an unfailingly extraordinary novelist, is extending and hauling Brideshead into the present day. (Dyer had high praise for The Stranger’s Child and its author: in a review, he wrote that “Hollinghurst, the gay novelist, might also be the best straight novelist that Britain has to offer.”)
The novel begins in the summer of 1913 at Two Acres, the home of the Sawle family in outer London. The initial Brideshead parallels are reversed: the family is middle class and their houseguest, Cecil Valance, is an aristocrat. He’s a mediocre but deeply charming poet, and during the visit he puts aggressive but rather tame moves on the impressionable Daphne, all the while having it off properly in the woods with her brother, George. Cecil is killed in World War I, as are other characters from the idyllic opening passages, and most of them fade into obscurity by the second part, set a decade later. But Cecil is remembered, even revered: celebrated as a minor war poet, he’s quoted by Winston Churchill in the newspaper and viewed, as with so much of the late-Edwardian canon, as prophetic.
The remaining three sections make similarly brash leaps forward in time: the mid-1960s, then the early ‘80s, and finally, briefly, in the present day. Nearly a century after the initial action, all of our old friends have died. It’s inevitable, but it leaves you feeling a little cheated. With each transition you struggle with momentary disorientation, taking stock of who’s still alive and the family entanglements that have grown more complicated in the intervening decades. In a book where sexuality is surprisingly fluid and loyalties often waver, deciphering the two families’ domestic affairs is a tall order, and at times, a frustrating one. The more interesting changes are subtler: with the passage of time, characters’ histories are rewritten. Those who survive — and a surprising number of early characters make it well into old age — come to be defined by the decades through which they’ve lived. But those who died remain crystallized in memories, tinted and warped with nostalgia or bitterness. Misunderstandings and assumptions in 1913 become reminisces in the ‘20s, memories in the ‘60s, vague recollections in the ‘80s, and all but completely forgotten in the present day.
At the heart of these rewritten histories is literature: this is, after all, a book about a poet, and eventually, a book about books. The fourth and, at times, most tedious section, follows a biographer’s somewhat incompetent attempts to unravel Cecil Valance’s short life. Valance’s brother, Dudley, who winds up marrying Daphne, is a writer as well, but by the ‘80s, his work has faded from public consciousness. Daphne writes a book that is dismissed for its factual inaccuracies; she thinks back later about how her memories, cloudy with years of heavy drinking, are just as inaccurate: “The fact was that all the interesting and decisive things in her adult life had happened when she was more or less tight: she had little recall of anything that occurred after about 6:45, and the blur of the evenings, for the past sixty years and more, had leaked into the days as well.” The elderly characters, with their shaky recollections, leave you immensely frustrated: “I was there!” you want to shout. “Four hundred pages ago! Don’t you remember?” And when Daphne continues on, worrying over lost memories, the resulting passage is heartbreaking:
She felt something similar, but worse in a way, about hundreds and hundreds of books she’d read, novels, biographies, occasional books about music and art — she could remember nothing about them at all, so that it seemed rather pointless even to say that she had read them; such claims were a thing people set great store by but she hardly supposed they recalled any more than she did. Sometimes a book persisted as a colored shadow at the edge of sight, as vague and unrecapturable as something seen in the rain from a passing vehicle: looked at directly it vanished altogether. Sometimes there were atmospheres, even the rudiments of a scene: a man in an office looking over Regent’s Park, rain in the streets outside — a little blurred etching of a situation she would never, could never, trace back to its source in a novel she had read some time, she thought, in the past thirty years.
A bleak epigraph marks the start of the book’s final section: “No one remembers you at all.” It’s from Mick Imlah’s poem “In Memoriam Alfred Lord Tennyson” (the phrase “the stranger’s child” is from Tennyson’s “In Memoriam A.H.H.”). Imlah passed away two years ago, and Hollinghurst has dedicated this book to him. There’s something so grim about the idea that even books will be forgotten: memory is fickle, sometimes faulty, but shouldn’t something printed and bound hold more permanence than that? In the final scenes, we follow a relative stranger into an antiquarian bookshop, and there’s a moment of hope that the characters that were scribbling away dozens of chapters ago will be remembered. At one point very early on, a character says that Cecil’s poems “will be read for as long as there are readers with an ear for English music, and an eye for English things.” A century later, this seems doubtful: he is known, but he is barely remembered. The First World War, which feels palpably less present with each step forward in time, is now firmly in the past.
A book of this scope writes its own history, and if you find that history compelling, you’re doomed to fall in love with it. This was the first novel in a long while that pulled me in wholeheartedly: I stayed in on the weekend, and didn’t grumble about getting stuck on the train one night, just to finish it faster. I’ve pressed it on people at work, on friends at parties, and on strangers in coffee shops. The majority of them have never heard of it, or even of Hollinghurst himself. When I finished it, I went to look it up on Wikipedia, to read about its influences (cross-referenced, I assumed, with all the historical cameos, Rupert Brooke and Lytton Strachey and the like). Instead I found a skeletal plot summary and a brief paragraph on the reviews (“generally received positively”). I was indignant. Why wasn’t it tagged as an “instant classic”?
We live in a time when things struggle to stick: competing influences, recommendations, and links, bombarding us and casting aside one new thing for the next. But perhaps one of the best lessons to be learned from The Stranger’s Child is that things have never stuck particularly well. People and their words can tilt the world on its axis, however briefly, but the world will always tilt again. Imagining not remembering a thing about The Stranger’s Child decades from now, of it falling out of print, of Hollinghurst fading into obscurity, is hard for me to comprehend. But Hollinghurst’s characters carried some version of Cecil Valance with them through the stretch of their long lives. It seems difficult to imagine that we wouldn’t take all of these characters with us through our lives in turn.
The July/August 2011 issue of Poets & Writers contains an interesting nugget from William Giraldi, author of the recently published novel Busy Monsters, his first. He says, “There’s obscene pressure on writers to be the next hot young thing…But let’s be honest: Most hot young things have nothing of value to say.” Pretty tough words for a 36-year-old. Not to imply any judgment of his novel one way or the other — I have not read it and do not know him — but by my lights, he’s still something of a hot young thing himself. His comment carries a special irony within this particular issue of Poets & Writers. Not only the cover story but also two other lengthy articles are about some aspect of debut fiction. In the grants and awards section, there are no fewer than six announcements for awards, fellowships, or professorships that are only available either to writers making their debut or writers under 35 or 40. Despite Giraldi’s comforting words, this issue of the magazine put me over the edge. “Damn it,” I thought. “Why do the kids get so much of the good stuff?”
I’m picking on Poets & Writers here but, as Giraldi notes, it is simply going along with the crowd. From the National Book Association’s “5 Under 35” to The New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” to the Bard Fiction Prize (under 40) to the New York Public Library’s Young Lions award (under 35) and on and on, the publishing and awards-giving biz has decided, along with the apparatus that promotes authors and their work (magazines, newspapers, websites, etc.) that the kids are all right. But where does that leave us oldsters (by which I mean those of us on the far side of 40)?
Of course, there are non-age-restricted prizes such as the Guggenheim, the NEA, and others open to mid-career, middle-aged writers. These awards all serve an important purpose — and they are all ferociously competitive. Do you know how many Guggenheim fellows there were in fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry last year? Twenty-six, out of literally thousands of applicants. And they weren’t all over 40. Yes, sometimes a Jaimy Gordon or Julia Glass will squeak through to the big time with an unexpected major prize (the National Book Award in both their cases). But once you pass 40, if you’re not part of a small, largely white, male, extremely-talented-but-still coterie (you know who you are, Eugenides, Franzen, and Chabon), that’s rare.
I realize this sounds bitter. And I have no business being bitter. I am a 50-year-old African-American woman whose fourth novel arriving in stores now. My work has always been published by major houses. Given the current climate in the book business, I am well aware that this is close to a miracle, especially for someone whose novels, though well-regarded, have sold modestly. I’ve enjoyed a couple of prestigious fellowships and won some prizes; when I look at it objectively, I know I’ve got it good – far better than many.
But this isn’t just about me (well it is partly, but not entirely). It’s about the extraordinary and damaging degree to which youth gets exalted in the status game of publishing and publicity. Not to take anything away from the many talented folks under 40, but where are the non-Pulitzer/National Book Award-level prizes for those of us who’ve been in there pitching for a while? Where’s The New Yorker’s “20 Over 40?”
By the time you get to your third, fourth, fifth major piece of fiction or non-fiction, ideally, you’ve settled into an expansion and deepening of your skills and talents as a writer. Even if you start late (say, at the ripe old age of 36), with any luck, your later novels will be better than your first. Yes, there are those who write only one book, or whose first book is their best. (Ralph Ellison, anyone?) And there are those who don’t, in fact, progress. But if you hang in there and read and push yourself, odds are that your later books will achieve a richness and nuance that your first one can’t. It is true that sometimes, past a certain point, it becomes a game of diminishing returns artistically (that’s another essay), but for many writers, mid-career is when they produce their best work. Off the top of my head: Beloved is Toni Morrison’s fifth novel. The Hours is Michael Cunningham’s third (fourth, if you count his disavowed first novel, Golden States). The Remains of the Day is Kazuo Ishiguro’s third novel. The Great Gatsby is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s third. Even the above-named contemporary big three — Eugenides, Franzen, and Chabon — hit their stride after writing one, two, even three novels. For my part, when I look back at my own fiction, I can see how my work has grown stronger and cleaner (for a small example, I used the word “weird” WAY too much in my first book.)
As Giraldi notes and as we all know, we live in a youth-obsessed culture. And really, is there any reason publishing should be different? I say yes, emphatically. Part of the reason we write is to consider as many facets of the human condition as possible. And the longer you live, the more of that darn thing you will find yourself confronted with.
So God bless the whippersnappers. I wish the best of them the best of luck. But the next time some wealthy patron of literature wants to endow a chair or offer a grant or a fellowship, or the next time a literary magazine wants to bestow a mantle, here’s hoping the requirements will be: “Applicants must be over 40 and have published at least one book.”
Image credit: Mickey van der Stap/Flickr
It’s always hard for me to choose the best book I’ve read in any given year, since I read constantly, if slowly, like a tortoise. This past year I’ve read mostly novels, although I often read history, biography, lay science, memoir, and poetry, as well. As the season wanes, I like to look back over my list, however paltry it may be (the tortoise effect). This year’s included Matthew Kneale’s wonderful historical novel English Passengers; Kazuo Ishiguro’s quite perfect The Remains of the Day; Lampedusa’s masterful tale of fading aristocracy, The Leopard; Giles Waterfield’s eerie story of war in Europe, The Long Afternoon; a fabulous work of history, The Discovery of France, by Graham Robb; and Jane Austen’s Emma (how did I miss this one during my previous forty-three years?).
But the book that really marks 2009 for me is one I probably should have read long before and will probably read at least once again, life permitting: A Tale of Two Cities by, of course, Charles Dickens.
A Tale of Two Cities is one of those books so famous that it has come to seem more title than actual book, like Frankenstein, Dracula, Moby Dick, War and Peace. Wikipedia tells us that it is the “most printed original English book.” It contains one of the three or four most famous first lines in the English language: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” I remember that when I was about thirteen, my father was talking about first lines and he said, “What if you reversed that? ‘It was the worst of times, it was the best of times.’ Doesn’t work at all, does it?” And my uncle, also literary, liked to quote the last line of the book, in a mock-epic voice: “It is a far, far better thing I do, than I have ever done…” Clearly, it was high time for me to find out what lay between those two galloping old warhorses.
A Tale of Two Cities contains all the hallmarks of the Victorian tearjerker: it is sentimental, cloyingly pious, full of terribly convenient and eventually predictable coincidences, laden with long sentences, self-sacrificing Angel-in-the-House female leads, political caricatures, and grotesque minor characters. I was riveted from the first–or, perhaps, the second–sentence–and I wept over the last.
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you much about the story, in case you’ve waited as long as I to read it, because the plot is so intricately suspenseful that almost anything I describe about it will give too much away.
Suffice it to say that it is not only an extraordinary piece of storytelling but also a remarkable piece of historical fiction–eighty years after the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, Dickens imagined not simply the large machineries of social injustice and mob fury but also the very essence of everyday life under duress, the things that make history real to a reader–the rough wool fabric of a red cap, the color of the mud on a man’s shoes, the staring eyes of a stone figure on a chateau wall, the murdering women with blood on their skirt hems going home to their Paris quarter to feed the children, the tree from which a guillotine was made. Please do not wait as long as I did.
For the ultimate experience, hear it as I did, too: as a Recorded Books AudioBook (available at your public library), read by the incomparable Frank Muller (originally a Shakespearian stage actor).
Dickens was made to be read aloud, by fireplace and coal stove, lantern and gaslight, and A Tale of Two Cities is even better in this form than on the printed page.
They say that most novelists end up writing the same book over and over again: a truth which manifests itself differently in the work of different novelists. In the novels of Kazuo Ishiguro, it takes the form of an incredibly elegant formal unity.
Never Let Me Go, like The Remains of the Day and, to a lesser extent, When We Were Orphans, is a mystery in which a Martian-like, yet strangely affecting first-person narrator (a young female clone, an aging butler, a middle-aged celebrity detective) deciphers the dimly sensed evil (human organ-harvesting, Nazi collaboration, a family crime) underlying an idyllic quintessentially English institution (a beautiful manor house, a posh boarding school, the British colony in Shanghai). Despite the radically different settings, all the three novels share the same key formal elements: a painstakingly unraveled historical mystery, constructed on the time scale of a single human life; a journey to track down characters from the past who have survived, inconceivably, into the present; an unhappy love story; the haunting sense of a decayed idyll that remains, despite its historical rottenness, the locus of all the most beautiful and meaningful impressions in somebody’s life.
In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro brilliantly and heartbreakingly executes the same retrospective plot in the unlikely chronotope of science fiction. This book made me cry for days. Did I feel a little bit exploited—did I feel that sci-fi rule-bending had been used to construct an otherwise inconceivably tragic story of doomed young love? I did, but it was worth it.
Somewhere between Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day and J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun, I decided that there was a certain affinity between the Land of the Rising Sun and “this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.” A namby-pamby assertion of ineffable spiritual kinship, however, will not make you any friends or apostles (except in academia). No, what I needed to bolster my quixotic pursuit of a probably inane thesis were cold, hard factual similarities—ones you might sprinkle on your tonkatsu or your toad-in-the-hole, ones that might keep you dry in a rainstorm. Frivolous it may be, but tell me after reading my list that you do you perhaps feel a little more hopeful about a key to all mythologies? Here they are, in no particular order:
hereditary royal families
love of tea, ceremonial and otherwise
white pepper instead of black pepper
fish for breakfast
bad teeth (few NHS dentists in Britain, don’t know about Japan)
gardeners, landscape painters (Turner, Constable; Hasui, Hokusai)
excellent makers of umbrellas (Maehara, Hiyoshia; James Smith and Sons)
colonialism/profound sense of racial superiority in the 19th /early 20th centuries (simultaneous colonial ventures in China)
English meat pies (Cornish pasties) / Japanese curry bread (curry doughnuts)
Worcestershire sauce /Fruit & Vegetable and Tonkatsu sauce
drive on the left-hand side of the road
national characters associated with repression, propriety, interpersonal chilliness
lovers of baths (shared bath water)
uniformed school children
makers of superior packaged foods/remarkable supermarkets
Elizabeth wrote in with this question:
This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college. The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives. To be charged with selecting the “one novel of a person’s life” seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift. I don’t know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.) My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be?
Several of us pitched in on this one. Some of us took Elizabeth’s question literally, wondering what “one novel” we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives. While others put themselves in Elizabeth’s shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person’s reading experience. Here are our answers:
Garth: The hypothetical here – if you could read just one novel – strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there’s only going to be one. I’m tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I’ve got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you’d want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone.
Edan: My suggestion – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s highly readable. It’s important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn’t read much won’t tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn’t a movie buff (read: me) won’t sit through a John Cassavetes film). Secondly, there’s a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase “So it goes” repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time. I’d love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others – book worms or not – would, too. And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous. If you love his books, there are others to discover. Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life.
Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I’d pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others – a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites – modern and classic – but strategically I’ll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me. I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing – playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become “unstuck in time” and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers – kids, really – are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut’s playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other.
Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: “You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years–generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco–and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad–Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice–Robinson Crusoe. In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many–Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady’s last birthday she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again. Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain.” And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written.
Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a “desert island book,” the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill.
Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever. Their lives were in my hands. I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it. Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them. Never underestimate a college student’s unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring. Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them. Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on. Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels. Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it’s “Make love not war, save the planet”).
Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!) It’s true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel. I also found interesting Noah’s and Garth’s idea (reading the question as looking for a “desert island book”) that length is critical. With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years. Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the “first” and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote. But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not – bear with me here – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen? Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn’t expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it.
Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth. Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth’s question on your own site or in the comments below.
Krin Gabbard has written on jazz, cinema, and psychoanalysis. His most recent book is Hotter Than That: The Trumpet, Jazz, and American Culture, published this year by Faber and Faber. He is currently writing an interpretive biography of Charles Mingus.Few novels have grabbed me as much as Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I was reluctant to read this author because of the Laura Ashley movie that his previous novel, The Remains of the Day, had been turned into. But one day a friend whose opinions I value handed me a copy, so I thought I’d give it a tumble. The novel takes its title from a beautiful song by Ray Evans and Jay Livingston, recorded most memorably by the great jazz pianist Bill Evans. The narrator of the novel has special feelings about this particular song, so if you know it, the book has even more power.The premise of Never Let Me Go sneaks up on you as slowly as do the characters. Early on you realize that the narrator is recalling a childhood in an exclusive private school where none of the students seem to have parents. By the halfway mark, it is clear that they are all test-tube babies, produced solely for the purpose of providing organs for people deemed more worthy by British society. Ishiguro tells you that each clone makes four donations, but he inspires a measure of grim speculation because he never tells you what those donations actually are. He does tell you that after the fourth donation the donor is usually little more than a vegetable if he or she survives at all.The book takes place in the present, and because the sci-fi element is never played up, you mostly find yourself assessing the entirely reasonable thoughts of the main characters. I think that’s what most stays with me. How these perfectly normal people – who are capable of love, pettiness, and even cruelty – live in a world where they are regarded as utterly disposable. At the same time, I admire the book’s wide-open allegorical resonance. Is the reaping of organs from cloned humans actually about slavery, about the caste system, about late capitalism, about the fleeting nature of human existence? These and multiple other interpretations are readily available, and yet that’s not what the book is really about. Several months after reading it, I still think about the rich, inner lives that the doomed characters nevertheless lead.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Liz Moore graduated from Barnard College in 2005. Her first novel, The Words of Every Song, centers on a fictional record company in New York City and the lives of a broad set of characters connected to it. A musician herself, Moore has performed at many of New York’s institutions. She released her first album, Backyards, now available on iTunes and CDBaby, in September. Her websites are www.lizmooremusic.com and www.myspace.com/lizmooremusic.I quit my full-time job and started an MFA program this year, which has given me the opportunity to both read a lot of great stuff and berate myself daily for not being as literate as my classmates.Nevertheless, here are some books I have read and enjoyed this year: Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day; Goodnight Sisters, selected columns by Irish journalist Nell McCafferty; and, because quitting my job has caused me to take up babysitting, quite an assortment of children’s books. My favorite are the Fancy Nancy series and every Barbie book ever written, mainly because some of them include photographs of actual plastic Barbie dolls stiffly pursuing various leisure activities, such as tennis and baking, and I cannot emphasize enough how incredibly weird and awesome this looks.I also re-read Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. These are my desert-island books: I could read them monthly, I think, and still come up with new visions and versions of his beautifully imagined characters and their intertwined lives.More from A Year in Reading 2007
I got a lot of responses to my call for people to share the best books they read this year. Here are some of the shorter entries and lists that I received.Stephen Schenkenberg (who pens an engaging blog) said:Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road — the best book I read all year — gutted me. William H. Gass’ essay collection A Temple of Texts — the second best — has been the balm. Steve Clackson also wrote in:My favorite book this year.Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden – commentsSome others I’ve enjoyed.Painkiller by Will Staeger – commentsDe Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage – commentsBooks by Victor O’Reilly – commentsHeather Huggins named her top three:Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer and The Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark. Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day is a close third.And finally, Sandra Scoppettone’s list: Utterly Monkey by Nick LairdCitizen Vince by Jess WalterThe Night Watch by Sarah WatersThe Girls by Lori LansensWater for Elephants by Sara GruenWinter’s Bone by Daniel WoodrellTriangle by Katherine WeberA Spot of Bother by Mark HaddonEat The Document by Dana SpiottaNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthyThanks everyone!
Brandon of The Bibliosphere weighed in with the best book he read during a year in which he got around to catching up on a bunch of classics, new and old:I couldn’t resist joining in on the fun of all the best-of lists making the rounds: the New York Times Book Review printed its own list, as did Publisher’s Weekly. My reading is pretty varied, but I always seem to be a few years behind: the most recent books I read this year were published in 2004.2006 was more of a year for me to play catch-up – Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and Albert Camus’ The Stranger were among my favorite books this year. They exemplified everything I love about literature; they were thought-provoking, obsessive, and deeply unsettling. Franz Kafka’s The Trial disturbed me on a level no horror novel can reach. Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, while treading a fine line between pretentiousness and genius, obliterated the very idea of what a novel is supposed to be. And Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time gave me one of the freshest and most sympathetic heroes I’ve come across in a long time.But Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is, without a doubt, the best book I read this year. It’s funny, infuriating, tragic, and beautifully-written. Neither too long nor too short, this book is, in a word, perfect.Thanks Brandon!