1. In 2009, Cormac McCarthy sold his Olivetti Lettera 32 typewriter at Christie’s for $254,500. With it, he wrote close to five million words over the course of five decades, including his highly regarded novels The Road and Blood Meridian, and the Border Trilogy, which brought him commercial success. Rather than graduate to a computer after the sale, McCarthy replaced his Olivetti with the exact same model—though one in a newer condition. He valued it because it was lightweight, reliable, and portable. For these same reasons, this classic Olivetti model was popular with traveling journalists in the ‘60s. Don DeLillo and Will Self are also loyal typewriter devotees. "Writing on a manual makes you slower in a good way, I think," Self told The Guardian. "You don't revise as much, you just think more, because you know you're going to have to retype the entire thing. Which is a big stop on just slapping anything down and playing with it.” When I first began writing, I would have considered this apparent technophobia as old school—or worse, trendy. Writing can be done anywhere and with anything, can’t it? Writing on a computer is convenient. I first realized the advantages of analog when observing how my husband, who is a photojournalist, uses his vintage film camera from the '60s. It is a slow, tedious process, one that many other photographers who have “graduated" to digital consider unnecessary, given technological advancements. He spends up to a minute changing each roll of film. A roll contains 12 frames. Between each shot he must wind the crank. For these reasons, a photograph cannot be taken as instantly as it could be with a digital camera. The film is costly to buy and to develop. You can’t check the frames as you take them. These might sound more like disadvantages, but his photographs, taken during a trip to Cuba and Mexico two summers ago, went on to win the people stories prize at World Press Photo 2017 and were published widely and exhibited internationally. One disadvantage of digital photography is the temptation for photographers to check their pictures while they’re still shooting. The thumbnails on that tiny display screen often look better than they actually are when enlarged on your computer screen. The digital photographer relaxes—“I’ve got this,” they think, perhaps preemptively. With film there are fewer distractions like this tendency to self-assess as you go along, and the financial and speed limitations encourage a more mindful process. To avoid wasting precious film and energy, the photographer must frame the picture more carefully. The results are consequentially more often better thought out; the composition more exact. The editing process is also more arduous, given the need to scan contact sheets. You spend more time with your pictures and get to know them better. The pictures, though fewer in quantity than their digital counterparts, are usually better. I was starting to notice an obvious parallel to my own experience of writing on a laptop, and soon began looking for an analogue solution. Pen and paper was the obvious alternative—writers like Truman Capote and Vladimir Nabokov always managed without a computer in the past. More contemporary, Neil Gaiman has written many books longhand, including Stardust and American Gods. Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Jhumpa Lahiri, and J.K. Rowling also prefer penning their first draft. There is something romantic about the notion of writing in a notebook, though unfortunately I can only sustain it short-term for journalling and the jotting down of ideas; my writing is so small that it’s sometimes illegible even to me, and I can’t imagine having the wrist power to write an entire first draft with pen and paper. During that summer in Cuba with my husband, I realized how dependent I had become on the Internet for everything; I also learned how much of a distraction it can be from the things I really want to get done. It was the summer of 2016 and Internet access was hard to come by in the country. You had to go to an Internet point and pay about $5 an hour for an Internet card. Even then, the Internet was slow and many websites were censored. Often these Internet zones were on the street; they were easy to recognize, for crowds with smartphones and laptops would be gathered sitting on the sidewalk, despite the stifling humidity. An unusual sight in a country that is not connected. An uncomfortable place to write anything more than a few emails. Initially being Internet-free seemed impossible—how would I keep up with freelance writing commissions? How would I upload photos of what I was eating or where I was on Instagram, or keep in touch with friends back home? What about responding to urgent emails? I came to realize that there were no urgent emails—most could wait. Without the distractions of social media, I was able to write for myself and read more than 20 books in just one month. I will keep this up when I go home, I thought, but back in London it was far too easy to switch the modem back on and resume procrastination. Alarm set for 9 a.m.—coffee and toast, followed by four solid hours of writing time. I open Word, write a sentence, then rewrite it. I tell myself not to self-edit, but the delete button is like a bag of unshelled pistachios—too easy, so you keep eating—or in this case pressing. Some time goes by before I find myself scrolling down my Facebook feed, checking emails, refreshing the page. I wonder how I ended up here, and then I realize I don’t have the will power I believed I possessed. An important email arrives, and reply I must. Morning writing session over. We as consumers seek convenience, though convenience is often made with the objective of encouraging compulsiveness and habit in users. We’re propelled to keep pressing buttons, opening clickbait articles, and liking mundane posts by acquaintances on social media. With time, I began to realize that the option to self-edit your own writing as you go along is also seldom a conscious choice. I would spend hours rereading a sentence and dissecting it, when perhaps I should have written with the objective to finish and then rewrite the completed, albeit imperfect, first draft. It was this need for a slower and more deliberate process, coupled with Will Self’s recent pessimistic prediction about the future of the novel, that reminded me of what he had said about his preference for a typewriter back in 2008; he perceived the slowness it requires as a good thing. The computer has liberated us in more ways than it has constrained us; while trawling through my dissertation on a laptop during my final year of university, I remember feeling a grain of sympathy for those who lived before the digital age, who would have to write first, second, and sometimes third drafts of essays longhand. Even for those who could not hit "delete" on a typewriter if they misspelt a word or wanted to change the word order. The Internet has also democratized art in that talented creators from all backgrounds can share their work and self-promote from anywhere and everywhere using social media. Publishers are turning to blogs and platforms such as Instagram and Blogspot in pursuit of the next big thing. Patrons are increasingly self-starters who are interested in new, diverse voices who have not necessarily followed a traditional path to develop their craft. Though for all their advantages, technological advances have also made us accustomed to instant gratification, and we expect results faster. We’re used to working alongside multiple distractions in multiple tabs and windows: a conversation with a friend in messenger, an interesting tangent on Wikipedia, that funny cat video your mum knew you’d like. With a computer in front of me, I seldom have a moment for quiet and self-reflection. There’s always something to keep me occupied—and if there’s not, I can be distracted at the click of a button—which is detrimental to creativity. Sometimes constraints are what we need to work well. As Stanford professor of management science (and bestselling author of The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilised Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t) Robert I. Sutton points out, most—if not all creative feats—are created by people facing constraints. During the Renaissance, when patrons commissioned artists to produce works, the contracts would specify what was required for a given project—the deadline, the colors, the style, the materials used, etc. The artist would have had a degree of freedom within these constraints. [millions_ad] 2. I resolved to buy a typewriter to set myself some constraints and reap the benefits of being alone with a page and a legible font that is thankfully not my own handwriting. I travel regularly, so after considering the Brother typewriter, and various similar lightweight models, decided upon the Olivetti Lettera 32. Aside from knowing it’s the model used by Cormac McCarthy, one of my favorite living writers, it’s a beautiful machine and a retro design piece. In a past life, my mother had worked a brief stint as a secretary, like many women of her generation dissuaded from more risqué jobs and encouraged to do something “respectable” (she later left her desk to pursue her dream of becoming a musician). Feeling like we had swapped places, I recruited her to help on my search for the perfect typewriter. She would be able to test it and ascertain the condition. After explaining my reasoning for returning to analog, she suggested I instead look at getting an electronic typewriter so I wouldn’t have to replace the tape. She had been glad to see the back of the typewriter, which was slow, noisy, and often broke down. I told her I wanted that kind of slow, awkward process. “Bit weird,” she’d said, seeing that I couldn’t be swayed, “but okay.” Buying and using a typewriter is expensive—but I see it as an investment. Analog generally outlives digital and is less likely to decrease in value. I purchased a refurbished turquoise Olivetti Lettera 32 from Gramercy Typewriters in New York City. The family-run business has been around since 1932 and their knowledge and skills have been passed down through three generations. The familial old-world feel inside the shop contrasts with the hum of the traffic and crowds outside on the streets. 3. In recent months I’ve drastically reduced my time on social media, and I’ve found that returning to analog has helped me reconnect. We’re in a world where we’re always connected, but we lack intimacy. I’ve rediscovered the art of letter writing—in a letter, you can only say what you really need or want to say as space is finite. There’s something exciting about sending and receiving mail. I like holding in my hand a letter, knowing it’s something tangible I can return to, unlike the old messages and emails that get buried in long-running conversations by memes, links, and cute emoticons. Then there’s knowing that someone went the extra mile for you, that they deemed you important enough to write to. My Moleskine has found a place again in my handbag, and though I’m unlikely to write anything fully-formed in it, it’s there in case an idea appears while I’m in a cafe, in a train, or on a plane. It’s there in case I grow tired of other mediums, which happens in the same way that I sometimes grow tired of a given working environment and need to relocate. Writing on a typewriter is slower than typing on word. It’s more expensive—I have to replace the ribbon and regularly buy more paper. It’s a bulky thing to carry around. But as I hit the keys, I hear the sound, and I’m more aware I’ve just written a word. I put more care into carefully crafting each sentence in my mind before I write. Advantageously for me, given my indecisive disposition, with a typewriter I can’t dwell on a section for weeks or months; with no backspace, you have to write to finish. The tidying up of awkward prose can come later. You’re forced to reread and at least write second drafts to smooth out inevitable typos. The laptop can come back for edits. Most importantly, perhaps, there are fewer distractions. The desire to make another cup of tea is perhaps the most pervasive. Another advantage of analog, one which I hadn’t considered prior to reducing my screen-time, is the reduction of computer-related eye strain caused by looking at bright screens, reflections, and glare. Around 50 percent to 90 percent of office employees who work primarily on a computer suffer from eye strain—and other annoying visual symptoms as a consequence, such as eye floaters and red eye. Migraine aura sufferers often have a visual aura triggered by looking at a flickering screen. Switching to a new medium in any discipline will not automatically make you a better artist—that requires both talent and commitment. But it can teach you to slow down, disconnect, reconnect, and in this instance favor quality over quantity—and completion over counterintuitive perfectionism. Photo courtesy of the author.
1. Imagine organizing a small get-together, a few friends and acquaintances at a neighborhood bar. It’s all very low-key. The day comes; friends arrive. You order cocktails. You chit-chat. In walks the President of the United States, with secret service, trailed by a herd of photographers. Suddenly, you are at a very different sort of party. So it was with my journey into the world of nuclear weapons. I started researching and writing my book in 2008; we were not, then, living under threat of nuclear temper tantrum. The possibility that someone might actually use an atomic weapon again was a comfortably remote risk. I wasn’t dealing with current events; I was just interested in the people who made nuclear war a possibility—people who ended up with immense power not because they craved it but because of particular skills and talents they had. With this distance, I could do the research necessary to write about them without having nightmares. A lot has been written about nuclear war. I have a shelf of history, biography, and popular science books about the weapons, their creators, and their evolution. From the newly re-popular Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to Cat’s Cradle, Red Alert (inspiration for Dr. Strangelove) to Gravity’s Rainbow, there is a rich fiction of the arms race and the post-apocalyptic landscape, heavily steeped in satire and speculation. Through all this, one can come to know an awful lot about the types of explosions humankind has learned to set off, and just how destructive they might be. It is one thing to have that kind of knowledge when it’s all a thought experiment. It’s something else entirely when leading experts agree the chances are, once again, non-trivial. Now that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have arrived, I am at a very different sort of party. 2. This decade has seen some wonderful literary novels set after apocalyptic events. Think of Station Eleven (pandemic), and of Gold Fame Citrus (catastrophic drought). If we stretch the decade a little, we get the unspecified but possibly nuclear apocalypse of The Road. These books deal intimately with the aftermath of a dreaded event. There is very little room for comfort, and they don’t traffic in the will-it-or-won’t-it anxiety that we live with in the real world; in these books, it will. It did. And it’s every bit as bad as we thought. I can only imagine that writing that kind of book is like staring into the sun. I don’t have the stomach for that. Instead, I wrote around the edges of disaster. My book is pre-apocalyptic; it is set in this world, not in the one that may come. The central question is not what it will be like when it arrives, but rather what does the mere possibility, the capability, do to us? It’s still a novel about the possible end of the world as we know it, but its approach to that topic is oblique. And my disaster of choice was one that seemed, unlike drought or pandemic, remote and unlikely. It was behind us, not ahead. It was a safe choice. Now the world has taken that safety away. It has catapulted my comfortably distant topic into startling relevance. It has left me with more information than I really want, in this environment, about exactly what a nuclear war would entail. Those details I spent so long collecting are fodder for the nightmares I thought I was avoiding, triggered every couple of weeks by some fresh story on the news. 3. The first book I read, before this project was really underway, was Freeman Dyson’s Disturbing the Universe. In it, Dyson recalls time spent with the great physicist Richard Feynman, who had originally refused to work on the bomb and acquiesced only so Adolf Hitler wouldn’t get it first. He remembered Feynman sitting on the hood of his jeep in the desert, joyfully banging on a set of bongo drums to celebrate the success of the Trinity test, the first nuclear bomb ever exploded. Not long after, Feynman turned his back on military work, realizing that, in Dyson’s words, “he was too good at it and enjoyed it too much.” Next, I dove into American Prometheus, Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s gripping biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. I had downloaded the audiobook; I listened to it walking around in bright sunshine on the campus of the University of Arizona, where I was getting a master’s degree. As his life went on, Oppenheimer was clearly haunted, and he, in turn, haunted me. I can still hear the narrator’s voice in my head when I walk up the mall in the middle of the campus, among the palm trees and the oblivious undergraduates. These were men who were responsible, in a startlingly direct way, for the fate of our world. They knew just exactly how much trouble we were in—because they helped put us there. They felt, evidently, that they had to. But did they? Clearly, both came to doubt that as their lives went on and they had to live with it. This is something, at least. My head might be full of kilotons, of radiation burns, of calculations about radius and wind speed, but at least I don’t have choices to make about any of this. Whether we survive this has nothing to do with me. [millions_ad] 4. A few years later, deep into the writing process, I was living in Helena, Mont., where there wasn’t much to do in the winter if you don’t ski. One snowy Saturday I went to an estate sale, for something to do. It was largely picked over by the time I arrived, but I found, in a back room—it must have once been the study, though there was no furniture—a treasure trove. There was a whole wall of books with titles like Explaining the Atom (published 1947), Early Tales of the Atomic Age (1948) and The New Force (1953). I took home a paper grocery bag full for $5. Going through them that night, I noticed that inside the cover flap of Nuclear Theft: Risks and Safeguards (1974), someone had underlined the following: “The design and manufacture of a crude weapon is no longer a difficult task,” and “The authors evaluate current methods of guarding materials and find them inadequate.” The house had belonged to one of Helena’s wealthy old families, and the matriarch had lived there until the end. I have no way to know the nature of her obsession, if it was even hers, or if the collection had belonged to her husband who—you know these things when you live in a city of 40,000—had died a few years earlier. Maybe it had once been his; maybe she, in her last lonely years, had gone through each chilling volume, reading the passages he’d marked, to take some small comfort in the fear of something that, unlike the condition of the grand old house whose floors had started to rot, or her famously strained relationship with her daughter, or the idiots taking over the local city council, she couldn’t do a damn thing about. Here, I found anxiety not just of the scientists, but of a fellow reader who had amassed this collection a generation before I was born, when the threat had also been real. A reader who must have found some comfort in this area of study, some pleasure. A reader who, given the context in which I had acquired her books, had lived and died in a world that, without regard to her worry, had survived every threat to its existence. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
A few weeks ago, thinking back on my Year in Reading for the purposes of this post, I realized something I’m kind of ashamed to admit. I don’t think I read any books in 2017. I read a whole lot of magazine articles and short stories. I read for research. I read for work, for classes I taught. I was a screener for the NEA fellowship. And I listened to a whole bunch of audiobooks. But did I actually sit down and read a real (print) book for pleasure? I may have. It’s possible. I just can’t say for sure. For a variety of reasons—writing and teaching and parenting a toddler and trying to be a good partner in spite of all that—the majority of my pleasure reading in 2017 was via audiobook. I could write a whole post on the pros and cons of listening to literature while running or walking my dog, the different readers, how much I appreciate my local libraries for providing the service, and how 90 percent of the time I still buy print versions of the books I listen to on Overdrive. But that’s not what Year in Reading is all about. So, enough about my habits of literary consumption. What about the books themselves? Of all the books I read this past year, the one I keep coming back to, the one I can’t shake, the one I recommend to anyone who will listen, is Exit West by Mohsin Hamid. It’s a relatively simple story, set in an unnamed city that could be anywhere in the Middle East or South Asia (but made me think of Aleppo). Boy meets girl, boy and girl hook up, rebels invade the city, girl moves in with boy and his father for complicated reasons, boy and girl decide to leave the city through a mysterious portal, boy and girl try to make a new life in the West amidst growing resentment of refugees like themselves. But the straightforwardness of the plot and the fable-like quality of the narration belie a certain radical empathy at the heart of the book. As Hamid points out in a recent interview with The Nation: Nobody’s going to say that today in Pakistan, 16 million mothers kissed their kids goodnight, 5 million musicians practiced their musical instruments, and 833,000 people fell in love for the first time. They’re going to say that today in Pakistan somebody killed five other people with a bomb. Now, that is true, but it is a fundamental omission of so much information. In addition to its many purely aesthetic achievements, Exit West forces us to see (and empathize with) a group of people we might prefer to look away from. And it forces us to see them as individuals, as mothers kissing their children goodnight and young people falling in love. It’s unfortunate that Exit West is so relevant. But given the world we live in—a world with 60 million refugees and internally displaced people; 60 million people, each one of whom was forced to leave his or her home and life behind—it’s hard to think of a more important book for 2017. A couple of years ago, during a conversation about post-apocalyptic novels, a student of mine suggested that I might like A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr., a 1960s science fiction novel about a group of monks who keep the seeds of science and civilization alive for thousands of years after a devastating nuclear war. I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical at first. It sounded like one of those high-concept hard sci-fi novels that sacrifice character and prose on the altar of plot. But eventually I got around to the book and I sure am glad I did. It’s a strange and beautiful and deeply humanistic novel that unsettled me for months after I put it down. Think Isaac Asimov’s Foundation meets Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose meets Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. If you don’t like “the more speculative genres,” you might have a hard time getting through certain sections. But on the whole, it’s an amazing book, way under-read, and deeply relevant for these pre-apocalyptic times. In addition to being my year of the audiobook, 2017 was also the year I finished working on my second novel (a polyphonic, multigenerational book centered on a 1,000-year-old synagogue in Cairo). So it’s only right, I think, to give a shout out to two wonderful scholarly works that were my constant companions during the seven years it took me to write the novel. The first is Sacred Trash by Peter Cole and Adina Hoffman, a beautifully written and researched academic history that follows multiple generations of scholars working on an enormous cache of documents found in the attic of the synagogue at the center of my novel. The second is A Mediterranean Society by S.D. Goitein, an eight-volume scholarly behemoth that uses these same documents as its source material. Sifting through thousands of scraps of paper—letters and marriage contracts, business agreements and shopping lists, magic spells and prayer books—Goitein conjures up a meticulously detailed portrait of the vibrant, cosmopolitan society that was medieval Cairo. And finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the author I read most this year: Sandra Boynton. You may know her from Moo, Baa, La La La or Blue Hat, Green Hat. Once you’ve seen her work, you’ll recognize it anywhere. All those cheerful round animals—hippos, cows, sheep, and pigs—dancing and eating and generally being silly. In a year’s worth of bedtimes, I must have read Hippos Go Berserk! and What’s Wrong Little Pookie? 100 times each. And more than once, sitting there with my daughter on my lap, her thumb in her mouth, reading about barnyard animals or bellybuttons or earnest little pigs who forget why they are sad, I thought, this is as good as it gets. If that isn’t enough to recommend a book, I don’t know what is. 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Along the way, as I was helicoptered off Algonquin Mountain, wheeled into the Lake Placid ER, then driven by ambulance to Saranac Lake ER and wheeled into midnight surgery, the forest rangers, the nurses, the EMTs and doctors would ask what I did for a living. When I explained I was a writer, the response was often how at least I’ll be able to write about all this when it’s over. I certainly played the part of WRITER, reminding my husband again and again, when I was sprawled out on the trail and waiting to be rescued, to make sure my little green notebook and my pen went with me when I was helicoptered out. I kept this notebook beside me at all times, except for the surgery that would insert a metal rod and screws into my leg and ankle. I planned on recording my observations, the odd angles and discolorations of my leg, the various textures of pain, the bright personalities of the nurses, the sounds from the other hospital rooms, the kindnesses. But here’s a confession: I barely used that notebook. I have three measly pages to cover my first week of injury. My writer self, a previously eager observer of my life’s lows, appeared to be asleep or absent, cowering off in some corner of my mind. I’m still trying to understand why. Despite my lackluster notetaking, I can remember certain moments if I try. My nails digging into my husband’s arm and leaving marks. A stranger covering me with his rain jacket. How I couldn’t stop shaking. The helicopter circling over us, needing to burn off fuel, while the trees around us trembled and blew as if in a storm. I remember asking my husband to shoot me. I remember rising above the trees while strapped into a harness, and suddenly there was so much light from the setting sun. I intended to wave goodbye to my children but I was spinning the wrong way. But there are other moments that I can’t access. In particular, the time between when I was walking down a trail beside some rocks, not even a steep part, and I noticed a man to my lower left, and I was thinking, I do not feel like saying hello to this man, as I was tired of greeting people—then, somehow, I was on my back, and this kind man, the one I didn’t want to greet, was crouched next to me, explaining I’ve been hurt. That I was really hurt. I glanced at my leg, bent in angles that should have been impossible. Then I closed my eyes. Between those two moments, there is nothing. I want to know what my body was doing during that nothing time. More accurately, I want to be able to describe what my body was doing and what I was thinking and feeling. I wish someone was taking a video so I could see myself fall. It’s strange, as a writer, disorienting, to have moments, no matter how brief, unavailable to me. Did I slip? Stumble? Push myself off the rocks? Twist? Flail? Leap? Scream? Cry out? (Apparently the brain stops recording memories during traumatic events, focusing its resources instead on survival, due to increased adrenaline and noradrenaline production, says Scientific American.) I’m glad, of course, my brain stayed focused and I survived. But I still wish my writing self could have been an observer, just as I wish that same self could have been more present during the times of intense pain. When, for instance, the forest ranger was preparing to splint my leg without pain meds while my tibia was almost pushing through my skin. I needed to be splinted before I could be lifted up to the helicopter. “Ready?” the ranger asked. A quiet voice in my head was telling me to pay careful attention, but the voice was so muted, and then I began screaming, as the pain went beyond what was bearable. I went elsewhere, to a place I may never be able to describe, and there is some disappointment about visiting a place, however bleak, where there aren’t words. I am trying to write about my experience three months after the accident. One problem I keep encountering is the fact this was an accident, an awful twist of fate. I write awful but another problem is it wasn’t that bad, not when put into the context of greater suffering in the world. Yes, I felt intense pain while waiting for the helicopter. Yes, the waiting felt infinite but actually it was 2 hours. Yes, the splinting was intolerable, but that lasted no more than a minute. After that, I was rescued, saved, medicated, taken care of. My hospital room had a lakeside view with a loon! I know people have felt much worse, and been more frightened, for much longer. I know some people are never rescued. How can one’s pain be made more interesting? More complex? More relevant? Must pain be complex or interesting or relevant to warrant writing about? How does one write about a violence that has no perpetrator, no blame? Were I assaulted on the mountaintop, had someone thrown me down those rocks, there would be a villain, and presumably a motive, and therefore there would have been a clearer story to tell. But what happened was the trail was slippery, and I slipped. I can’t even blame my boots. I checked them later on. The treads were fine. Everybody was falling that day, my husband has reminded me. He fell moments before I did. A woman fell moments before him, slicing open her arm. At times, it seems I could sum up my accident in a sentence or two. Yet I can’t shake this need to continue writing about it. [millions_ad] The accident happened at the start of an annual family vacation. I was in no shape to drive home, so my initial two weeks of recovery were spent in the Adirondacks, on various beds and scenic benches. I expected I would get much reading and writing done. A mini-writing retreat, I thought! How nice. I made my husband download the stories I was working on to a laptop using the hospital Wi-Fi. I stocked my Kindle with non-fiction I had meant to read months ago. I had my pile of articles about global warming, police surveillance, that sort of thing. But even with time stretching in the way it does in hospitals—eternity was available, nothing was expected of me—any writerly impulse quickly evaporated. Reading non-fiction put me to sleep. Not a deep sleep, but a sleep lasting for only a few minutes. I’d wake up and doggedly read a few more paragraphs before nodding off. My folder of articles lay untouched on my bed. My notebook lay beside me. The laptop remained unopened. I stared at the wall more than I thought possible, the pain meds keeping boredom away. When a volunteer wheeled in what she called her “comfort cart,” I eagerly grabbed for the easy escape of People magazine. Perhaps it’s silly, after an injury, to become frustrated with one’s self for a lack of artistic interest in one’s situation. Perhaps the situation was simply not that interesting. Perhaps it’s okay I found more engagement with the amount of calories a celebrity consumes in a day. But I think there was something more going on, a collection of evidence, or a sinking feeling. The first book I was able to latch onto in the hospital was Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s a novel I come back to every year or two. I read it before I had my first child and thought, well this is rather showy and dramatic, isn’t it. After the birth of my first child, I read it again and wept. I don’t cry anymore at the ending, but I do find solace in its portrayal of an effective parental love and a useful suffering. The dad does manage to save his child in the end, after all. In the hospital setting, I found this novel’s bleakness to be reassuring, its descriptions of the decimated, impersonal, and brutal wilderness to be more accurate than the romantic description of trees I’ve encountered elsewhere. I would read the book, fall asleep several pages in, then wake and read more, and fall asleep, and cry because my leg hurt so much, take the pain meds, and read more. Read in this fragmented way, certain scenes stretched on practically forever. I think the father swimming out to the ship went on for most of one night. I must have reread certain parts, and I was reading so slowly. But I feel like this particular reading of the book was my truest reading, the most accurate. Perhaps suffering, no matter how pointless such suffering is, is the best state of mind when reading a book about suffering. I found solace in the idea that suffering can have a purpose, a goal. Even my suffering, I wondered? A purpose larger than the personal, I wondered? I carried my notebook with me everywhere while I used crutches. I carried it to a second visit to the Saranac Lake ER because my leg had turned a deep rich blue and swelled to an obscene size. “I’m turning into a blueberry. Like Violet Beauregarde!” I told my daughter, who patted me with alarm. I rarely wrote in the notebook. I just carried it, occasionally jotting down commandments from my doctors. Elevate. Ice. Rest. I took the notebook to the final appointment with my surgeon, whom I had fallen in love with. I say this in the most sincere, non-creepy way possible: here was a man who had put my leg back together. A man who had smiled at me with such kindness before the surgery, when I was very frightened, and afterwards, who moved my bandaged leg with great pride. It was like we had created something together. “Look at that!” he said with a little awe, moving my leg up and down. I don’t know how people cannot fall in love with their surgeons. I suppose there is a story waiting somewhere in that proclamation. My writer self eventually did wake up. Proudly, now, it waves around its updated list of things it can write about more accurately and personally: a mountain injury! A helicopter rescue! An ambulance ride! Being wheeled into a frigid operating room and hearing Pink Floyd! Going under for surgery! Metal implants in one’s leg! Becoming hysterical from pain while one’s children watched. The queasy loneliness of a hospital room at night. I could turn it all into a story, adding some kind of tension, or forcing something more to happen. Give the injured wife and her husband a history, perhaps a violent history. Or maybe the child could be the one injured, and the mother would have to watch her child in pain rather than watching her own pain. But part of me has become bored with reshaping the details of my life into a narrative with an exciting enough plot that also satisfies a need for completion and revelation by the story’s end. Part of me wants this experience to be enough as it was. I will get back almost everything that I lost. I’ll be able to walk without a limp. At some point, I should be able to run. My family will go back to the mountains and have a proper vacation. And there have been little gifts along the way. Reading returned to me in a fury once I went off opioids at the end of week two. When was the last time I had so much space to read since I was a child? The Executioner’s Song, Borne, Fever Dream, The Book of Joan, Lincoln in the Bardo, The Handmaid’s Tale, Against Depression. I had love affairs with each of these books. I read gratefully, whole-heartedly, without distraction, as I had nothing else I could do. I read through my insomnia, and I read while my leg was elevated and iced, and I read while doing my physical therapy exercises every three hours, and I read to my children while I rested, and I listened to the books as I hobbled around the block. What I won’t get back are those moments I can’t remember, the falling, the pain. Those are the parts, if I do tell this story someday in its completion, I will have to make up. Here are some of the ways my accident changed me. I will hike less joyfully next summer. I will hesitate on rocky trails. I will bring an emergency beacon and consider trip insurance with helicopter evacuation coverage. I may stop below the ridges of mountains rather than climb. I have lost my certainty that hiking up mountains has a point. What is the point? Gazing at them from a distance might be enough. I hope environmental descriptions in my writing will gain some kind of brutality, that I will say no to romanticism when it suggests itself, especially when the sun is setting on a scene. Because the mountain stood there while I screamed. Of course it did. And then my family, my husband and children, had to climb down it in the dark. Did I ever think nature had a heart? Yes, I suppose I did. Maybe this is the real loss or revelation. We talk so much about trying to save the natural world as if it is a living breathing person. It’s not. It’s still worth saving, but not because of its kindness. Photo courtesy of the author.
1. As an advocate for both books and therapy, I determined, upon first hearing the word “bibliotherapy,” that this might be my bespoke profession. I go to group therapy. I read a lot of novels. I’m constantly recommending novels to my group. Members struggling with various problems typically don’t count on me to empathize through personal experience. They count on me for book recommendations. Your adult son is an expat in Europe and is exploring his sexuality? See Caleb Crain’s Necessary Errors. You feel alienated from your wealthy family but drawn to nagging spiritual questions about existence? Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer is for you. Gutted by the loss of a loved one? You could do worse than James Agee’s A Death in the Family (Men’s therapy group, by the way). The concept of bibliotherapy -- a word coined in 1916 -- long teetered on the edge of trendiness. But lately it has tilted toward truth. The highbrow media has weighed in favorably -- consider Ceridwen Dovey’s much discussed New Yorker profile on The School of Life’s bibliotherapy team. And then the books: Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Andy Miller’s The Year of Reading Dangerously, William Deresiewicz’s A Jane Austen Education and, perhaps most notably, The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin. Each book, to varying degrees, suggests connections between reading and happiness. A Google Scholar’s worth of criticism -- my obscure favorite being Keith Oatley’s “Why Fiction May Be Twice as True as Fact: Fiction as Cognitive and Emotional Simulation” (pdf) -- has lent the idea scholarly heft. To be clear: nobody is arguing that reading books is a substitute for the medication required to treat acute mental illness. But the notion that novels might have a genuine therapeutic benefit for certain kinds of spiritual ailments seems legit. 2. If we concede that books can be therapeutic, then it seems appropriate to explore the potential pitfalls of asking literature to serve that cause. Of initial concern is the inherent presumptuousness of the endeavor. When I advise my fellow group therapy members -- whom I know as intimately as I know anyone, if intimacy is defined by the sharing of anxiety, fear, and grief -- what they should read, the assumption is that I’m able to divine how my interpretation of a novel will intersect with their predicted interpretations of the same novel. If reception theory tells us anything, it’s that this kind of interpretive foretelling, especially when refracted through the radically subjectivity of a novel, is a matter of great uncertainty, and maybe even an implicit form of lit bullying (“What? You didn’t pick up on that theme? What’s the matter with you?). Plus, novels don’t work this way. They aren’t narrative prescriptions. Even when done badly, novels are artistic expressions necessarily unmoored from reality, expressions that ultimately depend on idiosyncratic characters who act, think, and feel, thereby becoming emotionally, psychologically, intellectually, and even physically embodied -- quite differently -- in every reader’s mind. Yes, The Great Gatsby has universal appeal. But there’s a unique Gatsby for every reader who has passed eyes over the book. (Maybe even Donald Trump has one: "not great, not great; an overrated loser.") Given the tenuousness and variability of this personal act of translation, it’s hard not to wonder: How could anyone expect to intuit how anyone else might react to certain characters in certain settings under certain circumstances? In The Novel Cure, Berthoud and Elderkin aren’t hampered by this question. They match personal contemporary ailments with common literary themes as if they were complementary puzzle pieces. They do so under the assumption that the mere presence of a literary counterpart to a contemporary dilemma automatically imbues a novel with therapeutic agency. They advise that a person dealing with adultery in real life might want to read Madame Bovary. Or that someone who struggles to reach orgasm should read Lady Chatterly’s Lover. Does this kind of advice make any sense? Consider the adultery example. How can Berthoud and Elderkin assess exactly how novelistic adultery will be translated into thoughts and feelings about something as deeply contextualized as real life adultery? How can they assess if it will be translated at all? Think of all the possible reactions. Use your imagination. A contemporary cuckold could go off the rails at any juncture in the Bovary narrative. He could become so immensely interested in Gustave Flaubert’s intimately detailed portrait of 19th-century provincial life, and the people in it, that he eventually finds the cuckolding theme a distraction, finishes the novel, quits his high paying job, and commits himself to a graduate program in French social history. Books have driven people to do stranger things. Sure it’s unlikely, but my point is this: Telling someone precisely what to take from a novel, based on the superficiality of a shared event, isn’t therapeutic. It’s fascist. A repression of a more genuine response. More interesting would be to reverse the bibliotherapeutic premise altogether. Instead of asking “what’s wrong with you?” and assigning a book, assign a book and ask “what’s wrong with you?” When I lend books to friends outside of therapy, this strategy (upon reflection) is basically what I’m testing. I’m not trying to solve a person’s problem. I’m trying, in a way, to create one. I want to shake someone out of complacency. Great novels (and sometimes not so great ones) jar us, often unexpectedly. Ever have a novel sneak upon you and kick you in the gut, leaving you staring into space, dazed by an epiphany? Yes. Novels do this. They present obstacles that elicit the catharsis (from katharo, which means clearing obstacles) we didn’t think we needed. We should allow books to cause more trouble in our lives. But the sanguine bibliotherapeutic mission will have none of that. Its premise is to take down obstacles and march us towards happiness. Proof is how easily this genre of therapy veers into self-help territory. The New York Public Library’s "Bibliotherapy" page suggests that readers check out David Brooks’s The Road to Character, Cheryl Strayed’s Brave Enough, and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear. These books are assuredly smart books by smart writers, all of whom I admire. But the goal of this type of book is to help readers find some kind of stability. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that. But the problem from the perspective of literary fiction is that such “self-improvement” books seek to tamp down the very human emotions that literature dines out on: fear, insecurity, vulnerability, and the willingness to take strange paths to strange places. Imagine reading Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment without being at least little off kilter. You’d shut the book the moment Raskolnikov committed his murder. Being moved by fiction means being willing to be led astray a little. It helps if your rules are not ordinary. It also seems prudent to wonder how the bibliotherapeutic pharmacy would bottle up the work of certain writers. Would it do so in a way that excludes literary genius? Almost assuredly it would. Cormac McCarthy, whom many critics consider one of the greatest writers ever -- appears three times in The Novel Cure. Predictably, The Road is mentioned as a way to (a) gain insight into fatherhood and (b) achieve brevity of expression. That’s it -- all talk of apocalypse and the survival instinct as integral influences on human morality is brushed aside. Inexplicably, Blood Meridian is listed as a book that sheds light on the challenge of going cold turkey. I have no idea here. None. But I do know that if you are a reader who grasps the totality of McCarthy’s work, your literary soul, as Cormac might put it, is drowning in a cesspool of roiling bile. Because here is what bibliotherapy, as it's now defined, has no use for: darkness. Real darkness. McCarthy’s greatest literary accomplishment is arguably Suttree, the culmination of a series of “Tennessee novels” that dealt in chilling forms of deviance -- incest, necrophilia, self-imposed social alienation -- that, on every page, sully the reader’s sense of decency. McCarthy’s greatest narrative accomplishment was likely No Country for Old Men, a blood splattered thriller that features a psychopath who kills random innocent people with a captive bolt pistol. These works, much like the work of Henry Miller (none of whose sex-fueled books get mentioned in The Novel Cure), aestheticize evil -- in this case violence and misogynistic sex -- into brilliant forms of literary beauty. They are tremendously important and profoundly gorgeous books, albeit in very disturbing ways. They are more likely to send you into therapy than practice it. 3. The good news for bibliotherapy is that there are too many hardcore fiction readers who know all too well that concerted reading enhances the quality of their lives. A single book might destabilize, tottering you into emotional turmoil. But books -- collectively consumed through the steady focus of serious reading -- undoubtedly have for many readers a comforting, even therapeutic, effect. This brand of bibliotherapy, a brand born of ongoing submission to great literature -- not unlike traditional therapy -- does not necessarily seek to solve specific problems. (In my group therapy, members have been dealing with the same unresolved issues for years. We define each other by them.) Instead, what evolves through both consistent reading and therapy is a deep, even profound, understanding of the dramas that underscore the challenges of being human in the modern world. So, despite my concerns, I remain a believer in bibliotherapy. But its goal should not necessarily be to make us feel better. It should be to make us feel more, to feel deeper, to feel more honestly. In this respect, quality literature, no matter what the subject matter, slows the world down for us, gives us time to place a microscope over its defining events, and urges us to ask, what's going on here, what does it mean, why do I care, and how do I feel? That might not qualify as formal therapy, but it’s a good place to start. Image Credit: Pixabay.
Three recent works, an updating of a Franz Kafka story, a rambunctious saga, and a cautionary tale about the home-wrecking potential of home-buying provided my reading sustenance this summer. Each is predominantly about appetite -- for food, sex, fame, money, adventure -- and its potential wasting effect on the human soul. 1. By making the narrator of his first novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, a talking chimp -- and an orotund one at that -- Benjamin Hale pushed the boundaries of the human. He does the same, quite literally, in the title story from his new collection, The Fat Artist, in which a man attempts to become the fattest -- or rather, heaviest -- man alive under the glare of Guggenheim museum-goers. The artist, Tristan Hurt, is “blessed with the gift of bullshit” and, in thrall to the “fame drive,” has made a name for himself through a series of “ugly, angry, abrasive, disgusting, violent, scatological, pornographic, antisocial, and antihuman” installations. Or as he succinctly sums up his aesthetic: “I lived as if my parents were dead.” And that’s before he plants himself in a glass box, vowing to eat whatever is brought to him by visitors attracted by the ghoulish spectacle. Hale’s glib showman doesn’t register with the same intensity as Kafka’s starving artist-saint, or even the “young panther” that replaces him, but Tristan, blessed with a liberal arts education, is by far the best theoretician: ...in a culture of abundance and affordable luxury, bodily self-abnegation no longer retains this primeval horror. Rather, the twenty-first-century middle-class American must actively labor not to become fat. Thus eating becomes moralized behavior. How often have you heard a woman describe a rich dessert as “sinful”? To eat is to sin—in secular society, the body replaces the soul. Good and evil are no longer purely spiritual concepts—these words have been transubstantiated into the realm of the flesh. Aquinas, who laid out five specific kinds of overindulgence, might have raised an eyebrow at the claim that eating has just now become a moralized behavior. Tristran’s is a facile argument for a facile character, but that doesn’t mean the provocateur hasn’t stumbled on the culminating project of his career, in which his ego and self-loathing swell in equal measure. 2. Something of a “fat artist” makes an appearance in Donald Ray Pollock’s The Heavenly Table as well: Willy the Whale, a carnival act who dies after eating “half a hogshead of raw crawdads in an hour.” Willy the Whale’s is one of many prodigious appetites in the lusty novel, which could hardly find a more fitting epigraph than Ben Jonson’s “On Gut:” “Gut eats all day and lechers all the night/so all his meat he tasteth over twice….” (Pollock’s debut collection of stories, Knockemstiff, also had its share of lust and gluttony, their connection highlighted in a brief portrait of two women “who, out of sheer loneliness, end up doing kinky stuff with candy bars, wake up with apple fritters in their hair.”) Early on, we meet a hermit preaching the virtues of asceticism and waxing rhapsodic on the “heavenly table” awaiting us in the afterlife: “Won’t be no scrounging for scraps after that, I guarantee ye.” The rest of the story is about how that celestial vision is translated, or mistranslated, in the earthly realm where human appetites run amok. I say “human” appetites, but one of the more chilling scenes involves a satiated intestinal worm working its way out of a corpse. The Heavenly Table opens on the Georgia-Alabama border in 1917 as a white sharecropping family shares “a bland wad of flower and water fried in a dollop of leftover fat.” When one of the widowed father’s three sons makes a wisecrack he doesn’t appreciate, a swift chokehold dislodges even that meager repast from the offender’s throat. The father soon dies, and with his passing the novel’s atmosphere of hardscrabble abstemiousness dissipates. The novel shifts tone from eerie Southern Gothic to Rabelaisan picaresque, and the feast, “pork chops thick as a bull’s cock, beefsteaks the size of wagon wheels, buttered biscuits as hot and fluffy as...tits,” begins. And with the feast, a lot of shit -- a scrupulous latrine inspector is among the central characters. First, the three sons gorge on a sick hog: “People most always have a big feed after a funeral, don’t they?” They gorge again after murdering their employer, an exploitative landowner who spends “comfortable evening[s] alone drinking brandy in the dark and idly thinking of all the women he had molested over the years.” The crime commits them to a fugitive life as semi-competent bank robbers -- the “Jewett Boys” as they are known in the tabloids -- a journey taking them north towards Meade, a southern Ohio town catering to the various needs, and vices, of a nearby army camp preparing soldiers to go overseas to fight in the First World War. Along with a memorable meal -- “eight lobsters, along with boiled potatoes and slaw, an entire plate of macaroons” -- Meade offers them an opportunity to whet other appetites. “Shit, I could have gone five or six if I’d known what I was doing at first,” says one brother after a visit to the local brothel, the Whore Barn. Along with books, women, and booze, books are avidly consumed. The brothers have memorized one of their few possessions, a pulp novel called The Life and Times of Bloody Bill Bucket. It is “filled...with every act of rape, robbery, and murder that [the author’s] indignant syphylitic brain could possibly conceive.” (The elder, and most refined, brother covets more refined fare, fantasizing about a well-lined bookshelf rather than a well-fed stomach.) Another character partly blames his son’s dissolution on getting his hands on a copy of Tom Jones, a similarly rollicking episodic adventure. In the novel’s most hamfisted scene, it suddenly dawns on an army officer trained in classical literature that he is gay. His harrowing, ill-fated attempt to lose his virginity to a ravenous hotel maid is less revelatory than a flashback to his college reading syllabus: “After all, his revered Greeks and Romans had written so much about it. Buggery. Pederasty. Homosexuality.” The Eureka moment brings tears to his eyes, and the formally staid lieutenant is indulging in drug-fueled orgies by week’s end. L’appétit vient en mangeant... In brief, passions, and portions, are outsized in The Heavenly Table, which gives it an indigestible quality. The fast-moving adventure and gallery of grotesques consistently entertain, but as one shovels down the novel’s 72 chapters, the concentrated flavor of the exquisite opening becomes a distant memory. 3. Faintly audible behind all the novel’s noise is an elegy for a world threatened by the “ego-driven, cannibalistic forces of twentieth century capitalism.” A ravenous economic system produces ravenous subjects, and jumping to the ego-driven, cannibalistic forces of the 21st century, we meet two such subjects in Joe McGinniss Jr.’s Carousel Court. Carousel Court takes place close to the present, during the recent housing crash, yet it feels post-apocalyptic, Flip This House meets The Road. Nick and Phoebe have relocated from Boston to California, planning to rent in Los Angeles and renovate a house in Serenos, Calif., an inland development. The young couple spare no expense in their “virtual homebuilding” -- an hourglass pool, Italian marble bathroom, and an indoor climbing wall, which, as events spiral downward, stands as a mocking reminder of their upwardly mobile aspirations. Nick loses his job, the economy tanks, and the 30-something pair are marooned among “rotting five-bedroom corpses,” their desolate neighborhood visited nightly by “mountain lions and bobcats, pit vipers, and Latino gangs trolling for new turf.” They have bitten off more than then they can chew, and are now at risk of the “barren landscape fold[ing] in on itself, this patch of earth swallowing” them whole. Their underwater mortgage is actually less disastrous than their caustic marriage -- an epistolary novella could be constructed entirely out of their hostile text messages -- which from the start is threatened by a mismatch in drives. Try as he might to satisfy it, Nick recognizes a hunger in his wife he can never satisfy, “an appetite that seemed to border on compulsion.” The most pronounced, and intoxicating, feature of her beautiful face is “that jaw of hers,” seductive and menacing, even more so as it juts out more prominently from her emaciated face. Phoebe’s hunger is entirely figurative; indeed, her diet consists primarily of booze and Klonopin, and her budget-busting trips to Whole Foods are less about eating, or feeding her child, than restorative glimpses of paradise: “She’ll linger in the wide, bountiful aisles, the cool air, the welcoming faces, and mist will cleanse fresh-cut kale, and time itself will stop.” Allen Ginsberg saw the ghost of Walt Whitman in a supermarket in California; Phoebe has had her own, distinctly yuppie vision of the heavenly table. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
When The New York Times T Magazine recently published a series of emails between Natalie Portman and Jonathan Safran Foer, reactions ran from bafflement to hostility at what seemed a particularly precious bit of high-level marketing (both had projects to promote). But as it turns out, Foer isn’t the only novelist with whom Portman pen-pals. Below are excerpts from a long-running email exchange the actress and director has enjoyed with Cormac McCarthy, author of The Road and Cities of the Plain. >> On Tue, May 3, 2016 at 3:44 PM, Natalie Portman wrote: Let me begin by saying how incredibly gratifying our correspondence has been. In recent years, as I worked on translating Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, into my first film as a director, I constantly thought of artists whose work I aspire to, and — I say this with a fan’s self-consciousness — you were one of them. I thought if I could suffuse my film with the visceral nature of, say, Blood Meridian or No Country for Old Men, then I will have succeeded. Thematically, Oz’s book couldn’t be more different from your novels — but that propulsive feeling, that razor’s-edge sense: that’s the important thing. I’d love to keep writing but it appears that my son is trying to jam his SpongeBob underwear down the garbage disposal. Such is the artist’s life, is it not? >> On Wed, May 4, 2016 at 8:12 PM, Cormac McCarthy wrote: The boy is wise. Pressing the remains of a dying world into the steely void. Did the boy succeed? Did he shred them? Send them tattered through the murk, the sludgewaters below. The refuse of our age. Flowing to brownclotted rivers where corpses of things drift at brackish shores. Bloated and grinning. The grief of the empty sun. An idiot’s reckoning. >> On Thu, May 5, 2016 at 2:02 PM, Natalie Portman wrote: Luckily I got the underwear out of his hands before he could do any real damage, and he gave me the sweetest hug in apology. Being a mother is a great gift, a blessing, and there’s nothing I can say on the subject that hasn’t been said before. But, in part, I think that’s what’s so amazing about having a child: we can each experience this thing that feels so unique and special — and nobody else will ever be able to understand the depth of our feeling. It’s something that we all can do, yet when it happens, it feels exceedingly rare. Does that make sense? Or is motherhood just turning me into one of those unbearable, sentimental types? >> On Sat, May 7, 2016 at 12:54 PM, Cormac McCarthy wrote: Children with sharp small teeth, grasping fingers. Sucking life from all, as an inferno takes its oxygen from the blackening treefringe. As apt to evil as men, simply not grown to it. Their evil a pair of trousers too large yet to fit. But there will come an hour when the boy will know what he is capable of and he will weigh it and know that it is there. He will attire the trousers and they will fit him handsomely. His evil will emerge as a snake from its trembling nest. >> On Sat, May 7, 2016 at 10:47 PM, Natalie Portman wrote: My son and I were at a café in Paris last year — the Boulangerie Poilâne, on the Boulevard de Grenelle; if you’re ever there, you must try the chaussons aux pommes — and I caught him trying to pour salt in my café au lait! So, yes, I certainly know what you mean about children’s capacity for “evil”! It’s funny — although I’ve been working in film since I was 11, it’s only now, working as a director, that I’m thinking of my own life in terms of “scenes” — I’m visualizing my boy’s attempt at ruining my coffee as a director, not as a mother, or as the person who the event actually happened to. As I think about it, I’m working out camera angles, lighting, everything. There’s so much more to directing a movie than there is to everyday life. In everyday life, you don’t have to think about what type of saltshaker will look best on-camera — it’s already there. >> On Sun, May 8, 2016 at 5:20 PM, Cormac McCarthy wrote: Salt. Scattered across the fields by marauding deathcults, necklaces of severed ears. Destroying all in their bleakening fury. Crops stunted and gray, harvest of locustshells. Farmers leaving their wrackened steads, moving through bluffnotches towards full nothingness. Asking an absent god what they endeavor to. Yearning for surrender, to offer bloodscabbed necks to the rusty scythe. >> On Mon, May 9, 2016 at 2:11 PM, Natalie Portman wrote: In a very small way, I feel like one of those exhausted farmers. On the one hand, I’m extremely tired from a long day of shooting. But on the other, I’m energized by my colleagues. I’m working with Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, and other wonderful actresses, and the end of each day is a little bit sad, because we know we’re that much closer to the end of our camaraderie. I want to get through this project — it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done, professionally — but at the same time, I want it to last forever. Is that something you’ve encountered in your own work? >> On Wed, May 11, 2016 at 11:04 AM, Cormac McCarthy wrote: What is forever. The blasted plains. Low scarps of rock. Nothing upon them but carcasses and things to become carcasses. Bones and yellowed teeth, scattered bits of fur. Chronicles of nothing. A vulture lighting upon illfestered carrion. To tear at flesh, rancid spoors green in the fading day. Murders of crows massing in the branches beyond. Black night sky. A void where nothing breathes. Mute to the hoarse sufferings of an extincting race. Howls unheeded. Lodestars of pain. These things are forever. There is nothing else, Natalie. LOL TTYL. More from Cormac McCarthy: The Road (A Comedic Translation)
For those of us on the east coast, this reimagining of Cormac McCarthy's The Road as The Road (Has Not Been Plowed In Thirty-Two Hours) should really hit home this morning. Bonus: The Road also made our own "Best of The Millennium" list.
Earlier in the summer, I was on a plane that took off from D.C. bound for California, and I read Lauren Groff’s latest novel, Fates and Furies, during the five hours of flight. Not all of it -- I’m a slow reader. But also it was so good I wanted to save the end for somewhere I’d be alone. I did pause for a bit to write in my journal to gush about her. “Lauren Groff -- ” I started, cutting myself off. “When I read her, I am mesmerized. She goes so far into the worlds she creates. How? It must be so difficult and demanding. Or maybe not. Maybe it just comes naturally to her.” I got the chance to talk with her on the phone a few weeks later, and ask her how she does it. It turns out, it is demanding -- but I think it also comes quite naturally. The Millions: Fates and Furies is about the marriage between Lotto, a playwright, and his gorgeous and mysterious wife, Mathilde. The ambition and love between the two of them is fascinating and all consuming -- both for the friends who envy them throughout the novel and for the reader immersed in their lives and secrets. What drove you to write about a marriage? Lauren Groff: I tend to write two projects at once because otherwise I feel as though I’m putting all my hope and work into something that will probably fail. Focusing on one novel for years and years at a time can feel scary. So I wrote Fates and Furies while I was writing my previous novel, Arcadia, and when I got tired of working on one book I would go to the other one. Arcadia is about a utopian community, and it struck me that in fact the smallest, deepest community you can have is within an intimate partnership. In a relationship, you wake up every morning committed to doing your best, every day you fail, but the next morning you wake up and try again. TM: How did you do the work of writing Arcadia and Fates and Furies at the same time? LG: I had butcher paper on the walls of my office at the time I was working on both of the books, and I would write Lotto’s point of view on one big page and then go over and immediately write Mathilde’s on another. I went back and forth like this for a few years, until I felt like I had built up the story enough to know it inside and out. TM: Toward the end of part one of Fates and Furies, Lotto articulates this thought: “Paradox of marriage: you can never know someone entirely; you do know someone entirely.” Do you agree with his assessment? LG: I would say that we all have quiet subterranean rebellions going on at all times. I adore my husband very, very much but not a day goes by that I don’t have thoughts that he’d be horrified to know about. I would say that there have to be things that we keep secret. There’s no such thing as full disclosure. Because if we didn’t have secrets, we would have no internal life at all, which would make for a very sad existence. So I think it’s a beautiful and creative and magical aspect of being human to have these constant internal eruptions. I think those parts of ourselves that exist in a state of pure and selfish personality -- the parts that are not shared -- are actually very beautiful. TM: I loved your most recent story in The New Yorker, “Ghosts and Empties” -- which also hits the same chord in regards to inner lives. In the “This Week in Fiction” interview about that story, you commented that there’s a part of you that has lately been resisting the cause-and-effect impulse in story writing. How did you mature into this next phase of writing? LG: I don’t know if it’s maturing or going backwards! I think as you mature as a writer, you go after what feels most honest and real to you as a human being at that particular moment in time. In the beginning, maybe you train yourself to write stories that are more like stories --something happens, and then other things that happen as a result, you write in terms of cause-and-effect. I do think that life can be perceived as a series of reactions, to an extent. But the more I think about my life as it is at the moment, everything exists in a swirl of confusion. So I was trying to write something that feels more true to my current mode of perception when I wrote “Ghosts and Empties.” I’ve always been interested in the cusp between fiction and autobiography. My senior thesis in college was about that vague space between the two. Also, when I wrote “Ghosts and Empties,” I was thinking about the amazing William Maxwell story, “The Thistles in Sweden,” which is one of my all time favorites. It is a perfect story. I think that’s something you do as a writer -- write in conversation with a work that you really, really love. TM: Your books and stories are all quite different from each other -- I keep trying to find a common thread, and I’m not sure there is one solidly obvious one. One thing I keep coming back to is the concept of home in your work, and how many of your characters -- from Lotto in Fates and Furies to Bit in Arcadia, or even the narrator of the short story “Above and Below” -- are so grounded in the selves that come from their homes, even as they are running, or exiled, from home. Is this something that you think about consciously when you write, or something you see as playing a part in your work? LG: That’s a beautiful way of putting it. I think I am haunted by community. Particularly the pressures of community versus freedom. I think a lot of this comes from being such a homebody. Home is where I’m happiest. Homebodies can survive in the world, but we may not like it very much. I think that’s an artist’s reaction to the world in general: we have to make these safe spaces in order to create things. In truth, I would be very, very bored if I kept doing the same thing over and over again in my work, and so I’m always trying something new and different -- and failing, mostly. But still, no matter what we do when we think we’re trying to be completely experimental in terms of subject matter, in the end, we are whom we are. And so we always end up circling back to the things that are important to us. TM: Do your drafts come out in a trance or is it persistence that’s seeing you through to the end? LG: They don’t come in a trance, though sometimes a short story will come out in a beautiful burst. But most of the time when I write, I sit there day after day, and it’s work, you know? It’s like training for a marathon. You just kind of do it. And most of it is just a mess, and a disaster. But then you just do it again, and something clicks in, and you think, oh, okay, so I have to rewrite everything I’ve been doing. TM: I’ve heard you write many, many drafts, and the first drafts are written by hand. LG: I write almost everything by hand. It works out well for me because I can’t read my own handwriting, and so I don’t go back to read the drafts I’ve just written. I do a draft, and by the time I’ve finished it, I understand the foundational problems that are ruining the book. And then I just start over again. That way I’m building my idea of the world of the story, I’m building the characters. The things that I remember when I’m finished with one draft are the living details, and the living details are the ones that are meant to be in the story, that mean something. My drafting system is insane, and it’s very wasteful, and I’m frustrated for years and years at a time, but it ends up working out for me, because otherwise I would end up polishing foundationally problematic work. My impulse always is to spend all my time playing with words -- that’s the most joyous part for me. TM: Your characters are exceptionally vivid. I’m thinking in particular of Handy in Arcadia, with his grey eyetooth. And in Fates and Furies, both Lotto and Mathilde are carefully and artfully drawn as humans. Can you talk a little bit about how you create the physical details of your characters? LG: I don’t really know people until I can see them; it means a lot to me to be able to envision the world I’m writing about. I just need to know as much as possible, and the physicality of the characters is part of that. So one of the things that I do is to find an image that corresponds to a character and put it up on my wall as I’m writing. Or I think about people that I know, and let them speak to me. It’s all part of building the world of the novel. TM: Lotto is a person who makes things -- he’s first an actor, but then a playwright, and you’ve written parts of his plays and included them as excerpts or scenes. What was it like to write as another writer -- and a different kind of writer? LG: Research can obsess me, and in this case, I became obsessed by playwrights and their plays. I started reading a lot of [Henrik] Ibsen, [Anton] Chekhov, Eugene O’Neill, and then I read their biographies. Playwrights possibly have a different brain than the rest of us. There’s something to be said about being able to edit out the external, visual items in a story and just concentrate on the dialogue and the character. As I wrote Fates and Furies I was trying to figure out what it would be like to be a playwright. I’ve always loved plays as well as operas, in particular, because I find them so beautifully melodramatic and funny and ultimately satisfying. They transport you in a way that almost nothing else can. Though actually, now that I think of it, novels might be the closest literature has to operas. They’re both so big and populous and they both can incorporate so many different musical or tonal modes. TM: In an interview with The Rumpus, you discussed climate change, and said the world was “clearly barreling toward disaster.” You’ve also said that Arcadia came from thinking about utopias -- and that you wrote it as a reaction to the many and various dystopian scenarios that one might imagine. What role does climate change play in your writing, and what, in your heart of hearts, do you think is going to happen? LG: I don’t know what’s going to happen, of course, but I do wake up in the middle of the night imagining terrible things. It all has begun to feel especially urgent now that I have children. They did not ask for any of this, and they haven’t done anything wrong, but they will be the ones to struggle through it. I don’t know if anyone could be prepared for what will happen. All I know is that fiction and poetry and literature that doesn’t even subtly address climate change feels as if it is missing something very fundamental about what it means to be alive right now. What I mean by this is that the novel, through history, it is a text that traces an individual through space and time. Of course wars have always occurred, and there’s always been millenarianism; there’s always been some kind of threat, either real or perceived to the human project. But it’s never been so globally certain as it is now that something very bad is going to happen because of what we have done to the environment; it is all happening right now. And so a perfect book about someone’s love story that, 50 years ago, might have felt incredibly powerful and beautiful has stopped speaking to me at all these days. Escapism is not where I need to be right now if we’re talking about serious art. We have a moral duty and responsibility to speak to the greatest urgencies of our time. Why else would we be writing? Why should we write fiction that doesn’t critique the now? That doesn’t think deeply about the mistakes that we’ve made, the ones that have brought us to where we are? On the other hand, I have developed an equal allergy to apocalyptic fiction, which I know is going to be contentious. I just think a lot of it is very passive. Some of it is really beautiful -- I’m thinking about Margaret Atwood’s brilliant novels, or about The Road by Cormac McCarthy. But some apocalyptic fiction takes for granted the end of things, it’s not interested in pushing back against the now. It seems like a horrible lie, sometimes, to read how, no matter how awful it gets on Earth, the human spirit will prevail! It provides a sort of false catharsis: we read these apocalyptic books in the comfort of our homes with a mug of hot tea beside us; we’re wrapped in our thousand thread-count sheets, and when we finish these books, we feel like we fought some sort of war, that we’ve waged some sort of battle against evil; we’re self-satisfied. But we haven’t fought anything; we haven’t done anything. We’ve read a book. I would never say that someone’s choice to write about any particular topic is wrong, or that someone else’s choice to read or write anything is not legitimate. Personally, though, I’d rather look at climate change more subtly, let it slip in gently, not have it cudgel me over the head. TM: What do you read that does satisfy this criteria? LG: I thought that Kate Walbert’s The Sunken Cathedral did it really beautifully. I would argue that Ben Lerner’s 10:04 did it really well. And then also a lot of poetry does it gorgeously. Maybe it’s easier in poetry because the space is smaller and poets are more radical formalists, I don’t know. Jynne Martin -- who’s also my publicist, full disclosure -- is amazing, and she just had a book come out, and part of it is about climate change, and is done so beautifully. TM: When did you know you were a writer? LG: I was a writer long before I wrote anything interesting. I went into college thinking I was a poet. But I’m a terrible poet! And yet I love it, in the same way that I’m a terrible singer, and yet I love to sing, and I’m a really bad dancer, but I love to dance. There are some things we do with glee because we’re liberated by being absolutely terrible at them. That said, I was quickly disabused of the idea that I was a poet, and I started writing fiction and I spent three years out of college trying to find a way to live and write at the same time. I wrote a couple of atrocious novels, and then I went to get my graduate degree at University of Wisconsin-Madison, because I was so tired of trying to do it alone. At that time I was also writing these Lorrie Moore knock-off stories, which was super fun until the moment I got into Lorrie Moore’s class, and I debated giving her one of these awful stories that was similar to but not at all, really, like hers. But she’s amazing -- she’s warm and gentle and kind -- and not at all intimidating. TM: How has living in Florida influenced your work? LG: I feel a deep ambivalence about the state of Florida. Living here has been fruitful for me, because for a large chunk of the year -- the part of the year that I love the most, the summer -- I barely go outside at all. I can’t handle the heat. So I spend a lot of the summer inside in the dark, with the lights off. I have the summer and winter reversed. I think it’s good to feel like an outsider when you’re a writer. I do find the natural beauty here extraordinary and moving, even though nature here wants to kill you. We have this banana spider living in our backyard right now that’s about the size of my hand. It’s so beautiful to watch. I go out there with my coffee and sit and watch the banana spider in the quiet and heat. There’s part of me that would love to live in Brooklyn with everybody else, but I know that I would be forced to be more social than I am, and my work gets done because I’m not as social as I would be otherwise. I have no readings to go to here, and I don’t teach, so I have a lot of time to dream, and to mess up.
The literary landscape, high and low, is awash in post-apocalyptic stories these days, particularly stories of a more ambitious sort (take Cormac McCarthy's The Road, Colson Whitehead's Zone One, Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, Edan Lepucki's California, or Sandra Newman's new weird and wonderful The Country of Ice Cream Star), a trend that's easy to attribute to a pervasive sense of dread about the planet's future among thinking people. Or, in the case of Whitehead's zombie tale, a dread of the unthinking present. For a smart writer, a ravaged future world also offers something like a perfect literary playground, a cleared field where everything from language to human psychology to social convention can be reconsidered and reframed, critiqued or reimagined. Poet Quan Barry's debut novel would not seem to fit into this category, yet it inhabits an eerily similar ruined landscape, which happens to be the history of Vietnam. And if that field of history, viewed from a certain angle, resembles much of the rest of the world and time, Barry might be said to have created a post-apocalyptic present, a fictional world in which it's possible to see how we always and everywhere are living among humanity's ruins. Barry seems especially well suited to the undertaking. Though born in Ho Chi Minh City, she was adopted as an infant and raised in the U.S. (on Boston's north shore, her biographical materials specify). She is thus both of Vietnam and not, and traveling there as she has done a number of times could be a matter of finding a life that might have been, looking for a haunted past and listening to its ghosts, much as her fey character Rabbit does. On one of her trips, in 2010, Barry first heard the story of a woman named Phan Thi Bich Hang, who is the "official psychic" of Vietnam: "She was bitten by a rabid dog when she was 5 years old. And when she came out of her coma, she could hear the voices of the dead. And the government actually uses her to help them find the remains of soldiers and other people who are historically prominent in Vietnam." Hearing this, Barry, who'd been working for a few years on a book about an American nurse during the Vietnam War, thought, "that's what this novel is supposed to be about," and started writing She Weeps Each Time You're Born, which begins with an American woman in present-day Vietnam seeking the mysterious Rabbit, who has lost her official status to a new psychic and is now kept under house arrest. "For Vietnam she gives up everything," the woman's guide whispers to her. "She will stay until every little one is heard. The northern and southern dead." The war is well underway when we first meet Rabbit, and the world is a dark, dangerous, and chaotic place. "[T]he air hangs fetid with the wet heat that follows the southwest monsoon." The bridge across the Song Ma River is destroyed. The charred remains of huts dot the shoreline. "The patriarch had gone running back into one of the burning huts to find his granddaughter, the thatched roof like a woman with her hair on fire." The faraway mountains are hazy with ash, and the night sky rumbles with distant planes. In the confusion of bombings and burning and death, people appear and disappear and nowhere is safe. And this is the shadowy, blasted countryside -- often lit only by the flickering blue flames of the spirits of the dead -- that Barry's characters wander. This, you might say, is a familiar wartime setting -- but what makes it something more is the presence of those flickering spirits, the dead whose voices Rabbit hears, whose stories take us far and wide, in time and space, and make of all of Vietnam's history a vast and troubled grave. And just as Rabbit is lifted, a newborn, out of her mother's grave (apparently the source of her gift), humanity keeps rising from its own ruins and remains. What's funny is Barry, in talking about her book, says she wanted to show more of the history and richness of Vietnam. "[W]hen we think of Vietnam here in the United States," she says, "we think of it as a metaphor. You know, it's synonymous with the idea of a quagmire." The history of Vietnam is another quagmire. And upon this sucking, unholy ground a novel is built. Upon her chthonic emergence, Rabbit becomes part of a makeshift family that roams Vietnam's countryside during the war and "reunification," staging an escape by boat that goes spectacularly wrong (even the water is a place of darkness and peril, afloat with human detritus), changing their human and geographic coordinates, giving us the intimate outlines of the view from above: "The population realigning itself because somewhere far away somebody had drawn a line on a map." In the death of an old woman along their way, Rabbit is able to hear of the awful French rubber plantations where the woman worked as a girl. In a trip to the forbidden purple city of Hue, the ancient capital, she hears of the horrors of imperial times. In Laos the voices of the Cambodian dead, the northern martyrs, the southern soldiers, the ethnic tribes, and the children overwhelm her. When walking one deathly landscape, Rabbit, we learn, has not thought of "the politics. Which stories the world is eager to bring into the light. Which stories it doesn't want told." It's probably not surprising that Barry's first book of poetry, published in 2001, is called Asylum. And it's probably even less surprising that Asylum harbors so many of humanity's mistakes and sufferers and sins -- the Salem Witch Trials, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, Agent Orange's deformities, the radioactive Bikini Atolls. Her next book, published in 2004, is called Controvertibles. In an interview about She Weeps Each Time You're Born, Barry said, "I think the thing I'm most interested in is the idea of possibility." That, to my mind, is the idea that her novel embodies. On this fictional landscape that I'm calling the post-apocalyptic present, where all the depredations of the past spread out like a broken boneyard, the blue lights of the spirit still flicker, and the dead still speak. And most important, someone hears.
Calling a book “the spiritual prequel to The Road” is a great way to signal its command of dystopian tropes. It’s what Gabe Durham wrote about Maxwell Neely-Cohen’s recent YA novel Echo of the Boom. At The Rumpus, Durham interviews Neely-Cohen, who describes how he tried to give a metafictional bent to the novel. Related: we asked high school students to pick their favorite YA books of 2013.
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October. This Month Last Month Title On List 1. 1. The Bone Clocks 2 months 2. 2. A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World 6 months 3. 3. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves 4 months 4. - The Novel: A Biography 1 month 5. 4. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage 3 months 6. - Station Eleven 1 month 7. 9. Reading Like a Writer 4 months 8. 5. Cosmicomics 3 months 9. 8. My Struggle: Book 1 4 months 10. - The Narrow Road to the Deep North 1 month Oh, hello there, Emily St. John Mandel! How nice it is to see you on our latest Top Ten, and on the heels of your appearance on an even loftier list, at that! Since 2010, Emily's thoughtful reviews and essays have highlighted dozens of novels for Millions readers, and made them aware of both un(der)heralded classics and new releases alike. So in a karmic sense, it's about time we turn our attention toward Emily's own fiction. In the words of fellow Millions staffer Bill Morris, "her fourth novel, Station Eleven, [is] a highly literary work set in the near future that focuses on a Shakespearean troupe that travels the Great Lakes region performing for survivors of a flu pandemic that wiped out most of mankind and ended civilization." (It's a premise that by Emily's own admission was made possible at least in part by the success of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.) Looking at it more generally, though, Morris notes that Station Eleven's near-future setting affords Emily with some luxuries not typically available to writers focused on the past, or even present, state of the world: The near future is an alluring time to set fiction because it frees the writer’s imagination in ways that writing about the past does not. Fiction set in the near future frees the writer to build a plausible and coherent world on a known foundation – in a sense, to extrapolate where today’s world is going. It’s a liberating strategy since the future is so patently unknowable; and it’s a timely strategy since people in an anxious age like ours are especially eager to know – or imagine – where we’re headed. Sounds pretty enticing, if I do say so myself. But, decide on your own. You can whet your appetite by reading the book's first chapter over here. Moving along, I turn my attention toward the debut of another newcomer on the Top Ten: The Novel: A Biography. If I'm being honest, I must admit that I feel a distinct sense of pride for being affiliated with a book site whose readers are purchasing enough copies of a 1,200-page history of "the novel" that the tome ranks among our bestsellers. Be proud of yourselves, fellow nerds. The hefty book was tackled by Jonathan Russell Clark in an engaging review in September. Rounding out this month's list, we welcome Richard Flanagan's Booker-winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North to the party (we reviewed the book here), and we bid adieu — probably only for a short time — to Well-Read Women: Portraits of Fiction's Most Beloved Heroines, which has fallen out of the rankings after a strong six-month showing, and as a result has missed our Hall of Fame by the skin of its teeth. Near Misses: The Round House, Well-Read Women, The Children Act, 10:04, and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour. See Also: Last month's list.
Maybe we should lay this one on Cormac McCarthy. In 2006, after writing a string of rigorously realistic literary novels that seemed to come down to us from some remote desert Olympus, McCarthy delivered an utterly out-of-character book. The Road was set in the near future after a vaguely defined cataclysm – “a long shear of light and then a series of concussions” – had turned the planet into a wintry ashtray, wiped out most of mankind, and erased civilization. The novel was post-apocalyptic and viciously dystopian and, most amazing of all, unashamed of its genre trappings. It was not exactly news in 2006 that the once-impregnable walls separating literary genres were beginning to crumble. But when The Road won the Pulitzer Prize, became an Oprah pick and got made into a major motion picture, it suddenly seemed that writers of every persuasion, from highbrows to hacks, had the green light to explore that realm once seen as the preserve of writers of science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction: the near future. Emily St. John Mandel, a colleague of mine here at The Millions, has just been named a finalist for the National Book Award for her fourth novel, Station Eleven, a highly literary work set in the near future that focuses on a Shakespearean troupe that travels the Great Lakes region performing for survivors of a flu pandemic that wiped out most of mankind and ended civilization. Here, in Mandel’s words, is what such a world might look like: An incomplete list: No more diving into pools of chlorinated water lit green from below. No more ball games played out under floodlights. No more porch lights with moths fluttering on summer nights. No more trains running under the surface of cities on the dazzling power of the electric third rail. No more cities. No more films… No more pharmaceuticals. No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on a finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, or a dog bite… No more flight… Mandel, in an interview with the New York Times, cited McCarthy’s take on the end of civilization as a liberating force for herself and like-minded writers. “It’s almost as if The Road gave more literary writers permission to approach the subject,” she said. That Times article dissected the “cluster” of recent and forthcoming novels that are set in bleak worlds after civilization has crumbled. The article speculates that this cluster – books by Howard Jacobson, Michel Faber, and Benjamin Percy, among others, plus Station Eleven and the Divergent and Hunger Games series – is fed by our era’s anxieties over pandemics, environmental catastrophes, energy shortages, terrorism, and civil unrest. Today’s headlines about the international spread of Ebola are sure to deepen this anxiety. (It’s worth noting that novelists aren’t the only ones drawn to the dark possibilities of the near future. The makers of movies and television shows are churning out dystopian fare set in a future inhabited by a few decent souls trying to navigate worlds riddled with cannibals, zombies and totalitarian cults.) For many years, the near future has beckoned writers as different as Margaret Atwood, Anthony Burgess, George Orwell, J.G. Ballard, Aldous Huxley, and Philip K. Dick. They’ve recently been joined by a growing legion of literary novelists that includes Kazuo Ishiguro, Colson Whitehead, Michael Cunningham, David Mitchell, and many others. As these writers have shown, fiction set in the near future can be post-apocalyptic, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be dystopian, but it doesn’t have to be. (It is, however, almost always dark.) It can contain elements of fantasy, magic realism and/or science fiction, but it doesn’t have to. In the end, labels are less interesting to me than writerly strategies: What is gained by setting a work of fiction in the near future? A good place to start looking for an answer is Gary Shteyngart’s 2010 novel, Super Sad True Love Story, a satire set in New York City around the year 2018. Rather than imagining some environmental or economic upheaval, Shteyngart has simply taken today’s technology and tried to extrapolate what it will be doing to us a few years from now. The novel bristles with devices like the äppärät, a pendant that broadcasts the wearer’s scores on everything from looks to “fuckability” to credit rating. An individual’s credit rating is also displayed on sidewalk “credit poles.” The currency of choice is the “yuan-pegged dollar” because the old dollar is worthless. Women wear see-through jeans called Onionskins. Hipsters have migrated from Brooklyn to Staten Island. Nobody reads books anymore. (On an airplane, a fellow passenger upbraids the protagonist, Lenny Abramov, for cracking open an actual book: “Duder, that thing smells like wet socks.”) The country is run by the right-wing Bipartisan Party, and American society is made up of elite High Net Worth Individuals – and everybody else. Lenny Abramov is the “The Life Lovers Outreach Coordinator (Grade G) of the Post-Human Services Division of Staatling-Wapachung Corporation,” which provides life-extension services to anyone who’s got a pile of money and a desire to live forever. The novel becomes, among other things, a very funny portrait of the twinned hells of post-literacy and constant connectivity. Shteyngart has said that when he started writing the book in 2006, he imagined a future in which Lehman Brothers, General Motors, and Chrysler all tanked. Two years into the writing, those companies actually tanked. “So I had to make things worse and worse,” Shteyngart told The Nation. “That’s one of the difficulties of writing a novel these days – there doesn’t seem to be a present to write about. Everything is the future.” Another difficulty, as Shteyngart discovered, is the novelist’s need to walk the increasingly blurry line that separates the plausible from the outlandish. William Gibson, who made his name in the 1980s writing science fiction novels set in a future heavily influenced by then-nascent computer technology, is now going against the grain: He recently started setting his fiction in the present. “Novels set in imaginary futures are necessarily about the moment in which they are written,” he told The Paris Review in 2011, adding, “For years I’d found myself telling interviewers and readers that I believed it was possible to write a novel set in the present that would have an effect very similar to the effect of the novels I had set in imaginary futures…I finally decided I had to call myself on it.” It’s a wrinkle on Shteyngart’s discovery: technology is changing so fast that there’s no longer a present; the future is already here, relentlessly unspooling into the past. Which presents its own counter-intuitive challenge, as Gibson sees it: “It’s harder to imagine the past that went away than it is to imagine the future.” Michael McGhee has set his first novel, Happiness Ltd., somewhere between the worlds of Mandel’s extreme post-apocalyptic future and Shteyngart’s more recognizable near future. In the middle of the 21st century, the novel’s titular entity governs the developed world like Amazon on steroids, crushing competition, feeding the public a diet of happy news, and demanding that people consume the abundant goods and services offered by the Bountiful Age. Celebrities are worshipped, lifespans are artificially extended, and after a major economic collapse and years of devastating storms, watery lower Manhattan has been walled off and ceded to disenfranchised persons, or DPs, who refuse to be seduced by the consumer society’s ubiquitous baubles. There are strong whiffs of Huxley and Orwell in this smiley-face dystopia. There is also an echo of the difficult love affair at the center of Super Sad True Love Story – when Nelson, a rising star in Happiness Ltd.’s news management operation, falls in love with a DP named Celia, trouble is inevitable. Such slumming is fiercely discouraged by the powers that be. In an email, McGhee explained his decision to set his novel near the middle of this century: “To me, the appeal of near-future fiction is its invitation to tweak society’s nose – to take today’s standards and extend them to a ridiculous extreme. For example, modern American culture encourages us to spend beyond our limits – what happens tomorrow when a cash-strapped government requires us to spend beyond our limits? Or, today our culture practically worships celebrities. What happens tomorrow when some of us literally worship celebrities? It’s a fertile field for satire.” Like Shteyngart, McGhee learned that current events have a way of outracing a writer’s imagination. “The peril is that the near future has a propensity for arriving faster than you expect,” he writes. “It took me 10 years to write Happiness Ltd., and almost all the fantastic features I started with – advertisers tracking our every move, hurricanes ravaging lower Manhattan – came true before I was finished.” Edan Lepucki, another colleague of mine here at The Millions, hit the New York Times bestseller list this summer with her dystopian debut novel, California. Set in the near future, it tells the story of a young couple, Frida and Cal, who flee southern California after a string of financial and environmental catastrophes, then try to eke out a life in the northern woods. America has finally become what it is now firmly on its way to becoming: a bifurcated society, where the haves live in gated communities, and the have-nots like Frida and Cal live in decayed cities or the wilderness. Like Shteyngart’s future America, Lepucki’s is a country of High Net Worth Individuals – and everybody else. Lepucki, in an email, described the allure of the near future this way: “I loved the challenge of speculation, of imagining certain present-day conflicts (oil crisis, climate change, disappearing tax base in dying cities) escalating to an intense degree. I also liked the freedom of a post-technological world, and how that added mystery to my characters' lives, and deepened their isolation. And it was just fun to play pretend, to really fling myself into this new, unfamiliar landscape; I had never done that in fiction. Last, there was a real sense, when I was writing this book, that the characters' conflicts mattered. I'd never had such a strong and accessible sense of dramatic propulsion when writing, and I think the apocalypse had something to do with it.” There is, she added, a flipside: “To create a believable future you have to think logically through certain large-scale events, which is so different from my usual concern when writing fiction; I usually work on a much smaller scale, considering a made-up person, putting them in a room, and letting them interact with another made-up person.” If I see a thread running through these books and their authors’ comments, it would be this: the near future is an alluring time to set fiction because it frees the writer’s imagination in ways that writing about the past does not. Fiction set in the near future frees the writer to build a plausible and coherent world on a known foundation – in a sense, to extrapolate where today’s world is going. It’s a liberating strategy since the future is so patently unknowable; and it’s a timely strategy since people in an anxious age like ours are especially eager to know – or imagine – where we’re headed. If today’s crop of books, movies and TV shows set in the near future are an accurate barometer, it looks like we’re in for some filthy weather. Image via mikelehen/Flickr
If you like Fall, you like October. It's the height of the season, the fieriest in its orange, the briskest in its breezes. "I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers," exclaims the irrepressible Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables. "It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn't it?" October at Green Gables is "when the birches in the hollow turned as golden as sunshine and the maples behind the orchard were royal crimson" and "the fields sunned themselves in aftermaths;" it's a "beautiful month." Katherine Mansfield would have disagreed. October, she wrote in her journal, "is my unfortunate month. I dislike it exceedingly to have to pass through it -- each day fills me with terror." (It was the month of her birthday.) And Gabriel García Márquez's biographer notes that October, the month of the greatest disaster in his family history, when his grandfather killed a man in 1908, "would always be the gloomiest month, the time of evil augury" in his novels. Some people, of course, seek out evil augury in October. It's the month in which we domesticate horror as best we can, into costumes, candy, and slasher films. Frankenstein's monster may not have been animated until the full gloom of November, but it's in early October that Count Dracula visits Mina Harker in the night and forces her to drink his blood, making her flesh of his flesh. It's in October that the Overlook Hotel shuts down for the season, leaving Jack Torrance alone for the winter with his family and his typewriter in The Shining, and it's in October that his son, Danny, starts saying, "Redrum." Can you domesticate horror by telling scary tales? Just as the camp counselor frightening the kids around the fire is likely the first one to get picked off when the murders begin, the four elderly members of the Chowder Society in Peter Straub's Ghost Story, who have dealt with the disturbing death of one of their own the previous October by telling each other ghost stories, prove anything but immune to sudden terror themselves until they trace their curse to a horrible secret they shared during an October 50 years before -- just after, as it happens, another kind of modern horror, the stock market crash of 1929. In the odd patterns that human irrationality often follows, those financial terrors, the Black Thursdays and Black Mondays, tend to arrive in October too. Here is a list of suggested reading for the month of harvests and horror. The Gambler by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1867) Those planning to celebrate National Novel Writing Month next month can take heart -- or heed -- from Dostoyevsky, who, having promised a publisher the year before that he'd deliver a novel by November 1866 or lose the rights to his works for nine years, didn't begin writing until October 4. He handed in this appropriately themed novel with hours to spare. Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne (1878) Scholars may argue whether Keats wrote the sonnet that begins, "Bright star! would that I were steadfast as thou art" in October, or even whether it was inspired by his love for Fanny Brawne, but there is no doubt that on October 13, 1819, in a letter that wasn't published until nearly 60 years later, he wrote to Miss Brawne, "I could be martyr'd for my Religion -- Love is my religion -- I could die for that -- I could die for you." Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James (1904) James had modest aims for the wittily unsettling tales, often set among the libraries and ancient archives that were his professional haunts, that he wrote to entertain his students at Eton and Cambridge. But their skillful manipulation of disgust has made them perennial favorites for connoisseurs of the macabre. Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed (1919) Oddly, one effect of Russia's October Revolution was to modernize the calendar so that, in retrospect, it took place in November. But wherever you place those 10 days, Reed, the young partisan American reporter, was there, moving through Petrograd -- soon renamed Leningrad -- as history was made around him. The Complete Peanuts, 1950-1952 by Charles M. Schulz (1950-52, 2004) October is of course the month of the Great Pumpkin (whose arrival Linus didn't anticipate until 1959), but it was also on October 2, 1950, when Shermy said to Patty in the very first Peanuts strip, "Well! Here comes ol' Charlie Brown! How I hate him!" Peyton Place by Grace Metalious (1956) The leaves are turning red, brown, and yellow in the small New England town, while the sky is blue and the days are unseasonably warm: it must be Indian summer. But let's hear Metalious tell it: "Indian summer is like a woman. Ripe, hotly passionate, but fickle." A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle (1962) It's a dark and stormy October night when Meg comes downstairs to find Charles Wallace waiting precociously for her with milk warming on the stove. Soon after, blown in by the storm, arrives their strange new neighbor Mrs. Whatsit, "her mouth puckered like an autumn apple." Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966) The October wedding in Jamaica of Edward Rochester and Bertha Mason, which plays a peripheral role in Jane Eyre, takes center stage in Rhys's novel, in which Rochester greets his doomed marriage with the words, "So it was all over." 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (1970) "Gentlemen," New York screenwriter Helene Hanff wrote to the London bookshop Marks & Co. in October 1949, "Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books," the first note in a cross-Atlantic correspondence that has charmed lovers of books, and of bookselling, ever since it was published two decades later. Danny, the Champion of the World by Roald Dahl (1975) The first day of October is the date of Mr. Victor Hazell's grand shooting party, which means that it's also the day on which Danny and his "marvelous and exciting father" conspire to ruin that piggy-eyed snob's plans with the aid of a hundred or so tranquilized pheasants. The Dog of the South by Charles Portis (1979) There's no particular reason to read The Dog of the South in October except that it begins in that month, when the leaves in Texas have gone straight from green to dead, and Ray Midge's wife, Norma, has run off with his credit cards, his Ford Torino, and his ex-friend Guy Dupree. Any month is a good month to read Charles Portis. "The Ant of the Self" by ZZ Packer (2002) Packer's short story uses 1995's Million Man March as the backdrop for Roy Bivens Jr. and his son Spurgeon -- "nerdy ol' Spurgeon" -- who, on an ill-fated mission to sell some black men some birds at the march, work out a more elemental drama of fatherhood and ambition. Live at the Apollo by Douglas Wolk (2004) On a fall night in Harlem, at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, James Brown recorded a show that turned him from a chitlin'-circuit headliner into a nationwide star, an event whose abrupt intensity was put brilliantly in context in Wolk's little book, one of the standout entries in the marvelous 33 1/3 series. The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006) The landscape McCarthy's father and son travel has been razed of all civilization, calendars included, but as their story begins, the man thinks it might be October. All he knows is that they won't last another winter without finding their way south. Image Credit: Pixabay
With last month's awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2013/2014 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. 2013/14 was a suprisingly diverse year when it comes to literary awards, with no single novel winning multiple awards and very little crossover on the shortlists. Only one book is climbing the ranks this year. Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which won the Pulitzer and was on the National Book Critics Circle shortlist. Next year, we will need to make some changes to our methodology. When compiling this list, I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. However, now that the Booker Prize will be open to English-language books from all over the world, including the U.S., the panel of awards is now lopsided in favor of the U.S. Is there another British-only award that we can use to replace the Booker next year? I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W >6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel - B, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2013, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - P, C 5, 2012, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - C, N 5, 2012, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W< 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
The By the Book series at the Times has produced some pretty great entries, but we have a feeling that Colson Whitehead may go down as its best interviewee. Why do we say this? Well, it might have something to do with his weeping fit in a Chelsea Dallas BBQ, prompted by an early scene in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.
With last month's awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2012/2013 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. (In fact, 2013/2014 has already begun with the unveiling of the diverse Booker longlist.) Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Hilary Mantel's Cromwell sequel Bring Up the Bodies landed fairly high on the list after sweeping both of Britain's major literary awards (though the book hasn't quite matched the hardware racked up by Mantel's Wolf Hall). Meanwhile, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson both won notice from more than one literary prize last year. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. A glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel - B, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2012, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - C, N 5, 2012, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W< 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
Most literary novelists feel relatively confident they can sell copies of their newly published book to their parents, probably to their siblings, maybe (if they haven’t sparred too often over loud music or lawnmowers or leaf blowers) to their neighbors. Their local bookstore, if they still have one, is likely to agree to carry the book too and may even put a copy in the shop window or on a central table. With a review or two in a local paper, these same writers may also experience the disconcerting ecstasy of seeing their book in the palms of a stranger sitting across from them on a bus or subway. With a few reviews in a national publication or by powerful bloggers and Twitter pundits, he or she may receive SMS’d pics from friends who have seen it in bookstores in other U.S. towns and cities. But how about beyond the fruited plain? Whose work gets read outside of America? In 2008, Horace Engdahl, then permanent secretary of the Nobel Prize selection committee, infamously called American authors “too insular,” and “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture.” The last American to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature was Toni Morrison in 1993; American writers, Engdahl said, “don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature.” The implication was no one cares about contemporary American fiction but Americans. During the ten years I lived in France, I witnessed firsthand the regional limitations of American literary fiction. But not all American novels go unnoticed. On any bestseller list in France, you’ll find The Help and Fifty Shades of Grey and the latest book by Dan Brown. You’ll also find American literary fiction. You just won’t find all or necessarily the same books as on similar lists in America. [Editor's note: As the commenters have pointed out Fifty Shades author E.L. James is indeed British and not American. To clarify, her books, like The Help and those by Dan Brown have perched atop American bestseller lists.] Distribution decisions play an obvious role: if a reader in Lyon can’t get a book, the reader in Lyon won’t be reading it. I was ready to kiss the ground the day my publisher decided to create a paperback international edition for my debut novel, An Unexpected Guest, in addition to the hardback U.S. edition. I’ve subsequently seen An Unexpected Guest on bookstore shelves not only in France, but also in England, Switzerland, and Finland. I receive messages through my website from readers as distant as India and Malaysia. Foreign rights sales also award far-flung readers (and in my case have given me a couple of new first names: “Anna” on the Russian edition; “En” in Serbia). Set post-9/11 amongst expatriates in Paris, An Unexpected Guest seems a likely candidate for finding a global audience. But every country has its own literary predilections. With a relative absence of cronyism, the playing field is leveled; a new balance of criteria goes into building an audience. It seems to me that French readers frequently go for novels that manage to be both intensely American and yet possess one of the characteristics often attributed to works in their own contemporary oeuvre: dark, searching, philosophical, autobiographical, self-reflective, and/or poetic (without being overwritten). The last French novel I read, Le canapé rouge by Michèle Lesbre, clocked in at 138 pages, and French readers are not dismissive of short American novels either: Julie Otsuka’s 144-page-long Buddha in the Attic won this past year’s prestigious Prix Femina Étranger. But they are not averse to length either (see, for example, Joyce Carol Oates below). They also like authors who like France and have an understanding of French culture. They enjoy being taken to places - U.S. college campuses, inner Brooklyn, suburbia - they might normally never visit. But just as there are many sorts of French authors, each American author admired in France brings an own set of attractions. Following are eight examples. The New Yorker During the ten years I lived in France, I could have easily believed Paul Auster was America’s preeminent living author. French prizes that Auster has won include the Prix France Culture de Littérature Etrangère, the Prix Medicis étranger, and Grand Vermeil de la Ville de Paris. In a 2010 interview, Auster, who lived in Paris from 1971-74, explained his cult-like status in France, thus: “In France, they feel I am on their side. It helps that I speak French. I am not the American enemy.” But can that account for the ardent following, which extends across the Continent, for his very New York-centric fiction? On his official Facebook page, a multi-lingual collage of comments, a Slovakian woman has this to say: “I generally don’t like American writers, but this one is really special, readable yet in-depth and philosophical.” The Expat Douglas Kennedy’s renown overseas was chronicled in a 2007 TIME article entitled “The Most Famous American Writer You’ve Never Heard Of.” It’s hard to pigeonhole Kennedy’s ten thought-provoking-yet-page-turner novels, but their immense popularity in France — indeed, in all of Europe -- is borne out by the droves of adoring fans who line up for his signature and a second’s worth of his Irish-American charm. (I’m not making that up. I’ve seen them.) A Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, Kennedy keeps a home in Paris and speaks fluent French, but he was born and raised in New York City. His first three novels were published in the US, but when the last didn’t meet outsized expectations, U.S. publishers scattered. Alas for them – his fourth novel, The Pursuit of Happiness, sold more than 350,000 copies in the UK and more than 500,000 copies in France in translation alone. The Soul Mate Written more than a decade ago and more than 750 pages long, Blonde continues to fly off the shelf in French bookstores. The Falls won the 2005 Prix Femina for Foreign Literature. French director Laurence Cantet just brought out a film adaptation of Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang. I asked Joyce Carol Oates about her avid French following. “For me,” she says, “the very sound of French spoken is musical, beautiful, subtly cadenced.” Her involvement with French language began in high school; as an adult she has taught and published French literature. “This is my background for writing, and my relationship with the French reading public may be related to it.” She also praises her translators. But the French devour Oates’s dazzling, precise prose equally in English; at France’s largest English-language bookstore, WH Smith/Paris, along the Rue de Rivoli, Oates is one of the nine American authors of literary novels most in demand with customers. Perhaps her novels take French readers into an America that simultaneously surprises and confirms their expectations? The Autobiographer Philip Roth first won acclaim in France with Goodbye, Columbus in 1960; his fame was cemented with Portnoy’s Complaint in 1969. He’s since won the Prix de Meilleur livre étranger for American Pastoral and the Prix Médicis étranger for The Human Stain. The French often speak of a quasi-autobiographical quality in his works, citing it as a passageway to truths about certain periods of time and segments of society in America. It was during an interview about his most recent and apparently last novel, Nemesis, with the French publication, InRocks, that Roth chose to announce his intention to retire from writing fiction. The news spread like wildfire throughout France before it could even be picked up by a U.S. news agency. The Poet Go to “books” on the French Amazon site, type in “Laura,” and the first prompt to come up will be “Laura Kasischke.” Kasischke’s most recent novel, The Raising, became a bestseller in France within a matter of days; it was shortlisted for the 2011 Prix Femina Étranger, and nominated for the JDD France Inter Prix and Telerama-France Culture. Be Mine and In a Perfect World have sold prodigiously. In the U.S., Kasischke, who teaches at U. Michigan, has probably won more acclaim for her poetry. She graciously points to “having a fantastic editor and press… [and] fantastic translators” when I ask her about the recognition for her novels in France. But Kasischke was the other female author on the list of nine top-selling American authors given to me by WH Smith/Paris -- like Oates, she is being read both in translation and in English. “She is the painter of the American Midwest, an America where behind the walls of nice manners live individuals overwhelmed with sadness and boredom,” influential French journalist Francois Busnel stated on French television last year. The Cowboy Whether set on the border areas of the U.S. and Mexico, in the South, or in post-apocalyptic landscape, Cormac McCarthy’s novels wax dark and darkly reflective. Oliver Cohen, Cormac McCarthy’s French editor, has explained their popularity in France thus: “McCarthy reveals a collective anguish, to which he figured out how to give a shape.” French novelist Emilie de Turckheim offered me for further insight: “[McCarthy] manages…. to use, with virtuosic erudition, all the lexical richness of his language… at same time as abusing and decomposing English syntax to create a language brutal, impressionistic, extraordinarily poetic, capable of mimicking the immense violence of everyday life.” The French routinely compare him to Faulkner, a deceased American author they venerate. The French translation of No Country for Old Men sold about 100,000 copies. La Route, aka The Road, has to date sold over 600,000, with no sign of abating. The Philosopher-Poets According to Sylvia Whitman, proprietor of the English-language bookstore near Notre Dame Cathedral, Shakespeare & Company, Russell Banks and Jim Harrison are among the five contemporary American authors most frequently requested by their French patrons. (The other three are Auster, Kennedy, and David Foster Wallace.) Banks and Harrison use literary realism to take their readers into richly tinted but not always rosy pockets of modern America. Harrison, whose numerous fiction works include Legends of the Fall and just-released The River Swimmer, lives in Montana; in France, he’s been described as “the bard of America’s wide-open spaces... of the eternal conflict between nature and society.” Like McCarthy, Harrison is considered a literary descendant of Faulkner. Russell Banks, whose many novels include The Sweet Hereafter and most recently The Lost Memory of Skin, lives in upstate New York; InRocks has called him “the best portraitist of marginal society in America.” In 2011, he was awarded him the rank of Officier des Arts et Lettres by the French Minister of Culture. Russell and Harrison both also write poetry -- a sort of win-win, all things considered. Ultimately, finding readership in France or elsewhere is like any love affair: alchemy, composed of varied, delicate elements. “Reading, an open door to the enchanted world,” wrote French Nobel laureate Francois Mauriac. Image via christine zenino/Flickr
1. In The Passage, Justin Cronin introduced us to a nightmarish dystopia. The Twelve is the second installment of a planned trilogy, so if you haven’t read The Passage then you probably don’t want to read this review, but here’s a quick recap just in case: in the world of The Passage, a virus has been discovered in the Amazon that turns human beings into monsters. These are vampires, but vampires far less human-like than any other variants I’ve seen in the genre. Infection turns them into fanged and clawed creatures with skin like armor, virtually immortal, who live on blood and move with inhuman speed. The American government decides to experiment and see if they can’t somehow weaponize the discovery, but they need test subjects. Who, they consider, are the most disposable members of our society? Who won’t be missed? Death row inmates without families. Twelve men are carefully selected from death rows around the country. They are offered a choice: they can stay in prison and await their inevitable executions, or they can leave with the mysterious men who’ve arrived to visit them. They’re taken to a top-secret facility in Colorado, injected with various strains of the virus, and studied. Until of course the unthinkable happens and the monsters escape, because what else is going to happen in the early pages of a novel with caged monsters, and a hundred years later the North American continent is a desolate wasteland, monsters hiding in the abandoned cities and the last few humans struggling to survive. The Twelve picks up where The Passage left off, with the various survivors of the first book scattered among the continent’s last few settlements, one of the Twelve dead, and the other eleven and their followers having hunted so successfully that they’re running out of people to eat and are beginning to starve to death. Once again Cronin has superbly handled the difficult task of writing a character-driven adventure story. But whereas The Passage concerned itself primarily with the dynamic of good people struggling to survive a world infested with bad monsters, The Twelve focuses largely on an aspect of the apocalypse that Cronin touched on only lightly in the first installment: the vampires remain terrifying, but they’re arguably less terrifying than the humans who have decided to collaborate with them in order to survive. 2. A surprise of The Twelve is that Cronin continues to move the narrative back and forth in time, from the shock of the initial outbreak to the depopulated wasteland that exists a century later. This has the dual effect of allowing him to further fill out a rich and complex back-story and also to rather neatly address one of the major criticisms of the first book, which I saw expressed most frequently along the lines of Seriously? We’re supposed to believe that someone thought it was a good idea to turn death-row inmates into immortal blood-sucking monsters? Personally, I have no problem accepting the notion that any given group of reasonably intelligent people is perfectly capable of collectively coming up with a very, very dumb idea, but Cronin meets it head-on: So it was that Deputy Director Horace Guilder (were there any actual directors anymore?) had found himself sitting before the Joint Chiefs... to offer his official assessment of the situation in Colorado. (Sorry, we made vampires; it seemed like a good idea at the time.) A full thirty seconds of dumbfounded silence ensued, everyone waiting to see who would speak next. A century after his extremely awkward meeting with the Joint Chiefs, Guilder has become a hybrid, a creature who maintains human form and will not age so long as he keeps drinking the blood of a vampire’s familiar. He presides over a nightmare city in Iowa, a corporate dictatorship populated by slaves, human collaborators, and a small army of creatures like himself who dress in suits and drink blood. There are small moments of humor in amidst the horror — as in most corporations, no department is more dreaded than HR — but Cronin’s vision is dark. No dissent is tolerated in Guilder's city. Uncooperative citizens are fed to the vampires. Public executions aren’t unheard-of. Rapes and beatings abound. Cronin takes the precaution of starting his books with a fair-sized cast of major characters, so that the population doesn’t thin out too drastically when the body count inevitably starts to rise, but all writers of apocalyptic fiction have to contend with the tension of wanting to depict their fictional worlds as nearly unsurvivable, without killing off too many of their major characters. As one character remarks, it’s a big continent, but once parted, his characters have a way of reuniting against impossible odds, over spans of years and hundreds of miles. He is at ease in the realm of improbable coincidences. The prose of The Twelve is somewhat uneven. The impression is of a fine writer working with an enormous amount of plot under a very tight deadline. There are moments when the prose is strictly utilitarian, other times when it slips into sentimentality. A summer day on the prairies is described as “hot-hot-hot.” But there are moments of sheer beauty, as in the last moments before a man, a mechanic who’s secretly a poet, sets himself on fire to avoid being taken up: “This ravishing world,” he thinks, in the last few heartbeats before he flicks the lighter, “this ravishing world...” 3. These are anxious times we live in, and new apocalypse novels appear with every publishing season. A few years back there was The Road and now the end of the world as we know it recurs again and again, from Cronin’s planned trilogy to Colson Whitehead’s Zone One to Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars to Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles. Cronin’s books, for all their brutality, have an ethereal quality that most other apocalypse books I’ve read lack. He has created a dark and brutal world, but his monsters are linked by dreams. The Twelve dream of their terrible crimes, and their multitudes of descendants dream the dreams of the Twelve. Amy, a girl from the first book who remains (barely) human but who carries a modified version of the virus in her blood, has always been able to speak with vampires. She thinks of them as the dreaming ones. The multitudes of lost souls transformed into monsters are intelligent and vicious in the manner of any expert predator, but also they are lost. When she’s near them she hears their constant question in her head, who am I who am I who am I? In The Passage she kneels before a man who’s just been killed by them: It came to her that the man’s name had been Willem. And the ones who had done it to Willem were sorry, so sorry, and she rose and said to them, It’s all right, go now and do not do this again if you can help it, but she knew they could not. They could not help it because of the Twelve who filled their minds with their terrible dreams of blood and no answer to the question but this: I am Babcock. I am Morrison. I am Chavez. I am Baffes-Turrell-Winston-Sosa-Echols-Lambright-Martinez-Reinhardt-Carter. Cronin’s vampires are not individuals in any meaningful sense. They move in pods, they dream the dreams of their masters, and they don’t know who they were before they ceased to be human. The only names that fill their drifting thoughts are the names of the Twelve. The idea of the hive mind isn’t new, but the Borg never dreamed like this. The great mass of vampires are unspeakable, but in a strange way not entirely unsympathetic. Cronin's skill as a storyteller keeps us immersed in their strange long dream.
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2011/2012 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad moved up thanks to landing on the IMPAC shortlist and is now in some rarefied company among the most honored books of the last 20 years, while The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman both won notice from more than one literary prize last year. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
The long and honorable friendship between books and beer was toasted afresh last month when a beer tavern was named after Cormac McCarthy’s sad and funny lowlife novel, Suttree. Book and bar are both located in the city of McCarthy’s boyhood, Knoxville, Tenn. Suttree’s High Gravity Beer Tavern is owned by the bibliophile husband-wife team of Matt Pacetti and Anne Ford, who have wisely made no attempt to belabor the Suttree connection beyond the name, thus keeping any potential kitsch-making at bay. The tavern is a deep and stylish space with saloon signage, polished wooden floors, an enormous rustic bar cobbled from old floors, and an appealing list of craft beer and wine. The semi-reclusive Cormac McCarthy, who lives in New Mexico, has been told about the new venture and wishes it well. Suttree follows the story of Cornelius Suttree, a quiet young man who has chosen to renounce his rich, white Roman Catholic background in order to live as a fisherman on the Tennessee River and befriend a fascinating cast of back-alley boulevardiers, each of whom is sketched with tremendous solicitude and humor. Often called “Knoxville’s Dubliners,” Suttree provides an intense, forensic snapshot into Knoxville’s streets and soul. It offers the reader no racy plot or salvific climax, just an uncured slice of life. There are parts of this book that will make you laugh and others that will make your stomach coil in anguish. And while it’s a challenging read, with large slabs of poetic prose and funny words, it also contains the great themes that McCarthy’s more celebrated novels like No Country for Old Men, Blood Meridian, and The Road explore -– faith, violence, old men, death, and individual courage. Sadly, many young Knoxvillians haven’t even heard of the book. Matt has had to fend more than one query on why he’s chosen such an odd name for his bar. But for those who have read and enjoyed it, it’s not hard to see why Suttree has a special place in Knoxville’s heart. The new bar, in clientele, character, and cuisine (edamame hummus with pita chips), is a far throw from the Huddle, old Sut’s favorite boozer patronized by - prepare yourself for this lovely McCarthyian litany -– “thieves, derelicts, miscreants, pariahs, poltroons, spalpeens, curmudgeons, clotpolls, murderers, gamblers, bawds, whores, trulls, brigands, topers, tosspots, sots and archsots, lobcocks, smellsocks, runagates, rakes, and other assorted and felonious debauchees.” But is not entirely devoid of textual atmosphere. For one, it’s located on Gay Street, a hip downtown thoroughfare that features frequently and significantly in the book, and on which Suttree’s friend J Bone tells him of the death of his son, whom he has abandoned along with his wife, though we are never really told why. In another nice if unintentional touch, one long wall is painted with giant black tree trunks that recall a strange interlude in the novel when a Suttree in spiritual extremis retreats into a “black and bereaved” spruce wilderness and meets, not Satan, but a deer poacher, with whom he has a conversation that is as absurd as it is profound. Is that a crossbow? I’ve heard it called that. How many crosses have you killed with it? It’s killed more meat than you could bear. Matt and Anne have also been asked, hopefully, if their menu has a melon cocktail. The disappointing answer is no. Perhaps this is one crowd-pleasing textual connection that might be worth exploring. The melon has an exalted place in the novel because of a ridiculous but tender scene in which a young botanical pervert call Gene Harrogate steals into the fields by nights, shucks off his overalls, and begins to mount melons in the soil. He does this for several nights till the farmer who owns the melon patch shoots him in the backside. Then, mortified at the memory of the thin boy howling in pain, he brings him an ice-cream in hospital. (This tiny but extraordinary act of kindness reminded me of young Pip in Great Expectations bringing the starving Magwitch a pork pie in the marshes.) Gene ends up in the workhouse where he meets Suttree and attaches himself to him. Together, the rat-faced but likeable felon and the ascetic, grey-eyed Suttree make for a comic but charming Felonious Monk pair. Though Suttree was published in 1979, it is set in America’s decade of conformity and suspicion, the 1950s, and one can easily imagine McCarthy gleefully adding the melon-mounting scene to his already gloriously debauched House Un-American Activities Committee. Over the years, a Suttree subculture of sorts has sprung up in Knoxville among the small but ardent group of McCarthy aficionados. Local poet Jack Rentfro has written a song based on all the dictionary-dependent words in the book (analoid, squaloid, moiled, and so on); University of Tennessee professor Wes Morgan has set up a website, “Searching for Suttree,” with pictures of buildings and places mentioned in the book; in 1985, the local radio station did a reading of the novel in full; and for many years, Jack Neely, local historian and author, conducted The Suttree Stagger, a marathon eight-hour ramble through downtown interspersed with site-appropriate readings from the text. Last year, the independent bookstore Union Ave celebrated McCarthy’s 78th birthday with book readings, chilled beer, and slices of watermelon. During the party, when Neely read out the majestic, incantatory prologue from Suttree, several people in the audience who had shown up with their hardcover first-editions could be heard murmuring whole baroque lines from memory, and more than one pair of eyes misted over at the last line: “Ruder forms survive.” Cormac McCarthy was not born in Knoxville. Almost 30 years ago he moved to Texas and then to New Mexico. He’s since turned down every request made by the local Knoxville News Sentinel for an interview, though, to everyone’s stupefaction, this epitome of the anti-media whore showed up on Oprah and answered questions like: “Are you passionate about writing?” Despite his reticence, Knoxville stakes first and undisputed claim to this literary giant, and rightly so. Not merely because this is where Charlie (his birth name) went to school (Knoxville Catholic High School, where he met J Long who became J Bone in Suttree); was first published (in the school magazine); was an altar boy; went to the University of Tennessee (which he dropped out of, twice), met the first of his three wives (a poet); lived with the second (a dancer and restaurateur), and overall spent about 40-odd years of his life (longer than Joyce spent in Dublin), but because Knoxville provided the manure from which his celebrated Southern Gothicism sprang. And no novel reaps a richer, more reeking harvest than Suttree. It is, to gingerly forcep a phrase from its fecal innards, “Cloaca Maxima,” often harrowingly so. Moonshine and maggots are the holding glue in this book that opens with a suicide and ends with Suttree finding a ripe corpse crawling with yellow maggots in his bed, and whose characters consume gallons of cold beer (Suttree’s drink) and vile, home-brewed whiskey that appears to have been “brewed in a toilet.” How terrific that a bar should be called Suttree’s and what a relief they don’t serve splo whiskey. Drunks dominate this story -- a hard-bitten, loyal bunch who look out for one another despite being brutalized by poverty and racism. The ties of community are sacred in the South, and it is this fundamental sense of fellowship that binds these losers. McCarthy is an unsentimental writer, but one can detect him getting slightly moist when he describes how this magnificent string of drunks faithfully visits Suttree when he is ill and broken after his forest wanderings, without a single one of them asking “if what he has were catching.” Although Suttree is soaked in Knoxville noir, McCarthy’s most personal reference to his childhood city occurs not here but in his most recent novel, The Road. In this despairingly beautiful tale, a father and son, stand-ins for Cormac and his young son for whom he wrote the book, make their way through an almost-destroyed world swirling with ash and ruin. The pair fetch up at the father’s old house in a nameless town that is clearly Knoxville. The boy is afraid of this house with its filthy porch and rotting screens, but the father is drawn in by the phantoms of his childhood. They enter. There is an iron cot, the bones of a cat, buckled flooring. As he stands by the mantelpiece, the father’s thumb passes over “the pinholes from tacks that held stockings forty years ago,” and, suddenly, the warm remembrance of Christmases past washes over him, providing an anguished foil to his current state of homelessness. McCarthy may have scant regard for Proust as a novelist but the Proustian pull of a few pinholes is powerfully demonstrated in this passage. To Knoxville’s great shame, this house burnt down in 2009 (The childhood home of Knoxville’s only other Pulitzer winner, James Agee, has also long been destroyed). “It was very sad,” says Jack Neely, “but there was some poetry to the fact that in the last few years the house was used by the homeless. I think Cormac McCarthy would have liked that.” Cornelius Suttree would certainly have approved. Photo courtesy of the author.
Even a slight familiarity with pop culture provides the awareness that Scandinavian crime stories are ascendant -- due in part to Swedish writer Stieg Larsson's internationally bestselling trilogy. There are, of course, numerous other practitioners of the crime genre from ice-bound precincts -- Åke Edwardson, Karin Fossum, Anne Holt, Camilla Läckberg, Henning Mankell, husband and wife team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and Arnaldur Indriðason, and so on. Norwegian Jo Nesbø, whose CV includes stints as a stock trader, cab driver, musician, and soccer player, has seen six novels featuring his driven and single minded Oslo homicide detective, Harry Hole, published in English translation. Harry likes jazz, '80s rock, booze, and solving crimes. And, naturally, Hole resents and resists authority -- a burdensome characteristic for a big city policeman. All of which produces entertaining and, dare I offer, suspenseful reading. In our face-to-face chat we talked about American crime writers, Nesbø's ineptitude as a taxi driver, who is making a movie from his book, Lord of the Flies, his reading habits and more: Robert Birnbaum: How do you pronounce your name? Jo Nesbø: Ah, well. Outside Norway I prefer Jo Nesbø (both laugh). It’s the simple version. The Norwegian version is Ug Nespa. RB: Say it again. JN: Ug Nespa. RB: Is there a “g” at the end of your first name? JN: No there’s not. RB: Sound’s like it. There’s a hard sound at the end. And Harry Hole is pronounced how? JN: Same thing -- outside Norway I am happy with Harry Hole and so is he, but in Norway it’s Hahree Whoule. RB: Since your book is translated, it must be first written in Norwegian, yes? JN: Absolutely. RB: When you think about American crime fiction, there are a number of icons that people around the world refer to -- Chandler, Hammett, Cain, and Thomson. Is there someone like that in Norway? JN: Yeah, you have [Henrik] Wergeland. [He] is recognized as the godfather of Norwegian crime literature. In Scandinavian crime you have to go to the '70s -- Maj Sjöwall andPer Wahlöö founded the modern Scandinavian crime novel based on social criticism. RB: And more procedural. JN: It was. So everyone in Scandinavia who writes a crime novel, whether they l know it or not, they are influenced by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. RB: You have a varied CV -- how did you come to writing? JN: Um. RB: You were a stockbroker, a rock and roller, soccer player, taxi driver. JN: I was a really bad taxi driver. I was famous for it. RB: Bad sense of direction or poor driving? JN: Just bad driving. Lack of concentration. But I come from a book reading home. My mother was a librarian. My father was a book collector. And so he would always be reading. So I started reading as soon as I could tell the letters [of the alphabet]. The first novel that I made my father read to me was Lord of The Flies by William Golding. A Nobel Prize winner. I wish I could say I chose that book because I have good taste, but I liked the cover. It was a pig’s head on a stake. Actually, when I wrote my first novel at the age of 37, none of my friends were surprised that I had finally written a novel. They were more like, “What took you so long?” It took some time, but it came very naturally. RB: I am a little confused. There are eight novels in the Harry Hole series and four have been published in the U.S. [there are actually six available, with a seventh on the way in fall 2012]? JN: I’m a bit confused myself. Because the first two novels feature Harry Hole in Australia and then in Bangkok, Thailand. And when we started selling the rights abroad we decided we would not sell the rights to the first two novels because they were a bit far-fetched -- a Norwegian detective in Australia and Thailand. So we started with the third novel, but then the U.K. and later on the U.S. decided they would publish them out of order. So it is a bit confusing. Not only are they out of order, but also they are in different print sequences in different countries. RB: And Headhunters? JN: That’s a stand-alone. RB: And Harry Hole is not in it at all? JN: No, he is not mentioned and he is not there. RB: Headhunters has been made into a movie in Norway -- will it play in the U.S? JN: Yes, which is rare. I just came back from Cannes and we showed it to distributors and the American distributor was so happy with it that it will be shown in at least 15 cities. RB: Is Working Title the distributor? JN: No, they bought the rights for one of the Harry Hole stories. RB: Which means they effectively bought them all. JN: Yah, yah. RB: Working Title is the Coen Brothers? JN: That’s right. That was their opening line when they phoned me. Because I had turned down offers for the Harry Hole series for a long time. Not that I don’t love movies, but they’re so strong compared to novels, so I wanted to keep that universe untouched. But they phoned me with a great opening line -- “Hi, we are Working Title and we made Fargo.” (both laugh) And so I said, "OK, I’m listening.” RB: Why did they mention Fargo, of all their films? JN: I think they had a hunch that I liked that movie. It was probably on my top 10 list of movies ever. RB: That’s great. I always have liked them, but I gained a lot of respect for them in the way they re-made True Grit. JN: I just saw the first part of True Grit on the plane -- I hadn’t seen it. And the dialogue was great. And I was curious because I hadn’t seen the original and it was really whippy great dialogue. It reminded me of Deadwood. Different, but still with great attention to dialogue. RB: I recommend the novel Deadwood by Pete Dexter. JN: I didn’t know there was a novel. Is it written in the same, almost Shakespearean way? RB: Dexter is a great American writer, most well known for Paris Trout. JN: I’m so ignorant. RB: Is this your first visit here? JN: No, I was here two years ago [for a book tour] and I was here before that. My father grew up in New York, in Brooklyn, with my grandparents. So I have some ties and bonds with the U.S. RB: Besides gruesome deaths, what would define and distinguish Scandinavian crime literature? As opposed to American? JN: Hopefully, Scandinavian crime has -- the quality is good. You do have bad Scandinavian crime lit -- but I think what separates it from not only American, but the rest of Europe also, is there is a tradition stemming from the '70s that it was OK to write crime literature. It was prestigious. Sjöwall and Wahlöö sort of moved the crime novel from the kiosks into the bookstores, meaning that young talented writers would use the crime novel as vehicles for their storytelling talents. And so you have had good crime novelists, good writers, who would, from time to time, write so-called serious literature and almost all the well-known, established serious writers in Scandinavia have at one time written a crime novel. It’s sort of a thing that you do. You must have a go at genre. RB: Here it seems acceptance of genre fiction as legitimate has come later. Elmore Leonard is championed, by among others Martin Amis, Michael Connelly, and George Pelecanos. JN: James Lee Burke. RB: I have read three of your books -- and you have avoided what I think is the reason I don’t read series. Harry Hole is not predictable and clichéd. You know some of his habits, but the plots aren’t cookie cutter. What’s on your mind when you write the next Hole story? When are you done with him -- how old does he get to be? JN: That’s a secret. RB: You know? JN: I know -- I have a storyline for him. He is not going to have eternal life. And he is not going to rise from the dead. So after the second novel, I sat down and wrote his story -- I am not 100 percent sure how many books there will be, but if we are not near the end, we are nearer the end. RB: Philip Kerr, who has written seven Bernie Gunther novels, says that the problem with writing a series is that the author usually writes one or two too many. They don’t know when to stop. Will you know when to stop? JN: I don’t know. (laughs) I have no idea. Hopefully somebody will tell me. As long as the books sell, probably they won’t. RB: Sales and quality don’t necessarily correspond. JN: Actually, I think that -- I am reading Jim Thompson on the plane. He had to write to pay the rent. I am so lucky I don’t have to write. I don’t have to sell books. So I can focus on what I want to do -- what’s interesting. Do I know when to stop? Yes. It will not be decided by sales numbers. From the start I wrote for myself and two friends that I wanted to impress -- two friends that had more or less the same taste in culture. And it’s still the same. Those are the two guys I am writing for -- they don’t know this. If they say, “I read the last book and it was OK, then I am over the moon.” RB: OK is good? JN: OK is great. RB: Do you have first readers? JN: Yah, at the publishing house. RB: But not friends? JN: No, nothing like that. I have four or five people at the publisher. They coordinate their opinions and we sit down and have a meeting. RB: Chandler was in the same situation as Thompson -- so it goes. So, there is a limit to the Harry Hole. Are you already thinking about other fiction that you want to write? JN: I am. RB: How far ahead are you in your aspirations and goals? JN: Other series or novels? I don’t like to think that long term. The problem is that I have more ideas than I have time. So I have -- I am 51 now. I probably won’t be able to read all the books I want to read. And I won’t have the time to write all the books I want to write. So I try to give them the right priority, meaning that— -- I have a children’s book series that I am working on now. There will be one more book in that series. And then a stand-alone children’s book. And then I will finish the Harry Hole series. I have some ideas for maybe a new series. I haven’t quite decided yet because I want to write this stand-alone thriller. When you write, it’s important to do it while you have the enthusiasm for the idea. Maybe the most important period of your writing is when you are convinced that your idea is the best idea any writer ever has had. So you have to use that energy, because the time will come when you wake up in the morning and you will doubt your idea. And then it’s good that you have already more than half-- RB: That doesn’t happen when you start something? JN: Not when I start. And it doesn’t really happen that often. I wake up in the morning unsure. It did happen two years ago. I had been working on a novel for a long time and I started doubting. I went to my publishers and they were quite happy with it. But they had some suggestions and I immediately knew that they read it the way I read it myself. And what I did was delete the whole novel. Two years’ work out the window. Like I said, I am in the fortunate situation that I don’t have to publish books to pay the rent. RB: It sounds like you don’t encounter writer’s block. JN: No, I never experienced writer’s block, no. RB: Do you have to write every day? JN: I try to write every day, and I can write almost anywhere. I have been writing on the plane coming here. I thought our meeting was at four o'clock, so I was planning to write for an hour. When we are done here, I am going to write for two hours before my next meeting. RB: Sounds like you love it. JN: I love it. I started writing so late in life. I was 37 -- I had worked, as you said, as a taxi driver, a stockbroker. A fishing trawler. I had many kinds of jobs. And I know this is the greatest job that you can have. To actually get up in the morning and people are paying you to do what you really want to do. To come up with these stories. It’s unbelievable having that as a job. RB: Do you go for periods without writing? JN: I don’t. Not really. Like I said I have more ideas than I have time. When I am going on vacation with my daughter for a week, she says, “Daddy, don’t bring the laptop, ok?.” I say, “No, no, no, I won’t.” Like an alcoholic, I will have it hidden somewhere. No, I have one week a year that is sort of sacred, that I don’t write. RB: Can you imagine not writing? JN: I can. I had a long life not writing, so I can imagine. But it would a poor life, that’s for sure. RB: What is life like for a successful writer in Norway -- do you live in Oslo? Is there a literary circle? JN: I live in Oslo and there is a literary circle. I guess I am not part of it. I never was. I have my friends before I started writing and I stick with them. We hang out and do things. RB: No publishing parties and movie openings? JN: Not really. I probably did that more when I was a musician. And you get tired of it -- talking about books, talking about writing. I do that enough when I am traveling. It’s good to go back home and go rock climbing or just talk about Bob Dylan -- anybody but me. When I first started talking about myself at interviews like this, I though this must be the best job ever. To have people absolutely listening to you, talking about yourself for hours and hours. So I was a bit surprised when after a couple of years I felt I was getting tired of myself. Listening to my own voice, retelling the story of my life. RB: Answering the same questions-- JN: You know this interview is a bit better than most-- RB: Well, thank you. Is there a big boom in writing programs, MFA programs in Scandinavia as in the U.S? JN: Ah, yah. Something happened in the '90s that suddenly writers became pop stars. They started being interviewed on talk shows and they started having their own shows called Book Box -- there was an old building in Oslo where they had an indoor pool. They started interviewing writers there. They were like rock concerts. Actually, they had rock concerts in the same arena. It would be sold out -- just for a writer being interviewed for 45 minutes. Ever since that, all the young talented people, they want to become famous writers because they would be treated like pop stars. RB: What is the book business like in your part of the world? Is it prospering? JN: It is. Norway -- I am not sure about Sweden and Denmark, but Norway is one of the best countries in the world to be a writer. Both economically and artistically. I just went to France and I asked a bookseller there, "How many writers can write full time?” He said, “Probably, 50 or 60.” In Norway there are probably 200. Which has a smaller population -- smaller than Massachusetts -- 4 or 5 million. RB: Which Americans do you try to read? How do they filter into Norway? JN: I guess European literature has traditionally been more important in Norway than American. But myself, maybe because my father grew up here, I was influenced by American literature from a young age. Mark Twain, who I still regard as one of the great American writers. And Ernest Hemingway. Later on I read the Beatniks -- Jack Kerouac. I was a great fan of Charles Bukowski. RB: And contemporary novelists? JN: Michael Connelly. James Lee Burke. There are so many greats. I didn’t read that much crime fiction before I started writing it myself. I can remember reading Lawrence Block. Dennis Lehane, of course. His Mystic River. I went to Asia and I bought 10 crime novels that were supposed to be good. Out of the 10, I found one good book -- which was Mystic River. RB: There is another Bostonian, Chuck Hogan [The Town] who is excellent. And there is [the late great] George Higgins who wrote The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Do you know it? JN: No. RB: It’s also a great movie with Robert Mitchum. You are here for an extensive charm initiative? JN: I will be here for nine days, trying to charm as many [people] as I can. Toronto, NYC, and the West Coast. RB: By the way, how is it that your father grew up here? JN: My grandmother left Norway for the U.S. when she was 16 and then she went back and met my grandfather. They made my daddy. And they went back to Brooklyn. To a part of Brooklyn where you had many Scandinavians in the '20s and '30s. RB: Do you watch crime movies? JN: I do. When I started writing I was probably more influenced by crime movies based on novels than the original novel. In some cases the films are better than the novels. The Godfather is probably a better movie-- RB: Someone is actually writing a prequel. What a god-awful idea. JN: Yah. RB: Did the HBO series The Wire make it to Norway? JN: Yes. I have seen it and it’s great. The most interesting thing happening in storytelling right now is probably in American TV series. Breaking Bad-- RB: Justified based on an Elmore Leonard character -- pretty funny. Are there original serials like that in Norway? JN: We do, but with a small population and limited resources -- there is a Danish series that made its way at least to the U.K. It’s called The Crime. RB: It’s called The Killing here. A female cop tries to solve the killing of a young girl-- JN: That’s it. Are you seeing the original series? RB: No, it must be made for the U.S. It’s in English and set in Seattle using American actors. JN: Yah, the original is shot in Copenhagen. It’s great, if you can get it. It has subtitles. RB: When I saw The Wire, I never saw it in episodes -- I got the DVD and watched four or five hours at a time. It seems counterintuitive to watch these long stories a piece at a time. JN: I agree. Watching the DVDs is like books, you decide when to consume the story. But don’t forget Charles Dickens would serialize his stories. RB: Who knew the difference then? What is it, a new phenomenon? JN: I think he was the first one who did it -- if not, it was unusual to do that. I heard he would receive letters from his readers advising him how the story should go. And he would actually listen to them. RB: Dickens was fascinating character. I’ve read a few novels where he actually appears as a character -- Richard Flanagan’s Wanting and Joseph O Connor’s Star of the Sea. What kind of music do you like -- jazz appears a lot in the Hole books? JN: Jazz and American rock from the '80s. I still play about 50 to 60 gigs a year. I play guitar and I sing. So most of the gigs are with my bass player. We also go touring with my old band. We are going touring this summer -- just for a few festivals. Just for fun. We keep the tour short enough so we don’t kill each other (laughs). So we are having fun. RB: Do you tour outside Norway? JN: No, the lyrics are in Norwegian and I don’t think the music makes sense outside Norway. RB: Who comes to Norway to play? Anyone big? JN: Most of them -- either to Oslo or Stockholm or to Copenhagen -- which is not so far from where I live in Oslo. RB: Do you travel in Scandinavia? JN: The land is more or less the same -- just different dialects. RB: Danish is understandable? JN: No you have to read Danish. They speak funny. Actually, and I love Danes, but Danish is difficult. Children all over the world learn their mother tongue at the same age except for one country -- Denmark. It takes a little longer. RB: Apparently Dutch is unpronounceable by anyone except the Dutch. That’s how the Dutch Resistance tripped up spies in World War II. So will you participate in the making of the Harry Hole movie? JN: The deal is done. I am an executive producer. I have a veto when it comes to the director and screenwriter. And that was what was important to me. I wasn’t too eager to sell the rights for the books as long as I was writing the series. So that was a condition -- that I would have veto. The first time we met they said, “We can’t do it like that. We can’t go to Martin Scorsese and ask him to write a screenplay for this unknown Norwegian writer and if he likes it then maybe this unknown Norwegian writer will say yes. And have you direct the movie.” I said, “I completely understand but that is my condition. I am happy not to have the series filmed, yet.” RB: Is it difficult that once the film is made there will be a tangible character and so when you write-- JN: That was one of the reasons I wasn’t eager to have it filmed, you know. I‘d rather there be a 1,000 Harry Holes in the heads of my readers than one character defining him. RB: Having said that, who do you think may be a good Harry Hole? JN: I have no idea. RB: Norwegian or American? JN: I have been thinking hard -- Nick Nolte is probably too old. But I have no idea. RB: Do you like Harry Hole? JN: I do. He is a bit annoying at times. But most of the time I like him. RB: Because he comes through -- for truth, justice, and the Norwegian way? JN: I mean he is irritating. He always has to do things the difficult way. He can’t ever -- he has this problem with authority. And in my opinion he should try to avoid authority more, instead of always picking a fight. He’s a bit annoying in that sense. He is not the kind of guy I would like to hang out with -- he is a bit too intense. RB: He doesn’t really have any friends. One guy -- his tech guy; he is sort of a friend. Even his colleagues who seem to respect him don’t gravitate to him. He is a tough cookie. His girlfriend obviously has problems with him. JN: I think women want to save him more than that he is pleasant to be around. But he has one childhood friend -- the hard drinking taxi driver. Apart from that, a psychologist and women. RB: Often in crime stories, the crimes are not that important. Certainly in Raymond Chandler, in The Big Sleep who could figure that one out. Or in Chinatown where you are told not to try to understand “because it’s Chinatown.” In the Harry Hole stories, you do plot out a crime and have surprising solutions and endings. It’s something you care about? JN: Yes. I like the dialogue you have with the reader -- I am going to give you a chance to sort out the riddle. And I will give you enough information to solve it. I am not going to give you all the vital information from the last 30 pages. But before that, at least you have a chance. That was what Dennis Lehane did in Mystic River -- there was a bit of information in the middle of the book and an experienced reader or writer -- you could probably tell, okay, here is the killer. RB: I liked his standalone novel about the 1919 Boston Police strike, Any Given Day. JN: Yah, yah. RB: It mentioned the Great Molasses Flood where a big vat of molasses escaped killing 19 or 20 people and wreaking untold havoc. Robert Parker also wrote a number of series and I thought his best work was a standalone, All Our Yesterdays. Did you read Parker? JN: No. One American writer I read recently was Richard Matheson’s I am Legend. A great novel -- short and to the point. It reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. RB: When The Road came out, I wasn’t in the mood to read it. But I did read a post-apocalyptic novel by Jim Crace called Pesthouse. Twenty years hence, most of America has been destroyed and survivors are searching for safe areas and viable communities. And of course they encounter obstacles. It came out around the same time as McCarthy’s book and was overshadowed by it. Do you know of Jim Crace? JN: No. There are so many writers. We been sitting here almost an hour now and you are mentioning well-known writers and I don’t know about them. I probably should be embarrassed, but I am not. There are so many books and we don’t have time to read them all. RB: It is frustrating. If you read 200 books a year, you still don’t scratch the surface. JN: How many do you read a year? RB: I may complete 150. JN: 150! RB: I start a lot more. I used to feel bad about not finishing a book. I’m better at that. JN: I ‘m a slow reader. I read more like 30 a year. It’s a crazy thing -- there so many talented writers that you are not going to hear about. That’s why I feel so privileged and lucky to be able to come here after years of writing and have a name in Europe and hopefully some day in the United States. It’s not enough to be good. RB: Is your backlist available here now? Harper has four, Knopf as two. The others? JN: The first novels will translated to English next year. Harper will probably keep the backlist. RB: Which one will be made into a movie? JN: The Snowman. RB: The new one. JN: Actually that’s the previous one -- the next one is called The Leopard. RB: All right, thank you JN: Thank you. Image courtesy of Robert Birnbaum.
Oh how horrendous it was. Last year I did that thing: I bought and sold a house. As everyone warned, it was a dreadful double-whammy – I’d rather stand up in front of 500 people and share the secrets of my life. When preparing my humble home for sale, a place in which I’d lived for over a decade so it was starting to come undone at the edges, my real-estate agent told me that the two most important rooms in a house are the kitchen and the bathroom. Where I live now, an 1890s worker’s cottage in a regional town in the Southern Tablelands of New South Wales, it’s not the kitchen and bathroom that means the most to me, no, it’s a small room immediately inside from the front door. It really is a small room. You could fit a double bed but there wouldn’t be much room to walk around. And there’s only one window, a timber-sash ensemble, which looks into what’s officially the tiniest front garden in the district. And the walls are painted a color that’s a cross between clay and mud, so it feels cave-like, as more than one visitor has commented. Why is this room my favorite? Because it’s where – at last – I have a library. On each side of the old Hordern and Son coal-burning fire (I burn wood in it, and despite its age it’s surprisingly efficient, pumping out a sharp, dry heat) are floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. The bookshelves aren’t old, though they look as if they’d like to be. Also in the room is an upright piano, one from my teenage years. Sometimes, when I’m having a break from working words I sit there and make up simple minor-key tunes that only I and passers-by hear, except I’m sure the passers-by wish they hadn’t. Against the window is a dark green tartan-esque couch that I bought from Vinnies in town for $60. It’s in a surprisingly good condition, although the dog has designs on it. What’s missing is technology. When I moved in a year ago I decided that the little room at the front of the house would be gadget-free: no PC, no laptop, no phone, no stereo, although the modem does live in the library, because it’s the only option. It wouldn’t be a place to check emails or scroll through Facebook updates, that soulless activity that’s somehow entrapped even a good person like me. There’s no technology in this room because I want it to be about the books on the shelves. In this day and age it seems almost prehistoric to want to establish a library. It’s as though I’m admitting that I’ve become a fan of riding a donkey down to the shops, or that I’ve discovered how and why things fall to the ground. But I don’t care. How good the books look on their shelves: all those people I’ve met, all those adventures I’ve had. What dangerous situations I’ve been in: birth, hard living, love, loss, betrayal, and, yes, even death. I like order – to be honest, I’m obsessed with it – so I’ve divided up the library as if expecting the public to visit. To the left of the fire is fiction, and by fiction I mean primarily novels. To the right of the fire is my collection of literary journals I’ve built up over the last two decades, though I did have to do a cull when I moved house, which seemed sacrilegious, but it was simply something I had to do because they’d gotten out of hand, they’d proliferated. Also on this side of the fire is poetry, short-story collections, and writing "how to" books. Amongst this is a handful of my own publications; I’m not sure what I make of those two inches of book spines. Is that really all I’ve produced? Yes, that’s really all I’ve produced. Back on the left-hand side I’ve divided things up even further. On the top shelf, almost out of reach, are the books I must risk life and limb for if the house is burning down. There’s Eminence by Morris West, Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan, the first volume in Manning Clark’s memoir, The Quest for Grace, Picnic at Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay, How Fiction Works by James Wood (recently I concluded this book was so good that it didn’t deserve to wallow on the right-hand side), Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Flann O’Brian’s The Third Policeman, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow, which was the first grown-up novel I’d loved, and, of course, Madam Bovary. These books have moved me; the lives between the covers are as real as those of my family and friends. Like the coal-burner fire they radiate with intensity. They will be read again and again. Beneath the top-shelf stories are books I’ve enjoyed, sometimes very much, but they don’t seem to possess the profundity – life’s sheer heartbreak – of those up high; if there’s a fire and I have a spare arm I’ll grab some of these, but I won’t fret. Further down again are books that haven’t meant much to me, or perhaps I’ve hated them, or I’ve simply not understood, or I’ve understood them but they haven’t stayed with me, they’ve neither lingered nor haunted. Even so I can’t stand to chuck them away; in terms of novels I get rid of next to nothing, it seems inhumane. On the bottom shelves are books that are waiting to be picked up and loved, I hope I’ll love them, and I’m sure they do, too. What started this library? How did it come into being? In 1994, when against my better judgement I decided to have a crack at writing fiction, a well-read friend came over to my place; he and I had committed to doing a night course in creative writing and he’d offered to give me a lift. He looked around my flat and said, “Where are your books?” I pointed to the one and only shelf in the place, the one above the television. “There,” I said, “I’ve got Cloudstreet.” As if this single Winton tome could offer absolution! I did have some books on biology and ecology and place and landscape, because I’d started my professional life as a landscape architect, but in terms of novels I was up shit-creek. “Really?” said my friend. “Is that it?” Yes, that was it. He shook his head. He was incredulous. And he was right: I wanted to write but I’d not read much, at least not as a young adult – I was too busy navigating the minefield of late-surging hormones and the appalling mess of sexuality that goes along with that. Back in primary and high school I’d read, though I was slow at it, but I had enjoyed the task very much. These days, courtesy of my mother, I’ve re-collected most of the books I’d loved as a kid, such as My Side of the Mountain by Jean George, Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave, and The Dingo Summer by Australia’s Ivy Baker (which, according to the inscription, I was awarded for the neatest book in Science, Term Two, 1982; these days my handwriting is so appalling it looks like I’ve had a stroke). I loved The Dingo Summer for its exploration of landscape and loneliness, which are two themes I’ll take to the grave, whether I keep writing about them or not. There’s no doubt in my mind that the morning after my friend made his painful, embarrassing judgement I resolved to read as much as I wrote, to slowly but surely fill my shelves with books. Novels, short-story collections, poetry even. I’m not a good reader of poetry, but sometimes I do like to try unpicking a few lines before I turn out the light at night, a kind of surreptitious literary dessert. It’s probably taken me longer than most readers and writers to build up a library. I remain frustratingly slow at getting through a book, and these days I’m regularly exhausted – trying to get words in the right order really is an exacting job – so I’m forever falling asleep with pages face down on my chest. But now I have it, my library, at least a library in the making. I’m also an avid – read: fanatical – collector of music, so I have shelves and shelves of CDs and vinyl records, even some tapes, but I keep all this in a different room to the library, the one the previous owners used as a nursery, which, I think, is rather fitting for a childless man like me. However, even though a day doesn’t go by when I don’t listen to music, listen intensely, more than often I’m moved (I’m not immune to doing air guitar to Sonic Youth or lying in the bath imagining my demise to the miserable strains of The Smiths), it’s my collection of books that means the most to me. All that ink and paper and cardboard has enriched me in ways that I don’t really understand, not yet, and perhaps I never will – I almost failed the High School Certificate, English was my only reliable subject, and thank Christ for that. All I know is reading has challenged me, it’s changed me, sometimes it’s angered me; sometimes I’ve been so caught up in the text that years later I can still remember the events, minute details. For example, that unexpectedly sensual moment in the water-tank between the boy and the older man in The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea. Or in The Quest for Grace when Manning Clark as a child visits a cemetery, feels the terrible weight of his existence, his meaninglessness, so he runs home where he is thankful for the warmth and comfort of a roast dinner. Part of the allure of reading is finding fictional worlds more interesting than the predictable day-to-day of real life. But books haven’t simply offered escape. They have given me depth, they have given me perspective, the sense that my days and nights have expanded, opened out. The aimless meanderings of my white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, middle-class life have more pulse because I’ve read, because I’ve given Tolstoy a go (The Death of Ivan Ilych is on the top shelf), and Chekhov too (he’s also up there with the best of them, obviously). For the completeness of this record, I should declare that there’s no Shakespeare on my shelves. I could lie and say that I love the guy, but I don’t, I’m with Tolstoy on that front – it just seems so, well, much ado about nothing. But that’s all by-the-by, isn’t it. The fact is that at the age of forty-three years and twenty-eight days I have a room that can rightly, justifiably be called a library. It’s a physical thing as much as a brain and heart thing; it’s a space, a place, a room all of my own, in every possible way. It is without question my favorite room in the house, the most important room, as archaic as that sounds, as archaic as it probably is, but I really don’t care. My library is my anchor, it’s my look-out, it’s my lighthouse. And I’m eternally grateful that if ever I’m burgled my books will be safe, because these days no one in their right mind would bother stealing the things. Everything will be alright. As long as there’s no fire. Image credit: Kelly Schott/Flickr
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2010/2011 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad unsurprisingly had a good showing with judges. Meanwhile, the IMPAC win puts Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin on our list, and the shortlist nod does the same for Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P, I 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, P 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
This year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction has gone to Jennifer Egan's much praised A Visit from the Goon Squad. The win caps a year that saw this "novel in stories" go from a book anticipated by the literary set to becoming a prize winner and bestseller. Jonathan Dee and Chang-rae Lee are the runners up. Lee is a past winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award, while Dee continues to receive critical notice as a novelist. Incidentally, this marks the third year in five that The Tournament of Books has predicted the Pulitzer result. The Road won both in 2007, as did The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao in 2008. Here are this year's Pulitzer winners and finalists with excerpts where available:Fiction:Winner: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - (excerpt, Egan's Year in Reading, The Millions profile of Egan)The Privileges by Jonathan Dee (excerpt, The Millions interview)The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee (excerpt)General Nonfiction:Winner: The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee (excerpt)The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brain by Nicholas Carr (excerpt, The Millions review)Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History by S.C. Gwynne (excerpt)History:Winner: The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery by Eric Foner (excerpt)Confederate Reckoning: Power and Politics in the Civil War South by Stephanie McCurryEden on the Charles: The Making of Boston by Michael Rawson (excerpt)Biography:Winner: Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow (excerpt, The Presidential Biography Project)The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century by Alan Brinkley (excerpt)Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon by Michael O'BrienWinners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.
The following is excerpted from the collection of essays The Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of Books, co-edited by Jeff Martin and Millions founder C. Max Magee. The book includes inventive, thoughtful, and funny pieces in which Jonathan Lethem, Rivka Galchen, Benjamin Kunkel. Joe Meno, Deb Olin Unferth, and many others consider the landscape as the literary world faces a revolution, a sudden change in the way we buy, produce, and read books. The book is available on Amazon and in some stores already, and the official release date is March 1st. 1. The writer of the future will crouch in wind-swept aeries miles above the electronic din of the modern world, crafting feathers out of the leaves of old books. Watch him strap the wings to his back and toddle to the nest’s edge. Watch the wind ruffle his fine, sparse hair as he tilts farther and farther into the abyss. 2. At night, the writers of the future sleep but never dream. In the morning, their watchman arrives and flips on the lights, whistling under his breath. He carefully unrolls the writers’ dust-cloths. The writers are bunched on a stainless steel table, their screens so thin that it is impossible to believe that they each contain the power of a million typing monkeys. The watchman flips their switches; the cursors blink on the screens; the writers hum to life; and by the time he emerges from the back room with his caffè mocha and ham sandwich, already one of the writers is printing out the first chapter in a multi-generational comedic masterpiece, destined to be hailed by a similar bank of critics of the future as “Powerful,” “Luminous,” “Finely Wrought,” and “An Important Debut from a Writer to Watch.” 3. The writer of the future will sell her wares on the dog-crotted sidewalks of city streets, desperately flinging open her trench coat to reveal advance reading copies, braving the disgusted or averted faces of the more respectable kinds of pedestrians to whom French flaps or deckle edges mean nothing even remotely titillating. 4. A writer of the future sits in her office in the present, trying very, very hard to not panic. 5. Every year, the writers of the future will gather on a desert island, nervously clutching their notebooks to their chests and shuffling their spectacles on their noses. Over the course of two weeks, a series of competitions will take place in a great number of disciplines: Awkward Social Encounters, Furious Scribbling, Midnight Angst, Imperviousness to Blistering Reviews, Book Club Chatter, Esprit de L’Escalier, and Networking, among others. At the end of the Writer Olympics, points will be counted and the Bestsellers will be announced, and the losers will be shuffled one by one off the cliffs onto the jagged rocks below, notwithstanding some bitter muttering about how none of the judges even cracked the spines of the manuscripts under consideration. 6. It will be mandated: At every table in every diner in the world, there will sit a writer about the size of a napkin dispenser. At the end of the meal, one shall put in one’s credit card and out will pop a novel in a hundred and forty characters, or fewer. Examples: Bleak House: Fog in London, judicial shenanigans. How does it end? Nobody knows. The Road: A boy and his father in black and white and red. And roasted babies! Portnoy’s Complaint: Oh, my penis. Oh, my mother. Oh, my penis again. 7. A writer of the future holds her head in her hands. 8. For a moment, the writer of the future stands backstage, listening to the roar of the crowd chanting her name, steeling herself for the inevitable barrage of panties and roses as soon as she emerges, hearing the nervous voices of her groupies whispering their good lucks, and knowing that while this part of the job isn’t the easiest, all writers must deal with such crazed adulation at some point in their lives, and she can rest for the hour or so after her poetry reading in the carriage behind the six white stallions that will draw her slowly over the petal-strewn streets that will be, inevitably, thronged with her admirers shouting her own words back to her in soft and mellifluous tones. 9. In America’s brutal quest to compete with China to produce the best writers of the future, Baby Farms will sort infants into two distinct groups: Future Writers and Future Watchers of Television. The elite few will be ruthlessly prodded, tested, measured, and coached for the first thirty years of their lives, after which time they will have roughly five years to attempt to attain the status of Great American Novelist. If they fail, as of the eve of their thirty-sixth birthday, they will be forever afterward shuffled into these increasingly belittling categories: Promising Emerging Writer; Regional Writer; Midlist Writer; Catalog Copy Writer; Composition and Rhetoric Adjunct; Award-Winning Short Story Writer; Writer’s Writer; Genre Writer; Self-Published Writer; and, last, and most ignominious, Hollywood Screenwriter. 10. A writer of the future knows that no matter where she sets her work (in the historical-fiction past; in the science-fiction future), all she really is doing is talking about the present, anyway. 11. The writer of the future comes into his study and shuts the door behind him. There are actual books on the shelves, to the frequent wonderment of his friends, who secretly decry the dust; the windows have darkened themselves at his entry; the coffee of the future has been instantly percolated and awaits his lips. He paces for a moment or two to listen to where he left off the day before. When the last words die down, he takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. He unfolds his hands from the sleeves of the robes of the future. He lifts his elegant fingers. And he begins to conduct his words with vigorous armstrokes, the way a theremin player summons music from the air. 12. If the writers of the future all look just like James Patterson, with their leathery jowls and sandy comb-overs, it is because they all are, as a matter of fact, genetically cloned replicas of James Patterson. 13. All writers in the future, in order to be granted permission to publish their first books, will first have to collect a satisfactory number of previous careers. The Ministry of Arts and Letters, or Mini-Al, will issue little badges at the completion of stints in the occupations of: Food Server, Lifeguard, Transcriber for the Deaf, Rheumatologist, Data-Entry Clerk, Cashier, Sherpa, Furiously Disgusted Amazon Reviewer, Picketer, Pamphleteer, Census-Taker, Auditor, Policeperson, Interior Decorator, Groveling Toady to an Outsized Ego, and Over-consumer of Media Culture. The writers who are at last allowed to become Writers sometimes sit in their mahogany-lined studies, behind locked doors, and dabble their fingers in the miniature waterfalls on their desks. They sigh, pace, and check that the door is locked. At last, they open their desk drawers, take out their little sashes with the badges stitched on them, and run loving fingers over each badge, in fond remembrance of those distant, awful times. From a distance—say, through binoculars from an unmarked Mini-Al van in the street, or from the satellite that has turned its pulsing attention to that exact spot in the world—the writers who fondle their badges and wear fond, misty smiles on their faces often look like oversized Girl Scouts, beanies and all. 14. The writer of the future will have her body surgically modified to fit the contours of her work, canting her spine forward so it hovers over her desk, bowing her hands to better fit the shape of a keyboard, and inserting a titanium shell under her epidermis so that she can take her agent’s wise advice and grow a goddamn thicker skin already, jeez. 15. A writer of the future shakes it off and continues on. 16. Of all the many predictions that one can make about the writer of the future, there is only one that holds a whiff of the indisputable: that the writer of the future is the writer who writes. He is the one drawing word after word, pushing his sentences outward, into the darkness, into the thrilling unknown. He’s not going to put it off for tomorrow, and he’s not content with yesterday’s work. He is the one alone somewhere, writing, right now. And right now. And right now.
It's summer in the northern hemisphere, and The Passage is everywhere. As I waited for my flight at LaGuardia Airport a month ago, headed north for a book tour, Justin Cronin talked about his book on Good Morning America on a screen above my head. The Passage waits for me, in stacks, at all the bookstores that I visit. Cronin’s readings draw enviably enormous crowds. The sheer scale of the marketing campaign inspires shock and awe: there is a Passage iPhone application, of all things, and not one but two wildly-expensive-looking websites. All of this delights me -- I haven't read the book yet, but a majority of booksellers of my acquaintance seem to have loved it, and I like seeing good books and their authors celebrated. The Passage, in my understanding, concerns a post-apocalyptic world. A virus has turned most of the population into vampires; the few human survivors are hunted in a dark and hopeless landscape. In other words, this sounds like exactly the kind of thing I’ll enjoy reading. I’ve long had an unhealthy interest in apocalypse. I seem not to be alone in this morbid fascination; every year new wastelands arise on screen and in fiction, bleak and ruined worlds with their own sets of rules, their own catastrophes and their own unique monsters. Perhaps there’s something about experiencing the end of everything that helps us confront our own mortality. Perhaps it's a way of dealing with the unsettling truth that the end, all conspiracy theories and misinterpreted Mayan calendars aside, will eventually be nigh: even if we manage to escape nuclear annihilation or a pandemic, we orbit a star and stars have lifespans. And on that bright note I present, for your consideration and summer reading enjoyment, a brief selection of my favorite fictional apocalypses. 1. The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway This is one of my favorite books, and it concerns a disaster like none other in literature. "I am in hell," the narrator of The Gone-Away World tells us. "I am in hell, and there are mimes." The book is set in a world that has come apart at the seams. One or two of the best minds in science have devised a Go-Away bomb, the effects of which are difficult to describe in under two or three pages; the short version is that it makes things Go Away, in a capitalized, future-of-modern-warfare, vanished-from-the-face-of-the-earth-without-a-trace sense. But the fallout from the Go-Away bombs creates a vacuum in which the fears and dreams and nightmares of humans and animals are reified and come to life. This is a swashbuckling adventure story set in a dangerous and beautiful world, a surrealist post-war landscape where nightmares walk the earth. There are ninjas. Also, mimes. 2. Things We Didn't See Coming by Steve Amsterdam The nature of the apocalypse is vague. The first story -- this is a collection of interlinked short stories, reviewed elsewhere on The Millions -- concerns a young boy on the night of Y2K, and the stories that comprise the rest of the collection afford us glimpses of his life in the changed world that follows. Is this an alternate reality wherein the projected disasters of Y2K came to pass? Perhaps. Cause and effect remain elusive, but the grid has gone down. Later there are plagues and torrential rainstorms, pervasive cancers and volcanoes, draconian bureaucracies and flocks of refugees. Everything, it seems, has gone wrong all at once. 3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy I loved The Road. I also loved Jacob Lambert's hilarious send-up of it, but I loved The Road more. It seemed fashionable a few months ago to not love The Road, but what the hell, I thought it was good. A man and his child move through a world decimated ten years earlier by an unspecified catastrophe. It’s the bleakest apocalypse I’ve come across in literature. Most apocalypse narratives, I’ve noticed, make it easy to imagine surviving the disaster; you imagine you’d probably be among the luckier refugees in Things We Didn’t See Coming, among the survivors of the Go-Away War; but McCarthy presents a world that seems not just unsurvivable, but like a place you might not actually want to survive. 4. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. I came across this book nearly a decade ago, and was surprised to realize just now that I no longer own a copy. It’s a strange and entrancing story, the only novel that Miller published in his lifetime. The book begins in the dark ages of the 26th century, six hundred years after a global nuclear war has destroyed civilization. Illiteracy is nearly universal, but a small order of monks in Utah is dedicated to the preservation of half-understood books hoarded by their founder in the 20th century. The novel spans over a thousand years and reads as a parable of human folly: in 3174 a new Renaissance is underway, and electricity has been re-discovered; in 3781 there are once again nuclear weapons, and rumors of war. 5. World War Z by Max Brooks I’m generally not a fan of zombie fiction, but I picked this up in McNally Jackson in New York one day when I had some time to kill before a downtown appointment. Nearly a hundred pages later I was still reading on a bookstore chair. World War Z is presented as an oral history of the zombie war. An unnamed interviewer travels the world, interviewing survivors of the apocalypse: a pilot who went down over a heavily infested area of the United States while transporting supplies between safe zones, a member of a Chinese submarine crew who watched the end of the world through a periscope, a warrior monk from the evacuated islands of Japan. It’s scarily captivating.
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2009/2010 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Though literary prizes are arbitrary in many ways, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up batting titles and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are two books climbing the ranks this year. With an impressive showing with the judges, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall has become something of an instant classic, landing near the top of the list and in very good company. Meanwhile, the IMPAC shortlist nod puts Marilynn Robinson's Home side-by-side with her much praised Gilead from 2004. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P, I 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
Under a lank and sunsmeared sky the man took the tattered map from his knapsack and smoothed it on the grittened flat of a boulder. Over endless months the map had been worn to practically nothing, incomprehensible in parts. Mended with yellowing scotchtape, rusted paperclips. West Virginia now read West Virgin and it always made him laugh. He knew it wasnt funny, but the world had been boached and heatraped, stripped to its meanest need. No more Patton Oswalt monologues or George Saunders shortstorys. No more catchphrases or oneliners. Only he and the boy and the road and West Virgin. Tee hee. We cross a bridge here, he said, pointing to a beansmudge in the southern corner. It looks to be about eight miles, or two kilometers. See this green dotted line? That means it’s a scenic route. The boy smiled. Will it be pretty, Papa? No. Everything will be dead. But we might see an interesting corpse, he said, mussing the boy’s hair. Twisted into a neat shape in a ditch or something. Or maybe even hung from a branch with its legs eaten off. Oh boy. That sounds like fun. Now this is the river, he said, indicating a random mapcrease. We follow the road here along the eastern slope of the mountains. These are our roads, the black lines here. See these roads? The boy seemed confused. What’s the matter, the man said. I thought it was singular. You know. “The Road.” The man’s eyes went wide. Where did you get those? Get what? The quotation marks. The boy looked at his feet. Ive. Ive been saving them, Papa. Well you can’t just use them like that. He took the boy’s face in his hands, more roughly than intended. Everything is precious. Everything. Do you understand? The boy looked a little bit frightened. Yes Papa. I wont ever use them again. I promise. The man turned back to the map, shaken by the boy’s profligacy. Had he learned nothing from the unending trudge? The harrowing woap? The rampled skoon? Now, he said, turning back to the map. These are the state roads. Why are they state roads? Because they used to belong to the states. But there arent any more states? No. What happened to them? I dont know exactly. The boy thought about that. Everything is very nebulous, isnt it, Papa? Yes, said the nameless man to the nameless child, gazing out at the ruin caused by some massive anonymous catastrophe. Thats how we keep things interesting. They came upon him shuffling along the road before them, dragging one leg slightly and stopping from time to time to scratch at his mealy nethers before lurching forth again. What should we do, Papa? We’re all right. Let’s just follow and watch. They walked in silence. He really scratches at his nethers a lot, the boy whispered. Yes he does. They must be pretty mealy. They followed behind a good ways until he just sat in the road and did not get up again. The boy clung to his father’s arm as they neared the huddled figure. They could see that the old man’s skin was badly quimpled beneath his ragged coat. One of his eyes was burnt fully shut and his hair was but a riggled mirkin upon his charred and dadgy headskull. A piece of scalp had been ripped off, mended with mudcrusted papier-mâché. Part of an ear chewn away, as if by swarming possums. An old coathanger for an arm, the bent hook forming a rude hand. A woolen scarf that totally clashed with his pants. As they passed they saw that he wore mittens on his feet. Upon his one good hand was a shoe. He sat in silence, exploring a nostril with his coathanger. He found something and brought it out for examination, grinning at the nosecrust before going in for more. The boy kept looking back as they walked. Let that be a lesson to you, said the man, keeping his voice low. Never wear a black scarf and brown pants. The man had carried his billfold till it wore a cornershaped hole in his trousers. Then one day he sat by the roadside and took it out and went through the contents. A few dollar bills, a pair of credit cards. A holepunched card from a coffeeshop. A photograph of his wife, radiant in white. He looked at that a long time. When he and the boy had eaten and continued into the valley, he left the billfold and the cards where they lay. A final proof of his wife given to the blind and godless void. He looked back as they walked and was overcome with grief. He had been one holepunch away from a free twelve ounce coffee. They stood in the high chiggerfilled wheatgrass and called to him. Prancing sprites in their natty Sunday best, wispy and shauntled. Across the dancefloor of a heatdried waste where the deathberm had lifted. A lie between verities. Gumption and woe among the mumbling bindlestiffs. A feastless smorgasbord. Was, not was. Mama said knock you out. Kid kid icarus, kid kid icarus. Google it if you must. The figures sunk into their narrow earthen spriteholes, inscrutable message delivered. He woke and lay in the dark, vaguely disappointed. He preferred the dreams with vaginas in them. See Also: Part 1, 2, 3, 4
In those first years the roads were filled with refugees huddled in their rags. Filthy anoraks, torn and dustshraffled Starterjackets. Masked and mittened, tatterslumped on the macadam. Ruined hitchhikers on a boak and godless freeway. Their barrows heavy with shoom, dented pails of dirthat. Towing carts or wagons. On tandembikes and tricycles, eyes wild and heedless. Husks of men shuffling towards a charred and empty nothingwaste. Feverdreams of turkey on rye, barrelpickle on the side. Good, thick tomatoslices. But their ravenous mouths were sandwichless, the frail lie exposed. A cracked and empty cicadashell. The new world gray and skeletonboned, heavy with reckoning. No barrelpickles anywhere, not even Polish dills. Late in the year and growing colder. The mountains looming. He told the boy that everything depended on reaching the coast, yet waking in the night he knew that there was no substance to it. There was a good chance they would die in the mountains and that would be that. Their rotting bodies found by the bloodcults, flesh boiled in great pots and eaten from wooden bowls. Their bones whittled to rude spears, hair made as twine. Hands dried and hollowed, worn as gloves. Skulls for soccerpractice. You had to hand it to those bloodcults. They really knew their way around a corpse. They pressed on through the withered highcountry. Peckers small and anxious against the cold. Scrotes rocksolid, scrunched to the taints. In the afternoon it began to snow and they made camp early and crouched under the tarp. The cold gripped merciless, a silent oblivion. The man made a fire with a few meager branchscraps but it gave little heat. Camping, the man said with a grin as the snow came down all around them. Gotta love it. No response from the boy save a chattering of teeth. A tear frozen to his windreddened cheek. Kids these days, the man thought as he peered out at the steadyfalling snow. They never appreciate anything. He woke whimpering in the night and the man held him. The boy. The man was holding the boy. Shh, he said. The man was saying that. Shh. It’s okay. I had a bad dream. I know. Your pants are wet. Should I tell you what it was? Please do, he said. He was lying though. He didnt want to hear it at all. He’d rather do almost anything. Okay Papa. So we were in the house that we used to live in, and I was eating a pancake for breakfast. But then it wasnt really a pancake. It was more of like a car that uses syrup instead of gas. But there werent any wheels on it. It kind of lifted off the ground and hovered around? But only when youre singing the pancake song. Interesting, the man said. For dreary grinding months, he had pushed a balky shopping cart through a numb and deadened land. Not a sound, nothing to see besides lowhanging fog and immolated ruin. Yet he had never been this bored. The boy went on. And mommy was driving me to school in my pancake car. She was singing the song, about pancakes being tasty and theyre better with blueberries in them. And the seats were big pieces of banana but they werent that sticky even though they were big pieces of banana. And then I told her that I forgot my mathbook and we’d have to go back but all of a sudden her head wasnt her head. It was a baseball player’s head. Was it Sid Bream’s head? Yes Papa. It was Sid Bream’s head. I dont remember what happened next. But it was really scary. I know, the man said, hugging him closer. But he was lying again. He didnt think the pancake dream was scary at all. In the morning of the day following they heard a low steady thunder that grew louder as they walked. Soon they were before a waterfall plunging off a high shant of rock and falling eighty feet through a gray fleen of mist into the pool below. They stood side by side calling to each other over the din. Is the water cold? Yes. It’s freezing. Oh. Would you like to go in? No. Thats okay, Papa. Are you sure? Yes Papa. It looks really cold. Oh, come on. Lets go for a swim. Okay Papa. If you say so. The man took off his clothes and walked into the water. Snausage retreating like the head of a boxturtle. The boy undressed too and tarried at the edge, paleblue and wracked with shiver. Come on in. It’s not too bad. Are you sure Papa? It looks really cold. Im sure. The boy took a breath and dove in, screaming from the shock of it. He hopped up and down, bony arms hugging his thin chest. The man smiled, paddling to keep his head above water. Are you okay? Yes Papa, he said, jaw clenched tight. It’s really fun. I knew youd like it. Just then, the man saw movement on the swackened hillcrest up along the road. He swam to the boy and pulled him towards him. What is it, Papa? The boy said. The man said nothing and paddled them to a low bunt of stone behind the waterfall. Shh, he said as they settled in. We must be quiet. It was a group of four, a man and three women. They were talking quietly. The man’s eyes widened. He knew what they were. If they saw the boy they would surely snatch him up. Never to be seen again. He cradled the boy to his chest. Who is it, Papa? They carried filefolders and clipboards, wore sweaters and cheap haircuts. The man looked away. Theyre from Protective Services. Whats that? Never mind, the man whispered. His heart ached as he watched them pass by. If they see us here they’ll take you from me. Really? the boy said. He watched them with interest as they trod through the haze. See Also: Part 1, 2, 3, 5
The roadside hedges were gone to rows of black and twisted brambles. Burnt matchstick limbs, frail and carcassed treetrunks. A gray pond lay near the low bomus of a sorghumfield, its yieldless surface oily and wan. Ruminant bones in a shallow rocky ditchrun, faint scattered nothing. In a sunlit patch of green, a mother robin fed its chicks, a fat worm at her beak. Oh wait, check that. Sorry. All was dead. The boy stood in the road with the pistol while the man climbed an old set of limestone steps and walked down the porch of the farmhouse, peering in the windows. He pushed his way in through the kitchen door. Lucy, I’m home, he shrieked, the Cuban accent poor from disuse. Trash in the floor. Broken saucers, a heap of old magazines. He looked them over. Jen’s Revenge. Kendra’s Baby Bump. J.Lo’s Booty Wars. The shelves bare save for a chipped Garfield mug, two rough spots where its handle had been. I too hate Mondays, he whispered. He went down the hallway, regarding himself in a broken woodframed mirror. The eyes haunted and sunk. Weatherbeaten cheeks, a matted gritty beard. He looked like Viggo Mortensen. In the parlor, a television set in the corner. Beneath it a Sega Genesis, Battletoads still inside. Arrayed Ikea furniture, brittle and sagging as always. He climbed the stairs and walked through the bedrooms. Everything covered with ash. In a child’s room, a Tickle Me Elmo on the dresser. He went to it, lodestar of plush, the crimson jape. The man squeezed the doll and a thin laughter filled the room. Remains of joy discaptured. He took out his pocketknife and stabbed at the toy until it was no more than scrap and fluff. Breathing hard, he watched as a plastic eyeball rolled slowly across the floor and settled against the moulding. Then he went to the other rooms. He emerged into the gray with three good blankets and the J.Lo magazine and laid it all in the cart. The boy handed him the pistol. Was it okay in there? the boy said. Yes, it was okay. Were you scared? No, the man said. Theres little left to be afraid of. They set out along the road again and the boy looked back at the shinglefallen house that receded into haze. There wasnt anything scary inside, Papa? No. There was no basement dungeon thing? No. There was no basement dungeon thing. Okay. The boy was silent for a moment, then looked up at him. There were no people locked in an underground room? With a secret hatch? And they were eating each others feet and hands and things? The man frowned at the boy. No. There was nothing of the sort. Where do you get such ideas? The boy shrugged. They trod on, and after a time the man smiled. There was a Tickle Me Elmo though. The boy brightened. There was? May I have it, Papa? he said. Oh. I’m sorry. He scanned the cart, feigning concern. I must have forgotten it. The boy tried to hide his disappointment. Thats alright Papa, he said. My rusty beancan is better anyway. Later in the day the boy turned to him. Can you tell me about apostrophes? What do you want to know about them? I dont know. Where did they all go? I dont know, the man said, and it was truth. He didnt know where all the apostrophes had gone. In the gray and cloven coldstunt they came upon a supermarket. A few old cars in the lot, the windswept bleary goam. The man pushed the cart towards the cartstation nearest the entrance, nesting it with the others, and went inside. The boy gripped his hand. They walked slowly up and down the aisles, hoping to find something that had been overlooked. A bottle of water. A can of soup. Craisins, even. In the dustfilled refrigerator case he came upon a warm stack of Lunchables. With his hand, he brushed one clean and looked it over. The ham, cheese, and crackers each sat in its individual station, looking suspiciously fresh. The man’s eyes narrowed as he inspected the pink roundlet of ham, the tiny orange cheddarblock. Is it okay to eat, Papa? I dont think so, he said, laying it back with the others. There’s something not right. We’d best not take the chance. By the door were two softdrink machines that had been tilted over into the floor and opened with a prybar, the work of colascavengers. He sat and ran his hand around inside the gutted machines and in the second one found a cold metal cylinder. He withdrew his hand slowly and sat looking at a Mountain Dew. What is it, Papa? It’s a treat. Oh. What is it though? He frowned as he looked at the garish can, its mad red typeface. I cant really say. High fructose cornsyrup. Yellow number five. A few other things. It’s good. Try it. The man slid his thumbnail beneath the aluminum tab on the top of the cylinder, squeezing the ringside opposite with his forefinger. Leveraging at the rimple, he pushed upwards, springing the lidsheath below. There was a crisp popping noise as the ovoid sheath lowered into the canchamber, releasing the fizzing sugardrink. After flattening back the tab at the rimplejoint with his thumb, he handed it to the boy. It’s more complicated than it looks, he said. The boy sniffed at the can, eyes batting at the fizz. It smells kind of funny. Go ahead. He looked at his father uncertainly and then tilted the can and drank. An odd look crossed his face. It tastes like pee-pee. Yes, a little bit. Sweet, sweet pee-pee. You can have it, Papa. I want you to drink it. Please, Papa. No, it’s your treat. Drink it. Okay. The boy took another sip and they sat in silence, each in his own thoughts. The man recalled an old television show whose title now escaped him though he felt certain that two characters had been called Roz and Bull. Such happiness as he had never known. Madcap wheelings, a sundrous reverie. The judge’s sly magic. After a time, the gray light outside began to fade. We should go, the man said, lifting their knapsacks. Did you like your treat? The boy nodded and managed a weak smile. Yes, Papa. It was very good. Thank you. The man waited until the boy’s back was turned and bent to heft the can. It was still full. See Also: Part 1, 2, 4, 5
Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is one of the most adventurous books I have ever read—a “Holocaust novel” with a particular twist. When I was a child, there had been a lot of talk about a possible Jewish State in the wilderness of Alaska. And suddenly this Jewish State comes alive in Michael Chabon’s feverishly inventive mind, complete with a Jewish Philip Marlowe and a list of horrendous crimes that resembles the design of a diabolic chess master. I fell in love with the novel’s funny, relentless song. I found some of the same music in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a picaresque novel about an impossible future. A father and son wander this bleak landscape, trying to hold onto whatever little humanity they have left. It isn’t easy. They have to fight for some reason to survive. The book reminded me of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where the Mississippi was another kind of road, and Huck and Jim are surrounded by every sort of varmint. But Huck survives through the force of his own poetry, and Jim’s. They form an unbreakable human web. And so do father and son in Cormac McCarthy’s fable about a world gone mad. More from A Year in Reading
They passed through the city the day following. He kept the pistol to hand and held the boy close to his side. The city was blackened, burned to completion. No sign of life. Not a hobo nor trollop, tourist nor knishvendor. Cars swimbled with ash, heavy with parkingtickets. Never to be paid nor contested, no weary fist shaken at the judge’s vacant robes. A corpse in a doorway dried to fruitleather, yellowed newspaper still in hand. Reds lose, five to two. Springtime gardening tips. Ten cents off salsa. He pulled the boy closer. Just remember that the things you put into your head are there forever, he said. Not like the things you put into your mouth. Those fall from your bottom. But you forget some things, don't you, Papa? Yes. You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget. Sometimes you remember what you want to remember, but you have to write it down. He knelt, held the boy’s frail shoulders. I cannot stress that enough. The boy looked down the avenue, pointed towards a bench. Another corpse. Its head had been long ago removed, feet sawn clean at the ankles. Left arm gone, right gnawed to the elbow. A desperate feast. Will I remember that? the boy said. The man regarded the ruined figure as they passed, tousled the boy’s hair. Yes. That’s exactly what I meant. They bore on in the days and weeks to follow, working deeper into the scrub and barren southlands. Solitary and grim through the raw hill country, a fiddler’s cribbled nosegay. In the ruined and empty shoppingcenters, Perkins gave way to Shoneys, PathMarks to Krogers. They passed flimsy aluminum houses, wracked and sagging trailerparks. Rusted truckparts in the sideyards, a longdead satellite dish. Faded beercans, flypaper porches. Remains of a deer. What was it like here before, Papa? the boy said. Was it much different? The man thought for a moment, passed a roadsign riddled with bulletholes. No, he said. Not so different at all. The blackness he woke to on those nights was blind and impenetrable, a ditchdigger’s bunglet. Often he had to get up. No sound but the wind in the bare and blackened trees, his softly running pee. He stood tottering in the chill and bleakened air, arms outstretched, eyes closed as his mind calculated its browngreen trigonometry. How to know what lay in the truncheoned dying inkwell? Beelzebub’s snowsuit. To whisper in supplication. A fearsome slant, a sleekening wampum. He counted his steps as he trod the pitchdark wood, the nameless outer. Who was its grumble? Something unfound in the night, beagled and harpy. To which he owed a debt, a skimbled arcane gratitude. Rockhard Easter Peeps, a turnip’s mad prerogative. As the great pendulum in its orbit sweeping through its movements of which you may decline an invitation or respect its velvet welcoming. Half the time he didnt know what he was talking about. In an old slumpboard smokehouse they found a ham, hidden away in a high and dusty corner. With his knife, he cut into the rockhard porkskin, finding the meat pink and salty. Rich and good. They fried it that night over their fire, the thick slices simmered with a tin of beans. From the few things that remained in their satchel, he made a spinach sidesalad with dried cranberries and bluecheese, candied ginger almonds. Balsamic vinaigrette. Skewers of Portobello mushroom and Vidalia onion, rockshrimp and red pepper. A side of rice pilaf. Crème Brulee for dessert, the boy’s favorite. He stared into the embers as they ate the simple meal. It wasnt much, but it would have to do. In dreams he found his bride in a warm and dewy lea. Breasts flangent in the soft purple air. Legs white and long. She wore a dress of cream-colored silk, her dark hair to her shoulders. Breath even and sweet. She smiled sadly as the clothing fell from her, revealing to him God’s bounty, the longitude of rivers. When he woke, it was snowing. Icebeads hanging from the trembling branches above. He had a big ol’ boner. He mistrusted all of that. He said the right dreams for a man in peril were dreams of peril and all else was the reaper’s call. Yet he dreamt of skipping through a marshmallow cozyland where chipmunks knitted sweaters and carebears sold cottoncandy to put their cubs through Montessori school but he was learning how to wake himself from just such siren worlds. Staring towards the sightless bottomwater sky, the boy asleep at his side, he would curse himself for the lapse. He preferred the one where he had to give a presentation but had again forgotten his pants. They plodded on in the wet and sodden cold. At the broan of a hill was a curve and a break in the trees. They walked out and surveyed the valley where the land swumbled off into the dreary gray fog. A lake down there. Dead and still. A leviathan’s idled crockpot. What is that, Papa? It’s a dam. It made the lake. Before they built the dam that was just a river down there. How did they build it? They put pieces of concrete one on top of the other. How? They lowered them on wires from helicopters. I told you about helicopters, didnt I? The boy nodded. Then scubadivers guided the blocks into place. For the higher ones, they used ladders. How did the pieces stay put? Little nubs on top. Like Lego. Did they need glue? No. Large nails. Damnails. What about the fish? They helped too. The boy took it all in, looked up at him. How do you know so much, Papa? About everything? He smiled at the boy. I know what I know, he said. See Also: Part 1, 3, 4, 5
That sound you hear is a thousand book publicists wailing. Oprah Winfrey will announce today that her eponymous talk show will end in September 2011. That means that in less than two years, the ultimate book publicity coup will be off the table. Oprah's Book Club isn't quite the powerhouse it once was. The club was started in 1996, a savvy move when neighborhood book clubs were in vogue with the Oprah demographic. The Book Club also was a way of distancing the show from its increasingly shock-oriented daytime peers (a format, we may forget, that Oprah once partook of.) In those early years of the Book Club, Oprah would often, though not always, chose a little-known, "mid-list" book that would become an overnight bestseller. In a literary world where writers are playing the lottery against the longest of odds, Oprah was the winning ticket. The Club earned a reputation, perhaps unfair to the Club and perhaps unfair to the books that were a part of it, as a redoubt of "women's fiction," but the selections were more varied than that, ranging from melodrama like Anita Shreve's The Pilot's Wife and Wally Lamb's She's Come Undone to more nuanced fare like Ernest J. Gaines' A Lesson Before Dying and Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat. The Club went on like this for about five years, selecting 10 or 12 books a year, and, with a flick of this magic wand, turning each one into a bestseller. And then Jonathan Franzen came along. You can argue whether Franzen should have accepted Oprah's selection as just another of many honors bestowed upon The Corrections or whether he had every right to exert some well-earned control over how his book was marketed, but one thing seems clear. Oprah had never contemplated the idea of someone turning her down. After Franzen, the Book Club, as if trying to find its purpose again, meandered, initially with some fanfare, but increasing as an afterthought, through classics by Garcia Marquez, Tolstoy and others. The books still sold but she was only making a couple of selections a year, and some of the dazzle had leaked out of the enterprise. Then, to juice things up, Oprah announced that she would return to selecting living authors. In all the furor that followed the uncovering of James Frey's confabulations in his memoir A Million Little Pieces, it's easy to forget that prior to selecting Frey's book, Oprah had actually announced that she was going to go back to picking books by living authors, and there was a good deal of discussion around this, as though "living author" was a genre you might find in the bookstore. But implicit in this announcement was a recognition that Oprah's Book Club just wasn't as exciting without the sub-plot of making an author an overnight millionaire and household name. Or, to put it another way, What Oprah told the New York Times was, "I wanted to open the door and broaden the field... That allows me the opportunity to do what I like to do most, which is sit and talk to authors about their work. It's kind of hard to do that when they're dead." But that was before Frey turned the whole thing into a circus, culminating with Oprah's finger-wagging excoriation of Frey on her show. Since the Franzen-Frey double-whammy, the Book Club hasn't been quite the touchstone it once was. There some moments of cultural relevance, like the cognitive dissonance of Oprah selecting Cormac McCarthy's The Road days before it won the Pulitzer, seeing an Oprah logo next to McCarthy's name on the book cover, and later, her visit to his ranch for her show. But the Book Club remains an afterthought, with new selections happening only rarely (Uwem Akpan's Say You're One of Them in September was the first of 2009) and, while the books she picks still sell and publicists still get excited, the Club isn't as much on the media radar, and no one wrings their hands about Oprah's impact on literary culture any more. This isn't to say, however, that the Book Club was the only reason that Oprah was important to the publishing industry. Oprah had guests flogging books in categories outside of fiction and confessional memoir (and, yes, fictionalized confessional memoir) on the show all the time, and the big sales that followed for these celebrity memoirs, diet books, and self-help guides showed that, in publishing (and in every other business), landing Oprah was still the ultimate publicity coup. While gallons of ink were spilled on the Book Club's literary taste, Oprah's role was probably far more insidious with these other titles, most notably with her incessant flogging of the "power of positive thinking" pabulum found in The Secret. (Salon.com's 2007 takedown of The Secret, and Oprah for hyping it, is essential reading.) So, with the Book Club wasting away and the end of Oprah now in sight, what's a publicist or mid-lister hoping for a miracle to do? The reality is that it's hard to imagine our culture supporting an enterprise like Oprah's Book Club again. In 1996, audiences were far less fragmented, and even a daytime show could command enough of the public's attention to achieve the desired critical mass. Oprah is set to extend her media empire in new ways, as she's launching her Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) early 2011, and while word is she'll do a daily show there, don't be surprised if she takes the shift as an opportunity to retire the Book Club concept. And even if she doesn't, OWN will be just another, and maybe smaller, piece of this already fragmented media landscape, and a new Book Club likely wouldn't be the winning lottery ticket it once was. Who knows, maybe she'll get into publishing, instead. (I can almost hear the manuscripts flying her way.) Bonus Link: The complete list of Oprah's Book Club titles
When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold and the ditch he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Not in a weird way. The nights dark beyond all reckoning of darkness, days endless gray. He rose from the reeking sleeprags and looked towards the east for a hint of light. Long ago snuffed by lowhanging dust, crusted and festering whoremouth. In the dream from which he’d wakened he and the child had wandered in a cave, scrounging for rotted batmeat. Shadows playing the walls like clownpuppets, the whitegloved fingers gnarled and ginshaken. Encircled by the dim, an abattoir lullaby. They came to a great stone room within which lay a longdead lake, its water stagnant and foul. And on the far shore a eunuch mime, naked save for a filthy gray cravat. Dead eyes milky and hollow. With a thin straw to its dirtscarred lips, it knelt, sipping from the brack. It heard their steps, craning its mimeneck to see what it could not. Skin translucent, ribs charbling and swortled, the heart beating tiredly. Facepaint smeared. It waved sadly in their direction, for it could not speak. Then it scuttled into the inky blackness. The man shook his head in the freezing predawn. No more peaches before bed. With the first gray light he rose and walked out to the road and squatted and studied the country to the south. Godless and blasted. A madman’s timeshare. The trees dead, the grass dead, the shrubs dead also. The rivers dead. And the streams and reeds, the mosses and voles. Dead as well. He glassed the ruins, hoping for a shred of color, a wisp of smoke, a faroff Cracker Barrel. There was nothing but swirling gloom, a grasping murk. He sat with the binoculars and the gray, and thought: the child is my warrant. If he is not the word of God God never spoke, although he might have scribbled something on a paperscrap and passed it along. He bit hard on his blistered upperlip. If only I had thought to give him a name. If only. An hour later they were on The Road, an Oprah’s Book Club selection. He pushed the cart and both he and the boy carried knapsacks in case they had to make a run for it. Cannibal rapists, roving bloodcults. Greenpeace volunteers. In the knapsacks were essential things: tins of food, metal utensils, a broken Slinky, a canopener, three bullets, a picture of ham. He looked out over the barren waste, the scorpled remain. The road was empty, as was its wont. Quiet, moveless. Are you okay? he said, quotation marks dead as the reeds. The boy nodded. Then they started down the road, humming a sprightly tune. The tune was silent, and unsprightly. In time they had arrived at a roadside filling station. It was still and precise, a blaggard’s assbath. Ashcovered and freighted with doubt. They stood in the road and studied it. The windows were unbroken, the pumps intact. I think we should check it out, the man said. There might be snacks. Cheez-Its, maybe. The boy looked on as he entered an open door. The man, not the boy. Nothing in the service bay save for a standing metal toolbox, a trash-filled wastecan. Waterlogged tittymagazines. In the small office, ash and dust, soot and flumb. A cashregister, a telephonebook, a metal desk. He crossed to the desk, standing over the phone. He picked it up and punched at the numbers. Three three three, three three three, three three five three three. The boy stood at the door. What are you doing? he said. The man hung up the phone. Jingle Bells, the man said. In the service bay he tipped over the trashdrum and sorted through the plastic oilbottles. Then they sat in the floor decanting them of their dregs, standing the bottles upside down to drain into a pan. This reminds me of ketchup, the man said as he watched the slowdraining oil. The boy brightened. Can you tell me about ketchup, Papa? the boy said. Please tell me. The man stared, remembering another world entire, a world of jellies and mustards, of condiments boundless. Perhaps later, he said. I’ll tell you about ketchup later. The boy watched the slowing oildrip, chin in his hand. Okay. On the far side of the valley the road passed through a fearsome charswath. Blackened and limbless trees, ashblown and dead. On a distant rise, the heatscorched ruins of a farmhouse. Tilted roadside lightpoles. Faded billboards advertising motels, the use of irony. An abandoned Vespa. Are you having fun? he said. The boy hesitated, shook his head. Are you sure? Yes, the boy said. I’m sure. The man looked out over the blasted land, the pebblestrewn waste. Impressions? the man said. The boy kicked at a small black rock. No, said the boy. The man’s heart ached. The boy used to love his impressions. That night they lay beneath their filthy plastic tarp as rain fell from a godless heaven. After stowing the cart in a jagged roadside scarp, they had found a spot a good distance from the road. A thick copse of deadburnt spruce. The dirt underhead was hard, and with the wind and the cold and the running viscous ash it was difficult to sleep. Can I ask you a question? the boy said after a time, his teeth chattering. Yes. Of course. Are we going to die? Sometime. Not now. Okay. Tomorrow maybe? No. Not tomorrow. Not for a long, long time. Oh. Why not? Because we’re going to be okay. The boy considered this. Okay, he said. There was silence for a time. Then the boy spoke again. But could we maybe die the day after? No. I will protect you. No matter what. Okay. The boy paused. But what if we did? Or maybe just me? Could I maybe die? The man laughed into the tarpgrit as thunder pealed across the wet, bleakened valley. And leave all this? he said. See Also: Part 2, 3, 4, 5
One thing I know after working on The Millions for all these years is that the site has some incredibly knowledgeable and avid readers, the sort of book people I loved working with back in my bookstore days and who are the lifeblood of literary culture. And so, even as we were polling our distinguished panel of writers, editors, and critics, we wondered, what do Millions readers think? We polled The Millions Facebook group to find out. The list our readers came up with was very interesting, and deviated in noticeable ways from that of the Pros. Before I get into the details. Have a look at the two lists below (Links in our panel list go to the writeups we published throughout the week. Links in our reader list go to Amazon): Panel Readers 1 The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen 1 The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz 2 The Known World by Edward P. Jones 2 2666 by Roberto Bolaño 3 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell 3 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 4 2666 by Roberto Bolaño 4 Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell 5 Pastoralia by George Saunders 5 The Road by Cormac McCarthy 6 The Road by Cormac McCarthy 6 Atonement by Ian McEwan 7 Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald 7 The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon 8 Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson 8 The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen 9 Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro 9 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson 10 Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro 10 White Teeth by Zadie Smith 11 The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz 11 Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami 12 Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg 12 The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini 13 Mortals by Norman Rush 13 Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro 14 Atonement by Ian McEwan 14 Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald 15 Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis 15 Empire Falls by Richard Russo 16 Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides 16 Runaway by Alice Munro 17 The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem 17 The Master by Colm Tóibín 18 Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link 18 Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 19 American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman 19 Unaccustomed Earth ** by Jhumpa Lahiri 20 Gilead by Marilynne Robinson 20 Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke While everyone seems to agree that The Corrections is a great book (it was the panel winner by a landslide), Millions readers put seven books ahead of it, and anointed Oscar Wao the top book of the decade. Our readers have always loved Oscar, so that wasn't a huge surprise, but it was also interesting to see that the readers had a high opinion of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, rectifying probably the biggest snub on our panel list, (along with White Teeth). But then, the readers snubbed The Known World, so who knows. With a massive field of potential books, snubs were inevitable. Left off both lists were both of Jonathan Safran Foer's novels, David Foster Wallace's Oblivion (his only fiction of the decade), and Denis Johnson's much praised Tree of Smoke. Voters were also dying to include Bolaño's The Savage Detectives. It was ineligible because it was published in Spanish in 1998, but it makes one wonder, what books will seem like shoo-ins for this type of exercise 10 or 11 years from now but are completely under the radar (or still untranslated) today? Moving back to the books that did make the list, I also loved that the readers included Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, a book that I've been hearing about from our readers for years, and Half of a Yellow Sun, a book that's always had a lot of support in the online literary community. Also intriguing is the appearance of mega-best seller The Kite Runner. Finally, if we try to look for a consensus among the two lists, several titles appear on both, but the two with the most support across the entire spectrum of respondents are 2666 and Cloud Atlas, which, if you had to pick just two books to define the literary decade now coming to an end, would make for very interesting selections indeed. We'll be publishing follow-up pieces in our Millennium series over the coming weeks, so look for those. I also wanted to thank our panel and Millions readers for taking the time to participate in the series. If you enjoyed the series and value the coverage that The Millions provides, please consider supporting the site.
There are, in Cormac McCarthy’s impossibly affecting novels, details that simultaneously open up his dismal universe and draw in the reader. In Blood Meridian, it’s the Apache wearing the wedding dress. In All the Pretty Horses, it’s the bullet hole in the wallet. In No Country for Old Men, the glass of milk, still sweating on the coffee table. In The Road, it’s the can of Coke, pulled from the guts of the vending machine. No, it’s that the soda has somehow stayed carbonated after the cataclysm. No, it’s that the father lets his son drink the whole thing. Surely this is one of the most humane and deeply inhabited moments not just in fiction from this millennium, but in all of literature. And yet the book is rife with such moments, replete with such deep empathy for the father and son that some of the bleakest passages will turn your stomach as only love can. This is perhaps the most shocking aspect of The Road: what remains, what you remember years after you’ve read the book, is the beauty, the compassion, the relentlessness of possibility that burns on the colorless horizon. You understand—much in the way that you first understand poetry, through feeling and syntax and imagery rather than logic—that no matter how desolate the story, it is made bearable through language. There is, the novel asserts, something like triumph in the very telling of a tale, a commitment to the act of witness, and to receive a story is to exalt the imagination, to participate in the process of faith, to accept deliverance. Why else, then, would the father in the novel—when his son is too scared to sleep, when the noise of the world dying its cold death keeps him awake—comfort the boy with narrative? They’ve been stripped of everything except voice, but even on the darkest path words can retain their meaning, their promise of light that will lead lost travelers home. Read an excerpt from The Road. More Best Fiction of the Millennium (So Far) Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award last week, the 2008/2009 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Though literary prizes are arbitrary in many ways, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up batting titles and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. Most notably, after being named to the IMPAC shortlist, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz has joined the ranks of the most celebrated novels of the last 15 years, making it, along with the other books near the top of the list, something of a modern classic. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods added to point totals from last year in the case of three books. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P, I 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P 4, 2008, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N 4, 2008, The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon - C, N 4, 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid - B, I 4, 2007, Animal's People by Indra Sinha - B, I 4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill - C, N 4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes - B, I 4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry - B, I 4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, C 4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie - I, W 4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C 4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C 4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I 4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I 4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P 4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I 4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W 4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I 4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N 4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P 4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W 4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I 4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W 4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P 4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I 4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W 4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I 4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I 4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W 4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W 4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N 4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I 4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, W
By now you've read the result, Toni Morrison's A Mercy edged out Tom Piazza's City of Refuge to win The Tournament of Books. Now, if I were a betting man, and it were possible to bet on the Pulitzer winner, I'd bet on A Mercy. Why? The Tournament of Books has called the Pulitzer winner the last two years running. In 2008, Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao took home the Pulitzer on the heels of the Rooster. And in 2007, Cormac McCarthy's The Road saw its Pulitzer win presaged by not just a Rooster, but also its unlikely companion, an Oprah's book club pick. On April 20th, we'll see if the Rooster still has the jump on America's oldest literary prize.
So that you may get to know us better, it's The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today's Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven't read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I'll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I'm looking forward to it). I haven't read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity's Rainbow, or Infinite Jest - I tend to avoid big books. I'm too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I'm a scared wimp, but I'm thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I've started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I've made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D'Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I'm also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven't even read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven't read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That's right, I haven't read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I've never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that's about it. Aside from excerpts, I've never even read Homer.I'll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I'm not exactly sure what I'm missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote - I've actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I've never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I've done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I've also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction - that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I've done quite well with modern British fiction, and I've also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I've delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace's encyclopedic prose, I'll actually finish Infinite Jest. It's mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly "I Never," there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I've never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story "Hills Like White Elephants"), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven't read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine - not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors - my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer's "A Reader's Manifesto" at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers' extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy's "muscular" style were as much (more) than I'd ever need of McCarthy's much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who's will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who's will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who's will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses - give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I've never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King... Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school... So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus... and that's pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I'm not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading - secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I'll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I've had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I've been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it's the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I've never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I've long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I've only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I'd like to try Anna Karenina next. I've also never read Lolita. Updike's passing this week reminded me that I've never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo's books and Foster Wallace's. By Philip Roth, I've read only Portnoy's Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can't even recall that I haven't read, but I'll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?
Todd Zuniga is the founding editor of Opium Magazine and a co-founder of the Literary Death Match reading series. His fiction has appeared most recently in Canteen. He's now at work on the tentatively titled Passport, a non-fiction collection about memory and home that covers 20 countries.I feel ridiculous even listing it because of its popularity (and my tardiness to the party), but The Road by Cormac McCarthy is the book I read this year that most reminded me of two things: why I love to I write, and why I love books. It worked deep into me, so much that I ended a date prematurely with a beautiful, funny, charming woman just so I could take the longest possible subway ride home to burn through more of it. I love how it challenged my eternal optimism, how I kept wanting and wanting and wanting for things to be okay. Then there was a moment when I was as worn out as The Man and The Boy, and I threw my hands up, and said, "Fine! You win! It's not going to be okay! There is no redemption!" And then, after starving us of it for so many pages, there's humanity and there's hope.More from A Year in Reading 2008
Nam Le is the author of the debut short story collection, The Boat, which Junot Diaz calls, "an extraordinary performance." Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times wrote that Le's "sympathy for his characters and his ability to write with both lyricism and emotional urgency lend his portraits enormous visceral power." I agree. I went to graduate school with Nam, and in our first week, he called to me from across the bar: "I read your story... you animal!" It felt like a real creative writing buddy moment. It's been great fun seeing him gain all of this much-deserved acclaim.The Millions: Although you capture a wide range of voices and locales in these stories, the prose in this collection feels distinctly yours, from the well-placed sentence fragment to the descriptions of light. Can you talk a little bit about how you craft sentences, and how language creates the worlds you're exploring?Nam Le: There are so many ways to think and talk about this (you're basically asking for my ars poetica!) Here's how I've been thinking about it of late: every sentence carries within it a certain set of charges, vibrations, shapes - and what I try to do is chase down a state that's maximally charged, or shapely. Sometimes that state is more visually concerned - how a word looks - fits - into a sentence, and sometimes more aural; sometimes it treats more with images, other times abstractions. This is what I mean by a text's organic imperatives: these "states" can't be pinned down on a pulled-back level; they're not conformable, in isolation, to describable tendencies (long or short, cerebral or sensory, complex or simple). They have to be dealt with on their own terms, within their own contexts. Of course the effect this has on a technical level is pretty disheartening: it suggests that every sentence that is, on first go, serviceable, efficient - even competent - can almost always be improved, can be brought to a fuller communicability.TM: How long did you work on the stories in this collection, and what was the revision process like, especially once you conceived of these stories as a book?NL: I worked on this book about four years all up. It's tough to divvy up the time because the whole process can be so lurching and spasmodic: basically the first versions of these stories were written over two years, then they were rewritten and revised pretty intensely for the next year (those that got placed in magazines in collaboration with the respective editors), then again, for another year - at times from the ground up - with my U.S. editor at Knopf, Robin Desser, and, to a lesser extent, my Australian editor at Penguin, Meredith Rose - both tough, sensitive and superb editors. As tough as they were, though, inevitably I was my own toughest critic. I wanted to discharge what I knew to be the insane privilege of getting published with the personal undertaking to myself that every word, every choice, would be weighed, tested, spoken for. I wanted to be able to stand behind each story (even if only, at the end, to boot them out of the room).Revision's hard, of course. There's none of the typical pay-off of plowing new turf, it's a constant challenge to fence with different sensibilities as well as to gauge the slippery sensibility of that hypothetical reader, and maybe worst of all, the whole thing's potentially endless. Time and time again you have to convince yourself you're completely done with something - then time shows you again and again you're not. A case in point: "Halflead Bay" arose out of the germ of another story, "The Keeper," the former clocking in at about 20,000 words, the latter 16,000. Not a single sentence made it from "The Keeper" into "Halflead Bay" - that despite the fact that I was at one time convinced (at the end of many drafts) that "The Keeper" was absolutely done. This sort of anticipatory second-guessing can make it hard to knock off a story, let alone a collection of stories (where by the time you're done with one story, you've got all the others to re-contend with as well).TM: In "Meeting Elise", the narrator receives a painful colon exam. Have you ever received this kind of treatment, and if not, how did you go about writing about such a subject? How far will you go in the name of research?NL: I know your game, Edan - you want me to deny this so that later, when I refuse to deny something else, you can infer it's true! Did I undergo a painful colon exam? I'm certainly not going to answer this kind of question and the answer is certainly no.That said, I'm not averse to going as deep as possible in the name of research. In this case, for example, I consulted doctor buddies, looked up medical sites and blogs and checked out photos and videos (which in themselves were plenty painful for me). Generally speaking, nothing's off-limits when it comes to research - it's just a case of from how far into the rough you like to putt.TM: I know that you repeatedly watched the pilot to the television show "Friday Night Lights", at one point charting the various plot points introduced. Why - was it more than mere curiosity? Do you look to other forms of storytelling (television being one example) to help you with your own work?NL: Wow, it's like we're friends or something - like you actually know me! (Either that or you have a hidden recorder on my TV set, which is something I'd rather not think about...) Look, if there's one thing we literateurs like to lament even more than the inferiority of TV to books, it's the implied inferiority - aesthetic, intellectual - hell, political and cultural too - of TV-watchers vis-a-vis book-readers. There's overlap between the groups, obviously, but it's not exactly subversive to suggest that TV, more than literature, caters to society's lowest common denominator. I don't disagree with this, but I do think this lowest common denominator might be higher than we give it credit for. For me, TV (and yes, other forms of storytelling too) can provide instruction in a lot of particulars, but perhaps, especially, in the art of narrative manipulation. Watching the pilot of "Friday Night Lights" - a network, not cable, show, mind you - makes me newly sick with envy of the brutal economy of film. (If a picture is worth a thousand words, how to calculate the worth of a thousand pictures, stitched together to convey continuous real-time motion, and then underlaid with sound?) When it's well done (and in "Friday Night Lights" I think it is) TV serves to remind us how sophisticated even the "commonest" audience is - how many narratives it's capable of holding at any given time, how deftly it can unpack story and character ramifications based on the scantest of cues, how easily it can calibrate plots and sub-plots working at parallel- and cross-purposes. Of course there's massive shorthand at work, and the recognitions evoked are typically shallower, more familiar, less textured, than arise out of literature - but in truth I find the narrative structures of "cheap" TV shows more adventurous and formally emboldened than those of "literary" fiction. Plus TV's often more fun - and I'm sure a large chunk of my own fiction could probably use a primer there too.TM: You were a fellow at Provincetown - a place that would certainly terrify me in the winter, especially if all I had to do was write. What did you do with your time there? Does your writing process change with any of these moves in locale?NL: Provincetown during the winter is a magical place. The most beautiful thing about it is how it coheres with the mood of your work; that feeling you usually have to spend time and energy and luck chasing down before being granted access, that feeling that, in the real world, is constantly short-circuited - by the real world. In P-town, it's as though your creative sensibility is never shut down, is left on permanent standby, and you're always writing, even when you're walking, or watching TV, or cooking, or clamming, or playing ping-pong. On top of that, P-town brings together three elements which make me feel more fully alive - the beach, big weather, and a community of artists not limited to just writers. There was only one downside. I lived in the A-framed top floor of a barn and the toilet was tucked into one of the vertices; I half-sprained my back every time I took a piss.TM: What's your impression of the American literary scene, now that you've had a book published and been on book tour?NL: So far as I can tell: in terms of clout, cash, influence, reach, interconnectedness, and, to my mind, aesthetic ambition and distinction (in all senses of the word), it's still the biggest game in town. I don't mean that as provocative statement (I'm writing this from Australia) but as a surmise based on my limited personal observation. Big is both good and bad. Looked at from a mainstream vantage, the American literary scene can seem oligarchic, self-sustaining, incestuous - the same conglomerations publish the prohibitive majority of books sold and given serious attention - and, too, soulless and numbers-driven. Yes, it's a machine. But now I've been chewed up and spat out by it, I can report that it's a machine with many moving parts, many points of input, potential jams, and built-in redundancies. It's a machine still largely fueled by aesthetic passion and enormously dependent on voodoo, timing, and serendipity. It's a machine still tended by human beings working in something close to a state of faith (or, in another way of thinking, professional negative capability) - because, amazingly, no-one yet knows how exactly the machine works - or how exactly to work it.From a more inside-baseball perspective, the literary scene can actually seem quite decentralised and diverse. This is particularly true on the emerging end, where MFAs teem and thrive alongside literary presses, magazines, journals, zines, blogs, etc, as well as - all the way up the spectrum - festivals, readings and reading series, book clubs and groups, independent stores, and various reviewing and lit crit forums. There's a lot of news about literary culture currently being under siege - and a lot of truth to that - but having felt the community and energy out there I can't help but wonder whether this might be, in fact, the ideal condition for literature.TM: What was the last great book you read?NL: Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
Bryan wrote in with this question:I'm a 2007 graduate of Columbia. I majored in American Studies with a concentration in 20th century American literature. I'm a huge fan of the Millions. I'm attaching a recent reading list, if there's any chance you'd be interested in giving a book recommendation [based on it], that would be totally awesome. Here goes:Currently reading:Heart of Darkness by Joseph ConradRecently read (sep 07 - april 08):Elementary Particles by Michel HoullebecqA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave EggersMan In The Dark by Paul AusterPortnoy's Complaint by Philip RothWhat We Should Have Known - n+1The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullersLook Back In Anger by John OsborneThe Road by Cormac MccarthyPages From A Cold Island by Frederick ExleyUltramarine by Raymond CarverThe Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan KunderaThe Country Between Us by Carolyn ForcheLiterary Criticism: An Introduction to Theory and Practice by Charles BresslerA Good Man Is Hard To Find by Flannery O'ConnorGoodbye, Columbus by Philip RothWinesburg, Ohio by Sherwood AndersonThe Big Sleep by Raymond ChandlerMeditations In An Emergency by Frank O'HaraSwann's Way by Marcel ProustThe Sound And The Fury by William FaulknerLife Studies and For The Union Dead by Robert LowellFor Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest HemingwayIncidences by Daniil KharnsJourney To The End Of The Night by Louis-Ferdinand CelineBryan's recent reading list is an interesting one, and in discussions among Millions contributors, several interesting observations were made. Emily noted, for example, that it is a "very testosterone-y" reading list and added, "I think all testosterone diets are bad for the soul. (as are all estrogen diets)." Her prescription? Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Ben, meanwhile, noted several "upgrades" that Bryan might consider to the books above. Instead of Goodbye, Columbus, read Saul Bellow's Herzog. If you're going to read Exley, read A Fan's Notes, and "Infinite Jest should be on there, probably the greatest work of 20th century literature," Ben adds. Garth said that Bryan "needs urgently to read is Mating by Norman Rush, which is like an amalgam of Conrad, Roth, Proust, F. O'Hara, and Hemingway," all authors featured on Bryan's list.In thinking and discussing Bryan's list, we also hit the idea of a "staff picks" for recent grads - a year out of school, Bryan qualifies, and with another round of graduates set to be expelled from academia, we figured that it might be both timely and useful. Below follows a handful of suggestions. This list is woefully incomplete though, so we ask you to help us out with your own reading suggestions for recent graduates in the comments.Autobiography of Red by Anne Carson recommended by EdanThis novel-in-verse is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Geryon and Herakles. In the original myth, Herakles kills Geryon, a red-winged creature who lives on a red island; Carson's version is a kind of coming of age story, in which Geryon falls in love with Herakles. If the form intimidates you, don't let it: this is one of the most beautiful books I've ever read.The Quick and the Dead by Joy Williams recommended by EdanThree teenage girls, a bitch of a ghost, and the apathetic desert. The Quick and the Dead is an odd and very funny novel that has pretty much no narrative drive but is nonetheless a joy (no pun intended!) to read because of its wondrous prose.Air Guitar: Essays on Art and Democracy by Dave Hickey recommended by EdanThis is a fun collection of essays that will feel far more entertaining than any criticism you read in college (though maybe not as mind blowing). The best piece in the book, I think, is Hickey's argument for why Vegas (where he lives) is so terrific.George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London recommended by AndrewSo you're holding your degree in one hand and, with the other, you're untangling a four-year growth of ivy from your jacket. All the while maintaining that cool, detached air that you've been carefully cultivating. Well, before you join the real world and settle into the routine that will destroy your soul bit by bit, each and every day FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE, take a breath, find a copy of George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London, and shake your foundations one last time.Orwell was probably about your age - mid-twenties or so - when he found himself out of the army and living in the underbelly of Paris and then in London, living in poverty, working as a plongeur and doing other assorted subsistence-level jobs, and scraping by. A largely autobiographical account of those years, Down and Out in Paris and London exposes Orwell's social soul. "I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny."Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis and The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway recommended by MaxTo me, the post-college years are characterized by two often warring desires, to become a contributing member of society despite the horrifying drudgery of those first post-college jobs and to extend the second childhood of undergraduate life for as long as possible. Lucky Jim riotously encapsulates the former, as junior lecturer Jim Dixon finds himself surrounded by eccentric buffoonish professors and overeager students at a British college. He wants what many of us want: to escape the dull life before it traps us forever. The Sun Also Rises famously depicts the pitfalls of the other path. Brett and Jake and their burned out gang live life in a perpetual day-after-the-party fog. The Pamplona bullfights, aperitifs, and camaraderie may be tempting, but the attendant spiritual weariness gives pause.
A while back, I put together a post called "The Prizewinners," which asked what books had been decreed by the major book awards to be the "best" books over that period. These awards are arbitrary but just as a certain number of batting titles and MVPs might qualify a baseball player for consideration by the Hall of Fame, so too do awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and secure places on literature class reading lists in perpetuity.With two and a half years passed since I last performed this exercise, I thought it time to revisit it to see who is now climbing the list of prizewinners.Here is the methodology I laid out back in 2005:I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread]bold=winner, **=New to the list since the original "Prizewinners" post11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio - C, I, N, P7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P **7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W6, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P **6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C **6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - B, P5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P **5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P **5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P **5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N **5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W **5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I **5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill - C, N **4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes - B, I **4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry - B, I **4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, C **4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie - I, W **4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, W
The Tournament of Books is a wacky enterprise, but for the second year in a row, it has predicted the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Last year it was Cormac McCarthy's The Road, this year it's Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Here are this year's Pulitzer winners and finalists with excerpts where available:FictionWinner: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - Junot Díaz participates in our Year in ReadingTree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - excerpt, Garth's reviewShakespeare's Kitchen by Lore SegalGeneral Nonfiction:Winner: The Years of Extermination by Saul FriedlanderThe Cigarette Century by Allan BrandtThe Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross - excerptHistory:Winner: What Hath God Wrought by Daniel Walker HoweNixon and Kissinger: Partners in Power by Robert Dallek - excerptThe Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War by the late David HalberstamBiography:Winner: Eden's Outcasts by John MattesonThe Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein by Martin Duberman - excerptThe Life of Kingsley Amis by Zachary Leader - excerptWinners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.
Yannick Murphy's latest novel is Signed, Mata Hari, published this November by Little, Brown & Co. She is also the author of Here They Come, The Sea of Trees, Stories in Another Language, the forthcoming In a Bear's Eye, and Ahwoooooooo! a children's book. More information about Yannick Murphy’s writing can be found at www.yannickmurphy.comMy mind isn't screaming after the first sentence, that's when I know a book is going to be a good one. If the first sentence isn't predictable and I wish I had written it myself, that's also how I know. Then, if I feel scared, it's a sure sign the book is a good one. I'm scared to keep reading because all of the sentences are good and I know I'm going to have to start writing better if I even want to come close to being as great as that writer is. And, really, I'm always in a fight against laziness and I don't want to have to work so hard at being a great writer and so then I become mad at the writer because they've ruined the perfectly comfortable zombie state I was in, and now this, now beautiful sentences that engage me and overwhelm me and challenge me. Finally, if I'm reading and I can't help but keep reading because the sentences keep pushing me headlong into their rhythms and glottal stops and playfulness so that I'm so far into the book that I then say, "Oh, my god, what's going to happen next?" then I also know it's a good book. After that I forget all about the mechanics of individual sentences because they become part of the entire deep and complicated event of the story. That is what happened when I read the novel The Road by Cormac McCarthy, I stopped analyzing and criticizing and I gave in and it was delicious and I became wholly entertained. It's what always happens when I read his work.More from A Year in Reading 2007
The Tourists, the debut offering from young novelist Jeff Hobbs, is a book about four college friends at Yale who, seven or so years removed from New Haven, find themselves reconnected in New York City. The tie that binds them is lust and longing, and also a certain "how did I get here?" melancholy. The permutation of sexual pairings among these four individuals is at the heart of the plot - an unlikely twist since the ratio is three-to-one in favor of the men. These relationships, including an ill-begotten marriage of college sweethearts, are governed by power and not love. It's a vision of fading youth, punctuated by the tastelessness of the characters' successes, the inevitability of their failures, and the rank indulgences with which they attempt to stave off their despair. But the book is not without humor, and it is full of observations about the interaction of personality, choice, and consequence. Though things do fall apart, the center, embodied in the unnamed narrator, does his best to hold, and is the one character largely unchanged at story's end (though we are left wondering if perhaps he himself is the most manipulative of the bunch). Recently, the Millions tracked down Jeff Hobbs for an interview.The Millions: Greetings, Jeff Hobbs. Thank you for answering some questions from the Millions.Jeff Hobbs: Thanks so much, Noah. I am completely, sincerely flattered to be included on your site.TM: First of all, I couldn't not mention this: in the acknowledgments of your book you thank your dog, Noah, for the many hours he spent curled up at your feet as you wrote. My ears pricked up at this revelation: I have the same name as Jeff Hobbs' dog. I've always felt that we need more Noahs in the writing world...JH: Thanks for the shout out to my dearest friend, but he would make an incredibly dull character in a book: ever loyal, ever loving, ever ready to lick your face in the morning to get your ass out of bed so he can poop.TM: Now, The Tourists. On the back cover of your book there is a blurb in which someone uses the term "a generation at loose ends" to describe the group to which the characters belong. Is this a fair assessment? Talk a little if you would about these characters: why do their choices lead them away from self-satisfaction? What rolls do talent and privilege play in their "real world" difficulties?JH: I would call them a "generation flailing" - flailing for success, for wealth, for some small measure of renown, and for - like everyone, always - happiness. About eighty percent of current college students list either "wealth" or "celebrity" as their number one goal going into the "real" world. Our particular generation was raised to believe that we can - we should - achieve everything we want in life, and now we find ourselves suddenly deposited in towns and cities without the basic infrastructure to know what we do in fact want (i.e. what will make us happy) or the nose-to-the-grind attitude that our parents and grandparents largely had. With this book, I tried to depict four young people flailing in their own distinct ways. David has wealth but is unhappy with where it's landed (or cornered) him. Samona has financial and domestic security but feels inconsequential in the world around her. Ethan has achieved wealth and fame, he can sleep with anyone he wants - but he's still melancholy and alone. The narrator has achieved exactly nothing that he was aiming for on his first idealistic train ride into the city, and so he lives vicariously through the others. Without giving up too much plot, their interplay is all about people trying to change each other - and in doing so, change themselves - in flailing attempts to angle themselves toward elusive fulfillment.TM: Sex: in The Tourists the characters clack together like billiard balls, then drift away only to be thrown back in with each other when the next game is racked. The only romantic love depicted in the story is between the protagonist (or antagonist as the case may be), Ethan, and the narrator. They had a relationship in college before the narrator realized that he himself was not gay, and therefore could not return Ethan's love. Ethan's unrequited feelings for the narrator seem to be at the heart of his coercive sexual practices thereafter. What was your approach to the portrayal of such complex, and, for many readers I suppose, unfamiliar sexual relationships? (You artfully describe Ethan's seduction of another man, one who is not gay, in one of the books strongest - and arguably most implausible - passages.) What if any are the differences between homosexual and heterosexual relationships, beyond surface anatomy? In what ways does a character's sex life add specific depth to their personality on the page?JH: Another notable difference between this generation and others (at least as far as I can tell, judging from how appalled my family was upon reading this!) is a rather casual approach to sexuality. Sexual fluidity is a firmly rooted part of the culture at this point, at least in urban centers, and I worked hard to approach sexual encounters and relations this way in the book. (Perhaps going a little overboard; a reader of an early draft once advised me that, unless these people are carrying around industrial size jars of baby oil, some of the scenes are physical impossibilities.) Setting off to write a story about whether or not one person can change another person in any relationship, sexuality felt like a solid metaphor.TM: You have an understated writing style, straightforward, almost journalistic (indeed, the narrator portrays himself as simply reporting the events of the summer - with some details filled in, of course), and you are not prone to flights of fancy verbiage. But your observations can be acid, viz. descriptions of the world of high finance and those that populate it, or your sketch of the David Taylor character - how his dream of becoming a prep school teacher and coaching track yielded to spreadsheets and stop-loss orders. The ironies that you present are big ones, such as the narrator, who enjoys no financial security, possessing the largest account of self-awareness and principle of all the characters. I know you have a connection to Bret Easton Ellis; I hesitate to use the word protege without really knowing. Tell us a bit about the development of your writing. How has Mr. Ellis helped you along? What other authors have influenced your work? What are your core literary values when it comes to spinning a yarn?JH: Bret is tremendously insightful, well-read, and he possesses the keenest intellect and (more importantly) instinct of any writer I know (admittedly few, but...). He treated the first draft of the book the way an editor treats it, slashing words and paragraphs that were imprecise or didn't belong, streamlining dialogue, and recommending books that could be useful. I will always feel indebted to his generous aid. I love Michael Chabon, Andre Dubus, Toni Morrison, Lethem, Faulkner. As far as development goes, you just sit alone in a room all day thinking, and you write under the knowledge that ninety percent of what comes out is garbage, and you keep piling up those ten percents until you have a book that feels right. "Spinning a yarn" begins with the structure, which is not to be confused with plot. If your structure doesn't work, then you could have the most majestic prose of anyone, ever, but the book as a whole won't stand. In The Tourists specifically, I felt the book called for a stark, sharp, journalistic voice because it is built as a mystery, and the story and characters are so isolated. So you start with scribbled thoughts and outlines and lots and lots of notes, and you create the structure - and everything else, the voice and style and POV, etc, stems from that first roadmap. So every book should have a different voice, I believe, depending on the fundamental structure the author decides to use for that book.TM: You used to live in New York, and your book is set here, but you now make your home in Los Angeles. A Brooklynite myself, I would like to know, what's up with that?JH: NYers are so snarky about LA; it's really not so bad out there! My wife is a born and bred Brooklynite (Fort Greene), and our heart is and always will be on S. Portland Avenue, but we went west for her work. The people and atmosphere made me pretty miserable and whiny at first (for instance, Rebecca didn't know how to drive - a not-minor problem), and then I snapped out of it by thinking: why are you taking yourself so seriously? You live in a nice little cottage with a lemon tree in the back yard, and you can walk out your door and be on a mountaintop an hour later, and all you need to work is a pen and paper and the a corner of a room. We have very good friends who love to BBQ. And the Philadelphia Eagles can break your heart just as deeply watching them at the Rustic Tavern in Los Feliz as they can at the Dakota Roadhouse in Tribeca. Meanwhile, the dog is very, very happy to be inhabiting a place larger than 300 sq. feet.TM: I'll stick with New York for a minute. DeLillo's Falling Man and a host of other recent works of fiction have sparked a dialogue about "the 9/11 novel." You touched on 9/11 in The Tourists, albeit very briefly. Do you have any thoughts about the implications of 9/11, and the course that America has navigated since then, for writers of fiction? Do you think a young writer like yourself necessarily considers the subject from a different perspective than a writer of an older generation?JH: 9/11 is so tricky for fiction because of what feels like an obligation to address that event in any contemporary story, and especially one set in or around Manhattan. It is so much a part of the national consciousness because it is so visually apocalyptic and globally far reaching. The more successful novels dealing with 9/11 and its effects have been the strictly metaphorical ones, such as The Road - books that explore the primal fear and loss embodied by that day rather than the physical event itself - mainly because it is such a stretch for written words to depict the actions and sensations that we all saw and felt that day. I think this happened with the Holocaust as well: no prose, no matter how riveting, can precipitate the same gut reaction as seeing a photo of a mass grave or going to the Holocaust Museum in D.C. and standing over the room filled with abandoned shoes. Books can take a person away like no other medium can, but horror of this scale can quickly expose the limitations; the visceral impact does not compare. As far as being younger, I can only generalize, and I do not presume to speak for anyone other than myself. Those of us in our twenties are perhaps more removed from the political, economic, etc, implications of 9/11; we as a generation are much more inclined to live day to day, without excess forward thinking, and it is easier to shut out our basic, latent terror that way. Thinking ahead to what the world will be like in fifty, twenty, ten, even five years is enough to drive anyone crazy - and especially those of us in our twenties who are still largely unestablished and insecure. We are friends and siblings with soldiers, not teachers and parents, and it feels hard to conceive of doing anything heroic on the homefront, and so we occupy ourselves by simply getting by. So while we are perhaps well-suited at dealing with the short-term implications - and perhaps to write about them if driven to - we might be less suited down the road, when the long-term implications become more clear and we find ourselves lacking the foundation needed to deal with them. I can say for certain that my attitude and all my sensibilities have changed now that I have a little family of my own. Whereas before, when all I had to worry about was myself, food, and rent, it was so easy to maintain that layer of distance to people and news and, essentially, reality. Now, married and thinking of having children, the fundamental urge to hold loved ones close - to protect and endure in a precarious universe - underlies every single day.TM: Okay, last question. You went to Yale, studied English and Literature, won some writing prizes, etc. And so, Jeff Hobbs, I ask you: who makes the better slice, Sally's or Pepe's?JH: At risk of cutting my already modest readership in half, I'd take the train down to Philly for a Gino's cheesesteak over either, anytime.Thank you.
My wife, Edan Lepucki, is a newly-minted member of the Oprah Book Club. She also has an MFA from the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and a story forthcoming from CutBank. So basically, she knows what she's talking about when it comes to the books and the reading business. Plus, she's totally hot. Here's her writeup of the most recent Oprah literary extravaganza:I'd decided to read The Road after it emerged victorious from the Tournament of Books. The day I went to purchase it, the stack of paperbacks had already been blessed with a golden O, signifying that it had been inducted into Oprah's Book Club. I'd never before read an Oprah pick along with millions of other book club members, but I decided to give it a try. What would it be like? I was both excited to see the episode with McCarthy, and ashamed to be excited - I'll admit, I ripped the O sticker off my copy. I was superior to all those soccer moms, wasn't I? I didn't need Winfrey to tell me what to read.On this blog and others, I've been unsettled by the slight tinge of sexism that colors some comments about Oprah's Book Club. So many people were surprised she'd chosen The Road, such a dark and literary novel. Some readers even threw around the phrase "chick lit" to describe her previous picks (except for Faulkner, of course!), and worried her viewers might not "get" McCarthy. But are the books of Toni Morrison, Isabelle Allende and Edwidge Danticat, just three of the many former club picks, "chick lit" simply because they are written by women? Even though I'd never participated in Oprah's club, I always thought it was a good thing - it sold books, lots and lots of them, and got people to read. So what if those people were mostly women? Does that make their enthusiasm and discussion of text less valid?Of course, I'm asking myself these questions. I mean, I sometimes don't read a book my mom has recommended to me. The reason? It's too much of "a mom book" - meaning what, I'm not sure. I catch myself viewing such books (written by women, and read mostly by women) as somehow not important or challenging enough, even though when I've given in and read, say, Ann Patchett's Bel Canto, I'm met with something both ambitious and moving, and I need to check my attitude.Okay, I'm getting off track, because everyone knows Cormac McCarthy is all man. What would he do in Oprah's Chicago studio, with all those women clutching their copies of The Road, wanting to know: What has happened to the world? Why didn't you name your characters?Turns out, the real book club discussion is happening online - if you sign up as a club member, you can post on a message board, and get discussion questions, and so on. The episode of Oprah had none of that, only an interview with McCarthy at the Santa Fe Institute, couched between segments with Michael Moore and Bono's Vanity Fair gig.I'm sure many of you have already heard about the interview, which was McCarthy's first (and probably his last, Oprah told us). She asked him, "Did you always know you wanted to write?" to which he answered, "I think." She asked, "Are you passionate about writing? Is it your passion?" to which he answered, "I don't know... passion seems like a pretty fancy word." She asked him about writing process; turns out, he types on a portable Olivetti typewriter, doesn't plan the story out too much, and doesn't tend to fraternize with other writers. They devoted much of the interview to McCarthy's previous era as a pauper.To me, the most interesting question Oprah asked McCarthy was about the absence of women in his books. A good question, considering all the women who were now his biggest fans. He answered, "Women are tough," meaning, I suppose, that he doesn't know how to depict them on the page. Oprah didn't push this, and I wish she would have - How is a female consciousness different from a man's? Is McCarthy more interested in a world made and unmade by men? Is he simply afraid of getting it wrong with the ladies? Or is he just really into cowboys?Oprah looked pretty nervous throughout the interview, and not wanting to upset a man who never talks about his work, she played it safe. That's fine, Oprah, that's fine - but you better make Jeffrey Eugenides jump through some hoops, or I'm defecting from your army.Bonus Link: As you may have heard. Oprah's next pick is Eugenides' Middlesex.
Every three months I've been looking at Barnes & Noble's quarterly conference call to get some insight into recent book industry trends and to see which books were the big sellers over the past few months and which are expected to be big in the coming months. Barnes & Noble's first quarter ended May 5th. Here are the highlights from CEO Steve Riggio on the Q1 conference call (courtesy Seeking Alpha):In keeping with an ongoing trend, Barnes & Noble's margins were pressured as the chain continues to discount heavily to stave off competition from the likes of Wal-Mart and from Amazon's popular Amazon Prime program. Nonetheless, Wall Street seemed to like the overall numbers and pushed the stock higher.Sales in both the stores and online were better than expected. "Both benefited from a better new release schedule than we've seen in some time.""Rhonda Byrne's The Secret has the unique distinction of being our bestselling title in hardcover, audio book and DVD."Riggio said that Mohsin Hamid's The Reluctant Fundamentalist was the third straight "Barnes & Noble Recommends" selection to "become an instant fiction bestseller upon publication."Meanwhile, Oprah drove sales of Sydney Poitier's Measure of a Man and Cormac McCarthy's The Road.The quarter's non-fiction bestsellers were Einstein by Walter Isaacson and In an Instant by Bob Woodruff.Looking ahead, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows will hit the shelves at the end of Barnes & Noble's Q2. Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns just debuted "with very strong sales." There's also new fiction on the way from James Patterson, Nora Roberts, Robert Parker, and Ian McEwen (On Chesil Beach).On the non-fiction side of the ledger, new release The Reagan Diaries is already selling well. A pair of books on Hillary Clinton are coming shortly: A Woman in Charge by Carl Bernstein and Her Way by Jeff Garth. "We expect, of course, many more titles by and about the candidates for the presidential election season to be coming over the next year to 15 months," Riggio said.
The winners and finalists for the Pultizer Prize were announced today. I had recently speculated that The Road wasn't a "typical Pulitzer candidate" in that the Pulitzer typically recognizes books that are less post-apocalyptic, but The Road suddenly appears unstoppable. (Note as well that we now officially have a book that was picked by Oprah before it won the Pulitzer. I bet that surprises some people.) Here are this year's Pulitzer winners and finalists with excerpts where available:Fiction:Winner: The Road by Cormac McCarthyAfter This by Alice McDermott - excerptThe Echo Maker by Richard Powers - excerptGeneral Nonfiction:Winner: The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright - excerptCrazy: A Father's Search Through America's Mental Health Madness by Pete EarleyFiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq by Thomas E. Ricks - excerptHistory:Winner: The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff - excerptMiddle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005 by James T. CampbellMayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War by Nathaniel Philbrick - excerptBiography:Winner: The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher by Debby Applegate - excerptJohn Wilkes: The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty by Arthur H. Cash - excerpt (pdf)Andrew Carnegie by David NasawWinners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.
The IMPAC shortlist has arrived. If you don't know about the IMPAC, it's a very unique prize with a very long longlist. This year's longlist was composed of nominees from 169 libraries in 45 countries around the world. Those picks are then whittled down to a shortlist via a panel of judges. As you'll see from the shortlist, since the process leading up to this award takes so long, some of the books aren't exactly new. I think involving libraries makes the IMPAC unique compared to a lot of other awards out there. It seems a lot more egalitarian than, say, the Booker or the National Book Award, and I appreciate the international flavor as well. There's more info about the award at the IMPAC site. Now, here's the shortlist with some comments:Arthur and George by Julian Barnes - Was shortlisted for the Booker back in 2005 - excerptA Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry - Joined Barnes on the 2005 Booker shortlist.Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee - This book was featured in our long ago post "The beauty of British book design."Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer - Corey took a look at this book in a "CVBoMC" installment last year. - excerpt.The Short Day Dying by Peter Hobbs - This debut effort by British novelist Hobbes was nominated by a single library in Bergen, NorwayNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy - With The Road getting all the praise these days, some might forget that McCarthy's previous novel hit shelves just 21 months ago, a blink of an eye for a writer who's written ten books in 41 years - excerptOut Stealing Horses by Per Petterson - This book by the Norwegian Petterson won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize last year. It'll be published in the U.S. next month.Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie - Shalimar was a Whitbread finalist in 2005, but generally the book is not thought to be one of Rushdie's best efforts. The book was nominated by a library in Berlin - excerpt
Reading can be rewarding.I'm late to this party. Everyone has been expounding on their love for this month's book - Cormac McCarthy's The Road. But before Oprah, and before the Tournament of Books, and especially before the hype and praise and high expectations, I decided I'd better give this book a shot. So, essentially, I read The Road just a few weeks before it went from hidden gem to full-out media blitz.I read it nearly straight through, in three sleepless nights. I couldn't put it down. I didn't want to put it down.While following The Road's main characters - a father and his son - down into the horrible world of post-apocalyptic wasteland, I felt I owed these characters something - that I needed to continue reading to make their sacrifices pertinent. To make their suffering worthwhile.I was left wordless. I couldn't think of anything but the book. The tortured landscape. The bands of wild rebels, roaming along the roads, searching and hiding and turning everything they could into a viable source of nutrition. Fighting for their lives in the most terrible ways.Reading The Road leaves nothing but thought. It spells out the special bond between father and son, especially when put to the test. It shows survival like no other. How hard it is to break a spirit. How long it takes a man to die inside, and what that does to the body outside.It leaves you wondering why the world has, for the most part, ended? We barely know. For our own protection, I assume. Could we take the truth? Isn't it enough to walk alongside these vacant, hollowed out corpses, slumming from camp to camp, fearful of not just death, but of how death can come; armed with enough to make it quick - dying being the only escape from capture.Think of everything we take for granted.Think about brushing your teeth. About drinking a Coke. Shaving. Wearing clean socks. Living in the same place every day, sleeping in the same bed. Sleeping in a bed at all.About hearing birds. About seeing the green buds of the forthcoming spring, the dying leaves of the passing autumn.Think about having friends. Think about remembering the face of those you love. Think about knowing where they are. About where you're going.And think about your dreams. Because in The Road, there aren't any. There's no time for dreaming - no time for considering what lies ahead, what the people you used to know could be doing or where they ended up. Instead, all you see ahead is dark. The only faces you remember are blurred. The only tie to your former life is a child that was born after the destruction, after the killing, after the world slowly spun away, leaving nothing but a charred remain, a zone of impossibility.Who needs to wait for death when Hell has already made itself known?After reading The Road, I thought long and hard about what I would do. I thought about the events that led up to this destruction. I considered the role of global warming, of nuclear war, of driving wedges into every peace-deprived location on this ever warring earth. How far are we from total annihilation? How far are we from turning this dystopian wasteland - one under rigid social control not from a group or government, but from nature, specifically human nature's will to survive - into a true life prophesy?The Road is a masterpiece. I say that without hyperbole. It's the best book I've read in the past five years. I love the mystery and the subtle reminders of a former life. I love every time McCarthy sends us back a few years, to when people had just begun dying; trying to give us clues as to what really happened.Really, I'm not sure we could handle what happened. Just like the two lonely souls walking along that road couldn't bear to look back.Why would you want to? Maybe that's something else we take for granted - the idea that memories don't disappear, and that sometimes looking back can be more harmful than anything we could do to ourselves. When your only way is forward, and your only reprise is death - why would you ever want to look back down the road. Why would it matter where you came from?The Road. It reaffirms the art of writing fiction. What else can we say about it?Corey Vilhauer - Black Marks on Wood PulpCVBoMC 2006, 2007: Jan, Feb, Mar.
As expected, Cormac McCarthy's The Road took home the top prize in TMN's Tournament of Books. Oprah stole some of the award's thunder with her surprise announcement, but the excellent finale, with commentary from 17 judges, is a great read. In fact, I had a great time following the Tournament this year (for me it rivaled the NCAA's in terms of holding my interest). It was a treat to read reactions to books like The Road and One Good Turn day after day from a big group of people. I'm already looking forward to next year.And incidentally, after reading all these reactions to The Road in the Tournament, along with all the Oprah-fueled media coverage, it's starting to sound like The Road is one of those important books that comes along from time to time. One that has real staying power.
You've got to hand it to Oprah. After a public snub from Jonathan Franzen, an abrupt switch to focusing on classic books, and a return to the contemporary with a confessional memoir that turns out to plagiarized - resulting in the very public humiliation of its author on her show - one would think that Oprah would have run out of opportunities to grab big headlines with her book club. And yet, by selecting Cormac McCarthy's The Road and convincing the famously reclusive author to appear on her show, she has done it yet again.I had a couple of thoughts about this pick. In the early days of the club, Oprah selected quite a few emotionally challenging books, often with female protagonists in some sort of peril. With her selection of Franzen's The Corrections, however, the club broke out of its shell and then traversed the various ups and downs noted above. Still, it is fascinating to me that this unabashedly mass market phenomenon, the TV show book club, would pick a book that is by all accounts harrowing and devastatingly serious and not an easy read in any sense. It's not the first time Oprah has selected a formally "difficult" book. Recall the "Summer of Faulkner." Still, to take a book that is all of the above and also contemporary seems rather incredible. It will also be interesting, if The Road goes on to win a Pulitizer or National Book Award, to have had Oprah "anoint" a book before our more formal institutions have.Secondly, I couldn't help but think about poor Franzen as I read the news that McCarthy would appear on Oprah's show. Franzen, of course, famously feuded with Oprah after she selected his book and he was publicly ambivalent about being an "Oprah author." This led to plenty of comments like this one from an independent bookstore owner at the time of the controversy, saying that she felt "that good literature cannot be an Oprah selection." With McCarthy appearing on the show for his "first television interview ever," it's hard to make that argument any more. We're talking about a legitimate Nobel Prize candidate here (and somehow this is different from Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez's classic One Hundred Years of Solitude being selected a while back). And poor Franzen, taking a public stand for his art and facing plenty of ridicule at the time, has had his legs cut out from under him by a literary giant - a famously reclusive one at that - eschewing the hand-wringing and taking the Oprah honor in stride.Update: It's been pointed out to me that The Road missed its chance to win the National Book Award - it went to The Echo Maker, as you'll recall. The Road is still in the running for the Pulitzer, but as it is far from the typical Pulitzer candidate, I'd guess its chances there are slim. So McCarthy will have to be satisfied with the unlikely duo of an Oprah Pick and a TMN Tournament of Books win (which the book appears likely to snag).