This year I grabbed a lot of books almost totally at random and finished most of them, some in a few hours (hello, Jean Rhys’s gorgeously unnerving Wide Sargasso Sea, which I read in a hotel in Tijuana in the spring), some over many months (looking at you, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, an exquisitely boring novel I now meditate upon, helpless, for around two hours a day). I didn’t have a plan. For a while I read nothing but Joan Aiken novels. Nominally this was because I was writing about Joan Aiken for The New Yorker, but when you are reading books as delightful as Aiken’s, the whole question of motive begins to seem somewhat beside the point. For instance, you would never say, “I’m leaving this world for a plane of transcendent joy so I can write about it for the New Yorker.” Or maybe you would, but in that case I harbor grim suspicions about the integrity of your Instagram feed.
I read a lot of Chinese poetry from the Tang era, returning again and again to Du Fu whenever I felt hopeless or desolate. His work is a steady source of strength for me in hard times: compassionate, particular, seemingly able to encompass both the whole of existence and the precarious lives and moments held within it. Of course he also lived through one of the most terrifying periods of social upheaval in human history, and his thousand-year-old poems ring out clearly against the onslaught of our current news cycle. If you can read his accounts of life as a refugee and still feel indifferent to the refugee crisis, you must be molded from very cold clay.
I didn’t read many new books this year; who knows why. Among the books published in 2018 that I did pick up, Sam Anderson’s Boom Town, a lyrically thrilling account of the history of Oklahoma City, and Your Duck Is My Duck, Deborah Eisenberg’s new collection of short stories, were particular favorites. I read the Eisenberg collection while traveling on my own book tour. I found myself wanting to read her work, instead of mine, aloud at most of my stops.
Mostly, though, I read books I should have read years ago, books everyone else has already read. Imagine, with wonder and pity written starkly on your features, the poor sod who had not picked up Nabokov’s Pnin, or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun, or Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, or LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, or Elmore Leonard’s Tishomingo Blues, until 2018! Reader, that sod was me. After scrolling, rapt, through Meg Wolitzer’s recommendation in The New York Times, I finally tracked down a copy of Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, a novel so perfect, so funny and heartbreaking and funny-heartbreaking, that I expect to read it again in 2019, if not this weekend.
But I can’t this weekend—this weekend I’m reading Hamid Ismailov’s The Underground, another book I’m years behind on. I look forward to catching up with his new work from this year, along with that of so many other writers I admire, in approximately 2033.
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Anyone who has followed Jay McInerney’s long career has watched his gradual shift from a would-be F. Scott Fitzgerald to a kind of modern male Edith Wharton at home in the very circles of wealth and prestige his younger self so desperately yearned to break into. In the best of his early books, including his 1984 debut Bright Lights, Big City and Brightness Falls, published eight years later, McInerney’s characters were brash upstarts from the provinces intent on storming New York’s citadels of power that, in their minds, glowed at the heart of the metropolis like the green light at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s dock. These incursions inevitably failed, but the heady cocktail of youthful idealism and drug-fueled self-loathing that propelled their execution lent those early books an edgy, antic charm that sent copies flying off bookstore shelves.
But that was all a very long time ago when McInerney was himself a brash upstart from the provinces. Since then, he has published several bestselling novels, been the subject of countless magazine profiles and gossip columns, and married four women, most recently Anne Hearst, sister of Patty, and heir to the Hearst publishing fortune. In his more recent novels, among them Bright, Precious Days, which comes out this week, McInerney’s characters, while born elsewhere, are long-time New Yorkers who attend lavish society dinners and rub shoulders with crude-minded finance types Edith Wharton would recognize at first sight.
McInerney is clearly wise to this shift. Bright, Precious Days, the third volume in a trilogy that began with Brightness Falls, brims with Wharton references, and it isn’t hard to imagine McInerney seeing Russell Calloway, one half of the couple at the center of the trilogy, as a 21st century Newland Archer, the bibliophilic gentleman lawyer of Wharton’s 1920 masterwork The Age of Innocence, who, as Russell might put it, values “the Art and Love team” over “the Money and Power team.” It’s a bit more of stretch, but it’s even possible to picture Russell’s wife Corrine as one of Wharton’s smart, headstrong heroines reimagined for a modern age when a Lily Bart or Ellen Olenska could be a happily emancipated woman married to the same man for 25 years.
Unfortunately for his readers, the Wharton mantle is an uncomfortable fit for McInerney. Wharton was a native not only of New York, but of the uppermost echelons of its high society. Born Edith Jones, into the family for which the phrase “keeping up the Joneses” was coined, Wharton never suffered under the Fitzgeraldian illusion that the rich are different from the rest of humanity. When she describes Newland Archer in the opening pages of The Age of Innocence as “at heart a dilettante, [for whom] thinking over a pleasure to come often gave him a subtler satisfaction than its realization,” she is describing a rich man’s affliction, but also a distinctly human, painful one. Newland is a man bursting with love who, by some quirk of personality and upbringing, cannot show it openly to another living being.
McInerney, on the other hand, despite his decades as a successful New Yorker and his marriage to an actual heiress, retains an outsider’s reflexive fascination with, and envy of, the city’s plutocratic set. Status envy fuels nearly every sentence of Bright, Precious Days, from its breathless recitations of high-end restaurant meals to the Calloways’ constant carping about the inadequacies of their 1,800-square-foot TriBeCa loft, with its single bathroom and uneven wooden floors.
The Calloways, you see, rent but cannot afford to buy their TriBeCa loft or their Hamptons summer home, and when they indulge their pleasures, whether it be bonefishing in the Bahamas or guzzling first-growth Bordeaux at a Manhattan eatery, they can only do so at the invitation of their wealthier friends. That they are successful in their professions, Russell running his own publishing house, Corrine the CEO of a charitable nonprofit, and that their children, though occasionally sarcastic and whiny, seem reasonably happy and loving – all this means nothing. Well into middle age, Russell and Corrine remain at heart perpetual children with their noses pressed against the window pane, wondering what the rich kids are doing.
“How was it,” Russell asks himself late in the novel, “that after working so hard and by many measures succeeding and even excelling in his chosen field, he couldn’t afford to save this house that meant so much to his family? Their neighbors seemed to manage, thousands of people no smarter than he was — less so, most of them — except in their understanding of the mechanics of acquisition.”
That sound you hear in the background is the world’s smallest violin playing “New York, New York.” But the Calloways are deaf to the tune, and so Russell, displaying his lack of understanding of the mechanics of acquisition, overpays for a memoir of dubious provenance, and Corrine, wishing to escape the horrors of upper-middle-class poverty in TriBeCa, rekindles an old fling with a globe-trotting private equity baron with whom she has nothing in common beyond the fact that they are married to other people.
There is plenty more to Bright, Precious Days, some of it interesting, great masses of it flabby and cuttable, but this is as close as the novel comes to a true narrative engine: As they enter their 50s, Russell and Corrine pretty much have it all – great jobs, lustworthy real estate, loving kids, lifelong friends – yet still feel cheated by life. Why can’t they own their TriBeCa loft? Why can’t they blow thousands of dollars on a bottle of wine at lunch? Why can’t they take their friends bonefishing in the Bahamas? Why, oh why, is the world so unfair?
The Calloways seemingly had it all in Brightness Falls, too, but in that book, the pair’s thirst for still more made them compelling, even admirable, Corrine restlessly seeking meaning in life, Russell, wildly ambitious and impetuous to a fault, engineering a leveraged buyout of the publishing house where he worked as an editor. That he failed in spectacular fashion was less salient than the fact that he had the nerve to try, that at the height of the go-go 1980s, when Brightness Falls is set, he could imagine turning the machinery of commerce against itself to further the aims of art.
By the mid-2000s, when Bright, Precious Days is set, that Russell Calloway is gone, his place taken by a cossetted, self-involved gourmand who revels in knowing which strings to pull to get reservations at the latest trendy restaurant and walks an extra three blocks on his way to work to buy his morning latte at the café that, in his view, makes “the best coffee in the city.” If anything, Corrine, always the more likable of the pair, has become an even greater cipher, risking a family and husband she loves for a pallid, cliché-ridden affair with a semi-retired financial titan possessing all the outward personality of a bonefish.
Two years ago on this site I made the case for Bright Lights, Big City “as one of the great undiscovered gems of post-World War II American literature.” I stand wholeheartedly behind that judgment, and I would put Brightness Falls, along with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, on any list of indispensable novels about the 1980s. Whatever else you could say about the young Jay McInerney, he was a damn good novelist. But it seems long past time to admit that, like his fictional avatar Russell Calloway, that early Jay McInerney is long gone, his place taken by an aging society wit, whose work, while never less than polished and professional, has lost its precious brightness.
My friend and I have created this running joke about a blockbuster movie in which the hero — a slothful young man with a mysteriously absent father — spends every day at a Starbucks, dutifully banging out a few sentences of his unfinished novel. One day the barista spells his name wrong on a cup, but it’s actually a cryptic message, and soon a wall in the bathroom is sliding open to reveal a hidden passageway. Our hero descends beneath the Starbucks into a bustling, technologically sophisticated control room where, for centuries, a secret cabal of the greatest writers on Earth has been using its literary chops to save humanity from all sorts of apocalyptic threats. Of course the hero’s father belonged to this cabal, and of course there’s an alien tyrant determined to invade Earth and muck up its entire public library system or whatever, and of course our hero wipes the muffin crumbs off his t-shirt and ends up saving us all from annihilation — but most importantly he learns a lot about the craft of writing.
In a way, that story has already been done. Have you read The Secret History by Donna Tartt? It’s about gifted college students who become so passionately intellectual that they have no choice but to start killing each other, and it captivated me when I first read it. Or maybe you read Special Topics in Calamity Physics, in which a painfully brilliant student solves an elaborate murder mystery using her exceptional skills in the humanities? Or The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, which bravely explores how tragic and meaningful life can be when you’re a terribly erudite chimp? Or the warehouse of knowledge porn known as Wittgenstein’s Mistress?
And then we have The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt. I’ll tell you right now that I love this book, but I feel helpless to love it, and I wonder if loving it makes me a bad person.
This is what happens in The Last Samurai. Sibylla, a devastatingly smart and preternaturally rational young woman from America, goes to a party in London and meets a famous writer whose style she abhors, comparing it to Liberace’s. Disappointingly, she sleeps with him. (“I was still drunk, and I was still trying to think of things I could do without being unpardonably rude. Well, I thought, I could sleep with him without being rude.”) She ends up raising a child, Ludo, who can memorize The Iliad and teach himself foreign languages at age five. Ludo would be the crowning achievement of any comfortably situated Park Slope mom, but Sibylla, who struggles to pay the bills by transcribing old issues of magazines, can barely feed Ludo’s appetite for knowledge. She often resorts to playing an old tape of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, hoping it will provide Ludo with some admirable male role models. Ludo begs to know his father’s identity. Sibylla won’t tell him.
After his 11th birthday, Ludo finds a clue that leads him — secretly, without Sibylla’s help — to “Liberace.” But when he sees that Liberace is a hack, and that telling him the truth won’t do any good, Ludo keeps the big revelation about his parentage to himself. “If we fought with real swords I would kill him,” he thinks, quoting one of his favorite lines from Seven Samurai. Instead, Ludo takes off on other journeys throughout London, searching for surrogate father figures — a brilliant linguist who traveled the world, a charismatic physicist with a popular TV show, a reclusive millionaire painter. When Ludo finds them, he lies and says he’s their son. “A good samurai will parry the blow.” Hilariously, most of them believe it — it seems that “great men” have a tendency to sleep around. As the father figures try to explain themselves and dish out advice to their not-quite son, Ludo gains a variety of perspectives on how he might conduct his own life.
What worries me about The Last Samurai is how exceptional Sibylla and Ludo are, and how quickly I find myself identifying with them.
Sibylla’s work as an underpaid transcriber sounds backbreaking. She sits at a typewriter in a small London flat (which is so poorly heated that in winter she and Ludo ride the tube to stay warm) and labors for 36 hours at a stretch to preserve garbage publications like Advanced Angling, British Home Decorator and The Poodle Breeder for posterity. Meanwhile she has to ignore the emotional development of her absolute prodigy of a son because she’s too busy earning money to keep them alive. But when I read this, I’m happy! Because I feel like I’ve been there. Haven’t we all — especially those of us with a passion for language and typing — felt like a wage slave at some point, like an unheralded maestro, and doesn’t that memory lodge itself in our identities and become a part of who we are? So I read this heartbreaking passage about a single mother suffering in her cold London flat and I feel a vicarious joy, as if Helen DeWitt “gets” me.
And when Ludo takes his magnificent brain to public school for the first time, and discovers the exquisite agony of being misunderstood by a world of simpletons, I feel like Helen DeWitt “gets” me.
And when The Last Samurai jokes about the nobility of linguistics and the dreariness of Oxford University Press, then I really feel like Helen DeWitt “gets” me, because I used to be the linguistics editor at Oxford University Press.
The jacket copy for the new edition of The Last Samurai makes a big fuss about how, when the book was originally released in 2000, the publisher declared it was “destined to become a cult classic.” To which Garth Risk Hallberg replied, “Why not just, ‘destined to become a classic?’” By releasing this new edition, New Directions seems to be signaling that we’re ready to erase the word “cult” from the book’s reputation.
But I’m not so sure. I feel helpless to love The Last Samurai because it “gets” me. But how many other people can say that? How many linguistics editors are there at Oxford University Press? How many people, when they read about a devastatingly smart and coldly rational white woman who tells her tragically brilliant son that she would have committed suicide by now if not for the fact that she feels obligated to raise him, will smile and quietly rejoice because this is exactly the type of misfit they fancy themselves to be? Who is foolish enough to admit that they fantasize about being oppressed by their own superior intellect?
I think there’s something shameful about loving The Last Samurai. The novel gratifies the individual egos of a very specific type of reader. And isn’t that what a cult classic is — a book that people love, but only for themselves?
“A good samurai will parry the blow.”
What’s so damning about knowledge porn is that it’s often written with the same basic level of intelligence as any other work of mainstream literary fiction. Which ruins the whole premise! Here is a paragraph from Special Topics in Calamity Physics:
Dad picked up women the way certain wool pants can’t help but pick up lint. For years, I had a nickname for them, though I feel a little guilty using it now: June Bugs (see “Figeater Beetle,” Ordinary Insects, Vol. 24).
So we have a lamestream analogy about pants gathering lint, followed by a completely invented bit of “scholarship” that leads the reader nowhere but is meant to indicate that the narrator is actually brilliant. This is not what a smart person sounds like. You can’t footnote a cliché and call it genius. (Remind me to yell at you about the magician-heist movie Now You See Me and its ridiculously named sequel, Now You See Me 2, which commit the same infuriating error on a massive Hollywood scale.)
Fortunately for us, The Last Samurai is better than that. It’s a rare work of knowledge porn that actually conveys knowledge. Flip through the book and the first thing you’ll notice is Greek writing, or Japanese writing, or impossibly long strings of numbers. As Ludo studies, DeWitt folds his material into the text, and a patient reader will learn that, in Japanese, JIN is an exogenous Chinese lexeme, while hito is an indigenous Japanese lexeme; that in E.V. Rieu’s translation of The Odyssey (yes, it’s a real thing), Odysseus calls his companions “lads;” and that in the sum of any sequence n + (n+1) + (n+2) + (n+3) etc. is simply half of the sum of the sequence added to itself backwards. DeWitt doesn’t just tell us her characters are smart; she builds the truth of that assertion into the book, and she makes us smarter for reading it.
As a stylist, too, DeWitt stands above most peddlers of knowledge porn. Both Sibylla and Ludo, as narrators, pour forth in a primly accurate voice that often gives way to sardonic or slapstick humor. Sibylla marvels at the cheesiness of a western movie that rips off Seven Samuai: “Not ONE but SEVEN tall men in tights — it’s simply MAGNIFICENT.” Unsure of what to say in the note she leaves for Liberace after sleeping with him, she writes several pages analyzing the The Iliad in the original Greek, and then realizes, “I still did not have something on the page that could be concluded with an airy Ciao.” At one point Ludo mentions that Sibylla dressed him up like a hunchback so they could sneak into an age-restricted screening of The Crying Game. It’s a frequently delightful book, zany in the same way that Nell Zink is zany, as we watch the narrator’s extraordinary intelligence run out from under her and trip against the common things in life.
During the five pages when Ludo confronts his father Liberace, I underlined everything they said because DeWitt’s use of dialogue — with innovative elisions and subtle shifts in POV — is masterful. Structurally the novel grows up and out, just like Ludo, grasping at new relationships and open-ended questions even as the story is ending.
So if The Last Samurai belongs to a genre of books that perpetuate a seductive fantasy about the nature of intelligence, then it’s the best example of that genre I’ve ever seen.
And let me tell you another thing I love about The Last Samurai. It blurs the line between biological kinship and intellectual mentorship in a way that feels strangely mature and matter-of-fact.
From Sibylla’s perspective, raising Ludo seems an awful lot like a horror movie. She gives birth to this accidental child whose rapid intellectual development suddenly takes priority over her own (just like her being born ruined her mother’s goal of developing as a musician). But the child prodigy is basically a sociopath until he grows up, and in the meantime she is still responsible for feeding him, cleaning him, and providing him with the raw materials that his life’s work — whatever it may be — will be built upon. This is the horror that all mothers experience, just ratcheted up a notch because this particular child is smarter than Isaac Newton and Noam Chomsky combined. And that’s not even the worst part. The worst part is how easily Sibylla might fail, how easily Ludo could become a monster, how easily she might fall into despair and lash out at her son: “A chittering Alien bursts from the breast to devour your child before your eyes.”
When your child is not just smart, but freakishly smart — as Ludo putzes around like a child, Sibylla refers to him drily as “The Phenomenon” — you have a moral and social imperative to raise him well. Throughout the novel, Sibylla suffers from boredom and heartache and poverty and suicidal thoughts, but she never stops trying to raise Ludo responsibly. She forces Ludo to read a film critic’s take on a lesser Kurosawa film about a judo champion, hoping to teach him that there is no terminal state of contentment at the end of the hero’s journey; that “a hero who actually becomes is tantamount to a villain.” As Ludo’s fiendishly pedestrian schoolteacher puts it, Ludo “has got to understand that there is more to life than how much you know.”
The dramatic tension at the heart of The Last Samurai is this question of whether Ludo will ever learn that there is more to life than knowledge porn. And whether we will, too.
There is so much I wish I could unknow about Emma Cline and her debut novel The Girls. I wish, for instance, that I didn’t know Cline was 25 when she sold the book, or that Random House paid a reported $2 million-plus for it as part of a three-book deal. I wish, too, that it weren’t so obvious that the cult that Cline’s narrator, Evie Boyd, joins in the novel is based on the Manson Family, whose senseless 1969 rampage at the home of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate has been the subject of countless books and documentaries. Finally, I wish Cline hadn’t chosen to tell the story in the retrospective first person, both because the heavy-handed foreshadowing in the framing story kills any lingering doubt over what’s going to happen, but also because Cline’s narrative voice is so much smarter and more emotionally aware than the girl she’s writing about that it’s often hard to believe they’re the same person.
Cline is a gifted stylist, and her subject is a sensational one, which is no doubt why her editors saw in The Girls the potential for a breakout literary thriller like Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. But I fear New York publishing has jumped the gun here. The weight of expectation that comes with the headline-grabbing book advance combined with Cline’s inexperience as novelist cancels out the many flashes of fine writing in The Girls, leaving the reader wishing this talented young writer had been allowed to develop slowly, under the radar, instead of being showered with cash and pre-publicity before her craft had caught up to her prodigious gifts.
Those gifts are on display in the novel’s perfectly realized opening scene when Evie first sees the female acolytes of the Charlie Manson stand-in, here called Russell Hadrick, in the summer of 1969. The scene unfolds like the opening shot of a 1970s art-house thriller, all saturated color and sinuous slow-motion, as Evie watches the scruffy, long-haired girls saunter through a suburban picnic, seeming to “glide above all that was happening around them, tragic and separate. Like royalty in exile.”
Evie, a lonely 14-year-old whose parents are divorcing, is mesmerized by the girls’ mix of grunginess and hauteur, noticing how “a ripple of awareness followed them through the park.
The sun spiked through the trees like always — the drowsy willows, the hot wind gusting over the picnic blankets — but the familiarity of the day was disturbed by the path the girls cut across the regular world. Sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water.
The novel begins to sag soon after this bravura start, though it takes a while to figure that out because Cline writes so well even when there isn’t much going on. Cline sometimes tries too hard and she might want to dial down the reflexive sentence fragments, but she has a natural’s eye for the telling detail, the single image that makes a character indelible: a girl with a “face as blank as a spoon,” a smarmy young drug runner whose “upper-class upbringing kicked in like a first language.” A few pages later, Cline nails the look of the late-1960s Haight-Ashbury in one pitch-perfect sentence: “Everyone was healthy, tan, and heavy with decoration, and if you weren’t, that was a thing, too — you could be some moon creature, chiffon over lamp shades, on a kitchari cleanse that stained all your dishes with turmeric.”
But whatever they may say in MFA programs these days, a novel is more than the sum of its sentences. For much of the first 100 pages, before Evie gets caught up in Russell’s cult, The Girls is a glacially slow tale of a lonely teenager struggling to come to terms with her parents’ divorce. Here and there the social and political freakiness of the Vietnam-era 1960s penetrates Evie’s cocoon-like suburban existence, but for far too long the book reads like a well-written but underplotted Judy Blume novel.
One plods through this familiar territory waiting for the shock of Evie’s immersion into the cult, only to find oneself once again dropped into a world that all too neatly matches one’s expectations. Cline has combined a few of the real-life characters for narrative simplicity, and moved the group’s base of operations from a ranch north of Los Angeles to a ranch north of San Francisco, but in every other way she has simply inserted the fictional Evie as a minor player in the true-crime story of the Manson Family.
Here we have Russell/Charlie, a scuzzy Flower Power Wizard of Oz in buckskins and bare feet yammering on about free love and emancipation from straight-world hangups while dreaming of being a rock star. Here we have an actual rock star, Mitch Lewis, based on Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, who befriended Manson and introduced him to music producers that Manson thought would make him a star. And most important of all, we have the teenage girls who idolize Russell/Charlie, sleep with him, cook and clean up after him — and ultimately kill for him.
Cline is very good on the heady concoction of big-sister admiration and suppressed sexual longing that draws Evie to one of these girls, Suzanne Parker. If she had distilled the relationship between these two — one a lost, love-hungry suburban teen, the other a knowing, manipulative would-be murderer — into a taut short story, or else deviated from the Manson Family script to carry Evie and Suzanne’s relationship to its logical conclusion, perhaps Cline could have added some fresh perspective on one of the most exhaustively documented crimes in American history. As it is, by hewing to the history of the Manson murders, and tossing in Evie as an innocent bystander, Cline manages only a pallid fictional retelling of a famous story that readers can get in more vivid form in Jeff Guinn’s excellent 2013 biography Manson or prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s 1974 true-crime classic Helter Skelter.
Younger readers, for whom the turbulent ’60s are as distant and exotic as World War II is to a Gen Xer like me, may not be as put off by the second-hand quality of the historical material in The Girls. But even readers who know nothing about the Manson murders and the period that gave rise to them may wonder whether Evie’s decisions make emotional sense. Why would this bright, ordinary kid run off to a commune where the girls scavenge trash out of dumpsters and where on her first night she’s forced to give a blow job to the filthy little twerp who runs the place?
This, of course, is one of the enduring mysteries of the real Manson story. Many of Manson’s followers were ordinary suburban kids, and one, Leslie Van Houten, who was recently cleared for parole after 47 years in prison for the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, was famously a homecoming queen. But beneath this veneer of ordinariness, according to Guinn’s Manson, Van Houten was, like most of Manson’s followers, caught up in the madness of the ’60s, dropping acid in high school and running away at age 17 to the Haight.
This ultimately is what is most glaringly absent from The Girls, the deep gash in the societal fabric that swallowed up a generation of troubled kids. In 1969, America was losing a bloody war in Vietnam. The inner cities were exploding. Drugs and sex were everywhere. College kids were going underground to declare war on the United States, and high school kids were burning their draft cards and heading to San Francisco. In that atmosphere, which is curiously missing from Cline’s much-hyped debut, Manson’s apocalyptic ravings about a coming race war that would cleanse the planet of everyone but his followers could sound almost mainstream.
In 1986, six years before the publication of The Secret History, Donna Tartt was chosen as the student speaker of her graduating class at Bennington College. A typewritten copy of the speech was recently unearthed, in which she looks back upon her education and the college campus that inspired her first novel. Pair with this comprehensive list of the artworks in Tartt’s The Goldfinch.
In a piece for The Millions last week, I used a single sentence from Anthony Doerr’s bestselling novel All the Light You Cannot See to demonstrate Doerr’s mastery of narrative prose. I was able to build an entire essay around one sentence chosen at random from Doerr’s novel because his prose is so consistently good that I could have picked essentially any sentence from the book and written the same essay.
But the exercise got me wondering: If I looked at the same line — the first sentence of the fifth paragraph on page 40 — in other books, would it offer the same window onto the author’s style? I began scanning my bookshelves at home, pulling down favorite novels and reading the first sentence of the fifth paragraph on page 40.
Though hardly foolproof, my “Page 40 Test” turned out to be an instructive exercise. Stripping away setting, narrative, and character development afforded me an unusual pinhole view into the mind of a writer at work. Some writers displayed infelicities of diction or grammar that I might have missed at full speed, but that, under close examination, helped explain a vague unease I had long felt about the author’s work. Other writers, I found, expertly built their setting, narrative, and character development into every sentence, while still others seemed to lose the plot midway through.
A work of fiction is more than simply a collection of finely wrought sentences. Plot matters, as do the characters and setting. But by paying close attention to how a writer constructs sentences, we can begin to see how the larger structure of the novel is built. Here are some especially telling sentences I found at the start of the fifth paragraph on page 40 of five novels from my shelves at home. Feel free to add sentences from your own “Page 40 Tests” in the comments.
The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
“We ain’t got nothin’ but pullet eggs,” he said, fishing up another handful of beans.
One sentence, 15 words, and we are set down, firmly and indelibly, in a particular time and place. Given the dialect, this can be nowhere but the American South, and given what they are eating, and the apparent scarcity of it, it can only be the Depression years. City slicker that I am, I had to Google “pullet eggs.” They are eggs laid by a chicken less than a year old, meaning that they are unusually small. In our industrialized farming system, we rarely see pullet eggs, which are typically shipped off to the powdered egg factory.
But this sentence, which comes from the 1946 story “The Crop,” which O’Connor wrote while still a student at Iowa, is more than a sepia-toned portrait of a bygone age. The dialect is pitch perfect, and the verbal phrase at the end of the sentence displays O’Connor’s gift for masterfully inapt figurative language. One usually “fishes” an object from liquid or from an empty space (“He fished his cell phone from his pocket.”) It is just slightly off to say that someone is “fishing up” a “handful of beans.” Yet this wrongness is also exactly right. It gives the sentence its ring of authenticity and its voice, conveying the sense one has so often in O’Connor’s stories of a real person, an ordinary Southerner closely acquainted with the world she is describing, telling a tale.
The Unvanquished by William Faulkner
Then they stopped — Joby and Granny, and while Granny held the lantern at arm’s length, Joby and Loosh dug the trunk up from where they had buried it that night last summer while Father was at home, while Louvinia stood in the door of the bedroom without even lighting the lamp while Ringo and I went to bed and later I looked out or dreamed I looked out the window and saw (or dreamed I saw) the lantern.
Who else but Faulkner could get away with a sentence like this? Actually, I’m not sure he does get away with it. As is so often the case in Faulkner, things start out crystal clear and action-packed, and then, as if the author has taken one too many sips from the tumbler of bourbon he supposedly kept on his writing desk, he gets unstuck in time. The second half of the sentence is a jumble of competing images and time frames, with too many whiles, too many lamps and lanterns and people looking out windows or perhaps only dreaming they are looking out windows. And just as soon as you work out the chronology, things get slippery again: If Joby, Granny, and Loosh are digging up the trunk in the middle of the night, then who are Ringo and I?
But this is the man who wrote, in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.” So much in Faulkner is about the blurring of time and how our dream reality distorts, but also helps us make sense of, what we see with our own eyes. And all of Faulkner’s fiction, like this sentence, teems with life. Faulkner’s genius was that he could slip inside so many complex characters, but a part of the genius of his prose was that he let the messiness of life stay messy. It is possible to follow this passage — the dark night, the flickering lamplight, the narrator’s confusion about whether he saw or dreamed the lantern outside the window — but to do so you have to read carefully and recursively, piecing together clues the way the characters are doing. In other words, the only way to read a Faulkner sentence is to enter into it, become one more half-doomed character trying to make sense of it all.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
After class, I wandered downstairs in a dream, my head spinning, but acutely, achingly conscious that I was alive and young on a beautiful day; the sky a deep deep painful blue, wind scattering the red and yellow leaves in a whirlwind of confetti.
I love The Secret History, which remains the most accurate real-time portrait of my own generation of college students in the late 1980s, but I see in this sentence the root of the problems I have with Tartt’s later novels, both of which struck me as bloated and overwrought. The central drama of Tartt’s sentence is compelling and her imagery is original: the sky is “a deep deep painful blue” and the autumn leaves form “a whirlwind of confetti.” But what is up with that semi-colon? It does not, as semi-colons typically do, separate two independent clauses, nor does it function as a super comma linking a series of phrases that contain commas within them. It just floats there mid-sentence binding two tenuously related hunks of language, hoping it looks punctuationally sophisticated enough to ward off any questions about the sentence it is holding together.
Tartt could have replaced the semi-colon with a long dash or a plain old comma. The second half of the sentence still wouldn’t have meshed with the first, but at least the clash wouldn’t be so glaring. But a closer look at the sentence shows that syntactic coherence is the least of Tartt’s worries. How many characters have we seen in fiction wandering in a dream, their heads spinning? The next clause is even clunkier. First, Tartt has trouble articulating the quality of her hero’s consciousness. Is he “acutely” conscious? Is he “achingly” conscious? Hey, why not just use both? And what is it that our hero is so “acutely, achingly conscious” of? That he is “alive” and “young” on “a beautiful day” — three essentially empty vessels of descriptive cliché. This is the work of a writer several orders of magnitude less talented than the one who can turn a clear blue sky “painful” and conjure a “whirlwind of confetti” from a pile of dead leaves. That’s what that semi-colon is doing loitering there mid-sentence looking so guilty. It’s protecting the work of a gifted stylist from that of far more ordinary writer.
All the Sad Young Literary Men by Keith Gessen
All the women in Sam’s life italicized things.
Unlike the earlier Faulkner sentence, this one by Gessen demands little from its reader. This is a sentence, and a book, that can be read on an airplane. Yet the language is not merely functional, the way it might be in a novel by, say, John Grisham or Patricia Cornwell. Gessen’s prose is smartly observant. This sentence refers to a line Sam’s ex-girlfriend once said to him — “Really? That’s ambitious.” — but more generally it speaks to a passion, and a queasily ironic relationship to that passion, felt by the earnest Ivy Leaguers in Gessen’s book who are testing out the ideals they picked up in college in the laboratory of the real world.
This brand of easily accessible cleverness is in many ways a defining feature of commercial literary fiction. Everything is clean and orderly — no wandering participles, no mystifying time shifts, no dabbling in the netherworld between dream and reality. The reader can glide from subject to verb without ever having to pause for thought, yet the prose encourages thinking. At the same time, it’s a little glib. All the women in Sam’s life, really? And what does it mean, exactly, to italicize a thing? Here, as in Flannery O’Connor, the imprecision is part of the art. It gives Gessen’s sentence its punch, its voice. But unlike the O’Connor sentence, this one is self-consciously clever. One can hear the two young Harvard grads blowing off steam over beers at a noisy bar in Brooklyn, working to top each other with their insights about women and life. Then, at the end of the night, one of them goes home and puts it in a book.
Passing by Nella Larsen
An on-looker, Irene reflected, would have thought it a most congenial tea-party, all smiles and jokes and hilarious laughter.
Passing, Larsen’s classic Harlem Renaissance novella about a black woman passing herself off as white, is a case study of one woman’s struggle to manage impressions. But Larsen’s prose, as this sentence shows, is also furiously managing the reader’s impressions. The unidentified “on-looker” here is clearly us, Larsen’s reader. And who are we? A paragraph earlier, a party guest announced that the one thing he would never abide in his wife is any hint of racial taint. “I draw the line at that,” he said. “No niggers in my family. Never have been and never will be.” We, the smiling on-looker, not only see this as “most congenial” tea-party chatter, but apparently find it “hilarious.”
But we are also, as Larsen’s grammar makes clear, blind to everything that matters. The sentence seems to focus on the on-looker and what he or she thinks of the party, but the heart of the sentence, the only active part of it, is Irene sitting off to one side watching and reflecting. She is, in this sentence as in the novella as a whole, hidden in plain sight, tucked away in an independent clause that seems to carry no grammatical weight, but in fact governs the whole sentence. Why would we, the clueless on-lookers, be fooled into thinking this was merely another “congenial tea-party” full of other happy, socially prominent white folks like ourselves? Because Irene quietly, invisibly, at the cost of great mental strain, has used all her good manners and finishing-school diction to make it appear that way.
Fellow Millions staff writer Janet Potter and I enjoy a lot of the same books, and we were both giddy to read The Secret Place, the fifth book in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series. Janet got her paws on it early this summer and I read it in a breathless rush last week so that we could discuss ASAP. What follows is our email correspondence about the novel and French’s work in general.
Janet: I loved The Secret Place. I have been a fan of Tana French since I read In the Woods and The Likeness, but I felt that with Faithful Place and Broken Harbor she was kind of in a rut. Each of her books center on a Dublin homicide detective, and although they’re not strictly a series, each new book’s detective has been a character in a previous book. She established a sort of trademark formula in which the murder case that the detective was working had resonance in their own lives — usually by way of dragging up bad memories. In her first two books this gave the plot more depth than an average whodunit, but in the second two the personal connections to the case seemed overbearing.
The Secret Place seemed to me both like a return to form — in that it was innovative and gripping; and a departure from it — in that she finally dumped the “this case has eerie connections to my personal life but I’m going to keep working it no matter how ill-advised that is” trope. And for this book she bravely took on the world of teenage girls — the murder in question took place at a girls’ boarding school outside Dublin and a group of four friends — Holly, Becca, Julia, and Selena — are the chief suspects.
French has said that she would shamelessly hang around bus stops and shopping centers to listen to teenagers talk to each other, and my strongest impression of the book is how she used realistic teenage vernacular to convey enormous complexity. I’m a fan of YA books, but the characters in them are frequently aspirational (unless all the super hot, sensitive, artistically-inclined boys in my high school were hiding somewhere). The girls in The Secret Place are very recognizably obnoxious teenagers, and yet their lives and relationships are intricate and compelling — to the extent that I thought they were all idiots, and at one point or another I thought all of them capable of murder.
I guess I’m not really ending with a question, other than do you agree? And did you like the book?
Edan: I wish I had liked The Secret Place as much as you did! After the first 100 pages, I would have agreed with you–at first, I was compelled by this story of teenage girl friendship and, as always, I found French’s trademark prose lively and surprising, phrases like, “little crunch of a grin” and “the acoustics were all swirl and ricochet.” Although I hadn’t gotten bored of French’s mystery formula, as you had, I was pleased to see her attempt something different in her new book. As you say, it was refreshing that this murder case didn’t hold a too-strong psychological power over its detectives; Detective Stephen Moran’s professional motive (to get him off Cold Cases and onto the Murder Squad by working with the barbed Antoinette Conway) was enough to sustain my interest. I also enjoyed how the narrative switched back and forth between the present investigation, told from Stephen’s first person perspective, and the time leading up to the murder itself, told from the teenage girls’ perspectives. The structure reminded me of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, which we’ve discussed before; such a sweep backward feels simultaneously magical (we can return to an innocent time!) and foreboding (we know the dead body is just around the bend!) The Secret Place plays the present off the past to provide the reader with a much fuller understanding of this private school and its machinations.
I also enjoyed thinking about how being a teenage girl is a bit like being a detective, for both roles require a near-constant behavioral accommodation in order to get what you want: from a suspect or witness, or from a friend or a teacher. Dang, Tana, that’s good.
Unfortunately, for me, the book falters in its representation of the group of teenage girls that Holly Mackey and her tribe don’t like. The main mean girl, Joanne, and her hangers-on Orla and Gemma, just don’t feel three-dimensional. They never quite emerge from the roles they play, and, unlike Detective Moran, I didn’t fully experience the power, tragedy, and thrill of their constructed selves. After about page 200, I grew bored of the drama between the girls; a lot of it felt repetitive. Likewise, the back-and-forth between Moran and Conway began to feel familiar. I wanted a more swift emotional arc. I wonder, if the book had been more taut, would it have worked for me? Generally, reading this just made me long for the terrific leanness of Dare Me and The Fever by Megan Abbott, two novels about teenage girls, secrets, and darkness.
Throughout the book, I kept thinking about how Tana French didn’t give this book a female victim. I’m glad that The Secret Place doesn’t have a True Detective problem–you know, how its only women are dead or dancing naked. But I also wondered if that’s what made me less invested in the story (credit wendy at dresshead.com). Did I much care who killed Christopher Harper? And was that because he was just some prep school asshole? As horrible as this sounds, is a female victim more valuable and/or dramatic to me? What are your thoughts?
Janet: I hadn’t drawn that connection between the adapto-manipulative behavior of teenage girls and detectives. That’s really fascinating, and I think it’s why those long scenes that are just a detective and one of the girls sitting on opposite sides of an interrogation table are so compelling. French has always relished describing interrogations at length, and goes into a lot of detail as to what’s going on in both character’s heads — how they’re reading the other person, how they’re adapting their behavior to regain control in the conversation — and the results could be likened both to a boxing match or a chess game. The interrogation scene in The Secret Place that involved three detectives and one teenage girl — Stephen, Antoinette, Frank Mackey (the protagonist of Faithful Place), and his daughter Holly — was psychologically complex, unpredictable, and good fun to read; perhaps the ultimate Tana French scene and by far my favorite in this book.
I agree with you that Joanne’s gang was a little two-dimensional, but I opted to think it was intentional. The friendship between our four main girls deepened and strengthened considerably throughout the year, and in the process their interactions with Joanne and her friends seem to bother them less and less. I think the juxtaposition between the two groups shows the change in Holly’s group in starker relief. But is “deepened and strengthened” even the right expression? Frankly, the friendship between the four main girls became so important that it took over their lives, reminiscent of the friends in Tartt’s A Secret History, and seemingly manifested its own supernatural power. Can we talk about that? What did you make of the supernatural elements of this book?
Edan: You’re right, French does relish the interrogation scene, and as I said a few years ago, in my analysis of her first three novels, her books teach you how to be a detective. In The Secret Place, we even get detective mythology: “And, somewhere in a locked back corner detectives think old ways. You take down a predator, whatever bleeds out of it flows into you. Spear a leopard, grow braver and faster. All that St. Kilda’s gloss, that walk through old oak doors like you belong, effortless: I wanted that. I wanted to lick it off my banged-up fists along with my enemy’s blood.” That single passage is enough to reveal Detective Moran’s weak spot: his desire, and inability, to belong. I loved the first interrogations of all eight girls. I loved seeing how each girl acted around the detectives–what a way to characterize! (It also made me wonder what Moran would sniff out in me: a need to be loved, a need to be sexy, a need to disappear…) By the time the book gets to Holly’s final interrogation, though, I wasn’t that interested in the mystery anymore, so it wasn’t as effective.
As for the friendship between Holly, Becca, Julia, and Selena, I thought it complex and magical and tough in the way that these friendships sometimes are. Their relationship did get more intense, almost rigorous in its devotion…but then adulthood and sexual desire and natural human secrecy got in its way, which then caused all sorts of problems. The downfall of their group-friendship felt realistic and dramatic and upsetting. I guess I would have liked to see the same complexity brought to Joanne’s circle, too, for certainly they are real young women, and not the paper dolls they pretend to be.
The supernatural stuff delighted but didn’t totally land for me. I think French does it better in Broken Harbor where the secret of the baby monitors and the holes in the wall are revealed to have logical explanations…but something inexplicable and eerie remains unanswerable. French was edging toward the supernatural in that novel, and finally got there in The Secret Place. Unfortunately, the powers of the girls felt a bit unfocused for me, and I wanted them to play a more significant role overall. I mean–there’s their ability to move objects with their minds and stuff, and then there’s Chris’s ghost. I couldn’t connect them–did I miss something? It felt muddled…but I love the idea and I want more of that from French in her next book.
Let’s talk about my favorite topic: gender roles. Moran was the feminine one, and Conway was the masculine one. He admired beauty in all its forms…and she grunted. What did you make of this role swap? Maybe this comes back to my question about French choosing a male victim–who is found covered in flowers, I might add.
Janet: I ignored your earlier question about gender roles (to no avail, it seems), because while there are a lot of interesting gender dynamics, I don’t have a unified theory of what French was trying to do with it. Unless she wasn’t trying to do anything other than shift roles around and see what happens.
Originally I thought the the feminine/masculine, good cap/bad cop dynamic between Stephen and Antoinette was intended to distance them from Rob and Cassie, French’s detective team from In the Woods. In that earlier book, Cassie was the bubbly one whose rookie status on the otherwise all-male detective squad was legitimized by having a male partner. In this book, Stephen is the empathetic rookie and Antoinette is tough as nails, perhaps excessively so (but I guess we’ll get into that in French’s next book).
The murder plot also hinges around gender roles — specifically around the psychology and limitations of female friendship and what happens when a guy starts to unwittingly threaten them (erring on the side of ambiguity to avoid giving too much away here). I agree that Chris, even as the murder victim, feels secondary to the murder plot. Solving the mystery requires digging into the social and emotional dynamic between the girls, and I felt that French was more interested in that process than in the fact that it resulted in uncovering the murderer.
It’s also interesting, then, that Stephen is the one who cracks the case. Antoinette had been there a year earlier and failed. Do you think was intentional? Did the case require Stephen’s, uh, feminine touch? Or is he just the hero of the book?
Edan: I’m also not sure what French was up to with the role reversals. I agree that Chris is secondary to the murder plot–not only to the book’s own untangling of whodunit, but also to the girls themselves and their desires and sense of being threatened. He could have been anyone. And that is a bit shiver-inducing in its own right.
I feel the need to quote this line, which, to me, was the best of the whole book, “Who who whose smell in the air of her room, whose fingerprints all over her friends’ secret places.” It suggests that The Secret Place is not only a bulletin board in the school hallway where girls can leave anonymous messages and pictures and the like, but also…a girl’s private parts. I kind of wish the book had been called The Vagina.
This theory of why Antoinette couldn’t crack the case is intriguing–is it because Stephan could see the world as these teenagers could, connecting with all that they responded to and were repelled by? Perhaps Conway couldn’t adequately solve it because she was a woman in a male-dominated squad, which meant she had to listen to her partner even if she didn’t like his choices, even if she was supposed to be the lead detective on the case. Also, she was somewhat handicapped by her class-rage, unable to see these girls for anything but spoiled rich girls; Stephan, on the other hand, saw the beauty of their privilege, and longed for it himself. He was able to transform his longing into intimacy with these suspects.
Now I want everyone in the comment thread to list French’s novels from their most to least favorite. What do you think, Janet? We can do it too!
Little known fact: MOOCs (massive open online courses) were invented by Vladimir Nabokov in his campus novel, Pnin, long before Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig launched their “Online Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” in 2011.
During a dinner party thrown by the novel’s scholar protagonist, the Russian émigré Timofey Pnin, a Waindell College colleague suggests “lock[ing] up the students in a soundproof cell and eliminat[ing] the lecture room….Phonograph records on every possible subject will be at the isolated student’s disposal.”
When one guest protests that the personality of the professor surely counts for something, another suggests that “One could have Timofey televised.” And thus was the seed of online education planted, to bloom years later with Udacity, edX, and Coursera.
Now the University of Iowa International Writing Program is getting in on the MOOC action. The storied program is conducting its first massive open online course this summer, a six-week, “interactive study of the practice of the writing poetry.” To deliver the first “video session” for its new MOOC, Iowa is piping in the former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass, which calls to mind his great line from “Meditations at Lagunitas”: “Longing, we say, because desire is full of/ endless distances.”
I have no doubt that the eloquent and witty Haas can bridge those “endless distances” with his presentation, but the Iowa course got me wondering about how certain fictional professors would fare in the world of online education. Which heroes of those quaint, insular works known as “campus novels” would be most adaptable to the MOOC format? Which—through eccentricity, incompetence, irresponsibility, megalomania, erudition or media savvy—could best attract the teeming hordes of online learners? I present seven candidates.
Timofey Pnin (Pnin): Laundry Hour
Pnin is delighted by the tongue-in-cheek proposal to televise his classes, logical given that he is a bit of an exhibitionist, “brazenly” displaying a bit of calf when crossing his legs in the novel’s opening scene. However, his “mythopoetic” mispronunciations and teaching style make him a less-than-ideal ideal candidate for a MOOC:
…he preferred reading his lectures, his gaze glued to his text, in a slow, monotonous baritone that seemed to climb one of those interminable flights of stairs used by people who dread elevators.
When Pnin does go off-text, he embarks on long digressions, “nostalgic excursions in broken English,” which endlessly amuse him while bemusing his students.
And yet he is not without potential for broader appeal. Perhaps a YouTube channel might be a better fit for Pnin, especially considering the slapstick comedy arising from his “constant war with insensate objects.” I for one would tune in to watch him indulge his “passionate intrigue” with washing machines. Despite being banned from using his landlord’s, he casts “aside all decorum and caution” and tosses anything he can think of into it “just for the joy of watching through that porthole what looked like an endless tumble of dolphins with the staggers.” Viral sensations have been built on flimsier conceits.
William Stone (Stoner): Copulating Verbs
Stoner’s initial dourness eventually gives way to a brightening gloom as the protagonist’s disappointments and suffered indignities mount. When a snide colleague quips that “To Stoner, copulation is restricted to verbs,” he inadvertently gets at the truth behind the mild-mannered Stoner’s long teaching career: it is a love story. The poem that sparks Stoner’s love affair with literature is Shakespeare’s Sonnet #73, whose subject learns “To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”
Though the novel begins with a clinical assessment of a man who never rises above Assistant Professor and whom students don’t remember “with any sharpness,” it gradually reveals the intensity of a love felt for people and grammar alike:
It was a passion neither of the mind nor of the flesh; rather, it was a force that comprehended them both, as if they were but the matter of love, its specific substance. To a woman or to a poem, it said simply: Look! I am alive.
As his mistress and fellow teacher says at one point, “Lust and learning… That’s really all there is, isn’t it?” When taught by Stoner, the Latin Tradition and Renaissance Literature has never sounded hotter.
Hank Devereaux (Straight Man): Negotiation Strategies
Richard Russo’s Hank Devereaux, the “physical embodiment of the perversity principle,” seems the most MOOC-ready professor (despite suffering from what his doctor calls a “hysterical prostrate”). Variously known as Lucky Hank or “Judas Peckerwood,” he is the entertaining chair of an English Department at a small college in rural Pennsylvania whose antics make him into something of a local TV personality. His spiritual guide is William of Occam, whose eponymous principle holds that the simplest of competing explanations is the better. The problem for Hank is that he is in the middle of a giant farce, and in farce finding any explanation, however simple, for the multiplying mishaps is itself a tricky proposition.
In his valiant effort to secure an operating budget amidst funding cutbacks and shifting priorities—the campus is breaking ground on a new “Technical Careers Campus”—Hank grasps that he must fight farce with farce. Demonstrating how to be an effective negotiator in front a pool of reporters, he makes the following threat:
Starting Monday, I kill a duck a day until I get a budget. This is a nonnegotiable demand. I want the money on my desk in unmarked bills by Monday morning, or this guy will be soaking in orange sauce and full of cornbread stuffing by Monday night.
That he is wearing a novelty nose, and holding a goose instead of a duck, in no way diminishes the soundness of his strategy in dealing with benighted administrators or tight-fisted legislatures. In terms of professors making spectacles of themselves, Hank is rivaled only by David Kepesh from Philip Roth’s The Breast.
Julian Morrow (The Secret History): “The Terrible Seduction of the Dionysiac Ritual”
Moving from one charismatic professor to another, we encounter Julian Morrow, The Secret History’s Classics professor who encourages his Classics students to embrace their inner godheads:
If we are strong enough in our souls we can rip away the veil and look that naked, terrible beauty right in the face; let God consume us, devour us, unstring our bones. Then spit us out reborn.
Set in a small New England College town, Hampden, Donna Tartt’s novel is about the bad effects of good education—or rather, a supremely, seductively good education. Guided by their brilliant teacher through the mysteries of the Greek canon, Julian’s tutees, beguiled by their teacher’s statements about the self-annihilating pleasures of Dionysian ritual, decide to try it for themselves. The unfortunate local man who is subsequently torn apart by the maddened cohort probably wishes they had majored in economics instead.
A marvelous, “magical talker,” Julian seems like the kind of Nietzschean “super professor” that critics of MOOCs fear they will create. As one of his students writes in his semester evaluation: “How…can I possibly make the Dean of Studies understand that there is a divinity in our midst?” What better spokesman for the bloviating apostles of disruptive online education than a man who can say with a straight face: “I hope we are all ready to leave the phenomenal world and enter into the sublime?”
One reservation is that Julian’s small coterie did serious damage with their orgiastic rites and fits of “telestic madness.” I shudder to think what would happen should Julian’s eloquent lectures inspire not just four students but a massive group to murderous states of Bacchic frenzy.
Jim Dixon (Lucky Jim): Facial Recognition
Jim Dixon, the protagonist of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, is an adjunct seeking to secure a more permanent position from his “incurable evader” of an advisor. As an academic, Jim displays an “enforced avoidance of anything ambitious,” though he does exert an impressive control over his pliable face, pushing himself to put it “through all its permutations of loathing.”
“I’m the sort of person you soon get to the end of,” Dixon admits to the beautiful fiancée of his advisor’s son, an admission belied by the inexhaustible supply of faces he pulls. Grotesque though they may be, they provide a creative outlet and demonstrate a kind of genius, both of which are lacking in his dissertation: The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450 to 1485. There is Jim’s Eskimo face, his lemon-sucking face, his mandrill face, his Evelyn Waugh face, and an improvised face so savage it doesn’t have a name:
Gripping his tongue between his teeth, he made his cheeks expand into little hemispherical balloons; he forced his upper lip downwards into an idiotic pout; he protruded his chin like the blade of a shovel. Throughout he alternately dilated and crossed his eyes.
When Jim gets the girl and a plum, non-academic job at novel’s end—the luck has to change at some point—he has no corresponding expression. A smile, presumably, would be too pedestrian, so until he has time to settle into his new, sunnier life, he settles for his “Sex Life in Ancient Rome” face, which every online learner should have in his or her repertoire.
Professors Zapp and Swallow (Changing Places): Humiliation on a Massive Scale
It might seem perverse to mention David Lodge’s Changing Places in the context of MOOCs, given that no campus novel emphasizes the effect of physical presence on a campus—Euphoric State (UC Berkeley) or Rummidge (University of Birmingham)—on the personal and intellectual life more clearly than Lodge’s. Morriz Zapp, the author of “five fiendishly clever books” travels to England, while Philip Swallow, the stalled British academic comes to America to understand “American literature for the first time in his life…its prodigality and indecorum, its yea-saying heterogeneity.” The two professors, who begin the novel crossing each other on planes, end up with their respective wives/mistress in a hotel room, the culmination to the various kinds of cultural and sexual exchanges that occur throughout.
Though Zapp can reportedly “make Austen swing,” a better use of his and Swallow’s talents would be in a course on “Humiliation,” the parlor game made famous in Changing Places. In it, players admit to not having read a canonical book. The winning player is the one whose selection has been read by the most number of other players. That is, the winner is the player who has demonstrated the most embarrassing gaps in his or her reading list. (In the novel, a hyper-competitive professor cops to never having read Hamlet; he wins the game but loses his job.)
Picture it: “Humiliation” played on a massive scale, transformed from a parlor game into a sociological survey that could reveal once and for all the most famous text one has not read. What better way to unleash two of the Internet’s greatest powers, crowd sourcing and shame? I’ll start. The Grapes of Wrath. (This is anonymous, right?)
Image via mayeesherr/Flickr
In May, I graduated with my B.A. in English. This feels very strange to write in the past tense, but it’s true.
In the course of my studies, I was assigned more than 150 books, from novels to plays to biology textbooks. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that my college experience naturally breaks itself down into books read and unread, loved and hated. I remember reading The Secret History on the campus quad, sitting under a massive oak tree and thinking that this is what college should be like — all shade, dusty books, and lofty conversation, though I certainly didn’t intend to kill any of my new friends. I read selections from my Intro to Philosophy textbook in the basement of my dorm in between loads of laundry, which I had to wring out over a drain in the floor before tossing them in the dryer. I remember rushing through my assigned chapters of Moby-Dick every Sunday night before class, when I would meet with three other students and a professor to discuss symbolism. And I remember my horror when I realized exactly how long “Song of Myself” was at two in the morning. But somehow that horror is gone now, and all that’s left is the quiet joy that came from spending so much time interacting with books I otherwise might never have opened.
In these first few months after graduation, I can already feel myself pulled toward nostalgia, these stories, stresses, and loves. I am not quite ready to let them go. Although I learned from and appreciate all 150, some stand out as particularly defining. Here, in loose chronological order, are some of the most important. My degree in books, if you will.
Don Quixote – My first college assignment was to read five chapters of Don Quixote. I hurried through the chapters and immediately forgot them — the antiquated language escaping me as I read. At the end of my first week of class, I attended a lecture on Cervantes in which a brilliant professor gave a stirring speech about the value of studying the humanities and of the profound life questions Don Quixote addresses. I left feeling that studying English was a noble calling: something I could feel good about, something that would challenge and grow me. I resolved to read more slowly and carefully in the future, so that I, too, could pick out all the profound life questions present in great works and, if I were careful enough, perhaps even some of the answers. But I never finished Don Quixote. It turned out that good intentions and high callings weren’t nearly enough to get me through tangles of plot and language. I later felt grateful that I learned this early—that my first formal reading experience was a failure—because it was only by letting go of some of my grandiose expectations that I was eventually able to force myself through the grunt work of reading difficult books.
Jazz – In my second semester humanities course, I was assigned Jazz by Toni Morrison. I read it, slowly at first and then more and more quickly, until I was sitting in a tiny coffee shop on campus for three hours rushing through the last third of the novel. Jazz has a very particular kind of energy and assumes an agency of its own, and it was this agency that I felt myself responding to and trying to mimic. The narration of the novel seems to be coming from the book itself, a sense that culminates in the stirring final lines: “If I were able I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.” They address the reader directly and invite him or her to play with narration, structure, and meaning—to make and remake again and again. Reading Jazz left me feeling hollow and yet full, seeing or imagining that I saw connections between everything, past, present, and future all at once. Jazz is the first book that I truly fell in love with in college, and yet I never reread it, worried that doing so would ruin my connection with the novel and shatter the illusion of perfect storytelling. My classmates thought that I was crazy; none of them liked the novel very much at all, and several didn’t bother to finish it. Asked to identify those last few lines of the book on an exam, one friend misattributed them to The Waste Land. I teased him about this for years.
Looking back, I see that this fast-and-furious method wasn’t a very good way to read, for pleasure or for study. I swallowed all of Jazz in a gulp, rushed through with some growing sense of awe, and then put it down for good. I don’t remember it very well now, just the intense reaction it inspired. Is that enough?
I don’t think so. I wish I had quickly gone back through it, read more closely while that first emotion still lingered, and tried to better understand how the novel was working. I could have learned so much. Funny enough, I feel the same way about that first year of college. I wish I had tried better to understand what was happening, whom I was getting to know, and who I was becoming. I can’t remember what my friends and I discussed until dawn when we were first getting to know one another, or why we drew bad portraits of each other or where they went. I don’t know who lived down the hall from me or remember the name of my history professor. What did we talk about in class when we talked about Jazz? And how was it that, when I went back to Texas, life with my family felt foreign, distant from reality? Now all I have are bits of emotion with little context or cause, which is all I have left of Jazz, too.
Wide Sargasso Sea – In the spring semester of my freshman year, I was allowed to register for my first proper English class. As part of the course, I was assigned both Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a postcolonial prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s novel that tells the story of Rochester’s first wife, Antoinette. I had read Jane Eyre before, twice, and wasn’t looking forward to having to go through it again; I wanted to read new books and fresh authors, not the same novels I’d been assigned in high school. But reading Wide Sargasso Sea was a turning point in my English career—a moment that I can point to and say, “There. That’s it. That changed it all.” This book taught me that it was possible to critique the classics; I didn’t have to agree with them or accept their versions of their stories. I realized that every book was leaving something out—that there was almost always some other story to explore, some angle that wasn’t at first obvious—and that looking for these would open books wider than I thought possible. I realized that reading is a political act, as is writing. I talked about the book nonstop. Although I never mentioned Wide Sargasso Sea in any major written assignment and was never graded on my understanding of the novel, its influence underwrote all my studies for the next three years.
As I Lay Dying – I was intimidated by Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying when it was first assigned, and this turned out to be an appropriate response, though I found myself swept up in the story in spite of myself. I loved and was confused by the novel in equal measure. I liked this story of a family who seemed incapable of understanding each other—driven by a common goal but also by individual desires, hopes, and despairs. I flinched when they tried to set a broken leg in concrete, and again when Dewey Dell was scammed by an unscrupulous doctor’s assistant. I squirmed when I read Addie’s dark chapter and her final words: “People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.” I thought about how everything was words to me and worried that maybe words weren’t enough—no matter how badly I wanted them to be. I saw the book as a kind of puzzle that surely I could put together into a complete masterpiece if only I read closely enough, paid enough attention, was sensitive to subtleties, but then again, wasn’t it just words, too? How could I get beyond that?
For all of this thinking and rethinking, my class only spent a total of three hours discussing the novel. I was left with more questions than I knew how to ask and an unsettling sense that I was not even close to understanding what I had read. I asked questions of this text: How was it that Addie could speak? What happened to Dale’s mind? Why was Vardaman’s mother a fish? Why was all of this speaking and thinking and fish-ing happening together? Then, I tried to answer them on my own. I realized that maybe I wouldn’t be able to put all of the pieces and words of the story into perfect alignment ever, and maybe it was better that way. I began to learn how to accept unknowns and how to live with an imperfect knowledge of things, even as I tried to fill in the gaps of my understanding, that space behind the language.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – I was confused by this poem as much as I was by As I Lay Dying, though in a different way. Although the density and ambiguity of As I Lay Dying felt essential to the work, the Rime seemed to be almost careless—something that was meant to be understood and yet couldn’t be. It’s not that I couldn’t follow the storyline, but that it was impossible for me to interpret it: to fit the images and events of the poem together into something meaningful and satisfying, into a whole. I was assigned to read a collection of scholarly essays on the poem and hoped that these perspectives, which came with names like “reader response theory” and “new criticism,” would help clarify Coleridge. Maybe I didn’t have to live with ambiguity after all. But the criticism only intensified my confusion, and the jumbled arguments of the scholars added a layer of irritation to my interactions with the poem. They didn’t agree with each other, and when I could follow their arguments, I didn’t agree with them either. I began to wonder exactly what purpose literary criticism served—academics writing articles to argue with other academics while readers like me remained confused and overwhelmed. Then I learned that the poem can be sung to the tune of Gilligan’s Island. This was too much; this made no sense. I could not sing Gilligan’s Island and study psychoanalytic theory at the same time. I gave up, but I was humming the song for days.
Medieval Literature in general – I enrolled in a class called Medieval Romance. I had no idea what this meant, and I wasn’t particularly enthused about having to admit that I was studying “Romances,” but it was the only class open by the time I registered. I read Chrétien de Troyes and wrote a harsh critique of the abusive gender dynamics in Erec and Enide, paying attention, for the first time, to specific word choices and the way patterns in action could reveal underlying obsessions in the text. I discovered a talent for reading Middle English. I was assigned a romance titled Richard Coeur de Lion, in which King Richard eats the heart of a lion. I read a long French poem called “Silence,” in which a woman dresses as a man, struggles with the allegorical figures of Nature and Nurture, and becomes a successful and valued knight until Merlin exposes her. I read the Gest of Robin Hood and wrote a long paper on social inequality and status inversions present in its short fyttes.
Through all of this reading, I gradually realized that these medieval writers were asking many of the same questions and struggling with many of the same social issues that I was encountering in my 21st century university. They wondered about the role of government and what made a good leader. They were curious about gender and identity, social structures, and economic inequality. And I, too, wondered about all of these things: how my world was broken and how it could be fixed. I felt more connected with history and recognized myself as part of a large and continuing stream of humanity and culture, but I also realized that I was not cut out to be a medievalist. There is no Middle English language setting in Microsoft Word, and I couldn’t stand the rows and rows of red underlining that appeared whenever I tried to type quotes from Chaucer.
Spring and All – The last semester of my junior year, I approached my Modern Literature professor about completing an additional research paper for Honors credit. She agreed and asked me what writer from our syllabus I wanted to study. I wrote her a long email requesting permission to write about Wallace Stevens because I loved what work of his I’d read and wanted to expand my formal understanding of poetry. Except that instead of typing Wallace Stevens, I got confused and typed William Carlos Williams. Too embarrassed to admit my mistake, I spent a semester studying imagist poetry and the crazed prose of Spring and All. My professor didn’t like Spring and All and couldn’t understand my supposed obsession with Williams, but she tried to be patient with me. When I cautiously offered my explanations of this text to her, she smiled. “Sometimes,” she said, “it really doesn’t mean anything, but nobody will admit it.” I agreed with her completely; no matter how many times I read it I couldn’t force the apocalyptic, manifesto-style prose and the poems about blooming flowers into any relationship that felt very convincing. This made my twelve pages much harder to write. I swore to always double-check author names before sending any more emails, and I learned about how important it is to sincerely love any work that takes more than week to complete. I also learned how to complete work and learn from research I didn’t love at all. I was told that this was good practice for life post-grad.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – I was assigned to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight three separate times during college, each time in a slightly different translation. By the third reread, I began to wish that the Green Knight would just behead Gawain at the beginning of the story and let that be that. I wrote an email complaining to the dean about the sameness of the English curriculum that I never sent. My roommates bore the brunt of my wrath instead and could eventually recite the general plot of the poem without ever having picked up a copy. They loved me anyway. I decided that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a true test of friendship, not chivalry, and at the end of my junior year, I sold all my translations of the poem for a total of $5.
The Book of Night Women – At the beginning of my senior year, I took a class in which my professor paired contemporary books with thematically similar works written before 1900. On the first day of class, she apologized for assigning so many troubling readings and warned us that The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, which she had paired with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and which we weren’t scheduled to begin for another three months, was going to be traumatic. She was right.
The Book of Night Women tells the story of Lilith, a young slave girl on an 18th century Jamaican plantation, and it is unflinching in its portrayal of violence and suffering, of the incredible variety of possible pains, and of people desperate to escape misery. It is about destruction, redemption, and the horrors that good people are capable of, but on the first read, I could only see the horror. Thirty pages into the first reading, I was shaking and nauseated, so I put the novel down for a few hours, then read another thirty pages, and stopped again. In this way, I finished the book over a long and harrowing week. It was brutal but brilliant, and I found myself admiring what James was doing in this work even as I recoiled from its violence and darkness. I worried about these characters and about my extreme sensitivity to reading their stories. I was tempted to think James was being deliberately alarming, but I knew the novel was more than that. Was James challenging 20-something, middle-class white students like myself to understand our history and the suffering it had caused? Was I too thin-skinned, or was mine exactly the response he hoped for? Or was he just telling a story in as honest a way as possible? I was reminded of Wide Sargasso Sea. Reading is political. Stories have power. When I finished the book, I cried.
During the first class period spent discussing the book, my professor joked that she should find us a group therapist. I felt tempted to press her on this. Every student in the room looked shocked, freshly sensitive, all our nerves exposed and raw. I hoped to someday write something as affecting, if different in every other way. More than this, I hoped to stay thin-skinned.
Fun Home – During my last semester, I didn’t take a single English class but instead spent the spring writing my final thesis on the works of Virginia Woolf and Alison Bechdel, particularly on the ways in which they use houses to discuss both creativity and censorship. I kept (and continue to keep) writing personal essays about houses, and I wanted to see how these masters of essay and memoir handled rooms, hallways, facades, and interiors.
Studying graphic memoirs like Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother? turned out to be surprisingly difficult because I didn’t know how to academically describe or explain the way an image works as part of a text. I read books like The Poetics of Space and Understanding Comics in an attempt to figure this out and ultimately did a passable job, but I realized that there are whole genres, entire fields of literature, writing, and study that my formal English degree hadn’t touched. Even so, I feel confident that I have learned enough to figure the rest out in time. This is cheesy, but I feel good about it anyway, though I can’t quite bring myself to reread my final thesis.
Now that I am free from the structures of school, class, and assignments, I feel a little directionless and slightly overwhelmed. I’m not sure where to pick up my life in books, what authors or works to begin, or in what order. My current reading list has contemporary poetry on it, mostly pulled from friends’ recommendations, and some essay collections I’ve been hoarding for a while, but it also has Middlemarch and The Brothers Karamazov. I’ve never read Alice Munro or Montaigne. A friend lent me Jesus’ Son four years ago, and I’ve never read it either. Those 150 books aren’t nearly as much as I once thought they were. There is so much writing that I am completely ignorant of, and I’m excited to keep reading.
Image via [email protected]/Flickr
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
Even before it became officially so in the United States, April has long been the poet’s month. “April” (or “Aprill”) is the third word of one of the first great poems in the English language, The Canterbury Tales, and the first word in The Waste Land, which does its best to feel like the last great English poem. April — “spungy,” “proud-pied,” and “well-apparel’d” April — is also the most-mentioned month in Shakespeare, along with its springtime neighbor May, and it has given a poetic subject to Dickinson, Larkin, Plath, Glück, and countless others. Why? Do we like its promise of rebirth, its green and messy fecundity? Its hopefulness is easy to celebrate — and easy to cruelly undercut, if you’re T.S. Eliot rooting his lilies in the wasteland of death.
Eliot wasn’t the only one a little tired of the ease of April’s imagery. In 1936 Tennessee Williams received a note from a poetic acquaintance, a high school student named Mary Louise Lange who had recently won “third honorable mention” in a local literary contest. “Yes, I think April is a fine month to write poetry,” she mused. “All the little spear-points of green pricking up, all the little beginnings of new poetic thoughts, all the shafts of thoughts that will grow to future loveliness.” A few days later, Williams, oppressed by the springtime St. Louis heat, despairing of his own youthful literary prospects, and perhaps distracted by all those “spear-points” and “shafts,” confessed to his diary that he was bored and lonely enough to consider calling on her: “Maybe I’ll visit that little girl poet but her latest letter sounded a little trite and affectatious — ‘little spear points of green’ — It might be impossible.”
In our man-made calendars we often celebrate Easter and baseball’s Opening Day this month, but the April date most prominent in our lives now is April 15, the American tax day since 1955. Lincoln, who died on that day, had Whitman to mourn him, but Tax Day found few literary chroniclers until David Foster Wallace’s last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, which turns the traditional, eternal rhythm of the seasons into the flat, mechanical repetition of bureaucratic boredom. In the IRS’s Peoria Regional Examination Center where Wallace’s characters toil, the year has no natural center, just a deadline imposed by federal fiat and a daily in-box of Sisyphean tasks, a calendar that in its very featureless tedium provides at least the opportunity to test the human capacity for endurance and even quiet heroism.
Here is a selection of recommended April reading, heavy on birth, death, and rebirth, and a little boredom:
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (late 14th century)
When you feel the tender shoots and buds of April quickening again, set out in the company of Chaucer’s nine and 20 very worldly devouts, in what has always been the most bawdily approachable of English literature’s founding classics.
The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville (1857)
It’s no coincidence that the steamboat in Melville’s great, late novel begins its journey down the Mississippi on April Fool’s Day: The Confidence-Man is the darkest vision of foolishness and imposture — and one of the funniest extended jokes — in American literature.
“When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” by Walt Whitman (1865) and The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot (1922)
Whitman’s elegy, composed soon after Lincoln’s murder and the end of the Civil War, heaps bouquets onto his coffin, and a livelier, more joyful vision of death you’re not likely to find. You certainly won’t in The Waste Land, written after a war equally bloody and seemingly barren of everything but allusions (to Whitman’s funeral lilacs among many others).
On the Road: The Original Scroll by Jack Kerouac (1951)
The legend of On the Road’s frenzied composition is partly true: Kerouac worked on the novel for years, but he really did type a complete, 125,000-word draft on a 120-foot roll of paper in three frenzied weeks in April 1951, a version finally published in 2007.
“Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King (1963) and At Canaan’s Edge by Taylor Branch (2006)
April is both the month that King, jailed in Alabama in 1963, scribbled in the margins of newspapers an open letter to the white moderates of Birmingham who counseled patience toward segregation, and the month of his murder in Memphis five years later, a scene whose seven solemn pages close the final volume of Taylor Branch’s 3,000-page trilogy, America in the King Years.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey (1968)
Outfitted with trailer, truck, ranger shirt, tin badge, and 500 gallons of water, Abbey began his first workday, April 1, watching the sun rise over the canyonlands of Arches National Monument, the first moment recorded in this cantankerous appreciation of the wild inhumanity of nature.
Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion
In the “cold late spring of 1967,” Didion took her notebook and her eye for entropy to meet some of the young people gathering in San Francisco, where she diagnosed the end of the Summer of Love before it had even begun.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
April in Erdrich’s North Dakota is cold enough for the sudden blizzard that opens Love Medicine and buries June Kashpaw, who had stepped out into the snow in search of a man who could be different from all the rest.
The Sportswriter by Richard Ford (1986)
Beginning with a Good Friday reunion with his ex-wife on the anniversary of their son’s death, Ford’s indelible ex-sportswriter Frank Bascombe reckons with balancing the small, heart-lifting pleasures of everydayness with the possibilities of disappointment and tragedy that gape underneath them.
The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley (1987)
Smiley’s early novella is still her masterpiece, a story of a family laid out by flu and a young marriage struggling to survive the end of its springtime that’s as close to an American version of “The Dead” as anyone has written.
My Garden (Book) by Jamaica Kincaid (1999)
“How vexed I often am when I am in the garden, and how happy I am to be so vexed.” Midway through life, Kincaid started planting in her yard in most “ungardenlike” ways, and her garden book is willful and lovely, made of notes in which she cultivates her hatreds as passionately as her affections.
The Likeness by Tana French (2008)
Ireland’s French crafted an intrigue with equal elements of the Troubles and The Secret History in her second novel, in which Detective Cassie Maddox is seduced by the mid-April murder of a student who had been playing with an identity disturbingly close to her own.
The Pale King by David Foster Wallace (2011)
Don’t expect a novel when you open up The Pale King, culled from manuscripts Wallace left behind at his suicide. Read it as a series of experiments in growing human stories out of the dry soil of bureaucratic tedium, and marvel when real life, out of this wasteland, suddenly breaks through.
Image Credit: Flickr/Roger Sadler
The Second Annual Janet Potter Awards for Literary Achievement
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
In last year’s awards I proclaimed that “everyone is wrong” about Swamplandia!, which I couldn’t stand. I only tried this book at the very strong recommendation of my never-wrong friend Michael Schaub and the promise that one of the stories was about dead presidents reincarnated as farm animals. I loved that story and went on to love all the stories in Vampires. Everything that irked me about Swamplandia! clicked into place in this volume. Perhaps I should give more authors a second chance.
You Don’t Know Me but You Don’t Like Me by Nathan Rabin
“Everybody who rides a Greyhound from Newark at that hour might as well wear a sign reading, ASK ME ABOUT THE HORRIBLE MISTAKES THAT HAVE LED ME HERE.”
Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
I recently heard Rowell speak, and when asked whether it bothered her that her books were sometimes labeled as Young Adult Romance, replied, “I think ‘romance’ is a word used to make women feel bad about themselves and how they feel, and I refuse to feel bad about either of those things.” So not only do I love Rowell even more than I did already, I’ve become even bolder in recommending the most romantic book I read this year.
Best Temper Tantrum
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris
The young Theodore Roosevelt loved nature, and brought a lot of it into his childhood bedroom for what he called the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History — snapping turtles tied to the furniture, frogs hidden in his hats — but most of his family called a nuisance. When his mother, exasperated, let loose a litter of field mice he had been housing, he cried, “The loss to Science! The loss to Science!”
Most Belated Reading Experience
The Secret History by Donna Tartt
All the excitement surrounding The Goldfinch’s release led me to read the novel that made Tartt a literary darling back in 1992. A few sleepless nights later I was dying to go back in time so I could talk to everyone about it.
Best Back Catalog
After joining the legions who love The Fault in Our Stars last year, I quickly read his first three novels. Although they don’t transcend the YA genre as much as his mega-seller, they’re all superb YA novels. I don’t think anyone has portrayed high school life as realistically since Freaks & Geeks.
The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr
For a few years I have been wanting to read Carr’s book about how the internet is affecting our attention spans and “ability to read and think deeply,” so I got it out from the library. But then I got busy with, I don’t know, finding new Tumblrs and watching eyeshadow tutorials on YouTube, so 3 weeks later, to avoid the fine, I returned it to the library unread, and the gods of irony laughed.
Best Career Inspiration
Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy
One of the characters in this book says that she wants to start a magazine called “Everything Gauche” and now, by gum, so do I.
This Bright River by Patrick Somerville
I turned 30 this year, a milestone I was relieved to reach in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. A few days after my birthday I read this passage that sums it up perfectly.
Occasionally I would join them for their weekly baby lunches, depending on whether I was busy that day, and all of us could discuss how strange it was that we were no longer part of the youngest generation or (for that matter) the generation of the main people on TV, that marketing didn’t seem directed at us anymore, how we didn’t quite know what to make of the early days of this new status as adults but that it did seem to have its benefits, like a remarkable unbounded freedom, despite the stresses and responsibilities, which seemed to want to take that same freedom right back.
Best Read of the Year
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
This book also swept Best Depiction of Female Friendship, Book I’ve Recommended and Given the Most, Best Depiction of Class, and Author I Want to Be Friends With.
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I encountered Donna Tartt’s The Secret History the summer after my first year of college, as part of a grab bag of used but new-to-me books (along with poetry by Dickinson and Glück and Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose) passed on to me by an alumnus of my school who had enrolled as an English major a decade before I had. Now over twenty years after its publication, and with Tartt’s widely anticipated new novel The Goldfinch on the way, The Secret History still endures, and, in light of all the recent discussions about the liberal arts and its students, it may be worth revisiting why.
Though I had not taken classes with secretive Aristotelian professors, partook of drinking binges and bacchanals, made friends with twenty-year olds who were fluent in ancient Greek, or, significantly, murdered a friend, the book (what to classify it as? A reverse murder mystery, a literary novel, a college story, a coming of age story) struck a chord in me. At first I pinned it down to the plot, but there was something more compelling to it than that — and specifically, something compelling to readers, like me, who identified with Tartt’s characters: introspective and book-loving students of the liberal arts.
For the protagonists of Tartt’s novel were just that: students who liked to write and read and think, dreamy and bookish, studying for a degree in Classics. Richard, Henry, Camilla, Francis, and the rest were not pre-professionals, or enrolling in classes with an eye to generating career skills; rather, they were students who devoted themselves to an intense teacher and an intense study of ancient texts and ideas, and who looked to those studies for answers to questions in their own personal lives. They were, in short, liberal arts students, precisely of the breed that is lamented as being increasingly endangered.
The appeal of the story to a certain type of crowd (“students of an intellectual bent,” the alumnus said, while my ego purred) goes beyond the intrigue. If The Secret History were a simple murder mystery, the narrative could have ended at Bunny’s death. But it didn’t, because, more than being a story about murder, the novel is about wanting to change, but failing. And it is precisely this failed transformation that makes the book relatable.
Richard, the novel’s narrator, first describes the five students in the elite Classics class as isolated, aloof, with “a strange cold breath of the ancient world,” strange but arresting — and ultimately, when given the option to join this crew, he takes it, hoping to cultivate the same aura himself. Once in, he and these other otherworldly students study (and oh, studying so picturesquely!) under their irresistible, charismatic teacher, who on Richard’s first day asks them to “leave the phenomenal world, and enter into the sublime,” before leading them in a whirlwind discussion on divine madness in the cozy style of a Socratic seminar.
Richard had escaped the dust and destitution of Plano by coming to Hampden, wanting to get as far away from himself as possible, and from the first had been mesmerized by the mystery of the Classics group. Crucially, he believes that the aura of Julian Morrow’s students is one he can achieve by studying what they studied. And once in with them, he comments, “I felt myself trembling on the brink of a fabulous discovery, as though any morning it was all going to come together…I was going to sit up in a bed like a thunderbolt and say oh! oh! oh!”
Such is the seductive appeal of the liberal arts. We are told that being a true student of the liberal arts means to have cultivated a love of learning and a set of broadly applicable skills in critical thinking, writing, reading, constant questioning, and interpersonal empathy. We are told that such students are in search of truth, looking for guidance in their studies on how to live the good life and cultivate their souls. We are told the liberal arts are a way of experiencing life; we are told the schools and institutions that teach the humanities to students — at least, in the ideal education — are not merely teaching texts but fostering great citizens and empathetic human beings. From these descriptions, the liberal arts seem like a kind of magic medicine that will make you smarter, cooler, better. One certainly might hope, and many do, that the liberal arts would make everything, like Richard said, suddenly come together.
At the time the college alumnus gave me the book bag, I was fresh from a year when I’d read for the first time in my life ancient philosophers and meditations on the nature of man. Impressed by the confidence and air of intelligence my professors and this college alumnus shared, I thought that I had gotten my foot into the door of the right club, the club that would set me apart from the common masses and propel me into a higher class: intellectual. Basically, my professors and the alumnus represented the same elitism that appealed to Richard and beckoned him to join the Classics. It was the wink-wink-nudge-nudge, you get me, we’re both literary, we appreciate this kind of thing, the secret handshake and tip of the hat: follow us, we know what to do, we’ll make you into an intellectual. In short, I, like Richard, thought I could leave everything boring and nasty about me behind, and was on the brink of transforming into a completely new and better person. Who among us hasn’t wanted that?
The character that to me is the most striking, out of everyone, in The Secret History, is that of Henry Winter. (Even Camilla and Charles, with their incestuous relationship lifted straight from Greek tragedy, can’t compare). Henry, the rigid, imposing scholar, who makes puns in Greek more fluently than he can in English and greets his beloved teacher on the phone with “Khairei!” was, out of the six, certainly the most devoted scholar. After all, it was he who attempted to simulate divine madness and who successfully held a bacchanal.
The believability of the fiction aside, one has to admire Henry’s passion. But in this case, it is Henry’s passion that leads to not only his fall, but also the breaking of the magic circle that they had been living in.
The bacchanal leads to a dead body, which leads to blackmail, which leads Henry to organize Bunny’s death. All of these events, in narrative, happen breathlessly; under the light of objective reality, they do, of course, seem utterly ludicrous. And yet the extremity of the tale does not lessen the takeaway.
Henry had seen the most concretely out of the group the possibility of a completely new self. He admits to Richard that his life had been stale, dead, and colorless, and that the entire appeal of the bacchanal was to “lose one’s self, lose it utterly.” The night it happened, he was able to do what he always wanted: to live without thinking.
The similarities between Richard and Henry are obvious. Like Richard, Henry had wanted to escape his old life. Like Richard, Henry was drawn to the study of the liberal arts to do so — but, seemingly, he found the key that Richard hadn’t. He might even have found it as a result of the studies he felt were so colorless. They were what enabled him to draw in the madness and kill the farmer. And as a result, he felt invincible, confident, in control; he had changed himself, become everything he wanted.
If the story stopped here, the moral lesson would be troubling. But Henry ultimately kills himself. Richard speculates on why: Julian had abandoned his students after hearing about the results of his teaching, and Henry, devastated, had needed to prove the worth of “those high cold principles which Julian had taught…Duty, piety, loyalty, sacrifice.” Though Henry, unlike Richard, had managed to forge a new self for a brief moment, it didn’t last. He could not escape from the realities of life so easily, and had to return to his old self. He was stuck. Then, bam, the gunshot.
What this tells us is that really, there is no magical transformation. It isn’t that books can’t change you. Of course they can, if you let them. With time and effort, they allow you to understand yourself and the world more deeply and better. But your self is not remade with a bang. There is no thunderbolt. Whether you like it or not, you are who you are. And it is the reality of this youthful illusion’s dissolution that gives The Secret History its tragic appeal.
Of course, one could point out that this book is fiction, that the characters are not real, and that most liberal arts students do not try to induce divine madness or push friends off cliffs. But that’s not the point. The novel depends on its strong characters, characters we can believe in and empathize with: Camilla liking novels, Francis gay, Bunny a spendthrift, Charles liking alcohol too much. In fact, at one point, late in the story, Richard comments that neither he nor his friends, despite their aura, were destined for a career in academia. They were just normal students, who were trying to learn how to live with all parts of themselves that they hoped to change. And when they stepped under Julian Morrow’s guidance, it seemed they might.
But by the end, Richard admits the failure: the magic teacher, turned out to be rather useless in light of a real crisis; two of their circle, dead; the rest of them, living rather aimless and unhappy lives. He became one of the elite circle, all right, but the elite circle turned out to be a rather ordinary one. He didn’t become a new person, unless as to assume a new identity of murderer. He did not leave his past self behind. At the end of the story, he states himself that he had remained what he always was: a bystander.
That doesn’t mean that he learned nothing. Quite the contrary.
His recourse was perhaps the most obvious one for a student taught to think, criticize, and observe. He analyzes the past, wonders at it, and teases out the motivations and forces leading down the chain of events. He tries to make sense of the chaos. He examines his life.
And then he does about the only thing that he, and all the line of questioners before him who have tried to find meaning out of living, can do: he writes down the entire story. And in so doing, his readers can escape their own lives, swept away briefly before coming jarringly back to their own bodies.
Like Rachel Kushner earlier this year, Marisha Pessl faced a nightmare known to only the luckiest novelists. Pessl’s debut, 2006’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, was a smash critical and popular success that fetched a six-figure advance, and now she needed to produce a follow-up that somehow topped it. Like Kushner before her, Pessl resisted the temptation to stick with a winning formula; instead she used a broad canvas to produce a novel that is in every way bigger, more ambitious, and more satisfying than her splashy debut.
Pessl’s new novel is called Night Film. People who require categories for their fiction should probably shelve it in the “literary thriller” section, though a genre label is as pointless as a plot summary for a novel as ectoplasmic and slippery as this one. On its base level, Night Film is an exoneration quest by Scott McGrath, the book’s narrator, a disgraced investigative journalist who once tried to penetrate the shell of a reclusive filmmaker named Stanislav Cordova — only to get sued by Cordova and lose everything, including job, wife, daughter, and a fair chunk of his life’s savings and self-esteem. Cordova’s disturbing films, which give the novel its title, have developed a cult following that is literally underground: the movies are so shocking that they’re shown only at secret screenings in tunnels under cities. McGrath describes Cordova as “a crevice, a black hole, an unspecified danger, a relentless outbreak of the unknown in our overexposed world…He’s down under the railway bridge in the river with all the missing evidence, and the answers that will never see the light of day.”
When Cordova’s brilliant daughter, Ashley, dies of an apparent suicide in a shabby warehouse in downtown Manhattan, McGrath feels the old tug: “I could feel it starting again — the dark undertow toward Cordova. Forget my fury toward him, which still simmered — this was a chance for absolution. If I went for him again and proved he was a predator — what I’d believed in my gut — all I’d lost might come back.”
McGrath enlists two young assistants for his investigation — Hopper Cole, a scruffy drug dealer and one-time boyfriend of Ashley’s, and Nora Halliday, a coat check girl/actress who was one of the last people to see Ashley alive. So, on the face of it, we have a good old-fashioned journalistic investigation. That’s like saying Moby-Dick was a fish story.
What sets Night Film apart is that the telling of the story — the quest for an elusive truth — becomes the story. It’s a deft act of authorial legerdemain that could have backfired, but in Pessl’s hands the story whips along even as it becomes increasingly unclear what the story is, or where it’s heading. As the investigation unfolds, we meet a string of Cordova’s assistants, neighbors, actors, and ex-wives, as well as security guards, tattoo artists, hotel maids, and clerks, shopkeepers, landladies, anyone who had contact with the family. There are intimations of black magic, secret rituals, child sacrifice. The more McGrath and his cohorts learn about Ashley’s life, the less certain they are about the circumstances of her death. It doesn’t help that her invisible father appears to be pulling strings to thwart their investigation.
Pessl embroiders her prose with a grab bag of visual effects that attempt to give the novel documentary heft, including police reports, typed transcripts of telephone calls, photographs, newspaper clippings, text messages, e-mails, online news articles, psychiatric evaluations, and postings from a highly secretive fan website known as The Blackboards. For me, these visuals feel gimmicky and rote, more meta-smoke than actual fire.
But Pessl’s writing has done a lot of growing up in the seven years since Calamity Physics was published. That novel, the story of a precocious teenage girl and her peripatetic professor dad, had a hyperventilated prose style that struck me as too cute by at least half. At 600 pages, it was also way too long. The book’s privileged teenagers, known as the Bluebloods, exuded none of the anomie of the young things in Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, none of the darkness of Donna Tartt’s undergrads in The Secret History. Now Pessl’s cleverness and bloat have given way to assurance. Her writing is frequently deft and insightful. Here’s a bombastic Cordova scholar: “There were two things Beckman truly loathed in life: sitting in the first three rows of a movie theater and the Catholic Church.” And here’s a mousy piano salesman: “You could spot these Mahler-loving men within a ten-block radius of Carnegie Hall. They tended to wear earth tones, have on DVD all of public television’s Great Performances series, live alone in apartments on the Upper West Side, and have potted plants they spoke to daily.”
Marlowe Hughes, a faded actress, delivers a delicious evisceration of McGrath and his two assistants when they show up to interview her, beginning with Hopper:
“This must be Tarzan, Greystoke, Lord of the Apes. You’re missing a grunt and a club. Can’t wait to see you in your loincloth. Now, who else do we have here?” Enunciating this acidly, she leaned forward to survey Nora. “A chorus girl. You won’t be able to fuck your way to the middle, Debbie. And you.” She turned to me. “A wannabe Warren, straight from Reds. Every one of you, the farting demeanor of the artfully clueless. You people demand to know about Cordova?” She scoffed dramatically, though it sounded like a handful of pebbles rasping in her throat. “And so fleas look up at the sky and wonder why stars.”
As good as such passages are, the writing is not flawless. Pessl has a lazy way with adverbs. People sweat “profusely,” winds howl “punitively,” matches blow out “abruptly,” hair is cropped “hastily.” After a while I found myself wishing Pessl had read Stephen King’s 20 Rules for Writing, including Rule #3: Avoid adverbs. Her heavy use of italics is also unsettling, especially in the trite koans sprinkled throughout the text: Within every elaborate lie, a kernel of truth…Astonishing how quickly money jogged a man’s memory… Everyone smiles for a photograph… Even worse are passages like this dubious bit of social analysis:
In the age of the Internet, pianos, like physical books, were fast becoming culturally extinct. They’d probably stay that way unless Apple invented the iPiano, which fit inside your pocket and could be mastered via text message. With the iPiano you can be an iMozart. Then, you could compose your own iRequiem for your own iFuneral attended by millions of your iFriends who iLoved you.
At first I took such italics as a form of shorthand, a clumsy way of telegraphing meaning. But by the end of the book I had come to see the italics as an effective way of revealing McGrath as a relentless pile-driver, pounding away at his quest for the truth. The italics contribute to McGrath’s portrayal as a driven and annoying character. Which is to say he’s just like most journalists.
To return to the comparison with Rachel Kushner, I would argue that Kushner’s debut novel, Telex from Cuba, was an even tougher act to follow than Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Telex was a first novel that didn’t behave like one. It had nothing to do with its young creator’s erudition or deft wordplay; it had everything to do with history, politics, and social hierarchies in the lost world of an American enclave in pre-Castro Cuba. There was nothing solipsistic about it. Unlike Special Topics, it felt like the work of a fully formed talent.
But that’s not to diminish Pessl’s achievement in Night Film. For me, the book’s finest passage is when the trio penetrates Cordova’s remote estate, The Peak, and then get separated. Chased by dogs and guards, McGrath eludes them by submerging himself in a muck-filled swimming pool, hiding in a greenhouse full of hallucinogenic plants, and wandering through Cordova’s elaborate soundstage. The episode plays out like an extended drug trip — McGrath believes he has become part of a Cordova film — and it leaves him shaken and baffled.
That, to Pessl’s credit, is how McGrath — and the reader — wind up at the end of the book. The mystery is not tied up with a tidy bow, the big questions remain unanswered. But when McGrath finally comes face-to-face with his prey, he has the good sense to be willing to shut up, for once, and listen to Cordova’s version of the truth. It’s the smartest move he makes.
I went to work for the film industry in 1994. I’d never done it. Oh, I’d dabbled — as a teenager, I’d worked in the mailroom of Creative Artists Agency for a summer — but past that, not really. I was a child of Hollywood, my father was and still is a successful talent agent, and my mother was a well-produced screenwriter. Everybody I knew, every last person I’d grown up with, it seemed, had dutifully entered an industry that’s much like the Mafia in this respect. Casa Nostra runs in the blood. Having scrupulously avoided the movie business for most of my 20s — I was a schoolteacher, in San Francisco, had exiled myself in search of work that had meaning — I found myself in that most cinematic, and criminal, of positions. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
Director of Literary Acquisitions. That was the title I was offered. It came about, I think, because I had a reputation among my family’s friends for being well-read, and because there was a moment — it’s a little hard to remember it now — when books were a particularly hot commodity in Hollywood. Adaptations were the wave of the recent past (The Firm), and so, quite possibly, the future. I was approached first by Francis Ford Coppola, for whom I’d once read a handful of scripts. He had the somewhat nostalgic notion that 1940s films had often been predicated upon short stories, so why not do the same thing now? Soon after that, I began talking to Danny DeVito, whose company, Jersey Films, was producing a soon-to-be-released movie called Pulp Fiction. Might I consider moving to New York to scout books? Robert De Niro piled into the mix as well. Surely one or all of them could persuade me to take a 200 percent pay raise to move to New York City and read? My 20s had been full of difficult decisions, but this was not one of them.
I went to work for Danny and De Niro, combined — they partnered to hire me, while Francis went on to revise his idea, eventually, into the magazine Zoetrope: All Story, which would launch in 1997. But for a moment it seemed plausible to believe literature and film were in alliance, that one could simply pounce on books — there were so many of them! — that would “make great movies” and have at them. After all, what did you need besides a bankable box office star to make this happen? (I was, indeed, green.) I figured I had the ear of two of such stars. What was going to stop, say, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History from hitting the big screen now?
Before I left, however, I was given a word of advice. One of DeVito’s partners, a shrewd, literate woman who’s since enjoyed a highly successful career of her own, called me into her office.
“You have excellent literary taste,” she told me.
“That’s not entirely a compliment,” she said. “Remember. Great books make bad movies. And bad books often make great ones.”
Hmm. I’ve since heard this bit of folk wisdom from many sources over the years — it isn’t untrue — but at the time it was new to me. I left the room thinking, Ha. So I’m supposed to be looking for bad books?
Once again, and not for the last time, I’d underestimated the film industry, and the elegance of the people in it.
This is not a story of the injustices of Hollywood. I’ve heard that one before, and honestly, there’s no need to reiterate the notion that the movie business rewards mediocrity, treats excellence with contempt, and that producers, specifically, are idiots who don’t read. Occasionally, this is true, but no more true — and no more often so — than it is in the world of finance or accupuncture. What people don’t really consider, I think, is that people in film are gambling with vast amounts of money. If the $80 million were your own, would you feel comfortable staking it upon something you simply felt was “good?” Or would you look for patterns of past performance? Confronted as I was with a dispiriting number of books that were described to me as “Die Hard in a ______” (i.e, “Die Hard in a submarine;” “Die Hard in a public school.” The idea being that something was set to explode and someone was set to stop it, the basic pattern for Jerry Bruckheimer’s blockbusters at the time), I found my bosses more receptive to those than they were to, say, Rick DeMarinis’s The Year of the Zinc Penny, or Jennifer Egan’s The Invisible Circus (which nevertheless did get made several years later). They weren’t foolish, though, or vulgar. They just understood what I didn’t. That making a movie is a ground war, and an enormous risk of capital, and that it’s just as hard to make a big, dumb thriller as it is to make an intelligent film of quality. So why not put the effort, at least most of the time, where the reward is more likely to equal or exceed it? Why work harder for less?
I sound like a corporate stooge. I was a schoolteacher (and I am a novelist), so I know perfectly well why. Because aesthetics and ethics both matter, and if all you’re trying to do is profiteer off a steaming pile of crap then you belong in a different business, if not in prison. The difficulty was, during the 1990s, there was no business to which this condition didn’t seem to apply. I worked cheek-to-jowl with people in publishing, in fact my job had a great deal more to do with the world of publishing than it did with the world of film. I saw my bosses in Los Angeles a couple times per year. I spent every day on the phone with literary agents, all my free hours taking editors and writers to lunch, drinks, and dinner. I witnessed the rise of the “literary thriller,” and saw first hand the explosion, the wild proliferation of the gargantuan advance for stylish, usually young, writers unlikely to earn out. Just weeks before I started working for my two actors, Nicholas Evans’s The Horse Whisperer stirred up an enormous sensation by selling, on the basis of a slender proposal, for $3.15 million at the Frankfurt Book Fair. In other words, the book business, that fabled bastion of intellectual integrity, seemed to me to behave exactly as the film industry did. To be driven by hype, and hot air, and to involve the placement of outsized bets on individuals perhaps a little more glamorous than they were talented. It was the nature of business, and not even any particular business, that it be so. The ’90s were of course a decade of mergers, and so a number of independent publishing houses were smushed together under one German umbrella. I saw this too. Eventually, I got picked off by a corporation. One of the studios invited me to come work for them instead. More money, bigger office, better furniture: why would I say no? And when I noticed that my new digs were in the same building as one of the Big Six publishers, this didn’t surprise me either. We were owned by the same multinational conglomerate, and played by the same rules.
Is there a moral to all this? Well, even today, people seem to complain about Hollywood. Or, they’ve given up complaining, because the patterns by now are so established. Every Memorial Day, and throughout the summer, studios roll out their tentpoles: films based on comic books and graphic novels, sequels to superhero franchises and adaptations of popular children’s stories. The beginning of the year is a dumping ground for Jason Statham and Mark Wahlberg movies; Judd Apatow gets two or three comedies salted throughout the next 12 months, and come November there’ll be “quality” from Spielberg, Scorsese, and at least one director named Anderson. It hurts to sound so cynical, but I can’t imagine anyone wonders anymore what’s coming. The movies roll around, the same ones, every year. So what’s left to learn from Hollywood? (Besides, you know, you’d best re-develop that spec into a pilot script while you can.)
During the last of my time at the studio, I went to a corporate retreat. I’d been dispirited by my time as an executive. It was a fun ride, and I seemed to be endlessly promoted precisely because I had no fear of being fired, but I was tired of doing a job that had no need for me to do it: my own sensibility never came into play. I was ready to quit, but I had no plan for what I’d do after I did. But first, I listened to a speech — no, an admonition — from the head of the company. He told us, the assembled executives of the three feature film divisions of the studio, that we were permitted to make a certain kind of inexpensive movie. The Full Monty, which had recently been a big hit, was the example he used. At the other end of the spectrum, it was okay to spend big on epic spectacles. Titanic was set for release at the end of the year, and he argued that this was a good bet. In-between, however, were the middling expensive vehicles for not-necessarily-bankable stars. “Middle class movies,” he called them. And we were not to pursue those under any circumstances. Forty, 50 million dollar budgets? The kiss of death.
“No more middle class movies,” we were told. “Never. Ever. None.”
I will admit that this assertion sent chills through me. In part because I understood that my own job (which I still needed) would soon go. But also because I understood what it meant for the culture. If there were no more “middle class” movies, then in what other arenas would an ostensible middle class suffer? Publishing, for sure. But what about . . . everything else? An economic disparity, which was being sketched out for us in terms of what we could spend, seemed to have an obvious corollary in terms of what we, or at least the movies, could hope to earn. Or rather, the “middle class movie” was being told it could no longer justify its continued existence. It wasn’t difficult to extrapolate from there. After all, the movie business had already proven itself a reliable bellweather for the behaviors of other sectors.
It turns out the movie business, just like the rest of it, has survived. The wealth gap has gotten about as wide as it possibly can — I suppose Occupy Wall Street can stretch itself to accommodate the 99.5 or the 99.75 percent if it must. Art has fled to television (it’s no accident that the well-heeled novelists who used to moonlight for studios now do so for American cable networks), and Hollywood gimps along in bloated and predictable fashion. But it would be wrong to imagine the lessons of the industry have finished, even if, as the writer Michael Tolkin remarked when I asked him why the movies were so terrible, “they’ve run out of myths.” No, these lessons are sadly ecological in nature. They apply to every system, and every business, and have something to do with a finitude of resources. You can build your blockbusters — and your skyscrapers — ever higher, but as you do they sustain fewer people. And eventually, of course, they will come down. Bad habits die hard, apparently, but customs? Truly fossilized institutions? These, it would seem, die even harder.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
In Harold and the Purple Crayon, that beloved children’s book by Crockett Johnson, the moon that Harold draws at the beginning of the story is what allows him to return to his bedroom at the end of the story. In fact, once Harold draws his purple moon, it appears on every page. It has to–it’s lighting his way. Not that a reader, young or old, would necessarily notice its ubiquity on first read. It’s not until afterward, or on subsequent readings, that Johnson’s superb and simple plotting reveals itself. The moon was there, all along, waiting for the climax. Its purpose in the story is, as Aristotle put it, surprising and inevitable.
I was reading (and re-reading) Harold and the Purple Crayon soon after I’d discovered the work of Tana French, the Irish crime writer of prodigious talents who has published a trio of novels about detectives in Dublin. French got me thinking a lot about plot precisely because she writes mysteries, a genre that requires the most tightly-constructed stories: the moon must be gracefully and subtly placed, or you risk losing your reader. I write this with confidence, even though I’ve read very little crime fiction in my life. I’m the kind of reader who devours episode after episode of Law and Order: SVU and then repairs to the bath (the bawth) to read a novel free of blood, murder, and so on.
I was excited to tear into French’s first novel, In the Woods. I imagined myself staying up all night, rushing to the story’s end. I figured that homicide Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox, investigating the murder of a young girl, would be literary versions of Detectives Elliot Stabler and Olivia Benson. I moronically told anyone who would listen what I was planning to read. “A whodunit!” I cried. “A police procedural!” I wanted blood, and detectives with latex gloves.
What I got was a few lessons on plot.
If a scene is the completion of an action in a specific time and place, then plot is…what, exactly? I’d venture to say that it’s the relationship between these scenes. It’s the irresistible pull–and meaningful accumulation of–cause and effect. (“The king died and then the queen died of grief,” as E.M. Forster famously put it.) It’s the moon planted at the beginning of the story, paying off at the end.
But there’s more. Beyond the world of storytelling, plot is defined as a secret scheme to reach a specific end. Or it’s a parcel of land. Or it means to mark a graph, chart, or map: the plotting shows us what has changed; our ship is headed this way. To a writer (me) interested in (obsessed with?) plot-making, all of these are significant definitions. The lessons abound. I once read somewhere that Margaret Atwood compared novel writing to performing burlesque: don’t take off your clothes too slowly, she advised, or the reader will get bored; get naked too fast, and the entertainment ends before it can really begin. I put that in my plot-pocket, too.
So how did French’s books help and influence my thoughts on plot? Here it goes:
1. Call me ignorant, but I was surprised that In the Woods didn’t move as swiftly as my favorite hour-long network cop dramas. There was air around the clue-finding, and the mystery didn’t unravel as cleanly as I expected. It might have if the story’s protagonist, Detective Ryan, weren’t so damaged, haunted as he is by a second (and unsolved) crime that happened when he was a boy. The thing is, were Detective Ryan not haunted, the story would lack not only emotional weight, but its narrative engine, too. Ryan’s internal conflict feeds the external one. As with all good stories, character nurtures plot, emerges from it. The most dramatic element of the narrative is the relationship between Detectives Ryan and Maddox, and how the murder case they’re investigating strengthens and then threatens that relationship. The scenes of them drinking wine in Maddox’s attic flat, and the passages about their partnership and the shared understanding between them, feed the thrill of the crime-solving, even as they divert from it.
Lesson: Although the reader wants to find out what happens, longs to have the mystery revealed, the mysteries of existence, of human interaction, which aren’t so easy to solve, are often the most pleasurable to experience on the page. A writer need not move inexorably toward the finish line. The asides, the exhales, are allowed. They are required.
2. I often hear people say that with genre fiction (and addictive young adult fiction), plot trumps prose. The writing needs to be invisible, they say, so that story can take center stage. But with French’s work that isn’t the case. Her prose is sharp and beautiful, and it draws attention to itself. French isn’t a sentence acrobat like Sam Lipsyte, but her prose is certainly visible. In The Likeness, French’s second novel, narrated by Detective Cassie Maddox, we get fun phrases like, “I hate nostalgia, it’s laziness with prettier accessories,” and “The lights of the house spun blurred and magic as the lights of a carousel.” This kind of writing calls to mind what John Gardner dubbed the “foreplay paragraph,” one that makes you want to read faster, to find out what happens, but which nevertheless keeps you anchored to it because the sentences are so well-constructed, so…sexy. It’s the writing that makes you not skip ahead: to the dead body, the nudity, the climax.
Now, I admit, The Likeness, my favorite of French’s novels, has a pretty unbelievable premise: a dead woman is discovered who looks just like Cassie…and this corpse also happens to be carrying identification that claims she’s Lexie Madison, Cassie’s former undercover alias. From there, Cassie infiltrates the victim’s tight-knit group of friends, posing as Lexie (the survived version). It’s a Gothic The Secret History, with more secrets and more police.
The absurd doppelganger premise is saved, I think, by Cassie’s voice. That is, by the prose. Who cares if what brings Cassie back to her undercover identity is a touch far-fetched if the descriptions are so right on? What French really wants us to focus on is the delicious and dangerous pull Cassie feels toward this isolated group of friends in their big, crumbling house. And our narrator describes the seduction of belonging so, so well.
Lesson: What Gary Lutz calls “page-hugging” prose isn’t necessarily anathema to plot. The descriptions in The Likeness may force the reader to slow down to savor the imagery and the sense of place (that plot of land), but they also serve to emphasize Cassie’s growing attachment to the crime’s possible suspects. As with In the Woods, what threatens the investigation magnifies the relationship between its players and its deeper meanings, and it makes solving the investigation that much more fun for the reader. Beautiful prose begets a beautiful plot.
3. By the time I got to French’s third novel, Faithful Place, I was able to figure out who the killer was fairly quickly. I’m not sure if that’s because I’d gotten more adept at reading crime novels, or if French made it easy. The thing is, it didn’t matter; I was still hooked to the story.
At the beginning of Faithful Place, undercover cop Frank Mackey is drawn back to the working class neighborhood he left at age nineteen, vowing never to return. He’d planned to go to England with his girlfriend, Rosie Daly, but she took off without him–or so he assumed. 22 years later, when Rosie’s packed suitcase is discovered in an abandoned house on his old street, Frank must not only reckon with what really happened to his first love, he must also face the dysfunctional family he’s tried so hard to leave behind. Juicy, right? But what happened to Rosie becomes secondary to Frank’s conflicts with his family, to his (impossible?) desire to escape his past and class.
What I love about French’s work is how she refuses to answer every question the story raises; in fact, sometimes the ones she does answer feel a little too easy, as if borrowed from a lesser, more simplistic narrative (see the less-than-stellar conclusion of In the Woods). She is better at vague, I think, more comfortable with loose ends. As Laura Miller points out in Salon:
French herself doesn’t play by the rules, and the prime rule of crime fiction, no matter how grisly, cynical or edgy, is that the plot begins with a disruption of order (the crime itself) and ends with the restoration of it, albeit in some slightly battered form. The guilty parties are identified and usually punished, secrets are unearthed and, above all, the world returns to intelligibility, however bitter the message it has to tell.
The crime is solved in The Faithful Place, but it isn’t until after the killer is revealed that the book’s grace becomes apparent. With the crime figured out, Frank and the reader must wrestle with bigger questions, discomforts and difficulties. There’s a darkness to the ending that’s deeply moving.
Lesson: A scene should raise multiple questions, but the scene that follows isn’t required to answer everything. Some questions can be carried from scene to scene, through an entire book, teasing the reader, or they can be posed in the final pages. The burlesque dancer might want to leave her brassiere on, and it can still be a damn fine show. Or: she can show you her tits, and you might be up all night thinking about her wrists, which had been covered all along.
4. In the Woods teaches us how to solve a murder, and, more importantly, how to work a case with a partner. (Or, maybe, how to botch that partnership.)
Detective Ryan says:
I wish I could tell you how an interrogation can have its own beauty, shining and cruel as that of a bullfight; how in defiance of the crudest topic or the most moronic suspect it keeps inviolate its own taut, honed grace, its own irresistible and blood-stirring rhythms; how the great pairs of detectives know each other’s every thought as surely as lifelong ballet partners in a pas de deux…
The Likeness teaches us how to go undercover. As Cassie tells us:
“…bad stuff happens to undercovers. A few of them get killed. More lose friends, marriages, relationships. A couple turn feral, cross over to the other side so gradually that they never see it happening till it’s too late, and end up with discreet, complicated early-retirement plans. Some, and never the ones you’d think, lose their nerve–no warning, they just wake up one morning and all at once it hits them what they’re doing, and they freeze like tightrope walkers who’ve looked down…And some go the other way, the most lethal way of all: when the pressure gets to be too much, it’s not their nerve that breaks, it’s their fear. They lose the capacity to be afraid, even when they should be.”
Faithful Place teaches how to lead your own private investigation, how to take your work home with you; Frank isn’t supposed to be on the Rosie investigation, but he must figure out what happened. As with the other two books, there are also nuggets of professional wisdom throughout. For instance, we learn that an undercover cop learns to flick a switch in his mind so that “the whole scene unfolds at a distance on a pretty little screen, while you watch and plan your strategies and give the characters a nudge now and then, alert and absorbed and safe as a general.”
What Faithful Place taught me best, though, is how to be working class Irish. What to eat and drink, how to say “Jaysus” instead of “Jesus,” and what to call the new middle class neighbors: “epidural yuppies.”
Lesson: Mysteries, and detective novels in particular, are how-to manuals in a sense. Part of their magnetism is that they teach readers how to be bad-ass cops: brave, sharp, maybe even crooked. But, really, there’s an instructional aspect to every story. The reader is learning the world of the characters, and the rules therein, and it’s pleasurable to be immersed in that day-to-day experience, in the expertise of others. The writer is teaching you how to live as someone else. She is also teaching you how to read her narrative. The writer guides your expectations. This is how plot works in this unique narrative.
You see, Tana French taught me that plot is a strange and amorphous aspect of craft, never a one-formula-fits-all kind of thing. (What in fiction is?) Sometimes the moon’s on page two, and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes you’re reading for the moon, and sometimes you’re reading because you like the color purple, or Harold’s little jumpsuit, or Harold himself. Will he make it home safe? What does his journey even mean, anyway?
Like more conventional forms of romance, the first great literary love of my life began with a look. Young readers of Playboy have similar experiences, I believe, with centerfolds: a precise moment – the turning of a page to reveal a face (more likely a body) that haunts the young man for the rest of his days. In bars too, at high school dances, in college dining halls, in lecture classes and seminars such infatuations begin: a single glimpse of an unknown stranger prompts the festerings of fascination and desire. My literary romance began in the pages of A Book of Days for the Literary Year, between June 22nd and June 23rd:This picture, which still hangs above my desk, is Mary McCarthy’s Vassar senior portrait and from the first moment I saw it, I was in love. She was all the things I wanted to be: a writer, beautiful and serious, but also – or so she seemed to me – bright, frank, fearless, alluring. And she was also what I was then: a bit childlike and clean-scrubbed and, perhaps, a bit mischievous (I sense that still in the shadowed corner of her mouth). I have since discovered that McCarthy’s looks were a bit sharper than this picture reveals, and became more so in her 20s and 30s. There are also some ghastly pictures of her in later life (one of her on a panel with W.H. Auden comes to mind – the two look like finalists in a World’s Least Well-Preserved Person contest, and I think I remember McCarthy to be missing a tooth in this one). But in the Vassar portrait she is stunning. I gather from the number of men who fell under her spell (Edmund Wilson, Clement Greenburg, and Philip Rahv among them) that the beauty that won me was real.Is this strange? Or inappropriate? This enthralling first look, this discovery of one of the great literary loves of my life through a visceral, physical attraction to her? My affair ended in an intellectual and aesthetic admiration of McCarthy’s bracing, clean, meticulously observed prose and her total, sometimes aggressive, frankness about sex and everything else in How I Grew, The Group, The Groves of Academe, Cast a Cold Eye, The Company She Keeps, and Intellectual Memoirs. Her bravery (or was it brazenness?) held me rapt and abject even after the original power of the Vassar picture had been diluted somewhat by other, less flattering visions of her. The most famous McCarthy line of all time is one she tossed out about Lillian Hellman on The Dick Cavett Show in 1979. McCarthy had described Hellman as a dishonest writer and Cavett pressed her, “What is dishonest about Lillian Hellman?” McCarthy responded: “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the’.” (Hellman responded with a $2.5 million libel suit.) Not until I found Lord Rochester, Leopold von Sacher Masoch, and the Marquis de Sade some years later would someone seem so awe-inspiringly self-assured and terrifyingly bold in thought and word.But the question of beauty remains. Susan Sontag, whom one might have expected to rise above the average woman’s hyper-consciousness of beauty, was by her own account, one of us: “Physical beauty is enormously, almost morbidly, important to me.” In Paradise Lost, the newly-created, unfallen Eve is more taken with her own reflection in a lake than she is with Adam. He is, by her own account,”less fair,/ less winning… than that smooth wat’ry image” of herself. When I started reading McCarthy, I didn’t just want to be able to write like she did, I wanted to be her. I wanted to be what she had been: beautiful, dazzlingly bright and self-certain. Her books were sacred how-to guides that might transform me (however silly or sinister the ladies at jezebel.com may have found the idea of intellectual memoirs as how-to books in Anne’s post last week). But it is laughable: Jon Stewart had a joke about the increasing sexiness and femaleness of cable news anchors – a segment called “News I’d Like to F#@k” and this approach to news-watching was, regrettably, similar to the way (in my too earnest and hopeful teendom) I approached McCarthy – with a confusion of hungers – for beauty, for intellectual acuity. I cannot tell which is which sometimes. I cannot subtract the beauty of the person (beauty I admire; a beauty I covet) from the disembodied voices of the written world. The materiality of the person clings to the writing, gives the words a captivating timbre that the plodding and mousy can never achieve.I remember reading reviews of Marisha Pessl’s novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006) and none of the reviewers seemed capable of talking about the book itself (The Secret History, Redux? – I guess, I have not read it) without first invoking Pessl’s beauty, or other reviewers’ fascination with her beauty, which was the same thing. I do not think that I am alone in my weakness – “partial, prejudiced, & ignorant” I may be – dilettantish, even (as you already know) – but not alone. Perhaps there are earnest and just readers out there who are not drawn in and repulsed so erratically as I am: people who plod dutifully and methodically through expansive reading lists of canonized authors (perhaps they go further – and read chronologically and boy-girl-boy-girl as well!), immune to the charms of such as these. But to belittle the powers of beauty and charm – and the irrational more generally – is not to escape it, and I do not try.Patricia HighsmithAnna Akhmatova, 1924.Sylvia Plath, Yorkshire, 1956, Smith College Mortimer Rare Book Room.Assia Wevill, poet and second wife of Ted Hughes. She committed suicide in 1969, as Plath had before her, but killed her daughter by Hughes as well as herself.
Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran, Iran in 1978 and raised in the Los Angeles area. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars. Her debut novel, Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove/Atlantic), came out in September 2007 to much acclaim from The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The Chicago Tribune, and San Francisco Chronicle, among others.This year’s reading list gets the theme The Year of the Guiltiest Pleasures, which I felt was much needed as I embarked on the scary roller coaster ride of debut novel launch. As usual my #1 New Year’s Resolution of the past 15 years – read (and love) George Eliot’s undoubtedly-masterpiecical Middlemarch – didn’t happen, so I turned to a book I really should have read when I was an undergrad at that bastion of preposterously-privileged art-snobbery, Sarah Lawrence College. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History had been recommended to me for years, but I always had the wrong idea about it – I thought it was like The Odyssey for a particularly precocious YA set. Boy, was I wrong – Tartt is a brilliant writer and she writes one of the most engaging novels about early adulthood that I have ever read. The book centers around a secret society/humanities clique at a rather Sarah Lawrence-ish small private college (I think it was based on Bennington) and chronicles their rather deadly fall. I’m sure it’s no Middlemarch, but I must say I could not put it down and was so depressed when it was over.Also in embracing my Eliot avoidance, I read two memoirs (a genre I usually hate) by two controversial artists I usually love: 50 Cent’s From Pieces to Weight: Once Upon a Time in Southside Queens and Tracey Emin’s Strangeland. The latter is a really raw, almost unreadable look at a very tormented British visual artist’s sexual history and the former is the coming-of-age tale of a true NYC “G” who went from living like a kiddie-range clay pigeon (he was shot nine times!) to a huge artist who now sells over 20 million records worldwide and has a Vitamin Water named after him. Even if you hate hip hop, how could you not be interested in a story of a kid who loses his drug-dealer mom at age 8 and then takes on her vocation before he’s in junior high? I admire 50. One day I will write the best novel before a Post-It bearing the bold Sharpied mantra: “get rich or die tryin.”More from A Year in Reading 2007