Reif Larsen’s first novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet was a frustrating narrative wrapped in a beautiful work of art. Parts of it, story-wise, worked wonderfully, but many sections dragged ponderously along, and then the confounding and ill-fitting finale was rushed, as if impatient to be over. But the imagination of the novel –– the lovely images annotating the text, T.S. himself –– is undeniable, as is the talent of its author. But one can always forgive a debut novel its ambition, so it was with much interest that I embarked upon Larsen’s second effort, I Am Radar, a measurably better novel than T.S. Spivet, both for its leanness and its grandness. It’s an epic page-turner filled with small, tender moments of wonder, beginning with its almost archetypally postmodern opening:
It was just after midnight in birthing room 4C and Dr. Sherman, the mustached obstetrician presiding over the delivery, was sweating slightly into his cotton underwear, holding out his hands like a beggar, ready to receive the imminent cranium.
Without warning, the room plunged into total darkness.
The “imminent cranium” belongs to Radar Radmanovic, the center, if not exactly the protagonist, of this tale, and when the lights come back on in the delivery room, Radar comes out a pitch black baby — was it the electrical event somehow? — with white parents. It’s 1975 in New Jersey and rumors spread, leading Radar’s mother, Charlene, to find every doctor she can to figure what happened to her son. Soon, the family lands in Norway so that Radar can undergo an experimental procedure involving a machine called a vircator, which can emit a large electromagnetic pulse and somehow rid Radar of his skin abnormality. It works, Radar’s skin lightens until it becomes “a slightly yellowish, flushed cream color,” but it also causes Radar to suffer epileptic seizures. The procedure is overseen by a group of artists/activists/puppeteers called Kirkenesferda, who are, as a group, the real protagonist of I Am Radar. After the first section, we’re launched into various histories surrounding Kirkenesferda. First we learn of the group’s master puppeteer, Miroslav Danilovic and his father, Danilo, both caught in the precursors to the Bosnian War. Miro’s creations seem impossible, puppets with no puppeteer. We get the history of a man named Raksmey Raksmey who, as a baby, was found floating on Cambodia’s Mekong River in a basket. There is also a man in the Congo who is attempting to collect every book in the world. And finally there is Kermin, Radar’s father, who may have inadvertently caused a giant rolling blackout in New Jersey.
If this all sounds eerily Pynchonian to you, that’s because it is. Deliberately. Charlene, Radar’s mother, is described reading The Crying of Lot 49, feeling “overcome with what we are able to accomplish with the simple constellation of words.” The phrase “gravity’s rainbow” appears. One sequence features the mysterious Tunguska Event from 1908, when, in the words of one character:
There was a huge explosion in Siberia. It blew out two thousand square meters of forest, something like this. Eighty million trees destroyed. Center of explosion was seventy kilometers from Vanavara, but people there, they still feel heat blast all across their skin. The shockwave broke windows, collapsed woodsheds. It blew men right off their horse. It was powerful, so powerful. Stronger than an atom bomb.
This perfectly Pynchonian (and perfectly true) historical event was also explored in Thomas Pynchon’s unjustly dismissed masterwork Against the Day, the novel to which I Am Radar is most closely aligned, in my eyes. But Larsen is doing more than simply riffing on one of his favorite author’s themes –– rather, he is riffing on many of his favorite authors’ themes. One can, while reading, pick up references to Herman Melville, Leo Tolstoy, Charles Dickens, and Nikolai Gogol (Akaky Akakievich, the protagonist from one of my very favorite short stories, “The Overcoat,” show ups) and you can sense –– in the structure, in the prose, in the language –– the influence of Salman Rushdie, Jorge Luis Borges, David Foster Wallace, Mark Z.Danielewski, and, of course, Pynchon. This is a novel steeped in its own influences.
Additionally, within this 653-page tome are fictional books, like, for instance, a book on the history of Kirkenesferda, which the narrator references throughout (replete with excerpts, images, and footnotes), and a novella on part of the life of Raksmey Raksmey. There is also Radar’s book, which, within the novel’s world, he hasn’t written yet. Is I Am Radar the book Radar will write? Well, yes and no. See, on page 621, there is an image taken, a note tells us, from “Radmanovic, R. (2013) I Am Radar, p. 621,” which would suggest that, indeed, the book we’re holding in our hands is this same book. Yet, just a little later, on page 641, another image credit refers to page 705. Radar, we are to assume, wrote his own version that extends beyond the story here and that we won’t get to read.
So real books and fake books –– but what’s the point? Why engage in such esoteric literary pastiche? The short answer is that, like Radar and the other sons here, Larsen wants to declare himself.
The primary emotional thread of I Am Radar is fathers and sons, of familial legacy and individual identity. Kermin and Radar. Miro and Danilo. Raksmey and his adopted father Jean-Baptiste de Broglie. Each son struggles with becoming their own person while still acknowledging (sometimes begrudgingly) their forebears. They are like their fathers, but they are different. Like father, like son…sort of.
Larsen makes a clear connection between these literal fathers and sons and literary fathers and sons. Near the end of the book, as Radar and companions head up the Congo toward a massive secret library created by the man hoping to collect all the world’s books, an almost Biblical passage appears. It lasts nearly two pages, and comes in the form of a speech by Professor Funes, the ambitious collector who also happens to have “perfect and complete memory.” Because he can remember everything in great detail, he’s able to list all of the authors he read throughout his life. Here is a short excerpt:
I read Defoe and Asturias and Sterne and Stendhal and Verga and Carducci and Blasco Ibáñez and Hugo and Verne and Balzac and Stendhal and Flaubert and Baudelaire and Sand and Verlaine and Paz and Maupassant and Ibsen and Wordsworth and Austen and Coleridge and Shelley and Keats and Blake and Scott and Carpentier and García Márquez and Puig and Cortázar and García Lorca.
And so on, until it more or less moves it way up to “DeLillo and Mailer and Salinger.” This is like a personal version of Genesis or Chronicles with all those endless begats. Larsen, as the finale shows, acknowledges the great authors who came before him, how their influence on him is undeniable, unavoidable, deep –– but that he is still his own writer, one with formidable gifts and looming ambition.
If not everything quite works in I Am Radar –– like, e.g., characters’ names sometimes change and are hard to keep track of, which lessens the emotional impact of some of their arcs; and sometimes it’s difficult to tell if we’re reading an omniscient narrator or borrowed information from one of the fictional books or some hybrid of the two –– it’s partly due to Larsen’s maximalist approach. How can any writer sustain perfection in such a large undertaking? It’s nearly impossible to do. Anna Karenina has parts that lag, that underwhelm (most notably Levin’s long diatribes on his serfs), as does Ulysses and The Brothers Karamozov and Infinite Jest. Novels like I Am Radar, which would technically fall under the “historiographic metafiction,” are especially prone to unwieldy excess and inscrutability. Pynchon’s books fall into that same category, and his novels are unquestionably flawed. And here is Larsen, continuing the legacy, in the same vein but in his own way. Like father, like son. Sort of.
In Reif Larsen’s first novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, the eponymous Spivet faults a chemistry teacher for falling short of his profession’s duty. Petty and competitive, he has failed, in Spivet’s words, to “distribute wonder.” Like so many in that novel, the formulation lodged itself in my memory, stowed away for future theft. It occurs to me now, however, that the phrase is best repeated to describe Larsen himself, whose extraordinary second novel, I Am Radar, an epic about genocide, performance art, and puppetry, has just been published.
Larsen, as game and thoughtful an interviewee as he is novelist, agreed to talk with me about Radar and my own forthcoming debut, The Poser, a novel about a man born with the compulsion and ability to imitate anyone he meets.
Jacob Rubin: I Am Radar spans radically divergent places, many of which, though not all, are undergoing or on the verge of genocide. There is Cambodia of the ’70s, Congo in 2010, the Bosnian War, Norway of the ’70s, and (perhaps most horrific) New Jersey in 2010. From the outset, did you know these places would make up the book? Were there other settings you considered? At what point in the process, did you know that the performance art group Kirkenesferda would be the novel’s linchpin?
Reif Larsen: During the first three years I was writing Radar I had no idea where this book was going. I originally started in what is now part three, then quickly realized I had to go both back in time but also laterally in space and story. The book really felt like it had this willful mind of its own, which I know is a schizophrenic thing to say because there was no one making this all up but me, but at times I really felt like I was riding this bucking bronco and just trying to hang for dear life. And the book was like: “We’re going to Cambodia, motherfucker.” And I was like…“Okay, fine whatever, you say. Just don’t kill me.” Obviously the cheerful through line of genocide limited some of the places I could potentially set the book in. Also, all of these places I’d had some kind of prior interest in or history with. (My roommate during grad school was writing a book about Cambodia. My friend had been going to the Congo for years making movies.) So the book just started gobbling these places up like a hungry monster. And in the end, I did get to visit all of them too, which was slightly uncanny, particularly when I’d written a scene in a place I’d never been to and then actually went to that place. I was constantly racked by a kind of fictional déjà vu.
Kirkenesferda came about organically. I knew from the beginning that I wanted to establish this group that was there but not there. A kind of ghost — formed by a literature around it, by images and references and anecdotes, and this weird, Borgesian book of all books that obsessively documented the history of the group but which itself cannot be found. There is a line from the novel: “After a while the reader cannot help but wonder how anyone could be so committed to something if it were not, at least in some sense, true. Devotion, at its core, must be a kind of truth.” So I wanted to press this notion of “devotion as confirmation” to its inevitable breaking point.
JR: Let me ask you about curiosity, which seems paramount in your work. In The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet, we have Spivet’s joyful, compulsive mapmaking. In Radar, it’s reflected both in the performance group’s mission and in the novel’s radical inclusiveness. I’m thinking, in particular, of the brilliant elucidations of real world phenomena, such as talking drums, quantum mechanics, telegraphy, puppetry, radiography, Morse code, among much else. What is your research process like? I realize the answer here is probably “both,” but which comes first — do you have the inkling that you’ll want to write about a certain place (ie. Cambodia in the ’70s) and then study it, or do you come to experience a place (Norway, for instance) and then feel the itch to set something there?
RL: As you suspected, there’s often a crazy interrelationship between my research and writing. Something will get stuck in my craw years before I ever write a word of the book — in this case it was a micro puppet show I witnessed down a dark staircase in Prague — and it will remain stuck, and I’ll keep coming back to it and usually this is a good sign I’m going to have to digest it via fiction somehow. Usually it’s not a one-to-one correspondence and not at all clear how that little morsel of observation will manifest itself on the page. Often the original reference will become quite veiled. I’ve been accused of writing “anti-autobiographical” fiction.
But then, just as often, my interests come out of the story itself. I will be writing a sentence and the father brings out a Morse Key and I’ll be like, “Shit. Gotta go learn about telegraphy.” For me, it’s always very important to be open to these kinds of messages (Morse or otherwise). The book will tell you what it’s interested in and then you have to go meet its demands. I was also amazed about the inclusivity of this particular book. The challenge was to cover that much ground and still make it feel like a novel, which I wasn’t really sure I did until the thing was finished, five years later. Still not quite sure, actually.
Along these lines, what was your process for researching Giovanni’s imitations? Part of the brilliance of this conceit is that imitations are the stuff of good fiction — noticing these inexplicable details that are there but not there, “the thread” that is unique to only this character. You are forcing yourself to write to specifics, to write compelling descriptions, but also to mine that vital territory of what separates a description of a person from the person itself. So I could see you writing this book armed with only the research of living on this planet as an observant being, but did you do other work as well?
JR: I did do some research, mainly about clothes in the 1940s and some of the history of Hollywood and of the Red Scare in Hollywood, as echoes of that period make their way into the book. In terms of the impressions themselves, as you suspected, I relied mainly on observation, experience, and caffeine. It was fun, though, to dramatize natural qualities of the writer (gesture obsession, hyper-observation) without Giovanni literally having to be one.
To get back to process for a sec, once you’ve assembled some of the research and let the book lead you to where it wants to go, do you think at all about genre? In the same way the best sci-fi bridges those liminal gaps between existing science and the science of, like, 12 hours from now, I Am Radar pulls at the bounds of what seems currently feasible. Did you think of it as science fiction?
RL: As a storyteller, I get very confused by the notion of genre. Even now, if you put a gun to my head I would be hard-pressed to tell you what it is. If there is a talking robot is it science fiction? If there is a dwarf with an axe and a cappuccino is it fantasy? I mean what even is YA anymore? Smaller words? Less complex emotional situations? No sodomy? Mostly genre is a shortcut for publishers and readers looking to categorize stories. Good writers rarely take shortcuts so genre doesn’t seem to be a very helpful discourse for us. A story is a story is a story.
JR: I want to ask about the theme of the exceptional. Radar, like The Selected Works of TS Spivet, explores precocity and its consequences. Many of the oddballs, eccentrics, and foundlings (some literal) who comprise Kirkenesferda are prodigies of a kind. I guess my question is about precocity and family. The precocity seems to give these collaborators joy and a kind of destiny at the price, often, of emotional orphanhood. How often does genius for these characters represent an expression of who they are, and how often does it represent a flight from home, or, at times, a burden parentally imposed?
RL: I’m not sure how to answer this question entirely — I, like many, am obsessed with the unanswerable questions of nature v. nurture and what is inherited and what is created on our own. It’s probably the most fundamental question of our humanness. But I do think you’ve pinned me to a familiar theme that comes up in my writing, which are these people who are imbalanced in some way — they present a particularly extraordinary skillset in one dimension, but then offer suffer an emotional imbalance because of it. Imbalanced characters are much more interesting to write about and throw up onto the canvas. There’s some purchase there and the imbalance leads to movement across the page. But the precocity that you’re referencing does allow for a sort of celebration of the strange; these characters have access to unusual or profound habits or thought processes that give you an excuse to tunnel deep into a mind or a scene or situation.
The same could be said, I suppose, about Giovanni, yes? He’s a great example of an imbalance in a character — a great skill at mimicry but paired with this interpersonal stuntedness. And I think you trace his growth so well over the course of the book. We really feel like we grow with Giovanni as he accepts, masters, and succumbs to his gifts. We feel his pitfalls and his triumphs. As a writer, how do you pace such growth on the page? How do you make it believable?
JR: Oh, definitely, yes. There’s a Buddhist adage about this, the exact wording of which I’m forgetting now, but it’s something like, the worn pocket leads to enlightenment more readily than the gilded robe (I write horrible fortunes cookies on the side). The idea, I think, is, “your strength is your weakness” because you will almost certainly rely too much on your strength, which creates an imbalance, a problem. This is certainly the case with Giovanni who is, in the end, impaired by his gift.
In terms of tracing growth, I think that’s really a matter of rhythm, of merciless rereading, of seeing when certain moments feel like they should come, and then engineering things as best you can to have that moment come maybe slightly before it’s expected. Like a lot of white people, I love rap music, and I’ve noticed really skilled rappers often complete the run of breath just slightly before the downbeat. Jay Z does this a lot. If he hit the beat exactly, it would feel late somehow. I became a bit obsessive about trying to do that with paragraphs and scenes.
What about getting started, inspiration? You’ve said that Susan Sontag’s decision to stage Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo in 1992 was a seed for Radar. How did that seed begin to flower? Were there others?
RL: This is an example of one of those things that got stuck in my craw before a word ever hit the page. I had read an article Sontag wrote about her time putting on Waiting for Godot in Sarajevo during the war and it struck me as so absurd, almost offensive, in its audacity: to believe that this city under literal siege, where crossing every intersection became a life or death situation because of the snipers, where there was no running water, where people were saving a single onion so that it would last for weeks — why would you go to this place and believe that putting on Godot could possibly be a good idea? But Sontag did and her actors risked their lives to be in the show and the theatre was in terrible shape and people came and after the war they named a street after her. But that knife edge between the sublime and the offensive was something I wanted to explore: the human necessity to put on this existential farce while real horrors were knocking on the door. It gets at the deepest questions of why we feel this strong, totally inexplicable will to create art. We will turn our lives upside down just so we can create art. And these are very personal questions for me because not a day goes by that I do not have some kind of deep doubt about why I’m spending my life writing silly books when there are people in real need out there. And yet I continue to write.
But while we are on this topic: let me ask you…what were the seeds for The Poser? What’s been your own experience acting or on the stage? Often first novels are famous for the writer throwing everything into it (is Radar actually a first novel?) but what I admired about your book was how controlled it felt. The boundaries of the world and the story were delineated in this very self-assured way. Did you spend a lot of time editing down the book?
JR: That Sontag story is fascinating, and Radar explores that dialectic of futility/essentiality so well. I do have some history with performance. I was a rapper in a college hip-hop group in the early-2000s and have done stand-up comedy, so I think a lot about the stage and performance. Years ago I used to entertain at kids’ parties as a juggler, which is my humblebrag way of saying I was a sex symbol. I think I like the disguise the stage demands and the way that disguise allows for the truth. The whole mask thing. It’s a very simple paradox, really, but is somehow, for me, inexhaustible.
I’m glad it felt controlled, thank you. Earlier iterations were less so. This is sort of The Poser 3.0. As I worked through each incarnation of the book, I felt myself becoming more ruthless. I was like Walter White by the end of it. I cut hundreds of pages from the book. A whole section about Giovanni’s childhood. Cut. The asperity of cutting becomes its own sort of decadence. My editor had to stay my hand from cutting more. I wanted to get rid of everything remotely extraneous. The faux America in which the book takes place seemed to require a radical sparseness or the kind of heightening that sparseness ensures. Roberto Calasso has a nice bit about Franz Kafka, how in Kafka a “cabinet” is, like, the only cabinet in the world. It is the platonic Cabinet. In cutting things down, I wanted the nouns in the book to feel like that: the sole furnishings of a concrete abstraction.
This makes me wonder about a certain tradition of literature and its influence on you. Radar is inflected throughout by a Nabokovian sense of play. Elsewhere you’ve written about Orhan Pamuk. How important is a sense of the meta-textual and gamesmanship for you in writing and reading? Would you describe Vladimir Nabokov and Pamuk as influences on Radar? Were there novels you frequently reread or revisited while working on Radar?
RL: I feel like our generation of writers has been washed by the rains of postmodernism and come out the other side cleaner and a little wiser, but largely our own selves still. We can admire and applaud Roland Barthes and Donald Barthelme and Robert Coover, but I get this sense from our peers that we’re maybe ultimately not that interested in turning the camera on the whole game and have that be it. In of itself this maneuver is not that interesting and feels like it’s been done before: “Yes! It’s a farce! Fiction is a mirage!” etc. Now that we’ve gotten this out of our system, I think we have permission to almost go back to telling stories. Because it turns out telling good stories — even if you’re propping them up on all kinds of canned maneuvers of realism — is, and will always be, really very hard.
That said, I remain interested in the mechanics of how we do what we do, almost like a boy picking apart an insect to see how all the parts connect. And, in this particular book, I was interested in not just postmodernism for postmodernism sake, but I was shooting for a kind of “quantum fiction,” based on the science of quantum mechanics, whereby you purposefully leave things in a state of indeterminacy — you don’t fundamentally address whether a character is alive or dead. And the trick is to do this so that it has an emotional impact, and isn’t just a game. All maneuvers of these sort I believe have to be working on a pathological level — they can’t just hit the reader in the brain, they have to hit them in the heart. And this is where a lot of postmodernists for me fell short.
I read many books doing research for Radar and quite a few novels. I have to be careful reading fiction while writing fiction because I find there’s a lot of spillover. I’m too exposed. I start copying whomever I’m reading in the moment. But this book took so long to write that I couldn’t avoid fiction altogether and there were a number of books that lent me great wisdom in the process. Many of them are listed in the bibliography, but some important ones were: Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, Graham Green’s The Quiet American, Danilo Kis’s Garden, Ashes, Miroslav Krleža’s The Return of Philip Latinowicz, and Willem Frederik Hermans’s Beyond Sleep.
What about you? Were their books that you turned to while writing The Poser? And what’s your relationship to other people’s fiction when you’re deep into writing your own?
JR: I’ve been meaning to read Garden, Ashes for years. This reminds me to do it. I am sort of a picky reader when I’m writing. Often I read the same passages from favorite books over and over until I’ve sucked all the word fuel out of them. Some specific works, though, did help as I was writing. Remainder by Tom McCarthy, when I was doing a later pass, helped me with some alienated descriptions of human gesture and attitude. I read some Steven Millhauser, too, who is so good at creating mysterious, seductive landscapes immanent with danger. I think I was also influenced by Robertson Davies’s The Deptford Trilogy, which has sort of lightly magical properties and a crisp, evocative prose style I liked. Otherwise, I often return to Thomas Bernhard, Barry Hannah, and Denis Johnson, and sometimes the poetry of Dave Berman and Emily Dickinson.
RL: So now that you’ve written your first book, what advice would you give to writers who are attempting to do the same?
JR: More and more, I think, solutions to writing problems are found away from the desk. Attention to an obstacle, I think, is like sunshine to a succulent: the more you marshal your energies against it, the more the obstacle tends to grow. Whereas if you go take a nap or throw a javelin or something, the obstacle might very well shimmer and disappear. Mind you, this is advice I almost never take myself, but when I do, it always seems to help.
It is easy to get discouraged, and there is no wonder why. There is much about writing that is unhealthy in a very real and clinical sense. Sitting, as we all now know, kills billions of people. The time spent away from regular company, required for the practice, can’t be good for serotonin or dopamine levels, not to mention vitamin D. Staring at the screen, even from the perch of an ergonomic chair, is terrible for your eyes, wrists, back, and shoulders. Of course, any real labor is a million times worse. It’s just, anyone privileged enough to think of writing a novel could likely entertain any number of careers that would provide at least decent remuneration, status, and some recognition, even the rare, implausible shot at improving the world. So, if despite this very real discomfort and uncertainty, you feel better writing than not — well, then you damn better keep writing.
And you? Any tips on approaching a second novel? Asking for a friend…
RL: Hmmm. The second novel is where things get tricky. All I can say is that it was much more difficult than the first. You become more aware of all the things you aren’t capable of doing. Also, maybe this will change with future books, but I wasn’t really sure how to apply my experience of the first book to the second. I had to learn how to write the ecosystem and logic of the new book and almost had to start from square one again. But I would say: don’t shy away from it. Take the more difficult path because who knows when you will ever write another?
Last year offered many treats for readers: hotly anticipated new books by David Mitchell and Marilynne Robinson; the emergence of our own Emily St. John Mandel as a literary superstar; the breakout success of Anthony Doerr. 2015 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, Toni Morrison, Aleksandr Hemon, and Milan Kundera. Our own Garth Risk Hallberg will have his much anticipated debut on shelves later this year. Look beyond the hazy end of summer 2015 and Jonathan Franzen will be back with a new novel. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,000 words strong and encompassing 91 titles, this is the only 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
Amnesia by Peter Carey: Carey’s new novel uses a cyberattack as the lens through which to consider the often-fraught history of the relationship between the United States and Australia. A radical hacker releases a worm into a computer system that governs both Australian and American prisoners. The doors of five thousand prisons in the United States are opened, while in Australia, hundreds of asylum-seekers escape. An Australian journalist, determined to figure out the motivation behind the attack and trying to save his career, struggles to get the hacker to cooperate on a biography. (Emily)
Outline by Rachel Cusk: First serialized in The Paris Review, Cusk’s new work is described by its publisher (FSG) as “a novel in ten conversations”, but I prefer Leslie Jamison’s description: “a series of searing psychic X-rays bleached by coastal light.” The woman at the center of these conversations is a writing teacher who travels to Greece to teach a workshop. Her portrait is revealed by her various interlocutors, beginning with her neighbor on a plane en route to Athens. (Hannah)
The First Bad Man by Miranda July: Miranda July, artist, filmmaker and author of the story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, has written a debut novel about a woman named Cheryl who works at a women’s self-defense nonprofit, and, according to the jacket copy, is a “tightly-wound, vulnerable woman who lives alone with a perpetual lump in her throat.” Cheryl also believes she’s made love with her colleague “for many lifetimes, though they have yet to consummate in this one.” In her blurb, Lena Dunham writes that July’s novel “will make you laugh, cringe and recognize yourself in a woman you never planned to be.” While you prepare for the book’s release, check out The First Bad Man Store, where you can purchase real items that are mentioned in the novel. (Edan)
Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman: This new book is Bergman’s second short story collection, after her heartbreakingly humane debut, Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Her new collection takes inspiration from historical figures, women who attained a certain degree of celebrity but whose stories have never been fully imagined. We meet Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, a conjoined twin, and a member of the first all-female integrated swing band. (Hannah)
Sweetland by Michael Crummey: The award-winning author of Galore returns to the land and the past of Newfoundland in his latest novel, which follows Moses Sweetland, the one man determined to stay on an island long after every one else has left, in defiance of both their warnings and their threats. As the Vancouver Sun puts it, Sweetland “demonstrates, as the best fiction does (and as Crummey’s novels always have) that the past is always with us, and that contemporary events are history embodied and in motion.” The novel also promises to be the best kind of ghost story, one in which memory and place are as haunting as the ghosts Sweetland believes he sees. (Kaulie)
Glow by Ned Beauman: Multiple prize nods for each of his first two novels have set high expectations for Ned Beauman’s next effort. If the plot, which slingshots through England, Burma and Iceland, is any indication, the new book will match the ambition of his previous work. The story kicks off at a rave in London, where Raf, a sufferer of a chronic sleep disorder, is trying out a new drug, the eponymous “glow.” The drug leads him on a quest to uncover a massive conspiracy involving a multinational named Lacebark. (Thom)
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman: Long a distinguished short-story writer, Pearlman emerged into the spotlight with her 2011 collection Binocular Vision. The new-found fame landed her a new publisher — Little, Brown — for her latest collection and a profile in the Times. It seems, in fact, that Pearlman is now assured the larger audience that eluded her for decades. (Max)
Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: An introduction to a recently published excerpt of Binary Star suggests Sarah Gerard has a reputation for tackling her subject matter with unusual ferocity. In her debut, she turns her attention to eating disorders, focusing on a would-be teacher who struggles with anorexia. When the story begins, the teacher weighs ninety-eight pounds, and she reflects on the parallels between her own compulsions and the hopeless alcoholism of her lover. Gerard heightens the intensity, meticulously listing what her characters eat and drink. (Thom)
Frog by Mo Yan: In the latest novel by the Chinese Nobel laureate to get an English translation, Mo Yan takes on the one-child policy, depicting the lives of several characters throughout the lifespan of Communist China. Gugu, a gynecologist who delivered hundreds of babies during Mao Zedong’s reign, finds herself performing illegal abortions after the policy takes effect in the late seventies. Yan also depicts the sexism of the policy — his characters work hard to have sons and not daughters. (Thom)
Watch Me Go by Mark Wisniewski: Wisniewski’s third novel channels the best of his profluent short fiction (Best American Short Stories, Virginia Quarterly Review). Watch Me Go speeds by with clipped chapters that follow Douglas “Deesh” Sharp, who helps haul the wrong junk: an oil drum that holds a corpse. Sharp does it for the money, and that bad decision haunts him until the final page of the novel. Wisniewski’s tale unfolds in the shadow of the Finger Lakes, New York racetracks, where, one character warns “in the long run, gamblers always lose.” Watch Me Go feels particularly apt to our national present, when police procedure is under constant scrutiny. Deesh is a victim of the system, and his redemption will only happen by fire. Wisniewski’s prose burns forward, but he knows when to slow the pace and make the reader feel Deesh’s injustice. (Nick R.)
Hall of Small Mammals: Stories by Thomas Pierce: Pierce’s stories are reminiscent of the work of Laura van den Berg: his fiction exists in a space that’s just slightly offset from reality, not quite surrealism but not quite realism either. A woman admits to her boyfriend that she’s married to another man, but only in her dreams; in dreams she and her husband live out an ordinary domestic life. A man who works for a sinister television show that clones extinct animals delivers a miniature woolly mammoth to his mother. Pierce’s stories are beautifully written and suffused with mystery. (Emily)
A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor: “Delhi is no place for a woman in the dark,” Kapoor writes, “unless she has a man and a car or a car and a gun.” Idha, the narrator of Kapoor’s debut novel, is young, middle-class, and bored. Her car allows a measure of freedom, but not enough, and when she meets a somewhat unsuitable older man, the temptation to capsize her life with an affair is irresistible. Both a coming-of-age story and a portrait of New Delhi. (Emily)
Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda: Buwalda’s first novel, translated from the Dutch, traces the dissolution of the outwardly solid Sigerius clan, updating the family saga by way of technical intricacy, narrative brio, and internet porn. In the Netherlands, the book was a bestseller, nominated for a dozen prizes. The English translation has drawn comparisons to Jonathan Franzen and the manic heyday of a young Philip Roth. (Garth)
Lucky Alan: And Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem: Jonathan Lethem has made a career of capturing transition—whether it’s Brooklyn’s gentrification or his masterful blend of genre and literary fiction. He works with similar themes in his third short story collection, but this time, it’s people—not places—that are in limbo. From forgotten comic book characters stuck on a desert island to a father having his midlife crisis at SeaWorld, the nine stories in this collection explore everything from the quotidian to the absurd, all with Lethem’s signature humor, nuance, and pathos. (Tess)
Find Me by Laura van den Berg: In most post-apocalyptic fiction, the end of the world is devastating, but what if it were a chance for renewal and redemption? Laura van den Berg is the perfect writer to answer this question as she has proven herself a master of scrutinizing fresh starts in her short story collections, What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth. In her first novel, a lost young woman named Joy is immune to an Alzheimer’s-like plague sweeping the country. With society’s rules broken down, Joy travels across America in search of the mother who abandoned her, making new friends and a new world along the way. (Tess)
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: McCarthy’s fourth novel introduces us to a “corporate anthropologist” struggling to wrest an overarching account of contemporary existence from a miasma of distraction and dream. Perhaps he’s a stand-in for your average internet user. Or novelist. At any rate, expect ideas and delight in equal measure (assuming there’s a distinction); McCarthy’s reputation as a “standard bearer of the avant-garde” underrates how thoroughly he’s mastered the novelistic conventions he’s concerned to interrogate – and how fun he is to read. (Garth)
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: Link’s last story collection for adults, Magic for Beginners, was something like the Jesus’ Son of Magical Realism. Its publication nearly a decade ago won the author a passionate cult; since then, mostly through word-of-mouth, its excellence has become a matter of broader consensus. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, offers a vivid reminder of why. Beneath the attention-getting levity of Link’s conceits – ghosts, superheroes, “evil twins” – lies a patient, Munrovian attunement to the complexities of human nature. (Garth)
The Strange Case of Rachel K by Rachel Kushner: Before she published her two richly accomplished novels, Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner wrote three short works of fiction that are collected in The Strange Case of Rachel K. In “The Great Exception,” a queen pines for an explorer as he makes his way to “Kuba.” In “Debouchement,” a faith healer’s illegal radio broadcasts give hope to an oppressed island populace. And in the title story, a French-style zazou dancer in pre-revolutionary Cuba negotiates the murky Havana night. The stories read like warm-up sketches for Telex From Cuba, and they’ll be of interest to Kushner’s ardent fans and future scholars. Others will be left hungering for something new from this outlandishly gifted writer. (Bill)
Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London by Mohsin Hamid: Hamid’s latest is a collection of pieces that he wrote for various publications between 2000—the year his first novel, Moth Smoke, was published—and 2014. Hamid has lived in Pakistan, New York City, and London, and in works ranging from extended essays to brief op-eds, he brings personal insight and thoughtful analysis to issues ranging from the war on terror to the future of Pakistan to the costs and the promise of globalization. (Emily)
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is known for finding the fantastical in the everyday and the cracks in reality. So it should be no surprise that his third short story collection defies genre categorization, delving into fairy tales, horror, fantasy, poetry, and science fiction. Yet not all of it is unfamiliar: “Adventure Story” shares themes with his last novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and “Black Dog” brings him back to the American Gods world. (Tess)
Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano: Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, will get a belated introduction to many American readers through Suspended Sentences. Originally published between 1988 and 1993, these three atmospheric novellas share Modiano’s recurring theme: an attempt to understand the secret histories of the Nazi Occupation of his native Paris. “Afterimage” is the shadow tale of a young writer cataloging the work of a haunted photographer. The title piece is a child’s-eye view of the gang of circus performers and crooks who raise him. In “Flowers of Ruin,” a double suicide triggers an investigation into gangsters and collaborators during the Occupation. It’s a delectably broad sampling from a writer with a doggedly narrow scope. American readers should rejoice. Update: The release date was moved up following the Nobel win and the book has already been published! (Bill)
The Infernal by Mark Doten: After ten years of near-silence, we’re now in the full roar of fiction about the Iraq War. The most notable efforts to date have taken a realist slant, but Mark Doten’s first novel marks a sharp swerve into Coover territory: its key figure channels the voices of Condoleezza Rice, Paul Bremer, and Osama bin Laden. Early readers have reached for adjectives like “deranged,” “crazy,” and “insane,” in addition to the more usual “thrilling” and “dazzling.” (Garth)
There’s Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: We don’t often want authors to moralize, but Charles Baxter is a fictional minister we have been devout to throughout more than a dozen works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Virtue and vice are inextricably related in his latest short stories. The collection features ten stories, five about virtue and five about vice, with the same characters participating in both and all motivated by the book’s titular request. What Baxter wants us to do is note human frailty, ambiguity, and its shameful depths. As fellow master of the form Lorrie Moore notes, “Baxter’s stories proceed with steady grace, nimble humor, quiet authority, and thrilling ingeniousness.” (Tess)
The Last Good Paradise by Tatjana Soli: The author of The Lotus Eaters (winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize) and The Forgetting Tree returns with a novel about a ragtag group of modern people attempting to escape their troubles on a remote Pacific island. Come for the scenery, the picaresque cast, and the comic reflections on the vagaries of contemporary life; stay for, as Kirkus puts it, Soli’s “idiosyncratic prose style.” (Lydia)
My Documents by Alejandro Zambra: “Camilo” was both the first thing I’d read by this young Chilean writer and one of the two or three best stories to run in The New Yorker last year. It appears alongside 10 other pieces in this collection, Zambra’s first book with McSweeney’s. (Garth)
I Am Radar by Reif Larsen: Reif Larsen’s follow-up to the bestselling The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet takes off from a premise halfway between Steve Martin and Judy Budnitz: “In 1975, a black child named Radar Radmanovic is mysteriously born to white parents.” But the ensuing 650 pages venture into realms of Pynchonian complexity and Irving-esque sweep. Erudite and voracious, skylarking and harrowing, they follow Radar around the world and into entanglements with some of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century. (Garth)
The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw: When Harvard graduate Charlie Garrett starts teaching at Abbott, an Episcopal boarding school in Massachusetts, the chair of the English department tells the young teacher that his students “all still believe in truth.” LeCraw’s gorgeous sentences dramatize a campus where literature stirs young hearts and minds. Charlie falls for a student, May Bankhead, daughter of the campus chaplain, and makes his feelings known when she returns home from college. Love turns to lust, and later to jealousy, when Charlie’s half brother, attractive Nick Garrett, arrives at Abbott to teach. Nick catches May, who has returned to teach at the school. “I need to be here,” she tells Charlie. LeCraw never eases the emotional tension. The novel begins with an epigraph from gifted teacher-writer Andre Dubus, who says he “learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say” rather than planning. The Half Brother captures his spirit, and the result is one of the finest school-set novels in recent memory. (Nick R.)
The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman: Newman’s third novel is set in a world of children. Eighty years ago, a deadly pandemic swept across North America, and now every child is born with the disease; they begin showing symptoms around the age of eighteen or nineteen, and die soon after. When fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star’s beloved older brother falls ill, she sets out after rumors of a cure. It’s a compelling story, but the most fascinating thing about Newman’s book is the language: the novel is written in the kind of beautifully warped English that one might expect to develop over eighty years without adults, and the prose often approaches a kind of wild poetry: “We flee like a dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see.” (Emily)
All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found by Philip Connors: After the suicide of his brother Connors finds himself in, as the title of his second memoir promises, many incongruous and wrong places, ranging from a hot-air balloon floating over New Mexico to a desk at the Wall Street Journal. A kind of prelude to his debut memoir, Fire Season, All The Wrong Places helps to explain why spending a decade in mountain solitude was so attractive to Connors. It’s also a look at the wandering years that often follow early loss, and has already drawn comparisons toCheryl Strayed’s seemingly infinitely-popular Wild. (Kaulie)
Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris : As anyone who has ever creamed butter and sugar together in a mixing bowl knows, the precision of baking can also bring order to your life. With a few failed careers and a dysfunctional family, Amelia Morris needed to learn this lesson, too. From her blog of the same name to this memoir, she chronicles her transformation into an adult and cook, complete with a good dose of humor and recipes. (Tess)
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: It’s been ten years since Never Let Me Go, so for Ishiguro fans, his new novel has been long-anticipated. His British publisher, Faber & Faber, offered up a somewhat oblique teaser early last year: it’s a book about “lost memories, love, revenge and war”; the website, which is currently just a (kind of intense) book trailer, doesn’t help much either—but then, if Never Let Me Go is any indicator, perhaps we’d all be better off without a lot of spoilery summaries in advance. (Tess)
Ember Days by Nick Ripatrazone: Nick’s lovely meditations on teaching, writing, reading, and faith have come fast and furious on The Millions since he joined the site as a staff writer at the tail end of 2013. Nick is prolific–he’s the author of two novellas, two poetry collections, a book of criticism, and a short story collection, which he somehow managed to write while teaching public school in New Jersey and parenting twins. His newest collection of short stories will be published by Braddock Avenue Books; you can read the eponymous story, a haunting number about atomic power and retribution, the title of which is taken from the Christian liturgical calendar, at Story South. (Lydia)
The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James: Tania James’s debut novel Atlas of Unknowns and follow-up story collection Aerogrammes were both published to critical acclaim. This second novel may be her true coming out. Says Karen Russell: “The Tusk that Did the Damage is spectacular, a pinwheeling multi-perspectival novel with a cast that includes my favorite character of recent memory, ‘the Gravedigger,’ an orphaned homicidal elephant.” The elephant is not only a primary character, but one of three narrators, who also include a poacher and a young American filmmaker. Ivory trading, poaching, an escaped elephant, a risky love affair, all set in rural South India and “blend[ing] the mythical and the political”—this novel seems to have it all. (Sonya)
Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes and I Refuse by Per Petterson: Since Out Stealing Horses brought him international acclaim in 2007, many more of Norwegian novelist Per Petterson’s books have been translated into English, although not quite in the order he wrote them. Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, a collection of linked stories, was his first, published in Norway in 1987, and introduces young Arvid Jansen — a character he revisits in In the Wake and I Curse the River of Time — growing up in the outskirts of Oslo in the early 60s. I Refuse, meanwhile, is Petterson’s latest novel, published in Norway in 2012. It tells the story of Jim and Tommy, whose friendship was forged in their youth when Tommy stood up to his abusive father and needed Jim’s support. When they meet by chance 35 years later, they recall those painful events, as well as a night on a frozen lake that separated them until now. (Janet)
B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman: Nicholson Baker’s characteristically idiosyncratic biography of John Updike, U and I, has become a literary classic. Now J.C. Hallman, himself a gifted practitioner of eclectic non-fiction with books on topics ranging from chess to Utopia, turns the lens on Baker. Publisher Simon & Schuster calls it “literary self-archaeology” and offers up comparisons to Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, two books that have helped carve out a new genre of memoir that arrives refracted through the lens of the writers’ literary obsessions. (Max)
The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya: Castellanos Moya’s short novels are hallucinatory, mordant, and addictive – like Bernhard transplanted to warmer climes. And his translator, Katherine Silver, is admirably attuned to the twists and turns of his sentences. We’ve offered enthusiastic readings of Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Here Castellanos Moya flirts again with autobiographical material, tracing the crack-up of “an exiled journalist in Mexico City [who] dreams of returning home to El Salvador.” (Garth)
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson: There’s a robust online conversation right now about public shaming: when someone says or does something offensive on the internet, does the collective outcry — a digital torch-wielding mob — go too far? Ronson’s previous books include The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare at Goats, and he’s a frequent contributor to This American Life and BBC Radio 4. In his newest book, billed as “a modern-day Scarlet Letter,” he examines the culture that’s grown up around public shaming, talking with people like Jonah Lehrer, who shook the publishing world with several rounds of plagiarism revelations, and Justine Sacco, who tweeted an offensive “joke” before boarding a transatlantic flight — and had what felt like the entire internet demanding that she be fired before her plane touched down. (Elizabeth)
Young Skins by Colin Barrett: Ireland right now is ridiculously fertile ground for writers, though I guess that’s been said so often in the last century as to border on cliché. Still: Anne Enright, Paul Murray, Eimear McBride, Kevin Barry, Keith Ridgway…and 32-year-old Colin Barrett is, as they say, the coming man. This collection, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Guardian First Book Award, wastes no motion in its unsparing look at youth and masculinity in the small towns of the west. (Garth)
Decoy by Allan Gurganus: In 2013, 12 years after the appearance of his last full-length book, Allan Gurganus published Local Souls, a collection of three novellas. One of these, Decoy, which Dwight Garner called “the keeper” of the bunch, is indeed being kept, appearing as a separate publication this spring. Set in the fictional North Carolina town that has housed much of Gurganus’s previous work–including his beloved debut Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All–Decoy deals in small-town social relations and obscure homoerotic longings. Gurganus, known as a writer’s writer (he taught Donald Antrim’s first writing class), is reportedly at work on another massive full-length novel, “The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church.” (Lydia)
Crow Fair by Thomas McGuane: A new release by gifted prose stylist McGuane should be cause for celebration by sentence lovers. McGuane long ago moved from the sardonic prose of his earlier novels (The Sporting Club) to lyric representations of the American West (The Cadence of Grass). In his own words: “As you get older, you should get impatient with showing off in literature. It is easier to settle for blazing light than to find a language for the real. Whether you are a writer or a bird-dog trainer, life should winnow the superfluous language. The real thing should become plain. You should go straight to what you know best.” The seventeen stories of Crow Fair model that sentiment. Start with the patient words of “A Prairie Girl,” but stay for the rest. (Nick R.)
The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi: British man of letters Hanif Kureishi, OBE, has been, variously, a novelist, playwright, filmmaker, writer of pornography, victim of financial fraud, and sometimes reluctant professor of creative writing. His newest novel takes on another man of letters, Mamoon Azam, a fictional lout rumored to be based on the non-fictional lout V.S. Naipaul. Echoing Patrick French’s biography of Naipaul, Kureishi (who has assiduously avoided drawing comparisons between his novel and Naipaul) describes an imperious and irascible master of post-colonial fiction and his hapless biographer. (Lydia)
The Unloved and Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography: Two Early Novels by Deborah Levy: For those who loved the oneiric Swimming Home, 2015 will be a great year as three Deborah Levy books—one new novel and two earlier works—are due to come out. Her latest, The Unloved, starts out as a sexually charged, locked door mystery set in a French chateau, then expands into a far-ranging tale about sadism and historical atrocities. Beautiful Mutants, her strange first novel about a Russian exile who is either a gifted seer or a talented fake, and Swallowing Geography, a European road novel with nods to Kerouac, are being reissued in June. (Matt)
Aquarium by David Vann: Vann, whose work we have examined previously at The Millions, returns with a new novel in March. Library Journal offers high praise: “Since electrifying the literary world five years ago with his debut novel, Legend of a Suicide, Vann has racked up an astonishing number of international awards. This lovely, wrenching novel should add to that list.” (Thom)
The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle: When precisely, one wonders, does T.C. Boyle sleep? In the 35 years since his first book came out, Boyle has published 14 novels and more than 100 stories. The Harder They Come is the usual T.C. Boyle clown car of violent misfits, anti-authoritarian loons, and passionate losers set loose in a circus of serious-minded zaniness. After being declared a hero for stopping a hijacking, an ex-Marine returns home to Northern California to find that his mentally disturbed son has taken up with a hardcore member of a right-wing sect that refuses to recognize the authority of the state. (Michael)
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum: Well, the title speaks for itself. “Controversial and provocative,” no doubt. This is the book I wanted to edit myself, so now I’m looking forward to reading it. Sixteen authors offer their reflections on this topic, including Lionel Shriver, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Christensen, Elliott Holt, Geoff Dyer, and Tim Kreider. Daum published her own story of not being a parent—but rather a mentor of teenagers—at The New Yorker back in September. The anthology’s title is likely both tongue-in-cheek and uncomfortably accurate; its cleverness, to my mind, is in the fact that the subtitle might easily omit the “not.” (Sonya)
The Animals by Christian Kiefer: Christian Kiefer leaves behind the suburban cul-de-sacs of his first novel, The Infinite Tides, and takes us to rural Idaho for his follow-up, The Animals. Bill Reed is trying to move beyond his criminal past by managing a wildlife sanctuary for injured animals – raptors, a wolf, a bear. He plans to marry the local veterinarian and live a quiet life – until a childhood friend is released from prison and comes calling. Aimed at fans of Denis Johnson and Peter Matthiessen, this literary thriller is a story of friendship, grief, and the desire to live a blameless life. (Bill)
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham: I learned of James Hannaham’s sophomore novel back in 2013, at which point I mentioned to him how excited I was—about the title in particular: “You wrote a book called DELICIOUS FOODS?!” “The title is slightly misleading,” he replied. His publisher gives us this: “[A]n incisive look at race relations in America and an unflinching portrait of the pathos and absurdity of addiction.” Delicious or not, the story of Eddie and his mother Darlene promises to be both “blistering” and “inventive”—not to mention timely. (Sonya)
The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter: In Hunter’s eerily compelling new novel, an archivist at a small London museum embarks on a final project before the museum’s impending closure: she is searching for information related to a woman who disappeared over a century ago from a Victorian asylum. The project holds some personal interest: when the archivist was fifteen years old, a little girl whom she was babysitting vanished in the woods near the asylum, and the archivist has begun to suspect that the two events were connected. (Emily)
The Sellout by Paul Beatty: Back in the ‘90s, The White-Boy Shuffle, Beatty’s first novel (after several poetry collections) was one of the bibles of my adolescence – furiously funny and ineffably sad. Two subsequent novels confirmed him as a scorching satirist in the vein of his contemporaries Sam Lipsyte and Gary Shteyngart. His latest outing features, in a supporting role, “the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins” – but its deeper concerns couldn’t be more timely: the precipitating incident is the death of the hero’s father in a police shootout, and the ultimate destination is the Supreme Court. (Garth)
The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday: Torday’s novella, The Sensualist, won the 2012 Jewish Book Award for debut fiction. In his first novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, the titular character is a war hero and something of an idol to his teenage nephew, Eli Goldstein. Kirkus gave the novel a starred review, remarking, “While Torday is more likely to be compared to Philip Roth or Michael Chabon than Gillian Flynn, his debut novel has two big things in common with Gone Girl–it’s a story told in two voices, and it’s almost impossible to discuss without revealing spoilers. A richly layered, beautifully told and somehow lovable story about war, revenge and loss.” Rivka Galchen calls it both “brilliant” and “hilarious” and George Saunders says, “Torday is a prodigiously talented writer, with a huge heart.” I myself had the great pleasure of reading an advanced copy and I loved it. The final scene…what an ending! I still think about it. (Edan)
Her 37th Year: An Index by Suzanne Scanlon: Delivered in a series of pithy and emphatic observations, thoughts, and quotations, Suzanne Scanlon’s Her 37th Year: An Index examines love and desire and disappointment and writers and influence and ideas and passion and affairs and depression and writing and friendship and mothering and being a woman and aging. The potential excess of all this is balanced by its lean form, with each entry a vignette, quote, or observation. As a “fictional memoir”, Her 37th Year re-imagines form and redefines boundaries in a way similar to how Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation revitalized the novel: the sum of its parts is flooring. (Anne)
God Help the Child by Toni Morrison: Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature more than two decades ago; her newest novel will be her sixth in that span of time, following 2012’s Home. A new Morrison novel, according to Slate, is “news that amounts to at least an 8 on the literary Richter scale.” It is, according to Knopf, “about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult,” and though it’s just 192 pages long, it promises to be more powerful than many books twice its length. (Elizabeth)
My Struggle: Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard: There’s still time to jump on the Knausgaard bandwagon! English-speaking fans of Books 1-3 have been waiting almost a year for this translation, the fourth in a six-volume autobiographical novel by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard — or just plain “Karl Ove” to those of us who have been following his confessional outpourings. Dwight Garner likened reading Knausgaard to “falling into a malarial fever”, and James Wood remarked that “even when I was bored, I was interested.” Book 4 covers Knausgaard’s late adolesence as he struggles to support his writing by teaching, falls in love with a 13-year-old student, and boozily greets the long arctic nights. (Hannah)
Early Warning by Jane Smiley: This is the second installment in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy, which follows a single Iowa farming family and its descendants through the American Century, from 1920 to 2020. The first book, Some Luck, which Smiley discussed in a wide-ranging Millions interview last fall, covers the Depression years and World War II. The new book starts in the depths of the Cold War and takes readers through Vietnam and into the Reagan era. The final volume, as yet untitled, is due out this fall. (Michael)
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life followed Ursula Todd as she lived and re-lived her life in mid-century Britain. In this companion to the novel, we get the story of Ursula’s beloved younger brother Teddy, an aspiring poet and celebrated RAF pilot, who leaves a war he didn’t expect to survive to become a husband, father, and grandfather in an ever-changing world. (Janet)
Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser: A friend of mine keeps Steven Millhauser’s collection We Others by her bedside; she speaks of it, and Millhauser, like it’s 1963 and he’s a dark-eyed mop-top. Indeed, Millhauser inspires cult following: his stories do the impossible, getting way under your skin via immaculately simple prose and deceptively placid storylines. Voices in the Night collects 16 stories — “culled from religion and fables. . . Heightened by magic, the divine, and the uncanny, shot through with sly humor” – that promise to once again unsettle us with their strangeness and stun us with their beauty. (Sonya)
Gutshot by Amelia Gray: Gray’s stories come at you like fists wrapped in sirloin to pack a punch—they’re wonderfully idiosyncratic, visceral, and grotesque, with humor added for heft. Stories in her collection Museum of the Weird feature high-end cannibalism (eating monk’s tongues), a serial killer nicknamed “God” who cuts chests open and removes a rib, and a plate of hair served with soup. With the arrival of her next collection, Gutshot, Gray’s stories threaten to knock you out. (Anne)
Academy Street by Mary Costello: Bravo to Mary Costello, a “Bloomer” whose first story collection The China Factory I wrote about here back in 2012. Her debut novel Academy Street—the story of Tess Lohan, who emigrates from 1940s western Ireland to New York City—is drawing comparisons to Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn and John Williams’s Stoner. Academy Street has already been published in Europe and received the Eason Novel of the Year Irish Book Award. (Sonya)
The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy: Percy rides the increasingly porous border between literary and genre fiction in this post-apocalyptic thriller that re-imagines the Lewis and Clark expedition in an America brought low by a super flu and nuclear fallout. When word comes to Sanctuary – the remains of St. Louis – that life is better out West, Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark set out in secrecy, hoping to expand their infant nation and reunite the States. Should be a snap, right? (Michael)
The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer: The author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier again displays her gift for delving into complicated families and the women who aren’t sure they want to be part of them. Narrated in turns by each of the four Blair children, The Children’s Crusade follows the twists and turns of the family’s fortunes from the day in 1954 when their father, Bill, impulsively buys a plot of wooded land south of San Francisco, through to the modern day. “Imagine, if you will, that Jonathan Franzen’s excellent novel, The Corrections, had likeable characters,” says one early reader on GoodReads. (Michael)
The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandr Hemon: His first full-length novel in seven years (since 2008’s The Lazarus Project), The Making of Zombie Wars is the story of Josh Levin, an ESL teacher in Chicago with a laptop full of hundreds of screenplay ideas, Zombie Wars chief among them. As Josh’s life goes from bad to worse to absurd — moving in with his girlfriend only to become entangled in the domestic disputes of her neighbors — he continues to work on the zombie movie that might get him away from it all. (Janet)
Mislaid by Nell Zink: Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper, published by the Dorothy Project, a feminist small press, made a big splash last year. Its backstory provided the hook: a fifty-year-old expat writes a novel on a dare from her pen pal Jonathan Franzen. But Zink’s sui generis sensibility was the main event: taut, acerbic, and free. She moves to a major press for her second book, a decade-hopping Southern family novel that tackles race, sexuality, and the wilderness of youth. (Garth)
The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski: On the jacket of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is a blurb from Publishers Weekly: Is this “the most ambitious novel ever written or just the most Mitchell-esque?” One might ask the same question, mutatis mutandis, about Mark Danielewski’s The Familiar. Danielewski combines Mitchell’s fondness for formal innovation and genre tropes with an appealing indifference to questions of taste. At its best, this gives you House of Leaves, at its worst, Only Revolutions. One Rainy Day in May introduces us to “nine lives,” principally that of a 12-year-old girl who rescues “a creature as fragile as it is dangerous” – some kind of totemic/architectonic cat? Anyway, Volume 1 is 880 pages long. Word is, 26 more volumes are on the way, so this one had better be good. (Garth)
The Green Road by Anne Enright: Spanning three decades and three continents, this new book by Anne Enright centers on Rosaleen, the head of the Madigan family. Beginning in County Clare, the book follows the four Madigan children — Dan, Hanna, Emmet and Constance — as they set off on their own lives, travelling as far away as Mali to explore their adult selves. On Christmas Day, they all come home, and the issues of their family come back to them. In many ways, it’s a premise similar to that of Enright’s Booker-winning The Gathering. (Thom)
A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me by David Gates: In a year rich with surrealist romps and boundary-blurring semi-memoirs, David Gates returns with a welcome injection of “the present palpable intimate” in the form of eleven stories and a novella. Gates is a natural and capacious realist, at once ironic and warm, in a way that makes the ordinary ambit of experience, from marriage to parenthood to getting old, seem as trippy as it really is. (Garth)
Loving Day by Mat Johnson: Johnson’s Pym, an entertaining riff on race and Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, took us all the way to Antarctica. Loving Day (the title refers to a holiday celebrating interracial love) is set in a less remote locale, a black neighborhood in Philadelphia, but promises to be no less hallucinatory than its predecessor. A mixed race man returns from Wales, where both his marriage and his comic shop have failed, to inhabit a ghost-haunted mansion left to him by his father. He soon discovers the existence of a daughter, and the pair is drawn into a “utopian mixed-raced cult.” (Matt)
The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard: While Jim Shepard was a student at Brown, John Hawkes told him “You know, you’re not really a novelist, you’re really a short story writer.” Thankfully, good writers can be terribly wrong. Shepard’s long fiction is as fantastic as his classic stories. Shepard has always been a writer who exists outside of himself on the page, and this Holocaust-set novel is no different. The story focuses on Aron, a boy from the Warsaw Ghetto, who joins other children in smuggling goods to those “quarantined.” The novel also illuminates the life of Janusz Korczak, the real-life protector of Jewish children in ghetto orphanages (he once said “You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this.”). Serious material requires sensitive hands, and Shepard’s care creates beauty. (Nick R.)
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: Kent Haruf, who died last year at 71, will be best remembered for his 1999 novel Plainsong, a finalist for the National Book Award. It was set in the fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt, which Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) returns to yet again for his last novel, Our Souls at Night, finished shortly before his death. It’s the story of a widower named Louis Waters and a widow named Addie Moore who come together in Holt and begin sharing the aspirations, disappointments and compromises of their long lives. One critic likened Haruf’s prose to Pottery Barn furniture – with its “rustic lines,” “enduring style” and “aged patina.” His legion of fans wouldn’t have it any other way, and Our Souls at Night will not disappoint them. (Bill)
City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb: Drawn from an n+1 series of the same name, City by City offers an insider’s glance into the state of America’s urban spaces. The mix of personal and historical essays explore issues such as crime, gentrification, and culture in cities as varied and far-reaching as Miami, Florida and Gold Rush, Alaska. Described as “a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Studs Terkel, and the Great Depression–era WPA guides to each state in the Union,” City by City provides a collective portrait of the American city during the Great Recession. (Anne)
The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato: Disabato, who has written for The Millions, debuts with a high-concept mystery that looks to be a lot of fun. Pop stars aren’t known for avoiding the limelight, which is why the disappearance of a Lady Gaga-like singer inspires two women to track her down. Racing around Chicago in search of clues, they find themselves decoding arcane documents and ancient maps rather than liner notes as the disappearance turns out to involve a secret society. (Matt)
Odd Woman in the City by Vivian Gornick: For a sneak preview of Gornick’s witty and unsparing observations of city life, please read Gornick’s “Letter from Greenwich Village” in The Paris Review (it’s also collected in The Best American Essays 2014). A master memoirist, Gornick’s latest is an ode to New York City’s street life, old friends, and the fascinating joy of “living out conflicts, rather than fantasies.” (Hannah)
The Edge Becomes The Center by DW Gibson: Following up his critically-acclaimed oral history of the recession, Not Working (the title is a play on Studs Terkel’s classic oral history, Working), Gibson’s latest oral history portrays gentrifying New York City from all sides. Gibson interviews brokers, buyers, sellers, renters, landlords, artists, contractors, politicians and everyone in between to show how urban change feels to those living through it. (Hannah)
Black Glass: Short Fictions by Karen Joy Fowler: Fowler’s 2014 novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, won the PEN/Faulkner award and landed her on the Booker shortlist, one of two American finalists for the now American-friendly prize. This year will see her 1998 short story collection, Black Glass, re-released in hardcover. The stories — with influences and references from Carry Nation to Gulliver’s Travels to Albert Einstein to Tonto and the Lone Ranger — have been described as “occasionally puzzling but never dull,” and “ferociously imaginative and provocative.” (Elizabeth)
Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg: Saint Mazie is Attenberg’s much anticipated follow-up to her bestselling novel The Middlesteins, which was also a finalist for the LA Times book prize. Inspired by the life of a woman profiled in Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, Saint Mazie follows Mazie Phillips, “the truth-telling proprietress of The Venice, the famed New York City movie theater,” through the Jazz Age and the Depression; her diaries, decades later, inspire a contemporary documentarian to find out who this intriguing woman really was. Therese Ann Fowler, author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, calls the book “both a love song and a gut punch at once,” and Maggie Shipstead says it’s a “raw, boisterous, generous novel.” (Edan)
The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen: Cohen, 34, is as prolific as he is ambitious. Five years after his mega-novel, Witz (and three years after a lauded story collection), he returns with a long book about a novelist ghost-writing the autobiography of one of Silicon Valley’s new Masters of the Universe. The set-up should give Cohen’s caustic sensibility a target-rich environment, while the scope leaves his fierce intelligence ample room to play. (Garth)
The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera: Fifteen years after the publication of his last novel, Kundera returns with a (very brief) story of four friends in Paris who talk self-importantly about “sex, history, art, politics, and the meaning of life” while simultaneously celebrating their own insignificance (Library Journal). While these themes may be familiar to fans of Kundera’s past work (of which there are many – The Unbearable Lightness of Being has been enduringly popular since its publication in the mid-1980s) it will be exciting to see fresh writing from a modern master. (Kaulie)
Muse by Jonathan Galassi: Over his long literary career, Galassi has done everything except write a novel. Now the FSG publisher, Italian translator, critic and poet has checked that off his list with a story that satirizes the industry he knows so well and sounds like an updating of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers. In the novel, a publisher tries to wrestle a famous female poet away from a rival, eventually securing a meeting in her Venetian palazzo and learning a revelatory secret. (Matt)
The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida: Believer founding editor Vendela Vida’s trilogy of novels about “women in crisis” becomes a tetralogy with the debut of her latest, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty. As in her previous novels, the story involves a woman traveling abroad (in this case, Casablanca, Morocco). When the woman is robbed of her wallet and passport, she experiences distress and also unexpected freedom. The novel dips into All About Eve territory in this part-thriller, part-novel-of-ideas when the woman finds work as a celebrity stand-in and then begins to assume this alternate identity as her own. (Anne)
In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar: Alvar is a frequent contributor to literary magazines—she’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize—but this is her first short story collection. In the Country focuses on the Filipino diaspora, from Bahrain to Manila to New York. Alvar considers themes of alienation, displacement, the sometimes-troubling bonds of family, and the struggle to find a sense of home. (Emily)
The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: The one living novelist who makes Joyce Carol Oates look like a slacker returns with the fifth volume of his “Seven Dreams” series, about the confrontations between native people and settlers in North America. This installment swings west to investigate the Nez Perce War of the late 19th Century, and is rumored to lean on dialogue to an unusual degree. The first of the Seven Dreams was published in 1990; at this rate, the series should conclude some time in 2027. (Garth)
A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball: Jesse Ball’s novels are playful and clever and often quite grim, although this is not a contradiction. As he said in an interview: “a life of grief can be joyful too.” In his fifth novel, A Cure for Suicide, this again seems to be evident. A man and woman move in together: she is his guide and doctor who teaches him about life, defining for him the nature of objects and interaction and ways of being. That is, until another woman arrives and upends all he’s learned, making him question. (Anne)
Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto : Couto, a Mozambican who writes in Portuguese, has for years been considered one of Africa’s leading writers, fusing indigenous settings and traditions with influences from abroad. His first novel, Sleepwalking Land, was named one of the best African books of the 20th Century; his most recent, Tuner of Silences, was published by the terrific independent press Biblioasis, and was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin award. In Confessions of the Lioness, a series of lion attacks in a remote village forces an eruption between men and women, modernity and tradition. It’s Couto’s first book to be published by FSG. (Garth)
Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai: Fans of 2014’s The Hundred Year House don’t have to wait too long for more of Makkai’s clever and wonderfully imaginative work. Her third book and her first story collection, Music for Wartime offers a diverse array of stories, four of which are inspired by Makkai’s family history and her paternal grandparents’ involvement in 1930s Hungarian politics. (For more on this, check out this Harper’s Magazine interview with Makkai). Overall, the collection showcases the author’s talent for the short form–which has gotten her anthologized four (!) times in the Best American Short Stories series. (Edan)
Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh: Following Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and River of Smoke, Calcutta-born Amitav Ghosh brings his Ibis Trilogy to a rousing conclusion with Flood of Fire. It’s 1839, and after China embargoes the lucrative trade of opium grown on British plantations in India, the colonial government sends an expeditionary force from Bengal to Hong Kong to reinstate it. As the force arrives, war breaks out, and with it a blaze of naval engagements, embezzlement, profiteering and espionage. In bringing the first Opium War to crackling life, Ghosh has illuminated the folly of our own failed war on drugs. Historical fiction doesn’t get any timelier than this. (Bill)
The State We’re In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie: A new collection of linked stories set in Maine from one of the short story masters. Call her the American Alice Munro, call her a New Yorker darling, call this the perfect summer read. (Hannah)
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: In her 30 works of fiction, Alice Hoffman always finds the magical in the ordinary. Her narratives have roamed from ancient Israel (The Dovekeepers) to 20th-century New York City (The Museum of Extraordinary Things). Hoffman’s new novel, The Marriage of Opposites, transports us to the tropical island of St. Thomas in the early 1800s, where a girl named Rachel is growing up in the community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition. When her arranged marriage ends with her husband’s death, she begins an affair with her late husband’s dashing nephew. There is nothing ordinary about their son: his name is Camille Pissarro, and he will grow up to become an immortal father of Impressionism. (Bill)
Purity by Jonathan Franzen: There are few American authors who can hit all the popular news outlets simply by releasing the title of their next novel (Purity), or launch a thousand hot takes with the publication of one grumpy book excerpt in The Guardian (an excerpt which, curiously, is no longer available at its previous URL as of this writing). Franzen haters were derisive at the news of his impending novel (Gawker’s headline was “Jonathan Franzen to Excrete Book Called Purity”), described by its publisher as “a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents,” with bonus “fabulist quality.” But some people believe, privately, that Franzen is such a good novelist that his detractors must just be jealous. And for those people, the new book can’t come quickly enough. (O Franzen! My Franzen!) (Lydia)
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: We at The Millions look forward to reading fellow staff writer Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel. At over 900 pages, the novel takes place in 1977 New York and culminates in the city’s famed black-out. The Guardian reports, “The polished third-person narration conjures up a cast of characters living in a New York City divided by race and money – the reluctant heirs to a great fortune, two Long Island kids exploring downtown’s nascent punk scene, a gay schoolteacher from rural Georgia, an obsessive magazine reporter, a revolutionary cell planning to set the Bronx ablaze, a trader with a hole on his balance sheet and a detective who is trying to piece together the mystery which connects them all to a shooting in Central Park.” In anticipation of the book’s release, I suggest you dip into Garth’s essays here at The Millions, perhaps starting with his 2010 piece on long novels, “Is Big Back?” (Edan)
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Ever since its introduction a little over six (!) years ago, the iPhone and all of its portable touchscreen iterations have fundamentally altered the way we process information, interact with one another, and document our surroundings (through faux, overexposed photographs). The deceptively simple interface of finger against glass proved to be the key to unlocking an unprecedentedly intimate feedback loop between user and device. And yet I believe I am not alone when I say that such intimacy has left me straddling what feels like two warring halves of myself. On the one hand, there is the part of me that appreciates nothing more than the quiet smolder of a 600-page novel’s unfolding narrative. Such stories are slow, multivalent; they demand deep periods of our attention in order to attain a delayed payoff that ultimately resonates far beyond the pages of the book. And then there is the dopamine-addicted part of me that is constantly reaching for my iPhone to monitor a world that has essentially not changed since I last checked up on it five minutes ago. This part of me feels weirdly naked if I leave the house without that little rectangular chunk of metal and glass in my pocket.
Like many of you, I cannot help feeling that these two halves are locked in some kind of existential battle; that deep, long-form literary storytelling is incompatible not just with the 140-character lifestyle we are being to trained to embrace, but also with the very architecture of a small, handheld touchscreen. Such a device intrinsically demands to be continuously shuffled in and out of the pocket. Such a device demands—through its shape, size, and interface—enough of your attention to keep you satiated, but not enough to keep you truly engaged.
And yet, even in my moments of deepest technopocalyptic pessimism, I also know that there are many exciting opportunities to utilize the touchscreen interface as an innovative platform for telling stories. But let us be blunt: even just that antiseptic word “interface” usually spells doom for conjuring any kind of poetic experience. Print books are still far and away the best interface we’ve got. I’ve waded through enough of those clumsy, masturbatory hypertext disasters that were so en vogue in the ‘90s to know that, contrary to what Robert Coover or others might say, true interactivity is rarely a good thing when it comes to authentic literary pathos. At the end of the day, the reader wants to feel the soft hands of the writer guiding them down the path. Narrative strength arises from narrative finitude.
Several years ago, Jeff Rabb and I set about designing an iPad version of my first novel, The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. Cognizant of the slippery slope offered by interactive platforms, we tried to embrace the unique opportunities that a boundless touchscreen has to offer — links, partially obscured (yet retrievable) text, birds-eye navigation maps — but then also temper these opportunities with the lessons of the bounded, curated (i.e. limited) printed page. In my mind, the goal for writers and designers should be to learn from print books and not simply emulate them on a screen, as the first generation of e-books did and continue to do (hello skeuomorphic page-turning animation????). Yet despite countless hours of careful consideration, the iPad adaption of my book was still a little bit awkward, in part because it was exactly that: an adaptation, a work designed for the page that had been exported to the tablet.
So perhaps it is fitting that one of my favorite works of this year, Device 6, is a book that was designed specifically for the touchscreen. Actually, I’m not quite sure if it’s even a book or even what a book is anymore. (Perhaps such a term is too limiting — maybe we need to develop a more sophisticated nomenclature like the Japanese in order to better describe a taxonomy of literary technologies.) Created by Simogo (Simon Flesser and Magnus Gardebäck) out of Malmö, Sweden, Device 6 is the first touchscreen literary creation that succeeds in blending the medium with its content to great and wondrous effect. Device 6 borrows from all kinds of sources, including the stutter-step pacing of those old Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Books, the minimalist interactivity and wayfaring of early interactive fiction games like Zork and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the evocative, aural landscapes of classic radio dramas, the lush graphical enigmas of the Myst games, the nested, textual interplay of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, and of course, the creepy, false-naive cat’s cradle of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Yet somehow Device 6 manages to distinguish itself from all of these precursors by utilizing the very technology it is built upon — our dependency on our touchscreens — as its central conceit.
We navigate through each chapter of Device 6 by scrolling along little pathways of text and image, following our heroine Anna (a modern day Alice) as she explores a surreal island filled with automatons, looped recordings, and abandoned lighthouses. These textual pathways turn left and right, up and down, backwards and in spirals. We are asked to rotate the touchscreen around in our hands, to flick the words this way and that, and in so doing, we become complicit in the narrative; we are just as disoriented, just as searching as dear Anna. The modernist ‘60s graphics are reminiscent of Saul Bass — all clean dotted lines, Dewey Decimal labels, and translucent pastel arrowheads. Beneath it all, the impeccable sound-design perfectly undergirds your movement through the story with footsteps, door-clicks, or white-noise from an unseen radio. Like good prose, the sonic landscape suggests without demanding; it evokes without explicating. Indeed, during the whole reading/playing experience, you are taken by an unsettled feeling of urgency and descend into what feels like a finely calibrated mood, just as if you were working your way through a masterfully paced novella.
That question of verbiage — are you reading or are you playing? — seems to get at the heart of the matter. Late in the story, as your and Anna’s experience begin to converge, Anna, overtaken by deja-vu, muses about such confusion: “I know this place. I’ve been here before. No, wait. I’ve read about this place. But…how? Maybe it was a book. No…not a book. A…game?” Device 6 does break certain traditional literary conventions in that each “chapter” has a series of puzzles you must solve before you can move onto the next. For some, this may disqualify the piece from the genre of the literary and move it firmly into the domain of “video game,” but for me such a distinction is much trickier, for only occasionally do the puzzles feel superficially attached to the story. The format works because, in the end, the very process of your code-breaking becomes the story itself. This also goes for the strange interstitial questionnaires that come between chapters. Initially, they resemble some kind of quirky costumer service survey that Simogo might’ve cleverly woven into its product. But very quickly these questions go off the rails, leaving one to wonder what possible valuable information they could be providing for the game designers. And then you realize the questions are not for them but for you. Such is the nature of this creation: everything about Device 6 — including your reading/playing experience — is anticipated by the narrative framework of the book/game.
Do I want the trajectory of fiction over the next 50 years to be a slow slide from the 600-page novel to various iterations of game/story smartphone amalgamations like Device 6? Do I want some kind of interactive puzzle to become a prerequisite for any reading experience? Most decidedly, no. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. Device 6 doesn’t so much feel like a shortcut as the beginning of a long, important conversation. It is that rare example of talented people crafting gorgeous, smart multimedia creations that push us to reconsider our love of mystery as well as our love of the home button. Can these two impulses exist in harmony? Read/play Device 6 and decide for yourself. Just be sure to send me a tweet afterwards.
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Another year of living, another year of reading. And, if you’re like us, when you look back, you’ll mark out the year in books — weeks, months, even whole seasons that will forever be wedded in the mind to a memorable reading experience. Each book put back on the shelf becomes a postcard reminder.
And now, as we kick off another Year in Reading, we become the postcard collectors, learning where the minds of some of our favorite writers and thinkers traveled in 2013.
For our esteemed guests, the charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.
We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2014 a fruitful one.
As in prior years, the names of our 2013 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed or follow us on Facebook or Twitter and read the series that way.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Claire Messud, author of The Woman Upstairs.
Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl, author of Very Recent History: An Entirely Factual Account of a Year (c. AD 2009) in a Large City.
Alice McDermott, author of Someone.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for The Walkmen.
Sergio De La Pava, author of A Naked Singularity
Dani Shapiro, author of Still Writing.
Norman Rush, author of Subtle Bodies.
Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure.
Benjamin Percy, author of Red Moon.
Garth Risk Hallberg, staff writer for The Millions, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
David Gilbert, author of And Sons.
Sarah Waters, author of The Little Stranger.
Jason Diamond, literary editor at Flavorwire, founder of Vol. 1 Brooklyn
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions, author of Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever.
Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them.
Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, author of Brief Encounters with the Enemy.
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of Half of a Yellow Sun.
Michael Nye, author of Strategies Against Extinction.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Hannah Gersen, staff writer for The Millions.
Thomas Beckwith, social media writer for The Millions.
Edan Lepucki, staff writer for The Millions, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Anne K. Yoder, staff writer for The Millions.
Aleksandar Hemon, author of The Book of My Lives.
Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner.
Edwidge Danticat, author of Claire of the Sea Light.
Charlie Jane Anders, managing editor of io9.
Elizabeth Strout, author of Olive Kitteridge.
Scott Turow, author of Identical.
Chang-rae Lee, author of The Surrendered.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions.
Rachel Kushner, author of The Flamethrowers.
Tom Drury, author of Pacific.
Gabriel Roth, author of The Unknowns.
Adelle Waldman, author of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
Paul Harding, author of Enon.
Janice Clark, author of The Rathbones.
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Matt Bell, author of In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods.
Caleb Crain, author of Necessary Errors.
Mohsin Hamid, author of How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia.
Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti.
Emily St. John Mandel, staff writer for The Millions, author of The Lola Quartet.
Bill Morris, staff writer for The Millions, author of Motor City.
Tess Malone, intern for The Millions.
Adam Wilson, author of Flatscreen.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Sonya Chung, staff writer for The Millions, author of Long for This World.
Kathryn Davis, author of Labrador.
Sam Lipsyte, author of The Ask.
Marisa Silver, author of Mary Coin.
Teddy Wayne, author of Kapitoil.
Kelly Link, author of Monstrous Affections.
Olivia Laing, author of The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking.
Dara Horn, author of A Guide for the Perplexed.
Kate Milliken, author of If I’d Known You Were Coming.
Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator.
Parul Sehgal, editor at the New York Times Book Review.
Helen Oyeyemi, author of Boy, Snow, Bird.
Kristopher Jansma, author of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards.
Kevin Barry, author of Dark Lies the Island.
Kevin Hartnett, staff writer for The Millions.
Bennett Sims, author of A Questionable Shape.
Ann Hood, author of The Obituary Writer.
Charles Blackstone, author of Vintage Attraction.
Karen Russell’s stories defy definition. They are at once warm and sinister, a bubblebath with a shark fin lurking underneath the suds. Hailed as a rising star in the next generation of great writers, Russell has made her name with fiction that expands the possible, gorgeous prose forged in the fires of dark beauty and wistful longing. Her debut collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised By Wolves, was set largely in the brackish backlands of Florida, which also served as the backdrop for her novel Swamplandia!, a finalist for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize. Her newest work, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, consists of nine stories spread across decades and continents. I spoke with Ms. Russell by phone a few weeks ahead of her collection’s release, intent to learn more about how the fantastical can humanize us, what caused her to take her stories away from the swamp and why Stephen King is better than The Babysitters Club.
The Millions: Vampires in the Lemon Grove is your first book to be set outside of the swamps of Florida. Was that a conscious choice to set your fiction in a new geography?
Karen Russell: Thank you for noticing! I think it was a conscious choice. Some of these stories I was writing alongside Swamplandia! — I think about half of the collection was written while I was drafting that novel, and then half after that book had come out. My first story collection has a couple of sojourns abroad but most of them have a uniformity of setting. I love the setting of the swamp so much. It feels so familiar. It’s all so humbling, because you see where your preoccupations start to surface. I love that after a novel, where you’re so committed to one place — I spent most my 20s in that goddamn swamp — so it was freeing to get to time-travel a little bit and try on some different skins.
TM: Many of the stories in your new collection seem to focus on a symbol, like a precious glass window or a treacherous stop screw or a red trip wire. Do you often start writing by building around an image or do they take center stage more organically?
KR: I think it can be both. It’s always exciting when something presents itself as a symbol that you can recognize, something that concretely manifests itself. With the window, I think I was on the L train, and this couple happened to tell me about this settlement where they swapped a window around. They only had one glass window and it was this really rare commodity. That was like a gift from the universe. With the wire, I had this idea of a tattoo, and trying to define whatever desire makes you want to get a tattoo, to memorialize something, and having that unstablize and get really slippery. That took a little while. Same with the stop screw. It was something the story needed. I remember having a conversation with my brother. I was like, “what could you find in a nest? Something really small, like lynch-pin size that if it was knocked lose from your life, it would cause your life to go slack.” And he said, “a condom?” He also suggested Three 6 Mafia’s Oscar. I’m so glad that at some point, the story within a story presented itself, because it would’ve been a different meditation on loss if it was about Three Six Mafia’s Oscar.
TM: I’m pretty sure everyone would’ve been psyched for that story.
KR: I might’ve made a mistake. I might’ve made the wrong call there.
TM: Going back to the red trip wire. With the complex imagery of Sgt. Zeiger’s back tattoo in your story “The New Veterans,” did you find it necessary to create a visual representation for you to write from?
KR: That’s always my dream. I’d really like to illustrate these stories. You know Reif Larsen had that book come out [The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet] that was so gorgeously illustrated. I remember just touching it with longing. I’ll try to do some doodles, but thank god for words. Otherwise I’d never get the pictures in my mind excised in any form that another could see, because it definitely wouldn’t happen with visual art. I can draw a dog that looks at a clock. I had my own mental template of what that thing looks like. It’s hard to describe a tattoo, it turns out. You feel wasteful. I wish that I could illustrate actually. Maybe somebody will. It’s a pretty ridiculously intricate tattoo.
TM: Your work, along with the stories of writers like Kelly Link and Etgar Keret, is often set in a kind of hyper-reality, where a surreal element is introduced into what we consider to be the normal world. What do you think this rising trend of fantastical elements being incorporated into modern literature signifies about readers’ interests?
KR: It’s funny, because I often think if you look at Kafka, or an entire tribe of Latin American writers, I don’t know how new it is necessarily. I think the conversation about genre in the mainstream feels more fresh and new. I remember in graduate school that many people seemed to be moving away from a really gritty kind of realism. For me, there’s something playful about it. It feels intuitively right to me as a register to try to represent something true in. For people like [George] Saunders and Link, I don’t think any of them would say they were writing about a world that’s not the normal, ordinary world. Often they’re just dilating some aspect of it so you can see, so you can think through it. What’s attractive to me about those stories is in a way they feel so much more honest and so much closer to the real deep and uncanny experience of being alive. They now have this emotional vocabulary to talk about how really freaking weird it is to live any average Tuesday. In addition, it’s exciting to be the arbiter of a whole world. Even a writer like Junot Díaz, who often doesn’t get the rap of being a fabulist or using magical realism, his stuff is him reading Dominican history through the lens of Tolkein and Frank Herbert. That’s another way people are filtering history. I just think those distinctions sometimes feel rigid and false to me.
TM: There are three stories in Vampires in the Lemon Grove that share the common traits of featuring a young male protagonist in the midst of dark circumstances. Why do you think adolescent boys and scary stories fit so well together?
KR: I love scary stories. I really loved them when I was younger and I still love them now. I love the experience of being afraid. What it did for me when I was a kid is give me a way to contend with all kinds of unruly appetites like violence, discomforting tragedy, and questions that couldn’t be addressed in speech. From an early age, I always preferred to read a Stephen King book to something like the Babysitters Club. In the funhouse mirror of those books, you could see so much of what’s unspeakable about life on this planet represented. Between the covers was like a safe place to contend with monstrosities. In the last story of Vampires [“The Buried Doll of Eric Munis”], I think he’s an adult consciousness retrospectively looking back at the monster that he used to be. It’s a horror story about contending with your own youthful indiscretions and the afterlife that has. As a writer, it’s helpful to put on a boy voice because it gets me a little farther away from myself. It gives me a nice leap to try and take. I think there is something fascinating about the wickedness that boys get up to in groups. I used to take these groups of high school students abroad, and I swear to god, the boys individually would be beyond sweet, but collectively they would transform and posses this evil energy. I don’t know what unleashed that genie but you’d have this sweet kid who looked like a hot dog, a skinny little sweetheart who wrote poems, and then you’d plug him into a group of nine boys and it was terrifying.
TM: Your title story follows two aging vampires who’ve settled down in an Italian lemon grove. Did this story generate from a desire to put your own spin on the emerging deluge of vampire literature?
KR: I feel some embarrassment at the title of this collection, because even though it felt kind of right, metaphorically, to apply the title to all of the characters in this collection — everybody’s kind of a monster, everybody’s dealing with an illicit appetite — I didn’t know the Stephanie Meyer thing was going to happen. It’s a sad thing to feel a little bit like a biter of Stephanie Meyer. Nobody wants that in this life. I loved Dracula when I was kid. That was my favorite monster. Vampires are just rich as characters, in terms of hunger and addiction and unregulated appetite. They’re pretty great. We really did something right by creating a monster that resembles humans with an unquenchable thirst. It’s fun for me to play with those strong conventions. People already have a relationship to vampires that’s so deep, and I guess in this case, something about it just felt right. I like the idea that what keeps you trapped in your most monstrous version of yourself is this belief that you are a monster.
TM: And yet Clyde is really humanized when we learn in the story that drinking blood isn’t a vital component of a vampire’s survival.
KR: I feel like we all know vampires, so you can relate to Clyde’s befuddlement when he learns that this dysfunctional and evil thing he’s been doing isn’t necessary or effective. It’s like, ok, now what?
TM: It reinforces this idea that he’s wasting his own immortality trying to figure what he’s supposed to be doing.
KR: Yes! It’s all one long Sunday, right?
TM: Exactly. There’s a similar vibe going on in “The Barn at the End of Our Term,” where an assortment of U.S. Presidents have been possibly reincarnated as horses.
KR: That story is maybe the strangest leap in there in some ways. I was living with my best friend, Carrie, who had horses, and she had this book by Mary Twelveponies called There Are No Problem Horses, Only Problem Riders. I thought that book was amazing. I read that, and I’d just read Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead, and I was taken with some of the questions his book raises, this whole idea that when people die, they go to this liminal space where nothing is resolved and they’re just as clueless as when they were alive. There’s something sweet and naïve on our part to think that all of our questions will be answered when we die, that we’ll get one final answer to everything. And also I think I watched this really long documentary about the U.S. Presidents while I had the flu. I wish I could connect it to our current election cycle, because then I would sound topical and smart, but actually it’s one of the older stories in the collection. So I had these ideas percolating: Brockmeier’s meditations on the afterlife and the hagiography of these powerful men. It was sort of this ode to ambition. Originally, it was going to be each of the presidents being reborn into a different situation, and the first one I came up with was for Rutherford B. Hayes to be stabled in his afterlife. This is turning into the forensics of my own bad idea now.
TM: When you’re writing about the presidents, or in “The New Veterans” where you talk about IEDs and Fadaliyah, Iraq, how obligated do you feel to root your fiction in facts?
KR: I think with the president’s story, it’s a lot looser in a lot of ways. That one maybe felt a little lighter to me, although I also felt deeply sad for this man who believes in a really standard heaven but then finds himself in an extraordinary circumstance. It’s not like it was a bad Saturday Night Live sketch that I had no emotional connection to. With “The New Veterans,” that felt like the riskiest one to me, because it’s contemporary and such a sensitive topic. There are a lot of veterans that I’m close too, and so much of the heart of that story is pretty personal. That was the one I probably put the most work into. There’s a lot of delivery ambiguity, a lot of fogginess inside that story. Nothing is specifically true, but I read quite a bit in preparation for it to be as plausible as I could make it. In order for the more fantastical elements to hold any emotional resonance, I felt like I had to get all the historical stuff correct. I was a lot more conscious and anxious about that one then the “The Barn at the End of Our Term” because I didn’t think Dwight Eisenhower’s relatives were going to be too upset with me.
TM: I found that the concept of time seems to permeate many of your stories, whether it is omens from the future, changes to the past, or uncertainty over the present. Was time a specific focus in this collection?
KR: I feel like I wake up to that stuff halfway through sometimes. You figure out what you’re up to, and then you can consciously make those connections. I decided it’s like blood rising to a cut. There might be something you compulsively want to address or think through, and then when you figure out what it is you can consciously shape it a little bit, but I don’t think I always have so much control over what the heart of a novel or story is. I think at a certain point I realized how many of these stories had to do with hunger and how to deal with certain appetites. A lot of these stories are also about stories, in a somewhat goofy, probably too explicit way. There’s a lot of traumatic repetition, and trying to figure how to tell a new story to move past it. With the writers I love, you see the same things surging up again and again. Maybe we all get like a finite set of preoccupations, but you just have to find new ways to let them give life to your stories.
The end of another year is here (so soon? Ah, I’m getting old), and with it a flood of valedictory lists and wrap ups, accountings and scorecards. Each year, as these lists spill out across the landscape, the onslaught becomes difficult to parse and begins to feel suspiciously (to us, anyway) like a marketing boondoggle to support the promotional-book-cover-sticker-and-blurb industry. There are so many “best of the year” lists that everything is the best (and sometimes also the worst).
So, how can we have some year-end fun while still extracting something meaningful from the effort?
We readers tend to be a thoughtful bunch, noting down the titles we have read or lining them up one by one on a shelf. We are intellectually omnivorous as well and not too overly prejudiced toward the new or the old, picking up a 130-year-old classic of Russian literature and then following it up with the bestselling, beach read of the moment. Taken together, a long list of books read is a map of our year, and the best of these books are the year’s pinnacles, and the challenging books, its rewarding treks. The “10 best books of 2012” list is so small next to this.
And so in preparing our annual Year in Reading series, we’ve asked our esteemed guests to take us on a tour of these pinnacles and to give an accounting of these treks.
With this in mind, for a ninth year, some of our favorite writers, thinkers, and readers will look back, reflect, and share. Their charge was to name, from all the books they read this year, the one(s) that meant the most to them, regardless of publication date. Grouped together, these ruminations, cheers, squibs, and essays will be a chronicle of reading and good books from every era.
We hope you find in them seeds that will help make your year in reading in 2013 a fruitful one.
As in prior years, the names of our 2012 “Year in Reading” contributors will be unveiled one at a time throughout the month as we publish their contributions. You can bookmark this post and follow the series from here, or load up the main page for more new Year in Reading posts appearing at the top every day, or you can subscribe to our RSS feed and follow along that way.
Stephen Dodson, co-author of Uglier Than a Monkey’s Armpit, proprietor of Languagehat.
Ben Fountain, author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.
Emma Straub, author of Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures.
Choire Sicha, co-proprietor of The Awl.
Jeffrey Eugenides, author of Middlesex.
Madeline Miller, author of The Song of Achilles.
Gideon Lewis-Kraus, author of A Sense of Direction.
Rob Delaney, comedian and writer.
Nick Harkaway, author of The Gone-Away World.
Tania James, author of Atlas of Unknowns.
Alexander Chee, author of Edinburgh.
Maria Popova, founder and editor of Brain Pickings.
Lauren Groff, author of Arcadia.
David Vann, author of Dirt.
Helen Schulman, author of This Beautiful Life.
Roxane Gay, author of Ayiti.
Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men.
Rachel Fershleiser, co-editor of Not Quite What I Was Planning.
Bill Morris, author of All Souls’ Day, staff writer for The Millions.
Scott Esposito, co-author of The End of Oulipo?, proprietor of Conversational Reading.
Nick Moran, social media editor for The Millions.
Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet, staff writer for The Millions.
Edan Lepucki, author of If You’re Not Yet Like Me, staff writer for The Millions.
Janet Potter, staff writer for The Millions, blogger at At Times Dull.
David Haglund, writer and editor at Slate.
Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth.
Chris Ware, author of Building Stories.
Kevin Smokler, author of Practical Classics: 50 Reasons to Reread 50 Books You Haven’t Touched Since High School, on twitter as @weegee.
Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate.
Geoff Dyer, author of Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.
Susan Orlean, staff writer for The New Yorker, author of Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend.
Michael Schaub, book critic for NPR.org.
Matt Dojny, author of The Festival of Earthly Delights.
Nell Freudenberger, author of The Newlyweds.
Ed Park, author of Personal Days.
Hamilton Leithauser, lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen.
Meg Wolitzer, author of The Interestings.
Sheila Heti, author of How Should a Person Be?.
Paul Murray, author of Skippy Dies.
Elliott Holt, author of You Are One of Them.
Jami Attenberg, author of The Middlesteins.
Antoine Wilson, author of Panorama City.
Paul Ford, author of Gary Benchley, Rock Star, writer at Ftrain.com.
Garth Risk Hallberg, author of A Field Guide to the North American Family.
Lydia Kiesling, staff writer for The Millions.
Mark O’Connell, staff writer for The Millions.
Christian Lorentzen, editor at the London Review of Books.
Michael Bourne, staff writer for The Millions.
Emily M. Keeler, editor of Little Brother Magazine.
Elizabeth Minkel, staff writer for The Millions.
Nichole Bernier, author of The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.
Alix Ohlin, author of Inside.
Lars Iyer, author of Exodus.
Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore.
Malcolm Jones, senior writer at Newsweek/The Daily Beast, author of Little Boy Blues.
Susan Straight, author of Between Heaven and Here.
Christine Schutt, author of Prosperous Friends.
Patrick Somerville, author of This Bright River.
Lydia Millet, author of Magnificence.
Jennifer duBois, author of A Partial History of Lost Causes.
Nick Dybek, author of When Captain Flint Was Still a Good Man.
Reif Larsen, author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet.
Megan Mayhew Bergman, author of Birds of a Lesser Paradise.
Ellen Ullman, author of By Blood.
Jane Hirshfield, author of Come, Thief.
Michael Robbins, author of Alien vs. Predator.
Jeet Thayil, author of Narcopolis.
Thomas Beckwith, intern for The Millions.
Benjamin Anastas, author of Too Good to Be True.
Kate Zambreno, author of Heroines.
Carolyn Kellogg, staff writer for the LA Times, a vice president of the National Book Critics Circle.
Buzz Poole, author of Madonna of the Toast.
Robert Birnbaum, editor-at-large at Identity Theory.
Brian Joseph Davis, creator of The Composites, co-publisher of Joyland Magazine.
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The IQ Bubble
Oskar Schell, age nine, is a genius. Likewise Billy Argo and T.S. Spivet, both 10. At 14, Alma Singer is at least hella precocious. And with subspecialties including M-theory, French horn, and the Future of Humanity, her contemporary Ruprecht van Doren is off the charts (though with a name like Ruprecht van Doren, you’d sort of have to be). Genius is, by definition, exceptional, and until recently it was only in Lake Wobegon and the films of Wes Anderson that all children could be above average. But in the last few years the Anglo-American novel, full of characters like the foregoing, has come to resemble a kind of overdriven gifted-and-talented program: one your own kid would never make it into.
To be sure, the ‘tween geniuses of Jonathan Safran Foer et al. are not without precedent. It’s been almost two centuries since Dickens loosed his intrepid moppets on the streets of London. (Little David Copperfield is, if not quite Mensa material, surely a Child of Distinction.) And American literature has always been unusually interested in kids. If much of Russian fiction, as Dostoevsky reportedly said, emerged from Gogol’s overcoat, our own novelistic tradition might be said to have emerged from that of Mark Twain, who found in his Hannibal boyhood both a wellspring of vernacular comedy and a nexus of the great American tensions: freedom versus settlement, the individual versus society, the past versus the future. Huck Finn rendered James Fennimore Cooper’s Mohican fantasias on the same themes instantly old hat. Who needs noble savages when you’ve got adolescents? (Is there any difference, in the end?)
Even in America, however, literary innocence has historically been a rigged game. With its tropism for irony, the novel as a form prods its protagonists toward experience, toward compromise, and toward “sivilization” – in short, to growing up. Unless, that is, the child is more civilized than the man, as seems to be the case with the current bumper crop of prodigies. These kids’ real forebears are not Augie March or Maisie Farange, but comic book superheroes, Harriet the Spy, and – preeminently – the novels of J.D. Salinger. Like the Glasses, they seem too good for the lousy adult world, and perhaps too good to be true.
In this (and, it must be said, in its gargantuan length), Adam Levin’s literary debut, The Instructions, would seem to be some sort of apotheosis. Its 10-year-old narrator and protagonist, Gurion Maccabee, is not just another kid genius with an improbable name; he’s also worldly, charismatic, quick with a joke or to light up your smoke, a martial artist, a sometime-telepath, a devout half-Ethiopian, half-Ashkenazi Israelite…and, oh, yeah: quite possibly the Messiah. It’s easy to see why, even if you liked Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet, you might feel you need this wisenheimer’s 1,000-page scripture like you need a hole in your head. But The Instructions turns out to be, for better and for worse, something like the Only Kid Genius Novel You’ll Ever Need. That is, it simultaneously makes good on the subgenre’s promise and exposes its limitations. And en route to its wacko finale, it begins to illuminate the begged question: Why so much genius? Why now?
And a Child Shall Lead Them
The Instructions opens with our narrator inside a cage. Or rather, CAGE—a special facility within Aptakisic Junior High School for students with behavioral problems. It isn’t explained at first how this CAGE works, exactly, or what those initials stand for. What we get, instead, is Gurion’s voice—baroque, headlong, impertinent, a gallimaufry of high-flying excursus and middle-school pidgin (“banced,” “snat,” “chomsky”). His monologue (“Scripture,” he insists) careens from linguistics to theodicy to how to build your own small arms from household oddments. Underneath, though, a single question niggles: What’s a kid like you doing in a place like this?
Levin parcels the answer out slowly. Which turns out to be a good thing, because the plot—basically boy meets girl, girl’s a goy, mayhem ensues—is a pretty thin reed on which to hang three pounds of book. The entire novel covers only the four days leading up to what a mock-prefatory note has hinted will be some kind of in-school insurrection (variously referred to as “the Damage Proper;” “the 11/17 Miracle;” and “the Gurionic War.”) In the absence of much action, it’s the mystery of Gurion’s personality that keeps us reading. Well, that and to see what kind of crazy shit he’ll say next.
As any kid genius will, Gurion tap-dances all over the line between precocity and preciousness. Levin, who studied with George Saunders at Syracuse, clearly admires the miglior fabbro’s demotic hijinks, and Gurion often achieves a Saundersish charm, both in rat-a-tat dialogue and in casual stabs of description that bring the world of junior high back like yesterday’s hot lunch. Ron Desormie “taught Gym in shorts that his wang stretched the crotch of”—you pretty much had me at “wang.” But just as often there’s an inability to leave well enough alone (Desormie also “hummed out a melody with lipfart percussion and aggressively dance-walked and thought it was strutting.”)
Such compulsive effervescence is both a liability and an asset. On the one hand, it flattens the characters around Gurion (with a couple of exceptions), and thus the stakes for the impending “Miracle”-cum-“War.” Eliza June Watermark, his shiksa love-interest, is more a cluster of attributes than a fully formed person. The keepers of the CAGE are, like the lipfarting, dance-walking Desormie, cartoons. And I’d swear that Flowers, the middle-aged juju man who guides Gurion through the writing of the scripture we are even now reading, is actually Bleeding Gums Murphy, from The Simpsons:
Even if what you write about is boring, you can’t be writing boring. Seem to me like you want to write about you wang, anyhow. Now you wang—that’s a good example cause it’s boring to me […] One thing ain’t boring to me about you wang is how you’re callin it wang.
On the other hand, Levin ain’t boring, which is important, when your scripture is also a tome. And our inability to see actual people behind Levin’s antic renderings is a powerful corollary for what will come to seem the narrator’s egocentrism, the child trapped inside the prodigy.
The first half of The Instructions is also enlivened by lengthy “inserts”: emails, school assignments, a psychological assessment. Through these chinks in the monologuist’s armor, we begin to glimpse Gurion from angles other than his own. Flowers may not be, as therapist-in-training Sandra Billings suggests, his “imaginary friend” (after all—disappointingly—Mr. and Mrs. Maccabee can see him, too), but her otherwise reasonable conclusions and the vehemence with which Gurion doth protest remind us that, like any scripture, this one is open to interpretation:
It may be the case […] that Gurion is by nature an ideal student. […] On the other hand, it may be the case that Gurion, once an ideal student, has become […] the dangerous and even doomed boy indicated by his record.
It is in this kind of irony, rather than in verbal vaudeville, that Levin begins to earn the jacket-copy comparisons to David Foster Wallace. His greatest gifts are also, as Gurion would put it, his most “stealth”: a dialectical intelligence, and crucially, a sense of paradox. The specific paradoxes to which the novel keeps returning involve justice, peace, and power. And these are not mere abstractions, confined to the Torah stories that obsess Gurion; their real-world consequences range from in-school bullying to foreign policy. Such subtexts, handled subtly at first, come crashing into the foreground in a bravura set-piece near the novel’s midway point. The child prodigy thinks back to September 11 of his kindergarten year, and to events it takes more than a high Myers-Briggs score to comprehend.
In the novel’s second half, “The Gurionic War,” Levin dispenses, somewhat disastrously, with these insertions, leaving us with hundreds of pages of unadulterated prodigy. If this shaves a few ounces off the book, it also lays bare the geologic pacing of the plot. And the solipsism of Gurion’s point-of-view becomes not just something that seduces the other Aptakisic ne’er-do-wells, but something inflicted on the reader. It’s as if The Instructions has painted itself into a corner. Nonetheless, there’s always the possibility that Gurion will run up a wall, or sprout wings, and so we press on to the long-promised climax.
I’m not going to spoil that climax, other than invoking Einstein’s suggestion that no worthy problem is ever solved on the plane of its conception. On the level of action, Levin gives us a significant payoff—he has to, after so many pages, or we’d want to egg his house—but in aesthetic terms, I was unpersuaded. Until. Until the abrupt return (right around the point where Philip Roth makes a cameo) of other, opposing voices. The novel’s conclusion, as distinct from the climax, juxtaposes several points-of-view and timeframes, throwing the central questions of Gurion’s existence back into high relief. And what saves the novel from self-indulgence is that they are also among the burning ethical questions of our time. For example: who has the right, in a fallen world, to dispense justice? Who has the right to judge? And what separates a savior from a lunatic?
Cult of the Child
It can’t be an accident that the current boom in novels about kid geniuses (or wizards) coincides with the dawn of a new age of catastrophe: buildings falling, anthrax, school shootings, wars, near economic collapse, and the palpable twilight of the American empire. Back in the ‘60s, establishment types liked to imagine that the young people mucking up the nation’s campuses were merely restaging their childhood as politics – acting out their Oedipal fantasies. Now, though, it has begun to seem that the terms are reversed; that we are trying to escape our political traumas by returning to childhood. Botox, Facebook, Pixar, skateboards and ringer tees…
In particular, Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s, which publishes The Instructions, has made childhood into a cult phenomenon. Its quarterly is nostalgic in ways big (design) and small (plenty of coming-of-age stories), and most of its best books (What is the What, The Children’s Hospital, Here They Come) center on the experiences of children. Indeed, childhood delimits the McSweeney’s aesthetic as such—the meringue of whimsy on top, and underneath the moral fiber that is our birthright. (“I am tired,” runs one epigraph to A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering…er… Genius. “I am true of heart!”)
The editors of N+1, precocious themselves, were quick to spot this. “Eggersards returned to the claims of childhood,” they noted in their first issue. But they were incorrect to claim that “Transcendence would not figure in [Eggersard] thought,” as anyone can tell you who remembers that moment at the end of AHWOSG where Dave and his kid brother run back and forth on the beach chasing the world’s most symbolic frisbee. To be a child is, for the duration of that childhood, to be transcendent.
The kid genius is, then—almost uniquely in our culture—a nakedly utopian figure (though a conservative one, in that his promised land lays in the past). He is wise. He is powerful. He is moral. The grinding compromises of bourgeois life and the adult obtusenesses that stands in for it do not concern him; growing up is selling out. He will, like Oskar Matzerath of The Tin Drum (for whom Foer’s Oskar is presumably named) stay small, and, in so doing, stay pure.
Putting Away Childish Things
At its best, the kid genius novel works as a kind of allegory, albeit at the cost of turning everything—even the world-historical—personal. At its worst, it represents just another flight from the ethical, into the ready embrace of the aesthetic. In the end, the signal achievement of The Instructions is that it manages to reopen the communicating channels between these binaries.
In so doing, this entertaining novel clears at least one of the hurdles of art: its strengths become inextricable from its weaknesses. Levin’s willingness to hew to the boundaries of his character’s skull—a kind of cage inside a CAGE inside a cage inside a cage—may sometimes make us wish Gurion would just take a Xanax and go to bed. But it also brings us into the presence of a fully realized consciousness, which is surely one of the noblest tasks of fiction.
To call The Instructions a young man’s book is to say partly that Levin, who himself may be a kind of genius, has many books ahead of him. And like Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, that other hypertrophied iteration of the kid genius novel, this one ultimately keeps in view a world of very adult consequences. To the innocence we’ve been protesting this last decade, it manages to restore connotations of blindness, gullibility, and misapprehension. And so it may mark both the culmination and the dissolution of its subgenre—a turn away from the handsome doll-furniture of our childhood rooms, and toward the world writ large.
Sidebar: A Brief Timeline of the Literary Kid Genius
Seymour Glass, Seymour: An Introduction (1963)
Simons Everson Manigault, Edisto (1984)
Phillip, A History of Luminous Motion (1989)
Hal Incandenza, Infinite Jest (1996)
Magid Iqbal, White Teeth (2000)
Ludo Newman, The Last Samurai (2002)
Oskar Schell, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2005)
Blue van der Meer, Special Topics in Calamity Physics (2006)
Billy Argo, The Boy Detective Fails (2006)
Rumika Vasi, Gifted (2007)
Saul Dawson-Smith, The Truth About These Strange Times (2008)
T.S. Spivet, The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet (2009)
Ruprecht van Doren, Skippy Dies (2010)
Gurion Maccabee, The Instructions (2010)
In Dan Chaon’s story “Prodigal,” from his collection Among the Missing, the narrator says: “When I was young, I used to identify with those precociously perceptive child narrators one finds in books. You know the type. They always have big dark eyes. They observe poetic details, clear-sighted, very sensitive… Now that I have children of my own… I think of that gentle, dewy-eyed first person narrator and it makes my skin crawl.”
A New York Times review of the recent novel Mercury Under My Tongue praised the book by saying of its protagonist, “Fortunately, unlike the precocious child narrators that populate so much fiction, there isn’t a whiff of gee-whiz wonderment or innocence about him.”
I love precocious narrators. Of course the child narrator is not a new construct, but some of the most buzzed-about novels of the 2000s, such as Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics, have featured memorable young leads. The books have met with both exuberant acclaim and accusations of being cloying, gimmicky, mannered, precious, faux-innocent, forced, unbelievable, exasperating, show-offy, or just plain annoying. But I admire the books’ inventiveness, and I love the characters’ idiosyncratic voices, unapologetic intelligence and bold curiosity. And, like Chaon’s narrator, and probably like many lifelong readers, I see a bit of myself in them.
With so many precocious children and their quirks to keep track of, here is a guide to some of the genre’s recent standouts:
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close: Oskar Schell, 9, “inventor, jewelry designer, jewelry fabricator, amateur entomologist, Francophile, vegan, origamist, pacifist, percussionist, amateur astronomer, computer consultant, amateur archaeologist, collector.” Having found a key left behind by his father, who died in the 9/11 attacks, Oskar sets out to find the lock.
Special Topics in Calamity Physics: Blue van Meer, 16, who never met a simile, metaphor, parenthetical quip, reference, citation, or Strategic Capitalization she didn’t like. Her mother died in a car accident; Dad is a brilliant, nomadic, and pompous professor.
Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time: Christopher Boone, 15, autistic and mathematically gifted. A fan of Sherlock Holmes and The Hound of the Baskervilles, he investigates who killed his neighbor’s dog, and uncovers the truth about his mother’s death.
Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love: Alma Singer, 14, who keeps a notebook called “How to Survive in the Wild” inspired by her adventurous father, who died of cancer. She is trying to find the author of an old novel that her mother is translating.
Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet: T.S. Spivet, 12, a cartography genius traveling by train, alone, from a Montana ranch to Washington, DC, to accept an award at the Smithsonian.
In each of these books, told in first-person, voice is central. Reviewers often remark that the protagonists sound nothing like a “real” child or teenager. But aside from Curious Incident, which is meant to be a feat of channeling—this is how the world looks through the eyes and brain of an autistic boy—reality and fidelity are not of primary concern. Lacking much real-world and life experience, the characters filter their lives through film noir, cowboy movies, detective stories, Jewish mysticism, novels and history.
As T.S. says before beginning his train journey, “I guess I was a sucker for historical myth just like Father. But whereas his Spiral of Nostalgic Unfulfillment was directed at the cinematic West of the trail drive, one need only whisper the phrase ‘bustling railroad town’ to raise my blood pressure a notch.” Alma’s hero is the aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who disappeared during WWII. Blue describes Hannah Schneider, the film teacher whose mysterious death fuels the book’s plot, as straight out of a black and white classic:
She had an elegant sort of romantic, bone-sculpted face, one that took well to both shadows and light… Within her carriage… was a little bit of the Paramount lot, a little neat scotch and air kisses at Ciro’s. I felt, when she opened her mouth, she wouldn’t utter the crumbly speak of modernity, but would use moist words like beau, top drawer and sound (only occasionally ring-a-ding-ding).
These influences from previous eras create an internal logic for each book. The trick is similar to that of the movie Brick, which transported the conventions of ‘30s detective fiction to a Southern California high school. Would a high schooler say “No, bulls would gum it. They’d flash their dusty standards at the wide-eyes and probably find some yegg to pin, probably even the right one”? Of course not. But as Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir wrote of the film, “it’s an engrossing fantasy picture that in some ways gets close to the feeling of teenage life, even though it bears almost no relationship to its reality.”
For his Spring 2008 ready-to-wear collection, Marc Jacobs designed shoes that had squat heels jutting out backwards, horizontally, from the ball of the foot. I love shoes as much as I love reading, and found this pair quite special: Jacobs had managed to rearrange conventional elements into something whimsical, and expand the idea of what a shoe can be.
Most books fit within a remarkably limited format, but formal inventiveness is a salient trait of these novels. Like children, they don’t always follow the rules. The books include maps and diagrams in the margins; pages in color and marked up with a red correction pen; illustrations and photos; blank pages; pages with type so dense they’re unreadable; foot notes and citations; chapters named for classic books or numbered with increasing prime numbers; and codas of a mathematical proof (Curious Incident), a Final Exam (Special Topics), and a flip book (Extremely Loud). According to critics like B.R. Myers, whose article “A Bag of Tired Tricks” appeared in The Atlantic upon the publication of Extremely Loud, my enjoyment of such “spurious playfulness” makes me “easily amused.”
But I don’t see these flourishes as gratuitous examples of “look at me! I’m different and clever!” T.S. makes sense of the world through mapping, and as he deals with the recent death of his younger brother “during an accident with a gun in the barn that no one ever talked about,” the tragedy’s repercussions are fittingly explored in the margins. Christopher’s brain functions in an emotionally detached, logical/mathematical/schematic way that necessitates diagrams. I found Extremely Loud’s backwards-flipbook, in which photos show a leaping body rising upwards alongside one of the twin towers, a moving visualization of Oskar’s biggest wish. Plus, it’s simply fun to turn the page and find a picture. It’s a fitting throwback to children’s books, as well as a nod to the hyperlinked/sidebar-ed/multimedia texts we read, without fuss, online.
The playfulness extends to language. More than any book I can remember, Special Topics delights in inventive, extended description. Listen to Blue riff on a central character:
He was a Goodnight Moon (Brown, 1947). Goodnight Moons had duvet eyes, shadowy eyelids, a smile like a hammock and a silvered, sleepy countenance… Goodnight Moons could be male or female and were universally adored. Even teachers worshipped them. They looked to Goodnight Moons whenever they asked a question and even though they answered with a drowsy, wholly incorrect answer, the teacher would say, ‘Oh, wonderful.’
None of the precocious narrators are Goodnight Moons. In fact, let’s call them The Outsiders (Hinton, 1967), though with less class warfare. They do not fit easily into the world. Aside from Alma’s Russian immigrant pen pal, none of them has a true friend his or her own age; professors, teachers, parents, grandparents and strangers to whom they write letters provide a tenuous social life. They are unpopular at school, lonely, awkward, weird.
I was not a 12-year-old cartography genius or pint-sized private eye, but I was an overachieving kid who took a while to figure out how to be smart without being an annoying show-off—a quality of precocious narrators that often bugs readers. I recently re-read the journal that I kept through high school, which was not all that long ago. The content breakdown is approximately 60% about boys, 30% about how lonely I felt, and 10% about how great I was doing on my AP physics tests. I had forgotten about the time I gossiped about how academically stupid my crush’s girlfriend was, and then he confronted me about it via AIM conversation. Which is to say, I really could have used a bookish friend like Alma or Blue. (And like Blue, whose father quizzes her on vocabulary and makes her perform readings of classic plays during long car trips, I had parent-assigned summer homework. I remember writing short reports about the book Cheaper by the Dozen and the sport of diving; homework earned points, which could be redeemed for sodas and CDs.)
The books also nimbly capture how, when brains trump social skills, you end up feeling both older and younger than everyone around you. Alma and Blue are clueless about boys and have disastrous first kisses, but are ambitious enough to unravel complicated mysteries. And that’s what’s heartbreaking about these books: they put smart kids in the position to feel like they can, and should, come up with answers to some of life’s biggest questions.
Because for all their cuteness, the novels are really about surviving death and loss. Several of the characters assemble literal survival kits, that include items like a telescope, compasses, drafting paper, duct tape, a stuffed animal, a snakebite kit, iodine pills, Swiss Army knives, a copy of Edible Plants and Flowers in North America, and Juicy Juice boxes. But what good is a compass or stuffed animal—where can you go, and what second-rate comfort will you find?—when you are a child whose parent or sibling has died?
As a culture, we have an odd relationship with high-achieving youths. The media scrambles to cover four-year-old abstract artists, 12-year-old fashion bloggers, 13-year-olds who climb Mt. Everest—but we regard the little prodigies with a mix of admiration, disbelief, mistrust and even hostility. (Witness the backlash against some of the precociously talented young novelists themselves, like accusations that Pessl only got a book deal because she’s pretty, and the phenomenon of “Schadenfoer“; note the glee people are taking in mocking Krauss’ recent over-the-top blurb.)
The other day, I overheard a commercial advertising a contest that would reward “the fastest, most accurate texter.” Then I learned that Jersey Shore’s The Situation had inked a book deal.
In an age of shortening attention spans and the glorification of stupidity, I find it comforting and exciting to spend time with young characters for whom books, maps, notebooks, letters, research, drawings, imagined inventions and classic films are central and essential. Precocious narrators, and the ambitious novelists who create them, give me hope that our culture can keep evolving without sliding into Idiocracy, and stand as proof of the power of intelligence, imagination, curiosity, and even “gee-whiz wonderment.”
In The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, T.S. coins the term “Stenpock,” after his science teacher, Mr. Stenpock. A Stenpock is someone “who insists on staying within the confines of his or her job title and harbors no passion for the offbeat or the incredible.” Precocious narrators are anti-Stenpocks, and I’m a sucker for them.
[Image credit: Inna]