The Son

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Native Daughter

“I know the words for elk and water. There are other Shawnee nouns as dense as koans with metaphor and meaning, but they remain inscrutable to me.” Poet Laura Da’ authors the most recent Rumpus Saturday essay, a stunning meditation on concessions made to both the body and the body politic. A member of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, Da’ is the author of Tributaries, a 2016 American Book Award winner. See also: our review of Philip Meyer’s latest novel, The Son.

The 2014 Pulitzer for Fiction Goes to Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch

Following last year’s win for The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson’s novel of North Korea, the Pulitzer jury named Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch this year’s winner in the fiction category. The Son by Philipp Meyer and The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis were the other finalists for the fiction prize.

Here are this year’s Pulitzer winners and finalists with bonus links:

Fiction:

Winner:  The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (excerptAdam Dalva’s essay on the novel, casting the upcoming movie)
The Son by Philipp Meyer (our review, our interview with Meyer)
The Woman Who Lost Her Soul by Bob Shacochis (excerpt, an essay by Martha Anne Toll)

    

General Nonfiction:

Winner: Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin
The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide by Gary J. Bass (excerpt)
The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War by Fred Kaplan (excerpt)

 

History:

Winner: The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772–1832 by Alan Taylor (review)

A Dreadful Deceit: The Myth of Race from the Colonial Era to Obama’s America by Jacqueline Jones  (excerpt)
Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident and the Illusion of Safety by Eric Schlosser  (excerpt

 

Biography:

Winner: Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall 

Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World by Leo Damrosch (excerpt)

Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber 

 

Winners and finalists in other categories are available at the Pulitzer Web site.

Judging Books by Their Covers 2014: U.S. Vs. U.K.

As we’ve done for several years now, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover art is an interesting element of the literary world — sometimes fixated upon, sometimes ignored — but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. And, while some of us no longer do all of our reading on physical books with physical covers, those same cover images now beckon us from their grids in the various online bookstores. From my days as a bookseller, when import titles would sometimes find their way into our store, I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another. This would seem to suggest that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side.

The American covers are on the left, and the UK are on the right. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.


So this is interesting. It would seem that us American readers require more orbs to get us interested in a novel of Victorian scope and heft. I like the slightly more subtle U.K. look


The U.S. version is a little dull though it has a pleasing spareness to it and I like the vintage botanical illustration thing going on there. I far prefer it to the U.K. cover. I get that there’s a handmade motif happening but the colors are jarring to my eye.


I don’t think you would ever see a cover that looks so “genre” on a literary novel in the U.S., and it kind of makes sense with Hamid’s self-help-inflected title and the “Filthy Rich” in a giant font. The U.S. cover is aggressively boring.


Both are bold, but I prefer the U.S. cover. The burnt tablecloth is a more original image than the lobster.


I suspect I may be in the minority here, but I prefer the U.S. cover which seems to bank on the Lahiri name, rather than the U.K., edition which seems to telegraph the subcontinental content.


Neither of these seems to be exerting much effort to break out of the Western-genre tradition, but the U.S. version’s painterly affect at least gives it a little intrigue.


At first glance, both of these appear to be going for the creative use of classic Asian motifs, but the British cover is actually pretty wild, using something called “Blippar technology” to produce an animated effect when you look at it with a smartphone. So, points for innovation in book cover design.


Both of these are pretty great, but I love the U.S. cover. It’s clever to have a YA book with a cover that looks drawn by the hand of a precocious teen. It kind of reminds me of the similar design philosophy of the 2007 movie Juno.


Drawings inspired by vintage botany texts must be in this year. Here we have two different versions of the same idea, but the U.S. take is more lush and interesting.


Atkinson is a superstar in the U.K. (as opposed to merely having legions of devoted fans in the U.S.) so that may account for the foregrounding of her name on the U.K. cover. Regardless, the U.S. look is far more intriguing.


The Flamethrowers unaccountably didn’t get a Tournament bid, but it should have, so we’ll include it here, especially because it’s a great example of some seriously bold cover design going on on both sides of the pond.

Before They Were Notable: 2013

This year’s New York Times Notable Books of the Year list is out. At 100 titles, the list is more of a catalog of the noteworthy than a distinction. Sticking with the fiction exclusively, it appears that we touched upon a few of these books as well:

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates (A Virtuoso at Work: Joyce Carol Oates Turns 75)
All That Is by James Salter (All You Have Is What You Remember: The Millions Interviews James Salter, James Salter’s All That Is: From Dream to Reality)
The Circle by Dave Eggers (A Little Bit Beta: On Dave Eggers’s The Circle)
The Color Master by Aimee Bender (Childish Things: Aimee Bender’s The Color Master)
The Dinner by Herman Koch (After The Dinner: A Round Up of Newly Translated Dutch Fiction)
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem (Queens As a Metaphor for the World: On Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens)
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King (Everything I Know About America I Learned from Stephen King)
The End of the Point by Elizabeth Graver (The Life that Develops In-Between: On Elizabeth Graver’s The End of the Point)
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (Rachel Kushner Is Well On Her Way to Huges)
A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel (The Chemistry between Fiction and Reality: The Millions Interviews Ramona Ausubel, a Millions contributor)
Half The Kingdom by Lore Segal (The Smile in the Bone: Lore Segal’s Half The Kingdom)
The Infatuations by Javier Marías (The Darkness is Deep Indeed: On Javier Marías’s The Infatuations)
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer (Sing It, Sister! On Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton (When the Stars Align: On Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries)
MaddAdam by Margaret Atwood (The Past is What Matters: On Margaret Atwood’s Vision of the Future)
A Marker to Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik (Something Stark and Essential: On Alexander Maksik’s A Marker to Measure Drift)
Schroder by Amity Gaige (Living a Lie: The Millions Interviews Amity Gaige)
The Son by Philipp Meyer (The Last of the Comanches: Philipp Meyer’s The Son, Delusion is Crucial: The Millions Interviews Philipp Meyer)
Tenth of December by George Saunders (George Saunders and the Question of Greatness)
Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis (Peeling Back the Oprah Seal: Ayana Mathis’s Twelve Tribes of Hattie)
Woke Up Lonely by Fiona Maazel (Alienation for Two: Fiona Maazel’s Woke Up Lonely, a Millions contributor)

The Best Books of the Year (2013)

Amazon released their annual Best Books of the Year: Top 100 in Print list today (as well as a free and helpful Reader’s Guide), and numerous Millions favorites made the cut. Both George Saunders’s Tenth of December and Philipp Meyer’s The Son cracked the top 10. We reviewed both here and here, respectively. Other notable books boasting extensive Millions coverage include Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings (review), George Packer’s The Unwinding (review), Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries (review), Dave Eggers’s The Circle (review), James Salter’s All That Is (review), Karen Russell’s Vampires in the Lemon Grove (interview), Stuart Nadler’s Wise Men (review),  Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic (review), and Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary (review). Meanwhile, the top spot belongs to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch.

Real Grit

At the LARB, Anne Trubek quotes Lionel Trilling in a review of The Son and American Rust, the two books published thus far by New Yorker 20 Under 40 alum Phillipp Meyer. “In the American metaphysic,” Trilling wrote in his essay “Reality in America,” “reality is always material reality, hard, resistant, unformed, impenetrable, and unpleasant.” Those of you who read our pieces on both books may be able to guess why the quote is relevant.

The Last of the Comanches: Philipp Meyer’s The Son

The idea that Europeans discovered a pristine wilderness when they arrived in the New World, sparsely populated by loose bands of natives who lived lightly on the land in relative harmony with one another, has been waning for more than a decade—and for good reason.

In 2005, Charles C. Mann’s best-selling book, 1491, popularized a revisionist theory that the Western Hemisphere before Columbus was teeming with Indian societies many times larger and more sophisticated—and older—than previously thought, and that these indigenous peoples radically shaped the land and changed it to suit their purposes. The vast herds of buffalo that roamed the Great Plains, for example, were essentially a managed livestock. Indian fire cleared the expanse of prairie in the middle of the continent, “which Native Americans transformed into a prodigious game farm.” Contrary to the conventional wisdom, which is still taught in most schools, the inhabitants of the Americas “were so successful at imposing their will on the landscape that in 1492 Columbus set foot in a hemisphere thoroughly marked by humankind.”

As for the Native Americans themselves, Mann argued (with the support of a growing corpus of new scholarship) that they were weakened and eventually wiped out not by European guns, but by European diseases. Typhus, influenza, diphtheria and measles tore through Indian societies, often years ahead of European explorers and colonists themselves, like weapons they “could not control and did not even know they had.”

None was worse than smallpox. In the late 18th century, writes Mann, the Hopi Indians of the southern plains “were constantly under attack by the Nermernuh (or Nememe), a fluid collection of hunting bands known today as the Comanche (the name, awarded by an enemy group, means ‘people who fight us all the time’).” The Comanche had driven the Hopi and Apache out of the plains and were planning to do the same to encroaching European settlers when a smallpox epidemic hit and the raiding stopped for 18 months. The disease decimated the Comanche, and by the late 19th century their numbers in Texas and New Mexico had dwindled to the thousands.

Philip Meyer’s new novel, The Son, subscribes to this theory of Native American societies and leverages it to explore the American creation myth. The book, a sprawling, meticulously researched epic tale set in southern Texas, follows three characters spanning five generations of the McCullough family. It opens with an account taken from a 1936 WPA recording of the family patriarch, Eli McCullough, whose life story encompasses Meyer’s theme:

Having been trounced by the aboriginals, the Mexican government devised a desperate plan to settle Texas. Any man, of any nation, willing to move east of the Sabine River would receive four thousand acres of free land. The fine print was written in blood. The Comanche philosophy toward outsiders was nearly papal in its thoroughness: torture and kill the men, rape and kill the women, take the children for slaves or adoption. Few from the ancient countries of Europe took the Mexicans up on their offer. In fact, no one came at all. Except the Americans. They flooded in. They had women and children to spare and to him that overcometh, I giveth to eat of the tree of life.

Eli, the first child born in the newly-created Republic of Texas, is taken captive by the Comanche at age thirteen. His family is killed, horrifically, in the raid and he is taken as a slave—a common occurrence in Texas at the time, by Meyer’s telling. Eventually, the tribe adopts him and he becomes a warrior, riding with his erstwhile captors on raids against Mexicans and white settlers.

A few years later he leaves not by choice, but because the tribe is decimated by smallpox. Being immune, he is among the few who survive. While digging their graves he finds a drinking cup made of pottery and, digging deeper, unearths the corner of a stone wall. Eli realizes he has “come upon the remains of some ancient tribe that had lived in towns or cities, a tribe so long extinct no one remembered they had ever lived.” This thought gives him comfort because it makes his dying Comanche tribe “seem very young; they were young and there was still hope.”

He returns to white civilization and in time becomes a Texas Ranger, hunting Indians—including Comanche—up and down the frontier. When the Civil War breaks out he’s put in command of a band of Cherokees that enlists with the Confederacy, and so goes back to hunting and killing whites. His world is blood-drenched and brutal, and although the lines between cultures and races may be blurred for him, Eli’s one constant is violence. He takes what he must, kills those who stand in his way, and feels no remorse for doing so. All men, in his view, survive by theft and murder. He first learns this not from white people but from the Comanche chief who adopts him, whose world is a place where “you only get rich by taking things from other people.” What puzzles the chief is that most white people don’t admit to themselves what they’re doing, and are surprised when you kill them. “Me, when I steal something, I expect the person will try to kill me, and I know the song I will sing when I die.”

Meyer’s Indians are not quiet, noble, Hollywood natives whose idyllic existence was shattered by appearance of the white man. They are warriors who live in a state of constant war. “Of course we are not stupid, the land did not always belong to the Comanche,” Eli’s chief tells him. “Many years ago it was Tonkawa land, but we liked it, so we killed the Tonkawa and took it from them.” When Eli must make a living after the war, he does so by rounding up as many wild cattle as he can—taking what is there for any man willing to take it. Capturing and branding the animals was hard work, but it was just as hard to keep them from being stolen: “There was always a neighbor who found it more enjoyable to spend that same year grinning up at the sun; all he had to do was come into your pastures one night with ten of his boon companions, where, in a few hours, he could take your entire year’s income and make it his.”

The other two characters Meyer follows, Eli’s son Peter and his great granddaughter Jeannie, carry the McCulloughs through the 20th century. Peter is haunted by the family’s history of violence, and Jeannie becomes the sole, stoic inheritor of the family fortune, founded on cattle and vastly expanded by the discovery of oil. But next to Eli they seem unimportant and flimsy. Their purpose, in the end, is to complete Meyer’s portrait of Eli, to give his world context by connecting it to ours, and to help the reader grapple with the questions that arise again and again throughout the narrative: who wiped out whom, and who is descended from whom, and what is the difference between the two?

On the ranch they had found points from both the Clovis and the Folsom. For the eight thousand years between the Folsom and the Spanish, no one knew what happened; there had been people here the whole time, but no one knew what they were called. Though right before the Spanish came there were the Mogollon and when the Spanish came there were the Suma, Jumano, Manso, La Junta, Concho and Chisos and Toboso, Ocana and Cacaxtle, the Coahuiltecans, Comecrudo… but whether they had wiped out the Mogollon or were descended from them, no one knew. They were all wiped out by the Apache. Who were in turn wiped out, in Texas anyway, by the Comanche. Who were in turn wiped out by the Americans.

Meyer’s aim is not to condemn white settlers or the founders of the Republic of Texas, any more than he seeks to condemn the Comanche or the Mexicans. But neither does he defend them, and everyone, in his telling, comes away with blood on their hands. No one is innocent of outright theft and cold-blooded murder, and the message seems to be that if we are to have an American creation myth, it should be written in the blood of the massacred.

It’s true, there is ample blood and blame to go around in the story of the American West. And yet there is something overwrought about this thesis, something not quite believable, and it shows in the seams of the novel—the way Meyer dwells overmuch on this or that detail, the way too many members of the McCullough family meet a violent or premature death, the way coincidences woven into the plot begin to take on a cinematic aspect. One senses important things are being left out, that there is more to be said about all this history than is being said, that there is more we ought to be thinking about. And yet one is nevertheless swept up in the realism of Meyer’s prose and the pathos of his story.

In the 1992 film adaptation of James Fennimore Cooper’s epic novel, Last of the Mohicans, Daniel Day-Lewis is said to have trained rigorously for his role as Nathaniel Hawkeye, a white man raised by Indians. The actor reportedly learned how to live off the land, camping and fishing, hunting with a muzzle-loading rifle he carried with him at all times. He even learned to skin animals.

Meyer did something similar for The Son. He learned to track animals at a wilderness school, spent a month in combat training with a private military firm, slept outside in southern Texas to experience all the sensations of native life. To complete his training, the author learned to hunt deer with a bow and arrow, and supposedly drank a cup of blood from a Buffalo he shot on a ranch in West Texas.

Like Day-Lewis, Meyer gives a rousing performance. The chapters devoted to Eli are enthralling and authoritative. One unforgettable passage describes, in Melvillian detail, the process of killing and butchering a buffalo:

The stomach was removed, the grass squeezed from it and the remaining juice drunk immediately as a tonic, or dabbed onto the face by those who had boils or other skin problems. The contents of the intestines were squeezed out between the fingers and the intestines themselves were either broiled or eaten raw.

It is, like the rest of the book, exceedingly well-written. But about half way through something begins to happen in this novel that is best explained by Annie Dillard in her slim collection, The Writing Life: “You can describe beautiful faces, car chases, or valleys full of Indians on horseback until you run out of words, and you will not approach the movies’ spectacle. Novels written with film contracts in mind have a faint but unmistakable, and ruinous, odor… Such books seem uneasy being books; they seem eager to fling off their disguises and jump onto screens.”

That is not to say Meyer had a film contract in mind while writing The Son (although it would come as no surprise if the rights had already been optioned) only that his cinematic approach, with all its gore and gunfights, crowds out more nuanced ways of thinking about our creation myth and the trouble with human nature. That is, to understand the meaning of our bloody history requires more than simply accepting Meyer’s epigraph, quoted from Edward Gibbon, that “the vicissitudes of fortune, which spares neither man nor the proudest of his work… buries empires and cities in a common grave.”

The truth is a good deal more complicated than that, and Meyer might have done better to cite Gibbon not on the immutability of fate, but on the prodigious task of rightly interpreting history: “The theologian may indulge the pleasing task of describing Religion as she descended from Heaven, arrayed in her native purity. A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon Earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings.”

Delusion is Crucial: The Millions Interviews Philipp Meyer

Out this month, Philipp Meyer’s second novel, The Son, is equal parts generational epic and ruthlessly unsentimental creation myth. Tracing the ascendency of a Texas family begat by Eli McCullough, a man kidnapped in his boyhood and raised by his Comanche captors, the only constant in the lives of his descendants, through decades of frontier poverty to eventual oil-baron opulence, is violence. I spoke to Meyer in his New York apartment.

The Millions: Before starting American Rust, you wrote a few novels that were never published.

Philipp Meyer: Yeah, I wrote one, started in my undergrad and finished it my first year. Quickly realized it was a turd. Then I began writing a second book, which kind gave me the balls to leave this banking job. I was unreasonably confident. I had been reading about all these young writers who were making it, and so I thought, “Shit, if they’re doing it, I can too,” which, you know, was completely delusional. Once I finished that book, I had run out of the money, moved back in with my parents, was working these blue collar jobs. I applied to grad schools and got turned down by all of them. That was the most dark and depressed period I’ve had. That was around early ‘04, and by September ‘04, I had written maybe two stories that were working, and sent them off to some magazines. When I got a call from the Iowa Review, they told me right away that they were taking my piece. I actually broke down and cried for a few hours after they called. It’s been a consistent climb from that moment.

TM: Now that you’re established, do you feel like you write for the same reasons now as you did when you were a struggling, unpublished author?

PM: Yeah, nothing’s changed. If I had one worry, it’s that when you start getting told “Yes” constantly—and you see this in all great artists—you get worse. Maybe you run out of juice. I don’t think you do; I think your standards just drop with time. For now, there’s no doubt in my mind about my standards: I’m harder on my own work than anyone else on earth is. When this book sold in June of ’11, there was a huge bidding war. Most people I talked to were like, “I know it needs work, but not too much. Maybe a month or two.” Meanwhile, I’m thinking it needs a year of work, but I didn’t want to fuck anything up. So I sold it thinking it had another year left of work on it. I was wrong. It had eighteen months. I did three more passes on the book, complete rewrites. I worked on it full time non-stop, and that’s the final version.

TM: When you’re writing just for yourself, you’re filled with ambitions and aspirations that are private and intimate and wildly delusional. But when anyone can read your work, and tells you what they think about it, do you internalize their comments as you start writing the next book?

PM: You fight that – tooth and nail. It’s usually just when you’re most unsure and insecure about the work that those voices of doubt get amplified. I remember my roommate back at Michener had won this enormous literary prize the first year we were there. It was like $90 grand. I wasn’t even a finalist, and that summer, I kept reading his book that had won this prize, comparing it to mine, reading the book, comparing it to mine. Finally, when I was at an artists colony, I was fucking miserable. I told this person there what was happening, and she said, “Throw that thing away immediately. You can’t even think about him. You have to flush this out of your mind. Throw it away. Really throw it away.” I did, and she was right. I felt better immediately.

MFA workshops can be really destructive for that. There was a lady I was in workshop with – she has a really big book out –she used to take tranquilizers before workshop. And I developed my own way to work around them: people would be talking, and I would have a pad in front of me, and I’d be making grocery lists, a list of hunting gear I needed for some hunting trip, and I’d look like I was writing – “Oh, yeah, oh great” –because I didn’t want to hurt people’s feelings, but I’d really be working on something else, something mundane that really pulls your mind out of it. I did that constantly.

Even early on when I was writing this book, I was feeling unsure of it, wondering, “Well, what’s Michiko Kakutani going to think of this?” But then as the book developed and I understood what it’s actually about, those voices went away. It’s when you’re feeling the most lost and you’re feeling the most need for approval that’s when you can’t show shit to anyone. When you most need to show it to someone because you need to be told it’s good and that you’re a genius, you can never fucking show it to anyone. Now, that’s very clear to me.

TM: Eli says, “There’s no point being a small man.” Once you reach that point where you’re happy with the work, you know it’s good, are you already thinking about legacy?

PM: Yeah, of course. I was thinking about legacy when I sucked as well. Salman Rushdie gave a talk to my class at Michener. It was great because he had two failed novels. He said, “Of course I thought my early works were works of genius. And they sucked.” I think that delusion is crucial.

TM: Martin, the only writer in The Son, a young poet, after acting a coward for his entire appearance in the book, is suddenly emboldened in the face of death: he accepts death standing. The last thing he speaks about before being carried off to die are all the poems he’ll now never be able to write. Is that what he’s thinking about as he’s being killed? What is it about that thought that gives him courage?

PM: Yeah. Of course this guy knew he was going to die for a long time, so he’s gone to that place from his disconnection of reality and pure ego. Though I remember once when I was on this plane that lost power—this is when I was working on my second novel—and the engine noise just stopped. We were plummeting. The stewardess comes on and says, “We can’t help you. Stay in your seats.” Everyone looks around – this is right after 9/11, a year after – and everyone’s getting their cellphones out cause they’re like, “Oh shit. This is actually it.” I just remember watching the ground get closer and closer and closer.  I was sitting next to my then-fiancée, but all thought was, “Oh my God, I haven’t finished my book; I haven’t finished my book.” It felt so unfair. I wasn’t even thinking about this woman next to me.

Ten years ago, I thought that this book was my way into immortality. A buddy of mine who’s had a pretty huge, fucking beautiful successful book—we were drunk and talking a couple of years ago, and he said, “Fuck all man, you live forever because of these things.” For some reason, I’ve stopped thinking that way now. At some point all literary works begin to lose relevance. Something comes along that’s better; it captures the vernacular or the method of storytelling is better, and it will last a hundred, two hundred, five hundred years.

TM: In one of the most disturbing scenes in the book, a white buffalo poacher is kidnapped by the same band of Comanches and is publically tortured in their camp, much to the delight of everyone but Eli. Does his compassion indicate that he’s a better person than the rest of his tribe, or simply that he’s been schooled in different notions of right and wrong? Can one locate a moral compass of any kind in The Son?

PM: Hopefully. I wrote that scene the way I did because that is the way that Eli would react. But how much of that is Eli’s “whiteness”? To all of these people the buffalo poacher is the Other, he’s pure enemy. But to Eli, he can’t be. There’s a much later scene in Peter’s section, which I removed probably because it was a too gratuitous, where Eli hangs a guy. (This is when Eli is an old man.) Eli basically does the same thing [as the Comanches]. It’s something that both sides did.

If there’s a moral purpose to the book, it’s to put our history, the history of this country, into a context. We butchered and killed our way across the continent and took every inch of it by force, or bought it for seven bucks. But on the other hand, the Native American tribes in Texas, like all humans across the entire earth, butchered and conquered and attacked their weaker neighbors and took land. In Texas, the Apaches come in and wipe out all of the other native tribes except for a few. A hundred years later, the Comanches come and do the same thing to them. And if there’s any point to the book, in the sense of having a moral direction, it’s to contextualize our creation myth.

TM: The most troubled characters are the ones most intimately tied to the land. Often they comfort themselves by naming local wildflowers, discerning animal tracks others had missed. Is there something more valuable in living in a place you’ve helped settle than living in, say, New York City?

PM: In theory no. But if you look at the narratives of captivities in the region, there were hundreds of thousands of Indian captivities along the frontier, and hundreds of thousands of Indian children forcibly raised in white society. One thing consistent across both those storylines is that modern Europeans folks who were taken into Indian captivity pre-puberty, often did not want to go back. On the other hand, the reverse is not true at all. Native American kids who were raised as white were almost always unhappy and often did want to go back to their tribe. No matter what the Indian tribes are and no matter what European group you’re talking about – Scotch, English, Swedish, German – it’s always the same: the people who are going and connecting with the land don’t want to come back, and people who are forced to live in structured modern society do want to go back.

TM: What do you think of American fiction today? What’s the state of things?

PM: I think this is a very, very, very good time for fiction. As writers, we’re always reacting against the artistic movements or our forefathers. The one we’re coming out of right now is hardcore, post-modern deconstructionist stuff. It is a useful tool in the toolbox, but as a way of expressing human life, human relations, the human condition, it is the most narrow and awful movement that has ever fucking existed. None of that stuff moves me. The artistic movement that best reflected human existence were the Modernists, and unfortunately, all the post-modernists were reacting against Woolf and Hemingway and fucking Joyce. I’m so happy to be comparing my stuff to Barth and Gass and Pynchon. Fucking bring it on!

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