Here is a secret about writers, or at least most writers I know, including me: we don’t like to read our published work. Conversations I’ve had over the years with author friends have tended to confirm my own feelings on the matter—namely, that it is very nice and fortunate and rewarding to get something published, but you don’t ever especially want to read it again. One reason for this is the fact that, by the time you’ve finished revising, copyediting, and proofreading a book, you have already reread it effectively a hundred million times before publication. Another reason: there is something deeply nerve-wracking about the fact of the thing you’ve written, mutable for so long, now being fixed and frozen forever, with no possibility of rewriting whatever mistakes you might—and will—find upon rereading. Among the countless, loving tributes in the wake of her recent death, one memorable Toni Morrison anecdote recounted her habit of taking a red pencil to her published works as she read from them; Toni Morrison, of course, was one of the few authors who might have reasonably expected reprintings and possible future opportunities for correcting errata. Toni Morrison was Toni Morrison.
The rest of us have to live with the reality of what we’ve written and managed to get out in the world, and so there’s a self-protective instinct to look away from it. But when the case of author’s copies of my new novel, The Hotel Neversink, arrived—and with it, the usual reticence to crack one open—I found myself wondering about this impulse: is it good? Maybe not. A writer could go through their whole life accumulating work and publications without ever, in earnest, going back and looking at what they’ve done with a reader’s eye. And if you never revisit your old work, you may never fully understand how, or if, you’ve changed as an artist and person. With a sense of great reluctance and apprehension, I therefore decided to sit down and fully reread my first novel.
The novel in question is The Grand Tour, which I wrote from 2013 to 2014, while I was in graduate school at Cornell. I revised it over the following year, during which time I was lucky enough for it sell to Doubleday, which published it almost exactly three years ago, in August, 2016. For what it’s worth, it received good reviews from outlets like Kirkus and Publishers Weekly, and was generally well-received by readers, although not readers who were expecting an uplifting read. One of the highlights of publication came in the form of a hostile email from a very old woman telling me how much she hated my main character, Richard. And she wasn’t wrong to hate him. Richard is quite hateable. In an era of nice characters, and an ever-increasing expectation of “relatability” from readers, The Grand Tour features the kind of anti-heroic ’60s/’70s protagonist sometimes played in films by Jack Nicholson, the kind who no longer curries any cultural favor whatsoever.
But that’s the point of Richard Lazar: he doesn’t curry any favor in his fictional world, either. He is washed-up and alcoholic and socially radioactive, having lived in the desert for ten years following the collapse of his second marriage. When he receives word that his Vietnam memoir has grazed the bestseller list, he is uniquely unprepared to capitalize on this fleeting moment of success. Nonetheless, his publisher trundles him out on a promotional tour, where he meets a young fan named Vance, providing the basis for what is essentially a coming-of-age road novel, (a bildungsroadman?).
The book’s first chapter sets the tone. Richard comes to after blacking out on a flight, is rude to a flight attendant and hostile to Vance, who meets him at the airport with a homemade sign. He proceeds to get drunk before the reading, do a predictably bad job, get drunker at the faculty dinner, and hit on the Dean’s wife. As he’s driven back to his hotel room by the disillusioned Vance, he tells the kid not to bother with writing.
I knew Richard sucked, but this time around, I found myself disliking him a lot more than I did while writing or revising the novel. Richard is a version of the Unhappy White Guy protagonists I grew up reading, and that I attempted to classify in this essay. His specific lineage is the hard-drinking hard-luck variety found in books by the Southern writers I loved in my twenties: Messrs Hannah, Brown, and Crews—Barry, Larry, and Harry. Ultra-masculine, drunk and doomed, these writers and their antiheroes exerted an outsized influence on The Grand Tour. I suppose it speaks well of my personal growth that I’m less (read: not) enamored with this type of character the way I was seven years ago. In a way, this disenchantment feels healthy and generally axiomatic: books take a long time to write and publish, and perhaps they should always feel a little dusty and outmoded by the time they come out.
To the novel’s credit, I think, it is aware of Richard’s awfulness, and, to an extent, Vance’s. It is not the kind of book that misjudges its protagonist, although it might misjudge the extent to which, for a reader, the comedy of complete assholishness can justify having to spend 300 pages with a complete asshole. That said, this time around, I still found it to be a pretty funny book with lots of amusing passages, for instance this one, describing Richard’s purchase of a house in foreclosure after the 2008 real estate bubble:
[His advance] was enough, as it turned out, to buy a nearby house in foreclosure, in a superexurban neighborhood called The Bluffs. There was no bluff visible in the landscape, so perhaps the name referred to the cavalier attitude local banks and homeowners had taken toward the adjustable-rate mortgages that subsequently emptied the neighborhood. It turned out they were giving the things away—all you had to do was show up at auction with a roll of quarters and a ballpoint pen.
Horrible or not, Richard is a successfully drawn character, if one with many problematic antecedents. Vance is drawn convincingly, as well, although his chapters feel slightly less successful to me, simply for the fact that he’s a less funny character. He’s nineteen, stuck at home, depressed and painfully earnest—in other words, the perfect earnest foil for Richard’s cynical lout. This odd couple set-up does feel formulaic, although it also works, as formulas tend to do. Formulaic, as well, though less successfully so, are a clutch of chapters representing Richard’s memoir in the book. On a reread, the appearance of these Vietnam chapters felt somewhat unwelcome to me, and not just because of being typeset in italics. They lean a little too heavily on skin-deep source material like Full Metal Jacket and The Things They Carried. Here comes the gregarious, rebellious grunt. There goes the gruff sergeant and patrician lieutenant. I did do some actual research about troop movements and munitions and local geography, but the whole thing feels a bit stale, though maybe any Vietnam story published in 2016 would.
What does not feel stale at all this time around is the introduction of a third perspective, Richard’s estranged daughter, Cindy, a casino croupier and malcontent, who takes over the middle third of the book. On this read, Cindy strikes me as the most successful aspect of The Grand Tour. She’s the most original character, and she structurally provides respite from the bad male behavior that otherwise dominates the proceedings. Richard and Vance are, after all, two sides of the same coin, i.e. the coin of male ego and its attendant problems. That Vance’s ego is subdued and wounded makes it no less irritating.
The novel’s awareness of these men as problematic and tiresome, and the section in which Cindy more or less destroys them—Vance sexually, Richard emotionally—elevates (I hope) the book above similar novels that simply find their male hero’s antics fascinating. Cindy makes her gleeful exit, disappearing into a street fair crowd, in one of the novel’s most memorable passages:
The Friday-night crowd swelled around her as she neared downtown—in front of the façade of a large art deco building, a stage was set up on which a bunch of paunchy white dudes mangled “Whipping Post.” People pushed past and she rejoiced in it, becoming part of the throng, the multitude … she wondered what someone watching her from above, looking at her face, might think. Would they know anything, be able to divine something about her, her life, or her mistakes? No. No one knows anything about anyone, she thought, and for the second time that day was struck by the feeling that she could start over—that nothing, in fact, would be easier. Denver, why not? She dragged her suitcase into the hot jostle, for the moment immensely pleased.
The remainder of the novel (SPOILER) finds Vance getting sent to Riker’s Island (!) and all of Richard’s proverbial chickens coming home to roost. A lot happens in these last chapters, probably too much. This is, I think, an unavoidable function or symptom of the book itself trying to do too much. One thing that struck me on this reading is just how much there is going on. It’s a common feature of the debut novel, in which an author takes decades of reading and thinking about novels and compresses it all into their first try, as though it will also be their last. Some of it works here, and some of it doesn’t. If I were to give critical advice to the person who wrote this, I might tell him to think about losing at least one of the component parts—maybe the Vietnam sections—and to also not feel like he has to conclude all of the proceedings with quite such a bang. The tour, I might suggest, could end on a more muted note. The final pages do manage this quietness, and it’s a relief after the sound and fury that precede them.
All of which is to say, I think it’s… pretty good? It’s entertaining and funny, and the writing is solid and sometimes excellent. That sounds like an unreliable claim, given my obvious bias, but would it convince a reader of my objectivity if I also say that I found the book to be weirdly old-fashioned and in certain places very contrived? Ultimately, it’s an uneven novel held together by its humor and prose. I believe if I hadn’t written The Grand Tour and had just happened across it, I would have finished and enjoyed it, with reservations. And if I’d written a review, I might have been generous with this first-time author, adding to everything I’ve said here that I looked forward to what he comes up with next.
Image credit: Unsplash/Rey Seven.
Over the course of several books, Juliet Escoria has shown a remarkable ability to portray uncomfortable situations and elicit visceral emotions. Her audacious debut novel, Juliet the Maniac, vividly portrays a teenage girl caught in a downward spiral of mental illness and self-destruction. It’s rightfully collected accolades from across the literary map: Publishers Weekly called it “searing and intimate” and NPR praised it as “a nightmare journal of the space between girlhood and womanhood.” The New York Times noted that “Juliet’s level of general intensity can make Martin Amis characters read like prudes.”
It’s easy to get swept up in the work’s raw immediacy and overlook Escoria’s prodigious literary skills. She draws on autofiction techniques, but bends them to her own needs. Among the drugs, sex, and suicide attempts, she carefully modulates the tone so there are also moments of connection and tenderness.
Escoria and I talked about the novel for several hours online. I started by asking her about one of the book’s most important elements, whose sophistication might be easy to miss.
The Millions: One of the things I admire most about Juliet the Maniac is its unusual and inventive structure, the short chapters that sometimes only last a few sentences. What led you to that form?
Juliet Escoria: This was my third attempt at the book. The two earlier versions were much more traditional in form and structure, but they didn’t work. I decided that this time I would let the book do what it seemed to want to do, and it seemed to want to be more fragmented. Later, when I had some material and was starting to evaluate what I had come up with, it seemed to make perfect sense, in terms of the content—mental illness is a choppy, fragmented experience.
This is generally how I work: just let the writing do whatever it seems it wants to do, and then later take a step back and evaluate it, trying to figure out if what I did makes sense.
I also just like lots of white space on a page, both as a reader and a writer. It’s aesthetically more pleasing to me, and I think it helps the reader not get so distracted by their phones or whatever.
TM: What inspired you to use the drawings, letters, lab reports, notes, etc. that appear throughout the novel? Were those documents part of the earlier versions or something that came later?
JE: They came with this third version, and were something that I added early on.
I had gone through my parents’ old folders as “research,” and there were my old report cards, test scores, doctor reports, etc., and it felt very much like “evidence,” like solid proof that this version of myself had indeed existed. This seemed like an interesting feeling to have, like a splitting of the self, which was something I wanted to try and replicate for the reader.
Again, it was an instinctual decision, which I kept in because I thought it added another layer to the story.
TM: I love all the documents. Did you have to convince the publisher to keep them in?
JE: I knew that the images would be a strike against the book when it came time to find a publisher, because for whatever stupid reason, publishers don’t like images (maybe because they’re a pain to format?). I had argued to keep them in when working on the manuscript with my agent, and the more I thought about it, the more I knew the book absolutely needed the images. So that was the main question I had when I initially got on the phone with Melville: Will you let me keep the images? My editor promised I would.
TM: As you were going through your parents’ folders, were there any things you found about your younger self that you’d remembered incorrectly or forgotten entirely?
JE: I was under the impression that I had a 504 as a teenager, and not an IEP (Individualized Education Plan). To explain the jargon, they’re both accommodations for students with disabilities. A 504 is more informal than an IEP, while an IEP designates the student as needing special educational services. But it turned out I was wrong, I had an IEP, and it was for being EMOTIONALLY DISTURBED, on my IEP in big, bold, capitalized letters, just like the fictional IEP in the book. That was shocking to read, that I’d been officially labeled by the school district as EMOTIONALLY DISTURBED.
It was also shocking to see the quick downturn in my grades, from mostly A’s, to C’s and F’s when my bipolar symptoms started to manifest.
TM: The novel clearly draws a lot of energy from your real life experiences. The most obvious way it signals this is that the narrator shares your name—but it’s your pen name. Where you ever tempted to give the narrator your real one?
JE: Yes, I was actually! That was the initial draft of the book—the character was named Julia J*ckson, my real name—asterisk because while my name isn’t a secret, I like to keep my teaching self separate from my writing self, because I have a lot of conservative students. I thought it was funny, to give a fictional character my real name, and to give myself a fictional name. But when I came up with the title for the book, it made me uncomfortable to call it Julia the Maniac. For whatever reason, using my teenage struggles with mental illness as a basis for a book was fine, yet having my real name on the cover seemed too intimate. It doesn’t make any sense, but emotions are often illogical.
TM: Did you ever conceive of the book as a memoir or was it always going to be a novel?
JE: I never seriously considered it as a memoir, for two main reasons. One, I don’t like memoirs as much as I like novels, and, two, I enjoy writing a lot more when I am telling myself I am writing fiction, as opposed to nonfiction. I like the freedom that comes from being able to make stuff up. I also feel like “memoir” implies that there is some sort of lesson learned, and I didn’t want the book to have a lesson.
There have been times I wished I had been more okay with writing this story as a memoir, because I have a feeling it would have been easier to market and sell.
TM: This book had a long road to publication. Can you talk some about that?
JE: Part of it was my agent switched agencies right when I finished up the manuscript, so that added a couple month delay. Then my original editor at Melville left the business, so that added another month or two.
But it was not exactly an easy sell. I didn’t think it would be, given all the different elements of the book that could be taken as “experimental,” but it still sucked when I was going through it.
The first round was pretty much exclusively big publishers. I was rejected by most of them, and then we pulled it back from the remaining handful because I wanted to do more edits. I had realized that I needed to lop off a lot of the beginning—my idea had been that I would show the slow progression from normal teenager to mentally-ill teenager, but I realized that was just one idea too many. I spent a few more months doing edits, and then we sent it out again. This time, I had some interest fairly quickly.
I was used to the efficiency that happens with micro presses, so the waiting that comes with a larger publisher made me really impatient. Overall, though, I’m glad for all the time, because it meant I had the chance to examine each element of the book.
TM: It’s amazing to me how so many books publishers deem “experimental” are often experienced by readers as more immediate, involving, and immersive. That’s certainly how this read to me. And I’ve been glad that so many reviewers agree.
JE: I didn’t want to see the feedback from the editors because I knew it would just make me annoyed, but from what my agent did share with me, it seemed like they had issues with the episodic nature of the book, which was an important element to me.
TM: Juliet’s problems aren’t generated by outside forces—abusive parents or boyfriends, drug addiction, etc.—but by her own psychological issues. This is really powerful, but I imagine it’s also much harder to portray in a dramatic way. Were there parts of her struggle that were particularly difficult to get across?
JE: I think one of my strengths as a writer is description, so I knew I had to take my time and get the descriptions of her hallucinations and delusions just right. That was key to me, in terms of conveying exactly what it’s like to be a teenager who has a very normal, cushy life but is suddenly overcome by a mental illness.
In popular culture, a lot of times mental illness and/or addiction narratives are presented as: cause, effect, consequence, remedy. For me, this linear presentation was a lie. You have a normal day, and then a completely warped one. Certain events or symptoms come out of nowhere. You do something that advances your “recovery,” and then you slide back. An episodic structure seemed essential to convey this.
TM: As you were writing this, were there any books or films that served as inspiration or you felt were kindred works of art?
JE: I felt like I was directly addressing The Bell Jar throughout the entire process of writing the book, which I read for the first time as a teenager and has always meant a lot to me. After I’d written a first draft, I read The Things They Carried, and really related to what Tim O’Brien had written about the idea of emotional truth. I read Promising Young Women by Suzanne Scanlon after I’d finished the manuscript, but they have a lot in common—it’s similar subject matter, and both books are fragmentary. And I didn’t read Sketchtasy by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore until after the book was entirely done, but I think there’s a lot of similarities there, too,
Mostly, though, writing this book felt reactionary—trying to correct what I saw as things that were done “wrong” in other books and movies I’d read and watched. Silver Linings Playbook, for example—I hate that movie. It feels like a big dumb cutesy lie to me.
One thing filmmakers have going for them that writers don’t is the ability to create a certain atmosphere with color palettes, lighting, and camera angles. I at least tried to create something atmospheric with the book, taking notes from directors like Harmony Korine, Nicolas Winding Refn, Andrea Arnold, and Josephine Decker.
TM: I really appreciated the “Letters from Future” in the novel that address young Juliet and the unexpected perspectives they offer. There’s a nice sense of the selves being split, as you mentioned before, and that we’re different people at different times in our lives. If you could address your self when you started this book, is there anything about writing that you would want to share?
JE: I knew that writing a novel was hard, but I didn’t fully grasp HOW hard, and all the different ways that it is hard. Based on what I experienced and what I’ve heard from friends, getting totally confused and frustrated and overwhelmed by the book is simply part of the process. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing anything wrong.
I also feel like I really stuck to my guns with my various odd choices with the book and I’m glad I did. But it was scary when I was going through it, so it would have been nice to have some sort of guarantee that I was doing the right thing by being so goddamn stubborn.
When, in the August 2015 issue of Harper’s, book critic Sam Sacks critiqued the state of contemporary war fiction in a review called “First Person Shooters,” the subtitle made his position clear: “What’s missing in contemporary war fiction.” Pay attention to that last bit. Sacks wasn’t asking a question, he was writing a prescription: Escape the “cul-de-sac of personal experience” or risk “settling into the patterns of complacency that smoothed the path to the Terror Wars in the first place.” However, if he had punctuated with a question mark, the answer would have been less hyperbolic, and a bit obvious: diversity.
This problem is not fresh to contemporary war literature. In the Spring 1997 issue of African American Review, Jeff Loeb cited alarming statistics from Sandra Wittman’s 1989 bibliography Writing About Vietnam: African-Americans accounted for just six of nearly 600 novels, four poetry collections, and four of almost 400 memoirs written about the Vietnam War. To sum up, African-Americans wrote roughly one percent of Vietnam’s literary record. By contrast, African-Americans made up 12.6 percent of the American force in Vietnam between 1965 and 1969.
Not much has changed since Wittman and Loeb first sounded the alarms. LaSalle University’s collection of Vietnam War multimedia—LaSalle and Texas Tech possess the most comprehensive collections I’m aware of—lists 8,053 entries, but categorizes only six under the subject matter search “African American Veteran Biography.” Just two are memoirs you can hold in your hands. Multimedia and Loeb’s essay comprise the rest of the entries. I used to think that the reason I could only point out one Vietnam book by a African-American vet—the poetry collection Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa—was due to my ignorance of what I imagined to be a wealth of African-American-produced war literature. The truth has proven far more uncomfortable.
In his critique, Sam Sacks can be forgiven for another thinly-veiled jab at MFA-produced writing and its effect on the literature of The Forever War, versus focusing on its lack of diversity. He’s a critic after all, forever tilting at the windmill of The Secret Sauce. Hell, I laud him for paying attention in the first place. Forever War literature rarely appears in widely circulated book reviews.  Nonetheless, the subject of identity is important ground to tread in any consideration of contemporary war literature; especially now, as identity-related brushfires have sprung up across the country.
A little research reveals that the genre came of age against a backdrop of identity-related controversy. Twelve years after Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese, Toni Morrison’s Beloved was up against Philip Roth and some guy named Larry for the 1987 National Book Award. When Paco’s Story, Larry Heinemann’s Vietnam War novel, was announced, the literati were flabbergasted. Michiko Kakutani began her column the next day with the breathless “What happened?” and 48 authors signed a letter in The New York Times Book Review that alleged something short of racism on the part of the National Book Award judges for passing Morrison over in favor of the white Larry Heinemann.
While its rare successes have been far less contentious, contemporary war literature since Vietnam hasn’t changed too much: mostly white and male. Under the categorization “Books: History: Military: Afghan War: Memoir,” Amazon spit a list of 177 back at me, a number which decreased by a handful after I ruled out the puzzling inclusions of The Letters of Virginia Woolf and a book by the 19th-century Frenchman Stendhal. So far as I could tell, there were 10 authors of color. Peruse the virtual stacks for a book about The Forever War, and the odds are solid that what ends up in your checkout cart will have been written by a white guy or gal.
Expanding an identity-based evaluation of contemporary war literature to gender provides some cause for optimism. But for every Rule Number Two, Heidi Squier Kraft’s Iraq memoir, there are a dozen memoirs, novels, and collections by male veterans. It’s a trend that extends to even the essays and reviews that consider war literature. In consult with Rutgers University Professor of English and retired Army Lt. Col. Peter Molin, I assembled a list of 17. It isn’t all-inclusive, but women have written only a fraction of them, and fewer of those women were veterans. If there is an empirical evaluation of readily available contemporary war writing, critical or creative, it’s hard to argue that it is not largely written by men.
In my experience, you have to go looking for work by women veterans, and all indications point to literary writers who are taking their time to perfect their craft through shorter work. An essay by Katherine Schifani, an Air Force veteran of Iraq, won literary journal The Iowa Review’s 2014 Jeff Sharlet Prize, and Marine Corps veteran Teresa Fazio’s short story “Float” won Consequence Magazine’s 2016 Fiction Prize. I know of at least five women veterans who are at work on their service-related memoirs, and most are around a decade removed from their time in the military. I look forward to the day I open their well-wrought books.
The lack of women’s veteran narratives might have something to do with what’s considered a “traditional” war story: the old blood-and-guts combat book. And despite women having engaged in combat during The Forever War, combat job specialties—infantry and special operations, namely— remained closed to women until 2016. Earlier this year, Task & Purpose broke the news that a woman was due to report to the storied 75th Ranger Regiment as the first female special operator in the history of the U.S. Department of Defense. It’s simply a matter of time until women like her pen memoirs of their war experiences; until an armchair historian thrills to the tales of a female Navy SEAL a la Chris Kyle’s American Sniper.
By contrast, plenty of Americans of color have served in combat specialties during The Forever War. So while the combat exclusion might explain the lack of women’s books, the reasoning falls short with regards to the lack of diverse narratives. As of 2015, the Department of Defense was 41 percent non-white. Expecting to see author demographics fall cleanly in line with such a statistic is a tad simple, but it’s fair to ask why so few veterans of color publish books.
Drew Pham, a Vietnamese American Army officer and Afghanistan combat vet, believes it’s a matter of “privilege and access.” In an email exchange, he wrote, “the arts are a luxury. If you aren’t raised with much exposure to that world, it seems like the distant domain of the social elite.” He noted that unlike many of his fellow officers, he “needed the Army to attend college.” In other words, if college is just something you do along your way to a commission in the service, then you might have come from a place that could afford to expose you to the arts. Conversely, if the only way you’re going to college is because you got a military scholarship, you come from a background of necessity. And while all writers, myself included, tend to think of our work as “necessary,”Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy is a pyramid for a reason.
Pham, now clear of the military and an editor of the online journal The Wrath-Bearing Tree, went on to say that the remedy is representation:
If marginal[ized] people don’t see themselves represented, then the literary world seems inaccessible to them. For my part, seeing another Vietnamese-American writer like Viet Thanh Nguyen win the Pulitzer made me think that I could make a life out of writing fiction. The veteran writing community is small and tight-knit, and as a community we have to make a concerted effort to lift up marginalized voices rather than reproduce the biases—however unintentional—that dominate society.
Mary Doyle, on the other hand, was told to “reflect the angst of being black” by her white MFA workshop cohorts, as she put it in a phone interview. “I couldn’t relate,” Doyle said, citing that trying to adopt the feedback gave her an inauthentic feeling. She ended up leaving her MFA program for financial reasons, but noted that her awareness of how she fit into white expectations of a black author began then. A black woman who enlisted in the Army Reserves in 1979, Doyle served 17 years in military public affairs before embarking on a 21-year-and-counting career as an Army civilian employee. During that time, she’s co-authored the memoirs of two black women veterans, and written a series of mystery novels featuring a black protagonist named Master Sgt. Lauren Harper. Doyle threw in the towel with mainstream publication after being pushed by agents and editors to better reflect “The Black Experience” in her writing, and now self-publishes.
Doyle seemed as puzzled as I over the lack of diversity in contemporary war literature. However, she was also quick to point out that the current political moment is
bound to generate words on the page in one way or another from people of color. I also think it will be the kind of thing publishers will find in their comfort zone…the racial divide, the conflict that comes from speaking out in the voice of the other. It’s what they always want and what they expect. So hopefully, the lack of diversity we see in military writing will get an injection of new voices…now that racism, white supremacy and all the other topics that go along with that are so prevalent…again.
This makes sense to me, a layman when it comes to the murky world of what books get published. But my gut warns me that even timely subject matter might not be enough. In 2015, Lee & Low, “the largest publisher of multicultural children’s books in the United States” according to their website, conducted a survey of the publishing industry based on data from eight review journals and 34 publishers. Including their own staff, Lee & Low sent out 13,237 surveys, and 3,415 returned complete. The data: 79 percent white, 88 percent straight, 92 percent non-disabled, 78 percent women. I’d like to have seen more data on the books published by some of the surveyed publishers just to get that last nail in the coffin, but selection bias seems firmly at play when it comes to race and books. And if it is, the odds will ever be against the veteran writer of color so long as the publishing industry continues to look like this.
Until conditions change, we’ll have to widen our gaze and do a little digging. Brian Castner, a veteran and author of two books of war nonfiction, noted that Ralph Ellison and Alex Haley both served in WWII, but neither wrote about their military experiences outright. For a more contemporary example, he noted Wes Moore, a black Army veteran and author of the bestselling The Other Wes Moore, and I was surprised to learn that Pulitzer Prize-winner Gregory Pardlo was once a Marine Corps Reservist. None would argue any of these black writers should have written military-themed books. But it won’t stop me from wishing they had.
A high school English teacher who can afford one Vietnam book on the syllabus will fall back on the familiar, not the obscure. It will be The Things They Carried, not Dien Cai Dau; A Rumor of War, and not the oral history of black Vietnam veterans, Bloods. What we read is what we buy; the bought books make the lists, and before long, the canon conceives itself. And until the canon becomes more inclusive, its narrative will remain singular and simplistic.
Facing issues of class and race, it becomes clear that there are no bromides to remedy The Forever War’s literary lack of diversity. But one can hope that as Pham and Doyle indicated, increased consciousness in tandem with current events might spur a growing production of gender-, race-, and ethnically-diversified voices within the military writing community. One can hope that we might draw lessons from the Vietnam War’s legacy of near-erasure of non-white experiences; that the growth of veterans writing workshops and anthologies will represent to future generations a more complete picture of The Forever War.
The grim reality is that The Forever War shows no indication of ending anytime soon, a fact that Sacks chooses rather niftily to ignore when concluding his thesis against a backdrop comprised of the literature of previous wars. The war my generation began has become the next generation’s to conclude. If there is a perverse truth to the current state of affairs in contemporary war literature, it is this: there appears to be plenty of time left on the clock for the canon to grow.
 According to the 2004 version of The Oxford Companion to Military History
 I am aware of only two other well-heeled critical surveys: George Packer’s “Home Fires” in The New Yorker and Michiko Kakutani’s “Home Costs of the Forever Wars, Enough to Fill A Bookshelf.” Kakutani was one of the few book critics to regularly review contemporary war books.
 Professor Joseph Darda’s essay in Contemporary Literature, “The Ethnicization of Veteran America: Larry Larry Heinemann, Toni Morrison, and Military Whiteness After Vietnam,” made me aware of the controversy.
 The Amazon results included works by non-U.S. authors.
 Ellison’s early drafts of The Invisible Man prominently figured the recovered journal of a dead Merchant Marine named Leroy. Ellison, like Jack Kerouac, served in the Merchant Marine during World War Two.
Image Credit: Army.mil.
In the preface of his faux-memoir novel Moonglow, Michael Chabon warns the reader: “I have stuck to facts except where facts refused to conform with memory, narrative purpose, or the truth as I prefer to understand it.” The world he creates in his novel — with a narrator so like the author in age, origin, and mannerism — is so convincingly real that for most of the book I was distracted by my desire to know which parts of the story were true and which were made up. Did Chabon’s grandfather really want to blow up Washington D.C.? And how much is true of the grandmother’s horrifying brush with Nazis?
But this, of course, is not the point of a novel, a book that is specifically marketed as fiction. Authors throughout history have taken this approach, creating fiction memoirs, perhaps to give themselves more freedom to embellish or play down scenes from life — I’m thinking of titles like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, and Tobias Wolff’s Old School. In an interview with The Telegraph, Chabon clarified his intent in blending fact and fiction: “I actually feel like fiction, which is open about its deception, is a much more powerful and more revealing tool for getting at truths about what happens in families.” What kind of fiction is better at telling the truth than memoir? And what kind of truth is revealed from such writing?
These questions were at the forefront of my mind when I read Elif Batuman’s debut novel, The Idiot. Like Chabon’s Moonglow, the narrator of The Idiot, Selin Karadağ, bears a strong resemblance to the author. Selin, like Batuman herself, is a New Jersey-born woman of Turkish descent, who goes to Harvard where she flirts with linguistics and the Russian language, falls in love with a senior who has another girlfriend, and follows him to Hungary that summer. Batuman writes about several of these events in her collection of nonfiction essays The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them (2010), a thrilling book that I devoured in a matter of a few days.
I’ve long admired Batuman for her nonfiction writing (if you, too, want to fall in love, read Batuman’s essay on the peculiar history of Harvard’s Russian bells). Batuman’s incisive intelligence and blunt humor (for which she won the Terry Southern Humor Prize from The Paris Review in 2011) pervade both her essays — in The Possessed and in The New Yorker, where she has been a staff writer since 2010 — and her novel. Because of the similarities between The Idiot and Batuman’s personal essays, I found myself almost fact-checking the novel, measuring it up both against Batuman’s writing about her Harvard years and my own time as an undergrad there. I, too, took a psycholinguistics class with an attractive (though 15 years older) Italian man who, like Selin’s professor, wore shiny grey suits and taught in a cramped classroom on the 10th floor of the psychology building. And the series of strange events that lead to the character Selin spending a month teaching English in a Hungarian village are strikingly similar to the parade of missteps Batuman the nonfiction writer chronicles in The Possessed. I slipped so completely into Batuman’s fictional world, convinced of its truth, that when I reminded myself that Batuman had written a novel, not a memoir, I felt let down. I so wanted it all to be real. But why?
Batuman speaks directly to my strange urge to read this novel as nonfiction in an interview with The Rumpus in 2012. In response to a question about why publishers are more interested in getting writers to pen memoirs rather than novels, Batuman said: They want it to be true. And it’s actually an odd thing to want. The rationale is that people these days are no longer interested in novels, because we live in a newsy age, we care about facts, we care about the truth.” She ends by mentioning Tolstoy’s War and Peace and points out, “Tolstoy didn’t think he was detracting from the truth-telling power of his book by writing it as a novel.
So, now to Batuman’s novel and the truthiness living in its pages. At first blush, The Idiot is a bildungsroman of the late ’90s; Selin comes of age in a world where e-mail is just emerging and students at Harvard are social slaves to their dorm room phones, hoping that crushes will call on weekend nights. Indeed, Batuman introduces her narrative with a quote from the second volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, perhaps the heftiest tome of the bildungsroman genre. Batuman quotes from Proust, “In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.”
Adolescence is the beginning, middle, and end of The Idiot. Selin the character strikes me as an 18-year-old female version of Professor Timofey Pnin in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pnin; she is as confused by language and apt to make highly specific observations as the professor, though with a more modern, deadpan humor. Like this: an aerial view of one Hungarian town Selin describes as “spread out like some fantastic salad,” and a patch of overgrown grass in Boston “resembled a comb-over on the head of a bald person who didn’t want to see reality.”
Batuman’s enthusiasm for words comes through in Selin, whose quest to discover the truth about language makes her quite crazed. As Selin immerses herself in linguistics, psycholinguistics, and philosophy of language, she seems to hang her theories of language up, one by one, next to the linguists’ theories, a dizzying parade of Benjamin Whorf, Edward Sapir, Donald Davidson, and Noam Chomsky. Soon, Selin begins to be unraveled by language; she cannot communicate and loses the meaning of narratives and conversations, unable to step back from a close observation of form and structure to identify her own place in the story. She begins to feel anxious about her untethered position, and begs her own novelist to show her the way. “I wanted to know how it was going to turn out, like flipping ahead in a book,” Selin says in one of several metanarrative moments. “I didn’t even know what kind of story it was, or what kind of role I was supposed to be playing.”
Redemption in all this muddled language comes from literature, a nod to the author’s own preference for losing herself in the complex world of Russian fiction. Selin finds her own anxieties about language in a passage in Anton Chekhov’s “The Darling:” “You see a bottle, for example, standing there, or the rain falling, or a peasant going along in his cart, but what the bottle or rain or peasant are for, what sense they make, you can’t say and couldn’t say, even if they offered you a thousand rubles.” Even in her Russian classes, Selin sees more truth in the Russian literature the students are meant to read than in the facts of her own life. The short fiction stories in “Nina in Siberia,” which are only intended to teach the students Russian grammar and vocabulary, eerily mirror events in Selin’s life so that it becomes a challenge for Selin to separate what is happening to Nina from what is happening to her. (To me, this makes perfect sense. While a fanciful college sophomore with too many literature and language classes, I became so confused by my real life and so engrossed in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks that, while writing a paper about the literary significance of mouth pain and tooth aches in the book, I became convinced that I too had a mouth infection. And indeed, a week later I found myself strapped to a dentist chair, sedated and listening to the shrieking drills dig deep into my gums. Once again the truth of the book struck me; I understand that anxious absorption of an early college career. I’ve been there before.) As Nina the character searches for her love, Ivan, Selin begins to search for her own Ivan, the Hungarian senior she falls in love with. As Selin is made to act out Nina’s lines in her beginning Russian class with Ivan (the Hungarian) playing Ivan (Nina’s lover), I heard Elif Batuman’s laughter as she pulled the strings from above, coaxing Selin through a version of Batuman’s own hilarious search for the meaning of language by way of another layer of fiction — poor Nina’s fictional saga.
It was in this part of the book — when Elif seems to become Selin who seems to become Nina — that I came to understand one unique achievement of Batuman’s transformation of memoir into novel. The layered truths and fictions of The Idiot compounded so that everything in the novel became true and real in a deep, shining way that cannot be achieved through essays.
By the end of her novel, Batuman swerves away from the bildungsroman she seemed to have been writing all along. Selin returns to school convinced that her linguistics and philosophy of language classes had led her astray. In an allusion to Proust, whose pronouncement — that adolescence “is the only period in which we learn anything” — begins the book, Batuman concludes, “I hadn’t learned what I had wanted to about how language worked. I hadn’t learned anything at all.”
And that, in fact, might be the real truth of the whole conceit. That if we’re really searching for meaning, trying to dissect the whole novel and nose around for the facts hidden in it, then we risk not learning anything at all.
There’s a wonderful short story collection out now called Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett. It’s something of a linked collection, in that the longer stories that make up the bulk of the book all seem to be narrated by the same unnamed woman, formerly of England but now living in a cottage in the west of Ireland, doing not much more than letting her mind wander as she probes the confines of her modest home. These stories do not build upon one another in the sense of creating a continuous plot. Rather, they offer separate investigations into the life of this woman, self-contained and comprehensible in any order. What’s more, between these longer stories sit pieces that might be described as “micro” or “flash” fictions, which are not set in the cottage and are not clearly narrated by the same woman. These shorter pieces are aesthetically linked to the longer stories — the entire book is written in the same distinctive style of prose — but are otherwise unrelated. The reading experience is unusual and illuminating, and upon completion I thought to myself, “Wow, what a lovely little collection of stories.”
I was flummoxed, then, to discover that there is some confusion as to the book’s genre. Meghan O’Rourke’s review of Pond in The New York Times Book Review appears under the headline “A Debut Novel Traces a Woman’s Life in Solitude.” Novels appear to be O’Rourke’s only points of reference for Bennett’s work. She writes that Pond reminds her of “the kind of old-fashioned British children’s books I read growing up,” and “David Markson’s avant-garde novel ‘Wittgenstein’s Mistress’…” In another review for The Times, Dwight Garner acknowledges the short story-ness of Bennett’s book even as he insists that the work is a novel: “‘Pond’ is a slim novel, told in chapters of varying lengths that resemble short stories. There’s little in the way of conventional plot.” Hmm. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Garner was describing a short story collection.
This phenomenon of misidentifying a story collection as a novel is surprisingly common, both in book reviewing and in polite conversation. A number of people seem to use the term “novel” as a synonym for “book,” and because of this I sometimes see even works of nonfiction referred to as novels. (I won’t call anyone out on this point, since it’s really quite embarrassing.) More often, the word “novel” is applied to collections when all of the stories within feel strongly of a piece (and consequently are favorites of the creative writing workshop). The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien is one example. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson is another. The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald is a third. To be fair, these works frequently fail to identify themselves with the word “stories” on their book jackets (as does Pond). But a reader with the most basic sense of literary genre should be able to see them for what they are.
A novel and a short story collection are very different forms. A novel tells one long narrative. It cannot be divided without surrendering its functionality. Sometimes it is segmented into chapters or sections, but these cannot (at least not all of them) stand alone as shorter independent works. They rely on each other for coherence of plot and theme. A collection, on the other hand, is composed of several shorter, discrete narratives that can stand independently of each other without forsaking their coherence. The order in which you read them is not essential to understanding them, nor would it matter if you read three at random and never looked at the rest. In the hands of a skilled author, it is sometimes true that a group of these stories may become more than the sum of its parts. The stories may act as vignettes in the life of a person or a community, and in so doing produce a sense of immersion somewhat reminiscent of a novel. We call these “linked collections” or “story cycles.” But they are not novels, nor are they attempting to be novels. (A “novel-in-stories,” as you’ve probably suspected, is purely a marketing trick.)
When reviewing a linked collection, a reviewer will sometimes (bafflingly) simulate confusion as to whether the book is a collection or a novel or something in between. (Ian Maleney, in his review of Pond for The Millions, says that the book, “rests with no little charm somewhere between collection and novel without ever settling on one or the other.” Nice try, Maleney.) These reviewers often like to pretend that the author has somehow invented a third genre. But you and I aren’t so easily fooled, reader. We know that there is nothing new under the sun. As James Nagel points out in his 2001 book The Contemporary American Short-Story Cycle, the form has been with us for a century at least. Works like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Jean Toomer’s Cane, and Ernest Hemingway’s In Our Time presented a cohesion of intent that, at the time of their publication, tempted reviewers to insist that they must be more than simple collections of stories. (In Our Time even contains interstitial shorts between longer stories, just like Pond.) Nagel writes:
[T]he fact of the matter is that the short-story cycle is a rich genre with origins decidedly antecedent to the novel, with roots in the most ancient of narrative traditions. The historical meaning of “cycle” is a collection of verse or narratives centering around some outstanding event or character. The term seems to have been first applied to a series of poems, written by a group of Greek writers known as the Cyclic Poets, that supplement Homer’s account of the Trojan war. In the second century B.C., the Greek writer Aristides wrote a series of tales about his hometown, Miletus, in a collection entitled Milesiaka. Many other early classics also used linked tales, Homer’s Odyssey, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Arabian A Thousand and One Nights among them…Throughout these early works two ideas became clear in the concept of a cycle: that each contributing unit of the work be an independent narrative episode, and that there be some principle of unification that gives structure, movement, and thematic development to the whole.
Perhaps because the average reader prefers novels, encountering few story collections (or none at all), a linked collection is enough to give him pause. But a linked collection is still a collection and not a novel, just as a tall man is still a man and not an ogre. Our most prestigious American literary prize, the Pulitzer, recognizes this fact. Known for its first three decades of existence as the Pulitzer Prize for a Novel, it was renamed the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1948 so that it could be awarded to a debut author named James A. Michener for his Tales of the South Pacific. That book is a linked story collection, though the Pulitzer jury might have gotten away with pretending it was novel if Michener hadn’t conspicuously placed the word “Tales” right in its title. Since then, short story collections have been eligible for the award, though to date only six others have won it. (For the sake of comparison, there have been seven years since 1948 when no prize for fiction was awarded at all.)
It may seem defensive or pedantic to insist on these designations. Why does it matter? I hear you ask, reader. Books are just books. No one is saying one form is better than another. All things being equal, perhaps that would be that case, and a book’s genre would be so nonessential as to not require specification. But things, of course, are never equal. It is far easier to publish a novel these days than a collection of short stories, so much so that many pragmatic writers have essentially abandoned the form. Fantastic short story writers end up spending their careers producing middling novels, and our literature is poorer for it. So in those rare cases when a short story collection does manage to be published (and reviewed, and sold, and read by a large number of people), to deny that collection its genre — to call it a novel, as though the world really needs another novel — is to rob the medium of short fiction of a hard-earned victory.
Even more nefarious is when publishers themselves mislabel collections as novels. Printing the word “novel” on a book cover makes it very difficult for malcontents like me to argue that the book is anything otherwise. Tom Rachman’s excellent 2010 book The Imperfectionists is a collection of 11 self-contained stories following various employees of an international newspaper based in Rome. Only the thinnest of interstitials about the history of the newspaper (again, like In Our Time) provided cause for Dial Press to term the book “a novel.” Also published in 2010 was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, which Knopf called “a novel” but which I like to call “the most recent short story collection to win a Pulitzer Prize.” The book’s shifts in point of view, style, tense, and time period caused reviewers to marvel at what a unique and unusual novel it was, though such shifts are common in the genre of the short story collection. Egan almost certainly benefitted from the book being called a novel, but now that the dust has settled and the prize money has been spent, it’s probably in Egan’s best interest that posterity regard the book for what it actually is. Goon Squad is a bad novel, but it’s a phenomenal short story collection, one that perfectly embodies Nagel’s notion of “independent narrative episode[s]” linked by “some principle of unification.” (Plus, thinking of the book as a collection is the only way to make that 70-page Power Point section look like a fun narrative experiment instead of a saccharine bit of self-indulgence. Take that, Egan!)
Both The Imperfectionists and A Visit from the Goon Squad were bestsellers, and I certainly don’t begrudge Rachman or Egan their success. What is painful is the notion that the audiences of these books did not realize that they were enjoying story collections. The publishing industry is constantly telling short story writers that their work can’t sell, but instances like these seem to suggest that the publishing industry is not particularly interested in fostering an appetite for short story collections among its readership. If you liked Goon Squad, then you like short fiction, but you may be unaware of that fact because you think that you read novel. It’s refreshing, then, when an author resists the urge to have his work mislabelled as a novel, as Junot Díaz did in the case of This Is How You Lose Her. In an interview with Gina Frangello at The Rumpus, he explains:
[T]here’s little question that short stories, like poetry, don’t get the respect they deserve in the culture — but what can you do? Like Canute, one cannot fight the sea, you have to go with your love, and hope one day, things change. And yes, I have no doubt this book could have been easily called a novel — novel status has certainly been granted to less tightly-related collections of stories. By not calling this book a novel or a short story collection, I guess I was trying to keep the door open to readers recognizing and enjoying a third form caught somewhere between the traditional novel and the standard story anthology. A form wherein we can enjoy simultaneously what is best in both the novel and the short story form. My plan was to create a book that affords readers some of the novel’s long-form pleasures but that also contains the short story’s ability to capture what is so difficult about being human — the brevity of our moments, their cruel irrevocability.
I disagree with Díaz’s premise that the book represents a new, third form (This Is How You Lose Her is a simply another linked story collection, in the proud tradition of the many linked story collections that have come before it), but you get the point. A linked collection does things that a novel does not, things that are worthy and vital and capable of standing on their own merit. A collection replicates the chaotic, fragmentary messiness of life in a way that a novel can’t: life, which doesn’t follow one large narrative but seems to be the aggregate of many smaller ones. A day is not a chapter. A day is a story, with its own peculiar conflicts, themes, motifs, and epiphanies.
There has been much in the past few years to inspire confidence in the idea that the short fiction collection might finally attain the readership it deserves as a indispensable American art form. This Is How You Lose Her was a New York Times bestseller and a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. In 2013, George Saunders’s Tenth of December repeated both feats. The 2014 National Book Award was given to Phil Klay’s collection Redeployment. In 2015, it went to Adam Johnson’s collection Fortune Smiles. Collections by Nathan Englander and Kelly Link have been finalists for Pulitzers in recent years (though both failed to attain the lofty heights of Michener’s and Egan’s). Alice Munro’s 2013 Nobel Prize felt, for many writers of short fiction, like a long overdue nod to a worthy form and its incorrigible practitioners.
And yet short fiction collections remain incredibly difficult to sell. They remain under-published, under-reviewed, and under-read. Aspiring authors are encouraged to set aside their stories and get to work on something longer, lest they be condemned to the periphery of publishing, out in the brambles with the poets and their chapbooks. Even George Saunders, the story writer who famously does not write novels, is writing novels now. Perhaps Claire-Louise Bennett is glad to have Pond called a novel, and I should stop making trouble where trouble needn’t be made. But if the best hope for a short story writer is that reviewers and readers mistake her work for a novel, than fiction has reached a truly dispiriting place. Perhaps novelists will soon be hoping their work is mistaken for memoir, and fiction as a concept will disappear entirely.
I guess we’ll see. In the meantime, I encourage you, dear reader, to go to your local bookstore and pick up a copy of Pond, or any other short story collection, and free yourself from the tyranny of sustained narrative. You’ll enjoy the experience. Trust me.
And maybe, while you’re in there, you can hide a couple novels behind the cookbooks.
Nathanael West’s classic novel The Day of the Locust, unsurpassed in the writers-writing-about-Hollywood genre, ends with West’s would-be painter protagonist Tod Hackett in the back of an L.A. police cruiser, attempting to determine whether the noise he hears is the squad car’s siren or his own voice bellowing out a plaintive, animal howl. For eighty years now, Hackett’s death-rattle screech (“tod” is German for “death”; he’s literally a dead hack) has stood as an emblem of the silent but no less maniacal inner wail of every true artist that has wound up as collateral damage in the Hollywood carpet-bombing of the ancient territories of drama and storytelling.
When I recently picked up John Domini’s Movieola!, which pitches itself as a story collection but really isn’t for reasons I will explain in a moment, I figured it would add a new wrinkle to a well-established sub-genre. Anticipatorily, I thought back on several recent additions to the HollyLit tradition. First I recalled Stuart O’Nan’s West of Sunset, which chronicles F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Zelda-less time in Tinseltown, his loneliness a triangulation on the city’s institutional mandate to suck souls. Next I thought of Woody Allen’s latest anti-film film, Café Society, which resurrects the Studio Era in all its glorious finery only to crucify it, and makes its most pointed statement when a man at a glittery soiree is introduced as a two-time Academy Award winner, but warns, “You haven’t heard of me — I’m a writer.” And last, digging back a bit this time, I recalled Charles Johnson’s “Moving Pictures,” a wonderful little meditation on books-turned-into-films that is eclipsed by several even better stories in Johnson’s much-undervalued collection, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
Of these, Movieola! is closest to “Moving Pictures,” but Domini’s offering is no mere twist or turn on a trajectory you already know. Rather, it’s an amplification of Tod Hackett’s mournful scream – a new shriek for a new century.
There are two kinds of short story collections, both of which have merits. The first is simply an assemblage, a sampler plate of an author’s various experiments or momentary preoccupations (e.g., The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), and it is perhaps this sort of anthology that John Cheever was thinking of when he described his own collected stories as “a naked history of one’s struggle to receive an education in economics and love.”
The second kind of story collection — the so-called “connected” stories — may come in two versions of its own: first, stories connected by plot and characters; second, stories connected by theme. It may be a mistake to call either version a “collection,” as the word suggests an absence of an overriding book-length idea. Stories that are connected by character, however, certainly have some of the same goals as novels (e.g., Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid), and stories connected by theme can sometimes seem quite treatise- or manifesto-like (e.g., Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried — sure, there’s lots of character in there, but the book’s true purpose is its philosophical thread on truth and storytelling).
Movieola! is a volume of the latter sort, a compilation of pieces first published here and there, but which adds up to a whole lot more than the sum of its parts. Of course that was the goal all along. The book borrows its structure from its subject, launching with a meditation on movie trailers, and ending with another on closing credits. In between, Domini offers a range of visions and voices that reflect anew, each in their own way, on what Hollywood has done to storytelling and culture.
For example, there’s “Wrap Rap Two-Step,” the monologue of a weary script guru at the end of a weekend-long concept seminar (tailor-made for NPR’s “Selected Shorts,” if anyone is listening…), and this piece, along with several others, emphasizes that to write for the screen, these days, is to set up shop at the unholy intersection of Hollywood and self-help (i.e., the secret of The Secret is that you don’t have to “read” it). As well, there’s “Home’n’Homer, Portmanteau,” in which a latter day Norma Desmond, preparing for her scream rather than her close-up, wanders home to find all her anxiety and regret channeled into the vision of a creepy little bugbear sprung not from a nightmare but from something more like DreamWorks SKG. Hence, à la West, Hollywood generates madness.
These are two of the more traditional pieces in Movieola! Others include disembodied dialogues; pieces sunk so deep into the free indirect thing you sort of forget they’re in the third person; and meditations in a royal “we” that reads likes the dark twin of the critical “we” that pollutes scholarship. This last comes off almost like an intrusive narrator, the sort that long ago forsook the novel, and the suggestion of this voice — which we hear bantering about story ideas as stories unfold — is that we really, finally have become Roland Barthes’s “scriptors,” compiling readymade snippets into tales that please with familiarity rather than novelty. The deep-down message of Movieola!, then, is that stories no longer emerge from communion with a nubile muse curling her finger from the other side of a lacy partition of consciousness, but rather from a much lewder encounter with our own corrupt souls.
Introducing a mid-eighties edition of The Day of the Locust, critic Alfred Kazin noted that the truly horrific days of Hollywood were over. It was now possible to make films outside the studio system; the monopoly was ended, the trust busted. Today, they say, we’re in a golden age of television, the vast free market of cable opening up new avenues for how moving picture stories come to be. So is the crisis averted, then? No. Part of the thrust of Domini’s argument is that big screen filmmaking now finds itself threatened by its own creation, all those little screens like an army of ants taking down an elephant. One monster replaces another.
And that such a thing can even be claimed about a book pitched as a collection of stories reveals that Movieola! is much more than just that. This is made most clear in the conclusive “Closing Credits Fun & Counterforce,” an address to a movie viewer still plopped down in his seat:
You risked a doddering and fusty entertainment based on how long a person can go without having to pee. The flicks themselves have long since run out of surprises: if the assassin doesn’t fall in love, the bookish girl in black whoops it up in a candy-colored romper room. There never was much opportunity for surprise, in ninety minutes or a hundred, and there’s even less these days, when you need a multimillion-dollar urban-renewal package just to save the downtown moviehouse. The star-studded American shebang, winding up through the coming attractions and down through the credits in their grave-rows, that’s long since been squeezed dry and shoehorned into smaller screens.
There is no character here, no story at all. Thus, Movieola! is not aptly described as a gathering together of fun tales. Rather, it’s a concise and intelligent assessment of the state of modern storytelling, and its joy — it’s edge-of-your-seat, cliff-hanger thrill — stems from what it offers by way of philosophical critique.
Books are our first, and sometimes best, teachers. I inherited the books of my older brothers. While they were away at college, I went into their rooms and stacked and arranged the titles by color and letter. My two favorite relics from their childhood were Punt, Pass and Kick and The How and Why Wonder Book of Stars. The diagrams of movement across the gridiron reminded me of the constellation maps. I appreciated that athletic bodies and celestial bodies were in constant motion, and yet might be captured in a single glance.
I was years away from the writing instruction of workshops and line edits, or the training of literary analysis. Those early years of reading were charged with the stuff of raw imagination. After I exhausted the books of my brothers, my parents took me to the library and used book sales. I wanted to run and play basketball, but I also wanted to read until I fell asleep, chin planted on open pages. My father had been a college football player who studied theology; my mother read history and poetry and told stories with layers and layers of detail. I was raised to appreciate words and to embrace wonder.
It might be because I teach young students, but I am endlessly fascinated by the routes of our reading lives. I seek interviews with writers because I look for their origin stories. I want to pinpoint the moment reading became a life-breathing activity. I am particularly drawn to the memories of writers whose imaginations remains raw and jarring; writers who are “charged,” to borrow the language of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
I contacted six writers with such imaginations, and am happy to share their memories about the books that were most formative during their childhoods.
1. Nina McConigley, author of Cowboys and East Indians:
It’s hard to grow up in the American West and not read Laura Ingalls Wilder. I read all the Little House on the Prairie books at a young age, and I was in love with the whole pioneer narrative. Like Laura, my parents had traveled far to make a home in the West. I also came to love the simplicity of her language and her storytelling. She had no sentimentality. She would so matter-of-factly say the worst news: Mary was blind. The crops failed. It was a sad day though when I realized Laura and I would not have been friends. Her ma hated Indians (albeit the other kind), and the books weren’t that kind to others or brown people. But I marveled over her making a lot out of little — sewing, canning, simple pleasures. But I mostly connected with how Laura loved the land—the prairies and woods, the sky and open– which were so important to me as a little girl in Wyoming.
Since my parents both grew up in colonized countries — India and Ireland, much of what they read as children was British. So, as a little girl, I was introduced to Enid Blyton, who seemed to be the most prolific writer ever. She wrote several series from the Famous Five and Secret Seven to scores of boarding school narratives like The O’Sullivan Twins or The Naughtiest Girl. But what I loved were her fairy stories. She wrote a trilogy about a magic tree which started with The Enchanted Wood. In the book, three children found a magic tree, and climbed it — and at the top was a series of ever-changing lands — The Land of Birthdays, The Land of Sweets. I think as a brown kid living in Wyoming, these books were the ultimate in escapism. I was transported into a forest in England where the world was constantly shifting. I found this extremely comforting. I would often find myself climbing the big cottonwood tree in our backyard, hoping I would be taken away by something bigger than me.
2. William Giraldi, author of Hold the Dark:
In the late 1980s, Time-Life Books had a popular, 33-volume series called Mysteries of the Unknown. At 11 years old, I didn’t know enough to be irked by the redundant title — all mysteries are unknown: that’s the definition of “mystery” — and so I grabbed the phone (Time-Life advertised on television) and soon began receiving books on UFOs and the Loch Ness Monster, poltergeists and Sasquatch, Atlantis and the Bermuda Triangle and the Great Pyramid of Giza, werewolves and vampires and witches. For a cradle Roman Catholic reared in only one acceptable species of the supernatural, these titles seemed great feats of transgression and betrayal, fonts of the extraordinary and occult, a concussion of the spiritual and the cerebral, the factual and the fantastical. The books were mostly cascades of conjecture and fatuity, of course, but they rubbed against my imagination in all the ways I needed then. Mystery is another word for hope; monsters are how we make sense of ourselves. New Jersey seemed so drab without them. In the years after the Time-Life series, I’d be found by Poe and Stoker, by Stevenson and Wells, and then it was off into the more “serious” stuff: important books, yes, but hardly ever as wondrous.
3. Sara Eliza Johnson, author of Bone Map:
I remember loving Black Beauty and A Little Princess, which was my mother’s favorite book as a girl (and one reason for my name, which has no “h!”). I also read a lot of series meant for young girls — Nancy Drew, The Babysitters Club, the Ramona Quimby books — though my absolute favorite series was Goosebumps. R.L. Stine wrote the original series in my prime formative reading years, from 1992 (when I was eight years old) to 1997 (when I was 13), and I was always so excited when a new one came out. My early love of Goosebumps (as well as the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series) blossomed into the unapologetic affection for the horror genre I have today, a lonely affection to have in adulthood! But my favorite book as a child was probably The Giver, which, like many in my generation, I read for English class at the beginning of sixth grade. It was my first taste of dystopia, and so, in some ways, the first challenge to my world, and the first literary protagonist with whom I truly felt a kinship. When Jonas receives from the Giver the unwieldy collection of memories his monotone community has buried — of pain, war, starvation, but also pleasure and art — he becomes isolated and lonely in a way I think that I sometimes felt then, as a shy child without siblings. In the Receiving process, memory is a physical phenomenon literally subsumed and experienced by the body, as when Jonas receives the memory of a broken leg and feels as if his leg is broken — an early reminder that these entities we often consider purely psychological, such as memory, language, and dream, have physical and even physiological presences. I never read the rest of the books in the series, and I’m glad I didn’t, because I think perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the book — one of its lessons for even adult authors — is how it ends, in that it doesn’t quite end, leaves us in the aperture of uncertainty: “Behind him, across the vast distances of space and time, from the place he had left, he thought he heard music too. But perhaps it was only an echo.”
4. Dimitry Elias Léger, author of God Loves Haiti:
The books that absolutely rocked my world as a kid, before my 10th grade teacher introduced me to The New York Times Book Review and Great Classic Literature, were a French series dating back to the early 20th century. You see, the first novels I read were in French because I lived in Haiti from ages eight to 14. Somewhere around the age of 10 probably I met Arsene Lupin, the gentleman thief. The clever master of disguise starred in 16 novels and 36 short stories starting in 1905. The novels were thrilling. As befitting a French answer to the cerebral Sherlock Holmes, Lupin was a darkly humorous lady-killer. Come to think of it, he may well indeed be a good precursor to James Bond. I devoured Maurice Leblanc’s Lupin stories, and, during summer vacations in New York City, the books that slayed my pre-teen imagination were Chris Claremont’s X-Men. The Phoenix Saga may very well be the greatest, most epic comic story of all time, much as the love story of Cyclops, with his death-ray eyes, and Jean Grey, an unsuspecting world consuming telepath, was the most riveting love story. The tragic story of the brooding band of mutants and the stories of a leaping, thieving lover of Parisian rooftops and the jewels of Parisian nobles were my favorite books as a kid. These series’ gentle high-low balance rewards rereads to this day.
5. Tony Ardizzone, author of The Whale Chaser:
I grew up on the North Side of Chicago, the oldest boy in a large working-class Italian-American family. We lived in a basement flat, then a second-floor flat across the street from a liquor store, and finally in a brick two-flat, with tenants upstairs. I grew up in a house without books. We always had newspapers — when I was a boy Chicago had four daily newspapers — because my father sold newspapers. I went to Roman-Catholic schools and read the books they gave us: the Baltimore Catechism (much of which I still know by heart) and Bible stories. In school after lunch each day, the Sister of Christian Charity who taught us read to the class a chapter or so from a series of books about a boy named Tom Playfair, a rough-and-tumble kid sent off to Catholic school, who had to struggle to live up to his name.
After we moved to the brick two-flat in Chicago’s Edgewater district, I discovered a mobile library van parked about six blocks away, and I got a library card and checked out as many books as I could carry. The librarian often questioned me, asking if I was sure I could read all the books I wanted in one week. I told her I could, and I did. Reading was a sort of sanctuary to me. Our flat was small and our family had a lot of kids and reading was a way for me to be by myself for a while. I read every book the mobile van had about dinosaurs. I also read what were considered the classics at the time: The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Robinson Crusoe, an edited version of Moby Dick. I supplemented these books by reading every Classic Illustrated comic I could get my hands on. Treasure Island, The Count of Monte Cristo, and The Time Machine were among my favorites. I often read these while standing around those circular comic book displays in a neighborhood drugstore. When the owner yelled for me to quit browsing, I’d do my best to remember my place, then pick up the comic the next time I was in the store.
A middle-aged woman cashier in the grocery store where I was often sent to buy milk and eggs took a liking to me and one day gave me a big, marvelous hardback anthology of dog stories. The book had a blue cover. I wish I still had it. I read and re-read every story in the book several times. Best of all, it was my book, not one I’d have to return to the mobile library van on Saturday morning.
My turning point came years later when I was in high school. On Saturdays my friends and I would go down to Chicago’s Old Town, where we’d knock around the neighborhood. I always ended up spending hours in Barbara’s Bookstore on Wells Street. It was a big, wonderful place, full of books and posters and poetry on placards and broadsides up on the walls. It was there in Barbara’s Bookstore that I saw a copy of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s book of poetry, Coney Island of the Mind. It knocked me out. I never before realized that poetry could be written this way. The book made me truly want to be writer.
6. Christa Parravani, author of Her:
Most every street of our Tarawa Terrace neighborhood on Camp Lejeune was named after a battle: Bougainville drive. Inchon Street. Iowa Jima Boulevard. The battle of Tarawa was for a small Pacific atoll in 1943. The battle of growing up with a Marine stepfather, was he believed that children should be seen and not heard.
Marines have a way of saying things. Houses are housing. Dinner is chow. A bed is a rack. Teeth are fangs. But get lost was still get lost.
I escaped silently into books. I read whatever my teachers gave me.
I was 13 the summer my stepfather left. The Persian Gulf War was televised that January. I read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried not too long after. The novel was live in my hands, my first real touch of literature’s flame. The story of Vietnam, how it haunted every military family I knew, how its lure was part of me like my family’s story was. My stepfather may not have loved me, but I had to love him, and those years on Lejeune gave me a love of country, of the fighter. O’Brien opened my heart with a story that arguably has nothing to do with a teenage girl. But I’d shut up for far too long. The war was alive in me.
The only thing harder than writing a fully realized short story is turning a collection of them into a fully realized novel. Tim O’Brien pulled it off in The Things They Carried. So did Elizabeth Strout in Olive Kittredge. More often, though, the novel-in-stories conceit seems more a marketing gimmick to get around admitting the book is simply a collection of stories organized around a theme or a group of characters. At best, you get Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, in which the sum of the (often brilliant) parts add up to more than the (somewhat nebulous) whole. At worst, you get a novel full of holes.
Dylan Landis’s new novel-in-stories Rainey Royal starts off with a brace of taut, aching stories about a troubled young girl in 1970s New York City raising herself in a world of crazy adults. These early stories are set in a sprawling five-story townhouse on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village ruled by Rainey’s jazz-musician father, Howard Royal, and his creepy sidekick, Gordy Vine, who likes to come into Rainey’s bedroom and stroke her hair while she pretends to sleep. Rainey is 14 and gorgeous, and her mother has departed for an ashram in Colorado, never to return.
Readers of Landis’s first story collection, Normal People Don’t Live Like This, will remember Rainey as the queen-bee mean girl who makes school life miserable for Leah Levinson, the insecure, obsessive-compulsive girl who is the focus of many of the stories in that book. Rainey’s riveting mix of cruelty and neediness stole the show every time she appeared in Normal People, so it makes sense that when Landis returned to the world of that earlier book, she would turn the spotlight on Rainey.
The Rainey we meet in this volume’s first story, “Let Her Come Dancing All Afire,” remains as feisty and beautiful as she was in the earlier collection, but now she’s the victim, not the aggressor. In a few deft scenes, Landis creates a vivid fictive universe in which Rainey’s jazz-star father, surrounded by dazzled young groupies and espousing a supercilious brand of hippie-era permissiveness, allows his daughter to be molested repeatedly under his own roof.
In Landis’s capable hands, every battle, every transgression is minutely observed. We are only five pages into the first story when Rainey, asked to sit down for a talk with Howard and Gordy after walking home from the library in the rain, makes her first mistake, telling her father, “I’m soaking wet.” “She regrets this immediately,” Landis writes. “Gordy’s attention, like a draft from a threshold, wafts toward her. He doesn’t even have to raise his head.” From here on, “Let Her Come Dancing All Afire” is a grim battle for territory, with Gordy, aided by Rainey’s indulgent father, waging a quiet war of attrition for access to Rainey’s body, and Rainey using every scrap of her wit and beauty to make her body her own — even as she covets the attention of the two men who are the closest thing to parents in her life. In later stories, this battle shifts to possession of the house itself, which, it turns out, belongs to Rainey’s grandmother, who has allowed Howard to hold it for Rainey in trust until she turns 25.
There are the makings of an explosive novel here, but Landis, having set the bomb in place and struck the match, declines to light the fuse. The third story in the collection, “Trust,” turns on a wildly implausible robbery, in which Rainey and her best friend Tina take Howard’s gun and stick up a couple walking through their West Village neighborhood. The story is beautifully written, all sharp edges and jazzy rhythms, and one can see how it would work as a self-contained short story (indeed, “Trust” was first published in Tin House and won an O. Henry Award).
But as a chapter in a novel, it makes no real sense. Here these two teenage girls, making only the most amateurish attempts to disguise themselves, rob and terrorize a couple at gunpoint in broad daylight in their own neighborhood — and nothing happens? No police investigation? No concern about their victims recognizing them on the street? No desire to pull off a similar crime? Just nothing. Landis works a few oblique references to the robbery into later stories, but for the most part, it’s as if Rainey and Tina have temporarily stepped into some parallel universe in which their actions have no repercussions on the rest of their lives.
This keeps happening, the quick-hit demands of short fiction overtaking the deeper, more sustained pleasures of the novel form. As Rainey and her school friends grow older, Landis turns away from the central battleground that makes the opening pages so riveting, adding new characters and plotlines and switching perspectives from one character to another. A few of these later stories are frankly puzzling. In “Fly or Die,” uptight Leah is hijacked at a party by mysterious woman named Zola, who leads her to a strip club, where Leah, apparently, is being groomed to go onstage. My note at the end of this story was succinct: “WTF?”
At no point in this does Landis lose her native gift for sentences. A former journalist whose husband happens to be New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet, Landis is, line by line, one of the smartest and most exacting prose stylists we have. She is especially good on the human body. The withered hand of Rainey’s grandmother, Lala, “creeps back to Lala’s hand like a daddy longlegs.” Just a few pages later, Radmila, a young Yugoslav flautist whom Rainey discovers naked in her father’s bed “holds the sheet to the butter knives that are her collarbones.”
Landis also nails the complex inner tectonics of girlhood friendship and rivalry. In one early scene, as Rainey and Tina are toying with how to respond to the repulsive attraction Gordy holds for young girls like them, Tina turns her back on Rainey to reach for a bag of sugar. “Her top rides up,” Landis writes of Tina, “revealing an indented waist that Rainey appreciates because it is necessary that they both be sexy, but revealing, also, a little sash of fat, which Rainey relishes because it is necessary that only one of them have a flawless body.”
Writing this good, especially when powered by a snappy premise, can make for an electric 20-page short story. A novel, to go the distance, also needs a sustaining narrative to carry the reader through. Rainey Royal has the potential for that narrative drive in Rainey’s struggle to take back her body from the men in her life who want to own it, but as the book veers ever further away from the battle over territory in Rainey’s West 10th Avenue townhouse, the drama of the opening stories gradually dissipates until the novel begins to seem more marked by its elisions than by what is on the page.
2014 has already offered a literary bounty for readers, including new books by E.L. Doctorow, Lorrie Moore, Teju Cole, and Lydia Davis. The second-half of 2014 is looking even more plentiful, with new books from superstars like Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Ian McEwan, Marilynne Robinson, Denis Johnson, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and quite a few more. Here at The Millions, we’re especially excited that three of our long-time staff writers — Edan Lepucki, Bill Morris, and Emily St. John Mandel — will soon have new books on shelves. All three books are winning impressive advance praise.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at over 8,000 words strong and encompassing 84 titles, this is the only second-half 2014 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
California by Edan Lepucki: Millions staffer Edan Lepucki’s first full-length novel has been praised by Jennifer Egan, Dan Chaon, and Sherman Alexie, and championed by Stephen Colbert, who’s using it as a case study in sticking it to Amazon. A post-apocalyptic novel set in a California of the not-too-distant future, California follows a young couple struggling to make it work in a shack in the wilderness — dealing with everyday struggles like marriage and privacy as much as dystopian ones likes food and water — until a change in circumstance sends them on a journey to find what’s left of civilization, and what’s left of their past lives. (Janet)
Motor City Burning by Bill Morris: Bill Morris made his literary debut 20 years ago with Motor City, a novel set amid the rich history of 1950s Detroit. Since then, he’s pursued various other interests, writing a novel set in Bangkok and contributing frequently to The Millions as a staff writer. But as anyone who follows Bill’s essays can tell you, his hometown is rarely far from his mind. Now, with the Motor City much in the news, he returns to explore class, race, bloodshed and baseball in the 1960s. (Garth)
The Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique: Tiphanie Yanique follows her much lauded story collection, How to Escape From a Leper Colony, with “an epic multigenerational tale set in the U.S. Virgin Islands that traces the ambivalent history of its inhabitants during the course of the 20th century.” That’s according to Publishers Weekly, who gave The Land of Love and Drowning a starred review. Yanique’s debut novel has been receiving raves all over the place; in its starred review, Kirkus called it, “Bubbling with talent and ambition, this novel is a head-spinning Caribbean cocktail.” (Edan)
Friendship by Emily Gould: Gould, who put the gawk in Gawker in the middle part of the last decade, turns to fiction with a debut novel that at times reads like a series of blog entries written in the third person. In the novel, two friends, Bev and Amy, are trying to make it as writers in New York when Bev gets pregnant. The question of whether Bev should keep the baby, and what Amy should think about the fact that Bev is even considering it, turns the novel into a meditation on growing up in a world built for the young. (Michael)
Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann: Vollmann has over 30 years and damn near as many books earned a reputation as a wildly prolific novelist. Still, almost a decade has passed since his last full-length work of fiction, the National Book Award-winning Europe Central. Here, he offers what may have started as a suite of ghost stories… but is now another sprawling atlas of Vollmann’s obsessions. Stories of violence, romance, and cultural collision are held together by supernatural elements and by Vollmann’s psychedelically sui generis prose. (Garth)
High as the Horses’ Bridles by Scott Cheshire: To the distinguished roster of fictional evangelicals — Faulkner’s Whitfield, Ellison’s Bliss — this first novel adds Josiah Laudermilk, a child-prodigy preacher in 1980s Queens. Cheshire makes huge leaps in time and space to bring us the story of Laudermilk’s transformation into an adult estranged from his father and his faith. (Garth)
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: The second novel from Rebecca Makkai (after 2011’s The Borrower) moves back and forth in the 20th century to tell a story of love, ghosts, and intrigue. The house for which The Hundred-Year House is named is Laurelfield, a rambling estate and former artists’ colony in Chicago’s wealthy North Shore. Owned by the Devohr family for generations, it now finds Zee (née Devohr) and her husband returning to live in the carriage house while she teaches at a local college and he supposedly writes a poet’s biography. What he does instead is ghostwrite teen novels and uncover family secrets. (Janet)
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway: Having written about ninjas, spies in their eighties and mechanical bees in his last two novels, Nick Harkaway is in a tough spot if he wants to top himself this time around. All the indications are that he may have done it, though — Tigerman sees a powerful United Nations carry out a cockamie plan to wipe out a former British colony. The protagonist, a former British soldier, takes it upon himself to fight for his patch of the old empire. (Thom)
Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya: Yelena Akhtiorskaya is one of New York’s best young writers — funny and inventive and stylistically daring, yes, but also clear-eyed and honest. Born in Odessa and raised in Brighton Beach, she’s been publishing essays and fiction in smart-set venues for a few years. Now she delivers her first novel, about two decades in the life of a Ukrainian family resettled in Russian-speaking Brooklyn. An excerpt is available at n+1. (Garth)
The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: “And then one day when the lake ice had broken and geese had come again, two brothers, twins, stole a little boat and rowed together out towards Nizhi.” In an alternate Russia, twin brothers Yarik and Dima work together at Oranzheria, the novel’s titular “sea of glass” greenhouse, until their lives veer into conflict. Weil’s exquisite pen and ink illustrations “frame the titles of all 29 chapters and decorate the novel’s endpapers,” making the book, literally, a work of art. If The New Valley, Weil’s lyric first book of linked novellas, is any indication, this new book will be memorable. (Nick R.)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: Murakami’s previous novel, 1Q84, was a sprawling, fantastical work. His latest is just the opposite: a concise, focused story about a 37-year-old man still trying to come terms with a personal trauma that took place seventeen years earlier — when he was unceremoniously cut out of a tight knit group of friends. The novel has less magical strangeness than most Murakami books, and may be his most straightforward tale since Norwegian Wood. (Kevin)
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas: Thomas spreads his canvas wide in this 640-page doorstop of a novel, which follows three generations of an Irish American family from Queens, but at heart the book is an intimate tale of a family’s struggle to make its peace with a catastrophic illness that strikes one of its members at precisely the wrong moment. Simon & Schuster spent more than a million dollars on this first novel whose author was then teaching high school in New York, thus assuring that the book will either be the fall’s Cinderella story or a poster child for outsized advances given to untested authors. (Michael)
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: Is it “the year of Roxane Gay?” Time suggested it in a review of Gay’s new novel, An Untamed State; when asked (in a self-interview) how that made her feel, she said, “First, I tinkled on myself. Then my ego exploded and I am still cleaning up the mess.” It’s as good a glimpse as any into the wonder that is Roxane Gay — her Twitterstorms alone are brilliant bits of cultural criticism, and her powerful essays, on her blog, Tumblr, and at various magazines, leave you with the sense that this is a woman who can write dazzlingly on just about any topic. In her first essay collection, we’re promised a wide-ranging list of subjects: Sweet Valley High, Django Unchained, abortion, Girls, Chris Brown, and the meaning of feminism. (Elizabeth)
The Kills by Richard House: House’s vast tetralogy, at once a border-hopping thriller and a doorstopping experiment, was longlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize in the U.K. Taking as its backdrop the machinery of the global war on terror, it should be of equal interest on these shores. (Garth)
Before, During, After by Richard Bausch: Since 1980, Richard Bausch has been pouring out novels and story collections that have brilliantly twinned the personal with the epic. His twelfth novel, Before, During, After, spins a love story between two ordinary people – Natasha, a lonely congressional aide, and Michael Faulk, an Episcopalian priest – whose affair and marriage are undone by epic events, one global, one personal. While Michael nearly dies during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Natasha’s error on a Caribbean shore leads to a private, unspeakable trauma. As the novel unspools, Before and During prove to be no match for After. (Bill)
Your Face In Mine by Jess Row: Possibly inspired by the ageless Black Like Me, Jess Row tells the story of Kelly Thorndike, a native Baltimorean who moves back to his hometown and discovers that an old friend has gotten surgery to change his race. At one time a skinny, white, Jewish man, Martin is now African-American, and he’s kept his new identity secret from his friends and family. Martin tells Kelly he wants to come clean, and the two become mired in a fractious, thought-provoking controversy. (Thom)
Flings by Justin Taylor: “Our faith makes us crazy in the world”; so reads a line in The Gospel of Anarchy, Taylor’s novel about a Florida commune of anarchist hippies. The original sentence comes from Don DeLillo’s Mao II, an appropriate literary mentor — Taylor is equal parts hilarious and prescient, capable of finding the sublime in the most prosaic, diverse material. On the first page of the collection’s title story alone: labor history, love, and “an inspired treatise on the American government’s illegal 1921 deployment of the Air Force to bomb striking mine workers at Blair Mountain, West Virginia.” (Nick R.)
Augustus by John Williams: There are things that are famous for being famous, such as the Kardashians, and then there are things that are famous for being not famous, such as John Williams’s Stoner. Since its publication in 1965, the “forgotten” work has enjoyed quite a history – metamorphosing from under-appreciated gem into international bestseller and over-praised classic. Indeed, it’s forgivable at this point to forget that Williams’s most appreciated work was actually his final novel, Augustus, which split the National Book Award and earned more praise during its author’s lifetime than his other books put together. Interestingly, readers of both Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing will here encounter an altogether new version of the John Williams they’ve come to know: Augustus is an epistolary novel set in classical Rome. It’s a rare genius who can reinvent himself in his final work and earn high praise for doing so. (Nick M.)
Alfred Ollivant’s Bob, Son of Battle by Lydia Davis: In the early 1900s, Bob, Son of Battle became a popular children’s tale in England and the United States. Focused on a young boy caught up in a rivalry between two sheepdogs on the moors between Scotland and England, the story eventually found its way into Lydia Davis’s childhood bedroom. Alas, the years have not been kind to the thick Cumbrian dialect in which it was written (“hoodoo” = “how do you do” and “gammy” = “illness,” e.g.) and the work fell out of popularity as a result. Now, however, Davis has updated the work into clear, modern vernacular in order to bring the story to an entirely new generation of readers, and perhaps the next generation of Lydia Davises (if one could ever possibly exist). (Nick M.)
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven is Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, and if pre-publication buzz is any indication, it’s her best, most ambitious work yet. Post-apocalyptic tales are all the rage this season, but Mandel’s intricate plotting and deftness with drawing character makes this novel of interlinked tales stand out as a beguiling read. Beginning with the onslaught of the deadly Georgian flu and the death of a famous actor onstage, and advancing twenty years into the future to a traveling troupe of Shakespearean actors who perform for the few remaining survivors, the novel sits with darkness while searching for the beauty in art and human connection. (Anne)
The Secret Place by Tana French: People have been bragging about snagging this galley all summer, and for good reason: Tana French’s beautifully written, character-driven mysteries about the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad are always a literary event. Her latest concerns a murder at an all girls’ school, and detective Frank Mackey’s daughter Holly might just be a suspect. My fellow staff writer Janet Potter said The Secret Place is damn good, and if you’re smart you will trust Janet Potter. (Edan)
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: David Mitchell has evidently returned to his genre-, time-, and location-bending best with a novel that weaves the Iraq War with punk rock with immortal beings with the End Times. This is a novel that had Publisher’s Weekly asking, “Is The Bone Clocks the most ambitious novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque?” A tall order, either way. A thrill, either way. (Lydia)
Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham: The creator, producer and star of the HBO series Girls — and also, it must be stated, an Oberlin College graduate — has penned a comic essay collection à la David Sedaris or Tina Fey… though something tells me Dunham’s will be more candid and ribald. As Lena herself writes: “No, I am not a sexpert, a psychologist, or a registered dietician. I am not a married mother of three or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise. But I am a girl with a keen interest in self-actualization, sending hopeful dispatches from the front lines of that struggle.” Amen, Lena, amen! (Edan)
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters: After her masterful handling of the haunted house story in The Little Stranger, Waters again taps into the narrative potential of domestic intrusion. This time, it’s lodgers rather than ghosts who are the nuisance. In 1922, a cash-strapped widow and her spinster daughter living by themselves in a large London house let out rooms to a young couple. Annoyances and class tensions soon ignite in these combustible confines, and from the looks of it, the security deposit won’t even begin to cover the damages. The novel promises to be a well-crafted, claustrophobic thriller. (Matt)
The Children Act by Ian McEwan: McEwan’s thirteenth novel treads some familiar ground — a tense moral question sits at the heart of the narrative: whether it is right for parents to refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds. Discussing the novel at the Oxford Literary Festival this past spring, McEwan said that the practice was “utterly perverse and inhumane.” It’s not the first time McEwan has expressed displeasure with religion: in 2005 he told the Believer he had “no patience whatsoever” for it; three years later, he made international news discussing Islam and Christianity, saying he didn’t “like these medieval visions of the world according to which God is coming to save the faithful and to damn the others.” (Elizabeth)
10:04 by Ben Lerner: Ben Lerner follows the unexpected success of his superb first novel Leaving the Atocha Station with a book about a writer whose first novel is an unexpected success. Which is actually something like what you’d expect if you’d read that superb and unexpectedly successful first novel, with its artful manipulations of the boundaries between fiction and memoir. The suddenly successful narrator of 10:04 also gets diagnosed with a serious heart condition and is asked by a friend to help her conceive a child. Two extracts from the novel, “Specimen Days” and “False Spring,” have run in recent issues of the Paris Review. (Mark)
Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood: Some fans will remember well the titular story in Atwood’s forthcoming collection, which was published in the New Yorker in December of 2011, and which begins, in Atwood’s typical-wonderful droll fashion: “At the outset, Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” With this collection, according to the jacket copy, “Margaret Atwood ventures into the shadowland earlier explored by fabulists and concoctors of dark yarns such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle…” If you aren’t planning to read this book, it means you like boring stuff. (Edan)
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel: Just this month, Mantel was made a dame; the reigning queen of British fiction, she’s won two of the last five Man Booker Prizes. But Mantel’s ascension to superstardom was long in the making: she is at work on her twelfth novel in a career that’s spanned four decades. This fall sees the publication of her second collection of short stories, set several centuries on from the novels that earned her those Bookers. Her British publisher, Nicholas Pearson, said, “Where her last two novels explore how modern England was forged, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher shows us the country we have become. These stories are Mantel at her observant best.” (Elizabeth)
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill: In his first novel since his 2008 PEN/Faulkner-winning Netherland, about a Dutch immigrant in post 9/11 New York, O’Neill tells another fish-out-of-water tale, this time about a New Yorker who takes a job as a “family officer” for a wealthy family in Dubai. Surrounded by corruption and overwhelmed by daily life in the desert metropolis, the narrator becomes obsessed with the disappearance of another American in what Publishers Weekly calls “a beautifully crafted narrative about a man undone by a soulless society.” (Michael)
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan: William Finnegan is both a journalist’s journalist and one of the New Yorker’s most consistently engaging voices. Over the years, he’s written about everything from apartheid in South Africa to the broken economy at home (Cold New World now looks prophetic). My favorite of his New Yorker pieces, though, is an insanely long memoir about surfing (Part 1; Part 2) that, legend has it, was crashed into the magazine just before the arrival of Tina Brown as editor. Two decades on, Finnegan returns to this lifelong passion, at book length.
Wittgenstein, Jr. by Lars Iyer: With their ingenious blend of philosophical dialogue and vaudevillian verve, Iyer’s trilogy, Spurious, Dogma and Exodus, earned a cult following. Wittgenstein, Jr. compacts Iyer’s concerns into a single campus novel, set at early 21st-century Cambridge. It should serve as an ideal introduction to his work. (Garth)
The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim: No one makes chaos as appealing a spectacle as Antrim, whether it’s unloosed on the dilapidated red library from The Hundred Brothers, its priceless rugs, heraldic arms and rare books threatened by drunken siblings and a bounding Doberman; the pancake house from The Verificationist; or the moated suburban neighborhood from Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. His latest is a collection of stories written over the past fifteen years, each of which was published in the New Yorker. The Emerald Light in the Air demonstrates that Antrim’s controlled anarchy translates beautifully to the shorter form. (Matt)
Hold the Dark by William Giraldi: Having built a reputation for critical savagery following the hatchet he sank into a pair of Alix Ohlin books in the Times in 2012, Giraldi puts his own neck on the line with this literary thriller set in a remote Alaskan village where wolves are eating children. Billed as an “Alaskan Oresteia,” the novel follows a pair of men, one an aging nature writer, the other a returning soldier, who come to learn secrets “about the unkillable bonds of family, and the untamed animal in the soul of every human being.” That sound you hear is the whine of blades touching grindstones across literary America. (Michael)
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas: The title of Christos Tsiolkas’s fifth novel — his first since the international bestseller, The Slap — is a nickname for Daniel Kelly, an Australian swimming prodigy so ruthless in the water that he gets likened to the sharp-toothed, predatory fish. But Daniel’s Olympic ambitions are thwarted by a crime whose nature Tsiolkas hints at but shrewdly withholds. This novel, like all of Tsiolkas’s work, is a vigorous, sometimes vicious argument about what it means to be Australian. As one character concludes, “We are parochial and narrow-minded and we are racist and ungenerous and…” It gets worse, gorgeously worse. (Bill)
Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones: You’re showing your age and (lack of) internet bona fides if you admit that you’re unfamiliar with Jones’s work. For years now the Buzzfeed LGBT editor has been lighting it up at his day job, and also on Twitter, with a ferocity befitting his name. Now, after earning praise from D.A. Powell and after winning a NYC-based Literary Death Match bout, Jones will use his debut collection to prominently display his poetry chops. (Ed. note: check out an excerpt over here.) (Nick M.)
Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück: The UK publisher (Carcanet) of Louise Glück’s newest collection — her twelfth — describes the poems as “a sequence of journeys and explorations through time and memory.” Macmillan describes it as “a story of adventure, an encounter with the unknown, a knight’s undaunted journey into the kingdom of death; this is a story of the world you’ve always known… every familiar facet has been made to shimmer like the contours of a dream…” In other words, Glück’s newest work is interested in a kind of reiterative, collage-like experience of narrative — “tells a single story but the parts are mutable.” (Sonya)
Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg: In Goldberg’s latest novel, infamous Chicago mafia hit man Sal Cupertine must flee to Las Vegas to escape the FBI, where he assumes the identity of… Rabbi David Cohen. The Mafia plus the Torah makes for a darkly funny and suspenseful morality tale. Goldberg, who runs UC Riverside-Palm Desert’s low residency MFA program, is also the author of Living Dead Girl, which was an LA Times Fiction Prize finalist, and the popular Burn Notice series, among others. The man can spin a good yarn. (Edan)
Happiness: Ten Years of n+1 by Editors of n+1: Happiness is a collection of the best pieces from n+1’s first decade, selected by the magazine’s editors. Ten years is a pretty long time for any literary journal to continue existing, but when you consider the number of prominent younger American writers who have had a long association with the magazine, it’s actually sort of surprising that it hasn’t been around longer. Chad Harbach, Keith Gessen, Benjamin Kunkel and Elif Batuman all launched their careers through its pages. Pieces by these writers, and several more, are included here. (Mark)
Neverhome by Laird Hunt: According to letters and accounts from the time, around 400 women disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War. Years ago, Laird Hunt read a collection of one of those women’s letters, and the idea for this novel has been germinating ever since. It tells the story of Constance Thompson, a farm wife who leaves her husband behind, calls herself Ash and fights for the Union. Neverhome is both a story about the harrowing life of a cross-dressing soldier, and an investigation into the mysterious circumstances that led her there. (Janet)
My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner: Brian Turner served for seven years in the US Army, spending time in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq. Since then, he has published two collections of poetry — Here, Bullet and the T.S. Elliot Prize-shortlisted Phantom Noise — both of which draw heavily on his experiences in those wars. His new book is a memoir about his year in Iraq, and about the aftermath of that experience. Turner also makes a leap of conceptual identification, attempting to imagine the conflict through the experience of the Iraqi other. Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, has praised it as “brilliant and beautiful”, and as ranking “with the best war memoirs I’ve ever encountered”. (Mark)
Wallflowers: Stories by Eliza Robertson: Robertson’s stories — often told from the perspectives of outsiders, often concerned with the mysteries of love and family, set in places ranging from the Canadian suburbs to Marseilles — have earned her a considerable following in her native Canada. Her debut collection includes “We Walked on Water,” winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and “L’Etranger,” shortlisted for the CBC Short Story Prize. (Emily)
On Bittersweet Place by Ronna Wineberg: On Bittersweet Place is the second publication from Relegation Books, a small press founded by author Dallas Hudgens. The novel — Wineberg’s first, following her acclaimed story collection Second Language — concerns Lena Czernitski, a young Russian Jewish immigrant trying to find her place in the glamour and darkness of 1920s Chicago. (Emily)
The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis: Following on the heels of the acclaimed The Free World, Bezmozgis’s second novel is about 24 hours in the life of Baruch Kotler, a disgraced Israeli politician who meets the Soviet-era spy who denounced him decades earlier. (Kevin)
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran: The feminist journalist and author of How to Be a Woman, once called “the UK’s answer to Tina Fey, Chelsea Handler, and Lena Dunham all rolled into one” by Marie Claire, is publishing her first novel. It follows Johanna Morrigan, who at 14 decides to start life over as Dolly Wilde. Two years later she’s a goth chick and “Lady Sex Adventurer” with a gig writing reviews for a music paper, when she starts to wonder about what she lost when she reinvented herself. (Janet)
On Immunity: An Innoculation by Eula Biss: When Biss became a mother, she began looking into the topic of vaccination. What she had assumed would be a few hours of personal research turned into a fascination, and the result is a sweeping work that considers the concept of immunity, the history of vaccination — a practice that sometimes seems to function as a lightning rod for our most paranoid fears about the chemical-laden modern world in which we find ourselves, but that has its roots in centuries-old folk medicine — and the ways in which we’re interconnected, with meditations on writers ranging from Voltaire to Bram Stoker. (Emily)
Yes, Please by Amy Poehler: The Leslie Knopes among us cannot wait for Poehler’s first book of personal stories and advice, in the vein of Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? In Poehler’s delightful New Yorker essay about her job at an ice cream parlor, she wrote, “It’s important to know when it’s time to turn in your kazoo.” Wise words from one of America’s most beloved comics and actresses. (Anne)
The Peripheral by William Gibson: William Gibson fans rejoice, for his first novel in four years is upon us. The novel follows an army veteran with futuristic nerve damage wrought during his time in a futuristic kill squad. (Technically, according to Gibson, it’s a novel taking place in multiple futures, so it’s probably more complicated than that). You can watch him read the first two pages here. If William Gibson were a tense, he’d be future-noir. (Lydia)
Lila by Marilynne Robinson: Marilynne Robinson published her brilliant debut novel Housekeeping in 1980 and then basically went dark for a decade and a half, but has been relatively prolific in the last ten years. After re-emerging with 2004’s gorgeous and heartbreaking Gilead, she followed up four years later with Home, a retelling of the prodigal son parable that revisited a story and characters from Gilead. James Wood’s description of the relationship between the two books is exact and lovely: “Home is not a sequel [to Gilead],” he wrote, “but more like that novel’s brother.” With her new novel, Robinson has given those books a sister. The novel tells the story of Lila – the young bride of Gilead’s narrator, Rev. John Ames – who was abandoned as a toddler and raised by a drifter. (Mark) (Ed. Note: You can read an excerpt over here.)
Dan by Joanna Ruocco: Joanna Ruocco’s kaleidoscopic fictions have been likened to Donald Barthelme’s for their dark humor and uncanny occurrences that revel in wordplay. Her stories “map the unmappable wrinkles of the mind,” says Laird Hunt, and by bridging disparate ideas creates a synesthesia. In Dan, Ruocco’s latest novel, the character Melba Zuzzo finds herself in a rut while living in a male-dominated town in the foothills of a mountain. What ensues is a “slapstick parable” that according to her publisher, Dorothy Project, evokes both the “unabashed campiness of Thomas Pynchon” and the capacious imagination of Raymond Roussel. (Anne)
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James: Marlon James follows his stunning and brutal The Book of Night Women with A Brief History of Seven Killings, which depicts the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley, “spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters — assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts.” Irvine Welsh calls it “an amazing novel of power, corruption and lies. I can’t think of a better one I’ve read this century.” (Edan)
Citizen by Claudia Rankine: “Often a division is made between politics and poetry, and I like to think this is a moment when the intersection is recognized,” remarked poet Claudia Rankine, about recently winning the Jackson Poetry Prize. In her lyric hybrid work, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine investigated media’s role in our private lives, taking on television, pharmaceutical marketing, depression, race, and identity in the post–9/11 era. Citizen, her follow-up book, deals pointedly with race and racial aggression in the media and the everyday — from the classroom to the playing field and the public stage — as it traces the effects of racism in our so-called “post-race” age. (Anne)
Some Luck by Jane Smiley: Still best known for her 1991 Pulitzer-winner A Thousand Acres, Smiley returns to Iowa farm country in this ambitious family saga set in the first half of the 20th century. Some Luck is the first installment in a trilogy spanning 100 years in the lives of the Langdon family, starting from its rural Iowa roots in 1920 and following the clan as its five children spread out across America in a time of epochal change. The second volume, Early Warning, is due in spring 2015, with the final volume, which brings the story up to December 31, 2019, set to appear next fall. (Michael)
Reunion by Hannah Pittard: In Pittard’s second novel — her first was 2011’s The Fates Will Find Their Way, lauded here and just about everywhere else — a failed screenwriter on the verge of divorce agrees to join her family for a reunion in Atlanta after her estranged father commits suicide. It’s a nuanced and intriguing study of family and love, money and debt, failure and success, starring one of the most likable flawed narrators to come along in some time. (Emily)
A Different Bed Every Time by Jac Jemc: Six years ago Chicago-based author Jac Jemc started a blog to track the rejection letters she received. But recently the blog’s been rather quiet — due to a slew of acceptances, it seems. Jemc’s first novel, My Only Wife, was published in 2012 and nominated for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham award; it depicts a husband’s obsession with recalling memories of his wife who disappeared five years earlier. When Jemc’s follow-up collection, A Different Bed Every Time, hits shelves, expect to encounter stories showcasing Jemc’s playful and poetic sensibility, in a book that Laura van den Berg deems “mythic and essential.” (Anne)
300,000,000 by Blake Butler: Blake Butler deploys words like chemicals that merge into phrases, coalescing in alternate existences, with familiar worlds distorted. In Butler’s third novel, There is No Year, a family survives a disease but is still subject to a scourge of infestations and other horrors and mysteries, including a house with secret passageways and the existence of a duplicate “copy family.” Butler began his latest novel, 300,000,000, as a retaliation against the hype surrounding Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. The result? A portrait of American violence, told through the minds of a Manson-like cult figure and the policeman responsible for figuring him out, while tracking a trail of violence and descent into psychosis. (Anne)
Sister Golden Hair by Darcey Steinke: In Steinke’s new novel, a coming-of-age story set in early-70’s Virginia, twelve-year-old Jesse’s family is on the brink of collapse: her father has recently been defrocked, and her mother is coming undone. When her father was a pastor, Jesse felt that they were a part of something — “We were at the center of what I thought of as THE HOLY, and our every move had weight and meaning” — but they’ve drifted into a life of vertiginous weightlessness. (Emily)
Quick Kills by Lynn Lurie: Lurie’s first novel, Corner of the Dead, featured a photojournalist traumatized by the atrocities committed by the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru during the 1980s. In Quick Kills, the narrator is a young girl who finds herself on the other side of the camera, the exploited subject of a predatory photographer: “There is fear in my eyes. I see the fear clearly even in the blurred snapshot.” This slim work looks to be an unsettling rumination on art, pornography and sexual violence. (Matt)
Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère: This biography of Éduard Limonov, published in France in 2011, won the prestigious Prix Théophraste-Renaudot, which is typically awarded to a novel. Limonov’s life makes for good novelistic material: he is founder of the National Bolshevik Party, which “believes in the creation of a grand empire that will include the whole of Europe and Russia, as well as Northern/Central Asia, to be governed under Russian dominance” (Wikipedia), and FSG’s English translation (by John Lambert) will be released under the in-case-you-didn’t-know title Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia. Typical of Carrère, he approaches his subject essayistically, wrestling with his own attractions/repulsions vis-à-vis the epic Limonov. (Sonya)
The Heart Is Strange by John Berryman: To mark the centenary of John Berryman’s birth, FSG is reissuing much of his poetry, including his book The Dream Songs. They’re also publishing a new collection, featuring three uncollected pieces along with older examples of his work, that spans the length of his career. From his juvenalia, to the landmark “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” to his later poems, The Heart is Strange puts Berryman’s talents on display, which means a new generation will start using the phrase “heavy bored.” (For a primer on Dream Songs, check out Stephen Akey’s Millions essay.) (Thom)
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber: Faber’s latest novel – which David Mitchell called his “second masterpiece” after The Crimson Petal and the White – touches on interstellar space travel, cataclysmic events, romantic love, and religious faith. Such broad territory seems befitting for an author claimed simultaneously by the nations of Scotland, Australia, and the Netherlands. (Nick M.)
Hiding in Plain Sight by Nuruddin Farah: Farah is back with another trilogy after his acclaimed Blood in the Sun series. Once again, he explores identity, obligation, family ties, and how politics can interrupt it all. After Bella’s brother is killed by Somali extremists, she has to give up her life as a famous fashion photographer and raise his children as if they were her own. Yet when the children’s mother returns, Bella must decide what matters more — her family or herself. (Tess)
The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson: In an interview last fall, Johnson described his new novel as “kind of a spy story with what we might call serious intentions, on the order of Graham Greene.” Johnson, whose 2007 novel Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award, has written a post-9/11 spy thriller concerning a trio of travelers in west Africa; one is a self-styled soldier of fortune, another is being trailed by two spy agencies and Interpol, and all three are hiding secrets from one another. (Emily)
Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford: I was gleeful to learn that Frank Bascombe will return to us after eight years and the threat of oblivion. At a reading in April, Ford reintroduced Bascombe as a 67-year-old Jersey-dweller ruminating on his former home, tipped on its side by Hurricane Sandy. Let Me Be Frank With You will comprise four novellas, each narrated with, undoubtedly, that unmistakable Bascombe verve. (Lydia)
Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet: After the high hilarity of her satirical early work, Lydia Millet reached new emotional depths in her last three novels. This new novel, concerning the discovery of mermaids and the ensuing scramble to cash in, looks to achieve a new kind of synthesis. (Garth)
Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter: Lindsay Hunter’s first story collection Daddy’s is described by its publisher Featherproof Books as a “collection of toxic southern gothics, packaged as a bait box of temptation.” Her second collection Don’t Kiss Me, published by FSG (who says big houses don’t publish story collections?) is, according to the Tin House blog, “a heterogeneous story collection that holds together… peculiar voices that tend to overlap in areas of loss, self-pity, and hilarity.” Hunter is a practitioner of the short-short form and founding host of a flash fiction reading series; no surprise that her debut novel Ugly Girls would be “voice-driven with [a] breakneck pace.” Roxane Gay (on Twitter) called it “gorgeously hopeless.” (Sonya)
Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare: Originally published in 1978 and appearing in English for the first time this year, Twilight of the Eastern Gods is the fictional account of the prolific Albanian novelist’s time at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow, to which Kadare was recruited in 1958. A kind of factory meant to produce top Socialist writers, the Gorky Institute’s prescribed style and disagreeable faculty instead caused Kadare to rethink his calling. Like his other novels, Twilight promises to be a wormhole into strange times. (Lydia)
A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin: Beneath the quiet poetry of Ha Jin’s sentences is a searing novelistic ambition; in A Map of Betrayal, the story of a double-agent in the CIA, he explores a half-century of entanglements between China and the U.S., and the divided loyalties that result. (Garth)
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews: The premise of Toews’s sixth novel, released to critical acclaim in Canada earlier this year, is simple and devastating: there are two adult sisters, and one of them wants to die. She’s a wildly successful and in-demand concert pianist, but she longs for self-annihilation. It’s a premise that could easily be grindingly unbearable, but Toews is a writer of considerable subtlety and grace, with a gift for bringing flashes of lightness, even humor, to the darkest of tales. (Emily)
Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 by Alice Munro: If our guide to Alice Munro wasn’t enough, Family Furnishings will feature 25 of her best stories from the past 19 years. It’s the first anthology of her work since Selected Stories (1968-1994) and should fill the Munro oeuvre for both lifelong fans and those who found her after her Nobel Prize win last year. Despite her larger-than-life reputation now, these stories remind us what makes Munro one of the best short story writers in the first place — her ability to illuminate quotidian problems and intimacies in small-town Canada. (Tess)
Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles d’Ambrosio: In 2005 Charles D’Ambrosio published an essay collection, Orphans, with a small press, and the book won a devoted following. The entire print run consisted of 3,500 copies, but all of them, D’Ambrosio writes in his introduction to Loitering, managed to find their way into the hands of readers, “a solace to me like the thought of home.” In Loitering, which consists of the eleven original essays from Orphans and a number of new pieces, D’Ambrosio considers subjects ranging from the work of J.D. Salinger to the idea of home. (Emily)
Why Religion is Immoral: And Other Interventions by Christopher Hitchens: Since his death from cancer in 2011, Christopher Hitchens has refused to leave the party. His voice — erudite, witty, proudly biased — can be heard again in this new collection of his unpublished speeches, a follow-up to his late-life bestseller, God Is Not Great. The word “interventions” in the new book’s title is critical because Hitchens’s great theme — his opposition to all forms of tyranny, including religious, political and social — led him to support the misinformed and disastrous military invention against the Iraqi tyrant, Saddam Hussein. Hitchens wasn’t always right, but as this new collection ably demonstrates, he was never dull. (Bill)
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck: One of the most significant German-language novelists of her generation, Erpenbeck follows up the celebrated novel Visitation with a heady conceit located somewhere between Cloud Atlas and Groundhog Day. The End of Days follows a single character, born early in the 20th Century, to five different deaths: the first as an infant, the second as a teenager, and so on. In each case, her life illuminates the broader history of Europe, which remains ever in the background, dying its own deaths. (Garth)
Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: In Rash’s poem, “Preserves,” a family discovers a beautiful springhouse after a funeral, where “woodslats bowed with berry and vegetable.” Rash’s work is suffused with this sense: a pastoral world is dying, and his sentences are its best chance at resurrection. Longtime fans of Rash’s elegiac prose are happy this craftsman is finally getting his deserved recognition. His novel, Serena, will reach theaters later this year, and star Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. In Above the Waterfall, set in North Carolina, a terrible crime brings together a sheriff and a park ranger. The territory might be familiar, but this poet-novelist always delivers. (Nick R.)
The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Mehgan Daum: Thirteen years after it was published, My Misspent Youth holds up as a perennially interesting book of essays, not to mention the final word on being young and broke in New York. In her new collection, Meghan Daum looks at a host of modern anxieties, including the modern wedding industry, Joni Mitchell and the habits of digital natives. Though a lot of her material is funny in the vein of Nora Ephron, there’s gravity here, too — as there is in “Matricide”, which tackles the death of her mother. Our own Matt Seidel recently featured Daum’s editor in a piece on editors’ first buys. (Thom)
The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya: Ludmila Ulitskaya only began writing novels after her scientific credentials were revoked for translating a banned novel. The Russian author’s commitments to art, activism, and speaking her mind have led her to become one of Russia’s most popular living authors. These same concerns guide her fiction, too — called smart, prickly, and with harsh wit — and in this, her latest novel, The Big Green Tent, is no exception. When a poet, a pianist, and a photographer try to transcend oppression in post-Stalinist Russia, their ultimate destinies are far darker than their author’s. (Anne)
Skylight by José Saramago: This is Saramago’s so-called “lost work,” which was written in the 1950s, but rediscovered after the Nobel laureate’s death in 2010. The novel features the interconnected stories of the residents of an apartment building in Lisbon in the 1940s. (Kevin)
The First Bad Man by Miranda July: If you’re like me, and think about the various Miranda July short stories like favorite tracks on a beloved album, you might be surprised that The First Bad Man is her debut novel. Her short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, was published six years ago and won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award; since then, she has, amongst other varied projects, released an acclaimed feature film and a book project inspired by the people behind various PennySaver ads. The novel, which centers around a woman “with a perpetual lump in her throat,” chronicles what happens when, after taking her boss’s selfish, cruel daughter, her “eccentrically ordered world explodes.” (Elizabeth)
Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: Sara Gerard’s star is rising. The NYC-based bookseller slash art-mag-employee slash writer drew attention last fall with “Things I Told My Mother,” an essayistic inquiry into women’s representation in society, spawned by a topless walk the author took through Times Square. This kind of intensity and boldness guide all of Gerard’s work — whether concerning other writers, or her own bout with anorexia, addiction, and a stint jumping freight trains, and now in her first novel Binary Star. Binary Star interweaves astronomical research with a story about an unnamed anorexic who burns through her intensely dysfunctional life like a star burns fuel, never to be replenished. (Anne)
Outline by Rachel Cusk: Some travelers collect stories as much as souvenirs. In Cusk’s latest novel, a woman writer travels to Greece to teach a creative writing workshop but learns just as much from the tales her fellow travelers tell her. As she listens, she weaves their stories into a narrative of loss, creativity, family life, and intimacy. To keep with the storytelling tradition, the Paris Review serialized the novel, but FSG will publish it for a full narrative experience. (Tess)
Glow by Ned Beauman: Beauman’s previous novels, The Boxer Beetle and The Teleportation Accident — the one a fanciful look at eugenics and fascism, the other a genre-bending wonder about an avant-garde set designer in 1930s Berlin — each displayed a learned, diabolical imagination at work. His latest appears just as unhinged. Enrolled in a “continuous amateur neurochemistry seminar” and suffering from a sleep disorder, its hero experiments with the designer drug, “glow,” which opens up a gateway into a Pynchonian universe: a disappeared friend, pirate radio stations, and a nefarious Burmese mining company. (Matt)
There’s Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: In his first story collection in 15 years, Charles Baxter, a son of the Midwest and venerated writer of fiction, poetry and essays, gives us inter-related tales that are tidily bifurcated into two sections, one devoted to virtues (“Chastity,” “Charity,” “Forbearance”), the other to vices (“Lust,” “Sloth,” “Avarice”). Characters re-appear, performing acts both virtuous and loathsome, in stories that are set mostly around Minneapolis but also roam to New York, Tuscany and Ethiopia. The collection’s title is a typical “request moment” that animates the stories, resulting in a murder, a rescue, a love affair, an assault, even a surprising gesture of kindness. (Bill)
Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris: I was such a big fan of Amelia Morris’s hilarious, entertaining, and useful food blog, Bon Appétempt, that I tracked her down and asked her to teach for my writing school, Writing Workshops Los Angeles. Now Amelia has penned a compelling and funny memoir about becoming an adult and an artist — both in and out of the kitchen — that is sure to bring her even more devoted readers. If you like Laurie Colwin and MFK Fischer and, I don’t know, total goofballs baking cakes while making weird faces, you’ll love Amelia Morris and Bon Appétempt. (Edan)
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: “What I want is to create stories that shift around when you reread them.” Few can shake readers awake as well as Link, which makes short fiction her ideal form. She has been called the “George Saunders of the fairy tale,” but simply being Kelly Link is enough. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, gets its title from the sense that in fiction, “there’s a kind of cathartic, discomforting joy — a pain/pleasure — in people behaving badly.” Her previous fantastical tales have been populated by librarians, cellists, aliens, and fainting goats. Link aims to surprise, which makes her work absolutely pleasing. (Nick R.)
Find Me by Laura van den Berg: Laura van den Berg’s fictions often unfurl just beyond the real, with their madcap mix of zany and dreamlike set-ups. Case in point, van den Berg’s recent story collection, The Isle of Youth, was peopled by yacht thieves, a mother-daughter magician team, and newlyweds who survive a plane crash. Her first novel, Find Me, continues this surreal, at times catastrophic streak, as it follows Joy, a grocery clerk, cough-syrup addict who’s immune to an ongoing plague of memory illness. Joy’s resulting hospital stay and cross-country journey plotline sounds like a surreal mash-up of Stephen King’s The Stand and Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps. (Anne)
The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa: The 2010 Nobel Prize winner trains his eye on corruption and urbanization in modern day Lima in his latest novel. According to CityLab, “The story follows two parallel tales: an elite Lima businessman who decides to punish his undeserving heirs, and a self-made man in Vargas Llosa’s adopted hometown, Piura, who resists an extortionist demand.” (Kevin)
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I recently found myself compelled to revisit Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried for lots of reasons, not the least of which was reading Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s remarkable new collection of war stories, Brief Encounters with the Enemy. I wanted some context for the experience. In fact, after reading Brief Encounters…, I asked several friends and colleagues if they were asked to suggest a work of war literature, what would it be? The responses were what you’d expect: The Naked and the Dead, Catch-22, some recent examples, like The Yellow Birds, or Tree of Smoke, but overwhelmingly the book suggested was O’Brien’s. It was the first book I’d thought of, too, and so I dug around for my copy.
The first thing that struck me was the epigraph, taken from John Ransom’s Andersonville Diary:
This book is essentially different from any other that has been published concerning the “late war” or any of its incidents. Those who have had any such experience as the author will see its truthfulness at once, and to all other readers it is commended as a statement of actual things by one who experienced them to the fullest.
What struck me was how this epigraph could just as well work for Sayrafiezadeh’s book, for very different but no less relevant reasons.
And it is.
The Things They Carried wants to convey viscerally and poetically what it was really like, over there. Which for O’Brien means disorientation, confusion, fractured sensory experienced, amorality, and a memory that cannot be trusted. Truth is entirely up for grabs. Probably my favorite story in the bunch is the often quoted and practically protean “How to Tell a True War Story,” which opens with a short, sly, and pretty bold statement: “This is true.” O’Brien then proceeds to dismantle a few presumptions regarding truth: “A true war story is never moral;” “If a war story seems moral, do not believe it;” “In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it be skeptical;” “Often in a true war story there is not even a point;” there’s plenty more. Prior to O’Brien, the mission of the war story was mostly to tell civilian readers what it was like over there, “there” being a main point. In fact, think of the mythic narrative that surrounds the “thereness” of war: from the seminal American anthem, “Over There” (here’s a colorized clip of Jimmy Cagney singing it from Yankee Doodle Dandy), to Dalton Trumbo’s award-winning novel Johnny Got His Gun, inspired by the anthem’s opening line (“Johnny get your gun, get your gun, get your gun”), to Metallica’s video for “One,” a song inspired by Trumbo’s novel, the video cut with clips from the novel’s infamous film adaptation. But O’Brien’s story decries these three versions of truth. In fact, the story closes with: “in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war.” Which brings us back to Sayrafiezadeh’s book, a dynamite collection of war stories, with hardly any war in them at all.
Sayrafiezadeh is no stranger to writing books that artfully navigate contemporary politics. His 2009 memoir <i>When Skateboards will be Free is basically the story of a kid growing up in Pittsburgh, and his strained adult relationship with his father. But it also happens to be the engrossing story of a youth spent in the Socialist Worker Party, and the best firsthand account of American fundamentalist ideological indoctrination I’ve ever read (I’ve read quite a few, I have my reasons…). What makes Brief Encounters with the Enemy such a singular book is not so much Sayrafiezadeh’s attempt at conveying what war feels like right now, but his choice of location. This is not a book about there. It’s about here, what America feels like, here, and now, while at war.
The stories are linked by way of subject and space, set in what feels eerily like your average and somewhat depressed American city (Wal-Marts and convenience stores, suburbs, city blocks, and bus routes), sometimes hilariously referred to as an “Emerging International City,” but one that refuses to name itself. That refusal lends the collection a strange sort of intimacy from its opening pages, a dreamlike déjà vu. And Sayrafiezadeh’s subject: how does a nation go about its daily business while its young men and women kill and die at war for more than a decade already? There are parades, yes, of course, like in “Paranoia,” when the narrator and his friend Roberto drive to downtown to see the 4th of July Parade: “The turnout was extraordinary,” and “[p]eople applauded, but the applause seemed to disorient the veterans.” But parades can’t happen everyday, and so for the remainder of each year, we lose our jobs, and get new jobs, house-watch for friends, and fall in love on the coffee line. All of which happens in Brief Encounters… Which is to say, we are at war and we simply go about our business. But such a state of schizophrenic complacency does have its price.
The entire collection is marked by a mix of malaise and foreboding that feels uncannily like American life right now. Uncertainty about weather and “the war” pervade these stories: “It was winter now and it was cold and the bus drivers were on strike. And the war was coming, everybody said so,” says the narrator of “Cartography;” “When April arrived, it started to get warm and everyone said that the war was definitely going to happen soon and there was nothing anybody could do to stop it,” from “Paranoia.” The sense throughout is of an anxious culture, a culture in which war looms, almost naturally, cyclically. And one that shares a kind of secondhand collective (mis)understanding, “everybody said so.” A culture in which military imagery and heroic language is appropriated by daily routine and has no meaningful corresponding relationship to its real world referent: a bus rider on a cramped bus describes sweating heavily, “rivulets ran from my armpits down my sides and collected in the elastic of my underwear. This is what it must feel like for soldiers on the transport heading to battle;” line cooks “come to the aid of another who has fallen far behind, as if in battle,” and they scald themselves with boiling water like “grenades had gone off” in their hands, and still they “continue marching onward up the hill.” In “Operators,” Wally comes back from the war “to great fanfare, that I felt undeserved,” says the narrator. “He had departed to great fanfare too — which was also undeserved.” What follows is a totally uncomfortable, and poignant, and just plain funny tug-of-war between two co-workers for the attention of the pretty office girls. Now seems like a good time to say how funny all of these stories are, and I don’t mean punch line funny, I mean tragicomedy along the lines of Bellow and DeLillo.
There is one honest to goodness story here about a young soldier at war, the title story, in which the soldier finds himself mostly getting bored: “Instead of getting in shape, I started to get fatter.” He does have a cool gun, however, so cool and creepily like a sort of militarized iPhone, that it not only shoots bullets, but tells the time and temperature too.
Plus it could kill a man from a mile away. You hardly even had to pull the trigger. If you put your finger in the proximity of the trigger, it sensed what you wanted to do and it pulled itself. Poof went the bullet, and the gun would vibrate gently, as if you were getting a call on your cell phone.
Among all the things this soldier carries — “it was the lightest thing on me.”
Brief Encounters with the Enemy does something rare in that it contributes something new and “essentially different” to the literature of war — our stories, about what it’s like over here. It’s discomfiting, and surprising, and illuminating to say the least. I’ve not read anything like it before.
Pre-pub buzz had Shani Boianjiu’s debut novel, the intriguingly if somewhat cumbersomely titled The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, as a The Things They Carried—Mean Girls hybrid. If you are finding it just a little difficult to picture a Venn diagram where a novel-in-stories about the Vietnam War intersects with a Tina-Fey-penned movie about the travails of high school girls, consider this: both war and high school are marked by a strange blend of ennui and nearly unbearable stress, of existential dread and petty banality. (But, yes, it’s also true that only one of these makes you ponder the cruel betrayals of fame and fortune vis-à-vis a once fresh-faced, plucky, promising Lindsay Lohan.)
High school may be war, but, ultimately, if one must cast The People of Forever in pop culture terms, the book is mostly reminiscent of the Lena Dunham-created HBO show Girls. With its episodic structure, its unfolding in seemingly standalone stories actually bound together by insistent echoes, and its cast of recently-graduated young women — three, in the case of Boianjiu’s novel, to Dunham’s show’s four — pretending to a maturity, a certainty, they neither possess nor successfully imitate, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid takes as its subject rites of passage, looks at transient but fraught moments in a transitional time. And, like Dunham’s fictional(ized) stand-in Hannah Horvath, Boianjiu may well be the voice of her generation or, at least, a voice of a generation.
Boianjiu’s generation is comprised of the young women who, having completed high school, are conscripted into the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Army service provides the backdrop for much of The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, though the book has little to do with the business of war. There are, to be sure, eruptions of violence — a male soldier is very nearly decapitated, the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit and Israel’s subsequent 2006 war in Lebanon are integrated into the plot, and the novel’s third section explores the peacetime aftershocks of armed conflict, for “when the boy soldiers returned from the war they tortured the girl soldiers who waited for them” — but for the most part, the book may well be set in the Brooklyn of Girls. Yael, Avishag, and Lea, the three friends who split narratorial duties and narrative focus, are mostly bored, biding their time at checkpoints, like wasting time in dead-end internships, waiting for their real lives to begin. I don’t mean to make light of the very grave, very deadly geopolitical concerns that are necessarily the background of a novel with its gaze firmly fixed on life in Israel, on life in the Israeli army. But these concerns are mostly background in The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, which reads, above all, as a coming-of-age story.
We meet Yael, Avishag, and Lea when they are still in school, a “caravan of a classroom” in a tiny village on the Lebanese border. (Boianjiu herself grew up in such a town.) Like any students on the verge of graduation, the girls are tempted to ignore the lecture, to pass notes and fantasize about parties and crushes, to speculate about whose house might be without parental supervision long enough to host those parties and entertain those crushes. The lecture at hand is about the “PLO, SAM, IAF, RPG children,” Syrian submarines and Palestinian children trying to shoot RPG rockets at Israeli soldiers and burning each other instead, but, as a sub-chapter heading tells us, “History Is Almost Over.” These young women, like young women everywhere, believe that the past stops with their present, that their futures will be different and special and lovely. And this is of course terrifying.
Army notices are sent out. The girls prepare for service. Yael becomes a weapons instructor, responsible for training other soldiers in the art of marksmanship. (An editorial by Boianjiu in last Sunday’s New York Times revealed that this was her own position during her two years of IDF service. I mention this fact mostly by way of noting that Yael, who bears the heaviest load of the narration, seems closest to the author herself, serving as ego in the triangulated configuration of herself and the imperious Lea and the depressive, impulsive Avishag.) Lea checks documents at a West Bank checkpoint and desperately tries to enter into the history and experiences of the men trying to cross. Avishag serves as a guard overlooking the border. All three pretend at being grownups, at being tough, and all three remain vulnerable, become more vulnerable. They flash back to their childhoods, their conventionally troubled families, to which all three return, however briefly, after the completion of their service. The girls’ reunion becomes a momentarily idyllic return to the safety of childhood configurations, a respite not from war — which is after all a kind of existential truth in their lives — but from the need to pose as confident, as capable. Only about twenty when they leave the army, the girls are poised on the threshold of a world that does not seem to them quite real, and they postpone their entrance by retreating into old patterns, old games.
The author herself is still very young, only twenty-five. She is also the youngest recipient of the National Book Foundation’s 5 Under 35 Award, selected for that honor by the novelist Nicole Krauss. Boianjiu has something of Krauss’s sensibility, her interest in intersecting lives, the seams where unexpected connections are exposed. In The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, Boianjiu showcases a lovely sort of simplicity, allowing the girls’ voices to ring true, to ring young and innocent and sad. In this, she strikes no false notes: Yael and Lea and Avishag are just different enough from each other to be interesting, just similar enough to be believable friends. The book falls apart near the end, asked to bear a burden it has not convincingly built to. It becomes, too suddenly, with too little warning, about war, and it loses sight of the characters who helped us make sense of all that has come before. But, for those moments when Yael and Lea and Avishag and their splendid, troubled, mundane lives are slowly developing in front of us, a strip of photo-booth pictures coming into a precision and a clarity, we fully believe in their existence and their sense of that existence.
Today I began teaching E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel in my first-year writing seminar at Fordham. I feel kind of bad about it. They’re nice kids, and they don’t deserve the royal butt-kicking Doctorow’s underappreciated Vietnam-era novel dishes out.
Edgar Lawrence Doctorow, now 81, occupies an avuncular place in our literary culture. He has been an eminence grise in the NYU creative writing program for many years, and before his rise as a writer in his own right, he was editor-in-chief at The Dial Press where he edited the likes of Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and William Kennedy. With his bald pate and genial, bearded countenance, the guy just looks nice. But as we know from books, looks can be deceiving.
A grandchild of Russian Jewish immigrants raised in the depths of the Great Depression, Doctorow often centers his historical novels around violent insurgents bent on overturning a smug, wealthy elite. Ragtime, perhaps his best-known book, sets a white upper-middle class family that owes its fortune to the production of American flags and fireworks against a family of poor Jewish immigrants who find solace in the politics of anarchist Emma Goldman, and a fictional black jazz musician named Coalhouse Walker, who turns violent after white policemen kill his wife. The March follows General William Tecumseh Sherman on his scorched-earth March to the Sea from Atlanta to Savannah in the waning months of the Civil War.
As good as these books are – and they are good – they keep these historical fire-breathers safely in the past, dead and buried and of no threat to us. This is what makes The Book of Daniel an outlier on the Doctorow bookshelf. Published in 1971, Daniel tells the story of accused Communist spies Ethel and Julius Rosenberg – called the Isaacsons in the novel – from the perspective of their son, Daniel, who is not merely still alive, but over the course of the novel becomes deeply enmeshed in one of the principal historical movements of his day, the fight against the Vietnam War.
As a literary conceit, this is in itself daring. The Rosenbergs, when they were executed in 1953, did have two children, Michael and Robert Meeropol, both still living today, and both former academics long aligned with left-wing causes. In the novel, the two brothers morph into Susan, a mentally unstable twenty-year-old college student involved in the protests against the Vietnam War, and her older brother Daniel, a twenty-four-year-old Columbia University graduate student trying to finish his dissertation. The novel is that dissertation, or rather, the crazy mishmash of autobiography, historical analysis, self-justification, and blind rage that Daniel pours out onto the page after he learns that his sister has attempted suicide after being betrayed by the anti-war New Left.
Structured in this way, and set during the long hot summer of 1967, the novel poses the question: What would it be like to know that your own government, in a fit of mass political hysteria, murdered your parents? How would you relate to such a government? And, more importantly, how would you function if you saw your country entering a new phase of political hysteria against a phantom Communist menace, this time located half a world away in North Vietnam, that appears likely to consume the last remaining member of your family, your own baby sister?
Daniel at first responds to this crisis by going mad, and it is this, Doctorow’s depiction of a very bright, very angry young man losing his grip on his senses, in real time, right there on the page before you, that gives the book its taut drama. But what makes the book work as fiction is that Doctorow never loses his grip, not for a second. Daniel is a horror show: cruel, vituperative, physically abusive toward his young wife, and at times just this side of clinically psychotic. The text he produces is fractured and wild, careening from first-person to third-person perspective, from engrossing family narrative to dry historical analysis, from quirkily annotated lists to long, barely coherent rantings from Daniel’s crazy Russian grandmother – and yet the whole thing, if you take the time to read it carefully, makes perfect sense.
The Book of Daniel is metafiction done right, by an author who cares as much about telling stories as he does about talking about telling stories. And just as that other great modern metafictional triumph, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, is the smartest book about the experiences of soldiers in the Vietnam War, The Book of Daniel is the smartest book I know about the home front during that war.
“The life story of every American soldier who died in Vietnam.”
The idea came out of nowhere, just appeared in my mind and stayed, occupying my thoughts with visions of the enshadowed, marching dead. Every single man. The events of his life. The circumstances of his death. Page after page after page. A library for a lost generation.
The stories would be humble, detailed, and clear. “Clarence Rowantree was born in Boston in the winter of 1949. He was educated in Catholic schools, and he played halfback for his high school football team. He had a girlfriend, Cathleen Trencher. He got her pregnant their junior year. Plans were made for the couple to wed, but Cathleen miscarried, and was afterwards sent to live with a spinster aunt. Clarence never saw her again. He was drafted the summer after he finished high school, when he was working in his grandfather’s barbershop, sweeping hair into piles, washing combs, and refilling the bottles of tonic. He trained at Fort Sill and was stationed at Mutter’s Ridge, near the Laotian border. His friends in the service called him Rowboat. He was very popular. He could stand upright on his hands for an impressive amount of time, and would perform this trick whenever the guys needed a boost in morale. He was also the company’s unofficial barber, performing trims and shape-ups for when the brass came around on inspection tours. He died after stepping on a landmine while out on routine patrol in his eighth month of service. He was 20.”
The idea moved me greatly, and even though I knew the project would take a long time, I felt rallied by it, and full of energy, so I sat down and did some calculations, to see exactly what kind of commitment I was getting into. I thought that each man’s story needed a full day’s work, and probably more — but I used eight hours as a base figure for estimation purposes. I multiplied eight by 58,175 (the number of names on the Vietnam War Memorial). The answer came out at 465,400 hours. I divided that by twenty-four to get the number of days, and that number by 365 to get the number of years.
I hit the equals sign on my calculator.
The screen read fifty-three.
My mouth dropped open.
I leaned back from my desk and put a hand to my forehead, considering the implications. If I worked nonstop on this project — meaning nonstop, without stopping, at all, for anything, even sleep — I’d be finished in 53 years.
Take that into your heart and tremble at the meaning. If you spent just eight hours composing the life story of every American man killed in the Vietnam war, the job would take you over half a century to complete.
I ran these results by a friend of mine, and even though I was still goggled, he was far less impressed.
“It’s a nice image,” he allowed, “but it’s just a numbers game. You could do that with anything.”
“Anything?” I asked.
“You know,” he said. “Anything where lots of people died.”
He was right, of course, and as soon as I started considering various death tolls (625,000 killed in the Civil War, six million in the Holocaust, fifty million in all of World War II together), it occurred to me just how truly impossible a complete account of those killed in war can be, depending on the war, depending on the number of the dead. In this way, war is categorically different from other kinds of tragedies. When one person dies a tragic death, we seek consolation in the story of who that person was. The details of his life — his flaws and heroics, the people he loved and cared for, the work he did — all that meaningful information has the power to outweigh the fearful or horrifying circumstances of his death.
But when a thousand people die, or a hundred thousand, or a million, or fifty million, the magnitude of loss tilts the scales away from understanding, and toward despair, nihilism, and madness; because we can’t find solace or redemption in a million life stories: it’s absurd even to try.
What we can do, though, is to seek analogs, avatars — ways of distilling the raw, titanic information churned up by war into something relatable and human.
I’ll put it another way: If there were no such thing as fiction, we’d have had to invent it, if we ever wanted to make sense out of a thing like the Vietnam War.
Dispatches, a “New Journalism” account of the war, was the first to be released. It came out in 1977, just two years after the fall of Saigon. It’s an odd, free-wheeling set of stories, at times reminiscent of both Hunter S. Thompson and William Faulkner, with the same pawky humor, fractured lensing, dreamlike narrative, and deliberately subjective attitude toward the underlying reportage. The haziness of the book’s structure grows organically from the material itself, as does the spookiness of it all, the eerie setting and unpredictable action. Herr pays a lot of attention to the superstitions of the grunts, because through them, the men seem to face and even endure their own unrelenting mortal fear, like the man who carries around a sock containing a months-old, uneaten oatmeal cookie mailed to him by his wife. Then there’s the fanatical Lurp, who makes this one chilling war story into a kind of Zen koan: “Patrol went up the mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.” Herr speaks to another young man, a marine from Miles City, Montana, who checks Stars and Stripes every day, hoping to learn that someone from his hometown has been killed. “I mean, can you just see two guys from a raggedy-ass town like Miles City getting killed in Vietnam?”
The funky superstitions of the marines run parallel to their own black senses of humor and, because of this, Dispatches is at times spectacularly hilarious. Nothing sums up the book’s comic-terrifying take on the war — Herr at one point calls Vietnam a “dripping, laughing death-face” — better than this story from Ed Fouhy, another reporter, about a helicopter ride he took with a torpid, weary young soldier. Fouhy, trying to make conversation, asked the kid how long he’d been in-country.
The kid half lifted his head; that question could not be serious. The weight was really on him, and the words came slowly.
“All fuckin’ day,” he said.
If Dispatches is Fear and Loathing in Vietnam, then The Things They Carried is Vietnam as MFA: a meditation on the craft of writing as well as a semi-autobiographical account of the war and the things it did to the author and his friends. “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” for example, is explicitly instructive. A story within a story, it presents a character in the frame-narrative who provides a running critique of the interior tale, arguing (Chekovianly) that each element of a story has to play some role in the central action, and that “clarification or bits of analysis and personal opinion” have no place in the tale: “It just breaks the spell. It destroys the magic.” Now, O’Brien knows this isn’t strictly true — after all, this same character makes his point by interrupting the underlying story O’Brien’s trying to tell. But that’s how people tell stories to each other in real life, and O’Brien is interested, perhaps more than anything else, in just that kind of storytelling — and with good reason. He thinks it’s how you survive a thing like Vietnam.
Take “Speaking of Courage,” for instance, a disturbing account of cowardice and grisly death, and its immediate follow-up, “Notes,” in which the author breaks through to comment on the construction of the previous story: its emotional core (a returning veteran’s simple need to confess about his failure to save a friend’s life), its dramatic frame (the story takes place as the vet drives around and around a lake in his hometown), and the symbolic counterpoint between the lake and the muddy field in Vietnam where the vet lost his friend. The vet’s need to confess is stifled by the warm, protective, polite cocoon of peacetime society, in which it’s not seemly to talk about the realities of war. Without an outlet, though, the poor man suffers, and ultimately takes his own life. In “Notes,” O’Brien tells us about the man’s suicide, but he also tells us that the prior story — at least, the part about the man’s failure to save his friend — was entirely made up. To get at the hard truth — that these guys needed to talk about what had happened to them — O’Brien had to tell a pretty big lie. That’s how you raise the stakes, he says. That’s how you make the drama that makes the people pay attention so you can show them what you know. That’s writing.
A final note: the direct incorporation of these technical aspects of fiction into the final product is something we might today categorize as “meta.” But there’s something natural, even inevitable, in their use in stories about Vietnam. They suggest a gruntlike impatience with the sleek packaging of professional fiction. In that way, they have an almost jury-rigged quality, as though they were thrown together under fire, and with all the guts still in full view.
Matterhorn (which I’ve described to friends as The Wire in Vietnam) follows a young Marine lieutenant named Waino Mellas as he survives his first three months in the bush. Waino is a Princeton graduate who abandoned a life of certain professional success to serve as a combat marine, a decision he hopes will come in handy later on (Mellas wants a political career). Although at first the other grunts are suspicious of him, Mellas quickly settles into life at firebase Matterhorn, a hill on the western side of Vietnam, close to the DMZ. Matterhorn is home to Bravo Company, a group of about 200 marines, and they have one big problem. The Company’s commander, Lt. Fitch, has gotten on the wrong side of his immediate superior, Lt. Colonel Simpson, a drunk who doesn’t like that a handsome young marine like Fitch has received praise and commendation from the higher-ups without having the good sense to share his glory with Simpson (who doesn’t actually deserve any, but still).
Partly out of spite, partly out of simple dereliction, Simpson orders Bravo Company to abandon Matterhorn and march for eight days without food or rest in order to build another firebase on a cliff further to the south. This is part of a larger project — driven by political motivations coming all the way down from the Oval Office — that will involve the marines in a useless joint operation with the South Vietnamese army. The North Vietnamese easily exploit this retreat, capturing Matterhorn while the marines are busy elsewhere. Simpson then commands Bravo Company to retake the hill — not because it serves any useful strategic purpose (Simpson orders the company to abandon Matterhorn almost as soon as it’s recaptured), but because “the kill-ratios” are all off. And if killing more Vietnamese means that more Americans will have to die, they’ll just reclassify the whole thing as a battalion action, rather than a company action, and the numbers will even out.
In spite of such mindlessness, the manly human spirit of Bravo Company endures, even finding a way to turn such evils into acts of spiritual rejuvenation. In the novel’s closing pages, a group of marines sit around a fire and sing a rondo about death: “If it’s good enough for Parker, then it’s good enough for me. If it’s good enough for Parker, then it’s good enough for me.” As they sing, they replace the name of each dead man with the name of another dead man, until they’ve sung out all the number of their fallen friends. The interchangeability of one grunt with another is a belief that damns the souls of men like Simpson; but in the hands of men like the marines of Bravo Company, that same belief becomes a bond, a testament. A pledge of relentless true faith.
In each of these books and in all the several stories they tell, one thing keeps popping back up.
“There it is.”
“There it is” was a common catchphrase among the guys in Vietnam, a sort of verbal asterisk that put the whole affair in proper light. Radios down just when the shit’s getting heavy? “There it is.” Colonel breathing down your neck about making checkpoints? “There it is.”
All the many little ironies of bad luck, incompetent commanders, and pass-the-buck-to-the-bush politicians are summed up in those three little words. Like Vonnegut’s “So it goes,” there’s not much more to the phrase than a simple expression of futility, a throwing up of hands in the air, a sigh at the deadly indifference of the universe. But there’s power in these words, and it’s the same with these stories: They are each a human reaction to the inhumanities of massive, nonsensical death. Whether it’s the cluttered, dreamy information of Dispatches, the transparencies of Tim O’Brien, or Matterhorn’s tale of redemption in friendship, the Vietnam War is transformed through each of these books into something we can understand, distilled into something edifying, and saved from the overpowering magnitudes of death. These books close the gap between the untellable story of the dead in Vietnam, and the rest of us, the ones who want to know what happened over there. In this way, they are a powerful act of generosity, both to we, as readers, and to the men who died on the hills and in the jungle, the ones who didn’t make it out.
Image credit: hookbrother/Flickr
In April 1951, when Jack Kerouac fed the first pieces of what would become a 120-foot scroll of paper into his Underwood portable to write the famous first draft of his novel, On the Road, he was, in one sense, blowing up the typewriter to make his own primitive homemade word processor. Sixty years later, Kerouac’s publisher, Penguin Books, is, in its own quiet way, blowing up the book to make – what, exactly? For now, they are calling it a book app, and even to my mildly technophobic eyes, the results offer a glimpse onto a potentially brave new world of publishing.
I’ll admit I was suspicious when I first heard about a “book app” for On the Road, assuming I would be subjected to some tech geek’s notion of what the book of the future should look like – that is, that it would be all future and no book. So you can imagine my relief when I took the app, now for sale on iTunes, for a test drive on a borrowed iPad, and found it to be an informative, even tasteful, accessory to Kerouac’s book, not an attempt to bury the text under a blaring, technophiliac mess of gadgetry and special effects. That said, the real star of the show is the technology itself, which promises not just a slew of new apps for beloved classic texts, but also, it seems to me, a new, richer way to make books.
By now, of course, e-books are old hat, and even book apps have been around at least since the advent of the iPhone, but this most recent riff on the book app takes the technology in a new, intriguing direction. Publishers have designed apps around comic books and children’s texts, and have even built a few original book apps for nonfiction takes on the periodic table and the solar system, but On the Road is among the first wave of apps designed for the adult trade fiction and poetry markets, following on the heels of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the app for which recently startled the digerati when it knocked Marvel Comics from the #1 spot on the list of top-grossing book apps on iTunes.
It isn’t hard to see why Penguin is using On the Road to launch its adult trade fiction apps category. For one, it is a canonical classic appealing to everyone from nostalgic Boomers getting their first iPad for Father’s Day to tech-savvy teenage boys who love their digital devices almost as much as they love smoking “tea” and driving fast cars. At the same time, Kerouac’s book has a long and involved back story that begins with that famous 120-foot scroll and extends to the incestuous pack of Columbia grads and assorted hangers-on who made up the Beat Generation.
It is here, in providing the clef for the real-life figures behind the characters in Kerouac’s roman à clef and in drawing a detailed map of Kerouac’s long road to writing On the Road, that this app shines. Chris Russell, editorial director for the project at Penguin, calls the app “a virtual museum” of the book, but to my eyes it comes closer to being a refreshing take on the standard critical edition, with primary sources replacing scholarly essays. The central feature of the app is a digital copy of the published version of the book that comes with tabs readers can tap to see bios of the main characters as well background on some of the people and places Kerouac visited on his travels. Zipping around the app, one can also find maps detailing Kerouac’s travel itinerary, Kerouac’s own maps and writing notes, as well as photos of the major players and original documents from the publisher’s archives showing the book’s tortured road to publication.
Much of this added content is either pedestrian, as in the potted bios of the characters, or familiar to anyone who has ever picked up a biography of Kerouac or a history of the Beats. Some elements, though, such as the maps, do add real texture to the experience of reading the book. I read On the Road the first time twenty-some years ago when I was taking the first of several long road trips around the U.S. and I would have loved to have the graphical aid of the map of his journey to compare to my own. The app allows you to tap a location on the map and go directly to the page in the novel when Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise arrives there. I also enjoyed the audio clips of Kerouac reading from On the Road, which, for me, were like seeing the Grateful Dead in concert for the first time after listening only to their studio albums: a cult phenomenon that had never really clicked for me suddenly made a new kind of sense as I listened to Kerouac’s husky, sensual voice make music of prose.
Thus, while the concept is exciting, in this case the execution isn’t always as strong as it could be, especially given the app’s $16.99 retail price ($12.99 for the first two weeks). So it’s a good thing the app can be expanded at no new cost to the buyer. At the least, Penguin needs to make the experience more genuinely interactive by adding a talk-back or comment feature so fans can compare reactions to the novel and offer analyses of favorite passages. Even better would be a wiki-like feature to let readers add to the commentary provided by the publishers. For instance, one of the maps in the app shows “Mill City,” just north of San Francisco, as one of Kerouac’s stops on his journey. I happen to be from Mill Valley, Calif., which is next door to Marin City, where Kerouac briefly lived in barracks built for the World War II-era Marinship plant in Sausalito. It adds little to one’s reading of the book to know that Kerouac combined the two city names, but given his obsession with African-American culture, it does add context to know that, when he lived in Marin City, those barracks – now public housing, famous for being the home of rapper Tupac Shakur – were among the only truly racially integrated housing in the United States.
But even with added interactivity, there is little here you couldn’t find on a well curated website devoted to On the Road, and cynics will suggest that Penguin is only trying to push sales of a popular backlist title by forcing fans to buy a new digital edition just to see a few cool bits of memorabilia from the archives. And, of course, the cynics would have a point. That is no doubt part of what is driving this sudden interest in putting out “enhanced” digital editions of titles like On the Road and The Waste Land, and if these new iPad apps do no more than draw in a few old Kerouac and Eliot heads, this will prove to be a pointless exercise. If, on the other hand, it draws in new readers, wired iKids who love wriggling down the hypertextual wormholes of the web, then book apps of classic texts will serve a valuable, if somewhat limited, purpose. As I dipped into On the Road’s digital archives, I couldn’t help thinking of other classics that would benefit from similar treatment. Wouldn’t you love to peek into the files that famous pack rat, Hunter S. Thompson, kept on Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas? (See my recent essay on Fear and Loathing here.) Or what about a book app for Tim O’Brien’s metafictional Vietnam novel, The Things They Carried, with maps and photos and bios of the real people behind O’Brien’s characters?
But, again, if the book app phenomenon ends there, as virtual attics for the houses of a few great books, then I doubt the book app will draw many iPad users away from their treasured GarageBand and iMovie apps. The real promise here, as I see it, is the underlying technology, which, with any luck, will some day allow a kid now sitting in his eighth-grade English class playing Spider-Man: Total Mayhem HD to write an original literary app: a truly interactive novel that not only combines text with hypertext, but also with sound and images and reader responses, all at the swipe of a finger. This notion has been the holy grail of a certain school of digitally avant garde writers since the days of dial-up connections, but the technology has always been clunky, and the stories, at least in my own admittedly limited experience, damnably dull.
Two factors suggest the lackluster track record of the interactive novel may be due for a change. First, it takes only a few minutes on an iPad to see that this sleek hand-held device, with its gleaming touch screen and seemingly bottomless array of multi-media features, is a quantum leap forward in terms of flexibility and user friendliness. Second, until very recently, the minds of the people creating interactive novels have been as old school as their equipment. If the central building block of most interactive novels has until now been the codex text – otherwise known as the book – that’s because most of the people making them were raised on codex texts. Every day, as more toddlers read The Little Engine That Could on their parents’ iPads and Skype their grandparents on their smart phones, this is becoming less true, and soon a young writer whose brain is more supple than mine may well take this technology and bend it to uses that my mind, hopelessly mired in the linear, cannot even imagine.
In the meantime, old fogies like me can happily potter around in the virtual attics of classic novels like On the Road and recall a day when blowing up a venerable piece of technology took only a big stack of paper and some tape.
In a few years, much of the Western World will, for lack of a better word, celebrate the Centennial of The Great War in Europe from 1914-1918, the anniversary of that one round that loosed trillions more and signaled the death knell for societies and cultures once so steeped in the fine notions of romance and art. The First World War has long intrigued scholars in many fields, but one of the most interesting and unifying aspects of the conflict remains its many dichotomies: the way in which the arcane and the modern clashed in a manner that, unto that point in history, had never been seen before. Enter a new world where tactics so lagged behind the technologies of war that dragoons armed with lances and gasmasks charged headlong against entrenched machine gun nests; where the gentlemanly rules of Old World combat, devised by generals still under the illusion that great men, rather than great machines, achieved victory were put out to pasture and left to die; where educated and idealistic young men wrote of mustard gas and aerial bombardment using sonnets and couplets.
The Great War ushered in a unique milieu of poets—educated and romantic, yet fully modern—who, although they endured all the horrors of industrialized and mechanized warfare, retreated to a forms better suited to Tennyson and his Light Brigade to describe it. This amazingly odd juxtaposition carved World War One poetry a definite niche in the collective literary mindset; no other literary moment, for movement would be too strong a word to ascribe to a mere four years whose overall reputation has been solidified by two or three truly notable and highly antithetical figures, has spoken so drastically to two sides of a popular consciousness. Furthermore, the primary figure come to embody this period, Wilfred Owen, only suffered to have his work “discovered” and celebrated during the commemoration of the war’s 50th anniversary, which brought with it a renewed interest in scholarship for both the war and those who wrote during it.
To that end, it can and has been argued that Owen’s place in the pantheon of war poets rests not on the merits of his words or his skill at turning a phrase but because the tenor of his voice fit precisely with an age quickly turning against the idea that war can ever again be glorious or that it ever was an altruistic endeavor in the first place. To imagine a 1960s community of academics and then contemporary poets lauding over the works of Kipling and the once highly celebrated Rupert Brooke, the former capable of such a horrendously puerile take on the actual carnage about to befall the continent:
For all we have and are,
For all our children’s fate,
Stand up and take the war,
The Hun is at the gate!
and of further asking that one “Face the naked days/In silent fortitude” because
There is but on task for all—
One life for each to give.
Who stands if Freedom fall?
Who dies if England live?
flies in the face of all social mores soon to dominate the landscape of counterculture England and America. Owen, although only five of his poems were published before his death in 1918, stood as the main antithesis to this jingoistic sentiment, and he has since not only come to dominate the conversation of Great War poets, but also managed a place in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, where he rests beside his friend Siegfried Sassoon—another notable poetic dissenter— and, to a lesser extent, the aforementioned Brooke, who at the outset of the war, and even a few years after its cessation, appeared as the poster child for all that was right and good with the young men of the Empire.
But politics and agenda aside, what is rather interesting is the range and scope of First World War poetry, for war poetry has never been a mode of discourse possessing a long shelf life. It is not the thing that complements a sunny afternoon, and while there is a decent tradition in American letters of the war novel, A Farewell to Arms, The Naked and the Dead, The Thin Red Line and The Things They Carried all immediately come to mind, these works often arrive long after the final salvo, tend to be imbued with the cult of the author’s persona and to be written from the safety and distance of time, free from the possibility that a sniper bullet might arrest the author mid couplet; whereas the poems of the Great War, for the most part, exist devoid of ego and communicate a collective rather than personal mindset. As Patrick MacGill writes in the final quatrain of “Before the Charge:”
The dead leaves float in the sighing air,
The darkness moves like a curtain drawn,
A veil which the morning sun will tear
From the face of death.—We charge at dawn
Together, reads the unwritten and inferable coda; and together we die.
Still, perhaps the solution to this great paradox, that of Great War poetry’s resilience, lies in the simple fact that if World War II was the last “noble war,” then the Great War was the last chivalrous one, for no other modern conflict possesses the same aura of romance that ironically informs a three and a half year stalemate, where men smeared with mud lived amongst vermin and dead bodies in glorified holes in the ground while suffering exposure to the capricious weather known to suddenly befall Western Europe. In essence, World War One poetry is both the merging of art and suffering at its highest form and a controlled, packaged image of it. Through a masterful slight of hand and a brilliant bit of marketing on the part of those in literary offices away from the moonscapes of the Marne and Ypres, our popular consciousness has acquiesced to transform the craven hell of a No-Man’s-Land ripe with corpses splayed like scarecrows on barbed wire into “We are the dead. Short days ago/We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow/Loved and were loved, and now we lie/In Flanders fields,” which gives the impression that these Belgian poppy fields of John McCrae might not be that bad of a place after all.
However, in their own strange way, these poets and their poems would have served as a form of reportage for those back home. In the days before twenty-four hour news networks and instantaneous headlines, where radio was in its infancy and print served as the primary mechanism for disseminating information, to read a poem from a lad in a trench alongside the “hard reporting” from Verdun or the Somme would not have seemed out of the ordinary or a mixing of two, now distinctly different media. In fact, it would have been the poem that carried a greater weight, since it was offered by a primary source, one whose heart was both loyal to the Crown and yet burdened with the terrible weight of service to it. The warring poet, therefore, easily represented the very best the Empire had to offer because what cannot be forgotten is the social fabric that enabled such a war to take place and for it to be populated with a relatively erudite—by historical and possibly even modern standards—average fighting man who would have benefited from the recent schooling reforms instituted under the reign of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Much of this learning would have centered around an understanding of literature in a national context, poems which, according to Elizabeth A. Marsland in The Nation’s Cause: French, English and German Poetry of the First World War, were “the nation’s treasury of patriotic and heroic poems.” Thus it dovetails that by August 1914 a generation of young men educated on Byron, who himself went off to an ignoble yet glorious death in Greece, should not aspire to a similar end.
The poet martyr or, as George Walter calls it in his introduction to The Penguin Book of First World War Poetry the “Brooke Myth,” born through the death of Brooke (who ironically never saw action on the Western Front, instead dying of blood poisoning in the Aegean) relies on the trope of “that selfless young literary patriot who heeded his country’s call, only to die tragically and heroically when his promise seemed about to be fulfilled.” This early 20th Century interpretation of the tragic hero came to serve as foundation for an aesthetic disseminated to a market eager to read the massive outpouring of war poetry coming from the trenches of France, as well as serving as a means by which, in the early stages of the war, members of the media and the government could guide the national morale and sustain the recruitment of the troop levels needed to continuously refill ever thinning ranks.
It is this ideal, this myth of the lyric warrior, that strikes to the heart of Great War poetry, which even during its 1960s resurgence never jettisoned the notion of the poetic martyr but reappropriated it to one better suited to an evolving, more realistic social mindset, resulting in a transition from the ‘For God and Country’ mentality of Brooke:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to live, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
to the haunting, humanist reproach of Owen’s famed “Dulce et Decorum est:”
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs
Bitten as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
How then, are we to judge the legacy of this literary time period, at once naïve and world-weary? How does it continue to inform a modern consciousness that might easily look back fondly on a time when wars were “good or bad” and enemies were defined? For even after Adorno decried it, both high and popular culture has persisted in looking to the arts for an understanding of the horrific by attempting to render the irrational accessible to the rational mind. Great War poetry serves as just that, a snapshot of a bygone era coming to grips with its misconceptions and imperfections, an example of men trying to communicate sights and sounds beyond comprehension using the only means at their disposal, but to ever imagine our society returning to a space where it would be imaginable for a grunt or Jarhead to compose the “Kandahar Sonnets” and to have them run on the front page of The New York Times or The San Francisco Chronicle is beyond laughable; it is absurd, especially if they should carry even the slightest hint of anything resembling patriotism. The war poem is obsolete in a world become too cynical for such an item, too intelligent to buy into such a jingoistic cliché. Or might it just be a blatant apathy, one born from a glorious remove, both physical and psychological, from all aspects of Operation Iraqi Freedom or of an Afghanistan Campaign being fought by faceless men in fatigues, who hump through the dusty foothills of the Hindu Kush remembered, as people, only by the loved ones or close friends stateside who anticipate their return.
Even in its most ignorant form, the poems of the Great War possess a legitimacy absent from the similar artistic pursuits today, which tend to be relegated to the back lots of Hollywood and undertaken by actors whose true knowledge of conflict comes from however much they might absorb from the technical advisor brought on set to guarantee “authenticity.” Instead, what these poems of the Great War offer is an immediacy, for they are not prey to the trickery of memories sulking in a truth distorted, no matter how slightly. Today, with nearly a century behind them, we allow the works of Owen and Sassoon and Brooke to masquerade as art, as historical iconography, but the idea and legacy of Great War Poetry, and of its serialization in major newspapers during the actual maneuvers on the Western Front, serves as a sobering reminder that war is fought by human beings. In their worst forms, the Great War Poems are not an apology for fighting, nor are they at their best calls for its cessation. Rather, they are evidence that even a human being who holds a gun and has been trained to kill is capable of intelligent and philosophical thought, perhaps even more capable than those who sit safely at home and examine them.
Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read. Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you.
Over the years, this has changed. Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable. I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution. It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately.
One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was “The Glaring Gap,” a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read. One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those! Should should should. Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt. I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust! And Dickens! And Virginia Woolf! And (these days) Bolaño!
My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose. And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence. I’m not getting any younger, after all. Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time. Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies.
My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories.
Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual. For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment. As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again):
Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Essential Kierkegaard
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Eugene Onegin by Pushkin
Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like — you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is. You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens:
Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much)
It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it. And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many. What can I say…
Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit
The following category speaks for itself:
Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake
I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons. There aren’t many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction.
Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished.
“Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego. An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level. But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity. So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games. I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way. It absolutely was not. I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list:
Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End
The Accidental by Ali Smith
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
Run by Ann Patchett
This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary. This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read. I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame.
In particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience. I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable. Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking. But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods – how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing. This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle.
Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Names by Don Delillo
A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift. If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older. I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life. To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.