I pulled the heavy red book down from my dad’s bookshelf. Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, its cover announced. “David Foster Wallace said it’s the only usage guide he ever consulted,” my dad said, a note of pride in his voice as if he and DFW had been old buddies. “I got it on sale at The Strand.”
“Huh,” I said and sat down, opening the tome on my lap to the word “eventuate,” the subject of a controversial debate with a coworker at my day job. The entry was short and snarky:
Eventuate is ‘an elaborate journalistic word that can usually be replaced by a simpler word to advantage.’ George P. Krapp, A Comprehensive Guide to Good English (1927).
Then came several examples of its misuse, explanations of what was wrong about it, and suggestions for words should have been used in it place (e.g., “happened,” “occurred,” “took place”). This comprehensive lesson perfectly resolved my confusion, since I had misconstrued the meaning of “eventuate” as something along the lines of “would eventually lead to.”
“This is terrific!” I told my dad. “Usually when I have a usage question at work, I just Google the question—like further vs. farther—and read the first few entries that pop up.”
It was nice to have such a complete and well-researched reference on language usage right here at my fingertips. I immediately looked up several more entries, and started chuckling and reading them aloud. “Hey, listen to this, about ‘insofar as:’ ‘the dangers range from mere feebleness or wordiness, through pleonasm or confusion of grammar.’ Zing!”
“Keep the Garner’s, then,” my dad said with a smile. “I never use it.”
Tickled, I hugged my newest diction and style guide to my chest. What a great new writer’s tool I didn’t even know that I needed. This got me thinking about my other writers’ tools. What are the books that every writer should have handy? My other go-to writing books are not necessarily manuals of mechanics, but instead are resources that provide inspiration, moral support, models of good writing, and above all, comfort.
When I was 18, taking expository writing in my first semester of college, my professor, Kevin DiPirro, assigned Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg. It was an optional text, so while he assigned us to read certain chapters concurrently with our other assignments, we never once discussed the content of the book in class. Instead, we wrote expository essays trying to frame rhetorical situations, analyze evidence, and make well-researched arguments. But my teacher-student relationship with Natalie Goldberg started that year, and for that, I’ll always be grateful to Kevin.
One afternoon, in a darkened corner of the library, I cracked open Writing Down the Bones. What’s this all about? I wondered. Natalie’s words spoke aloud to me, like a calm teacher, echoing in my mind:
Writing As Practice
This is the practice school of writing… You practice whether you want to or not. You don’t wait around for inspiration and a deep desire to run. It’ll never happen, especially if you are out of shape and have been avoiding it. But if you run regularly, you train your mind to cut through or ignore your resistance… Sit down with the least expectation of yourself; say, ‘I am free to write the worst junk in the world.’ You have to give yourself the space to write a lot without a destination… My rule is to finish a notebook a month. Simply fill it. That is the practice.
Then, at the end of the chapter:
Think of writing practice as loving arms you come to illogically and incoherently. It’s our wild forest where we gather energy before going to prune our garden, with our fine books and novels. It’s a continual practice.
Sit down right now. Give me this moment. Write whatever’s running through you. You might start with this moment and end up writing about the gardenia you wore at your wedding seven years ago. That’s fine. Don’t try to control it. Stay present with whatever comes up, and keep your hand moving.
I wrote for about five or 10 minutes in my notebook, and wrote what was running through me. My experiences and deepest longings leapt straight from my heart and out onto the page through my hand, and the act of writing became so simple and direct that it was as if my brain was just a spectator, anxious mutterings quieted at last. By the time I finished, I was quietly sobbing in that dark corner of the library, in the sheltered desk carrel that shielded me from the rest of the campus studying on that day in late September of 2002. Something was unleashed that day, and I was so moved by that feeling of being granted permission to write any way I wanted that I dated that page in Writing Down the Bones. Something big happened here today.
I kept that book with me, when things were great and when things were shitty, when I felt despair or years of writer’s block or crippling fear. It’s okay, just write for 10 minutes. Natalie has given me permission to write the worst junk imaginable, because it is the practice that matters. Now, more than a decade later, in my writing sessions, I can finally distinguish the feeling of the juice, the flow of when I’m finally cooking with gas or sparks are flying—pick your metaphor—and I can channel that energy into whatever feels important to work on. But first I have to warm up. Even if I’m writing every day consistently, I still have to shake off the rust and the stiff joints and re-enter the river of writing, the thrall of my own subconscious voice, in order to be receptive enough to conduct electricity when lightning strikes. When I’m stuck, I open up Writing Down the Bones and read:
Be specific. Don’t say ‘fruit.’ Tell what kind of fruit—‘It is a pomegranate.’ Give things the dignity of their names.
Don’t Marry the Fly
Watch when you listen to a piece of writing. There might be spaces where your mind wanders.
A New Moment
Katagiri Roshi often used to say: ‘Take one step off a hundred-foot pole.’
One paradox of my writer’s toolbox of books is that I don’t often write at my writing desk—preferring instead the anonymous yet community feel of a table at my local coffee shop. But I tend to carry that dog-eared and war-torn copy of Writing Down the Bones with me wherever I go. Sometimes I switch it out for my almost-as-demolished copy of Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, which is funnier and a bit more genre-specific about writing fiction. Over the years, I have trafficked through copies of The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron, On Writing by Stephen King, Zen and the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury, Still Writing by Dani Shapiro, and Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett—which technically isn’t a craft book, but I lump it in, because it’s a memoir of being a young unpublished writer and of “making it,” documenting one particularly deep writing friendship. You could say that I’m a craft book junkie. You could say that.
I also keep books around that remind me of what I love about good writing. I have books that I reread just for the feeling of basking in good writing, like snuggling under a warm blanket or quenching my thirst with a perfectly cold glass of water. Novels like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Motherless Brooklyn, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Fight Club, and the Unbearable Lightness of Being are some of these books, and in college, along with the books I was reading for classes, I kept a “greatest hits” shelf of books that made me feel better just by dint of their being nearby.
Yet I don’t own a dictionary. My fiancé, a recreational poet, has a rhyming dictionary, which it has never occurred to me to purchase. I use an online thesaurus regularly at work, but in this digital age, I would never buy a hardcover copy.
Recently, I picked up a copy of Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, which I think of as a kind of lifestyle companion for writers delusional enough to think they might someday might make real money from this. It has anecdotal guidance and moral support for writers and those pursuing the writing life, a type of useful and practical advice that reminds me of my regular bimonthly Poets & Writers arrival. My subscription always seems on the verge of lapsing, but I read the magazine cover to cover whenever it arrives. I read the Residencies and Conferences and Grants and Awards sections with a pen in my hand.
I was giddy but apprehensive about my gift of Garner’s Modern Usage. My first thought was, I should bring this to work! In my office, my windowsill-turned-bookshelf has on it a weathered copy of William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, an ancient copy of William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White’s Elements of Style, an untouched copy of the AP Style Guide, and Bill Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors. The latter is interesting but not comprehensive, so I eventually stopped looking up entries that didn’t exist. But it has a beautiful cover.
My second thought was, Screw work, I want to keep this at home and use it for my own writing at my writing desk! My immediate third thought was, I have to clean my writing desk! Lacking bookshelf space, I started stacking books I’ve just read or want to read on one corner of the small wooden desk I shellacked with rejection slips years ago, back when literary magazines sent paper rejections. I have a tiny ceramic lamp that sits on the other corner of the desk, and without a home office space larger than the footprint of this desk, I’ve collected a variety of other things on its surface—papers, folders, envelopes, DVDs, an unpaid doctor’s bill. My checkbook, more books I’m planning to read, recent drafts of novel revisions, with all manner of handbags and tote bags hanging off the handles of my desk chair like a flea market handbag stall.
Could a single modern usage book revolutionize my home writing space and daily writing practice?
I’ve always thought of myself as a writing nomad. Natalie says,
Write Anyplace. Okay. Your kids are climbing into the cereal box. You have $1.25 left in your checking account. Your husband can’t find his shoes, your car won’t start, you know you have lived a life of unfulfilled dreams….Take out another notebook, pick up another pen, and just write, just write, just write. In the middle of the world, make one positive step. In the center of chaos, make one definitive act. Just write.
I write her words, copy them into my notebook, and in that moment, I am reborn. I like having authorities, teachers, mentors on the page. Natalie has taught me a great deal in the 15 years that I’ve been reading and rereading her book.
Maybe Bryan Garner can become my newest teacher on the page, in his witty biting asides about “eventuate” and “insofar as” and many other linguistic predicaments that I have yet to identify. Of course, one great appeal of having the voice of Garner giving me authoritative advice on proper usage is that hovering over his shoulder is the friendly specter of David Foster Wallace, and next to him, my dad nodding along and laughing at my enthusiasm. When he gifted me the book, he said, “This is a great reference for a writer.” It’s in those tiny moments that I feel his slight seal of approval, or at least simple affirmation, of that life that I’ve chosen for myself. He sees me as a writer. Thanks, dad.
There is a famous saying from Mao Zedong that all students of Chinese learn early into their studies: 好好学习天天向上 (haohao xuexi tiantian xiangshang), which implores students to apply themselves every day if they hope to improve and rise up. 好好学习 天天向上 (haohao xuexi tiantian xiangshang) functions because of its rhythm. It plays with the flexibility of characters in Chinese, which are monosyllabic. Its literal translation, however, “good good study, day day up” is essentially meaningless. The Chinese often hold this example up as a reason why their language is so hard for foreigners to study. Often it just doesn’t translate.
Chinese is a much more flexible language than English, which makes it beautiful to study but a nightmare to translate. I recently saw a post on 微信 (weixin), Chinese Twitter, that left me stumped. The title was 最近有活动 (zuijin you huodong). The final three characters mean “an event,” but the first two, 最近 (zuijin), can mean either recent or upcoming. So I had no idea from the post whether the person was celebrating the fact that there had recently been an event or whether he or she was promoting an upcoming one.
The flexibility and playfulness of the Chinese language is in full force In Mo Yan’s latest novel, Frog. Mo Yan controversially won the Nobel Prize in 2012, being simultaneously lauded at home by the ruling CCP and criticized abroad for not adequately distancing himself from that same party. That he has published critical books, such as Red Sorghum, and even called for the release of fellow Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobao (albeit only once) seemed to elude the critical voices. His new book, therefore, is released under something of a cloud.
As is typical of his novels, Frog takes place in North Gaomi township, which is his own hometown, a small city in Shandong province in northeast China. It takes on the politically sensitive topic of forced abortions under the infamous “One Child Policy” and simultaneously charts the fortunes of multiple generations of residents, from those who suffer from the great famine caused by the Great Leap Forward in the 1960s to the “sweet potato” generation born after, who become teenagers in a China tentatively embracing capitalism. It’s a nuanced portrait of China and hardly a paean to the CCP. Still despite its ambition, it isn’t without its problems, particularly in translation.
Frogs are omnipresent. As a repeated metaphor, it can seem a bit strange — lacking the weight of kitsch in Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being or the whimsical beauty of balloons in Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life. In a review for The Guardian, Isabel Hilton states that the reasoning behind calling the book Frog is the “meandering connection Mo Yan makes between human sperm, early stage embryos, tadpoles and bullfrogs that is woven through a novel concerned primarily with the importance of love and life.” Other reviewers have dwelt on the notion of the frog as a symbol of fertility in Eastern cultures and on quotes from the text such as, “The croaking of frogs is often described in terms of drumbeats…But the cries that night were infused with a sense of resentment and of grievance, as if the souls of countless murdered infants were hurling accusations.”
Although these reasons are all valid in their own way, they result from the flatness of the translation. The word frog in Chinese is 蛙 (wā), while the word for child is 娃 (wá). Frogs are omnipresent in the text and haunt Gugu, a village obstetrician who rabidly enacts China’s infamous family planning policy and is thus responsible for thousands of abortions. The beauty of the metaphor lies in the ambiguity between these two similar sounding words. If we substitute the word frog for child, then the constant references to frogs throughout becomes haunting.
At one point in the novel, Gugu, returning after a night of drinking with friends, is chased by frogs. In the English translation, she is initially unsettled by the sound of croaking reverberating “as if the cries of infants” before eventually being chased by “an incalculable number of frogs.” But in Chinese, both the cries of frogs and children are also 哇 (wā). So in the Chinese original, this paragraph hangs on the inflections of these three wa sounds. If we see Gugu as chased by the ghostly wails of the children she has aborted, as opposed to the mere croaks of frogs, then the scene takes on the gravity and weight appropriate for a Nobel Prize winner. The way the meanings interweave due to their similar pronunciation is ethereal and translucent — and entirely lost in the English translation.
Without understanding the similarity between the Wa sounds that appear throughout the novel, the metaphor of frogs seems labored and bizarre. Without context, the constant recurrence of frogs is arbitrary. Rather, in the original, the metaphor of frogs is multifaceted and beautifully subtle. It’s thus strange that the book only makes a passing reference to this, embedded within the text, glossed over in a single sentence in the latter third. There is no translator’s note prefacing the work, which is limiting for readers unfamiliar with Chinese.
Why then is such a note missing from Frog? It’s no doubt intentional and stylistic. Excessive footnoting not only disrupts texts but also can turn fictional works into something resembling an academic thesis. To explain the intentional ambiguity in the text is also problematic, as it would break down the natural flow and could sound patronizing (it would obviously sound ridiculous to state that Gugu was chased by “an incalculable number of frogs, a word which sounds a lot like ‘child’ in the original Chinese”).
Howard Goldblatt, the translator, has chosen to stick to the flow of the original and not encumber it with excessive intrusions from the translator. While laudable, this means that some of the most interesting aspects of the prose remain out of reach for the average reader of the work in translation.
There are further issues, but these are more systemic and common to all works of Chinese fiction in translation. Most translation is done by sinologists, who come from a thoroughly academic background. Goldblatt, who has dedicated a life to translation, is regarded rightly as the foremost translator of Chinese into English. He has translated more than 50 books and received numerous translation prizes.
Yet utter proficiency and experience in a foreign language is not tantamount to literary prowess. Roy Harris argued in the Times Literary Supplement that today, “the translator’s primary function is no longer mimetic but analytical.” This being the case, the translator draws as much from unique life experiences, wide reading, and a deeply embedded knowledge of both the culture he is translating from and the one he is translating into. The problem however is that the vast majority of translation comes from within the academy (Goldblatt has a PhD and taught for many years at Notre Dame), which means that sometimes though the translations are mimetic, they are too formal and stodgy to be accurate portrayals of the texts themselves. This is certainly the case in Frog, in which many of the characters, despite being farmers and lacking formal education, often sound as if they too have PhDs. It’s a catch-22: To be proficient enough in the language to be an accurate translator requires a high level of education, but just such an education can cripple the ability of the translator to render the text accurately.
Goldblatt is so totemic and the universe of literary translators from Chinese to English is so small that often there is only one translation for literary texts. When languages have a similar linguistic root (i.e. Latin for romance languages), cognizant words, and similar grammatical structures, then translation should be straightforward. The measure of a good translation of French to English is that one could translate the English back into French and arrive at largely the same text as the original. The same is not true in translating from Chinese to English because the languages are so fundamentally different. Translation is largely subjective. If one were to translate back from the English into the Chinese, the text would only vaguely resemble the original, like the hazy outlines of a skyscraper in smog. This is problematic because the average reader only has Goldblatt’s subjective decisions to go by. It’s impossible to arrive at a consensus of how Mo Yan should sound in English when there is only one translation that we can go from.
This is why flawed aspects of the text, such as characterization, become so frustrating. The characters in Frog suffer not just from sounding overly formal, but also from the translation of key phrases that makes them sound like literary constructs, not human beings. Take this sentence, “Money is nothing; it’s as transient as floating clouds.” Undoubtedly beautiful and poetic, it nonetheless sounds bizarre coming from a peasant farmer in response to his friend. It’s a direct translation of the word 浮云 (fuyun), which does mean floating clouds and is often used metaphorically in the context of aspirational desires such as money and fame. But was Goldblatt right to not dilute the translation in this context? It’s far more likely that the character, were his native language English, would respond something along the lines of “Don’t worry about money; it comes and goes.” This construction is undoubtedly less interesting, but it’s also more authentic. Chinese often has multiple levels of translation. A surface level translation retains the original form and the metaphor intact, while a deeper level gives the meaning straight and without the flowery symbolism of the original. 浮云 (fuyun) thus goes from “transient as floating clouds” to “temporary” or “ephemeral.” What’s crucial is the context. Were 浮云 (fuyun) not directly reported speech, then the surface level translation is beautiful and worth retaining. As speech between farmers, a deeper level would have been more appropriate.
What’s more jarring is that there are multiple instances in the text of characters dismissing things as “floating clouds,” which to a western reader makes the author seem lazy and grasping for metaphors. There is an ontological difference in what constitutes great writing between Chinese and English. Chinese writing values the ability to deploy 成语 (chengyu), four character idioms which come from canonical works or poems. English on the other hand has no such affinity for tradition and rabidly eschews cliché.
Take the following hypothetical: My room is a mess. Were I to describe it in a literary context in Chinese, I would say it’s 乱七八糟 (luan qi ba zao) or seven parts chaos, eight parts spoiled. In English, however, were I to say, “My room is a disaster area,” it would be seen as lazy and painfully clichéd. This sort of criticism plagued the reception of The Goldfinch, with Francine Prose in The New York Review of Books highlighting clichés such as “Theo’s high school friend Tom’s cigarette is ‘only the tip of the iceberg'” or “The bomb site is a ‘madhouse.’” A crucial subjective decision is made over the translation of these idioms. Does one choose a similar idiom or quote in English and risk sounding clichéd, or does one get inventive and risk being unfaithful to the text? I would capture some of 乱七八糟’s (luan qi ba zao) vividness by describing my room as “covered in clothes scattered as haphazardly as falling snow,” but that is neither a faithful nor direct translation.
Kundera quotes his Italian publisher Roberto Calasso, as saying, “The mark of a good translation is not its fluency but rather all those unusual and original formulations that the translator has been bold enough to preserve and defend.” There is certainly something to be said for this, but in Frog the inclusion of original formations is overdone and makes the text heavy and unwieldy. There happens to be a 成语 (chengyu) for this: 画龙点睛 (hualongdianjing). It translates as “adding the pupils to a painting of a dragon,” in other words, to put the finishing touches to bring a work of art to life. Original formations, when over done, are not merely dotting the “i”s; they are scribbling over the original outline and intention of the work.
Without multiple translations of the same work, it’s impossible to adequately evaluate the author. To what extent Mo Yan writes in clichés or to what extent it’s a tic of the translator is not a judgment call that the average reader can make. This means that placing him alongside authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Kundera, and Haruki Murakami is difficult. Although all of the authors are themselves presented to an Anglophone audience in translation, there are at least multiple translations available. In the case of Kundera, the imprecision of translation drove him to such despair that he spent years correcting the translations of his own work into the four languages he can read.
Both Mo Yan and Marquez have received the Nobel Prize for literature, while Kundera and Murakami are regularly tapped as potential winners (Murakami was odds on favorite to win the 2014 prize according to the British bookmaker Ladbrokes). What is important to note is that unlike the other denizens of magical realism, we only ever see Mo Yan’s work through the prism of Howard Goldblatt. In that case, it seems unfair to make a comparison and to evaluate his oeuvre. As Goldblatt himself noted in an interview with The LA Review of Books, “What the reader has in her hands is a facsimile of the original work.” We should therefore see multiple facsimiles, and then we can decide on Mo Yan’s true place within literature.
Literature is important in providing nuanced and divergent interpretations of a country so often rendered in stark black and white terms. Translating a country as vast and diverse as China to a wider audience may be Sisyphean, or it may be 精卫填海 (Jiangweitianhai) or like a bird trying to fill the ocean with pebbles. Perhaps the most important thing we can learn from the plurality of voices emerging from China today is not what separates our cultures, but how ontologically similar they are. For every Sisyphus and his bolder, there is a 精卫 and his pebbles.
It’s thus a sad systemic irony that many great novels from contemporary China, which are so crucial in providing a sounding board for the diversity of the Chinese experience, suffer from being the sole preserve of one translator. Until the field opens dramatically, much of what is being said will be lost in translation.
Last year offered many treats for readers: hotly anticipated new books by David Mitchell and Marilynne Robinson; the emergence of our own Emily St. John Mandel as a literary superstar; the breakout success of Anthony Doerr. 2015 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, Toni Morrison, Aleksandr Hemon, and Milan Kundera. Our own Garth Risk Hallberg will have his much anticipated debut on shelves later this year. Look beyond the hazy end of summer 2015 and Jonathan Franzen will be back with a new novel. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,000 words strong and encompassing 91 titles, this is the only 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
Amnesia by Peter Carey: Carey’s new novel uses a cyberattack as the lens through which to consider the often-fraught history of the relationship between the United States and Australia. A radical hacker releases a worm into a computer system that governs both Australian and American prisoners. The doors of five thousand prisons in the United States are opened, while in Australia, hundreds of asylum-seekers escape. An Australian journalist, determined to figure out the motivation behind the attack and trying to save his career, struggles to get the hacker to cooperate on a biography. (Emily)
Outline by Rachel Cusk: First serialized in The Paris Review, Cusk’s new work is described by its publisher (FSG) as “a novel in ten conversations”, but I prefer Leslie Jamison’s description: “a series of searing psychic X-rays bleached by coastal light.” The woman at the center of these conversations is a writing teacher who travels to Greece to teach a workshop. Her portrait is revealed by her various interlocutors, beginning with her neighbor on a plane en route to Athens. (Hannah)
The First Bad Man by Miranda July: Miranda July, artist, filmmaker and author of the story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, has written a debut novel about a woman named Cheryl who works at a women’s self-defense nonprofit, and, according to the jacket copy, is a “tightly-wound, vulnerable woman who lives alone with a perpetual lump in her throat.” Cheryl also believes she’s made love with her colleague “for many lifetimes, though they have yet to consummate in this one.” In her blurb, Lena Dunham writes that July’s novel “will make you laugh, cringe and recognize yourself in a woman you never planned to be.” While you prepare for the book’s release, check out The First Bad Man Store, where you can purchase real items that are mentioned in the novel. (Edan)
Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman: This new book is Bergman’s second short story collection, after her heartbreakingly humane debut, Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Her new collection takes inspiration from historical figures, women who attained a certain degree of celebrity but whose stories have never been fully imagined. We meet Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, a conjoined twin, and a member of the first all-female integrated swing band. (Hannah)
Sweetland by Michael Crummey: The award-winning author of Galore returns to the land and the past of Newfoundland in his latest novel, which follows Moses Sweetland, the one man determined to stay on an island long after every one else has left, in defiance of both their warnings and their threats. As the Vancouver Sun puts it, Sweetland “demonstrates, as the best fiction does (and as Crummey’s novels always have) that the past is always with us, and that contemporary events are history embodied and in motion.” The novel also promises to be the best kind of ghost story, one in which memory and place are as haunting as the ghosts Sweetland believes he sees. (Kaulie)
Glow by Ned Beauman: Multiple prize nods for each of his first two novels have set high expectations for Ned Beauman’s next effort. If the plot, which slingshots through England, Burma and Iceland, is any indication, the new book will match the ambition of his previous work. The story kicks off at a rave in London, where Raf, a sufferer of a chronic sleep disorder, is trying out a new drug, the eponymous “glow.” The drug leads him on a quest to uncover a massive conspiracy involving a multinational named Lacebark. (Thom)
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman: Long a distinguished short-story writer, Pearlman emerged into the spotlight with her 2011 collection Binocular Vision. The new-found fame landed her a new publisher — Little, Brown — for her latest collection and a profile in the Times. It seems, in fact, that Pearlman is now assured the larger audience that eluded her for decades. (Max)
Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: An introduction to a recently published excerpt of Binary Star suggests Sarah Gerard has a reputation for tackling her subject matter with unusual ferocity. In her debut, she turns her attention to eating disorders, focusing on a would-be teacher who struggles with anorexia. When the story begins, the teacher weighs ninety-eight pounds, and she reflects on the parallels between her own compulsions and the hopeless alcoholism of her lover. Gerard heightens the intensity, meticulously listing what her characters eat and drink. (Thom)
Frog by Mo Yan: In the latest novel by the Chinese Nobel laureate to get an English translation, Mo Yan takes on the one-child policy, depicting the lives of several characters throughout the lifespan of Communist China. Gugu, a gynecologist who delivered hundreds of babies during Mao Zedong’s reign, finds herself performing illegal abortions after the policy takes effect in the late seventies. Yan also depicts the sexism of the policy — his characters work hard to have sons and not daughters. (Thom)
Watch Me Go by Mark Wisniewski: Wisniewski’s third novel channels the best of his profluent short fiction (Best American Short Stories, Virginia Quarterly Review). Watch Me Go speeds by with clipped chapters that follow Douglas “Deesh” Sharp, who helps haul the wrong junk: an oil drum that holds a corpse. Sharp does it for the money, and that bad decision haunts him until the final page of the novel. Wisniewski’s tale unfolds in the shadow of the Finger Lakes, New York racetracks, where, one character warns “in the long run, gamblers always lose.” Watch Me Go feels particularly apt to our national present, when police procedure is under constant scrutiny. Deesh is a victim of the system, and his redemption will only happen by fire. Wisniewski’s prose burns forward, but he knows when to slow the pace and make the reader feel Deesh’s injustice. (Nick R.)
Hall of Small Mammals: Stories by Thomas Pierce: Pierce’s stories are reminiscent of the work of Laura van den Berg: his fiction exists in a space that’s just slightly offset from reality, not quite surrealism but not quite realism either. A woman admits to her boyfriend that she’s married to another man, but only in her dreams; in dreams she and her husband live out an ordinary domestic life. A man who works for a sinister television show that clones extinct animals delivers a miniature woolly mammoth to his mother. Pierce’s stories are beautifully written and suffused with mystery. (Emily)
A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor: “Delhi is no place for a woman in the dark,” Kapoor writes, “unless she has a man and a car or a car and a gun.” Idha, the narrator of Kapoor’s debut novel, is young, middle-class, and bored. Her car allows a measure of freedom, but not enough, and when she meets a somewhat unsuitable older man, the temptation to capsize her life with an affair is irresistible. Both a coming-of-age story and a portrait of New Delhi. (Emily)
Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda: Buwalda’s first novel, translated from the Dutch, traces the dissolution of the outwardly solid Sigerius clan, updating the family saga by way of technical intricacy, narrative brio, and internet porn. In the Netherlands, the book was a bestseller, nominated for a dozen prizes. The English translation has drawn comparisons to Jonathan Franzen and the manic heyday of a young Philip Roth. (Garth)
Lucky Alan: And Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem: Jonathan Lethem has made a career of capturing transition—whether it’s Brooklyn’s gentrification or his masterful blend of genre and literary fiction. He works with similar themes in his third short story collection, but this time, it’s people—not places—that are in limbo. From forgotten comic book characters stuck on a desert island to a father having his midlife crisis at SeaWorld, the nine stories in this collection explore everything from the quotidian to the absurd, all with Lethem’s signature humor, nuance, and pathos. (Tess)
Find Me by Laura van den Berg: In most post-apocalyptic fiction, the end of the world is devastating, but what if it were a chance for renewal and redemption? Laura van den Berg is the perfect writer to answer this question as she has proven herself a master of scrutinizing fresh starts in her short story collections, What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth. In her first novel, a lost young woman named Joy is immune to an Alzheimer’s-like plague sweeping the country. With society’s rules broken down, Joy travels across America in search of the mother who abandoned her, making new friends and a new world along the way. (Tess)
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: McCarthy’s fourth novel introduces us to a “corporate anthropologist” struggling to wrest an overarching account of contemporary existence from a miasma of distraction and dream. Perhaps he’s a stand-in for your average internet user. Or novelist. At any rate, expect ideas and delight in equal measure (assuming there’s a distinction); McCarthy’s reputation as a “standard bearer of the avant-garde” underrates how thoroughly he’s mastered the novelistic conventions he’s concerned to interrogate – and how fun he is to read. (Garth)
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: Link’s last story collection for adults, Magic for Beginners, was something like the Jesus’ Son of Magical Realism. Its publication nearly a decade ago won the author a passionate cult; since then, mostly through word-of-mouth, its excellence has become a matter of broader consensus. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, offers a vivid reminder of why. Beneath the attention-getting levity of Link’s conceits – ghosts, superheroes, “evil twins” – lies a patient, Munrovian attunement to the complexities of human nature. (Garth)
The Strange Case of Rachel K by Rachel Kushner: Before she published her two richly accomplished novels, Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner wrote three short works of fiction that are collected in The Strange Case of Rachel K. In “The Great Exception,” a queen pines for an explorer as he makes his way to “Kuba.” In “Debouchement,” a faith healer’s illegal radio broadcasts give hope to an oppressed island populace. And in the title story, a French-style zazou dancer in pre-revolutionary Cuba negotiates the murky Havana night. The stories read like warm-up sketches for Telex From Cuba, and they’ll be of interest to Kushner’s ardent fans and future scholars. Others will be left hungering for something new from this outlandishly gifted writer. (Bill)
Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London by Mohsin Hamid: Hamid’s latest is a collection of pieces that he wrote for various publications between 2000—the year his first novel, Moth Smoke, was published—and 2014. Hamid has lived in Pakistan, New York City, and London, and in works ranging from extended essays to brief op-eds, he brings personal insight and thoughtful analysis to issues ranging from the war on terror to the future of Pakistan to the costs and the promise of globalization. (Emily)
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is known for finding the fantastical in the everyday and the cracks in reality. So it should be no surprise that his third short story collection defies genre categorization, delving into fairy tales, horror, fantasy, poetry, and science fiction. Yet not all of it is unfamiliar: “Adventure Story” shares themes with his last novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and “Black Dog” brings him back to the American Gods world. (Tess)
Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano: Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, will get a belated introduction to many American readers through Suspended Sentences. Originally published between 1988 and 1993, these three atmospheric novellas share Modiano’s recurring theme: an attempt to understand the secret histories of the Nazi Occupation of his native Paris. “Afterimage” is the shadow tale of a young writer cataloging the work of a haunted photographer. The title piece is a child’s-eye view of the gang of circus performers and crooks who raise him. In “Flowers of Ruin,” a double suicide triggers an investigation into gangsters and collaborators during the Occupation. It’s a delectably broad sampling from a writer with a doggedly narrow scope. American readers should rejoice. Update: The release date was moved up following the Nobel win and the book has already been published! (Bill)
The Infernal by Mark Doten: After ten years of near-silence, we’re now in the full roar of fiction about the Iraq War. The most notable efforts to date have taken a realist slant, but Mark Doten’s first novel marks a sharp swerve into Coover territory: its key figure channels the voices of Condoleezza Rice, Paul Bremer, and Osama bin Laden. Early readers have reached for adjectives like “deranged,” “crazy,” and “insane,” in addition to the more usual “thrilling” and “dazzling.” (Garth)
There’s Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: We don’t often want authors to moralize, but Charles Baxter is a fictional minister we have been devout to throughout more than a dozen works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Virtue and vice are inextricably related in his latest short stories. The collection features ten stories, five about virtue and five about vice, with the same characters participating in both and all motivated by the book’s titular request. What Baxter wants us to do is note human frailty, ambiguity, and its shameful depths. As fellow master of the form Lorrie Moore notes, “Baxter’s stories proceed with steady grace, nimble humor, quiet authority, and thrilling ingeniousness.” (Tess)
The Last Good Paradise by Tatjana Soli: The author of The Lotus Eaters (winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize) and The Forgetting Tree returns with a novel about a ragtag group of modern people attempting to escape their troubles on a remote Pacific island. Come for the scenery, the picaresque cast, and the comic reflections on the vagaries of contemporary life; stay for, as Kirkus puts it, Soli’s “idiosyncratic prose style.” (Lydia)
My Documents by Alejandro Zambra: “Camilo” was both the first thing I’d read by this young Chilean writer and one of the two or three best stories to run in The New Yorker last year. It appears alongside 10 other pieces in this collection, Zambra’s first book with McSweeney’s. (Garth)
I Am Radar by Reif Larsen: Reif Larsen’s follow-up to the bestselling The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet takes off from a premise halfway between Steve Martin and Judy Budnitz: “In 1975, a black child named Radar Radmanovic is mysteriously born to white parents.” But the ensuing 650 pages venture into realms of Pynchonian complexity and Irving-esque sweep. Erudite and voracious, skylarking and harrowing, they follow Radar around the world and into entanglements with some of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century. (Garth)
The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw: When Harvard graduate Charlie Garrett starts teaching at Abbott, an Episcopal boarding school in Massachusetts, the chair of the English department tells the young teacher that his students “all still believe in truth.” LeCraw’s gorgeous sentences dramatize a campus where literature stirs young hearts and minds. Charlie falls for a student, May Bankhead, daughter of the campus chaplain, and makes his feelings known when she returns home from college. Love turns to lust, and later to jealousy, when Charlie’s half brother, attractive Nick Garrett, arrives at Abbott to teach. Nick catches May, who has returned to teach at the school. “I need to be here,” she tells Charlie. LeCraw never eases the emotional tension. The novel begins with an epigraph from gifted teacher-writer Andre Dubus, who says he “learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say” rather than planning. The Half Brother captures his spirit, and the result is one of the finest school-set novels in recent memory. (Nick R.)
The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman: Newman’s third novel is set in a world of children. Eighty years ago, a deadly pandemic swept across North America, and now every child is born with the disease; they begin showing symptoms around the age of eighteen or nineteen, and die soon after. When fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star’s beloved older brother falls ill, she sets out after rumors of a cure. It’s a compelling story, but the most fascinating thing about Newman’s book is the language: the novel is written in the kind of beautifully warped English that one might expect to develop over eighty years without adults, and the prose often approaches a kind of wild poetry: “We flee like a dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see.” (Emily)
All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found by Philip Connors: After the suicide of his brother Connors finds himself in, as the title of his second memoir promises, many incongruous and wrong places, ranging from a hot-air balloon floating over New Mexico to a desk at the Wall Street Journal. A kind of prelude to his debut memoir, Fire Season, All The Wrong Places helps to explain why spending a decade in mountain solitude was so attractive to Connors. It’s also a look at the wandering years that often follow early loss, and has already drawn comparisons toCheryl Strayed’s seemingly infinitely-popular Wild. (Kaulie)
Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris : As anyone who has ever creamed butter and sugar together in a mixing bowl knows, the precision of baking can also bring order to your life. With a few failed careers and a dysfunctional family, Amelia Morris needed to learn this lesson, too. From her blog of the same name to this memoir, she chronicles her transformation into an adult and cook, complete with a good dose of humor and recipes. (Tess)
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: It’s been ten years since Never Let Me Go, so for Ishiguro fans, his new novel has been long-anticipated. His British publisher, Faber & Faber, offered up a somewhat oblique teaser early last year: it’s a book about “lost memories, love, revenge and war”; the website, which is currently just a (kind of intense) book trailer, doesn’t help much either—but then, if Never Let Me Go is any indicator, perhaps we’d all be better off without a lot of spoilery summaries in advance. (Tess)
Ember Days by Nick Ripatrazone: Nick’s lovely meditations on teaching, writing, reading, and faith have come fast and furious on The Millions since he joined the site as a staff writer at the tail end of 2013. Nick is prolific–he’s the author of two novellas, two poetry collections, a book of criticism, and a short story collection, which he somehow managed to write while teaching public school in New Jersey and parenting twins. His newest collection of short stories will be published by Braddock Avenue Books; you can read the eponymous story, a haunting number about atomic power and retribution, the title of which is taken from the Christian liturgical calendar, at Story South. (Lydia)
The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James: Tania James’s debut novel Atlas of Unknowns and follow-up story collection Aerogrammes were both published to critical acclaim. This second novel may be her true coming out. Says Karen Russell: “The Tusk that Did the Damage is spectacular, a pinwheeling multi-perspectival novel with a cast that includes my favorite character of recent memory, ‘the Gravedigger,’ an orphaned homicidal elephant.” The elephant is not only a primary character, but one of three narrators, who also include a poacher and a young American filmmaker. Ivory trading, poaching, an escaped elephant, a risky love affair, all set in rural South India and “blend[ing] the mythical and the political”—this novel seems to have it all. (Sonya)
Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes and I Refuse by Per Petterson: Since Out Stealing Horses brought him international acclaim in 2007, many more of Norwegian novelist Per Petterson’s books have been translated into English, although not quite in the order he wrote them. Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, a collection of linked stories, was his first, published in Norway in 1987, and introduces young Arvid Jansen — a character he revisits in In the Wake and I Curse the River of Time — growing up in the outskirts of Oslo in the early 60s. I Refuse, meanwhile, is Petterson’s latest novel, published in Norway in 2012. It tells the story of Jim and Tommy, whose friendship was forged in their youth when Tommy stood up to his abusive father and needed Jim’s support. When they meet by chance 35 years later, they recall those painful events, as well as a night on a frozen lake that separated them until now. (Janet)
B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman: Nicholson Baker’s characteristically idiosyncratic biography of John Updike, U and I, has become a literary classic. Now J.C. Hallman, himself a gifted practitioner of eclectic non-fiction with books on topics ranging from chess to Utopia, turns the lens on Baker. Publisher Simon & Schuster calls it “literary self-archaeology” and offers up comparisons to Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, two books that have helped carve out a new genre of memoir that arrives refracted through the lens of the writers’ literary obsessions. (Max)
The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya: Castellanos Moya’s short novels are hallucinatory, mordant, and addictive – like Bernhard transplanted to warmer climes. And his translator, Katherine Silver, is admirably attuned to the twists and turns of his sentences. We’ve offered enthusiastic readings of Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Here Castellanos Moya flirts again with autobiographical material, tracing the crack-up of “an exiled journalist in Mexico City [who] dreams of returning home to El Salvador.” (Garth)
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson: There’s a robust online conversation right now about public shaming: when someone says or does something offensive on the internet, does the collective outcry — a digital torch-wielding mob — go too far? Ronson’s previous books include The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare at Goats, and he’s a frequent contributor to This American Life and BBC Radio 4. In his newest book, billed as “a modern-day Scarlet Letter,” he examines the culture that’s grown up around public shaming, talking with people like Jonah Lehrer, who shook the publishing world with several rounds of plagiarism revelations, and Justine Sacco, who tweeted an offensive “joke” before boarding a transatlantic flight — and had what felt like the entire internet demanding that she be fired before her plane touched down. (Elizabeth)
Young Skins by Colin Barrett: Ireland right now is ridiculously fertile ground for writers, though I guess that’s been said so often in the last century as to border on cliché. Still: Anne Enright, Paul Murray, Eimear McBride, Kevin Barry, Keith Ridgway…and 32-year-old Colin Barrett is, as they say, the coming man. This collection, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Guardian First Book Award, wastes no motion in its unsparing look at youth and masculinity in the small towns of the west. (Garth)
Decoy by Allan Gurganus: In 2013, 12 years after the appearance of his last full-length book, Allan Gurganus published Local Souls, a collection of three novellas. One of these, Decoy, which Dwight Garner called “the keeper” of the bunch, is indeed being kept, appearing as a separate publication this spring. Set in the fictional North Carolina town that has housed much of Gurganus’s previous work–including his beloved debut Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All–Decoy deals in small-town social relations and obscure homoerotic longings. Gurganus, known as a writer’s writer (he taught Donald Antrim’s first writing class), is reportedly at work on another massive full-length novel, “The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church.” (Lydia)
Crow Fair by Thomas McGuane: A new release by gifted prose stylist McGuane should be cause for celebration by sentence lovers. McGuane long ago moved from the sardonic prose of his earlier novels (The Sporting Club) to lyric representations of the American West (The Cadence of Grass). In his own words: “As you get older, you should get impatient with showing off in literature. It is easier to settle for blazing light than to find a language for the real. Whether you are a writer or a bird-dog trainer, life should winnow the superfluous language. The real thing should become plain. You should go straight to what you know best.” The seventeen stories of Crow Fair model that sentiment. Start with the patient words of “A Prairie Girl,” but stay for the rest. (Nick R.)
The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi: British man of letters Hanif Kureishi, OBE, has been, variously, a novelist, playwright, filmmaker, writer of pornography, victim of financial fraud, and sometimes reluctant professor of creative writing. His newest novel takes on another man of letters, Mamoon Azam, a fictional lout rumored to be based on the non-fictional lout V.S. Naipaul. Echoing Patrick French’s biography of Naipaul, Kureishi (who has assiduously avoided drawing comparisons between his novel and Naipaul) describes an imperious and irascible master of post-colonial fiction and his hapless biographer. (Lydia)
The Unloved and Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography: Two Early Novels by Deborah Levy: For those who loved the oneiric Swimming Home, 2015 will be a great year as three Deborah Levy books—one new novel and two earlier works—are due to come out. Her latest, The Unloved, starts out as a sexually charged, locked door mystery set in a French chateau, then expands into a far-ranging tale about sadism and historical atrocities. Beautiful Mutants, her strange first novel about a Russian exile who is either a gifted seer or a talented fake, and Swallowing Geography, a European road novel with nods to Kerouac, are being reissued in June. (Matt)
Aquarium by David Vann: Vann, whose work we have examined previously at The Millions, returns with a new novel in March. Library Journal offers high praise: “Since electrifying the literary world five years ago with his debut novel, Legend of a Suicide, Vann has racked up an astonishing number of international awards. This lovely, wrenching novel should add to that list.” (Thom)
The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle: When precisely, one wonders, does T.C. Boyle sleep? In the 35 years since his first book came out, Boyle has published 14 novels and more than 100 stories. The Harder They Come is the usual T.C. Boyle clown car of violent misfits, anti-authoritarian loons, and passionate losers set loose in a circus of serious-minded zaniness. After being declared a hero for stopping a hijacking, an ex-Marine returns home to Northern California to find that his mentally disturbed son has taken up with a hardcore member of a right-wing sect that refuses to recognize the authority of the state. (Michael)
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum: Well, the title speaks for itself. “Controversial and provocative,” no doubt. This is the book I wanted to edit myself, so now I’m looking forward to reading it. Sixteen authors offer their reflections on this topic, including Lionel Shriver, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Christensen, Elliott Holt, Geoff Dyer, and Tim Kreider. Daum published her own story of not being a parent—but rather a mentor of teenagers—at The New Yorker back in September. The anthology’s title is likely both tongue-in-cheek and uncomfortably accurate; its cleverness, to my mind, is in the fact that the subtitle might easily omit the “not.” (Sonya)
The Animals by Christian Kiefer: Christian Kiefer leaves behind the suburban cul-de-sacs of his first novel, The Infinite Tides, and takes us to rural Idaho for his follow-up, The Animals. Bill Reed is trying to move beyond his criminal past by managing a wildlife sanctuary for injured animals – raptors, a wolf, a bear. He plans to marry the local veterinarian and live a quiet life – until a childhood friend is released from prison and comes calling. Aimed at fans of Denis Johnson and Peter Matthiessen, this literary thriller is a story of friendship, grief, and the desire to live a blameless life. (Bill)
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham: I learned of James Hannaham’s sophomore novel back in 2013, at which point I mentioned to him how excited I was—about the title in particular: “You wrote a book called DELICIOUS FOODS?!” “The title is slightly misleading,” he replied. His publisher gives us this: “[A]n incisive look at race relations in America and an unflinching portrait of the pathos and absurdity of addiction.” Delicious or not, the story of Eddie and his mother Darlene promises to be both “blistering” and “inventive”—not to mention timely. (Sonya)
The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter: In Hunter’s eerily compelling new novel, an archivist at a small London museum embarks on a final project before the museum’s impending closure: she is searching for information related to a woman who disappeared over a century ago from a Victorian asylum. The project holds some personal interest: when the archivist was fifteen years old, a little girl whom she was babysitting vanished in the woods near the asylum, and the archivist has begun to suspect that the two events were connected. (Emily)
The Sellout by Paul Beatty: Back in the ‘90s, The White-Boy Shuffle, Beatty’s first novel (after several poetry collections) was one of the bibles of my adolescence – furiously funny and ineffably sad. Two subsequent novels confirmed him as a scorching satirist in the vein of his contemporaries Sam Lipsyte and Gary Shteyngart. His latest outing features, in a supporting role, “the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins” – but its deeper concerns couldn’t be more timely: the precipitating incident is the death of the hero’s father in a police shootout, and the ultimate destination is the Supreme Court. (Garth)
The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday: Torday’s novella, The Sensualist, won the 2012 Jewish Book Award for debut fiction. In his first novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, the titular character is a war hero and something of an idol to his teenage nephew, Eli Goldstein. Kirkus gave the novel a starred review, remarking, “While Torday is more likely to be compared to Philip Roth or Michael Chabon than Gillian Flynn, his debut novel has two big things in common with Gone Girl–it’s a story told in two voices, and it’s almost impossible to discuss without revealing spoilers. A richly layered, beautifully told and somehow lovable story about war, revenge and loss.” Rivka Galchen calls it both “brilliant” and “hilarious” and George Saunders says, “Torday is a prodigiously talented writer, with a huge heart.” I myself had the great pleasure of reading an advanced copy and I loved it. The final scene…what an ending! I still think about it. (Edan)
Her 37th Year: An Index by Suzanne Scanlon: Delivered in a series of pithy and emphatic observations, thoughts, and quotations, Suzanne Scanlon’s Her 37th Year: An Index examines love and desire and disappointment and writers and influence and ideas and passion and affairs and depression and writing and friendship and mothering and being a woman and aging. The potential excess of all this is balanced by its lean form, with each entry a vignette, quote, or observation. As a “fictional memoir”, Her 37th Year re-imagines form and redefines boundaries in a way similar to how Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation revitalized the novel: the sum of its parts is flooring. (Anne)
God Help the Child by Toni Morrison: Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature more than two decades ago; her newest novel will be her sixth in that span of time, following 2012’s Home. A new Morrison novel, according to Slate, is “news that amounts to at least an 8 on the literary Richter scale.” It is, according to Knopf, “about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult,” and though it’s just 192 pages long, it promises to be more powerful than many books twice its length. (Elizabeth)
My Struggle: Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard: There’s still time to jump on the Knausgaard bandwagon! English-speaking fans of Books 1-3 have been waiting almost a year for this translation, the fourth in a six-volume autobiographical novel by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard — or just plain “Karl Ove” to those of us who have been following his confessional outpourings. Dwight Garner likened reading Knausgaard to “falling into a malarial fever”, and James Wood remarked that “even when I was bored, I was interested.” Book 4 covers Knausgaard’s late adolesence as he struggles to support his writing by teaching, falls in love with a 13-year-old student, and boozily greets the long arctic nights. (Hannah)
Early Warning by Jane Smiley: This is the second installment in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy, which follows a single Iowa farming family and its descendants through the American Century, from 1920 to 2020. The first book, Some Luck, which Smiley discussed in a wide-ranging Millions interview last fall, covers the Depression years and World War II. The new book starts in the depths of the Cold War and takes readers through Vietnam and into the Reagan era. The final volume, as yet untitled, is due out this fall. (Michael)
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life followed Ursula Todd as she lived and re-lived her life in mid-century Britain. In this companion to the novel, we get the story of Ursula’s beloved younger brother Teddy, an aspiring poet and celebrated RAF pilot, who leaves a war he didn’t expect to survive to become a husband, father, and grandfather in an ever-changing world. (Janet)
Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser: A friend of mine keeps Steven Millhauser’s collection We Others by her bedside; she speaks of it, and Millhauser, like it’s 1963 and he’s a dark-eyed mop-top. Indeed, Millhauser inspires cult following: his stories do the impossible, getting way under your skin via immaculately simple prose and deceptively placid storylines. Voices in the Night collects 16 stories — “culled from religion and fables. . . Heightened by magic, the divine, and the uncanny, shot through with sly humor” – that promise to once again unsettle us with their strangeness and stun us with their beauty. (Sonya)
Gutshot by Amelia Gray: Gray’s stories come at you like fists wrapped in sirloin to pack a punch—they’re wonderfully idiosyncratic, visceral, and grotesque, with humor added for heft. Stories in her collection Museum of the Weird feature high-end cannibalism (eating monk’s tongues), a serial killer nicknamed “God” who cuts chests open and removes a rib, and a plate of hair served with soup. With the arrival of her next collection, Gutshot, Gray’s stories threaten to knock you out. (Anne)
Academy Street by Mary Costello: Bravo to Mary Costello, a “Bloomer” whose first story collection The China Factory I wrote about here back in 2012. Her debut novel Academy Street—the story of Tess Lohan, who emigrates from 1940s western Ireland to New York City—is drawing comparisons to Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn and John Williams’s Stoner. Academy Street has already been published in Europe and received the Eason Novel of the Year Irish Book Award. (Sonya)
The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy: Percy rides the increasingly porous border between literary and genre fiction in this post-apocalyptic thriller that re-imagines the Lewis and Clark expedition in an America brought low by a super flu and nuclear fallout. When word comes to Sanctuary – the remains of St. Louis – that life is better out West, Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark set out in secrecy, hoping to expand their infant nation and reunite the States. Should be a snap, right? (Michael)
The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer: The author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier again displays her gift for delving into complicated families and the women who aren’t sure they want to be part of them. Narrated in turns by each of the four Blair children, The Children’s Crusade follows the twists and turns of the family’s fortunes from the day in 1954 when their father, Bill, impulsively buys a plot of wooded land south of San Francisco, through to the modern day. “Imagine, if you will, that Jonathan Franzen’s excellent novel, The Corrections, had likeable characters,” says one early reader on GoodReads. (Michael)
The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandr Hemon: His first full-length novel in seven years (since 2008’s The Lazarus Project), The Making of Zombie Wars is the story of Josh Levin, an ESL teacher in Chicago with a laptop full of hundreds of screenplay ideas, Zombie Wars chief among them. As Josh’s life goes from bad to worse to absurd — moving in with his girlfriend only to become entangled in the domestic disputes of her neighbors — he continues to work on the zombie movie that might get him away from it all. (Janet)
Mislaid by Nell Zink: Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper, published by the Dorothy Project, a feminist small press, made a big splash last year. Its backstory provided the hook: a fifty-year-old expat writes a novel on a dare from her pen pal Jonathan Franzen. But Zink’s sui generis sensibility was the main event: taut, acerbic, and free. She moves to a major press for her second book, a decade-hopping Southern family novel that tackles race, sexuality, and the wilderness of youth. (Garth)
The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski: On the jacket of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is a blurb from Publishers Weekly: Is this “the most ambitious novel ever written or just the most Mitchell-esque?” One might ask the same question, mutatis mutandis, about Mark Danielewski’s The Familiar. Danielewski combines Mitchell’s fondness for formal innovation and genre tropes with an appealing indifference to questions of taste. At its best, this gives you House of Leaves, at its worst, Only Revolutions. One Rainy Day in May introduces us to “nine lives,” principally that of a 12-year-old girl who rescues “a creature as fragile as it is dangerous” – some kind of totemic/architectonic cat? Anyway, Volume 1 is 880 pages long. Word is, 26 more volumes are on the way, so this one had better be good. (Garth)
The Green Road by Anne Enright: Spanning three decades and three continents, this new book by Anne Enright centers on Rosaleen, the head of the Madigan family. Beginning in County Clare, the book follows the four Madigan children — Dan, Hanna, Emmet and Constance — as they set off on their own lives, travelling as far away as Mali to explore their adult selves. On Christmas Day, they all come home, and the issues of their family come back to them. In many ways, it’s a premise similar to that of Enright’s Booker-winning The Gathering. (Thom)
A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me by David Gates: In a year rich with surrealist romps and boundary-blurring semi-memoirs, David Gates returns with a welcome injection of “the present palpable intimate” in the form of eleven stories and a novella. Gates is a natural and capacious realist, at once ironic and warm, in a way that makes the ordinary ambit of experience, from marriage to parenthood to getting old, seem as trippy as it really is. (Garth)
Loving Day by Mat Johnson: Johnson’s Pym, an entertaining riff on race and Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, took us all the way to Antarctica. Loving Day (the title refers to a holiday celebrating interracial love) is set in a less remote locale, a black neighborhood in Philadelphia, but promises to be no less hallucinatory than its predecessor. A mixed race man returns from Wales, where both his marriage and his comic shop have failed, to inhabit a ghost-haunted mansion left to him by his father. He soon discovers the existence of a daughter, and the pair is drawn into a “utopian mixed-raced cult.” (Matt)
The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard: While Jim Shepard was a student at Brown, John Hawkes told him “You know, you’re not really a novelist, you’re really a short story writer.” Thankfully, good writers can be terribly wrong. Shepard’s long fiction is as fantastic as his classic stories. Shepard has always been a writer who exists outside of himself on the page, and this Holocaust-set novel is no different. The story focuses on Aron, a boy from the Warsaw Ghetto, who joins other children in smuggling goods to those “quarantined.” The novel also illuminates the life of Janusz Korczak, the real-life protector of Jewish children in ghetto orphanages (he once said “You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this.”). Serious material requires sensitive hands, and Shepard’s care creates beauty. (Nick R.)
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: Kent Haruf, who died last year at 71, will be best remembered for his 1999 novel Plainsong, a finalist for the National Book Award. It was set in the fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt, which Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) returns to yet again for his last novel, Our Souls at Night, finished shortly before his death. It’s the story of a widower named Louis Waters and a widow named Addie Moore who come together in Holt and begin sharing the aspirations, disappointments and compromises of their long lives. One critic likened Haruf’s prose to Pottery Barn furniture – with its “rustic lines,” “enduring style” and “aged patina.” His legion of fans wouldn’t have it any other way, and Our Souls at Night will not disappoint them. (Bill)
City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb: Drawn from an n+1 series of the same name, City by City offers an insider’s glance into the state of America’s urban spaces. The mix of personal and historical essays explore issues such as crime, gentrification, and culture in cities as varied and far-reaching as Miami, Florida and Gold Rush, Alaska. Described as “a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Studs Terkel, and the Great Depression–era WPA guides to each state in the Union,” City by City provides a collective portrait of the American city during the Great Recession. (Anne)
The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato: Disabato, who has written for The Millions, debuts with a high-concept mystery that looks to be a lot of fun. Pop stars aren’t known for avoiding the limelight, which is why the disappearance of a Lady Gaga-like singer inspires two women to track her down. Racing around Chicago in search of clues, they find themselves decoding arcane documents and ancient maps rather than liner notes as the disappearance turns out to involve a secret society. (Matt)
Odd Woman in the City by Vivian Gornick: For a sneak preview of Gornick’s witty and unsparing observations of city life, please read Gornick’s “Letter from Greenwich Village” in The Paris Review (it’s also collected in The Best American Essays 2014). A master memoirist, Gornick’s latest is an ode to New York City’s street life, old friends, and the fascinating joy of “living out conflicts, rather than fantasies.” (Hannah)
The Edge Becomes The Center by DW Gibson: Following up his critically-acclaimed oral history of the recession, Not Working (the title is a play on Studs Terkel’s classic oral history, Working), Gibson’s latest oral history portrays gentrifying New York City from all sides. Gibson interviews brokers, buyers, sellers, renters, landlords, artists, contractors, politicians and everyone in between to show how urban change feels to those living through it. (Hannah)
Black Glass: Short Fictions by Karen Joy Fowler: Fowler’s 2014 novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, won the PEN/Faulkner award and landed her on the Booker shortlist, one of two American finalists for the now American-friendly prize. This year will see her 1998 short story collection, Black Glass, re-released in hardcover. The stories — with influences and references from Carry Nation to Gulliver’s Travels to Albert Einstein to Tonto and the Lone Ranger — have been described as “occasionally puzzling but never dull,” and “ferociously imaginative and provocative.” (Elizabeth)
Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg: Saint Mazie is Attenberg’s much anticipated follow-up to her bestselling novel The Middlesteins, which was also a finalist for the LA Times book prize. Inspired by the life of a woman profiled in Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, Saint Mazie follows Mazie Phillips, “the truth-telling proprietress of The Venice, the famed New York City movie theater,” through the Jazz Age and the Depression; her diaries, decades later, inspire a contemporary documentarian to find out who this intriguing woman really was. Therese Ann Fowler, author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, calls the book “both a love song and a gut punch at once,” and Maggie Shipstead says it’s a “raw, boisterous, generous novel.” (Edan)
The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen: Cohen, 34, is as prolific as he is ambitious. Five years after his mega-novel, Witz (and three years after a lauded story collection), he returns with a long book about a novelist ghost-writing the autobiography of one of Silicon Valley’s new Masters of the Universe. The set-up should give Cohen’s caustic sensibility a target-rich environment, while the scope leaves his fierce intelligence ample room to play. (Garth)
The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera: Fifteen years after the publication of his last novel, Kundera returns with a (very brief) story of four friends in Paris who talk self-importantly about “sex, history, art, politics, and the meaning of life” while simultaneously celebrating their own insignificance (Library Journal). While these themes may be familiar to fans of Kundera’s past work (of which there are many – The Unbearable Lightness of Being has been enduringly popular since its publication in the mid-1980s) it will be exciting to see fresh writing from a modern master. (Kaulie)
Muse by Jonathan Galassi: Over his long literary career, Galassi has done everything except write a novel. Now the FSG publisher, Italian translator, critic and poet has checked that off his list with a story that satirizes the industry he knows so well and sounds like an updating of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers. In the novel, a publisher tries to wrestle a famous female poet away from a rival, eventually securing a meeting in her Venetian palazzo and learning a revelatory secret. (Matt)
The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida: Believer founding editor Vendela Vida’s trilogy of novels about “women in crisis” becomes a tetralogy with the debut of her latest, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty. As in her previous novels, the story involves a woman traveling abroad (in this case, Casablanca, Morocco). When the woman is robbed of her wallet and passport, she experiences distress and also unexpected freedom. The novel dips into All About Eve territory in this part-thriller, part-novel-of-ideas when the woman finds work as a celebrity stand-in and then begins to assume this alternate identity as her own. (Anne)
In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar: Alvar is a frequent contributor to literary magazines—she’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize—but this is her first short story collection. In the Country focuses on the Filipino diaspora, from Bahrain to Manila to New York. Alvar considers themes of alienation, displacement, the sometimes-troubling bonds of family, and the struggle to find a sense of home. (Emily)
The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: The one living novelist who makes Joyce Carol Oates look like a slacker returns with the fifth volume of his “Seven Dreams” series, about the confrontations between native people and settlers in North America. This installment swings west to investigate the Nez Perce War of the late 19th Century, and is rumored to lean on dialogue to an unusual degree. The first of the Seven Dreams was published in 1990; at this rate, the series should conclude some time in 2027. (Garth)
A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball: Jesse Ball’s novels are playful and clever and often quite grim, although this is not a contradiction. As he said in an interview: “a life of grief can be joyful too.” In his fifth novel, A Cure for Suicide, this again seems to be evident. A man and woman move in together: she is his guide and doctor who teaches him about life, defining for him the nature of objects and interaction and ways of being. That is, until another woman arrives and upends all he’s learned, making him question. (Anne)
Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto : Couto, a Mozambican who writes in Portuguese, has for years been considered one of Africa’s leading writers, fusing indigenous settings and traditions with influences from abroad. His first novel, Sleepwalking Land, was named one of the best African books of the 20th Century; his most recent, Tuner of Silences, was published by the terrific independent press Biblioasis, and was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin award. In Confessions of the Lioness, a series of lion attacks in a remote village forces an eruption between men and women, modernity and tradition. It’s Couto’s first book to be published by FSG. (Garth)
Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai: Fans of 2014’s The Hundred Year House don’t have to wait too long for more of Makkai’s clever and wonderfully imaginative work. Her third book and her first story collection, Music for Wartime offers a diverse array of stories, four of which are inspired by Makkai’s family history and her paternal grandparents’ involvement in 1930s Hungarian politics. (For more on this, check out this Harper’s Magazine interview with Makkai). Overall, the collection showcases the author’s talent for the short form–which has gotten her anthologized four (!) times in the Best American Short Stories series. (Edan)
Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh: Following Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and River of Smoke, Calcutta-born Amitav Ghosh brings his Ibis Trilogy to a rousing conclusion with Flood of Fire. It’s 1839, and after China embargoes the lucrative trade of opium grown on British plantations in India, the colonial government sends an expeditionary force from Bengal to Hong Kong to reinstate it. As the force arrives, war breaks out, and with it a blaze of naval engagements, embezzlement, profiteering and espionage. In bringing the first Opium War to crackling life, Ghosh has illuminated the folly of our own failed war on drugs. Historical fiction doesn’t get any timelier than this. (Bill)
The State We’re In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie: A new collection of linked stories set in Maine from one of the short story masters. Call her the American Alice Munro, call her a New Yorker darling, call this the perfect summer read. (Hannah)
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: In her 30 works of fiction, Alice Hoffman always finds the magical in the ordinary. Her narratives have roamed from ancient Israel (The Dovekeepers) to 20th-century New York City (The Museum of Extraordinary Things). Hoffman’s new novel, The Marriage of Opposites, transports us to the tropical island of St. Thomas in the early 1800s, where a girl named Rachel is growing up in the community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition. When her arranged marriage ends with her husband’s death, she begins an affair with her late husband’s dashing nephew. There is nothing ordinary about their son: his name is Camille Pissarro, and he will grow up to become an immortal father of Impressionism. (Bill)
Purity by Jonathan Franzen: There are few American authors who can hit all the popular news outlets simply by releasing the title of their next novel (Purity), or launch a thousand hot takes with the publication of one grumpy book excerpt in The Guardian (an excerpt which, curiously, is no longer available at its previous URL as of this writing). Franzen haters were derisive at the news of his impending novel (Gawker’s headline was “Jonathan Franzen to Excrete Book Called Purity”), described by its publisher as “a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents,” with bonus “fabulist quality.” But some people believe, privately, that Franzen is such a good novelist that his detractors must just be jealous. And for those people, the new book can’t come quickly enough. (O Franzen! My Franzen!) (Lydia)
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: We at The Millions look forward to reading fellow staff writer Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel. At over 900 pages, the novel takes place in 1977 New York and culminates in the city’s famed black-out. The Guardian reports, “The polished third-person narration conjures up a cast of characters living in a New York City divided by race and money – the reluctant heirs to a great fortune, two Long Island kids exploring downtown’s nascent punk scene, a gay schoolteacher from rural Georgia, an obsessive magazine reporter, a revolutionary cell planning to set the Bronx ablaze, a trader with a hole on his balance sheet and a detective who is trying to piece together the mystery which connects them all to a shooting in Central Park.” In anticipation of the book’s release, I suggest you dip into Garth’s essays here at The Millions, perhaps starting with his 2010 piece on long novels, “Is Big Back?” (Edan)
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This essay is adapted from the introduction to the new Soft Skull Press edition of No Stopping Train by Les Plesko.
Has there ever been a writer so committed to the page and what went on it as Les Plesko? He believed in Art, in all its honesty and beauty. The only thing he loathed was that which affronted the Real — anything false, slick, self-serving. He was in rebellion from all that. You saw it in his unregenerate smoking; the mismatched socks; the wild head of straggly hair; his carlessness in vast, far-flung Los Angeles. From time to time, his students said, people dropped money into his coffee cup outside a favorite Venice Beach coffee house, thinking him homeless. It was all part of his High Beat Aesthetic, which was both a conscious embrace of his romantic ideal and an increasingly involuntary corner he’d lived himself into.
But now he’s gone. Dead, by suicide, on a September morning in Venice Beach, at the age of 59. He had become a cult-figure in Los Angeles literary circles, a writer’s writer — as Mayakovsky called Khlebnikov, “Not a poet for the consumer. A poet for the producer.” A brilliant teacher, he taught over 1,000 creative writing students across a 20-year career at UCLA extension. Yet at the time of his death, he was virtually unknown outside California.
I met him in the early 1990s, in the days of the legendary Kate Braverman writing workshop held every other Saturday in her apartment on Palm Drive. There, I saw him finish his first novel, The Last Bongo Sunset, and start the book that would become No Stopping Train. Even in those early days, his views on fiction became our mantras. “Don’t have ideas,” he’d say, which always made me laugh. What that could possibly mean? How could you write and not have ideas? It was only as I struggled with my own writing that the meaning — and the wisdom — became clear. It meant: Don’t force the work into a shape. It meant: Don’t lead with your head. Don’t know so much. Leave room to discover something.
The tragedy of Les, as well as his greatest virtue, lay in his absolutely uncompromising stance on art and life: the world of commerce and the world of Absolute Art is a Venn diagram with a very small overlap. Herein lies the most painful, brutal dilemma, as Plesko would discover once No Stopping Train was finished, and he began the search for a major publisher. Every year for 15 years, he braved that dilemma, sending the manuscript out once again. But the consolidation of publishing houses worked against him. Consolidation meant that novels were far more likely than ever to be judged for “reader friendliness” and potential for commercial success than for invention and strangeness and beauty. A work like No Stopping Train had an ever-decreasing chance in such a market — and Les would have recoiled even from the use of such terms as “market,” “marketplace” — when referencing literature. The repulsive necessity of reducing creative works to a unit of commerce. It was one of the great sorrows of his life that this, his best book, could not manage to hack its way through the thicket of obstacles growing ever more dense on the road to a wider reading public.
Yet at the same time, he refused to consider casual publication for this novel. His subsequent books, his desert novel Slow Lie Detector and the tender love story Who I Was, were both published by his friend Michael Deyermond in loving editions in Venice Beach (Equinox Books and MDMH Books, respectively). But Les was adamant; he wanted No Stopping Train to reach beyond small, appreciative literary circles of Southern California. He knew that a broader readership existed for this book, but it would require a more experienced literary house to connect to them.
The book had two strikes against it. Les’s lyrical, poetic style could be demanding of a reader, and the romantic pessimism of the point of view was far more European than American. Furthermore, it’s a book set in Hungary between World War II and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, a corner of history generally unknown to American readers. Its literary modernism plus its historical framework made No Stopping Train a difficult work in the contemporary American publishing climate.
Hungary in 1956. A Soviet invasion to stifle a growing movement for independence. The moment can be viewed in many ways as the precursor to The Unbearable Lightness of Being’s Czechoslovakia, and the book shares themes with the Kundera novel: love and betrayal in times of political upheaval. Wars don’t just end — they leave bodies and ghosts. The collision of 1956 had its roots in the Second World War, where Hungary fought on the side of the Axis and experienced great hardship in defeat. In the division of Europe, Hungary fell on the Soviet side, so scores were being settled as people tried to survive, a situation Plesko brilliantly illuminates in his novel. No Stopping Train starts with the War and its aftermath; the girl Margit and her embittered mother; her love affair and eventual marriage to the document forger Sandor; and their involvement with the fearsome, magnetic redheaded Erzhebet, whom he’d once saved from the camps. In the years leading to the Hungarian Revolution, love and alliances shift repeatedly, as each character struggles with his or her own level of hope and despair.
Plesko specifically chose his homeland as the setting for his magnum opus. Born in 1954 Budapest, Laszlo Sandor was the child of a love affair between a pretty young blonde, Zsuzsa, and a man whose identity Les would not know until he returned to Hungary years later, when he discovered his father had been a famous actor. His long-time colleague Julianne Cohen said, “He brought home a head shot. The resemblance, uncanny. And a story of how the actor had leapt from a building to his death.” A terrible prefiguration of Les’s suicide in the fall of 2013.
In 1956, his mother fled across the border with a new husband, Gyorgy Pleszko, making her way to America and leaving two-year old Laszlo behind with her elderly parents who struggled with the realities of the “revolution.” She sent for him at the age of seven. He arrived in Boston, speaking only Hungarian, to meet his mother, a glamorous near-stranger, and his new family, which now included a baby half-brother. A new name. And a new language.
His encounter with English began a love affair that continued for the rest of his life. “Immediately, he was in school, and nobody spoke Hungarian, so he listened in from the back until sounds took shape and made a kind of music,” said Cohen. “He listened to the radio, watched TV, and listened to his mother and stepfather who never spoke Hungarian, fiddled with a reel to reel tape recorder until the music became word. At some point, he lost his fluency in Hungarian. Gave it up for new and interesting things — all that America had to offer a boy in the ’60s. Les was in love with language and in love with love and fell in love with the music all around him.”
But the ’60s in America had their pitfalls: “He made friends with people who were going places. San Francisco, Santa Cruz,” she recalled. “He tried college but he fell in love with heroin and dropped out. When you read The Last Bongo Sunset, you’ll come to know how he broke his own heart. But the tenacious [side of himself] quit using and thought maybe he could be an artist, a musician. He recognized he possessed a feel for word and deed and an eye for beauty. So he hit the road, taking jobs along the way searching. Fell in love with an older married woman as a hand on her ranch in the desert. It ended badly, broken hearts and incipient violence. Made his way back to Los Angeles: flag man for crop dusters, Country Western DJ. He took a sales job. He had a compelling voice; it roped you in and kept you there. Laced with smoke, sorrow, and an unbeliever’s faith in resurrection. He told the truth and you could trust that.”
I’ve seen those pictures of Les as a young man, a businessman with a phone to his ear, in ’70s wide lapels. They astonished me. For I knew him only after these formational years, the years that gave the raw edge to his first novel, in new sobriety in the Braverman workshop, writing the book in which he found his unique voice, his tone as an artist, and a moment of accolades. About The Last Bongo Sunset (reviewed just ahead of A Void by Georges Perec) The New Yorker said, “For the narrator of such extravagant, ravaging prose, it would be impossible to commit a cliché.”
But now that book is long out of print, and the last two novels reached only the circles already aware of Les’s work. What would ever become of the Hungarian novel, all these years in the making?
Shortly after Les’s death, as friends and students wandered in dazed disbelief, the Australian novelist David Francis — a former Plesko student and protégé — seated me next to an editor from Counterpoint at a PEN USA dinner. David knew that the story of our colleague’s death, and the tragedy of No Stopping Train soon would arise in conversation, and so it did. The editor, Dan Smetanka, was eager to see the manuscript. Who had the book? When could he read it?
Word went out. Les, a great letter writer, had sent various incarnations of the book to his correspondents over the years, notably to Julianne Cohen, to his former fiancée Eireene Nealand, and to his devoted student Jamie Schaffner. All of them were able to produce incarnations of the manuscript. Soon Les’s younger brother, George, received an offer to publish.
So comes the end of a very long journey for one small jewel of a book. It is with a profound and bittersweet pleasure that I now hold this volume in my hands. How proud Les would have been if he had lived to see this day, how happy he would be for you to turn the first page.
I wish you good reading.
Los Angeles, California April 21, 2014
At my wedding last September, my theme — beyond the necessary trilingual nature of the event due to being Russian and marrying an Israeli — was books. For the centerpieces, I chose my favorite literary works, stacked ten copies of them on top of each other, tied them with a large gold ribbon, and then gave them away to the attendees when the night ended. I had classics for the more aged (and non-English-speaking) of the bunch, Russian translations of One Hundred Years of Solitude and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but for the younger crowd, I picked Jonathan Franzen and Safran Foer titles, Gary Shteyngart’s appropriately titled Super Sad True Love Story, Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot. But probably my most current favorite of the bunch was The Borrower by fellow Chicagoan Rebecca Makkai. It was a book I had recently read and one that had stuck with me as a great representative of contemporary literature. I wanted everyone I knew to read it (and it didn’t hurt that there were Russian characters involved, since anyone reading it from my wedding would at least be able to relate on that level). Makkai now has a new book, The Hundred-Year House, a novel about the life of a haunted family and a haunted mansion, told in reverse. We recently sat down to discuss it:
The Millions: The first thing that was really clear to me after finishing your book is how incredibly complicated the structure of it is, especially how every section goes backward in time – from 1999 to 1955 to 1929. How did you go about writing it? Did you write it in chronological order, or did you play around with it a lot?
Rebecca Makkai: I wrote a short story once called “Gate House,” which consisted of some of the plot of the 1999 story. And it didn’t work as a short story at all; it was terrible. But when I revisited it, years later, I suddenly thought of turning it into a novel, and that’s when I started to consider what I would have to do to move backwards in time. At that point the whole thing was coming to me as I went about my day, as I was brushing my teeth – I would have these ideas of the way the plot would be layered. Soon I realized it would be stupid to start writing without seriously outlining, so that was the next thing I did. I ended up with a sixty-page outline. I had calendars, I had timelines, I had historical events. And of course it changed a ton as I was actually writing it. I knew I wanted to write it in reverse chronological order, as it appears in the book, but I had to outline first. Because I couldn’t write 1955 until I knew what happened in 1929.
TM: So you did have to jump around a little?
RM: Well it’s not that I was jumping around, it’s that I had to have every detail worked out before I could write anything, which is unusual. I think people are afraid of outlining, but it didn’t take any of the creativity out of it. And even with the scaffolding the outline provided, I was still catching things up to the last moment. For instance, there’s this bear statue in the woods, and you find out later that it was built in 1957, but I accidentally had it there in 1955… It’s probably not something the reader would really catch until the second or third read—but someone would eventually.
TM: I saw Nathan Englander last year at Printer’s Row, and he said something very similar to that, about how every detail of a story needs to be thought out, no matter how small. If there’s a story set in Chicago, you can’t have a character turn left down a one-way street going in the opposite direction.
RM: Yes, exactly. For me, the details of this house were really important. I ended up drawing the floor plans three times, once for every era. From different angles too. I had to refer to them constantly.
TM: Did you have fun with that, or do you not like drawing?
RM: Oh they look horrible – and I was staying at Ragdale [an artists’ residency] at the time, so there were actual artists there.
TM: Did they see the drawings?
RM: Oh yeah. One of the painters was laughing at me. But it was very helpful. I thought I knew the space pretty well, but then as I drew it, I realized that mentally I’d had the kitchen in two different spaces, depending on the scene.
TM: I would imagine it was really helpful to draw it, since basically all of the scenes take place in that house.
RM: Exactly. In each era there’s someone kind of trapped there.
TM: I did have that feeling a lot. Especially with Case, where all those bad things keep happening to him; the car fire, the knee injury, the bee stings.
RM: The house has this sort of magnetism to it. In 1999, Case is literally crippled by all these accidents. Then in 1955, Grace is trapped there by an abusive husband. And in the ’20s, when it’s an artists’ colony, the characters want to be trapped there. It’s their home, and they’re protecting it. I talk to students a lot about keeping people trapped together in a story so that they don’t just leave, because most people are so conflict-averse that they’d realistically just walk away. I have them practice by writing a scene with characters trapped in an elevator. I don’t think I realized that I’d done that myself until just now.
TM: Was your intention to have some sort of magical element to that feeling of entrapment? And to the house in general?
RM: For sure. I wanted everything to theoretically have some kind of an explanation, but at the same time there’s this question of luck – can you really have that much good luck or bad luck, or does it at some point start to feel supernatural? That’s the question a lot of them are dealing with. For Case, its almost like the house hates him. He just doesn’t belong there.
TM: You said that the first section, the one in 1999, was also the first thing you wrote. Did it change a lot once you decided to make it novel-length?
RM: Yes, quite a lot. Originally, if you can believe it, the story was about male anorexia. No one believes that this guy, who later becomes Case, is anorexic, and the character who later became Doug follows him around, obsessively trying to prove it. The main problem with that story was it was too long. But there was something in it that I loved, and I kept going back to it and trying to cut it, so that it would be publishable, but nothing ever came of it. Five years later it was still sitting there, one of many unpublished stories.
TM: Do you remember why you suddenly came back to it?
RM: I wish I could remember, but no, I don’t. And the original story, about the anorexia, it’s not even there at all anymore. The only trace of it that’s left is the idea of Violet, the original owner of the house, possibly starving to death. There is also a point when Doug takes that idea and puts it into one of the children’s books he’s writing, and it gets him fired. I tried really hard to keep that anorexia in the novel; it was hard to admit that was the thing that needed to go because it was the spark. It was like putting out the match that lit the candle.
TM: The character of Miriam probably resonated the most with me, because I lived with a lot of art majors in college, so someone creating works of art with found objects is very familiar. Did you know someone like that as well?
RM: Twelve years ago, I was in a pizza restaurant in New Haven, CT, with my husband and in-laws. It’s this world-famous place called Pepe’s, where you have to wait in line for hours to get in the door. We had finally made it into the lobby and there’s this group there, and it’s clearly a guy introducing his girlfriend to his parents for the first time. And what she did for a living was create portraits of people’s pets out of strange materials. In my memory, she was making marionette puppets, but I could have made that up. And the parents were trying so hard to be supportive, but they clearly didn’t understand. For some reason that was the seed of Miriam—this person who does this thing that no one would think would be sustainable but she’s actually quite successful.
TM: One thing that surprised me is that you had three separate sections with characters that we never see again. Did you think about the risk of that a lot?
RM: It’s not entirely true, though. The middle section is about Grace, and you do see her again in the 1929 section, as a small child. And there are other characters you see briefly too. I did worry that readers might be disgruntled as I divorced them from these people I’d just gotten them invested in, but I was careful to try and keep certain characters’ spirits in the story. For Doug and Miriam in particular, even though you never get back to 1999, you learn things in 1955 and 1929 that affect their story – that even change our understanding of what’s going to happen to them.
TM: Was there anything else you worried about?
RM: Well, I’m confident that none of my readers will remember 1929 clearly. But I’m worried about 1955, because readers who were around (and know that I wasn’t) could go into it looking for mistakes. But 1999, I remember myself. For a long time I’d wanted to write about the Y2K hysteria, because it was an interesting time, and I like to give deadlines to my stories. There’s a clock ticking; things that are going to happen have to happen by a certain time.
TM: It was a lot like a movie in that way, with the pacing.
RM: Yes. That said, I don’t think it would make a good movie. You’d have to take a lot of liberties, and do it very differently, and maybe return to 1999 in the end.
TM: The Borrower would make a good movie too.
RM: I feel like no one would want to touch that with a ten-foot pole. A ten-year-old boy… With sexuality issues… It would have to be an indie film.
TM: These two books are so different from each other. Was there anything different about the writing processes?
RM: I think it was more fun [with The Hundred-Year House]. All that outlining that I had to do paid off hugely when I sat down to write. The problem with The Borrower is that in the beginning I didn’t understand what I was doing yet and I wasted years floundering around, just figuring out how to write a novel.
TM: How long did this one take, after you just sat down to finish?
RM: I really got back to it around the time The Borrower came out, in 2011. So it happened fast. The Borrower took ten years, because I was poking at it, and I was working full-time so I didn’t have as much time to write.
TM: If you could tell your past self anything about writing The Borrower, what would it be?
RM: Just to outline. You can see the shape of something when you outline. You can see the structural flaws. Working on a novel is like painting a mural: if you’re close enough to work on it you’re too close to see the whole thing. You have to step away and look at it from across the room.
TM: Do you edit as you go along? Or do you write and come back?
RM: Both. You don’t want to spend time editing language when you’re not even sure if that scene is going to stay in the book. You don’t want to polish something you’re still carving. I’ll fix it up if something sticks out, but I wont do micro-edits.
TM: What’s your favorite part of the writing process?
RM: I actually love outlining. Especially when it’s new and you’re just generating ideas. I also love polishing the language. I don’t like the big structural edits as much. I get myself geared up for those edits by letting myself play spider solitaire. It turns on the math-and-logic part of my brain. At least that’s what I tell myself.
TM: How much of an impact do your editors at Viking have on your books? Do they change it quite a bit?
RM: They don’t change it themselves; they ask the writer to change it. But it’s mostly bigger things, not the details. They pushed me to cut a lot from the 1999 setting; it was much, much longer before.
TM: Oh! Is that why the chapters are kind of short? Or is that just how it came out?
RM: No, that’s just how it came out. I ended up cutting entire chapters, rather than parts within the chapters. I think I cut it by a third or a half. But I’m really happy with the way it turned out. I’m glad they pushed me.
TM: How many times has your husband read this book?
RM: That’s a good question! Definitely not as much as The Borrower… He’s probably read the entire book three times. I held off giving it to him, so he didn’t read it till close to the end.
TM: Was he helpful?
RM: Yes. He’s my best editor.
TM: Are you in a place where you never want to look at it again?
RM: Weirdly, I’m not. I’m never going to sit down and read the whole thing, but I’m not dreading the many occasions where I’ll have to read from it out loud. Whereas with The Borrower, I’ve read from it so much that I don’t particularly want to read from that again for a while.
TM: Do you have a book tour coming up for the release?
RM: Yes. I’m going to the east coast in July, and in August I’m doing Chicago, Minneapolis, and Milwaukee.
TM: What are you working on now?
RM: I’m wrapping up a short story collection called Music For Wartime that’s coming out next summer.
TM: Are you editing a lot or is everything pretty much done?
RM: Yes and no. There’s one story I feel strongly about that’s unpublished and I really need to revise it, so I’m working on that. I’m also working on the order of the stories. It was done a couple years ago, but we decided to publish the novel first, so I had an order picked out, but since then I’ve written more stories.
TM: How many stories total?
RM: Some of them are short, one or two pages, so it actually ends up being sixteen stories all together – but the total page length isn’t unusual for a story collection.
TM: Have you started a new novel?
RM: I have the idea. I want to work on something set in the New York art world in the ’80s amidst the AIDS epidemic, and Paris in the ’20s. There are artists, some stuff about tuberculosis, and a connection between the two worlds, though I’m not sure what yet.