Donald Antrim is perhaps the master of the novel in which men are crammed into confined spaces — a group of psychotherapists in a pancake joint (The Verificationist) or 100 brothers in a library (The Hundred Brothers). Chris Bachelder contributes a gem to the genre with The Throwback Special, in which a football team’s worth of men descend upon a hotel to conduct an annual ritual based on a football game that occurred 30 years ago.
The men loiter in “concentric arcs” around the hotel’s lobby fountain as they wait to check in, “not unlike the standard model of the atom;” they gather to eat pizza in a cramped room smelling of “sweet tomato sauce and warm meat;” and when they find another group of hotel guests descending on the continental breakfast station, they “[lurk] at the boundaries of the dining area, anxious about resources.” All this clustering is a prelude to the formation of a football huddle, “a perfect and intimate order, elemental and domestic, like a log cabin in the wilderness…they could perhaps sense in the huddle the origins of civilization.” (Zog, you go deep while Durc and Plarf sneak up on the mammoth from the blind side.)
Bachelder’s portrait of middle-class, middle-aged males revolves around football, in which we find a unique combination of brute force, obsessive strategic organization, and improvisation. Full disclosure: In my version of hell, scowling football coaches pace up and down the River Styx, their steady barking of martial commands only interrupted to consult their laminated sheets on which every possible variation on the off-tackle running play is written. My distaste for the sport’s phony militarism notwithstanding, Bachelder’s “football” novel is an eerie, witty work dissecting a modern-day sacrificial (sack-rificial?) ritual. Though the curious rite described herein takes place in a “two-and-a-half-star chain” hotel off of I-95, it taps into our ancestral roots; the novel’s epigraph is taken from Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, a treatise on the “primacy” and “sacred earnestness” of play across cultures.
The group of men meet to recreate a famously disastrous, and violent, football play. (Bachelder’s first novel, Bear v. Shark, was structured around a more absurdist agon.) During a 1985 game against the New York Giants, the Washington Redskins attempted a flea flicker — quarterback hands ball to running back, running back tosses ball back to quarterback, who looks to pass the ball downfield. The trick was clumsily executed, the defense wasn’t fooled, and quarterback Joe Theismann was carted off with a career-ending compound fracture courtesy of the Giants’ Lawrence Taylor, the fearsome outside linebacker who seemed shaken by the bone-crushing damage he has inflicted. The TV commentator Frank Gifford warns his audience before cutting to the replay: “And I’ll suggest if your stomach is weak, just don’t watch.”
These men did watch as boys, and something about the play’s cataclysmic failure, the collapse of the best-laid plans of mice and offensive coordinators, lodged in their adolescent psyches. The novel opens on the 16th year of the men reenacting the snap. We don’t find out how these performers, who lead relatively humdrum lives devoid spectacular drama, established the group or found each other; illuminating the society’s origins, it seems, would dampen its mystery. The men are not really friends; socialization is confined to the reenactment weekend. Some of their familial or professional troubles are recounted, and Bachelder does flit in and out of their psyches, but in general the men, partly because there are so many of them, remain purposefully flat. It is the ritual that matters — the men’s role in it and their behavior leading up to it. The description of one man breaking in his new mouthguard tells you everything you need to know about him.
At times, The Throwback Special has the feel of Tom McCarthy’s Remainder, which itself explores the transporting thrill of re-creation. This pleasure lies in the chance to asymptotically “approach perfection” by getting closer and closer to the historical model; or in submitting to the play’s “choreography of chaos and ruin;” or in the suspense that all great drama, even when we know the outcome, generates: “He had liked the sense that anything at all might happen, even though only one thing could happen.”
A blend of comfort and tension lies at the heart of this ritual, faith in its power and anxiety about its stability. In Homo Ludens, Huizinga mentions the fragility of play, the ease with which its sustaining illusion can be shattered or its cordoned-off space violated. Though the men have at it for nearly two decades, one worrywart has the “anxious sensation that the ritual, seemingly so entrenched, was in fact precarious.” The conference room in which they usually conduct the lottery has been usurped by a vaguely-named company, Prestige Vista Solutions. (“They just despoil the environment and establish tax havens and seize conference rooms,” gripes one of the deposed reenactors.) The hotel fountain is initially dry. A jersey, and a player, is missing. There are murmurs that this will be the last year, which opens up the “ancient wound of seclusion” in some of the more insecure men. Each wrinkle contributes to a disturbing sense of impermanence, the fear that the mythic ceremony they have devised is not eternal.
One of the most interesting aspects of the novel is how the ritual at once reveals and promises to assuage male neuroses. Nowhere is this more evident than in the lottery scene, in which the men draw lottery numbers from a giant drum to determine the order in which they will select their roles. Bachelder shrewdly anatomizes the various psychological types: those who find “nobility in ruinous failure” tend to choose a Washington player who is “essential to the calamity,” a member of the crumbling offensive line for example; others are drawn to the Washington offense “out of a keen, if unrecognized, identification with disappointment and culpability and bumbling malfunction;” the “aesthetes” opt for players based on some aspect of some sartorial accessory or distinctive posture; men who “craved the familiar comfort of anonymity and insignificance” yearn to play an insignificant role in the recreation — a retreating Giants cornerback for instance — but “overcompensate for their shameful desire by choosing the most significant player available.”
Regardless of one’s temperament or build, it would be almost sacrilegious not to pick Lawrence Taylor first. Derek, the one black man in the group, simultaneously yearns for and dreads the prospect of winning this first selection, which would force him to “[wade] into the psycho-racial thicket” of picking the star linebacker. In past reenactments, men have played him as a “with a kind of wild-eyed, watch-your-daughters primitivism,” profiting from the reenactment to indulge in a “transgressive racial thrill ride.” Derek wonders how his pick will be interpreted by the other men, and whether or not he could change things by adding some depth to the character:
Selecting Taylor — it was so clear — would not be an opportunity for racial healing and gentle instruction, but an outright act of hostility and aggression. He, Derek, would not control the meaning and significance of Lawrence Taylor’s sack. Centuries of American history would control the meaning and significance of Taylor’s sack.
(That one of the teams still clings to its offensive name adds another element to the “charged racial allegory.”) Derek’s ethical dilemma vanishes when another man wins the first pick and selects L.T., “beating his chest with his fists” and thereby signaling the kind of nuanced portrayal he is likely to produce.
Taylor’s partner and antagonist in the consummating sack is Joe Theismann: “By tradition the man playing Theismann and the man playing Taylor stayed away from each other, like a bride and groom before a wedding.” While failing to pick Taylor would signal weakness, no player is allowed to pick Theismann; the honor falls to the man with the lowest number. The quarterback is a kind of pharmakos, a sacrificial victim at once polluted and holy. While the other men share beds, “it was customary for the man playing Theismann to sleep alone…[a] mildly punitive…form of exile or symbolic estrangement.” Theismann himself, we are told, described his injury in Christ-like terms, his shattered leg bearing the sins of his bumbling linemen; the men who have played him all testify to the intensity of voluntarily offering up themselves to the rushing horde.
Theismann submits to the group’s channeled violence, which is a concentrated form of the scattershot, hostile humor that defines certain kind of male relationship and the “typical masculine joke, a crude homemade weapon that indiscriminately sprayed hostility and insecurity in a 360-degree radius, targeting everyone within hearing range, including the speaker.” One man arrives to the hotel and circles the parking lot in his car, “blasting his horn and shouting community-sustaining threats and maledictions.” This aggressive bantering masks an underlying sincerity: to insult is to love. As Bachelder writes,
…each man…was the plant manager of a sophisticated psychological refinery, capable of converting vast quantities of crude ridicule into tiny, glittering nuggets of sentiment. And vice versa, as necessary.
That this passage happens to refer to the men’s feelings for an inanimate object — the much-maligned lottery drum — makes the men at once more ridiculous and more poignant.
If describing the admittedly silly ritual in such elevated ways seems bombastic, that is partly the point. Serious play depends on a complete adherence to the arbitrary nature of its established rules. Therefore, the reenactment seems puerile to anyone looking in from the outside, including the several Prestige Vista Solutions employees who witness it. These outsiders adopt an ironic stance, but their irony, along with the reader’s, fades when we finally witness the men’s solemn play.
1. Before the Interview
Donald Antrim and I exchanged our first set of messages in early November 2013 and arranged to speak the following week. Nine months passed, and forty-one emails. Things happened—flus and mishaps and book edits and general tumult. A few months in, I began to assume epistolary characteristics almost befitting an early Antrim hero, checking in periodically with insane salutations like, “I hope this message finds you hale and hearty!” I had dreams where Donald Antrim was my English teacher, or my father, or my lover, or a sort of combination of the three. Once he wrote, “I’m going to do it! I’m going to do it! I’m not going to forget you.” And I believed, but I also pondered the essay I might write if we never managed to speak. There’s a John Prine song, “Donald and Lydia,” about an imaginary romance–“Lydia hid her thoughts like a cat/ Behind her small eyes sunk deep in her fat./ She read romance magazines up in her room/ And felt just like Sunday on Saturday afternoon.” That’s what I was going to call the piece.
Ever since I read Picador’s re-release of his three published novels in 2012 (and wrote about them here), I have considered Donald Antrim to be one of the great bright lights of American letters. When he received the MacArthur Genius grant in 2013, I said “Yes” aloud and pumped my fist at my desk, one of the few times I have really cared about a good thing happening to a person I don’t know at all. It seemed like such a just thing to have happened; I challenge you to read one of Antrim’s long, deranged opening sentences and come away thinking the genius label misapplied.
Antrim’s new collection of short stories, The Emerald Light in the Air, opens with one of these sentences, setting the scene for “An Actor Prepares” (a story, like all the stories in this collection, first published in The New Yorker):
Lee Strasberg, a founder of the Group Theatre and the great teacher of the American Method, famously advised his students never to “use”—for generating tears, etc., in a dramatic scene—personal/historical material less than seven years in the personal/historical past; otherwise, the Emotion Memory (the death of a loved one or some like event in the actor’s life that can, when evoked through recall and substitution, hurl open the floodgates, as they say, right on cue, night after night, even during a long run)—this material, being too close, as it were, might overwhelm the artist and compromise the total control required to act the part or, more to the point, act it well; might, in fact, destabilize the play; if, for instance, at the moment in a scene when it becomes necessary for Nina or Gertrude or Macduff to wipe away tears and get on with life; if, at that moment, it becomes impossible for a wailing performer to pull it together; if, in other words, the performer remains trapped in affect long after the character has moved on to dinner or the battlefield—when this happens, then you can be sure that delirious theatrical mayhem will follow.
Readers who know and love Antrim’s three novels—Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World (1993), The Hundred Brothers (1997), and The Verificationist (2000)—will feel right at home in this sentence, which is somehow emblematic of all the novels’ salient characteristics: an erudite, possibly hysteric, possibly mad narrator (or one, at least, who inhabits a mad world); an elaborate scaffolding of culture; a closed system of belief; the practice of an arcane science. Aesthetically it’s a match too, a demonstration of an almost sinister architectural dexterity with language—language that, like the world of the narrator, like the plot, will flow forward from itself, driven by its own occult logic.
Read on in the collection, though, and fans of the novels will find something different. The Emerald Light in the Air, comprising seven stories published between 1999 and 2014, is no cobbling-together of old material to capitalize on a biographical event. It’s a landmark, almost cartographic document, showing a profound recalibration of style, voice, and form—a working-toward-something. The collection continues chronologically, and the first-person narrators disappear—those lovable, terrible men whose “good intentions and hard-won insights,” in Antrim’s words, “cannot repair their neurotic wretchedness.” Gone is the elaborate scaffolding of culture, the Hogarth and Shakespeare and medieval torture and psychoanalysis and Morris Dancing that propped up the worlds of his novels. What remains is interiority, interaction, a new kind of domesticity, and, somehow, roominess. But the worlds are still touched here and there with that fundamental Antrim strangeness—the emerald light in the air.
In “Solace,” wounded and impecunious lovers get together in the borrowed dwellings of their more stable friends and co-workers. The hero of “Another Manhattan,” between mental breakdowns, tries to buy his wife a tremendous floral bouquet they cannot afford. In “Ever Since,” a man journeys through a book party to find a cigarette for a lady. For people who fell in love with Antrim’s novels and haven’t seen the stories—for people who have control issues or fear change—the stories may initially be distressing in their deviation from the finely-wrought, highly-strung artifice of the novels. But we should all work to embrace change. Whatever they are, these stories indicate a new direction for Donald Antrim. And we should always say yes to genius, yes to that emerald light in the air.
People who do obsessively track Antrim’s fiction and memoir contributions to The New Yorker, who have read his wonderful memoir, The Afterlife—these people may have worried about Donald Antrim over the last decade, as he has hinted at or spoken outright about his own periods of serious psychic stress. The Afterlife began with a half-comic, half-alarming account of searching for the proper bed. In “Fed,” Antrim expressed gratitude for the diner that supplied his meals in the aftermath of a breakdown. Before our conversation, I had the ignoble instinct to try and work out a timeline for myself, to look for cause-and-effect between the mental health turmoil and the work collected now. I read in a 2012 interview that Antrim had begun Elect Mr. Robinson after “trying, for years, to write stories that I thought would fit in with the era, sort of realistic, calmly-told family and other kind of stories in which narrators had epiphanies. I was trying to do that and do that and it was just driving me into the ground. So I gave it up for a while and walked around in a depression.” I speculated, erroneously, that the published stories represented a return to those early efforts, since, on first glance, they appeared to me to be realistic, and calmly-told, with protagonists who have small (very small) epiphanies, as here in “Ever Since”: “The moon was bright and the sky was starless. Buildings rose above them. He put his arm around her shoulder.” Were these stories the minimalist fruits of nervous breakdown? I wondered, presumptuously. I allowed my imagination to romp, even, toward causation. Had working in this new style had a deleterious effect on Antrim’s psyche? Emphatically not, I learned from the interview.
Because one day, it happened. We set a time, and Donald Antrim called me on the telephone and proceeded to speak at length and with stunning generosity and openness about his new work, his old work, his teaching, his mentors, and what the MacArthur has meant to him after 30 years of hard work, privation, anxiety, and crisis.
2. The Interview
The Millions: You mentioned that part of the reason for the long lead-up to this interview is that you had “gone to ground” with a new book. Is that the novel I’ve seen referred to as “Must I Now Read All of Wittgenstein”?
Donald Antrim: No, actually. What I meant was that I was in a little bit of a hiding space because of the short story collection coming out—I was in a moment of waiting. I will be going back to that novel, which has been this thing I’ve carried with me for more than ten years now. Maybe now I can write it—I wasn’t able to before. I think I’ll be able to do something with it. I’ve been writing stories, and I’ve felt very locked in to that. I feel attached to the form, and I feel like I’m getting kind of a new relationship to things through it.
But yes, I had gone to ground. For years I lived in a lot of anxiety—there was a lot of struggle. Books didn’t really open things up for me professionally for a long time, so over the last year with the MacArthur and a sense of security and a sense that I can breathe more deeply, I’ve had a kind of coming back around to the spirit of the enterprise. Because I was losing, frankly, a lot of the time. I was having to talk myself into doing something that I was afraid of, that I was afraid had really damaged my life. And there was damage. But I’m still here and I’m feeling—you know I’m 55 now—I’m not young, but I’m not really old. I’m in this point in which I really have been working for 30 years.
I never intended it to be my version of some kind of romantic garret or anything like that. It wasn’t romantic. But you keep doing it and you acquire a certain amount of technical apparatus and then you can do more and more. Right now, with about 75 to 90 percent of my anxiety of basically 30 years removed, I can see more of why I’m doing what I’m doing—I can feel more of it. I’m at a point now where I’m not so inside the ambivalence over writing, or so exhausted from the effort to bring myself to it. Because I didn’t want to be doing it. I was really at war with it. Or felt its victim to some degree.
But as I said, that’s dissipated, and I feel myself to be in this place of very, very intense privilege. I’m trying to reckon with this feeling, I’m trying to enjoy it, but also it has for me a kind of solemn aspect. A recapturing of what I would call my initial impulse to do this. And those impulses are complicated, but when you finally start doing something that engages you in that way, and that much, and asks that much of you—I didn’t really understand that when I started. I thought it would be—I didn’t really feel fit for anything else. I didn’t really feel like I’d be good at other things, and I didn’t really know that I’d be good at this. But I thought that at least I could feel in doing it, that for those hours, I was in it. Now I think that I’m going to have to learn to approach a lot of new, really serious, difficult things. And that’s really thrilling in a way. Because finally it turns out that the feeling I had all the way back then was going to be a persistent thing, and I didn’t really know that then.
But for that reason too it was probably hard for me to just pick up the phone and do an interview.
TM: In a previous interview you talked about the early years of your writing, before you had written your novels, as a time when you were working on “the realistic, calmly told family and other kinds of stories,” in which “narrators had epiphanies.” I don’t want to suggest that you have returned to some old mode, but the style of your stories—it’s a really striking contrast with the novels. Is part of the shift that you now feel able to go back to those earlier efforts?
DA: No, it’s not so much that I feel free to go back to those things, it’s more that I found that writing the novels was very challenging. They were technically very challenging for all kinds of different reasons. I made up a lot of rules for myself and I worked with the fantastic, and I knew that I was trying to get some kind of mechanics and movement and speed. Those novels were also built out of concepts–well, not concepts exactly, but out of starting guns that initiated the fantastic in some form or another right away. And then you’re inside a realm that you’re building through a logic that you make while you are building it. And that’s true for everything—it’s true for the stories—but the novels were in the first person. And with those first-person narrators there was a permission for the author to go off, not exactly tangentially, but there was opportunity for confusion. And I wasn’t happy—I didn’t know it, but I think I wasn’t exactly happy with the constraints of building these worlds, which had to be positive again and again and again. But in writing the memoir (which is another thing I never thought I would do or would want to do but which I found at the time was the only thing I could do), I found myself telling stories about other people. The first-person narrator could begin to inhabit a different kind of consciousness. And I wanted to do that.
And even in the stories—for example “An Actor Prepares” sets up a set of clearly comic, absurd premises very early–that’s in the first person. The movement into the third person quiets the writer down, and maybe gives the writer more access to a more complex relational field, so that the world of the story might be experienced not so much as one narrator’s perceptual dispositions, but through a more generously complicated psychological interplay. For me anyway, that’s how it feels–I don’t know if that’s actually true but that’s what it feels like. Then it becomes a structural proposition, it becomes more theatrical in some sense. I’ve noticed that in the stories, the movement has become—it’s predominantly blocking, like a play. And these stories, they’re not particularly ruminative; they don’t use ruminations as comic opportunities really. My ambition is to disappear entirely, as much as I can, from a reader’s awareness, as a writer.
The new novel—the one that’s not written yet—is more connected in some ways to those earlier novels, but I wanted to do that other thing, to work on the stories. They informed for me a different kind of relationship, not to voice, but to a narrative consciousness. I was working with Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker. And that was really my foundation for a long time—I didn’t do that much because I go kind of slow, and like I said I was in a lot of anxiety. But doing that work kind of held me together psychologically during many years when things were just to and fro; she was teaching me how to do a lot of what I was trying to do. I had to learn speed and certain kinds of concrete precision–concreteness. And I feel now like I’ve begun to understand what I’m trying to do. It’s a vast open feeling that I have when I think about writing stories.
TM: It’s helpful to hear you articulate it this way. I initially read them and just thought, “These are different! These are different than the novels!” And I’ve thought a lot since then about the ways that they are different.
DA: It’s not an aesthetic preference exactly. It wasn’t as if I was thinking “I don’t want to do this” or “I don’t want to do that.” I think it’s something that was going on over many years and which forced me to overcome a lot of resistance. Let’s just say I had a lot of resistance to many things. And working this way has given me a greater awarenesses of limitations and a greater sense of power–not power in the sense of control, but of access. Then there’s also a real sense of a different kind of powerlessness. I couldn’t rely anymore on a narrator—it’s a different kind of building. And I really think it’s crucial that no matter what I do with the material or with experiences or feelings or situations from my own life, to me what matters is that whatever’s gone into making the thing is a real ride—is a real good immersion, that it communicates emotion or feeling, that it makes pleasure. That’s a goal that I’ve always had, but one that I never had a chance to articulate except as an aesthetic proposition. And now I feel looking back that I was trying to articulate it to myself in directions that I couldn’t really—I had to pick and choose. The desire to move toward a disappearance of the writer is a real challenge.
TM: The novels, they’re kind of festooned with cultural scaffolding, both the content and the style.
DA: Festooned would be exactly the right word.
TM: And the stories have been stripped down.
DA: I think now I’m trying to build worlds, and not so much write worlds, if that makes any sense.
TM: When you say that you’ve been working with Deborah Treisman, what does that process look like exactly? You have ideas and you talk about them, or you come to her with finished work?
DA: I’m really talking about memoir pieces and short stories. These were things that I would show her when I thought it was time. I don’t really have any ideas—I never talk about ideas. That’s what I mean by concreteness. All of the stories and all of the novels have a starting point and are built from there. It’s never a novel or story about a thing—it’s never that I have an idea. The idea thing is elusive to me. But what she would do, and what I think she does with many of her writers—she has strong relationships with all of us—is very close thinking and looking and shifting and speeding up, and then there’s a back-and-forth and that can go 15 or 20 times. And then you have that full experience of things changing because of other things changing—that’s editing. It’s not fixing a story so much as making it more of itself and what it could be. Sometimes it feels like a very different thing in the end than what I brought in. But eventually I come to realize that it’s not a very different thing, it just feels that way. It’s really about the story, and about getting this thing into really good form, or as good as it can be.
TM: So you’ve been going through this intense learning process over a decade or more—I’m wondering about your teaching during these years. What is teaching like when you are wrestling with these things yourself?
DA: I’ve only taught for about six years. I didn’t want to do it, at first. I grew up in an academic household. I didn’t go to graduate school pretty much entirely for that reason; not because I didn’t want to go, but because I didn’t want to walk back on campus. I think I was afraid of it. Also I think for a long time I didn’t really know what I would be doing there. I felt pretty lost at sea with what I was doing and I felt like I didn’t really have that much to offer. I began teaching finally because I needed a job. And then I really liked it.
I’ve been off since the winter, and I go back soon, and I’m dreading it because it’s a lot. But it’s been a very good part of my life. It’s exhausting—I wind up caring about what happens with the students and how their work is going, and it’s important. That said, I need my time off too. So I’m trying to get a little geared up for going back in the fall. But I’m really glad to be doing it, and it’s helped me, I think, during some of the harder years, when I was really kind of in the land, as it were. I’m sure that it was stabilizing. I think there’s a lot that one can teach. I’ve been taught, by writers, by teachers, by readers, by editors. I’ve been really lucky. I’ve gotten to work with very, very good people, and they’ve been able to teach me a lot. And I’m very, very lucky to be alive, and surprised that I am, after years of real mayhem and a lot of all-the-kings-horses-and-all-the-king’s-men. I have come out at a point where I can actually look forward to something that isn’t terror, and teaching has been part of that.
I’ve gotten to the point now that I’m very calm when I go into the room to teach. I think that when we talk about concreteness in writing, or when we talk about the fantastic, or we talk about rules and logic, or the dangers of the pathetic fallacy, or the dangers of distraction and ruminative philosophizing and forgetting where you were on the page–when we talk about the difference between the conception of voice, the difference between the way that the character sounds as opposed to who you are as a writer—when we talk about those things we’re really doing something. That’s work. You see students come into more control and more awareness and a more direct access to something. It’s really exciting. You’re excited for the writer, you’re excited for the moment. I will come home from teaching in a state of stuporous exhilaration and I won’t leave the house for a day and a half. It’ll be like jetlag from an intercontinental flight. And that’s not just from working hard in the classroom. That’s from feeling the transmission and communication back and forth and seeing the effects. That’s what’s really very powerful. The struggle and also the recognition of something coming through that. If I didn’t have to teach, would I? I think I would. I would do it. Also because I think it’s a reciprocation. Because people did teach me. I didn’t go to graduate school but people did teach me. I showed no promise as a writer when I began.
DA: No! This isn’t romantic. I really showed no promise as a writer when I began. And people told me that, although they didn’t tell me that in terribly destructive ways. I just understood that I wasn’t writing anything that anyone could or would want to read. So I finally took a class. It was at the 63rd street Y, and this was in 1987, with Allan Gurganus, who wrote Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All and is a phenomenal teacher. He had been a student of some other phenomenal teachers. There are all kinds of ways in which you can feel yourself holding hands for a minute inside that tradition. And by tradition I don’t mean aesthetic tradition—I just mean the feeling of being connected to the people above you in some way. And I think I also feel a kind of American, mid-twentieth-century civic responsibility. My grandfather was a junior high school principal and he was in Rotary, and they did stuff for people. You reciprocate. So whether I like it or not on a given day, or whether I’d rather be somewhere else writing, teaching and being in that tradition is something that I can do, and it matters that I do it.
TM: Your students are lucky that you feel that way.
DA: We have good semesters. I’m pretty dedicated once I get going. Of course that really eats up your time and your energy. And it’s not writing. But it’s a reminder in some way of the writing that you are trying to do, and what you are thinking about. In the end, it can have its own kind of spiritual resonance. And I think it’s important.
TM: You’ve mentioned Deborah Treisman and Allan Gurganus. Who else helped as you came from being “a writer who showed no promise”? Do you have other readers you’re always going back to, or teachers, or gurus, as it were?
DA: I’d say there have been certain people who have really been ongoing presences. Readers, not teachers in the sense of being in the classroom. I’ve talked to David Means a lot, for example. But there have also been teachers who have never actively or wittingly been my teachers or my readers. I don’t really know Roger Angell—we’ve never worked together, we say hello when we see each other. But I’m coming to realize that Roger Angell is someone I’ve learned from—I’ve read his baseball pieces and I’ve read his memoir pieces and letters with Donald Barthelme, and when I read his writing I feel that there’s something there that I aspire to. There are a number of writers who you’re learning from over years and years and years. You’re not just appreciating or admiring or wishing you could somehow rise to their level, you’re actually learning more and more. Probably that’s very useful to me in teaching, and in particular in teaching the fantastic, which is a very concrete operation. There are the English novelists from Fielding on, and the Anglo-American short story tradition—where does it end? So yeah, there have been too many people. And add to the list the doctors and the nurses. That’s part of it too.
I would say that at this point [agents] Andrew Wylie and Rebecca Nagel and [FSG Editor] Mitzi Angel and Deborah Treisman and The New Yorker editors—we’ve all known each other for a long time now. Suddenly I turn around and I’ve been in a bunch of hospitals—not a bunch, I’ve been in a couple times, but it felt like a bunch—and really run myself into the ground with anxiety and dread over what I’ve written. And it turns out that these relationships have stood up. Whether it’s Deborah with the short stories or Mitzi Angel with a book—these are solid relationships. With Deborah I’m 20 years into this—who saw that coming?
What I’m trying to say is that I have relied on and still rely on a field of people I know—not a set group, necessarily, but a kind of realm of people that I can talk to. That can change over the years. You’re not always doing the same show, your whole life. Things are changing that you can’t control, and that includes your relationships. But at the same time you are always doing the same show. A lot of people have had to hand me off or I don’t know what would have happened.
TM: I don’t want to get into your anxiety issues at length if it’s not comfortable, but you mentioned that 70-90 percent of your previous anxiety has lifted. What has gotten you to this good point? Obviously you’ve had the professional mental health interventions—going to the hospitals in those crisis periods. What about something like the MacArthur, other situational stuff? What’s the proportion?
DA: The crisis—the massive breakdown—is something that I haven’t written about in any real way, but it’s starting to work its way into what I write, and I’m not going to stop it. It’s also, incidentally, a supremely challenging proposition to describe and articulate in physical and concrete terms—concrete is the word that keeps coming up for me—to try and describe the experience of that kind of physical psychosis. If you’re looking for something to try and do in your life and your writing, try that, and you’ve really got something going.
But the crisis which sort of swirled around writing the memoir about my mother, that was a while ago now. That severe stuff came later in life and I think that we won’t be seeing more of that. So much of that was generated by financial anxiety and the constant fear that the floor was going to fall out from under me. That went on for so many years—I think I struggled to feel that I had any real place in this. I didn’t feel that I had much in the way of a comfortable future or a future that I wouldn’t be scared in, and I was always trying to figure out how I was going to manage that. It interfered with my relationships. I’m not married–I was much too jumpy a character. I had relationships, but it was very difficult for me to sort of function as a man in the world, because my existence was marginal. I wasn’t in abject poverty but I wasn’t thriving. And some of those years I was basically poor. It didn’t feel that way a lot of the time because I had this thing in my life.
But when the concrete support of the MacArthur, when that came—I really felt about 30 years of weight just go off. I didn’t know I was carrying it. But I had been and it’s been going more and more ever since. I’m not any longer in that crisis of approach and retreat when it comes to writing or when it comes to everything almost—all the anxiety that would make it so difficult to come to the thing that I wanted to do the most. I don’t feel rewarded by the grant—it’s not an achievement award so much as it is a kind of opening of the gate or a door to a different kind of room. For me, that means a calmer room. But it also means one in which I can sit down for longer and I can come to what I’m doing with less trepidation. I can think a little better, and I think I have a little more running in the channel. It’s a good feeling—a really good feeling. I don’t know what I’m going to be able to do with it—I don’t know what I’m going to be able to write. But I feel similarly about that the way I do about teaching. I reciprocate by trying to do what I do, or started out to do all those years ago, and trying to do it really, really well. We’ll see how that goes. I feel very much that I’m able now to be concentrated and consolidated in a way that I simply hadn’t been able to before. A way I hadn’t been able, not just to wish for, but even to know about.
And now this collection is coming out, and the collection does represent a kind of arc in some way. I didn’t write those stories to be a collection—I wrote those stories because it was the only kind of framework I could hold for a long time. And I wrote one about every year and a half. I wasn’t exactly—I wasn’t getting a lot out. I wrote those things because I could—that was what I could think about and come back to and not feel overwhelmed by. I wasn’t thinking that they might represent what was, as it turns out, about a twenty-year movement. So that’s really nice to see.
I just feel like I have a—maybe I have a little more self-esteem than I used to, or a little more faith in all this than I used to. Because I didn’t for a long time. I really didn’t. I couldn’t get it. But at this moment, with the book coming together and coming out, and with talking this way, instead of being quite as guarded as I would have been because I was very worried about everything… I want to write in some way that whatever I use–in the Donald Winnicott sense, in the good sense, in the sense of growth–whatever I use of myself in doing it, I want to make the story not be about me, and to be about that other experience, of reading. So that’s what I can say today. I’ve come to know this or feel this over a long, long, period of time. Not long in the history of the world. But long for a lifetime. You don’t really get to build it all in one day and you certainly don’t get to see what you’re building when you start. I built a lot of stuff that I couldn’t live in and so now I’m finding that I’m able to build in a different way. And the MacArthur has everything to do with that.
TM: I think you’ve just delivered the greatest possible endorsement of the MacArthur and things like it, what they can do.
DA: I’ve had institutional support before—when I didn’t know where to go I went to MacDowell and they took care of me. There really has been support at different times. Sometimes just barely enough, but enough.
Now, this moment has got its fears but it’s really very joyous. I don’t mean celebratory, but in that solemn way. I’m not as scared. I’m not trying to write out of fear or through fear or with fear. I still live where I lived for all those years, and I still rent. I don’t live a big life, but the quality of it in some ways has really gone up. So I feel like I’m a really fortunate recipient. And I don’t know how long I would have held it together and really been able to feel productive. Because I’d just gotten to a point where it was hard for me to connect to desire. Slowly that’s changing.
That’s where I’m at today. I’m sure that in the next month or two or three I’ll have to publish a book and I’ll be teaching and I’ll have more clear and simpler and briefer ways of talking about this. I’m still trying to work it out, what I mean or how this feeling is, but I have to say that it’s a very deep and powerful feeling. I feel like I have a little more structure around me, that I’m not as exposed to the elements.
Image: MacArthur Foundation
2014 has already offered a literary bounty for readers, including new books by E.L. Doctorow, Lorrie Moore, Teju Cole, and Lydia Davis. The second-half of 2014 is looking even more plentiful, with new books from superstars like Haruki Murakami, David Mitchell, Ian McEwan, Marilynne Robinson, Denis Johnson, Hilary Mantel, Margaret Atwood and quite a few more. Here at The Millions, we’re especially excited that three of our long-time staff writers — Edan Lepucki, Bill Morris, and Emily St. John Mandel — will soon have new books on shelves. All three books are winning impressive advance praise.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at over 8,000 words strong and encompassing 84 titles, this is the only second-half 2014 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
California by Edan Lepucki: Millions staffer Edan Lepucki’s first full-length novel has been praised by Jennifer Egan, Dan Chaon, and Sherman Alexie, and championed by Stephen Colbert, who’s using it as a case study in sticking it to Amazon. A post-apocalyptic novel set in a California of the not-too-distant future, California follows a young couple struggling to make it work in a shack in the wilderness — dealing with everyday struggles like marriage and privacy as much as dystopian ones likes food and water — until a change in circumstance sends them on a journey to find what’s left of civilization, and what’s left of their past lives. (Janet)
Motor City Burning by Bill Morris: Bill Morris made his literary debut 20 years ago with Motor City, a novel set amid the rich history of 1950s Detroit. Since then, he’s pursued various other interests, writing a novel set in Bangkok and contributing frequently to The Millions as a staff writer. But as anyone who follows Bill’s essays can tell you, his hometown is rarely far from his mind. Now, with the Motor City much in the news, he returns to explore class, race, bloodshed and baseball in the 1960s. (Garth)
The Land of Love and Drowning by Tiphanie Yanique: Tiphanie Yanique follows her much lauded story collection, How to Escape From a Leper Colony, with “an epic multigenerational tale set in the U.S. Virgin Islands that traces the ambivalent history of its inhabitants during the course of the 20th century.” That’s according to Publishers Weekly, who gave The Land of Love and Drowning a starred review. Yanique’s debut novel has been receiving raves all over the place; in its starred review, Kirkus called it, “Bubbling with talent and ambition, this novel is a head-spinning Caribbean cocktail.” (Edan)
Friendship by Emily Gould: Gould, who put the gawk in Gawker in the middle part of the last decade, turns to fiction with a debut novel that at times reads like a series of blog entries written in the third person. In the novel, two friends, Bev and Amy, are trying to make it as writers in New York when Bev gets pregnant. The question of whether Bev should keep the baby, and what Amy should think about the fact that Bev is even considering it, turns the novel into a meditation on growing up in a world built for the young. (Michael)
Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann: Vollmann has over 30 years and damn near as many books earned a reputation as a wildly prolific novelist. Still, almost a decade has passed since his last full-length work of fiction, the National Book Award-winning Europe Central. Here, he offers what may have started as a suite of ghost stories… but is now another sprawling atlas of Vollmann’s obsessions. Stories of violence, romance, and cultural collision are held together by supernatural elements and by Vollmann’s psychedelically sui generis prose. (Garth)
High as the Horses’ Bridles by Scott Cheshire: To the distinguished roster of fictional evangelicals — Faulkner’s Whitfield, Ellison’s Bliss — this first novel adds Josiah Laudermilk, a child-prodigy preacher in 1980s Queens. Cheshire makes huge leaps in time and space to bring us the story of Laudermilk’s transformation into an adult estranged from his father and his faith. (Garth)
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: The second novel from Rebecca Makkai (after 2011’s The Borrower) moves back and forth in the 20th century to tell a story of love, ghosts, and intrigue. The house for which The Hundred-Year House is named is Laurelfield, a rambling estate and former artists’ colony in Chicago’s wealthy North Shore. Owned by the Devohr family for generations, it now finds Zee (née Devohr) and her husband returning to live in the carriage house while she teaches at a local college and he supposedly writes a poet’s biography. What he does instead is ghostwrite teen novels and uncover family secrets. (Janet)
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway: Having written about ninjas, spies in their eighties and mechanical bees in his last two novels, Nick Harkaway is in a tough spot if he wants to top himself this time around. All the indications are that he may have done it, though — Tigerman sees a powerful United Nations carry out a cockamie plan to wipe out a former British colony. The protagonist, a former British soldier, takes it upon himself to fight for his patch of the old empire. (Thom)
Panic in a Suitcase by Yelena Akhtiorskaya: Yelena Akhtiorskaya is one of New York’s best young writers — funny and inventive and stylistically daring, yes, but also clear-eyed and honest. Born in Odessa and raised in Brighton Beach, she’s been publishing essays and fiction in smart-set venues for a few years. Now she delivers her first novel, about two decades in the life of a Ukrainian family resettled in Russian-speaking Brooklyn. An excerpt is available at n+1. (Garth)
The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: “And then one day when the lake ice had broken and geese had come again, two brothers, twins, stole a little boat and rowed together out towards Nizhi.” In an alternate Russia, twin brothers Yarik and Dima work together at Oranzheria, the novel’s titular “sea of glass” greenhouse, until their lives veer into conflict. Weil’s exquisite pen and ink illustrations “frame the titles of all 29 chapters and decorate the novel’s endpapers,” making the book, literally, a work of art. If The New Valley, Weil’s lyric first book of linked novellas, is any indication, this new book will be memorable. (Nick R.)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: Murakami’s previous novel, 1Q84, was a sprawling, fantastical work. His latest is just the opposite: a concise, focused story about a 37-year-old man still trying to come terms with a personal trauma that took place seventeen years earlier — when he was unceremoniously cut out of a tight knit group of friends. The novel has less magical strangeness than most Murakami books, and may be his most straightforward tale since Norwegian Wood. (Kevin)
We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas: Thomas spreads his canvas wide in this 640-page doorstop of a novel, which follows three generations of an Irish American family from Queens, but at heart the book is an intimate tale of a family’s struggle to make its peace with a catastrophic illness that strikes one of its members at precisely the wrong moment. Simon & Schuster spent more than a million dollars on this first novel whose author was then teaching high school in New York, thus assuring that the book will either be the fall’s Cinderella story or a poster child for outsized advances given to untested authors. (Michael)
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay: Is it “the year of Roxane Gay?” Time suggested it in a review of Gay’s new novel, An Untamed State; when asked (in a self-interview) how that made her feel, she said, “First, I tinkled on myself. Then my ego exploded and I am still cleaning up the mess.” It’s as good a glimpse as any into the wonder that is Roxane Gay — her Twitterstorms alone are brilliant bits of cultural criticism, and her powerful essays, on her blog, Tumblr, and at various magazines, leave you with the sense that this is a woman who can write dazzlingly on just about any topic. In her first essay collection, we’re promised a wide-ranging list of subjects: Sweet Valley High, Django Unchained, abortion, Girls, Chris Brown, and the meaning of feminism. (Elizabeth)
The Kills by Richard House: House’s vast tetralogy, at once a border-hopping thriller and a doorstopping experiment, was longlisted for last year’s Man Booker Prize in the U.K. Taking as its backdrop the machinery of the global war on terror, it should be of equal interest on these shores. (Garth)
Before, During, After by Richard Bausch: Since 1980, Richard Bausch has been pouring out novels and story collections that have brilliantly twinned the personal with the epic. His twelfth novel, Before, During, After, spins a love story between two ordinary people – Natasha, a lonely congressional aide, and Michael Faulk, an Episcopalian priest – whose affair and marriage are undone by epic events, one global, one personal. While Michael nearly dies during the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Natasha’s error on a Caribbean shore leads to a private, unspeakable trauma. As the novel unspools, Before and During prove to be no match for After. (Bill)
Your Face In Mine by Jess Row: Possibly inspired by the ageless Black Like Me, Jess Row tells the story of Kelly Thorndike, a native Baltimorean who moves back to his hometown and discovers that an old friend has gotten surgery to change his race. At one time a skinny, white, Jewish man, Martin is now African-American, and he’s kept his new identity secret from his friends and family. Martin tells Kelly he wants to come clean, and the two become mired in a fractious, thought-provoking controversy. (Thom)
Flings by Justin Taylor: “Our faith makes us crazy in the world”; so reads a line in The Gospel of Anarchy, Taylor’s novel about a Florida commune of anarchist hippies. The original sentence comes from Don DeLillo’s Mao II, an appropriate literary mentor — Taylor is equal parts hilarious and prescient, capable of finding the sublime in the most prosaic, diverse material. On the first page of the collection’s title story alone: labor history, love, and “an inspired treatise on the American government’s illegal 1921 deployment of the Air Force to bomb striking mine workers at Blair Mountain, West Virginia.” (Nick R.)
Augustus by John Williams: There are things that are famous for being famous, such as the Kardashians, and then there are things that are famous for being not famous, such as John Williams’s Stoner. Since its publication in 1965, the “forgotten” work has enjoyed quite a history – metamorphosing from under-appreciated gem into international bestseller and over-praised classic. Indeed, it’s forgivable at this point to forget that Williams’s most appreciated work was actually his final novel, Augustus, which split the National Book Award and earned more praise during its author’s lifetime than his other books put together. Interestingly, readers of both Stoner and Butcher’s Crossing will here encounter an altogether new version of the John Williams they’ve come to know: Augustus is an epistolary novel set in classical Rome. It’s a rare genius who can reinvent himself in his final work and earn high praise for doing so. (Nick M.)
Alfred Ollivant’s Bob, Son of Battle by Lydia Davis: In the early 1900s, Bob, Son of Battle became a popular children’s tale in England and the United States. Focused on a young boy caught up in a rivalry between two sheepdogs on the moors between Scotland and England, the story eventually found its way into Lydia Davis’s childhood bedroom. Alas, the years have not been kind to the thick Cumbrian dialect in which it was written (“hoodoo” = “how do you do” and “gammy” = “illness,” e.g.) and the work fell out of popularity as a result. Now, however, Davis has updated the work into clear, modern vernacular in order to bring the story to an entirely new generation of readers, and perhaps the next generation of Lydia Davises (if one could ever possibly exist). (Nick M.)
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven is Millions staff writer Emily St. John Mandel’s fourth novel, and if pre-publication buzz is any indication, it’s her best, most ambitious work yet. Post-apocalyptic tales are all the rage this season, but Mandel’s intricate plotting and deftness with drawing character makes this novel of interlinked tales stand out as a beguiling read. Beginning with the onslaught of the deadly Georgian flu and the death of a famous actor onstage, and advancing twenty years into the future to a traveling troupe of Shakespearean actors who perform for the few remaining survivors, the novel sits with darkness while searching for the beauty in art and human connection. (Anne)
The Secret Place by Tana French: People have been bragging about snagging this galley all summer, and for good reason: Tana French’s beautifully written, character-driven mysteries about the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad are always a literary event. Her latest concerns a murder at an all girls’ school, and detective Frank Mackey’s daughter Holly might just be a suspect. My fellow staff writer Janet Potter said The Secret Place is damn good, and if you’re smart you will trust Janet Potter. (Edan)
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell: David Mitchell has evidently returned to his genre-, time-, and location-bending best with a novel that weaves the Iraq War with punk rock with immortal beings with the End Times. This is a novel that had Publisher’s Weekly asking, “Is The Bone Clocks the most ambitious novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque?” A tall order, either way. A thrill, either way. (Lydia)
Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham: The creator, producer and star of the HBO series Girls — and also, it must be stated, an Oberlin College graduate — has penned a comic essay collection à la David Sedaris or Tina Fey… though something tells me Dunham’s will be more candid and ribald. As Lena herself writes: “No, I am not a sexpert, a psychologist, or a registered dietician. I am not a married mother of three or the owner of a successful hosiery franchise. But I am a girl with a keen interest in self-actualization, sending hopeful dispatches from the front lines of that struggle.” Amen, Lena, amen! (Edan)
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters: After her masterful handling of the haunted house story in The Little Stranger, Waters again taps into the narrative potential of domestic intrusion. This time, it’s lodgers rather than ghosts who are the nuisance. In 1922, a cash-strapped widow and her spinster daughter living by themselves in a large London house let out rooms to a young couple. Annoyances and class tensions soon ignite in these combustible confines, and from the looks of it, the security deposit won’t even begin to cover the damages. The novel promises to be a well-crafted, claustrophobic thriller. (Matt)
The Children Act by Ian McEwan: McEwan’s thirteenth novel treads some familiar ground — a tense moral question sits at the heart of the narrative: whether it is right for parents to refuse medical treatment for their children on religious grounds. Discussing the novel at the Oxford Literary Festival this past spring, McEwan said that the practice was “utterly perverse and inhumane.” It’s not the first time McEwan has expressed displeasure with religion: in 2005 he told the Believer he had “no patience whatsoever” for it; three years later, he made international news discussing Islam and Christianity, saying he didn’t “like these medieval visions of the world according to which God is coming to save the faithful and to damn the others.” (Elizabeth)
10:04 by Ben Lerner: Ben Lerner follows the unexpected success of his superb first novel Leaving the Atocha Station with a book about a writer whose first novel is an unexpected success. Which is actually something like what you’d expect if you’d read that superb and unexpectedly successful first novel, with its artful manipulations of the boundaries between fiction and memoir. The suddenly successful narrator of 10:04 also gets diagnosed with a serious heart condition and is asked by a friend to help her conceive a child. Two extracts from the novel, “Specimen Days” and “False Spring,” have run in recent issues of the Paris Review. (Mark)
Stone Mattress: Nine Tales by Margaret Atwood: Some fans will remember well the titular story in Atwood’s forthcoming collection, which was published in the New Yorker in December of 2011, and which begins, in Atwood’s typical-wonderful droll fashion: “At the outset, Verna had not intended to kill anyone.” With this collection, according to the jacket copy, “Margaret Atwood ventures into the shadowland earlier explored by fabulists and concoctors of dark yarns such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Daphne du Maurier and Arthur Conan Doyle…” If you aren’t planning to read this book, it means you like boring stuff. (Edan)
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel: Just this month, Mantel was made a dame; the reigning queen of British fiction, she’s won two of the last five Man Booker Prizes. But Mantel’s ascension to superstardom was long in the making: she is at work on her twelfth novel in a career that’s spanned four decades. This fall sees the publication of her second collection of short stories, set several centuries on from the novels that earned her those Bookers. Her British publisher, Nicholas Pearson, said, “Where her last two novels explore how modern England was forged, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher shows us the country we have become. These stories are Mantel at her observant best.” (Elizabeth)
The Dog by Joseph O’Neill: In his first novel since his 2008 PEN/Faulkner-winning Netherland, about a Dutch immigrant in post 9/11 New York, O’Neill tells another fish-out-of-water tale, this time about a New Yorker who takes a job as a “family officer” for a wealthy family in Dubai. Surrounded by corruption and overwhelmed by daily life in the desert metropolis, the narrator becomes obsessed with the disappearance of another American in what Publishers Weekly calls “a beautifully crafted narrative about a man undone by a soulless society.” (Michael)
Barbarian Days by William Finnegan: William Finnegan is both a journalist’s journalist and one of the New Yorker’s most consistently engaging voices. Over the years, he’s written about everything from apartheid in South Africa to the broken economy at home (Cold New World now looks prophetic). My favorite of his New Yorker pieces, though, is an insanely long memoir about surfing (Part 1; Part 2) that, legend has it, was crashed into the magazine just before the arrival of Tina Brown as editor. Two decades on, Finnegan returns to this lifelong passion, at book length.
Wittgenstein, Jr. by Lars Iyer: With their ingenious blend of philosophical dialogue and vaudevillian verve, Iyer’s trilogy, Spurious, Dogma and Exodus, earned a cult following. Wittgenstein, Jr. compacts Iyer’s concerns into a single campus novel, set at early 21st-century Cambridge. It should serve as an ideal introduction to his work. (Garth)
The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim: No one makes chaos as appealing a spectacle as Antrim, whether it’s unloosed on the dilapidated red library from The Hundred Brothers, its priceless rugs, heraldic arms and rare books threatened by drunken siblings and a bounding Doberman; the pancake house from The Verificationist; or the moated suburban neighborhood from Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World. His latest is a collection of stories written over the past fifteen years, each of which was published in the New Yorker. The Emerald Light in the Air demonstrates that Antrim’s controlled anarchy translates beautifully to the shorter form. (Matt)
Hold the Dark by William Giraldi: Having built a reputation for critical savagery following the hatchet he sank into a pair of Alix Ohlin books in the Times in 2012, Giraldi puts his own neck on the line with this literary thriller set in a remote Alaskan village where wolves are eating children. Billed as an “Alaskan Oresteia,” the novel follows a pair of men, one an aging nature writer, the other a returning soldier, who come to learn secrets “about the unkillable bonds of family, and the untamed animal in the soul of every human being.” That sound you hear is the whine of blades touching grindstones across literary America. (Michael)
Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas: The title of Christos Tsiolkas’s fifth novel — his first since the international bestseller, The Slap — is a nickname for Daniel Kelly, an Australian swimming prodigy so ruthless in the water that he gets likened to the sharp-toothed, predatory fish. But Daniel’s Olympic ambitions are thwarted by a crime whose nature Tsiolkas hints at but shrewdly withholds. This novel, like all of Tsiolkas’s work, is a vigorous, sometimes vicious argument about what it means to be Australian. As one character concludes, “We are parochial and narrow-minded and we are racist and ungenerous and…” It gets worse, gorgeously worse. (Bill)
Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones: You’re showing your age and (lack of) internet bona fides if you admit that you’re unfamiliar with Jones’s work. For years now the Buzzfeed LGBT editor has been lighting it up at his day job, and also on Twitter, with a ferocity befitting his name. Now, after earning praise from D.A. Powell and after winning a NYC-based Literary Death Match bout, Jones will use his debut collection to prominently display his poetry chops. (Ed. note: check out an excerpt over here.) (Nick M.)
Faithful and Virtuous Night by Louise Glück: The UK publisher (Carcanet) of Louise Glück’s newest collection — her twelfth — describes the poems as “a sequence of journeys and explorations through time and memory.” Macmillan describes it as “a story of adventure, an encounter with the unknown, a knight’s undaunted journey into the kingdom of death; this is a story of the world you’ve always known… every familiar facet has been made to shimmer like the contours of a dream…” In other words, Glück’s newest work is interested in a kind of reiterative, collage-like experience of narrative — “tells a single story but the parts are mutable.” (Sonya)
Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg: In Goldberg’s latest novel, infamous Chicago mafia hit man Sal Cupertine must flee to Las Vegas to escape the FBI, where he assumes the identity of… Rabbi David Cohen. The Mafia plus the Torah makes for a darkly funny and suspenseful morality tale. Goldberg, who runs UC Riverside-Palm Desert’s low residency MFA program, is also the author of Living Dead Girl, which was an LA Times Fiction Prize finalist, and the popular Burn Notice series, among others. The man can spin a good yarn. (Edan)
Happiness: Ten Years of n+1 by Editors of n+1: Happiness is a collection of the best pieces from n+1’s first decade, selected by the magazine’s editors. Ten years is a pretty long time for any literary journal to continue existing, but when you consider the number of prominent younger American writers who have had a long association with the magazine, it’s actually sort of surprising that it hasn’t been around longer. Chad Harbach, Keith Gessen, Benjamin Kunkel and Elif Batuman all launched their careers through its pages. Pieces by these writers, and several more, are included here. (Mark)
Neverhome by Laird Hunt: According to letters and accounts from the time, around 400 women disguised themselves as men to fight in the Civil War. Years ago, Laird Hunt read a collection of one of those women’s letters, and the idea for this novel has been germinating ever since. It tells the story of Constance Thompson, a farm wife who leaves her husband behind, calls herself Ash and fights for the Union. Neverhome is both a story about the harrowing life of a cross-dressing soldier, and an investigation into the mysterious circumstances that led her there. (Janet)
My Life as a Foreign Country by Brian Turner: Brian Turner served for seven years in the US Army, spending time in both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Iraq. Since then, he has published two collections of poetry — Here, Bullet and the T.S. Elliot Prize-shortlisted Phantom Noise — both of which draw heavily on his experiences in those wars. His new book is a memoir about his year in Iraq, and about the aftermath of that experience. Turner also makes a leap of conceptual identification, attempting to imagine the conflict through the experience of the Iraqi other. Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, has praised it as “brilliant and beautiful”, and as ranking “with the best war memoirs I’ve ever encountered”. (Mark)
Wallflowers: Stories by Eliza Robertson: Robertson’s stories — often told from the perspectives of outsiders, often concerned with the mysteries of love and family, set in places ranging from the Canadian suburbs to Marseilles — have earned her a considerable following in her native Canada. Her debut collection includes “We Walked on Water,” winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and “L’Etranger,” shortlisted for the CBC Short Story Prize. (Emily)
On Bittersweet Place by Ronna Wineberg: On Bittersweet Place is the second publication from Relegation Books, a small press founded by author Dallas Hudgens. The novel — Wineberg’s first, following her acclaimed story collection Second Language — concerns Lena Czernitski, a young Russian Jewish immigrant trying to find her place in the glamour and darkness of 1920s Chicago. (Emily)
The Betrayers by David Bezmozgis: Following on the heels of the acclaimed The Free World, Bezmozgis’s second novel is about 24 hours in the life of Baruch Kotler, a disgraced Israeli politician who meets the Soviet-era spy who denounced him decades earlier. (Kevin)
How to Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran: The feminist journalist and author of How to Be a Woman, once called “the UK’s answer to Tina Fey, Chelsea Handler, and Lena Dunham all rolled into one” by Marie Claire, is publishing her first novel. It follows Johanna Morrigan, who at 14 decides to start life over as Dolly Wilde. Two years later she’s a goth chick and “Lady Sex Adventurer” with a gig writing reviews for a music paper, when she starts to wonder about what she lost when she reinvented herself. (Janet)
On Immunity: An Innoculation by Eula Biss: When Biss became a mother, she began looking into the topic of vaccination. What she had assumed would be a few hours of personal research turned into a fascination, and the result is a sweeping work that considers the concept of immunity, the history of vaccination — a practice that sometimes seems to function as a lightning rod for our most paranoid fears about the chemical-laden modern world in which we find ourselves, but that has its roots in centuries-old folk medicine — and the ways in which we’re interconnected, with meditations on writers ranging from Voltaire to Bram Stoker. (Emily)
Yes, Please by Amy Poehler: The Leslie Knopes among us cannot wait for Poehler’s first book of personal stories and advice, in the vein of Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Mindy Kaling’s Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? In Poehler’s delightful New Yorker essay about her job at an ice cream parlor, she wrote, “It’s important to know when it’s time to turn in your kazoo.” Wise words from one of America’s most beloved comics and actresses. (Anne)
The Peripheral by William Gibson: William Gibson fans rejoice, for his first novel in four years is upon us. The novel follows an army veteran with futuristic nerve damage wrought during his time in a futuristic kill squad. (Technically, according to Gibson, it’s a novel taking place in multiple futures, so it’s probably more complicated than that). You can watch him read the first two pages here. If William Gibson were a tense, he’d be future-noir. (Lydia)
Lila by Marilynne Robinson: Marilynne Robinson published her brilliant debut novel Housekeeping in 1980 and then basically went dark for a decade and a half, but has been relatively prolific in the last ten years. After re-emerging with 2004’s gorgeous and heartbreaking Gilead, she followed up four years later with Home, a retelling of the prodigal son parable that revisited a story and characters from Gilead. James Wood’s description of the relationship between the two books is exact and lovely: “Home is not a sequel [to Gilead],” he wrote, “but more like that novel’s brother.” With her new novel, Robinson has given those books a sister. The novel tells the story of Lila – the young bride of Gilead’s narrator, Rev. John Ames – who was abandoned as a toddler and raised by a drifter. (Mark) (Ed. Note: You can read an excerpt over here.)
Dan by Joanna Ruocco: Joanna Ruocco’s kaleidoscopic fictions have been likened to Donald Barthelme’s for their dark humor and uncanny occurrences that revel in wordplay. Her stories “map the unmappable wrinkles of the mind,” says Laird Hunt, and by bridging disparate ideas creates a synesthesia. In Dan, Ruocco’s latest novel, the character Melba Zuzzo finds herself in a rut while living in a male-dominated town in the foothills of a mountain. What ensues is a “slapstick parable” that according to her publisher, Dorothy Project, evokes both the “unabashed campiness of Thomas Pynchon” and the capacious imagination of Raymond Roussel. (Anne)
A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James: Marlon James follows his stunning and brutal The Book of Night Women with A Brief History of Seven Killings, which depicts the 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley, “spanning decades and continents and peopled with a wide range of characters — assassins, journalists, drug dealers, and even ghosts.” Irvine Welsh calls it “an amazing novel of power, corruption and lies. I can’t think of a better one I’ve read this century.” (Edan)
Citizen by Claudia Rankine: “Often a division is made between politics and poetry, and I like to think this is a moment when the intersection is recognized,” remarked poet Claudia Rankine, about recently winning the Jackson Poetry Prize. In her lyric hybrid work, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely, Rankine investigated media’s role in our private lives, taking on television, pharmaceutical marketing, depression, race, and identity in the post–9/11 era. Citizen, her follow-up book, deals pointedly with race and racial aggression in the media and the everyday — from the classroom to the playing field and the public stage — as it traces the effects of racism in our so-called “post-race” age. (Anne)
Some Luck by Jane Smiley: Still best known for her 1991 Pulitzer-winner A Thousand Acres, Smiley returns to Iowa farm country in this ambitious family saga set in the first half of the 20th century. Some Luck is the first installment in a trilogy spanning 100 years in the lives of the Langdon family, starting from its rural Iowa roots in 1920 and following the clan as its five children spread out across America in a time of epochal change. The second volume, Early Warning, is due in spring 2015, with the final volume, which brings the story up to December 31, 2019, set to appear next fall. (Michael)
Reunion by Hannah Pittard: In Pittard’s second novel — her first was 2011’s The Fates Will Find Their Way, lauded here and just about everywhere else — a failed screenwriter on the verge of divorce agrees to join her family for a reunion in Atlanta after her estranged father commits suicide. It’s a nuanced and intriguing study of family and love, money and debt, failure and success, starring one of the most likable flawed narrators to come along in some time. (Emily)
A Different Bed Every Time by Jac Jemc: Six years ago Chicago-based author Jac Jemc started a blog to track the rejection letters she received. But recently the blog’s been rather quiet — due to a slew of acceptances, it seems. Jemc’s first novel, My Only Wife, was published in 2012 and nominated for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham award; it depicts a husband’s obsession with recalling memories of his wife who disappeared five years earlier. When Jemc’s follow-up collection, A Different Bed Every Time, hits shelves, expect to encounter stories showcasing Jemc’s playful and poetic sensibility, in a book that Laura van den Berg deems “mythic and essential.” (Anne)
300,000,000 by Blake Butler: Blake Butler deploys words like chemicals that merge into phrases, coalescing in alternate existences, with familiar worlds distorted. In Butler’s third novel, There is No Year, a family survives a disease but is still subject to a scourge of infestations and other horrors and mysteries, including a house with secret passageways and the existence of a duplicate “copy family.” Butler began his latest novel, 300,000,000, as a retaliation against the hype surrounding Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. The result? A portrait of American violence, told through the minds of a Manson-like cult figure and the policeman responsible for figuring him out, while tracking a trail of violence and descent into psychosis. (Anne)
Sister Golden Hair by Darcey Steinke: In Steinke’s new novel, a coming-of-age story set in early-70’s Virginia, twelve-year-old Jesse’s family is on the brink of collapse: her father has recently been defrocked, and her mother is coming undone. When her father was a pastor, Jesse felt that they were a part of something — “We were at the center of what I thought of as THE HOLY, and our every move had weight and meaning” — but they’ve drifted into a life of vertiginous weightlessness. (Emily)
Quick Kills by Lynn Lurie: Lurie’s first novel, Corner of the Dead, featured a photojournalist traumatized by the atrocities committed by the Shining Path guerrillas in Peru during the 1980s. In Quick Kills, the narrator is a young girl who finds herself on the other side of the camera, the exploited subject of a predatory photographer: “There is fear in my eyes. I see the fear clearly even in the blurred snapshot.” This slim work looks to be an unsettling rumination on art, pornography and sexual violence. (Matt)
Limonov by Emmanuel Carrère: This biography of Éduard Limonov, published in France in 2011, won the prestigious Prix Théophraste-Renaudot, which is typically awarded to a novel. Limonov’s life makes for good novelistic material: he is founder of the National Bolshevik Party, which “believes in the creation of a grand empire that will include the whole of Europe and Russia, as well as Northern/Central Asia, to be governed under Russian dominance” (Wikipedia), and FSG’s English translation (by John Lambert) will be released under the in-case-you-didn’t-know title Limonov: The Outrageous Adventures of the Radical Soviet Poet Who Became a Bum in New York, a Sensation in France, and a Political Antihero in Russia. Typical of Carrère, he approaches his subject essayistically, wrestling with his own attractions/repulsions vis-à-vis the epic Limonov. (Sonya)
The Heart Is Strange by John Berryman: To mark the centenary of John Berryman’s birth, FSG is reissuing much of his poetry, including his book The Dream Songs. They’re also publishing a new collection, featuring three uncollected pieces along with older examples of his work, that spans the length of his career. From his juvenalia, to the landmark “Homage to Mistress Bradstreet,” to his later poems, The Heart is Strange puts Berryman’s talents on display, which means a new generation will start using the phrase “heavy bored.” (For a primer on Dream Songs, check out Stephen Akey’s Millions essay.) (Thom)
The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber: Faber’s latest novel – which David Mitchell called his “second masterpiece” after The Crimson Petal and the White – touches on interstellar space travel, cataclysmic events, romantic love, and religious faith. Such broad territory seems befitting for an author claimed simultaneously by the nations of Scotland, Australia, and the Netherlands. (Nick M.)
Hiding in Plain Sight by Nuruddin Farah: Farah is back with another trilogy after his acclaimed Blood in the Sun series. Once again, he explores identity, obligation, family ties, and how politics can interrupt it all. After Bella’s brother is killed by Somali extremists, she has to give up her life as a famous fashion photographer and raise his children as if they were her own. Yet when the children’s mother returns, Bella must decide what matters more — her family or herself. (Tess)
The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson: In an interview last fall, Johnson described his new novel as “kind of a spy story with what we might call serious intentions, on the order of Graham Greene.” Johnson, whose 2007 novel Tree of Smoke won the National Book Award, has written a post-9/11 spy thriller concerning a trio of travelers in west Africa; one is a self-styled soldier of fortune, another is being trailed by two spy agencies and Interpol, and all three are hiding secrets from one another. (Emily)
Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford: I was gleeful to learn that Frank Bascombe will return to us after eight years and the threat of oblivion. At a reading in April, Ford reintroduced Bascombe as a 67-year-old Jersey-dweller ruminating on his former home, tipped on its side by Hurricane Sandy. Let Me Be Frank With You will comprise four novellas, each narrated with, undoubtedly, that unmistakable Bascombe verve. (Lydia)
Mermaids in Paradise by Lydia Millet: After the high hilarity of her satirical early work, Lydia Millet reached new emotional depths in her last three novels. This new novel, concerning the discovery of mermaids and the ensuing scramble to cash in, looks to achieve a new kind of synthesis. (Garth)
Ugly Girls by Lindsay Hunter: Lindsay Hunter’s first story collection Daddy’s is described by its publisher Featherproof Books as a “collection of toxic southern gothics, packaged as a bait box of temptation.” Her second collection Don’t Kiss Me, published by FSG (who says big houses don’t publish story collections?) is, according to the Tin House blog, “a heterogeneous story collection that holds together… peculiar voices that tend to overlap in areas of loss, self-pity, and hilarity.” Hunter is a practitioner of the short-short form and founding host of a flash fiction reading series; no surprise that her debut novel Ugly Girls would be “voice-driven with [a] breakneck pace.” Roxane Gay (on Twitter) called it “gorgeously hopeless.” (Sonya)
Twilight of the Eastern Gods by Ismail Kadare: Originally published in 1978 and appearing in English for the first time this year, Twilight of the Eastern Gods is the fictional account of the prolific Albanian novelist’s time at the Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow, to which Kadare was recruited in 1958. A kind of factory meant to produce top Socialist writers, the Gorky Institute’s prescribed style and disagreeable faculty instead caused Kadare to rethink his calling. Like his other novels, Twilight promises to be a wormhole into strange times. (Lydia)
A Map of Betrayal by Ha Jin: Beneath the quiet poetry of Ha Jin’s sentences is a searing novelistic ambition; in A Map of Betrayal, the story of a double-agent in the CIA, he explores a half-century of entanglements between China and the U.S., and the divided loyalties that result. (Garth)
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews: The premise of Toews’s sixth novel, released to critical acclaim in Canada earlier this year, is simple and devastating: there are two adult sisters, and one of them wants to die. She’s a wildly successful and in-demand concert pianist, but she longs for self-annihilation. It’s a premise that could easily be grindingly unbearable, but Toews is a writer of considerable subtlety and grace, with a gift for bringing flashes of lightness, even humor, to the darkest of tales. (Emily)
Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014 by Alice Munro: If our guide to Alice Munro wasn’t enough, Family Furnishings will feature 25 of her best stories from the past 19 years. It’s the first anthology of her work since Selected Stories (1968-1994) and should fill the Munro oeuvre for both lifelong fans and those who found her after her Nobel Prize win last year. Despite her larger-than-life reputation now, these stories remind us what makes Munro one of the best short story writers in the first place — her ability to illuminate quotidian problems and intimacies in small-town Canada. (Tess)
Loitering: New and Collected Essays by Charles d’Ambrosio: In 2005 Charles D’Ambrosio published an essay collection, Orphans, with a small press, and the book won a devoted following. The entire print run consisted of 3,500 copies, but all of them, D’Ambrosio writes in his introduction to Loitering, managed to find their way into the hands of readers, “a solace to me like the thought of home.” In Loitering, which consists of the eleven original essays from Orphans and a number of new pieces, D’Ambrosio considers subjects ranging from the work of J.D. Salinger to the idea of home. (Emily)
Why Religion is Immoral: And Other Interventions by Christopher Hitchens: Since his death from cancer in 2011, Christopher Hitchens has refused to leave the party. His voice — erudite, witty, proudly biased — can be heard again in this new collection of his unpublished speeches, a follow-up to his late-life bestseller, God Is Not Great. The word “interventions” in the new book’s title is critical because Hitchens’s great theme — his opposition to all forms of tyranny, including religious, political and social — led him to support the misinformed and disastrous military invention against the Iraqi tyrant, Saddam Hussein. Hitchens wasn’t always right, but as this new collection ably demonstrates, he was never dull. (Bill)
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck: One of the most significant German-language novelists of her generation, Erpenbeck follows up the celebrated novel Visitation with a heady conceit located somewhere between Cloud Atlas and Groundhog Day. The End of Days follows a single character, born early in the 20th Century, to five different deaths: the first as an infant, the second as a teenager, and so on. In each case, her life illuminates the broader history of Europe, which remains ever in the background, dying its own deaths. (Garth)
Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash: In Rash’s poem, “Preserves,” a family discovers a beautiful springhouse after a funeral, where “woodslats bowed with berry and vegetable.” Rash’s work is suffused with this sense: a pastoral world is dying, and his sentences are its best chance at resurrection. Longtime fans of Rash’s elegiac prose are happy this craftsman is finally getting his deserved recognition. His novel, Serena, will reach theaters later this year, and star Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper. In Above the Waterfall, set in North Carolina, a terrible crime brings together a sheriff and a park ranger. The territory might be familiar, but this poet-novelist always delivers. (Nick R.)
The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Mehgan Daum: Thirteen years after it was published, My Misspent Youth holds up as a perennially interesting book of essays, not to mention the final word on being young and broke in New York. In her new collection, Meghan Daum looks at a host of modern anxieties, including the modern wedding industry, Joni Mitchell and the habits of digital natives. Though a lot of her material is funny in the vein of Nora Ephron, there’s gravity here, too — as there is in “Matricide”, which tackles the death of her mother. Our own Matt Seidel recently featured Daum’s editor in a piece on editors’ first buys. (Thom)
The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya: Ludmila Ulitskaya only began writing novels after her scientific credentials were revoked for translating a banned novel. The Russian author’s commitments to art, activism, and speaking her mind have led her to become one of Russia’s most popular living authors. These same concerns guide her fiction, too — called smart, prickly, and with harsh wit — and in this, her latest novel, The Big Green Tent, is no exception. When a poet, a pianist, and a photographer try to transcend oppression in post-Stalinist Russia, their ultimate destinies are far darker than their author’s. (Anne)
Skylight by José Saramago: This is Saramago’s so-called “lost work,” which was written in the 1950s, but rediscovered after the Nobel laureate’s death in 2010. The novel features the interconnected stories of the residents of an apartment building in Lisbon in the 1940s. (Kevin)
The First Bad Man by Miranda July: If you’re like me, and think about the various Miranda July short stories like favorite tracks on a beloved album, you might be surprised that The First Bad Man is her debut novel. Her short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You, was published six years ago and won the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award; since then, she has, amongst other varied projects, released an acclaimed feature film and a book project inspired by the people behind various PennySaver ads. The novel, which centers around a woman “with a perpetual lump in her throat,” chronicles what happens when, after taking her boss’s selfish, cruel daughter, her “eccentrically ordered world explodes.” (Elizabeth)
Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: Sara Gerard’s star is rising. The NYC-based bookseller slash art-mag-employee slash writer drew attention last fall with “Things I Told My Mother,” an essayistic inquiry into women’s representation in society, spawned by a topless walk the author took through Times Square. This kind of intensity and boldness guide all of Gerard’s work — whether concerning other writers, or her own bout with anorexia, addiction, and a stint jumping freight trains, and now in her first novel Binary Star. Binary Star interweaves astronomical research with a story about an unnamed anorexic who burns through her intensely dysfunctional life like a star burns fuel, never to be replenished. (Anne)
Outline by Rachel Cusk: Some travelers collect stories as much as souvenirs. In Cusk’s latest novel, a woman writer travels to Greece to teach a creative writing workshop but learns just as much from the tales her fellow travelers tell her. As she listens, she weaves their stories into a narrative of loss, creativity, family life, and intimacy. To keep with the storytelling tradition, the Paris Review serialized the novel, but FSG will publish it for a full narrative experience. (Tess)
Glow by Ned Beauman: Beauman’s previous novels, The Boxer Beetle and The Teleportation Accident — the one a fanciful look at eugenics and fascism, the other a genre-bending wonder about an avant-garde set designer in 1930s Berlin — each displayed a learned, diabolical imagination at work. His latest appears just as unhinged. Enrolled in a “continuous amateur neurochemistry seminar” and suffering from a sleep disorder, its hero experiments with the designer drug, “glow,” which opens up a gateway into a Pynchonian universe: a disappeared friend, pirate radio stations, and a nefarious Burmese mining company. (Matt)
There’s Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: In his first story collection in 15 years, Charles Baxter, a son of the Midwest and venerated writer of fiction, poetry and essays, gives us inter-related tales that are tidily bifurcated into two sections, one devoted to virtues (“Chastity,” “Charity,” “Forbearance”), the other to vices (“Lust,” “Sloth,” “Avarice”). Characters re-appear, performing acts both virtuous and loathsome, in stories that are set mostly around Minneapolis but also roam to New York, Tuscany and Ethiopia. The collection’s title is a typical “request moment” that animates the stories, resulting in a murder, a rescue, a love affair, an assault, even a surprising gesture of kindness. (Bill)
Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris: I was such a big fan of Amelia Morris’s hilarious, entertaining, and useful food blog, Bon Appétempt, that I tracked her down and asked her to teach for my writing school, Writing Workshops Los Angeles. Now Amelia has penned a compelling and funny memoir about becoming an adult and an artist — both in and out of the kitchen — that is sure to bring her even more devoted readers. If you like Laurie Colwin and MFK Fischer and, I don’t know, total goofballs baking cakes while making weird faces, you’ll love Amelia Morris and Bon Appétempt. (Edan)
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: “What I want is to create stories that shift around when you reread them.” Few can shake readers awake as well as Link, which makes short fiction her ideal form. She has been called the “George Saunders of the fairy tale,” but simply being Kelly Link is enough. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, gets its title from the sense that in fiction, “there’s a kind of cathartic, discomforting joy — a pain/pleasure — in people behaving badly.” Her previous fantastical tales have been populated by librarians, cellists, aliens, and fainting goats. Link aims to surprise, which makes her work absolutely pleasing. (Nick R.)
Find Me by Laura van den Berg: Laura van den Berg’s fictions often unfurl just beyond the real, with their madcap mix of zany and dreamlike set-ups. Case in point, van den Berg’s recent story collection, The Isle of Youth, was peopled by yacht thieves, a mother-daughter magician team, and newlyweds who survive a plane crash. Her first novel, Find Me, continues this surreal, at times catastrophic streak, as it follows Joy, a grocery clerk, cough-syrup addict who’s immune to an ongoing plague of memory illness. Joy’s resulting hospital stay and cross-country journey plotline sounds like a surreal mash-up of Stephen King’s The Stand and Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps. (Anne)
The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa: The 2010 Nobel Prize winner trains his eye on corruption and urbanization in modern day Lima in his latest novel. According to CityLab, “The story follows two parallel tales: an elite Lima businessman who decides to punish his undeserving heirs, and a self-made man in Vargas Llosa’s adopted hometown, Piura, who resists an extortionist demand.” (Kevin)
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This year’s “Genius grant” winners have been announced. The MacArthur grant awards $625,000 — up from $500,000 — “no strings attached” to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” Alongside, scientists, artists and scholars are some newly minted geniuses with a literary focus. This year’s literary geniuses are:
Karen Russell has been a name to watch in literature ever since her story “Haunting Olivia” appeared in the New Yorker’s Debut Fiction issue in 2005, just shy of her 25th birthday. That story would be collected in St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, which made her name as literary writer known for imbuing her stories with fantasy and supernatural elements. She would follow up with novel Swamplandia!, and this year’s collection Vampires in the Lemon Grove, which has done some time on our Top Ten list this year, most recently in July. We’ve interviewed Russell twice at The Millions. In 2011, she discussed her genre-straddling tendencies as a writer: “I had a lot of fun writing Swamplandia! because it felt like I could juggle different kinds of worlds. And I feel like in life we’re all sort of operating in different registers all the time.” This year, she elaborated further, “What’s attractive to me about those stories is in a way they feel so much more honest and so much closer to the real deep and uncanny experience of being alive. They now have this emotional vocabulary to talk about how really freaking weird it is to live any average Tuesday. In addition, it’s exciting to be the arbiter of a whole world.”
Donald Antrim is not a household name but he is revered among writers as an incisive memoirist and creator of experimental novels. He debuted with Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World and followed it up with The Hundred Brothers and The Verificationist. The three books were re-issued in 2011 and 2012 with new introductions by none other than Jeffrey Eugenides, George Saunders, and Jonathan Franzen. His memoir, The Afterlife, came in 2006. Last year, after diving into Antrim’s three re-issued novels, our own Lydia Kiesling wrote, “I suspect it’s not so much a function of age that has these books reappearing now. Rather, someone out there knew they hadn’t had their fair shake. They knew there were people who needed these novels — frustrated people and weird people and people who prefer a very correct, very unusual deployment of the English language: formal but personal, arch, hilarious, possessed of a slightly antiquarian flavor. Even very great writers don’t often write like this.”
Oh, what did I read this year. I read all the Dear Prudence columns and some of The New York Times Vows and 6,000 things on Wedding Bee and even more things on Facebook and a lot of Tweets I do not remember now. I read two-thirds of the things about the election and one-third of the Mormon mommy blogs. I read most of the Andrew Sullivan and some of the Ta-Nehisi Coates and half of The New Yorker, but not the thing about Hilary Mantel, because I didn’t read Wolf Hall, until this week when I read half of it on the train. In the airplane I read Esquire. In the bathroom I read The Economist that I got free with the miles I accrued reading Esquire in the airplane. In the living room I read the alumni magazine I got free with the expense I incurred on my education. I read the whole Jonah Lehrer scandal. My favorite thing I read on Jezebel was a video of a dog fetching a cat.
I read In Other Rooms, Other Wonders, and my word, was that good. I read The Appearance of a Hero, and wrote a whole review of it in my head called “Where the Bros Are” — or was it “For the Bros”? — but forgot to write it down (don’t get me started on the things I didn’t write this year). I read NW and couldn’t stop thinking about the scene with the tampon string like a mouse tail and got the taste of metal in my mouth, thank you very much Zadie Smith. I read We Need to Talk About Kevin and got the feel of bleach in my eye and hamster in my sink, thank you very much Lionel Shriver. I read The Snow Child which was like Crystal Light with extra Splenda (that is not a compliment, in case it’s not clear). I read The Silent House which gave me the willies (that is a compliment). I read the The Deptford Trilogy because every year I have to read something by Robertson Davies and like it and then forget what it was about. I read the Donald Antrim triple-decker (one, two, three), and those were the greatest old new things I read this year.
I re-read Good-bye to All That and Tender is the Night and Midnight’s Children. I did not re-read The Tin Drum or Middlemarch or The Chronicles of Narnia or any Sherlock Holmes stories, and I really feel it in my bones that I did not re-read these things. I did not re-read The Corrections or Cleveland’s History of the Modern Middle East, which I was going to re-read to remember what is the deal with Syria. I only re-read half of one movement of A Dance to the Music of Time (one-eighth, then).
I still did not read Witz or Swamplandia! or The Instructions or A Visit from the Goon Squad or Skippy Dies or The Art of Fielding, or How Should a Person Be? even though I spent $30 on it at a book thing to seem like a team player. More distressing, I still did not really read Don Quixote or Das Kapital or War and Peace, or a thing by Stendahl or Ulysses. I did not read one really hard book this year, except one by Buket Uzuner, and that was just hard for me, and I didn’t really read that either, just 20 pages.
As usual, to compose my Year in Reading is to confront my failures. Resolved for 2013: more paper, less screen. More reading, more revelation.
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On three occasions I have performed my civic duty and worked as a poll inspector on election day, an experience for which I reaped the pride of performing one’s civic duty and 150 U.S. dollars. On the occasion of the 2008 primary election, I assisted a gentleman who, like many San Francisco citizens believing themselves to have registered as independent voters, had in fact checked the box for the far-far-right American Independent Party. When these voters showed up on election day, they were presented with a bewildering list of candidates from their party of record. This man told me, “I am trying to vote for the President of the United States of America,” gesticulating to his ballot as if to say, “not this mess.”
It’s a little bit how I feel when I look at The New York Times bestseller list or trawl the front table of a reputable book shop, fondling the covers, reading the backs, feeling frustrated and indecisive and confused: which among these is the yearned-for genius? It’s a wholly unjust parallel, because my wholly unreasonable sense that there aren’t enough geniuses who write novels to amuse me is in no way comparable to an American citizen’s actual voter disenfranchisement resulting from paperwork ambiguities.* But to me, novels are the highest office of the land, and I have very specific and very high expectations for them.
Donald Antrim came to me in three economical little volumes. I did not know about Donald Antrim, and I believe this puts me squarely in the demographic Picador hoped to reach with its re-release of three novels, each featuring an introduction by a big name (Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders). I am grateful, because now I do know about him, his books anyway, and I believe him to be one of the great American writers alive today. Here is my yearned-for genius.
Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World — the first of a trilogy that also includes The Hundred Brothers and The Verificationist — hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. In this grim and comic novel, the titular Robinson, an educator and pillar of his Florida community, narrates his descent into a madness even nastier than the one gripping his compatriots. This is America of the heavily-armed future (more heavily-armed, we should say), maybe the fevered dream of the aforementioned American Independent Party (from their website: “We also insist that those who violate our immigration laws…be punished for their crime in a way that will deter them from future offenses.”) The residents of Antrim’s novel build death traps in front of gracious homes — including Robinson’s wife, Meredith, who reclines “in an aluminum chaise, idly carving and shaping bamboo stalks macheted, the previous day, from thickets lining a nearby canal. ‘I love our old house,'” she says, sounding for the world like my very own mother planting an azalea.
Mr. Robinson is trying to get a new school going in an increasing fractious and militarized community, where taxpayers have defunded public education and feuding neighbors plant mines in public parks. Mr. Robinson has his eye on a mayoral run; he gives pedantic lectures on medieval torture to rapt audiences. He feels left out as his wife, the center of a new spiritual movement, swims away from him in “icthyomorphic trances.”
In his introduction, Jeffrey Eugenides called Elect Mr. Robinson “a book without antecedents. To compare it to other books is to invite frustration: the templates don’t match up.” In one sense this is true, because the book, all of the books, enact a collision of the real and the surreal that is novel, and extremely jarring (also thrilling). But I hark back to English class (the one place where Freud’s taxonomies are still ascendant) and I think that part of the success of this novel lies in its heavy invocation of the unheimlich , and not only because it describes a balmy burg where Rotarians draw and quarter civic leaders with their Japanese cars. For me it’s the uncanny echo of the great feckless men of American literature — the heroes of Bellow and Irving, their comparatively harmless peccadilloes — that titillates.
When Mr. Robinson appears in the public library for children’s story hour, toting a desecrated book and grisly after a night spent burying a severed foot in a public park, I chortled at the memory of Bogus Trumper returning home befeathered and gore-smeared in The Water-Method Man, holding an expired duck (Mr. Robinson trades his library book for a stuffed buffalo). It’s not that this book has no antecedents — like the other books in the trilogy it’s basically about a guy who’s going through some stuff — but the familiar rake has been transplanted to a murderous and depraved universe.
These novels should be read together — Antrim’s prowess, the profound and various weirdness of his three narrators is best appreciated in concert. The Hundred Brothers is literally a novel about a hundred brothers jostling around in a rotting mansion — among them “Albert, who is blind; and Siegfried, the sculptor in burning steel; and clinically depressed Anton, schizophrenic Irv, recovering addict Clayton; and Maxwell, the tropical botanist” — a bunch of guys being guys until it’s time for a symbolic ritual sacrifice in the labyrinthine library. As Jonathan Franzen (the songbird conservationist) correctly observes, “The Hundred Brothers is possibly the strangest novel ever published by an American.”
As in the other novels, real, melancholy insights are juxtaposed with zingers in a way that demonstrates the range and flexibility of Antrim’s intellect — and that of his narrator:
Conflict is always so difficult to recount…The technical aspects of describing true conflict are daunting. First, you have to establish your antagonists. It is important to avoid cozy oversimplifications, and to bear down instead on all the obscure and intractable problems of identity and desire that make our lives and our needs so various and dissimilar. The problems in describing a person are essentially problems of knowing a person. One of the sad features of most close relationships is the decay of intimacy as a function of time, turmoil, and all the little misunderstandings that inevitably occur between people, leading them, year in and year out, toward the same tired conclusions: conversation falters; friendships fail.
That said, allow me to concede that my brother Hiram is an incredible asshole. He’s just a complete jerk. He finds your worst insecurities and then tortures you until you’ll do practically anything to escape his voice’s dry wheezing and the spectacle of bony fists clutching that walker.
The female only child cringes at the rampant punching, the crumbling ceilings, the ruined books, the confirmation writ large of the singleton’s suspicion that sibling stuff is weird. The book, the house, is overstuffed with crazed men and marvelous set pieces.
The trilogy ends with The Verificationist, which, like a joke at a professional conference, opens with a group of clinical psychologists having breakfast in an all-night pancake joint. The narrator’s predilection for starting food fights and instigating mayhem leads Bernhardt, the most grotesque and overbearing from among his colleagues, to hold him around his midsection almost for the duration of the novel. Pinned by Bernhardt, our narrator ascends for a night flight — both a respectable narrative (and religious) trope and the stuff of psychotic breaks.
Taking place mostly on a ceiling, The Verificationist was probably my least favorite of the three in terms of plot (a ludicrous metric for these novels, I suppose). It might, however, contain the greatest number of killer lines and passages. Holding the narrator aloft, “Bernhardt the horrible father whispered into my ear, ‘You’re nothing but trouble, Tom. That’s why we love you. I know it may surprise you to hear that we love you, but it’s true. I’ll say it again. We’re your coworkers, and we love you.'” Or: “‘I can’t believe it. You bayoneted Dad! And I trusted you,’ declares the girl — brilliantly commandeering, in the way offended people so frequently will, events that occurred years in the past, using them as retrospective evidence pertaining to present circumstances.” Like the other novels, The Verificationist is very funny; like the others, it ends dark and sad.
The oldest of the trilogy, Elect Mr. Robinson is already almost two decades old, sufficiently old to qualify it, I guess, for re-release with a new introduction. But I suspect it’s not so much a function of age that has these books reappearing now. Rather, someone out there knew they hadn’t had their fair shake. They knew there were people who needed these novels — frustrated people and weird people and people who prefer a very correct, very unusual deployment of the English language: formal but personal, arch, hilarious, possessed of a slightly antiquarian flavor. Even very great writers don’t often write like this.
So when you’ve surfeited yourself on hunger games and vampires and zombies and lukewarm bondage and everything else that dulled our synapses this year — when you need a new genius — don’t despair, choose Donald Antrim.
*Too late for this man but fortunately for other voters, the registration language for independent voters was changed from “decline-to-state” to “no party preference.”