Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon gets stuck. Sometimes plans don’t go according to the outline, if he even writes one. Sometimes an idea just pops into his brain and a book comes out.
Both are the case with Chabon’s latest release, Moonglow. Presented as a memoir about a grandfather, the novel weaves together the history of a man and his family during the 20th century. Like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay or Telegraph Avenue, this new novel features an interesting cast of characters, linked physically and thematically.
The author spoke to us at length, after a day of errands that took him around Berkeley, about his new novel, outlines, why memoirs are bullshit, and screenwriting.
The Millions: When Telegraph Avenue came out, you stated in an interview that with every book you wrote there was this collapse where you either didn’t think you would finish a book or that it wouldn’t turn out the way you wanted it to. Did that happen with Moonglow?
Michael Chabon: Yeah, that usually happens as soon as I start writing the first sentence. It’s already begun to diminish from what I envisioned in that glorious split second of imagination. Telegraph Avenue was much harder to write. It took over a decade, really, during its gestational period. From a pilot to a television series and then laying completely dormant for years before I revived it. I thought because I had written the pilot that it would be easy to novelize it, but that turned out to not be the case at all. I really struggled with Telegraph Avenue. I really struggled with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I really struggled with Kavalier & Clay. All in ways that I did not really struggle with this book at all.
In fact, this book — I’m not saying it was easy to write — but it had the same kind of magical birth as Wonder Boys, which is the only other book of mine that had this magical birth where I had no idea that I was going to be writing it until the day I sat down and the first sentence emerged. In both cases, I thought I was going to be working on a different book. With Wonder Boys, I thought I was beginning the fifth or so draft of what was supposed to be my second novel; a book called Fountain City. I thought okay, I had the outline for this new draft to be doing. I sat down and all of a sudden I was writing about Grady Tripp, growing up in this small town in Pennsylvania, and a pulp writer before I had any idea where any of that came from. It wrote itself fairly quickly, whereas this one took longer to write. It started off very much the same, though.
I thought I was going to be starting the first draft of another novel that was meant to be the follow-up to Telegraph Avenue and I didn’t have an outline, but I had definite thoughts of what it was going to be. I had been doing reading and research, but I found myself beginning to re-envision this moment of history from my family. A family story I had heard over the years about one of my grandfather’s brothers who was a salesman selling commercial office supplies and was fired one day from his job to make room on the payroll for Alger Hiss, who was just released from prison.
I had not been thinking about that story until the day I started actually working on the book. It just popped into my mind. I started following it. I didn’t get into any other weird nightmarish corners I had got into with other books.
TM: You briefly mentioned an outline for stories. Was there an outlining process or a plotting process for this book then?
MC: Typically, I’m not a big outliner. When I’m doing screenwriting work — like right now my wife and I are working on a script for this proposed series for Netflix that is a miniseries — when you’re doing that kind of work you have to outline. Of course, outlining makes your job easier, but you actually have to outline because the people who are writing your checks insist on seeing outlines. They want to see a full outline for the first episode and partial outlines for all of the remaining episodes. You have to generate your story ahead of time.
So, I know how to outline, I’ve done it, I completely see the value in doing it, and I’m completely grateful for one when I actually do an outline; however, when it comes to doing novels, I find the more detailed I try to get in my outline, the less interest I have in the story.
For me, part of the process of writing the novel — a big part — is finding out what happens. I like to find out what my story is about. There are two kinds of aboutness, too. One kind is on the plot level: what happens. I find out along the way and suddenly I think, Okay this will happen and that will happen and now I have to go back and throw away 200 pages doing that because now I know this is going to happen. Sometimes I have to completely add a new character because it appeared to me after two years of work. I have to proceed by groping and finding my way without really knowing what is going to happen. It’s a process of discovery and as much as it is torturous and incredibly inefficient when compared to working with an outline, it is part of the mystery that keeps me going. If I don’t have it, I sort of lose interest in the project.
Then there is the other kind of aboutness. There’s this question of what is the story About with a capital A. Thematically, that is. And I don’t even know the answer to that until I am almost done with the book. So many times, and it really happened with Moonglow, I didn’t fully understand what the biggest, most important things about Moonglow were. Especially the story about the grandmother. Not what happened to the grandmother, but what it meant to her, what did it mean to the grandfather, what did it mean to the family? What does that say about memory and history and madness and insanity?
A lot of the things about the nuts and bolts about the structure changed right in the last four to six weeks of me working on the book before I turned it into the publisher. It was like, “Oh my god, I see what my book is about now.”…In this magical period right at the end of writing, which was one of the most magical experiences I have ever had, I just started focusing on the grandmother and realized there was this constant motif throughout the book of dualities. People concealing other people within them. All of the imagery just started to click into place, including the moon imagery: with the dark side of the moon, the lunar eclipses. It was this idea of being half something and half something else. It was all there. I had the wiring, but it wasn’t hooked up to any battery until I hooked it up to the grandmother and the entire book just lit up.
I couldn’t have outlined that. If I had tried to outline something like that I think I would have lost interest in the book long before or, and this happens when I write outlines, I begin to hate the outline and the person who wrote the outline. Like, four years ago there was this smug asshole who wrote out this dumb-ass outline and he thought he knew so much but he didn’t know shit. Why would I even listen to him? He had no idea how wide ranging this book was going to be. I get into this place of resentment with the things I thought I knew.
If the story about the grandmother and duality was there from the beginning, I would have told myself “fuck you” and I wouldn’t have done it.
Outlines are wonderful tools, but they only do what they do in the proper context. Which is similar in the book with the rocket. In one context rockets take you to the moon, and, in other, they rain down terror on innocent people.
TM: Even though you didn’t outline this one, was it always meant to be a faux-memoir that was closely tied to your life?
MC: No, it was… As soon as I started to tell the story of the assault… Well, all I actually know is that one of my grandfather’s brothers was fired from his job to make room for Alger Hiss. I should add that the uncle I thought it was, I asked his daughter and his granddaughter, and neither had heard this story. I was so sure it was that uncle and not the other whom I can’t really ask about, so even that is a little dubious.
Whenever I hear “Alger Hiss,” I think of this story. At some point, I did hear this story. That uncle did sell office supplies. Ah! It had to be him. But that’s all I know. As soon as I made it my grandfather and not my great-uncle, I am in the territory of fiction.
There was no deliberate decision on this point for me, but almost immediately as soon as I had those words, “my grandfather,” I was writing in a reminiscent first person narrator who wasn’t giving his reminiscences but was giving his grandfather’s reminiscences. As soon as I had that structure it clicked immediately with this actual experience I had sitting with my actual grandfather when he was dying in my actual mother’s house. He did tell me a lot of stories. Maybe he did tell me the story about his brother getting fired; maybe that’s where I heard it for the first time. As soon as I had that in place, it was immediate that it was going to be the framework of the novel.
It was very quickly and wasn’t a conscious strategy in mind that this was going to be a memoir. It’s going to be my memoir of the week I spent with my grandfather and the story he told me that is going to end up being the story the reader ends up reading. At that point, I thought that’s going to be fun. That’s going to be a fun structure. Part of the thing that I have to do when I’m starting a book — I mean, everything has been done before — so all I can do is try to find a new approach to it. To find a different avenue for it.
With Moonglow, it was that I wanted to tell the story of this man’s life. It was a very 20th-century, East Coast, Jewish family story, but what’s my angle? What was my way to make it fresh to readers and fresh to me? This memoir angle immediately presented itself.
Then I actually had this more conscious, higher level of thinking of potential pleasure about the book being something I wanted to do. It derived from my feelings about the literary memoir.
TM: How do you feel about them in particular?
MC: [Some people have claimed] that memoirs are more appropriate to the time we live in, but also superior to fiction. Listening to that kind of talk and seeing situations like the James Frey incident…The thing that made everyone upset was the fact that he had lied, you know? That he passed this thing off as true when it was a work of fiction was wrong. What pissed me off as a novelist was that he wrote it as a novel and nobody wanted to publish it. Then he relabeled it as a memoir and suddenly everybody wants to publish it and everyone wants to read it.
That offends me because I’m a novelist and writing novels is what I do. I take that personally on some levels. It also offends me because it’s bullshit. Memoirs are bullshit to some degree. I don’t mean memoirists are liars; some might be, most are not. I know memoirists try to be scrupulous and try not to deviate from what they remember. It’s the last few words of my sentence where the bullshit comes in. Of course what you remember is a lie or a distortion. It’s inaccurate, there’s conflation, there’s elision. There are gaps, there maybe things that you’ve deliberately forgotten and then forgotten that you’ve forgotten so that you sincerely think they didn’t happen.
Some of my favorite books, some of the most beautiful books that have been written in the past quarter century have been memoirs, like Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time or Tobias Wolfe’s This Boy’s Life. There are people who have written beautiful works of literature that are memoirs. I’m not trying to impugn individual writers at all. I’m not even necessarily impugning the form of the genre. It’s just the claims that are made. The esteem that is given. The memoir seems to have a higher value because it claims to be the truth. Obviously it just simply can’t be on some level the truth.
As a novelist, I much prefer, and am much more comfortable with a self-declared lie that is invited by the person being lied to.
TM: Building off of that, did you feel there needed to be a lot of research or were those lies something you could live with?
MC: You can’t tell a good lie without research. Not a really good one.
TM: I want to shift from Moonglow to all of your works. You have these reoccurring topics of family, of history, of Judaism, and many more. Why do you keep coming back to these ideas and feelings that you write about?
MC: I can’t help it. That’s the honest answer. I have no choice in the matter. That’s how it works with compulsive behavior. It’s a kind of compulsion. I wrote a piece about this in my book Manhood for Amateurs about a family heritage of OCD. The piece is called “X09” because it’s about a boy, who at the time his brother was struggling with OCD, called it X09.
I do have it in my family. My paternal grandmother was clearly compulsive, especially about germs. My dad had these strange obsessive compulsive, ritualistic behaviors. I don’t see it in my own behavior or my thought processes, but I do think it is expressed in this return to certain subjects or themes or motifs that are beyond my control. It doesn’t seem to be hurting me, and I think it’s true in a lot of writers, though I wouldn’t be qualified to talk about it.
TM: Are you writing habits compulsive? I once read you always wrote at night. Is that still the case?
MC: I still do, yes. More than ever. I work very late. I still report for duty between 10 and 11pm. Sometimes as late until six in the morning. I get a lot more done in the last few hours than I did the entire time before.
TM: Are you already onto the next idea?
MC: I’m writing a children’s book for middle readers. It’s essentially a follow-up to Summerland, although it’s not a sequel in any way.
TM: What about that Netflix series that you’re kind of working on with your wife —
MC: More than kind of.
TM: More than kind of then, that’s great. Did you take a lot of time off from screenwriting, or did nothing just come to fruition?
MC: [laughs] It might seem like I took time off, but in fact, it’s just a series of failures to launch.
TM: What about screenwriting appeals to you so much on top of writing novels?
MC: I used to automatically just say the money, but when it comes to screenwriting for movies in Hollywood that would be better if [just the money] was the case. It’s so heartbreaking and so hard to get things made. While I was writing Moonglow, I took time off to work on a screenplay for a proposed Frank Sinatra biopic that Martin Scorsese was going to direct. Working on something that could have been directed by him and working with Frank Sinatra’s work was just so great. I just got into it and loved working on it. I think I wrote a pretty good script, and it just seems to be completely done.
I got paid and it would be easy to say, “Oh, I got paid well and that’s showbiz,” but unfortunately I became pretty invested in that project. It hurts to think it all was a waste of time.
With TV it’s a little different. On one end, the money up front just isn’t that good, so you can’t just be all about the money. Also, it seems more gets made and there is more opportunity to do a lot more work with a lot less interference. Though I don’t have any shows on the air, I seem more successful there because I actually had a couple of scripts make it to the screen. It doesn’t quite feel as well… I don’t know. It’s hard to say.
I actually worked on this earlier proposal for a show for HBO that was supposed to be called Hobgoblin that was really good; it would have been amazing. We actually wrote three scripts for that. So now I take it all back: it’s all equally heartbreaking and soul crushing.
Anyway, I’m doing it. I’m still writing scripts. The thing we’re doing for Netflix could be really good. I hope it happens, but you never know.
On May 10, 2009, Rodrigo Rosenberg, a hotshot Guatemalan lawyer, was murdered a few blocks away from his house. Days later a video declaration surfaced in which Rodrigo openly accused the then Guatemalan president, Álvaro Colom, of his death. “If you’re watching this video it is because I’ve been murdered,” he said in the recording. Rodrigo also accused Colom of murdering Khalil Musa, one of his clients, and his daughter Marjorie weeks earlier. As the investigation wore on, it was revealed that Rodrigo and Marjorie had been involved in an affair. After a thorough inquiry, the United Nations Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) declared that Rodrigo — possibly depressed by the death of Marjorie, who he called the love of his life — had orchestrated his own murder.
This sensational case is the inspiration for The Mastermind (Akashik Books), the latest work by Guatemalan author David Unger. This new thriller presents the acute current state of corruption and political turmoil of Guatemala, as well as the intense, dangerous relationship between Guillermo and Maryam — Rodrigo and Marjorie’s literary counterparts.
Despite writing exclusively in English, Unger was awarded Guatemala’s Miguel Ángel Asturias National Prize in Literature 2014. He is the author of the novels The Price of Escape and Life in the Damn Tropics, and he has translated 14 books from Spanish into English. We caught up with David for a quick chat about his new book near his office at CUNY, where he teaches literary translation.
José García: What interested you in this case?
David Unger: A lot of people talked about this story as an example where reality surpasses fiction; as a writer that really bugged me. I took it as a challenge. But also, because I hadn’t written anything that dealt with current events in Guatemala. I had written about the Armed Conflict or the United Fruit Company’s involvement with the country, but not of what has happened recently, and I wanted to explore that.
JA: What made you want to fictionalize the case? You could’ve done a journalistic piece, or remain closer to the facts, but you didn’t.
DU: In my last novel, The Price of Escape, I did a lot of research about the relationship between former president Jorge Ubico and the United Fruit Company. I wanted to understand the backstory of what happened then.
In this case, I chose not to, primarily because I am familiar with some of Guatemala’s current history. Rodrigo’s case is very recent. I thought I could write a novel without the heavy research I put into the previous book. Also, I was mostly interested in the relationship between Rodrigo and Marjorie.
JA: Something that was mostly overlooked by the media.
DU: We barely know anything about it. We don’t know what her relationship with her husband was. What we do know is that there was a lot of passion between Rodrigo and Marjorie. I don’t think he was arrogant enough to think his own death could change the country. But I think he was a very passionate guy who might have felt that the best part of his life was over and that he wasn’t going to find another woman like Marjorie. For me, that was the story right there.
JA: You have mentioned that you wanted to remain distant from the facts, to stay away from articles and documentaries. But, did you do any research at all while writing your novel?
DU: No. Zero. I didn’t want the fact to affect my fiction. There was an article published in The New Yorker about the case I read a couple of times while writing, but that was just to check some minor facts about the context. I wanted to stay as far away from the facts as possible. I wanted to write the opposite of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
JA: Can you mention a few other Guatemalan or Central American writers that might help the American audience understand the region?
DU: First Miguel Angel Asturias’s Señor Presidente (The President). Then maybe the novels of Rodrigo Rey Rosa, Javier Mosquera, Victor Montejo, the works of Horacio Castellanos Moya, and Roque Dalton, he’s a poet that needs to be looked into. Then there’s Jacinta Escudos or Arturo Arias too, they have been translated into English. Also, there’s an anthology entitled And We Sold the Rain that included Central American short stories of the late-’80s and early-90s that they might find interesting.
DU: Primarily I think the writer has to write whatever he or she wants to write about. The writer’s responsibility is to creativity. However, I do think there are some limitations. One cannot write a novel, for example, about José Efraín Ríos Montt (former Guatemalan president officially charged with genocide and crimes against humanity) and mess around with the facts in order to clean his reputation or attend a personal interest. One has a historical responsibility while addressing atrocities.
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) is a curious group, though given that they’re a writers’ guild, curious is par for the course. Gathering together scribblers from two related but nevertheless distinct disciplines under one umbrella seems like a holdover from a less genre-friendly time, when artists like these needed to band together for strength and comfort. After all, when the Edgar Awards come out every year, it’s under the aegis of the Mystery Writers of America; that’s it, just mystery.
But the SFWA are a welcoming bunch, nevertheless, handing out their Nebula Award in recent years to everyone from crackerjack dreamweavers like Neil Gaiman (the mainstream dark fantasy American Gods in 2002 and the fey nightmare Coraline in 2003) to once-mainstream writers gone gleefully genre like Michael Chabon (his brilliantly imagined counterfactual-cum-detective novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union in 2007). Time will tell if the last decade’s batch of winners will hold up to scrutiny like those in its first decade, when the Nebula was passed out to Frank Herbert’s Dune, Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, three foundational works in 20th century science fiction.
There are six novels nominated for this year’s Nebula Award, which will be announced May 19th. They cover the future, the present, and the indefinable. They feature shy faeries, magicians who wield bugs like weapons, and a postapocalyptic steampunk traveling circus. What they don’t do much of is splash about in that shallow, mucky pool of vampire/alien/cop/erotica/fallen angel serial potboilers (new variations ever-spinning off as though generated by some genre virus) being snapped up by ever more readers. Only two of the six Nebula nominees are series books, the rest are novel-novels – left to live or die on their own, no cliffhangers to entice you back.
Firebird by Jack McDevitt: McDevitt is one of those increasingly rare practitioners of the far-future space opera; unfortunately, Firebird is not exactly an advertisement for the subgenre. The sixth of a series, it’s narrated by Chase Kolpath, dutiful assistant to the series’ star, Jack Benedict, a kind of archaeologist-cum-rare antiquities dealer (an earlier Benedict novel, Seeker, took the Nebula in 2006). Chase and Jack meander their way into a mystery linking a disappeared physicist named Christopher Robin and a series of spaceships that have disappeared. The prose has the monotone feel of a constant hum, only slightly upticking even when Chase and Jack are besieged by a band of malevolent AIs rampaging about like more advanced versions of the human-hating machines in Stephen King’s “Trucks.” Alex’s God-like sagacity turns less Sherlockian as the story bumps on, Chase’s dully Watson-like dependability is slightly tweaked, but the lack of dimensionality to the characters is nearly complete. It’s true that McDevitt ratchets up the cross-dimensional drama once more is discovered about the disappeared ships and stirs some embers of an intriguing debate over the souls of AIs. Sadly, though, he sets aside any attempt to portray a cross-galaxy human society many centuries in the future as truly any different from today’s.
The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin: Jemisin is a rising talent with a couple of Hugo and Nebula nominations to her credit and a sharp voice — check out her quasi-manifesto: “Don’t Put My Book in the African American Section.” Like half of this year’s nominees, her novel is more fantasy than science fiction, but as previously discussed, all are welcome here. The final entry in her “Inheritance Trilogy,” The Kingdom of Gods is set in the same magic-plagued world as the previous two, but with different characters. The narrator Sieh, is a “godling” who still winces at the memory of his long imprisonment by the Arameri, a tyrannical human dynasty (whose Vatican-sized palace is built in a “World Tree” the size of a mountain range) which has lost the power to enslave gods. Sieh’s a bratty and bloody-minded Loki-esque trickster figure who thinks nothing of slaughtering dozens in a fit of pique, but nevertheless steals the hearts of a pair of Arameri royal siblings. Jemisin paces her book fast and knotty (the glossary at back helps), downgrading Sieh to mortal status and setting him adrift in the roiling dramas of this hyperbolic, violent, and power-crazed world. It’s overripe and overplotted, but rich with detail and emotion; she channels the darker fratricidal and genocidal themes of Greek mythology like few other writers can. Jemisin doesn’t make the mistake of ascribing human morality to her godly characters just because they have recognizably human emotions.
Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine: Valentine’s short fictions have been anthologized many times — everywhere from various Year’s Best collections to more themed-works like War and Space — but this is her first novel. The easiest definition of Mechanique’s loosely-threaded story would be “steampunk circus.” No airships and not a pair of goggles to be seen, but still, there’s enough fascination with clanking machinery and low-tech bioware, as well as a fuzzy disinterest in time-period specificity. Call it steampunk-adjacent. The Circus Tresaulti, as described by the young and romantic narrator George, is a fabulist’s dream of patched-together tents and critically wounded performers reborn as pre-digital cyborgs with metallic limbs, surgically attached wings, and lighter-than-air bones (the latter very handy for the aerialists). Their female Ahab is known only as the Boss (whose skill with the performers’ mechanized add-ons seems more than a little Faustian), the circus trundles through a vaguely-described and war-blasted landscape of ruined cities and feral audiences. The whole affair is tied together far too late in the game with a climax that feels too familiar by half. Valentine has imagination, but only to a point. Her characters take too long to come into focus, and her writing just doesn’t have the strength to carry such a lightly-plotted piece to fruition.
God’s War by Kameron Hurley: First-timer Hurley has a sensibility not too far removed from Jemisin’s. Both have a fine feel for action and have no compunctions about burying readers up to their necks in conspiracies and bloody intrigue. Where Jemisin works in a vein of mythological overkill, Hurley has a grittier cyberpunk feel to her writing. Her fascinating God’s War is another far-future story set on a planet far from Earth in terms of light years, but quite neighborly in the similarity of its politics and problems. Two vaguely Muslim nations, Nasheen and Chenjan, have been locked in a grinding war for longer than living memory. The planet is ridden with disease and toxic with religious orthodoxy and terrorism-inspired paranoia. What high technology there exists seems to come entirely from the specific manipulations of the planet’s native bug species. With entire generations of men sacrificed to the front, women comprise nearly all of civilian society. Hurley’s antiheroine, Nyx, is a former Nasheenian bel dame, or court-appointed assassin, who now plies her trade (bringing a bounty’s severed head back to whoever can pay) freelance. When Nyx is hired for a particularly onerous job, she takes on a larger crew, including Rhys, a Chenjan magician who is not particularly good at bug magic but will do for now. Hurley is a gut-punch kind of writer, with harsh characters in a harsh world doing whatever they think is necessary to survive — even if survival frequently seems little better than the alternative.
Embassytown by China Miéville: The newest, frequently baffling novel by the never-rote Miéville is the most welcome entry in this list, most particularly because it is the novel that most truly immerses readers into a world well beyond their ken. On the planet of Arieki, humans live in tenuous coexistence with an alien race known as the Hosts. A delicate balancing act keeps most humans in circumscribed boundaries, the only dialogue capable via human ambassadors who work in pairs. (The Hosts speak via two mouths, resulting in twinned streams of communication, a fascinating concept that Miéville runs wild with.) The book’s narrator is Avice, an Arieki woman who works as an immernaut, piloting the great depths of space between systems. She is wrangled into helping manage the crisis that erupts after a verbal virus begins to spread in the Hosts, leading to the collapse of the planet’s social order and the threat of all-out war. Miéville’s world is an immersive one, with few roadsigns to assist the beleaguered. But the novel’s all-encompassing alien nature is like a lexicographical blanket, enveloping the reader in abstruse, world-changing theories and riddle-wrapped drama. It’s all less dense than it sounds, for all Miéville’s language-mad word wizardry, there’s a thread of story here that makes it as thrilling and readable as any work of science fiction in recent memory.
Among Others by Jo Walton: You could consider Walton more a fan of science fiction than a practitioner of it, but that isn’t to do disservice to her writing, it’s to give credit to the potency and sharpness of her fandom. Among Others is a rainy, moody thing where the story is little more than a whisper. The narrator, Morwenna Phelps, is a Welsh girl (like Walton) who’s sent off to boarding school in England after a mishap with magic cost the life of her sister but just may have saved the world from the evil powers of their witch mother. Now Morwenna walks with a cane and tries not to let her magic show around the posher schoolgirls (her ability to see and speak to fairies might throw them), all the while trying to reconnect with her daffy father and figure out what to do if her mother returns. That’s all background atmosphere, though. Walton’s real story is Morwenna’s love of science fiction. The novel is told in diary form, and nearly every entry includes some finely argued notation on the joys and merits of what she’s reading. Her list is heavy with dark transgressors like Samuel R. Delany and John Brunner, as befitting Walton’s late-1970s setting. There’s a gripping, deeply-learned love here that goes beyond mere fandom, delivering one of the most intelligently impassioned odes to science fiction, and reading in general, ever put to paper. As Morwenna says on entering her father’s study: “I actually relaxed in his presence, because if there are books perhaps it won’t be all that bad.” Anybody who has felt the glow and tug of mind-warping joy that comes with devouring a stack of broken-spined sci-fi paperbacks will know exactly what she means.
Watch out! Vonnegut is definitely habit-forming!
-From a Dell Books Advertisement for Welcome to The Monkey House, 1974
On a recent morning, I boarded a New York subway car, glancing at the riders as I settled into a seat. A homeless man slept in a corner; three skate rats hovered above him, snickering greasily. A few others read tabloids with Manhattan disinterest; an Orthodox wife corralled her squirming kids. Despite the varied scene, I was most interested in the man sitting across from me. He was roughly my age, and was intently reading a book. I looked away—then, with blasé nosiness, went back for the title: Bluebeard, by Kurt Vonnegut. The man was absorbed, no doubt reading it for the first time. I turned away again, mild jealousy creeping in. I wish I could do that, I thought.
I wished this not because Bluebeard is a great book—though it’s close, one of Vonnegut’s best late novels—but because it was a Vonnegut. It’s been years since I’ve read him, and in the weeks since that train ride, I’ve come to see how much his work once meant to me, and how much I miss it now.
I discovered Vonnegut, unoriginally enough, in college. In a small used bookstore, long since vanished, a row of hardcovers caught my eye. I knelt and came up with Breakfast of Champions. The title was written in tiny aqua type; underneath, much larger, was the author’s name, in an appealing Cooper font. The name “Kurt Vonnegut” was both familiar and intrinsically appealing: spiky, ugly, and elegant. As I flipped through, I found crude pen drawings—tombstones, cows, an asshole. In between were passages like this:
Sparky could not wag his tail—because of an automobile accident many years ago, so he had no way of telling other dogs how friendly he was. He had to fight all the time. His ears were in tatters. He was lumpy with scars.
The humanoids told Don that if he went home with a whore, she would cook him a meal of petroleum and coal products at fancy prices.
A dinosaur was a reptile as big as a choo-choo train.
It seemed sad and strange and new. I was in. I gave five dollars to the smiling elderly clerk, walked it home, and, splayed in my beer-stained beanbag chair, flew clean through it. As it turned out, I’d been right: Breakfast of Champions was crushingly sad, thoroughly strange, and unlike anything I’d read. It was anguished by our mindlessness, but laced with knowing glee. Despite its outraged pessimism, it was quite a lot of fun. I needed more.
I returned to the bookstore and made its Vonneguts mine. A different second-hand shop kept their KVs behind the counter, as liquor stores do with their best stuff. The books back there were more expensive, but I didn’t care. Could I have those? I asked. Yes, please. All of them.
Though I read other authors in the months that followed, Vonnegut was the magnetic core of my reading world. I jumped from the brilliant (Cat’s Cradle) to the good (Player Piano) to the blah (Jailbird) to the brilliant (God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater). I was troubled by Mother Night, addled by Slaughterhouse-Five. On a visit home, I found Hocus Pocus on my father’s shelf, and promptly stole it away. Even at their leanest, Vonnegut’s stories worked by wheeling massive concerns—annihilation, fate, the return of Jesus Christ—through bloated cartoon worlds. He hit the pleasure centers with sickening ease; the junk was strong. I read his short stories and essays, interviews and speeches; I painted an elaborate gouache portrait of him. I befriended a collector of “Vonnegut ephemera” who claimed to have been a character in Slapstick. I pushed the books on others, then fretted for their return. I read The Eden Express, his son’s psychosis memoir. And then, within a year or so of finding Breakfast of Champions, I was done. It had been like bingeing on mangoes.
In this way, Vonnegut’s virtuosity was its own detriment: having fallen so hard for his humor-glazed rage, I had no choice but to rip through everything. There are plenty of other authors who I’ve liked just as much—T.C. Boyle, say, or Michael Chabon—but with them, I’ve never felt the completist urge. Riven Rock, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and the rest have been set aside for the future. But Vonnegut disallowed such patience. Once I began, the existence of more fed a steady, low-grade mania.
It’s a testament to his skill that in the years since, I’ve never become embarrassed by that mania. There’s a tendency to disown one’s teenage enthusiasms, to feel that our supposed refinement has made us somehow wiser. To be sure, I’d rather sand off my nose than read Skinny Legs and All to the strains of Jethro Tull. But Vonnegut, though best-loved in the days of beanbag chairs and Escher prints, is different. Unlike Pirsig or Meddle or Jäger, he transcends the collegiate—too sternly pissed to be relegated to a rash and eager past.
So I’ve resolved to reread the man. I’ve taken my favorite Vonnegut novel, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, down from the shelf. To my surprise, having it so near has made me anxious, as if an ex-girlfriend has returned. Its tattered front cover is taped to the spine; its pages are flaky and tan. The back cover says that “Only recently has the general public become aware of his unique genius.” It’s old and frail, but its words remain pungent, tragic, insane:
“And then they tied me to a stake, burned me alive, and dumped my ashes into the nearest stream. As I say, I haven’t been back since.”
Not long ago my father emailed me a reading suggestion: Ayn Rand. He knew I was completing a book about the history of utopian thought – a project that stemmed from the fact that my father raised me on a street called Utopia Road – and he recognized Rand as falling within the constraints of the genre. He liked her, he said. He’d turned up his nose at her for fifty years, and regretted it. He claimed Rand’s utopian avatar, John Galt, reminded him of me.
I declined the suggestion. My father is an avid reader, but politically we’re nothing alike. He’s been trying to get me to read Ann Coulter and Liberal Fascism for years. I explained that I wasn’t likely to fall for Rand’s philosophy, and if he wanted to read a conservative utopia he should try Austin Tappan Wright’s Islandia. (Islandia’s “conservatism” dates from a few decades back, when conservatism wasn’t so far from conservation – it’s all about preservation of the local in the face of globalization.)
My father wasn’t quite ready to let it go. When my girlfriend and I visited a short time later, he pulled out a Rand book, and dared me to read just one paragraph – part of a paragraph! As it happens, that one tiny slice of prose demonstrated that Ayn Rand wasn’t utopian at all; she was something much worse.
And all of this matters because we now have a candidate for the senate who is not only a follower of Rand, but named for her.
Here’s the chunk of writing my father asked me to read, from an introduction to an anniversary edition of Atlas Shrugged.
Incidentally, a sideline observation: if creative fiction writing is a process of translating an abstraction into the concrete, there are three possible grades of such writing: translating an old (known) abstraction (theme or thesis) through the medium of old fiction means, (that is, characters, events or situations used before for that same purpose, that same translation) – this is most of the popular trash; translating an old abstraction through new, original fiction means – this is most of the good literature; creating a new, original abstraction, and translating it through new, original means. This, as far as I know, is only me – my kind of fiction writing.
I read this a couple times – you sort of have to; it’s terrible – and then I attacked it. “Incidentally, a sidelong observation:” is redundant, I said. So is “creative fiction writing.” Rand’s “if/then” lacks a “then,” and there’s no opportunity to challenge the premise that fiction makes the abstract concrete. Most would argue the opposite, if they even agreed to think about it in these terms. Ditto the suggestion that a thesis can or should be abstract. Too, the punctuation of the passage is more than bad – it’s actually attempting to beguile the reader. Heavy, complex thinking requires complicated punctuation, Rand wants us to think, so the presence of complicated punctuation must indicate that the meaning here is heavy and complex. Actually, it’s not.
And that’s about as far as I got before my father and I wound up not in a screaming match, exactly – but something more like a hissing match. We hissed because the things we said were so vile no even we wanted to give them full voice.
“You used to be a writer,” my father hissed. “Now you’re just an elitist.”
But, wait – writers are often elitists, aren’t they? Wasn’t he wrong in suggesting that you sacrifice the first in becoming the second? And anyway, wasn’t Ayn Rand being at least a little elitist in claiming that her fiction is the only fiction that says new things in a new way?
More than her redundancies or punctuation, that’s the problem – because her elitism is not earned. She’s not, in fact, saying new things in a new way. Even my father knew this. He thought of her as utopian, which means she was operating within the boundaries of an established tradition. And he liked the book because he recognized the ideas in it – they weren’t new either. Atlas Shrugged is “known” ideas delivered in a “known” way. By Rand’s definition it’s “popular trash,” which pretty well describes the book’s publishing history.
And that’s what throws Ayn Rand into such a peculiar light today, when her philosophy is perhaps closer than it’s ever been to achieving actual power.
It’s fashionable at the moment to conflate Glenn Beck, the Tea Party movement, and, now, Rand Paul. What’s not been discussed so far is the wide range of open religious sentiment apparent in all of these. Ayn Rand was a famous atheist. Glenn Beck is a curious and dangerous mélange of talking head and televangelist. And the Tea Party wants to regard the Constitution as sacred document.
There’s a reason they’re all in bed together.
In In Utopia I make the argument that extreme conservative utopias (everything from Theodore Hertzka’s Freeland to a range of twentieth century novels suggesting that the path to peace runs through holocaust) are not really utopias at all. Rather, they are reconciliations to an imperfect world. These “utopias” reject the idea that government or planning of any kind can make the world a better place. Much better is a policy of not planning, small government, the invisible arm of the market, social Darwinism as nature’s intent, and so forth. In short, no plan is a better plan.
Here’s why that’s not utopian: that’s how civilization started. When cities emerged, when people began to live in close quarters and form communities, no one had a plan for how they should proceed. The result was Athens, brimming with disease, filth, and crime. Utopian thought begins with Plato and Aristotle offering up improvements – visions of planned societies.
“It has justly been said,” Martin Buber wrote, “that in a positive sense every planning intellect is utopian.”
So why can’t planning for no plan also be a plan? Well, it sort of is – but it’s a plan that assumes chaos will produce a perfect order. Who emerges from the chaos? The elites. Whether it’s greed repackaged as laissez-faire or racism thinly disguised as exceptionalism, conservative “utopias” rationalize worlds where the better few get the most while the numerous many struggle with little. Anymore, who really believes this makes the world better?
These days, not-planning-as-plan isn’t even earnestly meant. Ayn Rand was recently the subject of a new biography, and what her life reveals is that she has a whole lot more in common with L. Ron Hubbard (her career as a screenwriter matches Hubbard’s as a sci-fi guy) than she does with Edward Bellamy, William Morris, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, or a host of earnest utopians who used an old literary genre to say some new things that did, in fact, make the world a better place.
It’s Hubbard that links Rand back to Beck and the Tea Party. They’re all fundamentalists of one kind or another, and they are the reason “utopia” is now largely synonymous with “scheme.” Like any false prophet, Rand must convince us that her message is new and true (when it’s old and false), and the fake sophistication of her language is as insidious as Glenn Beck’s alligator tears. These false utopians strive not to inspire action and progress, but to recruit followers. They found one in Ron Paul, and now we’re on to the second generation.
I’ll finish with the end of my own two-generation story.
After my father and I finished hissing at each other, my father, to his credit, agreed to read Islandia. I had to pester him by email a little, but he eventually ordered the book. A month passed before he wrote to say he’d loved it, every word, he ate it up – could I recommend more?
My heart swelled. This is what books – utopias or no – should do.
I’ve not heard back from my father since, but I have high hopes.
Back | 1. Note: Rand Paul himself has denied that he was formally named for Ayn Rand, so I’m taking some liberty here. He has claimed that he was named Randal at birth, went by Randy for much of his life, and his wife started calling him Rand. At the same time, he calls himself a “big fan” of Ayn Rand’s work, and admits that his father met the author. Rand Paul may not have been formally named for Rand, but his embrace of even a nickname amounts to an informal self-naming that is intended as homage – like a monk or a pope.
Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is one of the most adventurous books I have ever read—a “Holocaust novel” with a particular twist. When I was a child, there had been a lot of talk about a possible Jewish State in the wilderness of Alaska. And suddenly this Jewish State comes alive in Michael Chabon’s feverishly inventive mind, complete with a Jewish Philip Marlowe and a list of horrendous crimes that resembles the design of a diabolic chess master. I fell in love with the novel’s funny, relentless song.
I found some of the same music in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, a picaresque novel about an impossible future. A father and son wander this bleak landscape, trying to hold onto whatever little humanity they have left. It isn’t easy. They have to fight for some reason to survive. The book reminded me of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, where the Mississippi was another kind of road, and Huck and Jim are surrounded by every sort of varmint. But Huck survives through the force of his own poetry, and Jim’s. They form an unbreakable human web. And so do father and son in Cormac McCarthy’s fable about a world gone mad.
The International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award has unveiled its voluminous 2009 longlist. Recall that libraries around the world can nominate books for the prize, and these nominations, taken together, comprise the longlist. This year there are 146 novels on the list, nominated by 157 libraries in 41 countries. All of the books must have been published in English in 2007 (including translations).Because of the award’s global reach and egalitarian process, it’s always interesting to dig deeper into the longlist. Taken as a whole, the literary proclivities of various countries become evident, and a few titles recur again and again, revealing which books have made a global impact on readers.Overall favorites: books that were nominated by at least five libraries.A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (18 libraries representing Belgium, England, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, New Zealand, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland, Uganda, and the US)Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje (13 libraries representing Belgium, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Poland, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, and the US)On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (10 libraries representing Canada, the Czech Republic, England, Estonia, Germany, Portugal, The Netherlands, and the US)The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid (8 libraries representing Belgium, Canada, England, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, and the US)The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon (8 libraries representing Canada, England, and the US)The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (7 libraries representing Ireland and the US)The Gathering by Anne Enright (6 libraries representing Brazil, the Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland, and the US)What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn (5 libraries representing Canada, England, and Northern Ireland)You can also look at the list and see which books are favorites in different countries. Several books were nominated by multiple libraries in the same country. Here’s a few:In The Netherlands, The Dinner Club by Saskia Noort and Lost Paradise by Cees NooteboomIn the US, Tree of Smoke by Denis JohnsonIn Canada, Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay and The Outlander by Gil AdamsonThere were also several countries with only one library nominating just one or two books. Here are a few of those:From Colombia, Delirium by Laura RestrepoFrom Barbados, Man Gone Down by Michael ThomasFrom Estonia, Between Each Breath by Adam ThorpeFrom Jamaica, The Pirate’s Daughter by Margaret Cezair-ThompsonFrom Russia, Tomorrow by Graham SwiftFrom The Gambia, Ishq and Mushq by Priya BasilThe shortlist will be announced on April 2, 2009 and the winner on June 11, 2009.
A year and a half ago, when BEA was in New York, Max and I decided, against our better judgment, to attend a panel discussion on the fate of book reviewing. The headliner was the intellectual performance artist Christopher Hitchens. However, we both walked away more impressed by the grit, gravity, and grace of panelist John Leonard than we were by Hitch’s charming bloviations.I’d been reading Leonard’s “New Books” column in Harper’s for years, but I emerged from that panel with a more expansive sense of the man, and promptly dug into his essays of the 1970s and 1980s. Those were years when vernacular brio and moral seriousness were not mutually exclusive – when glibness wasn’t held in such high esteem. Like Pauline Kael, Leonard made criticism feel like a vital part of the American intellectual landscape.Moreover, Leonard was a fearless explorer (and often defender) of the new and the unconventional. To name but one example, his last essay for The New York Review of Books (on Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policeman’s Union) was a model of sympathetic inquiry.Leonard’s death last week, at age 69, is thus both a substantial loss and a reminder that the life of the mind still matters. Leonard was a great critic. He was also something nobler: a great reader. He will be missed.