On Tuesday night I felt briefly the old urge to find a book to deal with hard times, and took The Berlin Stories off the shelf. As is so often the case lately, the tug of my phone was stronger, and I left the book sitting on the floor after leafing through its pages. I was too jittery to do anything but scroll, and in any case the book was actually too grim for election night, both painful artifact and apparent harbinger of days to come. By its last lines, Christopher Isherwood is leaving Germany; his landlady Fr. Schroeder is inconsolable at his departure:
It’s no use trying to explain to her, or talking politics. Already she is adapting herself, as she will adapt herself to every new regime. This morning I even heard her talking reverently about ‘Der Führer,’ to the porter’s wife. If anybody were to remind her that, at the elections last November, she voted communist, she would probably deny it hotly, and in perfect good faith. She is merely acclimatizing herself, in accordance with a natural law, like an animal which changes its coat for the winter. Thousands of people like Frl. Schroeder are acclimatizing themselves. After all, whatever government is in power, they are doomed to live in this town.
When someone like Donald Trump is elected, I suspect that many writers are besieged with doubt about the novel’s utility as a tool of resistance. Events move quickly, and writing is slow. And even should writers have the ability to capture some aspect of the current moment with aching precision, passages like Isherwood’s remind us that they are often Cassandras, writing for a future that will marvel at how right they were and how little that rightness mattered.
But still as a society we persist in believing that there are “important books,” and certain texts keep reappearing. Although the fragility of our educational system and the degraded place of the humanities therein is reported everywhere, we still pay lip service, as a culture, to the idea that American children have to read important books to participate in society. So it seems fitting to look again at the Modern Library list, which is a very flawed, sometimes bizarre, distillation of the enshrining principle, but one filled with some wonderful books.
After the election I thought I’d revisit a work of prognostication based on the observed realities of the day, and I have been rereading Brave New World. The problem with reading dystopian political novels from the past is that you tend to try and match up the current circumstances with the implied prophecy of the novel. And on that count, nothing in Aldous Huxley’s novel comes close to the simple horror of Christopher Isherwood’s paragraph above. Huxley was looking ahead, past the interim nastiness of bloodshed that Isherwood recorded in real time — after “the explosion of the anthrax bombs” that is “hardly louder than the popping of a paper bag.” Huxley imagined the fait accompli: a single world order founded on an unholy marriage of capitalism and communism, with the stated mission of “Community, Identity, Stability” and drugs for all. There are many things that match up to the world today — consumerism, consumption — and many things that don’t; we have not yet discarded the family as a unit of social cohesion and significance, for example.
In a lot of ways Brave New World is a mess. It is now seen as an anti-science, anti-technicalization novel, but scholars have pointed out that it was in one sense an extension of Huxley’s own interest in “reform eugenics” at the time. It is deeply racist, and not only in its depiction of the Savage Reservation, which is speciously deployed to highlight the comparative vulgarity of the rest of the world: a trip to the movies, the ostensible height of this vulgarity, reveals “stereoscopic images, locked in on another’s arms, of a gigantic negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female.” It is also a deeply sexist book — one of the ostensible absurdities of the new world is women’s sexual and reproductive autonomy (hilariously, even in this utopia, contraception is the cumbersome responsibility of women, who have to carry it around in bandoliers). Whatever regrets Huxley had about the novel — and he describes some of them in his foreword to the 1946 reprint — they do not seem to have included those elements. Instead he notes the lack of world-annihilating weaponry in the book and the unforgiving choice it offers between “insanity on the one hand and lunacy on the other.” But despite its many shortcomings as a work of art, as a work of prophecy, a work of moral vision, the book retains power.
I have been thinking as a consequence about what power means in a literary context. I don’t know how the novelists at the height of their game and fame feel about their professions, but most aspiring novelists have an internalized sense of skepticism about the pursuit. Writers are not assigned high value in a capitalist society, and among writers other harmful hierarchies assert themselves — these are being tested and negotiated, the hard work, as is inevitably the case, being done by the writers who are working against the odds, rather than those enjoying their favor.
There is one view by which we might say that Brave New World only stays so high in our collective cultural estimation because it is itself a reflection of the racism and sexism and classism that we continue to uphold, and which enabled us to elect Donald Trump. This is a more revolutionary viewpoint than I’m prepared to accept wholeheartedly, no doubt due to my own social conditioning (as Huxley might put it). I don’t want to throw this novel away, only to understand why it works, or doesn’t. I have to believe that novels are important not just because I like them, but because they contribute something irreplaceable to the historical record, both as objects of testimony and objects of study.
We talk often about writing as an act of radical empathy, but I’d like to posit that Brave New World, and many novels that have endured, have been less about empathy than they have been about disdain. Disdain is empathy’s evil and more efficient twin, both borne of close observation. Novels that consider individual reactions to events must be empathetic. But any novelist who wishes to depict society must harness disdain in order to make the depiction stick for the long term.
Brave New World falls apart at the end, because its measure of empathy did not match its measure of disdain in a plotline — the “savage meeting civilization” — that required it. It is telling that Huxley’s women are never granted the interiority of his men. But where the novel is strong and memorable, it is so because its author used pointed observations of his own society to depict a future world and the ways that people behaved therein. The unforgettable opening tour of the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre — what volumes it speaks about the existing hierarchies of class and race as Huxley saw them. How well he captures the misfit characters, with a disdain clearly rooted in self-identification — Bernard Marx, whose “chronic fear of being slighted made him avoid his equals, made him stand, where his inferiors were concerned, self-consciously on his dignity.” Or Hemholtz Watson, the “Escalator-Squash champion, this indefatigable lover (it was said that he had had six hundred and forty different girls in under four years), this admirable committee man and best mixer” who realizes “quite suddenly that sport, women, communal activities were only, so far as he was concerned, second bests.”
Satire is the romping ground of disdain, but by no means is it its only province. Many of the books that appear on the Modern Library list are disdainful. Native Son is disdainful. The Age of Innocence is disdainful. Midnight’s Children. Invisible Man. Main Street. 1984. And disdain is alive in literature today. Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which, arguments about its quality raging in The Millions comments notwithstanding, seems on its way to becoming a seminal American text, begins:
This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything. Never cheated on my taxes or at cards. Never snuck into the movies or failed to give back the extra change to a drugstore cashier indifferent to the ways of mercantilism and minimum-wage expectations. I’ve never burgled a house. Held up a liquor store. Never boarded a crowded bus or subway car, sat in a seat reserved for the elderly, pulled out my gigantic penis and masturbated to satisfaction with a perverted, yet somehow crestfallen, look on my face.
Elena Ferrante’s immersive novels are empathetic as hell, but they are also full of disdain: “I told him that I intended to take the Pill in order not to have children…he made a complicated speech about sex, love, and reproduction.” Claudia Rankine’s prose-poetry in Citizen disdains: “The real estate woman, who didn’t fathom she could have made an appointment to show her house to you, spends much of the walk-through telling your friend, repeatedly, how comfortable she feels around her.”
I have to believe that literature can be a weapon of a sort — it explodes comfort even while it delivers comfort; it reveals hypocrisy in a way that the mere presentation of facts often cannot. And I’m beginning to think it is disdain that most effectively weaponizes a novel.
So now what? In a society that does not assign significant value to writing, any writing can feel like an act of resistance. And for some people that is the case. But I’m a white American woman, and I cannot pretend my writing, driven most days by a peculiar combination of self-loathing and self-regard, is a truly revolutionary act. This is not to consign the lived experience of women to irrelevance — that tendency was one factor in the election of a self-identified sexual predator. But we cannot weaponize literature if our only goal is mapping the territories of the individual, without simultaneously looking keenly at the world in which the individual was formed — and without disdaining the world that would make Frl. Schroeders of us. White American writers cannot leave the vast work of (consciously, intentionally) documenting white supremacy — that which brought Donald Trump to the White House — at the feet of the writers who are harmed by it.
People who understand political movements better than I do can parse the specific ideologies Huxley employed to prophesy about state and social power, and whether he was right or wrong. For me, it is the novel’s endurance as a literary touchstone that is intriguing now, and what it might say about power in art. We need empathy more than ever, yes, on the one-on-one, human-to-human level. But empathy for the aggregate was not useful in this election, and we cannot count on it from the politicians who will troop into the White House in January. Trump voters who don’t believe they are bigots assured themselves that it was his business empire or his placid and beautiful daughter that qualified him for the office. But his real credential was his rhetoric. The man will say anything, and he said it, and it won him the election. Somehow, fiction must reflect our disdain.
This July, I published my first novel, An Innocent Fashion, the story of a queer, biracial millennial who spirals into a depression after landing his dream job at a fashion magazine. The book was aptly pitched as “The Bell Jar meets The Devil Wears Prada” — with one foot firmly in each of both the “literary” and “commercial” realms. Yet the latter half of this equation proved the source of a major frustration. Specifically, I was self-conscious about other people’s biases against fashion, the commercial (read: “unserious”) theme on which my whole novel pivoted. In interviews I downplayed the fashion element over and over, explaining that despite being set in the office of a fashion magazine, the book was complex, using fashion to explore deeper societal issues.
Part of my preoccupation with “seriousness” came with the territory of being a first-time author; I yearned to be well-respected, considered “good enough” for one’s work to count as capital-L Literature. But the other part stemmed from a truth I’d been fighting from a young age: that fashion, which I had been passionate about from a young age, was not a very serious or important subject.
I grew up within a tight-knit Cuban family in Miami, surrounded by traditional values including the sharp distinction between male and female gender roles. As do many others, I learned that fashion was “for girls,” the subtext being that as it was somehow lesser — a frivolity. Personally, I didn’t see why fashion should be considered inherently more trivial than any other form of creative expression — writing, for instance, or fine art. I maintained that fashion’s unfair reputation was a reflection of my conservative environment. But even as an undergraduate at liberal-minded Yale, where intelligent peers sometimes expressed a heady disregard for the sartorial sphere, the effects of an entrenched bias were still evident. Others didn’t think as highly about fashion as I did; everywhere I went, fashion was considered frivolous.
Many books that embraced fashion as subject matter seemed to confirm and perpetuate this notion. As far as I could tell, fashion-oriented books fell primarily into the category of chick lit — juicy reads like Confessions of a Shopaholic and Bergdorf Blonds, in which “fashion” was a code word for the same kind of guilty pleasures afforded by junk food and reality TV. Of course, the biggest phenomenon in this league was The Devil Wears Prada.
Because like the author of Prada, I too had been a fashion assistant when I wrote my book, Prada had made for an inevitable comparison to An Innocent Fashion from the start. But unlike my book, however, in which even the least likable characters defy overarching stereotypes, Prada devotes 360 pages (and the film equivalent, two hours) to driving home the idea that fashion is not only frivolous, but also, inexplicably, “bad” — and that the people who love it are some inevitable combination of mean, superficial, and/or stupid. Aspiring to a career in”serious” journalism — the protagonist Andy Sachs paints an unanimously damning picture of her colleagues: nasty, brutish, and dagger-heeled.
The result of this reductive portrayal of the fashion industry is that pithy stereotypes remain unchallenged — a missed opportunity.
After all, it wasn’t always this way. If, in many realms, fashion has had an unfair reputation as a shallow womanly diversion, in literature it was put to use by some of our most important authors.
Consider Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in which, after her husband’s death, she can’t bear to throw away his shoes, which she compares to vital organs: “How could he come back if they took away his organs, how could he come back if he had no shoes?” There’s Sylvia Plath, whose novel The Bell Jar paints a portrait of a woman on the verge of losing her sanity, while working for the fictional equivalent of Mademoiselle in the ’50s. While the superficial magazine goings-on provoke the main character’s despair as she realizes her powerlessness to resist her destiny as a wife/mother/homemaker, she is frequently transfixed in earnest by the beauty of clothes and shoes, and “a whole life of marvelous, elaborate decadence that attracted me like a magnet” — making her relationship to fashion complex and real. In Edith Wharton’s society novels, corsetry and ruffles help Wharton make elegant, searing criticisms of class and gender inequality (“If I were shabby no one would have me,” says Lily Bart in The House of Mirth, “a woman is asked out as much for her clothes as for herself”) — while who could forget the meaningful implications of fashion in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or The Great Gatsby, or Gone with the Wind?
Contemporary books touting fashion as subject matter rarely, if ever, offer such depth or complexity, while those that revolve around fashion magazines nearly always feature a cast made up exclusively of privileged white women. This perhaps more than anything is what I hoped would distinguish my novel. Given the precedent set by annals of homogeneously populated chick lit, the main character isn’t who you’d expect. He’s a person of color, queer, and the opposite of rich — an outsider named Ethan for whom the glamour of fashion represents the inaccessibility of the American dream. In the Prada-sphere, Ethan would surely be reduced to a stock character — most likely, a white woman’s sassy gay best friend.
The need for nuanced representations of fashion in fiction has never been greater. Fashion offers a unique lens to view some of the most important issues of our time: class, gender, race, and sexuality. Depictions of fashion in literature can and should reflect that, providing new ways to engage with the dialogue of human progress, challenging our ideas about society and personal identity. These goals, after all, are at the heart of literature and fashion alike.
See Also: Clothes in Books and Ways to go Wrong
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
As if to mark the new year, or as if preemptively depressed by the brutal lows and snows of the months to come, our thermostat suffered a nervous breakdown in the first weeks of 2015. The new normal was 63 degrees Fahrenheit. I’d wake before dawn, put on long johns, pants, fleece, and hat, and sit down at my desk, between north-facing windows, trying to start something new. The phrase “rough draft” took on a new meaning. As did the phrase “starting cold.” By noon — an interval during which I’d moved only to shower and take the kids to school and re-wrap myself in a horse blanket — my fingers and nose were phantom appendages. Looking back on this now, though, I feel a surge of warmth. Why? Because every afternoon, after a late lunch, I’d fire up the space heater in the living room and sprawl in a patch of sun and return to an imagined Italy.
I’d begun Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels with a rationing plan: one volume for each season of the year, to culminate with the publication of the fourth and final installment in September. But a week after I finished Volume 1, that plan went all to hell. More than Lila and Lenù (heroines, antagonists, entangled particles), I missed the volcanic energy they generated together. Nothing else I tried to read seemed quite as vivid. So I dipped into Volume 2 — just a few pages, I told myself. And then when I reached the end, I didn’t even pretend to wait to begin Volume 3. At various times, in the empty house, I caught myself talking back to the page. “Wake up, Lenù!” “Don’t open that door!” “Oh, no, she didn’t!” Oh, yes, she did.
The only not-fun part of binge-reading the Neapolitan series was running out of pages before the end — which, by mid-February, I had. I felt like Wile E. Coyote, having raced out over a canyon, legs still churning, but with nothing left beneath. Eventually, I found a different kind of escape: Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, a dreamy 19th-century Russian novel where, basically, nothing happens. Rather than distract me from my snowbound state, this novel seemed to mirror it. For the first 100 pages, Oblomov, our hero, can’t even get out of bed. He’s an archetype of inanition, a Slavic Bartleby, but with a gentleness of spirit that’s closer to The Big Lebowski. He falls in love, screws it up, gets rooked by friends and enemies…and hardly has to change his dressing gown.
Sufficiently cooled from Ferrante fever, I moved on to Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights, from 1979. I’ve taught (and admired) Hardwick’s essays, but was somehow unprepared for this novel. Fans often mention it in the company of Renata Adler’s Speedboat and Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays, with which it shares a jagged, elliptical construction and a quality of nervy restraint. But where the fragments of Adler and Didion suggest (for me, anyway), a kind of schizoid present-tense, Hardwick’s novel is as swinging and stately as a song by her beloved Billie Holiday, ringing “glittering, somber, and solitary” changes from remembered joy and pain.
As the glaciers beyond my windows melted to something more shovel-ready, I began to fantasize about a piece called “In Praise of Small Things.” At the top of the list, along with the Hardwick, would go Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams, the story of a Western railroad worker around the turn of the last century. I’m still a sucker for full, Ferrante-style immersion (favorite Westerns include The Border Trilogy, Lonesome Dove, and A Fistful of Dollars), but to deliver an entire life in a single sitting, as Johnson does, seems closer to magic than to art. Train Dreams is just about perfect, in the way only a short novel can be.
Then again, I also (finally) tackled The Satanic Verses this year, and caught myself thinking that perfection would have marred it. The book is loose, ample, brimful — at times bubbling over with passion. Another way of saying this is that it’s Salman Rushdie’s most generous novel. The language is often amazing. And frankly, that the fatwa now overshadows the work it meant to rub out is a compound injustice; many of the novel’s most nuanced moments, its most real and human moments, involve precisely those issues of belief and politics and belonging Rushdie was accused of caricaturing. Also: the shaving scene made me cry.
Though by that point spring had my blood up. Maybe that’s why I was so ready for Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard. Or maybe it was the return to Italy. Either way, this turned out to be one of the most beautiful novels I’ve ever read. As with Hardwick, the mode is elegy, but here all is expansion, sumptuousness, texture: the fading way of life of an endearingly self-regarding 19th-century aristocrat, ambered in slow, rich prose (in Archibald Colquhoun’s translation): “In a corner the gold of an acacia tree introduced a sudden note of gaiety. Every sod seemed to exude a yearning for beauty soon muted by languor.” And by the time I finished, gardens were blooming and buzzing around me, too.
I woke the morning after our Fourth of July party to find that a guest had left a gift: Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, Mary Norris’s memoir of life in the copy department of The New Yorker. We headed to the beach, on the theory that saltwater is an antidote to hangover. But I ended up spending most of the afternoon on a towel, baking, giggling, geeking out over grammar and New Yorker trivia. What kind of magazine keeps a writer this engaging in the copy department? I wondered. On the other hand: what are the odds that a grammarian this scrupulous would be such a freewheeling confidante?
I don’t think of myself as a memoir guy, but (appetite whetted by the Comma Queen), I ran out a few weeks later to buy a brand new copy of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days — a book I’d been waiting to read since first encountering an excerpt a decade ago. Finnegan is a brilliant reporter, and the core material here — his life of peripatetic adventuring in the 1970s — seems, as material goes, unimprovable. Around it, he builds a narrative that is at once meticulously concrete and wonderfully, elusively metaphorical. Even if you don’t know or care about surfing, the whole thing starts to seem like some kind of parable. Which may be true of most good sports writing…
And speaking of brilliant reporting: in early August, I plucked a copy of David Simon and Ed Burns’s The Corner from the giveaway pile on someone’s stoop. It’s exhaustive — almost 600 pages, and none of the broad strokes, in 2015, should come as news. Yet its account of individual struggle and systemic failure in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore is nonetheless enraging, because so little seems to have changed since the book’s publication in 1997. I found myself wanting to send a copy to every newsroom in the country. Here on the page are causes; there in the paper years later, effects.
It would take a week of vacation and newspaper-avoidance in Maine to remind me of how urgent fiction can be, too — or of the value of the different kind of news it brings. I read A Sport and a Pastime. I read Double Indemnity. I read The House of Mirth. And I fell into — utterly into — Javier Marías’s A Heart So White. This novel has some similarities with The Infatuations, which I wrote about last year; Marías works from a recipe (one part Hitchcock-y suspense, one part Sebaldian fugue, one part sly humor) that sounds, on paper, like a doomed thought experiment. Yet somehow every time I read one of his novels, I feel lit up, viscerally transfixed. And A Heart So White is, I think, a masterpiece.
This October, I published a novel. And I came to suspect that prepub jitters had been shaping both my reading and my writing all year, from those cold dark starts in January to my lean toward nonfiction in the summer. Anyway, some admixture of vacation and publication (the phrase “release date” takes on a whole new meaning) seemed to cleanse the windows of perception, because I spent most of the fall catching up on — and enjoying — recent books I’d missed. Preparation for the Next Life, for example, was love at fist page; if you’d told me Atticus Lish was another of Don DeLillo’s pseudonyms, like Cleo Birdwell, I wouldn’t have batted an eyelash. Yet an eccentric and (one feels) highly personal sense of the particular and the universal colors the prose, and Lish doesn’t let sentimentalism scare him away from sentiment. His milieu of hardscrabble immigrants and natives jostling in Flushing, Queens, feels both up-to-the-minute and likely to endure. Someone should Secret-Santa a copy to Donald Trump.
Another contemporary novel I loved this fall was actually more of a novella — another small, good thing. Called Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it’s the first published work of fiction by a young Englishman named Max Porter. It follows a father of two through the year after the death of his wife. The chapters are compressed, poetic vignettes that evoke the chimera of grief through suggestion and indirection. And then, more evocative still: the arrival of a giant, metempsychotic raven straight out of Ted Hughes’s Crow. You quickly forget that the book is weird as hell, because it is also beautiful as hell, moving as hell, and funny as hell.
In late October, I got to spend a week in the U.K., and decided to pack London Fields. A boring choice, I know, but I’d been shuttling from here to there for a few weeks, and needed to be pinned down in some specific, preferably Technicolor, place. London Fields didn’t let me down. The metafictional schema shouldn’t work, but does. And more importantly, a quarter century after its publication (and 15 years on from the pre-millennial tension it depicts), the prose still bristles, jostles, offends freely, shoots off sparks. The picture of the world on offer is bleak, yes. Yet in surprise, in pleasure, in truthfulness, almost every sentence surpasses the last. This book is now my favorite Martin Amis. I wouldn’t trade it for love or Money.
As synchronicity goes, M Train on a plane may not quite match London Fields in London, but Patti Smith’s new book remains one of the best reading experiences I had this year. Like Grief Is the Thing with Feathers, it is elliptical and fragmentary, weird and beautiful, and, at its core, a reckoning with loss. Much has been made of the book’s seeming spontaneity, its diaristic drift. But as the echoes among its discrete episodes pile up, it starts to resonate like a poem. At one point, Smith writes about W.G. Sebald, and there are affinities with The Emigrants in the way M Train circles around a tragedy, or constellation of tragedies, pointing rather than naming. It is formally a riskier book than the comparatively straight-ahead Just Kids, but a worthy companion piece. And that Patti Smith is still taking on these big artistic dares in 2015 should inspire anyone who longs to make art. In this way, and because it is partly a book about reading other books — how a life is made of volumes— it seems like a fitting way to turn the page on one year in reading, and to welcome in another.
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