When I think back on my reading life to date, there are maybe a couple dozen writers who stand out from the rest as the true friends of my mind: Woolf, Bellow, Proust, Dostoevsky…And the weird thing is that none of these—well, none except the poets—were love at first sight. I remember staring blankly at the first page of DeLillo’s Mao II at 15, when I still believed I was a poet myself. I remember struggling with the Constance Garnett version of The Brothers Karamazov by our apartment-complex pool the summer after freshman year of college, before switching translations and falling into it utterly. And I remember (this is embarrassing) tripping over the sprung rhythms of the opening of Augie March and being like, this is what all the fuss is about?
The experience of suddenly gaining new ears for an author is one I can perhaps best compare to the effortless French fluency I sometimes achieve in dreams. Or to the way Douglas Adams described the workings of the Babelfish in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. One minute, I’m bumbling along with furrowed brow, nodding in feigned comprehension, Oui, bien sûr, the beach is which way again?; the next minute, the barriers melt and I’m immersed in a clear sea.
And this is the experience I had this year with the late Canadian genius Mavis Gallant—which is odd, because I already liked Mavis Gallant. In fact, I recommended her anthology Paris Stories in this space a couple years back. Some time in June, frustrated with much of the new fiction I was reading, I picked up the companion volume Varieties of Exile, confident that I at least knew what I was getting: a certain standard of craftsmanship. What I found instead was rapture. In the wry, daring, tender, and ruthless prose of stories like “The Chosen Husband” and “The Concert Party,” I was suddenly hearing secret harmonies. How many such stories had Gallant published in her lifetime? I decided I had to read them all, post-haste.
I turned to her Collected Stories, an 850-page feast recently reissued by Everyman’s Library. Starting with the pieces published in The New Yorker around what seemed her annus mirabilis, 1979, I read my way forward and backward with growing astonishment: “In The Tunnel,” “The Pegnitz Junction,” “An Alien Flower,” “Potter”… the stories only got deeper, richer, funnier, sadder. I limited myself to one a day, so that each would have time to steep in the back of my brain; soon, my daily hour with Mavis Gallant became the thing I most looked forward to. From “The Remission,” possibly the greatest of Gallant’s stories:
“When it became clear that Alec Webb was far more ill than anyone had cared to tell him, he tore up his English life and came down to die on the Riviera. The time was early in the reign of the new Elizabeth, and people were still doing this—migrating with no other purpose than the hope of a merciful sky.”
Collected Stories was the best book I read all year—one of the best works of fiction I’ve ever read—and as the remaining pages dwindled, I began to feel the sadness of impending loss; never again, barring amnesia, would I get to read these stories for the first time. Happily, Collected Stories turns out to be a wild misnomer; by July, I’d found an equal number of Gallant’s masterpieces lurking in unconscionably obscure volumes like My Heart Is Broken, Home Truths, and The Other Paris; on microfilm at the NYPL; and in the anthology of “uncollected work” The Cost of Living. Nearing now the true end of the Gallant oeuvre, I felt as if certain engines of perception had been restored to their factory settings; even books plucked from the New Release shelf at the bookstore carried a Gallant-like charge of clarity and depth. Or perhaps, afraid to break the spell, I began choosing them more carefully.
I found myself loving, for example, Max Porter’s short novel Lanny, with its tender English domesticity and bursts of wild, magic-realist collage. And Amit Chaudhuri’s Friend of My Youth, an easygoing autofiction of Mumbai life that stealthily opens into something deeper (like all of Chaudhuri, really). And Sergio De La Pava’s Lost Empress, the daft and incendiary follow-up to A Naked Singularity, centering on mass incarceration, Joni Mitchell, and an off-brand football team called the Paterson Pork. I loved, at length and for the record, Ben Lerner’s third novel, The Topeka School. And much of Ocean Vuong’s debut, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous.
Cautiously, I turned this polyamorousess, or mania, or whatever it was, to some older fiction I’d been meaning to start or finish for a while now. The problems with Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow are well-documented, and probably inevitable—the whole thing is told backward, for God’s sake—but in my state of generalized receptivity, I found myself marveling more at its eclipsed discoveries (that guilt is the corollary not of sin but of fear; that suicide is impossible in reverse). One could certainly point out problems with Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, too—it’s no one’s idea of tightly constructed—but I found the narrator’s lusty openness to happenstance so vital and persuasive and charming that I went ahead and read The Black Album, too. Charmed isn’t quite the right word for what I felt about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s A Time for Everything; its longeurs put even My Struggle to shame. But having set it aside a couple years ago, I now pushed on to one of the strangest and most indelible conclusions in literature.
It is only by comparison with Knausgaard that Vivian Gornick’s intense memoir Fierce Attachments can be called a palate-cleanser—it will haunt you, too. But this is a flawless piece of writing, born of a kind of intoxicating New York astringency I associate with Renata Adler, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Paula Fox. (What a pleasure it would be to teach a class on these four writers.)
I should say, in the interest of accuracy, that all was not totally hopeless before my Summer of Mavis Gallant, though the best books I read in the first part of 2019 were mostly classics, consecrated by time, or satellite works orbiting around them. Some years ago, a publisher from the Netherlands gave me a list of her country’s greatest novelists, and this spring I finally got aroud to reading Max Havelaar by Multatuli (a.k.a. Eduard Douwes Dekker). I had thought of it as a proto-muckracking work about the evils of the 19th-century coffee trade—the thing it’s famous for—but Multatuli is also an extraordinary writer and literary architect, hurling thunderbolts of satirical and polyphonic prose, as much Sergio De La Pava as Ida B. Wells. Encouraged, I decided to try W.F. Hermans as well, mainly because his just-translated war novella An Untouched House, from 1951, was shorter than Gerhard Reve’s The Evenings. I was pleasantly surprised to find Hermans’s writing beautiful and devastating as well as misanthropically furious—the thing he’s famous for.
And then, wrapping up an introduction to Henrik Pontoppidan’s Lucky Per, I picked up Niels Lhyne, by Pontoppidan’s fellow Dane and rough contemporary Jens Peter Jacobsen. The fact that I’d been barely aware of it seems insane to me now, both because Niels Lhyne forced a reassessment of my maps and calendars of literary modernism and because of the insane beauty of Jacobsen’s sentences (in Tiina Nunally’s exquisite translation.) Wanting to know more, I read the young critic Morton Høi Jensen’s 2017 book on Jacobsen, A Difficult Death, and found it a wonderful tutorial, in the vein of Janet Malcolm’s book on Chekhov. This reminded me in turn of how much I love the genre of popular criticism, and sent me toward David Bellos’s The Novel of the Century: The Extraordinary Adventure of Les Misérables—far more worth your time than the borderline-unwatchable BBC remake of Les Mis with Phil Collins’s daughter and McNulty from The Wire.
This was a wonderful year for new criticism as well (shout-out to James Wood’s essay on Pontoppidan, and to Patricia Lockwood’s incandescent rereading of Updike in the LRB). I’ll admit to having lumped Jia Tolentino’s New Yorker pieces in with some of the more fleeting hot takes that seem to have crept into that magazine via its website. But in August, as I traveled up to Maine for vacation, a friend urged me to give Tolentino’s Trick Mirror a chance, starting with the essay on ecstasy. I’m grateful for the advice. Tolentino’s decision to write nine original pieces for this book, rather than recycling from the magazine, is a sign of courageous seriousness—and serious courage. Moreover, Tolentino is a gifted memoirist and a brilliant reader, and her take on our digitally damaged culture, however warmly felt, is also about as definitive as we’re likely to get at present. I found a similar balance of thinking and feeling in the criticism of the poet Hanif Abdurraqib, which I’d started reading a few months earlier. There are some gems tucked into the gallimaufry They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, but his book-length essay on A Tribe Called Quest, Go Ahead in the Rain, seems to push the whole genre of music writing forward.
Of the narrative nonfiction I read this year, only Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe’s tremendous account of Ireland’s Troubles, counts as new, strictly speaking. But the lowercase troubles depicted in Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside, Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, and Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers remain urgent news, and I’d recommend any of these without reservation, not least for the effortless way they smuggle analysis into their storytelling. I’d also put in a plug for Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop Won’t Stop, neither narrative nor criticism, exactly, but all in all the Lipstick Traces of hip-hop.
Back to Mavis Gallant, though, through whom my whole year in reading flowed. I finished the last unread piece of her writing, the novel Green Water, Green Sky, on the first day of that vacation in Maine. For an encore, I went with a friend to the nearby house of Marguerite Yourcenar, whom Gallant had praised in her wonderful essay “Limpid Pessimist.” Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian had been stalled out for years now in the lower hundreds of my to-read list, but the experience of walking through her study, browsing her bookshelves, and of Gallant’s beneficent influence on my reading more generally, meant that I would give it another look. I found it as advertised: a singular masterpiece, an almost spooky inhabitation of the Roman imagination.
And then I turned to The Bluest Eye, in memory of Toni Morrison, one of the very first friends of my mind, whose writing had in a very real sense, made a novelist of me. It had been years since I’d read her, and I felt a little trepidation. How real were they, really, these ecstasies and deep sympathies? Was it possible they were just figments of my own imagination, like my ability to speak flawless French? Or of someone else’s, like the Babelfish? Or something in between?
“Nuns go by as quiet as lust, and drunken men and sober eyes sing in the lobby of the Greek hotel. Rosemary Villanucci, our next-door fried who lives above her father’s café, sits in a 1939 Buck eating bread and butter.”
Nope. I can’t begin to understand, much less explain, what these lines do to me, but as we turn the collective page into 2020, I feel certain it doesn’t get any realer than that.
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After his first collection of short stories and a novel were commercial failures, Yann Martel surprised the world with Life of Pi, the best-selling phenomenon that won him the Man Booker Prize in 2002. He then took a break from fiction for almost a decade, focussing on a letter-writing campaign to then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, during which Martel sent Harper a book every fortnight along with an explanation of why the PM should read it. In 2010 Martel published his third novel, the much-anticipated Beatrice and Virgil, which divided critics and audiences with its allegorical take on the Holocaust.
Now, with The High Mountains of Portugal, Martel revisits familiar themes like faith and grief, traveling surprising territory. If Martel has made a career out of anything, it is upsetting expectations, and this is an unexpected book, comprising three separate stories that span the 20th century and cover everything from the dawn of the motor vehicle to theosophical musings on Jesus and Agatha Christie, connected by the unlikely device of chimpanzee biology.
The Millions caught up with Martel in Waterstone’s bookstore in Manchester, England, during the U.K. leg of his book tour for a conversation as wide-ranging as his novels, covering Jesus, animal husbandry, and J.M. Coetzee’s one bad novel.
TM: This book has had quite a long gestation period. It was the book you were trying to write when you went to India, where you ending up writing Life of Pi. This book is kind of about family and homecoming — do you think you were too young to write the book at that time, that you had to become a father in order to write it?
YM: Hmm…I hadn’t thought of that actually. Not that I’m aware of. Because I also started working on a novel that’s set in Portugal in my early-20s when I was at university. And there I couldn’t do it just because I was too immature. I didn’t know how to tell a story. I just had ideas, I had these little cards all over the wall full of ideas. And at that time the story had a talking dog. I had other characters too, but it just wasn’t working. I couldn’t actually start writing paragraph after paragraph telling a story with these little notes on the wall. And then the same thing happened in India. I had all kinds of elements. I had characters. I had a senator, as I do in the book now, but in that version he was addicted to electricity exactly like you would be to a drug. So there were elements, but it didn’t come together. It’s only after my last novel, Beatrice and Virgil, that it somehow all came together. But I hadn’t thought of fatherhood…That might be, but I’m not sure. I just finally came of age that I could write the book.
TM: But it sounds like it’s a completely different book than it would have been.
YM: Yeah, well…Animals, crucifixes, Portugal, you know, those sort of remain. But you’re right, the Agatha Christie stuff is completely new, the pathology stuff too.
TM: In this version, the predominant animal in the book is the chimpanzee.
YM: Yes, there’s a chimpanzee each in each of the three parts, but in a different form. In the first it’s, to use that old academic term, reified. In the second part it’s sort of an imaginary chimpanzee in someone’s body. And then in the last part there’s a real one. My idea was: what are the three kinds of relationships we have with faith?
TM: When I think of a chimpanzee I think about Charles Darwin, evolution, the Scopes Monkey Trial – science, basically. Whereas, you’re subverting that and using the chimpanzee as a religious image.
YM: Yes, I chose the chimpanzee precisely because of its Darwinian associations. I definitely used it in that context: that chimps are incredibly close to us, but not. You know, we share 97 percent of our genetic material. I wanted something that would be uncomfortably close, so close enough that we can see a kinship, but far enough that if you put it on a crucifix you’d be outraged. You’d see that there’s a traditional disconnect between putting a chimpanzee on a cross. So I wanted something that would hark to that 19th-century discovery that suddenly brought animals close to us. Because it’s interesting if you look at the history of Christianity, as opposed to other religions, other religions have a lot of animals in them. Christianity is typified by a complete absence of animals. Well, look at the Old Testament — it’s full of animals. The New Testament there’s far less of them. Literally far fewer mentioned. They are purely symbolic — the lamb of God, the fish as a symbol for Jesus. That has nothing to do with fish or lambs. They’re purely symbolic.
And then Darwin comes in brilliantly and suddenly says “You know these things that you’ve completely forgotten, that you thought were automatons with no souls, no feelings? Actually they’re a lot closer to us, they’re cousins.” And he brings them really right close up to us and I wanted one of the ones that was brought closest to us, which was the greater apes. So you’re right, it’s exactly because of that play with Darwin.
But it was also interesting to me, if you had a chimpanzee on a cross, as they ask themselves in the novel, does that reduce Jesus? Or does it elevate creation? To me it’s ambiguous, one of those ambiguities I wanted to let rest with the reader. Or, since Jesus is supposed to be God made human, that means a chimpanzee is 97 percent human-like, and therefore 97 percent Jesus-like. So there’s a divine echo. And, as I’ve said in a few interviews now, I find that fits also because if you read about religious figures, or any number of wise people, they have a sense of presence. There’s a very strong sense in religious figures that they are right here, right now, really imbued in the present moment. So when Jesus talks to a leper he’s fully addressing that leper, his full divinity is there and the leper is completely stunned. That extraordinary sense of presence is a very animal-like quality. Animals have a very strong sense of presence. Your dog, your cat, when it looks at you, all it’s thinking about is the present moment. They are trapped, in a sense, in the present. They have memory, of course, but it’s a kind of memory that is only triggered for purposes of usefulness. So, you come into the room it remembers you, therefore it interacts with you. But it’s only looked at in the present moment. And animals have no capacity to entertain the future. So, in a funny way, Jesus has a very animal-like quality, and animals have a very Jesus-like quality. And the ones who are in between those two extremes are us, who have such a difficult time being in the present. We are constantly worried about the past, and dealing with our past, in a very self-aware way, in a very unconscious way too. And we’re always worried about the future. We’re worried about climate change, and then we’re worried about what our mothers did to us when we were young. And it’s a present moment that seems the one that slips by unnoticed, even though it’s the only one that actually exists.
How’s that for a long-winded answer? I can’t even remember what your question was.
TM: [Laughs.] No, it’s great! I was going to say it reminded me of something Richard Dawkins often says when he’s asked about the relationship between humans and animals. He brings up this image of all of the missing links between humans and chimpanzees, standing in evolutionary order: each would be able to mate with the one next to it on either side and produce offspring, so at what point along the line do you mark the cut-off between human and animal? And you’re kind of extending that: chimpanzee, to human, to God.
YM: Absolutely, to divine figures. To me, it’s funny, it’s clearly more than just a quantitative break with the great apes; it is qualitative. The fact that we share 97-point-something of our genetic material is remarkable. But, that two-point-whatever-it-is difference is like the difference between butterscotch pudding and chocolate pudding. They’re mostly similar, but the key ingredient makes all the difference between chocolateness and butterscotchness.
That’s why I always find animals are carriers of an ineffable mystery. If you look in the eyes of a gorilla or of a chimpanzee, it is vaguely troubling because you do get a sense that there’s some sort of contemplation taking place there. There’s some sort of rudimentary brain thinking, emoting…Emoting in a way that’s more self-reflective, than your average animals emoting. You know, there’s a sense in the higher apes that there’s a kind of proto-thinking. And I just find that like…Wow! Why do we have so much intelligence? We have such aggressive intelligence, and it’s not doing us any good. We’re destroying our planet; we’re throwing things completely off-balance. Whereas the gorilla lives in stasis with nature in a state of balance. So they have just enough intelligence. Like all animals, they’re just intelligent enough to survive. We clearly have an excess of it. And so, you’re right, you wonder at what point there was that jump and why.
TM: At one moment in the book, you describe an animal research lab as a kind of “Auschwitz” for chimpanzees, and in your last novel Beatrice and Virgil you touch on similar themes: one of the characters is writing an allegorical play about the Holocaust using animals, and it’s said that he’s doing this to “speak of the extermination of animal life.” So what are your thoughts on the way that humans treat animals in the present day? Do you think it’s something that future generations will look back on with amazement and disgust?
YM: It’s funny, that’s a question I would only get in England. It’s a wonderful question. I think our treatment of animals is deeply, deeply schizophrenic. So, on the one hand — and it’s even more schizophrenic in North America — you have people who will spend thousands and thousands of pounds on vet bills for their little puppy, and at the same time there’s industrial, mechanized slaughter of animals on a daily basis to feed our excessive fondness for meat. So, even in England, where animal husbandry is probably the best in the world, nonetheless the fact is they’re still brought in and slaughtered. So I think it’s schizophrenic. My problem with meat — I used to be a vegetarian, now I eat meat again — is really the not taking of responsibility. So I don’t mind someone going out there blasting away at a deer with a rifle, because you have to get up early in the morning, try to get your deer, shoot at it, get it right, kill it, drag it to some place — you’ve earned your meat then. What I object to is the idea of going to a supermarket and just taking this meat that you have no idea where it came from. For a couple of pounds or dollars you get the remnants of a sentient being. So that I find disturbing and I find it desensitizes us to sentient beings. So, in a sense, you mistreat animals, you eventually will mistreat human beings. If you’re casual to animal life you will eventually be casual to human life.
We overvalue a tiny number of species and disregard the ones that we eat, and disregard the ones that are wild. And I think, in some ways, it is un-Christian, which is why I like the idea of the chimpanzee — I think it elevates creation.
TM: You’ve mentioned a number of times that J.M. Coetzee is your favorite living writer. Obviously he’s known for talking a lot about animals in his books as well, and you both use allegory quite a lot. Would you say that he was a particular influence on this book? I noticed in The High Mountains of Portugal that the narrative is all in the present tense, which is a stylistic device that he uses.
YM: Definitely the present tense. In fact, the first draft was in the past tense and I found it didn’t work. And Coetzee doesn’t use it all the time, but he uses it incredibly effectively. Because, as I said, you remember I was talking about the sense of presence? Well, the sense of presence is best expressed in the present tense. I did get it through him.
I find he’s…a funny guy…I’ve never met him, but he’s a weird man, J. M. Coetzee. He is preoccupied with the way we treat animals. But my preoccupations are somewhat more conventionally human than his. You know, even Peter Singer will say the worth of an animal is to some extent based on its ability to enjoy life, it’s appreciation of what life might mean. So hence, a slug is worth less than a human being, because a slug, because of the make-up of its very small brain, makes less of life. Whereas I think Coetzee’s gotten to stage now where, you know — man and animal, eh it’s all the same! There’s a certain slight nihilism I feel, maybe? Which I don’t share — push comes to shove, I’ll chose a human over any animal.
I’m mainly influenced by his style, he’s just an extraordinary…He does so much with so little. In a sense, his sentences are quite simple. He doesn’t use great vocabulary. You know, but he just…His artistry is astonishing. But it’s interesting too, he’s also very hit and miss. So, I don’t know if you read his last one The Childhood of Jesus?
TM: Are you going to say you didn’t like it?
YM: Well, it’s terrible! Did you like it?
TM: [Laughs.] Yeah, I did.
YM: I found it was abysmal, I thought it was a parody of himself. You had these longshoremen having these discussions. I thought this is laughable! So either I completely misunderstood it, I had no idea what it was about…Also I did make the mistake of reading it on my e-reader, so I was reading it and it suddenly ended, because I couldn’t tell where I was, and I said “Oh, there’s got to be a mistake here, maybe I didn’t download it properly…” And I thought none of it worked. Once again, scene by scene he’s brilliant, but, you know, none of it worked for me, and it’s the only one that’s been that bad.
TM: Do you know what you’re going to be doing next?
YM: No. I work on one book at a time, takes me a long time. This is sort of the last idea I’ve had for a long time. Before Beatrice and Virgil turned into a novel it was going to be a flip book with a novel and an essay. I did write the essay, and it’s about representations of the Holocaust. That discussion still strikes me as interesting, since people still don’t want to visit the Holocaust in any other way but the conventional social, realistic way. It’s funny, I did this radio show and I mentioned this and immediately this guy said “Ah, but there’s the movie Life is Beautiful.” I said “Yeah, can you name any others?” There’s Mel Brooks’s The Producers…
TM: And the film that Jerry Lewis tried to make.
YM: Exactly, there’s that other one, that was never finished. So there’s those two movies, and with Mel Brooks that’s a story within a story. And Life is Beautiful is pretty well the only movie that takes metaphorical lightness towards the Holocaust. But in literature, yeah, Martin Amis, The Zone of Interest just recently, and Time’s Arrow… Anyway, so I may revisit that essay. My publishers are going to say “Oh fuck, the Holocaust again…This is not going to sell.” So I may just put it out with some small publisher just to have it out there. But in terms of another novel I have no ideas — literally, zero. I have four kids, so they’re like four little Russian novels running around me. I’m going to spend time with them and then I have no idea what I’m going to do next…Nobody knows. I’ll see. When I get more sleep from having four children I might, um…
TM: Perhaps a children’s book?
YM: I thought of that, but my partner writes children’s books. I figure she knows better and I don’t really want to go in her territory. More likely I’ll write something that’s adult-like, but infused by the fact that I have children. There’s so many good children’s books out there anyway, so many people who write so amazingly well for children that I don’t want to. I’m not going to do it like Richard Adams, just sort of pass the time, tell a story to his children, and he’ll write this amazing book, you know, Watership Down. I don’t think I’ll…Well maybe I will feel the inclination to do that in a few years, but not so far. Who knows?
Next week, Martin Amis will publish Zone of Interest, a dark new novel that takes place, like his earlier Time’s Arrow, in Nazi-occupied lands during the Holocaust. In this week’s New Yorker, Joyce Carol Oates reviews the book, suggesting that Amis is most compelling when he writes as a “satiric vivisectionist.” You could also read our own Mark O’Connell on Lionel Asbo: State of England.
“Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!”
For years I bought into the old saw that says the second novel is the hardest one to write. It seemed to make sense. When starting out, most writers pour everything from the first 20 (or 30, or 40) years of their lives into their debut novel. It’s only natural that on the second visit to the well, many novelists find it has gone dry.
Stephen Fry, the British writer and actor, explained it this way: “The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel. If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23 and my second novel takes me two years, which one have I written more quickly? The second, of course. The first took 23 years and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of a lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.”
Fry made these remarks at the inaugural awarding of the Encore Prize, established in England in 1989 to honor writers who successfully navigate the peculiar perils of the second novel. Winners have included Iain Sinclair, Colm Toibin, A.L. Kennedy, and Claire Messud.
Fry’s point is well taken, but it’s just the beginning of the difficulties facing the second novelist. If a first novel fails to become a blockbuster, as almost all of them do, publishers are less inclined to get behind the follow-up by a writer who has gained a dubious track record but has lost that most precious of all literary selling points: novelty. Writers get only one shot at becoming The Next Big Thing, which, to too many publishers, is The Only Thing. Failure to do so can carry a wicked and long-lasting sting.
(Full disclosure: I’m speaking from experience. My first novel enjoyed respectable sales and a gratifying critical reception, including a largely positive review from impossible-to-please Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. But the novel failed to land on any best-seller lists or get me on Oprah. Five years later, my second novel disappeared like a stone dropped in a lake. I don’t think anyone even noticed the splash. I recently sold my third novel — 17 years after that quiet splash.)
There’s plenty of empirical evidence to support the claim that the second novel is the hardest one to write — and that it can be even harder to live down. After his well-received 1988 debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon spent years wrestling with a woolly, 1,500-page beast called The Fountain that finally defeated him and wound up in a drawer. Wisely, Chabon went in a different direction and produced Wonder Boys, a successful second novel that was, technically, his third. After getting nominated for a National Book Award for her 1973 debut, State of Grace, Joy Williams puzzled and pissed-off a lot of people with The Changeling, her unsettling second novel about a drunk woman on an island full of feral kids. Williams blamed the book’s frosty reception on the political climate of the late 1970s: “Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!” Martin Amis followed his fine debut, The Rachel Papers, with the disappointingly flippant Dead Babies. I still find it hard to believe that the writer responsible for Dead Babies (and an even worse wreck called Night Train) could also be capable of the brilliant London Fields, Time’s Arrow, The Information and, especially, Money: A Suicide Note. Then again, outsize talent rarely delivers a smooth ride. Even Zadie Smith stumbled with The Autograph Man after her acclaimed debut, White Teeth.
Sometimes a hugely successful — or over-praised — first novel can be a burden rather than a blessing. Alex Garland, Audrey Niffenegger, Charles Frazier, and Donna Tartt all enjoyed smash debuts, then suffered critical and/or popular disappointments the second time out. Frazier had the consolation of getting an $8 million advance for his dreadful Thirteen Moons, while Niffenegger got $5 million for Her Fearful Symmetry. That kind of money can salve the sting of even the nastiest reviews and most disappointing sales. Tartt regained her footing with her third novel, The Goldfinch, currently the most popular book among readers of The Millions and a few hundred thousand other people.
A handful of writers never produce a second novel, for varied and deeply personal reasons. Among the one-hit wonders we’ve written about here are James Ross, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, and Ralph Ellison. And in certain rare cases, the second novel is not only the hardest one to write, it’s the last one that gets written. Consider Philip Larkin. He published two highly regarded novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, back to back in the 1940s — and then abruptly abandoned fiction in favor of poetry. Why? Clive James offered one theory: “The hindsight answer is easy: because he was about to become the finest poet of his generation, instead of just one of its best novelists. A more inquiring appraisal suggests that although his aesthetic effect was rich, his stock of events was thin…Larkin, while being to no extent a dandy, is nevertheless an exquisite. It is often the way with exquisites that they graduate from full-scale prentice constructions to small-scale works of entirely original intensity, having found a large expanse limiting.” In other words, for some writers the biggest canvas is not necessarily the best one.
Of course, second novels don’t always flop — or drive their creators away from fiction-writing. Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run are just a few of the many second novels that were warmly received upon publication and have enjoyed a long shelf life. But until about a year ago, I regarded such stalwarts as the exceptions that proved the rule. Then a curious thing happened. I came upon a newly published second novel that knocked me out. Then another. And another. In all of these cases, the second novel was not merely a respectable step up from a promising debut. The debuts themselves were highly accomplished, critically acclaimed books; the second novels were even more ambitious, capacious, and assured.
I started to wonder: With so much high-quality fiction getting written every day in America — especially by writers who are supposed to be in the apprentice phase of their careers — is it possible that we’re entering a golden age of the second novel? Here are three writers who make me believe we are:
Rachel Kushner’s 2008 debut, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Refreshingly free of the mirror-gazing that mars many first novels, it told the story of two insulated colonies in the eastern end of Cuba in the late 1950s, where Americans were blithely extracting riches from sugar crops and nickel deposits while Fidel Castro and his rebels were getting ready to sweep away the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista — and, with it, the Americans’ cloistered world.
The novel is richly researched and deeply personal. Kushner’s grandfather was a mining executive in Cuba in the 1950s, and her mother grew up there. Kushner interviewed family members, pored over their memorabilia, even traveled to Cuba to walk the ground and talk to people who remembered life before the revolution. To her great credit, Kushner’s imagination took precedence over her prodigious research as she sat down to write. As she told an interviewer, “Just because something is true doesn’t mean it has a place.”
While her debut took place inside a hermetically sealed cloister, Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, explodes across time and space. The central character is Reno, a young woman from the West hoping to break into the 1970s downtown New York art scene, a motorcycle racer with “a need for risk.” But Reno’s artistic aspirations are merely the springboard for this ambitious novel as it moves from the 1970s to the First World War, from America to Europe to South America. It teems with characters, events, voices, ideas. It’s a big, sprawling, assured novel, and it announced the arrival of a major talent.
Dear American Airlines, Jonathan Miles’s first novel, exists in an even more tightly circumscribed space than Kushner’s American enclave in pre-revolutionary Cuba. This novel takes place inside the American Airlines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport — or, more accurately, inside the brain of Benjamin R. Ford, who has been stranded at O’Hare while trying to fly from New York to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of his gay daughter and, just maybe, reverse the downward momentum of a magnificently botched life. The novel’s conceit is a beauty: furious and utterly powerless, Ben, a failed poet, a failed drunk, a failed husband and father — but a reasonably successful translator — decides to sit down and write a complaint letter, demanding a refund from the soulless corporation that has kept him from attending his daughter’s wedding, effectively thwarting his last chance at redemption. The conceit could have turned the novel into a one-trick pony in less capable hands, but Miles manages to make Ben’s plight emblematic of what it’s like to live in America today — trapped and manipulated by monstrous forces but, if you happen to be as funny and resourceful as Ben Ford, never defeated by them.
It was a deft performance, but Miles outdid it last year with his second novel, Want Not, a meditation on the fallout of omnivorous consumerism. It tells three seemingly unrelated stories that come together only at the novel’s end: Talmadge and Micah, a couple of freegan scavengers, are squatting in an abandoned apartment on the New York’s Lower East Side, living immaculately pure lives off the grid; Elwin Cross Jr., a linguist who studies dying languages, lives alone miserably in the New Jersey suburbs, regularly visiting the nursing home where his father is succumbing to Alzheimer’s; and Dave Masoli, a bottom-feeding debt collector, his wife Sara, whose husband was killed on 9/11, and her daughter Alexis, who brings the strands of the story together, in shocking fashion.
From the first pages, it’s apparent that the themes are large, the characters are vivid and complex (with the exception of Dave Masoli), and the prose is rigorously polished. Here’s one of many astonishing sentences, a description of what Elwin hears after he has accidentally struck and killed a deer while driving home late at night:
It took a few seconds for the panicked clatter in his head to subside, for the hysterical warnings and recriminations being shouted from his subcortex to die down, and then: silence, or what passes for silence in that swath of New Jersey: the low-grade choral hum of a million near and distant engine pistons firing through the night, and as many industrial processes, the muted hiss and moan of sawblades and metal stamps and hydraulic presses and conveyor belts and coalfired turbines, plus the thrum of jets, whole flocks of them, towing invisible contrails toward Newark, and the insectile buzz of helicopters flying low and locust-like over fields of radio towers and above the scrollwork of turnpike exits, all of it fused into a single omnipresent drone, an aural smog that was almost imperceptible unless you stood alone and quivering on a deserted highwayside in the snow-hushed black hours of a November morning with a carcass hardening in the ice at your feet.
Want Not is a profound book not because Miles preaches, not even because he understands that we are what we throw away, but because he knows that our garbage tells us everything we need to know about ourselves, and it never lies.
In 1994, Charles McNair’s weird little first novel, Land O’ Goshen, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It reads as if it were written by Faulkner on acid. It’s corn-pone sci-fi. It’s nasty and funny. It’s brilliant.
The title conjures two locales: the place in Egypt where the Israelites began their exodus to the Promised Land; and the place where the novel unfolds, a little one-blinking-light grease stain in the piney wastes of southern Alabama. The story is told by Buddy, a 14-year-old orphan who lives in the woods, dodging the Christian soldiers who are trying to subjugate the populace. This future era is called the New Times, but it’s a lot like the Old Testament — bloody tooth and bloody claw. Sometimes Buddy dresses up in animal skins and, as The Wild Thing, terrorizes the locals, trying “to wake up those tired, beaten-down old souls in every place where folks just gave up to being stupid and bored and commanded.” Buddy enjoys a brief idyll at his forest hideout with a beautiful girl named Cissy Jean Barber, but the world won’t leave them in peace. Through the nearly Biblical tribulations of his coming of age, Buddy learns the key to survival: “Sad sorrow can’t kill you, if you don’t let it.”
Last year, after nearly two decades of silence, McNair finally published his second novel, Pickett’s Charge. It’s bigger than its predecessor in every way. It traverses an ocean, a century, a continent. If Land O’ Goshen was content to be a fable, Pickett’s Charge aspires to become a myth. It tells the story of Threadgill Pickett, a former Confederate soldier who, at the age of 114 in 1964, is a resident of the Mobile Sunset Home in Alabama. As a teenage soldier, Threadgill watched Yankees murder his twin brother, Ben, a century earlier, and when Ben’s ghost appears at the nursing home to inform Threadgill that he has located the last living Yankee soldier, a wealthy man in Bangor, Maine, Threadgill embarks on one last mission to avenge his brother’s death.
Pickett’s Charge has obvious echoes – the Bible, Twain, Cervantes, Marquez, Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. But this novel’s most direct forebear might be Charles Portis’s Norwood, another story about a southerner’s quixotic journey to the North to seek justice. While Threadgill Pickett is after something big — vengeance — Norwood Pratt is simply out to collect the $70 he loaned a buddy in the Marines. Yet McNair and Portis seem to agree that folly is folly, regardless of its scale. And they both know how to turn it into wicked fun.
Of course one could argue that a half dozen books do not constitute a trend or herald a new golden age. But I’m sure I’ve missed a truckload of recent second novels that would buttress my claim. Maybe Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which has come out 15 years after her debut and is concerned, in part, with the difficulty of writing a second novel. Surely there are others that disprove the old saw. I would love it if you would tell me about them.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
We are living in a Hesiodic golden age for biographies. Name your favorite dead person, and I will give you the ISBN of a good biography of him written in the last 20 years. The obscurity of your enthusiasms be damned: I assure you that someone has written at least a short, competent life. Even the quixotic British parliamentarians Enoch Powell and Michael Foot, two of my favorite post-war politicians, have received the deluxe, 600-plus page treatment. (As I write this, a sly rogue named Rory Stewart is working on a joint biography of both men, having doubtless figured out that there are enough of us Powellite cum Footians to ensure that a few thousand copies get moved.) We now even have biographies sans bios, lives of non-living things: cities, chemical compounds, sex organs. For whatever reason people seem to read — or least purchase — biographies.
Unfortunately the biography boom has also proven the occasion of some very mean hack-work. People familiar with the facts who cannot write, and people unfamiliar with the facts who can, sign on with major publishers every day. The rise of the authorized or official biography, in which the subject or the subject’s estate cooperate, and I suspect in some cases even collaborate, with the writer producing the book, has seen a parallel phenomenon emerge: the unauthorized life. This is something like the shabby adjunct instructor to the authorized biography’s professor emeritus: it achieves what it can with it’s got, and considering the low pay, sometimes does a damn sight better than anyone would have expected. See Lord Jenkins’s 2001 biography of Churchill, which makes for much better reading than the single book abridgment of Sir Martin Gilbert’s eight-volume official epic. There are, of course, reasons (in some ways I am continuing my academic analogy here) why most unauthorized biographers never find better gigs: lack of requisite qualifications, impoverished Rolodexes, and, above all, a flooded job market.
Richard Bradford is a good example of an unauthorized biographer. He has found a sort of cottage industry writing unofficially about the lives of major figures in 20th-century British literature. Certainly one cannot blame him for having wished to improve upon Eric Jacobs’s dreadful Kingsley Amis biography, but the publication of Zachary Leader’s excellent (and authorized) life has made Bradford’s 2001 book superfluous. As for his more recent go at Philip Larkin, I can only say that, dissatisfied as I am with Andrew Motion’s sprawling (but authorized!) hatchet-job, it remains in many ways the better book, and that it is unlikely that a more successful biography of a man as private as Larkin shall ever be produced without further help from his estate.
I admit then to opening Bradford’s new biography of Martin Amis fils with some apprehension. Biographies about living people are always very suspicious affairs, especially when the subject is a writer. Amis may live to write many more novels. (Much of the preface to the American edition of Martin Amis: The Biography is devoted to Lionel Asbo, which was published shortly after Bradford’s book came out in England.) A living writer’s reputation is often far from settled. (Matt Novak recently dug up a 1936 poll that named James Truslow Adams and James Branch Cabell among the American writers we were all supposed to be reading in 2000.) Besides, the subject’s death and obsequies are usually among the most memorable parts of a great biography: see Michael Shelden’s Orwell or Churchill’s own Marlborough: His Life and Times.
Literary biographies published when their subjects are alive tend to be either hostile or overindulgent. In this case, Bradford is adulatory throughout Martin Amis: The Biography, even to the point of defending Yellow Dog (“The book is not flawless or unimprovable — nothing is — yet it is none the less ambitious and original.”) and The Information (“a novel of extraordinary complexity”), books that virtually no one liked. This is unfortunate. Amis’s reputation will eventually require sorting out, and it would be nice if The Biography (notice the authorized-sounding definite article?) offered us some kind of reasonable starting point.
While there is some excellent new material here (I was intrigued, for example, to learn that Amis did not read his father’s Lucky Jim until he was 18 years old), there is also a great deal, especially in the first half of the book, that has been handled much better elsewhere, particularly in Zachary Leader’s The Life of Kingsley Amis, in Kingsley’s Memoirs, and Martin’s Experience. Bradford also writes very badly. His first two sentences —
What makes a writer? Being born into what would strike most as a scenario suitable only for fiction might play some part.
— do an excellent job of establishing his book’s tone: awkward, overblown, imprecise. He has a strong ear for mixed metaphor (“someone whose magnetic amusing social persona belied a well-protected seam of hapless despondency”), tautology (“He was promiscuous and unfaithful”), and he tends to choose very strange adverbs (reviews of The Rachel Papers are “unflinchingly complimentary,” Northrop Frye is “quixotically impressionistic”). Even selecting the right conjunction gives him trouble: “The parallels between Martin’s and Kingsley’s first novels are tempting and misleading [italics mine].”
He is also very lazy. Paragraph after paragraph appears seemingly unaltered from conversations with Hitchens and Amis, who at one point cannot recall the name of a Kafka story. On page 63, Bradford quotes a letter from Amis to his father in which the 17 year old suggests that Gerard Manley Hopkins “doesn’t stand up to analysis” and calls Keats’s “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” “almost my favourite poem”; on page 64 he tells us that “Martin at least thought ‘La Belle Dame’ a redeeming piece and enjoyed reading Hopkins despite the fact that under analysis he seemed incomprehensible.” At least a quarter of the book is given over to plot summaries, which should at least make it useful for reviewers who want to pretend that they have read all of Amis.
Bad writing often gets dressed up rather prettily: attractive cover art, “deckle edge,” a nice crisp font. A bit more work on this front might have gone a long way for Martin Amis: The Biography. First, there’s the cover. Here something is clearly wrong with Amis’s skin: either the picture was taken under a 15,000 watt lamp or the subject of this biography has a severe case of sunburn. The quote from The Spectator that appears on the back of the dust jacket has been lifted out of context from a negative review, and almost all the other blurbs refer not to Bradford’s biographical achievements but to Christopher Hitchens’s conversational prowess. (Hitchens, by the way, is mentioned as if he were still living throughout.) The paper on which the book has been printed is too thick for me to roll Gambler cigarettes out of but far too thin (and foul smelling) for a hardcover book. Type 50 or so spaces: that’s how many appear inexplicably between the words “terms” and “of” on the seventh line from the bottom of page 35. The Spectator review contains a catalogue of misspellings which I won’t bother to repeat here.
“My biography of Martin is not a hagiography,” Bradford told an interviewer. True enough, one thinks, but then again he didn’t set out to write a saint’s life, did he? Martin certainly comes across as a sort of smug jerk. But he is also treated as the author of a half-dozen great novels when one great (Money)and two very good (Time’s Arrow and Night Train) novels would be a more accurate figure. Oh, well. Better, I suppose, for Bradford to love Amis than nothing to have loved.
I had a good reading year, mostly because of my favorite book. Seek by Denis Johnson wasn’t my favorite, but it was powerful, and it made me want to get a motorcycle. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis made me want to be smarter. Michael Frayn’s The Human Touch was stimulating in almost every line.
I found an old copy of Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter and couldn’t put it down (except twice when I fell asleep—some bits are dull). It tells the story of a young woman awakening to her father’s and her own radicalism in contemporary South Africa. I thought about Gordimer later when I was reading Amis; Gordimer’s just as stylish as Amis, I think, but she doesn’t play the show-off, at least not here.
For short stories, Floodmarkers by Nic Brown was wonderful: naughty and covert. Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was better than the hype—when does that happen?—riveting and powerfully anti-horseshit.
But my favorite of the year was Middlemarch. I loved it. The story doesn’t stop opening, there’s limitless room for consciousness. Eliot sustains her inquisition, loves gossip, and rewards patience—the perfect novel. Same pleasures as the best of Jane Austen, but with a much bigger payoff. I still think about it all the time.
If you have more than one copy of a beloved book, you can be the charming, laissez-fair book owner who lends freely and says “return it never,” instead of the saturnine turd who continues to brood over a two-dollar copy of Lonesome Dove which someone may have, but probably did not, fail to return in 2003.With this in mind, I was glad recently to find a paperback “twofer” (or whatever it is called), with Lucky Jim (Kingsley) on one side and The Rachel Papers (Martin son of Kingsley) upside down on the other. Lucky Jim is, of course, one of the most wonderful books every written, and thus in perpetual danger (in my mind) of theft disguised as borrowing. I am sort of dubious about this two-in-one format, but the price was unbeatable, and the Lucky Jim cover reproduces the delightful Edward Gorey illustration from the dust jacket of the first American edition (which, as Edan’s poignant last post reminded me, was the first nice book I ever bought, and which I bought for someone as a gift, and which I sort of wish I had kept for myself. That’s me, a real peach). [Ed. Note: That same Gorey illustration now graces the cover of the new Penguin classics edition pictured above]Anyway, the bonus of purchasing this Lucky Jim insurance policy was that I got to read The Rachel Papers. I haven’t read much Martin Amis, only Time’s Arrow, which I thought was painfully great (painful because of subject and painful because demonstrative of real live contemporary virtuosity, and not the non-threatening dead sort). The Rachel Papers, his first novel (written when he was 24, the bastard), is not, understandably, in the same class as Time’s Arrow, but it is retro and foul and a lot of fun to read.It is similar in its theme to Lucky Jim (which explains the cutesy father-son edition): there’s an obsessive, ostensibly relatable comic Everyman, who outwits frauds and gets the girl. But The Rachel Papers is a post-Sexual Revolution fairy tale – Jim Dixon thinks about putting his hand on a breast, while Charles Highway (the the younger Amis’s protagonist, just out of high school), masturbates furiously to his sister and talks about genitals smelling like wounds. Unlike Jim, Charles inspires rather less admiration than he does pity and mild horror. But he’s precocious, and he’s got a way with words, and I like any book that can make me laugh aloud.Here’s Charles in his room, preparing for seduction:”Not knowing her views on music I decided to play it safe; I stacked the records upright in two parallel rows; at the head of the first I put 2001: A Space Odyssey (can’t be wrong); at the head of the second I put, after some thought, a selection of Dylan Thomas’s verse, read by the poet. Kleenex well away from the bed: having them actually on the bedside chair was tantamount to a poster reading “The big thing about me is that I wank a devil of a lot.”In other passages, I was reminded of Nabokov, and also Günter Grass. Charles has a distinctly Oskar Matzerath quality, smart and disgusting. Here’s Charles with his tutor:Twenty-minute Maths lesson with Mr Greenchurch. Vacuum-chamber office redolent of dead man’s feet; hairless, cysty-eared octogenarian sucking noisily and ceaselessly on his greying false teeth (I thought at first he had a mouthful of boiled sweets; on the Wednesday he allows the coltish dentures to spew out half-way down his chin before drinking them back into place); mind like a broken cuckoo-clock, often forgets you’re there). Ten minutes in the hall, talking to Sarah, the less ugly girl.The novel also recalled a dim memory of a book I read years ago called Wilt, written by Tom Sharpe in 1976. Wilt (and its sequels) came after The Rachel Papers, but they seem born of a similar raunchy zeitgeist, although I seem to recall the eponymous hero being a grown-up, and thus significantly more pathetic than young Charles.Ultimately, The Rachel Papers’ snazzy style could only elevate its lacklustre plot so far. Nearing the end I was the slightest bit bored with Charles and the lessons he learns about girls and love (here’s a hint: the main lesson is skidmarks). I prefer old-fashioned Lucky Jim, where we relish only the triumph, and don’t have to hear about Jim breaking up with Christine because her slightly imperfect teeth and large breasts begin to try his nerves. That said, I think even if you didn’t know that Martin Amis would become one of the bigger deals in living novelists, when you finish the book you suspect that both he and Charles (still vile, but Oxford-bound and one year older), have extraordinary things in store.