In the end, Virginia Woolf went for a walk, filled her pockets with rocks, and waded into the river. After a lifetime of struggling with her mental health, the onset of another depressive episode, in conjunction with the impending war, ultimately defeated her. Since then, women writers across the world have recognized fragments of themselves in her and her work. For my part, growing up in rural Massachusetts, I used to end long winter walks standing at the edge of the pond across the field from the house where I grew up, and the gentle pulse of the water’s surface felt like a promise to take me if I wanted to go.
I didn’t have a connection to Woolf growing up. I was nineteen the summer I first read Mrs. Dalloway, lonely again in my humid hometown. At first pass, I found it dense and perplexing; it was difficult to follow the thread that Woolf masterfully weaves from one character to the next. But I was drawn to her even then, to that breathless style, to life, London, that moment of June.
Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise when I finally read all of Woolf’s novels and saw myself, not only in suicidal ideation but in literary aesthetic: in that persistent, if sometimes melancholy, optimism that pervades Woolf’s work despite mounting evidence that there is little left to hope for.
This realization came in my senior year of college, when I elected to put an end to my embarrassing lack of knowledge about one of history’s most prominent women writers by taking a senior thesis seminar on Woolf. Led by notable writer and Woolf scholar Mary Gordon, we read 10 books and two personal essays by Woolf, each student producing a 30-page thesis on the writer’s oeuvre.
I came to the class as something of a lapsed postmodernist. I’d taken a course in the literary school a few semesters prior and had only recently grown disillusioned with its tenets, the nihilistic rejection of reality and truth that filled me first with existential dread, then a numbing emptiness as I tried to apply it to my own writing. Reading Woolf with this lens, I found her work to present a thorough criticism of the ideas that would characterize postmodernism after her death. It wasn’t just that Woolf was a modernist, embodying the reassertion of reason against a growing alienation that individuals felt in response to advancing industrialization—this modernist aesthetic sets her up in obvious opposition to postmodernism, given that the latter movement grew out of a rejection of their modernist predecessors. Woolf’s work goes beyond this simplistic dichotomy, acknowledging and considering at great length the ideas that would later become postmodernism, but ultimately turning away from them in favor of what Woolf seems to consider the essential truth of being human. That is, the idea that while people’s true selves are masked beneath layers of constructed identities—making meaningful connection almost entirely impossible—the point of life, the beauty in it, is to continue to search for a glimpse at that true self below the surface. For Woolf, this is what makes life worth it all.
This aesthetic appears initially in Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out. Rachel Vinrace, the novel’s young leading lady, pushes against the boundaries of society, unable to conform to the polite expectations set for her. Her entrance into “proper” society midway through the book dovetails with her eventual death, with Rachel falling ill and never recovering soon after getting engaged. Once Rachel attains marriage, “the right thing, the only thing, the solution required by everyone she knew,” she is literally destroyed. In this way, Woolf seems to argue that the arbitrary structures of society do a sort of violence to individuals, taking away their agency in favor of fitting in with what is “proper.” This echoes the nihilist reaction to society that would come to characterize postmodernism after Woolf’s death.
However, an undercurrent of optimism flows through the novel. After Rachel dies, a thunderstorm hits, and the societal conventions that everyone adhered to throughout the book fall quite suddenly away. The otherwise relentlessly proper Mrs. Flushing asks her friends if they fear dying, and they all respond in turn. Unlike earlier in the book, when people would pointedly shy away from asking personal questions, the characters begin to say real, meaningful things. Rachel’s senseless death forces them to be more than they are; to create meaning, to communicate. While the spell breaks as the storm fades, Woolf is not pessimistic about the fact that meaning is only momentary. Rather, she notes the beauty in the fact that, despite this heartbreaking, meaningless death, the other characters go on living, as if to point out that there is something valuable in the going-on-ness of life. Even though meaning only comes in flashes, like lightning, people do not grow disillusioned in the face of the fact that they spend most of their lives stumbling around in the dark. One must push through these difficulties—that is, from a contemporary lens, push through postmodern solipsism—for the hope of momentary clarity. It is worth it for these moments.
In fact, beyond simply arguing for the existence of moments of clarity amidst the stilted performance of English society, Woolf seems to argue that these barriers preventing us from accessing this clarity are the only things that keep us alive. In The Voyage Out, Rachel finds herself paralyzed when she begins to consider the “unspeakable queerness” of life, which she considers “only a light passing over the surface and vanishing.” Through this paralysis, we see how it is destructive to think about the immense and desolate fact of human existence. In this way, while the barriers put up by the conscious presentation of society do serve the destructive end of making it impossible for people to really communicate with one another, these barriers also serve the very constructive end of making it possible to do anything at all. If one thinks too much about how, like Rachel, a person can die merely by forgetting to wash their vegetables before eating them, it becomes impossible to continue. This is why, as with lightning, clarity can only exist in moments. After any more than an instant, the absolute vulnerability of humans to the most absurd things becomes unbearable to consider. In Woolf’s formulation, the best we can hope for is to glimpse clarity in fragments. Any more would destroy us.
These ideas pervade all of Woolf’s novels. In Night and Day, she remarks that “to see the truth is our great chance in this world.” One of the novel’s heroines, Katharine, continually invokes Dostoyevsky, repeating, “It’s life that matters, nothing but life—the process of discovering—the everlasting and perpetual process, not the discovery itself at all.” In The Years, it’s the distant bombing of the war heard during a quiet English tea. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf re-emphasizes the beauty in the dogged going-on-ness of life, showing how even in the face of tremendous tragedy life continues as it did before simply because it must. The house is restored. Lily Briscoe returns to her painting. They finally sail towards the titular lighthouse, despite the deaths of Mrs. Ramsay, Prue, and Andrew.
Woolf is unquestionably a modernist, and the easy assumption would be to say that she has, as she might put it, “nothing whatever” to do with postmodernism as a school. Given that she died before postmodernism could begin to take hold, one might argue that her optimism has no purchase as a critique of contemporary postmodernism, and that to pose such a critique risks anachronism. But this argument falls apart under the weight of The Waves, that fluid and experimental work that firmly established Woolf not only as an extraordinary novelist but as an intensely conceptual writer fiercely pushing the boundaries of her craft.
Told in six soliloquies that ebb and break against each other, The Waves explicitly references numerous major tenets of what would become postmodernism without losing Woolf’s steadfast optimism. The character of Bernard destabilizes the strong sense of self inherent in many modernist texts, declaring, “To be myself…I need the illumination of other people’s eyes, and therefore cannot be entirely sure what is my self.” He goes further, pointing out a whole host of ideas that would later characterize the postmodern movement: the flimsy nature of socially constructed reality, the instability of language, the dubiousness of concrete knowledge. Woolf writes:
There is no stability in this world. Who is to say what meaning there is in anything? Who is to foretell the flight of a word? It is a balloon that sails over tree-tops. To speak of knowledge is futile. All is experiment and adventure. We are for ever mixing ourselves with unknown quantities. What is to come? I know not. But as I put down my glass I remember: I am engaged to be married. I am to dine with my friends tonight. I am Bernard, myself.
Throughout the passage, Bernard seems to be falling away from that optimism that carried Woolf throughout her literary career. Then, the word “but” in the middle. Despite all these grand questions, Bernard is able to situate himself in relation to his position in society. In this way, Bernard represents the point that Woolf makes again and again throughout her career: While nothing is perfect, it is all we have. While society is constructed, it is the only way that Bernard has to relate to the world, and that must be worth something. It must be worth fighting for. If not to keep it the same, then to salvage it, to turn it into something to hope for, rather than the postmodern alternative of nothing at all. As Bernard states, “Is this the utmost you can do? Then we have triumphed. You have done your utmost.”
Woolf’s relationship to postmodernism becomes more compelling when put in context with major critiques that postmodernists raised against modernism. In large part, literary criticism in Woolf’s time was dominated by men like Clive Bell, Joseph Frank, David Lodge, and John Barth. According to Patricia Waugh, a leading specialist in modern and postmodern literature, in her book Feminine Fictions, works by women were marginalized and misinterpreted by these critics. In Waugh’s formulation, fiction written by male modernists was characterized by splitting, fragmentation, and atomization of the story and of the self. In contrast, women’s writing at this time had more to do with dissolution and mergence. According to Waugh, this is because women were traditionally positioned as “other,” so the desire to become subjects overpowered the postmodern desire to deconstruct themselves. Rather, these women sought to experience their selves as strong and coherent while also acknowledging the socially constructed aspects of their identities. Thus, reading these women writers, including Woolf, with the lens of male modernists and critics would misrepresent their aims and concerns.
Furthermore, these women were not only misunderstood or overlooked in their time period, but formulations of modernism continue to misunderstand women like Woolf today. For example, Adam Kelly invokes modernism in his essay “David Foster Wallace and the New Sincerity in American Fiction,” setting up modernist sincerity in contrast with his idea of the New Sincerity, a burgeoning school of post-postmodernism. Kelly asserts that the modernist aesthetic was characterized by “impersonality,” but he exclusively cites male authors such as Joyce and Eliot to prove his point. It would certainly be strange to describe Woolf’s persistent search for meaningful connections between people as anything approaching impersonal, so one might think she was left out of Kelly’s formulation, destabilizing his arguments surrounding postmodernism and New Sincerity.
What does all this indicate? Given that postmodernism grew out of mainstream critiques of modernism, and given that these critiques generally did not focus on the work being done by women writers, the very existence of the school of postmodernism becomes suspect, because it appears to exclude women writers and writers of color. Woolf’s oeuvre is proof of this gaping oversight. While the world is in many ways more equitable than it was when Woolf was writing—at the very least, women can now enter the library at Cambridge without a male companion, unlike in A Room of One’s Own–the literary world remains troublingly gendered.
Ruth Franklin discusses this gendering in her article “Why the Literary Landscape Continues to Disadvantage Women.” According to VIDA, and advocacy organization for women in literary arts, in 2013 The New York Review of Books reviewed 636 books by men and only 164 by women. Franklin notes how even today women writers struggle to be seen as writing about anything other than women, while male narratives continue to be considered universal. This echoes the sentiment Woolf expressed almost a century ago in A Room of One’s Own. She writes:
Yet it is the masculine values that prevail. Speaking crudely, football and sport are “important”; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes “trivial.” And these values are inevitably transferred from life to fiction. This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battle-field is more important than a scene in a shop—everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.
If literary problems from 1929 that a prominent woman writer like Woolf considered at length still remain unsolved today, it seems fair to say that our contemporary literary schools developed out of a deliberate exclusion of women writers. This indicates that postmodernism is not only passé, but, in fact, that parts of postmodernism were never going to be useful for a progressive society. This is because postmodernism began as a movement by white men critiquing previous work by white men, never pausing to look outside of themselves to consider if people of other genders or races might have something interesting to contribute. Woolf’s contradictory relationship to postmodern tenets is proof that she, and likely others, were overlooked.
This isn’t to say that the entire project of postmodernism was useless. It did its work in exposing the arbitrary nature of many, if not most, aspects of our lives. It questioned our assumptions, our values, asked if we knew where things began and then asked us to look again. But for all its good, postmodernism has been ripping a hole in the literary fabric by failing to address this gendered critique, dragging the tapestry down as it overstays its welcome.
For my part, I think there’s nothing left to be gained from this irony, this solipsism, the extinguishing emptiness of the postmodern world. In a world where violence and hate speech are skyrocketing perhaps in part due to this rampant postmodern depersonalization, maybe what we need is not more explorations of how meaningless everything is, but a radical reassertion of that meaning, the kind of hope that kept Woolf alive.
It was the war that ultimately killed Virginia. She had been deeply unsettled by the First World War, and her diaries and letters indicate a growing sense of dread as the Second World War advanced in the last years of her life. While we’re not on the obvious brink of a world war now, it feels similarly easy to despair at advancing right-wing populism across the globe. But having grown up in postmodernism’s grasp, I would rather write towards hope, that truth that Woolf considered our great chance in this world.
In order to be productive, post-postmodern fiction must let go of the solipsistic irony borne out of exclusionary white male narratives. These post-postmodern works must allow writers of all perspectives to dismantle societal narratives and structures like a postmodernist. At the same time, such works must illuminate unseen spaces in literature, like Woolf called for in A Room of One’s Own, and they must resist postmodernism by remaining optimistic and unironic in the process. Drawing on Waugh, these writers must seek to understand their (whole) self in terms of problematic social structures rather than denying the existence of the self because of these structures.
We are never going to see the world or ourselves with complete objectivity, nor should we have to. The intrinsic failure of objectivity should not be taken as cause for despair, because this despair then masks the simple beauty that keeps us alive, as Woolf argued. That humans are fallible is part of what makes us endearing to each other. Woolf writes in Jacob’s Room, “In any case life is but a procession of shadows, and God knows why it is that we embrace them so eagerly, and see them depart with such anguish, being shadows.” It is merely because, “Such is the manner of our seeing. Such the conditions of our love.”
Image credit: Flickr/Laura Miller.
I spent a lot of this year trying to write a book: lying on the floor, making spaghetti, chewing on my fingernails, staring at the wall, reading. I wanted to figure some things out, and surrounded myself with books that I thought would help. Instead of reading them, I got distracted. I read an endless number of articles and essays about politics, technology, politics and technology. I stuffed my brain with information. Wikipedia. I was thinking about Yelp culture and V.C. culture, so I read a lot of Yelp reviews, and a lot of tweets from venture capitalists and nascent venture capitalists. Medium posts. Hacker News.
After a while, this became boring, and I remembered how to read for pleasure. I read, or reread: Red Brick, Black Mountain, White Clay; Things I Don’t Want to Know; Stone Arabia; Asymmetry; Housekeeping; Fierce Attachments; The Maples Stories; Twilight of the Superheroes; Talk Stories; To the Lighthouse; Mating; Imperial San Francisco; The Book of Daniel; White Noise; The Fire Next Time; Close to the Machine. Essays from Happiness, and The Essential Ellen Willis, and The White Album, and Discontent and Its Civilizations, and The Earth Dies Streaming. This Boy’s Life and Stop-Time. I meant to reread Leaving the Atocha Station, but it fell into the bathtub; fine. 10:04. A stack of books about Silicon Valley history, many of which I did not finish; a lot of them told the same stories.
I read a 1971 edition of the Whole Earth Catalog, and the free e-book preview of The Devil Wears Prada, and some, but not all, of The Odyssey, the Emily Wilson translation. I got stoned before bed and read What Was the Hipster?––? I read Eileen and The Recovering and And Now We Have Everything and The Golden State and Chemistry and The Boatbuilder and Normal People and Breaking and Entering and Notes of a Native Son and Bright Lights, Big City and Heartburn and That Kind of Mother and How Fiction Works and Motherhood and Early Work and My Duck Is Your Duck and The Cost of Living and Who Is Rich? and The Mars Room. Some more pleasurable than others but all, or most, satisfying in their own ways.
I read the Amazon reviews for popular memoirs and regretted doing that. I did not read much poetry, and I regret that, too.
A few weeks ago, I read What We Should Have Known: Two Discussions, and No Regrets: Three Discussions. Five discussions! Not enough. I was very grateful for No Regrets, which felt both incomplete and expansive. Reading it was clarifying across multiple axes.
I wish I’d read more this year, or read with more direction, or at the very least kept track. I wish I’d read fewer books published within my lifetime. I wish I’d had more conversations. Staring at the wall is a solitary pursuit. I didn’t really figure out what I hoped to understand, namely: time. Time? I asked everyone. Time??? (Structure? Ha-ha.) Whatever. It’s fine. Not everything has to be a puzzle, and not everything has a solution. Time did pass.
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In early July, I was able to sit down and interview Sergio De La Pava, the explosive, encyclopedic author who heralds a new era of the novel. A public defender in New York City, Sergio wrote his first novel on the commute to and from court cases, self-publishing the nearly 700-page A Naked Singularity in 2008. When it was republished by the University of Chicago Press, it received the PEN/Robert Bingham prize for Debut Novel. Since then, his second and third novel, Personae and Lost Empress, received similar acclaim from readers and critics alike. A writer on the periphery of the American literary scene, Sergio De La Pava’s response to art is electric, charged and ready to jolt complacency with the art form.
The Millions: What did literature mean to you before you began writing? In a public conversation with other authors, you explained that your interest in writing began at around seven or eight. In your latest novel, a young boy loses his father and, during that morbid transition from winter to spring, he discovers Emily Dickinson, titling a personal essay “Emily Dickinson is Saving My Life and I Can’t Even Thank Her,” and while I know that’s the intimate relation each reader has to literature, each of your novels contends with the moment an individual receives such profound experience with literature that they in turn become an artist. In A Naked Singularity, you’ve got the protagonist Casi working on an immense project; in Personae, we as readers discover the fragments of a man’s oeuvre after his death; in Lost Empress, it’s Nelson De Cervantes with Emily Dickinson and Dia Nouveau with Joni Mitchell. What was it for you?
Sergio De La Pava: I think initially, my relationship with literature was something similar to what Nelson De Cervantes experiences in the terms of, I don’t want to say initial experiences with literature, but ones the ones that persist and remain memorable, it feels like a life-raft, it feels in some sense like saving your life and allowing you to continue to navigate what has been to me a very confusing and ultimately frightening experience, meaning life. I think what I depicted, with respect to Nelson, is that means by which you find nothing so blatant as guidance, but almost consolation, such that x, y, and z may be true, but it’s also true that these poems or this novel or work of art was created.
When I refer to the seven or eight-year-old thing, I was referring to that age when I spent a summer in Colombia, and I remember kind of missing the English language above all things. I remember coming across Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea in English in my grandmother’s house. I devoured that, I distinctly remember that being the first time I made this leap between the fact that something like that exists and the realization that someone had to have created it, an individual behind this experience. It seems obvious now, but when you’re seven or eight it’s not, something like clouds, something you don’t question how it exists. But with this book, it was the first time I realized a guy like Hemingway is the reason this book exists, and it was probably the first time I remember thinking I wouldn’t terribly mind if I was the reason one of these books existed. That’s something that’s always stuck in my mind. It wasn’t so much about the artistic experience of the book, though for a 7-year-old it was intense, it was more about the realization there’s these people that identify as writers and they’re the ones responsible for books that exist or don’t exist. A lot of my novel Personae deals with that earliest question, of who gets to be called writer, who decides to dive into an activity in this more intense way than readers could experience.
TM: In the end of that public conversation I mentioned, you were asked to give a book that summarily defines the experience of being in New York, and you give Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, you described the novel as being able to “marry aesthetic concerns while still having a more revolutionary message to it… all [your] novels are trying to ferment nonviolent revolution.” Each artist, I believe, must engage in what that marriage means to produce. Whether they end up producing such as work as Invisible Man is not as important for that artist as their asking how they will use literature to advance aesthetic and cultural concerns. What works or authors became for you that marriage of aesthetic and political concerns you would place your work alongside?
SDLP: Do you think every novelist has political concerns? It would seem that—well, what book is popular right now?—it would seem that the author of The Marriage Plot did not have political concerns. But you are right that I pretty clearly do, right? I will say that all the aesthetic concerns that I have when I sit down to write a novel absolutely trump any political concerns. They are by far more paramount, more important. Because I am engaging in an activity where there is no reality, and nothing can exceed the aesthetic achievement. If my political concerns were paramount, then I would write an op-ed or a nonfiction book as many have done and very skillfully. In those situations, my concern would be those political realities I’m resisting in, what I’m agitating for, those options are open to everybody. When I’m functioning as a novelist, the demands of the novel have to be paramount. The reason I brought up Invisible Man is that it clearly has to me a political purpose but at no point do I feel that that political purpose overrides the aesthetic achievement of the novel. As somebody who has this whole other career that is almost all political purpose, I have to be more careful, maybe, than most, in writing the novel. I have to be more careful, that it doesn’t become a didactic piece of journalism because that’s a preexisting category I can feel free to engage in whenever I want to.
TM: And you have!
SDLP: The kind of concerns that build up and overflow in my mind, that cause me to write a novel, are rarely political. They feel more philosophical or poetic. Those feel to me the driving force of the novel. The politics of it, the radical agenda or whatever you want to call it, is quite often a function of the setting where the philosophy and poetry is happening.
TM: I think that act of achieving a political statement as a result of the aesthetic work connects well to what Ellison was about. I’m interested to know which American authors, like Ellison, might’ve provided a framework to search for truth, and who you eventually had to move past to develop your own work.
SDLP: Well I don’t necessarily identify with someone because they’re American. I go by language, I go by writing in English. To me a country is essentially an invented, if not meaningless, then low-meaning thing. I don’t take particular meaning from the fact I was born in the United States. English, now that’s a different story. English colors everything that happens in the work. The language colors everything. Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Virginia Woolf, to name writers who wrote in English. Certainly a lot of translated works have been important to me, but those were the seminal figures, always tempered by the thought that “great, they did what they did, but it’s time for an updating.” Those are all writers who stopped writing at least 80 years ago. In a lot of ways, I think the distance of time makes those influences more useful than looking to contemporaries or colleagues or doing the same thing you are and looking for inspiration there. It’s never worked that way for me.
TM: So it’s not necessarily the questions proposed in say, To the Lighthouse may not provoke today; it’s that enough time has passed that you feel them worth revisiting? Do they serve greater inspiration because of their distance?
SDLP: I suppose I don’t have a good grasp by what we mean when we say “inspiration.” Everything has “inspired” me to write but that’s not the same as saying I’ve found joy in or found profitable every single thing I’ve read. Often times, I receive negative inspiration, where I say “I don’t like that, I don’t think that’s what the novel is for, that that’s how you execute a novel.” And that can be more useful than sitting there and going “well, that novel’s as close to perfection.” When you think about it, in many ways, we as humans act out with dissatisfaction a lot more often than we do with satisfaction. A lot of the times when I’m reading, I receive this dissatisfaction, a wanting, and a highly critical response, and those serve as more useful than something that is masterful. When something’s masterful, to me, it’s done. There’s nothing left to say. There’s nothing left to do in response. I often wonder: If I were insanely impressed by the majority of novels I’ve read, would I even write? I probably wouldn’t. I think it’s the opposite. Part of the reason I write is because I find modern novels so lacking.
TM: It seems your latest novel, Lost Empress, was the attempt to bridge two very distinct styles of novel together. In a previous conversation, you used Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice as examples of these two styles. I’m wondering, using this term of translation, how did you translate the experiences of previous novels into this work?
SDLP: The novel is limitless, there’s more than Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice. I think what I meant was that I was inspired to take two conceptions of the novel that seemed like they will not mix and so Invisible Man and Pride and Prejudice are two seemingly different novels in a way no other two novels could seem as different. The challenge was this: If the novel has the ability to subsume any category into its form, can you prove that by marrying these two wildly different concepts, without the infrastructure showing? That challenge can excite you, make you go “yeah, I can do that,” and that excitement can carry you for the next four years. I have a lot more freedom with that challenge than, say, translation, because there’s a hardcap to how much I decide Anna Karenina is before it no longer fits into the idea of translation. When I do this, I’m doing it with my terms and nobody’s going to tell me it doesn’t fit.
TM: I would say that while each of your work contends with reality, Lost Empress questions what is real and how we define that. Not just translating experience but transcribing it. We have this character, Sharon, a CO for paramedics, who breaks down after decades of listening to calls in which children are maimed and assaulted. But her coworker doesn’t console her, she says “that’s as real as realism gets.” I’m wondering how you can talk about the act of writing as a series of freedoms but also have your characters confront and rebel against the tragic fictions you pit them against. Is this perhaps where you attempt to bridge the two conceptions of the novel, the fantastical reproduction of reality and reality’s strenuous subjugation?
SDLP: I’ve always had this weird sensation that the world depicted in the novel is as real as ours; it’s just a matter of perspective. I feel that the conclusions I draw from immersion in a fictious, well-done novel can easily be applied in this world, with a reality that hits us every day. I don’t make distinction, I get upset about things that happen in novels and I don’t find any consolation in being told they’re a fictitious character. When I would write Sharon’s narrative, it would upset me as much as if she were like any other person I knew in life. That’s probably not the healthiest attitude, but that’s part of the reason why I inject things that are uncontroversially true of our world, such as a Rikers Island inmate guidebook or Joni Mitchell or Salvador Dali, because the facts about them are verifiably true. Part of the reason I don’t draw distinction is because convention would have us place the fiction below reality. whereas I think that fiction should be placed alongside reality.
TM: When you say you have a visceral reaction, it’s well understood. In that public conversation, someone brought up the fate of the character Nuno in Lost Empress and you looked like you were sucker-punched, you said “well, I care a lot about him, and I’m sad that it ended.” It’s this character you spent a lot of time with, but even though you say you’re with this freedom to write the novel, your characters actively protest their existence within the novel, shouting “truth in everything!” On this idea that characters are aware of what’s happening, could you say something on where you think the novel heads in the 21st century? Throughout your work, you’re referencing pop culture and pop media such as TV, the novel Lost Empress begins with the decree “let us enter into peals of laughter,” and the opening scene is in the form of a sitcom script. Though the structure of the script disappears, the kinetic quips remain in stark contrast to the looming darkness that bridges the novel’s first and second act. I’m wondering if you did this in respect to new media that competes with the novel, or if this was an aesthetic concern.
SDLP: I don’t care about the new media, I really don’t. I don’t accept that television is the new novel, that’s silly. It’s just as dumb as it ever was. I’m not competing with that stuff because I will lose, I will lose in a first-round knockout. My novels are asking that you enter into a completely different space than the one you’re in when you binge-watch Breaking Bad. I mean I watched all of Breaking Bad and The Wire and I enjoyed that but it’s not the same as when I read Mrs. Dalloway or Moby Dick or The Confidence Man.
TM: And yet your novels interject that media constantly.
SDLP: My novels, I hope, attempt in some way that just because you’re in the world where you read The Confidence Man or Bartleby The Scrivener doesn’t mean you have to forsake all the pleasures of a quick one-liner like you said. The narrator at the beginning of Lost Empress says “we’re gonna keep this pretty light,” and then, clearly, he fails to keep it light. Sharon’s abused, people are kept in isolation by the Grand Jury. But the attempt was there in the beginning, like a screenplay for a screwball comedy, and then reality keeps interjecting to the point where it can’t sustain. And you see there’s this thing where privileged people can keep it light, but ultimately none of us can keep it light, because this commonality of experience of that desolating experience will win out, or simply time’s up. There’s a character in Lost Empress, the Theorist, who describes two timelines: that of the reader and that of the novel. You know he’s experienced our reality because he describes the David Tyree catch, and he’s the only one who’s been in our timeline that’s also in Nuno’s timeline, so he says “this timeline that we’re in is ending,” and that’s verifiably true by the fact the novel’s ending, but that’s also true for the reader’s timeline, regardless of the world you’re in. And that’s not necessarily the most salient fact of your life, I hope not, that’s not that productive. But it’s there and it colors the events of life, in Personae especially, the fact that life is so fragmentary and fast.
TM: As a reader of these narratives, we can pick and choose where and when we pick up and drop off, but then what does that do for the truths of your characters? Sharon decides to remain in an abusive relationship with her husband to ensure her son’s success, a quarterback decides to suffer terminal brain damage to win a football game, Nuno escapes prison only to realize his world is ending; what makes them matter? Not in the moralistic sense you object to, but what is the saving grace for theirs and our lives by the novel’s end?
SDLP: Nuno lays this out for us at the end of the novel rather explicitly. Despite the fact there is an ending, he finds merit in all things by the fact they happened. He lays it out for us, when people say “oh, humanity’s but a speck of dust in the history of the universe,” well that’s a dumb thing to say! It’s never been about how long we’ve been around or the value of an uninhabited planet. He tackles this sense of insignificance head on because that desire to be heard is the value. Not because what we’re going to say results in x, y, and z, but because we could manage to do something. And there are people who will disagree, who say that because life has an end renders everything meaningless. That’s a view. I don’t think that’s a logically impossible view, but I don’t share that view and I don’t think anyone in that novel shares that view. Sharon decides to create meaning from her life by ensuring her son’s survival, and she could be wrong of course, but that’s for everybody to decide for themselves. That’s what we do as human beings. Why did I put a suit on today and come into my office? Because I decided that helping someone within the machine of the criminal justice system has meaning. I could be wrong, I guess, because that seems unlikely. When you experience that meaning, such as when I’m raising my two-year-old, that doesn’t feel meaningless, it just doesn’t. It feels like meaning irrespective of the entire fate of humankind.
TM: It makes me wonder about the kind of person who is satisfied by meaninglessness, or whose fear of meaninglessness is correlated to a lack of morality. These people seem to lack the experience of meaning made by living a full life.
SDLP: Right. It’s like pessimistic authors who take these works where everyone is evil and wrong and the world is mean. That’s a weird proposition, that I think is done by infantilized writers who take on this worldview and get praised for their “honesty.” But those type of people ignore the other half of humanity, like that guy who volunteers on Sundays to bathe the elderly. You’re going to tell me that that person’s evil, that their actions are meaningless? Those writers who suffuse their work with meaninglessness have to categorize and ignore the others. I feel like it is just as intellectually dishonest to find everybody good as it is to find everybody bad. Neither one feels fair.
TM: So your fiction is an attempt at something more honest to life.
SDLP: I don’t think these are optimistic works, but I don’t think they’re pessimistic works either. I’m attempting to grapple with the fact that humanity is capable of terror and greatness.
Much like the Southern Californian communities in which it takes place, Brit Bennett’s debut novel, The Mothers (Riverhead Books), is deceptively buoyant. Reading through it for the first time, readers are likely to find themselves seduced by its prose. Its surface is serene and appealing, carried forward by a brisk narrative. But like Southern California, this novel’s pleasant surface begins to ripple the more you linger over it, eventually giving way to something far more nuanced and disturbing than its façade let on.
The Mothers follows Nadia Turner in the aftermath of her mother Elise’s suicide and her father Robert’s subsequent depression. Nadia seeks comfort in Luke Sheppard’s bed, and she eventually becomes pregnant by the preacher’s son. Fearing that she might reprise the tragedy of her mother’s life — Elise Turner mothered Nadia at a similarly young age — she aborts the child under the impression that she and Luke are the only ones who know what she’s done.
Unbeknownst to her, Luke’s parents — who run Upper Room, the church to which Nadia and her father belong — provided the money for the abortion. The rest of the novel traces the paths Luke and Nadia’s young lives take as they mature, suffer heartbreaks, and go on to build new lives as adults. Still, no matter how far from home they travel, or how much they strain to construct new homes, their decision’s consequences echo through their lives, organizing their stories in ways they perceive only dimly. Though Luke marries Nadia’s friend Aubrey Evans, and Nadia finds success at the University of Michigan, the pressure of their shared secret compounds until the lives they’ve built threaten to collapse beneath it.
This novel’s narrative is sparse, turning on this secret and not much else. The power and pleasure of Bennett’s writing lies in her prose style’s clarifying precision. Her knack for capturing concrete aspects of life in Southern California — more specifically, an African-American California — is especially gratifying, giving life to a region too often represented in broad strokes, and a culture too often overlooked. Bennett evokes a sense of place via a sparing economy. In her Southern California, scorching wildfires arrive with seasonal regularity a la Joan Didion; black kids party with sandy-haired white skaters at claustrophobic kickbacks where received notions of contemporary race relations scarcely seem to apply; and a peculiar Californian brand of inequality persists, the kind that enables a city to encompass idyllic beaches on the one hand and bulletproofed fast food restaurants on the other.
Ultimately, though, The Mothers is not a regional novel; it’s more interested in its characters’ internal lives than where they live. Bennett illuminates their psychologies with the same delicate sense of economy, probing for the ways that their experiences produce complex emotional states only a fraction of which are known to one another — or even to themselves. Bennett’s characters struggle to know one another while navigating a morass of regret, bitterness, and desire; the result is a drama of feeling that explores how trauma shapes the contours of our lives and delineates the limits to our intimacy.
In one poignant scene, as Nadia and Aubrey’s friendship begins to bud in the abortion’s aftermath, Nadia conducts what she thinks is a harmless inquiry into Aubrey’s sexual history:
‘Just don’t expect [sex] to be all beautiful and romantic. It’s gonna be awkward as hell.’
‘Why does it have to be awkward?’
‘Because – look, has any guy ever seen you naked?’
Now Aubrey opened her eyes. ‘What?’ she said.
‘I mean, what’s the furthest you’ve ever gone?’
‘I don’t know. Kissing, I guess.’
‘Jesus Christ. You’ve never even let a guy feel you up?’
Aubrey shut her eyes again. ‘Please,’ she said. ‘Can we talk about something else?’
For Nadia, this is just gentle ribbing. What she never learns is that Aubrey has suffered a sexual abuse at her stepfather’s hands, abuse that has made it difficult to trust other people with her body. Others (including Luke, her eventual husband) repeat the mistake throughout the novel, mistaking Aubrey’s discomfort with talking about her body for Christian prudishness. They repeatedly create an insurmountable obstacle to intimacy that none of them can even begin to perceive. Elise Turner’s suicide reinforces this, emphasizing for Nadia that she could never access the regrets that haunted her mother’s life, and therefore never knew her mother at all.
So it’s hard not to read this novel’s title and central conceit as a jab at the notion of intimacy itself. The titular Mothers of Upper Room church narrate Nadia’s story, framing her life as the sum total of church gossip. They pass summary judgment on Nadia and her mother from their position of would-be omniscience, but what Bennett ultimately highlights is the poverty of their knowledge. Encountering an emotionally disturbed Elise in the church one morning, they laugh the incident away, already greedy for the gossip that the incident affords: “Oh, wait til we told the ladies at bingo about this. Elise Turner, asleep in the church like an ordinary bum. They would have a field day with that one.”
This is not to say that the novel doesn’t gesture towards issues of wider societal import. After all, Bennett’s incisive essays on racial injustice, buoyed up by outrage over anti-black police violence, are what brought her to prominence. I’ve been trying my best to avoid Donald Trump for the last month, but this book arrives in the atmosphere of generalized traumatization and misogyny that his presidential campaign has engendered. It’s difficult not to read Aubrey’s suffering as an important attempt to narrate not just the political but also the personal repercussions of such violence, how it can scar an individual for life. The massive reality TV show that is this presidential campaign threatens to obscure that knowledge, and I find myself grateful to Bennett for reminding us.
Elsewhere, we find black mothers instructing their sons to avoid recklessness: “Black boys couldn’t afford to be reckless…Reckless white boys became politicians and bankers, reckless black boys became dead.” Later in the novel, Robert Turner remembers the lessons of his father: “Black boys are target practice…My pops told me, you better learn to shoot before these white men shoot you, and I did.” Bennett even takes time to probe the impoverished emotional lives that men lead. When Luke tries to discuss his pain over Nadia’s abortion to his friend CJ, all CJ can muster is jock bravado. “Well shit,” he says, “You got lucky, homie.”
Ultimately, though, this novel’s heart lies in the struggle to move beyond the impasse Bennett so skillfully illustrates, and how that struggle so often backfires. After confronting Luke about the abortion, Nadia goes to Aubrey for comfort. Under the guise of teaching Nadia how to shoot pool, Aubrey embraces her:
She patiently guided her through the basics, then stood behind her to correct her stance. Aubrey’s hair tickled the back of her neck as she guided her hand back for her first stroke. Nadia wanted to feel the soft, constant pressure of another person’s touch. She wanted Aubrey to hold her, even if it was a fake embrace.
“Can you show me again?” she said.
This moment’s queer overtones speak not so much to sexual desire as the wish for a closeness that our normal conceptions of friendship and romance cannot comprehend. Reading this passage, I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, of the scene where Lily Briscoe wraps arms around Mrs. Ramsey’s legs:
Sitting on the floor with her arms around Mrs. Ramsey’s knees, close as she could get, smiling to think that Mrs. Ramsey would never know the reason for that pressure, she imagined how in the chambers of the mind and heart of the woman who was, physically, touching her, were stood, like the treasures in the tombs of kings, tablets bearing sacred inscriptions, which if one could spell them out, would teach one everything, but they would never be offered openly, never made public.
Facing this impasse, all Lily can do is press closer and hope. It’s a lesson Brit Bennett has absorbed.
Ekphrasis is an aesthetic notion the meaning of which has shifted over time. The literary critic Christopher Benfey once described it as “writing inspired by a painting.” This definition works well enough for me. Not only is Benfey’s interpretation usable, but it’s consistent with how writers often interpret literary inspiration. “I learn as much as painters about how to write as I do from writers,” Ernest Hemingway said. And James Baldwin: “painters have often taught writers how to see.”
The ekphrastic impulse also includes film. Richard Ellmann compared Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to “the moving cinema-like eye which homes in on a detail, then springs back to survey a panorama.” Not to be overlooked is the photographic snapshot, exemplified by John Dos Passos’s 51 “Camera’s Eye” sections interspersed throughout the U.S.A. trilogy, usually to freeze a kinetic urban moment (one that, in certain editions, was illustrated with a Reginald Marsh drawing.)
I suppose the spirit of ekphrasis informs almost every modern novel. But few manifest the practice more explicitly than Virginia’s Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Set on the Scottish Isle of Skye, built around a young boy’s desire to sail to the local lighthouse, and ultimately defined by a piercing exploration into the adults around him, To the Lighthouse relies on a modernist aesthetic deeply indebted to impressionistic painting.
Scholars and critics have already explored Woolf’s relationship with impressionism from many angles. We know a lot, for instance, about how Woolf shared an impressionistic aesthetic with her contemporaries, how her background might have inclined her toward impressionism, how her impressionism may have informed her feminism, how her impressionistic strategies were honed in early short stories, and how her impressionistic memory was visual. But the impressionist impulse seems to always come from afar, from the context of her life and art. Less understood is how impressionism provides a guide into the inner workings of the novel itself. The text instead of the context.
Woolf routinely blurs her scenes into an impressionistic haze. She describes Mr. Carmichael, a poet visiting the house on the Ile of Skye, as a person “sunk…in a grey-green somnolence which embraced them all” (evocative of some of Claude Monet’s Rouen Cathedral paintings). A former painter’s influence was powerful enough to insure that future painters who visited the Ramsey summer compound (such as Lily Briscoe) only made pictures that were “green and grey, with lemon-coloured sailing-boats and pink women on the beach” (see Monet’s Regattas at Argenteuil). As Mrs. Ramsey entertains her son James in the kitchen (he’s upset about not going to the lighthouse), Woolf observes “how life, being made up of little separate incidents which one lived one by one, became curled and whole like a wave which bore one up with it and threw one down with it, there, with a dash on the beach.” The image — memories being transmuted into a wave — provides an implicit suggestion that nothing in the natural world mimics an impressionist painting more accurately than the ocean crashing into a mayhem of foam (see Monet’s “Storm at Belle Ile” or, although pre-impressionistic, Gustave Courbet’s “The Wave”). Repeatedly, Woolf advances the impressionistic theme that, as she notes about Lily’s much tortured painting in progress, “beneath the color there was the shape.”
It’s hard to imagine a better description of the genre.
I’ve read To the Lighthouse twice, both before and after my introduction to ekphrasis. After is much better. And not just because of the expected benefits that come from rereading. An overt awareness of Woolf’s impressionistic focus allows one to appreciate what visual art accomplishes within the contours of Woolf’s ambition. Speaking in general terms, impressionism becomes a scrim behind which Woolf hauls her novel into ever-deeper psychological territory — territory that literature had heretofore mostly avoided. In Woolf’s hands, impressionism permits the interior life to float through the narrative like black ink in a basin of water, creating slowly shifting forms rather than hard lines, which seems about right if the goal is to explore the amorphous nature of the inner self.
Art historians identify impressionism’s defining feature as light. But Woolf stresses distance. Impressionistic space — be it in the form of big skies, hovering churches, fields of haystacks, or an expanse of lily pads — becomes the capacious room for Woolf’s largest questions. Fearlessly, she plunks these queries into the novel like stones in a pond, confident that the ripple effects won’t displace too much: Is it good, is it bad, is it right or wrong?…What does one live for?…What does it all mean?…What is the meaning of life?…What am I?…Who knows what we are, what we feel?
In most contexts, these overwrought queries would ring hyperbolic. Instead, they resonate at a distant remove from the grimy details of everyday life, as well as beneath Woolf’s protective but soft gauze of color. In so doing, these big questions collectively orient the reader toward meaning beyond the characters. Instead of seeming indulgent, they guide us towards complicated psychic truths that are both integral to the self but transcendent to it. Not incidentally, this strategy of gentle abstraction may help explain why Woolf had ambiguous feelings about James Joyce’s Ulysses — where the entirety of Dublin comes at you in a fire hose of detail 00 but approved of Whitman’s poems, with all that careful and rhythmic homing in and springing back.
Woolf’s debt to impressionism culminates in the eventual trip to the lighthouse (it only took 10 years to get there!). James’s sister Cam watches the shore recede from her comfortable perch on the boat. As the lines around hard objects fade, she enters a frame of mind capable of confronting the big questions that Woolf presents. “[T]he lawn and the terrace and the house,” writes Woolf, “were smoothed away now and peace dwelt there.” Later, with the distance between Cam and the shore having increased, with even more dingy detail “smoothed away” by the solace of space, Cam concludes that the people on the blurry shore “were free like smoke, were free to come and go like ghosts. They have no suffering there.” Cam’s is hardly a random observation. It’s indicative of a mind liberated by distance, a mind primed by abstraction to invite queries into phenomenon bearing on the inner self and, again, what lies beyond it. Have you ever, during a moment of turmoil, looked up to seek a breath of resolution? Yeah.
Woolf harnesses this impressionistic power to direct her psychological investigations into even minor figures such as William Bankes. Observing the jerky movements of a hen, Bankes, worries, as one well might, that “the pulp had gone out of” his friendship with Mr. Ramsey. Then he looks up and outward “at some far sand dunes.” It is, by most standards, an utterly innocuous gesture. But, as Woolf explains, “in this dumb colloquy with the sand dunes he maintained that his affection for Ramsey had in no way diminished.”
It’s a small realization — one of millions that make us whom we are — and it couldn’t have happened under Bankes’s nose, but only in the “acuteness and reality laid up across the bay among the sandhills.” Staring at a humble hen, for reasons we’re invited to ponder, flattened Bankes’s insight into his friendship status with Mr. Ramsey. But when he looked across the bay he was “alive to things which would not have struck him had not those sandhills revealed to him the body of his friendship.” Who knew the position of your head carried such significance? This phenomenon we are also invited to ponder.
In the novel’s penultimate scene, Lily stands in grass near the shoreline and watches the sailboat slice its way to the lighthouse. As the space grows between her and the crew, which includes Mr. Ramsey, she suddenly laments how “she could not reach him.” Earlier in the day, the chronically insecure but brainy Ramsay was fishing for a compliment from Lily but Lily — for reasons she couldn’t explain to herself — refused to oblige. But as she watched “the boat now flatten itself on the water and shoot off across the bay,” she changed her mind. “The sympathy she had not given him weighed her down.” To alleviate her guilt, to now reach out to Mr. Ramsey, Lily “dipped into the blue paint.” As Woolf notes, she reached for art because “the problem of space remained.” So the gap between them — which Woolf describes “a fine gauze which held things” — needed to be closed. But, significantly, only painting had the power to do that.
And not just any painting:
Beautiful and bright it should be on the surface, feathery and evanescent, one color melting into another like the colours on a butterfly’s wing; but beneath the fabric must be clamped together with bolts of iron. It was to be a thing you could ruffle with your breath; and a thing you could not dislodge with a team of horses.
This gorgeous but impossible aesthetic highlights the novel’s ultimate and most moving ekphrastic moment. Woolf slyly transfers the novel’s grand literary challenge to Lily’s painting. Lily even more slyly transfers her artistic challenge to the crew heading to the lighthouse. The crew guilelessly makes it to the lighthouse and, mission accomplished, as waves crash around them, gain insight into themselves. And the reader is left in an impressionistic blur that somehow clarifies more than it obscures.
“Literature has more dogs than babies,” Rivka Galchen writes in Little Labors, “and also more abortions.”
Put like that, the observation is startling. And though the babies are definitely out there — Galchen finds them in Beloved, The Millstone, A Personal Matter, The Fifth Child, and Dept. of Speculation for starters — the search seems to leave her (playfully) grasping at straws. Perhaps Frankenstein’s monster is her favorite fictional baby, Galchen cheekily suggests. Perhaps Rumpelstiltskin is the metaphoric firstborn of the fairy tale, and his hijinks are merely sad attempts to gain his surrogate mother’s attention.
From my own bookshelf I’ll add to the list Rachel Cusk’s A Life’s Work, a vicious and spry chronicle of her daughter’s first year. Ernest Hemingway’s “Indian Camp” features a baby of sorts. (Though one centimeter over is “Hills like White Elephants,” in which there will soon be an abortion.) Trials of parenting, once a child has achieved a certain age, give us highs of tenderness and brushstrokes of true cruelty. See Mrs. Ramsey winding her shawl around a fright-giving pig skull in To the Lighthouse; or Jason’s attempts to corral his mutinous niece in The Sound and the Fury.
And yet between courtship and marriage, or between the searchings of early adulthood and the intrigues of family life, literature seems to draw a two-year blank. A survey of 1,000 novels might produce nuanced portraits of extramarital affairs, or descriptions of all-night benders, but scant answer to the questions: Where do people come from? Under what circumstances are we born?
Why the omission?
Galchen isn’t sure. Thankfully not. Her investigations shoot off from her subject like finely-pointed spokes from a hub. The book’s split-up structure fits her purpose well. On the one hand you can occasionally imagine these short chapters as the immediate and authentic jotting-downs of a new mother reporting from the front. (For instance, Galchen on iPhone videos of her daughter, a.k.a. the puma: “footage of the puma has the unfortunate quality of making it seem as if the puma has passed away and the watcher, me, is condemned to replaying the same scene again and again and again.”) On the other hand, the book’s loose form also gives room to Galchen’s commendable analytical mind. Here, as in her novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, she is the type of writer who can show you in an outstretched arm one view of a sphere, then spin her subject in hand, and show you something quite different.
Unifying these chapters is a low-wattage but steadily glowing anxiety: that babies are not a subject of literature because babies are not interesting. To their parents and families in real life, yes, but not in general, not as a surface that will for the writer yield fruitful depths. Before she was a mother herself, Galchen confesses a nose-in-the-air dismissiveness toward a subject so patently and traditionally female. And her aloofness, she admits, didn’t stop at just babies: the authors she liked were all men (including Denis Johnson, whom she mistook for a French woman during an attempt to diversify her reading.) Two people with otherwise equal qualities would differentiate by gender: the man inevitably more magnetic in the pair. As for babies? The way Galchen tells it, you’d think it a prerequisite of youthful intellectualism to fall asleep at the mere mention of the word: God help you if you cared to go into particulars. Or put those particulars into writing.
But Galchen knows that’s not the whole story. Only recently have women begun writing with equal output of men, and with equal education to back them up. Only very recently have writers who are also women and also mothers had any significant spousal or institutional support to continue their work with children at home. Karl Ove Knausgård, for instance, whose influence is apparent in passages, manages to write about children’s birthday parties, his wife’s labor, a child’s real-time soiling of a diaper, in a way that makes those moments tremble with cosmic meaning. (Of course in Knausgård everything trembles with cosmic meaning.) Perhaps, though, the subject matter isn’t really the problem. Perhaps the problem is that while you are taking care of a baby you often don’t have time to write about taking care of a baby. Or as Galchen describes life with a newborn:
The world seemed ludicrously, suspiciously, adverbially sodden with meaning. Which is to say that the puma made me again more like a writer (or at least a certain kind of writer) precisely as she was making me into someone who was, enduringly, not writing.
And it isn’t just time that’s the problem. Despite the fertile ground that Galchen describes — and which other new parents must certainly feel — it seems remarkably difficult to see past the “dull” label that has been affixed to infant heads. And no wonder, given a literary tradition in which an erection can boast an established history of metaphoric usage, while a menstrual cycle, for instance — with exceptions such as in Elena Ferrante’s Troubling Love — is a detail that writers habitually leave out with trips to the bathroom and the buzzing of morning alarms.
Galchen, though, breathes decided life into her topic. And her writing is so good that her observations double as arguments for her choice of subject. Take, for example, this passage on a baby’s seemingly metaphysical essence:
We know babies are the only ones among us in alliance with time. They are the only incontestable assessors to power, or, at least, they are immeasurably more well-placed than their elder co-unequals. The way a baby, in a stroller, briefly resembles a fat potentate, for a moment unlovable, has something in it of the premonition. Even as to see a baby raise its chubby hand — to bow down before that random emperor can feel very right.
Or consider this, a comment on a baby’s loss of intrigue with the acquisition of language:
It’s as if babies don’t grow larger but instead smaller, at least in our perception. It’s striking that in the canonical Gospels, we meet Jesus as a baby and as an adult, but as a child and teenager, he is unserviceable.
There are a few places in this book where the writing does make a dangerous shift from brightly analytical to willfully cryptic (e.g., an unnecessarily complex description of a movie poster and its surrounding geography.) But that is rare. In Little Labors Galchen is recognizably the writer of the masterful short story, “The Lost Order.” Language like “random emperor” and “unserviceable” are the brilliant norm.
In interviews, Galchen has cited Sei Shōnagon’s 11th-century The Pillow Book as an influence for her work’s fragmented and miscellanea-driven structure. Shōnagon’s text gets room here, in summary form, if not thanks to what it offers on motherhood than as good evidence for the artistic worth of daily domestic life. (If an empresses’s court indeed counts as daily domestic life.) But Little Labors might be too tightly wrought, too self-conscious to really call back the flowing, pure diary feel of that book. Observations here more frequently have the ring of Susan Sontag or William Vollmann than dashed-off notes-to-self. And even the vivid glimpses of quotidian life with a child — the comments provoked by a trendy orange snowsuit, the comical tribulations involved in obtaining a passport photo for an infant, a child’s eerily suspicious fall among playmates — give the cumulative effect of toes cautiously dipped into water. Does this count as literature? the book seems to be asking itself. And this?
The result is that this quietly revolutionary little book is extremely difficult to qualify. I found myself thinking of it as a metanarrative on the genre of parenting novels: a genre, in other words, that does not yet fully exist. That is not Galchen’s fault; nor does it detract from the book. The way she writes, you feel she is onto something, as if she were peering down a long pathway of New Yorker issues to a literature ahead.
Little Labors ends as inconspicuously as it began. The child’s grandmother totes her to a senior dinner at their synagogue, where the child charms the crowd, “carrying her winter pants here and there, offering them to diners, rescinding the offer.” Couldn’t you charge $1,000 a day to bring a baby to a nursing home? the grandmother jokes afterwards. Couldn’t a family charge 20 bucks an hour to babysitters, adds the father, for the privilege of being with the baby? “Everything they said was true,” Galchen concludes, “and yet also, we know, not the case.”
Given what’s come before, it’s nearly impossible not to read this final note as a mordant analogy to the ambivalent place that the baby occupies in literature at large. After all, if novels are investigations into the workings of human existence — shouldn’t a baby, and a baby’s arrival, provide a useful key? Isn’t a baby a good place to start? In life, in literature, to borrow Galchen’s phrase, a baby should be a goldmine. And yet we know it is not the case.
I’ve been following Pamela Erens’s work since her debut in 2007. With each novel, her reputation has grown; I admit that I expected her new book to land on my doorstep with a resounding thud — the sound of a weighty third novel announcing its author has arrived. The actual tone was higher, more like a plonk.
Erens’s third novel, Eleven Hours, is 165 pages long. It is a heart-in-your-mouth, hold-your-breath read that uses one of the most familiar, and possibly underused, time constraints to hold tension: labor. A woman named Lore, in the early stages of labor, checks into the hospital alone. She brings with her a detailed birth plan, which her assigned nurse, Franckline, eyes skeptically. The nurse knows all too well that the only certain thing about birth is that it won’t go to plan. As the novel charts the course of the contractions, the relationship between the two women becomes more intense. Their lives and past experiences become briefly intertwined through the deeply intimate process of birth.
Why hasn’t a novel like Eleven Hours been written thousands of times before? Like storming the castle, slaying a serial killer, or saving the world, the story of a labor has all the elements of a classic plot. An inciting incident, conflicting needs, rising action, suspense, a built-in climax, and a kind of resolution that often feels both surprising and true.
Like the structure of Eleven Hours, the outcome of a birth, though often happy, isn’t assured. For with every birth, comes the possibility of death. And it’s this natural tension — as Karen Russell puts it, “the tides of memory, sensation, and emotion” — that Pamela Erens has caught so precisely. On the eve of publication, I wanted to know how Erens came to this point in her writing career. In an email exchange, I asked her about working at Glamour magazine, the hard slog of doing publicity yourself, getting the rights back and the reissue of her first novel, glowing reviews by John Irving, “big” books, and “small” topics.
The Millions: Since your first novel was published in 2007, you have been listed for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, you were named a contemporary writer to read by Reader’s Digest, your criticism has appeared in many prestigious publications, and your work has been lauded by The New York Times, The New Yorker, and The Guardian. Have you made it?
Pamela Erens: Hmm, what is “making it?” On the one hand, so much more has come my way than I could have imagined 10 or 15 years ago. I remember when my second novel, The Virgins, came out, realizing that people I didn’t actually know were reading my novel. That was thrilling! Honestly, I think almost everyone who read my first novel, The Understory, either knew me or knew someone who knew me. Getting to write essays for a place like Virginia Quarterly Review, a journal I’d held in awe for years: that knocks me out.
But one keeps moving the goal posts, right? It’s just human nature. You (I) want more readers, more sales, a prize…Sometimes I hate that the mind works like this.
TM: You were an editor at Glamour magazine. How did you make the transition from magazines to novels?
PE: Actually, the fiction came before any magazine work (I also had stints at Ms., Connecticut Magazine, and a New York City weekly called 7 Days). The magazine work was what I gravitated to after college because I was a huge reader of magazines (still am) and needed to make a living. But I wrote fiction as far back as I can remember. If Glamour shaped my work, it was by training me to be succinct and draw the reader in quickly. In school, you learn to generate a lot of blah-blah in your writing, a lot of what my boss at Glamour called “throat-clearing.” Magazine work cures you of that.
TM: Did the success of The Understory surprise you?
PE: Very much. For one thing, during the editing process I gradually gleaned that my editor and publisher (it was the same man) was no longer really running the press that was supposed to bring out my book. He was traveling a lot, hard to reach, involved in other business ventures. He was shutting down operations, and there were many months where I didn’t think the book was going to come out. In the end he did honor the commitment to publish, thank goodness, but there were long delays, and the press lost its distributor. The book was not in bookstores, period. People rightly criticize some of Amazon’s practices, but if it hadn’t been for Amazon no one would ever have been able to get ahold of the book without coming over to my house to ask for a copy.
There was no publicity for The Understory other than what I did myself. The publisher did print advance reading copies, but I had to figure out where to send them. I ran myself ragged writing notes to newspapers and possible reviewers — but at the time I knew hardly anybody. A couple of things worked out, including a Publishers Weekly review, which was hugely important in legitimizing the novel. Jim Ruland, a wonderful writer I’d gotten to know via the online writers’ site Zoetrope, did an interview with me for the literary blog The Elegant Variation. It was an L.A.-based blog, so perhaps that was how the Los Angeles Times folks, who nominated it for the book prize, got wind of the novel. I sent the book to several prize competitions, cursing at the steep entry fees, but it led to the short list for the William Saroyan Award. So: a combination of stubbornness and a few contacts and some lucky breaks.
TM: Picking up on things working out, Tin House republished The Understory in 2014. How did this come about?
PE: By the time The Understory came out in 2007, Ironweed was basically no longer operating except to send copies to Amazon once in a while and bring out one other book they had under contract. I figured that if I could get the rights back, maybe eventually another press would be willing to do a reissue. I was afraid of losing track of my publisher (he was often in Asia) and not being able to contact him if an offer came up. So in 2010 I made a request for the reversion of rights. The publisher was very accommodating about it.
Later, when I got an agent for The Virgins I mentioned to her that I owned the rights to The Understory. After Tin House took The Virgins, she sent The Understory to my new editor, who said that he was interested it in, too, but wanted to see what happened with The Virgins first. And luckily that went well, so Tin House brought out a reissue of The Understory about eight months after The Virgins. It was great to see it with a new cover and in bookstores.
TM: The Virgins got a rave review from John Irving in The New York Times. How did you swing that?
PE: I don’t think authors ever get to swing anything when it comes to The Times!
The review was exciting for reasons beyond the obvious. I’d been a John Irving fan since the age of 15, when I read The World According to Garp. My early- to mid-teens was the one time in my life I stopped writing. I’d been a massively scribbling kid. I’d written a novel at the age of 10 — that was published — I really should refer to it as my first novel. It was called Fight for Freedom and it was about a slave girl who escapes to the North before the Civil War with the help of Harriet Tubman. My mom, always an optimist and a booster, sent it out to a few places and it got taken by a small feminist press in California called The Shameless Hussy Press (this was the 1970s, okay?). But once adolescence hit I guess I just got too busy with trying to be popular and attract the interest of boys. Anyway, The World According to Garp blew me away. I couldn’t believe fiction could be written that way. It was so irreverent and joyful and antic and dark and political. Afterwards, I went out and read all of Irving’s earlier books.
They jolted me into writing again (at first very Irving-imitatively), and I haven’t stopped since, other than for a brief period when I couldn’t sell The Understory and thought, crap, I really don’t have what it takes, maybe I would like to be a librarian. Not a joke; I was looking into it. So there was a big kick in being reviewed by one of my first literary heroes.
TM: Big books are having a moment. Of the many virtues of novels like The Goldfinch, The Luminaries, A Little Life, and City on Fire, they have also received attention for their high page count. Eleven Hours is 165 pages long, is this a contrarian stance?
PE: You’ve hit a sore spot for me. Some of the novels most dear to me are big and multi-charactered, with wide panoramas. Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, Howard’s End, Angle of Repose. Then I have this other passion for slender, intense, highly concentrated novels and collections, such as Wide Sargasso Sea, Desperate Characters, They Came Like Swallows, Jesus’ Son. But it’s the longer, more sprawling books that epitomize “The Novel” to me. Why?
I’ve been pressing myself on this one lately. It has nothing to do with artistry, I’m beginning to realize. It has to do with certain longings for status and, believe it or not, with how I want to see myself as a person. Do I not have enough empathy to write more than two or three or four characters a book? Am I lacking in imagination? I just have to get over those probably false equivalences. Jane Austen famously referred to “the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work.” Well, we’re still reading Jane Austen today, while Walter Scott, the “big book” writer of her day, not so much.
TM: What is a “big book?”
PE: Usually, for me, it’s a novel that takes on a lot of the “outside” world, that’s sociological and/or historical as well as psychological. Sometimes a book like that truly does offer a “big” experience, and sometimes it’s just kind of, well, journalistic: doing the work of nonfiction rather than fiction.
I think about Kafka, another writer I love. Can you imagine if Kafka sat around saying, “God, why can’t I write a multi-generational novel with lots of sociological color and several gripping subplots?”? You could argue that Kafka is one of the narrowest writers around. He barely does description or character. There’s only sometimes a bit of plot. But in plumbing what he plumbs he brings us some of the most potent experiences in literature. He brings us the unconscious erupting into our lives and the dread at the heart of being human. He goes places no one else goes.
We authors just have to write what we write and not get caught up in these ideas of “big” or “small.”
TM: I agree, but know from experience that it’s not a comfortable feeling to be told your novel is “small.” While there is no set definition of “small,” it can feel diminishing?
PE: Yes, it can. My other hangup about “writing short” is that long books do often generate more excitement and attention. Though it’s not always the case. The wonderful Dept. of Speculation, a novel you can read in an hour and a half, was one of the most lauded books of 2014. There’s Garth Greenwell’s book What Belongs to You. There are Ben Lerner’s two short novels. These have been among the most justly praised books of recent years.
I’ll also say this: When advance reader’s copies of Eleven Hours were mailed out, I realized one big advantage of a short book: people are much more likely to get around to reading it. It’s not such a huge investment of time.
That’s a long way around to your question of whether writing short is a contrarian stance. No! Both The Understory and The Virgins started out as longer books. Making them into the best books I could resulted in major amputations. I knew from the start that Eleven Hours would be short, because of the time frame and because there were only so many uterine contractions I could describe without losing my shit, but I kept hoping it would magically pass the 200-page mark. It just didn’t want to.
Some authors seem to achieve their best effects through expansion. For me, at least so far, it’s compression that brings out what I want.
TM: What did your editor at Tin House say about the length of the manuscript?
PE: I worried about what both my agent and my editor would say about the length of Eleven Hours.
I was afraid someone was going to use the dread word “novella.” (For the record, as a reader, I love the novella form. I just thought that if Eleven Hours was labelled as a novella it might be tougher to sell or get reviews for.)
Neither said anything. When I expressed my own anxieties, my editor mentioned another novel that Tin House had done, even shorter, and commented that the right layout and presentation can make a short book very appealing. That was nice. Tin House does in fact have a track record of beautifully publishing shorter novels.
TM: Eleven Hours tells the incredibly tense story of a woman’s 11-hour labor. How did it feel to write?
PE: I had a lot of false starts with Eleven Hours. I wrote my first two novels in almost complete isolation. With The Virgins, I submitted the first 15 pages to a workshop once; that was it until it was finished. By Eleven Hours, I had a writers’ group, and I was also having trouble getting it launched. Trying to capture the physical and psychological experience of childbirth was so difficult. Not because I didn’t remember it well or was spooked by the material, but simply because it was hard to find the language to say much about it. What I was able to get down on paper was fragmentary and rather dreamlike. I would bring in these fragments and my group would be encouraging but also kind of lost. I really felt that this book needed to be in third person, unlike my first two novels, and I just couldn’t hear the right voice.
Eventually I had a setup and a reasonably workable narrator and I proceeded. Then I didn’t show anything more to anybody and completed a draft in about a year. Wow, I’m getting really fast! I thought. This is progress!
I sent the manuscript to my agent. When we spoke on the phone, I could hear her trying carefully not to make me feel terrible. She pointed out what she liked and didn’t. She didn’t like that much, but what she did I gained the confidence to build on. I got some good feedback from her then assistant also. I spent two more years on the book and got regular critiques from my group. They were essential in helping me see where there was a live vibe and where things were going dead.
The breakthrough was when some intuition sent me back to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, two of my favorite novels. That was the voice I wanted, that mobile, poetic, exalted, wry, empathic voice that is distinct from any of the characters. So then I spent the rest of my time figuring out what of Woolf’s method I could adapt or steal. In short, the novel didn’t get written all in one breath, by any means!
TM: Eleven Hours is published by Tin House tomorrow. How do you feel right now?
PE: A bit strung out, as always before a publication. But pleased. It’s always sort of a miracle when something that started years ago as an idea, a little thread of words in your head, becomes this independent object in the world. And something that is particularly satisfying to me this time is that the content of the novel brings me full circle to some of my earliest concerns and interests.
In college I discovered I was a feminist — that is, someone who is very interested in how gender shapes inner and outer experience. I studied gender via philosophy, psychology, history, anthropology, literature. Glamour magazine was a continuation of that. Women’s magazines are where you can routinely find some of the most inquiring and informative journalism about women’s physical and mental health, reproductive rights, sexuality, and so on. The Virgins drew somewhat on that vein of interest, in its attempt to be straightforward about teenage female sexuality, but Eleven Hours does even more so. Why are there so few accurate or in-depth depictions of labor and delivery in literature? It’s just staggering.
TM: That’s a great question. Where is the experience of labor and delivery in our literature?
PE: You and I were just talking about “small” books, and it seems as if childbirth, this absolutely enormous event in the life of billions of people past and present, is seen as a “small” topic. It’s absurd. With Eleven Hours I wanted to write this thing that I wasn’t seeing out there. I wanted to do it as both an artist and a feminist. And now it’s out there, and I feel very satisfied.
Mark de Silva wrote his debut novel Square Wave (Two Dollar Radio) between the hours of five and eight a.m., before day jobs at such revered publications as The Paris Review, Harper’s, and The New York Times. For the first five years, he showed it to no one, sparing friends and colleagues the awkwardness of false encouragement.
Contrary to the literary pedigree in which he steeps, de Silva comes from philosophy (he has a Bachelor’s from Brown and a PhD from Cambridge). He doesn’t want to be Jonathan Franzen or even Jonathan Lethem. He questions the rise of absorbing, familiar “memoir fiction,” and insinuates that J-Franz dumbed down for his audience to double his dollar. In a sprawling 3:AM Magazine essay from last December, de Silva writes:
Consider how many novels of agreed artistic merit — Tristram Shandy, Moby Dick, The Man Without Qualities, To the Lighthouse, or, to take Franzen’s chosen status-model exemplar, The Recognitions — make no attempt to hold us in a continuous state of absorption. Their authors could not have failed to understand, in writing them, that it would have to be the ravenousness of the reader’s mind that drove him through these books, if anything did.
The ravenousness of the reader’s must drive him or her through Square Wave. By the author’s own admission, his is a strange, unflinching work that almost defies explanation. It takes place in the future, and the past, but it’s really about the present. It is equal parts discursive and destructive, philosophical and textural. His is a sci-fi novel of ideas — the former term a pejorative by literary standards, the latter one by de Silva’s.
I appreciate de Silva’s ideas, and his sentences, and his time, and his candor, but I won’t pretend I grasped the bulk of his book.
The Millions: You’ve said that the Square Wave writing process was deeply intuitive. Did you map out the plot beforehand?
Mark de Silva: Definitely not. I used index cards, but they were bits of sense memory, like the gleam of a knife or something. That would be enough to trigger a scene. That’s all I wanted from the index card. I didn’t want a fixed idea because I was writing what I knew would be regarded as a novel of ideas. I was especially wary about the wooden kind of book that comes out over-determined. It almost seems like a kind of allegory or parable; I was very concerned not to do that. It seems like such a waste both of philosophy and of literature: it’s the worst of both worlds. It’s not rigorous philosophy and it’s not glorious or imaginative literature.
I was wary of thinking about it too much. But I had had no real creative writing background since my undergrad days, when I had done a few fiction pieces and a couple of workshops. So I was doing this research and taking these notes and just hoping I could summon capacities that I had no real knowledge I could.
TM: Did you run into doubt?
MDS: When I applied for the Paris Review internship — you have to do these analyses of pieces and suggest what’s wrong, whether this belongs in the Review or not — my dad said, “How would you know anything about it?” [Laughs.] I said, “Well, I read a lot. Why does the world have to be this credentialized thing?” So I was starting from that outsider’s point of view from the beginning, even getting that job. I thought, I’m just gonna build from scratch, without an idea of what’s right and what’s wrong. And that was true of the entire book; it was a seat-of-the-pants thing. It was scary to do, but it was also like, look man, you’re not part of that creative writing world, you’re gonna have to find your own terms. Because I didn’t want to write a standard literary novel in the way that we have, you know, good novels by people like, say, Maggie Shipstead. I knew that wasn’t me, because I wanted to draw on all the philosophy and all that I had done. I knew there was not going to be a great template for what I was doing, so I said fuck it, I’m just going to run with it, see where my instincts take me.
TM: How did the work you read at the Paris Review and Harper’s affect that outsider’s mentality?
MDS: Being at The Paris Review was wonderful in the sense of — first of all it’s a great operation, a very interesting place with very smart people. But it was also teaching me that I was not going to write a Paris Review story. It’s just not who I am. We had a story run by Claire Vaye Watkins, another by Alexandra Kleeman, and Jonathan Franzen. It was a nice time to be there; we caught a lot of these big things. And Lorin Stein was just taking over, so there was a new regime. Lorin Stein plays a big role in shaping New York sensibilities; I think that’s fair to say.
I was seeing that, as much as I respected what was in the magazine — like I get why it’s in the magazine — I also did not feel an intuitive bond to it. These weren’t the stories I wanted to tell. It almost steeled me against becoming a hack Paris Review writer, like a bad version of Alexandra Kleeman. I figured, draw on your strength — your strength is your difference. Your strength is that you’re not one of these people. You’re not a Yale English major who has dreamt all their life to write for the Paris Review. You’re this weird philosophy guy who’s trying to find some way of harnessing his idiosyncratic sensibilities, and maybe it’s literature.
TM: Square Wave is a challenging book. Did you worry at all about its marketability?
MDS: I knew from the beginning that this was gonna be a difficult book to sell. [Laughs.] I wasn’t totally surprised when a lot of agents — who were nice enough to read, you know — just sort of shrugged their shoulders, saying, “I don’t even know how to criticize what you’ve done.” They didn’t say, “I didn’t buy that motivation;” that’s not the kind of criticism I got. It was more like, “I don’t know what to make of it. I don’t know what kind of market exists for something like this.” [Laughs.]
But I was inspired by people like Tom McCarthy. I also remember reading Javier Marías, who has become for me a very important writer because he’s very discursive, very philosophical. But also his language is very, very literary, and he refers to his work as a mode of literary thinking. In other words, thinking and literature, thinking and scene and sense detail are one thing — not two things. It isn’t pretty language mapped onto thinking, or taking rigorous thinking and finding a way to turn it into literature. It’s trying to do both at the same time. I took great inspiration from Marías, because I saw this guy and thought, Oh, some people do this.
TM: One of the themes of the book is that violence is inevitable and often unfathomable. If that’s the case, what should we do? How should that truth shape our philosophy and/or our politics?
MDS: I think the book…Thinking about it now, the book is an attempt to grapple — without that distance that’s normally part of academia — to grapple in a real life, textural way with just that question. It would be nice to believe that all our social problems or moral dilemmas could be resolved through mechanisms that became part of the culture as far back as the Glorious Revolution. From that point on, there’s a rejection of monarchy, the sovereign as an absolute, and the people are in charge of a parliamentary system. From that point on, we’ve believed that the parliamentarian system of consensus-building amongst discrete points of view is the best mode of governance. I don’t think the book is necessarily a rejection of that, but the book is a revisitation of the question, like, how certain can we be that these Enlightenment mechanisms can lead to a stable society?
In a community that’s so fractured — the way obviously America is, as well as many other parts of the world — is a simple taking of votes the way to solve those problems? Where the state is simply a managing agent, a sort of referee. We tabulate votes, and whoever gets the most, we’re gonna live that way. And the rest of the people are gonna have to learn to live with it. That’s our system, now, you know, and that 49 percent who lost end up feeling really, really unhappy. It’s the consequence of a certain kind of democratic, almost legalistic-democratic thinking, of poll-taking, vote-taking. Where the losers just have to live with it. Like suck it up, you lost.
TM: In our defense, that competitive streak does seem very American.
MDS: And now we’ve come to laugh at the half that lost! We’re not even trying to connect with them anymore. Like, “We have Congress now. You’ll live like us now.” And then the next election, “Oh, now we have Congress.” Or, “We have the President.” We’re not communicating anymore. I don’t think so. We just want to win. We want to win, and the book is about that idea of factional winning, right, ’cause there are all these competing factions — and how it seems the driving force for many of them is simply, “I wanna come out on top so that I can dominate the rest of the players. As long as I can hold on, then I don’t have to take the rest of the players seriously.” I think that’s how the book proceeds in a certain way. It’s frightening, but I do think it’s true to a certain kind of neutered conception of democracy.
Parts of the book suggest that the state itself has to take a stand on this. A community has to have shared values. It’s not enough to say, “We vote, and if I win, you’re gonna live like me,” or, “If you win, I’ll live like you.” That’s not a good agreement. That’s the contract theory, right? A contractual view of politics maybe is not as good as a communitarian view, where we say, “Tell me why living the way you want to live is a good idea. Just tell me.” Let’s have moral debates rather than vote-taking debates. I think a lot of our politics now is about who can get better numbers at the poll, rather than actually reaching out and trying to convince someone of a way of life.
TM: I’m assuming the current election season reinforces that notion for you?
MDS: Absolutely. I mean look at the way the elections are covered; we’re not even interested in understanding. We want to ridicule the Tea Party, but is that really productive, for even a leftist? I actually don’t think that’s productive. I think we have to ask what is motivating these people. After 9/11, for instance, the original reaction was, “We just need to kill a bunch of the people from the Middle East.” I mean, let’s face it, there was a bloodlust. Later people starting thinking very systematically — I think Susan Sontag said very shortly after, and very controversially, “We need to ask questions. Why would anyone be driven to do such heinous things, and to throw away their own life?” Like, these are suicide bombers. Something must be going on. These people are not insane. They don’t need to go to a psychiatrist. But that’s how we portrayed them: monsters.
They’re people who somehow feel betrayed. And I feel, in a different way, that with the Tea Party — from a solid, liberal-leaning citizen, which I feel like I am, essentially — that our obligation is to say, “What could drive someone to a Tea Party view?” Not to say, “Let’s rally troops and win, because these guys are nuts.” I don’t like that, and I don’t think that’s productive.
I’ve said this in a very roundabout way, but that’s my feeling about politics, and I think that comes out in the book.
TM: You’ve also said that you like the idea of stretching people’s brains a bit, and making them read something they wouldn’t normally read.
TM: You called these kinds of books — your kind of book — an “acquired taste.”
TM: If your book is an acquired taste, what is it?
MDS: [Laughs.] It’s like a 140-proof, barrel-strength whiskey. It doesn’t go down easy. In terms of the reading experience, it has to be consumed quite slowly. We’ve gotten used to immediacy and absorption and rapidity. We expect books to just pull us in and run with it. This is a book that you should probably not try to read 100 pages of in a night.
I like literature, and experiences in life, that — rather than cater to our existing intuitions about how life works, or about how literature works — expand our understanding of common sense. I hope a book like mine will strike someone as violating a lot of common sense ideas about literature. I know it will. It violates my common sense about literature, and I wrote it. I had to follow my intuitions to this strange place. I know it’s kind of crazy and unstable and uncomfortable: that’s how I felt writing it. So you could say, in the weird way “memoir fiction” is all the rage now, that’s the way that autobiography figures in mine.
Lynn Steger Strong’s debut, Hold Still, joins a spate of recent novels that explores lost girls and their mothers. Some of these books feature tragic, deceased girls, while others feature heart-rending girls who though not physically lost, have lost themselves. Their mothers, all of them white, share certain characteristics around abandonment — some have been abandoned by one or both parents, some become abandoners. Like their daughters, these mothers have a tendency to lose themselves. For the girls and mothers in these books, losing one’s way is signified by lightness/thinness.
Hold Still’s protagonist is 21-year-old Ellie, who suffers alcohol and drug abuse, along with what appears to be crippling depression. Ellie feels lost to her family, and far more consequentially, to herself. Alternating between 2013 and 2011 when a terrible event happened that overshadows the book, Hold Still unfolds through earlier flashbacks. Ellie has a younger brother and a father, but most prominent is Ellie’s mother, Maya Taylor, an English professor at Columbia. As a young girl, Maya was abandoned by her mother. Maya’s father, inadequate and inappropriate to the task, died while Maya was in her early 20s.
A similar pattern emerges in Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, to which Hold Still is compared on its book jacket. Ng’s novel opens with the death of 16-year-old Lydia and unfurls in lyrical, painstaking detail. Early on, Ng poses the question —
How had it begun? Like everything: With mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers. Because long ago, her mother had gone missing…
Lydia’s mother, Marilyn, was herself a lost girl, her father having abandoned the family. At Marilyn’s wedding to a man of Chinese descent, Marilyn’s mother makes unforgivable racist remarks. “That was the last time Marilyn saw her mother,” thus rendering Marilyn parentless.
Long before she dies, Lydia loses herself trying to satisfy her parents’ projected desires. She fakes friendships to feed her father’s zeal for her popularity, while she fakes school to fulfill Marilyn’s thwarted dreams of a career in medicine. As the circumstances surrounding Lydia’s death grow more mysterious, one thing clarifies — Marilyn’s temporary abandonment of her family is foundational to the drama.
Sari Wilson’s Girl Through Glass also contains a lost girl and a thread of maternal abandonment. Girl Through Glass is narrated from the twin standpoints of adult and child by a former ballet student named Mira. When Mira is a tween, her mother abandons her, moving from New York to California. Mira’s father remains on hand, but he’s not paying attention.
Yes, her mother was gone — but, like a girl in the fairy tale, [Mira] has been given a substitute.
Mira’s mother substitute is a shadowy 47-year-old man, who proves neither fairy godmother nor godfather. Mira loses the dream that is congruent with herself — becoming a professional ballerina — and thereby loses herself. Girl Through Glass is Mira’s adult struggle to embrace her past mistakes and forge a way forward.
Consider Nancy Reisman’s stunning Trompe L’Oeil, which plumbs the aftermath of four-year-old Molly Murphy’s death in a traffic accident in Rome. Despite efforts to stay together — the Murphys have two more children — the family slowly unravels. Reisman writes with captivating musicality, masterfully exposing the innards of the disintegrating Murphy family.
Molly’s mother, Nora, does not abandon the family. Instead, she remains at the center, growing lighter and lighter. She declines social invitations, because
Nora could imagine herself on a small olive-shaped boat crossing the pool of a martini glass, but not at the cocktail party itself.
Eventually Nora’s husband leaves her, prompting
Another kind of winnowing, gradually becoming a yet-sparer Nora — thinner, quicker.
Nora’s lightness feels like an indispensable coping mechanism. Floating through life, she is able to bear with grace her evolving grief over her daughter, the loss of her husband, and her family’s endlessly mutating need for her.
Perhaps it is no surprise that thinness wafts through Girl Through Glass; Mira is a rising ballet star, with the attendant fixation on body type. She and her fellow students “are being molded into the stick-thin hipless Balanchine ballerinas.” If there’s a fairy tale at work here, it’s “more like Hansel and Gretel.” Wilson pings the lost girls:
A brittle finger bone, a threat of fire and oblivion, a trail of receding crumbs disappearing in the woods of a vanishing child-self.
So too, lightness is a trope in Hold Still. Graduating Harvard, Ellie’s mother, Maya, “felt weightless, lost.” Ellie, frequently seen through her mother’s lens, is “perfect-looking” at age 12. At 17, Ellie is very thin. “Maya’s daughter’s hips jutted out from underneath the satin string that connected the front and back stretch of fabric that still covered her.” And Ellie’s own observation as she stands naked in front of the mirror: “Her hip bones jut out below her abdomen.”
“Eating disorder memoirists love to fetishize hipbones,” Katy Waldman writes in a plea to reject anorexia’s false narratives and focus instead on its biologic causes. Noting that “starving silences who you really are,” Waldman puts Virginia Woolf and a host of literary luminaries (Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Louise Glück) in the anorexia “clubhouse…a clique of brilliant madwomen bent on self-destruction.” In Hold Still, Maya is a Virginia Woolf scholar; she never goes anywhere without her copy of To the Lighthouse. “Virginia,” Maya says in praise of Woolf, is the “presence of the absence.”
Maya has a strong dose of self-abnegation. She runs compulsively, leaving at 4:30 a.m. to run with her son; routinely running great distances from Brooklyn to Manhattan. And she has a self-punishing streak:
There was something constantly off-putting about the ease with which her in-laws existed in the world…They…seemed to feel as if they had a right to all the pleasures they’d been given, while Maya sat most days waiting to be punished for all that she had somehow managed to acquire.
Nevertheless, Hold Still is not an eating disorder memoir, and none of these books is about anorexia. What does jump out, however, is the undercurrent of lightness/thinness among these lost girls and their mothers.
Earlier this year, Mattel tried shaking things up with three new Barbie body types — one curvier, one taller, and one petite — as well as a long overdue assortment of skin tones. According to The New York Times, “Mattel executives have struggled to rebrand Barbie as an aspirational figure, one not so closely identified with her unnatural body measurements.” Hate to break it to you, Mattel executives, aspiration is the problem. To what should girls aspire when an entire culture, including a culture of smart literary women, values them for how little of them there is?
Intelligence and education were not enough for Marilyn in Everything I Never Told You. The birth of her first child permanently disrupted Marilyn’s Harvard (Radcliffe) education and her trajectory to medical school. Nor were they sufficient for Harvard educated Maya in Hold Still.
Lightness/smallness in Hold Still seem to pertain not only to body size, but to a way to navigate through life. If you can slip through the cracks without engaging too much emotionally, you have the possibility of avoiding pain. Maya chose Virginia Woolf, in contrast to her friend Laura’s specialty — “all those Frenchwomen and their feelings.” Feelings are dangerous when your mother abandoned you and your father only made it worse. At her Harvard graduation, Maya “waited for some feeling to come over her, and some sense of what might come next.” That divorce from feeling characterizes Maya’s daughter Ellie as well, and ultimately spells trouble.
Ellie’s journey in Hold Still is a disturbing slide through aimlessness, moving inexorably toward more abusive sex and drugs, while her family looks on helplessly. No combination of psychotherapists and tough love seem to make a difference. Finally, her family sends Ellie to Florida to take care of Annie’s little son, Jack. Annie is an old friend of Maya’s, whom Maya mentored. In parallel with other women in these books, Annie says, “I reconciled myself to not having a mother a long time ago…Long before my actual mom died.”
Ellie’s attachment to Annie’s son initially holds the promise of providing stability. Maya and Ellie stay in close touch, as if relieved to be sharing the mundane details of childcare rather than all the ways that Ellie has tripped up earlier in her life. Inevitably, however, life in Florida unleashes new dangers.
Hold Still drills down on emotions, and the lack thereof. Throughout the novel, one emotion that Maya owns, and owns powerfully, is her love for Ellie. Mother and daughter are so conjoined that Maya’s carefully curated New York life falls apart in parallel with Ellie’s in Florida. (Spoilers prevent further elaboration.)
Maya’s love for her daughter endures, the opposite of lightness and avoidance. On the contrary, it is anchoring, if fraught. Maya describes her feelings about Ellie in her journal:
Sometimes I say out loud to myself or type it, the thing you did…I try to imagine a world in which I hate you. I try to see if I’m capable of letting you go…What makes me angrier than the thing you did is the impossibility of the idea of not loving you because of it.
In Hold Still, that tortured, grounding love serves as the necessary glue between mother and daughter. And that, perhaps, is the bottom line.
As usual, you’re talking with your friend about books. “Have you read it?” she asks. “No,” you say, “but it’s on the nightstand.” It’s on the nightstand. That’s code for, I’ve made mental note of it. Or It’s on my list but not a priority. Or even, I actually own it, and I’ll be reading it next. Regardless, for me, It’s on the nightstand has always been metaphorical — an abstract and elastic category of Books I Hope To Read.
That is, until recently.
You could call it an “alcove,” but it’s not big enough for a queen-sized bed. The full-sized has worked just fine, but the piles of unshelved books — on the floor, on the dresser, on the dining chairs, in the bathroom, on top of the puppy crate for godssakes — haven’t. I wanted a nightstand.
And so, an end table was repurposed. Finally, I have an actual nightstand.
What’s on the nightstand? Suddenly the question is not so abstract. Of the mess of books that has been unsystematically scattered throughout my home, and my life, which ones will make it to the nightstand? In what order will they be stacked?
Perhaps most importantly: how will I decide?
A mini-debate recently bloomed among colleagues at the college where I teach, after the department administrator sent around a brief and innocent-enough email: would we please send changes or additions to the attached post-grad Suggested Reading List? The list, she reminded us, would be distributed to graduating seniors; a deadline was specified.
“Are the students asking for this?” Professor B wrote. Was it perhaps odd to foist such a list on departing students, “a noodging sort of gesture from teachers who can’t let go?” Professor H concurred, quoting Professor L: “Why ask for a booklist now, dear graduates? We’ve given you the tools to read and to make discriminations among the various books you encounter: So feel free to fly away from the comfortable nest of your undergraduate English Department and read what you want and when you want.”
Off-line conversations ensued. Professor H came back with an idea:
“[O]ne of my main goals in the classroom,” she wrote, “is to teach students to go from one book to another all by themselves; I am never so dejected as when seniors complain they have no clue as to what to read next…What if we encouraged our seniors to put together a list of books for the rest of our majors?” A week later, Professor H further articulated her thinking: “It won’t be enough, of course, to ask the grads what books they recommend. The real question is how they found them.”
To go from one book to another all by themselves. It sounds simple enough. As a young person just entering the world of post-academy literature, the challenge may be discerning “what’s good.” In youth, there is a blessed naiveté about this, a hunger for objective, definitive recommendations from an authoritative source. In graduate school, when a professor first challenged me to “create your own map of literary influences,” it was indeed a revelation: the image I remember conjuring was of lily pads — each of us in our own deep black pond, bug-eyed and hopping from one pad to another. Sometimes just one pad over, sometimes a greater leap to the far shore. Apparently random, and yet mysteriously considered.
As we get older — as the nature of our work and passions specifies, as our aesthetic palates grow more particular — we understand that, given the sheer number of artful and compelling books in the world relative to the time we have on the planet, “good” is more contextual than absolute. Deciding what to read next is thus as much about Knowing Thyself as Knowing Literature. School attempts to teach the latter; it’s the self-knowledge that we must develop on our own, over time.
And so, in my humble opinion, the process by which you decide what to read must not be outsourced — to your professors, to reviewers or awards, to online algorithms. An external source can’t tell you what you need to read next any more than a spouse can tell a pregnant partner what she’s craving to eat; what will satisfy. Read what you want and when you want. Choosing what to read is about attuning yourself to what it means to be nourished. By this I mean confronted, changed, filled, emptied, engrossed, surprised, instructed, consoled — all these. You. At this moment in time.
What should I read next? It is not a casual question. We are not frogs. We are chasing something more profound than flies. Every time I finish a book and consider what to read now, it feels…important.
Since I am not so much looking for a foolproof test of a book’s “objective” quality, my decision process is no more suitable for you than my nightstand list. Nevertheless, here it is — my provisional, evolving list of the (sometimes absurd) ways I decide/have decided what to read next:
A. The 25-Page Test
Standard trial run. I bought the book on impulse; it’s been lying around for a while. I pick it up and start reading. Am I eager to read page 26 (even better: did page 26 come and go without my noticing)? Am I stopping to scribble in my notebook because the book is sparking responses that matter enough to write down? Or — have two paragraphs gone by and I don’t know what I just read (in which case something is evidently not clicking).
B. The Three-Book Shell Game
Okay, the truth is, I bought three books on impulse. I lay them out side-by-side. I stare at them. Which one should get the trial run first? I stare some more. I pick up each one, feel it in my hands — heft, cover material. I look at the cover for some time. Sure, there is that two-second impression; but there is also the three-minute study and consideration. The emotions and ideas it evokes. I skim the jacket copy but not too closely. I am not interested in the publisher’s sell job but rather words or phrases that resonate, with me, right now, for whatever reason. I lay them out again. I wait. I swear to you, one of them starts to levitate.
C. Narrative Point-of-View/Voice
As reader, writer, and teacher, for me, narrative POV is perhaps the most intriguing, and most important, feature of any work of fiction. Usually, I am primed for something specific: first person or third person; omniscience or (in James Wood’s terminology) free indirect style; vernacular or formal, contemporary or non-contemporary; verbal density or spareness (the author who achieves these simultaneously always wins). When narrative voice is a driving factor, three or four pages is usually enough to determine Yay or Nay. Do I want to hear this voice speaking for the next two days or two weeks? Do I need a voice I can “trust,” insightful and articulate? Or something less stable, a wild and deeply subjective ride?
D. Bookshelf Staring
I’ve just finished a book, and I’m on a reading roll. I stand in front of my bookshelves. Like yours, mine are “organized” in a particular way that would make very little sense to anyone else. I change up this organization from time to time, and sometimes this staring prompts reorganization. Sometimes the reorganization becomes part of the process of choosing — handling the books and moving them around as a way of reorganizing my mind. At the moment, there is the not-yet-read section. But I stare at the whole canvass of books, not just that one section. The book I’ve just read is still buzzing in my mind; if it was great, it’s buzzing in my body, too. I want more of that buzzing, but differently. The last book did X so well, so interestingly. I’m intrigued by X’s impact and also interested in how X would read if it was plus Y and minus Z.
I step back, lean in, repeat. I swear to you, one of the books starts to vibrate.
E. Loved This Author, Want More of Same, Read Everything in the Author’s Oeuvre
This is the most exhilarating — like falling love. The last book did X. I want more and more and more of X. I am learning something here, seeing something new, growing intimate with characters and ideas. Maybe I haven’t identified what, exactly, was so captivating, so I read on to find out. More, more, more. Sometimes I’ll read them in order of best reviewed to worst reviewed; sometimes vice versa (reading the supposedly minor works of a favorite author can be particularly illuminating); sometimes chronologically; sometimes via the three-book shell game.
I do keep wishlists, haphazardly. Or, I used to. When I’m stumped, I’ll log on to Goodreads or Audible and see what, at some point in time, I decided I might someday like to read. Then I proceed with Item D above, the online version of bookshelf staring. With audiobooks, a two-minute sample is usually available — the audio version of the 25-page test combined with the narrative voice test.
(As I write this, I am reminded of the usefulness of online wishlists. It’s a place to be impulsive about books, without opening your wallet. And looking back on your wishlists is such an interesting journey in itself: Vasily Aksyonov? Dorothy Day? Suttree. I craved these books enough to click them. What was I thinking about at the time? Hmm…)
G. The “Should” Lists
I really should read Thackeray. I really should read Vollman. I really should read The Goldfinch. Well, maybe. I was glad I pushed myself to read Faulkner and Proust and To the Lighthouse; less so Philip Roth and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I’m still pushing with Thomas Mann, the verdict is out. It’s good to ask yourself why you should read it. So you don’t feel stupid in a workshop or at a cocktail party? Or maybe because your favorite author from Item E above was deeply influenced by it. There are better and worse reasons for force-reading.
If you are a professional literarian of some sort, there are more “shoulds” to contend with: you must teach, review, converse about certain books. I’ve been fortunate to “have” to read Jean Stafford, Esther Freud, Henry James, Carson McCullers, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, Steven Millhauser, Miranda July, Sherwood Anderson, on and on (in the cases of Lampedusa and McCullers, it led to Item E). In other words, there is certainly such thing as benevolent authority, and required reading can be a blessing (that is, when it’s not a curse).
H. Recommendations from Friends
This, I confess, is one of the least successful categories. It’s not that my friends don’t have good taste. That many of them are thoughtful and discriminating readers may be the very problem: their passions are as contextual and idiosyncratic as mine. It would be, in a way, a little weird if the books they raved about were books that I would rave about, at the same moments in our lives. (Recommendations seem to work better, I find, when a friend talks about something he read some time ago, within the context of current conversation — as opposed to, “I just read this great book!”).
My shameless plug. When Lisa Peet and I started writing about “post-40 bloomers,” there was a sense of mission, of trying to bring an alternative perspective to the table. Little did we know how many important writers — important to us personally — we’d discover along the way. For me, to name just a few: Harriet Doerr, William Gay, Spencer Reece, Shannon Cain, Edward P. Jones, Virginia Hamilton Adair, W.M. Spackman, Robin Black. And don’t get me started on Jane Gardam (I cannot stop talking about Jane Gardam — Item E bigtime).
J. The Dessert Selection
Sometimes reading is about imaginative and intellectual expansion, the difficult pleasure that is, in the end, transformative and satisfying. But sometimes you have a reading window in which you want to treat yourself to an easier pleasure. Life is hard; you want to be carried away, both far and deep. As with physical nourishment, occasional dessert is as important for your health as kale. Endorphins or something? But let me be clear: a truly pleasurable dessert is still made of excellent ingredients, not junk. Me, I’ve been working pretty hard this summer; for this last week, I’m delving into Bring Up the Bodies.
So, go throw darts at your bookshelves. Read 10 pages aloud. Stack up your wishlists. Read what you want when you want. If you don’t have one, get yourself a nightstand.
Photo courtesy of the author.
Literary travel has been around for ages, but it needs serious updating. Reading Sir Arthur Conan Doyle while wandering around London or Robert Bowles while exploring Fez may be perfectly enjoyable for your grandfather–but you are not your grandfather. You’re young, you’re free, and let’s face it: going abroad could seriously impede the routine you have developed. You’ve got a commitment to the bike co-op, several dateable co-workers, plus a full Netflix queue. Reading Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice in Venice is not a top priority. And so that’s why I’m providing you with literary travel recommendations to fascinating locales well within the boundaries of my four hundred square foot apartment. Prepare yourself accordingly for an adventure encompassing the holy trinity of time, space, and fiction, on a substantially more modern (and moderate) scale. If you can get used to my roommate, I promise it will be an incredible experience.
Pairing #1: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian with the Bedroom
You will find the first pairing of the Bedroom with McCarthy’s Blood Meridian appealing if you have ever desired to delve deeper into the violent history of the American West. Not unlike that vast lawless frontier, this Bedroom first existed in pioneer minds as a seemingly blank slate. For them, it was simply territory for the taking, albeit mostly for above-garage storage. Over the years it was explored and divided. Settlers claimed portions of land through their strategic placement of Bob Marley posters, black lights, and dirty clothes piles. As you read Blood Meridian in the gap between my well-organized desk, lofted bed, and crisp, clean sheets, and my roommate’s half-inflated air mattress covered in zines, Doritos, and half-empty Kombucha bottles, you will explore the dark realm where civilization breaks down and gives way to total, bloodsoaked anarchy. Reading McCarthy’s masterwork in this No Man’s Land of the shared Bedroom will push you to search for meaning in a world of ceaseless chaos. Why is humanity so irredeemable? Why can’t he ever wash his hideous flannel sheets?
Pairing #2: Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse with the Living Room
In the Living Room, most specifically near the window where you can see the Discovery Zone in the strip mall across the street, you will find Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to be a most fitting read. Like the beacon and symbol in Woolf’s novel, let the bright red and yellow “DZ” shine forth to represent all of your unfulfilled hopes and aspirations, reminding you, even after an enjoyable night with friends, that you are still stuck living where you are. Curl up on the couch and read to the accompaniment of my roommate watching reality TV. While you try to focus on the novel, allow yourself to be enveloped by the din of Kardashian conflict while my roommate’s nasally voice rambles on about how great it would be to go to the Discovery Zone drunk tomorrow. Try to ignore him as he describes in great detail what it would be like to romp in the ball pit and clamber through those endless plastic tubes. Look up briefly to watch as I say, “There will be no going to the Discovery Zone tomorrow.” Notice the desolation in his eyes.
Pairing #3: Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead with the Bathroom
This third pairing of Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead with the poorly lit Bathroom will allow you to throw yourself into an incarceral atmosphere strikingly true to the author’s own exile in Siberia. Fitting with the novel, the Bathroom is cramped quarters and lacks any windows or access to sunlight. While you struggle to read comfortably on the bathmat, my roommate will enhance the general uninhabitability of the “cell” by leaving beard trimmings on the counter, splattering toothpaste over the sink and mirror, and leaving wet towels and various other injustices strewn across the floor. This will all be capped off by a consistent, if not downright malicious, failure to replace any empty toilet paper rolls. For reasons of decency I shall only allude to the room’s poor ventilation. Just let it be said that there will be peak hours after my roommate’s morning cup of coffee when you will suffer along with Dostoyevsky, wondering what you ever did to deserve such harsh treatment?
Pairing #4: William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and the Kitchen
This final novel fits well with the Kitchen, which happens to be the southernmost room in the apartment. Here I recommend that you sit on the counter beside the increasingly filthy microwave that I’ve finally given up on cleaning to enjoy Faulkner’s renowned As I Lay Dying. You can bask in our only available direct sunlight and explore the varying perspectives of Addie Bundren’s death and burial. If you get too warm, there is a fitting coffin-like quality to the pantry. The fact that it has one of the only functioning doors in the entire apartment offers the chance to escape, however briefly, the presence of my roommate and to feel most in-tune with buried Addie herself. Furthermore, by reading this novel now, you won’t risk having your imagination contaminated by the James Franco movie adaptation which my roommate so earnestly claims will be a product of “pure Franco genius.”
Final Note and Offer!
If you are using an e-reader, I encourage you to download these novels before you arrive since a certain someone doesn’t think it’s necessary to pitch in for internet when our neighbor’s spotty wifi is available. But even more importantly, I want to let you know that if you find these pairings enticing, yet feel you won’t be able to get through them all in one weekend visit, there is the option of subletting the apartment or simply trading apartments with me. Just think how much fun you could have with a new roommate and so many books to read! But seriously. Think about it. I can’t take this much longer.
Image via evan p. cordes/Flickr
Today we celebrate the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. Why are we celebrating it? A simple answer is that Shakespeare’s plays still speak to us. But for me, as for so many women since Shakespeare wrote his first play in around 1590, my response to his plays is complicated by my gender. Virginia Woolf wrote in the first draft of To the Lighthouse that “man has Shakespeare & women have not.” This is true. At the same time, this is not true.
Women Making Shakespeare, a new anthology from The Arden Shakespeare series edited by Gordon McMullan, Lena Cowen Orlin, and Virginia Mason Vaughan, illustrates both sides of this paradox. The anthology was designed as a tribute to Ann Thompson, the general editor of the Arden series, who edited the massive Arden volume of all three texts of Hamlet with Neil Taylor, and who throughout her career has broken new ground in feminist criticism of Shakespeare, especially with her 1997 anthology (with Sasha Roberts) Women Reading Shakespeare 1660–1900. Thompson has also, in her role as general editor of the Arden series, dramatically increased the number of women editors of Shakespeare’s plays. Her work and her influence are worth celebrating because even today’s statistics on the numbers of women editors and commentators of Shakespeare are as damning as the VIDA statistics.
The anthology contains short essays on anything related to women and Shakespeare — as characters, as actresses, as critics and scholars, as educators, as suffragists and feminists, and as readers — over the past 450 years. I would like to pose some questions that plumb the variety the anthology offers: what does reading Shakespeare mean for women? Was Shakespeare proto-feminist or patriarchal? Has anything changed in 450 years?
We might investigate these questions through the history of Juliet. Shakespeare’s Juliet is bold, Romeo’s equal. She initiates their relationship, telling Romeo “take all myself” before she even knows for certain of his interest or commitment, bubbling over with her desire past the bounds of what might be considered correct behavior, and yet her frankness, as she calls it, is what makes her magnetic. And she talks and talks — of all Shakespeare’s heroines, only Cleopatra and Rosalind have more lines. Juliet might be another Rosalind, were this not a tragedy; I can imagine her saying, with Rosalind, “Do you not know I am a woman? When I think, I must speak.”
Juliet defies her father’s plan to arrange her marriage, equivocating to Paris to avoid suspicion, and bravely agrees to the Friar’s plan to fake her death and rescue her from her family’s tomb. Shakespeare lets Juliet, rather than Romeo, describe their wedding night: “O, I have bought the mansion of a love / But not possessed it.” And in the last couplet of the last scene, the play becomes the story of “Juliet and her Romeo.” While the Friar chides Romeo for his “womanish” tears, Juliet stands out as the more mature partner. This is Juliet’s play.
Juliet’s equality with Romeo may have been underscored at its original performances by the fact that young men played both roles. But the thing about Shakespeare’s women, the reason why we still love Rosalind and Juliet today, is that they don’t read on the page or on the stage like young men in drag, trying to show what a second gender is. These are true-hearted women. Juliet is frank, and petulant, and brave, and chatty, and loving. She is authentic.
Restoration theater brought women actresses onto the stage for the first time — a woman played Desdemona for the first time in 1660 — but it also brought changes in how women were presented on stage. The prologue to the 1660 Othello declared: “I come . . . To tell you news, I saw the Lady drest; / The woman playes to day, mistake me not, / No Man in Gown, or Page in Petty-Coat; / A Woman to my knowledge.” Thus began the tradition in which actresses’ bodies were voyeuristically put on display and actresses became equated with prostitutes. At the same time, Juliet’s frankness, especially about sex, became seen as unseemly. A 1679 version of Romeo and Juliet, Thomas Otway’s Caius Marius, cut the wedding night speech and instead called marriage “lawful Rape.” Lavinia, the Juliet-figure, wakes just before her lover’s death, but in a state of confusion that elides Juliet’s strength and intelligence.
In 1744, Theophilus Cibber’s abridged Romeo and Juliet kept Otway’s alterations and, further, condemned Juliet’s exchange with Romeo in the balcony scene; her mother, suspicious of Juliet’s aversion to marriage with Paris, supposes it must be because Juliet has done something to compromise her chastity: “What sensual, lewd Companion of the Night / Have you been holding Conversation with, / From open Window, at a Midnight hour?” she demands. To be disobedient is to be unchaste.
Both Cibber and David Garrick, in his 1750 version, rewrote the closing couplet, deleting the line that foregrounds Juliet “and her Romeo,” and Garrick further deleted any hint that Juliet knows anything about sex. By 1797, with Ann Radcliffe’s novel The Italian, a retelling of the play, Ellena is propriety itself when she learns that her lover has overheard her beneath her balcony. She turns pale, shuts her window, and doesn’t speak to him. In 1845, Charlotte Cushman played Romeo to her sister Susan’s “beautifully confiding and truly feminine” Juliet — in other words, perfectly demure, perfectly silent, a model of Victorian womanhood.
Shakespeare was increasingly appropriated around this time to provide models for womanhood. Often these were paired with arguments for better access to education for girls, Kate Chedgzoy argues in her essay in this anthology, as with Mary Lamb, who composed her Tales from Shakespeare (1807) with her brother Charles partly as a way of “redressing the limitations of the education on offer to girls.” Girls could not read Shakespeare directly (what if they read Juliet’s wedding night speech?), but they could read the tales as mediated through an educator. Lamb herself later became a tutor to Mary Cowden Clarke, teaching her Latin and to read verse. Cowden Clarke’s The Girlhood of Shakespeare’s Heroines (1850) had a similar aim, but it is worth noting that each girl’s story is framed as a march from girlhood to education to marriage. The purpose of education is not, at least primarily or overtly, to give women a voice and power for self-definition; the track of womanhood offered through these Shakespeare tales is girl to teacher of children (or apprentice mother) to mother.
In Juliet’s case, as treated by Cowden Clarke, her education is at fault for her eventual tragic end. Ignored by her parents through her girlhood, her faulty education accounts for her outspokenness and self-will, and it is these qualities, not her star-crossed fate, that lead to her death. This was the same period as Henrietta and Thomas Bowdler’s The Family Shakespeare (1807), in which many of Juliet’s lines are scrubbed and she becomes more submissive; and of Helen Faucit, an actress who, at the same time that William Charles Macready was restoring the performance of Shakespeare’s original texts, deleted even more of Juliet’s lines than usual. Her performances were called “types of noble womanly nature” and a reviewer commented: “her delicacy of taste and elevation of thought have succeeded in banishing from [Shakespeare’s] characters…all that, from the change of manners, sometimes in the hands of others, has become painful. Such is the atmosphere of purity with which she is surrounded, that nothing at variance with it can enter…” And yet actresses at this time were still equated with prostitutes.
The idealization of Shakespeare’s heroines as “types of noble womanly nature” had the effect, as Lois Potter notes in this anthology, of simplifying, Bowdlerizing, the plays. But it also simplified and silenced the women. A noble, virtuous Juliet, as in Faucit’s portrayal, was, compared to Shakespeare’s original, a silent woman. Let me return to one of my original questions: was Shakespeare a proto-feminist or was he patriarchal? My history of Juliet thus far suggests that he was, somehow, a sixteenth century feminist. Now let’s look at The Taming of the Shrew.
It is almost unbelievable that Katherina does not have more lines than Juliet or Rosalind. She is outspoken. She is argumentative. She is everything we love about Juliet and Rosalind cranked up a few notches. But on her character and her play, female editors have been almost universally silent. There have been two female editors of the play so far: Ann Thompson and, commissioned by Thompson for the Arden series, Barbara Hodgson.
What do we do with Shrew? A woman is physically abused by her husband until she shows symptoms of Stockholm syndrome, and only then, the play seems to suggest, will they live happily ever after. Bianca, the woman who is not abused during her wooing and wedding, shows signs of becoming a shrew and a scold afterward. Which method is being held up as ideal?
Farah Karim-Cooper’s essay in Women Making Shakespeare notes that some modern productions have found the only way to make the play palatable to modern audiences is to set it in the past. The guilt we feel over Katherina’s treatment by Petrucchio is only palatable at a distance of 450 years. But she also provides some hope in context: ideal sixteenth century wives were both obedient and silent. Obedient Katherina becomes, but never silent; the play ends with a lengthy speech from Katherina. She has a voice! It is possible that Shakespeare is unravelling the courtship rituals that called for a false hierarchy between men and women that would be immediately undermined or reversed within marriage. Bianca has the appearance of submission — but which would you rather have as a marriage partner? Nevertheless, there remains the troubling feeling that this play, and therefore Shakespeare, approve of Petrucchio’s behavior, and the abuse and silencing of a woman in the name of ruling a wife.
When actresses were first allowed to perform publicly in England, they generally did not address the audience directly in a prologue or epilogue. As Sonia Massai notes in this anthology, when they did, their speeches stressed the “exceptional quality” of the occasion. Then, as this essay traces, for much of the history of women’s performance of Shakespeare, actresses were associated with prostitutes, even up to the Victorian era. Ailsa Grant Ferguson’s essay takes this history up to World War I, talking about Gertrude Elliott’s work to legitimize female performance and management through the creation of “the Shakespeare Hut” to entertain soldiers passing through London. This all-female Shakespeare was acceptable because it was “war work,” because it was patriotic, and because, the actresses for the most part being middle aged, their performances were positioned as maternal care, and thus a-sexual, for the very young men about to go to the front.
One of the last essays in the anthology, by Kevin A. Quarmby, talks about the contemporary performance trend of “sexing up” Goneril in King Lear, and suggests that both in contemporary criticism and in performance, transgression by a woman, even political transgression as in Goneril’s case, is still seen as equivalent to sexual transgression. Because Goneril betrays a man (Lear) politically, therefore she is also a whore. This makes her little better than a cipher — sexualizing her deprives her of her right to a legitimate political voice, and therefore silences her.
What has changed in 450 years of performing, reading, writing Shakespeare? The history of women interacting with Shakespeare’s plays is also the history of women’s rights, suffrage, and of the feminist movement. It is a history of women being silenced and of finding ways to speak out anyway. Shakespeare has been, and is, an uneasy ally in this history. He complicates but also enriches our idea of what a woman is. Too often we are still Katherinas, forced to compromise our dignity in order to retain our voice, or else our insistence on speaking is blamed for our tragedies, like Juliet. But the reason why we still read Shakespeare’s women, is that they are women. Goneril, Juliet, and Katherina are finally not ciphers. Whatever else they may be, they are true women, and they have true voices.
Image via Wikimedia Commons
Before we get to the pratfalls, some edifying poetry. Seldom do we walk in beauty, “like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies,” or move as fluidly as Robert Herrick’s Julia: “Whenas in silks my Julia goes, / Then, then, methinks, how sweetly flows / That liquefaction of her clothes.” (Should Don Draper land a women’s fashion line in Mad Men’s final season, he’ll have his pitch.) We are too ungainly for such elegance and more like Maxwell, one of a hundred siblings in Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers, who stumbles into and breaks things “at a rate of about one electrical fixture, decorative serving dish, potted plant, or item of statuary every three days.” And we are too harried and with limbs too extended for the virtuous compression, contractility, and “absence of feet” lauded by Marianne Moore in “To a Snail.” By contrast, our walking is a kind of Carrollian galumphing, which, however silly, can have its own comic grace: Charlie Chaplin’s iconic shuffle or the springy jaunts of Jacques Tati, slightly hunched over like a detective hunting for clues to the strange modern world whose machinery he so often fouls up.
Film and television are best suited to exploit walking’s comic potential, and the flexible comedian best suited to perform the “mechanical inelasticity” Henri Bergson identified as a central feature of the comic. For example, in the famed Monty Python sketch “Ministry of Silly Walks” there is a certain regularity even in John Cleese’s most spastic contortions, his body transformed into a series of independently operating parts instead of an organic whole. Or take Seinfeld’s Cosmo Kramer, whose jerky rhythms make him a walking illustration of “something mechanical encrusted onto the living;” he bursts through doors as if powered by a nitrous boost. But what of funny gaits in literature? If there is something mechanical in comic walks, can novelistic descriptions capture their magic, or will they merely read like operator manuals?
Our literary ramble will not include docented tours through Thomas Hardy’s Wessex and Charles Dickens’s London; nor the strolls in Jane Austen novels during which much is usually decided; nor the flâneur, whose beguiling circumflex and suggestive treatment by Charles Baudelaire and Walter Benjamin prove him too alluring a figure to resist constant theorization; nor the memory-inducing peregrinations in Teju Cole’s Open City, Will Self’s Psychogeography or W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Rather, our route will include those walks that are less picturesque, less momentous, less worthy of remembrance, those that in their sheer absurdity inspire derision rather than aesthetic revelation. While they can never equal the sublime physical comedy of the Monty Python sketch, these walks still complicate the relatively simple task of putting one foot in front of the other, which is after all what poetry and rhapsodic prose are about: “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.”
Some genealogical background is perhaps necessary at the outset. The greatest comic writer of the Greek tradition, Aristophanes, envisioned our ancestors as four-legged creatures capable of some dazzling acrobatics. Speaking in Plato’s Symposium, he explains that:
They walked upright as now, in whichever direction they liked; and when they wanted to run fast, they rolled over and over on the ends of the eight limbs they had in those days, as our tumblers tumble now with their legs straight out.
A wrathful Zeus eventually cleaves humans in two, leaving us with half our original balance to pursue our romantic search for our missing halves. Aristophanes’s myth also goes a long way towards explaining the limitations of our two-legged gymnasts, who, because of their woefully inadequate anatomy, must pad their floor routines with pointless writhing in between tumbling passes.
If we are literally half the men we used to be, we are also fallen walkers, as our greatest epic poet, John Milton, made clear in his poem about our fall. Satan was a bold walker. Only he answers the call of the fallen angel Beelzebub: “…who shall tempt with wandering feet / The dark unbottomed infinite abyss/ and through the palpable obscure find out/ His uncouth way…?” Find his way — and tempt — Satan does; as a result, the poem famously ends as Adam and Eve “with wandering steps and slow, through Eden took their solitary way.” Fallen man has stumbled across the globe in various undignified strides ever since, from E.E. Cummings’s drunken “big wobbly foot-steps,” to Prufrock scuttling across the silent seas or doddering along the beach with his trousers rolled, to Malvolio, “a rare turkey-cock” in yellow stockings and cross garters who “jets under his advanced plumes,” to Samuel Beckett’s Watt, who, in a clear Miltonic echo, experiences a “manifest repugnancy” each time his feet leave the ground for the “air’s uncharted ways.”
Jonathan Swift’s Laputans best them all with a method so ridiculous that it requires two people to execute. In Gulliver’s Travels, Swift satirizes the head-in-the-clouds quality (literally, given that the island floats above ground) of a race overly devoted to speculative thought. They are a “clumsy, awkward and unhandy people,” at least when it comes to practical considerations and anything not involving astronomical calculations. The frequently cuckholded men are so absorbed in their intellectual pursuits that if presented with a suitably absorbing scientific treatise, they will pay no attention to their wives carrying on with their sublunary lovers in the very same room (providing an explanation for the island’s name that Gulliver’s etymological investigations overlook.) But faithless wives are the least of their problems; the men can’t even walk straight without a servant called a flapper (a climenole in Laputan) walking next to them with a stone-filled bladder tied to the end of a stick. To what end?
This flapper is likewise employed diligently to attend his master in his walks, and upon occasion to give him a soft flap on his eyes, because he is always so wrapped up in cogitation, that he is in manifest danger of falling down every precipice, and bouncing his head against every post, and in the streets, of jostling others or being jostled himself.
On whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to be swatted in the face or to trip over a bush, the Laputans have made their choice. To compare these absent-minded Laputans to the phone-toting distracted drivers of today is less facile than it might seem given that Swift’s robed philosophers are steering not a car but an entire island, which they are only too happy to transform into a weapon should any of their terrestrial colonies rebel.
On the subject of eccentric husbands, I’ve always been struck by the masterful comic portrait of To the Lighthouse’s Mr. Ramsay and his “firm military tread,” a comedy that could get lost amidst Mrs. Ramsay’s — and the novel’s — “delicious fecundity.” Before his wife’s flashing needles give him a much needed “spray” of confidence, Ramsay, variously described as a tyrannical, pathetic, and magisterial figure, is most likely to be found marching on the front lawn and loudly declaiming Tennyson. At one point he almost barges into the painter Lily Briscoe’s work station:
Indeed, he almost knocked her easel over, coming down upon her with his hands waving shouting out, “Boldly we rode and well,” but, mercifully, he turned sharp, and rode off, to die gloriously she supposed upon the heights of Balaclava. Never was anybody at once so ridiculous and so alarming. But so long as he kept like that, waving, shouting, she was safe; he would not stand still and look at her picture.
Were he not tilting at easels on a sparsely populated island in the Hebrides, Mr. Ramsay could be institutionalized for such behavior, eminent philosopher or not. After Mrs. Ramsay’s death, a flustered Lily, now more cognizant of Mr. Ramsay’s pathos, can only think to praise his beloved boots when he comes to her so that she might “solace his soul.” She praises them so effectively — and Mr. Ramsay responds with such longwinded vigor — that “they had reached, she felt, a sunny island where peace dwelt, sanity reigned and the sun for ever shone, the blessed island of good boots.” Perhaps this blessed island is some version of the lighthouse rock reached by Mr. Ramsay and his children at novel’s end. After sailing over with his legs curled up underneath him like an invalid, Mr. Ramsay springs vigorously ashore, a distinctly non-comic version of the heroic stride that was so ridiculous earlier.
The protagonist of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces is less lucky than Mr. Ramsay with his footware. The “lumbering, elephantine” Ignatius J. Reilly is “ready to burst from his swollen suede desert boots” as the novel begins, proving Mr. Ramsay’s contention that bootmakers “make it their business…to cripple and torture the human foot.” Reilly’s being is “not without its Proustian elements,” perhaps because he didn’t learn to walk in “an almost normal” manner until he was five years old. The obese waddle is a comic staple, but Reilly’s particular locomotive delay is key to understanding his “strange medieval mind,” his belief that touring is for degenerates and his reactionary desire for a “strong monarchy with a decent and tasteful king.” He espouses the concept of Fortuna’s Wheel, not so much because it best explains the vicissitudes of fate but because of its circular rather than linear movement. Here is Reilly walking with his mother down the wet flagstones of Bourbon Street:
Outside, Mrs. Reilly took her son’s arm for support, but, as much as they tried, they moved forward very slowly, although they seemed to move sideward more easily. Their walking had developed a pattern: three quick steps to the left, pause, three quick steps to the right, pause.
This method does give Reilly ample time to make his case for stopping at a hot dog cart, but it is also emblematic of the retarding effects of the humorous walk, the aim of which is not so much progress but rather a desultory exploration of a place’s comic possibilities — in his case, an exhaustive one, as he has only left the city confines once (disastrously, on a bus to Baton Rouge).
Lurking in Reilly’s aversion to degenerate touring is a pathological attachment to place that is positively Beckettian. Vladimir and Estragon (who has his own problems with boots) panic each time they contemplate leaving their rendezvous spot with Godot, and the protagonist in Company has “covered…some 25,000 leagues or roughly thrice the girdle [of the Earth] and never once overstepped a radius of one from home.” Given that Beckett’s characters are variously buried up to their heads in dirt, stuck in trash cans, mired in the mud, or confined to a jar on the Rue Brançion, we may forget that despite his circumscribed fictional worlds, Beckett is a great comic chronicler of human motion.
Consider Watt, which recounts the eponymous character’s employ in the house of a shadowy figure, Mr. Knott, who may be even more enigmatic than Godot. The novel begins as Watt journeys to Knott’s house in a “funambulistic stagger” that is both literally and figuratively diverting:
Watt’s way of advancing due east, for example, was to turn his bust as far as possible towards the north and at the same time to fling out his right leg as far as possible towards the south, and then to turn his bust as far as possible towards the south and at same time to fling out his left leg as far as possible towards the north…and so on, over and over again, many many times, until he reached his destination, and could sit down. So, standing first on one leg, and then on the other, he moved forward, a headlong tardigrade, in straight line. The knees, on these occasions, did not bend. They could have, but they did not…
Not the most efficient method, but given that the novel’s most notable event is the arrival of a pair of piano tuners who pronounce the instrument “doomed,” there is no need to rush. Watt’s odd preference for walking “with his back to his destination” is certainly eccentric, but it also displays a certain blind optimism, a faint ember of hope that he will find “the right place, at last.”
To add one final example to our menagerie of walkers, we lurch into an H.P. Lovecraft horror tale and find a stride so inhumanly macabre that it becomes almost comic (as most B-movie adaptations of the Dagon or Cthulhu mythos make clear). “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” betrays a pathological fear of “biological degeneration” that manifests itself in the narrator’s loathing of the Innsmouth natives, those “blasphemous fish-frogs of the nameless design” who hop irregularly through abandoned streets. The tale is partly about an abiding embarrassment over the clumsiness of our ancestors as they crawled forth from the ocean and were literally fish out of water. Aristophanic gymnasts these Innsmouth creatures are not. Fish-like though they may be, their motion at times seems “positively simian.” Particularly noteworthy is their “alien-rhythmed footfalls,” the “dog-like sub-humanness of their crouching gait,” as they surge “inhumanly through the spectral moonlight in a grotesque, malignant saraband of fantastic nightmare.” The narrator feels a growing and uncanny connection to the natives, and thus in a nice touch, he manages to escape partly by imitating their shambling hop. The walk, though feigned, nonetheless reveals a certain truth about his origins. By the end of the tale, and after some timely physiological changes, the narrator becomes a Prufrock with gills who can more than merely fantasize about cavorting with underwater sirens.
And thus we end the walking tour, fittingly, in the “unknown sea-deeps” whence our tetrapod ancestors first emerged to take their uncouth way.
Several years ago, I attended a screening of Kiss Me Deadly at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Introducing the film, the critic David Thomson remarked of the peacocking protagonist, private detective Mike Hammer (Ralph Meeker), that you can always tell a fascist by his walk. Thanks to Thomson, I was primed for that strut, at once menacing and ridiculous, which so defines the film’s unsavory hero. Thomson’s comment alerts us to the way the human gait expresses who or what we are. In our tour, which to avoid excessive fatigue has necessarily excluded many a worthy ambler, the silly literary walk has proven to produce more than a good laugh. It can resonate allegorically, produce pathos, reveal character, mirror the world’s absurdity, reflect back on the work that contains it, betray an anxiety of our origins, and even indicate a political affiliation. Regardless, no matter how eccentric the walker, each is welcome on the blessed island of boots, where one can do worse than to emulate this concise description from the “Calypso” chapter of James Joyce’s comic masterpiece: “Dander along all day.”
Image Credit: Flickr/southtyrolean
I bought my copy of Midnight’s Children in a book shop in Pondicherry in 2006 during an earnest personal campaign to read things about India while in India — a gesture of a piece with a ladies’ auxiliary “around the world” evenings or literary dos where participants discuss To the Lighthouse and eat boeuf en daube. Before Midnight’s Children, I read A Suitable Boy, and read it while sleeping on trains with my pants tucked into my socks against forward bugs. (This made for evenings of psychic dissonance roughly analogous with reading Edith Wharton on a cross-country Greyhound bus. The difference is that no Greyhound bus depot is as nice as any Indian train station of my limited experience.)
Talking about traveling, particularly the rugged variety of traveling favored by the youth, can so quickly become an exercise in witting and unwitting and halfwitting braggartry about the distance from indoor plumbing, the extreme isolation of one’s guesthouse, and the rustic nobility of one’s hosts, that it usually seems better to avoid the subject altogether. And now that I look back at my charmed early 20s and realize the immensity of the gift bestowed upon me — the gift of going places and seeing things — to even speak of those days seems gauche. Better I should husband my accounts as ready capital for some social moment when my footing is unsure. If I meet you and mention Uzbekistan, what am I wearing? Is it a turtleneck? Is there an odor?
Re-reading Midnight’s Children this summer was such a transporting experience, however, that I am compelled to mention those days on the road, when Saleem Sinai revealed a world beyond the dingy windows of unremitting buses and trains. Dunya dekho, “see the world,” as the dugdugee man Lifafa Das cries, with his postcard peepshow of Indian wonders.
I traveled with two friends, and we dutifully cultivated our up-for-anythingness. In Mumbai, picked up off the street in a routine roundup of foreign faces, we had our hair combed and — with Hungarians, with Kenyans, with Finns — played the Nascar fans of Bollywood’s imagining. We trudged across Chowpatty beach and up the Malabar hill and looked solemnly in the direction of the Tower of Silence, entrance barred the non-Parsi. There in the valley of the shadow of death, we spent our filmi proceeds on Pizza Hut and felt bad about ourselves. We saw Don in the cool movie theater. We sweated and itched through the night in gender-segregated wings of the Salvation Army.
Our strategy was speed and distance, and we were up for anything in New Delhi and Pushkar; Agra and Varanasi; Kerala and Munnar and Madurai. By Bangalore, we were no longer up for very much — that’s when we saw The Departed. In Chennai, we were like limp rags. Throughout our peregrinations, the feeling was not all we had seen, but all we hadn’t. The map was big enough for years of days of train rides and new towns, different holidays and seasons. When you go somewhere new, without the funds to elevate you to the echelon of luxury that is its own country, inevitably there comes a moment when you look around and realize that you have no idea what the fuck is going on. In these moments my Indian book club of one succored me, gave context to the long days of new sights and sounds.
My companions protested when I disappeared into my book at train platforms, abandoning them to the stultifying boredom and endless mini-backgammon of extended travel. I suppose it was bunkum, methodologically speaking, but Midnight’s Children was Lonely Planet and spiritual Baedeker. Pondicherry was all bicycles and sea breeze, but from the pages of Rushdie’s novel I gazed back-to-Bom and imagined what it might have felt like to understand the secret dimensions of those afternoons, “hot as towels,” when we felt tired and bewildered and alone.
We had come to India, in a route that makes us sound much more cosmopolitan then we are, via Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan. In Central Asia I had been astonished and soothed by the discovery of an immense and flexible web of cognate Turkic languages. With middling Turkish, it seemed a miracle to be able to pay a taxi driver, to find Exits and Entrances, to identify the Interrogative Mood, if not the nature of the interrogation. Reading Midnight’s Children, another web asserted itself. From Salman Rushdie I learned about what I now think of as the Janum trail, a Persianate path circling a third of the earth, demarcated by the term of endearment meaning “my life, my soul,” which made its way into every language the Iranic tongue touched. Midnight’s Children was peppered with other words I knew, carried across around the continent in their original Persian or Arabic: words like dunya (world) and hamal (porter), the booze-prescribing Doctor Sharabi (from wine).
Just a few little words, but they packed a wallop. Reading this novel I realized for the first time that language is a map of history, and wondered how it had been drawn. And better than any guide book, Midnight’s Children suggested the extreme variety, the multitudinous tongues and what the anthropologists call “lifeways” of India. Saleem Sinai, he of the classy Lucknow Urdu and the topographical face, who wanders into the language riots, whose mind is a cacophony of children’s polyglot voices–if language is a map, he is the compass rose.
More methodological bunkum, but I’m on the record as getting 70 percent of my history learning from novels. And talk of history! Some greater percentage of Rushdie’s allegories remain obscure to me, but some things are clear: India was chaos, Saleem tells us, and yet its artificial rivening was a profound human tragedy. Across a new line on the map, Saleem’s interior radio can no longer broadcast the voices of his compatriots. In an abandoned battlefield in contested territory, he runs across a talking pyramid, the mutilated remains of his old playmates from the Methwold estate. The tragedies pile up; the people in charge make criminal, monstrous errors.
There’s history on history. The great polymath Sir William “Oriental” Jones went to India and to him was revealed the Indo-European language family, a discovery which would later pave the way for the racialist theories of the blood, the traits and so-called purity thereof. What’s in Saleem Sinai’s blood, besides snake venom and chutney? He’s the the natural child of a be-toupeed Englishman (ba-toupee and be-toupee, if I may venture a modest Urdu pun) and a cuckolding Indian wife; unnatural grandson of German-educated Kashmiri-turned-Indian; faux Mughal (which is really a kind of Turk); soldier in the Land of the Pure. In the words Mary Pereira, a Bombay Goan (“those Anglos,” tuts Saleem’s mother): “Anything you want to be you can be: You can be just what-all you want.” Until Indira Gandhi steals your balls, that is.
Saleem Sinai looks back on his narrative finds his dates don’t add up. I looked through my emails — with ticket stubs and postcards, my only record of the period — and there is one mention of this novel, an unfavorable comparison to The Tin Drum. How can this be? How could I have been so ungrateful after all Midnight’s Children did for me? What else have I gotten wrong in my own recollections, inconsequential as they may be? (Did I even know the word hamal back then? It seems unlikely.)
No matter; I see it all clearly now. Another thing I learned from this transforming novel: To write the past, you “have to set it down with the absolute certainty of a prophet.”
Once upon a time, I would not even consider quitting a book mid-read. Reading a book was not unlike a monogamous human relationship in that sense; it involved conscious commitment, and fidelity: Book, I’m going to read you.
Over the years, this has changed. Recently it struck me that the list of books I’ve started and not finished has grown quite formidable. I ask myself what this “means,” if it reflects some kind of moral devolution. It’s interesting how there does seem to be a kind of morality of reading, and people express their reading values quite passionately.
One of my favorite Millions Quizzes was “The Glaring Gap,” a post in which regular contributors confessed which Great Books / Great Authors they’ve never read. One contributor shared that she consciously chose not to read a certain category of male writers, and the comments came a-flying: oh, but you “should” read those! Should should should. Even the word “confess” implies sheepishness, shame and guilt. I know, I know, I should read (and love) Proust! And Dickens! And Virginia Woolf! And (these days) Bolaño!
My commitment to finishing books in the past was probably related to the above – fear of ensuing guilt and shame. Failure, too, I suppose. And perhaps at this point in my reading life, I’ve finished (and more than that, really ingested into my mind and emotions) enough books so that I feel a little freer in exercising the right to choose how to invest my reading time and energy; to veer from the Canonical Path – if such a thing actually exists anymore – and forge my own highly specific map of literary experience and influence. I’m not getting any younger, after all. Fifteen hours – the average it takes to read a book (and I tend to be on the slow side of this average) – is an increasingly precious chunk of time. Professional book reviewers, you have my sympathies.
My list of Unfinished Books breaks down into a few categories.
Perusing my list – from the last 3 or 4 years – reminds me that the convergence between book and reader is so specific; of-the-moment; contextual. For me, abandoning a book often has little to do with the book’s “objective quality,” and much more to do with the nature of my reading appetite at that moment. As a writer, there are books that you need during certain seasons of your own work, and others that must be held at bay, for the time being, or perhaps, but hopefully not, forever (oh, how the Bitch Goddess Time precludes so many returns to books we’d like to try again):
Books I Did Not Finish But Very Much Want to Try Again
The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (out of reverence for Susan Sontag)
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
The Essential Kierkegaard
The Night Watch by Sarah Waters
Eugene Onegin by Pushkin
Then there are the books that you feel you “should” like — you’ve adored this writer’s other books, your most trusted reader-friend recommended it, etc. – and you can’t figure out what the disconnect is. You’ve tried and tried again, 50 pages, 75 pages, 120 pages, but for whatever reason… it’s like the blind date that looks perfect “on paper,” but the chemistry never happens:
Books That I’ve Already Tried More Than Once But Couldn’t Engage With, I Don’t Know Why
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson
The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai
The Book of Daniel and City of God by E.L. Doctorow (I am a Doctorow acolyte, these were particularly painful to abandon)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton
Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence (I loved Women in Love so much)
It’s not that often that I really toss a book away and wipe my hands of it. And I know the following books are critically acclaimed and/or beloved by many. What can I say…
Books That I Found Mostly Painful and Likely Will Not Revisit
The following category speaks for itself:
Books Written By Friends/Acquaintances That I May Have Been Destined Not to Like in the First Place, But Gave Them a Try For Friendship’s Sake
I won’t be listing these, for obvious reasons. There aren’t many, but it’s an awkward thing for all of us; and I never imagine that a person who knows and supports me will necessarily like my fiction.
Now, onto books that I’ve nearly abandoned or considered abandoning, but actually finished.
“Should” is generally a battle between instinct and logic, id and superego. An allegory of sorts: when I was in high school, I was moderately athletic, but in a limited way; I ended up as a quintessential starting JV player on all my teams, never quite attaining to Varsity level. But one year, my senior year, I thought that I really “should” push myself, to get to that next level, to pursue some kind of fullness of achievement; even though I was enjoying perfectly all the playing time I was getting and never considered athleticism a central part of my identity. So I went out for Varsity, just barely made the team, and spent the rest of the season miserably subjecting myself to the coach’s masochistic training drills and sitting on the bench during games. I had thought that if I pushed myself, it would be “worth it” in some spiritual-existential way. It absolutely was not. I think about that experience often, and the metaphor pertains to the following list:
Shlogged Through and Almost Abandoned, But Kept On; No Pay-off, I Felt, In the End
The Accidental by Ali Smith
Telex From Cuba by Rachel Kushner
Sweetwater by Roxana Robinson
Enduring Love by Ian McEwan
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
Run by Ann Patchett
This final list is perhaps most significant, in terms of our moral quandary. This list keeps me from indulging appetite exclusively, from missing out on the pleasures of a difficult, not-immediately-or-obviously-gratifying read. I can’t imagine not having read these books; abandoning any one of them permanently really would have been a crying shame.
In particular, Tim O’Brien’s In the Lake of the Woods was an odd, and revelatory experience. I found the first 40 pages brilliant and alive and ground-shifting in that all-cylinders-firing way; then I found the next almost-150 pages tedious, repetitive, gimmicky; almost unbearable. Book, I’m going to quit you, I remember consciously thinking. But something made me pick it up again – all the acclaim, the voices of smart reader-friends in my head, my long-standing admiration of The Things They Carried; and also, I like to think, something more mysterious, my personal book fairy, who nudges me from category 3 above to this one, guiding and protecting me from tragically missed literary connections. So then, my God, those last 75 pages or so of In the Lake of the Woods – how it all comes together and wrecks you, shows you all the work that the previous 150 pages was doing. This is the novel that always pokes into my consciousness when I am considering quitting a book; but maybe this one will be another O’Brien miracle.
Struggled Through, Maybe Put Down For a While, But Finished and Am Very Glad I Did
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
The Names by Don Delillo
A Defense of Ardor: Essays by Adam Zagajewksi
The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald
I can imagine a day when the proportions of these lists begin to shift. If you’re like me – neither young nor old – you feel a pressure, like every reading minute counts, in a way that you don’t feel as much when you’re younger, and perhaps I won’t feel in quite the same way when I am older. I have no way of knowing, really, if category 3 (or even category 4), past, present or future, actually contains The One That Got Away, the book that may have changed my life. To the books and writers that I’ve broken up with, I truly am sorry it didn’t work out; it is always at least a little bit true that it’s not you, it’s me.
I had no notion of Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica before I read it. I had never even heard of it before I saw it on the Modern Library list, which is unusual in that the Modern Library list is full of known, if unplumbed, quantities. I’ve encountered no reference, read no synopsis, skipped no assignment, endured no cringing moment with the combative, be-sideburned, aesthete of my nightmares. So I was very curious, and after months spent in an (admittedly low-grade) fever of anticipation, when it arrived in its plain brown wrapper I fell upon it, and read it right away.
I want not to resort to the repellent vernacular of the internet meme, but my reaction to the book is difficult to express otherwise, so,
This is a nasty, wicked little book. It’s wonderful.
Maybe everyone knows about this book already, the plot I mean, and I just missed that page in the dictionary of cultural literacy. For those of you who were likewise not hip to the dark magic of this novel, it’s about a group of children on a pirate ship in the Caribbean. Which it makes it sound like a fairy tale, a riff on Peter Pan. When I read the introduction to my copy I thought, “This sounds ludicrous.” And it sort of is ludicrous. But rather than weave a swashbuckler about cutlass-wielding badduns, Richard Hughes made his pirates real men–weak, minor, foolish villains who nonetheless make (sometimes) fairly decent nannies.
A great feature of the book (oddly like To the Lighthouse in this regard), is the almost parenthetical, and thus hugely shocking, treatment of important and horrifying events. So I can’t tell you about specific goings-on. I will tell you that the story opens, titularly, in Jamaica, where things are colonially swampy and humid and decrepit, with excessive foliage and rotting aristocracy and covert racial violence. The fecundity is palpable–the seen-better-days Britishers have five children, and vicious cats abound. And then, through this corrupt Eden a destroying wind blows. The children are sent off to England, and safety.
These pirates! These children! Separately and in concert, they are, sometimes, unbearably cute. The children become friends with the ship’s pig:
They grew very fond of him indeed (especially Emily), and called him their Dear Love, their Only Dear, their Own True Heart, and other names. But he had only two things he ever said. When his back was being scratched he enunciated an occasional soft and happy grunt . . . When a particularly heavy lot of children sat down on him at once, he uttered the faintest ghost of a little moan, as affecting as the wind in a very distant chimney, as if the air in him was being squeezed out through a pin-hole.
One cannot wish for a more comfortable seat than an acquiescent pig.
‘If I was the Queen,’ said Emily, ‘I should most certainly have a pig for a throne.’
‘Perhaps she has,’ suggested Harry.
‘He does like being scratched,’ she added presently in a very sentimental tone, as she rubbed his scurfy back.
The mate was watching:
‘I should think you’d like being scratched, if your skin was in that condition!’
‘Oh how disgusting you are!’ cried Emily, delighted.
But the idea took root:
‘I don’t think I should kiss him quite so much if I was you,’ Emily presently advised Laura, who was lying with her arms tight round his neck and covering his briny snout with kisses from ring to ears.
‘My pet! My love!’ murmured Laura, by way of indirect protest.
The wily mate had foreseen that some estrangement would be necessary, if they were ever to have fresh pork served without salt tears. He intended this to be the thin end of the wedge. But alas! Laura’s mind was as humoursome an instrument to play as the Twenty-three-stringed Lute.
Richard Hughes knew what he was about with this cuteness; in a 1969 New Yorker interview he describes borrowing the various children of his friends (which included Robert Graves, according to the introduction to my copy), for research. “Children are vulnerable, like pirates,” he remarks, and in this novel he exploits their respective vulnerabilities with great tendresse. But the inane, creepily accurate patter of the children, and the farcical Mr. Mom-style antics of the pirates are the ground beneath which hums a constant current of anxiety, a current that flares without warning into terror, disgust, and profound sadness. For every charming vignette–the children’s conflation of “pirate” with “pilot,” for example, or the Captain admonishing them about the precarious state of their drawers–there is an element of horror. Sexuality and perjury and murder. And that’s just the pirates. The responsible adults fail to pass muster, in different ways.
To be sure, there are few ways to interpret kidnapping. No one is inclined to be sympathetic to the vicious pirates who have ensnared the young. But there is something shameful and perverse in the adults’ (the regular adults’, I should say) bloodlust, their fixation on the lascivious details of captivity. Miss Dawson, the refined young woman who takes Emily in hand upon the children’s rescue, presses her for details on their bondage. “She saw that Emily did not want to talk about the horrors she had been through: but considered it far better that she should be made to talk than that she should brood over them in secret.” Young miss imagines the children “Chained, probably, down there in the darkness like blacks, with rats running over them, fed on bread and water.” To divert Emily, she “took her down to her cabin and showed her all her clothes, every single item–it took hours.”
I left A High Wind in Jamaica feeling sad about the great adult poverty of understanding–the gulf between us and our childhood selves and one another, and our fragile grip on reality. It’s not that children are special pure angels, “If we saw the world through their eyes there would be no wars” and that kind of drivel. I read Lord of the Flies. And Hughes’ children at their best are charming rather than lovable, and at their worst they are vile. But this novel does not reassure us that children grow up to be good and noble. In Hughes’ bright, cynical light, the great institution Adulthood is revealed too as a load of rubbish. It’s bracing, actually, his cynicism; it’s a wry and unusual vintage. This novel is not uplifting, but it’s very good.
Reading Virginia Woolf—whether you can, whether the reading is excruciating or transporting—is about finding your sea legs. Woolf’s prose sets you adrift in other minds, their unfamiliar eddies of fear, desire, and despair, their private emotional rhythms and associations. You have to surrender yourself to Woolf, let yourself be swept along—sometimes bemused, sometimes moved, sometimes uncomprehending—in the tides of other consciousnesses. All this is true in Mrs. Dalloway as well, but To the Lighthouse intensifies these effects: it spans a decade instead of a day; it permeates so many minds and moves between them so fluidly, so swiftly. It’s easy to lose track of whose mind you’re listening to, whose words you’re hearing, who’s being spoken about. But in this is also something ghostly and god-like: you drift, as if disembodied, into the minds of others, through the rooms of the Ramsay family’s summer house on the Isle of Skye; you hear snatches of conversation from the drawing room, wisps of another conversation on the lawn. The plot of the novel, such as it is, is diffuse and amorphous; By the standards of most 18th and 19th century novels, it’s not really a plot at all. In the novel’s famous second section, “Time Passes,” you are quite literally watching weeds and rabbits overtake the garden.
Woolf’s writing can feel disconcerting, confusing, and frustrating; It can also seem numinous, exquisite, utterly absorbing. For myself, I have found that Woolf is not an author I can will my way though. There are times when I find her stream-of-consciousness techniques coy, contrived, pointlessly difficult and comprehension-thwarting—when I find the lack of a substantial plot unbearable. Then, I find myself of Cyril Connolly’s opinion that Woolf, “seemed to have the worst defect of the Mandarin style, the ability to spin cocoons of language out of nothing.”
At other times, the drifting, liquid rhythms of Woolf’s prose, her approximation of the currents of the psychic seascape, feel intuitively right, more natural and true than anything else I’ve read, and I find myself of Connolly’s mind again: “The Waves,” he wrote in The Enemies of Promise, “is one of the books which comes nearest to stating the mystery of life, and so, in a sense, nearest to solving it.”
More Difficult Books
Elizabeth wrote in with this question:
This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college. The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives. To be charged with selecting the “one novel of a person’s life” seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift. I don’t know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.) My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be?
Several of us pitched in on this one. Some of us took Elizabeth’s question literally, wondering what “one novel” we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives. While others put themselves in Elizabeth’s shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person’s reading experience. Here are our answers:
Garth: The hypothetical here – if you could read just one novel – strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there’s only going to be one. I’m tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I’ve got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you’d want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone.
Edan: My suggestion – Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons. Firstly, it’s highly readable. It’s important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn’t read much won’t tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn’t a movie buff (read: me) won’t sit through a John Cassavetes film). Secondly, there’s a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase “So it goes” repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time. I’d love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others – book worms or not – would, too. And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous. If you love his books, there are others to discover. Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life.
Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I’d pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others – a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites – modern and classic – but strategically I’ll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me. I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing – playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become “unstuck in time” and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers – kids, really – are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut’s playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other.
Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone: “You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years–generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco–and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad–Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice–Robinson Crusoe. In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many–Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady’s last birthday she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again. Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain.” And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written.
Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a “desert island book,” the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill.
Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever. Their lives were in my hands. I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it. Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them. Never underestimate a college student’s unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring. Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them. Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on. Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels. Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it’s “Make love not war, save the planet”).
Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!) It’s true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel. I also found interesting Noah’s and Garth’s idea (reading the question as looking for a “desert island book”) that length is critical. With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis’ The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years. Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the “first” and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote. But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not – bear with me here – The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen? Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn’t expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it.
Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth. Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth’s question on your own site or in the comments below.
To write this installment of Modern Revue, I located and reread the copy of To the Lighthouse I had in college. The shock that the novel delivered to my booze-sodden collegiate nervous system is demonstrable. My copy looks like a creature, bristling with orange post-its. Obscure marginal notes abound, many of which are enormously insightful. My favorites include: “father castrates his lighthouse,” “a sexual woman, all the children = all the sex,” and “what will he put in her ‘bag’?” There is a liberal sprinkling of “vagina” and “phallus,” and one “oh dear,” presumably the moment when I called for my smelling salts. The class, naturally, was Introduction to Literary Theory.
I can remember writing a paper on this novel, and thinking myself into a hole (and a headache) trying to assert what Virginia Woolf’s position was on Scimitars and Fountains, The Phallus and The Lighthouse and The Vagina. But I can also remember being astonished by the novel’s beauty, which astonishes me still. It is perplexing and crowded with saucy imagery, but it is full of true things. I wonder if there is a book more packed with truth, one that carries as much weight per word. I know there is no other book that caused me so fervently to say “There it is!” and mean, “You know, like, life.”
It surprises me that I do like this book so much. I am very sensitive to experimental narratives. There are, of course, a vast number of exceptions to this prejudice. Usually, though, if I pick up a book and the story runs away from me, I feel intensely irritated and pained. The Sound and the Fury? Agony. At Swim-Two-Birds? Agony. Brief Interviews With Hideous Men? What the fuck.
To the Lighthouse walks a remarkable line, I think, forging ahead with art, but preserving clarity, and my sanity. There are a lot of characters. And there are confusing moments, especially if you are reading too fast. I had to return to the parenthetical deaths to make sure I had read correctly. But that was an amazing device; the deaths, parenthetical as they are, feel so unreal and so shocking, and then so real and so sad, much like they do in life. And before you know it, the story continues and the dead are gone, also like life.
I shudder to say this, but this is a book that meant a lot to me as a woman. I liked Edan’s description of the “mom book.” I think her “mom book,” is something I usually think of as the “lady book.” Lady books are different than “chick lit” – they don’t have shoes or poodles on the cover. They are also different from books that are by women, which can be any kind of book at all. Lady books feature heavy feelings with a chance of magic and sparkles, and, like Edan said, little irony. They also have no jokes whatsoever. The once and future queen of the lady books is, in my opinion, Alice Hoffman.
After a high school love affair with these books, I largely renounced them. For one, many lady books sound like many other lady books. I’m not sure how to describe it, but they all have exactly the same cadence, and it’s creepy. For another, I feel enough of life is dictated by one’s parts that one’s books needn’t be. As a result of this renunciation, I hesitate to admit that I like a book for a reason directly pertaining to my sex. So many books are marketed to me as my kind of book, because they have sea anemones and clasped hands on the front. And I hate it, so it makes me wary of saying “I, possessed of a certain chromosome pairing, feel this work is important,” when I do find a book that makes me feel that way. And To the Lighthouse is that kind of book, and it’s a shame that I feel icky saying it.
I see the novel, to some extent, as documenting an evolutionary stage in womanity (and thus, humanity). Mrs. Ramsay – beautiful, mother of eight – dies and goes, while Lily Briscoe, unmarried and “puckered,” lives and stays, and finally gets to finish her damn painting. That’s the story. Woolf doesn’t create such a hammy, obvious dichotomy as I’ve done; Lily and Mrs. Ramsay (and Cam, and Prue, and Minta, and Mrs. McNab) share between them a hundred facets of the “feminine experience.” That’s not to say that all women must love the novel or agree with me about the feminine experience, or that men are peripheral to the novel, and that they can’t “understand” why it’s great (not to say either, of course, that all men are the same). That’s nonsense. But it amazes me how true some of the passages feel to me personally eighty years later. I’ve felt so many of the things described in the book, particularly the ones that are ascribed to the female characters. I have had those “infidel ideas,” imagining
A life different form hers; in Paris, perhaps; a wilder life; not always taking care of some man or other; for there was in all their minds a mute questioning of deference and chivalry, of the Bank of England and the Indian Empire, or ringed fingers and lace, though to them all there was something in this of the essence of beauty, which called out the manliness in their girlish hearts, and made them, as they sat at table beneath their mother’s eyes, honour her strange severity, her extreme courtesy…
But I have also felt the “code”:
…It behooves the woman, whatever her own occupation may be, to go to the help of the young man opposite so that he may expose and relieve the thigh bones, the ribs, of his vanity, of his urgent desire to assert himself; as indeed it is their duty, she reflected, in her old maidenly fairness, to help us, suppose the Tube were to burst into flames…
Unlike the lady book, this isn’t a book for women. It is a book that describes certain elements of women’s lives and collective history. It’s a book that should make any person think about gender and society and life and what it’s like and how Woolf’s vision does or does not pertain to him or her. The “code” is a two-way street after all. I’m sure there’s a man out there who doesn’t much feel like giving up his seat on the raft.
One still encounters the Mr. Ramsay-esque artesian well of masculine need. There are still wicked, winsome Cams who grow into sullen teenagers with daddy issues. People still die in wars and childbirth and suddenly in the night. Life is still complicated and silly, for men and women alike. When I finished To the Lighthouse this time, I wished so much that Virginia Woolf was around to do the hard work for us again, that she was here to use her painful sensitivity to to the world and to take the world and set it down so we could say “There it is!” (again). But I should just be grateful that she lived to do it the first time, and that she did it so well then.
Rebecca Keith holds an MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College. She has received honors from the Atlantic Monthly and BOMB Magazine and was a finalist for the 2008 Laurel Review/GreenTower Press Midwest Chapbook Series Award. Her work has appeared most recently in The Laurel Review and Storyscape Journal. She is a founder and curator of Mixer reading series in New York City and she sings and plays guitar with the bands New York Times and The Roulettes.Lines of poetry by Rebecca: “Earth to Love, Earth to Love/ I don’t think that suitcase/is big enough. Do you read me?”We walk down a hall on a slight incline (which my friend imagines was once a sluice for molten chocolate), climb a short flight of metal stairs and enter a long, narrow rectangle of a room, with a square window at one end, white brick walls, and concrete floors painted varying shades of gray. We’re at a dance performance, “Discrete Body Dilemma,” by the company MayDance, at the Chocolate Factory (yes, an abandoned chocolate factory) in Long Island City, Queens. Seats are arranged in two long rows against opposite walls, facing each other. Audience members are told to look carefully at the person across the aisle from them before the show begins. We will trade seats with this person, all part of the choreography. As the lights go down, slowly, we traverse the room, do-si-do-ing past our opposite. On the way across the room, in measured steps, I pass the choreographer’s parents in the dark. I am in an entirely different room from the one I first entered. Sitting down, across from where I was, I’m in yet another room, a new place, facing east now I believe (the Empire State Building was visible outside, within touching distance, seen from the opposite direction). We reorient ourselves, shift into our seats as the dancers move, in two lines, led in a chant by two composers. During the performance, the dancers break into solos or pairs on opposite ends of the space – in unison, in canon, other times haphazard. The two musicians intone, twiddle, loop.A woman on the subway and I caught each other’s eye the other morning, after the automated conductor told us, “Please be aware of your surroundings at all times.” She said she was reading about Buddhism and science, that maybe at their core they’re both about looking at reality, just different slices of reality. At the MayDance performance, each place I look is a different room; it is hard to choose one point of focus, and the seats are too close to the stage to take in everything at once. The dancers create spaces – pushing a chest away with a hand, cradling a face in the nook of an elbow.A couple poets I’ve been reading lately have that same (sought after) ability to transform each page, stanza or line, into a new space. It is much like the way Bishop takes you in and out of the waiting room, or creates vast rooms with her “Pleasure Seas,” where “love/ sets out determinedly in a straight line,” or rooms of absence, constructed by time and “Distance: Remember all that land/ beneath the plane” (from “Argument”) or her “Varick Street,” where all the factories, the action on different floors, are reduced to how “Our bed/ shrinks from the soot/ and hapless odors/ hold us close” or the minute detail of “O Breath” – breath flowing through chambers of a heart that lives beneath a breast. Bishop’s speaker can get close, but not quite form a union with this other: “within if never with.” Craig Teicher and Katie Peterson’s work locates you in a more subtle way, as if you are reaching, like Mr. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, “stumbling along a passage one dark morning,” stretching your arms out for someone. They relocate you, with a line, a word, as fast as your whole situation might change with one word, look, gesture. These shifts are at the heart of their two books, Teicher’s Brenda is in the Room and Peterson’s This One Tree – Craig’s many rooms and views of the same room, Katie’s trees, also seen from changing perspectives. Both poets’ speakers, out of chaos, seek to create order, however tenuous or transparent.What is a room? A place that contains, finite space, set, defined by walls. A door releases or locks in, window shows the other – view out, view in. Sound comes in waves, creates pockets, alcoves. How much control do you have over the spaces you wind up in? Do you choose to put yourself there? When a shift of someone else’s body transforms the whole architecture of the room, is there something you could have done to alter the outcome? Can you change it back?Craig Teicher writes, in his book’s title poem, “Brenda is in the Room,” “In many ways, two people are larger/ than the rooms – including/those with four walls, and those/ that are figured on paper – that they occupy. To portray them/ factually, an author (architect or/ writer) must construct rooms/ that admit the necessity for still more/ rooms.” As Teicher’s speaker and Brenda move in and out of the rooms, crossing each other, sitting quietly together but working separately, leaving each other for other rooms and coming back into one, they stretch their union, test its elasticity. Teicher defines “marriage” and “union” early on in the poem, an investigation that yields no firm answer, an ever fluid definition. He writes, “Two people pass through the ceremonial/ threshold of marriage and enter/ a room together. It is a new room/ or, defying physics through ceremony,/ the same room they left, though different.” It is his speaker’s own “Discrete Body Dilemma” – dancing with one other body through a lifetime. Both will pass close to many other bodies, trying not to cross the threshold that would defy their union. In another section of the poem (these section self-described as, of course, “also like rooms”), Teicher writes of the apartment his speaker and Brenda share: “We will cross/its many thresholds as ever, in one way/ occupying just one room at a time, and/ in another, occupying many rooms.” Echoing Bishop’s, “within if never with,” Teicher’s speaker and Brenda fill the rooms of their home, expanding and collapsing their space together – five rooms, sometimes concentric, occupied each moment by different breaths, layer upon layer of shared dwelling. In the poem’s second stanza, Teicher writes, “A good room/is a fortress, a projection of/ the mind of its occupant(s).” I imagine the occupants of his poem’s rooms projecting directly into each other’s minds, their imaginations adjoining suites, creating art on every wall and surface, closing doors for moments of rest.Katie Peterson’s This One Tree contains six central poems called “The Tree.” In the second of these, her speaker looks upon the remnants of a tree house in an evergreen. Peterson writes, “Why take down what might be/ useable, one parent said. The other/ said nothing. Still we never climbed,/ or never built… When we played we played around it.” The speaker moves in and out of focus from childhood to the present, from feet, footprints, and home on the ground to what was intended as a home above but was reduced to just wood, wet and ruined. Other trees in the section regenerate with the change of seasons, “a narrative that darkens,” but the wood cut for the house stays in permanent winter. In the sixth “The Tree”, Peterson writes of a Japanese maple, “Nights stopping here, there was/ no need to choose, you were/ what home was, you were/ my lexicon of belonging, my/ own location. Though I regretted/ all I never once regretted you.” The poet’s lexicon is, of course, how she belongs, where she lives – in rooms built of words or under the “orderly” leaves of a well-groomed tree. “What I want,” Peterson writes, “is to have chosen/ already what to do,” but her speaker wanders from tree to tree in these poems, at once looking back at homes, or loves, and looking for a new one. In “Aubade of the Tree,” two trees together “make an arch some story must explain,” their long bodies leaning and “hooked… around each other,” as the MayDance dancers created spaces with each other’s bodies, and Teicher’s speaker and Brenda build and rebuild the rooms they occupy. Peterson writes, “No window frames these branches alone/But takes in everything, takes this one tree in…/ As if in responsibility, as if in thoughtfulness/ Which no house truly holds/ Except the house where someone stays awake.” As if her speaker, staying awake long enough, looking through a wide enough lens, could live all the lives she wants – one on the ground and one in the tree house, one under Japanese maple and one under sycamore. As if she could rebuild the original structure or protect the tree house before decay, as if all could “stay green and equal, some seasonless intent/ at odds with calendar.” But more realistic, she will frame and reframe the same life from different vantage points, twisting between bodies and leaves, fitting together into new spaces and constantly looking back on the old.More National Poetry Month at The Millions
So that you may get to know us better, it’s The Millions Quiz, yet another occasionally appearing series. Here, as conceived of by our contributor Emily, we answer questions about our reading habits and interests, the small details of life that like-minded folks may find illuminating, and we ask you to join us by providing your own answers in the comments or on your own blogs.Today’s Question: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?Edan: There are so many gaping holes in my reading! I haven’t read Proust (saving him for my white-haired years) and, beyond Chekhov, not many Russians (I’ll be reading Anna Karenina next month and I’m looking forward to it). I haven’t read Tristram Shandy, Ulysses, Gravity’s Rainbow, or Infinite Jest – I tend to avoid big books. I’m too embarrassed to name one very famous Shakespeare play I know next to nothing about. I never read mysteries or horror, mostly because I’m a scared wimp, but I’m thinking of reading a Patricia Highsmith novel this year. Recently, I’ve started to read more books in translation, and since graduating from college I’ve made a point of reading all the classics I missed, like To the Lighthouse and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both of which I loved. I’m also making myself read more nonfiction, since I never would otherwise. I haven’t even read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood! Writing this reminds me of all the writers I haven’t read: Homer, Norman Mailer, John Irving, Gertrude Stein, John McPhee, J.K. Rowling. That’s right, I haven’t read Harry Potter!Why am I wasting my time writing this? I must go read. Now.Andrew: As I do a quick mental survey of my life of reading, I notice a number of gaping holes. Some beckon; others continue to keep me at bay.Chronologically, then: The Classics. Aside from some excerpts of the ancient Greeks in high school English, I’ve never delved into classical literature. I have seen a number of theatrical adaptations of classical Greek plays, but that’s about it. Aside from excerpts, I’ve never even read Homer.I’ll jump ahead to the 1800s only because I’m not exactly sure what I’m missing from the intervening centuries. Lets assume EVERYTHING. (except Don Quixote – I’ve actually read that). So, on to the 1800s: I’ve never read Moby Dick or Middlemarch. I’ve done quite well re: Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Charles Dickens, and the Russians. I’ve also done quite well in early-mid 20th century fiction – that was always (and remains) my favorite literary era.More recently, I’ve done quite well with modern British fiction, and I’ve also been quite good at Latin American fiction from the past 50 years (Mutis, Marquez, Borges, Bolano). But still some gaps remain in 20th century fiction: Thomas Pynchon and Margaret Atwood (I should be stripped of my Canadian citizenship for that).Before the Millions, contemporary American fiction had been a giant hole. But over the past 6 years I’ve delved deeply into Lethem, Chabon, Franzen, and once I can successfully wrap my puny brain around David Foster Wallace’s encyclopedic prose, I’ll actually finish Infinite Jest. It’s mesmerizing, but exhausting.Emily: When it comes to playing readerly “I Never,” there are rather a lot of burly man-authors, chiefly twentieth-century man-authors, whose work I’ve never read. Hemingway (other than the 4 page story “Hills Like White Elephants”), Kerouac (a bit of his poetry; enough of On the Road), Roth, Updike, Kesey, Heller, Burroughs, Cormac McCarthy, Vonnegut, Pynchon, Moody, and Foster Wallace all fall into the category of authors I haven’t read. Many of them fall also into the category of authors I have no interest in reading. Perhaps it is that I intuit (or imagine – not having read them, it is hard to say) a masculinist, vaguely misogynist aura that has put me off; Or, as in the cases of Pynchon and Foster Wallace, a virtuousic formal complexity or grandiose heft, that I also associate with the masculine artistic mind. There is, I am aware, no way to justify my philistine (and perhaps sexist) distrust of these authors – my sense that I would find their depictions of violence and apocalypse, aimless wandering, women conquered, uninteresting; that I think I would find their self-conscious cleverness, their feats of stylistic and structural brilliance somewhat tedious; that in reading B.R. Meyer’s “A Reader’s Manifesto” at The Atlantic some years ago, I decided that Meyers’ extended pull quotes designed to illustrate McCarthy’s “muscular” style were as much (more) than I’d ever need of McCarthy’s much lauded prose:While inside the vaulting of the ribs between his knees the darkly meated heart pumped of who’s will and the blood pulsed and the bowels shifted in their massive blue convolutions of who’s will and the stout thighbones and knee and cannon and the tendons like flaxen hawsers that drew and flexed and drew and flexed at their articulations of who’s will all sheathed and muffled in the flesh and the hooves that stove wells in the morning groundmist and the head turning side to side and the great slavering keyboard of his teeth and the hot globes of his eyes where the world burned. (All the Pretty Horses, 1992)No thank you. Well-founded, my prejudices certainly are not, but I do not apologize for them or intend to renounce them. Cormac McCarthy may keep his pretty horses – give me clarity, proportion, precision; give me Austen and Burney, Defoe, Iris Murdoch, P.G. Woodhouse, Willa Cather, Evelyn Waugh, Mary McCarthy, Fitzgerald, Sinclair Lewis. If one must be a philistine, it is best to be an unrepentant one.Garth: What is the biggest hole in my lifetime of reading? The question should probably be phrased in the plural: holes. I’ve never read Kundera; never read Saramago; never read Robinson Crusoe, or Wuthering Heights, or Clarissa; William James, Slavoj Zizek, Henderson the Rain King… Then again, these are kind of scattershot: smallish holes, with some space in between them.Where I feel a huge constellation of holes, threatening to make one giant hole large enough to swallow me, is in Classics. Especially the Greeks. I would like to take a year and just read Plato and Aristotle and the Greek dramas. Or go back to school… So much is built on a basic corpus of Hellenistic knowledge that I somehow never acquired in school. We did The Iliad, The Odyssey, Oedipus… and that’s pretty much it.Kevin: The holes are too numerous to count and the biggest are likely ones I’m not even aware of. I have tried over the last couple years to close some of the most gaping omissions in my reading – secondary Shakespeare plays and the big books of Russian literature being two areas of particularly concerted effort. What remains? Well, a lot. Two that seem particularly important are the British romantic poets and the modernist. The former feels like washing the dishes, to be done of necessity but without any great joy. I think I’ll save Lord Byron and his court for later life, when the years will hopefully have afforded me the wisdom to enjoy their work more. I feel a greater urgency with the modernists, in part because I’ve had enough false starts that I worry I lack the concentration to extract the good stuff from their difficult prose. For about three years I’ve been thirty pages into Mrs. Dalloway and likewise with Ulysses. When it’s the time of day when I typically turn to fiction, I find I lack the appetite to pick them up to begin the fight anew. So, the hole remains, and seems even to grow deeper by the day.Max: This turns out to be a rather liberating exercise. The largest missing piece in my reading experience has been Faulkner, I think. I’ve never read any of his books, though I made a poor and ultimately unsuccessful attempt at The Sound and the Fury in college. I’ve long felt that I should have gotten started on the Russians sooner. So far, I’ve only got Crime and Punishment under my belt. I think I’d like to try Anna Karenina next. I’ve also never read Lolita. Updike’s passing this week reminded me that I’ve never read any of his books. The same is true of DeLillo’s books and Foster Wallace’s. By Philip Roth, I’ve read only Portnoy’s Complaint, which I know leaves out many, many good books. I really need to read Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Tree of Smoke and Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. There are likely many more that I can’t even recall that I haven’t read, but I’ll leave it with Virginia Woolf, whose To the Lighthouse I started not long ago but ended up setting aside when it failed to grab me (or rather, I failed to be grabbed by it).So, tell us, in the comments or on your own blog: What is the biggest, most glaring gap in your lifetime of reading?