A short time after I finished writing B & Me, a book about Nicholson Baker told in the spirit of Baker’s seminal book-length essay about John Updike, U and I, I was asked to give a reading about Baker’s phone sex novel, Vox, the hitch being that whatever I read aloud needed to be original work, not just something from my book. That was fine with me. Of course it meant that I had to read Vox again, no complaints there, and what I decided to do was read it this time — my fourth time, I think — by listening to it as audiobook, which is the phrase we’ve come to use of late for recordings of authors or actors reading books out loud.
This made sense for a couple reasons, the first being that I myself would be reading something out loud. That was perfect, because when books were, once upon a time, a much rarer commodity, so rare that not many people owned them, in fact, most people had access to the contents of books only through scheduled public readings, and so going to readings was really what reading was because most people couldn’t afford to sit and read a book in the quiet way that we now think of reading. So reading Vox as an audiobook and reading aloud an essay about doing so was possibly a way of bringing literature full circle and asking what this new audiobook phenomenon, if it’s fair to say there is one, is really about.
And the second reason this made sense was that Vox, as an all-dialogue, or almost all-dialogue book, would seem to be pretty perfectly suited to the audiobook format, just add another actor for the second voice of the exchange, and I’d already had the thought, while initially reading the book, that Vox would make a pretty good stage play, something on the order of A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters, though of course Vox is much racier and not nearly as mediocre as Love Letters, though it’s snooty of me to say that because I haven’t read Love Letters, or heard it, or seen it. But still.
And so, anyway, not only did I decide to, so to speak, audially re-read Vox, I decided to do this in public, because the audiobook phenomenon, and this may be my hypothesis here, may not actually be helping the world of books because people don’t just sit and audially read books, the way people used to — no, they listen to books while they vacuum, or drive, or exercise, which means that books are more and more coming to play a background role in peoples’ lives, like mood music, and one might reasonably ask whether audiobook reading is really reading at all, in any sense of the word. But that’s not what I would do. And what I did do, audially listen to Vox at a coffee shop over two protracted listening sessions, led to the slightly bizarre but revealing thing that happened because as soon as you introduce technology to the reading equation you introduce, as well, the possibility of “technical difficulties.”
And so what happened was, I didn’t, at the start of my second listening session, jam my headphone plug into my handheld electronic device nearly as far as I needed to for it to engage. Hence, when I turned the book back on, it picked up from where I’d left off the day before, and of course I still had the volume turned quite loud, and of course the coffee shop was crowded with quiet studiers, and, what happened was, the following line, really just a fragment, spoken by veteran stage, film, and audiobook actor Mark Boyett, playing Jim, suddenly burst into the room:
hundreds of female orgasms could be inferred from the books themselves — you didn’t need to harass any particular woman, you didn’t need to invade anybody’s privacy…
Boyett delivered these lines with exactly the kind of hurried, panting enthusiasm that comes from Jim’s words even when you read them just to yourself, and after this short, incomplete phrase, I managed to hit pause. But what was truly remarkable about the moment that followed was that none of the quiet studiers took any note of the voice at all.
This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced something like this. A few years ago, I was teaching in a small conservative college, and, one afternoon, I was seated in a booth in the school’s small, on-campus restaurant, and I was having a quiet lunch, and I was once again surrounded by quiet studiers, mostly students this time. But there were several televisions in the room, all tuned to the same daytime talk show, which no one was watching. I wasn’t watching either, I was grading papers, but my ears piqued when suddenly the panel of talking head hosts began discussing female ejaculation. Now I wouldn’t say that I have any particular interest in female ejaculation. I’m not preoccupied with it, and it’s not something that my mind drifts to all on its own. That said, I’m not averse to the idea of female ejaculation, and so when I heard female ejaculation mentioned quite loudly in an otherwise quiet room I looked up with the sort of expression that probably said something like, “Why, sure, I have a healthy curiosity about female ejaculation, so please, by all means, if you have something new to share on the subject, proceed!” The thing was, I was the only one. I was the only one in a room filled with mostly bored college students. Female ejaculation turned exactly one head in that room — mine.
I thought of this, of course, again, in the coffee shop, when I became, for a moment, an accidental broadcaster of the audiobook rendition of Vox. And once I had fumblingly fixed my headphone plug and settled back into my chair to finish my listening I realized that something actually quite important had been illustrated in that moment. That kind of passive, disinterested silence was about as far as you could get from the reception to Vox’s initial broadcast, its 1992 hardcover publication. This reception went both ways. On the one hand, the book was a giddy, trailblazing bestseller, with a healthy first printing of 50,000 copies and reports that the paperback rights — just the paperback rights — sold for more than a $100,000. But on the other hand, critically speaking, Vox was almost uniformly dismissed as a childish work, triggering a kind of critical anti-orgasm, an involuntary spasm of disgusted adjectives and puritanical claims that this sort of thing was simply beneath a writer of Nicholson Baker’s many talents.
Praise of his heavily footnoted first novel The Mezzanine aside, this pretty much characterizes Baker’s early career. He fairly often received middling reviews from peers doomed to obscurity, and, oddly, he also found himself subject to bizarre assaults from far more celebrated authors. Indeed, no lesser a light than Stephen King seeped out from the woodwork to cast churlish judgment on Baker’s first two books, The Mezzanine and the even lovelier Room Temperature, which I have to point out are pretty distinct from King’s horror genre — I’m tempted to say they’re not “horrible” in the way King’s books are — and you sort of have to wonder what button of King’s Baker had managed to punch to have solicited the evil eye from the reigning puppetmaster of evil eyes. Similarly, Martin Amis, in an essay reprinted in Visiting Mrs. Nabokov, lashed out at Vox itself with a blasé and mostly unquotable claim that there wasn’t much there there, so there!
And then there’s Philip Roth. Roth didn’t attack Baker, but he did plagiarize him. Sabbath’s Theatre, published in 1995, includes a long phone sex conversation, a conversation embedded in a very, very Bakerian-style footnote that stretches across 20 pages. Three years after Vox spent a couple months on the bestseller list, and eight years after The Mezzanine reintroduced the footnote to literature, Roth churned out passages like this one, depicting Mickey Sabbath’s fiber-optic seduction of a student:
Oh, I’ll bite on your nipples. Your beautiful pink nipples…Oh, it’s filling up with come now. It’s filling up with hot, thick come. It’s filling up with hot white come. It’s going to shoot out. Want me to come in your mouth?
You might be able to tell where I’m going with this. Because Sabbath’s Theatre was not dismissed as childish or beneath Roth’s many talents. No. It won Roth his second National Book Award and was a finalist for the 1996 Pulitzer Prize. (He lost to Richard Ford’s Independence Day, which, for what it’s worth, also features, briefly, a young female writing student sexually involved with her professor.)
To be fair, New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani did lash out at both books. Sabbath’s Theatre, she wrote, was “distasteful and disingenuous,” and Vox was “not particularly revealing or emotionally involving.” But to this I have to say that if a book’s longevity matters at all, if it matters what books people actually keep talking about, or keep reading, or keep audially listening to, then I think it’s fair to say that Kakutani was wrong on both counts. And I’d further say that Vox, though there can be only anecdotal evidence for this, is talked about these days far more often than Sabbath’s Theatre.
But that doesn’t explain why a snippet of the book, or, for that matter, female ejaculation, can fall so flat, these days, when broadcast to the general public. I have a theory about this. What the phenomenon of Vox demonstrates, I think, is a combination of the one old saw about how great books either create a movement or destroy one, and the other old saw about how saints are murdered for the originality of their revelations, and what I want to suggest is that Vox, precisely because it was a good book that left an indelible mark on our world and paved the way for other books that would exceed its celebrity and acclaim — precisely for all this good the book did, for the change it made, it was chided and attacked, and, critically speaking, burned at the stake. The good news is that when you murder a saint you ensure his immortality.
So maybe, now, when we read Vox, we don’t just read the book for its original effects, we read it for its historical value, we read it to remember the world to which it delivered a violent but much-needed chest compression. And perhaps what the exercise of reading an audiobook in public does is recreate that odd life-giving jolt. Because imagine me sitting in my comfy coffee shop chair, nothing in my hands, earbuds in, simply scanning the crowd as Jim and Abby’s voices co-created sexy stories. It would be disingenuous of me not to admit that I sometimes projected those strangers into the book, imagined each of them as Jims and Abbys hovering over their laptops and tablets, occupying Internet chat rooms not really so different from Vox’s telephonic bordello. Truth be told, I drew their attention too, because Vox is a funny book, and I sometimes laughed at it, which means that I was a guy sitting in a chair, appearing to be doing nothing but staring at my fellow coffee drinkers, occasionally giggling. One woman began glancing back at me with a slightly-more-than-worried kind of regularity, and sometime into that second listening session I think I became one of those guys that you sort of need to keep surreptitious track of in public. Indeed, for 20 or more of those coffee regulars I was probably added to an internal database of local potential perverts. But that’s unfair! Because not only does Vox lack the kind of criminal trespass that Mickey Sabbath’s phone sex chat in Sabbath’s Theatre depicts, it’s actually just a simple love story. Michiko Kakutani, I’m sorry, but you missed it. The end of Vox is a quite moving exchange, as, after Jim and Abby’s respective climaxes, they make tentative plans to connect again. It’s a heartfelt goodbye, and it’s very “emotionally involving.” And if it seemed odd to you, my fellow coffee drinkers, that I would sit there for several hours, sometimes laughing, sometimes cringing, and finally getting a little teary — well, what I must insist is that you understand that I was not a pervert. I was not weird, or bored, or crazy. No. I was reading.
Last year offered many treats for readers: hotly anticipated new books by David Mitchell and Marilynne Robinson; the emergence of our own Emily St. John Mandel as a literary superstar; the breakout success of Anthony Doerr. 2015 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by Jonathan Lethem, Kelly Link, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kate Atkinson, Toni Morrison, Aleksandr Hemon, and Milan Kundera. Our own Garth Risk Hallberg will have his much anticipated debut on shelves later this year. Look beyond the hazy end of summer 2015 and Jonathan Franzen will be back with a new novel. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,000 words strong and encompassing 91 titles, this is the only 2015 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
Amnesia by Peter Carey: Carey’s new novel uses a cyberattack as the lens through which to consider the often-fraught history of the relationship between the United States and Australia. A radical hacker releases a worm into a computer system that governs both Australian and American prisoners. The doors of five thousand prisons in the United States are opened, while in Australia, hundreds of asylum-seekers escape. An Australian journalist, determined to figure out the motivation behind the attack and trying to save his career, struggles to get the hacker to cooperate on a biography. (Emily)
Outline by Rachel Cusk: First serialized in The Paris Review, Cusk’s new work is described by its publisher (FSG) as “a novel in ten conversations”, but I prefer Leslie Jamison’s description: “a series of searing psychic X-rays bleached by coastal light.” The woman at the center of these conversations is a writing teacher who travels to Greece to teach a workshop. Her portrait is revealed by her various interlocutors, beginning with her neighbor on a plane en route to Athens. (Hannah)
The First Bad Man by Miranda July: Miranda July, artist, filmmaker and author of the story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, has written a debut novel about a woman named Cheryl who works at a women’s self-defense nonprofit, and, according to the jacket copy, is a “tightly-wound, vulnerable woman who lives alone with a perpetual lump in her throat.” Cheryl also believes she’s made love with her colleague “for many lifetimes, though they have yet to consummate in this one.” In her blurb, Lena Dunham writes that July’s novel “will make you laugh, cringe and recognize yourself in a woman you never planned to be.” While you prepare for the book’s release, check out The First Bad Man Store, where you can purchase real items that are mentioned in the novel. (Edan)
Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman: This new book is Bergman’s second short story collection, after her heartbreakingly humane debut, Birds of a Lesser Paradise. Her new collection takes inspiration from historical figures, women who attained a certain degree of celebrity but whose stories have never been fully imagined. We meet Lord Byron’s illegitimate daughter, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sister, a conjoined twin, and a member of the first all-female integrated swing band. (Hannah)
Sweetland by Michael Crummey: The award-winning author of Galore returns to the land and the past of Newfoundland in his latest novel, which follows Moses Sweetland, the one man determined to stay on an island long after every one else has left, in defiance of both their warnings and their threats. As the Vancouver Sun puts it, Sweetland “demonstrates, as the best fiction does (and as Crummey’s novels always have) that the past is always with us, and that contemporary events are history embodied and in motion.” The novel also promises to be the best kind of ghost story, one in which memory and place are as haunting as the ghosts Sweetland believes he sees. (Kaulie)
Glow by Ned Beauman: Multiple prize nods for each of his first two novels have set high expectations for Ned Beauman’s next effort. If the plot, which slingshots through England, Burma and Iceland, is any indication, the new book will match the ambition of his previous work. The story kicks off at a rave in London, where Raf, a sufferer of a chronic sleep disorder, is trying out a new drug, the eponymous “glow.” The drug leads him on a quest to uncover a massive conspiracy involving a multinational named Lacebark. (Thom)
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman: Long a distinguished short-story writer, Pearlman emerged into the spotlight with her 2011 collection Binocular Vision. The new-found fame landed her a new publisher — Little, Brown — for her latest collection and a profile in the Times. It seems, in fact, that Pearlman is now assured the larger audience that eluded her for decades. (Max)
Binary Star by Sarah Gerard: An introduction to a recently published excerpt of Binary Star suggests Sarah Gerard has a reputation for tackling her subject matter with unusual ferocity. In her debut, she turns her attention to eating disorders, focusing on a would-be teacher who struggles with anorexia. When the story begins, the teacher weighs ninety-eight pounds, and she reflects on the parallels between her own compulsions and the hopeless alcoholism of her lover. Gerard heightens the intensity, meticulously listing what her characters eat and drink. (Thom)
Frog by Mo Yan: In the latest novel by the Chinese Nobel laureate to get an English translation, Mo Yan takes on the one-child policy, depicting the lives of several characters throughout the lifespan of Communist China. Gugu, a gynecologist who delivered hundreds of babies during Mao Zedong’s reign, finds herself performing illegal abortions after the policy takes effect in the late seventies. Yan also depicts the sexism of the policy — his characters work hard to have sons and not daughters. (Thom)
Watch Me Go by Mark Wisniewski: Wisniewski’s third novel channels the best of his profluent short fiction (Best American Short Stories, Virginia Quarterly Review). Watch Me Go speeds by with clipped chapters that follow Douglas “Deesh” Sharp, who helps haul the wrong junk: an oil drum that holds a corpse. Sharp does it for the money, and that bad decision haunts him until the final page of the novel. Wisniewski’s tale unfolds in the shadow of the Finger Lakes, New York racetracks, where, one character warns “in the long run, gamblers always lose.” Watch Me Go feels particularly apt to our national present, when police procedure is under constant scrutiny. Deesh is a victim of the system, and his redemption will only happen by fire. Wisniewski’s prose burns forward, but he knows when to slow the pace and make the reader feel Deesh’s injustice. (Nick R.)
Hall of Small Mammals: Stories by Thomas Pierce: Pierce’s stories are reminiscent of the work of Laura van den Berg: his fiction exists in a space that’s just slightly offset from reality, not quite surrealism but not quite realism either. A woman admits to her boyfriend that she’s married to another man, but only in her dreams; in dreams she and her husband live out an ordinary domestic life. A man who works for a sinister television show that clones extinct animals delivers a miniature woolly mammoth to his mother. Pierce’s stories are beautifully written and suffused with mystery. (Emily)
A Bad Character by Deepti Kapoor: “Delhi is no place for a woman in the dark,” Kapoor writes, “unless she has a man and a car or a car and a gun.” Idha, the narrator of Kapoor’s debut novel, is young, middle-class, and bored. Her car allows a measure of freedom, but not enough, and when she meets a somewhat unsuitable older man, the temptation to capsize her life with an affair is irresistible. Both a coming-of-age story and a portrait of New Delhi. (Emily)
Bonita Avenue by Peter Buwalda: Buwalda’s first novel, translated from the Dutch, traces the dissolution of the outwardly solid Sigerius clan, updating the family saga by way of technical intricacy, narrative brio, and internet porn. In the Netherlands, the book was a bestseller, nominated for a dozen prizes. The English translation has drawn comparisons to Jonathan Franzen and the manic heyday of a young Philip Roth. (Garth)
Lucky Alan: And Other Stories by Jonathan Lethem: Jonathan Lethem has made a career of capturing transition—whether it’s Brooklyn’s gentrification or his masterful blend of genre and literary fiction. He works with similar themes in his third short story collection, but this time, it’s people—not places—that are in limbo. From forgotten comic book characters stuck on a desert island to a father having his midlife crisis at SeaWorld, the nine stories in this collection explore everything from the quotidian to the absurd, all with Lethem’s signature humor, nuance, and pathos. (Tess)
Find Me by Laura van den Berg: In most post-apocalyptic fiction, the end of the world is devastating, but what if it were a chance for renewal and redemption? Laura van den Berg is the perfect writer to answer this question as she has proven herself a master of scrutinizing fresh starts in her short story collections, What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth. In her first novel, a lost young woman named Joy is immune to an Alzheimer’s-like plague sweeping the country. With society’s rules broken down, Joy travels across America in search of the mother who abandoned her, making new friends and a new world along the way. (Tess)
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy: McCarthy’s fourth novel introduces us to a “corporate anthropologist” struggling to wrest an overarching account of contemporary existence from a miasma of distraction and dream. Perhaps he’s a stand-in for your average internet user. Or novelist. At any rate, expect ideas and delight in equal measure (assuming there’s a distinction); McCarthy’s reputation as a “standard bearer of the avant-garde” underrates how thoroughly he’s mastered the novelistic conventions he’s concerned to interrogate – and how fun he is to read. (Garth)
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link: Link’s last story collection for adults, Magic for Beginners, was something like the Jesus’ Son of Magical Realism. Its publication nearly a decade ago won the author a passionate cult; since then, mostly through word-of-mouth, its excellence has become a matter of broader consensus. Get in Trouble, her fourth collection, offers a vivid reminder of why. Beneath the attention-getting levity of Link’s conceits – ghosts, superheroes, “evil twins” – lies a patient, Munrovian attunement to the complexities of human nature. (Garth)
The Strange Case of Rachel K by Rachel Kushner: Before she published her two richly accomplished novels, Telex From Cuba and The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner wrote three short works of fiction that are collected in The Strange Case of Rachel K. In “The Great Exception,” a queen pines for an explorer as he makes his way to “Kuba.” In “Debouchement,” a faith healer’s illegal radio broadcasts give hope to an oppressed island populace. And in the title story, a French-style zazou dancer in pre-revolutionary Cuba negotiates the murky Havana night. The stories read like warm-up sketches for Telex From Cuba, and they’ll be of interest to Kushner’s ardent fans and future scholars. Others will be left hungering for something new from this outlandishly gifted writer. (Bill)
Discontent and its Civilizations: Dispatches from Lahore, New York, and London by Mohsin Hamid: Hamid’s latest is a collection of pieces that he wrote for various publications between 2000—the year his first novel, Moth Smoke, was published—and 2014. Hamid has lived in Pakistan, New York City, and London, and in works ranging from extended essays to brief op-eds, he brings personal insight and thoughtful analysis to issues ranging from the war on terror to the future of Pakistan to the costs and the promise of globalization. (Emily)
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
Neil Gaiman is known for finding the fantastical in the everyday and the cracks in reality. So it should be no surprise that his third short story collection defies genre categorization, delving into fairy tales, horror, fantasy, poetry, and science fiction. Yet not all of it is unfamiliar: “Adventure Story” shares themes with his last novel The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and “Black Dog” brings him back to the American Gods world. (Tess)
Suspended Sentences by Patrick Modiano: Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature, will get a belated introduction to many American readers through Suspended Sentences. Originally published between 1988 and 1993, these three atmospheric novellas share Modiano’s recurring theme: an attempt to understand the secret histories of the Nazi Occupation of his native Paris. “Afterimage” is the shadow tale of a young writer cataloging the work of a haunted photographer. The title piece is a child’s-eye view of the gang of circus performers and crooks who raise him. In “Flowers of Ruin,” a double suicide triggers an investigation into gangsters and collaborators during the Occupation. It’s a delectably broad sampling from a writer with a doggedly narrow scope. American readers should rejoice. Update: The release date was moved up following the Nobel win and the book has already been published! (Bill)
The Infernal by Mark Doten: After ten years of near-silence, we’re now in the full roar of fiction about the Iraq War. The most notable efforts to date have taken a realist slant, but Mark Doten’s first novel marks a sharp swerve into Coover territory: its key figure channels the voices of Condoleezza Rice, Paul Bremer, and Osama bin Laden. Early readers have reached for adjectives like “deranged,” “crazy,” and “insane,” in addition to the more usual “thrilling” and “dazzling.” (Garth)
There’s Something I Want You to Do by Charles Baxter: We don’t often want authors to moralize, but Charles Baxter is a fictional minister we have been devout to throughout more than a dozen works of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Virtue and vice are inextricably related in his latest short stories. The collection features ten stories, five about virtue and five about vice, with the same characters participating in both and all motivated by the book’s titular request. What Baxter wants us to do is note human frailty, ambiguity, and its shameful depths. As fellow master of the form Lorrie Moore notes, “Baxter’s stories proceed with steady grace, nimble humor, quiet authority, and thrilling ingeniousness.” (Tess)
The Last Good Paradise by Tatjana Soli: The author of The Lotus Eaters (winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize) and The Forgetting Tree returns with a novel about a ragtag group of modern people attempting to escape their troubles on a remote Pacific island. Come for the scenery, the picaresque cast, and the comic reflections on the vagaries of contemporary life; stay for, as Kirkus puts it, Soli’s “idiosyncratic prose style.” (Lydia)
My Documents by Alejandro Zambra: “Camilo” was both the first thing I’d read by this young Chilean writer and one of the two or three best stories to run in The New Yorker last year. It appears alongside 10 other pieces in this collection, Zambra’s first book with McSweeney’s. (Garth)
I Am Radar by Reif Larsen: Reif Larsen’s follow-up to the bestselling The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet takes off from a premise halfway between Steve Martin and Judy Budnitz: “In 1975, a black child named Radar Radmanovic is mysteriously born to white parents.” But the ensuing 650 pages venture into realms of Pynchonian complexity and Irving-esque sweep. Erudite and voracious, skylarking and harrowing, they follow Radar around the world and into entanglements with some of the worst atrocities of the 20th Century. (Garth)
The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw: When Harvard graduate Charlie Garrett starts teaching at Abbott, an Episcopal boarding school in Massachusetts, the chair of the English department tells the young teacher that his students “all still believe in truth.” LeCraw’s gorgeous sentences dramatize a campus where literature stirs young hearts and minds. Charlie falls for a student, May Bankhead, daughter of the campus chaplain, and makes his feelings known when she returns home from college. Love turns to lust, and later to jealousy, when Charlie’s half brother, attractive Nick Garrett, arrives at Abbott to teach. Nick catches May, who has returned to teach at the school. “I need to be here,” she tells Charlie. LeCraw never eases the emotional tension. The novel begins with an epigraph from gifted teacher-writer Andre Dubus, who says he “learned to walk into a classroom wondering what I would say” rather than planning. The Half Brother captures his spirit, and the result is one of the finest school-set novels in recent memory. (Nick R.)
The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman: Newman’s third novel is set in a world of children. Eighty years ago, a deadly pandemic swept across North America, and now every child is born with the disease; they begin showing symptoms around the age of eighteen or nineteen, and die soon after. When fifteen-year-old Ice Cream Star’s beloved older brother falls ill, she sets out after rumors of a cure. It’s a compelling story, but the most fascinating thing about Newman’s book is the language: the novel is written in the kind of beautifully warped English that one might expect to develop over eighty years without adults, and the prose often approaches a kind of wild poetry: “We flee like a dragonfly over water, we fight like ten guns, and we be bell to see.” (Emily)
All the Wrong Places: A Life Lost and Found by Philip Connors: After the suicide of his brother Connors finds himself in, as the title of his second memoir promises, many incongruous and wrong places, ranging from a hot-air balloon floating over New Mexico to a desk at the Wall Street Journal. A kind of prelude to his debut memoir, Fire Season, All The Wrong Places helps to explain why spending a decade in mountain solitude was so attractive to Connors. It’s also a look at the wandering years that often follow early loss, and has already drawn comparisons toCheryl Strayed’s seemingly infinitely-popular Wild. (Kaulie)
Bon Appétempt: A Coming of Age Story (With Recipes!) by Amelia Morris : As anyone who has ever creamed butter and sugar together in a mixing bowl knows, the precision of baking can also bring order to your life. With a few failed careers and a dysfunctional family, Amelia Morris needed to learn this lesson, too. From her blog of the same name to this memoir, she chronicles her transformation into an adult and cook, complete with a good dose of humor and recipes. (Tess)
The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro: It’s been ten years since Never Let Me Go, so for Ishiguro fans, his new novel has been long-anticipated. His British publisher, Faber & Faber, offered up a somewhat oblique teaser early last year: it’s a book about “lost memories, love, revenge and war”; the website, which is currently just a (kind of intense) book trailer, doesn’t help much either—but then, if Never Let Me Go is any indicator, perhaps we’d all be better off without a lot of spoilery summaries in advance. (Tess)
Ember Days by Nick Ripatrazone: Nick’s lovely meditations on teaching, writing, reading, and faith have come fast and furious on The Millions since he joined the site as a staff writer at the tail end of 2013. Nick is prolific–he’s the author of two novellas, two poetry collections, a book of criticism, and a short story collection, which he somehow managed to write while teaching public school in New Jersey and parenting twins. His newest collection of short stories will be published by Braddock Avenue Books; you can read the eponymous story, a haunting number about atomic power and retribution, the title of which is taken from the Christian liturgical calendar, at Story South. (Lydia)
The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James: Tania James’s debut novel Atlas of Unknowns and follow-up story collection Aerogrammes were both published to critical acclaim. This second novel may be her true coming out. Says Karen Russell: “The Tusk that Did the Damage is spectacular, a pinwheeling multi-perspectival novel with a cast that includes my favorite character of recent memory, ‘the Gravedigger,’ an orphaned homicidal elephant.” The elephant is not only a primary character, but one of three narrators, who also include a poacher and a young American filmmaker. Ivory trading, poaching, an escaped elephant, a risky love affair, all set in rural South India and “blend[ing] the mythical and the political”—this novel seems to have it all. (Sonya)
Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes and I Refuse by Per Petterson: Since Out Stealing Horses brought him international acclaim in 2007, many more of Norwegian novelist Per Petterson’s books have been translated into English, although not quite in the order he wrote them. Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, a collection of linked stories, was his first, published in Norway in 1987, and introduces young Arvid Jansen — a character he revisits in In the Wake and I Curse the River of Time — growing up in the outskirts of Oslo in the early 60s. I Refuse, meanwhile, is Petterson’s latest novel, published in Norway in 2012. It tells the story of Jim and Tommy, whose friendship was forged in their youth when Tommy stood up to his abusive father and needed Jim’s support. When they meet by chance 35 years later, they recall those painful events, as well as a night on a frozen lake that separated them until now. (Janet)
B & Me: A True Story of Literary Arousal by J.C. Hallman: Nicholson Baker’s characteristically idiosyncratic biography of John Updike, U and I, has become a literary classic. Now J.C. Hallman, himself a gifted practitioner of eclectic non-fiction with books on topics ranging from chess to Utopia, turns the lens on Baker. Publisher Simon & Schuster calls it “literary self-archaeology” and offers up comparisons to Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage and Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, two books that have helped carve out a new genre of memoir that arrives refracted through the lens of the writers’ literary obsessions. (Max)
The Dream of My Return by Horacio Castellanos Moya: Castellanos Moya’s short novels are hallucinatory, mordant, and addictive – like Bernhard transplanted to warmer climes. And his translator, Katherine Silver, is admirably attuned to the twists and turns of his sentences. We’ve offered enthusiastic readings of Senselessness and The She-Devil in the Mirror. Here Castellanos Moya flirts again with autobiographical material, tracing the crack-up of “an exiled journalist in Mexico City [who] dreams of returning home to El Salvador.” (Garth)
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson: There’s a robust online conversation right now about public shaming: when someone says or does something offensive on the internet, does the collective outcry — a digital torch-wielding mob — go too far? Ronson’s previous books include The Psychopath Test and The Men Who Stare at Goats, and he’s a frequent contributor to This American Life and BBC Radio 4. In his newest book, billed as “a modern-day Scarlet Letter,” he examines the culture that’s grown up around public shaming, talking with people like Jonah Lehrer, who shook the publishing world with several rounds of plagiarism revelations, and Justine Sacco, who tweeted an offensive “joke” before boarding a transatlantic flight — and had what felt like the entire internet demanding that she be fired before her plane touched down. (Elizabeth)
Young Skins by Colin Barrett: Ireland right now is ridiculously fertile ground for writers, though I guess that’s been said so often in the last century as to border on cliché. Still: Anne Enright, Paul Murray, Eimear McBride, Kevin Barry, Keith Ridgway…and 32-year-old Colin Barrett is, as they say, the coming man. This collection, winner of the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Guardian First Book Award, wastes no motion in its unsparing look at youth and masculinity in the small towns of the west. (Garth)
Decoy by Allan Gurganus: In 2013, 12 years after the appearance of his last full-length book, Allan Gurganus published Local Souls, a collection of three novellas. One of these, Decoy, which Dwight Garner called “the keeper” of the bunch, is indeed being kept, appearing as a separate publication this spring. Set in the fictional North Carolina town that has housed much of Gurganus’s previous work–including his beloved debut Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All–Decoy deals in small-town social relations and obscure homoerotic longings. Gurganus, known as a writer’s writer (he taught Donald Antrim’s first writing class), is reportedly at work on another massive full-length novel, “The Erotic History of a Southern Baptist Church.” (Lydia)
Crow Fair by Thomas McGuane: A new release by gifted prose stylist McGuane should be cause for celebration by sentence lovers. McGuane long ago moved from the sardonic prose of his earlier novels (The Sporting Club) to lyric representations of the American West (The Cadence of Grass). In his own words: “As you get older, you should get impatient with showing off in literature. It is easier to settle for blazing light than to find a language for the real. Whether you are a writer or a bird-dog trainer, life should winnow the superfluous language. The real thing should become plain. You should go straight to what you know best.” The seventeen stories of Crow Fair model that sentiment. Start with the patient words of “A Prairie Girl,” but stay for the rest. (Nick R.)
The Last Word by Hanif Kureishi: British man of letters Hanif Kureishi, OBE, has been, variously, a novelist, playwright, filmmaker, writer of pornography, victim of financial fraud, and sometimes reluctant professor of creative writing. His newest novel takes on another man of letters, Mamoon Azam, a fictional lout rumored to be based on the non-fictional lout V.S. Naipaul. Echoing Patrick French’s biography of Naipaul, Kureishi (who has assiduously avoided drawing comparisons between his novel and Naipaul) describes an imperious and irascible master of post-colonial fiction and his hapless biographer. (Lydia)
The Unloved and Beautiful Mutants and Swallowing Geography: Two Early Novels by Deborah Levy: For those who loved the oneiric Swimming Home, 2015 will be a great year as three Deborah Levy books—one new novel and two earlier works—are due to come out. Her latest, The Unloved, starts out as a sexually charged, locked door mystery set in a French chateau, then expands into a far-ranging tale about sadism and historical atrocities. Beautiful Mutants, her strange first novel about a Russian exile who is either a gifted seer or a talented fake, and Swallowing Geography, a European road novel with nods to Kerouac, are being reissued in June. (Matt)
Aquarium by David Vann: Vann, whose work we have examined previously at The Millions, returns with a new novel in March. Library Journal offers high praise: “Since electrifying the literary world five years ago with his debut novel, Legend of a Suicide, Vann has racked up an astonishing number of international awards. This lovely, wrenching novel should add to that list.” (Thom)
The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle: When precisely, one wonders, does T.C. Boyle sleep? In the 35 years since his first book came out, Boyle has published 14 novels and more than 100 stories. The Harder They Come is the usual T.C. Boyle clown car of violent misfits, anti-authoritarian loons, and passionate losers set loose in a circus of serious-minded zaniness. After being declared a hero for stopping a hijacking, an ex-Marine returns home to Northern California to find that his mentally disturbed son has taken up with a hardcore member of a right-wing sect that refuses to recognize the authority of the state. (Michael)
Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, edited by Meghan Daum: Well, the title speaks for itself. “Controversial and provocative,” no doubt. This is the book I wanted to edit myself, so now I’m looking forward to reading it. Sixteen authors offer their reflections on this topic, including Lionel Shriver, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Christensen, Elliott Holt, Geoff Dyer, and Tim Kreider. Daum published her own story of not being a parent—but rather a mentor of teenagers—at The New Yorker back in September. The anthology’s title is likely both tongue-in-cheek and uncomfortably accurate; its cleverness, to my mind, is in the fact that the subtitle might easily omit the “not.” (Sonya)
The Animals by Christian Kiefer: Christian Kiefer leaves behind the suburban cul-de-sacs of his first novel, The Infinite Tides, and takes us to rural Idaho for his follow-up, The Animals. Bill Reed is trying to move beyond his criminal past by managing a wildlife sanctuary for injured animals – raptors, a wolf, a bear. He plans to marry the local veterinarian and live a quiet life – until a childhood friend is released from prison and comes calling. Aimed at fans of Denis Johnson and Peter Matthiessen, this literary thriller is a story of friendship, grief, and the desire to live a blameless life. (Bill)
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham: I learned of James Hannaham’s sophomore novel back in 2013, at which point I mentioned to him how excited I was—about the title in particular: “You wrote a book called DELICIOUS FOODS?!” “The title is slightly misleading,” he replied. His publisher gives us this: “[A]n incisive look at race relations in America and an unflinching portrait of the pathos and absurdity of addiction.” Delicious or not, the story of Eddie and his mother Darlene promises to be both “blistering” and “inventive”—not to mention timely. (Sonya)
The World Before Us by Aislinn Hunter: In Hunter’s eerily compelling new novel, an archivist at a small London museum embarks on a final project before the museum’s impending closure: she is searching for information related to a woman who disappeared over a century ago from a Victorian asylum. The project holds some personal interest: when the archivist was fifteen years old, a little girl whom she was babysitting vanished in the woods near the asylum, and the archivist has begun to suspect that the two events were connected. (Emily)
The Sellout by Paul Beatty: Back in the ‘90s, The White-Boy Shuffle, Beatty’s first novel (after several poetry collections) was one of the bibles of my adolescence – furiously funny and ineffably sad. Two subsequent novels confirmed him as a scorching satirist in the vein of his contemporaries Sam Lipsyte and Gary Shteyngart. His latest outing features, in a supporting role, “the last surviving Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins” – but its deeper concerns couldn’t be more timely: the precipitating incident is the death of the hero’s father in a police shootout, and the ultimate destination is the Supreme Court. (Garth)
The Last Flight of Poxl West by Daniel Torday: Torday’s novella, The Sensualist, won the 2012 Jewish Book Award for debut fiction. In his first novel, The Last Flight of Poxl West, the titular character is a war hero and something of an idol to his teenage nephew, Eli Goldstein. Kirkus gave the novel a starred review, remarking, “While Torday is more likely to be compared to Philip Roth or Michael Chabon than Gillian Flynn, his debut novel has two big things in common with Gone Girl–it’s a story told in two voices, and it’s almost impossible to discuss without revealing spoilers. A richly layered, beautifully told and somehow lovable story about war, revenge and loss.” Rivka Galchen calls it both “brilliant” and “hilarious” and George Saunders says, “Torday is a prodigiously talented writer, with a huge heart.” I myself had the great pleasure of reading an advanced copy and I loved it. The final scene…what an ending! I still think about it. (Edan)
Her 37th Year: An Index by Suzanne Scanlon: Delivered in a series of pithy and emphatic observations, thoughts, and quotations, Suzanne Scanlon’s Her 37th Year: An Index examines love and desire and disappointment and writers and influence and ideas and passion and affairs and depression and writing and friendship and mothering and being a woman and aging. The potential excess of all this is balanced by its lean form, with each entry a vignette, quote, or observation. As a “fictional memoir”, Her 37th Year re-imagines form and redefines boundaries in a way similar to how Jenny Offil’s Dept. of Speculation revitalized the novel: the sum of its parts is flooring. (Anne)
God Help the Child by Toni Morrison: Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature more than two decades ago; her newest novel will be her sixth in that span of time, following 2012’s Home. A new Morrison novel, according to Slate, is “news that amounts to at least an 8 on the literary Richter scale.” It is, according to Knopf, “about the way childhood trauma shapes and misshapes the life of the adult,” and though it’s just 192 pages long, it promises to be more powerful than many books twice its length. (Elizabeth)
My Struggle: Book 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard: There’s still time to jump on the Knausgaard bandwagon! English-speaking fans of Books 1-3 have been waiting almost a year for this translation, the fourth in a six-volume autobiographical novel by Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard — or just plain “Karl Ove” to those of us who have been following his confessional outpourings. Dwight Garner likened reading Knausgaard to “falling into a malarial fever”, and James Wood remarked that “even when I was bored, I was interested.” Book 4 covers Knausgaard’s late adolesence as he struggles to support his writing by teaching, falls in love with a 13-year-old student, and boozily greets the long arctic nights. (Hannah)
Early Warning by Jane Smiley: This is the second installment in Smiley’s Last Hundred Years Trilogy, which follows a single Iowa farming family and its descendants through the American Century, from 1920 to 2020. The first book, Some Luck, which Smiley discussed in a wide-ranging Millions interview last fall, covers the Depression years and World War II. The new book starts in the depths of the Cold War and takes readers through Vietnam and into the Reagan era. The final volume, as yet untitled, is due out this fall. (Michael)
A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson: Kate Atkinson’s 2013 novel Life After Life followed Ursula Todd as she lived and re-lived her life in mid-century Britain. In this companion to the novel, we get the story of Ursula’s beloved younger brother Teddy, an aspiring poet and celebrated RAF pilot, who leaves a war he didn’t expect to survive to become a husband, father, and grandfather in an ever-changing world. (Janet)
Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser: A friend of mine keeps Steven Millhauser’s collection We Others by her bedside; she speaks of it, and Millhauser, like it’s 1963 and he’s a dark-eyed mop-top. Indeed, Millhauser inspires cult following: his stories do the impossible, getting way under your skin via immaculately simple prose and deceptively placid storylines. Voices in the Night collects 16 stories — “culled from religion and fables. . . Heightened by magic, the divine, and the uncanny, shot through with sly humor” – that promise to once again unsettle us with their strangeness and stun us with their beauty. (Sonya)
Gutshot by Amelia Gray: Gray’s stories come at you like fists wrapped in sirloin to pack a punch—they’re wonderfully idiosyncratic, visceral, and grotesque, with humor added for heft. Stories in her collection Museum of the Weird feature high-end cannibalism (eating monk’s tongues), a serial killer nicknamed “God” who cuts chests open and removes a rib, and a plate of hair served with soup. With the arrival of her next collection, Gutshot, Gray’s stories threaten to knock you out. (Anne)
Academy Street by Mary Costello: Bravo to Mary Costello, a “Bloomer” whose first story collection The China Factory I wrote about here back in 2012. Her debut novel Academy Street—the story of Tess Lohan, who emigrates from 1940s western Ireland to New York City—is drawing comparisons to Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn and John Williams’s Stoner. Academy Street has already been published in Europe and received the Eason Novel of the Year Irish Book Award. (Sonya)
The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy: Percy rides the increasingly porous border between literary and genre fiction in this post-apocalyptic thriller that re-imagines the Lewis and Clark expedition in an America brought low by a super flu and nuclear fallout. When word comes to Sanctuary – the remains of St. Louis – that life is better out West, Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark set out in secrecy, hoping to expand their infant nation and reunite the States. Should be a snap, right? (Michael)
The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer: The author of The Dive from Clausen’s Pier again displays her gift for delving into complicated families and the women who aren’t sure they want to be part of them. Narrated in turns by each of the four Blair children, The Children’s Crusade follows the twists and turns of the family’s fortunes from the day in 1954 when their father, Bill, impulsively buys a plot of wooded land south of San Francisco, through to the modern day. “Imagine, if you will, that Jonathan Franzen’s excellent novel, The Corrections, had likeable characters,” says one early reader on GoodReads. (Michael)
The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksandr Hemon: His first full-length novel in seven years (since 2008’s The Lazarus Project), The Making of Zombie Wars is the story of Josh Levin, an ESL teacher in Chicago with a laptop full of hundreds of screenplay ideas, Zombie Wars chief among them. As Josh’s life goes from bad to worse to absurd — moving in with his girlfriend only to become entangled in the domestic disputes of her neighbors — he continues to work on the zombie movie that might get him away from it all. (Janet)
Mislaid by Nell Zink: Zink’s first novel The Wallcreeper, published by the Dorothy Project, a feminist small press, made a big splash last year. Its backstory provided the hook: a fifty-year-old expat writes a novel on a dare from her pen pal Jonathan Franzen. But Zink’s sui generis sensibility was the main event: taut, acerbic, and free. She moves to a major press for her second book, a decade-hopping Southern family novel that tackles race, sexuality, and the wilderness of youth. (Garth)
The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May by Mark Z. Danielewski: On the jacket of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks is a blurb from Publishers Weekly: Is this “the most ambitious novel ever written or just the most Mitchell-esque?” One might ask the same question, mutatis mutandis, about Mark Danielewski’s The Familiar. Danielewski combines Mitchell’s fondness for formal innovation and genre tropes with an appealing indifference to questions of taste. At its best, this gives you House of Leaves, at its worst, Only Revolutions. One Rainy Day in May introduces us to “nine lives,” principally that of a 12-year-old girl who rescues “a creature as fragile as it is dangerous” – some kind of totemic/architectonic cat? Anyway, Volume 1 is 880 pages long. Word is, 26 more volumes are on the way, so this one had better be good. (Garth)
The Green Road by Anne Enright: Spanning three decades and three continents, this new book by Anne Enright centers on Rosaleen, the head of the Madigan family. Beginning in County Clare, the book follows the four Madigan children — Dan, Hanna, Emmet and Constance — as they set off on their own lives, travelling as far away as Mali to explore their adult selves. On Christmas Day, they all come home, and the issues of their family come back to them. In many ways, it’s a premise similar to that of Enright’s Booker-winning The Gathering. (Thom)
A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me by David Gates: In a year rich with surrealist romps and boundary-blurring semi-memoirs, David Gates returns with a welcome injection of “the present palpable intimate” in the form of eleven stories and a novella. Gates is a natural and capacious realist, at once ironic and warm, in a way that makes the ordinary ambit of experience, from marriage to parenthood to getting old, seem as trippy as it really is. (Garth)
Loving Day by Mat Johnson: Johnson’s Pym, an entertaining riff on race and Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, took us all the way to Antarctica. Loving Day (the title refers to a holiday celebrating interracial love) is set in a less remote locale, a black neighborhood in Philadelphia, but promises to be no less hallucinatory than its predecessor. A mixed race man returns from Wales, where both his marriage and his comic shop have failed, to inhabit a ghost-haunted mansion left to him by his father. He soon discovers the existence of a daughter, and the pair is drawn into a “utopian mixed-raced cult.” (Matt)
The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard: While Jim Shepard was a student at Brown, John Hawkes told him “You know, you’re not really a novelist, you’re really a short story writer.” Thankfully, good writers can be terribly wrong. Shepard’s long fiction is as fantastic as his classic stories. Shepard has always been a writer who exists outside of himself on the page, and this Holocaust-set novel is no different. The story focuses on Aron, a boy from the Warsaw Ghetto, who joins other children in smuggling goods to those “quarantined.” The novel also illuminates the life of Janusz Korczak, the real-life protector of Jewish children in ghetto orphanages (he once said “You do not leave a sick child in the night, and you do not leave children at a time like this.”). Serious material requires sensitive hands, and Shepard’s care creates beauty. (Nick R.)
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf: Kent Haruf, who died last year at 71, will be best remembered for his 1999 novel Plainsong, a finalist for the National Book Award. It was set in the fictional eastern Colorado town of Holt, which Haruf (rhymes with sheriff) returns to yet again for his last novel, Our Souls at Night, finished shortly before his death. It’s the story of a widower named Louis Waters and a widow named Addie Moore who come together in Holt and begin sharing the aspirations, disappointments and compromises of their long lives. One critic likened Haruf’s prose to Pottery Barn furniture – with its “rustic lines,” “enduring style” and “aged patina.” His legion of fans wouldn’t have it any other way, and Our Souls at Night will not disappoint them. (Bill)
City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis edited by Keith Gessen and Stephen Squibb: Drawn from an n+1 series of the same name, City by City offers an insider’s glance into the state of America’s urban spaces. The mix of personal and historical essays explore issues such as crime, gentrification, and culture in cities as varied and far-reaching as Miami, Florida and Gold Rush, Alaska. Described as “a cross between Hunter S. Thompson, Studs Terkel, and the Great Depression–era WPA guides to each state in the Union,” City by City provides a collective portrait of the American city during the Great Recession. (Anne)
The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato: Disabato, who has written for The Millions, debuts with a high-concept mystery that looks to be a lot of fun. Pop stars aren’t known for avoiding the limelight, which is why the disappearance of a Lady Gaga-like singer inspires two women to track her down. Racing around Chicago in search of clues, they find themselves decoding arcane documents and ancient maps rather than liner notes as the disappearance turns out to involve a secret society. (Matt)
Odd Woman in the City by Vivian Gornick: For a sneak preview of Gornick’s witty and unsparing observations of city life, please read Gornick’s “Letter from Greenwich Village” in The Paris Review (it’s also collected in The Best American Essays 2014). A master memoirist, Gornick’s latest is an ode to New York City’s street life, old friends, and the fascinating joy of “living out conflicts, rather than fantasies.” (Hannah)
The Edge Becomes The Center by DW Gibson: Following up his critically-acclaimed oral history of the recession, Not Working (the title is a play on Studs Terkel’s classic oral history, Working), Gibson’s latest oral history portrays gentrifying New York City from all sides. Gibson interviews brokers, buyers, sellers, renters, landlords, artists, contractors, politicians and everyone in between to show how urban change feels to those living through it. (Hannah)
Black Glass: Short Fictions by Karen Joy Fowler: Fowler’s 2014 novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, won the PEN/Faulkner award and landed her on the Booker shortlist, one of two American finalists for the now American-friendly prize. This year will see her 1998 short story collection, Black Glass, re-released in hardcover. The stories — with influences and references from Carry Nation to Gulliver’s Travels to Albert Einstein to Tonto and the Lone Ranger — have been described as “occasionally puzzling but never dull,” and “ferociously imaginative and provocative.” (Elizabeth)
Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg: Saint Mazie is Attenberg’s much anticipated follow-up to her bestselling novel The Middlesteins, which was also a finalist for the LA Times book prize. Inspired by the life of a woman profiled in Joseph Mitchell’s Up in the Old Hotel, Saint Mazie follows Mazie Phillips, “the truth-telling proprietress of The Venice, the famed New York City movie theater,” through the Jazz Age and the Depression; her diaries, decades later, inspire a contemporary documentarian to find out who this intriguing woman really was. Therese Ann Fowler, author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, calls the book “both a love song and a gut punch at once,” and Maggie Shipstead says it’s a “raw, boisterous, generous novel.” (Edan)
The Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen: Cohen, 34, is as prolific as he is ambitious. Five years after his mega-novel, Witz (and three years after a lauded story collection), he returns with a long book about a novelist ghost-writing the autobiography of one of Silicon Valley’s new Masters of the Universe. The set-up should give Cohen’s caustic sensibility a target-rich environment, while the scope leaves his fierce intelligence ample room to play. (Garth)
The Festival of Insignificance by Milan Kundera: Fifteen years after the publication of his last novel, Kundera returns with a (very brief) story of four friends in Paris who talk self-importantly about “sex, history, art, politics, and the meaning of life” while simultaneously celebrating their own insignificance (Library Journal). While these themes may be familiar to fans of Kundera’s past work (of which there are many – The Unbearable Lightness of Being has been enduringly popular since its publication in the mid-1980s) it will be exciting to see fresh writing from a modern master. (Kaulie)
Muse by Jonathan Galassi: Over his long literary career, Galassi has done everything except write a novel. Now the FSG publisher, Italian translator, critic and poet has checked that off his list with a story that satirizes the industry he knows so well and sounds like an updating of Henry James’ The Aspern Papers. In the novel, a publisher tries to wrestle a famous female poet away from a rival, eventually securing a meeting in her Venetian palazzo and learning a revelatory secret. (Matt)
The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida: Believer founding editor Vendela Vida’s trilogy of novels about “women in crisis” becomes a tetralogy with the debut of her latest, The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty. As in her previous novels, the story involves a woman traveling abroad (in this case, Casablanca, Morocco). When the woman is robbed of her wallet and passport, she experiences distress and also unexpected freedom. The novel dips into All About Eve territory in this part-thriller, part-novel-of-ideas when the woman finds work as a celebrity stand-in and then begins to assume this alternate identity as her own. (Anne)
In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar: Alvar is a frequent contributor to literary magazines—she’s been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize—but this is her first short story collection. In the Country focuses on the Filipino diaspora, from Bahrain to Manila to New York. Alvar considers themes of alienation, displacement, the sometimes-troubling bonds of family, and the struggle to find a sense of home. (Emily)
The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann: The one living novelist who makes Joyce Carol Oates look like a slacker returns with the fifth volume of his “Seven Dreams” series, about the confrontations between native people and settlers in North America. This installment swings west to investigate the Nez Perce War of the late 19th Century, and is rumored to lean on dialogue to an unusual degree. The first of the Seven Dreams was published in 1990; at this rate, the series should conclude some time in 2027. (Garth)
A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball: Jesse Ball’s novels are playful and clever and often quite grim, although this is not a contradiction. As he said in an interview: “a life of grief can be joyful too.” In his fifth novel, A Cure for Suicide, this again seems to be evident. A man and woman move in together: she is his guide and doctor who teaches him about life, defining for him the nature of objects and interaction and ways of being. That is, until another woman arrives and upends all he’s learned, making him question. (Anne)
Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto : Couto, a Mozambican who writes in Portuguese, has for years been considered one of Africa’s leading writers, fusing indigenous settings and traditions with influences from abroad. His first novel, Sleepwalking Land, was named one of the best African books of the 20th Century; his most recent, Tuner of Silences, was published by the terrific independent press Biblioasis, and was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublin award. In Confessions of the Lioness, a series of lion attacks in a remote village forces an eruption between men and women, modernity and tradition. It’s Couto’s first book to be published by FSG. (Garth)
Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai: Fans of 2014’s The Hundred Year House don’t have to wait too long for more of Makkai’s clever and wonderfully imaginative work. Her third book and her first story collection, Music for Wartime offers a diverse array of stories, four of which are inspired by Makkai’s family history and her paternal grandparents’ involvement in 1930s Hungarian politics. (For more on this, check out this Harper’s Magazine interview with Makkai). Overall, the collection showcases the author’s talent for the short form–which has gotten her anthologized four (!) times in the Best American Short Stories series. (Edan)
Flood of Fire by Amitav Ghosh: Following Sea of Poppies (shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize) and River of Smoke, Calcutta-born Amitav Ghosh brings his Ibis Trilogy to a rousing conclusion with Flood of Fire. It’s 1839, and after China embargoes the lucrative trade of opium grown on British plantations in India, the colonial government sends an expeditionary force from Bengal to Hong Kong to reinstate it. As the force arrives, war breaks out, and with it a blaze of naval engagements, embezzlement, profiteering and espionage. In bringing the first Opium War to crackling life, Ghosh has illuminated the folly of our own failed war on drugs. Historical fiction doesn’t get any timelier than this. (Bill)
The State We’re In: Maine Stories by Ann Beattie: A new collection of linked stories set in Maine from one of the short story masters. Call her the American Alice Munro, call her a New Yorker darling, call this the perfect summer read. (Hannah)
The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman: In her 30 works of fiction, Alice Hoffman always finds the magical in the ordinary. Her narratives have roamed from ancient Israel (The Dovekeepers) to 20th-century New York City (The Museum of Extraordinary Things). Hoffman’s new novel, The Marriage of Opposites, transports us to the tropical island of St. Thomas in the early 1800s, where a girl named Rachel is growing up in the community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition. When her arranged marriage ends with her husband’s death, she begins an affair with her late husband’s dashing nephew. There is nothing ordinary about their son: his name is Camille Pissarro, and he will grow up to become an immortal father of Impressionism. (Bill)
Purity by Jonathan Franzen: There are few American authors who can hit all the popular news outlets simply by releasing the title of their next novel (Purity), or launch a thousand hot takes with the publication of one grumpy book excerpt in The Guardian (an excerpt which, curiously, is no longer available at its previous URL as of this writing). Franzen haters were derisive at the news of his impending novel (Gawker’s headline was “Jonathan Franzen to Excrete Book Called Purity”), described by its publisher as “a multigenerational American epic that spans decades and continents,” with bonus “fabulist quality.” But some people believe, privately, that Franzen is such a good novelist that his detractors must just be jealous. And for those people, the new book can’t come quickly enough. (O Franzen! My Franzen!) (Lydia)
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: We at The Millions look forward to reading fellow staff writer Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel. At over 900 pages, the novel takes place in 1977 New York and culminates in the city’s famed black-out. The Guardian reports, “The polished third-person narration conjures up a cast of characters living in a New York City divided by race and money – the reluctant heirs to a great fortune, two Long Island kids exploring downtown’s nascent punk scene, a gay schoolteacher from rural Georgia, an obsessive magazine reporter, a revolutionary cell planning to set the Bronx ablaze, a trader with a hole on his balance sheet and a detective who is trying to piece together the mystery which connects them all to a shooting in Central Park.” In anticipation of the book’s release, I suggest you dip into Garth’s essays here at The Millions, perhaps starting with his 2010 piece on long novels, “Is Big Back?” (Edan)
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Last year offered many treats for readers: long-awaited new books by Donna Tartt and Norman Rush; the emergence of Rachel Kushner as a literary superstar; the breakout success of George Saunders. 2014 offers more riches. This year we’ll get to crack open new books by E.L. Doctorow, Richard Powers, Sue Monk Kidd, Lorrie Moore, Teju Cole, Mona Simpson, Lydia Davis, and Peter Matthiessen. Our own Edan Lepucki and Bill Morris will have new books on shelves in a few months. Look ahead to the hazy end of summer 2014 and a new novel by Haruki Murakami will be hitting American shores. All of these and many more are the books we’re looking forward to this year.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive—no book preview could be—but, at 9,100 words strong and encompassing 89 titles, this is the only 2014 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
January or Already Out:
Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart: Say what you will, but Shteyngart is putting the fun back in literary life. If you haven’t yet seen the trailer for his fourth book and first memoir, Little Failure, well, start your new year with a giggle or two and be prepared to be delightfully convinced by the romantic (if not quite “erotic”) affection between Shteyngart and James Franco in pink bathrobes. But seriously, folks—I’m guessing Adam Gopnik’s blurb is just what the Chekhov-Roth-Apatow of Queens (now upstate) was hoping for: “I fully expected Gary Shteyngart’s memoir of his search for love and sex in a Russian-Jewish-Queens-Oberlin upbringing to be as hilarious and indecorous and exact as it turns out to be; what I wasn’t entirely prepared for was for a book so soulful and pained in its recounting of the feints and false starts and, well, little failures of family love. Portnoy meets Chekhov meets Shteyngart! What could be better?” (Sonya)
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd: Don’t expect to find Sue Monk Kidd’s third novel at the library anytime soon because Oprah has already selected it as her newest Book Club read. She praised the book as a “conversation changer” regarding how we think about womanhood and history. The novel follows two headstrong women trying to make a change in the Antebellum South. Sarah Grimke, the daughter of a Charleston plantation owner, trades slavery for abolitionism and the suffragist movement. Her slave Handful has equally progressive desires, and the two form an unlikely friendship. (Tess)
Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow: Doctorow’s latest novel, his twelfth, is “structured as an extended series of conversations between Andrew, a cognitive neuroscientist by training, and an unnamed man who initially appears to be his psychotherapist,” according to Publishers Weekly. Their conversations focus on Andrew’s guilt over giving up his daughter after her mother died. Given Doctorow’s reputation as king of the American historical novel, it’s worrying that early reviews complain of a lack of clarity about exactly when the story takes place, but no one dramatizes complex ideas better than Doctorow. (Michael)
The Scent of Pine by Lara Vapnyar: Lena is on the brink of an early midlife crisis: her career is stalled, she feels disconnected to her adopted country, and her marriage is faltering. She finds romance with a similarly lost academic, Ben, and the two embark on an affair in a cabin in Maine. Yet Lara Vapnyar’s sophomore novel is more than just a sexy romp in the woods. Up north, Lena reflects on a romantic and mysterious summer she spent at a Soviet children’s camp 20 years before. Early reviewers have called Vapnyar’s latest a “Russian Scheherazade.” (Tess)
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee: Many of Chang-rae Lee’s novels are firmly grounded in reality, examining the worlds of displaced outsiders from the Korean War to the lives of immigrants in the present-day United States. His latest book leaps further afield, into the realm of speculative fiction, in a dystopian American future where declining urban neighborhoods have been transformed into “highwalled, self-contained labor colonies,” whose Chinese immigrant residents work catching fish for the surrounding elites. As with any good dystopian work, it promises to highlight and draw parallels with growing inequalities in our own society, which might “change the way readers think about the world they live in.” (Elizabeth)
Perfect by Rachel Joyce: When two seconds get added to clock time because “time was out of kilter with the natural movement of the Earth” in the 1970s, two young boys worry if the world will ever be the same. In the present day, a man is so crippled by his OCD that he struggles to maintain a normal life outside the psychiatric hospital. Rachel Joyce weaves these parallel narratives together in her highly anticipated followup to bestseller and Booker longlisted The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Perfect has garnered great reviews in the U.K. with Susanna Rustin at The Guardian lauding it as, “ambitious, darker and more honest.” (Tess)
Orfeo by Richard Powers: Richard Powers’ novels are often laced with serious science, with narratives that delve into the complexities of genetic engineering, computer coding, and cognitive disorders. In Orfeo Powers returns to the pairing of DNA coding and musicality from his Gold Bug Variations, with a tech-age take on the Orpheus myth. Orfeo follows a retired music professor who’s built a DIY genetics lab where he finds musical patterns in DNA sequences. When his dog dies unexpectedly, the FBI seizes the lab, and he goes on the lam. It seems that DNA and music are inextricably paired for Powers, who noted in an essay on having his genome sequenced, “If the genome were a tune played at a nice bright allegro tempo of 120 beats per minute, it would take just short of a century to play.” (Anne)
The Radiance of Tomorrow by Ishmael Beah: Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war, detailed his experiences of the conflict and its aftermath in his 2007 memoir, A Long Way Gone. His debut novel, which Edwidge Danticat has called “formidable and memorable,” tells the story of two friends who return to their village after the war and their struggle to restore a sense of order and normalcy in the space between an unspeakable past and an uncertain future. (Emily)
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus: At Columbia’s M.F.A. Program, Ben Marcus teaches a course called “Technologies of Heartbreak”—a nifty coinage that also points to the two poles of Marcus’s own aesthetic. In his mind-blowing story collection, The Age of Wire and String, and in the first novel that followed, Marcus gravitated toward the technological: meat masks, air bodies, soft machines… Seldom did one encounter a normal human being. But his most recent novel, The Flame Alphabet, placed wild invention at the service of more straightforward emotion. It’ll be worth watching to see where Leaving the Sea comes down; it’s likely to be good either way. (Garth)
A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor: Anybody else miss Kurt Vonnegut? Rachel Cantor is here to fill the void with her debut novel, which mixes the comic with the speculative in a voice that one early reviewer described as “Terry Pratchett crossed with Douglas Adams.” It’s got time travel, medieval kabbalists, and yes, pizza. What more can you ask for? (Hannah)
Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball: In a small Japanese town, eight people disappear from their homes with only a playing card marking their doors and absences; one man, a thread salesman, confesses to the crimes and is put in jail, but refuses to speak. These disappearances form the mystery around which Jesse Ball’s fourth novel, Silence Once Begun, is constructed, and which obsess a journalist who shares Ball’s name. Interview transcripts make up the central text of a story ultimately concerned with speech, silence, and the control of information. (Anne)
The Secret History of Las Vegas by Chris Abani: Abani is both a novelist and a poet, and he brings a poet’s instinct for sublime language to his latest work, a crime novel set in Las Vegas. Salazar, a detective, is determined to solve a string of recent murders before he retires. He enlists the help of an expert in psychopathy, Dr. Sunil Singh, who is haunted by a betrayal of his loved ones in apartheid South Africa. “Here in Vegas,” Abani writes, “the glamor beguiled and blinded all but those truly intent on seeing, and in this way the tinsel of it mocked the obsessive hope of those who flocked there.” (Emily)
A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald: In his seminal novels, the late W.G. Sebald more or less obliterated the line between essay and fiction, if one even existed in the first place. Here, Sebald explores the lives and work of Robert Walser, Gottfried Keller, and other artists. The book is labeled nonfiction, but one imagines that this capstone to the English translation of Sebald’s work will offer many of the satisfactions of his novels. (Garth)
Praying Drunk by Kyle Minor: Along with his colleague Matt Bell, Kyle Minor was the subject of a flame war in a recent comment thread here at The Millions. But the imputation of log-rolling struck me as unfair. As someone who’s never met, spoken with, or seen Kyle Minor, I can say that the Guernica excerpt of his as-yet-unpublished novel, The Sexual Lives of Missionaries, was one of the more memorable pieces of fiction by a young writer I read in 2012. I guess we’ll have to wait a while longer to see the rest, but in the meantime, Minor’s latest story collection, Praying Drunk, promises to explore some of the same territory. (Garth)
Bark by Lorrie Moore: New Lorrie Moore! Let us rejoice! Bark is Lorrie Moore’s first short story collection since the miraculous and magnificent Birds of America came out fifteen years ago. Some of these eight stories might be familiar; The New Yorker published “Debarking” back in 2003, and “The Juniper Tree” in 2005. All of these stories, new to you or not, should be about as pun-filled, clever, and devastating as we’ve come to expect from Moore, who is arguably the best American short story writer alive today. (Edan)
MFA vs. NYC: Two Cultures of American Fiction edited by Chad Harbach: Although its title and implied dichotomy will pain any person who writes things and is neither an MFA-holder nor connected with the NYC publishing scene, Chad Harbach’s collection of commentaries on the two major drivers of the literary economy promises to deliver valuable collective insight on the current state of writing in America. Harbach first conceived this dichotomy in 2010 in an essay for n+1 (available online at Slate), wherein he made intriguing and provocative statements on, among other things, the rise of the MFA program (“an ingenious partial solution to an eminent American problem: how to extend our already protracted adolescence past 22 and toward 30, in order to cope with an oversupplied labor market”) and argued that the “university now rivals, if it hasn’t surpassed, New York as the economic center of the literary fiction world.” The book will feature contributions from writers, editors, and teachers at various stages of their careers, including George Saunders, Elif Batuman, Keith Gessen, Maria Adelmann, Emily Gould, and Alexander Chee. (Lydia)
Kinder Than Solitude by Yiyun Li: Two things intrigue me right off the bat about Yiyun Li’s new novel—its title, and this, from the publisher: “Kinder Than Solitude is the story of three people whose lives are changed by a murder one of them may have committed.” A murder mystery! And from a writer as patient, observant, and precise as Li. Given Li’s gifts of insight into human nature, the story will surely evolve less around whodunit? and more around what really happened? and does it matter? The eponymous kindness seems to have been bestowed upon one of the three friends, Moran, by a man who was once her husband, at a time when she fled into—and presumably believed in the kindness of—solitude; all of which is yet more intriguing. (Sonya)
The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol: Molly Antopol’s debut is a collection about characters lost in the labyrinth of recent history. Stories are set against various geographical and historical backdrops—the McCarthy witch hunt, Communist-era Prague, Israeli settlements. The book has been accumulating some promising advance praise. Adam Johnson, for instance, has written that “Not since Robert Stone has a writer so examined the nature of disillusionment and the ways in which newfound hope can crack the cement of failed dreams.” Antopol was named one of the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” last year. (Mark)
An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine: The narrator of Rabih Alameddine’s fourth novel is reclusive seventy-two-year-old Aaliya Sobi, who lives alone in an apartment in Beirut who spends her time translating books into Arabic and then stowing them away, never to be read. The book is an exploration of Aaliya’s inner life—of her memories of Lebanon’s troubled recent history and her own turbulent past, and of her thoughts on literature and art. Colm Tóibín has compared it to Calvino and Borges, describing it as a “fiercely original act of creation”. (Mark)
Thirty Girls by Susan Minot: In 1996, The Lord’s Resistance Army kidnapped a group of 139 young teenage girls from a convent school in Uganda, holding them captive. The deputy headmistress of their school, Sister Rachele Fassera, pursued the kidnappers and negotiated the release of 109 of the girls; the remaining thirty were kept and subjected to a long ordeal of captivity and brutality. Susan Minot’s new novel, Thirty Girls, is a fictionalized account of this mass abduction and its aftermath. Minot tells the stories of these abductees, interweaving them with that of an American journalist named Jane Wood who is interviewing them about their experiences. In 2012, Minot published an extract of the same name in Granta’s “Exit Strategies” issue. (Mark)
Strange Bodies by Marcel Theroux: The British broadcaster and novelist Marcel Theroux, a son of Paul Theroux, wants to have it all in his fifth novel. Strange Bodies is a high-concept literary thriller that flirts with science fiction while making inquiries into language, identity and what it means to be human. The concept is this: Nicholas Slopen has been dead for months, yet one day he turns up to visit an old girlfriend. He leaves behind a flash drive containing something as unbelievable as he is—a cache of letters supposedly written by Samuel Johnson. This smart novel’s central conceit is that we are all, like books, made of words. (Bill)
The News: A User’s Manual by Alain de Botton: Known for his wide-ranging curiosity and penchant for philosophical musing, the author of How Proust Can Change Your Life, Religion for Atheists, and The Art of Travel has turned his attention to the news. This branch of the media that incorporates everything from war to celebrities getting pizza is almost omnipresent in our lives, and de Botton here examines how that affects us and how much longer the news can get bigger. (Janet)
The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert: Schaffert’s fifth novel, which he describes on his website as “a love story (with ghosts),” is set in the 1898 Omaha World’s Fair. The fair marks a point of possible transformation, both for Omaha—still in some ways a Wild West town, but yearning for the glamor of Chicago—and for the actors, aerialists, ventriloquists, and assorted hustlers who descend on the city for the fair. Schaffert brings his trademark lyricism, precision, and exquisite character development to a love story between a ventriloquist and a secretive traveling actress. (Emily)
A Life in Men by Gina Frangello: Gina Frangello is a true champion of indie literature—she’s an editor at The Rumpus and The Nervous Breakdown and has appeared repeatedly on the annual “Who Really Books Chicago” list—and yet she somehow finds time to write her own books, too. Frangello’s fiction is often sexual, seductive, forward, and frank. Her latest novel, A Life of Men, promises more in the same vein, with a story about two young friends, one recently diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, who travel the world seeking to fill their lives, however brief, with a wealth of experience. (Anne)
Europe in Sepia by Dubravka Ugresic: Ugresic has published several distinguished works of fiction, but her wide-ranging, boundary-blurring essays on politics and culture may be the ideal entry point for English-language readers. Here, in pieces originally published in The Baffler and elsewhere, she ranges from Occupy Wall Street to Ireland’s Aran Islands. For a preview, check out Arnon Grunberg’s tribute to Ugresic, published here last year. (Garth)
What’s Important is Feeling by Adam Wilson: Adam Wilson follows up his debut novel Flatscreen, a dark comedy of suburban listlessness, with a collection of stories taking place across the modern American landscape (the title story, which appeared in the Paris Review and was later included in the Best American Short Stories of 2012, describes a movie set in Texas and opens with the immortal question, “‘What is this cockshit?'”) Like Flatscreen, What’s Important is Feeling promises youthful- to middle-aged angst, ennui, relationship troubles, and weed. (Lydia)
Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole: Teju Cole’s peripatetic, meditative Open City drew comparisons to Sebald and Coetzee and firmly placed Cole on the map of young authors endowed with serious smarts and talent, who engage in cultural critique—and this holds true whether he’s writing about race, class, and post-colonialism, or Tweeting about drones. Cole’s novel Every Day Is for the Thief is an “amalgamation of fiction, memory, art, and travel writing” originally culled from his blog (now removed) about a young Nigerian revisiting Lagos and a version of the book was published in 2007 by Nigeria-based Cassava Republic Press. (Anne)
What Would Lynne Tillman Do by Lynne Tillman: I ask myself this question all the time – WWLTD? – and here, in a thick abecedarium of essays introduced by Colm Tóibín, Tillman offers a variety of answers. A crib sheet: sometimes Lynne Tillman would crack wise; sometimes Lynne Tillman would offer an insight so startling I had to go back and read it twice; always Lynne Tillman would do something smarter and finer and better than I would. And that’s why you, too, should be reading Lynne Tillman. (Garth)
The Heaven of Animals by David James Poissant: Early reviews have compared Poissant’s stories, which ply the literary territory between realism and allegory, to the work of Anton Chekhov and Raymond Carver. In one story from this debut collection, a man throws his teenage son out a window when he learns the boy is gay, seeking reconciliation only after helping free an alligator from a golf club pond. In another, two parents confront the unusual complications of having a newborn baby that literally glows. Poissant, whose stories have appeared in One Story, Ploughshares, and The Atlantic, also has a novel in the works. (Michael)
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi: Oyeyemi’s newest novel will be her fifth, not bad for a writer who will celebrate her 30th birthday later this year. Oyeyemi’s 2009 novel, White is for Witching, won a Somerset Maugham Award (the prize is given to British writers under 35) and she was named to the Granta Best Of Young British Novelists list last year, following the 2011 publication of Mr. Fox, the novel that introduced Oyeyemi to many U.S. readers. Boy, Snow, Bird, Oyeyemi told the Times last year, is “about a woman named Boy who tries to avoid becoming a wicked stepmother and really doesn’t know if she’s going to manage it.” (Max)
The Brunist Day of Wrath by Robert Coover: Coover’s enormous follow-up to his first novel, Origin of the Brunists, has been delayed several times, but this spring, it should finally see the light of day. Coover’s recent short stories in The New Yorker suggest he’s still near the top of his game. (Garth)
Pushkin Hills by Sergei Dovlatov: A new translation of a Dovlatov novel is like Christmas morning for the English-speaking world; and this one from his daughter, no less. Pushkin Hills, published 30 years ago, is one of his most popular novels in Russia (posthumously, along with all his work). Said The Guardian of the translation that first hit the UK last fall: “Alma Classics have been searching for a suitable translator for years. Now the writer’s daughter, Katherine Dovlatov, has captured her father’s style. . . [she] only took on the task of translating it after the publishers rejected a previous translation and numerous samples.” The story is, of course, autobiographical, featuring “[a]n unsuccessful writer and an inveterate alcoholic, Boris Alikhanov. . . running out of money and . . . recently divorced from his wife Tatyana, who intends to emigrate to the West with their daughter Masha.” From The Independent: “Vodka-fuelled mishaps, grotesque comic cameos and—above all—quick-fire dialogue that swings and stings propel this furious twilight romp from the final days of Soviet power.” Counterpoint is publishing the book in the U.S. (Sonya)
All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu: A MacArthur genius, a 5 Under 35 awardee, and a 20 Under 40 recipient all walk into a bar and take a single seat, because it’s one person and his name is Dinaw Mengestu. The author of the The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears and How to Read the Air—both concerned with Africans fleeing their countries—returns this year with All Our Names, an elegiac love story about pair of African men separated by a political revolution: one in exile, and another in their war-torn homeland. Split across two narratives—one in the past, one in the present—All Our Names dramatizes the clashes between romantic idealism and disillusioned practicality, as well as between self-preservation and violence, all while blurring the identities of those who can move on, those who stay behind, and those who simply change. (Nick M.)
Blood Will Out by Walter Kirn: Billed as an In Cold Blood for the 21st century, Walter Kirn’s non-fiction book Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade tells the story of how this celebrated critic, essayist and novelist (Up In the Air, Thumbsucker) got duped by a man who claimed to be a Rockefeller but turned out to be an impostor, a child kidnapper and a brutal murderer. Part memoir, part true-crime story and part social commentary, Blood Will Out probes the dark psychological links between the artist and the con man. (Bill)
Mount Terminus by David Grand: The titular hilltop in David Grand’s third novel roosts high above sunny, sleepy pre-Hollywood Los Angeles. Mount Terminus is a refuge for grieving Jacob Rosenbloom, whose wife died back East. Jacob’s invention, the Rosenbloom Loop, has revolutionized the budding art of filmmaking, and he’s determined to use his invention’s earnings to protect his son, Bloom, from the family’s past. But Bloom, a dark, brooding genius, is prodded by his very different half-brother to come down from Mount Terminus and meet the world. This novel, 11 years in the making, becomes that rarest of things: a plausible myth, an intimate epic. (Bill)
Falling Out of Time by David Grossman: An acclaimed Israeli novelist, Grossman found an American audience with 2010’s To the End of the Land, an epic novel of love and war hailed as a masterpiece. He returns with a allegorical novel one third its length that tells the story of Walking Man, who walks in circles around his town in an attempt to come to peace with his son’s death. Having lost his own son in 2006, Grossman here probes the meaning of loss, memory, and grief. (Janet)
Sleep Donation by Karen Russell: The newly minted MacArthur grantee mines the fertile territory between short story and novel. In Russell’s lightly science-fictionalized world (which, come to think of it, sounds a lot like my house) a deadly insomnia epidemic is spreading. The well-rested can help out the afflicted by donating their excess sleep—but scarce supplies force everyone to reevaluate the line between gift and commodity. This is the first title from Atavist Books, so expect some bells and whistles in the digital edition. (Garth)
Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley: Like Alice Munro and Evan Connell, Hadley’s devotees exclaim that her sophisticated prose and skill with character transcend their subject—the unfortunately named “domestic fiction.” Her fifth novel, Clever Girl follows the life of Stella from her adolescence in the 1960s to the present day. Stella’s life, in every description, is ordinary, but illuminates both the woman living it and the times around her. (Janet)
Updike by Adam Begley: What’s left to say about John Updike that Updike didn’t already say exhaustively, and say better than anyone else could have? Yet Adam Begley has apparently found enough fresh material, or a fresh enough angle on the well-trod, to fill 576 pages. For a primer on Updike, there’s no way this book can surpass Nicholson Baker’s U&I, but it’s always a good sign when a literary biographer is a novelist himself. (Garth)
Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis: “Can’t and Won’t,” the title story from Lydia Davis’s new collection of short and short-short stories playfully pokes fun at the brevity of her fictions. In this two-sentence story the author is refused a literary prize, because of the laziness evident in his/her frequent use of linguistic contractions. Quite the contrary is true with Davis’s work, where much of the flare is tongue in cheek. Concision and precision invigorate her fictions, and apparently the prize committee agrees, as Davis was just awarded the prestigious Man Booker International Prize. (Anne)
And the Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass: In her fifth novel, Julia Glass revisits two beloved characters—Malachy Burns and Fenno McLeod—from her first novel, the National Book Award-winning Three Junes. The publisher’s description assures us, however, that the novel will range and weave and shift perspectives—as all Glass’s novels do—among new characters as well. In an interview with Bloom earlier this year, Glass, who debuted with Three Junes at age 46, said: “I suspect that I simply can’t help exploring a story from many angles. . . I have to look through as many windows as I can reach; now and then I resort to a ladder.” When interviewer Evelyn Somers described Glass as “fearless” in the way she weaves together complex stories, Glass replied: “I like the idea of being ‘fearless,’ but sometimes I think the complexity of my novels is more related to another trait I have: I’m an overpacker. . . Call me a maximalist. I won’t be insulted.” (Sonya)
Love & Treasure by Ayelet Waldman: The plot of this novel revolves around the true history of the Hungarian gold train, a trove of stolen valuables that was seized by American soldiers during World War II but which was never returned to its rightful owners. Seventy years later, the granddaughter of one of the treasure-seizing soldiers must look into the turbulent past—and into her own turbulent life—when her grandfather gives her a jeweled pendant with a murky history. (Hannah)
Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932 by Francine Prose: Francine Prose’s 20th novel, Lovers at the Chameleon Club: Paris, 1932, is framed as a biography by a French feminist high school teacher. The subject of this fictional biography is Lou Villars, based on an historical figure, a professional athlete, lesbian, cross-dresser and German spy who became a torturer and was executed by the Resistance. One early reader claimed she could smell the nicotine on the fingers of Prose’s fictional French biographer. Woven into the text are sections of a fake Peggy Guggenheim memoir and a fake Henry Miller novel. The latter, Prose reports, “was super fun to write.” (Bill)
Thunderstruck & Other Stories by Elizabeth McCracken: The novelist, short story writer, and memoirist Elizabeth McCracken, whose novel The Giant’s House was a finalist for the 1996 National Book Award, has earned a reputation as a writer of rare empathy and descriptive powers. Thunderstruck, her first short story collection in twenty years, charts the territory of family, love, and loss. In their review of the collection, Publisher’s Weekly wrote that “McCracken transforms life’s dead ends into transformational visions.” (Emily)
Frog Music by Emma Donoghue: Best known for the 2010 bestseller Room, Donoghue latest novel sees her returning to historical fiction (four of her eight novels are historical), this one based on a still-unsolved murder in 1870s San Francisco. After her friend is killed by a gunshot through a boardinghouse window, Blanche—a burlesque dancer, prostitute, and the only witness—is forced to seek justice on her own. (Janet)
All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld: This second novel from British thirty-something sensation Evie Wyld (After the Fire, A Still Small Voice, 2009) is about a woman named Jake who, along with a flock of sheep, is the only inhabitant on an unnamed island off the coast of Britain. The novel came out abroad last year and revolves around a mysterious predator stalking Jake’s flock, picking off her sheep one at a time in gory fashion. As The Guardian put it in a review last June, the novel is “not a ruminant whodunnit exactly; it is a thoughtful and intense account of a young woman seemingly determined to disappear from the world’s radar.” (Kevin)
In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen: 86-year-old lion of American letters Peter Matthiessen has written his first novel since Shadow Country and what he told the NY Times may be his “last word.” A novel based upon his own experience attending three “Bearing Witness” Zen retreats at the site of Auschwitz-Birkenau, In Paradise will describe one attendee’s experience of meditation in a former concentration camp as a non-Jew of Polish descent. (Lydia)
Family Life by Akhil Sharma: Sharma’s first novel, An Obedient Father, won the PEN/Hemingway and the Whiting in 2001. More than a decade later, the Indian-born writer publishes his second novel, which begins in Delhi in 1978 and tracks a family’s migration to the United States. “Life is extraordinary until tragedy strikes,” the publisher writes, “leaving one brother severely brain-damaged and the other lost and virtually orphaned in a strange land.” For a introduction to Sharma’s writing, his first short story in twelve years, about cousins living in Delhi, was published in The New Yorker this past spring: “I wrote this story as soon as I had e-mailed the novel to my editor,” he told New Yorker fiction editor Deboarah Treisman. “Get thee behind me, devil is what I thought about finishing the novel.” (Elizabeth)
With My Dog Eyes by Hilda Hilst: If 2012 was the year of Clarice Lispector, when New Directions issued four new translations of her seminal works, then 2014 may very well be the year of Lispector’s friend and fellow Brazilian author, Hilda Hilst. Obscene Madame D was Hilst’s first work translated into English, and it made appearances on my best of 2013 reading list as well as Blake Butler’s. Two more Hilst translations debut this year, with another from Nightboat (Letters from a Seducer) and Melville House’s publication of With My Dog Eyes. This title seems apt, as Hilst produced much of her work after retreating to an estate where a pack of more than one hundred dogs roamed. For a taste, check out the excerpt Bomb published last summer. (Anne)
Talking to Ourselves by Andrés Neuman: Neuman’s first novel to be translated into English, Traveler of the Century, was an enormous feat of fabulism, and was critically acclaimed when it appeared here in 2012. Talking to Ourselves demonstrates Neuman’s range by running in completely the opposite direction. This comparatively short work is set in the present day, and alternates among the voices of three family members. For those who missed Traveler of the Century, it may be an equally potent introduction to Neuman’s work. (Garth)
Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace by Nikil Saval: Saval, an n+1 editor, has produced what may be an essential volume on a subject that bedevils so many of the over-educated and under-employed among us: the office. It is likely the rare desk jockey who hasn’t, in a fugue of 3pm boredom and amid a din of inane small talk, wondered “why does it have to be like this?” Cubed looks for an answer, exploring how the office as we know it came to be, “starting with the smoke one-room offices of the 19th century and culminating in the radical spaces of the dot-com era and beyond.” (Max)
Casebook by Mona Simpson: The consistently excellent Simpson returns with what sounds like a riff on Harriet the Spy: the story of a boy investigating his parents’ disintegrating marriage. The coming-of-age narrative is complicated here, though, by the disintegration of the possibility of privacy in the age of Facebook, or Snapchat, or whatever we’re all on now. Am I the only one hoping that the “stranger from Washington D.C. who weaves in and out of their lives” is Anthony Weiner? (Garth)
Off Course by Michelle Huneven: Michelle Huneven, author of Blame and Jamesland, returns with an engrossing and intimate new novel set in the early 1980s. Cressida Hartley is a young PhD candidate in Economics who moves to her parents’ shabby vacation cabin in the Sierras; she ends up getting drawn into the small mountain community there—in particular, its men. According to the jacket copy, Huneven introduces us to “an intelligent young woman who discovers that love is the great distraction, and impossible love the greatest distraction of all.” Publishers Weekly says that “Cress makes for an eerily relatable and heartbreaking protagonist.” If you haven’t yet read a book by Huneven, whom Richard Russo calls “a writer of extraordinary and thrilling talent,” then you’re in for a treat. (Bonus: Michelle Huneven’s beautiful essay, “On Walking and Reading At the Same Time.”)
Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers, edited by Eleanor Henderson and Anna Solomon: There’s no such thing as a predictable birth—a fact that maddens parents-to-be but eventually makes for a whopper of an anecdote. If your Aunt Mildred can tell a good story about her scheduled c-section, imagine the tales that writers like Julia Glass, Lauren Groff, Dani Shapiro, and The Millions’ own Edan Lepucki can spin. (Hannah)
All the Rage by A. L. Kennedy: The Independent once described A. L. Kennedy as “one of nature’s Eeyores”: “She knows grimness the way some novelists know music or food.” So the Scottish writer’s sixth collection of short stories—billed as “a dozen ways of looking at love, or the lack of love”—should likely be avoided by the overly sentimental. But it promises to be marked by the dark humor that pervades her work—the “Department 5” (“a shadowy organisation about which it’s best you know nothing”) page on her website gives you a good taste. (Elizabeth)
Vernon Downs by Jaime Clarke: Clarke, the co-owner of Newtonville Books in Boston, offers a slippery roman-a-clef, or simulacrum thereof. A sad sack writer becomes obsessed with a more famous colleague, the titular Vernon Downs, who despite his lack of a middle name, bears more than a passing resemblance to Bret Easton Ellis. This is the intriguing debut title for a new indie called Roundabout Press. (Garth)
The Temporary Gentleman by Sebastian Barry: The Irish poet, playwright and novelist Sebastian Barry’s new novel, The Temporary Gentleman, tells the story of Jack McNulty, an Irishman who served in the British army in the Second World and has washed up in Accra, Ghana, in 1957, determined to write down the story of his life. Jack is an ordinary man who has seen extraordinary things—as a world traveler, soldier, engineer, UN observer and ill-starred lover. Once again Barry, a repeat contender for the Man Booker Prize, deftly twines his own family history with the rumbustious history of the Irish in the 20th century. (Bill)
The Snow Queen by Michael Cunningham: Michael Cunningham’s sixth novel is set in New York City in 2004 and tells the story of two brothers facing loss. One brother, newly bereft, experiences a religious awakening; the other, whose wife is gravely ill, falls into drug use. It sounds like a tearjerker of a story, one likely to be made even more heartrending by Cunningham’s graceful prose. (Hannah)
My Struggle, Book III by Karl Ove Knausgaard: It’s not really news anymore that Knausgaard’s unfolding project (unfolding into English, anyway; in Norwegian, it’s already complete) is phenomenal. But now that FSG is handling the paperback editions (replete with Williamsburg-ready jacket design) you’ll be hearing even more about My Struggle. And it’s true: you should read it! Start Book I now, and you will have caught up by the time Book III comes out. (Garth)
Lost for Words: A Novel by Edward St Aubyn: St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose quintet of novels, based on his own upbringing, center around the nasty dealings of a family in the English aristocracy. (James Wood diminishes regular comparisons to Waugh and Wilde, saying that despite surface similarities, St Aubyn is “he is a colder, more savage writer than either.”) His newest novel is somewhat of a departure then, a “a hilariously smart send-up of a certain major British literary award.” Readers hesitant to leave the Melrose family behind can rest assured that the new novel promises to be just as cutting as those before it. (Elizabeth)
Another Great Day at Sea: Life Aboard the USS George H.W. Bush by Geoff Dyer: Geoff Dyer’s latest sees the prolific journalist, essayist, and novelist chronicle a two-week stay aboard a US aircraft carrier. As the tallest (well, second-tallest), oldest, and easily most self-conscious person on the boat, Dyer occupied an odd position on the crew, one which forced him to reconcile his own bookish life with a lifelong interest in the military. (Those readers with Army experience may not be surprised to learn that the text is heavy on acronyms.) (Thom)
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay: If Roxane Gay wrote it, I’ll read it. Perhaps best known for her thoughtful and engaging essays about all kinds of topics, from Orange is the New Black to Twitter to Paula Deen’s racism, Gay will publish not only a book of essays in 2014, called Bad Feminist, but also this first novel. In An Untamed State, Mireille Duval Jameson, the daughter of one of Haiti’s richest men, is kidnapped and held captive for thirteen days by a man who calls himself the Commander. Mat Johnson says, “An Untamed State is the kind of book you have to keep putting down because you can’t believe how good it is. Awesome, powerful, impossible to ignore, Roxane Gay is a literary force of nature. An Untamed State arrives like a hurricane.” (Edan)
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr: A blind French girl and a young German boy navigate the perils of occupied France in the latest by the author of Memory Wall. The French girl, Marie Laure, flees Paris with her father, eventually holing up with her agoraphobic uncle in his house on the coast of Brittany. The German boy, Werner, a mechanical whiz, parlays his aptitude into a spot in the Nazi army. The Nazis ship him off to Russia and then from there to northern France. If we can trust Abraham Verghese’s endorsement, the story is “put together like a vintage timepiece.” (Thom)
The Vacationers by Emma Straub: The highlight of Emma Straub’s short story collection, Other People We Married, was the romantically lost but sympathetic Franny. We left the collection wanting to read an entire novel on her, and fortunately, Straub has done just that with her second novel after Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures. Surprisingly, Franny is still married to Jim, and the Post family and friends are off to Mallorca to celebrate their 35th anniversary. Yet not everything is tranquil as the Mediterranean Sea, and the vacation dredges up embarrassments, rivalries, and secrets. (Tess)
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris: To read a Joshua Ferris novel is to stare at the gaping emptiness just below the surface of modern life—and, quite often, laugh. In this third novel from the author of the much-beloved Then We Came to the End, dentist Paul O’Rourke discovers that someone is impersonating him online, with a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account all mysteriously created in Paul’s name. As he looks into who has stolen his identity and why, Paul begins to fear that his digital doppelgänger may be better than the real thing. (Michael)
The Painter by Peter Heller: An expressionist painter with a penchant for violence tries to outrun his own crimes in this novel by the author of The Dog Stars. The protagonist, Jim Stegner, thought he’d settled into a peaceful life in his home in rural Colorado. One day, Stegner witnesses a local man beating a horse, and the act so enrages him that he hunts down the man and kills him. He then sets off on a Dostoevskyan quest, one which sees him make sense of his actions while hiding his crime from the cops. All the while, in spite of his turmoil, he keeps painting. (Thom)
Cutting Teeth by Julia Fierro: When a group of thirty-something parents gather at a ramshackle beach house called Eden, no serpent is required for the sins, carnal and otherwise, to pile up. Fierro, founder of Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, argued in The Millions last year that writers need to put the steam—and the human sentiment—back into sex scenes in literary novels. You may want to keep Fierro’s debut novel on a high shelf, away from children and prudish literary snobs. (Michael)
The Last Illusion by Porochista Khakpour: Porochista Khakpour is the author of the blazingly original (pun intended!) novel Sons and Other Flammable Objects. In her new novel, its hero, Zal, is born in a rural Iranian village to a mother who believes he is evil because of his pale skin and hair. For the first ten years of his life he’s raised in a cage with the rest of his mother’s birds—eating insects, shitting on newspaper—until he is rescued by a behavioral analyst who brings him to New York. The Last Illusion recounts Zal’s struggles and adventures in this foreign land, where he befriends a magician, and falls for a supposed clairvoyant. Claire Messud writes, “This ambitious, exciting literary adventure is at once grotesque, amusing, deeply sad—and wonderful, too.” (Edan)
The Lobster Kings by Alexi Zentner: A generational drama set on fictional Loosewood Island, about the King family vying to maintain control of a centuries old lobstering dynasty. Early reports speak of meth dealers, sibling rivalry, and intra-lobster boat love as the main threats to Cordelia King’s attempt to preserve the family business. In an interview last April, Zentner (Touch, 2011) also allowed that one of the characters has “a Johnny Cash tape stuck in the cassette player in his truck.” (Kevin)
Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo: I’m particularly excited about Stacey D’Erasmo’s fourth novel Wonderland—not only because its protagonist is a female indie musician, the likes of whom have not made it into novels often, if ever (think about it); but because said musician, Anna Brundage, is on a comeback tour at age 44. Bloomer! From the publisher: “Wonderland is a moving inquiry into the life of a woman on an unconventional path, wondering what happens next and what her passions might have cost her, seeking a version of herself she might recognize.” D’Erasmo herself, who spent a decade as a books editor, first for the Village Voice and then Bookforum, did her own later-blooming comeback as a debut novelist at age 39, and now a professor at Columbia. (Sonya)
The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman: Rachman follows The Imperfectionists, a pitch perfect novel-in-stories set at a dying English-language newspaper in Rome, with a novel about a bookseller named Tooly Zylberberg, who was kidnapped as a child and then adopted by her kidnappers. In a narrative that hopscotches the globe from Bangkok to Brooklyn to the border towns of Wales, Zylberberg is lured into setting off on a journey that will unravel the mysteries of her past. Never one to worry overmuch about plot credibility, Rachman is a master of wringing pathos from essentially comic tales. (Michael)
The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings: Seven years after the publication of The Descendents—which you might remember because of a certain movie adaptation starring George Clooney—Kaui Hart Hemmings returns to the themes of familial loss, grief, and unexpected turns of fate all cast against gorgeous scenery. In The Possibilities, a Colorado mother loses her son in an avalanche near their Breckinridge home. Coping with her loss, and trying to piece her life back together, she’s suddenly confronted with something she couldn’t have seen coming. (Nick M.)
American Innovations by Rivka Galchen: It’s been six years since readers were introduced to Galchen via her ambitious debut Atmospheric Disturbances (James Wood called it “a contribution to the Hamsun-Bernhard tradition of tragicomic first-person unreliability.”) Since then she has been chosen as one of the New Yorker’s 20 writers under 40 and produced an impressive body of unusually lyrical science journalism (on topics like quantum computers and weather control). Galchen’s new collection American Innovations reflects an experiment of another sort. Per publisher FSG, “The tales in this groundbreaking collection are secretly in conversation with canonical stories, reimagined from the perspective of female characters.” “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” and Gogol’s “The Nose” are among the stories mined. (Max)
Funny Once by Antonya Nelson: Antonya Nelson’s new story collection brings together short pieces from the last few years as well as a previously unpublished novella. In the title story, a couple, united by a shared propensity for bad behavior, reckons with the consequences of a lie they tell to their friends. In “The Village,” a woman comes to grips with her feelings about her father’s mistress. In “Three Wishes,” the novella, a group of siblings deals with the fallout of their brother’s death. Like much of the native Kansan’s work, the collection takes place largely in Heartland and Western settings. (Thom)
The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez: The Book of Unknown Americans, the second novel by Iowa Writers Workshop graduate Cristina Henríquez, begins as a love story between a Panamanian boy and a Mexican girl. After the girl suffers a major injury, the story moves from Mexico to a cinderblock apartment building in Delaware populated with immigrants from Latin America. From there the novel expands outward to become a symphonic love story between these immigrants and an impossible America. Told in a multiplicity of voices, the novel manages that rare balance of being both unflinching and unsentimental. In doing so, it rewrites the definition of what it means to be American. (Bill)
Summer House With Swimming Pool by Hermann Koch: Last year, in a “Books of the Times” review, Janet Maslin took Hermann Koch’s novel, The Dinner, out into the town square for a public flogging. A funny thing happened though: the book ended up a bestseller. A bestseller translated from the Dutch, no less! Koch’s misanthropic view of contemporary life seemed to resonate with American audiences, and his latest appears to offer more of the same. Here, a murder disturbs the idyll of a group of friends on vacation together, bringing far darker currents to the surface. (Garth)
Paper Lantern and Ecstatic Cahoots by Stuart Dybek: Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago was, like Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, practically required reading in writing programs in the late ’90s and early Aughts. Dybek’s voice was lusher than Johnson’s, and more openly romantic, but equally poetic. His follow-up, I Sailed With Magellan, sometimes let that lushness grow too wild; the gritty Chicago settings of the earlier book gave way in places to nostalgia. But a new Dybek volume is always welcome, and this year offers a treat: the simultaneous publication of two. Paper Lantern is a group of love stories, while Ecstatic Cahoots gathers together the kinds of short shorts that so memorably punctuated The Coast of Chicago. (Garth)
I’ll Be Right There by Kyung-Sook Shin: Kyung-sook Shin is one of Korea’s most popular novelists. In I’ll Be Right There, set during a period of political turmoil in 1980s South Korea, she uses European literature to bridge experiential differences between East and West. The novel concerns a highly literate woman who receives a phone call from an ex-boyfriend after nearly a decade of separation. The call triggers a flood of memories, and she finds herself reliving her intense and tumultuous youth: memories of tragedy and upheaval and of profound friendships forged in a time of uncertainty. (Emily)
In the Wolf’s Mouth by Adam Foulds: The third novel from British writer Foulds takes place at the end of World War II and follows two Allied soldiers during the final push to sweep the Germans out of Italy. In an interview last July with the Hindustan Times, Foulds previewed the book, saying, it “would like to give the reader a sense of history as being very complicated and rapid in these high-conflict situations. It is one thing after another. The events are too massive to care for particular individual stories, so there are a number of stories. For a while, one is unsure if they are going to converge but they do.” (Kevin)
California by Edan Lepucki: In July, Millions staffer and preferred writing teacher Edan Lepucki will follow up her novella If You’re Not Yet Like Me with her first full-length novel, California, a post-apocalyptic number set in, er, California. Lepucki’s debut follows a young couple struggling to make it work in a shack in the wilderness and straddles the (complementary) domestic and dystopian spheres, addressing horrors like marital strife, pregnancy, and the end of society as we know it. Dan Chaon called it “a wholly original take on the post-apocalypse genre.” (Full disclosure: I have eaten meals with Edan, squeezed her baby, and admired her tiny dog. My feeling of anticipation regarding this novel is thus not impartial.) (Lydia)
Motor City Burning by Bill Morris: Our own Bill Morris, a Motor City native, tells the story of Willie Bledsoe—once an idealistic black activist, now burnt-out and trying to write a memoir about the ’60s—who joins his brother to drive a load of illegal guns up to Detroit in 1968. While in Detroit, Bledsoe becomes the top suspect in an unsolved murder from the previous year’s bloody race riots. The book will dive deep into some of Morris’s great fascinations: cars, Detroit, and the The Indigenous American Berserk that lurks below the surface. (Kevin)
Tigerman by Nick Harkaway: A couple of years back, Charlie Jane Anders—writing on i09—declared that Harkaway had invented a new genre: existential pulp. That might be as good a way as any to describe his wildly inventive ouevre, which involves ninjas, mimes, doomsday machines, schoolgirl spies, shadowy secret societies, and mechanical soldiers. His third novel, Tigerman, concerns a burnt-out sergeant of the British Army, Lester Ferris, who is sent to serve out his time on Mancreu, a shady former British colony slated for destruction, where he encounters a street kid in need of a hero. (Emily)
Friendship by Emily Gould: Emily Gould’s debut novel charts the friendship of two women who, at thirty, have been closely entwined in one another’s lives for years. Bev lives the kind of aimless life that’s easier to put up with at 23 than at 30. Amy has been coasting for some time on charisma, luck, and early success, but unfortunate decisions are catching up with her. A meditation on friendship and maturity in an era of delayed adulthood. (Emily)
Last Stories and Other Stories by William T. Vollmann: Vollmann writes so much that you forget it’s been a blue moon since he’s published a work of fiction. And that book won the National Book Award! This collection is said to comprise a bunch of ghost stories—perhaps less inherently promising than, say, a Vollmann essay on how the FBI mistook him for the Unabomber, but still liable to fascinate. One of the remarkable things about Vollmann’s story collections is the way they add up to more than the sum of their parts; I’m eager to see how these stories connect. (Garth)
The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil: If orbital “space mirrors” reflecting constant sunlight upon Oranzheria, a massive greenhouse in Petroplavilsk, Russia, doesn’t pique your interest, then I can’t do anything for you. These are the mysterious devices at the heart of Josh Weil’s second novel, which follows two twins, Yarik and Dima, who were inseparable as children, but who have grown apart in adulthood. Today, the two work in the collective farms of Oranzheria, the “great glass sea,” to harvest crops for the benefit of the place’s billionaire owner. What follows is a story of two brothers on oppositional paths, each hoping to reconvene, all set against the backdrop of an “alternative present-day Russia.” (Nick M.)
The Hundred-Year House by Rebecca Makkai: Doug is an academic interested in the poetry of Edwin Parfitt. As it happens, Doug’s mother-in-law owns a former artists’ colony where the poet had long ago been an artist in residence. Fancy that. But for whatever reason, she prohibits Doug from entering the estate’s attic, where file cabinets of Edwin Parfitt’s papers are said to be located. After asking around, however, Doug ultimately gains access to some of the files—only to find that they are much more disturbing than he could have imagined. What ensues is a fragmented narrative, split between 1999, 1955, and 1929, in which readers see glimpses of the present day, the near past, and the final days of the artist colony, all the while affected by the enduring legacy of the estate’s original owners. (Nick M.)
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami: When Murakami’s new novel—his first since the in-all-ways-gigantic 1Q84—came out in Japan last year, there were apparently 150-deep midnight queues outside Tokyo bookstores. It sold 1 million copies in its first week alone. This is a novel, let’s remember, not a new Call of Duty game. And such were its unit-shifting powers in its author’s country that it caused a significant spike in sales of a particular recording of Franz Liszt’s “Years of Pilgrimage” piano pieces described in the novel, leading to a swift decision by Universal Music to reprint CDs of the recording to meet Murakami-based demand. The novel tells the story of Tsukuru Tazaki, a young man mysteriously ostracized by his friends. It stands a good chance of selling a few copies in English translation too. (Mark)
The Kills by Richard House: The second section of this four-part novel is called “The Massive”; it’s a title that could have stood for the whole. House’s sprawling quadruple-decker, longlisted for the Booker Prize, is a literary thriller set against the background of the Iraq War. Intriguingly, House created extensive digital video and audio supplements that unfold alongside the narrative. Not sure how that works, though, if you’re going to be reading on boring old paper, as I am. (Garth)
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It’s difficult to think of many writers who manage to be both as distinctive and as resistant to definition as Nicholson Baker. There’s something attractively paradoxical about his writing, in that the more it changes from one book to the next, the more insistently Bakeresque it becomes. Doing things that are out of character has, in other words, become one of the defining characteristics of Baker’s career.
He made his name in the late 80s and early 90s with The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, two brilliantly essayistic — and rivetingly plotless — novels about the supposedly trivial odds and ends that clutter our everyday lives; he then solidified his reputation as an entertaining innovator with U and I, a hybrid work of autobiographical criticism (or critical autobiography) on his lifelong relationship with John Updike’s writing. He has written a passionate and intensely researched polemic about how the introduction of microfilm led libraries to destroy countless books and periodicals (Double Fold), a work of history attacking the notion that the Allies had no choice but to engage the Nazis in Europe (Human Smoke), and three exercises in balls-out erotic high jinks (The Fermata, Vox, and House of Holes).
His new book, Traveling Sprinkler, is a sequel of sorts to 2009’s The Anthologist, revisiting that novel’s narrator, Paul Chowder, as he attempts to reinvent himself as a songwriter, win back his longtime girlfriend Roz as she prepares for a hysterectomy, and negotiate his own rage at the Obama administration’s drone warfare policies. Alongside his writing of the book, Baker pursued a parallel songwriting project — some of the results of which can be heard here and here.
The Millions: You’re known for writing fiction that largely does away with the business of plot. I’m wondering at what point you realized that this would be the kind of writing you would do. Did this evolve out of necessity, in that you found you had no affinity for highly plotted narratives, or no ability to write them, or was it a more calculated choice?
Nicholson Baker: I like the beginnings of things. The beginnings of a story, of a poem; I like that moment when the white space on the page gives way to actual type. The early paragraphs of a book have a kind of joyful feeling of setting out, like the sunny moment of merging into morning traffic from the onramp of a highway. And then comes the troubling question, where are we going?
In Traveling Sprinkler, though, some fairly big things eventually happen: it’s a love story involving a hysterectomy, which is a bit unusual. And the barn floor collapses, squashing a canoe. Not “minutiae,” whatever that means.
TM: I was intrigued by Paul Chowder’s attendance at Quaker meetings in Traveling Sprinkler. As someone who’s more or less an atheist, I find there’s something very appealing about the way Quakers practice their faith. Where did your interest in this come from?
NB: I’m an atheist, too, I guess, but the word sounds kind of harsh and aggressive, so I generally just say I’m a non-theist. Quaker meeting is a place where people are trying to figure out how to live better lives. There are no rules. There’s an etiquette, that you should wait a while after someone has said something, to give it a buffer of stillness, when everybody thinks about it. That becomes a sort of a white space. The silence is a powerful force that’s working on everyone. When somebody stands and says something, it’s often incomplete, it’s unprepared. It’s provisional — and yet it’s full of love or hope or grief or sympathy — and then other people think about what’s been said, and then someone else stands and adds something more. This goes on for an hour. It’s like hearing the rough draft of a really heartfelt essay collection.
And there are several hundred years of history to Quakerism, with much suffering and martyrdom; the Friends were people who were willing to stand up to, say, slavery, early on, when it was unpopular, dangerous to do so. And of course there’s the antiwar “testimony,” as it’s called, which always gets me. “All bloody principles and practices we do utterly deny, with all outward wars, and strife, and fightings with outward weapons, for any end, or under any pretense whatsoever, and this is our testimony to the whole world.” Utterly deny. Wow. It turns out to be a testimony you can live by. Not that I go every Sunday. I just love the idea that people are agreeing to be quiet together.
TM: So this is something that has taken a significant place in your life over recent years?
NB: I’ve been going to meeting on and off for about 12 years. Actually I come from a Quaker family, a little bit. My grandfather was raised as a Quaker, but he lapsed. He was interested in Renaissance art, and Quakers were a little suspicious of art and music in the past — or Philadelphia Quakers were, at least. He was a drinker, and they didn’t go for that either. My mother grew up in an unreligious household — so that’s how I grew up. I went to a Quaker college, Haverford College, but never went to meeting there except on graduation day.
I’ve learned a lot from the Quakers about incompleteness, about waiting for things to be sayable, about the possibility of reconciliation — and also about discarding certain trappings of eloquence. It’s certainly had an effect on me. As a person, but also on my writing.
TM: Well, now that you bring it up, there’s been a noticeable progression from your early books — The Mezzanine and Room Temperature and U and I — where there’s a luxurious intricacy to the prose. Whereas your last few books have been characterised by a kind of straightforwardness of address.
NB: In U and I, which is a very baroque book full of sentences that twirl around, I said something about how the metaphorically dense style usually has its big moment early in a writer’s life. After a while, if you’re lucky, the complexity of the semicoloned involutions gives way to something else — maybe to a social attunedness. So I was waiting for it to happen back then, and I think it has happened — although in my non-fiction writing, my magazine pieces, sometimes I’m in the middle of a paragraph and I get that old excited feeling of sliding an unexpected word into place or making a clause swerve to the left in a prosily tricky way.
But the real reason that the recent books, The Anthologist and Traveling Sprinkler, read so differently is because I wrote them by talking them. Both these books are about the audible human voice, about what comes out of silence. They’re all about meter, and melody, and vocal chords, and intonation, and stereo microphones — and I wrote the books by recording myself in various ways — sometimes with a video camera, sometimes speaking into a mini handheld recorder, sometimes typing as I talked. Most of the first draft of the books came out of my mouth, as opposed to out of my fingers, and that’s really the reason why the prose has a different sound.
TM: Maybe this is something you hear from people frequently, but I have these moments that I think of as “Nicholson Baker moments” that are interspersed throughout my everyday life. There are certain objects, for instance, that when I come across them, I find it very difficult not to think of your books. Things like shoelaces, say, and peanut butter jars and bendable straws. And every time I have to dry my hands on a hot air dryer in a public toilet, I inevitably think of The Mezzanine.
NB: I’m so glad. I’m still thinking about the hot air dryer myself. I feel there’s more to say and yet, damn, I’ve kind of done it.
Many of the things I wrote about in the past were things that fascinated me as a kid. I wanted to be an inventor, and I had long talks with my father about new forms of lift and aerodynamic shapes and how refrigerators worked. I guess I didn’t have enough to do in school, which can be a good thing. When I wasn’t on a bike trip or practicing the bassoon or plinking on the piano I spent a lot of time looking at things around the house — at water flowing from the tap, at the spinning washing machine, at the way the molded numbers in a glass peanut butter jar cast their shadows on the peanut butter inside. In the garage there was a beautiful rusty traveling sprinkler that my father had bought at Sears. I made a route with the hose for it to follow and watched it twirl and chuff away, despite the fact that we lived in Rochester, which is a very cloudy city — the lawn was doing fine on its own.
After The Fermata came out I sometimes took on bigger topics — for instance a destructive episode in library history, or the early years of the Second World War. But I still love the sensation of slowing down a moment of observable time with the help of sentences.
TM: There’s quite a lot of political anger in Traveling Sprinkler. Was this anger part of your motivation in writing the novel, or was it something that seeped in from the outside as you were in the process?
NB: The book began as a non-fiction book about trying to write protest songs — songs that objected to things going on under the Obama administration. And then my character Paul Chowder intruded and everything changed. He reads the paper and he also tries to stay sane, and the news is sometimes so overwhelming and awful, especially when it involves some horrific civilian fatality. How do you keep going if you really open yourself up to a terrible piece of news? And we do; obviously, we keep going. We read something, and we think it’s horrible, and then later that afternoon we’re sitting in a coffee shop and there’s noodly jazz playing and we’re sipping a latté, for God’s sakes. It’s a mixed life. It’s got grief in it, it’s got indignation, and demonic laughter and jealousy, and the desire to find someone to love. Debussy’s sunken cathedral is in this world, too. I wanted to include political grief in something that was recognizably a love story.
Obama’s administration has been a devastating disappointment, in so many different ways. Fanatical secrecy, the persecution of whistleblowers, foreign interventions and arms shipments that make things worse, the quintupling of drone killings — it just has to be said. And it has to be thought about in a way that does justice to the complexity of daily life. How does an emotion of political dissent thread through one’s days? That’s one of the real problems that the novel is trying to address.
TM: In the book, Paul’s creative energies are invested in learning how to use music making software and in writing songs, which is something that you yourself did in the writing of the book. Did you write these songs “in character” as Paul Chowder, or as Nicholson Baker?
NB: There are 12 songs altogether, some love songs and some protest songs, and one that uses a stanza from Gerard Manley Hopkins, and one about a street sweeper. There’s a so-called deluxe e-book version of the book where you can hear them, and I’m also putting them up on Bandcamp — what the hell. I’d posted some earlier attempts under my own name on YouTube, protest songs, but what was interesting was that as soon as I started writing the book in the voice of Paul Chowder I also felt more freedom with my songwriting. I could write the music I wanted to write because it wasn’t exactly me. I became more able to sing with more freedom, I guess, than when I was writing it as Nick Baker the writer.
TM: Have you been nervous about sending the songs out into the world?
NB: Yes, there’s nothing more vulnerable than singing, especially if you’re not a terribly good singer. I can’t describe to you how much more sensitive I am to criticism about these musical attempts than I am about the writing. It’s important to me that the songs are not an embarrassment, that they have qualities that make them song-like. I want them to have a certain level of success. It feels like a new beginning, and I have all the anxiety of being an apprentice. Which is really part of the fun of it. One of the things that’s useful to do, I think, is to cut the legs out from under yourself periodically.
TM: That’s something that you’ve done on various occasions throughout your career — you’ve written books that have caused people to throw up their hands and walk away from you. The Fermata would have been the first time that happened in any kind of significant way, right?
NB: It was really Vox where certain people said “Oh, well the first three books, yes indeed, but Vox is just a tiresome little chirp.” Hey, no, it’s a courtship, it’s a love story. The Fermata, though, yes — that one was received very badly, especially in England. “Whatever you do, don’t shake his hand,” said one reviewer. And the odd thing is how people’s feelings for certain books change over time. I now realize that sometimes critics react at first in a kind of affronted way, and then the book establishes its own position, and people say, “The other books are okay, but The Fermata [is] the one I really like.” It’s been a little confusing, actually, over the years, but also reassuring to discover that a book in the end finds its particular sub-group of readers, regardless of whether or not it was universally shunned at the time.
I always think when I’m starting a new project, “I want to do everything in this book; I want it to cover every single thing.” And it doesn’t ever turn out that way. It can’t happen. But that’s always the emotion I have pulling at me. I try to pour in every charged particle, and say all that must be said, and of course I can’t. Which means that the next book has to be about everything. So I give it another shot, and that one also falls short. Each book is in some way trying to correct the state of imbalance and incompletion left by its predecessors — chugging around the garden, watering new tomatoes.
I used to watch to a lot of DVDs with the audio turned to the commentary track. And not just the monumental works of cinematic wonder the every frame of which is worth analyzing and puzzling over. I worked at a video store — Sneak Reviews in Charlottesville, Va., one of those great labyrinthine stores stocked like an archive — and, bringing home DVDs indiscriminately, I found that even a terrible movie could be saved by simply flipping over and listening to the director, writer, or cast, chat away. Though some have taken great pains to push the commentary track to new heights of performance (see the one for the Coen Brothers’ Blood Simple, in which the possibly fictional artistic director “Kenneth Loring” claims scenes were shot upside-down and in reverse), I was more struck by the commentary tracks that are compelling accidentally: people going on tangents, revealing things obliquely they might later regret. Stallone may be dull as a dial-tone for most of his commentary on Cliffhanger, but the end, when he sounds apologetic and genuinely depressed about his life and career, turns out to be the only engaging and human moment on that disk.
A friend once even showed me a porno with a commentary track. While the director offers her insights into the filming process, along with increasingly belligerent rants about her colleagues, she gets completely shit-faced. After about 30 minutes, she passes out, and for the rest of the movie, you can hear her snoring breezily in the background. It’s bizarrely compelling, and if I could remember the title, I’d recommend it heartily. It was around this time that I considered writing a short story in the form of a commentary track for an imaginary movie. I never did write that story (it was probably a terrible idea), but it did get me thinking about all the ways that texts supplementary to larger stories — or “paratexts,” as they’re officially known — can themselves become stories.
Now, years later, I’m publishing my first novel, Any Resemblance to Actual Persons, which takes the form of one long cease-and-desist letter. Paul McWeeney’s sister is about to publish a nonfiction book in which she accuses their late father of being the Black Dahlia murderer, so in order to save their father’s name, Paul writes a letter to the publishers trying to refute his sister’s claims. As the novel started to take shape, and I realized that Paul’s story would become a discursive commentary on his sister’s story — which itself is a discursive commentary on their father’s story — I began revisiting other books with similar configurations. Pretty soon, I imagined these books forming a loose genre, the Paratext Novel, stories that take the form of — or at least have the pretense of being — explicit exegeses of other stories, real or imagined.
But perhaps “genre” is not the right word, since these books are not concerned with establishing and enforcing conventions. They are interested in exploring how commentary mediates our lives, how we are so steeped in supplementary material that we rarely directly experiencing whatever it is that material supplements: a phenomenon that these books respond to by making “commentary tracks” more human sites of engagement. Like a lot of people, I still haven’t gotten around to watching Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, but I found Geoff Dyer’s book Zona — in which he offers a commentary/summary (which he argues is an “expansion”) of the film — fascinating, in part for how Dyer’s parallel self-revelation reminds us how we understand our own stories by encountering others.
Now, when we pick up a novel, chances are we’ve already seen not just others’ commentary, but also the novelist’s self-commentary in the form of interviews and even articles like this. Whenever a writer comments on his or her own work, there’s inevitably an attempt — futile and foolish — to control how readers engage with that work. But, in these books, attempts at controlling the (ostensibly central) story spin wonderfully into their own stories, illustrating and celebrating the impossibility of narrative intervention and the chaos beneath the illusion of control.
Since listicles have become the new popular form of supplementary text, here are the top five paratext novels that have been buzzfeeding around my brain.
1. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov: The paratext urtext, or at least the best known, Charles Kinbote’s deranged commentary on John Shade’s 999-line poem features, on its first page, this non-sequitur: “[John Shade] preserved the date of actual creation rather than that of second or third thoughts. There is a very loud amusement park right in front of my present lodgings.” Kinbote’s first interjection here is absurd, hilarious, and even violent in how it forces himself into someone else’s story. As with Lolita, the narrative hinges on control. In that earlier novel, Humbert Humbert not only controls Dolores Haze physically but narratively as well, since he is the one allowed a voice. In Pale Fire, Nabokov more explicitly curates, but also balances, this dynamic, revealing John Shade’s story — the tragic loss of his daughter that is the impetus for the poem — before Kinbote tries to absorb it into, and suppresses it with, his own story. It wasn’t until I read Claire Messud’s reminiscent The Woman Upstairs — about a schoolteacher who becomes obsessed with her student’s family — that I realized Kinbote is not just infiltrating Shade’s art; he’s infiltrating Shade’s family.
2. U and I by Nicholson Baker: True, this is not technically a novel, but Nicholson Baker’s “closed book examination” of John Updike’s work reads like no other work of nonfiction I’ve read. Though I would never encourage anyone to not read Updike, ignorance of his oeuvre should not keep you from reading U and I. After all, occasional ignorance certainly doesn’t stop Baker himself, as he misremembers and misunderstands, corrects himself and confesses lapses. That is partly why this book is so strange and so funny, but also because it’s the most honest portrayal of a reader’s relationship with a writer I’ve ever come across: one-sided, heavily mediated, existing entirely in his imagination. In Baker’s literary hero-worship, we begin to realize what we probably knew all along, that it uncomfortably echoes a bastard kid striving for legitimacy, and for simple fatherly validation.
3. Edwin Mullhouse by Stephen Millhauser: The full title, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright, hints at Millhauser’s interest in complicating the commentary track’s implicit attempt at narrative control and usurpation. This novel takes the form of a biography of Edwin Mullhouse, a supposed literary genius, who wrote a novel called Cartoons before dying mysteriously at age 11. His biographer and friend, Jeffery Cartwright, also a small child, is an insanely precocious Boswell whose relationship with his subject grows increasingly unsettling. Whereas in Pale Fire, John Shade has his brief moment at the microphone before Kinbote rushes the stage, in Mullhouse we have no unmediated access to Edwin — and no unmediated access to the ostensible cause for Edwin’s celebration, his novel Cartoons — which makes for a more disorienting reading experience. In the fictional introduction, the fictional Walter Logan White writes, “I myself have sternly resisted the temptation to read Cartoons, knowing full well that the real book, however much a work of genius, can no more match the shape of my expectations that the real Jeffrey could.” In creating a commentary track that seems to have supplanted Edwin’s novel, Jeffery seems to have supplanted Edwin, a figurative death equally resonant to Edwin’s literal death that illuminates the entire friendship we see develop between the two.
4. The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips: If we close Edwin Mullhouse wondering how much of Edwin’s genius is imagined and manipulated by his biographer-cum-creator Jeffery, in The Tragedy of Arthur, Arthur Phillips — both author and character — relocates this distrust to the familiar battle between Stratfordians and anti-Stratfordians. In the 250-page introduction to a recently recovered Shakespeare play, which might actually be a forgery by his father, the character of Arthur Phillips lays out a childhood fraught with questions of trust and veracity. After the introduction, Phillips presents us with the play in question, and it’s a stunning act of impersonation. Seeing the son’s introduction followed by (what might be) the father’s work reminds us how familial this narrative hijacking really is, just as all of these works ultimately boil down to simple family arguments, an interruption around the dinner table: No, let me finish this story.
5. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes: Though published in 1985, this novel, featuring narrator Geoffrey Braithwaite’s discursive commentary on Flaubert’s life and work, is my most recent addition to this genre. I borrowed it from my dad after a recent trip to France, where my girlfriend and I visited the Musée Flaubert et d’Histoire de la Medecine. Flaubert’s childhood house in Rouen is now a museum dedicated to both his work as a writer and his father’s work as a surgeon. Although the museum’s marriage of literary and medical does at first feel incongruous, it does form a kind of commentary track, inviting us to see the work of father in son in concert. For example, a sly curator has throughout displayed passages from Gustave’s Dictionary of Received Ideas, and the son’s quote that “all men of letters are constipated” is displayed not far from the father’s very invasive-looking devices to unblock reticent colons — both of which, consolation and cure, would be resonant to anyone suffering the effects of a French diet. Mostly, though, it’s the areas of seeming discord that are most striking. The room featuring Gustave’s childhood scribbles is right next to the room featuring the embalmed cadavers that good ol’ Dad tinkered with two centuries ago. And it’s not just human bodies that are preserved there; you can also see Flaubert’s actual parrot, taxidermied and propped on a bench in a closet. In the lobby, adjacent to an uncomfortable exhibit on Napoleonic-era gyno exams, they sell copies of Flaubert’s novels alongside Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, which is “possibly the wittiest anti-novel since Nabokov’s Pale Fire.” Or at least that is how The Boston Globe describes it in the blurb printed on the back. Which is to say: I haven’t read the actual book yet — it’s still sitting patiently on my coffee table — but according to the paratextual commentary on the novel, the blurbs and reviews that I have read, it seems entirely appropriate.
Late last summer, I read Nicholson Baker’s U & I, which, though I can’t recall the reasons, I can’t recommend enough. Published in 1991, U & I chronicles Baker’s obsessive fascination with that most pale of prose geniuses, John Updike, even while admitting he is by no means a completist and hasn’t read all of Updike’s books. I was visiting my then-girlfriend in New York while reading U & I, and from the first sentence I was so devoted that one day I carried it onto the subway between Manhattan and Brooklyn, where I was meeting an old friend to watch football and drink beer. I could barely endure the torturously hot subway station, though, and as I waited for my train in the heat I felt like I had hot coals tucked into my armpits. The subway car, by contrast, was so cool and Baker’s self-deprecations so engrossing that I remember this brief period (probably something like a half hour) as one of the most pleasurable reading experiences of my entire life.
The problem now is my absent memory of Baker’s book. I can conjure up an image of its cover, which isn’t, frankly, all that memorable, but my mental storage unit is empty when I go looking for eloquent Bakerisms. Second, even the “plot,” such as it is with Nicholson Baker, escapes me. I vaguely remember Baker explaining how his mother had a conniption fit laughing at some humorous essay of Updike’s, a piece where he described a divot in a golf course being “big as a t-shirt.” I also have a foggy memory of Baker meeting Updike at some Harvard gathering, where he allows Updike to believe that he—Baker—also attended that august institution. It goes further. I can’t remember Baker’s first novel, The Mezzanine, either, although I read it last summer, too. His most recent novel, The Anthologist, which I devoured after A Box of Matches, another Baker book, also remains mostly sunk, like an iceberg, in the warming waters of my brain. All that is solid melts into air, as Marx (or whoever) said. I supposedly read these four Nicholson Baker books less than twelve months ago, and now my dominant memory is a section in The Mezzanine that describes the various sounds adult men make while defecating in corporate bathrooms. I recall that the word “spatterings” appears in all its horrifying, onomatopoeic glory, but remember the poop joke is not my most cherished literary principle.
There isn’t any inherent reason to worry about forgetfulness, of course. Reading is reading; what you remember can seem a gift and what you forget just one of many things that, slipping away, never did you any harm. But—as a reader, as a teacher, and as a PhD student in the thick of preparations for my comprehensive exams—a large part of the pleasure (and struggle) I experience with books relates directly to my capacity to remember the words that appear in them. And despite the fine arguments of writers like Joshua Foer in his recent Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, I’m not looking for brute memorization, i.e. Xeroxing Shakespeare’s complete works with my brain. I keep notes when it counts, after all.
Perhaps it’s from reading too much (lately, it’s felt like too much, as I burn through a booklist that is supposed to represent the foundation for my future academic career), but the best tactic is to rely on the accidental art of memory, which patterns information organically, without much pre-set strategy. When I recently read an essay on ruins by Geoff Dyer, for example, his comment that the remains of ancient buildings suggest the triumph of space over time reminded me immediately of a passage from W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz that I thought I had forgotten: “We know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.” Now, I hope, I’ll remember both these poetic conclusions. This kind of recall depends, actually, on the same digressive energy that both Dyer and Sebald lean on in their writing. And anyway, the great virtue of underlining sentences in the books you read is the opposite of what it seems to be: you’re giving yourself permission to forget all the non-underlined bits. As I become more comfortable with the forgetting, I realize the shape of the remembering.
The situation actually seems both grimmer and more hopeful when I glance at the list of books I’ve already read thus far in 2011. There are 31 books there, and I can remember, on average, a single line or phrase from probably 11 of them. For others—particularly for books which make a sustained argument—I can remember the logic of the thinking, but would have to go back to my notes to recall the specific turns of vocabulary that make the arguments stick. On the one hand, it seems like terrific luck to have retained particular lines at all. On the other, I can’t help but feel sad in the face Harold Bloom’s prodigious memory. In a recent video interview with The New York Times, Bloom reeled off some lines of Hart Crane’s poetry with such perfect rhythm and confidence I felt equal parts charmed and inspired to jealous rage, which is not the point of (most) Modernist poetry.
But if the issue is my happiness as a reader, I take comfort in a quotation provided by critic Eric Santner in his 2006 book, On Creaturely Life, a study of, among other writers, W.G. Sebald. Santner mentions, as an aside, a comment from philosopher Jonathan Lear, who writes that “…we need to go back to an older English usage of happiness in terms of happenstance: the experience of chance things working out well rather than badly.” Happiness as good luck makes perfect sense, particularly if you think of the word hapless, which roughly means luckless, without hap. So, by contrast, to be lucky, is—by substitution—to be happy. In other languages, like German and Dutch, lucky and happy already go by the same word. That I or anyone else is fortunate enough to remember whatever books we’ve read therefore appears to be a textbook case of happiness. Even so glorious a wet blanket as Friedrich Nietzsche already had some sense of happiness as this game of chance. In Beyond Good and Evil, he comments, “a thought comes when ‘it’ wants, not when ‘I’ want.” Thought, like memory, has its own life; we are just its devotees. If a German philosopher who proclaimed the death of God can find the exit door here, then I’ll take the accidental hap of memory, if nothing else.
This is all such a stupid luxury, of course, hand-wringing over the proper way to read and remember. And the picture of the reading life and its haunted memory that I prefer now is from the book I have just finished: Geoff Dyer’s novel, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. In the second half of the novel, the unnamed narrator observes two fellow travelers and friends and comments, “Earlier that day, as I was coming back from Manikarnika in a boat, I’d glanced up at the terrace of the Lotus Lounge and seen them there, arms round each other. As the boat skulked upstream, I looked up from time to time like some sad fuck in a Henry James novel, relieved that they’d not seen me seeing them.” Even if he can’t remember which sad fuck, the narrator’s memory tells him that he’s part of a grand tradition. How lucky.
(Image by C. Max Magee)
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”—Blaise Pascal
“What’s the point in going out? We’re just going to wind up back here anyway.”—Homer Simpson
The novel is perhaps the most housebound of all art forms. At both ends of its supply chain, there is a fairly strong imperative to stay put. There have always been writers who practice their profession in unusual locations, of course, just as a certain amount of reading is always going to be done on the move—on buses, on trains, on planes. But the literary exchange is, for the most part, a sedentary one. Writers tend to hold up their end of the deal by sitting at a desk and staying there until the book is written; readers tend to hold up theirs by sitting still, book in hand, until it is read. “The novel,” as Martin Amis once observed, “is all about not going out of the house.”
Between these two static real-world points, however, is almost always plotted a line of imaginary action. The form, in other words, tends to deal in stories, in narratives, in plots—which is to say that it concerns itself, by and large, with what happens when people do go out of the house. The great narratives are all about men and women going outside and having things happen to them. Odysseus would probably not have been worth talking about had he stayed in Ithaca pottering about the palace, just as his Twentieth-century reincarnation Leopold Bloom would probably not be nearly so great a character had he stayed put in his house on Eccles Street flipping through old issues of Titbits, admiring the cat, and making sure that no one came around to have sex with his wife. The story of Anna Karenina would have been a less tragic one had she stayed at home in St Petersburg reading novels and playing with young Seryozha, but then it might not have been worth Tolstoy’s time telling it. Even Christ himself would not have made much of an impact on the western imagination had he continued hanging out at his Galilee workshop focusing on his cabinet making.
Aristotle saw both tragedy and comedy as predicated on changes in the fortune of a character (and character was, for Aristotle, subordinate to action). In comedies, stuff happens that leaves characters better off at the end than they were at the beginning; in tragedies, stuff happens that leaves them worse off (often to the point of being dead). Either way stuff has to happen, and for this stuff to happen, the characters have to go out of the house. Pascal’s pensée about all humanity’s problems stemming from “man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone” may well be right—or at least might have been before the advent of the Internet—but as practical advice it is of even less use for literature than it is for life.
So the history of narrative fiction is, in a sense, a history of imagined action (poetry, of course, is another thing entirely). But there is a small but fascinating niche within that history, a sort of quiet backstreet in the vast, hustling metropolis of fiction, where nothing ever happens and no one ever goes anywhere. I developed a fascination with these books a couple of years back, when I was a graduate student writing a thesis on the work of the Irish novelist John Banville (himself a writer who could never be accused of excessive plotting). With a couple of Banville’s books, it seemed to me that he was getting away with an omission that would, in the work of most other writers, have been an outright deal-breaker: he was leaving out the plot. Novels like Ghosts and Eclipse struck me as being in some sense Banville’s purest and most honest work because of the way in which they all but did away with the artifice of plot, with the encumbrance of having things happen.
I went through a phase of seeking out books that effected this omission in increasingly extreme ways. It is probably no mere accident that this phase coincided with a period during which I was spending most of my own time at home alone, writing, reading—working or not working or, more often than not, some uneasy compound of both—and generally not going out of the house. My life felt radically plotless, devoid of incident to an almost avant garde extent. So I suppose I identified with shut-ins and hermits and layabouts in a way that I didn’t identify with characters who went out and did things, who became embroiled in plots and events. During this period, I came across a book called Voyage Around My Room by Xavier de Maistre, which seems to me to be the ur-text of this sub-genre. It is in fact not a novel at all, but a sort of anti-memoir or non-travelogue. The French aristocrat, military man and occasional author—whose older brother was the reactionary political philosopher Joseph de Maistre—wrote the book in 1790 while he was under house arrest in Turin for dueling. During the forty-two days in which he was confined to his rooms, he occupied himself by writing an idiosyncratic account of his inner life and his immediate surroundings. He begins with the following exhortation which, by managing to be at once relentlessly jocular and obscurely mournful, sets the tone for the rest of this peculiar little book:
Follow me, all you whom humiliation in love or neglect in friendship confines to your apartments, far from the pettiness and treachery of your fellow men. Let all the wretched, the sick, and the bored follow me—let all the lazy people of the world rise en masse;—and you, whose brain is aboil with sinister plans of reform; you, who in your boudoir are contemplating renouncing the world in order to live; gentle anchorites of an evening […] be so good as to accompany me on my voyage, we shall travel by short stages, laughing all along the way at travelers who have seen Rome and Paris.—Nothing shall stop us; and abandoning ourselves gaily to our fancy, we shall follow it wherever it wishes to take us.
It’s difficult, of course, and perhaps even misguided, to separate this strange anti-manifesto from its historical context. De Maistre was a French aristocrat living in Turin, and as he wrote these words his nation was undergoing a radical separation from its monarchist past which, for many members of the social class to which he belonged, entailed the even more radical separation of their heads from their bodies. A huge and violent historical narrative had led him to Turin; a small and violent personal narrative (something to do, I think, with a thwarted love affair that led to the duel) had led him to be placed under house arrest. During the time he was writing this book, his existence amounted to a confinement within an exile, to a compound displacement from the site of activity, of incident. To stay indoors is to ensure that nothing much happens to you. Not going out of the house, voluntarily or otherwise, is a way of forswearing plots of all sorts.
As a kind of real-life patron saint of literary shut-ins—as the brother superior of ‘gentle anchorites’—de Maistre bequeaths a scattered legacy of plotless novels about staying in and not doing things. Perhaps the most celebrated of these is Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel Oblomov, in which the titular shiftless aristocrat spends much of the book avoiding getting out of his dressing gown and venturing forth from his St. Petersburg apartment. Oblomov’s entire existence is a repudiation of the very idea of activity, a protest against the pointlessness of motion. He is constantly baffled by his friends’ incomprehensible strivings after worldly success, romantic conquest and intellectual abstraction. Such pursuits lead too often to disaster. History itself is a grim repository of evidence for Oblomov’s stance (or, rather, recumbence). Reading history, Goncharov writes, “merely casts you into melancholy. You study and read that in such a year there were calamities and man was unhappy. He gathered all his forces, worked, rooted around, suffered terribly and labored, always preparing for brighter days. Now that they had come, you’d think that history itself would take a break, but no, again clouds gathered, again the edifice collapsed, again there was work and more rooting around. The brighter days didn’t linger, they raced by—and life kept flowing, always flowing, smashing everything as it went.”
Reading Oblomov doesn’t make a life spent in dressing gown and slippers seem appealing; despite his scrupulous avoidance of misery’s apparent causes, Oblomov is not an especially happy guy, and the novel is, as much as anything else, a satire against the shiftless entitlement of the serf-owning aristocracy. But it does make asking “what’s the point of it all?” seem more than just an excuse for apathy. Avoiding living is, of course, a perverse way of avoiding death. If life keeps “flowing, always flowing, smashing everything” as it rushes toward the ocean of death, the desire to scramble for the bank and sit the whole thing out on dry land is understandable, if ultimately self-defeating and futile.
The horrible, intransigent fact of the individual’s inevitable end seems to sit like a stone at the dead centre of many plotless novels. (Malone Dies, in which Malone lies naked in bed, and then dies, is maybe the most explicit example of this, and Beckett’s attraction to Goncharov’s novel is well documented—he occasionally signed his letters to his lover Peggy Guggenheim “Oblomov”). History is either a chaos or a plot, but both end, one way or another, in death. Although he only mentions it once in passing, it is by no means an inconsequential detail that the nameless narrator of Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s 1985 novella The Bathroom is a historian. This strange, impassively hilarious book presents the disjointed reflections of a young academic who decides to spend his time hanging out in the bathroom of the Paris flat he shares with his girlfriend. He lolls about in the empty bathtub, smoking cigarettes, listening to soccer matches on the radio, receiving the occasional visitor. He wants a life without movement, it seems, because movement itself is powerfully associated with the forward rushing momentum of time.
Like Oblomov, he wants no part of the world. Looking out his window at one point, he watches people on the street fleeing a heavy rainfall, and imagines it as a “continuous downpour obliterating everything—annihilating everything.” But then he realizes that it not the “movements taking place before my eyes—rain, moving humans and automobiles” that fill him with dread but rather “the passing of time itself.” About a third of the way into the novel, the narrator abruptly and unaccountably leaves his flat and gets on a train to Venice. Once there, he promptly books into a shabby hotel which he then spends much of the remainder of the novella not going out of, essentially substituting a Parisian confinement for a Venetian one. Inactivity is his aim because it is, as he sees it, the ultimate aim of all activity, all movement. The “essential tendency of motion,” he tells us, “however lightning-swift it may appear, is toward immobility,” and “however slow it may sometimes seem, it is continuously drawing bodies toward death, which is immobility. Olé.” This is a bit like a more explicitly philosophical version of Homer Simpson’s questioning why Marge would want to go anywhere when “we’re just going to wind up back here anyway.”
In U and I, his quasi-memoir about his long-standing obsession with John Updike, Nicholson Baker admits to feeling slightly restless as a reader when reaching that point in a novel when the author stops mucking about with description and atmospheric evocation and gets down to the serious business of plot. He takes issue with a remark of Updike’s about writers who “clog” their narratives with description. “The only thing I like are the clogs,” objects Baker, “—and when, late in most novels, there are no more in the pipeline to slow things down, I get that fidgety feeling.” Baker has gone on to make a career out of these bits: his novels are all clog and no narrative. The “plot” of Room Temperature—a great and funny book about not going out of the house—concerns a young father sitting in a rocking chair feeding his infant daughter warm milk from a bottle. Pretty much literally nothing happens; the closest we get to action is when the narrator exhales forcefully in the direction of a paper mobile hanging from the ceiling of the baby’s room, and the paper flutters around for a while. And here’s the thing: there’s not a dull moment in the book. Baker’s brilliance as a writer lies in his ability to make the (apparently) utterly trivial utterly compelling.
The attraction of plotlessness in fiction is less easy to account for than that of plotlessness in life. There is an awful lot to be said for a propulsive narrative—it is, after all, usually what keeps us turning the pages, what keeps us coming back to find out what happens next, how the characters develop, how it will all end. But when a writer manages to cut away all this artifice, leaving us with just the raw pulp of personhood, while still compelling us to read on, it is a fascinating trick to pull off. I don’t have much interest in the pronouncements of dinner party eschatologists like David Shields (the only appropriate reaction to someone announcing the death of the novel is to surreptitiously check your watch and mutter something about having an early start in the morning), but there is something undeniably compelling about a book that can do away with a thing as seemingly crucial as stuff happening.
Plots are mostly necessary. Writers need something for their characters to do, some reason for them to exist; they need some taut thread of narrative along which they can string their bright beads of observation and insight. Characters need to be kept busy so that we as readers don’t get bored with them, just as we as people tend to keep busy so that we don’t get bored with ourselves (and so that we can pay the rent). But as Oblomov asks of both the life of manic activity lived by one friend and the latest work of literary social realism championed by another, “where is the human being in this?” His own story provides an answer, of sorts, to his question. When you stay inside, when you opt out (or are kept out) of narratives and events—when you cease to be a character in a plot—what you are left with is, for better or worse, the person. The human being is right there: lying around in his dressing gown, or in his bathroom, or bottle-feeding his baby, dying alone, reading or writing. Doing whatever it is people do when they don’t go out of the house.
Image credit: Flickr/pinkmoose.
1. Telepathy on a budget
If you don’t know Nicholson Baker as an intensive describer of everyday minutiae, surely you know him as an intensive describer of goofy sexual fantasy. At the very least, you might hold the broad notion that he’s very, very detail-oriented. None of those images capture the novelist in full, but if you twist them into a feedback loop by their common roots, you’ll get closer to the reality. Whatever the themes at hand, Baker adheres with utter faith to his narrators’ internal monologues, carefully following every turn, loop, and kink (as it were) in their trains of thought. He understands how often people think about sex, but he also understands that, often times, they just think about shoelaces — and he understands those thoughts of sex and shoelaces aren’t as far apart, in form or in content, as they might at first seem.
This is why some find Baker’s novels uniquely dull, irritating, or repulsive, and why others place them in the small league of books that make sense. Not “sense” in that they comprise understandable sentences, paragraphs, and chapters; the existential kind of sense. So many novels exude indifference to their medium, as though they could just as easily have been — or are merely slouching around before being turned into — movies, comics, or interpretive dances. The Baker novel is long-form text on the page as well, but it’s also long-form text at its core, and on every level in between. Adapting it into anything else would be a ludicrous project at best and an inconceivable one at worst; you might as well “adapt” a boat into a goat.
Baker lays out certain clues to the effectiveness — or if you’re on the other side, ineffectiveness — of his concept of the novel in the texts themselves. Brazen, perhaps, but awfully convenient. U and I: A True Story — not a novel and thus not really up for discussion here, but irresistibility is irresistibility — braids the strands of admiration, anxiety, and rivalry that, at one particular moment in time, unspooled out of Baker’s inner John Updike. This isn’t the spirit of John Updike that presumably resides deep within all writers great and small, but Baker’s own avuncular, threatening, helpful, and remote mental conception of John Updike, which he cobbled together from a half-remembered chunk of the older author’s bibliography, second- and third-hand anecdotes about his life and opinions, and a couple of fleeting encounters with the man himself.
Pondering the death of Donald Barthelme, the event that ultimately motivates him to write this missive on the then-still-living Updike, Baker realizes that one of the principal aims of the novel — of his own novel, anyway — “is to capture pieces of mental life as truly as possible, as they unfold, with all the surrounding forces of circumstance that bear on a blastula of understanding allowed to intrude to the extent that they give a more accurate picture.” He has a character put it more simply and vulgarly in Vox, a novel that famously operates entirely on a phone-sex line: “I guess insofar as verbal pornography records thoughts rather than exclusively images, or at least surrounds all images with thoughts, or something, it can be the hottest medium of all. Telepathy on a budget.”
2. The earlier quotidians
Stephen King called Vox a “meaningless little finger paring.” Baker’s fans have seethed about this for years, but can we really blame King for his feelings? It’s almost preposterous that King’s heaving sheaves, plainspoken and grotesque, swarming with mad scrums of characters and pumping like oil derricks of narrative suspense and release under their embossed covers, get shelved in not just the same section but the same building as anything Baker has ever published.
Yet King and Baker happen to owe their literary success to startlingly similar skill sets. They have keen eyes for detail and, much more importantly, sound instincts about when and how to redeploy that detail. King’s is a balancing act, which, in theory, makes you believe in the appearances of killer clowns and demonic Plymouths by bracketing them with a crisply described, wanly recognizable America of tract houses and Cheerios boxes. Baker, who would more than likely spend half a novel on one Cheerio, zooms into these latter elements until they become as freakishly compelling as the former.
If King didn’t appreciate Vox, then boy, steer him away from its predecessors, Mezzanine and Room Temperature. The tales of a young man’s post-lunch escalator ride back to the office and a slightly less young man’s pre-nap bottle-feeding session with his baby daughter, respectively, Baker’s first two novels draw their solid if slim lengths from their narrator’s ability to think, at length, about matters of no more obvious import than clipped cuticles. The brains of the first book’s Howie and the second book’s Mike are variously captured by the ever-changing buoyancy of drinking straws, the profitability of Penguin Classics, the guts of escalators, the late-night sound of cheek against teeth, the developments of jokey euphemisms for bowel movements, and the exhaustive history of the comma.
Though in most respects still youthful, Howie and Mike find themselves more routinized, more domestic, and simply living smaller than the men they’d once blearily hoped to become. That they skirt this disappointment by focusing hard, long, and wide-rangingly on the stuff of life as it’s turned out for them may warm certain readerly hearts, but I swear I can taste a thin layer of paralyzing existential nightmare salt just below the surface. You’ve got to concentrate to pick it up, but it’s there. As much solace as one’s own coming-of-age memories, reflections on the nature of parenthood, and ruminations on peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches can offer, something hard, something terrible and inescapable, remains undissolved.
3. The triple-Xers
Vox and The Fermata, Baker’s third and fourth novels, are his only ones routinely called “infamous.” The former drew much of its infamy second-hand — Monica Lewinsky was supposed to have passed a copy to Bill Clinton — but both are well known for their nearly singular focus on sex. Vox’s unbroken back-and-forth of hypothetical eroticism surely shook those fans still cooing over the resigned contentment which ran through its predecessors. The Fermata’s near-punishing stream of creepy voyeuristic fantasies made, er, flesh, must have pushed them right over the edge.
Baker deals almost exclusively with loners. They aren’t Unabomber types who, unable to deal with society, have thrust themselves into social and intellectual exile; they’re mostly just plain souls too overwhelmed by the vastness of their own interiority to maintain many high-bandwidth interpersonal connections. It couldn’t be otherwise; hundreds upon hundreds of words on the physics of shoelace strain rarely pour from social butterflies. Taking on such a two-player game as sex when your form requires such isolated characters is thus, to put it mildly, a challenge.
Vox solves this problem by happening entirely in that just-less-than-modern vortex of loneliness, the phone-sex line. At the bargain rate of 95 cents per minute, the service connects Jim and Abby, two singletons who always subconsciously suspected but never really knew that finding someone to whom they could describe their idiosyncratic fantasies would really do the trick. Abby recounts to Jim a dream involving a trio of randy, creatively roller-wielding house painters. Jim regales Abby with the details of the time he invited a crushed-on co-worker over to determine the parallel masturbatory value of a particularly hokey dubbed porno tape. These stories expand into discussions of the extremely erotic to be found within the outwardly unerotic — i.e., all the pieces of life’s detritus making up Baker’s first two novels — as well as disquisitions on the meta-eroticism of all this: is one simply turned on by the suspicion that the other is turned on by the tales one is telling of being turned on?
Hence Baker’s reputation as something of a thinking man’s pornographer. But he wouldn’t go on to make the rest of his literary career out of it, opting instead to take the fusion of sexual subject matter and the Bakerian micro-examination to its limit with his very next novel. The Fermata allows the sole whiff of the supernatural into Baker’s oeuvre, but what a whiff; its protagonist and narrator, a middle-aged temp named Arno Strine, can freeze time at will. We’ve all fantasized about this superpower’s limitless possibilities, but Strine possesses the focus to explore just one, over and over again: removing the clothes of the frozen women nearby, and then perhaps masturbating.
There’s no small frustration in realizing that, nope, this guy isn’t going to do anything more interesting with his gift, and doubly so since it’s Nicholson Baker doing the writing. If anybody can cast into literature the experience of altering the flow of time to more acutely examine one’s surroundings, it’s him. In a sense, all novelists do this — writing prose that slows down to describe some things and speeds up to describe others still qualifies as an avant-garde experiment — but Baker’s power is essentially Strine’s, and Strine’s Baker’s. Part of me wishes Strine could have taken the time to do something other than pleasure himself, but another part of me understands how incisive an illustration he makes of how lives get wasted when freed from two important constraints: the pressure of time’s implacable passage and the check of other human beings — other animate human beings — provide on the growth of isolation’s bizarre proclivities.
4. The escapes
The Everlasting Story of Nory and Checkpoint feel like novels written from driving, undeniable desires. Whether they’re the type of driving, undeniable desires best acted upon publicly is a judgment that will vary from reader to reader. As different from Vox and The Fermata as Vox and The Fermata are from The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, Baker’s fifth and seventh novels, his longest and his shortest, are sexless forays into two minds seemingly meant to lay quite far from the average reader’s own experience. (Not that the average reader would have nodded in solidarity at Arno Strine’s chronologically arrested experiments with anuses and okra.)
“Everlasting is right,” a reader unsympathetic to young Eleanor “Nory” Winslow might mutter. Though it only offers 226 of them, The Everlasting Story of Nory’s pages all spill from the consciousness of this precocious nine-year-old who attends schools with names like the International Chinese Montessori School, Small People, and The Blackwood Early Focus School. To Baker’s credit, he meticulously constructs what really do seem like the thought processes of an actual nine-year-old; in a certain pure way, it’s his most ambitious and successful telepathy-on-a-budget exercise. But Nory is like a logorrheic guest in a highbrow version of Kids Say the Darndest Things, and only so much of her near-miss conception of the world (“Virgil Reality”) is digestible in one sitting.
Just as The Everlasting Story of Nory must have offered Baker a cleansing escape from the obscurantist genital symposia of Vox and The Fermata, it’s easy to see how Checkpoint could have acted as a pressure valve against that affront to every sensitive artist of the 2000s’ existence, the George W. Bush administration. A brief book-length dialogue whose strong similarities to Vox are mostly superficial, Checkpoint presents a hotel-room meeting of longtime but semi-estranged buddies Jay and Ben. Jay has called Ben to his room in order to grandly reveal what he has come to understand is his life’s mission: the assassination of the then-president.
Set off for whatever reason by a newspaper story about an Iraqi family accidentally hailed with bullets at the American checkpoint of the title, Jay has formulated a host of murderous, preposterous plans involving depleted uranium, flying saws, and Bush-seeking bullets. Foreseeing the probable consequences of Jay’s actions — and perhaps sensing that Jay may have come down with a touch of the schizophrenia — Ben takes it upon himself to talk his friend down from a presidential assassination to a simple smashing of a presidential photograph. As collisions of literature and contemporary politics go, Checkpoint, is less embarrassing than it could be, but it showcases precisely none of Baker’s strengths while throwing the spotlight uncomfortably close to his weaknesses.
5. The later quotidians
Recent years have seen Baker return to the kaleidoscopic view of mundanity he took in his earliest novels. A Box of Matches, widely received as a spiritual successor to Room Temperature, shares with the earlier book a household setting and, within that, the even closer confines of the mind of that household’s partially enervated patriarch. Each morning, Emmett, a medical textbook editor and family man, wakes up before anyone else in the house, brews coffee, lights a fire, and writes down his reflections about his family, about the medical textbook business, about the house itself. Sometimes his reflections are about a duck.
If the years have mellowed Baker’s zeal for the mechanics, interconnections, and historical references of the common things that surround us, they’ve also given him a fascinating candor. He had candor before, it might seem — Room Temperature’s many passages concerned with bodily functions, their nature and their frequency, return to mind — but this is candor of a different order, candor about the kind of despair hinted at but never meaningfully confronted in the first two novels. It manifests in Emmett as a series of increasingly bizarre suicide fantasies, including a particularly memorable one involving a roller coaster and a sharp blade positioned just so. A Yatesian condemnation of domestic emptiness this ain’t, but the tip hints at a large, desperate iceberg indeed.
This glimpse into the darkness promised much for Baker’s eighth novel, The Anthologist. I had expected, with or without license, an unflinching stare into the apathy-embattled, relevance-starved interior world of the contemporary poet. Alas, narrator Paul Chowder, an over-the-hill poet and severe procrastinator hoping to win back his fed-up girlfriend and write an introduction to an anthology of rhyme, gives one big amiable shrug instead. Despite being a reasonably rich character with many opinions to share about the history and techniques of the form to which he has, with a slight reluctance, dedicated his life, he seems to dodge most of the medium to big questions staring him down. But then, that’s his way; his life, as Baker excerpts in the novel, is a study in procrastination. Procrastinators look into the abyss too, but they don’t take long to find something else to think about.
6. Without getting bored
It wouldn’t exactly be right to claim that Nicholson Baker bases his novels on tricks, and it certainly wouldn’t be right to claim that their main trick is to focus on, take apart, and then focus even closer on that which we ignore most of the time. That might be a feature of theirs, but it’s only a feature. Try this thought experiment: focus on and describe to yourself a nearby object — pen, stapler, dripping faucet — for as long as possible, in as much detail as possible. The finer-grained a level of detail you reach, the more and farther-flung external associations flood your consciousness. At least, the more and farther-flung external associations flood my consciousness, as they presumably flood Baker’s and certainly flood his narrators’. The difference is that they get entire books out of them.
This all makes it into the novels because the novels, for the most part, are their characters’ consciousnesses. Only a novel can be someone’s consciousness; at least, a novel does it infinitely better than any other form. Until the day when technology allows us to tap one another’s brains directly — until we get deluxe, not budget, telepathy — books like Baker’s are the best we can do. Sure, sometimes the minds to which he grants us access irk us with their half-baked judgments, stubbornly refuse to dismount from their hobbyhorses, or come off as complacent weenies. But at least they belong to people who can exist in the world without getting bored — ever — and who can think cogently about the ceaselessly repeated micro-experiences we all have but would never have bothered articulating. Seeing that happen on the page is, itself, heartening.
Many of my favorite books – Dracula, The Rings of Saturn, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man – came to me as assigned reading. Even more than specific titles, I inherited my favorite authors from professors: Nicholson Baker, Harryette Mullen, Turgenev, George Saunders.
This literary bestowal carries on into adulthood as I seek my favorite authors’ favorite authors. At HTMLGIANT, Blake Butler started a broad compendium of David Foster Wallace’s favorite works, encompassing books he blurbed, books assigned on his syllabus, books mentioned in interviews and in passing. It is a nourishing list, a place to turn when I think about what I should read next.
But my road with the recommendations of my favorite authors has been unpaved and rocky.
I devoured U and I, Nicholson Baker’s endearing, humorous volume on John Updike. I loved that he read the copyright page of each Updike book, tracing where essays or excerpts had been previously published. U and I is about Updike, yes, but it is more about Baker wrestling with Updike’s impact on a personal level. Early in the book he lays it out: “I was not writing an obituary or a traditional critical study, I was trying to record how one increasingly famous writer and his books, read and unread, really functioned in the fifteen or so years of my life since I had first become aware of his existence…”
Because the book is about Baker not about Updike, I found it easy to like. Baker recounts the 125th anniversary party for The Atlantic where Tim O’Brien tells him that he and Updike golf together: “I was of course very hurt that out of all the youngish writers in the Boston area, Updike had chosen Tim O’Brien and not me as his golfing partner. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t written a book that had won a National Book Award, hadn’t written a book of any kind, and didn’t know how to golf.”
And so, under Baker’s tutelage, I read John Updike. More accurately, I tried to read Updike, tried and tried. Rabbit, Run. Pigeon Feathers. The Poorhouse Fair. I didn’t finish any of them, I barely started them. I would have scoured Couples for the passage where Updike compares a vagina to a ballet slipper – which Baker mentions – if I could have gotten through the second chapter.
After quoting his own mother and Nabokov, Baker tells me, “There is no aphoristic consensus to deflect and distort the trembly idiosyncratic paths each of us may trace in the wake of the route that the idea of Updike takes through our consciousness.” Updike is not an idea that is tracing its way – neither trembling nor idiosyncratic – through my consciousness. There is no Updike boat leaving a wake in the waves of my mind like a yacht leaving Cape Cod for the Vineyard.
Rather than accept that Baker and I – being of different eras and different genders – have different taste, I concluded that I must be intellectually and creatively deficient; I am a bad reader. I was disappointed in myself for disappointing the Nicholson Baker in my mind, shaking his bearded head, tut-tutting at me: Poor girl, she’ll never understand.
A few months ago I picked up The Anthologist and started it, in the midst of other selections. (When the book came out last September, I actually drove twenty miles to Marin to see Baker read. I was the youngest member of the audience by thirty years. But I am afraid to buy a book at a reading, and petrified of the prospect of having an author sign the book. I could make a fool of myself as Baker did when asking Updike to sign a book in the early 80s.)
Then a couple weeks ago I received a mass email from a writer I know about how he was reading The Anthologist, and I felt the urge to pick it up again. He even said, “I’m really loving The Anthologist.”
I haven’t read everything by Baker, but I’ve read a bunch and enjoyed it on my own; yet, his authoritative praise weighs more than my own evaluation.
Recently in Maine in a used bookstore (that was also the bookseller’s refurbished garage), I stumbled on three of Carson McCullers’ books for $1 each. (In case you are wondering, and you should be wondering, I was not close to Nicholson Baker’s home in Maine, but further up the coast near E.B. White’s former home, near the county fair where Fern bought Wilbur.) The cover of the tattered McCullers paperback proclaimed “One of the finest writers of our time” from The New York Times. I couldn’t recall exactly where I’d heard her name, but it was vaguely familiar. I bought all three.
I started The Ballad of the Sad Café and she drew me into her vivid, textured Southern world. Her descriptions are precise ideas: “The hearts of small children are delicate organs. A cruel beginning in this world can twist them into curious shapes.”
She commands the reader and directs me what to do: “See the hunchback marching in Miss Amelia’s footsteps when on a red winter morning they set out for the pinewoods to hunt… See them working on her properties… So compose from such flashes an image of these years as a whole. And for a moment let it rest.” This second-person imperative jumped out of the smooth, poetic narrative, but it fit like a nest on a tree. McCullers is unafraid to acknowledge you and make you do what she thinks you should. Yet she maintains authorial distance and control by refraining from the first person while directing your attention like a gentle guide: “Now some explanation is due for all this behavior,” she opens an aside on the nature of love. She then elides authority by saying, “It has been mentioned before that Miss Amelia was once married.”
Even before I’d finished the novella, though, I dug around online to verify my delight. Didn’t I read somewhere that David Foster Wallace liked her? Did I remember a retrospective on her in the TLS? No, I didn’t, I was mistaken. Try as I may, the highest compliment I found was from Graham Greene who said, “Miss McCullers and perhaps Mr. Faulkner are the only writers since the death of D. H. Lawrence with an original poetic sensibility.” Now, don’t get me wrong. Graham Greene is fine, but I didn’t even finish The End of the Affair, and he is nowhere near my top ten. From whom did I inherit McCullers?
My Internet searching revealed some critical acclaim (in the Modern Library Revue column on The Millions, for one) and she is mentioned in the same breath as Saul Bellow, Flannery O’Connor, W.H. Auden, and Tennessee Williams, each time with a different, equally flattering comparison.
But I was disappointed. In myself? In McCullers? In other authors who did not love her as I am growing to?
I suppose if I can find an author and grow to love them outside of a direct inheritance, maybe, too, I could reject select elements of my more obvious literary heritage. Hesitantly, I have begun to dismiss other favorites’ favorites. When a former student of his published David Foster Wallace’s syllabus, I promptly downloaded the PDF. As I read the list, I was very self-assured: I’d been meaning to read Waiting for the Barbarians! I loved the Flannery O’Connor story he assigned (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”). He boldly included young contemporary writers like Aimee Bender and Sam Lipsyte. But Silence of the Lambs. Really? I would not follow him there. Maybe I am only disadvantaging myself. Silence of the Lambs may be the literary masterwork that could forever change my outlook on literature and fiction, just like Updike was supposed to.
Where I formerly swallowed recommendations whole, I now cull through them – not exactly on my own but in a more independent fashion. I find books, I do not just receive them. Or, I try to.
I am not a bad reader nor am I intellectually and creatively deficient, or, if I am, it is not because I do not like John Updike but for entirely different reasons.