There’s a bit in The Catcher in the Rye where Holden Caulfield is talking about the sort of thing he values in a reading experience. “What really knocks me out,” he says, “is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.” This line kept floating into my mind as I was reading Paul Murray’s new novel The Mark and the Void, his first since the massive success of 2010’s Skippy Dies. Because this new novel — which is, like its predecessor, a large and generous and furiously funny book, and which intertwines crises in both capitalism and literary creativity — really did knock me out, and because its author is a friend I could call up whenever I felt like it. But apart from the odd text to inform him I’d just LOL’ed at a particular bit of the novel, I didn’t really avail of that proximity. Strangely — or maybe not strangely at all — it wasn’t until I was asked to interview him for The Millions that I actually sat down and had a proper conversation with him about the book, and about his work in general.
There aren’t very many contemporary novelists whose work so audaciously mixes rich human comedy and bracing intellectual ambition. Just as Skippy Dies somehow managed to tie together its disparate elements — string theory, the First World War, the sadness and alienation of middle-class teenage Irish boys — into a funny and moving whole, The Mark and the Void pulls off an equally unlikely synthesis of arcane financial intrigue, artful metafiction, and ruthless satire. It’s set in a Dublin investment bank during the crazy, stupid early days of Ireland’s economic crisis. For all that it deals with some deeply unfunny material, I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much reading a novel.
Having a conversation with Paul is, in a lot of ways, very much like reading him. You need to set aside quite a lot of time, but it will absolutely be worth it; you’ll be led down a great many scenic conversational detours and intellectual byroads, and you’ll see see things in a different way by the time he’s finished talking. It’s also, crucially, a lot of fun, and you’ll laugh a great deal, often in a way that deepens a sense of the seriousness of the things you’re laughing at.
The Millions: The Mark and the Void is saturated in an anxiety about the novel as a form, about its waning cultural powers. There’s this serious unease in the book, which manifests as a constant comic interrogation of why the hell a person would write a novel in the first place. This is interesting on its own terms, but particularly within the context you were writing it, by which I mean the pretty overwhelming success of Skippy Dies. Because that novel did on a large scale what people worry the novel is no longer capable of doing: it had a significant emotional and intellectual impact on a large number of readers. Please discuss.
Paul Murray: I actually thought that would be the first thing people would ask about this book, but it hasn’t been. The one thing I didn’t think would happen with Skippy Dies was that it would be a quote-unquote “bestseller.” Because even aside from the so-called “Death of the Novel,” it just didn’t feel to me that the world was that kind of place. But when Skippy came out, people read it who I wouldn’t have expected to read it. And that was an interesting corrective to a lot of the assumptions that I had about the world. Old ladies would come up to me and say that they had read it. And old ladies have seen a lot: they’ve raised children and grandchildren. So they’re well equipped to deal with reading something like Skippy Dies.
As are teenagers. And you hear all the time about how teenagers don’t read books, but teenagers were reading this book. So in a way, it was this weird rebuttal of everything I presumed to be the case about the world, which is that it’s in terminal decline and everyone just marches in lock step to these horrific corporate forces. And so that kind of made things difficult. It was actually much easier for me to think of the world as full of empty drones who don’t get me. And now it’s like, okay, fuck, there are actually a lot of sensitive, engaged, sweet-natured people out there. So that was a wonderful and strange experience. But I’m a total pessimist, obviously, and so if the book had done badly I would have responded to it by berating myself for being a fraud, and telling myself to give up now. And when something good happens, my brain goes, well that’s it, you might as well roll up your tent now and move on, because you’ve had your moment in the sun.
TM: The obvious move after a book like Skippy would have been to write something explicitly less ambitious. A palate-cleansing novella or, you know, a tidy little Ian McEwan number. The Mark and the Void is not that.
PM: In a sense, Skippy was destructive in terms of the kind of success it had. It was a slow burner. It had good reviews when it came out in the U.K., and that carries a book for about three weeks. But it kept reappearing. Like, it would make it onto the Booker longlist, or Donna Tartt or Bret Easton Ellis would say how much they liked it, or David Cameron would bring it on holidays to Ibiza or whatever. So for a year, it kept sort of reappearing to the public. But that made it difficult to start something new. I tried writing short stories, and I can’t write short stories. With any creative endeavor, you put everything into it. And what you feel at the end is this terrible anxiety. And the success doesn’t really assuage that anxiety. In fact it reinforces it, because the natural question is the question of what you’re going to do next, and all you can see is nothingness. I find nothingness and entropy interesting ideas to think about at the best of times, and maybe working as a writer, you’re quite familiar with these things, because you’re just looking at your screen, and thinking “I’ve got nothing, absolutely nothing.” You’re back in the old foul rag and bone shop of the heart, you know? So anxiety is a natural condition for writers to be working out of. There’s this sort of weird feedback loop with writing, where you can’t quite figure out whether the anxiety happens because of the writing or whether you write because you’re an anxious person.
TM: The economic and cultural anxieties at the heart of The Mark and the Void play themselves out in an interesting way, through a kind of dialectic between the banker and the writer characters, and between the ideas of finance and art.
PM: Yeah. Well, the two major characters are obviously a writer and a banker. And I didn’t want the book to be just me standing on a soap box ranting about bankers. Because the interesting thing about the financial crash was that bankers were enabled by the rest of the world; to a large degree, everybody started thinking like bankers. From the 1980s onwards, ordinary people have thought in a more and more materialistic way. So we’ve seen the rise of the economist as public intellectual, of the economist as seer. Theatre and film and literature, and all these things by which we get some bearing on our existence, those are now seen as just sort of frivolities for the middle classes. And there’s this weirdly Stalinist idea now that what we need to be doing is taking our place as functioning cogs in this enormous machine. And so people are increasingly encouraged to self-objectify. And so in Ireland, during the boom years, you were increasingly made to feel that the way that people should conceive of themselves in society was in economic terms. The questions to ask were questions like “What value do I have for the economy?” and “How best can I contribute to it?” There is nothing more noble now, at an institutional level or at a personal level, than asking the question “Where is the money?” It’s no longer problematic for that to be the first question to ask.
TM: Right. That’s now, in a way, the essential public-spirited question. The question of how you can contribute to the economy.
PM: That’s it. And so to a certain degree, bankers have become scapegoats, the people we like to point the finger at as a country. But the banker’s success is predicated to a degree on us all wanting to be bankers, wanting to have that security and wanting to be top dog in this society that has become increasingly atomized by these very forces of corporatism and money. And we’re all going, “Okay, that’s how it is, and that’s fine, as long as I’m on top”. So my book is about this banker who has worked very hard to be on top, and has achieved that, and finds himself feeling very isolated and empty, and without a story. He doesn’t really have a narrative. To a certain degree the path to success he’s chosen is one that’s designed to lift him out of the world. And to a degree, everybody is partly a banker and partly a writer.
TM: Right, but those distinctions are very much complicated in the book. Obviously my reading of it is always going to be influenced by the fact that we’re friends, but to the extent that I recognized you in the book, it was in Claude (the banker) rather than Paul (the writer). Claude is much more thoughtful and sensitive and politically engaged than Paul, who is more or less a philistine, and solely preoccupied by making a buck wherever he can.
TM: I know what you’re going to say now. You’re going to say there’s much more of you in Paul. So let me just say that Paul’s not completely awful, that I did have some sympathy for him as a reader…
PM: Well, initially this book came from an idea I’d started on ages ago, and never took anywhere. It was a kind of a comic two-hander about those two guys, the banker and the writer. It was much broader, and the banker was this kind of Roland Barthes figure — I was really into Barthes at the time — who just went around meditating on existence. And the writer was much more of an asshole than he is in this version. And the setting was the most boring place imaginable, which was the IFSC (Irish Financial Services Centre). And I left it because there wasn’t enough to it. I thought it would be easy to write, and funny, and it wasn’t.
TM: Was it that it didn’t feel worth doing?
PM: That’s it. Writing is already a state of anxiety, just creatively speaking. But to work as a writer during the Celtic Tiger years, in the most turbo-charged super-capitalist place in the Western world, it was a terrifying place to work as a writer at that time.
TM: It was like a 51st state of America that seceded because the U.S. wasn’t neoliberal enough or something.
PM: It was the place all the U.S. companies came to because we’d ripped up the rulebook. It was the frontier, the “Wild West of Capitalism,” as The New York Times called it. Writing had become increasingly irrelevant in the culture, so that was this existential anxiety. But then you also had this other very literal thing of, like, “What? They put up my rent again? They put up the price of milk again?” And at that point, everyone in the country seemed to have so much money that, like, who even knew or cared what milk cost? Well, I was the mug who knew what milk cost. I was the mug who was a writer. And you felt beaten over the head with this idea that you’d taken the wrong turn, and you were pursuing something antediluvian and self-harming. So that anxiety feeds into the character of Paul in the book. Writing about a writer is obviously problematic anyway. It’s sort of the last refuge of a scoundrel. You know, you hear about some new movie, and Al Pacino’s in it, and he’s a writer with writer’s block. And you immediately think, well, fuck that. So the only way I could really do it was to ham it up, and to do a sort of Curb Your Enthusiasm thing with it.
TM: But isn’t writer’s block actually paradoxically fertile ground for creativity? So many books and films, so many plots, seem to spring from this sterile situation of the writer who can’t write.
PM: Totally. You know, happiness writes white, and writing also writes white. But people can relate to that state of impotence. Of doing something that feels completely at odds with everything else that’s going on. People know what it’s like to fail, and writers block is just this living second-by-second hell of failure, where you’re doing nothing but failing. I don’t know of any profession where you experience failing as consistently and unambiguously as writing.
TM: And yet there’s often this weirdly romantic idea of writer’s block in fiction and film, where it’s seen as this strangely authentic and pure state of creativity. And you totally subvert that in The Mark and the Void.
PM: I read Faulkner’s The Wild Palms recently. It’s not a great book, but there’s this terrific last line: “Between grief and nothing, I will take grief.” I don’t know that that’s a terrible thing. Robert Frost described literature as “a momentary stay against confusion.” It’s not going to solve all your problems, but it will give you a few seconds whereby you can adjust your stance so that when the hammer falls it will hit you on the shoulder rather than the middle of your cranium. So I think Paul’s problem in the book is the problem that every writer has. I set up this guy to be asking himself, Why should I continue working as a writer in a culture that doesn’t care about writing. Then I had to try to answer that question, and I don’t know that I succeeded. But all you can do is offer yourself temporary answers. Paul is facing the problem of what do you write about? If you don’t want to be the Capital W Writer, the sage or the seer figure who delivers these atrocities, these beautiful representations of other people’s pain for upper-middle-class consumers to enjoy, then you’re faced with this nothingness of just a bunch of people just swiping their phones. That’s all there is, so how do you write about that? Ben Lerner answers that question amazingly in 10:04, I think, which is a great book about there being nothing to write about. But how do you do that again? And why?
TM: Some of the funniest parts in The Mark and the Void deal with the shortfall between the bankers’ need to see Paul as this seer-like artist figure and the person he actually is. And that made me think about Ireland, and how the banker and the writer are these two poles of the country’s self-perception.
PM: I think the bankers like the idea of Paul, but in this very patronizing way. “The meaning monkey,” as Paul refers to himself. And that sort of reflects how rich people literally patronize the arts. They don’t necessarily like the art per se, but they like the idea of having creativity by proxy.
TM: It’s possibly a bit like how Irish people generally like the idea of there being a Gaeltacht, of there still being areas where the Irish language is spoken as a living language by people in their everyday lives. We don’t necessarily want to go there, or speak the language ourselves, but we feel somehow reassured by knowing that it’s out there, that people are still doing it.
PM: Totally. I had this bit that I kept trying to put in the book, but it wouldn’t fit anywhere. Paul and Claude are talking, and Paul is saying how nobody cares about books anymore, and Claude says that surely writers are more esteemed in Ireland than anywhere else in the world, because you name all these bridges after them and so on. And Paul says that esteeming someone is the easiest way of not reading them. You can esteem someone and name a bridge after them and then get back to reading the Ikea catalogue. The book is very critical of Ireland, obviously, but I do think Ireland is this very interesting place, this very weird and singular place. I still find myself envious of American writers. Because that’s the empire, and most of what we think of as modern life, that’s where it’s happening. But the idea that Jonathan Franzen or whoever is having a more echt experience than we are: that’s exactly the mentality that Joyce was trying to interrogate or refute in Ulysses. The idea that life is elsewhere is itself the universal.
TM: Right. The fact that Dublin is a minor city in the world is very much part of the point of Ulysses, and what makes it so great and universal. The Mark and the Void is explicitly situated in the most boring and characterless part of Dublin, the IFSC, which is this large area of the city that nobody who doesn’t work there ever thinks about. It’s a kind of non-Dublin.
PM: It’s very much non-Dublin. The IFSC is on the one hand marginal, but on the other hand it’s very much part of this neoliberal network, that is like the dominant world order. It’s an important place because all these multinational corporations are coming here precisely to do all the stuff that’s illegal in other countries. They come here, in a way, to express themselves more completely. So it’s kind of this weird mix of marginality and centrality.
TM: In an economic sense, Ireland is kind of an open city, a surrendered polity. A place where these very powerful supra-state forces are invited to come and do their bidding. And this is sort of reflected in your book by the fact that Paul is the only major character who is Irish, right?
PM: Yes. I guess I wanted it to feel like a kind of post-Empire story, where all of these structures and illusions have collapsed. We actually did reach the giddy height, at one point, of feeling like we had a place in the world. And then all those things went from under us, and we’re right back to being this sort of marginal state. And, as you say, completely at the behest of these incredibly powerful financial institutions, which nobody on the ground knows that much about.
TM: I sometimes wonder whether the main role that Ireland’s “Great Writers” play in contemporary culture is that they, or their images, give us a kind of foothold, or a sense of ourselves. The idea of Joyce, or Beckett, or Wilde, gives us something to hold onto in terms of national identity, when the reality is much more nebulous. They make it easier for us to fool ourselves into thinking we know who we are.
PM: I think literature is not actually especially important to Ireland. If you go to Germany, people there read like motherfuckers. And if you do a reading there, they charge an entry fee, and you get a couple of hundred people, even if you’re not that well known an author. And they want an hour and a half of your time. Because they’re serious readers. And in Germany, they have this really romantic idea of Ireland. But without wanting to do the place down, Ireland really doesn’t care much about literature per se. I mean, there are extracts of Ulysses embroidered on the seats in Aer Lingus seats. But you have to wonder what it means, other than that you can sit there and fart into this great work of Modernist literature on your flight to New York.
TM: I think Joyce might have relished that idea.
PM: Maybe, yes. But the old school idea of the novelist as seer — of, you know, Philip Roth or whoever issuing his edicts from on high every few years — that’s gone. And maybe what’s left is the idea of the novelist as this somewhat abject figure, who identifies with the downtrodden and so on, which is another very old idea. Because I think that is the position you’re putting yourself in as a fiction writer now. In a world that’s dominated by economics, you’re doing something as childish as making up stories that are untrue, and everyone knows they’re untrue. Everyone else is telling you that they’re telling you the truth — the banker and the politician, the priest and the doctor. That’s something that I tried to get at in the book, the idea that the novelist is the one person you can trust to be lying.
Mom stood in front of the stove, left hand on her hip, right hand holding a spatula. Golden batter bubbled on the griddle. I stood to her side, leaning against a cabinet. She watched me watch her.
Although I now eat browned pancakes, knowing that the color delivers taste, as a boy, I craved golden pancakes. I couldn’t stomach a touch of dark. The front pancakes on the griddle would stay yellow, but each pair leading to the back carried a tan hint. My mother stacked those at the bottom, hoping that I would someday become less picky.
I spread butter across the light pancakes and drenched them in syrup. I put my mother through so much stress those weekend mornings. I have since apologized to her, but I know, now a parent myself, that my apology was appreciated, but not needed. Breakfast is love.
Literature and breakfast are both slow arts. Early morning arts that unfold while the world is still groggy and optimistic.
John Mullan collected 10 of the best breakfast descriptions in literature for The Guardian, although his list skews heavily British. From James Joyce’s Ulysses: “A kidney oozed bloodgouts on the willowpatterned dish: the last.” J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit gives us “Two whole loaves (with masses of butter and honey and clotted cream) and at least a quart of mead.” Mullan calls a selection from The Warden by Anthony Trollope an “ecclesiastical morning feast:” “there were eggs in napkins, and crispy bits of bacon under silver covers; and there were little fishes in a little box, and devilled kidneys frizzling on a hot-water dish.” The most unusual entry on the list is from Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, the smell of Pirate Prentice’s apartment: “the fragile, musaceous odour of Breakfast, permeating, surprising, more than the color of winter sunlight.”
Save for a few years of college, I have lived in New Jersey my entire life. Other than corrupt politicians and housing New York sports teams, my state is best known for its breakfasts. Those meals are best found in three places: food trucks, delis, and diners.
New Jersey diners are satellite churches. Food as ritual. You settle into meals there. My ideal diner trip starts with coffee. Orange juice on the side. Chocolate chip pancakes with syrup and butter. I let the butter mingle with the syrup while I turn to the eggs. There are two choices: an omelet with bacon, green peppers, onions, and cheddar cheese, or Eggs Benedict. I choose the latter when I am feeling royal. I am usually dressed in a sweatshirt and sweatpants, as if I came from an early morning ice hockey practice. Eating is an athletic event for me. I am the youngest of four, so I have always eaten with elbows out, hoarding my take. My wife is entertained by my eating. I sit spread on one side of the booth, surrounded by plates. I even love the toast soggy with butter (the toast is not good, but it is like ice in a drink, a needed, cool break). I feel like the sow at the end of Sylvia Plath’s poem: “stomaching no constraint, / proceeded to swill / the seven troughed seas and every earthquaking continent.”
The syntactic tendencies of Cormac McCarthy, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner make for great food description. Consider this, from McCarthy’s Cities of the Plain: “They were all at the table eating when Billy pushed open the door and came in. Socorro came and took the plate of biscuits and carried them to the oven and dumped them into a pan and put the pan in the warmer and took hot biscuits from the warmer and put them on the plate and carried the plate back to the table. On the table was a bowl of scrambled eggs and one of grits and there was a plate of sausage and a boat of gravy and bowls of preserves and pico de gallo and butter and honey.”
I met my wife in college, and some late nights that blurred into early mornings led us down Pennsylvania backroads. We found a diner with a domed vestibule, lit blue at the peak and red around the base. My Catholic sense seeks symbolism in all offerings, so I wasn’t sure if it was blessed or base to take in so much food before dawn. I ordered eggs sunny side up with home fries, and Jen got an omelet. We ate, and we laughed, and then we drifted back into the dark. To fall in love in college is a gift. It is the chance to bottle freedom of soul, to open that gift when needed most, years later.
“I’ve always wanted brook trout / for breakfast.” From “Looking for Work” by Raymond Carver.
Breakfasts should be a time of celebration. We are still alive. We can again go to the table.
“Mornings were better than evenings, for Father and Grandfather. Father always made us breakfast: fresh eggs that he had traded for (he and Grandfather both despised the sound and smell of chickens, though Grandfather was not above staking one out in a field to try and lure in a hungry hawk or eagle he wanted to watch).” From “The Sky, the Stars, the Wilderness” by Rick Bass.
“A dinner party, coffee, tea, / Sandwich, or supper, all may be / In their way pleasant. But to me / Not one of these deserves the praise / That welcomer of new-born days, / A breakfast, merits.” From “Breakfast” by Mary Lamb.
Christian Wiman’s elegiac “Sitting Down to Breakfast Alone” ends with these lines: “All stories stop: once more you’re lost / in something I can merely see: steam spiriting out of black coffee, the scorched pores of toast, a bowl / of apple butter like edible soil, / bald cloth, knifelight, the lip of a glass, / my plate’s gleaming, teeming emptiness.”
In “Your Invitation to a Modest Breakfast” by Hannah Gamble, the speaker asks someone to come over: “This morning I need four hands— / two to wash the greens, one to lift a teakettle, / one to pour the milk. This morning, one little mouth / will not do.”
“My mother said you can always tell when someone’s middle-aged when they tell you that breakfast is the most enjoyable meal of the day.” — Reynolds Price.
“I don’t eat breakfast, never have ever since as a child I was forced to eat my grandmother’s boiled oatmeal every single morning.” — M.F.K. Fisher.
Gertrude Stein’s prose always makes me hungry. She wasn’t afraid of food as fodder, but more importantly, her layering of detail and recursive images feel like a fork whipping eggs in a bowl, or a spoon turning oatmeal. She writes of “A shining breakfast, a breakfast shining, no dispute, no practice, nothing, nothing at all.” And: “Anything that is decent, anything that is present, a calm and a cook and more singularly still a shelter, all these show the need of clamor. What is the custom, the custom is in the centre.” In “Breakfast,” her letters evolve into a diary of digestion: “What is a loving tongue and pepper and more fish than there is when tears many tears are necessary. The tongue and the salmon, there is not salmon when brown is a color, there is salmon when there is no meaning to an early morning being pleasanter. There is no salmon, there are no tea-cups, there are the same kind of mushes as are used as stomachers by the eating hopes that makes eggs delicious.” Delicious. She achieves so much more, but as a pleasant start, Stein’s prose forces us to leave words on our tongues a bit longer. To let phonemes dissolve rather than chewing them into worthless noise.
“And so, she cook’d their breakfast to a tittle; / I can’t say that she gave them any tea, / But there were eggs, fruit, coffee, bread, fish, honey, / With Scio wine, —and all for love, not money.” From Don Juan by Lord Byron.
What constitutes a sad breakfast? Poor food. Poor mood. A rushed swallow, a cold coffee, or burnt toast that could be crumbled to ash. We should all be thankful for each bite, bitter or bold, but if food is art, then good taste is worth achieving.
Phillip Larkin’s “Waiting for Breakfast, While She Brushed Her Hair” is as melancholic a breakfast poem as I can imagine. The title is the poem’s first line, so that “waiting” becomes a droning act. The narrator looks out the hotel window, where wet cobblestones “sent no light back to the loaded sky.” He initially concludes: “Featureless morning, featureless night,” but the poem becomes more complex with each successive stanza, and ends with a question. There is no breakfast.
Archibald MacLeish’s “Hotel Breakfast” begins in the same melancholic mode as Larkin: “On a stale morning / in a miserable winter town in Illinois / neither of us ever heard of.” The narrator’s companion is “sipping a sticky cup of some…tepid brew.” MacLeish also ends with a question, delivered “heartsick with a mortal fear — / What brings you here?”
What brings me here?
Best pork roll sandwich I’ve ever eaten: deli in Chester, N.J. A sin that I can’t remember the name. I worked summers for The Seeing Eye, and once a month we made the short trip from our Morristown campus to the breeding station in Chester. I had to look forward to a hot afternoon weed-whacking brush that would sting my arms and neck, but heaven came first. Two eggs draped in cheese. Pork roll peppered on both sides. Ketchup. Sliced and oiled potatoes with diced onions. Soft Kaiser roll. We picked-up our sandwiches and sat on overturned cartons in the garage. Among the last month’s clippings pasted to the floor and the smell of gasoline, we feasted.
I look forward to Jen’s weekend breakfasts all week, but now our breakfasts are tactical. We have twin toddler mouths to feed. Babble has been replaced with pointed requests: food, food, and more food. They want whatever is about to enter out mouths. Becoming a parent has meant that sharing is not simply kindness; it is sacrament. We feed the girls, and then it is our turn. Work and stress and travel are distant memories. We sit in front of the pancakes patterned with chocolate chips and the bacon, and know that breakfast is a form of communion. If you love someone—if you want that love to take shape, to be able to hold it in the air—eat breakfast with them.
Bonus Link: “Cooking with Hemingway” by Stephanie Bernhard
Image Credit: Pexels/Julian Jagtenberg.
“Yes, it’s easy to laugh at the lawyers. But what if the lawyers were right? For the question that still needs to be answered, I think, is whether the arguments over the novel’s obscenity and obscurity were just temporary historical effects or whether they point to the essence of Joyce’s originality.” A longform look at why we should still find Ulysses scandalous.
We’ve written before about various rare recordings of authors reading that occasionally surface on the internet (a sample here) but today we add a new author: James Joyce. Open Culture has posted two recordings of the author reading from Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, and while the audio quality is exactly what you would expect for recordings made in the 1920s, we still recommend listening.
When Gabriel Garcia Marquez died in April, the general flow of eulogy settled on two interpretations of his legacy: in the first, as a titanic but essentially regional author (The Times obituary called One Hundred Years of Solitude “the defining saga of Latin America’s social and political history”); in the second, as a model for the diminishing novelties of subsequent magical realists, like Salman Rushdie and Isabel Allende.
Fair enough. Garcia Marquez himself saw his style as fundamentally linked to the politics of his continent in his lifetime. (Correctly — for example, nothing has ever better captured how important the theft of time must feel in a totalitarian state than the dictator who lives on and on for centuries in The Autumn of the Patriarch.) It’s also true that he gave license to a new kind of fabulism, unique in that it didn’t descend from Swift or Cervantes, and therefore didn’t depend on either satire or comedy to atone for the recklessness of its inventions.
Those are narrow channels of influence, however, and there’s a third, untracked, more expansive reading of his work to make. It might go like this: he solved an essential problem of the novel; he arrived at a moment of crisis for the form and offered the warring parties a graceful way out of it; and if there’s a single novel that can claim paternity for the last 20 years of American fiction, it’s probably One Hundred Years of Solitude.
That book was published in America in 1972, and it was a sensation, critically and commercially, William Kennedy famously calling it, with un-Albanyish zeal, “the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race.” (If you somehow haven’t heard of it, One Hundred Years of Solitude is the multi-generational chronicle of a Colombian family called the Buendias.) At the time, there was a battle afoot between two kinds of fiction. Writers like Jean Stafford and Michael Shaara, traditional realists, were winning the Pulitzer Prize, while the National Book Award, inclined toward a more radical approach, went to John Barth and William Gaddis, campus experimentalists grinding out the logical final steps of the project inaugurated by Borges, by Ulysses, Hopscotch, Albert Angelo. Each side loathed the other. Updike’s declaration about Thomas Pynchon — “I don’t like the funny names” — might as well stand in for the whole cultural apparatus that was committed to realism; on the other hand Barth’s foundational postmodernist essay “The Literature of Exhaustion” called realism “used up,” and Gaddis said that such writing “never takes your breath away…it’s for people who read with the surface of their minds, people with reading habits that make the smallest demands on them.”
The great formal achievement of One Hundred Years of Solitude was that it treated the two positions not as antipodal but as dialectical. It satisfied the modernist commitment to narrative innovation in two ways, first in its compression and dilation of time — what would become the hallmark of magical realism — and second in its use of the fantastic, the twins who die at the same instant, the visitation of the ghosts, the glass city, Remedios being sublimated into heaven as she does the laundry.
But Garcia Marquez made the ingenious decision to embed those moments of originality within the stubbornly enduring structure of the traditional realist novel, turning his book into a family saga by way of a dream — Trollope by way of Barthelme. By doing so, he managed to defuse a central tension, one that had divided novelists since Hemingway and Joyce pitched their opposing camps. Of course, there were writers before Garcia Marquez who had blended the magical and the prosaic (Kafka, most famously) but none of them were perhaps as fully committed to narrative as Garcia Marquez seemed — to story. Meanwhile, other writers across the world had the same impulse, many of them, interestingly, in totalitarian states, including Milan Kundera and Danilo Kis, but their books were being passed around in samizdat, not, as Garcia Marquez’s was, in suburban book clubs and city libraries. What makes One Hundred Years of Solitude a watershed moment of cultural history is that mix of plot, experimentation, acclaim, and popularity.
That’s also why its influence has been so subtly pervasive. Many of our heaviest hitters — Franzen, Wallace, Eisenberg, Tartt, Saunders, Chabon — were born around 1960, and therefore came of age during the book’s ascendancy. Considered in that light, their debt to it seems plain, whether or not they would acknowledge it, whether or not they found the book stimulating, indeed whether or not they’ve even read it.
The reason is that all of them play the same trick, filigreeing traditional realism with enough carefully selective post-modernism to claim its gloss of coolness — but without the unfortunate consequence of making their work difficult to read. In The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay there’s the Golem of Prague; in The Art of Fielding there’s the self-consciously literary exhumation of the corpse; in The Corrections, there’s the magical device of Correctall, the pill that allows Chip Lambert to forget his anxiety and enter a state of dreamlike euphoria. (It’s a sign of our age how often American magical realism is pharmaceutical, after Franzen’s example — the decision-making drug in Indecision by Benjamin Kunkel; the test subjects in George Saunders’s magnificent “Escape from Spiderhead.”) Fiction is an essentially conventional art form, most at home in the bourgeoisie, but its practitioners have — quite rightly! — never been at ease with that fact. The compromise at which we’ve arrived is that every book now has the credibility of the avant-garde within a Victorian structure. It’s more fun to claim the influence of John Hawkes than John Galsworthy; it’s more fun to read a book whose plot is patterned after Jane Austen than B.S. Johnson.
Unsurprisingly, the first American novelist to take the full implications of Garcia Marquez on board may have been our smartest one, Philip Roth. (It’s not a coincidence that he spent the 1970s publishing Eastern European novelists, and, as Roth Unbound described, sneaking money to them via illicit networks — a fact that ought to shame the Nobel committee members who have claimed that American writers are unworthy of the prize because they’re too inward-looking, too insular.) His books The Counterlife and Operation Shylock were precursors of the great florescence of faux-mo novels in the 2000’s, using false flags and mirrored characters without their pace or urgency. The logical culmination of the trend is probably The Marriage Plot, which states the tension outright, dropping a college student who just wants to read 19th-century novels into the semiotics craze of the 1980s.
At their weakest, these post-Garcia Marquez books have been kinetic without moving, emotional without evoking any real sensation, readable without deserving to be read. The novel of this type that comes to mind for me is Absurdistan by the sometimes terrific Gary Shteyngart, a disagreeable blend of absurdism and soft sentimentality. Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Junot Diaz, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Colson Whitehead can feel similarly limited by their very limitlessness — their work at times too ironized for readers to treat its narrative seriously, but too committed to narrative to offer the sense of alienation, dread, and obliqueness we feel in, for example, Don DeLillo and William Gibson. The writer for whom cultural critics were so eager to give Garcia Marquez credit, Salman Rushdie, might be the least exciting of the bunch. The Pale King offers a glimpse of what David Foster Wallace’s pushback against his own trend might have looked like — his reconnection with difficulty as a means of higher artistic consciousness.
Recent Pulitzer Prize committees have waded into this fray again; books of high seriousness, eschewing the jokey gloss of the comic book generation, have won the prize, including three lovely but deeply conservative novels, Tinkers by Paul Harding, March by Geraldine Brooks, and Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout. How much does that matter? The painter Gerhard Richter has spent the last 50 years dissolving what previously seemed like a crucial distinction between figurative and abstract painting; is it possible that novelists, too, no longer need to declare a single allegiance? If so, the books that Garcia Marquez gave a generation permission to write, produced during the truce between fabulism and realism, may begin to look odd: artifacts of the historical moment they thought they were creating. One of the pieces of shallow wisdom people like to repeat is that every great book either creates or dissolves a genre, and sometimes it’s true. One Hundred Years of Solitude, though it hasn’t quite received credit for this, established the school of fiction we currently consider great. It’s up to some other genius to dissolve it.
Here’s a common literary conundrum: who much should you assume your readers know going into your novel? Explain too much, you risk condescending; explain too little, you risk being esoteric and possibly confusing. With small aspects of a book, it’s all about deciding what’s necessary information. If a certain piece of information is absolutely vital, then err on the side of explicitness. If not — if, say, the information is merely for thematic or subtextual reasons — then depending on a reader’s knowledge (or their inquisitiveness to go and look it up) is probably best.
But what if your entire book is based on another one? What if a certain piece of information (in the cases of these books, a writer or a specific novel) is foundational to your text? How, then, should you proceed? Should you explain the referenced work so that those unfamiliar with it can enjoy your book? Or should you simply accept that some readers will fall behind and end up befuddled? It’s a tricky enterprise, and since there are as many ways to pay homage to earlier literature as there are ways to create new literature, I thought it would be useful to see how some contemporary writers approach this finicky issue.
Let’s get right into some examples. The most straightforward way to pay homage to another writer is to simply write them into the narrative. Joyce Carol Oates’s story collection Wild Nights! uses the voices of famous authors on their final days. In “Poe Posthumous; or, The Light-House,” Poe keeps a diary tracking his new post as “Keeper of the Light” for a lighthouse in Viña de Mar. His first entry is dated October 7, 1849, which was the date of Poe’s death (hence the title). Oates has a lot of fun playing with both Poe’s style and his Gothic genre. On his second day, Poe wakes from “fitful” sleep that seems to “cast off totally the morbid hallucination, or delusion that, on a rain-lashed street in a city not familiar to me, I slipped, fell, cracked my head upon sharp paving stones, and died.” Oates captures the language of Poe, as well as his ceaseless morbidity. Would readers unfamiliar with Poe’s biography recognize this description of Poe’s actual death in Baltimore? Or will they miss the hint? Will it matter if a reader does not know that “The Light-House” was the last piece of fiction the real Poe was writing before his death? And that Oates here even quotes from it? Does any of this really matter? Oates, consummate (and unbelievably prolific) storyteller that she is, makes the narrative compelling even for the uninitiated, but it’s interesting to consider how knowing certain things will change the experience of reading the story. Those who know something about Poe will instantly spot the date of his death and know that this is the tale of some sort of afterlife, while those who don’t know Poe will figure it out as the story unfolds. Which is the better experience? Who is reading the story in the right way?
Of course, there are plenty of historical novels that feature authors as characters, but those aren’t the kind I’m interested in here. I’m more interested in those works that aim to riff or play with past fiction, the kinds that are unafraid to run with the ideas of other writers, too, not merely their biographies.
Michael Cunningham wrote two books that take as their inspiration other writers’ works. His Pulitzer Prize-winning The Hours examines Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway via three women engaged with Woolf’s novel in different ways: composing it, reading it, living it. But it’s Cunningham’s lesser-known Specimen Days that I’m interested in here, because it explores its foundational text in such unusual ways. Though its title is taken specifically from Walt Whitman’s book of autobiographical essays and sketches, Cunningham’s novel could be said to take Whitman himself as its foundational text––Specimen Days celebrates Whitman’s spirit as much as any individual work, though obviously Leaves of Grass is the primary model. The novel is really three thematically linked novellas, each focusing on a man, a woman, and a young man. Whitman’s presence pervades the stories, yet he remains elusive. In the first section, “In the Machine,” Lucas, the boy, refers to the great poet as “Walt,” like a close friend. Set in the late 19th century, “In the Machine” recounts a fire at the Mannahatta Company (named, of course, after a poem of Whitman’s), a factory near Washington Square. As the blaze ravages the building and innocent workers leap from windows to escape the flame, Lucas thinks he sees something: “Was that Walt, far off, among the others, Walt with his expression of astonished hunger for everything that could occur?”
“The Children’s Crusade,” the second piece, features a detective in 21st-century New York investigating a series of terrorist bombs instigated by an old woman who quotes Whitman. “What are you saying, exactly?” the detective asks the woman, who replies, “Urge and urge and urge, always the procreant urge of the world.” To which the detective says: “You know your Whitman.” Her minion of boys, who call her Walt, since she believes so much in the beauty of the world as Whitman wrote it:
To someone a hundred years ago, as recently as that, this world would seem like heaven itself. We can fly. Our teeth don’t rot. Our children aren’t a little feverish one moment and dead the next. There’s no dung in the milk. There’s milk, as much as we want. The church can’t roast us alive over minor differences of opinion. The elders can’t stone us to death because we might have committed adultery. Our crops never fail. We can eat raw fish in the middle of the desert, if we want to. And look at us. We’re so obese we need bigger cemetery plots. Our ten-year-olds are doing heroin, or they’re murdering eight-year-olds, or both. We’re getting divorced faster than we’re getting married. Everything we eat has to be sealed because if it wasn’t, somebody would put poison in it, and if they couldn’t get poison, they’d put pins in it. A tenth of us are in jail, and we can’t build new ones fast enough. We’re bombing other countries simply because they make us nervous, and most of us not only couldn’t find those countries on a map, we couldn’t tell you which continent they’re on. Traces of the fire retardant we put in upholstery and carpeting are starting to turn up in women’s breast milk. So tell me. Would you say this is working out? Does this seem to you like a story that wants to continue?
A far cry from the America Whitman described, isn’t it? (Though the world of the first story, Whitman’s world, serves to considerably undermine this nostalgic, revisionist view.) That Whitman would be used as motivation for terrorism seems plausible here. Cunningham engages with Whitman’s texts (and Whitman-as-text) in as many ways as he can: what did Whitman’s poetry mean to those who were alive when he wrote it, who could witness the same New York depicted in the pages of Leaves of Grass? What does Whitman’s America say about our America now? What does all that suggest about the future (which is dealt with in the final story, “Like Beauty,” set in New York 150 years from now)?
I read Specimen Days concurrently with Leaves of Grass, which at the time I was reading for a class. It was a wonderful pairing: I grappled with Whitman’s absorbing poetry at the same time I got to read a novelist do the same thing. Cunningham doesn’t expect you to have read Whitman, as he provides quotes and even some analysis along the way, but I would wager that my experience was greatly enhanced by my immediate knowledge of Whitman’s writing. For no matter how much shorthand Cunningham provides, Whitman defies summary. Leaves of Grass enfolds you with its endless lists and keen observations and joyous optimism. One can read Specimen Days and “get” Whitman’s place in it without having read a word of his poetry, but to feel it, to attach more philosophical and emotional resonance to the book’s themes, to understand its “multitudes,” you need Whitman himself.
Memories of those books ran through my mind as I read Maya Lang’s debut novel The Sixteenth of June, which has the rare claim of being a book based on a book that’s based on another book. The title date is, of course, Bloomsday, the day on which James Joyce’s Ulysses is set. It is also the date fans of Joyce’s modernist epic come together for an annual celebration. The Sixteenth of June features such a party, but not just any Bloomsday, but the 100th anniversary of Bloomsday. The party is thrown by the Portmans, a wealthy couple in Philadelphia. Their two sons, Stephen and Leopold, are name after Ulysses’s protagonists, Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom. Leo, the younger son, is engaged to a woman name Nora, like Joyce’s wife. Long’s novel has the same number of chapters as Ulysses and employs many of the same techniques. It is, in other words, wholly dependent on Joyce’s novel.
Ulysses, famously, is based on Homer’s The Odyssey. The idea was to take one of literature’s greatest epics and pare it down to a single day of a human life. The grand in the ordinary. But Joyce goes so much further: he meticulously crafted Ulysses to mirror Homer’s tale of Odysseus and his journey home. He famously said of the book, “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” An egotistical claim, to be sure, but one that has yet to be disproved––here I am today, still writing about this goddamn book. In a letter to his Aunt Josephine, Joyce suggested that she read The Odyssey first. “Then buy at once,” he continues, “the Adventures of Ulysses (which is Homer’s story told in simple English and much abbreviated) by Charles Lamb…Then have a try at Ulysses again.” Joyce, then, expected his readers to not only enter his book having already read The Odyssey, but he also wanted them to pore over the text to decipher its innumerable mysteries.
Maya Lang, in The Sixteenth of June, expects no such thing. Her novel is a lovely, light-on-its-feet production, a flowing narrative of young people trying to find their way. Twenty-somethings Leo and Nora have reached an impasse in their relationship: engaged with no wedding date, in love but static, together but growing apart. Leo’s brother Stephen, also Nora’s best friend, plods along at grad school, seven years into his dissertation. Their day begins with the funeral of their grandmother, a woman the family had mostly forgotten about, relegated as she was to a nursing home (“And nursing home is a misnomer,” their father says, “It’s a social living community for seniors”). But before she died, Stephen had begun to pay visits to her, unbeknownst to the rest of the Portman clan. When Stephen’s secret is exposed, questions abound about his intentions. Michael and June Portman, the parents, decide to hold their Bloomsday centennial despite the funeral happening on the same day, a decision that irks Stephen considerably.
One needn’t have read James Joyce to understand this kind of family dynamic. In fact, for the first 50 pages or so I wondered if maybe intimate knowledge of Ulysses might hinder my enjoyment of Lang’s book. I couldn’t help but trace Joyce’s influence on every page, even occasionally spotting some passages lifted directly from Ulysses, as in the introduction of Stephen: “Stephen fills the white bowl with hot water. He cups the bowl in his hands and carries it to his desk, where a mirror and razor lay crossed.” This echoes the famous opening of Ulysses, which goes: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and razor lay crossed.” A bit later, Leo recalls his time in London, where “[there] was no freak-out about cholesterol, fat. They ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls,” which Leopold Bloom also did in the beginning of his day. Other references aren’t direct quotes: as Stephen contemplates his life, he considers:
How much easier to just go along and agree. To watch the trajectory of the ball long ago set in motion and see where it will land, as though you are not the product of its outcome. To watch as though you have no hand in your own life. As though the only words we have available to us were written long ago in a blue book. As though we cannot make our own stories, decide our own fates.
Ulysses, when it was first published by Shakespeare and Company in 1922, featured a blue cover with white lettering, so people eventually referred to it surreptitiously as “the blue book.” Lang is having a bit of funny in this pensive moment: Stephen, as a character, can’t make his own story; he’s stuck in someone else’s.
Strange that my knowledge of Ulysses actually distracted me from a story predicated on it. Typically, I would imagine the opposite being the case. But luckily Lang’s wonderfully engaging prose and her believable characters overtook me, and soon I forgot to look for allusions and just enjoyed the novel.
One of the most enjoyable things here is the way in which Lang traces her characters’ thoughts. Leo, Stephen and Nora alternate the point of view, and Lang settles herself comfortably in their skin, a fitting technique for a predecessor of Joyce, who mastered free indirect discourse better than maybe any other modernist except for Virginia Woolf. But the spark that makes Lang’s methodology unique in its own right is the way her characters think about the things they might have said to someone. Repeatedly, Leo and company imagine conversations that did not happened, almost as much as we’re given conversations that actually did happen. This is not unlike the “double stream of consciousness” that Morris Ernst emphasized when he defended Ulysses in court in 1933, (“Your honor,” Ernst said in court, “while arguing this case I thought I was intent only on the book, but frankly, while pleading before you, I’ve also been thinking about that ring around your tie, how your gown does not fit too well on your shoulders and the picture of John Marshall behind your bench.”) except here it is as if Lang’s characters, like all of us, are trying to live out a hypothetical other life for themselves, to experiment privately with a life that could have lead but ultimately did not. And sometimes these unspoken words contain within them the thing most necessary to say: Leo wishes he could ask Nora “what it feels like when she pulls” her hair, a condition known as trichotillomania that has afflicted Nora since her mother’s death; Nora wishes to confront Leo’s mother June for her haughty and cruel condescension; and Stephen dwells on the things he would have said to Nora about her relationship with Leo, which Stephen thinks has hindered her development as a person and artist.
This kind of thinking takes up much of our lives. We regret the things we said as well as the things we didn’t say, and moreover, we think about those things all the time, a constant process of rewinding and rewatching and dreaming of rewriting. But, as Joyce points out, “It’s always flowing in a stream, never the same, which in the stream of life we trace. Because life is a stream.” We can only move forward, but that doesn’t mean our minds are not stuck in the past.
Most of the characters in The Sixteen of June either don’t like Ulysses or haven’t read it (or, often, they attempted it and stopped). Stephen is even skeptical that his parents, the ones throwing the party, don’t even really like Ulysses: “I sometimes think,” he says, “they’re more interested in what Ulysses says about them than what it actually says. Our truest relationship with books is private. I love Gatsby. I love Mrs. Dalloway. But I would never throw a party for them. A party ends up celebrating not the book but its title.” Nora never got through and it seems that Leo never even tried. This accurately reflects contemporary attitudes of young people toward Ulysses. To them, it is not “the great repository of everything,” as one character puts it, but a pretentious, irritatingly confounding book, with few rewards and annoying champions (“His work is Everest,” the same character says, “No one climbs Everest and says nothing of it!”). Yet here they are, these young people, caught in a story, a world inescapably shaped by Joyce, for no matter what you think of his most notorious novel, it has influenced you, it has defined and refined your ideas of literature, art, obscenity, human thought––even if you disagree, even if you are indifferent.
Homage is a way of acknowledging our forbearers, to celebrate where we came from by updating the past, calling back to it, poking fun at it, challenging it, embracing it, adoring it. Oates goes at it directly, Cunningham a little more abstractly, and Lang indirectly and directly. There is no right way to pay homage any more than there is a right way to love something. And asking yourself how much information you should expect your readers to know is ultimately fruitless. They’ll come into your book with so much more baggage than a knowledge of or respect for a given writer or novel. They bring their pasts into it, too, with all its force and unaware influence. What they know doesn’t matter, because the division between a reader who isn’t familiar vs. a reader who is amounts to a false dichotomy. There is actually an infinite number of ways to experience a story, and no writer can predict them all. Oates and Cunningham couldn’t foresee how much their readers know, just as they couldn’t foresee anything about them. Lang doesn’t know if you’ve read Ulysses; probably she doesn’t care. She wants you to feel her characters think and live (and think about living); the Ulysses stuff reinforces many of the themes, functions as a big blueprint, and serves as the occasion of the novel’s central set piece, but its nuances are not crucial the work as a whole. So if you’re paying homage to someone, to something, to anything, just write it the way you love it––passion is more important than knowledge, anyway.
June is sickly sweet; it’s insipid. Is that because it’s so warm, or because it rhymes so easily? June / moon / spoon / balloon… But while Robert Burns happily rhymed his “red, red rose / That’s newly sprung in June” with a “melody / that’s sweetly played in tune,” Gwendolyn Brooks burned off any sugar in the terse rhythms of “We Real Cool”: the rhyme she finds for “Jazz June”? “Die soon.”
Tom Nissley’s column A Reader’s Book of Days is adapted from his book of the same name.
June is called “midsummer,” even though it’s the beginning, not the middle, of the season. It’s the traditional month for weddings — Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream is overflowing with matrimony — but it’s also the home of another modern ritual, graduation day — or, as it’s more evocatively known, commencement, an ending that’s a beginning. It’s an occasion that brings out both hope and world-weariness in elders and advice givers. It brought David Foster Wallace, in his 2005 Kenyon College commencement address reprinted as This Is Water, perhaps as close as he ever came to the unironic statement his busy mind was striving for.
But the graduation speech is an especially potent scene in African American literature. There’s the narrator’s friend “Shiny” in James Weldon Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, speaking to a white audience like “a gladiator tossed into the arena and bade to fight for his life,” and there’s Richard Wright, in his memoir Black Boy, giving a rough speech he’d composed himself instead of the one written, cynically, for him. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is invited to give his class speech before the town’s leading white citizens, only to find himself instead pitted in a “battle royal” with his classmates, while in Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, a young student follows a white dignitary’s patronizing words to the graduates with an unprompted and subversive leading of the “Negro national anthem,” “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” (whose lyrics, to bring the tradition full circle, were written by none other than James Weldon Johnson).
Here is a selection of June reading for the beginnings and endings that midsummer brings:
McTeague by Frank Norris (1899)
One of American literature’s most memorable — and most disastrous — weddings ends, after an orgy of oyster soup, stewed prunes, roast goose, and champagne, with Trina whispering to her groom, McTeague, “Oh, you must be very good to me — very, very good to me, dear, for you’re all that I have in the world now.”
Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
Five days after Joyce met Nora Barnacle on a Dublin street, and one day after she stood him up, they went on their first date. Eighteen years later, he celebrated that day — June 16, 1904 — with a book.
Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky (1942/2004)
After reading Colette’s account of the migration out of Paris forced by the German occupation, Némirovsky remarked, “If that’s all she could get out of June, I’m not worried,” and continued work on her own version, “Storm in June,” the first of the two sections of her fictional suite she’d survive the Nazis long enough to complete.
“The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson (1948)
It’s a “clear and sunny” morning on June 27 when the men, women, and children of an unnamed village assemble to conduct their annual choosing of lots.
“The Day Lady Died” by Frank O’Hara (1959)
Writing during the lunch hour of his job at the Museum of Modern Art, O’Hara gathered the moments of his afternoon into a poem: the train schedule to Long Island, a shoeshine, the “quandariness” of choosing a book, the sweat of summer, and the memory of how Billie Holiday once took his breath away.
Blues for Mister Charlie by James Baldwin (1964) and “Where Is the Voice Coming From?” by Eudora Welty (1963)
On the day (June 12, 1963) Medgar Evers was assassinated, Baldwin vowed that “nothing under heaven would prevent” him from finishing the play he was working on, about another notorious murder of a black man in Mississippi, while Welty, on hearing of the murder in her hometown of Jackson, quickly wrote a story, told from the mind of the presumed killer, that was published in The New Yorker within weeks.
Jaws by Peter Benchley (1974)
Is the greatest beach read the one that could keep you from ever wanting to go into the water again?
Blind Ambition by John Dean (197?)
We know the story of the June 1972 Watergate break-in best from All the President’s Men, but Dean’s insider’s memoir of how it quickly went wrong, co-written with future civil rights historian Taylor Branch, is an equally thrilling and well-told tale.
The Public Burning by Robert Coover (1977)
We’ve never quite known what to do with The Public Burning, Coover’s wild American pageant starring Nixon, a foul and folksy Uncle Sam, and the Rosenbergs, whose June execution is at its center: it’s too long, too angry, too crazy, and, for the publisher’s lawyers who said it couldn’t be released while its main character, the freshly deposed president, was still alive, it was too soon.
Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick (1979)
Sleepless Nights begins in a hot, blinding June but soon fragments across time, into memories from the narrator’s life — which closely resembles Hardwick’s — and stories from the lives of others, a method that has the paradoxical effect of heightening time’s power.
Clockers by Richard Price (1992)
It’s often said that no modern novel can match the storytelling power of The Wire, but its creators drew inspiration from Price’s novel of an unsolved summertime murder in the low-level New Jersey crack trade, and for their third season they added Price to their scriptwriting team.
When the World Was Steady by Claire Messud (1995)
Bali is hot but dry in June, while the Isle of Skye is gray and wet, at least until the weather makes yet another change. Messud’s first novel follows two English sisters just on the far side of middle age who find themselves on those distant and different islands, reckoning with the choices they’ve made and suddenly open to the life around them.
“Brokeback Mountain” by Annie Proulx (1997)
Meeting again nearly four summers after they last parted on Brokeback Mountain, Jack Twist and Ennis del Mar are drawn together with such a jolt that Jack’s teeth draw blood from Ennis’s mouth.
Three Junes by Julia Glass (2002)
Three Junes might well be called “Three Funerals”–each of its three sections, set in summers that stretch across a decade, takes place in the wake of a death. But the warmth of the month in Glass’s title hints at the story inside, and the way her characters hold on to life wherever they find it.
Image via circasassy/Flickr
The Imp of the Perverse, not Patrick, may be the patron saint of this particular Irishman. Read the fictions of 2013 IMPAC winner Kevin Barry — he snagged the 100,000-euro prize with the bloody and lyrical novel City of Bohane — and you’ll discern the presence of a little demon stalking his people, a green-eyed creeping death with a rain-wracked ginger topknot. These souls find doing the right thing, whether it be moral or rational, quite the difficulty. The barriers are often karmically insurmountable. And as in his new book, the award-winning collection Dark Lies the Island, the affliction makes for consistently glorious, and often hilarious, reading.
Burn enough hours with the mind behind it all and you’ll detect certain immutable qualities, including a genuine affability, a grindstone work ethic, and immense empathy. The lattermost, a good thing for any writer, seems to be what also makes his readings among the most entertaining and virtuosic I’ve ever witnessed. The confidence and timing of a seasoned actor or comedian come naturally — the characters are made flesh — and as a story unspools in Barry’s easy Irish timbre, it reeks of the real, of the truth, no matter how fantastical the tale.
Barry recently visited Oregon for Portland’s Wordstock festival, and as is required by law here, I invited him out for some cycling (“I’ll ride 80k a day”) and some pints at the legendary Horse Brass Pub (“You Americans — look, if it’s over 5 percent, it isn’t beer; it’s fucking tawny port wine”). We inevitably found a good session beer to his liking and then talked at length about his work, the subconscious, the ’burbs, failure, the supernatural, Southern writers, comic fiction, and Ireland’s formidable literary legacy.
The Millions: Some biography, please.
Kevin Barry: I’m from Limerick city, on the west coast of Ireland. I’m 44. I’ve published three books, and I cycle my bike a lot in County Sligo. I live in an old police station there, in a swamp, essentially. And if I don’t write in the day, I don’t feel good for anything much.
TM: Did you grow up in Limerick?
KB: Pretty much in Limerick city until my late teens, in the suburbs. And when you grow up in an Irish suburb in the seventies, you may as well be in a suburb of Toronto or Phoenix. Most of the cultural feeds are precisely the same, except there’s also something slightly other about the language. Irish writers maybe have a slight edge because of the way we fucking mangle the English language. We have no rules for it. The way we deliver our stories is changing all the time, but I don’t think there’s any fear for the story. Human beings need stories as much as they need beer and trousers and hats and food and shelter.
TM: You hear early humans likely discovered fire a million years ago. We’ve been telling stories, in some form, around campfires for a million years.
KB: And it won’t stop. In terms of Irish writing, we must never underestimate the effect of 300 days of rain a year. We’re indoors a lot of the time, and we need to make shit up. We’d go nuts if we didn’t. But, yeah, I’m a kid of the suburbs and still have strange romantic notions about suburban life and that feeling on summer evenings. It always puzzles me that there isn’t more suburban art and literature.
TM: Maybe people are trying to escape the suburbs psychologically.
KB: Yeah, it’s like they’re so bland they can’t be mythic.
TM: Cheever made them mythic. It’s a liminal place, the hybrid city-country.
KB: There’s some French word that I can’t think of at the moment, where city bleeds into countryside, that edge of town. It’s a kind of nowhere land, with odd tensions from either side pulling. Nothing as eerie as walking around a suburb at 4 a.m. on a summer-night morning with nobody around and just a little bit of wind in the trees and leaves. And falling in love or out of love with some girl, and you’re 17. Those moments stay with you, in the sodium light.
TM: Does that shape your work?
KB: I remember talking once to a bunch of American students. And they were stunned and horrified to learn that Ireland has suburbs. Even though so many of us in Ireland grow up in the suburbs, they almost never show up in Irish literature. Because it doesn’t suit the mythos, which is either the Ulysses of the big city or the John McGahern small towns or the farm and the bleak austerity of the farmland. But Irish suburban life has almost never been done. The working-class cities, Limerick and Cork—that language has never appeared in Irish literature. I tried to bring some of it into City of Bohane. I hate the word resource applied in any way to literature or art, but it is a resource. It’s a very strange, weird, mangled, beautiful, tender, lovely take on English.
TM: You’re obviously besotted by the language, and you work its angles and curves to great effect. I picture the Oxford English Dictionary sinking into a Gaelic bog. But you don’t sacrifice clarity, even in your novel, which is a sustained, successful voice experiment. A high-low style seems to come easily to you, like a tune on the air.
KB: Thinking specifically in terms of the novel, I’ve always been drawn to work that tries to blend the high and the low. Saul Bellow in the fifties, with Augie March, trying to do Chicago street talk but the literary fucking high style as well, and really going for it. Martin Amis in the eighties in London. When I came to write City of Bohane, I had twin ambitions for it. I wanted it to be a grand, visceral entertainment, a real pulpy fucking page-turner, but also a serious language experiment. It was fun to write, and increasingly it seems to me that I should be having fun at the desk. On the very simple equation that if I’m having a good time at my end, the dear, beloved reader is having a good damn time at the far end. A lot of writers say that they don’t think about the reader at all. I’m a complete fucking whore for the reader. If someone picks up my book, they’re really doing me a fucking turn, and I want to give them a good time on many different levels. So I try to make every page and sentence pop. And that causes weird technical difficulties as a writer. It makes your work very intense as a reading experience. With City of Bohane, I sometimes think to tell the story right it should’ve been a much longer book, but the language was too intense. I think 280 pages is fine, because it’s fucking… It’s a wallop in the face.
TM: Some people can’t take it. Some of us eat it up, the sustained performance on the page. And it’s a first-person narrator. But there can be fatigue.
KB: People either tend to really love it and be evangelical of its cause or go, “Fuck all, this is not for me.” Which is fine. I would always take strong reactions over mild ones. It’s a book you have to read with the ears. You have to listen to it. And you have to do a bit of work at the start, and that’s kind of a difficult area now in novels. I think previously, as readers, we were prepared to give a novel a bit of time. You have a 900-page Russian door-stopper from the 19th century, and you give it a hundred pages, and it’d be fucking torture turning those pages. They’re like lead, you know? But then that magical thing happens where suddenly you’re trapped in the world. You’ve earned it.
TM: It’s the same with Shakespeare. Suddenly you’re in and it flows.
KB: I suspect now the reader won’t give you that much time anymore. It makes it a good time for the short story. I think, increasingly, people give as much time to a book as they will to an art-house movie or an indie film. I have this conversation all the time with my editor in London, and he says, “No, man, literature should be the alternative to all that white noise. It should be a quiet, immersive space where we go to get away from all that stuff.”
TM: A deeper escapism and amusement.
KB: Yeah, and maybe he’s right. Until recently, I hadn’t read the Booker Prize–winning Hilary Mantel novels, the Henry the Eighth stuff, you know? She has what I call “thumb.” You just want to turn the pages and keep going with it.
TM: In your work there seems to be the influence of writers from the American South. Barry Hannah and Charles Portis come to mind. A lot of Southern and Irish writers strike me as Hearers of the Music, profoundly taken by language. It seems that they particularly relish the poetry that can be drawn out of prose. Baudelaire wrote, “Always be a poet, even in prose.”
KB: To my shame, I’ve never read Charles Portis. Love Barry Hannah. There is an interesting correlation between Irish and Southern writers. We face similar difficulties, in terms often of the dialogue. You don’t want to over-egg it. But at the same time, people do fucking talk like that. So you have to be true to that as well. I think Hannah gets a beautiful balance.
TM: The dialects seem to have arisen from remoteness and insularity, fed over centuries by religious communalism. Flannery O’Connor wrote — and I once heard Hannah echo this — that the South is “Christ-haunted.” Is it the same for Ireland, with the huge Catholic and smaller Protestant presences?
KB: There’s no doubt. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but there’s Catholic prose and Protestant prose. Flannery O’Connor’s prose is Catholic fucking prose. John Updike’s prose is Protestant fucking prose. And that’s fine. There’s also Jewish prose, which dominated my whole reading staples in my twenties. I wanted to be the next great Jewish writer, which was difficult, as I was a ginger-haired child in Cork, in the south of Ireland. That didn’t work out. Without being too reductive, I would say the Protestant strain is to strip down and to pare back, to reduce. Beckett is a Protestant writer. Joyce is a Catholic writer. Joyce piles it all on to the fucking page. And for a long time in the 20th century, Irish writers had a great difficulty. They had to go one of the two paths. But there was a third way, and the stream in Irish writing I really love is that mischievous, anarchic, and inventive one that goes back to writers like Flann O’Brien, back to the 1700s to Laurence Sterne and Dean Swift. It’s a kind of crazy, funny, nasty strain.
TM: Tristram Shandy.
KB: Yes. I like my literature to be funny, the comic mode, and I think most of my favorite writers at some level are comic writers. Someone like Saul Bellow. Herzog is a novel about a nervous breakdown, a crack-up, and it’s fucking hilarious. Philip Roth writes terrifying novels about all sorts of disintegration and horrible, awful masculine emotions that are deathly funny. I think comedy is the most true human mode. It’s how we get through, through…
TM: The tragicomedy?
KB: For sure. My short stories, a lot of them are very dark, but I think almost always at the end they are comedic.
TM: That’s a great insight, of being Irish and that choosing between Joyce and Beckett. Beckett said Joyce was a synthesizer — put everything in, tried to bring it all together — but that he was an analyzer, and he was trying to take out every fucking thing he could. A reaction against Joyce and that high postmodernism.
KB: Absolutely. What I love about Beckett’s stuff, really, is that he plowed the same kind of stony ground for 50 years. And did him no harm. You can still bring new things all the time. In my own instance, I think the novels are going to be very different. The short stories are in lots of ways. I want to let the story dictate the style.
TM: The story is the master.
KB: Rather than the other way around. Don DeLillo once said that when he was writing, all that interested him was the sound. He said something like “I’ll happily change the subject of the sentence for the sake of how it sounds. And I will let the sound dictate the story.” I thought, Fucking heroic, man. And a story is a song, and it’s a tune. It’s a melody, and you follow it along.
TM: Dark Lies the Island is your new collection, your second. The stories are highly atmospheric. Whether you’re mixing despair and humor, delving into evil in disguise, or plying supernatural undercurrents, the particular psychology evoked just infuses the narrative.
KB: I think it’s the most intense prose form. There’s nothing like a fucking good story when you’re in its grip. I love the novel for its looseness, in the way that life is shapeless, but I just love that feeling when you’re in the hands of a really good storyteller and you find yourself sitting up a little straighter and turning down the radio and turning off the computer and chucking the kids out the window and just getting closer to the page. And you’re trapped, line by line. To make it that intense an experience for the reader is fucking difficult. I’m also really interested in the essay. It’s more front-of-the-brain.
TM: And you’re on the line. It’s you. You can’t blame it on a character.
KB: I think fiction is superior. You can’t lie in fiction. Your soul is there, pinned and wriggling on the page. You can lie much easier in nonfiction. Every single sentence in a short story is bearing weight, and for that reason most go wrong on me. Most end up on the floor. I write ten or twelve of the fuckers a year. One or two will get seen by anyone. I have a workroom at home in County Sligo that’s just littered with the corpses and near-corpses of half-dead zombie stories. It’s appalling shit. It’s fucking terrible. But I will always finish them, because I think that’s when you know you’re a pro: when you finish even the bad stuff. Just to get a finished object there.
TM: And to know.
KB: And to know. And I’ll do something else.
TM: Your stories read as deeply felt. Sometimes with the first-person stories, you think, That happened to him.
KB: I do think your best ones come out of your own experience. Everything is feed. Fiction happens in the subconscious, the back of the mind, that place, and I think your life experience has to sit back there for a while before it comes out. I think you have very little control as a writer, often. The decision to write fiction is a kind of a pact you make with your subconscious. You say, “Give me stuff. I’ll be there. I’ll be a pro. I’ll be at my fucking desk. I’ll be waiting for it.”
TM: “I’ll be the vessel.”
KB: Yeah. It’s sitting there. It took me a long time to get there. In my twenties I was writing music reviews, theater reviews, stuff like that, and it was doing fine, making the rent, having a good time out and about… Not getting happy. Knowing there was a part of my brain that I wasn’t using that I wanted to use. But it’s difficult when you’re writing sort of journalism stuff all day to find the time and space to write the fiction. I had to get poor. I bought a 12-foot caravan, a little trailer home, and I sat it on a beach in west Cork, and I spent a summer out there writing the next great Jewish-American novel. And it was a fucking monstrosity. But it taught me it has to be your main thing, the thing you do when you get up in the morning. The time especially for first drafts is when I’m barely awake.
TM: Fresh out of the dream state. John Gardner talked about the “vivid and continuous dream.” And a dream is a wild and fuzzy thing.
KB: Writing fiction and dreaming are very close. I won’t even have a cup of coffee when I get up. I’ll have a cup of weak tea. I don’t want to come up from it too quick. I want to stay in that kind of murky, blobby, kind of dream-shapey world and just— I don’t care about the sentences or the sense or anything. I just want to spew down words onto the page. And just slow accumulation. I’m working on a novel at the moment, and it’s very important to me to do something on it every day, even if it’s 20 minutes, to just try and make a daily connection with it. Because if you miss a day, it can suddenly completely start to go away. Writers have always sought ways to procrastinate. Editing and cutting is the enjoyable part.
TM: Bringing it out of the raw, like Michelangelo’s Captives.
KB: It’s the block of stone. Just cut away at it and see what you can get. There is a corollary to that. I think you can cut too much.
TM: The tendency toward the Carveresque, no pun intended. And a lot of that was Gordon Lish.
KB: Yeah. Or you can polish too much, hone too much, and take the original impulse and life force out of a piece.
TM: In your stories, and especially in your novel, place is always a primary force, a character, often sinister or supernatural.
KB: If I have a single, fundamental belief as a writer — and I suppose it’s quite an esoteric one — it’s that human feeling doesn’t just reside in humans but that it settles into our places, and I think very often fiction is about springing that feeling from places. [The recent New Yorker story] “Ox Mountain Death Song” comes from being out on my bike. I go out around the Sligo hills in the fucking drizzle and rain and wind. But it’s nice because your mind kind of unspews, you know?
TM: Woody Allen’s long, hot shower.
KB: For sure, and I was about three, four years going out cycling in the Ox Mountains, which by American standards aren’t mountains at all; they’re fucking hills, you know? But anytime I went, I got this kind of bleak, dark feeling into my bones. And eventually I said, “I’ll try a new method, a new tactic. I’ll go out and I’ll write the story on site.” I went out and I stayed in a cheap hotel in a little beach town in the shadow of the Ox Mountains and wrote a really rough draft in three days and kind of forgot about it for a few months. I’m often writing two stories at the same time, and one of them is kind of an attempt not to write the other one. There’s always a phantom story underneath. But there’s something John Cheever said in his beautiful introduction to his collected stories: stories remind you very much of the time in your life when you wrote them. Of the place, where you were. What I love about him is he’s deeply fucking weird, you know? Those are really strange, eerie, kind of crazy stories.
TM: He’s doing things that others just weren’t doing. You can say Shirley Jackson, a few others here and there, maybe. But, really, “The Swimmer”?
KB: Amazing story.
TM: Nobody was doing anything like that.
KB: Nobody was doing that stuff. I love to read stories that are coming out now and see what’s happening. But I do love to go back, to read the classic stuff. Someone like V.S. Pritchett, in the 20th century, was a hugely famous story writer. He was in The New Yorker five times a year. In Europe he was the most famous British man of letters. And he had one of those weird things where, after his death, in the late nineties, he just faded from view instantly. But you go back and read him and they’re nuts. And they’re all built on talk, on mad, deranged, demotic, provincial UK kind of talk. As much as you should always keep up with what’s happening and who’s pushing things out at the edge, don’t forget these guys. They put lifetimes’ worth of serious talent into developing the short story and bringing it to where it is. And it’s one of our greatest achievements as human beings, the short-story form. I think it’s really sublime when it’s good. I think what unifies the great story writers is that they stick with it throughout their careers. Sometimes you get the guy who comes out with a brilliant debut collection of stories and just goes on and writes novels. I really hate that shit. Keep writing stories. It’s not an apprentice form for the novel. It’s no accident that the very best writers of stories alive are the people who keep writing them all the way through their careers. Alice Munro, William Trevor, George Saunders.
TM: But we want your novels, too. That expansion. Like in City of Bohane, you’ve got small town, big tapestry. The Bohane River divides the city physically and metaphysically. On its way out to sea it seems to leach and drag the wickedness of the long dead out of the boglands of the countryside to poison the city with “the taint.” It feels directly connected to all the great Irish mythology, especially the Ulster Cycle, Cú Chulainn, the Táin Bó Cúailnge. Epic life and death sunk into the earth but fluid and moving.
KB: Those influences feed in subconsciously. Human feeling bleeding into the place. Limerick city is quite a troubled city, quite a violent place, lots of gang feuds. It’s known as Stab City. It’s always had lots of knife crime. Once, when I was a cub reporter in the late eighties, there was a great, since-passed-away local politician, a guy called Jim Kemmy, and I met him downtown one time. We were standing by the River Shannon, which is Ireland’s biggest, longest river, which enters the sea through Limerick, and there’d been some horrendous fucking gang feud in town with about five dead on either side. And I remember saying to him, “What’s wrong with us?” And he said, “I don’t know, but I think it’s coming in off the river.” And it stuck with me for years and years and years, and the first line of the novel is “Whatever’s wrong with us is coming in off that river.” The taint of place. I try to escape Ireland in the winter often, and I go to Spain, just for some bit of light and blue skies and get out from under the belly of cloud. And I’m a secret bird-watcher. A twitcher. So I went a couple of times, in southern Spain, in Andalucía, to a town called Ronda. There’s a very famous gorge a couple of thousand feet deep. And it’s famous for its choughs, which are crows with red beaks. Amazing fliers. They fly sheer up and down the face of it. So I went there and was looking, and this fucking dark, black, horrendous feeling coming over me, and I’m going, “What the fuck is it?” And getting out of town. Getting out of Ronda on the next bus. Went back couple years later, same thing, down around the gorge. Started doing some research about it and discovered that in the Spanish Civil War 300 prisoners had been made to jump to their deaths, at gunpoint, at the gorge in Ronda. And I’m certain that some of that feeling, that terror, that fucking primeval human horror, has settled into those stones, and I fucking picked some of it up. My brother is a fisherman, loves to fish for trout in Ireland. He talks about a particular lake that he found himself on once in County Clare. And same thing. “Amazing, beautiful summer night. I’m out fishing in my boat out on the lake. Suddenly, ‘Fuck, get outta here.’ Horrible feeling.” Doing some research after: horrible scenes in the Irish famine. Two hundred people starved to death on the shores of this lake.
TM: And you’ve got to have the antennae to pick it up.
KB: I think we all have the antennae at some level.
TM: Some are more sensitive.
KB: Sometimes you’ll shiver and say, “Get outta Dodge.”
TM: Bad mojo. Can you talk about the risks you took with Bohane? I’m curious if there have been any comparisons to Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, if only because of the idiomatic invention.
KB: A Clockwork Orange was a hugely important book to me as a teenager. If you go back to it, it’s very much about Britain in the sixties. It’s a projection on the moment when it’s written. It’s about mods and rockers and Brighton Beach. Burgess wrote it when he was living just outside Brighton, and he couldn’t describe that world directly, but he described it brilliantly by doing it at a future remove. In some sense I think City of Bohane is a projection on Irish cities as they are at the moment, when they have over the last 20 years changed unbelievably, for the first time become multicultural places. Lots of new weird, wonderful energies, lots of new dark, dangerous tensions.
TM: Bohane is like a west-of-Ireland western.
KB: It’s a complete western.
TM: It’s very cinematic, and that quite literally plays into the risky and experimental narratorial conceit, a magical first-person omniscient narrator who’s also a character. But not like Vonnegut’s intrusive god-author; it doesn’t come off like that.
KB: I wanted the reader to feel like they were in some awful, horrendous dive bar in a tremendously deranged Irish city in the middle of the 21st century and there’s some crazy old fucking whisky-drunk nut alongside them whispering this demented tall tale into their ears.
TM: And he knows what people are thinking. You believe him.
KB: Yeah, he’s kind of God out there. One of the technical questions was “How much do I show this guy?” I kept him very, very limited. He shows up once or twice. The I word comes in.
TM: It’s a mystery, but I wouldn’t say it’s soft-pedaled. The voice is so strong. But I haven’t noticed anyone else remarking on it. Then we see you win the IMPAC. Obviously, it’s resonating.
KB: That was very cool, winning a big prize.
TM: Can you talk about setting as character and parallel protagonist?
KB: In Bohane in particular, obviously the city is the main character. I guess what it comes out of is when you’ve lived in a city like Limerick or like Cork, you are aware that there is a world out there, outside the city limits, but really it’s just kind of a rumor. It really doesn’t matter. Where you are is the center of the fucking universe. And Bohane is all-encompassing. They refer to anything outside of Bohane as Big Nothin’. It’s that sense that this is the world and this is all that counts. I think that’s familiar to anybody who’s lived or grown up in small cities. They’re just about big enough to be anonymous in, but also they’ve got this kind of weblike, clammy sense of connection to everything. Coincidences can genuinely happen. When people and professors read Dickens now, they say, “Too many coincidences,” right?
TM: But London was a hell of a lot smaller.
KB: London was about 800,000. People would’ve bumped into each other all the time.
TM: So it’s not necessarily a deus ex machina or overwrought orchestration.
KB: I think he was absolutely on the money.
TM: Is Bohane a bit of a mashup of Limerick, where you’re from, and Sligo, where you live now?
KB: Equal parts Limerick, where I lived until I was 20, and Cork, where I moved to and lived until I was 30. The accent I would hear is quite a Cork singsong, quite a melodious accent. I physically see it as Limerick, which is a dark dock town. And there’s west-of-Ireland weather in there. And great, mad renditions of the English language.
TM: About that. Ireland has given us folks considered the greatest writers in, or innovators within, the English language. People think Joyce and Beckett, deathless giants. Yeats. Flann O’Brien. Seamus Heaney. The great Frank O’Connor. And it’s not a very big place. Is it a burden or a source of effulgent pride?
KB: [Laughs] I would never go to my desk in the morning and say, “I must settle down to do some Irish writing here.” One of my great problems with the whole edifice of Irish literature is that it was sometimes quite a hermetic world. The only influences on Irish literature were things that had happened in Irish literature. As if electric light and television and cinema and rock-and-roll and punk and electro and disco had never been invented. I honestly don’t think in nationalistic terms. If you’re positioned in any way in any tradition, it’s better to have good people behind you than fucking twats.
Here, in its entirety, is the “plot” of Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style: On a crowded Paris bus at around midday, the unnamed narrator observes a young man taking an older gentleman to task for deliberately pushing him and stepping on his feet. Then a vacant seat appears, and the young man rushes to occupy it, thus bringing the confrontation to an abrupt end. About an hour later, the narrator happens to pass the same young man as he is standing in front of the Gare St-Lazare, being informed by a friend that he ought to have another button sewn onto his coat.
That’s it. Literally nothing else happens in the book. And it’s not as though Queneau spins this dull succession of non-events into some kind of mock epic, or crams his narrative so full of detail and description that it metastasizes into the sort of exploded view of the insignificant that Nicholson Baker trafficked in with his early fiction. By the end of the first page, you have learned everything you are ever going to know about the events on which the book focuses. What Queneau does do, however, is re-narrate this same scenario a further 98 times, in a series of distinct styles. The book is like a sequence of false starts, as though its author were attempting to begin a novel with no sense of the tone or attitude he wants to strike, and so becomes trapped in a comic holding pattern of writing and rewriting. Each of the 99 sections is given a simple and utilitarian title — “Notation,” “Hesitation,” “Precision,” “Official Letter,” “Insistence,” “Comedy,” “Philosophic,” and so on. From this at once laughably and ingeniously simple premise results one of the great high-concept show-off acts of twentieth century fiction.
It’s laughable because this is, obviously, no sensible way to go about writing a book. It’s an amusing idea that you would imagine might be best left as merely that, as the kind of droll “how-about-this” notion that might be floated to other writers well into the home stretch of a night’s drinking. It’s good for a chuckle, certainly, but not something you would really want to sit down and actually knock out a book on. What’s ingenious, though, is how Queneau actually manages to transcend his own absurd restrictions by remaining punctiliously within them at all times. By being so staunchly committed to its shallowness, in other words, the book somehow contrives to seem kind of profound. (It’s very much one of those books, by the way, that steers you away from words like “novel” and “fiction” toward more generically non-committal terms like “composition” and “work” and — may God forgive me — “text”).
The only way to read Exercises in Style is to just gird your loins and do it in one sitting; otherwise, its pleasures and frustrations are in danger of getting spread too thin. It should be experienced, I think, as the overwhelming imposition on the reader’s good will and patience it was surely intended to be. It also has a powerfully cumulative effect that requires compression in time in order to be fully felt, and it benefits from a mounting sense of absurdity that would be lost if you were to just pick it up intermittently. (I’ve read it both ways, I should say, and I’m convinced the single-sitter is the only way to go. Its neatly partitioned structure and its utter lack of plot or character might suggest otherwise, but don’t be fooled. It can also comfortably be read in a couple of hours.) Much of the joy of reading it, which is also a kind of exasperation, is in wondering what he’s going to do next and whether he’s going to be able to pull it off.
To give a sense of what Queneau is up to here, it’s worth providing a few examples of the way he goes about it. This is how the section headed “Surprises” begins: “How tightly packed in we were on that bus platform! And how stupid and ridiculous that young man looked!” And this is from “Homeoteleuton”: “On a certain date, a corporate crate on which the electorate congregate when they migrate at a great rate, late, had to accommodate an ornate, tracheate celibate, who started to altercate with a proximate inmate, and ejaculate: ‘Oi, mate!’” The “Official Letter” section relates the entire incident as though it were the subject of a formal complaint to an office of some or other bureaucratic body: “I beg to advise you of the following facts of which I happened to be the equally impartial and horrified witness. Today, at roughly twelve noon, I was present on the platform of a bus…” One of my favorite exercises is entitled “Blurb.” It’s not just that it’s funny; it’s also one of the purest examples of metafictional effrontery I’ve ever come across. It’s good enough and brief enough to warrant quoting in full:
In this new novel, executed with his accustomed brio, the famous novelist X, to whom we are already indebted for so many masterpieces, has decided to confine himself to very clear-cut characters who act in an atmosphere which everybody, both adults and children, can understand. The plot revolves, then, round the meeting on a bus of the hero of this story and of a rather enigmatic character who picks a quarrel with the first person he meets. In the final episode we see this mysterious individual listening with the greatest attention to the advice of a friend, a past master of sartorial art. The whole makes a charming impression which the novelist X has etched with rare felicity.
Queneau’s stochastic method might put you in mind of one of those invariably lame improvisational comedy setups whereby a performer has to switch registers according to an audience’s shouted commands — delivering, say, a funeral eulogy first as infomercial sales patter, then as rap-battle braggadocio, then as bawdy Elizabethan comedy. And the book is, in an obvious sense, pure play, sheer diversion. Its effect is subtly paradoxical, like a less harrowing version of Chatroulette: you can be pretty sure what you’re going to get when you turn the page, but you have no idea in what form to expect it. A maximal level of monotony integrated, in other words, with a maximal level of variety. By turns frustrated and delighted with Queneau’s exploration of the limitless possibilities of limitation, I was reminded of a particularly memorable passage about the mathematics of tennis in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Schtitt, the quasi-mystic coach at Enfield Tennis Academy, is said to understand the sport as not a matter of reduction to pattern and order, but as one of “expansion, the aleatory flutter of uncontrolled, metastatic growth,” as a “diagnate infinity of infinities of choice and execution, mathematically uncontrolled but humanly contained, bounded by the talent and imagination of self and opponent.” Like tennis in Schtitt’s (and Wallace’s) understanding of it, Queneau’s literary game is all about the way in which an infinity of things can happen inside a finite and tightly delineated space.
The book feels as though it could have been published last year, despite the occasional archaisms of Barbara Wright’s 1958 English translation (which, given the presumably immense difficulties of translating such a self-conscious piece of writing, is itself a work of playfully restricted art). The barefaced cheek of its linguistic divertissements seems to anticipate the simultaneously nifty and irritating textual gimmickry of some of Jonathan Safran Foer’s work. There’s “Pig Latin” (“Unway ayday aboutyay iddaymay anyay essyay usbay Iyay oticednay ayay oungyay anmay…”), there’s “Spoonerisms” (“One May, about didday, on the bear fatborm of a plus…”), and there’s a whole sequence of “Permutations” by groups of words and letters of increasing numbers (don’t even ask). Exercises in Style was first published in French in 1947, and so it slightly predates the Nouveau Roman. It also precedes the formation of the Oulipo group — of which Queneau was a co-founder and which numbered Georges Perec and Italo Calvino among its members — even though, with its linguistic games and its creative restrictions, it is often seen as one of the movement’s exemplary works. The closest thing I can think of to an immediate predecessor is Chapter 14 of Ulysses, the “Oxen of the Sun Episode” set in the National Maternity Hospital, which is narrated in a progression of historically advancing styles, from the birth of language, through Old and Middle English, the language of the King James Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens, right through to early 20th Century Dublin slang. The effect is quite different, however, because Joyce’s stylistic ventriloquisms are in the service of the substantial theme of gestation and birth. Queneau’s substantial theme, on the other hand, is style itself.
Though it seems the slightest kind of literature imaginable, Exercises in Style in fact places a very heavy weight of significance on its seemingly inconsequential diversions. “On the surface,” as John Banville puts it in The Book of Evidence, “that is where there is depth.” Queneau’s book seems all surface; it appears, as it were, to be all stylistic mouth and no narrative trousers. But it makes, or implies, some radical claims about the relationship between form and content, not least that the former isn’t simply a vehicle for the latter, but rather the way in which it is constituted. It is not so much an exercise in the privileging of style over substance, in other words, as an argument for the consubstantiality of the two. Just as in Kantian epistemology there is no separating the act of perception from the thing perceived, what we see through Queneau’s linguistic kaleidoscope is that there is no isolating the thing expressed from the mode of expression. Or, to put it another way — which the book exhaustively establishes as something one can always do — the ediummay is the essagemay (if you’ll orgivefay the iticralcray ichéclay).