In November of last year I was invited to speak at a symposium on the work of Don DeLillo. I chose the title for my talk -- “Don DeLillo and the Sentence” -- without really thinking too much about it. It was only after I’d fired off this title to the conference organisers that it occurred to me to wonder why it had suggested itself so readily And I realised that for me -- and perhaps for a plurality of DeLillo’s readers--this is what DeLillo’s work chiefly means. For many of us, to read fiction of Don DeLillo is primarily to encounter a series of extraordinary sentences. At various points in my life I’ve taken apart DeLillo’s sentences, to see how they worked. I’ve tried to write sentences like them. I even went so far as to publish a short story, ten years ago, that amounted to a pastiche of the DeLillo manner. This story featured a glazed and helplessly ironic narrator recounting events in what I then took to be a coolly postmodern style. (The subject-matter of the story was not, I should say, especially DeLilloesque: it was about a group of college students on a sex-and-drugs holiday in Majorca.) That story now languishes in deserved obscurity. I mention it now because it illustrates something essential about my own relationship, as a reader, to DeLillo’s work. He is, for me, one of the reigning monarchs of the sentence. As I drafted my talk. I decided to perform an experiment: I wrote down as many Don DeLillo sentences as I could remember without looking them up. There were quite a few: Fame requires every kind of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the sombre renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings. – Great Jones Street Weapons have become godless since then. – Running Dog It is all falling indelibly into the past. – Underworld They got him for his speed. – End Zone Tides of ash-light broke across the spires. – Great Jones Street For a long time I stayed away from the Acropolis. It daunted me, that sombre rock. – The Names He mastered the teeming details of bird anatomy.” – Cosmopolis That I could remember these sentences wholesale isn’t just a testament to my superhuman powers of recall (though it is also that). I know, from speaking to other DeLillo readers about his work, that they, too, have their personal anthologies -- the DeLillo sentences that still loiter in the memory, long after the books have been closed. Looking at my own list of DeLillo sentences, I was struck by how few of them were gnomic epigrams. Epigrams, of course, are designed to be memorable: the epigrammatic writer, from La Rochefoucauld to Oscar Wilde, is the quotable writer, and DeLillo has always been a diligent epigrammatist. From The Names: “What ambiguity there is in exalted things. We despise them a little.” From Amazons, the novel DeLillo published in 1980 under the pseudonym Cleo Birdwell: “If a man’s name sounds right whether you say it forwards or backwards, it means he went to Yale.” There’s no knack to recalling epigrams; they are designed to be recalled. So, I remembered “Weapons have become godless since then” from Running Dog -- firmly in the epigrammatic mode -- but I also remembered an apparently trivial sentence from Cosmopolis: “He mastered the teeming details of bird anatomy.” The reason I remembered this sentence – the reason I find so many of DeLillo’s sentences memorable – is, I think, because it appeals to what T.S. Eliot called “the auditory imagination” in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933) : What I call the 'auditory imagination' is the feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling, invigorating every word; sinking to the most primitive and forgotten, returning to the origin and bringing something back, seeking the beginning and the end. It works through meanings, certainly, or not without meanings in the ordinary sense, and fuses the old and obliterated and the trite, the current, and the new and surprising, the most ancient and the most civilised mentality. “He mastered the teeming details of bird anatomy.” What’s memorable about this sentence is its deployment of assonance: the way the ee in details picks up the ee in teeming, seeming audibly to multiply those myriad details – the sentence is elongated by those long, rhyming ees; but this elongation is bracketed by two sharp As: mastered and anatomy. Aurally speaking, this sentence is choreographed to perfection; and visually, it is perfectly balanced: the act of mastery, and the crisp mention of the thing mastered, contained between them those unruly “teeming details,” so that the sentence itself enacts Eric Packer’s mastery – and enacts, also, his larger mastery, of the mysteries of global finance. You can do this sort of thing with any number of DeLillo sentences. Look at the opening lines of The Names: “For a long time I stayed away from the Acropolis. It daunted me, that sombre rock.” I could note the Proustian echo in that “For a long time”; I could note the heavy, ponderous assonance of “daunted,” “sombre,” and “rock” that aurally mimic the physical presence of the Acropolis. These sentences are memorable because they have been engineered with precision: they are elevated into the range of the epigrammatic because they are densely packed with extractable ore, and designed to awake a response in the auditory imagination by penetrating, as Eliot puts it, “far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling.” To read DeLillo at the level of the sentence – as I have done and continue to do – is to encounter a level of linguistic sophistication we rightly call poetic. Rereading Great Jones Street while I was writing this paper, I was struck afresh at how purely original DeLillo’s sentences are. Like Melville – like Bellow – like surprisingly few writers, even those generally accounted “great” – DeLillo has fashioned a prose idiolect of quite striking sophistication and range. His sentences are works of art in themselves; they reward close study; they give enormous aesthetic pleasure. I am not, of course, the first person to observe that Don DeLillo writes great sentences. Even James Wood, in his sceptical review of Underworld (published in The New Republic in 1997) describes DeLillo’s prose as “richly exact.” And Wood, in fact, is sceptical of DeLillo’s work, in part, precisely because of what he sees as its focus on smaller units of fictional composition – the sentence, the setpiece, the purple patch. For Wood, Underworld – and DeLillo’s work in general – amounts to “a collection of lavish fragments, set down in a maze.” And Wood, I think, awakens us to a curious risk inherent in admiring DeLillo chiefly for his sentences. In a fascinating essay, “Half-Against Flaubert,” originally published in The New Republic in 1999, Wood presents a case against the kind of sentence-fetishism inaugurated, as Wood sees it, by Flaubert. Prose that lavishes attention on each of its sentences enforces, for Wood, “the tyranny of the detail,” and gives rise to a prose “broken into units of hard sensation, and merely swiping at life.” And I think there is an aesthetic risk that comes with valuing a writer chiefly for his sentences – the way I value Don DeLillo. Works of literature are, of course, made up of sentences – there isn’t anything else – but there are other units of composition, from the paragraph to the chapter to the form of the novel itself; and the valuing of sentences tout court can, I think, very easily confine us within a rather claustrophobic, New-Criticism-type box – can leave us blind to other spheres of aesthetic and ethical experience. In other words, there are risks as well as pleasures, in responding to an author in this way (as merely a purveyor of marvellous sentences). This is precisely the theme of a short story by Jonathan Lethem, first published in The New Yorker in December 2007. In “The King of Sentences,” the narrator and his girlfriend, Clea, are aspiring writers who work in bookstores (as the narrator puts it: “We worked in bookstores, the only thing to do.”) Clea and the narrator are sentence-fetishists in embryo: This was the time when all we could talk about was sentences, sentences—nothing else stirred us…Punctuation! We knew it was holy. Every sentence we cherished was sturdy and Biblical in its form, carved somehow by hand-dragged implement or slapped onto sheets by an inky key. For sentences were sculptural, were we the only ones who understood? They central joke of the story is that Clea and the narrator persist in understanding sentences in terms that go beyond the aesthetic – to the political, the ethical, and even the sexual: A good brave sentence (“I can hardly bear your heel at my nape without roaring”) might jolly Clea to instant climax. We’d rise from the bed giggling, clutching for glasses of cold water that sat in pools of their own sweat on bedside tables. The sentences had liberated our higher orgasms, nothing to sneeze at. Similarly, we were also sure that sentences of the right quality could end this hideous endless war, if only certain standards were adopted at the higher levels. They never would be. All the media trumpeted the Administration’s lousy grammar. There are a lot of sly things going on in this passage – I pause to note the hidden joke about Roland Barthes’s concept of jouissance (reduced, here, to its most absurd essence: a sentence that literally makes you come). We might also note that this story about sentence-fetishism is itself composed of sentences that are frequently bathetic, or anticlimactic – a nice irony. “The sentences had liberated our higher orgasms, nothing to sneeze at” – this sentence, fairly typically, scales rhetorical heights before collapsing into cliché. The central joke, of course, is the idea that scrupulous attention to sentences can carry profound political and ethical consequences – a fine parody of one of the unspoken ideas animating the work of I.A. Richards and the New Critics, but also, of course, a joke about idealistic young aspiring writers, who value literature – and literary sentences – so intensely that they are gripped with missionary zeal. At this level, “The King of Sentences” is a satire on the blindness of a certain way of reading – a way of reading that is passionate, incoherent, fetishistic, and focused almost exclusively on the sentence. And I recognise this as one of my own ways of reading – more specifically, I recognise it as one of the ways in which I read Don DeLillo. Idealistic young writers are, of course, prone to the exaltation of their chosen writers above all others, and this is very much the case with Clea and her boyfriend. They worship one writer and one writer only: the man known as the King of Sentences. Others might hail kings of beer or burgers—we bowed to the King of Sentences. There was just one...The King of Sentences gave no interviews, taught nowhere, condescended to appear at no panels or symposia. His tastes, hobbies, and heartbreaks were unknown, and we extrapolated them from his books at our peril. His digital footprint was pale: people like that didn’t care about people like him…In the same loft where we entangled, Clea and I drove ourselves mad reading the King of Sentences’ books aloud, by candlelight, when we ought to have been sleeping. We’d tear the book from each other’s hands for the pleasure of running his words like gerbils in the habitrails of our own mouths. There are a couple of obvious models for the figure of the King of Sentences. He might be Pynchon. He might be Salinger. But I don’t think so. There are a few clues that lead me to believe that, a few biographical and bibliographical details aside, the King of Sentences is Don DeLillo. We know, of course, that Lethem admires DeLillo – that as a younger writer, he learned to write in part by imitating DeLillo’s sentences. Lethem’s third novel, As She Climbed Across the Table (1997), is, in fact, a carefully-wrought DeLillo pastiche. And from what we learn about the King of Sentences, he bears a striking resemblance to DeLillo – particularly to the elusive, publicity-shy figure DeLillo cut in the decades before Underworld was published. Here are some clues. Clea and the narrator discuss the various editions of the King’s books that they have collected: We owned his titles in immaculate firsts and tattered reading copies and odd variant editions. It thrilled us to see the pedestrian jacket copy and salacious cover art on his early mass-market paperbacks: to think that he’d once been considered fodder for dime-store carrousels! There are indeed some early mass-market paperbacks of DeLillo’s books (Running Dog, End Zone, even Ratner’s Star) that display “salacious cover art” – the mass-market paperback edition of Amazons, from 1981, shows a woman naked from the waist down, attired (left foot) in a hockey boot and (right foot) a slingback shoe. Lethem, an avowed collector of mass-market paperbacks, would know these editions well. There is also Clea’s name, which may or may not allude to the pseudonym DeLillo chose when he wrote Amazons – Cleo Birdwell. Of course, whether or not the King of Sentences is DeLillo is only tangentially important. DeLillo’s presence hovers behind Lethem’s text because, I think, DeLillo is so famously and distinctively a writer who appeals to sentence-lovers, with all their blindnesses, hubristic ideals, and narrow-minded cerebrations. What’s centrally important is Lethem’s sophisticated assault on the pieties and pretensions of his sentence-fetishist protagonists. At length, overwhelmed by their obsession, the narrator and Clea track the King of Sentences down to Hastings-on-Hudson, a small town in Westchester in Upstate New York (which is, according to a profile published in the Daily Telegraph in 2003, more or less where the real Don DeLillo keeps a home). They stake out the King’s Post Office box – and, just as expected, the King himself arrives. Their conversation, naturally, is disappointing: “Let me be clear. I have nothing for you.” “Take us home.” “Not on your life.” “We came all this way.” He shrugged. “When’s the next train back?” The sentences that emerged from his mouth were flayed, generic, like lines from black-and-white movies. I tried not to be disappointed in this stylistic turn. He had something to teach us, always. Nonetheless, the King does deliver the occasional extremely DeLillo-like line of dialogue (“I eat only what my housekeeper prepares. A disproportion of sodium could murder me at this point.”) Eventually, the narrator and Clea follow the King of Sentences back to a room in the local hotel, where, in a budget room, he asks them to strip: We stripped, racing to be the first bared to his view. I’d lose the race either way, for Clea had rigged the game: she had written a sentence on her stomach in blue marker. The sorcerer lately couldn’t recall whether he was a capable sleeper or an insomniac. Brilliant, I thought bitterly. The King stared. I saw Clea’s pubic hair through the eyes of the King. Clea’s bush was full and crazy. I thought, I will never see it again without seeing the pubic hair at which the King of Sentences once glanced. The King said, “Insomniac, I believe.” Once the two are naked, the King of Sentences shreds their clothes, in “a weary frenzy of destruction,” and walks out the door. As he leaves, he says: “That’s all, you ask? Yes, that’s all. That’s more than enough.” And in the story’s final sentences, the narrator remarks that now he understands “just what it takes to be King. How much, in the end, it actually costs.” This is, I think, a brilliantly dark and amusing fable about the risks inherent in making grandiose aesthetic, ethical, and political claims about what are, after all, only sentences. (It is also, I think, a riff on Henry James’s famous line, from “The Middle Years”: “We work in the dark, we give what we have…The rest is the madness of art.”) Significantly, we never get to read a single sentence written by the King of Sentences; we meet him only as a bland avatar of white American masculinity – with an accompanying sexual rapacity, or interest in crude sexual power, that we might see as typical of a certain generation of white male American novelists (though not, I should think, of Don DeLillo). Lethem’s interest is in exposing his young literary idealists to the enigmatic textures of the real – the real, in this case, being that which goes beyond mere sentences, into realms of ethical experience that they have only begun to explore. For me, “The King of Sentences” is a warning about a certain narrowly passionate way of reading. No matter how marvellous the sentences, Lethem reminds us, we should be careful to see beyond them. We should look at what a sentence points towards, as well as at what it does. It is, I think, the kind of lesson that DeLillo’s work itself repeatedly teaches – or would teach us, once we begin to look beyond those carefully engineered, verbally rich, instantly unforgettable sentences.
Derek B. Miller caught the eye of readers of The Millions with his 2013 debut novel, Norwegian by Night, lauded by Richard Russo in his Year in Reading and staying atop our Top Ten for months. The novel featured an octogenarian ex-Marine, Sheldon Horowitz, who has lost his son in Vietnam and who tries to save another boy from his father, an Albanian war criminal. Set in Norway, the novel also introduced the wily cop Sigrid Ødergård; Miller followed it with The Girl in Green, in which two men involved in the Gulf War get a chance at redemption decades later. Now Miller is publishing American by Day, which sends Sigrid Ødergård from Norway to upstate New York to find her brother, who has disappeared after being named the prime suspect in his girlfriend’s mysterious death. Miller spoke with The Millions, via Skype, from his home in Oslo. The Millions: You have a background in International Studies, I think. Derek B. Miller: The short version is that I got a master’s degree from Georgetown in National Security, in conjunction with Oxford, where I finished my degree. I knew I wanted to do a doctorate, so I stayed in Europe, futzed around for a while working for a newspaper, and then I moved to Geneva, Switzerland, where I got a second master’s and a Ph.D. from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies. TM: What did you do after earning your degrees? DBM: I spent about a decade in the United Nations Institute of Disarmament Research. Basically I was looking at countries recovering from war—jump-starting the economy, trying to collect weapons after a war, establishing a transitional justice system. So I worked on that for a long time, trying to push the elephant of the United Nations in a direction that I thought was both more pragmatic and ethical. TM: That wasn’t exactly the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was it? DBM: No [Laughs]. TM: So how did you become a novelist? DBM: Well, I think the idea of creative writing was planted in my head back at Sarah Lawrence, which at the time, 1988 to '92, had the only undergraduate creative writing program in the country. I didn’t actually do creative writing there, but I think it demystified the notion that writing is something only geniuses or crazy people do. When I tried to write, my first manuscript took me three years. It wasn’t very good, but some of the tone, my approach to characterization, my approach to the relationship between tragedy and comedy—I can look back on my efforts from my mid-20s, and it’s clearly my writing. I found that short stories weren’t for me. So I just kept writing. TM: So all these years you’re traveling around working for the U.N.—and you’re writing fiction on the side, as an apprentice? DBM: I was writing. I have a good education for finding patterns in data and building theory, and I think I approached writing from both a creative perspective and an analytical one. I asked fundamental questions I felt I needed to ask in order to write better, such as: What is a story? What differentiates a story from a mere sequence of events? What is the nature of dramatic tension, and where does it come from? How do you deal with large gaps of time? Lots of architecture and craft issues. So I asked these questions, I interrogated the material I was reading to see how different authors achieved that. I wasn’t trying to copy them, I was trying to learn. And it took me a long time to figure it out. TM: Norwegian by Night, your first novel, resonated with readers of The Millions—and a lot of other readers. Do you remember, was there a day you started writing that book, or did it sort of morph into shape over the years? DBM: What happened was, I had written a manuscript prior to that, and it didn’t work. There were two reasons why. The architecture of the story was all over the place, and my protagonist was too milquetoast. He just wasn’t interesting enough. Sheldon Horowitz was a minor character in that failed effort, and what I found was that my secondary characters were great. They were relieved of the burden of having to be the protagonist, and that let them be far more decisive and funny and wild and everything else. So when it came time to try again, I decided to move Sheldon Horowitz forward. The reason was because I was very close to my grandfathers and they were dying at that time, and my son Julian was born in 2008, which was when I wrote Norwegian by Night. The ending of the book came to me while I was at the hospital waiting for Julian to be born—it was by C-section, so it was scheduled. I was sitting there and I probably should have been thinking about my wife, Camilla, but the fact of the matter is that I was thinking about the ending of the book. And once I realized how the pieces fit together, I wrote that book in about a year. TM: Your protagonist, Sheldon Horowitz, an 82-year-old Marine veteran who lost is son in Vietnam, feels guilt but has a second chance to redeem himself. Guilt seems to be a big engine in your fiction. Is that a fair thing to say? DBM: Guilt is a funny word. It comes about from making decisions that in retrospect you feel were fundamentally wrong—getting drunk and running over a kid, pretty straightforward. Sheldon’s guilt over his son is far more complex than that—it’s tied up with patriotism, his Jewish identity, things that are too complex to pin on a bad decision. They’re the consequences of a long life lived. I think loss is a stronger word. TM: Let’s bring it up to your new book, American by Day. Marcus Ødegård, the brother of the protagonist Sigrid, an Oslo cop—he’s off in America and he’s feeling guilt or loss or regret over his mother’s death from cancer years ago. And now his lover in America dies under mysterious circumstances—I don’t want to give too much away—but again I’m thinking about Sheldon Horowitz. Here’s something that happened years ago that a person’s carrying around like a stone in his stomach—and trying to figure out how to come to terms with it. I guess you could call that loss. DBM: I think in Marcus’s case he feels he should have spoken up and he didn’t—and that led to his mother’s death. With Marcus I was thinking specifically of a scene from a Saul Bellow book called Seize the Day. A middle-aged guy is having a breakdown, saying, “Are you telling me that I’m not who I think I am? That I’ve lived my life under an illusion of who I thought I was?” If you wake up and you’re 50 years old and you find out you’ve been living under a delusion since childhood and clearly you’re never going to recover the life you might have led, if only—that was a very interesting and powerful theme that I wanted to explore as a way of looking at the way tragedy and crime can go together. I wanted the story of Marcus and his American girlfriend, Lydia, to be about the result of these rich but incredibly different lives, that the collision of those lives created this moment of possibility that ended very, very badly. That felt like an interesting way to create a story—not so much a crime, but to create a story that on the surface looks like a straightforward mystery, but the ultimate mystery is the way these two lives collided to create a tragedy. TM: You’re living in Oslo now? DBM: Right. TM: How did you wind up there? DBM: I met a Norwegian girl and she outsmarted me. TM: Aha. Where did you two meet? DBM: Geneva. We were both working in the same think tank on weapons. Basically it was an office romance. [millions_ad] TM: The Scandinavian literary tradition is of course gigantic—from Ibsen to Knut Hamsun to Astrid Lindgren up to Jo Nesbø. As an American writer in Norway, is that a cloud over your head? Something you don’t think about? An inspiration? I’m curious what it’s like writing in a place that’s very different from where you grew up in New England. DBM: I’ve been living abroad for 22 years now. The fact is, I still haven’t read Jo Nesbø and he’s not on my short list. That kind of crime novel—where something horrific happens and somebody’s investigating and everybody’s miserable—it just bores me. I see myself as an American writer, and what I mean by that is that I’m writing into the American literary tradition and drawing quite heavily from it. Though I’m happy to be included in a global conversation on literature as well, that’s the footing from which I have that conversation. When Don DeLillo published Underworld, it was came out in France. At the beginning of the book, it said, “translated from the American.” Right? And DeLillo said in an interview that he actually quite liked that because while he and everyone else knows that American is not a language, it was nice to emphasize the vernacular. It’s kind of a compliment, if you choose to see it that way. TM: You’re not reading Jo Nesbø. So what are you reading? DBM: What’s on my desk is Richard Russo’s debut, Mohawk. After that I want to read Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, who I have not read before but I read the first chapter and loved it. I just finished The Marriage Plot from Jeffrey Eugenides, which I quite liked. I just finished The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish, which I thought was exquisite. I do not write reviews, but I did write to her and tell her I think she’s absolutely wonderful. I haven’t checked in with Nick Hornby in a while. Then there’s Andy Weir’s new book, Artemis—he wrote The Martian, which became the movie with Matt Damon. TM: I guess that leads to the inevitable question: What are you working on now? DBM: I’ve written two things. I’ve written a draft—I don’t know if I should call it science fiction, maybe speculative fiction—of a post-post-post-post-apocalyptic story set a couple hundred years in the future. It’s called Radio Life, and I’m going back to revisions of it. I haven’t shared it with anybody but my agent. And I’m writing a contemporary inter-family drama set on the coast of New England called A Simple Arrangement. I’m hoping to have both of them done, in draft form anyway, by the end of the year. TM: Are you a full-time writer now? DBM: I would say yes. I feel the novelists around me are extraordinarily good, and while you’re always competing against yourself to be the best writer you can be, you’re also competing against the market in order to survive, and I can’t write this stuff on my knee on the way to class anymore. Which isn’t to say you try to anticipate the market, because that’s almost pointless. TM: But you are trying to make a living. DBM: Yeah, I have a wife and two kids and this is what I’m doing. So if I can’t pull it off, we don’t eat. It has gone extraordinarily well. I’m not a bestseller so I don’t have bestseller money, but I’m writing full time now and have been for about two years. TM: Is it a good life? DBM: It’s wonderful. It’s like walking a high wire without a net, but it’s a second career and it’s a chance to turn a corner. I feel I can really appreciate it at this point in my life because it’s the first job I’ve ever had where it’s just absolute blue sky, where instead of being penalized for being creative, I’m encouraged to do it. It’s an amazing space to be in. This interview was produced in partnership with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
During this hoops-rich period, the frenetic Madness of March having transitioned into the more austere months-long slog of the NBA Playoffs, I found myself fruitlessly poking around for a good basketball novel. I’m both a writer and great fan of the game -- my podcast, Fan's Notes, pairs the discussion of a novel with a discussion of basketball, usually the NBA. My podcasting partner and I tend to find no shortage of cultural and metaphorical linkage between the two art forms, yet modern literary fiction seems to harbor no special love for this great game. Football has A Fan’s Notes, End Zone, The Throwback Special, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Baseball has The Natural, Shoeless Joe, Underworld, and more recently The Art of Fielding. For Christ’s sake, hockey yet has another Don DeLillo tome, the pseudonymously written Amazons. Where, I find myself wondering, is the great basketball novel? First of all, no, The Basketball Diaries is not a basketball novel. It is a memoir, and it is about heroin -- it features precious little actual basketball. John Updike's Rabbit and Richard Ford's Bascombe books both involve hoops to varying degrees, but not as a central concern or dramatic focus. Under the Frog, by Tibor Fischer, is a very good book about basketball players, but it concerns 1950s Hungary, the titular frog being the regime of Marshal Tito. What else is there? Walter Dean Myers wrote several young adult books that revolved around basketball; there’s also Sherman Alexie’s YA novel Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian and The Crossover by Kwame Alexander and the Blacktop series by my friend L. J. Alonge -- interestingly, most books about basketball that come to mind seem to be YA written by men of color, while Big Sports Lit is very, very white. There is not, as far as I can tell, a big work of literary fiction for adults that is “about” basketball, in the same sense that Chad Harbach’s Art of Fielding is “about” baseball. Perhaps this has to do with the particular character of these sports. Baseball, with its mano-a-mano pitcher-hitter duels, is perfectly congenial to narrative -- is itself comprised of a series of mini-narratives involving protagonists and antagonists (one way or the other depending on your rooting interests). There is really no moment of solo heroism in any other major sport comparable to the walk-off home run (or strike out) to end a game; there is likewise no greater sporting scapegoat than Bill Buckner and his ilk. In less dramatic terms, a baseball game is comprised of hundreds of discrete individual plays: someone throws a ball, someone hits it, someone fields and throws it, and it is caught again by the first baseman for an out. This is how traditional narrative is structured, a series of explicable interactions between a cast of characters that mount in importance and conflict until a crucial, deciding act that resolves the plot. Even the structure of baseball’s gameplay is writerly, with its nine innings constituting nine tidy chapters inside the larger dramatic arc. Football, too, though tritely metaphorized as violent, armed combat -- marching up the field, a war of attrition, a massacre, etc. --is constituted by many clean moments of contest, various plot points interspersed between the interminable commercial breaks. American football is American in character, pairing a love of mayhem with an equal love of bureaucratic fussiness. The game’s horrifying ultraviolence is committed within the parameters of a rulebook thicker than a Cheesecake Factory menu, meted out in orderly skirmishes, and broken up by five minute replays to determine the spotting of the ball within a nanometer or two. We want war, but we want a safe war, a manageable war in which the actors stay within their prescribed roles -- in which no one, in effect, goes rogue (few things are more pleasurably disconcerting than a broken play and the ensuing spectacle of a four-hundred-pound lineman hurtling toward the end zone). Again, this is very compatible with traditional storytelling, placing maximum visceral conflict and chaos within neat scene and a hyperrationalized narrative structure. In contrast, the narrative possibilities of basketball seem somehow European in character, closer to futból than football (or as a British student of mine liked to call it, handegg). Inbounds are approximate, as are jump balls. Except in certain key situations, there are no replays and refereeing occurs on the fly. Mistakes are routinely made, lamented, forgotten. Superstar players -- the protagonists of the game, so to speak -- are coveted, but the play itself is supremely team-oriented. Unlike baseball and football, in which individual statistics are iron-clad and fetishized, basketball stats are the subject of endless arguments regarding context. It is curiously difficult to disentangle the individual moments that contribute to an orange ball falling into a hole. Yes, someone shoots it, and yes, often someone assists on the shot, but a hundred other smaller actions, essentially unquantifiable -- screens, shooting gravity, secondary assists, etc. -- go into it as well. And even the countable stats are the subject of debate. Scoring twenty-eight points in a game sounds good until you look at how they were scored, with what efficiency, and giving up how much on the defensive end. Quants -- that is, stat nerds -- regularly put forth the case that a player like Andrew Bogut, a low-scoring defensive bruiser who sets vicious picks, is as valuable than a shooting threat like Isaiah Thomas. There is no comparable ambivalence in the record books of, say, baseball: a homerun is a homerun is a homerun. All of which is to say that there is, inherent to basketball’s play, an indeterminacy that may not lend itself to conventional narrative. Moby-Dick versus Heart of Darkness, to throw a strange but perhaps productive analogy at the fridge (and thereby further mix metaphors), are like baseball versus basketball. One is about a majestic, doomed assertion of individual will; one is about ambiguous forces clashing in a mist of doubt and dread. Occasionally a basketball player comes along who is great enough to totally clarify the terms of the game: LeBron James, for example. But these players are surpassingly rare, generational. If the orderliness of baseball and football lends itself generally to narrative, it lends itself specifically to retrospective narrative. In much the same way that we often imagine our lives as a series of cruxes (and model that imagining in our fictions), a football game can be broken down into a series of botched or successful plays, good or bad calls. These sports are almost built to be post-mortemed, in their perfect state only when finished. It seems consonant, then, that big literary sports novels are typically about a character looking back at former greatness and lost innocence -- either personally or culturally, or both. And this type of literary sentimentality, in turn, pervades the cultures of football and baseball, which are forever backward-looking, enshrining and nostalgiazing moments, sometimes as they still happen. Memorable plays are almost immediately assigned names as historically pungent as World War II battles: “The Immaculate Reception,” “The Shot Heard Round the World,” “The Catch.” Even the bungled plays have immortal names: “The Fail Mary,” “The Butt Fumble.” There aren’t really similarly fetishized moments in basketball. Its fluid and complex play does not invite the same kind of nostalgic retrospection, and indeed, it is unsentimental about its history to a degree that routinely enrages former greats. Basketball could never serve as a good metaphor for America’s glorious past, or even its fallen present (football still serves admirably here: see Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk) but it might be just the sport for a more skeptical and circumspect twenty-first century, an era when we need a literature of certainty less than ever.
Before the summer onslaught of comic book movies featuring X-Men, Avengers and Justice Leaguers, let us pay homage to a cadre of merely human, though still valiant, book critics who have attained something like superhero status themselves. Though they adopted radically different methods, and were bickering among themselves more often than not -- and one of them is currently incarcerated -- so strong was their shared devotion to the sacred duty of criticism that future generations will surely say of them: Such once were Criticks, such the Happy Few Athens and Rome in better Ages knew. Rex Hume: The Highbrow Hound Rex Hume, the famed allusion-hunting critic known as “The Highbrow Hound,” “The Tweedy Truffler,” and “Causabon 2.0” has been universally praised for his “near-sensuous pedantry.” Whereas some of our more conscientious critics take it upon themselves to read the whole of an author’s oeuvre before reviewing his or her latest, Hume, lest he miss one literary reference, thematic reworking, or subtle resonance, re-reads the whole of the Western Canon. Famously averse to new works, the reactionary Hume cultivates an irascible persona. Nearly every publicist has received one of his dreaded form replies to notices touting a debut effort: “If it were that good, wouldn’t I have seen it alluded to elsewhere?” Hume’s allusive obsession stems from an adolescent trauma. One spring, that season when a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love, he asked a young lady, handsome, clever, and rich, to the prom. She curtly referred him to “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The prancing, yellow-stockinged swain hurried home, hoping to find in the story an invitation to come live with her and be her love. When instead, he read those devastatingly demurring words, his eyes burned with anguish and anger. He awoke the next morn a sadder and a wiser man and vowed to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield in his quest to shore each and every fragment against his ruined ego. The path was not easy. Medical setbacks dogged the bookish lad from his college years, when Hume’s brain literally exploded -- or so his detractors quipped -- after Planet Joyce first swam into his ken. (Though his doctors maintained that it was nothing more than an “Oxen of the Sun”-induced aneurism.) Hume’s mania has also landed him in legal trouble. He was sued after putting George Plimpton in a chokehold, convinced that one of the dilettante’s witticisms was cribbed from a Martial epigram. Hume wouldn’t release him until two Commentary editors and William Styron assured him that the bon mot was most definitely a Plimpton original. Hume’s dogged sleuthing lent his reviews, essentially scorecards of real or imagined literary references, a bizarre quality. One cannot, though, argue with the lapidary precision of his assessment of Bonfire of the Vanities: “Dickens (42), Trollope (28), Fitzgerald (11), Dostoyevsky (8.33), Baudelaire (p), Dumas (1)…” After readers began to demand more expansive considerations, Hume’s editor steered him away from covering allusion-rich literary novels and towards romance fiction. However, these peppery tales only stimulated the Hound’s nose, detecting as he did the soupçon of a Rabelais, a pinch of Rochester, a tang of Sade, a dash of Nin, or the perverse wafting of Jonathan Edwards in each concoction. And so Hume was finally assigned to his current post, covering children’s picture books. He has yet to produce a review, as he immediately enrolled in the Columbia Art History graduate program. But colleagues report, whether with dismay or eagerness is unclear, that he has been holed up for weeks with Ernst Gombrich’s The Story of Art, a Biblical concordance, and Go Dog Go. Sydney Duff: A King on His Throne Blessed with incredible stamina and a prodigiously broad backside, Sydney Duff has never reviewed a book he couldn’t read in one sitting. He burst onto the scene with his review of The Corrections -- “I read it in one sitting” -- which he finished while riding the A train end-to-end throughout the night. Another one of his famous pieces came during a 100-mile charity bike ride through the Hudson Valley -- White Teeth perched on the handlebars -- in support of deep vein thrombosis research. “I read it in one sitting,” he raved, “and raised money for a great cause!” And who could forget the scathing review of Don DeLillo’s Underworld: “I read it in one sitting, though at times I was tempted to put it down and stretch my legs.” The young Duff could be brash and insensitive, universally reviled for once accusing a wheelchair-bound colleague of impinging on his brand. In another notorious incident, he was so enraged at the mere sight of his assistant’s standing desk that he threw it out the fifth-story office window. Such anecdotes reveal the latent dynamism of the sedentary creature. Then there was Duff’s daredevil affair with Rex Hume’s wife. Having cracked open a novel shortly after their adulterous afternoon assignation, he refused to leave his lover’s bedroom until he had finished it. Hume, who had been out hunting truffles, eventually returned home, but luckily headed straight to his study to reacquaint himself with Flaubert. When Duff snuck out that night, the Highbrow Hound was none the wiser. Duff mellowed with age, perhaps drained by his near-continual feats of biblio-endurance. The ravages of time lent an introspective air to his work as Duff grappled with his own mortality. Consider the terse pathos of his reassessment of Proust: “Though the bed sores almost derailed me, I read it in one go. For a long time it was painful.” Those curious about what the photo-shy Duff looks like need only visit the Tate Modern, which houses the portrait Lucian Freud painted of the corpulent critic, toilet-bound and reading a copy of The Portrait of a Lady. As Duff put it in a rare cross-disciplinary review that demonstrated the full range of his aesthetic judgement: “Both the novel and the portrait were completed in one session.” Duff retired some years ago to fully devote himself to activism. He is not fond of marches or picket lines -- or progressive causes truth be told -- but whenever a group of young idealists gathers at a statehouse or university president’s office, they can count on the old lounger, book in hand, for support at their sit-ins. Aristophocles: Two-Faces, One Name Some swear that the one-named critic Aristophocles is the merriest man alive. Indeed, many a witness could testify -- and many a review confirm -- that the one-named critic never sat in a café, enjoyed a sunny day in the park, or infuriated fellow passengers in the Amtrak quiet car, without his distinctive cackle echoing round. And yet similarly upstanding citizens aver that at the same cafés, on the same country greens and in the same quiet cars, could be heard the guttural sobs of a profoundly moved reader. So which is it? Does Aristophocles, who emotes so fulsomely in public spaces, wear a tragic or a comic mask? Identify with l’allegro or il penseroso? Simple questions for a complex man, torn between vain deluding joys and loathed melancholy. The hint of a pun produces peals of mirth, and the mere premonition of loss cues the waterworks. He is a creature supremely attuned to the jollity and sorrow of literature, and didn’t hesitate to show it. As he put it once in his full-throated defense of affective criticism, “I Laughed, I Cried, Then Criticized: “If one emotes in the forest, and no one hears it…[sobs]…Excuse me, the mere thought of a lone emoter emoting on his own brought tears to my eyes. How silly of me. [giggles]” He never chortled but guffawed, never teared up but wept, for such beings as he were made for more intense feelings, and there were so many feelings. (It must be noted that some cynics doubted his overzealousness, claiming that he never left home without an onion in one pocket and a nitrous oxide canister in the other.) Aristophocles does not do well at poetry readings; unsure whether to laugh or cry, he merely ejaculates strangled whimpers from time to time. He likes his genres well-defined. Family and friends, seeing him swing so violently between giddiness and agony, had him institutionalized when he attempted to review a tragicomedy. Fortunately, he was released shortly thereafter, greeting his fans with tears of joy. His performative antics have rubbed more than one colleague the wrong way, Sydney Duff among them. In one encounter, Aristophanes and Duff squared off in a hotel lobby at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Duff, so the story goes, had been in the lobby for hours with a copy of The Wallcreeper, but was having trouble finishing the last chapter because Aristophocles, reading the same novel, had taken the seat across from him. “I read the novel in one sitting, despite the tittering simpleton impeding my best efforts,” read Duff’s subsequent piece. As for Aristophocles’s competing review: “I laughed so much reading this rollicking debut that Sydney Duff almost got off his ass for once in his career.” Quentin Dent, Proud Blockhead: To have one’s book reviewed by Quentin Dent is, as any author will attest, a gratis psychotherapy session, an X-ray of one’s creative soul. Other critics might describe, explain, and contextualize the work, tease out patterns of imagery, grapple with its philosophical claims, or delve into the author’s biography. Worthy endeavors all, but how much cleaner (naysayers would say lazier) was Dent’s method: let the text speak for itself. Having taken his mentor Cleanth Brooks’s coinage “the heresy of paraphrase” rather literally, he steadfastly refused to paraphrase, or analyze, or do much of anything really. Dent’s reviews even dispensed with the author name and book title. He filled his column instead with three well-chosen block quotations, which were typically introduced with “To wit,” “Consider,” or, “Regard.” At the end of each passage would follow a closing statement, perhaps “Indeed,” “Hmm,” or, were he in a gushing mood, “Quod erat demonstrandum.” A sample essay, on Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park: Take: Maria’s notion on the subject were more confused and indistinct. She did not want to see or understand Quite. Ergo: “How kind! How very kind! Oh! Mr. Crawford, we are infinitely obliged to you. Dearest, dearest William!” she jumped up and moved in haste towards the door, crying out, “I will go to my uncle…” Und so weiter. To conclude: "It was a silver knife." Sharp. A cult of fervent believers, the Blockheads, extolled Dent’s mystical abilities to see into the heart of things. They would pore over Dent’s passage selections like ancient priests sifting through entrails. Why these three? Were they merely chosen to hit the requisite word count -- or could some deeper insight be divined? If one could only uncover the secret, so the ephebes thought, one could eventually learn to sustain the fevered pitch throughout the whole book. Anti-Blockheads wryly pointed out it that his selection of key passages was less insightful than haphazard -- a case bolstered by the high percentage of selections from page 22 of the books in question. For longer pieces on multiple works or multiple works by the same author, Dent would simply lay out more quotes, the theory being that to butt in with an attempt at synthesis would merely interrupt a mellifluous conversation in progress. A much-anticipated comparative study of the novel has been delayed for years because of fair-use problems. Valerie Plume: Critical Agency Quentin Dent’s longtime wife, Valerie Plume, has led the most novelistic life of any of the aforementioned superstar-critics. As a spy rising through the ranks of the CIA during the Cold War, she drew on her English major background to funnel money to literary magazines through the Congress for Cultural Freedom. She was in line to make station chief somewhere, but was burned after the Paris Review accepted a poem of hers and ran the following bio: “A cultural attaché living in Paris, Plume is the author of thousands of classified memoranda.” Plume was livid but ultimately relieved, since having her cover blown allowed her to pursue her true passion: poetry criticism. The Paris Review, sheepish after the faux-pas, was all too happy to launch her career with a column. At the outset, she relied on her close reading skills to confront the often thorny works under review. But Plume was incapable of remaining content with half knowledge, as Keats put it, and she soon decided to dust off her old spy-craft toolkit for her new mission. And why not? Espionage and criticism are both, broadly speaking, intelligence work, and in intelligence work of any kind, one cultivates assets and secures information. An offhand remark, discarded draft, pilfered dream journal, or juicy bit of gossip could unlock a hidden symbolic world. Therefore she had the Yaddo retreat bugged; placed one mole on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop faculty and another as an assistant librarian working under Philip Larkin; had an intern root through Anne Carson’s dumpster; and tailed Czesław Miłosz through the streets of Berkeley, though the wily Lithuanian, no stranger to such solicitude, quickly dropped her. Such methods were bound to catch up with Plume. She was excoriated by PEN America after she scooped John Ashbery off the street, shot him up with truth serum, then grilled him about the meaning of his work in an abandoned squash court. Despite the outrage, she justified her tactics as necessary when interrogating refractory postmodernists. In Plume’s defense, however, it must be said that even during the excesses of the Bush administration, she was firmly opposed to waterboarding poets. Plume’s career came to an ignominious end after it was revealed that she had returned to spywork, this time for the enemy. It was alleged that she was using her husband’s book reviews to pass coded messages to the Russians. Authorities couldn’t get anything out of the steely Plume, but Quentin Dent buckled almost immediately, admitting that his wife had chosen his block quotation passages for years. Epilogue: Hume, Duff, Aristophocles, and Dent visit Plume in prison every week to discuss literature and debate whether “greater Want of Skill / Appear in Writing or in Judging ill.” The lively gatherings, whose attendees are known in publishing circles as “The League of Extraordinary Critics,” only rarely necessitate intervention from the jailhouse guards. Illustrations courtesy of Zane Shetler, who lives and works in Durham, N.C. He specializes in drawing fictional book critics in their bathrobes.
What is it about baseball that leaves writers reaching for myth and allegory? The game is slow, meandering. It takes its sweet time. Very often, not a whole lot happens. Indeed, the corporate types at the game's controls keep scratching their heads for ways to speed things up, move things along: a pitch clock, a time-limit on trips to the mound, and on and on. But they ignore the eternity at the heart of the game. In theory, a baseball game could go on forever and ever. A single at-bat, forever and ever. Within the right angle of the foul lines, extending from home plate to the outfield fences and into the great wide open beyond, a batted ball can cut across the night sky and land just about anywhere, and if a fleet-footed outfielder is able to channel his inner gecko and scale the wall and chase down that ball to where it might fall softly into his outstretched glove, there is room for that outcome as well. Alas, the game is not bound by time, and hardly at all by space, and isn't that the nut of it? Isn't that the sweet point of pause and possibility that keeps us coming back for more, and more, and then some? The death last month of W.P. Kinsella, widely regarded as baseball's novelist laureate, offers an opportunity to reflect on how we see our own reflections in the national pastime -- with a tip of the ball cap to writers like Kinsella who continue to encourage us to consider the stories of the game as we consider the game itself. What is it about baseball? The curious magic of Kinsella was that he found room in the wide open spaces of the game to consider that anything was possible -- and, on the strength of that magic, to knit the past to the present, the present to the future. In Shoeless Joe, he reaches back across the decades to revisit the aborted career of Archibald Wright "Moonlight" Graham, after stumbling across Graham's unlikely one-game stat line in the Baseball Encyclopedia and placing it at the cross-hairs of meaning and moment in a wistful story about a son reconnecting with the memory of his father. In The Iowa Baseball Confederacy," he imagines an apparently endless game between the 1908 Chicago Cubs and a barnstorming team of amateurs, inviting readers to join him on a head-scratching, heart-pleasing journey that asks us to ponder baseball's everlastingness. In "The Last Pennant Before Armageddon", he tells the story of a Chicago Cubs manager named Al Tiller, who believes the world will come to a cataclysmic end the moment his Cubbies win the pennant, which in the sure hands of Kinsella (and, his somewhat less certain fictional skipper) they seem inclined to do. How is it that a game built on its very timelessness can offer such a chilling reminder of our own mortality? When the baseball world mourned the sad, sudden death of the joyfully talented young Cuban pitcher José Fernández, barely a week after Kinsella's passing, there was beneath the mourning a kind of shared sense that our own lives were slipping away from us. Here was this abundantly gifted kid pitcher, snatched from a career destined for baseball immortality, with a back-story that seemed scripted by saccharine-fueled Hollywood scriptwriters: a Cuban defector who'd grown up dreaming of someday playing major league baseball; who'd only made it to American shores after three unsuccessful attempts; who'd been jailed by Cuban officials after each of those attempts; who'd rescued his own mother from the turbulence of the Atlantic Ocean during his fourth (ultimately, successful) crossing to America; who'd recovered from Tommy John surgery to become one of the game's dominant pitchers; who'd played the game with such abandon and intention that even casual fans were drawn to him, lifted by him, cheered; who'd just announced that his girlfriend was pregnant with the couple's first child. And yet, back-story or no, triumph or no, unborn baby or no, José Fernández was killed in an as yet unexplained (and, as ever, unfathomable) boating accident off Miami Beach at the age of 24. As the baseball world wept, those of us in on the weeping hugged our children and grandchildren close, honored our parents and grandparents, and looked back with equal parts gladness and sadness at the hopes and dreams we'd carried in our own lives. Some of us got out our old baseball gloves and tossed the ball around with our kids. We looked at old baseball cards, scorecards. We revisited Kinsella's stories. Because in the short life and tragic death of this young ballplayer there was the stuff of our own lives, our own tragic deaths, and in the moments of silence that filled our ball yards that day and the next there was a kind of safe haven within the boundaries of the game. Baseball can do that, I guess. It can remind you of everything that once mattered to you, everything that matters still. It can brush the great promise of tomorrow against the agreeable sting of the past, and the sorrows of today. Kinsella was not alone on the baseball bookshelf. He'd fallen into line behind the great legacies of writers like Ring Lardner (You Know Me, Al), Bernard Malamud (The Natural), Philip Roth (The Great American Novel), Robert Coover (The Universal Baseball Association, Inc: J. Henry Waugh, Prop.), even Don DeLillo (Underworld), who all seemed to understand the stirring, soaring confluence of miracle and wonder at the heart of the game. But it was Kinsella's ability to cast the game alongside a swirl of human emotion that will keep us reading his stories for generations, and when I learned of his death it felt to me like a light had gone out on the game itself. I was not alone in this, of course, and yet I closed my eyes to the news and imagined how a generation of baseball fans -- my generation -- would manage to connect the game to generations to come. Fernández, as well, was not alone. He now shares space on the game's memorial plaque with too, too many young ballplayers who left this world before their games were finished. The turn-of-the-century Hall of Famer Ed Delahanty, who plunged to his death in the cascading waters of Niagara Falls. The Puerto Rican icon Roberto Clemente, killed in a plane crash while on a relief mission to aid earthquake victims in Nicaragua. The great Yankee catcher and captain Thurman Munson, downed in his own plane, which he had bought and learned to fly so that he might spend more time more easily with his family. The Cardinals ace Darryl Kile, who succumbed to a heart attack in his hotel room before a game against the Cubs. With the passing of Fernández, another bulb has been burned on the stanchions that light our game, while we are left to find our way just the same. "Praise the name of baseball," Kinsella wrote. "The word will set captives free. The word will open the eyes of the blind. The word will raise the dead. Have you the word of baseball living inside you? Has the word of baseball become part of you? Do you live it, play it, digest it, forever? Let an old man tell you to make the word of baseball your life. Walk into the world and speak of baseball. Let the word flow through you like water, so that it may quicken the thirst of your fellow man.” Who but Kinsella could help us find poetry and purpose in a centuries-old game that many people believe has outlived its relevance? Who could implore us to go the distance and fulfill our destinies, great and small? Without him, how will we elevate the long march of a baseball season onto the mystical plane where Kinsella asked us to slide along on our own fine film of dust and possibility? Let's be clear, there are baseball novels still to be written. There are games still to be played. Somewhere in this country, or in Cuba, or Puerto Rico, or the Dominican Republic, there is an unborn child who will change the game of baseball -- in ways we cannot yet imagine. In the great white north of Kinsella's Canada, there is a young writer sharpening his or her pen and looking to change how we see the game of baseball -- in ways we can only imagine. But it was Kinsella who tore the cowhide from the game and allowed us to peek at the very real lives it contained. There was triumph there. There was disappointment. There was the thrill of fresh cut grass and the soft fall of lament when the skies opened up and rained down on us. There were changes in plans. Because, at bottom, the nature of the game is the nature of ourselves. It is a living, breathing thing. It bends and endures...and, it asks us to do the same. And so, as we unwrap October and settle in for the 2016 World Series, let’s pause to feel the loss of one of the game's favorite sons. Allow yourself a sliver of a moment to chew on the very real possibility of a very real Armageddon, owing to the Cubbies' fine, fine post-season run. Savor the grace note moments to come in these October games. You will sit glued to your screens (more than likely into the wee-hours), waiting for some sort of final accounting on the season just ended, looking ahead to the season to come, and to all the seasons to come. Image Credit: Pixabay.
Don DeLillo is a famously unprolific interviewee. He does a certain amount of publicity, though you suspect he calculates exactly how little he can get away with while still remaining in good standing with his publishers. He’s never come close to being a Pynchon-level recluse, but he’s also avoided becoming anything like a Public Author; despite being in many ways a deeply political writer -- and in all ways one of the most significant of living English-language novelists -- he’s not someone with whose opinions we’re routinely furnished. (Which is to say that he is not, for instance, Martin Amis, or Joyce Carol Oates, or Jonathan Franzen.) It probably wouldn’t have occurred to me to even seek an interview with DeLillo if the topic of his new book, Zero K, had not been one I’d spent much of the last two years researching and writing about for a non-fiction book of my own: the desire to achieve physical immortality through technology. Zero K is a haunting story -- both sharp and opaque, in the way of DeLillo’s late style -- about an aging billionaire named Ross Lockhart who arranges, under the auspices of a techno-utopian quasi-cult called The Convergence, to have himself cryonically suspended along with his terminally ill younger wife, in the hope that the scientists of the future will resurrect them both and enable them to live indefinitely. In a sense, it seems a strange sort of topic for DeLillo, the stuff of broad sci-fi; but it’s worth bearing in mind that technology and the terror of death have been converging topics in his work for many years. “This is the whole point of technology,” as one character put it in 1985’s White Noise. “It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.” I was somewhat taken aback that this interview happened at all. The appropriate word here, I suppose, would be “granted.” We didn’t speak at any great length -- we were only getting going on the topic of the Zapruder film of JFK’s assassination, I regret to say, when the interview had exhausted its allotted time slot. (Although it’s probably true to say that you could talk to Don DeLillo about the Zapruder film for the rest of your natural, un-cryonically extended life, and you’d only ever be getting going on the topic.) I called him at his hotel room in Washington D.C. (“of all places,” as he somewhat mysteriously put it). For the first five minutes or so of our conversation I had trouble focusing on what either of us was saying, on account of not quite being able to get over the fact that I was on the blower to the guy who wrote Libra, and Underworld, and White Noise, and God knows how many of the best sentences I’ve ever read. My voice recorder, thankfully, had the wherewithal to document what was being said. It went, apparently, as follows. The Millions: Just over a year ago, I visited a place called Alcor, a cryonics facility in Arizona, for a book I’ve been writing about futurists who want to live indefinitely. And one of the things I kept asking myself was “What would DeLillo make of this stuff?” It was very strange to have that question answered in such a direct way when I read Zero K. I’ve been wondering about the level of research you did for the book, how deep you went into the whole area of cryonics. Don DeLillo: It’s curious, I know about that place in Arizona. I know it’s there, but I know very little else about it. I did limit my research on this novel, simply because there would be an endless amount of it to be done, and I wanted to start work on it. It’s a work of fiction, so as I started the work, I started to imagine. You might be in a good position to say how accurate everything is. You’re probably a better position than I am. TM: I do think the book reflects in an uncanny and oblique way the culture of radical optimism that emanates from Silicon Valley. I’m curious as to how aware you of that culture, and how much that fed into the book. DD: I’m not deeply aware of it. I know that certainly it exists and that it’s part of this whole area of cryonics that I’m writing about. But I made a point not to funnel that path too deeply. Even Ross Lockhart, the father of the narrator, is of course interested himself in becoming a man in a pod. But I don’t know that he expresses any particular optimism. He thinks it’ll work, yes, but I think he’s a fairly realistic individual. What he wants is to accompany his wife. This is a genuine feeling on his part. TM: That aspect of the novel brought me back to White Noise, in particular, where the relationship between Jack and Babette is characterized by this anxiety about who will die first. DD: It’s funny, I have a very dim memory of White Noise. I’ve never had reason to re-read it. It was, I don’t know, 30 years ago. I don’t know much of what happens in that book. I even had a little difficulty recently trying to remember the main character’s name. I understand what you’re saying, of course. But it’s pure coincidence, the connection between these two books. TM: So is it a strange thing for you, looking back over these books you’ve written, to see these kinds of connections being made by other people? DD: Yes, it’s a strange feeling. I’ve been thinking lately, I’m not sure why, about my earlier novels, and I’m quite surprised how little I recall of them. I don’t know whether it’s liberating or worrying. Even The Names, which was set in Greece. Much of it, at least in terms of the travel in the novel, came out of personal experience. And even that seems very distant to me now. And Point Omega, my last novel -- of course I know, essentially, what was going on there. But I could not have a serious discussion about it, I don’t think. Not at this point. TM: One of the things that struck me about Zero K, and I suppose all your recent work, is the extent to which it seems saturated with the texture of contemporary culture, with technology in particular. There’s a very haunting passage toward the end of the book, where one of the leaders of The Convergence talks about “the devices you use, the ones you carry everywhere, room to room, minute to minute, inescapably.” She talks about “All the linked data designed to incorporate you into the megadata.” It really gets at this sense of being “unfleshed” that comes from being online all the time, as so many of us are now. But my understanding is that you yourself are not online all the time. You write on a typewriter. I’m curious as to how you absorb this texture of technological anxiety. DD: This is correct. I have an iPad that I use for research, but I’m not online at all really. I don’t own a cell phone. I was just discussing this with the people I’m traveling with here, people from my publishers. I simply feel more comfortable without these things. But one feels it and sees it. It’s been around me for much of the day today, because the people I’m traveling with, one in particular has trouble with her cell phone. There’s something wrong with it. She doesn’t know who’s trying to get in touch with her, what it is they want to say to her. It’s a minor thing, yes, but it’s worrying and frustrating her. And she’s unhappy. TM: How do you see the novel as a form fitting in with this technological culture you write about in Zero K? How do you see it speaking to or against it? DD: The novel still exists. And to my mind it still can be called a flourishing form. There are so many good younger writers. It’s clear people are drawn towards the form -- people who want to write are drawn toward the novel. It’s the most accommodating form, certainly within fiction, and the most challenging. And it’s very heartening to see so many good young writers. Don’t ask me for names. But I do know the work of some of them, and I do know the opinions of people I respect who read more than I do. So I don’t feel any dismay concerning the form itself. TM: Do you make a point of staying current with younger writers, with what’s happening now, or do you find yourself as you get older re-reading more? DD: No, I’m in touch with younger writers. I do read the work, when I can. In general I don’t read as much as I used to. But I haven’t gone back to the past either. My book shelves are filled with books that I have enormous respect for, but I don’t find myself rereading very often, if at all. I assume that’s just another function of getting older. And speaking of that, it took me nearly four years to write this novel. It’s only a book of average size, and that’s kind of surprising to me. On the other hand, this is what the book wanted, and I just followed where I was being led. TM: Do you find yourself liberated in some ways, as a writer, by getting older? DD: I find that being active as a fiction writer propels one toward the future, in a way. I’m hoping to find enough time one of these days to start work on a short story. And I’m eager to do so. It’s just been somewhat difficult, but I’ll get there. TM: The new novel, like Point Omega before it, is permeated by a kind of eschatological mood. The opening line is “Everybody wants to own the end of the world.” And there’s a sense in the book, and in your work generally, of capitalism moving into an apocalyptic endgame. Is the prospect of future catastrophe -- the reality of climate change, for instance -- something that preoccupies you as you get older? DD: I wouldn’t say these things preoccupy me. I would say that I’m aware of a level of concern that didn’t exist before. For a very long time, nuclear war was the thing that people were concerned with, at some level of consciousness. And that seemed to vanish at a certain point, but even that has a tendency to return in one way or another. Nuclear accidents, or all-out war between two or more countries. The concern is there certainly, and it can be almost palpable at times. Particularly when you see film footage or photographs of certain areas of the globe, in which enormous changes are taking place. TM: This is a motif that recurs throughout your work, filmed imagery of catastrophe and violence. It’s there in quite a focused way in Zero K, in frequent interludes where the protagonist Jeff watches footage in the cryonics compound of terrorist atrocities and self-immolations and natural disasters and so on. How do you account for this recurrence of filmed disaster, filmed violence, in your work? DD: There’s always been a level of film in my writing. And I think at some point it became associated with violence or with destruction of some kind, environmental destruction. I wonder whether it all started with Libra, when I was writing about the assassination of President Kennedy? Is that the act of violence on film, the Zapruder film, that put me in that particular lane of awareness? There are no definite answers, I don’t think. I think in Mao II, there are conversations with people that concern terrorism, and elsewhere as well. It just happened because it is part of the culture. My wife and I lived in Athens for about three years, and it was everywhere around us. Aircraft hijackings. People fleeing certain countries. And many of them coming to Athens. And elsewhere too. Entire governments falling. Revolution in Iran. It had an effect on me, because it was palpable. It was right there. And it’s had an effect on my work ever since. TM: Now that you’ve brought up Libra and the Kennedy assassination, I may as well tell you that reading Zero K, and thinking about you and your work for this interview, led me to watching the Zapruder film on YouTube. It felt inevitable, in a way. And it struck me that that footage at the time, and when you were writing Libra, was a kind of secret text. People knew of it, but you couldn’t just sit down and watch it. And now you can watch it a hundred different ways on your phone, on your laptop. You sit through an ad for life insurance or whatever, then you watch JFK getting shot in the head at your leisure. DD: Yes, that’s true. Although I can tell you that when I was writing Libra, I managed to get in touch with a guy in Quebec who was advertising this kind of material, which he kept in his garage. And he sent me the Zapruder film, and some other footage as well. So I had it before it became legal to look at the film. Believe it or not, in fact, I was told this morning that Zapruder’s daughter Alexandra is finishing a book about the film itself. So it’s still in the air. TM: My feeling is you’ll almost certainly be asked to blurb that book. DD: Yes. No doubt I will be asked. [Strained laughter. Voices off. Exit DeLillo.]
“Isolation, solitude, secret planning,” Don DeLillo once prescribed. “A novel is a secret that a writer may keep for years before he lets it out of his room.” DeLillo’s description of his plot for Great Jones Street strikes a similar note: “a man in a small room, a man who has shut himself away, and this is something that happens in my work -- the man hiding from acts of violence or planning acts of violence, or the individual reduced to silence by the forces around him.” Mao II, Libra, even DeLillo’s misunderstood football novel, End Zone, include characters who have receded from the world to be reborn. Some might call that paranoia. When the public world fails to reveal its meanings to us, we retreat into our private rooms, our private minds, where there are infinite schemas and explanations. We are the only skeptics of our own souls. A secret is only as good as its ability to be exclusive, and yet a conspiracy theory is only as good as its ability to be inclusive. Whereas his contemporary Thomas Pynchon might share these sentiments, Pynchon has chosen to be a jester, while DeLillo has a deadly serious endgame. Years ago, a Jesuit told me that he had the same journalism professor as DeLillo when he studied at Fordham. The professor showed the Jesuit one of DeLillo’s term papers. I never asked about the paper’s content or style; it felt like I had been given a slice of a secret, and that was enough. It turned out to have been an open secret: the professor, Edward A. Walsh, had kept the paper to show budding writers. Yet the tension of a secret that somehow can also be easily found captures the DeLillo mystique. He writes but he does not teach. He gives interviews, but they are clipped and often vague. He lives in the city but seems to somehow live outside of it. He is not hiding, but he is certainly not trying to be found. Zero K, DeLillo’s newest novel, is like one of those open secrets. To say that it is not groundbreaking would be to misread the purpose and progression of his canon. The major constellations of DeLillo’s work are White Noise and Underworld; the former for its ability to capture his culture’s paranoid moment, and the latter for a son of the Bronx to finally, and fully, examine the place of his birth and youth. Zero K is an extension of DeLillo’s developing themes, but it places a darker color upon them. Billionaire Ross Lockhart, his second wife, Artis, and his son Jeff are the three central characters of the novel. Ross says “everybody wants to own the end of the world.” It soon becomes clear that he means the end of our own world, but for a man like Ross, the end of the self is the end of the universe. Artis, much younger than Ross, is terminally ill. Ross has been financing a mysterious project that includes “cryonic suspension,” something he admits is not a new idea, but one “that is now approaching full realization.” The project is called The Convergence. Reading DeLillo without understanding the themes and concerns of a Jesuit education is like walking onto a basketball court thinking you can run the ball without dribbling. DeLillo joked that he slept through Cardinal Hayes High School, and that the Fordham Jesuits taught him how to be a “failed ascetic.” This is exactly the type of thing an Italian-American from the Bronx would say (I would know). One of DeLillo’s running influences has been Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, whose concept of the Omega Point posits that the universe is evolving toward an ultimate convergence of systems, a perfect consciousness. DeLillo examined the concept in End Zone through the obsessions of narrator Gary Harkness. As Stephen J. Burn notes, DeLillo returned to Teilhard's writings for Ratner's Star, and even considered titling four other novels Point Omega (the inversion means the same) -- Mao II, Underworld, The Body Artist and Cosmopolis -- before using the title for his short 2010 novel. This is not to say that Zero K is a Jesuit or Catholic book. Zero K might be DeLillo’s most agnostic novel, a work that takes Teilhard’s superstructure and strips it of God and Christ and other signifiers. If anyone portends to be God in Zero K, it is Ross, or the mysterious Stenmark Twins, whose philosophies about war, death, and the afterlife put flesh on the skeleton of the Convergence. If Ross needs men like the Stenmark Twins to offer a narrative to his cryonic project, he needs his son to bear witness. Jeff soon realizes that Ross wants him to be there with him when Artis dies. It is a strange tinge of vulnerability for a man who left Jeff and his mother when Jeff was 13: “I was doing my trigonometry homework when he told me.” Jeff has never quite forgiven him, but is able to keep both his mother, Madeline, and Artis in high esteem. The facility is full of screens that lower from the ceiling and play silent images of destruction and suffering. This is another of DeLillo’s trends: the screen as projection for the man in his small room. Players opens with a screen: the showing of an on-flight film, which includes golfers attacked by terrorists. A 24-hour gallery repeat of Psycho opens Point Omega. Then there is the metaphorical screen of End Zone, the canvas blinds that are wrapped around the Logos College practice field so that Coach Creed can hide his players. The desert facility is otherwise described in spare terms, which does make for a rather slow first half to the novel. Patient readers are rewarded when DeLillo develops the dynamic between father and son, which is surprisingly refined by Jeff’s relationship with Artis. She seems unafraid of her unknown future, and that unsettles Jeff. An archeologist, she thinks of finding her own self at her reawakening. Artis, in a true way, needs the Convergence to give her a second chance. Others opt for Zero K, a “special unit” of the facility” that is “predicated on the subject’s willingness to make a certain kind of transition to the next level.” The same method that slowed the first half of the book gives a surreal quality to its second half. As Jeff describes it, the Convergence facility exists outside of time, “time compressed, time drawn tight, overlapping time, dayless, nightless, many doors, no windows.” I have always thought DeLillo is at his most masterful when he starts changing our atmosphere, when he puts us in the “dense environmental texture” of the supermarket in White Noise. It usually happens halfway through is novels, and Zero K is no exception. At the midway point we realize that Ross has a deeper plan for the Convergence and his son, and its drama pushes the book toward its conclusion. Sadness might seem too sincere an emotion to ascribe to a novel written by a postmodernist, but Zero K pushes its readers to feel. It is almost impossible to not. With its confluence of screens, strange artwork, empty rooms, long hallways, and shaved hands of those soon to be frozen, Zero K creates an experiment, and we, its subjects, feel pulled to interact. A man in a small room, obsessed with the present and yet somehow existing outside the scope of time: this is DeLillo’s concern. “Isolation is not a drawback to those who understand that isolation is the point,” one character says in Zero K. DeLillo’s new novel, particularly its end, is a slight pivot for the novelist. Yet when a writer is able to capture so many of our anxieties on his pages, a pivot can be profound.
It was October of 1966 and John Barth had just published Giles-Goat Boy, a 700-page postmodern comedy, and a New York Times Bestseller. Barth was starting the stories that would eventually make up Lost In The Funhouse, a seminal work of metafiction. He was teaching at the University of Buffalo and was busy putting together a week-long reading series for the following spring. He had already secured writers like Norman Mailer, Joseph Heller, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and John Hawkes – author of the spectacular surrealist Western, The Beetle Leg. The series would feature some of the most powerful literary figures of the time. But Barth was working to finish the line-up with one more writer, a man he admired and sought to befriend; he wanted to get John Updike. “I’ve been told you don’t make public appearances, and I sympathize,” Barth wrote to Updike. Updike had won the National Book Award for The Centaur three years prior, and Rabbit, Run was only half a decade old. Updike was 34. Barth was 36. Barth wrote to Updike, “…as one who respects your work, and suspects it would sound excellent to the ear in the author’s voice, and has agreed to read something of my own to help out, and wants to meet you better anyhow than I did at the Academy last Spring, I’d be honored, and we all delighted, if you’d bend your admirable policy once and lay some of your prose on us out loud.” Barth was genial with many alpha literary fiction writers throughout his career – eventually even men like Philip Roth, Italo Calvino, and Salman Rushdie. But Barth was an alpha writer himself, in the mid-60’s, a literary artist and intellectual who was both wildly innovative and popular. Barth largely associated with other experimentalists – people like William Gaddis, Donald Barthelme, and William Gass – but then he was especially drawn to Updike. Updike was a realist, and this genre discrepancy served as a sort of important buffer to literary bitterness and jealousy, especially as time went on. Other writers knew about Updike’s aversion to public speaking. Updike had only ever taught one course, in the early 1960s, at the Harvard Summer School and disliked the experience so intensely that he vowed to never do it again. Updike covered a single additional class session in the Fall of 1966 at Boston University – after John Cheever called him, too drunk to stand up – and that was his final appearance in the classroom. Barth wrote to Updike anyway. Updike responded, “I don’t ‘read’ much, but such a generous and engaging letter from the author of Giles Goat-boy would be hard to resist. By next April I should either be insane or substantially through a novel that is presently tormenting me, so let me accept, on the assumption that I’ll be reminded as the date approaches.” Updike went to Buffalo in 1967. Barth stood at the front of a crowded auditorium and enumerated the ways that Updike’s writing was distinctive in a time of high postmodernism and experimentation. “His materials and methods remain essentially realistic, straightforwardly if subtly representational, as opposed to the diverse anti- and irrealisms of most of his contemporaries.” Barth said, “He’s non-apocalyptic, a highly unfashionable attitude – one suspects he may not even be a nihilist.” Barth certainly thought of himself as one of those irrealist writers he mentioned in Updike’s introduction. He had begun writing Lost In The Funhouse: Fiction for Print, Tape, Live Voice. The book begins with a note from the author, in which Barth writes that many of these stories aren’t actually meant for the page. Barth says “Glossolia,” for example, “will make no sense unless heard in live or recorded voices, male and female.” Despite finally limiting some of those ambitions to the printed word, a story like, “Night-Sea Journey” – a sperm’s existential reflections on its swim to fertilize an egg – is brilliant. Stories like “Lost In The Funhouse”, “Autobiography”, and “Title” are, too. Some of the others – “Echo”, “Menelaiad”, “Anonymiad” – really stumble. Six years after the Buffalo reading, and around the time Barth published his National Book Award-Winning trio of novellas, Chimera, Barth moved back to Baltimore to teach in the writing program at Johns Hopkins, his alma mater. He was put in charge of another speaker series. He again sought John Updike. In October 1974, Updike wrote back and accepted that invitation. Updike then shared some unhappy news: “You and [Barth’s wife] Shelley will be sorry to hear that Mary and I seem to be undergoing that American, or is it menopausal, experience called separation. Hence the urban address below. I work, eat, sleep, and read all on the same head of a pin-sized apartment, and seem happy in a way, or at least less asthmatic.” Barth conveyed his distress and sent his best wishes to Updike and his wife. He hoped Updike was able to write in his “diminished physical plant.” Updike furthered the intimate tone of the exchange with his response. He wrote, “A curious bit of etiquette – having no wife to bring, might I bring someone else?... The substitute would be, I would think, a mature American female, quiet and mannerly, not apt to embarrass any proceedings. I haven’t invited any yet, just wondering, way in advance.” Barth wrote to Updike that he would set him up in the Nichols House, which would be comfortable “with or without mature American female, whom by all means, bring.” On Friday, April 18th, 1975, Updike arrived in Baltimore with, in his words to Barth, “A Martha Bernhard (37, une autre séparée, onetime student of Nabokov at Cornell).” Leslie Fiedler, the book critic, had a campus event that same day. The group of them went to Updike’s afternoon reading, then Fiedler’s evening lecture, then out to dinner. The next morning, Barth and Shelley and Updike and Martha went on a literary tour of Baltimore. They visited Edgar Allan Poe’s grave. They went to the H.L. Mencken House. They got soft-shell crab for lunch. Then John and Martha got on a plane back to Massachusetts. Gracious letters from both Bernhard and Updike followed. Bernhard wrote, “Dear Shelley and Jack, You were dear to let me tag along to watch John enchant your students, a pleasant occasion for me of course. Beyond that, I was moved by your graciousness and acceptance in what could have been an awkward situation. But it was charming, really, because of your gentleness. Lovely of you.” She added that the Barths were fortunate to have seen Updike in a “role he shies from but does beautifully.” Updike, for his part, said, “Martha was greatly touched and cheered by the lack of awkwardness in an adventure, a venturing forth, that was a touch barefaced for us. You were both most kind.” Then he goes on to ask Barth if he can get him a Johns Hopkins University sweatshirt for a souvenir, “with as it happens [his] initials on it.” Updike and Martha got married in 1977. They were married for 31 years, the rest of Updike’s life. After Updike died, Martha told Barth in a letter that this first trip was not only the beginning of her relationship with Updike, but also the occasion on which Updike changed his mind about readings. “He took to it,” Martha wrote, “as he didn’t to teaching, and thus began a modest, but consistent, reading schedule that he truly enjoyed.” Following the Baltimore visit, Barth and Updike’s communication continued primarily through the mail. Letters of mutually generous appreciation of each other’s work were frequent, and they sustained the friendship. The differences between the two writers, meanwhile, grew more marked. In 1982, Updike published Rabbit Is Rich, the story of Harry Angstrom inheriting his late father’s Toyota dealership and living through prosperous days in which he worries about his wife’s drinking, his son’s hostility, and his own libido. It won the National Book Critics Circle Award, the National Book Award, and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Barth, meanwhile, published an opus of a novel called LETTERS. LETTERS is not only entirely about itself and its author, but also about Barth’s first six novels, which you need to have read in order for LETTERS to make any sense. The critical state of their respective careers diverged. After the publication of Rabbit Is Rich, Barth wrote to Updike, “Congratulations on ‘Rabbit’ sweeping the field—and what’s more, on the book itself. Shelly has asked me, “are you envious?” And I have answered, “yes,” especially as the first negative advance reviews of my new one [The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor] trickle into the clear stream of our life like acid mine drainage.” Updike published the well-received Witches of Eastwick. He again won the National Book Critic Circle Award and Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with Rabbit at Rest. Barth meanwhile published sprawling navel-gazing novels like The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor and The Tidewater Tales – books that were increasingly long form concentrations on the mechanics of storytelling. Barth and Updike complained to each other of certain writers’ underappreciated brilliance, and griped of others' successes. “The Pynchon—,” Updike wrote, “I got a hundred pages into it, and wondered if the next several hundred would tell me anything I didn’t already know. He can coin wonderful phrases, and does prodigies of homework, but there isn’t a lot of flesh to nibble on. Still, I must get back to it, and then read every word of Underworld, as penance or pleasure, who knows?” Barth grew sensitive to critics and reviews, and counter-productively more stubborn in his methods. In 2001, Barth wrote Coming Soon!!!, in which he attempts to spoof his own position in the pantheon with two protagonists: one’s a retiring novelist (quite clearly John Barth) setting out to write his final masterpiece. The other’s a young, aspiring writer (quite clearly a young John Barth) in the midst of his first novel. The two protagonists are tangled up together in a competitive literary reprisal of The Floating Opera, the writer John Barth’s first book. Despite his admirable pursuit of fun and experimentation in fiction, Barth often seemed to want to make things hard on himself. Like with a lot of artists, he tended to be his own worst enemy. In a 2002 Salon interview, critic Leslie Feidler was asked which of postmodern writers would survive and endure. Feidler said, “I used to think Barth and Hawkes had a chance. I’m not so sure now. Barth’s most recent book was terrible. And he sorta knows it too, I had a note from him which mentioned the reviews.” Updike wrote to Barth in November 2008. He said he had only read the first story in Barth’s new book, The Development. He wrote, “I needed to pluck up my courage to continue, especially since. I have just emerged from testing the waters of mortality in three days at Boston’s finest, MGH. Your description of the hectic banality of retirement havens almost makes mortality look good.” Updike had just been diagnosed with advanced stage lung cancer. Eight weeks later, on January 27th, 2009, he died. Barth immediately wrote to Martha, and she responded, “He began writing the final verses of Endpoint in that hospital bed and continued at home where he finished before Christmas...He died eight weeks after his diagnosis, at the end of January.” Updike had some faults – most notably a nonchalant misogyny – but there was much more that was miraculous about his writing. Rabbit, Run, in gritty lyric detail, conveys the American dream as the American nightmare in the way it renders young Harry Angstrom stumbling after happiness in a place like Brewer, Pennsylvania. Updike once described his own style as “an attempt to give the mundane its beautiful due,” and he did do just that. He also published an incredible number of books – 24 novels, 16 books of nonfiction, 14 collections of short stories, and 10 books of poetry. John Barth, too, wrote more than most readers would be likely to get through. Yet there are moments in his catalog that are wildly inventive, strange, and brilliant; the influence of certain Barth stories and novels ripple conspicuously across the works of writers like Nicholson Baker and David Foster Wallace, who went on to generate monumental influence on their own terms. Barth’s story “Lost In The Funhouse” is metafiction at its peak. Ambrose’s anxious journey through the story’s funhouse becomes a perfect metaphor for the reader’s passage through the story itself. In certain places, the plot pushes forward and the story gains momentum. In others, it gets stuck in mirrored corners. “The important thing to remember,” Barth writes, “is that it’s meant to be a funhouse; that is, a place of amusement.” Barth’s embrace of this principle – as he considers funhouse architecture and simultaneously inspects the mechanics of storytelling – transforms the piece into something sinisterly buoyant and incredibly smart. The writer, narrator, and reader experience all the joys and setbacks of the journey together. The story is passionate, angsty, and a bit existentially terrifying. “For whom is the funhouse fun?” the story opens. “For Ambrose it is a place of fear and confusion.” Barth’s early success in metafiction inspired him to continue in that vein, and it eventually led to the surge of negative criticism for the books that came later in his career. “Metafiction’s real end has always been Armageddon,” David Foster Wallace once said in an interview. “Art’s reflection on itself is terminal.” Barth, though, kept fighting to mine life from his metafictional flights, writing longer and longer books to do it. In their later letters, Barth continued to express admiration and respect toward Updike. Updike returned the praise, though more often with soft mentions that he hadn’t quite finished Barth’s most recent books. As was always the case, Barth took solace in the discrepancies between their respective genres, but it got more difficult for him as the state of their critical acclaim split. The thorniness of the relationship begins to show as the letters go on. Updike never abandoned Barth, though. Updike and Barth rose as important literary figures around the same time, and largely behaved as compatriots until the very end. In the 1990s, Updike spotted a news clipping featuring Barth in which Barth had been quoted saying, “Just now, I’m completely enthralled by and engrossed in John Updike’s book. There’s a writer who’s very unlike me who I admire enormously for his productivity and his talent.” Updike underlined the passage and wrote, “I do thank you for the generous words. But I don’t think we’re very unlike. We’re both sons of the hard-working, temperate Middle Atlantic region, twice married, depression-conscious, and stuck with the belief that there is such a thing as American littrachoor.” Images courtesy of the Special Collections Research Center at Johns Hopkins University. A physical exhibition on the writer John Barth will be mounted in the Johns Hopkins George Peabody Library in Fall 2015.
1. I recently re-watched the first season of Friday Night Lights—for fun, but also to see how it held up, eight years after it first aired, and probably at least a decade after it was first conceived of and written. I had actually never seen the pilot or the first six episodes because, initially, Friday Night Lights was my husband’s show, something he watched by himself. I now love the show so much that it’s hard to believe there was a time when I wasn’t interested in it, but I remember thinking that it didn’t seem like the kind of show I would like. I don’t enjoy watching football and I don’t usually enjoy watching teenage actors—or, rather, I don’t enjoy watching actors in their early twenties impersonate teenagers. I was also resistant to Friday Night Lights because it is set in a conservative, rural area that reminded me of where I went to high school. Like a lot of people who move to New York City, I came here to get away from small town life. The strange thing about watching Friday Night Lights again is that I think the fiction I’ve been writing for the past few years was inspired by it. I’ve joked with friends about this line of influence but I didn’t quite believe it until I re-watched the show and saw how much I’d borrowed. I know we’re living in the golden age of so-called novelistic TV, but I still think of books as being in conversation with other books, not with nighttime soap operas. However, when I look back over the past five years, I can see that my stories were very much in conversation with a TV show whose characters became so real to me it was as if they were living lives parallel to my own. I watched Friday Night Lights in real time, as it aired. I wonder if it would have been as much of an influence if I had “binged-watched” all five seasons back-to-back in one or two months’ time. Instead, the show stretched out over the course of five years, 2006-2011, which for me were years when I had to throw out most of the fiction I wrote. They were years when I was trying to “find my voice”—that cringe-inducing expression that is nevertheless a fair description of what I was looking for as I tried to decide what I would write and how I would write about it. During these years, my primary search technique was to read as many different authors as possible and to write a certain number of words per day. At night I watched television to relax. I might have given up on this whole process if I had not finally published a short story in 2008, the year I turned thirty. The story was set in my hometown, a location I had always resisted using, but which I felt compelled to revisit. That compulsion, I am quite sure, was due to Friday Night Lights. The show helped me to see my hometown in a new light—but not a nostalgic one. I did not watch Friday Night Lights to relive my glorious high school years, and certainly not to relive the glory of high school football. But one of the interesting things about Friday Night Lights, and something that struck me as I re-watched it, is that for a drama about high school students and football, there are very few scenes set in school or on the football field. Instead, the show is more interested in the personal lives of its players—the families they come from, the romances that enmesh them, the houses they live in and the things they do for fun. It’s a show that is very interested in family life in all its varieties. There are a lot of single parents in Friday Night Lights and a lot of unmarried couples, too. It’s a show where families are makeshift, where older brothers and grandmothers can stand in for absent fathers, where teenage girls have to mother themselves and sometimes their boyfriends, too. Watching Friday Night Lights, you realize how conservative other shows are in their portrayal of American families. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how or why something inspires you, but I think Friday Night Lights got me thinking about the adults I’d grown up with, adults whose personal lives I’d never fully imagined because I was a kid, living my kid-life. I began to look back on my childhood in a different way, to think less about how I lived and more about how other people lived. Maybe this recalibration is just part of growing up and leaving one’s self-centered twenties, and maybe it would have happened anyway, without the nudge of Friday Night Lights, but the show did seem to stir up old memories. It was fascinating to think again of families I’d babysat for, to reexamine their houses, their professions, their cars, their clothes. I began to think about my teachers and mentors, my coaches, and my friends’ parents. Many of them were in their thirties (my age) when I knew them. I wondered: What were their lives really like? What were their secret dramas? What would I ask them if I could go back in time? 2. In 2009, I finished a novel but could not find an agent to represent it. In retrospect, I can see that it was an apprentice novel, and that even though it had narrative cohesion, it couldn’t really stand on its own. It didn’t have the spark of life. It was set in New York City, where I have lived for the past thirteen years, but when I started that novel, I had only five years under my belt, and was still utterly infatuated with Manhattan and its delusional vibrations, an energy Zadie Smith recently described as a “sociopathic illusion of limitlessness.” My novel reflected some of that energy. The characters lived in their own melodramatic reality, and even though that was kind of the point—these characters were in their twenties—the book had an airless feeling. The setting wasn’t real enough. A few years after I had finished it (and finally given up on it), I met a novelist who had moved to the South after years in the Midwest. I told him I had tried to write about New York but couldn’t, and he said he’d had the same problem in the South. He said he thought it took about ten years to be able to write about a particular place—much longer than any writer wants to admit. How long does it take to write about where you grew up? In my case, that took about ten years, too—ten years away. In the wake of my failed first novel—I saw it as failed then, now I see it as a necessary step—I decided to focus on a series of short stories set in the various “small” places my family had lived. This was partly to do with the success of my first short story, which had been set in my hometown, but also because of Dillon, the fictional Texas town where Friday Night Lights is set. Dillon, a small, unglamorous, rural Texas town, is something like the small, unglamorous towns I grew up in. For years, I had operated under the assumption that the places I knew best were not very interesting. This was due to my own insecurities and also to my intense love of all things New York City. But, my infatuation with the city began to wane around 2008. That was the year the financial markets crashed—a situation I couldn’t help thinking of when I read Smith’s phrase, “sociopathic illusion of limitlessness.” It was the year I started to think about failure, really think about it. I was three years into an ill-fitting secretarial job at a Wall Street law firm, a job that I knew would only become more ill-fitting as the recession unspooled. New York did not seem like a good place to fail. In fact, it seemed like a place where I was not allowed to even speak or think of the possibility of failure. One of the things I like about Dillon is that it welcomes failures; in fact it embraces them. Growing up in small towns, I always felt there was something bullying about this love of failure, and that there was within it a not-so-hidden class resentment, a desire to keep everyone on the same level, even if that meant everything was mediocre. I do think that sentiment exists, but I also think there is a humanity to small places, an acknowledgement that people need space in their lives to enjoy what they have, for as long as it may last—a space outside of accomplishment. A space outside of self-improvement. A space to have emotions that might not be “productive.” A space to have emotions, period. Many critics have focused on the intense emotionality of Friday Night Lights, the way it aims to make you cry in every episode. My husband and I always joke that we are in need of tissues as soon as the theme music cuts in—usually after a short, three-minute scene where someone acts their guts out and delivers a major plot twist. I always find myself thinking, these people live such big lives in such a small place! But then when I think about what feels “big” about their lives I realize that the plot points (save for a few bizarre episodes in Season 2) are quite ordinary. No one on Friday Night Lights has a secret identity. No one is working for the mafia or hunting terrorists. No one is cooking meth in order to pay for cancer treatments. No one even gets cancer in Dillon! Instead, they’re drinking too much. They’re sleeping around. They’re saying stupid things and trying to make extra money in a variety of stupid ways. They’re founding Christian rock bands and trying out for quad rugby teams. They’re perusing real estate listings and filling out insurance forms. They’re buying cars and driving cars and fixing cars. Someone is always waiting for a ride. Someone is always heartbroken. Someone is always broke. Friday Night Lights is one long country song. Anyone can relate. The truth is that Friday Night Lights actually had a lot of trouble finding its audience, or at least one large enough for network television. But the people who love Friday Night Lights are passionate about it. They love the characters, and they love them in a particular way. People swoon over Coach Taylor and they really swoon over Tami Taylor, but what they really, really swoon over is the relationship between Coach and Tami, not only the particular chemistry between the actors who play these characters (Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton), but the way their marriage is portrayed, quotidian scene by quotidian scene. Writing in The New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn described it as one of “the finest representations of middle-class marriage in popular culture.” I’m not always sure what people mean when they refer to something as middle-class but one definition of middle-class life is one where both parents work, but not so much that they can’t have dinner together. In Friday Night Lights, you often see Coach and Tami having dinner together. You see them cooking it and cleaning it up, too. You see them going out and staying in, running late and running errands. You see them joking and flirting, arguing and making up. You see them discussing their jobs, their daughter, their worries. You see two people who are not just in love but who genuinely like spending a lot of time together. The Taylor’s marriage holds the show together plot-wise, and also in terms of tone. Friday Night Lights is about the bonds between people, and in particular, the way that people in small towns have unusual access to one another’s personal lives. When you live in a small town, it’s possible to run into your daughter’s boyfriend buying condoms in the drug store, to clean up broken glass in the home of a student you advise, or to obtain a pregnancy test from the mother of your husband’s star running back. These things all happened to Tami Taylor, and they didn’t seem far-fetched, even the last one, a late-in-life pregnancy that seemed designed to lure in new viewers. (Coach and Tami’s second daughter was born in between seasons 1 and 2 and had almost no bearing on the rest of the show.) It helps that the actors on the show can pull off even the most saccharine dialogue, but the real trick is the way the show makes you want to watch the characters interact in different combinations. You know they all know each other, and furthermore, you know what they know (and don’t know) about each other, so you can’t wait to see how that plays out in their interactions. It’s dramatic irony on a very small scale. It’s the lifeblood of domestic fiction. 3. In a 2011 Grantland interview, Don DeLillo was asked what sporting event he would choose to dramatize if he were going to undertake another novel on the scale of Underworld set in post-Cold War America. (As opposed to Underworld, which was set during the Cold War era.) With his usual prescience, DeLillo answered: “To portray America over the past twenty years or so, I would think immediately of football, probably the Super Bowl in its sumptuous suggestion of a national death wish.” It has been disconcerting to re-watch the first season of Friday Night Lights in light of debates about football’s culture of violence. The recent domestic abuse scandals hadn't yet made headlines when I watched the majority of the episodes, but I often thought of the long-simmering arguments about whether or not football is too dangerous to be played. It is, to say the least, a heated argument. On the one hand, there is Steve Almond’s new book Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, which details his own football fandom and disillusionment as he comes to terms with how badly the sport treats its players as well as the values it represents. (I have not yet read Almond’s book but apparently there is within it a critique of Friday Night Lights.) On the other side of the debate, there’s Jonathan Chait defending the sport in New York Magazine, arguing that his boyhood years playing football were unforgettably exciting, and that the sport allows young men to channel their anger in healthy and productive ways. In his view, the debate over football’s potential dangers is a classic red-state/blue-state conflict, “a safety-reform movement mutating into a culture war, where one part of America rises in visceral, often-uncomprehending revulsion against the values and mores of another.” Then we have President Obama, attempting to split the difference, as always, in a New Yorker profile, conceding that he would never allow his son to play the game but that he enjoys watching it. I can’t help wondering how Friday Night Lights would have chosen to address these issues if it were airing today. (Actually, maybe a better question: Would Friday Night Lights even make it onto the air today?) You could argue that the show deals with the sport’s potential for life-altering injury in its very first episode, when Dillon’s star quarterback, Jason Street, tackles another player so aggressively that he damages his own spinal column. The injury paralyzes Jason Street for life, and for the rest of the first season, we follow him as he undergoes his rehabilitation. That’s the reality of football, the show seems to say—except that the characters never say that. They treat Jason Street’s injury as something freakish, even surprising. When Jason Street’s parents file a lawsuit against Coach Taylor and the school, they are portrayed as desperate and a touch villainous. On my second viewing of Friday Night Lights, I had trouble with the football scenes and especially the lawsuit. The question of whether or not Coach had taught Jason Street appropriate tackling techniques is brushed over as a kind of pesky lawyer’s question, but I wanted it to be taken more seriously. At the very least, I wanted Coach to be guiltier about what had happened. He doesn’t seem to suffer much remorse or rethink his training methods. Every time I watched Coach give a pep talk or advise a player, I could only really think of poor Jason Street, sitting in his hospital bed, having to relearn how to grip a fork. Later in the season, Jason Street returns to the field as part of the coaching staff, so he’s literally on the sidelines in his wheelchair, a reminder to everyone of how dangerous the sport is. It’s bizarre, and darkly ironic—but it’s not intended that way. Instead, we’re meant to see Street’s coaching position as a point of resolution; we’re supposed to be glad he’s found a way to integrate football back into his life, despite the fact that he has been maimed by it. But how self-aware does a television show (or a novel?) have to be to say something meaningful about the era it portrays? One thing that makes television an interesting medium is that the writers have to work quickly to absorb changing cultural attitudes into their narratives. In an apt literary metaphor, Emily Nussbaum recently described network TV shows as “the rough draft that doubles as the polished product.” A network series can’t afford to be dated and yet there is no way to digest what is happening quickly enough. The writers of Friday Night Lights were surely seeing newspaper headlines linking head injuries in football to depression, suicide, and Alzheimer’s disease. But they were stuck in Dillon, writing about a community that is defined by its love of football. And yet, I wonder if Friday Night Lights would have worked so well as a drama if it didn’t have that unacknowledged darkness at its center. Even if it wasn’t intentional, the show’s secret relationship to self-destruction (alcoholism is a persistent plot point) says a lot about the era in which it was aired. As DeLillo put it so well, the aughts were a decade when there was within America “a sumptuous suggestion of a national death wish.” I wrote that phrase down when I first read it (it has the same moodiness of Zadie Smith’s “sociopathic illusion of limitlessness”) and afterwards noticed many sumptuous suggestions of death wishes, from the expensive wars we’ve wages overseas, to our Gilded Age-gap between rich and poor, to our elaborate resistance to universal healthcare. 4. Before I get too political, let me return to fiction, which, unless you are a satirist, is hard to shape around political ideals. Friday Night Lights is above all things, not a satire. It takes its characters and their problems very seriously and treats them with a sincerity that is rare on network television. It doesn’t make fun of its characters for coming from a small place or, more crucially, for not wanting to leave a small place. Many of the writers I admire most—Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, and Stephanie Vaughn, to name a few that come to mind immediately—share this deep sincerity, this interest in characters who may not be worldly, but who live in the world and who love it. As much as I love satire, (and I do, despite evidence to the contrary in this essay), I am never going to write it. A good friend recently confessed that she gave up trying to make jokes years ago because, “Even though I laugh a lot, I am not a funny person.” And we both laughed, because there’s something funny about being ashamed about not being able to joke about everything. But, in an age when comedians earn multi-million dollar book deals, an earnest temperament can make you feel irrelevant. Sometimes I think Karl Ove Knausgaard’s autobiographical novels registered as something new simply because he takes his life seriously and doesn’t caveat his long-winded existential musings with “So, this is a first-world problem, but…” It’s funny to me that it took a network television show to remind me that I could write in a straightforward way, that I don’t need to shock or be elusive, and that I don’t need to impress anyone with my cleverness or my prose-style. All I have to do is to write about the people and places that mean the most to me. Almost all the short stories I wrote during my years of watching Friday Night Lights were published, even the ones I thought of as too ordinary. In the meantime, I’ve been working on a novel. I showed a draft to my husband this summer and one of the first things he said when he was finished reading was, “this would make a great television show.” If he’d said that about my first novel I might have been annoyed. But now I consider it a high compliment.  In terms of depictions of family life, an interesting point of comparison is the nighttime drama Parenthood, which premiered in 2010, and whose showrunner is Jason Katims, who was also a producer of Friday Night Lights. Parenthood has the same tear-jerking-deep-down-everyone’s-doing-the-best-they-can-vibe as Friday Night Lights and uses some of the same actors, but its vision of American family life borders on fantastical. As much as I want to believe in the sunny world of Parenthood, I don’t know anyone who hangs out with their extended family as much as the Bravermans do.  I was taken aback when I realized that the cliffhanger of the first season of Friday Night Lights is how Coach will handle a long-distance relationship after Coach takes a new job. I can’t think of another drama in which such a low-stakes plot point would be considered exciting enough to hook in viewers for the next season.  While I was writing this essay, I met an adorable dog named Tim Riggins, and I saw a pet adoption flyer for a beautiful cat named Lyla Garrity.  Despite the warmth and sweetness of shows like The Office and Parks & Rec, their small-town settings are an ongoing joke.
With last month's awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2013/2014 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. 2013/14 was a suprisingly diverse year when it comes to literary awards, with no single novel winning multiple awards and very little crossover on the shortlists. Only one book is climbing the ranks this year. Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which won the Pulitzer and was on the National Book Critics Circle shortlist. Next year, we will need to make some changes to our methodology. When compiling this list, I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. However, now that the Booker Prize will be open to English-language books from all over the world, including the U.S., the panel of awards is now lopsided in favor of the U.S. Is there another British-only award that we can use to replace the Booker next year? I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W >6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel - B, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2013, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt - P, C 5, 2012, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - C, N 5, 2012, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W< 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
As NASA readies its next Mars launch for today, we’re getting used to the idea of entertainment in space. Recently, Chris Hadfield, a Canadian astronaut, shot a music video of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” onboard the International Space Station and it quickly went viral. It’s had about 19 million views on YouTube — about half the population of Canada. And then Lady Gaga announced that she’ll be shuttling into space to perform a single track in 2015 as part of Zero G Colony music festival. But where’s all the literature in space? Actually, it turns out poetry is fairly well represented and there’s more on the way come Monday. But it’s pretty much a fiction desert up there. There are two poetry recordings making their way through interstellar space. In 1977, NASA launched Voyager I and II, and the former has officially left the embrace of the solar system. It’s traveled roughly 12 billion miles since it was launched, becoming the first man-made object to reach the cusp of interstellar space known as the heliopause. For 36 years the probe has been carrying the Golden Record, Earth’s mix tape for future humanity or curious aliens who know how to spin vinyl, whoever finds it first. Etched into the grooves of the Golden Record (it’s actually gold-plated copper) are 116 photographs of earthly life, 90 minutes of music — from Bach to Blind Willie Johnson to a Navajo night chant — greetings in 54 languages, and a sonic essay that features wind, rain, birdsong, and the yowl of a wild dog. Because there is also a written Presidential address from Jimmy Carter, NASA felt that it should acknowledge the role of Congress by including a list of its members, many of whom advocated for the space agency in Washington during the 1970s. There are also two recorded poetry excerpts. The French delegate to the UN, Benadette Lefort, quotes the first two stanzas from Baudelaire’s poem “Elevation” in Fleurs de Mals: Above the lakes, above the vales, The mountains and the woods, the clouds, the seas, Beyond the sun, beyond the ether, Beyond the confines of the starry spheres, My soul, you move with ease, And like a strong swimmer in rapture in the wave You wing your way blithely through boundless space With virile joy unspeakable Anders Thunboig, Sweden’s UN delegate, follows suit by reading from Harry Martinson’s poem “Visit to the Observatory.” Compared to the Austrian delegate’s utterance — “As the chairman of the Outer Space Committee of the UN and the representative of Austria, I am pleased to extend you our greetings in this way” — the Swedish and French sentiments feel like outpourings of pure, terrestrial emotion. So there’s a smattering of poetry wending its way through space and apparently there’s more on the way. Over the summer, NASA announced that it would be hauling more than 1,000 haiku on this month’s launch of its Mars-bound spacecraft, Maven, courtesy of a University of Colorado Going To Mars competition (the winning entry: It’s funny, they named/ Mars after the God of War/ Have a look at Earth). But where’s the fiction drifting through the dark sea of ionized gas? Outside of whatever the crew of the International Space Station happens to have on their Kindles and iPads, it’s a fictional wasteland up there. If we could make the Golden Record all over again, wouldn’t we send at least one Chekhov story? And I’m pretty sure aliens or our distant future cousins would gladly swap out the list of congressional members for passages from Lolita or Madame Bovary. What follows is a completely biased, unrepresentative sample of what I consider to be fictional cornerstones worthy of sending into the galactic void. In the spirit of compression — there’s only so much a copper-plated LP can hold — I limited myself to scenes or moments from fiction of the 20th century. My apologies to the three preceding literary centuries. And the current one. The prologue from DeLillo’s Underworld The road trip from Nabokov’s Lolita The first encounter with Septimus Warren Smith in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway The scene in which Viri gets measured for custom shirts in James Salter’s Light Years The first fevered dream in Katherine Ann Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider The harrowing moment when the Professor realizes his fate in Paul Bowles’s “A Distant Episode” The scene on the beach between Seymour and Sybil in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” The final dialogue between The Misfit and the grandmother in Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man is Hard to Find” The scene where Otto and Sophie seek respite at their country house in Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters. The opening pages of Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, leading up to the line “This is the great invention of our time.” Like all lists and mix tapes, this is a wildly imperfect one. It fails to take account of world literature and it’s probably got a heavy male bias. Asking for a top ten from any writer forces them to dispense with things they should include to things they must include. It’s reasonable to ask: what would anyone make of these fictional slivers without the full context of the story or novel in question? On the other hand, they’d probably glean more about our planet from these vivid and fraught moments, from the crafting of human language, than they would from the Voyager photos of a supermarket and the Sydney Opera House. As it turns out, these selections have something in common with the Golden Record’s most intimate recording—the sound of a woman’s body as she experiences the first throes of romantic love. As Ann Druyan has described elsewhere, when she was first falling in love with Carl Sagan — to whom she was married until his death in 1996 — she went to Bellevue Hospital so they could record the sounds of her body. If the aliens can follow the scientific notation we’ve posted for them and fathom how to place the stylus into the gold-plated grooves, they’ll hear Ann’s smitten metabolism and the thrumming of her love-addled heartbeat. In other words, they’ll have direct access to human interiority. If we’d sent along some of our best and most haunting fiction, the effect might have been the same. "Eye of Mars" image via NASA/Wikimedia Commons
With last month's awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2012/2013 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. (In fact, 2013/2014 has already begun with the unveiling of the diverse Booker longlist.) Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Hilary Mantel's Cromwell sequel Bring Up the Bodies landed fairly high on the list after sweeping both of Britain's major literary awards (though the book hasn't quite matched the hardware racked up by Mantel's Wolf Hall). Meanwhile, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain and The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson both won notice from more than one literary prize last year. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa (formerly the Whitbread) from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. A glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award (formerly the Whitbread) bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2012, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel - B, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2012, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - C, N 5, 2012, The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W< 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2011/2012 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad moved up thanks to landing on the IMPAC shortlist and is now in some rarefied company among the most honored books of the last 20 years, while The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes and Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman both won notice from more than one literary prize last year. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, I, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, I, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2011, Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman - C, N 5, 2011, The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes - B, W 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Tóibín - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
Don DeLillo builds his novels and stories out of glittering set pieces. The long baseball scene that opens Underworld (reprinted in a standalone edition called Pafko at the Wall), the mass Moonie marriage in the prologue of Mao II, and the encounter with the Airborne Toxic Event in White Noise are all brilliantly conceived and expertly rendered, stretched taut between the real and the surreal. These set pieces are the most memorable parts of his work, but it’s the places between, among, and beneath them from which the transcendent and the ineffable emerge. From the abduction of a child in a park at dusk, to an earthquake ripping through sweltering Athens and two strangers meeting in a gallery of paintings depicting the fates of the Baader-Meinhof terrorists, each of the nine stories in The Angel Esmeralda (collected for the first time from original publications dating back to 1979), is wrapped tightly around its own diamond-cut set piece. Almost all of the stories privilege quiet, introspective spaces within and underneath the insane bustle of the modern city -- an art gallery, a convent, a philosophy course, a white-collar prison. In “The Starveling” (the collection’s only new story), a man spends his days haunting a network of New York movie theaters, where he ruminates on the interplay of light and dark, in life and onscreen, wondering, “was it about the universe and our remote and fleeting place as earthlings? Or was it something much more intimate, people in rooms...?” Once inside these sanctuaries, the characters seek contact with a more ancient and immutable form of existence, one that the city obscures but cannot extinguish. They find their way into these modern sanctuaries through a desire to escape from the chaos of the city outside, and yet only by opening a door to a deeper, more innate chaos, beyond the stories’ perfectionist architecture and impeccable phrasing, does the transcendent emerge palpably onto the page. In the moments when it does, the stories achieve the staggering beauty and strangeness of DeLillo’s best work. All told, The Angel Esmeralda contains three stories in which the transcendent succeeds in breaking through. In these instances, we’re right there along with the characters, in the place of apparition, watching as the secularism of modern society, and the hyper-refined veneer of DeLillo’s prose, vanish like sand blowing off a tomb in the desert. In “Human Moments in World War III” (1983), two men orbit the earth in a military satellite. As a reprieve from the job’s boredom, one of them takes to looking out the window, back at the Earth where, “The view is endlessly fulfilling...it satisfies every childlike curiosity, every muted desire, whatever there is in him of the scientist, the poet, the primitive seer, the watcher of fire and shooting stars...the neural pulse of some wilder awareness...whatever indolent and sybaritic leanings -- lotus-eater, smoker of grasses and herbs, blue-eyed gazer into space -- all these are satisfied, all collected and massed in that living body, the sight he sees from the window.” There’s nowhere to look in the satellite except out the window, and yet the character’s decision to do so and the Earth’s appearance when he does come as hard-earned and long-denied revelations. In “The Ivory Acrobat” (1988), an American woman in Athens in the aftermath of an earthquake examines a carved Minoan figure of an acrobat leaping over a bull. As she tries to reckon with this alien object, she feels the broken record of her self-consciousness slowing to a halt: “There was nothing that might connect her to the mind inside the work...[to] a knowable past, some shared theater of being. The Minoans were outside all this...lost across vales of language and magic, across dream cosmologies...her self-awareness ended where the acrobat began.” In the middle of her paranoid expat existence, she sees a void open that history and language cannot fill. In the title story (1994), the final pages of which rival any DeLillo has written, two nuns who’ve devoted themselves to what often looks like an irredeemable Bronx neighborhood see the shape of a murdered girl appear as an angel on a billboard advertising orange juice. “Her presence was a verifying force, a figure from a universal church...it had being and disposition, there was someone living in the image, a distinguishing spirit and character...a force at some deep level of lament that made [the nun] feel inseparable from...the awestruck who stood in tidal traffic..." These are rare moments when the ancient and the infinite erupt out of human production -- a spacecraft, an artifact, a billboard, and, of course, DeLillo’s own writing. He sets his stories in technological arenas that assert the victory of human reason over universal chaos, and yet, in the crucial religious moment, chaos looms back up, subverting the tools that humans have built to use against it. These appearances give way to disappearance and disappointment, but there are two kinds of disappointment here: disappointment in a reality that the story has meaningfully conveyed, and disappointment in the story for having shirked that reality’s magnitude. These three stories evoke the first and more cathartic disappointment. Leaving the place where the angel appeared, the nuns wonder, “...what do you remember, finally, when everyone has gone home and the streets are empty of devotion and hope, swept by river wind? Is the memory thin and bitter and does it shame you with its fundamental untruth...or does the power of transcendence linger, the sense of an event that violates natural forces...stand against your doubts?” In these three stories, you’re right there with the characters, shuddering with the shockwaves of impossible events, as sudden and devastating as a detonated bomb. All of the stories in this collection, even those that don’t reach these shivery highs, abound with brilliant ideas. But brilliant ideas alone are not enough to make them all work. Many feel stranded, like parts of a larger project that doesn’t exist. This is because DeLillo’s writing really comes alive not from the quality of its individual ideas, but from their shadows and echoes, the resonances of their “white noise,” magnified across a vast psychic and visual plane. In all of his novels, but not in all of his stories, these shadows and echoes mount into a chaotic force, rippling both across and underneath the surface. As it does, his vision spreads outward, encompassing ever more of the nuances and frequencies of an urbanized West that has maxed out on chatter and distraction, gorging itself on anxieties about the vanishing past, the splintering present, and the accelerating emergence of the future. It has to expand like this in order to express the burden of shepherding a lone self through a world of mass-consciousness, ruled by media and money, where terror is the only form of awe that has not been stripped and sold for parts. The novels’ plots are so all-encompassing that they send out and respond to hidden currents running through the heart of our culture, as dangerous and vital as the plots of terrorists -- as DeLillo imagines them -- have become. In Mao II, he writes, “...isn’t it the novelist...above all people, above all writers...who knows in his soul what the terrorist thinks and feels? Through history it’s the novelist who has felt affinity for the violent man who lives in the dark.” This is not to say that a great novelist like Don DeLillo shouldn’t write short stories, but I do think that his novelistic vision is ill-served by the story form, and that The Angel Esmeralda is not the product of a different, authentically story-sized vision. For all of their interest in apparitions breaking into the world, the stories permit few breaks in their own conceptual rigging, and thus often exclude the very forces they’ve summoned. What does appear, if one reads the collection in chronological order, is a portrait of DeLillo himself, as the author who most compellingly captured the mental life of the Western world in the late 20th century. In both the novels and the stories from this period, one can hear a city, maybe a whole civilization, speaking and even thinking through him. It’s no coincidence that the collection’s three best stories date from the '80s and '90s. In these stories, as in Libra, White Noise, Mao II, and Underworld (spanning the period 1985-1997), there are passages that move beyond the synthetic and into the prophetic. One gets the sense that he not only saw what was going on at that time, on an absurdly grand scale, but that he saw into it, farther in than anyone else could. These passages feel like the incarnation of something way beyond the scope of an individual mind. For all the control and precision in his language, chaos breaks through in these passages. In his famous crowd scenes -- at sports games, political rallies, fanatic religious ceremonies, and panoramas of mass squalor and degradation -- human consciousness breaks down and is overcome by something non-human, a singular psychic totality that exists beyond the infinite. In “The Ivory Acrobat,” a line of traffic in Athens “resembled some landscape in the dreaming part of us, what the city teaches us to fear.” A new state of being emerges from the mob and the traffic jam, from the novelist conjuring up ghost cities and the terrorist burning down real ones. This more primal chaos, underneath the daily chaos of the city, ends finally in unity, and perhaps also in peace. DeLillo will always be a master stylist, but this only magnifies the difference between the times when this spirit breaks through his style, and the times when it does not. As the West’s relation to terror and art, and to mass communication and solitary insight, shifts in the early 21st century, this prophetic voice has shifted away from DeLillo. In retrospect, his best work shares the billboard angel’s overwhelming but transitory power: impossible to deny when it’s there, impossible to believe when it’s gone.
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2010/2011 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Literary prizes are, of course, deeply arbitrary in many ways; such is the nature of keeping score in a creative field. Nonetheless, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up Cy Young Awards and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and help secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are three books climbing the ranks this year. Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad unsurprisingly had a good showing with judges. Meanwhile, the IMPAC win puts Colum McCann's Let the Great World Spin on our list, and the shortlist nod does the same for Colm Tóibín's Brooklyn. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P, I 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2010, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan - C, P 6, 2009, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann - N, I 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2009, Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín - W, I 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
Before I opened William Gibson's new novel, Zero History, I sat down to a second viewing of Cyberpunk, a documentary film made in the late 1980s, when Gibson was writing his legend as avatar of a movement that was revivifying the comatose science fiction genre. In the film, Gibson sports a fluffy cloud of hair that would have looked right at home on a Duran Duran album cover, and he comes across as a glib and brainy sound-bite machine. "Science fiction is the golden ghetto," he says. "I think we're moving toward a world where all the consumers under a certain age will probably tend to identify more with their consumer status – the products they consume – than with any antiquated notion of nationality," he says. "We are technology ... people are interchangeable ... information wants to be free ... the future has already happened..." While there's nutritious food for thought in every one of these pronouncements, the thing that struck me on my second viewing of the documentary was the expression on Gibson's face. He wore a constant grin that can only be described as a smirk. That smirk said, in no uncertain terms, I've figured out stuff you haven't even begun to imagine – because I'm way smarter than you'll ever be. In the author photo on the back of the Zero History dust jacket, Gibson's hair is cropped close. But the old smirk is, figuratively speaking, evident on every page of the novel, which is less concerned with the implications of cyber-technology than with the talismanic powers of the products people consume. The novel opens badly. There are windy descriptions of hotel lobbies, bathroom fixtures, gift shop kitsch, computer game arcades, things that do nothing to advance the story but merely attempt to show off Gibson's chops. Here he is on the content of a BBC newscast: "Early twenty-first-century quotidian, death-spiral subtexts kept well down in the mix." I have no idea what "quotidian, death-spiral subtexts" are. There are dozens of examples of this sort of opacity, and they all point to a writer trying way too hard to be hip and wise and, far worse, allowing the effort to show. No smirk in the world can cover that kind of misstep. Once Gibson gets out of the way and lets his two parallel narratives come together, the novel finally takes off. Hollis Henry, who appeared in Gibson's prior novel, Spook Country, is a former singer turned writer who is being wooed by a London advertising mogul with the implausible name of Hubertus Bigend, who also appeared in Spook Country and in its predecessor, Pattern Recognition. "We aren't just an advertising agency," Bigend tells Hollis. "We do brand revision transmission, trend forecasting, vendor management, youth market recon, strategic planning in general." To use a coinage from Pattern Recognition, he's a coolhunter. Bigend pairs Hollis with Milgrim, a recovering tranquilizer junkie (who also appeared in Spook Country), to hunt down the coolest thing on the street – a new brand of denim called Gabriel Hounds that's so mysterious, so rare, so hard to find that people absolutely must have it. And Bigend thinks there are massive profits to be made by using it in military contracts. A stealthy seller tries to explain the ineffable allure of Gabriel Hounds: "It's about atemporality. About opting out of the industrialization of novelty. It's about deeper code." This sounds like discount Don DeLillo to me. But no matter how many $10 words Gibson uses, this is, first and last, a story about ... jeans. In the novel's better moments, denim clothing actually serves as a workable metaphor for the thing Gibson is after. He has always been fascinated by fashion, not only as an expression of personal style (that is, a shorthand way of reading character), but as a place where technology and advertising work together, on a global scale, to create and feed human appetites in the name of corporate profits. As he correctly predicted a quarter of a century ago in Cyberpunk, people under a certain age today identify more with the products they consume than with any antiquated notions of nationality. This is a worthy theme, and Gibson sometimes works it to dazzling effect. He's especially good on Milgrim's paranoia when he discovers he's being shadowed by Bigend's competitors. And there is some unforgettable writing, such as an 18th-century townhouse with a facade that looks like "the face of someone starting to fall asleep on the subway." Or the way drug addictions start out as "magical pets, pocket monsters," but wind up being "less intelligent than goldfish." But Gibson doesn't seem to have faith in his own story. Halfway through the book he injects a kidnapping, which leads to the deus ex machina arrival of Hollis's old flame, and a denouement that barely rises to the level of a competent espionage novel. Gibson's great strength in his early books – and the source of his global following – is that he made readers want to inhabit the worlds he has imagined. But now he strikes me as a prospector who's working an exhausted vein. If he hasn't exactly watched too many of his predictions come true, maybe he has watched too many others fail to make them come true. He correctly imagined the inter-connectedness of cyberspace, but it did not, as he'd envisioned it, swallow us in three dimensions. His concept of a matrix hasn't amounted to much more than a lucrative movie franchise. And the things his coolhunters have lately been hunting don't strike me as all that unbearably cool. The root of Gibson's problem is that he has set up shop in the future, and the future, as he himself put it, has already happened. Again Don DeLillo comes to mind. His brilliant earlier novels, especially White Noise, Mao II and Underworld, didn't so much predict the 9-11 terrorist attacks as make it possible for us to dread them; since the attacks, DeLillo's writing has come unmoored. As Andrew O'Hagan asked in an unfavorable review of DeLillo's 2007 novel Falling Man in the New York Review of Books: "What is a prophet once his fiery words become deed? People still speak of the anxiety of influence, but what of a novelist's anxiety about his past work's influence on himself?" Based on the evidence of his three most recent novels, I think Gibson is suffering from this very anxiety – and if he's not, he should be. His early fascination with technology, a source of so much fresh writing, has curdled into a sort of arch hipper-than-thou pose. It's time for this writer of boundless talent to strike out for new territories, to break free of his past work's influence on himself, to go back to a new future, or deeper into the present, or all the way into the past. Or, possibly, all of the above, all at once. And while he's on his way to wherever he decides to go, Gibson needs to wipe that smirk off his face.
1. I’m guessing that most readers these days know A. C. Bradley secondhand, through the excerpts and quotes found in the study materials for the Arden series and the other popular editions of Shakespeare’s plays. This is a shame, because Bradley is a better critic in full than he is in bits and pieces, and Shakespearean Tragedy continues to be an exciting book for anyone interested in literature. Bradley’s specialty is the passionate discussion of literary characters in vivid, consuming detail. He feels that exploring the mind and actions of Hamlet or Iago is worth every last bit of effort we can give it. He has a point—one that applies to the work of many modern writers as much as it does to Shakespeare. It would be fascinating, for instance, to see the Bradley touch brought to bear on books like Underworld or Infinite Jest. 2. In the history of literary criticism, Bradley is a worthy successor to Johnson and Coleridge, two of the earlier writers whose names and opinions spring up repeatedly in Shakespearean Tragedy. Like his predecessors, Bradley still instructs and amuses long after most of the general literary theories of his time have fallen away. The first edition of Shakespearean Tragedy came out in 1904, and is based on work Bradley prepared for teaching at Oxford, Liverpool and Glasgow. The volume takes the form of a set of imaginary lectures, largely a series of detailed examinations of the most important characters from Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth and King Lear. Bradley’s learning is formidable. He has an easy acquaintance with the imposing German tradition of Shakespeare scholarship, along with an elegant, lightly-worn knowledge of the many influences Shakespeare drew upon for his writing. At heart, though, Bradley’s method is personal. He says what he thinks of Shakespeare’s characters, and why he feels they matter to our understanding of life. Obviously, this approach exposes him to ridicule. His only real shield against failure is his own insight into people, based on his inevitably dated and incomplete notions of human nature. In the end, he can’t begin to tell us more about Hamlet or about the world than Shakespeare tells us himself. Bradley knows this, and his modesty is appealing. He assumes that good literature always has more to give us than even the best critics can express in topic sentences and abstractions. And it’s precisely Bradley’s humility—his willingness to embrace his ultimate defeat—that allows him to polish and display certain facets of Shakespeare we aren’t likely to have seen so sharply on our own. 3. The Hamlet lectures are the standouts here. Bradley highlights Hamlet’s disastrous failure, which leads not only to his death but to the deaths of many others, including his mother and the young woman he has loved—a domino fall of wasted lives that goes far beyond the intended murder of Claudius. Mentally and emotionally, Hamlet is both overwhelming and exasperating. His mind whirls with all the clashing thoughts and passions that come out in the abrupt swerves of his thrilling verbal agility. Whatever the motives for his delays and decisions, we never doubt his intelligence or the complexity of his feelings. He has always been one of Shakespeare’s most popular characters, even though I suspect most of us would rather see him from the safety of the audience than change places with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for some of those abusive conversations at Elsinore. Bradley confronts us with one of the play’s many mysteries: Why does Shakespeare show us this smart, resourceful, startlingly changeable young man destroying himself and everyone around him? Elizabethan tragedy is a long way from our modern appetite for uplifting stories about sympathetic people overcoming adversity. In Hamlet, nobody overcomes adversity—everyone is crushed by it. Yet Hamlet remains an exhilarating play, and Hamlet an exhilarating character. He isn’t likeable in any narrow sense, but his flaws are electric, a high-voltage display of humanity at its most disorienting. 4. For Bradley, Hamlet’s key mistake is his failure to kill Claudius while the king is praying. At this point, Hamlet has seen Claudius’s reaction to the play-within-the-play and has confirmed that Claudius is the murderer of Hamlet’s father. With loving attention to counterarguments and conflicting evidence, Bradley sets forth the different possible reasons for Hamlet’s hesitation, from his stated refusal to kill someone in the middle of a prayer to the less conscious repulsion that Hamlet now feels for all human action. “His whole mind is poisoned,” Bradley says. In Bradley’s view, Hamlet is serious about his stated reasons, yet he also follows emotional, philosophical and mystical impulses that he barely comprehends. It’s characteristic of Bradley that he chooses less to limit the possible interpretations here than to open them up and allow a wide and sometimes contradictory range of options. Many modern critics are so polemical that they sound like lawyers defending a consortium of tobacco companies. Bradley, in contrast, takes an inclusive approach that seems nicely suited to fiction in general. Fiction writers have the advantage of not needing to settle on a single explicit thesis. Instead, they can grow as many vines and branches of motive and implication as a story allows. Few authors are better at this than Shakespeare: it seems to have been a natural part of the way he thought about life. This is one reason his poetry tends to be so suggestive, filled with images that unfold in many different directions at once. At any rate, Hamlet’s refusal to kill the praying Claudius is, Bradley claims, the turning point of the play: So far, Hamlet’s delay, though it is endangering his freedom and his life, has done no irreparable harm; but his failure here is the cause of all the disasters that follow. In sparing the King, he sacrifices Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Laertes, the Queen and himself. Bradley feels that, from this scene on, Hamlet’s melancholy combines with the circumstances around him to bring about the story’s increasingly out-of-control destruction—starting, of course, with the reckless murder of Polonius. Have you ever wished that, just once, the gun-toting hero of an action movie would accidentally shoot the wrong person during a car chase and spend the rest of the film facing the consequences of his mistake? Well, that’s a bit what Shakespeare does with Hamlet’s killing of Polonius, which leads to Ophelia’s suicide, the executions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the quadruple slaughter of the swordfight scene. 5. Bradley believes that all this devastation throws into high relief the waste of Hamlet’s special alertness to the world and its mysteries. “Hamlet most brings home to us at once the sense of the soul’s infinity, and the sense of doom which not only circumscribes that infinity but appears to be its offspring,” Bradley writes. Hamlet is, in Jamesian terms, an unusually vital vessel of experience, and the waste of his life is a more catastrophic version of the waste of all our lives, all our potentials: We seem to have before us a type of the mystery of the whole world, the tragic fact which extends far beyond the limits of tragedy. Everywhere…we see power, intelligence, life and glory, which astound us and seem to call for our worship. And everywhere we see them perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves, often with dreadful pain, as though they came into being for no other end. Tragedy is the typical form of this mystery…and it makes us realize so vividly the worth of that which is wasted that we cannot possibly seek comfort in the reflection that all is vanity. A passage like this is obviously overreaching, but it’s overreaching in a way that feels entirely appropriate to Hamlet. Bradley risks bombast in criticism of this sort, but so does Shakespeare in most of his best plays, and critics need to throw off their restraint sometimes and write as freely as Bradley has written here. We can quarrel with his language, we can disagree with some of his assumptions, but this passage has more than enough insight in it to excuse its flaws. 6. Bradley loves guiding us through the tragedies scene by scene, giving us his views on the characters’ words and acts. Every page hums with energy: Bradley has an expert sense of pace, and carries us along from one brisk comment to the next. He has much to say on Othello, all of it interesting. Although most of the criticism is delightfully specific, Bradley also does what Shakespeare surely wanted us to do, and draws from our encounters with Iago a fuller attention to certain forms of cruelty: To ‘plume up the will’, to heighten the sense of power or superiority—this seems to be the unconscious motive of many acts of cruelty which evidently do not spring chiefly from ill-will, and which therefore puzzle and sometimes horrify us most. It is often this that makes a man bully the wife or children of whom he is fond. The boy who torments another boy, as we say, ‘for no reason’, or who without any hatred for frogs tortures a frog, is pleased with his victim’s pain, not from any disinterested love of evil or pleasure in pain, but mainly because this pain is the unmistakable proof of his own power over his victim. So it is with Iago. His thwarted sense of superiority wants satisfaction. Later, in his lectures on Macbeth, he teases out the title character’s thread of dark inner poetry: Macbeth’s better nature—to put the matter for clearness’ sake too broadly—instead of speaking to him in the overt language of moral ideas, commands, and prohibitions, incorporates itself in images which alarm and horrify. His imagination is thus the best of him, something usually deeper and higher than his conscious thoughts; and if he had obeyed it he would have been safe. In addition, Bradley is as good on the tragedies’ secondary characters as he is on Hamlet and Iago. He stands up for Ophelia against the old charge that her mental collapse is a result of her personal weakness: …her critics hardly seem to realize the situation, hardly to put themselves in the place of a girl whose lover, estranged from her, goes mad and kills her father. They seem to forget also that Ophelia must have believed that these frightful calamities were not mere calamities, but followed from her action in repelling her lover. Similarly, with Kent in King Lear, he clarifies that character’s particular mix of nobility and foolishness: One has not the heart to wish him different, but he illustrates the truth that to run one’s head unselfishly against a wall is not the best way to help one’s friends. 7. In the years after his death in 1935, Bradley took some beatings for his belief that Shakespeare’s characters can be treated as people and not as fictional conceits. Looking back on these complaints now, they seem overstated. Any extended character study, with its presumption that a character has some independent life or personality outside the text, relies as much on imagination as on scholarship. Bradley isn’t merely critiquing Shakespeare—he’s writing a fiction of his own. Still, to critique one fiction with another fiction is both defensible and potentially exciting, and shouldn’t bother readers who enjoy Borges or Nabokov or Sebald. If we take Bradley as an artist—a role his modesty would probably deny—his fictional versions of Shakespeare’s creations are rich achievements. Besides, Bradley always sticks closely to the plays themselves, and grounds his speculations in his intimate study of the tragedies’ theatrical and poetic details. I suspect that Bradley would want us to end by giving less credit to him and more to Shakespeare. Again and again, Bradley takes up these four tragedies and uses them to bring his personal observations about the world into focus. He approaches the plays as if they were a collection of powerful lenses, and puts them on when he wants to look at things that are too distant or too obscure for his unaided sight to make out as clearly as he would like. This is one of the ways that many of us use good writing, and Bradley’s method has a straightforward intelligence to it that still impresses, and always entertains.
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, the 2009/2010 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Though literary prizes are arbitrary in many ways, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up batting titles and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. There are two books climbing the ranks this year. With an impressive showing with the judges, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall has become something of an instant classic, landing near the top of the list and in very good company. Meanwhile, the IMPAC shortlist nod puts Marilynn Robinson's Home side-by-side with her much praised Gilead from 2004. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods were added to point totals from last year. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 2009, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel - B, C, W 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P, I 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2009, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N, I 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P
Aside from being a fellow contributor to The Millions, Sonya Chung is the author of the debut novel, Long for this World, a beautiful book that focuses on the small but complicated negotiations of a family, and larger, global questions of identity, art, and happiness. Sonya and I met for the first time last fall, and I was excited but nervous to read her novel. What if I didn't like it? To my relief--and joy--I loved it. It's so gracefully told, and rich--not to mention riveting. Of the book, author Kate Walbert says, "An intricately structured and powerfully resonant portrait of lives lived at the crossroads of culture, and a family torn between the old world and the new, Long for This World marks a powerful debut from a young writer of great talent and promise." I concur. In this interview, Sonya and I discuss her book, the publication process, and what's it's really like to go from human to author. The Millions: I was impressed with how effortlessly you moved from one character's perspective to another in this book. The choice to give war photographer Jane, the Korean-American daughter of Han Hyun-kyu, her own first-person perspective seemed almost intuitive. Was it? The jacket copy calls your novel a "pointillist triumph", and that's accurate: these differences in voice ultimately make up a whole, united story. How did these shifting perspectives come about, and why is Jane the only one who speaks in the "I"? Sonya Chung: Thanks for your kind words, Edan. And, you are correct: I knew early on that the story would span multiple cultures and settings, and I knew that sections would pivot among points of view. I tend to write without a detailed outline, but I have these intuitive (good word, your word) backdrops that guide and propel me. Polyphony was one of these backdrops. It’s a word/idea that I first grasped as a literary structure (as opposed to a strictly musical term) via Milan Kundera, who was an influence in graduate school; and saw the form modeled in novels like As I Lay Dying, Julia Glass’s Three Junes, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, DeLillo’sUnderworld, Amy Bloom’s Love Invents Us, and many others. Even with its global canvas, Long for This World is ultimately a family novel; and to me, all families are deeply, radically polyphonic. Jane is a Western character, American born, and of the younger generation; she is also individualistic, relative to her native-Korean counterparts, so it “sounded” right in my ear that she would narrate in a first-person voice (I write very much in an aural way). Conversely, I heard the more traditional Korean characters in third-person, and with a bit of narrative distance (it was almost as if I, the author, was paying these older characters their narrative-distance respect). Ultimately, the collage form provided a way for this multi-layered story to be told compactly, with the shifts in voices/perspectives becoming a part of the story-telling itself. [Note: see my comparative review essay for The Millions about multi-voiced novels; apparently, this form has been on my mind a lot!] TM: Although the book only has a few snippets of foreign language, the dialogue often reflects, in English, that the characters are speaking Korean; this is managed by imbuing the speech with a distinct formality. At one point, Han Jae-kyu notes that his brother Han Hyun-kyu--whose been living in America for so long, "seems to have lost, during his years in America, an intuitive sense for the humbled "I": juh, instead of nah; the manners of apology, overstated in good measure, and self-effacement." I wonder, did these "manners of apology" influence the actions and destinies of your Korean characters, versus those who have been Americanized? How has moving away from Korea changed Han Hyun-kyu and his wife, Lee Woo-in? As you were writing, did you focus centrally on questions of culture--those behaviors and rituals that are either inherited, learned or discarded? SC: This question has a bit of the “nature vs nurture” debate in the subtext, I think. My perspective on that is very much both/and, i.e. these characters are at once shaped by culture/circumstance, and also by something essential in each of them. I never conceived of any character as exclusively a metaphor for his cultural experience, but at the same time each character’s backstory does exert a pressure on the present. For example, the semi-romantic collision between Han Hyun-kyu (who emigrated to the US as a young man) and his sister-in-law Han Jung-joo occurs mostly because the cultural alchemy is just right: they are the same but not the same, Han Hyun-kyu being both native Korean from a small town, and also shaped by Western romanticism. On the other hand, in a scene between Jane and her brother Henry, Jane is trying to better understand their mother— a character who has caused the family grief — by painting her own version of her mother’s childhood, and Henry’s response is, “Shit goes down. People survive. You overdo it with Mom sometimes.” Later, when Jane tries to trace her own struggles back to something in her childhood, the Korean artist Chae Min-suk basically responds with, "That’s too bad." I’m fascinated by the fact that individuals raised in basically the same circumstances can evolve so differently; in Long for This World, this is very much the case, and one of the novel’s central concerns is how to manage/understand this randomness, this mysterious sense that some people are strong, some are weak, some people survive, some don’t. Is it culture, family, individual spirit, God, chance, all of the above? TM: It took me almost two years to write a first draft of my novel, but I feel like I was floundering for the first nine months. I always find it helpful to hear from other young writers how the process was for them. How long did it take you to write your book? SC: About three and a half years, from when I started to when an agent took me on. TM: Can you describe for readers how you found your agent? My own search--though it now, thank goodness, has a happy ending--was harrowing. SC: Finding an agent was tough — a wilderness time, not for the faint of heart. But I basically “followed directions,” did what teachers and writers advised: I made a list of contemporary writers I most admired, flipped to the Acknowledgments pages of their books, and found out who their agents were. I wrote succinct query letters. I followed submissions guidelines. Over a period of several months, I received both form-letter rejections and some very thoughtful, thorough ones. I came very close with three different agents; after the third turned me down, I wallowed and fretted for a few months. Then, miraculously, two friends whom I’d asked to read the manuscript came back with comments — both honest and encouraging. “You’re much closer than you think you are” were the magic words, the refueling I needed to dig in to a final, significant revision. With a new manuscript, I found a champion in Amy Williams — who’s been wonderful, as both agent and friend. In retrospect (that darned 20/20 hindsight), I probably sent the manuscript out too early; in my heart of hearts, I knew it wasn’t ready. But I was impatient and hungry for affirmation, so I flung it out there. I don’t recommend that. TM: What was it like, once you found your agent, getting published? SC: Finding a publisher was weirdly fast, given the long road of writing, revising, finding an agent. I met with Amy on a Tuesday, she sent the manuscript out to editors that Thursday, we had an offer on Monday. It took a week for it to sink in, and even then, I don’t think I quite understood just how lucky I was. TM: Has anything surprised you about the publication process? SC: Pretty much everything has surprised me. I knew almost nothing about publishing a book, and it’s funny — well, sometimes not so funny — how people in the biz expect that you would. In other words, there’s no Orientation Day for New Writers. I would get these emails referencing “second pass pages” and have no idea what that was; or I’d get a manuscript in the mail with a deadline but wouldn’t know what I was expected to do with it exactly. I was surprised by how long some things took and how quickly other things moved. It became pretty predictable that what I feared would happen didn’t, and what I never saw coming did – maybe kind of like life? I’m glad to have the first book under my belt; next time (assuming there’s a next time), I’ll know a little better. I was a little surprised by how gut-struck I was when the hardcovers came in. For a first-time author, there is nothing like the hardcover. TM: How about touring and promoting your book? Do you find that an easy or fulfilling aspect of being a published author? SC: The social networking aspect of publicity – what most authors are now expected to do – is a mixed bag. It’s wonderful and energizing to connect with other writers and enthusiastic readers in this direct, boundary-less way; but it’s also time-consuming and creates a weird sort of self-consciousness that I’m not sure is conducive to the writing process (Kazuo Ishiguro talked about this in a great interview several years back). These days, the writer perhaps feels both more control and more responsibility, with regard to how much attention her book gets: if you want to go gangbusters on blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, scheduling your own book tour events, you can do that, and to good effect, but the amount of time/energy you can devote is also endless. If you happen to be a natural networker, it definitely works to your advantage; if, like many writers, you prefer the writing cave, it can be burdensome. There are some days when I realize I could spend 12 hours just exchanging emails and Facebook messages with people who might “open doors” for publicity and events. It’s definitely a choice, and you want to make sure that you’re continuing to choose to write in the midst of all that networking. With the book tour these days, authors are encouraged to be “lean and mean” and strategic about it. No more 20-city book tours! As for the experience, maybe I’ll start by saying what, for me, it’s not: it’s not exactly “exciting” or “fun.” Those seem to be the two expectations – “Are you excited? Are you having fun?” Primarily, it’s work, which is not a bad thing at all – it’s just distinct from the romanticized notion that it’s glamorous or the pinnacle of dream-fulfillment. I don’t mean to be down on it. It’s absolutely gratifying to meet readers and to hear their good questions or that they’ve been moved by your book; booksellers are a special group of people, and it’s a privilege to connect with them in person; your friends and family roll out endless generosity, support, and hospitality. But book touring is also a lot of scheduling and shuttling and talking talking talking, and also, in a way, performing. After returning from an intense book-events trip a few weeks ago, I sat down to my blog, which I had not updated in several days, and found myself writing, essentially: “Hi everyone. I have nothing to say. I am all talked out.” TM: I think for debut writers, it's both exhilarating and slightly scary to have people reading something you worked on for so long. It would be for me. Have the people close to you read your book, and if so, what's been the reaction? SC: It’s very strange when your friends and family read your book. After the release date, I started getting emails and Facebook notes – “I’m reading your book!” I thought, “You are?” Promotions had taken up so much space in my head, I forgot that people would actually be reading the thing. Most of my friends and family are not writers, and some aren’t even avid readers; so it’s been gratifying to hear that people like the book, that it seems to have an “all things to all people” quality to it, which surprised me, frankly. I worried that the book might not be that accessible, because it’s complex in structure and perhaps more densely populated than some other novels. A number of people have said they “couldn’t put it down,” that it was a “page-turner.” I love that, because the narrative is fragmented, and I know that agents and editors sometimes shy away from that because of the readability factor. Of course, not everyone will connect with your work; my expectations were pretty low about this, I know all too well that you can love a person but not love her books (and vice versa). So overall I was pleasantly surprised. TM: It's interesting to me that you weren't considering the readability of your novel, because it is such a page-turner. When I'm writing, I'm (perhaps unhealthily) obsessed with the question of readability, perhaps because I find it's such a pleasing quality in other people's books. As you were writing Long for This World, did you imagine for yourself a reader? How did you perceive of their reading experience? SC: That’s interesting that you think about the reader. Maybe somewhere between you and me is a good, healthy place to land? I did not, and do not, consider the reader when I’m writing. The work is a contained world for me, unto itself, it has its own internal energy and design; and when I sit down to work I’m like the astronaut landing on Planet Novel. I’m worried that this is going to sound pathologically narcissistic, but “the reader” – during early drafts – is me. Going with the astronaut analogy, it’s me who needs to be able to find good air and solid footing and navigate the place while I’m in there. This does raise challenges later on. For example, I named the characters from inside the astronaut suit. During the editorial process, it became clear that the Korean names were going to be tough for native English-speakers (siblings in a Korean family typically have similar names, e.g. Han Hyun-kyu and Han Jae-kyu). But by then, their names were their names, they weren’t going to change, so we decided to put a character list in front to help readers navigate (I’m also now considering an audio pronunciation guide for my website). I suppose I’ll incorporate that experience as I go forward, but generally speaking I find that, for me, cracking open that door to self-consciousness lets in all kinds of monsters. TM: It certainly can! I suppose my imagined reader is me--and also not me. I certainly write what I would like to read, but my writing is also for some imaginary person, someone who lives across town, perhaps, and reads in the tub, and in line at the post office, and during breakfast. She has impeccable taste, of course. This lady, she absolutely loved your book!
Elizabeth wrote in with this question: This upcoming semester I will be teaching a literature class at an East Coast college. The reading list includes several poems, stories, and essays as well as two plays, and just one novel. The English chair explained that because the school is heavy on business majors, for many students the novel they read in this course may the only novel they read for the rest of their college experience, and in some cases, for the rest of their lives. To be charged with selecting the "one novel of a person's life" seems like both an impossible burden and a precious gift. I don't know if I should choose something relatively accessible that might induce a love of reading (Lolita, The Remains of the Day, White Teeth) or a classic that might give them a greater perspective on the history and traditions of storytelling (Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, To the Lighthouse.) My question, then, is really this: if you could read just one novel, what would it be? Several of us pitched in on this one. Some of us took Elizabeth's question literally, wondering what "one novel" we would choose in the (terrifying) event that we would be allowed just one for the rest of our lives. While others put themselves in Elizabeth's shoes, trying to figure out how to wield the awesome responsibility of determining the entirety of another person's reading experience. Here are our answers: Garth: The hypothetical here - if you could read just one novel - strikes fear into my heart. Certainly, the book should be long, if there's only going to be one. I'm tempted to say A Remembrance of Things Past on those grounds alone. On the other hand, the Marcel-Albertine romance never stoked my fires as much as the other relationships in the book, and I've got the feeling that this one, singular book should be a love story. In the same way that, if you only had one great narrative of your own life, you'd want it to be a love story. So: how about Anna Karenina? Writing about happiness is the hardest thing to do, and, in a book which most people remember for the sad parts, Tolstoy does it better than anyone. Edan: My suggestion - Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut - may be an obvious one, but it makes sense as a syllabus pick for a number of reasons. Firstly, it's highly readable. It's important that the assigned book be entertaining, since someone who doesn't read much won't tolerate a slow or dense novel (just as someone who isn't a movie buff (read: me) won't sit through a John Cassavetes film). Secondly, there's a lot in the book to discuss as a class. I read it two years ago, and found it to be structurally fascinating, as well as funny, playful, and damn moving. For instance, I was interested in how the phrase "So it goes" repeated throughout the novel, changing with each use: first the casualness jarred me, and then I was surprised to see it, and then I expected to see it, and then I was exhausted by it, and the cycle went round and round again, a little different each time. I'd love to talk about this process as a group, and I think others - book worms or not - would, too. And, lastly, Kurt Vonnegut is a great writer to like, as he has so many other books, and his influence in American literature is just enormous. If you love his books, there are others to discover. Get someone hooked on Vonnegut, and he or she will be a reader for life. Andrew: If I could only pick one novel, I'd pick one that will magically smash through curriculum limits and lead the reader head-first to others - a gateway novel, if you will. I have a hierarchy of favorites - modern and classic - but strategically I'll pick the one that, looking back, opened up the world to me. I first read Slaughterhouse-Five when I was about nineteen years old. I was discovering Kurt Vonnegut and was drawn to his darkly comic way of writing - playful, with big chunks of sci-fi thrown in to satisfy the geek in me. Slaughterhouse-Five has all of the Vonnegut tropes, but digs deep. Billy Pilgrim, our mid-century, middle-aged, middle-class hero, has become "unstuck in time" and we follow him forward to the planet Tralfamadore, and backwards to 1945 where Billy and his fellow soldiers - kids, really - are POWs in Dresden. Though Vonnegut's playful, ironic fatalism gives the story its rhythm, and the time-shifting gives it its structure, the horrific firebombing of Dresden gives the novel its depth. This is a war story like no other. Emily: In the words of Gabriel Betteredge, taken from Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone: "You are not to take it, if you please, as the saying of an ignorant man, when I express my opinion that such a book as Robinson Crusoe never was written, and never will be written again. I have tried that book for years--generally in combination with a pipe of tobacco--and I have found it my friend in need on all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad--Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice--Robinson Crusoe. In times past when my wife plagued me; in present times when I have had a drop too many--Robinson Crusoe. I have worn out six stout Robinson Crusoes with hard work in my service. On my lady's last birthday she gave me a seventh. I took a drop too much on the strength of it; and Robinson Crusoe put me right again. Price four shillings and sixpence, bound in blue, with a picture into the bargain." And if you object to Crusoe, then The Moonstone, the finest (and first, some would say) detective novel ever written. Noah: Are we in a primordial state, untouched by letters save for one sacred tome (The Complete Works of Shakespeare, perhaps)? Or simply naming our favorite book (A Fan’s Notes). This exercise is like picking a "desert island book," the book you’d want to have to read by the yellow flickering of a driftwood fire while the palm fronds sway in the moonlight and the ocean crashes below. In this situation I might opt for something long and beloved, an Infinite Jest or Underworld, say. Maybe a classic that I haven’t read would be better (even on a deserted island it’s important to be well-read). The Count of Monte Cristo could work well. I’ve heard good things. But no, we are talking about choosing a book to teach. A book to teach to business majors who may not read another word the rest of their lives. I think The Great Gatsby fits the bill. Lydia: This question has made my week a little less enjoyable, because every time I sat down to lounge, I remembered that I had to pick the only book that a group of people will read, maybe ever. Their lives were in my hands. I thought about it a lot, and I have decided that I would assign David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas. It is intensely readable, so they will actually read it. Some things I had to read in college English classes, like the wretched Pamela, were so unfun to read that I did not, in fact, read them. Never underestimate a college student's unwillingness to do his or her homework, especially if it is boring. Also, Cloud Atlas centers around a neat narrative trick, so you can talk about novels and the different ways people make them. Since it adopts a series of voices, you can tell the students that if they liked the Frobisher part, they can try Isherwood, and Martin Amis if they liked the Cavendish part, and so on. Ideally this will trick them into reading more novels. Finally, Cloud Atlas even has A Message, slightly simplistic though it may be, and will provide gentle moral instruction to your flock (I think it's "Make love not war, save the planet"). Max: It was fascinating to me that both Edan and Andrew picked Slaughterhouse-Five (and for the same reasons!) It's true that this novel (or, in a somewhat similar vein Catch-22) will serve to entertainingly blow up any preconceived notion that an intelligent non-reader may have had about the boring old novel. I also found interesting Noah's and Garth's idea (reading the question as looking for a "desert island book") that length is critical. With that as my consideration, I would choose Alvaro Mutis' The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, an adventure novel that could be plumbed again and again, or East of Eden, the best of the multi-generational epics of the last 100 years. Or better yet, if you read just one novel, why not read the "first" and, in the sense that all novels since are just repeating its tricks again and again, the only novel, Don Quixote. But thinking again about this as a novel to be read in this unique and specific circumstance, and thinking again that something contemporary might best fit the bill, why not - bear with me here - The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen? Even though the characters might seem like typical boring novel characters, Franzen does things with them that you wouldn't expect, the book is incredibly readable, and you can get into the whole meta-argument surrounding the book and Oprah and whether good literature must be in opposition to popular culture or should be a part of it. Thanks for your great question, Elizabeth. Millions readers, help us inaugurate the first Book Question on the new site by sharing your answers to Elizabeth's question on your own site or in the comments below.
With the awarding of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award last week, the 2008/2009 literary award season is now over, which gives us the opportunity to update our list of prizewinners. Though literary prizes are arbitrary in many ways, our prizewinners post is compiled in the same spirit that one might tally up batting titles and MVPs to determine if a baseball player should be considered for the Hall of Fame. These awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and secure them places on literature class reading lists for decades to come. Most notably, after being named to the IMPAC shortlist, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz has joined the ranks of the most celebrated novels of the last 15 years, making it, along with the other books near the top of the list, something of a modern classic. Here is our methodology: I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Costa from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out. I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present, awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread] bold=winner, red=New to the list or moved up* the list since last year's "Prizewinners" post *Note that the IMPAC considers books a year after the other awards do, and so this year's IMPAC shortlist nods added to point totals from last year in the case of three books. 11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P 9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P 8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo - C, I, N, P 8, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P, I 7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P 7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W 7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P 7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, C, W 7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P 7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W 7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W 6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C 6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - C, P 5, 2008, The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry - B, W 5, 2008, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout - C, P 5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P 5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P 5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P 5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N 5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W 5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I 5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N 5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I 5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P 5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I 5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P 5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C 5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W 5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N 5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P 5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W 5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P 5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W 5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W 5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P 5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P 4, 2008, Home by Marilynn Robinson - C, N 4, 2008, The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon - C, N 4, 2007, The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid - B, I 4, 2007, Animal's People by Indra Sinha - B, I 4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill - C, N 4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes - B, I 4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry - B, I 4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, C 4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie - I, W 4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C 4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C 4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I 4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I 4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P 4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I 4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W 4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I 4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N 4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P 4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W 4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I 4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W 4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P 4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I 4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W 4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I 4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I 4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W 4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W 4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N 4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I 4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, W
Nam Le's debut collection of short stories, The Boat, was awarded the Dylan Thomas Prize and the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" Award. It was also chosen as a New York Times Notable Book. Le is currently the fiction editor of the Harvard Review.It might seem unadventurous to nominate a book recently proclaimed by the New York Times as the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years, but in fact, when the list came out, some people may remember that an immediate, insidious backlash began against the winner, Toni Morrison's Beloved (accusing it, among other things, of being the obvious and politically correct choice), and I'll confess that I, too, found it all too easy to get swept along - especially given my one-eyed barracking for two of the runners-up, Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and Don DeLillo's Underworld. Due to no fault of its own, the book - which I'd last read in high school - sank in my sheeplike (and sheepish) estimation. Then, this year, more than two years later, I finally returned to it. What I rediscovered stunned me: Beloved was a work of incomparable moral and aesthetic focus, in which structure, the actualised "intricate patterning" toward which Fitzgerald strove all his life, had elevated itself into ethical argument; in which memory-play, slippage and narrative deferral guided the reader - as all great books do - to a new mode of reading. It was a book planted deep in dirt and human muck, in a history where nothing - not feeling, nor language - remained uncompromised. And yet - and yet - it contained the sternness of heart and steadiness of will and stoutness of authority to claim this piece of history and completely possess it - to render it into testimony and prophecy both. Truly, I realised, Beloved was one of those rare works that remakes the whole enterprise; that marks, with one cruel stroke, beginning and epitome.More from A Year in Reading 2008
A while back, I put together a post called "The Prizewinners," which asked what books had been decreed by the major book awards to be the "best" books over that period. These awards are arbitrary but just as a certain number of batting titles and MVPs might qualify a baseball player for consideration by the Hall of Fame, so too do awards nudge an author towards the "canon" and secure places on literature class reading lists in perpetuity.With two and a half years passed since I last performed this exercise, I thought it time to revisit it to see who is now climbing the list of prizewinners.Here is the methodology I laid out back in 2005:I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Costa Book Award [formerly the Whitbread]bold=winner, **=New to the list since the original "Prizewinners" post11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio - C, I, N, P7, 2005, The March by E.L. Doctorow - C, N, P **7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W6, 2007, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz - C, P **6, 2005, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai - B, C **6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - B, P5, 2007, Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson - N, P **5, 2006, The Road by Cormac McCarthy - C, P **5, 2006, The Echo Maker by Richard Powers - N, P **5, 2005, Europe Central by William T. Vollmann - C, N **5, 2005, The Accidental by Ali Smith - B, W **5, 2004, The Master by Colm Toibin - B, I **5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P4, 2005, Veronica by Mary Gaitskill - C, N **4, 2005, Arthur and George by Julian Barnes - B, I **4, 2005, A Long, Long Way by Sebastian Barry - B, I **4, 2005, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, C **4, 2005, Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie - I, W **4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, W
In his "Theses on the Philosophy of History," the philosopher Walter Benjamin gives the old truism that all history is present history a characteristically gnomic twist. "Every image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own concerns," he writes, "threatens to disappear irretrievably." Perhaps it's a measure of our current concerns, then, that we're witnessing a revival of novelistic interest in the 1960s and 1970s. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, those tumultuous decades had come to seem almost quaint. Green Day headlined Woodstock '94, Have A Nice Day Cafes sprouted like daisies in "revitalized" downtowns, and That '70's Show reimagined the Jimmy Carter era as a fashion parade, all bellbottoms and shaggy hair. Absent the context of war and Watergate, retro dessicated into kitsch. It was possible to take part without inhaling.Philip Roth's 1996 novel American Pastoral seems, in retrospect, a turning point. Relating the saga of Swede Lvov and his bomb-wielding daughter, Merry, Roth bypassed (by and large) the aesthetic signifiers of the counterculture in favor of an investigation of its moral and ethical ambiguities. More recently, Mary Gaitskill's Veronica, Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document, Sigrid Nunez's The Last of Her Kind, and Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke (review) have plumbed the mixed legacy of the Age of Aquarius. Even among such distinguished company, however, Christopher Sorrentino's Trance, nominated for the National Book Award in 2005, stands out for the breadth of its historical vision and for the fearlessness of its prose. While Sorrentino keeps his radical heroine slightly out-of-focus, the book's real protagonist - the post-Vietnam zeitgeist - comes to seem vividly present, in every sense of the word.Trance takes as its point of departure the real-life kidnapping of heiress Patricia Hearst by the violent screwballs of the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). Hearst took the nom de guerre Tania; Sorrentino keeps the pseudonym, but constructs behind it an alternative heroine, one Alice Galt. Like Hearst, Galt is the scion of a wealthy newspaper family. Also like Hearst, she ends up making common cause with her captors, assisting in a bank robbery, and subsequently finding herself both a fugitive from justice and the center of a media frenzy. Trance is largely the story of Tania's cross-country flight from the law and of her eventual apprehension. Along the way, Tania crosses paths with a series of eccentrics: de facto SLA leaders Teko and Yolanda (a.k.a. Drew and Diane Shepard); an opportunistic wheeler-dealer named Guy Mock (reminiscent of Lawrence Schiller in Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song); and an ambivalent fellow traveler, Joan Shimada. An equally motley cavalcade of federal agents, journalists, and loved ones gets sucked along in her wake. Making liberal use of the free indirect style, Sorrentino offers us a variety of perspectives on Tania and the SLA: Joan's, Guy's, her parents'... Of course, this technique raises more questions than it answers: has Tania been brainwashed? Has she turned her back for good on bourgeois society? Or are the SLA's politics simply an excuse to indulge in cathartic mayhem? Sorrentino is too shrewd to resolve these tensions. Instead, he portrays Tania as an antecedent to today's culture of celebrity - the sum of the rumors she gives rise to. At his best, he manages to refract through her, as through a prism, the mingled paranoia and hope and fatuousness of an age. Here, for example, the narrative takes on the tints of Tania's subjectivity:She has become an expert at living in closets, has developed unambiguous preferences (e.g., length is more desirable than width), has slept in them and eaten in them and read books in them and been raped in them and recorded messages to the People in them. This, just generally, is not the life she was raised to live. Here is a seizure of a kind of exquisite loneliness, a sudden shuddering. She wants to pick up the phone. She wants to go out for drinks. She wants the free fresh wind in her hair.Present-tense narration can run the risk of falling into a cinematic rut, but Sorrentino's prose is marvelously alive to the various registers of American English, from propaganda to cant to advertising to poetry. The latter two become indistinguishable in that last phrase, "the free fresh wind in her hair" - Shelley meets Prell. Sorrentino is in love with the name brands and anagrams overtaking the landscape, and they creep into his sentences as well. Ritz, Kraft, Mr. Coffee...the resulting tension between nostalgia and irony, and even the cadences of certain paragraphs, recall the Eisenhower-era passages of Don DeLillo's Underworld.Trance shares weaknesses, too, with DeLillo. They are chiefly weaknesses of characterization. Joan Shimada and Guy Mock are wonderfully proportioned, and even supporting players like Tania's mother reveal hidden dimensions. Teko and Yolanda, however, seem to have infiltrated Trance from the pages of a less searching, more satirical novel. Each has one note - shrill - and, without any way to see the forces that flattened them into their present shapes, the reader finds it too easy to write them (and, in turn, the SLA) off: They are simply, in the parlance of the times, "on a power trip."The case of Tania is more complicated. It's clearly part of Sorrentino's design to keep Tania a mystery, and for long stretches of the novel, that mystery draws us hypnotically in. However, in the end, we long for her character to precipitate out of the stories told about her, rather than to disperse like the airwaves that carry them. When Teko assaults her in an abandoned barn, we glimpse, suddenly, the woman she's become, but her early days with the SLA - those weeks in a closet, her indoctrination, the rape alluded to above - remain frustratingly opaque. Perhaps this is Sorrentino's nod to the ultimate unknowability of Patty Hearst's motivations, even to herself.Still, in its capacious interiority, Trance recovers a time when it seemed possible, however briefly, that a new age was about to begin... and that individual actions could bring it into being. It recovers, more specifically, that time's violent conclusion. That these 1970s - full of bank robberies and kidnappings and assassination plots and wars real and imagined - can seem, from 2007, a more innocent time only speaks to the size of their legacy.
George Saunders is taking up residence at the Powell's Blog this week as he embarks on a book tour promoting his latest (released today), The Braindead Megaphone. To my knowledge, it is Saunders' first foray into blogging, a format we discussed nearly two years ago (scroll down). His concern: "I worry about how much I would have to pay myself to keep my blog supplied with content. My fear is that, knowing I was working for myself, I would start cheating myself, only submitting my worst pieces, then get into a labor dispute with myself and never speak to me again." Hopefully, his fears aren't realized.A new issue of Scott Esposito's terrific Quarterly Conversation has arrived. It features, among several notable contributors, Garth, who "sorts out literary feuds, dissects James Wood's essay against Don DeLillo's 832-page opus Underworld, and argues that this book actually evolves the novel forward."Emdashes has the schedule for this year's New Yorker Festival. It looks fantastic as usual. I should really go sometime.
Don DeLillo has said that his mammoth Underworld emerged from the juxtaposition of two headlines on the front page of a 1954 New York Times. One trumpeted a pennant-winning home run by the Giants' Bobby Thomson. The other announced that the Russians had tested their first atomic bomb. Each, in its own way, was a shot heard 'round the world.For anyone paying attention, the International section of this Saturday's Times offered a similarly suggestive juxtaposition: three articles on a single page reported suspicious events in and around Vladimir Putin's Russia. To wit: The Kremlin informed a group of dissident journalists that they were going to be evicted from their offices. Leaders of an opposition party, detained by police on thin pretenses, were forced to miss a protest rally. And the government of Estonia, which had offended Russian nationalists by taking down a monument to Soviet soldiers, had its Internet service disrupted by a ferocious denial-of-service attack (which originated from Russian servers). In each case, the reporter hesitated to blame Putin directly, but the overall picture is grim. And this is not even to mention the radiation poisoning plots, or the Chechen conflict. Basically, the man our president once certified as "a good soul" is consolidating power with a kommissarial zeal. The mystery is why the Russian people, after seven decades of totalitarian misrule and centuries of feudalism, are putting up with it.A quick answer might be that, after the economic deprivations of the Communist era, they're willing to trade freedom for a little prosperity. A more complicated one (not unrelated to the rise of ethnic gangs in Iraq) might involve the psychological toll totalitarianism exacts on its masses. Call it The Captive Mind, or Stockholm Syndrome, but it's basically a protection racket: authority seems to offer insurance against violence, where freedom seems to leave one exposed. Give a kid enough bruises, and he's likely to get in line behind the schoolyard bully. The problem comes when the bully runs out of other victims.But a reading of Tatyana Tolstaya's splendid contemporary novel The Slynx reminds us that the thirst for freedom and the hunger for authority are not merely the byproducts of Russia's recent history. Rather, they are the reacting agents in much of the finest Russian literature. They lend the novels of Tolstaya's great-uncle Leo - and the poems quoted by her characters in The Slynx - their signature phosphorescence. In the great American novel, the imperative to submit to something larger than oneself - tradition, law, religion - is usually an obstacle. Our Augies and Ishmaels and Rabbits set out to find their freedom. In Tolstoy's Levin and Dostoevsky's Karamazovs, individualism alternates - sometimes on the same page - with a sense that a greater freedom comes in accepting one's duty and place in the world.Is this a radical simplification? Of course. But I feel licensed to make it. No one likes to speculate about the Russian soul more than the Russians. I want to emphasize here that The Slynx succeeds, radiantly, as a self-contained work of art. But a view to Russia's literary and political history can only enrich one's reading.The protagonist of The Slynx is a "golubchik" named Benedikt - born a century after a nuclear catastrophe has leveled Moscow and erased most cultural memory. Benedikt is a simple fellow, subsisting on mice and eking out an existence as a scrivener. He unquestioningly copies the decrees and poems written by Fyodor Kuzmich, the chief Murza of the village - even when those poems seem suspiciously Pushkinesque. Benedikt's life strikes us as a nightmare of deprivation, but because he has nothing to compare it to, he doesn't know it. His only inkling is a melancholy feeling that comes over him from time to time, which he blames on a mythical predator said to live in the forest... The Slynx.Like a Russian George Saunders, Tolstaya creates a sci-fi bizarro world seemingly without effort - the details are there when she reaches for them. And, like Saunders, she renders her world in an entirely original idiom. Her depictions of life in the village of Fyodor-Kuzmichsk (natch) leaven poetic stream of consciousness with a salty and frequently hilarious orality. The effect Tolstaya creates, hovering between second- and third-person narration, is like nothing I've ever read. The narrator both is and isn't Benedikt. Benedikt both is and isn't us. Here's a little taste, in Jamey Gambrell's supple translation:In the summer the Scribe is like an ordinary Golubchik - a sickle on his shoulder and into the fields and glades to cut goosefoot, horsetail. Bring in the sheaves. You tie them up - lug them to the shed, and go back again, another time, once more, all over, run, run, run. While he's gone the neighbors or a stranger will filch a couple of sheaves for sure, sometimes from the field, sometimes straight from the shed. But that's all right: they steal from me, and I'll get good and mad and steal from them, those guys will steal from these guys - and so it goes in a circle. It comes out fair. Everyone steals, but everyone ends up with their own. More or less.For the first half of the book, we keep rooting for him to awaken, like his Anglo counterparts in 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, to the dystopia he's living in. As he discovers the source of Fyodor Kuzmich's poems, and develops an appetite for books, consciousness-raising starts to seem inevitable. But - spoiler alert - consciousness will not prove to be synonymous with freedom. In fact, after aiding a putsch, Benedikt will become "Deputy for Defense and Marine and Oceanic Affairs." Rather than living out his books, he seems content to live in them. More Bovary than Quixote.Tolstaya is well-known in Russia as a television personality and an outspoken critic. She began her first and only novel under Gorbachev and finished it under Putin. In the West, where knowledge is seen as a path to freedom, the plot trajectory she arrived at may strike some readers as perverse. What at first seems an allegory of Communism becomes something more unsettling: an examination of our universal frailty.In light of what's happening in Moscow right now, the final pages of The Slynx take on a resonance almost too painful to countenance. History is not only a nightmare... in Russia, it seems to be a recurring one. Tolstaya preserves the possibility of an awakening, of a more personal socialism or a more collective freedom. But she's not optimistic.
A new issue of Scott's excellent "Quarterly Conversation" is out. It contains a list of the "Books Since 1990," and I can vouch for Scott when he writes that he conceived the idea for the list well before the New York Times put out its similar list. In the introduction, Scott writes that he is making no claims that these books are the "best," which is so often the silly, attention-grabbing hook of such lists. Scott polled several literary types, and when he asked me to participate, he asked for the "best" books, but I think the point Scott is making is that throwing together a bunch of individuals' "best books" lists isn't how one determines which books are "The Best." Instead we learn which books are part of the shared consciousness of a group of readers, which I think is interesting as well. It's a tough line to toe, but I appreciate Scott's effort not to announce that the books in his list are "The Best."Which isn't to say that I agree entirely with the books named on his list, which I think in some cases skews obscure or difficult for the sake of obscurity and difficulty. At the same time, I do appreciate knowing which books people think it is important to highlight, and am glad of the opportunity to be newly introduced to such books.As one of the contributors, I thought I might present my selections for the list in case anyone is curious. A few initial caveats in addition to the points below. I fully admit that my picks are mainstream, but I tend to believe - with very rare and notable exceptions - that quality work tends to be recognized and rewarded in the marketplace and thus becomes by some measure "popular," and second I have not read all the books I nominated (though I'd like to), but drew from conversations with fellow readers and from my perception of which books are most important to the serious readers I know. Third, it's very, very likely that as I read more from the contemporary era, this list will change (and it is important when looking at such lists to remember that they are fluid). And finally, I readily recognize that my selections exhibit a woeful lack of diversity; however, this is not to say that I only read books by white men, it's just to say that white men happened to write eight of the ten books that I selected for this exercise. On to my selections along with the number of votes each book got:2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones (I'm shocked that I'm the only person who nominated this book. Of all the books that I've read from this era, I think this one is hands down the best and will go on to be a classic.) (1)2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (I believe the hype. I think this book is an important chronicle of contemporary American life.) (2)1997, Underworld by Don DeLillo (5)2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (2)2002, Atonement by Ian McEwan (One of my favorite books ever.) (4)1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1)2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson (2)2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (Proof that an entertaining read can and should be quality fiction.) (1)1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth (3)1995, The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle (Of the three books by Boyle that stand out from the rest, Tortilla Curtain is the only one written after 1990. The other two books are World's End and Water Music.) (1)
The list at the end of this post is arbitrary. Necessarily so, because awards, by their nature, are arbitrary. Nonetheless, after a couple of weeks full of awards news, including the inaugural appearance of the Quills, I was curious to see if all these awards are really pointing us towards good books.If we are dissatisfied with the Booker Prize or the National Book Award or the Pulitzer, the Quills, which casts the net very wide and relies on voting from the reading public, have been presented as a populist alternative. The results are less than satisfying. It is not news to anyone that the reading public likes Harry Potter and books by Sue Monk Kidd and Janet Evanovich. I hold nothing against those bestsellers, but naming them the best books of the year does little to satisfy one's yearning to be introduced to the best, to have an encounter with a classic in our own time. We like those bestsellers because they entertain us, but while monetary success is the reward for those entertaining authors, awards have typically honored books with qualities that are more difficult to quantify. These award-winners are supposed to edify and challenge while still managing to entertain. But, as we saw with last year's National Book Awards, readers are unsatisfied when recognition is reserved only for the obscure. We want to know our best authors even while they remain mysterious to us. So, pondering this, I wondered which books have been most recognized by book awards in recent years, and could those books also be fairly called the best books.It turned out to be a challenge. I wanted to include both American books and British books, as well as the English-language books from other countries that are eligible to win some of these awards. I started with the National Book Award and the Pulitzer from the American side and the Booker and Whitbread from the British side. Because I wanted the British books to "compete" with the American books, I also looked at a couple of awards that recognize books from both sides of the ocean, the National Book Critics Circle Awards and the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. The IMPAC is probably the weakest of all these, but since it is both more international and more populist than the other awards, I thought it added something. The glaring omission is the PEN/Faulkner, but it would have skewed everything too much in favor of the American books, so I left it out.I looked at these six awards from 1995 to the present awarding three points for winning an award and two points for an appearance on a shortlist or as a finalist. Here's the key that goes with the list: B=Booker Prize, C=National Book Critics Circle Award, I=International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, N=National Book Award, P=Pulitzer Prize, W=Whitbread Book Award, bold=winner11, 2003, The Known World by Edward P. Jones - C, I, N, P9, 2001, The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen - C, I, N, P8, 1997, Underworld by Don DeLillio - C, I, N, P7, 2004, Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst - B, C, W7, 2002, Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - I, N, P7, 2001, Atonement by Ian McEwan - B, N, W7, 1998, The Hours by Michael Cunningham - C, I, P7, 1997, Last Orders by Graham Swift - B, I, W7, 1997, Quarantine by Jim Crace - B, I, W6, 2004, Gilead by Marilynn Robinson - N, P5, 2003, The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard - I, N5, 2001, True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey - B, I5, 2000, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - C, P5, 2000, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood - B, I5, 1999, Waiting by Ha Jin - N, P5, 1999, Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee - B, C5, 1999, Being Dead by Jim Crace - C, W5, 1998, Charming Billy by Alice McDermott - I, N5, 1997, American Pastoral by Philip Roth - C, P5, 1996, Every Man for Himself by Beryl Bainbridge - B, W5, 1996, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser - N, P5, 1995, The Moor's Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie - B, W5, 1995, The Ghost Road by Pat Barker - B, W5, 1995, Independence Day by Richard Ford - C, P5, 1995, Sabbath's Theater by Philip Roth - N, P4, 2004, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell - B, C4, 2003, Brick Lane by Monica Ali - B, C4, 2003, Bitter Fruit by Achmat Dangor - B, I4, 2003, The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut - B, I4, 2003, Evidence of Things Unseen by Marianne Wiggins - N, P4, 2002, Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2002, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor - B, W4, 2001, A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - B, I4, 2001, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett - I, N4, 2001, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead - N, P4, 2001, Oxygen by Andrew Miller - B, W4, 2000, The Keepers of Truth by Michael Collins - B, I4, 2000, When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro - B, W4, 2000, Blonde by Joyce Carol Oates - N, P4, 1999, Our Fathers by Andrew O'Hagan - B, I4, 1999, Headlong by Michael Frayn - B, W4, 1999, The Blackwater Lightship by Colm Toibin - B, I4, 1997, Autobiography of My Mother by Jamaica Kincaid - C, I4, 1997, Grace Notes by Bernard MacLaverty - B, W4, 1997, Enduring Love by Ian McEwan - I, W4, 1997, The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick - I, N4, 1996, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood - B, I4, 1995, In Every Face I Meet by Justin Cartwright - B, WI find the list to be fairly satisfying, especially at the top, though it does skew in favor of men. There are also a preponderance of "big name" literary authors on this list, but it begs the question: Does the fame come first or do the awards? I'd love to hear other opinions on this list, so please, share your comments.See Also: Award Annals compiles similar lists (though much more comprehensive than this one.)