When I was a student at the University of Delaware in the late 1990s, there were a handful of options for buying books in town. One was a midsized shop called Rainbow Books and Records, located amid the downtown’s Main Street bustle. I have few memories of actually buying anything there (though I did steal, for no good reason, a used Cypress Hill CD from the store; hopefully the crime’s statute of limitations has run out). There was a mediocre campus bookstore from which I bought a copy of Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland that I read eight or nine pages of. The best, by a wide margin, was the airy, endless Bookateria, where I spent afternoons searching for titles by Edward Abbey, Tom Robbins, Robert Pirsig, and whatever else might bolster my developing self-image as a chin-stroking bongside intellectual. Twenty years on, The Bookateria is still there — or so says the internet — and just thinking of it puts me there, my Birkenstocks (I was looking for Tom Robbins, remember) soft on its creaking hardwood floors.
There was also a fourth option, and I have no idea what it was called. In a wide alley off of Main Street, a miniscule bookstore existed for an equally miniscule length of time. Its lifespan, as I recall, was just a few months, but it might have been less than that. It was heavily curated, blue of carpet, and run by a prim white-haired woman with a courteous smile. Its metal shelves were home to midcentury cookbooks and color-plate nature guides, their prices written, almost apologetically, in the corners of their inside covers. The shop, so small and quiet — save for the waft of classical music — lent it the feeling of the quarters of a bibliophilic monk. Entering the store always reminded me that I was wearing dirty track pants and an old Phillies cap.
On one of my few trips there — I could feel the owner’s eyes, as if my CD-lifting reputation had preceded me — I came across a row of hardbacked, dark-blue novels. Their jackets were gone, and they stood together, naked, as if huddling against danger. Each spine bore the stamped name of the books’ author — Kurt Vonnegut– and, in smaller type, the title. I’d heard of Vonnegut, and vaguely knew that I should read him. I picked up Breakfast of Champions, read a few lines (“I think I am trying to make my head as empty as it was when I was born onto this damaged planet fifty years ago.” “I have no culture, no humane harmony in my brains. I can’t live without a culture anymore.”), and felt a surge in my chest. I paid the owner the lightly-penciled price of five dollars plus tax, waited for her pointlessly elaborate receipt, said thanks, and tore the fuck out of there. I had to read this book.
Breakfast of Champions felt, like a handful of other works — The Catcher in the Rye, of course, and later T.C. Boyle’s The Tortilla Curtain and the stories of George Saunders — wholly new to me, modes of communication that kicked through my mind’s thin walls. I’d never — and still have never — read anything like it. I suppose that any Vonnegut book would have had this effect, so distinctive is his style — that of a brilliant depressive, the vitality of his talent battling his downbeat vision — but Breakfast of Champions is Vonnegut’s loosest book, full of drawings and nonsense lines (“Dwayne Hoover had oodles of charm. I can have oodles of charm when I want to. A lot of people have oodles of charm.”) that gain menace as they mount. It seemed somehow right for this to be my first, the best route into his world.
Breakfast of Champions isn’t my favorite Vonnegut novel, but it smacked me in the head with more force than any of his others — and possibly more than any other book I’ve read. I haven’t read it since that day in 1998, and I have only a dim memory of what it was about — something about a used-car salesman; something about cows. But that initial excitement has stuck; when I picked it up before writing this piece, something tightened in my throat. It was an artifact that had shoved me towards the person I would become.
And it seems somehow insane to me that I could have gotten it — this rousing, angry work that shook me by my spine — at that cramped and nameless store, overseen by a woman who, I’m guessing, had gone into business to occupy her time. Maybe her husband had recently died, and the quiet of her home had become unbearable — so she opened a shop that was just as quiet as the place she had escaped. Maybe she’d wanted to bring a touch of politesse to downtown Newark, Delaware, where music blasted from low riders and fistfights proliferated when the bars let out. Maybe she was engaging in a quiet fight of her own, selling pleasant books to the few students who might appreciate the gesture. Obviously — judging by its swift closure — there weren’t enough of us.
That I could have found a book that so enflamed me in such a serene, well-meaning place now seems to me a rude and minor marvel, like a tabernacle choir breaking into “Fuck tha Police.” The store has been gone for nearly 20 years, and its owner, I assume, has passed on as well. But they slipped me something important in the time we had together — and for that, I can only offer thanks.
I don’t know what I’m preparing for. My whole life I’ve considered valuable certain experiences, accomplishments, and knowledge simply because I imagine they’ll be useful to me in the future. I’m beginning to doubt this proposition.
Here’s an example. For the last ten years, I’ve kept a Word document for quotes. Any time I come across a worthy passage, I file it away. By now, the file has grown to over 30,000 words from hundreds of books, articles, poems, and plays. I do this not in the interest of collecting quotable prose or for the benefit of inspiration or encouragement or even insight. What I’m looking for are potential epigraphs.
You see, I love epigraphs. Everything about them. I love the white space surrounding the words. I love the centered text, the dash of the attribution. I love the promise. When I was a kid, they intimidated me with their suggested erudition. I wanted to be the type of person able to quote Shakespeare or Milton or, hell, Stephen King appropriately. I wanted to be the type of writer who understood their own work so well that they could pair it with an apt selection from another writer’s work.
If I ever wrote a novel, I told myself, about a writer, maybe I could quote Barbara Kingsolver: “A writer’s occupational hazard: I think of eavesdropping as minding my own business.” Or maybe one of Philip Roth’s many memorable passages on the writer’s life, like:
No, one’s story isn’t a skin to be shed — it’s inescapable, one’s body and blood. You go on pumping it out till you die, the story veined with the themes of your life, the ever-recurring story that’s at once your invention and the invention of you.
Or, taking a different tack:
It may look to outsiders like the life of freedom — not on a schedule, in command of yourself, singled out for glory, the choice apparently to write about anything. But once one’s writing, it’s all limits. Bound to a subject. Bound to make sense of it. Bound to make a book of it. If you want to be reminded of your limitations virtually every minute, there’s no better occupation to choose. Your memory, your diction, your intelligence, your sympathies, your observations, your sensations, your understanding — never enough. You find out more about what’s missing in you than you really ought to know. All of you an enclosure you keep trying to break out of. And all the obligations more ferocious for being self-imposed.
In some cases, I’d read something that was so eloquent and succinct, so insightful, I’d be inspired to write something around it, even if I didn’t have anything to go on other than the quote. Aleksander Hemon’s The Lazarus Project is positively riddled with possible epigraphs. Right away, on page two, we get this: “All the lives I could live, all the people I will never know, never will be, they are everywhere. That is all that the world is.” (Recognize that one? If you do, that’s because it has already been used as an epigraph for Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, except McCann changes all of the I’s to we’s.) Then, on the very next page, this: “There has been life before this. Home is where somebody notices when you are no longer there.” A few pages later: “I am just like everybody else, Isador always says, because there is nobody like me in the whole world.” On page 106: “Nobody can control resemblances, any more than you can control echoes.” That one made me want to write about a despotic father and the son who’s trying to avoid following in his footsteps. I didn’t have a great need to write that story, but the quote would have fit it so perfectly I actually have an unfinished draft somewhere in my discarded Word documents.
This is, of course, a stupid way to go about crafting fiction. I learned that lesson. You can’t write something simply because you’ve found the perfect epigraph, the perfect title, the perfect premise –– there has to be a greater need, a desire that you can’t stymie. Charles Baxter once wrote, “Art that is overcontrolled by its meaning may start to go a bit dead.” The same is true of art overcontrolled by anything other than the inexplicable urge to put story to paper. I know this now.
Yet I still collect possible epigraphs. And so far, I have yet to use a single entry from my document at the beginning of a piece of fiction.
Epigraphs, despite what my young mind believed, are more than mere pontification. Writers don’t use them to boast. They are less like some wine and entrée pairing and more like the first lesson in a long class. Writers must teach a reader how to read their book. They must instruct the tone, the pace, the ostensible project of a given work. An epigraph is an opportunity to situate a novel, a story, or an essay, and, more importantly, to orient the reader to the book’s intentions.
To demonstrate the multiple uses of the epigraph, I’d like to discuss a few salient examples. But I’m going to shy away from the classic epigraphs we all know, those of Hemingway, Tolstoy, etc., the kinds regularly found in lists with titles like “The 15 Greatest Epigraphs of All Time,” and talk about some recent books, since those are the ones that have excited (and, in some cases, confounded) me enough to write about the subject in the first place.
A good epigraph establishes the theme, but when it works best it does more than this. A theme can be represented in an infinity of ways, so it is the particular selection of quotation that should do the most work. Philip Roth’s Indignation opens with this section of E.E. Cummings’s “i sing of Olaf glad and big”:
Olaf (upon what were once knees)
does almost ceaselessly repeat
“there is some shit I will not eat”
For a book titled Indignation, this seems a perfect tone with which to begin the novel. Olaf’s a heroic figure, who suffered unrelenting torture and still refused to kill for any reason, which means Roth here is also elevating the narrative of his angry protagonist to heroic status. Marcus Messner is a straight-laced boy in the early 1950s, attending college in rural Ohio. Despite his best efforts, Marcus gets caught up in the moral hypocrisy of American values, winding up getting killed in the Korean War. Marcus and Olaf are, as Cummings wrote, “more brave than me:more blond than you.”
Authors do this kind of thing all the time. They borrow more than just the quoted lines. In Roth’s case, it was Cummings’s moral outrage about American war he wanted aligned with his novel.
Poets claim that we recapture for a moment the self that we were long ago when we enter some house or garden in which we used to live in our youth. But these are most hazardous pilgrimages, which end as often in disappointment as in success. It is in ourselves that we should rather seek to find those fixed places, contemporaneous with different years.
The unknown element in the lives of other people is like that of nature, which each fresh scientific discovery merely reduces but does not abolish.
The theme of Egan’s novel is time and its effects on us –– how we survive or endure, how we perish, how things change, etc. –– a fact established here by quoting the foremost authority on fictive examinations of time, memory, and life gone by. But more than that, Egan is connecting her novel –– which is full of formal daring and partly takes place in the future –– to a canonical author whose own experimentation has now become standard. Like the music industry in her book, the world of literature has changed, maybe not for the worse but irrevocably nonetheless, and Proust’s monumental achievement has become, to most modern readers, an impenetrable and uninteresting work. Egan’s choice of epigraph places her squarely in the same tradition. The Modernism of Proust gave way to the Postmodernism of Egan. Years on, to readers not yet born, A Visit from the Good Squad may seem a hopelessly old-fashioned relic. Such is the power of time.
James Franco also opens his story collection Palo Alto with a selection from In Search of Lost Time, but the effect is severely diminished in his case. First of all, the quoted passage reads:
There is hardly a single action that we perform in that phase which we would not give anything, in later life, to be able to annul. Whereas what we ought to regret is that we no longer possess the spontaneity which made us perform them. In later life we look at things in a more practical way, in full conformity with the rest of society, but adolescence is the only period in which we learn anything.
Though a fitting passage for a work that focuses on young, troubled California teenagers, there is nothing other than the expressed idea that justifies Franco’s specific use of Proust as opposed to anyone else. And Franco attributes the quotation to Within a Budding Grove, which is the second book in, as Franco has it here, Remembrance of Things Past. Those two translations of the titles are, by now, somewhat obsolete, the titles of older translations. Within a Budding Grove is now usually referred to as In the Shadows of Young Girls in Flower. There is something a tad disingenuous about Franco’s usage here, a more transparently self-conscious attempt to legitimize his stories, something he didn’t need to do. His stories, despite some backlash he’s received, are pretty good.
Some writers are just masters of the epigraph. Thomas Pynchon always knows an evocative way to open his books. His Against the Day is a vast, panoramic novel that features dozens of characters in as many settings. The story begins at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893 and goes until the 1920s, a period of remarkable technological change the world over. Electricity had been commercialized and was becoming commonplace. Tesla was conducting all his experiments. Pynchon reduces all of these pursuits to a wonderfully succinct quote:
It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light.
–– Thelonious Monk
First of all, have you ever even thought about the universe in this way? That darkness is its default setting? Secondly, have you ever heard a more beautiful and concise explanation for one of the great plights of humanity? We’re afraid of the dark, and the desire for light (both literal and metaphorical) consumes us. Referencing Monk does the opposite of referencing Proust. Pynchon’s working with high theme here, but he’s coming at it with the spirit of a brilliant and erratic jazz artist.
His so-called “beach read,” Inherent Vice takes place at the end of the 1960s, an era that clearly means a lot to Pynchon. Earlier, in Vineland, radicals from the 60s have become either irrelevant eccentrics or have joined the establishment. It’s a strange, mournful meditation on the failures of free love. Inherent Vice takes a similar approach. Doc Sportello is a disinterested P.I. for whom the promise of that optimistic decade offers very little. That optimism is where we begin the novel:
Under the paving-stones, the beach!
–– Graffito, Paris, May 1968
A very pointed reference. Paris in May of 1968, of course, was a hotbed of protest and civic unrest, a time of strikes and occupations, and, for hippies and radicals, a harbinger of the changes to come. Well, Inherent Vice takes place on a beach. No paving-stones need be removed for the beach to appear. Yet the promise of the graffito –– i.e., that beauty and natural life exist under the surface of the establishment –– seems, to Doc Sportello (and us, as readers, in retrospect) a temporary hope that, like fog, will eventually lift and disappear forever. In the end, as Doc literally drives through a deep fog settling in over Los Angeles, he wonders “how many people he knew had been caught out” in the fog or “were indoors fogbound in front of the tube or in bed just falling asleep.” He continues:
Someday…there’d be phones as standard equipment in every car, maybe even dashboard computers. People could exchange names and addresses and life stories and form alumni associations to gather once a year at some bar off a different freeway exit each time, to remember the night they set up a temporary commune to help each other home through the fog.
The fog will lift, and the dream of the 60s will become a memory, murky but present. For Doc, and for us, all he can do is wait “for the fog to burn away, and for something else this time, somehow, to be there instead.”
For many, Inherent Vice was a light novel, a nice little diversion, and it mostly is, but for me it has more straightforward (and dare I say, sentimental?) emotional resonance than many of Pynchon’s earlier novels. And this epigraph is part of its poignancy. Doc’s complicated personal life becomes a panegyric for an entire generation, all in the form of a “beach read.”
Sometimes, though, epigraphs offer a different kind of poignancy Christopher Hitchens’s last collection of essays, Arguably, opens with this:
Live all you can: It’s a mistake not to.
–– Lambert Strether, in The Ambassadors
Hitchens, by the time Arguably was published, had already been diagnosed with esophageal cancer. He knew he was dying. This epigraph stands as Hitchens’s final assertion of his unwavering worldview. Even more retrospectively moving are the epigraphs of Hitch-22, a memoir he wrote before the doctors told him the news. One of these passages is the wonderful, remarkable opening of Hitchens’s friend Richard Dawkins’s book Unweaving the Rainbow:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of the Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, who are here.
Though I’m not sure how “ordinary” Hitchens viewed himself (he seems to have thought a great deal of himself), this still seems an uncannily prescient sentiment to be quoted so soon before his diagnosis.
But maybe my all-time favorite epigraph comes from Michael Chabon’s recent Telegraph Avenue:
Call me Ishmael.
––Ishmael Reed, probably
This is one of the cleverest, funniest, and most arrogant epigraphs I’ve come across in recent years. “Call me Ishmael” is, as we all know, the opening sentence of Moby Dick. Ishmael Reed was a black experimental novelist, author of the classic Mumbo Jumbo, a writer steeped in African American culture not depicted in mainstream art. Chabon’s novel takes place in Oakland and focuses, in part, on race. It is Chabon’s most direct attempt to write a Great American Novel (it even suggests as much on the inside flap of the hardcover), with its grand themes and storied setting, its 12-page-long sentence, its general literariness. By framing his book with an irreverent reference to one of America’s definitive Great American Novels, placed in the mouth of a black writer, Chabon both announces his intention to write a Great book and denounces the entire notion that there can be Great books. How does the supposed greatness of Moby Dick speak to the black experience? What does its language offer them? So here, the most revered sentence in American literature becomes, for a man named Ishmael, a quotidian utterance, a common request. Call me Ishmael. Just another day for Ishmael Reed. And Telegraph Avenue works like that, too. It’s just another day for Archy and Nat, the book’s main characters. Is Telegraph Avenue Chabon’s Moby Dick? His Ulysses? Perhaps. But it’s certainly in conversation with those books; the epigraph makes that much clear.
Epigraphs are, ultimately, like many components of art, in that they can pretty much accomplish anything the writer wants them to. They can support a theme or contradict it. They can prepare readers or mislead them. They can situate a book into its intended company or they can renounce any relationship with the past. And when used effectively, they can be just as vital to a novel’s meaning as the title, the themes, the prose. An epigraph may not make or break a book, but it can certainly enhance its richness.
And, more, they can enhance the richness of the epigraph itself. Because of Michael Chabon, I can never look at Moby Dick’s famous opening the same way again. When I read Cummings’s poem “i sing of Olaf glad and big,” I have a new appreciation for its political implications. Literature is wonderful that way. It isn’t merely the creation of new work; it’s the extension of the art itself. Each new novel, each new story, not only adds to the great well of work, it actually reaches back into the past and changes the static text. It alters how we see the past. The giant conversation of literature knows no restrictions to time or geography, and epigraphs are a big part of it. Writers continuously resurrect the dead, salute the present and, like epigraphs, hint at what’s to come in the future.
Now that I think about it, I realize that all those quotes I’d been saving up over the years finally have a purpose. Since I’ve become a literary critic, I’ve mined my ever-growing document numerous times, not for an epigraph, but as assistance to my analysis of a literary work. I’ve used them to characterize a writer’s style, their recurring motifs or as examples of their insight. These quotations have become extremely useful, invaluable even. In fact, I see my collection as a kind of epigraph to my own career. At first, I didn’t understand their import, but as I lived on (and, appropriately, as I read on), those borrowed words slowly started to announce their purpose, and when I revisit them (like flipping back to the front page of a novel after finishing it), I find they have new meaning to me now. They are the same, but they are different. Like Pynchon writes in Inherent Vice: “What goes around may come around, but it never ends up exactly the same place, you ever notice? Like a record on a turntable, all it takes is one groove’s difference and the universe can be on into a whole ‘nother song.”
It feels like this happened last week though it actually happened twenty years ago. Late one wintry afternoon in 1992 I found myself sitting on a sofa in a glass box in midtown Manhattan, trying to figure out how I could possibly stay awake till sundown. I had just enjoyed a long celebratory liquid lunch with Gary Fisketjon, who would soon be publishing my first novel and who, as I’d learned first-hand, is a master of an art that was then dying and is now all but dead – the art of editing fiction, line by agonizing line. Gary had gone over every word of my 362-page manuscript with a green Bic ballpoint pen, sometimes suggesting surgical cuts or ways to improve dialog, sometimes writing long insightful paragraphs on the back of a page. He stressed that these were merely suggestions, that the final call was mine, always. If I had to guess, I would say he improved my book at least by half. As I sat there on the sofa in Gary’s office, my fogged eyes started roaming across his bookshelves…
(As I re-read the preceding paragraph, I realize it’s about ancient history, a long-lost time when book editors actually edited books and they were encouraged to keep their authors fed and watered on the company dime. That paragraph also reminds me of something John Cheever wrote in the 1970s – that his first stories, published in the years after World War II, were “stories of a long-lost world when the city of New York was still filled with a river light, when you heard Benny Goodman quartets from a radio in the corner stationery store, and when almost everybody wore a hat.” Gary Fisketjon’s industrious green Bic pen seems even more remote to me from a distance of twenty years than those 1940s radios and stationery stores seemed to John Cheever from a distance of thirty years.)
…so anyway, my fogged eyes landed on a slim volume with one word on its spine: Jernigan. I got up off the sofa, crossed the small office and picked up the book. On the dust jacket the blurry figure of a man stands on a lawn in front of a suburban house. At first I thought it was the liquid lunch affecting my vision, but then I realized the picture was intentionally fuzzy. “What’s this?” I asked.
“That’s a first novel I brought out last year by a wonderful writer named David Gates,” Gary said. “Sonny Mehta, my boss, loves one-word titles. Go ahead, take it.”
I took it. I read it. I loved it. It’s the story of a messed-up guy from the New Jersey suburbs named Peter Jernigan who works a boring job in Manhattan real estate and is dealing with his wife’s death in an automobile accident by dosing himself with gin and Pamprin as his life falls apart. He ends up sleeping with the single mom of his teenage son’s girlfriend. The woman is a survivalist who keeps rabbits in her basement (for meat, not as pets). One day, in an effort to snap out of his spiritual numbness, Jernigan presses the barrel of a gun to the webbing between the thumb and index finger of his left hand, then squeezes the trigger. I’ll carry that image in my head as long as I live.
Ever since I fell in love with Jernigan I’ve been drawn to books with one-word titles – partly because Sonny Mehta loves one-word titles, but mainly because they can be so enviably concise and memorable, so perfect. At their best, one-word titles distill content to its purest essence, which is what all titles strive to do, and then they stick in the mind. Sometimes, of course, they fall flat, and much of the time they’re just lukewarm and vague or, worse, falsely grand.
Over the years I’ve developed categories and a pecking order. Here is my unscientific and by no means exhaustive taxonomy, beginning with the best and ending with the worst kinds of one-word book titles:
1. An Unforgettable Character’s Name
This category begins for me with Jernigan but also includes:
Shakespeare’s Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet (for the last title in this trio of masterpieces I wish he’d gone with Yorick, that “fellow of infinite jest,” which no doubt puts me in a minority of one).
Walker Percy’s Lancelot (the wife-murdering narrator in a nuthouse, Lancelot Andrewes Lamar says many wise and funny things about the decline of America, such as: “What nuns don’t realize is that they look better in nun clothes than in J.C. Penney pantsuits.”)
Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (the nymphet who became an icon).
Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree (not my favorite of his novels – that would be Blood Meridian – but the things Cornelius Suttree and his roughneck Tennessee riverfront buddies do while under the influence of alcohol give a whole new kick to the word “debauched”).
Jane Austen’s Emma (I might think Emma Woodhouse is a meddling, coddled ninny, but I wouldn’t dream of saying so).
Stephen King’s Carrie (you’ve got to respect a girl who gets drenched in pig’s blood at the prom and then goes on a telekinetic rampage), Christine (what’s not to love about a homicidal Plymouth Fury?), and It (that maniac clown Pennywise deserves such a tersely dismissive moniker).
2. Place Names That Drip With Atmosphere
Elmore Leonard’s Djibouti (just saying the word makes it possible to conjure a place full of pirates, thugs, widowmakers, scorching sunshine, and tourists with a death wish; Leonard is a serial user of one-word titles, including the less memorable Raylan, Pronto, Killshot, Touch, Bandits, Glitz, Stick, Gunsights, Swag, and Hombre).
Gore Vidal’s Duluth (alluring precisely because it’s so imprecise – what could possibly be interesting about a Minnesota port town on Lake Superior? Plenty. Vidal is another serial user of one-word titles, including Williwaw, Messiah, Kalki, Creation, Burr, Lincoln, Hollywood, and Empire).
Karen Russell’s Swamplandia! (that exclamation point befits the over-the-top setting, a fading alligator theme park in the moist loins of Florida).
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (your first thought is Biblical – balm of Gilead or Mount Gilead – but the title of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the name of a town in Iowa where the God-infused protagonist, a dying preacher, is writing a long letter to his young son; Robinson’s other novels are titled Housekeeping and Home).
Geoffrey Wolff’s Providence (this title, like all good titles, has layers of meaning: the novel is set in the crumbling capital of Rhode Island – “a jerkwater that outsiders bombed past on their way to Cape Cod” – but this Providence is visited by surprising gusts of divine providence, God’s inscrutable ways of touching a menagerie of less-than-perfect characters, including mobsters, thieves, patrician lawyers, cokeheads, and crooked cops).
Thomas Pynchon’s Vineland (alas, the title refers to a fictional hippie outpost in northern California, not to that sweaty little armpit in the New Jersey pine barrens – now that would have been a ripe setting for a Pynchon novel).
Marshall Frady’s Southerners (fluorescent non-fiction about the people who inhabit a haunted place, it’s one of my all-time favorite books).
Then, on the downside, there’s James Michener’s Hawaii (a title that’s about as evocative as a pushpin on a map, much like his other generic place-name titles – Chesapeake, Alaska, Poland, Texas, Mexico, and Space).
3. One Little Word That Sums Up Big Consequences
Josephine Hart’s Damage (edited by Sonny Mehta, the novel’s title deftly sums up what results when a member of the British Parliament develops an obsessive sexual relationship with his son’s fiancee; Jeremy Irons, at his absolute smarmy best, plays the MP in the movie version of the book. Hart, who died last year, also published the novels Sin and Oblivion).
James Dickey’s Deliverance (refers to what it feels like to return home to the Atlanta suburbs after surviving a nice relaxing canoe trip in the Georgia woods that turns into a nightmare of hillbilly sodomy and murder).
Martin Amis’ novel Money (a raunchy hymn to the lubricant that greased the Reagan/Thatcher decade, it’s bursting with the things that made America great – “fast food, sex shows, space games, slot machines, video nasties, nude mags, drink, pubs, fighting, television, handjobs”); and his memoir Experience (with a cover that says it all: the future bad boy of Brit letters as a pre-teen towhead, with a scowl on his face and an unlit cigarette plugged between his lips).
William S. Burroughs’ Junky (though written under a pseudonym, the title of this highly autobiographical 1953 novel refers to what you will become if you inject heroin into your veins on a regular basis; a sequel, Queer, was written earlier but not published until 1985).
Harry Crews’ Car (you are what you eat, and Herman Mack, in a twist that out-Christines Christine, sets out to eat a 1971 Ford Maverick from bumper to bumper; rest in peace, Harry Crews).
4. Words That Ache So Hard To Become Brands You Can Practically See Them Sweat
The absolute pinnacle of this bottom-of-the-birdcage category is half-smart Malcolm Gladwell’s runaway bestseller Blink (as in, how long it takes for us to develop supposedly accurate first impressions; for a much more nuanced and intelligent treatment of this fascinating subject, check out Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow).
Not far behind is right-wing goddess Ann Coulter’s Godless (an attempt to prove that liberalism is America’s state religion and its tin gods are recycling, Darwinism, global warming, gay rights, abortion rights, and teachers’ unions. According to this harridan-hottie, “The following sentence makes sense to liberals: President Clinton saved the Constitution by repeatedly ejaculating on a fat Jewish girl in the Oval Office.” Low blow! Monica Lewinsky wasn’t fat!)
Robin Cook’s Contagion (possibly a Freudian slip, the title might refer to what all brand-name authors like Cook secretly hope their books will induce in readers: a rapidly spreading, uncontrollable itch to spend money on schlock).
5. One-Letter Titles
You can’t get any poorer than dead, as Flannery O’Connor reminded us, and if you’re a book title you can’t be any more concise than a single letter. Writers who have boiled the contents of their books down to a single letter tend to be in the high-literary camp, which would seem to suggest, counter-intuitively, that one-letter titles are the work of expansive, not reductive, imaginations. Here are a few, from A to Z:
Andy Warhol’s A (you’d have to be zonked on some killer shit to make any sense of this gibberish, but let’s be charitable and remember that Warhol was a great artist).
Fred Chappell’s C (this writer of glorious poetry and fiction is celebrated in his native South but criminally under-appreciated in other quarters of the country; his title is taken from the Roman numeral for 100, which is the number of poems in this superb collection).
Tom McCarthy’s C (the third letter of the alphabet is used more nebulously in this novel, which brims with cats, cocaine, cocoons, and code as it travels to Cairo with a protagonist named Serge Carrefax; McCarthy’s first novel was titled Remainder).
John Updike’s S. (it’s the initial of the novel’s protagonist, Sarah Worth, part superwoman and part slut, a disaffected wife who leaves her husband and her home on the North Shore to pursue her guru at a commune in the Arizona desert).
Thomas Pynchon’s V. (no, Pynchon’s first novel is not Vineland minus the i-n-e-l-a-n-d; it’s a woman’s initial, or is it the shape the two storylines make as they converge?).
Georges Perec’s W (the name of an allegorical island off the coast of Chile that resembles a concentration camp).
Vassilis Vassilikos’ Z (the last word, or letter, on political thrillers, it’s about the 1963 assassination of leftist Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis; Costa-Gavras made it into a hit movie starring Yves Montand).
In closing, I should note that seven of the 32 books on the current New York Times hardcover fiction and non-fiction best-seller lists – a healthy 22 percent – have one word titles: to wit: Betrayal, Drift, Imagine, Wild, Unbroken, Quiet, and Imperfect. Turns out Sonny Mehta was on to something. Concision, like sex, always sells.
At the beginning of the year, we noted that “2009 may be a great year for books.” With the publishing schedule for the remainder of the year filled out, calling 2009 a great year for readers is now a certainty. If anything, 2009 is backloaded, with new titles coming in the second half of the year from legends like Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth and fan favorites like Lorrie Moore and Jonathan Lethem. A peek into 2010, meanwhile, reveals more literary excitement on tap, with new titles on the way from Jonathan Franzen, Joshua Ferris, and others. Below you’ll find, in chronological order, the titles we’re most looking forward to right now. (Special thanks to the illustrious members of The Millions Facebook group who let us know what they are looking forward to. Not everyone’s suggestions made our list, but we appreciated hearing about all of them.)In July, Dave Eggers continues the trend he started with What is the What, working closely with his subject to produce a work with elements of memoir and non-fiction. In Zeitoun, the subject is Abdulrahman Zeitoun, “a prosperous Syrian-American and father of four,” who lived in New Orleans and disappeared in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A few weeks ago, The Rumpus ran a long interview with Eggers that touches on Zeitoun, among several other topics. Eggers first encountered Zeitoun when McSweeney’s put out Voices from the Storm, an oral history of Katrina, and he told The Rumpus, “Their story intrigued me from the start, given that it’s at the intersection of so many issues in recent American life: the debacle of the government response to Katrina, the struggles facing even the most successful immigrants, a judicial system in need of repair, the problem of wrongful conviction, the paranoia wrought by the War on Terror, widespread Islamophobia.” (Scroll down to October for more “Anticipated” action from Eggers.)William T. Vollmann is known for his superhuman writing output, but his forthcoming book Imperial is a monster, even for him. Weighing in at 1,296 pages and carrying a list price of $55, this work of non-fiction is “an epic study,” in the words of the publisher, of Imperial County, California along the U.S.-Mexico border. Ed offers quite a bit more discussion of the book. Don’t miss the comments, where it’s said that Vollmann has called the book “his Moby-Dick.”August kicks off with what will no doubt be a peculiar literary event, the publication of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice. It is a rare thing these days when a flurry of media attention centers on someone who has no interest in basking in it. And so, perhaps as Pynchon intends, the focus will be on the book. Inherent Vice promises to be odd. It’s 416 pages, shorter than the typical Pynchon doorstop, and the publisher Penguin, in its catalog, notes that Pynchon is “working in an unaccustomed genre” this time around. “Genre” seems to be the buzzword here. The book sports neon cover art and follows a private eye (Doc Sportello). The book begins: “She came along the alley and up the back steps the way she always used to.” Review copies are already out, and the early word is that the novel overlaps somewhat with and bears some similarities to Vineland.Inherent Vice shares a release date with a new book by Richard Russo, That Old Cape Magic, which Entertainment Weekly has already called “very beach-y.” (Sadly, it appears to have come in last in their poll to determine the “Must book of the summer.”) It sounds like fairly standard “suburban malaise” fare in which a mid-life crisis is endured over the course of the summer, the upside for the reader being that Russo is bringing his considerable skills to the table. PW is fairly tepid on the book, “Though Russo can write gorgeous sentences and some situations are amazingly rendered… the navel-gazing interior monologues that constitute much of the novel lack the punch of Russo’s earlier work.”Of Roberto Bolaño’s forthcoming, newly translated novels, Millions contributor Lydia writes: “I almost never know about the hot, up-and-coming items, but I do happen to know about this one, and I feel that, like many readers, my relationship to Bolaño has been one of breathless anticipation since the moment I first heard his name. Which was like this: at my old job, I was going through the mail. There was a New Directions catalog of aforementioned hot, up-and-coming items. I haven’t historically had a lot of interest in contemporary trade publications, but New Directions has a very warm spot in my heart because I associate it with The Berlin Stories. Anyway, in said mag I read a blurb about Nazi Literature in the Americas, and thought it sounded really neat, and then learned I would have to wait a year to read it, and since then it feels like there’s been a lot of waiting – sometimes with glorious gratification at the end (2666), sometimes not (Nazi Literature in the Americas, ironically). It’s thrilling that they keep coming! The Skating Rink in August, Monsieur Pain in 2010. It’s like new the James Bond franchise (btw, I’m a Craig, not a Brosnan). I just love having something to look forward to. I hope I don’t wet my pants on the way to the bookstore.” (Bolaño fans will also be looking out for Melville House’s Bolaño: The Last Interview And Other Conversations)Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply returns to the territory of separated siblings (You Remind Me of Me looked at a pair of long-lost brothers.) This time, the focus is on twins, one of whom has been missing for ten years. The book garnered a blurb from Jonathan Franzen, who will appear later in this list and who says of Chaon’s book, “I’ve been waiting for somebody to write the essential identity-theft novel, and I’m very glad Dan Chaon’s the one to have done it”Let’s just get this out of the way: In September, you are going to hear a lot about Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol.More importantly, we’ll get Richard Powers’ follow up to his award-winning novel The Echo Maker. In Generosity: An Enhancement, Powers explores the idea of patenting the human gene for happiness. Last year, Powers wrote about the human genome for GQ. There’s not a lot of info available about this one but Ed Champion writes he “foresee(s) some animosity from the vanilla critics hostile to idea-driven novels,” and Sarah Weinman “tweeted,” “Richard Powers’ new novel Generosity is about as audacious as a novel gets, and has fucked with my head as a reader every which way.”Lorrie Moore is set to deliver her first novel in over a decade, A Gate at the Stairs. All those Moore fans out there are faced with a huge dilemma this week. Do they read the “Childcare,” the excerpt of the novel that is the fiction offering in this week’s New Yorker, or do they avoid the magazine and hold out for two more months until the novel comes out? We’ve never been big fans of the New Yorker’s packaging of novel excerpts as short stories, so to all the Moore fans out there, we say – avert your eyes when you reach page 70 of this week’s issue!Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall is already out in much of the rest of the English-speaking world. In The Guardian, Christopher Taylor described the book as “a carefully arranged sequence of interlocking stories” and said, “while many of the stories hinge on artistic talent – the risks and unkindnesses associated with it; who’s got it and who hasn’t – the strong focus on more widespread problems in life makes Nocturnes more than a writer’s thoughts on his job.” The Complete Review rounds up the rest of the early reactions.Pete Dexter returns in September with Spooner. This one sounds like another dark, Southern tale not unlike Paris Trout, the book that first put Dexter on the fiction map. The first line of Spooner is “Spooner was born a few minutes previous to daybreak in the historic, honeysuckled little town of Milledgeville, Georgia, in a make-shift delivery room put together in the waiting area of the medical offices of Dr. Emil Wood.”We’ll also get a new novel from E.L. Doctorow about a pair of brothers. Homer & Langley is about Homer and Langley Collyer, two famous Manhattan hoarders and recluses, who, after gaining notoriety for their obsessive habits and reportedly booby-trapped home, were found dead in 1947 surrounded by, according to Wikipedia, “over 100 tons of rubbish that they had amassed over several decades.” Newsweek has an excerpt of the book. The novel’s first line is “I’m Homer, the blind brother. I didn’t lose my sight all at once, it was like the movies, a slow fade-out.”Dan Brown is no doubt getting serious bank for his return to airport bookshelves and grocery store check-out lines, but he’s not the only one having a great recession. Audrey Niffenegger reportedly took home a $5 million advance for Her Fearful Symmetry, her follow-up to her very popular The Time Traveler’s Wife. Niffenegger describes the book on her website: “The novel concerns a pair of mirror-image twins, Julia and Valentina Poole… Julia and Valentina are inseparable, and function almost as one being, although in temperament they are opposites.”Acclaimed novelist Margaret Atwood will have a new novel out in September called The Year of the Flood, which has been described as “a journey to the end of the world.” The Random House catalog, meanwhile, called it a “dystopic masterpiece and a testament to her visionary power.” If that all isn’t intriguing enough, it appears that the book is maybe (or maybe not) the second book in a trilogy that was kicked off with Oryx & Crake. Atwood and her publishers have offered mixed signals on the trilogy question. Quill & Quire looked into the question, and included a quote from Atwood saying, “It’s not a sequel and it’s not a prequel… It’s a simultaneouel.” Ah, one of those.In The Anthologist, Nicholson Baker covers well-trod literary ground by focusing on a writer protagonist. However, PW gave the book a starred review, calling it “lovely” and saying “Baker pulls off an original and touching story, demonstrating his remarkable writing ability while putting it under a microscope.” Baker’s protagonist is Paul Chowder, who is tasked with writing an introduction for a poet friend’s anthology and delivers the book’s stream of consciousness narration. By all early accounts the book is quite funny and also deeply immersed in poetry, with digressions on a number of history’s great poets. The Simon & Schuster catalog calls the book a “beguiling love story about poetry.”It’s my feeling that John Irving’s fiction has fallen off quite a bit in recent years (the last really good read for me was A Son of the Circus), but I still keep an eye on Irving’s new novels for any sign that he has regained his early career mojo. His last several books haven’t tempted me, and it’s probably too early to tell whether the Last Night in Twisted River will. Reading the first sentence of the publisher’s description, we already find a couple of Irving’s authorial tics, New Hampshire and bears: “In 1954, in the cookhouse of a logging and sawmill settlement in northern New Hampshire, an anxious twelve-year-old boy mistakes the local constable’s girlfriend for a bear.” Don’t be surprised if a wrestler figures into the action somewhere in there. Still, Irving has compared the new book to The Cider House Rules. That’s a good sign.The venerable William Trevor will have a new novel out, Love and Summer.Millions reader Matthew looks forward to Laird Hunt’s Ray of the Star, due in September, “because Laird’s novels are fantastic.” Of Kamby Bolongo Mean River by Robert Lopez, he writes “This is his sophomore novel; his first, Part of the World was bizarre and funny.” He plans to read The Museum of Eterna’s Novel by Macedonio Fernandez (arriving in 2010) “because Borges sez so.”October is sure to bring Wild Things mania and Dave Eggers is going to be right in the middle of it. He worked with Spike Jonze on the film version of Where the Wild Things Are. And, in what is sure to be the most literary novelization of a film (adapted from a children’s book) ever, an Eggers-penned version of Wild Things is set to hit shelves when the movie comes out. There’s also the fur-covered edition.New Yorker readers have already gotten a taste of Jonathan Lethem’s forthcoming book Chronic City. Of the excerpt, packaged as the story “Lostronaut,” I wrote, “This story was pretty awesome. It was the only speculative fiction to land in The New Yorker this year, not quite making up for the absence of Murakami and Saunders from the magazine’s pages. This story is told in the form of letters from Janice, a ‘Lostronaut’ aboard some sort of space station, to her ‘Dearest Chase.’ She and her fellow astronauts are trapped in orbit by Chinese space mines and that’s not even the worst of it for poor Janice. While the premise and epistolary style are intriguing, Janice’s unique, irrepressible voice really carries the story.”Readers are soon set to see the fruits of an ambitious project by R. Crumb, his illustrated Book of Genesis, a surprisingly faithful rendering of the first book of The Bible done in Crumb’s unique style. Crumb talked about the project four years ago with Robert Hughes: “I was fooling around with Adam and Eve one day. Doodling about Adam and Eve. At first I did this satirical take off on Adam and Eve – lots of jokey asides and Jewish slang because they’re Jewish right? God is Jewish… Finally I got over fooling around and I realized I just had to tell it straight.”Booker winner A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book, according to publisher Knopf’s description, “spans the Victorian era through the World War I years, and centers around a famous children’s book author and the passions, betrayals, and secrets that tear apart the people she loves.” The book is out already in the UK, where a review in the Telegraph included this intriguing aside: “Byatt’s publisher is keen to present The Children’s Book, her first novel for seven years, as an equal to Possession, the work that secured her reputation and her mass-market appeal nearly 20 years ago. It certainly compares to its popular predecessor in its daring and scope and, unlike the more cerebral parts of Byatt’s output, is its equivalent in terms of storytelling and readability.”J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime is a follow up to Boyhood and Youth in Coetzee’s series of memoirs. The NYRB recently published an excerpt.Quite a lot of sub-par material has been published in order to satiate the ravenous demand for Hunter S. Thompson’s writing. Thompson’s essays for ESPN in his later years were uneven at best, but fans may find something to like in The Mutineer, which Simon & Schuster says is “The highly anticipated final volume of the previously unpublished letters of Hunter S. Thompson, king of Gonzo journalism and one of the greatest literary figures of our time.” Insofar as HST,in his latter years, may have been more entertaining and lucid in his letters, this may put The Mutineer slightly above the low bar set by other recent HST collections. On the other hand, the book is edited by Johnny Depp, implying that the book is more about venerating the cult of HST than unearthing new work on par with his best efforts.November will bring the publication of Michael Lewis’ much anticipated chronicle of the financial crisis, The Big Short. In October last year, when economic uncertainty was at its height and fears were voiced in some rarefied quarters about the possibility of some sort of structural collapse, we wrote, “The world needs an exhaustive look at what happened in 2008 and why.” There have already been several books about the collapse and what caused it, from The Two Trillion Dollar Meltdown to The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008, but many readers have been waiting for a book by Lewis, both because of his long history writing about Wall Street’s excesses and because of the powerful essay he penned on the topic for Portfolio magazine in November. Some readers may be weary of the topic by the time the book comes out, but it’s sure to garner some interest.The great Philip Roth keeps churning out new novels. This year’s offering is The Humbling, Roth’s 30th novel. The publisher copy says “Everything is over for Simon Axler, the protagonist of Philip Roth’s startling new book. One of the leading American stage actors of his generation, now in his sixties, he has lost his magic, his talent, and his assurance.” The NY Times reported that yet another Roth novel, Nemesis, is due in 2010.Jonathan Safran Foer will have a non-fiction book out in November called Eating Animals, which most are guessing focuses on vegetarianism. An interview with Foer at Penguin’s UK website would seem to confirm this. It doesn’t mention the book, but the introduction says “Jonathan Safran Foer on why he doesn’t eat anything with parents.”Millions reader Laurie points us to My Bird by Fariba Vafi, translated from Farsi and originally published in Iran in 2002. The publisher Syracuse University Press says: “The narrator, a housewife and young mother living in a low-income neighborhood in [modern] Tehran…[is] forced to raise [her] children alone and care for her ailing mother… One of the most acclaimed and best-selling contemporary Iranian writers.” Laurie adds, “The novel won several literary awards in Iran and, according to a 2005 article in the New York Times, Vafi never attended college and writes when her children are in school.”2010: Probably the most anticipated book of next year will be the The Pale King, a coda to David Foster Wallace’s sadly shortened life as a writer. We already know a fair amount about the book – it will center on an IRS agent – and three excerpts have been published already, “Good People” and “Wiggle Room” in The New Yorker and “The Compliance Branch” (pdf) in Harper’s. A piece by D.T. Max went into some detail about The Pale King following DFW’s death. Given the amount work that lies ahead for DFW’s editors, this may be a second half of 2010 release.Also possibly arriving in the second half of 2010 is Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which we are just beginning to hear about. The book is the long-awaited follow-up to Franzen’s loved, hated, celebrated, Oprah-snubbing novel of nearly a decade ago, The Corrections. Franzen has been coy about the title – the book is reportedly called Freedom – but readers got a taste of what Franzen has in store in “Good Neighbors,” an excerpt that was published in the New Yorker a few weeks ago.Joshua Ferris will follow up his blockbuster debut Then We Came to the End with The Unnamed. The Book Case writes, “The novel focuses on Tim and Jane Farnsworth, a long-married couple who seem to have it all. But Tim has twice battled a bizarre, inexplicable illness.” Beattie’s Book Blog mentions that the illness is that he “can’t stop walking.”John McPhee has a new book due out called Silk Parachute. McPhee wrote a 1997 Shouts & Murmurs piece called “Silk Parachute” about his elderly mother. It begins “When your mother is ninety-nine years old, you have so many memories of her that they tend to overlap, intermingle, and blur.”Time Out NY says Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask is about “Milo, a New York father who is on the brink of economic ruin, and covers themes including but not limited to ‘work, war, sex, class, race, child-rearing, romantic comedies, Benjamin Franklin, cooking shows on death row, the old-model brain, the commercialization of sadness and the eroticization of chicken wire.'”British publisher Faber says Rachel Cusk’s The Bradshaw Variations “is a powerful novel about how our choices and our loves and the family life we build will always be an echo – a variation – of a theme played out in our own childhood.”In the comments or on your own blogs, let us know what books you’re looking forward to.