In high school I had a zine with my friend Vanessa. It included our poetry and short stories, and for the cover of the first issue we used a label maker to spell out its title. After we’d put out one or two issues, I received a polite request from a man in prison, asking me to send him a copy. He paper-clipped two dollars in cash to his request. For some reason, I put the letter aside. From time to time, I took out the request, read it, and then put it back. Years later, I spent the money.
To borrow a phrase from Bennie Salazar, the record producer in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, this is one of my “shame memories.” Sometimes when I can’t sleep, or when I’m having a particularly low day, I think about the guy in prison who wanted to read my zine, and I wonder why I never sent it to him, why I spent his two bucks on lip balm or a soda or whatever. What shames me the most is that there was no reason why I didn’t send him the zine. I just…didn’t. I had planned to, but something, perhaps the teenage trifecta of distraction, malaise, and self-absorption, held me back. I’m also ashamed that I think about this so much. As if my juvenile zine really mattered all that much to anyone.
Lately, I’ve been thinking: If I were a fictional character, would readers hate me?
In her essay “Perfectly Flawed” Lionel Shriver writes, “Surely if fiction recorded the doings only of good campers who anguish about climate change and buy fair trade coffee, novels would be insufferably dull.” I agree. As a reader, my only rule is that a character be interesting. I also have a taste for the quote-unquote unlikeable set: Eva Khatchadourian from Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin; Sheba and Barbara from Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal; Undine Spragg from Edith Wharton’s Custom of the Country. I love that they’re barbed, delusional, judgmental, thorny, damaged, and/or vulnerable. As Roxane Gay writes, “I want characters to think ugly thoughts and make ugly decisions. I want characters to make mistakes and put themselves first without apologizing for it.”
Every couple of months there’s a new defense of unlikeable characters (see: Claire Messud’s take) or likeable ones (see: Jennifer Weiner’s), and this conversation often returns to our cultural expectations of women. Recently, Emily Nussbaum wrote about “The Female Bad Fan” for The New Yorker. These are “the fans of shows with female protagonists, both comedies and dramas, who crave not bloodshed but empowerment.” Nussbaum writes:
The Mindy Project is a sitcom about a woman poisoned by rom-coms, but it offers up its own romantic-comedy pleasures. Female viewers, especially, have been trained to expect certain payoffs from romantic comedies, vicarious in nature: the meet-cute, the soul mate, and, in nearly every case, a “Me, too!” identification. Without “Me, too!,” some folks want a refund.
I’ve come across something similar with my own novel, California, which is marketed as a literary post-apocalyptic novel, but is also a study of a young marriage. While many readers tell me they like the wife, Frida, many do not. Readers on Goodreads or Amazon have expressed this opinion, but so have a couple critics: in the Washington Post, for instance, Sara Sklaroff remarked that Frida “isn’t much of a heroine. She’s annoying, self-centered and tragically naive.” I was surprised that Sklaroff hated Frida as much as she did, and even more puzzled that she didn’t also have trouble with Cal, Frida’s husband; to me, they’re both flawed. I was surprised, too, that character likability was a central focus of the review.
To be honest, the negative reactions to Frida have given me a wee bit of a complex. I’ve found myself wondering about my own actions, about the way I’ve hurt this or that person, or felt slighted about some insignificant thing someone said to me. The way, in college, I asked, “What’s with the hat?” to a Mennonite at the movies. The shame memories are running on repeat these days, is what I’m saying.
Frida isn’t like me: she is impetuous and secretive, she acts based on emotion and intuition, and she’s a slacker. Cal isn’t like me either: he is more hesitant, reserved, and adaptable than I am. These characters frustrated and disappointed me, but I always found them compelling. Likability wasn’t part of the equation; I simply wanted to write about these two specific people, alone and together in the woods, mourning their pasts and trying to stay hopeful. If anything, I was interested in setting a small-scale drama within an “end-of-the-world” situation. What if, at the end of the world, we aren’t our best selves–we’re just ourselves?
(This summer I read The Hunger Games and though I’d love to be as brave as Katniss, I doubt I would be. Maybe the post-apocalyptic genre has trained us to expect characters to break free from the shackles of pettiness and resentment and grief in the face of world-ruin. I’m interested in the characters who don’t or can’t do that.)
I decided to ask two fellow writers about their experience with the “unlikeable” issue. Jean Hanff Korelitz told me that by the time her new novel, You Should Have Known, came out in March, readers’ dislike for her protagonists had “risen to a general din…even from readers who liked the novel very much.” She went on:
‘I just didn’t like her’ is a phrase I read over and over again on Goodreads and Amazon, about the protagonist, Grace Sachs (a woman who has so many problems — missing, probable murderer and adulterer husband, exploding career, global humiliation, etc.– that reader reviews would be pretty far down on the list).
The whole phenomenon made me take stock of the female characters I’ve gravitated to over the years: Lizzie Bennet? Becky Sharp? The strange, probably mentally ill narrator of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping? Would I truly have wanted to take a spa weekend with any of them? When had that become a requirement for appreciating a fictional character?
When I asked Jean what’s on her mind as she creates a character, she said, “I seem to have this compulsion to take women who appear strong, fortunate, “self-actualized,” and rip them to shreds, then see what they make of themselves after that, how they claw their way back.” She continued:
I think there’s an essential feminism at work here…not that I am in the habit of quoting Therese Giudice (she of the indelible “ingredientses” for the cookbooks she — God help us — writes), but her most recent Real Housewives tagline — “You never know how strong you are until it’s the only choice you have…”–could serve the protagonists of most of my novels. Women really are strong when they have to be. And that, to me, is far more compelling than finding your “bestie” in the pages of a novel.
Since receiving Jean’s words of wisdom, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want to see in fictional characters, no matter the gender: I want them complex and realistic, and also surprising. And for female characters, it’s particularly important to me that they have the freedom to be whatever they need to be, whether it’s strong, or weak, or ice-cold, or vulnerable, or all of the above. After all, my real-life best friend can be all of those things, and I still love her.
Author Emma Straub helped me put this all in perspective. A small contingent of readers don’t seem to like her character Franny, who is the matriarch of Emma’s novel The Vacationers. (Which is weird to me, as Franny is funny, an excellent cook, and she’s being pretty pleasant in the wake of her husband’s infidelity.) Emma is wonderfully sanguine about the issue:
I certainly never intended to make my characters either likable or unlikeable — my goal with the characters in this book was to make them as real as possible. Warts and all. I always liked them, but I don’t think that’s even the point. I wasn’t surprised when some readers didn’t, because I saw them as three-dimensional human beings, and god knows it’s hard to find one of those that you don’t find in some way lacking or imperfect. I truly could not care less if readers feel differently.
I also think there’s a big difference between a character being unlikeable (whatever that means) and it being unpleasant to spend time reading about them. I have put down many books because I didn’t like the experience of reading them, but that has nothing at all to do with whether or not the characters in those books seemed like people I would want to hang out with. That’s my question, I suppose, for the people who keep bringing this horseshit up. Are they complaining about not enjoying the book, or that they don’t want to have tea with the characters? Because if it’s the former, for godssake, stop reading!
I grew up in a house built on horror novels, so I’ve spent my entire life reading books about serial killers and pedophiles and assorted other creeps. Are those unlikeable characters? To some people, probably.
Traditionally, the Unlikeable Character in fiction is created with authorial intention. You, as the reader, recognize the cues that the person you’re reading about is alienating or reprehensible, and it’s clear that such characterization is part of author’s aesthetic project. (Unreliable Characters, a la the infamous butler in Remains of the Day, are also traditionally revealed this way). But what if a character isn’t Unlikeable, but unlikeable? What if you just didn’t like him or her? That’s a valid personal response, and certainly a good a reason as any to stop reading. But it’s such a personal response that it’s irrelevant to the critical gaze.
Part of me is embarrassed that I unintentionally wrote characters that are so insufferable–at least to some readers. It’s like holding a glass up to a door, behind which strangers are describing how terrible you–or worse, your children!–are. I can’t help but keep eavesdropping.
At the same time that I emailed Jean and Emma, I also sought out readers who couldn’t stand Frida. This was part anthropological experiment, part focus group. I felt like, if I could just get some answers, I might understand my own book a little better.
I stumbled upon Susan’s review on Goodreads. In it, she details how much she couldn’t stand any of the characters in California. It’s a very funny rant, which begins, “I don’t remember ever before reading a book where I so hated all of the pieces yet so very much enjoyed the book as a whole.”
When I asked Susan when exactly her antipathy began, she told me, “I actually disliked Frida from almost the first page. She immediately seemed crass and spoiled to me.” In the first scene, the reader learns that Frida treasures a turkey baster, purchased before leaving Los Angeles, which even Cal doesn’t know she possesses. Susan said, “The turkey baster was so bizarre… I got what it was about, but the fact that it was so frivolous and silly, combined with the fact that the very first thing I learned about her was that she was keeping secrets (STUPID secrets!) from her husband just turned me off.”
Susan’s reactions fascinated me. One, that frivolity would be damning, rather than revealing, or that a reader would require a secret be grave, especially when it’s between a husband and wife. I’m reminded of the time someone told me they hate to dance, as in, they never ever feel the urge to move to music, even when alone. Wow, I thought, people sure are different from me!
(Susan also hated that Frida “seemed to be entirely defined by the men in her life.” I hate that, too.)
Susan had some choice words for Cal: “The truth is, I actually hated Cal more than Frida. I thought he was a pompous pseudo-intellectual hipster ass.” Sheesh, Susan, tell me how you really feel! Generally, she interpreted Cal and Frida through the lens of their white privilege. That interpretative model poses a powerful question about characterization: how much is our identity, and our actions, dictated by race and class? But, then again, if a reader traces everything about Frida and Cal back to their white privilege, that means I’ve failed, in some way, to make them fully human. It also might suggest that there’s a lower tolerance for white privilege in the post-apocalyptic landscape; some readers want the end-of-the-world to slough off such burdens. (To me, Frida and Cal are victims of late-capitalism, and also products of it. Aren’t we all.)
Another reader, Shayna, answered my call on Tumblr for anyone who hated Frida. She said she was bothered by Frida’s decision to take a Vicodin while pregnant. And, again, she took issue with Frida withholding information, especially from Cal. She wrote, “I just found this so stupid and selfish.” It’s true, Frida does some pretty stupid and selfish stuff, as does Cal. I suppose, as a writer, I’m interested in the stupid, selfish choices we make.
Hearing from Shayna and Susan brought me some peace, for I can’t control how people react, nor should I want to. I am honored that my novel elicited strong reactions to my characters, and I’m heartened that both readers enjoyed the book despite (or because of!) these reactions. Both agreed that there’s often a double-standard for female characters. Shayna said, “A women is whiny or bitchy and ruins the story whereas a male is mean or surly and [that] just makes him interesting or an anti-hero.”
Susan said, “I am a huge, huge fan of Gillian Flynn, the primary reason being that she’s not afraid to write female characters who are evil, psychotic, violent, and messed up in every possible way. I find that so much more empowering and compelling as a female reader to hear about those women than about the perfect, nice, likeable, and usually totally unrealistic female characters you find in most novels.”
Susan’s tastes align with mine, and with many other readers’. Right now there are so many complex female characters for us to encounter on the page and screen, particularly quote-unquote unlikable ones, from Amy Elliott-Dunne of Gone Girl, to the (less murderous) Hannah Horvath of Girls. I, for one, can’t turn away from these women, and I won’t.
I won’t turn away from the characters who stem from my own dark, muddy mind, either.
Image via amysjoy/Flickr
I’d been waiting to read another novel by Lauren Groff ever since I finished her first, The Monsters of Templeton, a genealogy-detective story which also happens to include an enormous lake monster and sentences so beautiful you just want to weep. That promising debut, however, could not prepare me for the brilliance and wisdom of Arcadia, Groff’s recently-released second novel. I was wholly swept up in this story about, among other things, a man who is raised on a commune; I would’ve read it faster were it not for the stunning prose that I wanted, like a fine meal, to savor. Groff’s novel is so richly imagined that every word, every detail, feels true. She is one of the most talented writers working today.
The Millions: I was immediately drawn to Bit as a narrator–he’s sensitive, thoughtful, a keen observer of his surroundings, sweet, and tiny. Can’t get much more loveable than that. (He also seems an antidote to another fictional boy, Kevin, from one of my favorite books, We Need to Talk About Kevin–and I think, as a mother of a son, I needed that!) I really enjoyed being in Bit’s world, his perspective. Was he always the person to tell this story? How do you feel a different member of Arcadia might have altered our perception of it?
Lauren Groff: Bit was always the person to tell the story, even if he didn’t begin as the character he ended up being by the last draft. I started this book when I was pregnant with my first son Beckett; from the beginning, I knew there was going to be a child’s point-of-view in the first part. That said, Bit was at first a girl, primarily because almost every point-of-view character I’ve ever written up to then was female. Then Beck was born, and suddenly the character had to be a boy, and he grew into a fuller life as my son did. This book is equally Bit’s mother’s story–Hannah’s story–and even though she and I are similar in a lot of ways, I found Bit’s perspective to be more interesting, his loss more keen. When Arcadia falls apart, Bit knows nothing of the world beyond, really, and has to go into it as an innocent, which seemed utterly terrifying to me. (As a side-note, I love Lionel Shriver [holy hell!].)
TM: I was impressed with how language of this book shifted, grew more mature, as the book progressed, as Bit aged. Also, there’s almost a groovy rhythm to the prose early on that reflects the lifestyle of the commune. Later on, the prose is far more subdued. Was this intentional, and how did you calibrate the perspective with each section?
LG: It’s hard to say how intentional the shift in language was–I write from the gut a lot. That said, I believe very deeply in the symbiosis of story and mode, that the way that a writer chooses to tell the story has to be at least an equal partner to the story itself. Global things matter–the external architecture of the story, its internal structure, point-of-view, voice, verb tense, authorial distance, things like that. And smaller things matter equally–the use of white space, the length and rhythm of the sentences, the choice of details. When a story I’ve written has failed, it’s because I haven’t found the right way to tell it in either a large way or a small way.
TM: Everyone who’s read this book raves about its prose. It’s gorgeous! When Bit is alone as a child in the dark woods, you write, “There is a sense of gathering, a hand that clenches the center of a stretched cloth and lifts.” Later, Bit describes the unfamiliarity of boxed cookies, how they taste “the way batteries do when licked.” As an adult, he thinks of his students, their “faces cracked with interest.” The images are specific, surprising, beautiful. Can you talk a little about your relationship to sentences and imagery, and how you go about crafting your prose?
LG: Ha. Thanks. The prose that ends up in a finished piece is the product of lots and lots of drafts. I do a preliminary draft of almost everything I write, where I just sprint from the beginning of the story to the end in longhand, and when I’m done, I throw it out without rereading it. This seems wasteful, but it’s actually immensely freeing. By the time I’m done with the first draft, I’ve figured out my structural problems, have a good idea of the characters, and, most importantly, am not so wedded to the words themselves that I can’t fix what’s inherently broken about the piece. When I start again, the nice phrasing or images from the first draft reappear if they’re interesting or important and don’t if they’re not. And then, after a good longhand draft is finished (maybe after three or four re-starts), and I transfer it all to the computer, the second stage of drafting begins, where I print out the manuscript, scribble over it crabbily in red ink, insert changes, and reprint. This goes on for dozens and dozens of drafts. And then there are the trusted reader drafts, the agent drafts, the editor drafts, the copy-editor drafts. Sometimes, I wonder if writing fiction is, at its core, mostly a matter of finding a story or character that’s interesting enough to hold the writer’s interest through all of the painstaking work of revising.
TM: The novel reads episodically, with little moments or scenes broken up by white space. There are parts that feel more episodic than others, and it almost feels like time is passing in flashes, everything blurry but a brief, beautiful moment. This made the book not only highly readable, but it also emphasized the passage of time by giving it a physical dimension on the page. This is a long-winded preamble to asking you how you conceived of time passing in Arcadia. The novel is told in the present-tense, and yet, the latter half of the book is so much about Bit looking backward. How did you wrestle with all the years covered? How does scene-writing change in a book that covers so much time?
LG: Oh, I’m so glad you mentioned time. From the beginning, it was deeply important to my idea of the project of this book. I am in love with the gorgeous, elastic, leaping human brain that shuffles and connects disparate pieces of the world into a coherent story. I wanted the white space, either between the episodes or between the four parts of the book, to carry a lot of the narrative burden. Some people may live lives that are perfectly linear, but mine seems to happen in intense, emotionally-charged spurts, followed by long, fallow periods of relative calm. My impression of history–our collective storytelling–is that it happens in crests and troughs, too. With Arcadia, I wanted to examine time, through Bit, as this intensely personal experience; I also wanted to examine time in its larger historical patterns.
TM: I admit, I’m a bit annoyed that so many reviews of Arcadia give away its plot and structure , which was deeply surprising (and thus pleasurable) to me. So, ***spoiler alert*** to those reading this interview who haven’t read the book! I was shocked when this book moved forward into the future; this suddenly panoramic view of Bit’s whole life reminded me a little of A Visit from the Goon Squad (of which I am a big fan), in its surprising depiction of a future that supplies us with a new understanding of the book’s characters. Did you know you were going to structure Arcadia like this? I kept wondering if an earlier draft was more conventional, plot-wise, more like Room by Emma Donoghue–where the little boy who was born and raised in a shed escapes and in the second half of the book has to interact with this big, scary new world. Why skip ahead to Bit as an adult, now accustomed to the outside world? Were you meaning to shift our expectations of plot and novel structure?
LG: As soon as I figured out what I wanted to write about, I understood that my arc was going to move toward dystopia at the end of the book. The impulse stemmed from my research–a lot of the back-to-the-landers I read about and talked to for Arcadia went from being largely idealistic in the 1960s to being somewhat apocalyptic nowadays; for instance, a number of them ascribe to peak oil theories and practice radical homemaking. (For the record, I don’t think they’re wrong.) I was gobsmacked by the idea that people who were extremely future-thinking in their twenties would become extremely anxious about the future in their sixties. It keyed into a lot of the bleakness I was feeling at the time I envisioned this book, because, in truth, I was (am) afraid for my baby’s future. Also, the real pattern for this book was not just ending at Paradise Lost, but also extending into Paradise Regained; if Bit were going to be given the chance to return home, the stakes in the outside world had to be heightened. And though I deeply love Room, which I let myself read after my final edits, Bit’s trajectory was different because I wanted to explore how Bit carries his parents’ idealism throughout his life and how it changes him.
TM: How much research went into Arcadia? What in the commune is just pure imagination and fantasy, and what did you feel needed to be backed up with historical fact? Where does research fit into your writing process?
LG: I research first and a great deal, and then do a small amount throughout the rest of the writing process, all of which took about four years for this book. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do at the beginning, so I started with just basic texts about utopias and dystopias. I moved on to utopian novels (Butler, Morris, More, Le Guin, Campanella, and on and on), read about actual historical intentional communities. The two that took my breath away were Oneida, in mid-nineteenth-century upstate New York (Mansion House is the inspiration for Arcadia House), and The Farm in 1960s through ’80s Tennessee. I spent a few days at both places. Oneida is now a guest-house, and you can stay with people who still live at The Farm, both of which experiences I recommend heartily. And then I talked to everyone who would talk to me about their experiences in intentional communities. Serendipity was on my side with this project. Even during moments that I wasn’t looking for a story, I stumbled into one. We had a garage sale and someone came up to us who said our house had housed a cult in the 1970s that she’d been a part of. Apparently, they wore pink robes and made the kids sleep in the garage.
TM: And because The Millions is a site about books, I must ask, What’s the last great book you read?
LG: I just read Leela Corman’s Unterzakhn, and can’t say enough lovely things about it. It’s a graphic novel that just came out, set on the Lower East Side in the beginning of the twentieth century. It’s lush and smart and and funny and just beautifully drawn. And I just reread Jami Attenberg’s great new novel called The Middlesteins, which will be published in October. It’s so great-hearted and warm and brilliant. You’ll love it.
2012 is shaping up to be another exciting year for readers. While last year boasted long-awaited novels from David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami, and Jeffrey Eugenides, readers this year can look forward to new Toni Morrison, Richard Ford, Peter Carey, Lionel Shriver, and, of course, newly translated Roberto Bolaño, as well as, in the hazy distance of this coming fall and beyond, new Michael Chabon, Hilary Mantel, and John Banville. We also have a number of favorites stepping outside of fiction. Marilynn Robinson and Jonathan Franzen have new essay collections on the way. A pair of plays are on tap from Denis Johnson. A new W.G. Sebald poetry collection has been translated. And Nathan Englander and Jonathan Safran Foer have teamed to update a classic Jewish text. But that just offers the merest suggestion of the literary riches that 2012 has on offer. Riches that we have tried to capture in another of our big book previews.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at 8,400 words strong and encompassing 81 titles, this is the only 2012 book preview you will ever need.
January or Already Out:
The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus: No venom seems more befitting an author than words, words, words. In Ben Marcus’s Flame Alphabet, language is the poison that youth inflict on adult ears. Utterances ushered from children’s mouths have toxic effects on adults, while the underage remain immune to the assault. The effects are so harmful that The Flame Alphabet’s narrator, Sam, and his wife must separate themselves from their daughter to preserve their health. Sam sets off to the lab to examine language and its properties in an attempt to discover an antidote and reunite his family. Marcus’s uncharacteristically conventional narrative makes way for him to explore the uncanny eccentricities of language and life. (Anne)
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq: Michel Houellebecq, the dyspeptic bad boy of French letters, has been accused of every imaginable sin against political correctness. His new novel, The Map and the Territory, is a send-up of the art world that tones down the sex and booze and violence but compensates by introducing a “sickly old tortoise” named Michel Houellebecq who gets gruesomely murdered. The book has drawn charges of plagiarism because passages were lifted virtually verbatim from Wikipedia. “If people really think that (is plagiarism),” Houellebecq sniffed, “then they haven’t the first notion what literature is.” Apparently, he does. The Map and the Territory was awarded the Prix Goncourt, France’s most prestigious literary prize. (Bill)
Distrust That Particular Flavor by William Gibson: One of our most prescient and tuned-in writers of science fiction is coming out with his first collection of non-fiction. Distrust That Particular Flavor gathers together articles and essays William Gibson wrote, beginning in the 1980s, for Rolling Stone, Wired, Time, The Whole Earth Catalog, The New York Times and other publications and websites. There are also forewords, introductions and speeches, even an autobiographical sketch. While these pieces offer fascinating glimpses inside the machinery of Gibson’s fiction writing, their central concern is technology and how it is shaping our future, and us. “What we used to call ‘future shock,'” Gibson writes, “is now simply the one constant in all our lives.” (Bill)
The Last Nude by Ellis Avery: With starred reviews from both Booklist and Library Journal, Ellis Avery’s second novel The Last Nude imagines the brief love affair between the glamorous Art-Deco Painter Tamara de Lempicka and the young muse for her most iconic painting The Beautiful Rafaela. Set in 1920s Paris, among the likes of Jean Cocteau, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Sylvia Beach, and a fictional American journalist named Anson Hall (a sort of Ernest Hemingway type), Avery explores the costs of ambition, the erotics of sexual awakening, and the devastation that ensues when these two converge. Critics have praised The Last Nude as riveting, elegant, seductive, and breathtaking. (Sonya)
Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander: Auslander has made a name for himself with side-splitting appearances on This American Life and his equally funny memoir Foreskin’s Lament that have marking out a fruitful career as a Jewish humorist. Auslander’s new book is his first novel, which New York says is “kind of about the lighter side of collective Holocaust guilt” Kirkus, meanwhile, has called the book, which explores the Holocaust as “an unshakable, guilt-inducing fixture in the life of any self-aware Jew,” “Brutal, irreverent and very funny. An honest-to-goodness heir to Portnoy’s Complaint.” (Max)
Smut by Alan Bennett: Given the existence of Nicholson Baker’s House of Holes, a new book entitled Smut would seem to have a lot to live up to—at minimum, it should descend into dimensions so filthy and moist that they would cause Baker’s own thunderstick to droop in disgusted admiration. Instead, the absurdly prolific, versatile, and esteemed writer of The History Boys and The Madness of King George provides a pair of very English stories about the sexual adventures of two middle-aged, middle-class British women. So, rather than a lightspeed journey smack into a rigid “Malcolm Gladwell,” Smut is, in the words of the Guardian, a “comedy of false appearances.” And that’s probably not such a bad thing. (Jacob)
Life Sentences: Literary Judgments and Accounts by William H. Gass: Random House will publish Gass’s latest collection of non-fiction this January. In Life Sentences, his tenth non-fiction book, Gass explores the work of a number of his own favorite writers, with essays on Kafka, Proust, Stein, Nietzsche, Henry James and Knut Hamsen. Gass, the author of Omensetter’s Luck and The Tunnel, is a central figure in postmodern literature, and his critical essays have been hugely influential (he coined the term “metafiction” in his 1970 essay “Philosophy and the Form of Fiction”). (Mark)
At Last and The Patrick Melrose Novels by Edward St. Aubyn
Edward St. Aubyn is probably neck-and-neck with Alan Hollinghurst for the title of “purest living English prose stylist.” However, where Hollinghurst traces a line of descent from the prodigious Henry James, St. Aubyn’s leaner style harkens back to the shorter comic novels of Waugh and Henry Green. For 20 years, he’s been producing a semiautobiographical series whose chief interest – one of them anyway – is seeing all that fineness applied to the coarsest of behaviors: abuse, addiction, abandonment. Booker nominations notwithstanding, readers on these shores have paid little attention. Then again, Hollinghurst took a while to find his audience, too, and with the publication of the final “Patrick Melrose novel,” At Last, St. Aubyn should finally get his due. Latecomers can prepare by immersing themselves in the new omnibus edition of the previous titles: Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, and Mother’s Milk. (Garth)
Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan: In addition to being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Edugyan’s sophomore novel was and nominated for all three of the major Canadian literary prizes, and won the Scotiabank Giller award for best Canadian novel published this year, whose jury said “any jazz musician would be happy to play the way Edugyan writes.” Praised by The Independent for its “shimmering jazz vernacular, its pitch-perfect male banter and its period slang,” Half-Blood Blues follows the dangerous exploits of an interracial jazz band in Berlin, Baltimore, and Nazi-occupied Paris. (Emily K.)
The Recognitions by William Gaddis: Fifty-seven years after its first publication, Dalkey Archive Press reissues William Gaddis’s classic with a new introduction by William H. Gass. Gaddis’s mammoth work of early postmodernism (or very late modernism, depending on who you ask) is one of the key entries in the canon of American postwar fiction, and a major influence on the likes of David Foster Wallace. Set in the late ’40s and early ’50s, the novel is a thoroughly ruthless (and ruthlessly thorough) examination of fraudulence and authenticity in the arts. Given its influence on postmodern American fiction, Dalkey Archive Press seems a natural home for the novel.
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander: Nathan Englander, 41, burst onto the literary scene in 1999 with his widely praised collection of short stories For the Relief of Unbearable Urges. This February he releases his second collection of stories, eight in all, that draw on themes from Jewish history and culture. The title story, about two married couples playing out the Holocaust as a parlor game, appeared in the December 12 edition of The New Yorker. The collection as a whole is suffused with violence and sexual desire. In a starred review Publisher’s Weekly wrote, “[Englander] brings a tremendous range and energy to his chosen topic. (Kevin)
Satantango by László Krasznahorkai, translated by George Szirtes: What is it with Hungary? It may not have produced the highest number of Nobel Peace Prize candidates, but it almost certainly boasts the highest population-density of contenders for the Nobel in Literature. There are the two Péters, Nádas and Esterhazy. There’s Imre Kertesz, who deservedly took home the laurels in 2002. More recently, English-language monoglots have been discovering the work of László Krasznahorkai. Susan Sontag called The Melancholy of Resistance, “inexorable, visionary”…(of course, Susan Sontag once called a Salade Nicoise “the greatest light lunch of the postwar period.”) More recently, James Wood hailed War and War and Animalinside as “extraordinary.” Satantango, Krasznahorkai’s first novel, from 1985, now reaches these shores, courtesy of the great translator George Szirtes. Concerning the dissolution of a collective farm, it was the basis for Bela Tarr’s 7-hour movie of the same name. (Garth)
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo: Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a staff writer for The New Yorker and an astute chronicler of America’s poor, turns to India for her first book, a work of narrative nonfiction exploring Annawadi, a shantytown settlement near the Mumbai airport. Behind the Beautiful Flowers follows the lives of a trash sorter, a scrap metal thief, and other citizens of Annawadi, and delves into the daily life and culture of a slum in one of the world’s most complex and fascinating cities. In a starred review, Publisher’s Weekly says “Boo’s commanding ability to convey an interior world comes balanced by concern for the structural realities of India’s economic liberalization…and her account excels at integrating the party politics and policy strategies behind eruptions of deep-seated religious, caste, and gender divides.” (Patrick)
Varamo by Cesar Aira: With a new book out in translation seemingly every time you turn around, the Argentine genius Cesar Aira is fast achieving a Bolaño-like ubiquity. And with more than 80 books published in his native land, there’s more where that came from. Aira’s fascinating writing process, which involves never revisiting the previous day’s writing, means that his novels lack the consistency of Bolaño’s. Instead, you get an improvisatory wildness that, at its best – as in Ghosts – opens up possibilities where there had seemed to be brick walls. Varamo, recently reviewed in The Quarterly Conversation, features “a Panamanian civil servant [who] conceives and writes what will become a canonical poem of the Latin American avant-garde.” The great Chris Andrews translates.
Flatscreen by Adam Wilson: “But maybe Mom’s not the place to start…” So begins the fast, funny debut of Adam Wilson, who’s recently published fiction and criticism in The Paris Review and Bookforum. The story concerns the unlikely…er, friendship between ADHD adolescent Eli Schwartz and one Seymour J. Kahn, a horndog paraplegic and ex-TV star. In the channel-surfing argot that gives the prose much of its flavor: Think The Big Lebowski meets Catcher in the Rye meets that old cable series Dream On. (Garth)
No One Is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel: A graduate of the MFA program at UC Irvine, Ramona Ausubel brings us a debut novel about a remote Jewish village in Romania. The year is 1939, and in an attempt to protect themselves from the encroaching war, its residents—at the prompting of an eleven-year-old girl—decide to tell a different story, to will reality out of existence, and imagine a new and safer world. Last April, Ausubel published a strange and beautiful story called “Atria” in The New Yorker, and I’ve been anticipating her novel ever since. (Edan)
Stay Awake by Dan Chaon: Once called “a remarkable chronicler of a very American kind of sadness” (SF Chronicle), the author of Await Your Reply has slowly built a reputation as one of the most incisive writers of our time, specializing in characters who are dark, damaged, and perplexing, but making the reader feel protective of and connected to them. Populated with night terrors, impossible memories, ghosts, mysterious messages, and paranoia, Stay Awake heralds Chaon’s return to the short story with delicate unease. (Janet)
Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room by Geoff Dyer: Geoff Dyer shows no signs of slowing down after seeing two stunning books of essays published in the U.S. in 2011, Otherwise Known As the Human Condition and The Missing of the Somme. This English writer, blessed with limitless range and a ravishing ability to bend and blend genres, is coming out with a peculiar little book about a 30-year obsession. It’s a close analysis of the Russian director Andre Tarkovsky’s 1979 movie Stalker, and Dyer calls it “an account of watchings, rememberings, misrememberings and forgettings; it is not the record of a dissection.” Even so, Dyer brings some sharp instruments to the job, and the result is an entertaining and enlightening joy. (Bill)
The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal: A book in the form of a duel. In 2003, John D’Agata was commissioned to write an essay about a young man who jumped to his death from a Las Vegas hotel. The magazine that commissioned the story ultimately rejected it due to factual inaccuracies. Is there a difference between accuracy and truth? Is it ever appropriate to substitute one for the other in a work of non-fiction? The Lifespan of a Fact examines these questions in the form of a seven-year correspondence between D’Agata and his increasingly exasperated fact-checker, Jim Fingal; the book is composed of the essay itself, Fingal’s notes on the essay, D’Agata’s responses to the notes, Fingal’s responses to the responses. (Emily M.)
Dogma by Lars Iyer: Lars Iyer’s debut novel Spurious was published last year to considerable acclaim, and was short-listed for The Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. Spurious concerned a narrator named Lars Iyer, also a writer, his friend W., their certainty that we’re living in the End of Times, their longing to think a truly original thought, the mold that’s taking over Lars’ apartment, their parallel searches for a) meaning and b) a leader and c) quality gin. Dogma—an altogether darker work, the second in a planned trilogy—picks up where Spurious left off. (Emily M.)
The Guardians: An Elegy by Sarah Manguso: In this brief book, Manguso, who already has a memoir – the acclaimed Two Kinds of Decay – two poetry collections and two short story collections under her belt, offers a rumination on a friend named Harris who had spent time in a mental institution before killing himself by stepping onto the tracks in front of a commuter train. Kirkus says the book asks the question: “How does the suicide of a friend affect someone who has come perilously close to suicide herself?” (Max)
When I Was a Child I Read Books by Marilynne Robinson: The exalted author of Gilead and Home claims that the hardest work of her life has been convincing New Englanders that growing up in Idaho was not “intellectually crippling.” There, during her childhood, she read about Cromwell, Constantinople, and Carthage, and her new collection of essays celebrates the enduring value of reading, as well as the role of faith in modern life, the problem with pragmatism, and her confident, now familiar, view of human nature. (Janet)
Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton: In his new book, Alain de Botton argues for a middle ground in the debate between religious people and non-believers: rather than dismiss religion outright, he suggests, a better approach would be to steal from it. de Botton, himself a non-believer, suggests that “while the supernatural claims of religion are of course entirely false,” religious doctrines nonetheless contain helpful ideas that an atheist or agnostic might reasonably consider borrowing. (Emily M.)
Arcadia by Lauren Groff: Previewed in our July 2011 round-up of most anticipated books, Arcadia follows Bit Stone, a man who grows up in an agrarian utopian commune in central New York that falls apart, as they generally do. The second half of the novel charts Bit’s life as an adult, showing how his upbringing influenced and shaped his identity. A starred review in Publishers Weekly says, “The effective juxtaposition of past and future and Groff’s (Delicate Edible Birds) beautiful prose make this an unforgettable read.” Hannah Tinti calls it “an extraordinary novel.” (Edan)
Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru: Hari Kunzru’s always had an interest in counterculture. His last novel, My Revolutions, concerned ’60s-era unrest and its consequences. That countercultural energy not only pervades the plot of his new novel; it explodes its form. Structured in short chapters ranging over three hundred years of history and several dozen different styles, Gods Without Men has already been likened to David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas – but with “more heart and more interest in characterization” (The Guardian.) And the centrifugal structure gives Kunzru license to tackle the Iraq War, Eighteenth Century explorers, hippie communes, and UFOs. (Garth)
Suddenly, A Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret: Etgar Keret’s choice of position while writing–facing a bathroom, his back to a window–reveals much about his fiction. He stories are absurd, funny, and unearth the unexpected in seemingly everyday situations. Many stories from his forthcoming collection are set on planes, “a reality show that nobody bothers to shoot,” and deal in wishes and desires. In “Guava,” a plane crashes, a passenger is granted a last wish and is then reincarnated as a guava. Another story involves a wish-granting goldfish, an aspiring documentary filmmaker, and a Russian expatriate who seeks to avoid having strangers knock on his door. Keret’s stories are brief inundations of imagination, an experience that holds true for Keret as much as it does for his reader. Keret says he becomes so immersed while writing that he’s unaware of his surroundings, regardless of his view. (Anne)
Enchantments by Kathryn Harrison: As a young writer, Harrison gained fame for her tales of incestuous love, which turned out to be based in part on her own liaison with her father, which she described in her controversial memoir, The Kiss. Now, Harrison tackles a different kind of troubled family in this tale of doomed love between Masha, the daughter of Rasputin, and sickly Aloysha, son of the deposed Tsar Nicholas II, while the Romanovs are imprisoned in St. Petersburg’s Alexander Palace in the months following the Bolshevik Revolution. (Michael)
Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway: Nick Harkaway’s second novel—his first was the sprawling and wildly inventive The Gone-Away World—concerns a clockwork repairman by the name of Joe Spork, a quiet single man in his thirties who leads an uneventful life in an unfashionable corner of London, and a nearly-ninety-year-old former spy by the name of Edie Banister. Their worlds collide when Spork repairs an especially unusual clockwork mechanism that effectively blows his quiet life to pieces and immerses him in a world, Harkaway reports, of “mad monks, psychopaths, villainous potentates, scientific geniuses, giant submarines, determined and extremely dangerous receptionists, and threats to the future of conscious life in the universe.” (Emily M.)
The New Republic by Lionel Shriver: After a run of bestsellers, including the Columbine-inspired We Need to Talk About Kevin, which was recently made into a movie with Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly, Shriver is digging into her bottom drawer to publish an old novel rejected by publishers when she wrote it in 1998. The New Republic, written when Shriver still lived in strife-torn Northern Ireland, is set on a non-existent peninsula of Portugal and focuses on terrorism and cults of personality. (Michael)
The Sugar Frosted Nutsack by Mark Leyner: It’s been 14 years since Leyner’s last literary release, The Tetherballs of Bougainville, though he’s been busy co-authoring the series of ponderously quirky human anatomy readers that started with Why do Men Have Nipples: Hundreds of Questions you’d Only Ask a Doctor After Your Third Martini. With The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, Leyner returns to fiction, takes on the geographical and cultural contradictions of Dubai, and writes down the mythology of what he’s calling our “Modern Gods.” Also included: a cameo from the Mister Softee jingle, and a host of “drug addled bards.” (Emily K.)
The Vanishers by Heidi Julavits: The fourth novel from Believer editor Julavits tells the story of an academy for psychics and the battle between two powerful women, the masterful Madame Ackermann and her most promising — and hence threatening — student Julia Severn. After Ackermann forces Julia to relive her mother’s suicide, Julia flees to Manhattan where she works a humdrum job in exile. Soon, her talents are needed to track down a missing artist who may have a connection to her mother. Powell’s Bookstore included a galley of the book as a pairing with Erin Morgenstern’s enormously popular The Night Circus, noting that The Vanishers “has magic, darkness, whimsy, and flat-out great writing.” (Patrick)
New American Haggadah edited by Jonathan Safran Foer and translated by Nathan Englander: This new translation, brought to us by Foer and Englander (with design work by the Israeli “typographic experimentalist” Oded Ezer), represents an unusual confluence of youthful, modern American Jewish thought. Featuring essays and commentary by an intriguingly diverse group (Tony Kushner, Michael Pollan, Lemony Snicket), the New American Haggadah should deliver an infusion of fresh intellectual energy into the traditional Seder narrative. (Jacob)
Hot Pink by Adam Levin: Adam Levin works on his short game with this follow-up to his 1,030-page debut novel The Instructions. Hot Pink is a collection of short stories, many of which have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly and Tin House. From his own descriptions of the stories, Levin seems to be mining the same non-realist seam he excavated with his debut. There are stories about legless lesbians in love, puking dolls, violent mime artists, and comedians suffering from dementia. Fans of The Instructions’ wilder flights of invention (and devotees of the legless lesbian romance genre) will find much to anticipate here. (Mark)
Reading for My Life: Writings, 1958-2008 by John Leonard: For anyone who aspires to write book reviews – that orphaned form stranded halfway between Parnassus and Fleet Street – the late John Leonard was an inspiration. Tough-minded, passionate, at once erudite and street, he was something like the literary equivalent of Pauline Kael. I’m assuming here we’ll get a nice selection of his best work. (Garth)
The Cove by Ron Rash: For the poet, novelist and short story writer Ron Rash, this could be the break-out novel that gives him the name recognition of such better-known Appalachian conjurers as Lee Smith, Robert Morgan, Fred Chappell and Charles Frazier. The Cove, set in the North Carolina mountains during the First World War, is the story of Laurel Shelton and her war-damaged brother Hank, who live on land that the locals believe is cursed. Everything changes when Laurel comes upon a mysterious stranger in the woods, who she saves from a near-fatal accident. “Rash throws a big shadow now,” says Daniel Woodrell, “and it’s only going to get bigger and soon.” (Bill)
Farther Away: Essays by Jonathan Franzen: From Franzen, a collection of essays and speeches written primarily in the last five years. The title essay generated considerable attention when it appeared in The New Yorker in April. In it, Franzen told of his escape to a remote, uninhabited island in the South Pacific following the suicide of his friend David Foster Wallace. Two pieces in the collection—“On Autobiographic Fiction” and “Comma-Then”—have never been published before. Others focus on environmental devastation in China, bird poachers in Cyprus, and the way technology has changed the way people express intimate feelings to each other. (Kevin)
Immobility by Brian Evenson: Genre-bender Evenson (Fugue State, Contagion) returns with an inventive mystery centering around a brilliant detective wasting away from an incurable disease and, consequently, frozen in suspended animation for years. Thawed out by a mysterious man, he must solve an important case with enormous stakes, and he must do it all in time to be frozen again before his disease kills him. There’s little information out there on this book, but he has described it as “another weird noir.” (Patrick)
The Secret of Evil by Roberto Bolaño: Published in 2007 as El Secreto del Mal, The Secret of Evil is a collection of short stories and essays culled posthumously from Roberto Bolaño’s archives. Due this April, the collection joins the steady torrent of Bolaño material that has been translated and published since his death. The stories revisit characters from The Savage Detectives and Nazi Literature in the Americas, and feature other members of Bolaño’s now familiar cast. Some have argued that the embarrassment of posthumous Bolaño riches has occasionally bordered on, well, the embarrassing, but Bolaño’s English-language readers hope for the best. (Lydia)
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 by Susan Sontag: Susan Sontag said that her books “are not a means of discovering who I am … I’ve never fancied the ideology of writing as therapy or self-expression.” Despite her dismissal of the personal in her own writing, Sontag’s life has become a subject of cultural obsession. The first volume of her journals captivated readers with tales of youthful cultivation, spiced with reading lists, trysts, and European adventures. In the interim since, we’ve fed on reflections like Sigrid Nunez’s Sempre Susan and Phillip Lopate’s Notes on Sontag. As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, Sontag’s second volume of journals, picks up in 1964, the year of “Notes on Camp” (which also marked her debut in the Partisan Review) and follows as she establishes herself as an intellect to reckon with. (Anne)
HHhH by Laurent Binet: Winner of the Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, Laurent Binet’s first novel was recommended to me by a Frenchwoman as an alternative to Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones or William H. Gass’ The Tunnel. In fact, it sounds like a blend of the two. It concerns the assassination of Hitler’s henchman Reinhard Heydrich – and a writer’s attempt to navigate the straits of writing about the Holocaust. (Garth)
Across the Land and the Water: Selected Poems 1964-2001 by W.G. Sebald. This collection was published last November in the UK to coincide with the tenth anniversary of Sebald’s death. Translated and edited by Iain Galbraith, it brings together much of his previously uncollected and unpublished poetry. Writing in The Guardian, Andrew Motion cautioned against seeing these poems as having been “written in the margins” of the novels. The collection, he wrote, “turns out to be a significant addition to Sebald’s main achievement–full of things that are beautiful and fascinating in themselves, and which cast a revealing light on the evolution and content of his prose.” (Mark)
Wish You Were Here by Graham Swift: With promising reviews from The UK — “… an exemplary tour guide of unknown English lives, a penetrating thinker, a wonderful writer of dialogue and description, a nimble craftsman” (The Telegraph), “ quietly commanding… burns with a sombre, steady rather than a pyrotechnic flame” (The Independent) — Swift’s ninth novel signals a return to the themes of his 1996 Man Booker prize winning Last Orders: Wish You Were Here chronicles a man’s journey to Iraq, in 2006, to collect his estranged soldier brother’s body, and examines the resurfacing of a both personal and international history. (Emily K.)
Paris, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down by Rosecrans Baldwin: In the grand expatriate tradition, Baldwin went to Paris looking for la vie en rose and found himself in a McDonald’s. The editor of The Morning News and author of You Lost Me There moved his family to Paris for a copywriting job and soon learned that it’s not all croissants and cathedrals. Learning to live with constant construction, the oddities of a French office, the omnipresence of American culture, and his own inability to speak French, Baldwin loses his dream of Paris but finds a whole new reality to fall in love with. (Janet)
The Hunger Angel by Herta Muller: Nobel winner Herta Müller has written a novel about a young man in a Soviet labor camp in 1945. Müller’s own mother, a Romanian-born member of a German minority in the region, spent five years in a Soviet camp, although Müller’s novel is based upon the accounts of other subjects, particularly the poet Oskar Pastior. Despite its provenance and heavy subject matter, the novel, which is already out in German, has received middling reviews from German critics. (Lydia)
Waiting for Sunrise by William Boyd: Out in April, Waiting for Sunrise, the newest novel from British author William Boyd will take readers to pre-WWI Vienna and on to the battlefields of Europe. The novel follows the fortunes of a British actor cum spy, as he visits the analyst’s couch, meets intriguing beauties, has coffee with Freud, and battles ze Germans. Exciting stuff from the author of Any Human Heart, a Whitbread winner and Booker shortlister. (Lydia)
Mortality by Christopher Hitchens: Perhaps because Christopher Hitchens was writing so honestly and movingly of his illness right up until his death, we were surprised when it came, even though it seemed clear all along that his cancer would be fatal. Hitchens’ essays, in his final year, helped humanize and soften a writer who welcomed conflict and whose prose so often took a combative stance. This memoir, planned before his death, is based on those last Vanity Fair essays. The UK edition is said to be coming out “early this year” and Amazon has it listed for April, while the timing of the US edition is unclear. (Max)
Home by Toni Morrison: Morrison’s latest is about a Korean War veteran named Frank Money who returns from war to confront racism in America, a family emergency (Money’s sister, in crisis, needs to be rescued and returned to their hometown in Georgia), and the after effects of his time on the front lines. Morrison, 80, has been reading excerpts from the novel at events since early 2011. At an event in Newark in April, she read a few pages and remarked, “Some of it is soooo good — and some of it needs editing.” (Kevin)
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel: Those of us who gobbled up Hillary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall eagerly await the release of its sequel, the ominously-titled Bring Up the Bodies. In Wolf Hall, we saw the operatic parallel rise of both Thomas Cromwell and Anne Boleyn in the court of Henry VIII. In Bring Up the Bodies, Anne’s failure to produce a male heir, and Henry’s eternally wandering attentions, present Cromwell with the challenge of his career: protecting the King, eliminating Anne, and preserving his own power base. How we loved to hate Anne in Wolf Hall; will her destruction at the hands of the king and his chief minister win our sympathies? If anyone can effect such a complication of emotional investment, Mantel can. (Sonya)
The Passage of Power by Robert Caro: The much-anticipated fourth volume of Caro’s landmark five-volume life of Lyndon Johnson appears just in time for Father’s Day. This volume, covering LBJ’s life from late 1958 when he began campaigning for the presidency, to early 1964, after he was thrust into office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, comes ten years after The Master of the Senate, which won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. The new volume, which focuses on the gossip-rich Kennedy White House years, will no doubt be another runaway bestseller. (Michael)
Canada by Richard Ford: Richard Ford fans rejoice! A new novel set in Saskatchewan is pending from the author of the Frank Bascombe trilogy. The first of Ford’s novels to be set north of the border, Canada will be published in the U.S. by Ecco, with whom Ford signed a three-book deal after his much-publicized 2008 split from Knopf. The novel involves American fugitives living on the Saskatchewan plains, and according to Ford it is inspired structurally by The Sheltering Sky. Ford, who calls himself “a Canadian at heart” talked about the novel and read an excerpt on the Canadian Broadcasting Company program Writers and Company. (Lydia)
The Newlyweds by Nell Freudenberger: Freudenberger is famous for taking a knockout author photo and for catching all the breaks (remember the term “Schadenfreudenberger”?), but she has turned out to be an interesting writer. The Newlyweds, which was excerpted in The New Yorker’s 20 Under 40 series, is loosely based on the story of a Bangladeshi woman whom Freudenberger met on a plane. The woman, a middle-class Muslim, married an American man she’d met through the Internet, and the novel follows their early years of marriage in fictional form, marking Freudenberger step away from stories about young women and girls and toward those about grown women living with the choices they’ve made. (Michael)
The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey: Two-time Booker Prize winner Peter Carey returns in May with The Chemistry of Tears, his first novel since 2010’s much-loved Parrot and Olivier in America. As in Parrot, Carey again stokes a conversation between past and present, albeit more explicitly: in the wake of her lover’s passing, a present-day museum conservator throws herself into the construction of a Victorian-era automaton. If the parallel between the sadness of death and the joy of rebirth might seem a tad “on the nose,” expect Carey, as always, to swath the proceedings with sharp observation, expert stylistics, and a sense of genuine sorrow. (Jacob)
Railsea by China Mieville: The British fantasy writer China Mieville, as we noted in a recent career retrospective, is an equal-opportunity plunderer of the high and the low, everything from fellow fantasy writers to mythology, folklore, children’s literature, epics, comics, westerns, horror, Kafka and Melville. Never has his kinship with Melville been more apparent than in his new young adult novel, Railsea, in which a character named Sham Yes ap Soorap rides a diesel locomotive under the command of a captain obsessed with hunting down the giant ivory-colored mole, Mocker-Jack, that snatched off her arm years ago. Fans of Mieville’s previous YA novel, Un Lun Dun, should brace themselves for another whiplash ride. (Bill)
A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava: Is self-publishing the new publishing? Not yet. Still, De La Pava’s audacious debut, called “one of the best and most original novels” of the last decade by Open Letters Monthly and subsequently heralded by the blogosphere, may upend some assumptions. This one began life as a self-publication, and though many self-published authors seem to feel they’ve written masterpieces, this might be the real thing. It’s simultaneously a Melvillean tour of the criminal justice system, a caper novel, and a postmodern tour de force. Now that University of Chicago press is reissuing it, heavy-hitting critics like Steven Moore are starting to take notice. (Garth)
The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel: This spring brings a third, dazzling novel from our very own Emily St. John Mandel. It’s 2009, and disgraced journalist Gavin Sasaki, “former jazz musician, a reluctant broker of foreclosed properties, obsessed with film noir and private detectives and otherwise at loose ends,” returns to his native Florida where he gets embroiled in the mystery of an ex-girlfriend and her missing daughter—who looks a lot like Gavin. The Lola Quartet has garnered high praise from booksellers like Joe Eichman of Tattered Cover, who says, “This sad, yet sublime, novel should bring Emily St. John Mandel a widespread readership.” (Edan)
The Lower River by Paul Theroux: Theroux’s latest is about sixty-year-old Ellis Hock who retreats to Malawi, where he spent four Edenic years in the Peace Corps, after his wife leaves him and his life unravels back home in Medford, Massachusetts. The book appeared first as a short story in The New Yorker in 2009. In it Theroux returns to a theme he’s mined so successfully throughout his prolific career—the allure of ex-pat life, and the perils of living as an outsider in a foreign country. (Kevin)
Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain: In this follow-up to his PEN/Hemingway award-winning short story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, Fountain delivers a satirical novel about a 19-year-old soldier from Texas, home on leave and, along with his army squad, a guest of honor at a Dallas Cowboys game. Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn, calls it “A Catch-22 of the Iraq War.” Here’s a more in-depth description of the novel. (Edan)
Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif: Booker longlister Mohammed Hanif wrote Our Lady of Alice Bhatti on the heels of his celebrated debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes. His second novel, also set in Pakistan, tells the story of Alice Bhatti, a spirited crypto-Christian nurse of lowly origins who works at the Karachi Sacred Heart Hospital for All Ailments and endures all manner of indignities at the hands of her colleagues and compatriots. Part absurd and unfortunate love story (between the titular Alice and a body-builder ruffian), part searing social commentary from a promising writer. (Lydia)
In One Person by John Irving: Irving returns to first-person voice for the first time since A Prayer for Owen Meany to tell the story of a lonely bisexual man working hard to make his life “worthwhile.” The story is told retrospectively as the man, approaching 70, reflects on his life and his early years growing up in a small Vermont town in the 1950s. The novel is being described as Irving’s “most political novel” since The Cider House Rules. (Kevin)
The Dream of the Celt by Mario Vargas Llosa: This historical novel by the Nobel Laureate “sits in the tradition of Vargas Llosa’s major novels […] in its preoccupation with political issues and its international scope,” according to Faber, who released it in Spanish this past fall. The Dream of the Celt explores the life of Irish revolutionary Sir Roger Casement, who was knighted by the British Crown in 1911, hanged five years later for treason, and disgraced as a sexual deviant during his trial. His crime: mobilizing public opinion against colonialism by exposing slavery and abuses in the Congo and Peru to the world. At a lecture, Vargas Llosa said that Casement made for a “fantastic character for a novel” — if for no other reason than the influence he had on the eponymous dark view that filled his friend Joseph Conrad’s own best-known novel. (Sonya)
The Red House by Mark Haddon: Early reviews tell us that Mark Haddon’s The Red House renders modern family life as a puzzling tragicomedy. Enough said for this reader, but here’s a little more to entice the rest of you: a brother invites his estranged sister and her family to spend a week with him, his new wife and stepdaughter, at a vacation home in the English countryside. Told through shifting points of view, The Red House is “a symphony of long-held grudges, fading dreams and rising hopes, tightly-guarded secrets and illicit desires” with the stage set “for seven days of resentment and guilt, a staple of family gatherings the world over.” Just what we all need (a little catharsis, anyone?) after the holidays. (Sonya)
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti: In spite of its name, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? is neither etiquette book, self-help manual, nor philosophical tract. It’s a novel and yet it’s a novel in the way that reality TV shows are fictions, with Heti as the narrator and her friends as the cast of supporting characters (even some of their conversations have been transcribed). With the Toronto art scene as the backdrop, Heti ponders big questions by way of contemporary obsessions–genius, celebrity, blow jobs, what is the difference between brand and identity, how is a story told? Read an excerpt (via n+1) to whet your appetite. (Anne)
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter: Jess Walter’ 2009 novel The Financial Lives of the Poets is one of the funniest books ever written about the assisted suicide of the newspaper business. His sixth novel, Beautiful Ruins, unfolds in 1962 when a young Italian innkeeper, gazing at the Ligurian Sea, has a vision: a gorgeous blonde woman is approaching in a boat. She’s an American movie starlet. And she’s dying. Fast forward to today, when an elderly Italian man shows up on a Hollywood studio’s back lot searching for the mystery woman he last saw at his seaside inn half a century ago. The publisher promises a “rollercoaster” of a novel, which is the only kind Jess Walter knows how to write. (Bill)
New Ways to Kill Your Mother: Writers and their Families by Colm Tóibín: Family has always been a presiding theme in Colm Tóibín’s fiction. With this forthcoming essay collection, he explores discusses its centrality in the lives and work of other writers. There are pieces on the relationship between W.B. Yeats and his father, Thomas Mann and his children, J.M. Synge and his mother, and Roddy Doyle and his parents. The collection also contains discussions of the importance of aunts in the nineteenth century English novel and the father-son relationship in the writing of James Baldwin and Barack Obama. (Mark)
Soul of a Whore and Purvis: Two Plays by Denis Johnson: Johnson is, of course, best known for beloved and award-winning fiction like Jesus’ Son and Tree of Smoke, but he also spent a decade (2000-2010) as the playwright in residence for the Campo Santo Theatre Company in San Francisco, a relationship that began when the theater staged two stories from Jesus’ Son. While there, he wrote six plays that premiered at the theater, two of which are collected here. Soul of a Whore is about the Cassandras, a classicly Johnson-esque family of misfits and outcasts, while Purvis is about the real FBI agent Melvin Purvis who went after John Dillinger and Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. (Max)
Broken Harbor by Tana French: According to this goodreads interview with the author, Broken Harbor will be the fourth book in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series; this time it’s Scorcher Kennedy–a minor character from Faithful Place–whose story takes center stage. On Irish writer Declan Burke’s blog, French summarizes the premise this way: “A family has been attacked and the father and two children are dead, the mother’s in intensive care and Scorcher, who is still not one hundred per cent back in everyone’s good books after making a mess of the case in Faithful Place, has been assigned this case with his rookie partner.” (Edan)
A Million Heavens by John Brandon: Brandon’s first two novels — Arkansas and Citrus County — both focused on criminals, but with his third he turns his attention to a comatose piano prodigy. Lying in a hospital bed in New Mexico, he is visited by his father while a band of strangers assemble outside, vigilants for whom he is an inspiration, an obsession, or merely something to do. Watched from afar by a roaming wolf and a song-writing angel, Brandon’s collection of the downtrodden and the hopeful become a community. (Janet)
Office Girl by Joe Meno: At a glance, Joe Meno’s Office Girl might seem like something you’d want to skip: there’s the title, which calls to mind the picked-over genre of office dramedy, with its feeble gestures of protest beneath fluorescent lights. The doe-eyed specter of Zooey Deschanel somehow also looms. But you’d be wrong to dismiss anything by Meno, author of The Great Perhaps, Hairstyles of the Damned, and The Boy Detective Fails. His latest promises to return us to a postcollegiate moment when a simple sideways glance can reveal the fallacy of our dreams—and how we stubbornly choose to focus instead on the narrowing path ahead. (Jacob)
Mother and Child by Carole Maso: Carole Maso houses beautiful American sentences in unusual, experimental structures – her masterwork, AVA, is an underground staple. The forthcoming Mother & Child is apparently a collection of linked short-shorts, whose two protagonists are, one has to figure, mother and child. (Garth)
You & Me by Padgett Powell: Padgett Powell’s eighth work of fiction is a novel called You & Me that consists of a conversation between two middle-aged men sitting on a porch chewing on such gamey topics as love and sex, how to live and die well, and the merits of Miles Davis, Cadillacs and assorted Hollywood starlets. Since his 1984 debut, Edisto, Powell has won comparisons to Faulkner and Twain for his ability to bottle the molasses-and-battery-acid speech of his native South. One early reader has described You & Me as “a Southern send-up of Waiting for Godot.” Which is high praise indeed for Samuel Beckett. (Bill)
Sorry Please Thank You by Charles Yu: A short story collection from the author of the highly praised debut novel How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, involving a computer-generated landscape, a zombie that appears—inconveniently—during a big-box store employee’s graveyard shift, a company that outsources grief for profit (“Don’t feel like having a bad day? Let someone else have it for you”), and the difficulty of asking one’s coworker out on a date. (Emily M.)
Lionel Asbo: The State of England by Martin Amis: Martin Amis is dedicating his new novel to his friend Christopher Hitchens, who died in December at 62 after a much-publicized battle with cancer. Amis’s title character is a skinhead lout who wins the lottery while in prison, and a publishing source tells the Independent on Sunday that the novel is “a return to form” that is by turns “cynical, witty, flippant, cruel and acutely observed.” Among the plump targets of this dark satirist are the British press and a society in thrall to sex and money. Sounds like we’re in for a straight shot of 100-proof Amis. (Bill)
The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle: Victor LaValle, the award-winning author of Slapboxing with Jesus and The Ecstatic, as well as the ambitious and monster-fun Big Machine, returns this August with a new novel, The Devil In Silver. In 2009, LaValle told Hobart Literary Journal: “It’s the story of a haunted house, in a sense, but I guarantee no one’s ever written a haunted house story quite like this.” Sounds like another genre-bending delight to me. (Edan)
Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation by Rachel Cusk: In 2001, the acclaimed English novelist Rachel Cusk published a memoir called A Life’s Work, a highly praised – and vilified – examination of the pitfalls of becoming a mother. At the time she said, “I often think that people wouldn’t have children if they knew what it was like.” Now comes Cusk’s third work of non-fiction, which flows from A Life’s Work and examines marriage, separation, motherhood, work, money, domesticity and love. The British publisher says, “Aftermath is a kind of deferred sequel, a personal/political book that looks at a woman’s life after the defining experiences of femininity have passed, when one has to define oneself all over again.” (Bill)
Fall 2012 or Unknown:
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: East Bay resident Michael Chabon has spent the past several years working on his novel of Berkeley and Oakland, titled Telegraph Avenue for the street that runs between the two communities. Chabon titillated readers with an essay on his adopted hometown for the Ta-Nehisi Coates blog at The Atlantic, which reveals nothing about the plotline but assures us that the new work will be, if nothing else, a carefully conceived novel of place. Chabon had previously been at work on an abortive miniseries of the same name, which was said to detail the lives of families of different races living in Oakland and Berkeley. (Lydia)
Ancient Light by John Banville: Having published a string of popular crime novels under the pseudonym Benjamin Black over the last five years, John Banville returns again to serious literary fiction with Ancient Light. In the novel, the aging actor Alexander Cleave remembers his first sexual experiences as a teenager in a small Irish town in the 1950s, and tries to come to terms with the suicide of his daughter Cass ten years previously. With 2000’s Eclipse and 2002’s Shroud, Ancient Light will form the third volume in a loose trilogy featuring Alexander and Cass. (Mark)
The Book of My Life by Aleksandar Hemon: The brilliant Aleksandar Hemon (MacArthur Genius, PEN/Sebald winner) is reported to be working on his fifth book and first collection of non-fiction pieces. The title, The Book of My Life, alludes to, and will presumably include, his 2000 New Yorker essay of the same name–a short, powerful description of his mentoring literature professor turned war criminal, Nikola Koljevic. This will be Hemon’s first book since the familial tragedy documented in his heartrending 2011 essay “The Aquarium,” also for The New Yorker. (Lydia)
Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures by Emma Straub: If you spent any time on the literary part of the internet in the past year, the name Emma Straub will ring out to you. She’s a regular contributor to Rookie Mag, among other places, and Flavorwire called her “The Nicest Person on Twitter” (Sorry, Bieber). Her debut novel is about a Midwestern girl who moves to Los Angeles and, at great cost, becomes a movie star in 1940s Hollywood. Straub’s story collection Other People We Married, originally published in 2011 by 5 Chapters Press, will also be rereleased by Riverhead Books early in 2012. (Patrick)
Alt-Country by Tom Drury: There isn’t much information on Drury’s fifth novel, but rumor has it that Alt-Country will be the third installment of tales about the residents of fictional Grouse County, Iowa, where The End of Vandalism and Hunts in Dreams are set. The book is tentatively slated to come out in the fall of 2012. Let’s hope Drury revisits not only Tiny and Joan, but also Dan and Louise, as well as the many odd and memorable minor characters that people his fictional Iowan landscape. (Edan)
Your Name Here by Helen DeWitt with Ilya Gridneff: This long, compendious, delirious “novel” – co-authored with a rakish Australian journalist – should by all rights have been DeWitt’s follow-up to The Last Samurai, but publishers apparently balked at the novel’s enormous formal dare. So the enterprising Miss DeWitt simply began selling .pdfs on her website – a kind of late-capitalist samizdat. Jenny Turner of the London Review of Books wrote a long review of the novel a couple years back that makes it sound like absolutely essential reading. And N+1 ran an excerpt. Now Noemi Press has shouldered the considerable challenges of publishing the whole thing. And if you’re one of the lucky few who has the .pdf already, the money you PayPaled to Helen will be deducted from the cost of the printed book. There’s no telling how many complications are involved in getting there, but in the end, everybody wins! (Garth)
For the first six months of 2011 I was pregnant, and for the other six months I’ve been a mother. While parenthood has of course changed me irrevocably (etc., etc.), it’s comforting to know that certain parts of myself and my life remain exactly the same as always. Namely, reading. Namely, that I still do it. Taking a book to bed or to the bath, or sneaking to a cafe to read over a latte (decaffeinated now, alas), remains a joy and a privilege that I value. Perhaps now more than ever.
Many books were meaningful to me this year, but there’s probably nothing more tedious than a woman talking about breastfeeding manifestos, so email me if you want that kind of recommendation. Instead, I present to you two writers of fiction that rearranged my brain, origamied my heart into a better heart: a bigger and stranger and certainly weirder one, more equipped to face life. Oh, life! I haven’t slept in ages!
I recommended We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver back in May, when I was a very, very pregnant lady. What I said then still holds true: “Shriver’s brilliant and dark novel is narrated by Eva, whose son Kevin is guilty of carrying out a Columbine-style high school killing. It’s a grim but often very funny narrative of maternal ambivalence, and it’s certainly a mind-fuck for any mom-to-be.” Now that I have a son, whom I am certain is 100 percent good and kind, possessing a 100 percent good and kind soul, I love Shriver’s investigation into motherhood even more. What if you were this kind of mother? What if you had this kind of child? All good fiction begins with questions that are risky, scary. I admire Shriver for her bravery, for her what-the-hell-let’s-go-there. Eva is what I call a likeable-unlikeable narrator, and to identify with her is to understand and acknowledge a thorny part of oneself that you didn’t know existed, or perhaps didn’t want to know existed.
This year I also discovered Dana Spiotta, whose new novel Stone Arabia moved me unexpectedly. I’m not sure why I wasn’t expecting it. After all, the book is about siblings, Denise Kranis and her musician brother Nik, who were raised in Los Angeles. Sibling relationships and L.A. are subjects I hold close to my heart, as a writer and a reader, and as a person: I was raised in L.A. with three sisters and one brother. This novel isn’t perfect: its opening confused me so much that I had to start it three times, and there are shifts from third to first person and back again that bugged me. But! But! A flawed novel can be a great one, and never before did this fact seem so true. I loved that Nik diligently kept The Chronicles, a fictional account of his life as a rock legend, fake music reviews and all. I loved Denise’s neurotic obsessions, with news stories, with memory. I loved reading about her commute, and about the contents of her fridge: “…the jar of butter-flecked jelly, the container of capers floating in leaky brine, the optimistic bottle of multivitamins now in a moist, smelly lump…” I loved the final scene; it got me thinking about the past, and how it can be resurrected by memory and narrative, but not really, but maybe, just maybe, for a few sweet moments. Dana Spiotta is like Don DeLillo with a vagina, and, wow, that vagina makes all the difference. I just finished her second novel, Eat the Document, and her use of the adverb “unstoppingly” had my whole body buzzing. I plan to read her first novel, Lightning Field, as 2011 slips into 2012. Write more imperfect stories, Ms. Spiotta. You’ve got a fan in me.
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When I was engaged to be married, I lost my mind. I’m aware that sounds hyperbolic, but that’s really how it felt: as if my mind had abandoned me, slipped through my ears when I wasn’t looking, to be replaced with something that I didn’t recognize or trust. I was so nervous all the time, my mind skipping from one terrible and scary thought to the next, that reading became almost impossible. Do you know how many stories there are about bad marriages?
During this fraught time, I tried to read an Alice Munro story in the bath. What story, I have no idea (clearly, I blocked it out), but it was about a woman who kills her husband. I couldn’t finish it because I began to fear–to believe, actually–that I was in danger of killing my own future husband. Oh, how my Intended laughed when I voiced these fears! He wasn’t afraid of me and my murderous capabilities! He eventually talked me down from my nonsense ledge, and got me laughing along with him. But I was still too afraid to finish the story.
That was five years ago. I’ve since retrieved my mind, gotten and stayed married, and returned to reading. Thank goodness. Sometimes, I imagine all the great and beautiful books I must have missed during my engagement, and the loss sends a shiver of regret through me.
Last fall, when I found out I was pregnant, I waited for the mind-losing anxiety to descend on me once more. It didn’t. (Or, I should say, it hasn’t yet. I do have five more weeks to lose my mind for old time’s sake!) Because I feel as normal as can be expected when you’re growing a human being inside of you, I’ve noticed that other people experience anxiety for me. They don’t want me to carry anything, not even a carton of orange juice. They want me to sit down already! They want to give me more water, a glass of milk, a pint of ice cream. And they don’t want me to read just anything. More than once I’ve had a person recommend a book to me, and then say, “Oh, but don’t read it now. Not while you’re pregnant!” Apparently, people’s protective urges extend beyond the body of the mother-to-be, and into her reading life. If literature is clogged with unhappy marriages, it’s certainly also darkened with dead babies and the complex melancholy of mothers.
So, as either a warning to other mothers-to-be, or as great “Fuck you!” to all the people who keep telling me to keep things light as I carry my child to term, here’s a list of non-friendly pregnancy books. Read at your own risk…
Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin: I admit, I haven’t read the novel, but I love the movie, starring the bewitching Mia Farrow. I have purposely kept my blonde hair very short these last 8 and a half months because I appreciate the cinematic allusion, though I have one friend in particular who urged me, early on, to grow out my locks. “It’s not funny!” she said. “What kind of message are you sending?” How about this: Every pregnant woman wonders, at least once, if she’s got the devil’s spawn growing inside of her.
The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell: This is the next novel I’m going to read, despite my sister Heidi’s warnings that I should wait until after my baby’s born. O’Farrell’s novel, which my sister could not put down, and which made her sob at its ending, follows two stories–one about a woman in post-war London, and one about contemporary parents in that same city. There’s apparently some childbirth trauma. Lots of blood, my sister said. She also told me to avoid Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks. The deaths–deaths, plural–in this novel still haunt her.
An Exact Replica of a Figure of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken: Every morning I awake to the spine of this powerful and painful memoir, which I chose as one of my favorite books of 2008. It sits on the shelf by my bed, right next to Nox by Anne Carson and Skippy Dies by Paul Murray. (That’s a lot of death to wake up to, I realize). McCracken’s story of raising a child after the stillbirth of her first is all the more terrifying and moving because it’s true, and because she speaks of trauma and grief in a distinct, unflinching, and sometimes even funny way. I keep wondering if this book might mean more to me on a second read, now that I am pregnant, now that I know firsthand what I could lose, what and whom I would mourn. Such a book reminds me not to take this time in my life lightly; it reminds me that I’m already a mother.
Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk: This novel is about one day (a la Mrs. Dalloway) in the posh lives of British mothers. The unhappiness of its characters is so delicately and expertly rendered that it, at times, grows oppressive. These are women who feel unconnected to their husbands, their kids, their lives. Such a book makes me fear the very phrase Sippy Cup.
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver: Shriver’s brilliant and dark novel is narrated by Eva, whose son Kevin is guilty of carrying out a Columbine-style high school killing. It’s a grim but often very funny narrative of maternal ambivalence, and it’s certainly a mind-fuck for any mom-to-be. Eva articulates every single dark thought a pregnant woman would be wise to avoid (For instance: “What if my child grows up to be a murderer?” And, “What if I don’t love him?”). Here’s a taste of the sharp prose, most likely to be left out of the highly-anticipated film adaptation with Tilda Swinton, due out this fall:
Meanwhile, I came to regard my body in a new light. For the first time I apprehended the little mounds on my chest as teats for the suckling of young, and their physical resemblance to udders on cows or the swinging distentions on lactating hounds was suddenly unavoidable. Funny how even women forget what breasts are for.
The cleft between my legs transformed as well. It lost a certain outrageousness, an obscenity, or achieved an obscenity of a different sort. The flaps seemed to open not to a narrow, snug dead end, but to something yawning. The passageway itself became a route to somewhere else, a real place, and not merely to a darkness of my mind. The twist of flesh in front took on a devious aspect, its inclusion overtly ulterior, a tempter, a sweetener for doing the species’ heavy lifting, like the lollipops I once got at the dentist.
We Need to Talk About Kevin is so far my favorite book of the year. I read it when I was about four months pregnant, and as I did so, I prayed I was having a girl (She might be anorexic, I thought, but she probably won’t be a serial killer.) Turns out, I’m having a boy. Ha! Shriver’s novel is the most memorable book I’ve read in a while. And also, um, the most frightening.
What novels do you recommend a pregnant woman avoid? Tempt me…
With her new novel, So Much for That, Lionel Shriver strengthens her already credible claim to the title of best living American writer. This won’t surprise her readers in the UK and much of Europe. In many countries, she is now regarded as one of our most important novelists. Americans, however, have been slower to find her. That’s okay. We were the same way with Faulkner and Poe. Nothing’s more American than not quite recognizing some of our most accomplished artists.
Besides, Shriver’s lack of recognition in the U.S. is relative. Her novels tend to be highly valued by the American critics who discuss them, and she has received strong reviews from that toughest of readers, Michiko Kakutani. The Post-Birthday World, Shriver’s last novel, was a New York Times bestseller, and I’m sure we’ll all start arguing about her breakthrough book, We Need to Talk About Kevin, as soon as the movie version comes out next year.
Still, we don’t need to wait for the theater screens to bring her to our full attention, especially when most of her novels are in print and easily available. Her work offers an appealing combination of qualities that seldom come together in a single writer. She couples the hardheaded social observation of Edith Wharton or George Eliot with a relentless psychological and artistic boldness that belongs more to the tradition of Melville or Dostoevsky. Exerting these different skills with immense confidence and penetration, Shriver is one of our great American originals.
Shriver didn’t become well-known until she was in her late forties, and she had the talent and the will to deepen her work gradually, making the most of what must have been a trying period of obscurity. Born in 1957, she grew up in North Carolina, graduated from Columbia, and supplemented her fiction writing with a career as a journalist. She has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Economist. More recently, she has become a columnist for The Guardian, and has divided her time between London and New York. In addition, she has lived all over the place: twelve years in Northern Ireland, a year in Kenya, and shorter stints in Israel and Thailand.
The fierce independence of her writing seems to come from her compulsion to push her thoughts as far as she can take them, whether she is describing demographics experts in Africa or the pressures of professional tennis. Her two best early novels are Game Control and Double Fault. The main character in Game Control moves to Kenya so she can work on a family-planning project. She then falls in love with a man who believes that the solution to the world’s overpopulation problem is mass murder. Like all of Shriver’s novels, Game Control is intellectual and political in the best sense—not as a polemic, but as an examination of ideas in action, ideas as part of people’s lives. Here’s the main character scrutinizing some of her boyfriend’s research associates:
Eleanor had already noticed their tendency to circulate the same informational tidbits, as in small incestuous communities where neighbors copy one another’s recipe for chicken balls. For example: that if we had dropped a bomb the size of the one that destroyed Hiroshima every day since 6 August 1945, we would still not have stabilized human population: she had heard that three times now. The repetition felt clubby, claustrophobic and it was boring.
Double Fault, Shriver’s tennis novel, came out in 1997. It traces the brief marriage of two low-level professional tennis players, and presents a merciless study of their collapsing relationship. It’s a cruel book, a Revolutionary Road for our times. The story is determined to show us the worst of both the husband and the wife, and it goes so far in this direction that it seems to have freed Shriver for the more generous and contradictory vision of human nature in her recent novels.
The narrator, Eva, lives out a nightmare: Kevin, her teenage son, goes on a killing spree at his high school and murders nine people. Shriver creates a bracing story of a mother who has always hated her son as intensely as she has always loved her husband and her young daughter. Eva can never be sure if her hatred helped turn Kevin into a murderer, or if she simply identified his savagery before anyone else did.
The novel follows Eva’s motherhood from Kevin’s birth to the time of the killings, and grows into a meditation on all kinds of things we don’t at first expect. We Need to Talk About Kevin plows deeply into anti-Americanism, the sacrifices women are expected to make for their children, the complexities of family life, and the dizzying questions of where individual responsibility begins and ends. Shriver has finally discovered a subject that makes full use of her ruthless psychological honesty. Eva’s narration is often brutally tough on herself and her son, and she slowly wins our trust—in part because she is smart enough to see that her version of events contains its own distortions, which are worked into the story with intriguing elegance. We Need to Talk About Kevin is an exhilarating book, alive with the author’s excitement at constantly going further than even she might have expected, and it gets better on repeated readings.
Shriver’s follow-up novel, The Post-Birthday World, is her best-known work in America, since it was released by HarperCollins with great fanfare in 2007. It would have been easy for Shriver to continue in the sensationalistic vein of Kevin, but with typical stubbornness she chose to try something different. The Post-Birthday World is a meta-fiction love story. It takes us through two parallel plotlines, two possible lives for the same woman. In one plotline, she remains in a troubled marriage. In the other, she leaves her husband for another man. The chapters alternate between the first plotline and the second, and much of the novel is a formal tour de force, with nearly every sentence in the first story playing off against another sentence in the second. Shriver also brandishes an unexpected flair for writing about small pleasures—her characters’ love of snooker and home cooking, the satisfaction they take in their casual conversations. Yet the story always opens onto broader perspectives: the rise of terrorism in the background of our lives, the influence of our relationships on our careers, and the different possibilities that we create for ourselves and that are created for us by others.
So Much for That, the new Shriver novel, offers us her ferocious take on the American healthcare system. Shriver has always been good at the dark comedy of catastrophe. Here she faces a monster worthy of her clear-eyed attention to absurdity: the giant insurance-powered beast of medical costs that devastate two families in New York.
Shep Knacker is a handyman whose wife is diagnosed with cancer. His best friend, Jackson, is a fellow employee whose daughter is slowly dying of a degenerative disorder. With methodical Catch-22 illogic, Shep is forced to give up all the money he has saved over the years to pay for the medical care that his grotesquely inadequate (but perfectly standard) insurance fails to cover. The treatments cause his wife nothing but agony, and provide little hope of curing her or even of extending her life for very long.
Meanwhile, Jackson and his wife carry on with their daughter, who has been ill since birth. Her disease plays an ongoing part in Jackson’s sometimes entertaining and sometimes destructive obsessions, from his compulsive spending to his frenzied hatred of the government and of nearly everything else in the world.
Health is the novel’s constant concern—not just physical and economic health but health in friendships, marriage, work, parenthood, and society at large. Shep is in some ways a modern Prince Myshkin, determined to do the right thing even if some people think this makes him foolish. One of the novel’s many thorny questions is whether Shep’s foolishness is truly admirable or a mistake in judgment, a personal flaw that condemns him to pointless pain. Shriver’s effects are hard to summarize because she builds them up so densely, thickening the texture of her world with each page. She makes our vision of Shep and the others depend not on glib generalities but on the total force of the novel’s accumulated impressions, with their many crosscurrents and subtleties.
We learn, for instance, that Shep associates his wife Glynis with the metalwork she makes, and the role of this metalwork becomes a continually deepening part of Glynis’s illness. Without giving away too much of the plot, the metalwork is at the core of Glynis’s shifting views of Shep, Shep’s shifting views of her, and both of their ideas about personal and public responsibility. Throughout the novel, Shriver is fascinated by our possible choices in the face of death and overwhelming injustice, by how we can and can’t control our lives in situations where all action seems quixotic.
Shriver’s characters are always capable of surprising each other, and this is central to her rich sense of human relationships. She expertly captures the give-and-take between friends, and the ways our friends both annoy and beguile us. Shep changes Jackson and Jackson changes Shep, but the changes are intricate and unpredictable, and they fill the novel with an invigorating energy. You come away feeling that you’ve learned to see your own friendships more clearly and appreciatively.
A similar complexity is at work among all the characters, particularly Shep and Glynis. Early on, Glynis is a monument to rage, refusing the role of loveable victim. When Shep ponders Glynis’s reaction to Hurricane Katrina, we can see the efficiency of Shriver’s writing style, which is flexible enough to accommodate many different voices and situations yet still retains a distinctive sharp bounce, like a good topspin serve:
She loved watching destruction—the big bountiful houses of the sort she and her husband had never bought for themselves filled with acrid, oily water to the second floor. The stranded black matriarchs waving fruitlessly on rooftops for rescue that would never come, who now knew they were alone in the world and no one cared. Well, he could sense Glynis responding coolly, welcome to the club. Other people’s suffering did not disquiet her. Glynis did nothing but suffer, and if others suffered too that was only fair. She seemed gratified by the prospect that one whole city would not survive her… In a fell swoop of self-liberation, Glynis had relinquished her empathy for other people, defiantly reflecting back the very apathy about her own fate that she increasingly perceived in would-be well-wishers.
Shriver’s bold approach to the novel’s structure delays a series of revelations for us about Glynis, and about what the disease has done to her mentally and emotionally. For the first 300 pages of this 450 page book, we go back-and-forth solely between Shep’s perspective and Jackson’s. When we finally enter Glynis’s mind, the experience is heartbreaking and chilling, and clears the way for the book’s simultaneously tragic and jubilant climax. In all of her novels, Shriver works towards honest feeling the hard way—by pushing into places we’re afraid to go and making them not ugly but essential, an enrichment to our lives. She might just be the best we’ve got.
As I did in 2005 and 2006, I’ve decided to open this year looking ahead to some of the exciting or intriguing titles that we’ll be talking about over the next few months.Possibly the biggest literary arrival of this young year will be that of Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest later this month. Unfortunately for some fans, the book is not the long hoped for sequel to Harlot’s Ghost, a book that Mailer abandoned for this one, according to an interview. With this effort Mailer treads into charged territory, chronicling the early life of Adolf Hitler from the point of view of the devil or something like it. The curious can read an excerpt of the book that appeared in the January issue of Esquire.Also coming right around the corner is House of Meetings by Martin Amis. The book came out in the UK in September where John Banville in The Independent named it a “Book of the Year.” The reviews have been generally good. The Observer called it a “compact tour de force.” The Guardian was slightly more skeptical saying that the book is “an attempt to compress the past 60 years of Russian history into 200 pages, delivered as the monologue of someone whose name we’re never told; an ambitious plan, held together by the sound of a voice.”Also this month, Paul Auster’s latest book Travels in the Scriptorium comes out. It sounds like another inscrutable, postmodern tale from Auster, this time starring a protagonist named Mr. Blank. In this case, Auster’s inward looking tendencies are amplified as the book references many of his previous works. At both Condalmo and Strange Horizons, this particular Auster experiment has been deemed less successful.Louis Begley, author of About Schmidt, has Matters of Honor coming out this month. It starts with three unlikely roommates at Harvard in the 1950s and goes on to trace how the diverging outcomes of their lives came to be. If that sounds like a tired old tale, PW makes the same observation but then brushes it aside: “It’s a story covered by everyone from Cheever to Roth, but Begley finds new and wonderful nuances within it.”Colum McCann’s fourth novel Zoli will hit shelves soon. The book is named for a Roma (or Gypsy) woman in Slovakia who we follow from her harrowing childhood during World War II to her becoming something of local literary celebrity. Through it all, however, she is unable to escape what her heritage signifies in her Communist bloc country. The book has been out for several months in Ireland and the UK where The Guardian hailed McCann’s “near pitch-perfect control of character and narrative.” For those who want a taste, a pdf excerpt from the book is available.Another big name with a new book out this year is Jane Smiley, whose Ten Days in the Hills arrives in February. Hills is being billed as Smiley’s “LA Novel” (note that Jonathan Lethem’s “LA Novel” arrives in March). PW sums it all up rather well: “Smiley delivers a delightful, subtly observant sendup of Tinseltown folly, yet she treats her characters, their concern with compelling surfaces and their perpetual quest to capture reality through artifice, with warmth and seriousness. In their shallowness, she finds a kind of profundity.” On the other hand, I’m not convinced that the world needs another literary look at the Hollywood-caricature side of LA.February will also see the arrival of Daniel Alarcon’s Lost City Radio. This is Alarcon’s first novel, following his collection of stories, War by Candlelight, which was a finalist for the 2006 PEN Hemingway Award. Alarcon likely came to many readers’ attention in 2003, when his story “City of Clowns” was featured in the New Yorker debut fiction issue. This new book scored a blurb from Edward P. Jones – “Mr. Alarcon, like the best storytellers, reveals to us that the world we have secreted in our hearts spins in a bigger universe with other hearts just as good and just as bad as our own.” – always a good sign.Also in February, a new book will arrive from Nuruddin Farah, quite likely the best known Somali novelist and the winner of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature in 1998. Knots is about Cambara, a Somalian woman who has emigrated to Canada, where a crisis sends her on a journey back to Somalia. Farah is known for his strong female protagonists and this book appears to be no exception. Knots gets a glowing review from PW – “Despite its heavy subject, joy suffuses the novel” – and Farah will likely continue to be discussed as a potential Nobel winner.It would be strange to read a book by Jonathan Lethem that wasn’t deeply rooted in his hometown of Brooklyn, but readers will get that chance in March when You Don’t Love Me Yet arrives. The book is set in Los Angeles, but, while Fortress of Solitude had some amusing LA moments set in the office of a Hollywood agent, this new book concerns itself with the city’s grungier east side neighborhoods, home to a star-crossed indie rock band whose members are classic LA misfits. Early accounts at PW and this bookseller’s blog have found the book to be funny and entertaining but not up to par with the author’s earlier efforts.If you’ll indulge me in allowing a little non-fiction to sneak into this post, please note that William T. Vollmann has a new book coming out in March called Poor People, a rather slim tome, weighing in it at just 464 pages. This is the book that Vollmann mentioned when Ed and Scott saw him read back in spring 2005. From Scott’s post: “Vollman is currently working on a book about the experiences of poor people in different countries. He says he asks everyone why they think they are poor, and the answers greatly vary. He says most of the Thais told him it’s because they were bad in a previous life. Most of the Mexicans he spoke to told him it was because the rich stole from them.”A book by Columbian writer Laura Restrepo will hit American shores in March. Delirium was originally written in 2004 and follows the life of a struggling literature professor who must investigate what has caused his wife to go insane. The book bears an impressive array of blurbs befitting a writer of Restrepo’s stature (if not here, then overseas), including raves from Jose Saramago, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Harold Bloom, and Vikram Seth.We’ll also see a new novel from Kurt Andersen co-founder of the influential magazine Spy and host of the public radio show Studio 360. Heyday is set in the mid-19th century and it follows an immigrant, recently arrived on bustling American shores, who falls in with a group heading west, lured by the California Gold Rush. Random House calls the book “an enthralling, old-fashioned yarn interwoven with a bracingly modern novel of ideas.” A short story about two of the book’s main characters appeared in Metropolis in 2003.Debut novelist Joshua Ferris already has a backer in Mark Sarvas of The Elegant Variation, who says Then We Came To The End is “a humane and affecting book.” Mark also included the novel in his contribution to the Year in Reading series where he said that this “hilarious and gorgeously written novel might just change [his] mind about MFAs.” Of course, Mark is fully aware that we all might not share his particular tastes, so he convinced publisher Little, Brown to let him publish the book’s first chapter at TEV, where you can now check it out for yourself.Orange Prize winner Lionel Shriver also has a new book coming in March, The Post-Birthday World. PW describes as “impressive if exhausting” this novel that explores what might have been if its children’s book illustrator protagonist had given into temptation and pursued an affair. Following the success of Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and the subsequent re-release of her back catalog, The Post-Birthday World marks her first new effort since hitting the literary big time.The Savage Detectives, originally published in 1998 by the late Roberto Bolano, will arrive in April. The book has already appeared in other languages, which is how Francois of Tabula Rasa came to read it. he shared his reactions with us as a part of the Year in Reading series: “Pure bliss! In turn coming-of-age story, roman noir, literary quest, this is a real tour de force, reminiscent of Julio Cortazar and Jack Kerouac while remaining deeply original. Bolano passed away in 2003. He was fifty years old, and I just can’t help thinking about what else might have been coming from him.” New Directions, meanwhile, will publish a translation of Bolano’s novella Amulet in January.There’s not much available yet on Dani Shapiro’s new book arriving in April. Buzz Girl notes that Black and White is “about mothers and daughters set in New York and Maine.” The book follows Shapiro’s well received 2003 book Family History.The biggest literary month of 2007 might be May which will start with the much anticipated, much delayed publication of Michael Chabon’s new novel, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. Chabon’s first full-length adult novel since The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a thriller set in an imaginary world inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s short-lived plan during WWII to create a Jewish homeland in Alaska, rather than the Middle East. Sounds interesting, no? We’ve been following this book for quite some time now, as it was originally set to be released nearly a year ago. But Chabon put the brakes on the project when he decided it was moving along too fast.Yet another big name author with a new book out this year is Haruki Murakami, whose book After Dark hits shelves in May. The book was originally published in Japan in 2004, and has already been translated into some other languages, including Dutch. In keeping with the title, the novel tracks a number of nocturnal characters who dwell in Tokyo and have the sorts of encounters that tend to occur in the wee hours of the morning. Murakami’s typical melding of dream and reality will be familiar to readers of this new novel as well. Still, I join Scott Esposito in hoping that Murakami breaks new ground with this new book.Also in May: the arrival of Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. Not much available on this one yet, save a stray synopsis or two. The novel begins with a family on a farm in northern California in the 1970s and moves to the casinos of Nevada, at which point a “traumatic event” breaks the family apart. The pieces are put back together in the novel’s second part, which takes place “in the stark landscape of south-central France.” Like I said, not much to go on just yet.Susanna Moore, best known for her novel In the Cut, has a new book coming out in May. The Big Girls is based on Moore’s experience teaching writing in a federal prison in New York, and one early look at the novel found it to be, as one might expect, fairly disturbing. It’ll be interesting to see other opinions of what sounds like a very emotionally charged book.The Shadow Catcher by Marianne Wiggins will arrive in June. Wiggins’ last book, Evidence of Things Unseen, was a National Book Award finalist in 2003. This new book is a historical novel about the Old West photographer Edward Curtis.I’ll close the list with two additional non-fiction books that I’m particularly looking forward to. Pete Dexter has a collection of his old newspaper columns coming out called Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage. A number of the columns are from his time in Philadelphia, which should be of particular interest for me, since the city is now my home. In addition, I’ve always felt that the old school newspaperman’s sensibility that Dexter brings to his fiction is one of his most appealing qualities as a writer, so I’m looking forward to getting the opportunity to delve into the pure stuff, as it were. Another journalist whose new collection is, for me, hotly anticipated is Ryszard Kapuscinski. Kapuscinski is a Polish writer who, to me, is unsurpassed in his chronicling of the so-called Third World and its forgotten wars and struggles. I don’t yet know what his latest, Travels with Herodotus, will cover, but I know I’ll be reading it.While long, this list is by no means exhaustive, so please use the comments to share what you’re looking forward to reading in 2007.