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Most Anticipated: The Great Summer 2024 Preview

Summer has arrived, and with it, a glut of great books. Here you'll find more than 80 books that we're excited about this season. Some we've already read in galley form; others we're simply eager to devour based on their authors, subjects, or blurbs. We hope you find your next summer read among them. —Sophia Stewart, editor July Art Monster by Marin Kosut [NF] Kosut's latest holds a mirror to New York City's oft-romanticized, rapidly gentrifying art scene and ponders the eternal struggles between creativity and capitalism, love and labor, and authenticity and commodification. Part cultural analysis, part cautionary tale, this account of an all-consuming subculture—now unrecognizable to the artists who first established it—is the perfect companion to Bianca Bosker's Get the Picture. —Daniella Fishman Concerning the Future of Souls by Joy Williams [F] If you're reading this, you don't need to be told why you need to check out the next 99 strange, crystalline chunks of brilliance—described enticingly as "stories of Azrael"—from the great Joy Williams, do you? —John H. Maher Misrecognition by Madison Newbound [F] Newbound's debut novel, billed as being in the vein of Rachel Cusk and Patricia Lockwood, chronicles an aimless, brokenhearted woman's search for meaning in the infinite scroll of the internet. Vladimir author Julia May Jonas describes it as "a shockingly modern" novel that captures "isolation and longing in our age of screens." —Sophia M. Stewart Pink Slime by Fernanda Trías, tr. Heather Cleary [F] The Uruguayan author makes her U.S. debut with an elegiac work of eco-fiction centering on an unnamed woman in the near future as she navigates a city ravaged by plague, natural disaster, and corporate power (hardly an imaginative leap). —SMS The Last Sane Woman by Hannah Regel [F] In Regel's debut novel, the listless Nicola is working in an archive devoted to women's art when she discovers—and grows obsessed with—a beguiling dozen-year correspondence between two women, going back to 1976. Paul author Daisy LaFarge calls this debut novel "caustic, elegant, elusive, and foreboding." —SMS Reinventing Love by Mona Chollet, tr. Susan Emanuel [NF] For the past year or so I've been on a bit of a kick reading books that I'd hoped might demystify—and offer an alternative vision of—the sociocultural institution that is heterosexuality. (Jane Ward's The Tragedy of Heterosexuality was a particularly enlightening read on that subject.) So I'm eager to dive into Chollet's latest, which explores the impossibility of an equitable heterosexuality under patriarchy. —SMS The Body Alone by Nina Lohman [NF] Blending memoir with scholarship, philosophy with medicine, and literature with science, Lohman explores the articulation of chronic pain in what Thin Places author Jordan Kisner calls "a stubborn, tender record of the unrecordable." —SMS Long Island Compromise by Taffy Brodesser-Akner [F] In this particular instance, "Long Island Compromise" refers to the long-anticipated follow-up to Fleishman Is In Trouble, not the technical term for getting on the Babylon line of the LIRR with a bunch of Bud-addled Mets fans after 1 a.m. —JHM The Long Run by Stacey D'Erasmo [NF] Plenty of artists burn brightly for a short (or viral) spell but can't sustain creative momentum. Others manage to keep creating over decades, weathering career ups and downs, remaining committed to their visions, and adapting to new media. Novelist Stacey D’Erasmo wanted to know how they do it, so she talked with eight artists, including author Samuel R. Delany and poet and visual artist Cecelia Vicuña, to learn the secrets to their longevity. —Claire Kirch Devil's Contract by Ed Simon [NF] Millions contributor Ed Simon probes the history of the Faustian bargain, from ancient times to modern day. Devil's Contract is, like all of Simon's writing, refreshingly rigorous, intellectually ambitious, and suffused with boundless curiosity. —SMS Paul Celan and the Trans-Tibetan Angel by Yoko Tawada, tr. Susan Bernofsky [F] Tawada returns with this surrealist ode to the poet Paul Celan and human connection. Set in a hazy, post-lockdown Berlin, Tawada's trademark dream-like prose follows the story of Patrik, an agoraphobe rediscovering his zeal for life through an unlikely friendship built on a shared love of art. —DF The Anthropologists by Ayşegül Savaş [F] Savaş’s third novel is looking like her best yet. It's a lean, lithe, lyrical tale of two graduate students in love look for a home away from home, or “trying to make a life together when you have nothing that grounds you,” as the author herself puts it. —JHM The Coin by Yasmin Zaher [F] Zaher's debut novel, about a young Palestinian woman unraveling in New York City, is an essential, thrilling addition to the Women on the Verge subgenre. Don't just take it from me: the blurbs for this one are some of the most rhapsodic I've ever seen, and the book's ardent fans include Katie Kitamura, Hilary Leichter, and, yes, Slavoj Žižek, who calls it "a masterpiece." —SMS Black Intellectuals and Black Society by Martin L. Kilson [NF] In this posthumous essay collection, the late political scientist Martin L. Kilson reflects on the last century's foremost Black intellectuals, from W.E.B Dubois to Ishmael Reed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes that Kilson "brilliantly explores the pivotal yet often obscured legacy of giants of the twentieth-century African American intelligentsia." —SMS Toward Eternity by Anton Hur [F] Hur, best known as the translator of such Korean authors as Bora Chung and Kyung-Sook Shin (not to mention BTS), makes his fiction debut with a speculative novel about the intersections of art, medicine, and technology. The Liberators author E.J. Koh writes that Hur delivers "a sprawling, crystalline, and deftly crafted vision of a yet unimaginable future." —SMS Loving Sylvia Plath by Emily Van Duyne [NF] I've always felt some connection to Sylvia Plath, and am excited to get my hands on Van Duyne’s debut, a reconstruction of the poet’s final years and legacy, which the author describes as "a reckoning with the broken past and the messy present" that takes into account both Plath’s "white privilege and [the] misogynistic violence" to which she was subjected. —CK Bright Objects by Ruby Todd [F] Nearing the arrival of a newly discovered comet, Sylvia Knight, still reeling from her husband's unsolved murder, finds herself drawn to the dark and mysterious corners of her seemingly quiet town. But as the comet draws closer, Sylvia becomes torn between reality and mysticism. This one is for astrology and true crime girlies. —DF The Lucky Ones by Zara Chowdhary [NF] The debut memoir by Chowdhary, a survivor of one of the worst massacres in Indian history, weaves together histories both personal and political to paint a harrowing portrait of anti-Muslim violence in her home country of India. Alexander Chee calls this "a warning, thrown to the world," and Nicole Chung describes it as "an astonishing feat of storytelling." —SMS Banal Nightmare by Halle Butler [F] Butler grapples with approaching middle age in the modern era in her latest, which follows thirty-something Moddie Yance as she ditches city life and ends her longterm relationship to move back to her Midwestern hometown. Banal Nightmare has "the force of an episode of marijuana psychosis and the extreme detail of a hyperrealistic work of art," per Jia Tolentino. —SMS A Passionate Mind in Relentless Pursuit by Noliwe Rooks [NF] In this slim volume on the life and legacy of the trailblazing civil rights leader Mary McLeod Bethune—the first Black woman to head a federal agency, to serve as a college president, and to be honored with a monument in the nation's capital—Rooks meditates on Bethune's place in Black political history, as well as in Rooks's own imagination. —SMS Modern Fairies by Clare Pollard [F] An unconventional work of historical fiction to say the least, this tale of the voluble, voracious royal court of Louis XIV of France makes for an often sidesplitting, and always bawdy, read. —JHM The Quiet Damage by Jesselyn Cook [NF] Cook, a journalist, reports on deepfake media, antivax opinions, and sex-trafficking conspiracies that undermine legitimate criminal investigations. Having previously written on children trying to deradicalize their QAnon-believing parents and social media influencers who blend banal content with frightening Q views, here Cook focuses on five families whose members went down QAnon rabbit holes, tragically eroding relationships and verifiable truths. —Nathalie Op de Beeck In the Shadow of the Fall by Tobi Ogundiran [F] Inspired by West African folkore, Ogundiran (author of the superb short speculative fiction collection Jackal, Jackal) centers this fantasy novella, the first of duology, on a sort-of anti-chosen one: a young acolyte aspiring to priesthood, but unable to get the orishas to speak. So she endeavors to trap one of the spirits, but in the process gets embroiled in a cosmic war—just the kind of grand, anything-can-happen premise that makes Ogundiran’s stories so powerful. —Alan Scherstuhl The Bluestockings by Susannah Gibson [NF] This group biography of the Bluestockings, a group of protofeminist women intellectuals who established salons in 18th-century England, reminded me of Regan Penaluna's wonderful How to Think Like a Woman in all the best ways—scholarly but accessible, vividly rendered, and a font of inspiration for the modern woman thinker. —SMS Liars by Sarah Manguso [F] Manguso's latest is a standout addition to the ever-expanding canon of novels about the plight of the woman artist, and the artist-mother in particular, for whom creative life and domestic life are perpetually at odds. It's also a more scathing indictment of marriage than any of the recent divorce memoirs to hit shelves. Any fan of Manguso will love this novel—her best yet—and anyone who is not already a fan will be by the time they're done. —SMS On Strike Against God by Joanna Russ [F] Flashbacks to grad school gender studies coursework, and the thrilling sensation that another world is yet possible, will wash over a certain kind of reader upon learning that Feminist Press will republish Russ’s 1980 novel. Edited and with an introduction by Cornell University Ph.D. candidate Alec Pollak, this critical edition includes reminiscences on Russ by her longtime friend Samuel R. Delany, letters between Russ and poet Marilyn Hacker, and alternative endings to its lesbian coming-out story. —NodB Only Big Bumbum Matters Tomorrow by Damilare Kuku [F] The debut novel by Kuku, the author of the story collection Nearly All the Men in Lagos Are Mad, centers on a Nigerian family plunged into chaos when young Temi, a recent college grad, decides to get a Brazillian butt lift. Wahala author Nikki May writes that Kuku captures "how complicated it is to be a Nigerian woman." —SMS The Missing Thread by Daisy Dunn [NF] A book about the girls, by the girls, for the girls. Dunn, a classicist, reconfigures antiquity to emphasize the influence and agency of women. From the apocryphal stories of Cleopatra and Agrippina to the lesser-known tales of Atossa and Olympias, Dunn retraces the steps of these ancient heroines and recovers countless important but oft-forgotten female figures from the margins of history. —DF August Villa E by Jane Alison [F] Alison's taut novel of gender and power is inspired by the real-life collision of Irish designer Eileen Gray and Swiss architect Le Corbusier—and the sordid act of vandalism by the latter that forever defined the legacy of the former. —SMS The Princess of 72nd Street by Elaine Kraf [F] Kraf's 1979 feminist cult classic, reissued as part of Modern Library's excellent Torchbearer series with an introduction by Melissa Broder, follows a young woman artist in New York City who experiences wondrous episodes of dissociation. Ripe author Sarah Rose Etter calls Kraf "one of literature's hidden gems." —SMS All That Glitters by Orlando Whitfield [NF] Whitfield traces the rise and fall of Inigo Philbrick, the charasmatic but troubled art dealer—and Whitfield's one-time friend—who was recently convicted of committing more than $86 million in fraud. The great Patrick Radden Keefe describes this as "an art world Great Gatsby." —SMS The Bookshop by Evan Friss [NF] Oh, so you support your local bookshop? Recount the entire history of bookselling. Friss's rigorously researched ode to bookstores underscores their role as guardians, gatekeepers, and proprietors of history, politics, and culture throughout American history. A must-read for any bibliophile, and an especially timely one in light of the growing number of attempts at literary censorship across the country. —DF Mystery Lights by Lena Valencia [F] Valencia's debut short story collection is giving supernatural Southwestern Americana.  Subjects as distinct as social media influencers, ghost hunters, and slasher writers populate these stories which, per Kelly Link, contain a "deep well of human complexity, perversity, sincerity, and hope." —DF Mourning a Breast by Xi Xi, tr. Jennifer Feeley This 1989 semi-autobiographical novel is an account of the late Hong Kong author and poet Xi's mastectomy and subsequent recovery, heralded as one of the first Chinese-language books to write frankly about illness, and breast cancer in particular.—SMS Village Voices by Odile Hellier [NF] Hellier celebrates the history and legacy of the legendary Village Voice Bookshop in Paris, which he founded in 1982. A hub of anglophone literary culture for 30 years, Village Voice hosted everyone from Raymond Carver to Toni Morrison and is fondly remembered in these pages, which mine decades of archives. —SMS Dinosaurs at the Dinner Party by Edward Dolnick [NF] Within the past couple of years, three tweens found the fossilized remains of a juvenile Tyrannosaurus rex in North Dakota and an 11-year-old beachcomber came upon an ichthyosaur jaw in southwestern England, sparking scientific excitement. Dolnick’s book revisits similar discoveries from Darwin’s own century, when astonished amateurs couldn’t yet draw upon centuries of paleontology and drew their own conclusions about the fossils and footprints they unearthed. —NodB All the Rage by Virginia Nicholson [NF] Social historian Nicholson chronicles the history of beauty standards for women from 1860 to 1960, revealing the fickleness of fashion, the evergreen pressure put on women's self-presentation, and the toll the latter takes on women's bodies. —SMS A Termination by Honor Moore [NF] In her latest memoir, Moore—best known for 2008's The Bishop's Daughter—reflects on the abortion she had in 1969 at the age of 23 and its aftermath. The Vivian Gornick calls this one "a masterly account of what it meant, in the 1960s, to be a woman of spirit and intelligence plunged into the particular hell that is unwanted pregnancy." —SMS Nat Turner, Black Prophet by Anthony E. Kaye with Gregory P. Downs [NF] Kaye and Downs's remarkable account of Nat Turner's rebellion boldly and persuasively argues for a reinterpretation of the uprising's causes, legacy, and divine influence, framing Turner not just as a preacher but a prophet. A paradigm-shifting work of narrative history. —SMS An Honest Woman by Charlotte Shane [NF] As a long-time reader, fan, and newsletter subscriber of Shane's, I nearly dropped to my knees at the altar of Simon & Schuster when her latest book was announced. This slim memoir intertwines her experience as a sex worker with reflections on various formative relationships in her life (with her sexuality, her father, and her long-time client, Roger), as well as reflections on the very nature of sex, gender, and labor. —DF Mina's Matchbox by Yoko Ogawa, tr. Stephen B. Snyder [F] Mina's Matchbox is an incredible novel that affirms Ogawa's position as the great writer of fantastical literature today. This novel is much brighter in tone and detail than much of her other, often brutal and gloomy, work, but somehow the tension and terror of living is always at the periphery. Ogawa has produced a world near and tender, but tough and bittersweet, like recognizing a lost loved one in the story told by someone new. —Zachary Issenberg Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv by Andrey Kurkov, tr. Reuben Woolley [F] The Grey Bees author's latest, longlisted for last year's International Booker Prize, is an ode to Lviv, western Ukraine's cultural capital, now transformed by war. A snapshot of the city as it was in the early aughts, the novel chronicles the antics of a cast of eccentrics across the city, with a dash of magical realism thrown in for good measure. —SMS The Hypocrite by Jo Hamya [F] I loved Hamya's 2021 debut novel Three Rooms, and her latest, a sharp critique of art and gender that centers on a young woman who pens a satirical play about her sort-of-canceled novelist father, promises to be just as satisfying. —SMS A Complicated Passion by Carrie Rickey [NF] This definitive biography of trailblazing French New Wave filmmaker Agnès Varda tells the engrossing story of a brilliant artist and fierce feminist who made movies and found success on her own terms. Film critic and essayist Phillip Lopate writes, "One could not ask for a smarter or more engaging take on the subject." —SMS The Italy Letters by Vi Khi Nao [F] This epistolary novel by Nao, an emerging queer Vietnamese American writer who Garielle Lutz once called "an unstoppable genius," sounds like an incredible read: an unnamed narrator in Las Vegas writes sensual stream-of-consciousness letters to their lover in Italy. Perfect leisure reading on a sultry summer’s afternoon while sipping a glass of prosecco. —CK Survival Is a Promise by Alexis Pauline Gumbs [NF] Gumbs's poetic, genre-bending biography of Audre Lorde offers a fresh, profound look at Lorde's life, work, and importance undergirded by an ecological, spiritual, and distinctly Black feminist sensibility. Eloquent Rage author Brittany Cooper calls Gumbs "a kindred keeper of [Lorde’s] lesbian-warrior-poet legacy." —SMS Planes Flying Over a Monster by Daniel Saldaña París, tr. Christina MacSweeney and Philip K. Zimmerman [NF] Over 10 essays, the Mexican writer Daniel Saldaña Paris explores the cities he has lived in over the course of his life, using each as a springboard to ponder questions of authenticity, art, and narrative. Chloé Cooper Jones calls Saldaña Paris "simply one of our best living writers" and this collection "destined for canonical status." —SMS The Unicorn Woman by Gayl Jones [F] The latest novel from Jones, the Pulitzer finalist and mentee of Toni Morrison who first stunned the literary world with her 1975 novel Corregida, follows a Black soldier who returns home to the Jim Crow South after fighting in World War II. Imani Perry has called Jones "one of the most versatile and transformative writers of the 20th century." —SMS Becoming Little Shell by Chris La Tray [NF] When La Tray was growing up in western Montana, his family didn’t acknowledge his Indigenous heritage. He became curious about his Métis roots when he met Indigenous relatives at his grandfather’s funeral, and he searched in earnest after his father’s death two decades later. Now Montana’s poet laureate, La Tray has written a memoir about becoming an enrolled member of the Chippewa Little Shell Tribe, known as “landless Indians” because of their history of forced relocation. —NodB Wife to Mr. Milton by Robert Graves (reissue) [F] Grave's 1943 novel, reissued by the great Seven Stories Press, is based on the true story of the poet John Milton's tumultuous marriage to the much younger Mary Powell, which played out amid the backdrop of the English Civil War. E.M. Forster once called this one "a thumping good read." —SMS Euphoria Days by Pilar Fraile, tr. Lizzie Davis [F] Fraile's first novel to be translated into English follows the lives of five workers approaching middle age and searching for meaning—turning to algorithms, internet porn, drugs, and gurus along the way—in a slightly off-kilter Madrid of the near future. —SMS September Colored Television by Danzy Senna [F] Senna's latest novel follows Jane, a writer living in L.A. and weighing the competing allures of ambition versus stability and making art versus selling out. The perfect read for fans of Lexi Freiman's Book of Ayn, Colored Television is, per Miranda July, "addictive, hilarious, and relatable" and "a very modern reckoning with the ambiguities triangulated by race, class, creativity and love."—SMS We're Alone by Edwidge Danticat [NF] I’ve long been a big fan of Danticat, and I'm looking forward to reading this essay collection, which ranges from personal narratives to reflections on the state of the world to tributes to her various mentors and literary influences, including James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. That the great Graywolf Press published this book is an added bonus. —CK In Our Likeness by Bryan VanDyke [F] Millions contributor Bryan VanDyke's eerily timely debut novel, set at a tech startup where an algorithm built to detect lies on the internet is in the works, probes both the wonders and horrors of AI. This is a Frankenstein-esque tale befitting the information (or, perhaps, post-information) age and wrought in VanDyke's typically sparkling prose. —SMS Liontaming in America by Elizabeth Willis [NF] Willis, a poet and professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, plumbed personal and national history for last year’s Spectral Evidence: The Witch Book, and does so again with this allusive hybrid work. This ambitious project promises a mind-bending engagement with polyamory and family, Mormonism and utopianism, prey exercising power over predators, and the shape-shifting American dream. —NodB Creation Lake by Rachel Kushner [F] I adore Kushner’s wildly offbeat tales, and I also enjoy books and movies in which people really are not who they claim to be and deception is coming from all sides. This novel about an American woman who infiltrates a rural commune of French radicals and everyone has their private agenda sounds like the perfect page-turner. —CK Under the Eye of the Big Bird by Hiromi Kawakami, tr. Asa Yoneda [F] Kawakami, of Strange Weather in Tokyo and People in My Neighborhood fame, returns with a work of speculative fiction comprising 14 interconnected stories spanning eons. This book imagines an Earth where humans teeter on the brink of extinction—and counts the great Banana Yoshimoto as a fan. —SMS Homeland by Richard Beck [NF] Beck, an editor at n+1, examines the legacy of the war on terror, which spanned two decades following 9/11, and its irrevocable impact on every facet of American life, from consumer habits to the very notion of citizenship. —SMS Herscht 07769 by László Krasznahorkai, tr. Ottilie Muzlet [F] Every novel by Krasznahorkai is immediately recognizable, while also becoming a modulation on that style only he could pull off. Herscht 07769 may be set in the contemporary world—a sort-of fable about the fascism fermenting in East Germany—but the velocity of the prose keeps it ruthilarious and dreamlike. That's what makes Krasznahorkai a master: the world has never sounded so unreal by an author, but all the anxieities of his characters, his readers, suddenly gain clarity, as if he simply turned on the light. —ZI Madwoman by Chelsea Bieker [F] Catapult published Bieker’s 2020 debut, Godshot, about a teenager fleeing a religious cult in drought-stricken California, and her 2023 Heartbroke, a collection of stories that explored gender, threat, and mother-and-child relationships. Now, Bieker moves over to Little, Brown with this contemporary thriller, a novel in which an Oregon mom gets a letter from a women’s prison that reignites violent memories of a past she thought she’d left behind. —NodB The World She Edited by Amy Reading [NF] Some people like to curl up with a cozy mystery, while for others, the ultimate cozy involves midcentury literary Manhattan. Amy Reading—whose bona fides include service on the executive board of cooperative indie bookstore Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, N.Y.—profiles New Yorker editor Katharine S. White, who came on board at the magazine in 1925 and spent 36 years editing the likes of Elizabeth Bishop, Janet Flanner, and Mary McCarthy. Put the kettle on—or better yet, pour a classic gin martini—in preparation for this one, which underscores the many women authors White championed. —NodB If Only by Vigdis Hjorth, tr. Charlotte Barslund [F] Hjorth, the Norwegian novelist behind 2022's Is Mother Dead, painstakingly chronicles a 30-year-old married woman's all-consuming and volatile romance with a married man, which blurs the lines between passion and love. Sheila Heti calls Hjorth "one of my favorite contemporary writers." —SMS Fierce Desires by Rebecca L. Davis [NF] Davis's sprawling account of sex and sexuality over the course of American history traverses the various behaviors, beliefs, debates, identities, and subcultures that have shaped the way we understand connection, desire, gender, and power. Comprehensive, rigorous, and unafraid to challenge readers, this history illuminates the present with brutal and startling clarity.  —SMS The Burning Plain by Juan Rulfo, tr. Douglas Weatherford [F] Rulfo's Pedro Páramo is considered by many to be one of the greatest novels ever written, so it's no surprise that his 1953 story collection The Burning Plain—which depicts life in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution and Cristero Revolt—is widely seen as Mexico's most significant (and, objectively, most translated) work of short fiction. —SMS My Lesbian Novel and TOAF by Renee Gladman [F/NF] The perpetually pitch perfect Dorothy, a Publishing Project is putting out two books by Renee Gladman, one of its finest regular authors, on the same day: a nigh uncategorizable novel about an artist and writer with her same name and oeuvre who discusses the process of writing a lesbian romance and a genre-smashing meditation on an abandoned writing project. What's not to love? —JHM Dear Dickhead by Virginie Despentes, tr. Frank Wynne [F] I'm a big fan of Despentes's caustic, vigorous voice: King Kong Theory was one of my favorite reads of last year. (I was late, I know!) So I can't wait to dig into her latest novel—purported to be taking France by storm—which nods to #MeToo in its depiction of an unlikely friendship that brings up questions of sex, fame, and gendered power. —SMS Capital by Karl Marx, tr. Paul Reitter [NF] In a world that burns more quickly by the day—after centuries of industrial rapacity, and with ever-increasing flares of fascism—a new English translation of Marx, and the first to be based on his final revision of this foundational critique of capitalism, is just what the people ordered. —JHM Fathers and Fugitives by S.J. Naudé, tr. Michiel Heyns [F] Naudé, who writes in Afrikaans, has translated his previous books himself—until now. The first to be translated by Heyns, a brilliant writer himself and a friend of Naudé's, this novel follows a queer journalist living in London who travels home to South Africa to care for his dying father, only to learn of a perplexing clause in his will. —SMS Men of Maize by Miguel Ángel Asturias, tr. Gerald Martin [F] This Penguin Classics reissue of the Nobel Prize–winning Guatemalan writer's epic novel, just in time for its 75th anniversary, throws into stark relief the continued timeliness of its themes: capitalist exploitation, environmental devastation, and the plight of Indigenous peoples. Héctor Tobar, who wrote the forward, calls this "Asturias’s Mayan masterpiece, his Indigenous Ulysses." —SMS Good Night, Sleep Tight by Brian Evenson [F] It is practically impossible to do, after cracking open any collection of stories by the horror master Evenson, what the title of this latest collection asks of its readers. This book is already haunting you even before you've opened it. —JHM Reservoir Bitches by Dahlia de la Cerda, tr. Julia Sanches and Heather Cleary [F] De la Cerda's darkly humorous debut story collection follows 13 resilient, rebellious women navigating life in contemporary Mexico. Dogs of Summer author Andrea Abreu writes, "This book has the force of an ocean gully: it sucks you in, drags you through the mud, and then cleanses you." —SMS Lost: Back to the Island by Emily St. James and Noel Murray [NF] For years, Emily St. James was one of my favorite TV critics, and I'm so excited to see her go long on that most polarizing of shows (which she wrote brilliantly about for AV Club way back when) in tandem with Noel Murray, another great critic. The Lost resurgence—and much-deserved critical reevaluation—is imminent. —SMS Scaffolding by Lauren Elkin [F] Who could tire of tales of Parisian affairs and despairs? This one, from critic and Art Monsters author Elkin, tells the story of 40 years, four lives, two couples, one apartment, and that singularly terrible, beautiful thing we call love. —JHM Bringer of Dust by J.M. Miro [F] The bold first entry in Miro’s sweeping Victorian-era fantasy was a novel to revel in. Ordinary Monsters combined cowboys, the undead, a Scottish magic school, action better than most blockbuster movies can manage, and refreshingly sharp prose astonishingly well as its batch of cast of desperate kids confused by their strange powers fought to make sense of the world around them—despite being stalked, and possibly manipulated, by sinister forces. That book’s climax upended all expectations, making Bringer of Dust something rare: a second volume in a fantasy where readers have no idea where things are heading. —AS Frighten the Horses by Oliver Radclyffe [NF] The latest book from Roxane Gay's eponymous imprint is Radclyffe's memoir of coming out as a trans man in his forties, rethinking his supposedly idyllic life with his husband and four children. Fans of the book include Sabrina Imbler, Sarah Schulman, and Edmund White, who praises Radclyffe as "a major writer." —SMS Everything to Play For by Marijam Did [NF] A video game industry insider, Did considers the politics of gaming in this critical overview—and asks how games, after decades of reshaping our private lives and popular culture, can help pave the way for a better world. —SMS Rejection by Tony Tulathimutte [F] Tulathimutte's linked story collection plunges into the touchy topics of sex, relationships, identity, and the internet. Vauhini Vara, in describing the book, evokes both Nabokov and Roth, as well as "the worst (by which I mean best) Am I the Asshole post you’ve ever read on Reddit." —SMS Elizabeth Catlett by Ed. Dalila Scruggs [NF] This art book, which will accompany a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum organized by Scruggs, spotlight the work and legacy of the pioneering printmaker, sculptor, and activist Elizabeth Catlett (1915-2012), who centered the experiences of Black and Mexican women in all that she did and aspired "to put art to the service of the people." —SMS The Repeat Room by Jesse Ball [F] I often credit Jesse Ball's surrealist masterpiece A Cure for Suicide with reviving my love of reading, and his latest got me out of my reading slump once again. Much like ACFS, The Repeat Room is set in a totalitarian dystopia that slowly reveals itself. The story follows Abel, a lowly garbageman chosen to sit on a jury where advanced technology is used to forcibly enter the memories of "the accused." This novel forces tough moral questions on readers, and will make you wonder what it means to be a good person—and, ultimately, if it even matters. —DF Defectors by Paola Ramos [NF] Ramos, an Emmy Award–winning journalist, examines how Latino voters—often treated as a monolith—are increasingly gravitating to the far right, and what this shift means America's political future. Rachel Maddow calls Defectors "a deeply reported, surprisingly personal exploration of a phenomenon that is little understood in our politics." —SMS Monet by Jackie Wullshläger [NF] Already available in the U.K., this biography reveals a more tempestuous Claude Monet than the serene Water Lilies of his later years suggest. Wullschläger, the chief art critic of the Financial Times, mines the archives for youthful letters and secrets about Monet’s unsung lovers and famous friends of the Belle Époque. —NodB Brooklynites by Prithi Kanakamedala [NF] Kanakamedala celebrates the Black Brooklynites who shaped New York City's second-largest borough in the 19th century, leaving a powerful legacy of social justice organizing in their wake. Centering on four Black families, this work of narrative history carefully and passionately traces Brooklyn's activist lineage. —SMS No Ship Sets Out to Be a Shipwreck by Joan Wickersham [NF] In this slim nonfiction/poetry hybrid, Wickersham (author of National Book Award finalist The Suicide Index) meditates on a Swedish warship named Vasa, so freighted with cannons and fancy carvings in honor of the king that it sank only minutes after leaving the dock in 1682, taking 30 lives with it. After Wickersham saw the salvaged Vasa on display in Stockholm, she crafted her book around this monument to nation and hubris. —NodB Health and Safety by Emily Witt [NF] I loved Witt's sharply observed Future Sex and can't wait for her latest, a memoir about drugs, raves, and New York City nightlife which charts the New Yorker staff writer's immersion into the city's dance music underground on the cusp of the pandemic—and the double life she began to lead as a result. —SMS [millions_email]

Uncle Charlie Newman and the Impossible Novel

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“Is it a book then . . . that you’re working on?” “I wouldn’t call it a book, really,” Felix replied evenly, his knuckles white on the balcony railing.  “But through all our talks, you’ve never once mentioned it!” the Professor, now truly hurt, blurted mournfully. “How can that be?” Then the question authors dread above all others: “Pray, what’s it about?” 1. In the summer of 1989, my uncle, the novelist Charles Newman, rented a cottage near the weekend home my parents owned on Cape Cod. Uncle Charlie, as I was still absurdly in the habit of calling him as an 18-year-old, was out of place on the Cape -- he avoided the water and lacked a family to indulge at the ubiquitous drive-ins and miniature golf courses. The brand-new black Acura Legacy with gold trim that he had driven all the way from St. Louis, its trunk packed full of high-potency multivitamins and Mahler CDs, stood parked all summer in the cottage’s white, sandy driveway like a rebuke to the entire peninsula. I never went inside the cottage. My mother had instructed me to not even drive down the street when Charlie was working, which was always, and to never under any circumstances ask what he was working on. After the summer ended, though, we inferred that it had been productive. Charlie was sober, stable, and had been quiet most of the time. Whatever he was creating inside the cottage, as long as it came out soon, would meet his usual publication schedule of a book every few years. At 51, Charlie was nearing the pinnacle of his strange but just-as-he-would-have-it career. Not that he cared about reputation, or so he claimed, but only a few years earlier he had produced a volume of essays, The Post-Modern Aura, which despite being called “Hegelian” for its “daunting” prose and “exquisitely complex argument,” had been something of a sensation for a work of literary criticism, garnering euphoric reviews (“Brilliant,” “Scathing,” “Brilliant,” “Relentless,” “Brilliant,” “Brilliant,” “Brilliant”) in one newspaper or magazine after another. His previous novel, White Jazz, had been a New York Times book of the year and bestseller. Outside of writing, though still trapped in the emasculating, brain-deadening torture chamber of academia, he was in the best position he had ever known to maximize his output, having somehow, despite a record of adversarial relations with previous employers, secured a plummy professorship at Washington University, home to one of the best writing programs in the country, where he taught little and no longer had to edit for a living. (For years Charlie had been the editor of TriQuarterly, where, as a junior professor at Northwestern in his 20s, he accomplished the dream of every small-time lit mag editor in the world: turning a no-name campus rag into a vehicle for Nabokov, Borges, and Calvino.) Most important, his writing powers were at their peak, at least in theory. Looking back at his prose from that period, you can see that “the long line” he’d pursued for so long had finally come to him, whether because he’d found the right form to pursue it in (“Every writer has to find their form,” Charlie would often say, his own journey having taken him from the personal essay to cultural criticism and both minimalist and maximalist fiction, though I suspected that his real métier was The Angry Letter: the denunciatory, bridge-burning screed), because he’d stopped drinking, or something more mysterious. Don’t ask what your uncle is writing about -- but I was 18 at the time, the age at which being told “Don’t do something” makes it impossible to do anything but. One day, a few months after that summer on the Cape, while visiting Charlie in St. Louis, I waited until he went to campus and tiptoed upstairs to his office. Charlie’s goal when he started each day was to come up with one or two, possibly three sentences he liked, and to get there he wrote out his drafts by hand, then sent the pages to an assistant, who returned them typewritten on plain white sheets, which Charlie then cut into slivers, isolating individual sentences before reinserting them with Scotch tape in the handwritten notebooks, or tacking them to a wall. Those tacked-up sentence slivers were before me now, along with dozens if not hundreds of pink and yellow note cards scrawled with riffs, phrases, lists, and snatches of dialogue. The book, in other words, was in front of my face -- no drawers had to be opened, no papers rifled through. The office itself was surprisingly clean and uncluttered, aside from 50 or so briarwood pipes and an astonishing number of overdue library books. I stayed in the office until the Acura pulled in the driveway an hour or so later, by which time I still had no idea what the book was about. Charlie’s kinetic shorthand was often indecipherable even to assistants who had worked with him for years, and as for the sentences that had been typed out, they were typically fragments (“army of deserters,” “mad for sanity”) or mystical pronouncements such as “History has a way of happening a little later than you think” or “In Russia you always have to buy the horse twice.” Sometimes they contained no more than a single word. (“Deungulate.”) However, the question also has to be asked: Even if I had found some synopsis for the novel-in-progress, what difference would it have made? Charlie’s books tended to thwart summary. How, for example, would you distill the plot of White Jazz? (“Sandy, a young man who works for an information technology company, sleeps around”?) How would you describe the subject of The Post-Modern Aura: art? Literature? History? Or simply the abjectness of the human condition? Even sympathetic readers often found themselves struggling to say what Charlie’s books were about. (Paul West, attempting to describe the novel The Promisekeeper in a 1968 review for The Times, called it “not so much a story as an exhibition, not so much a prophecy stunt as a stunted process, not so much a black comedy as a kaleidoscopic psychodrama.”) 2. Over the next several years, Charlie continued to work on his mysterious book in St. Louis and New York (where he lived when he wasn’t teaching), as well as various parts of Europe, Russia, and the U.S. He and my parents frequently traveled together; all of us sat with him in restaurants and walked through museums in places like Santa Fe, Chicago, and Kansas City and did everything possible to avoid asking -- to not even think about -- the question we most wanted to ask. But then a surprising thing happened: Charlie began to talk about the book. I can’t exactly remember when it became clear that he was not going to lunge across the table if we brought it up, but some part of him softened, something opened up, and if you weren’t inelegant about it (“The worst kind of mistake[is] not a moral but an aesthetical one,” Charlie would write, not jokingly) you could extract a few details -- which of course weren’t always that enlightening. “It’s the great un-American novel,” he would say in a cheerful mood, or “It’s a novel for people who hate novels, a novel pretending to be a memoir that’s really a history” -- or something like that. Sometimes he would go on at length, easefully sketching out major characters, including the most important character of all, “Cannonia,” the invented country in which the book was set. Sometimes he would simply say “it’s indescribable -- nothing like it has ever been written.” Then there’d be nothing but one of Charlie’s “special repertoire of silences” hovering about the table, until eventually the conversation moved on. The openness could have been reassuring, a sign that Charlie was on top of his book and didn’t fear talking it away. The more he spoke, though, the more I worried, in part because the book he was describing sounded not just indescribable but unwriteable. First, there was its premise: Charlie said he was going to write the history of a place which did not exist but wherein virtually everything described -- characters, events, locales -- was real, drawn from actual sources. That alone explained why the book was taking so long: Charlie had obviously gotten bogged down in research. (A grant proposal I later discovered listed his primary texts as “obscure diaries, self-serving memoirs, justifiably forgotten novels, carping correspondence, partisan social and diplomatic histories, black folktales and bright feuilletons.”) But it wasn’t the only reason to be nervous; there was also Charlie’s intention to somehow merge his fake-but-real history with a spy thriller, a cold war novel of suspense. Was such a book even possible? Wasn’t a spy thriller supposed to be brisk and plotted, and history (even pseudo-history) ruminative and disjointed? How would you blend the two genres? And then there was Charlie’s insistence that the book, despite its writerly ambitions, would somehow be “accessible and commercially viable,” containing not one but “several” movies. This seemed least fathomable of all -- the most uncompromising writer ever, bowing to conventional taste? Altogether the project seemed impossible, even for Charlie, who once vowed to “write books that no one else could write” and who would have rather changed careers than give up experimenting. 3. About eight years later and a month or so after Charlie’s death in 2006, I went back to his office -- not the one I’d trespassed in in St. Louis but the one in New York, which was in a gloomily black-windowed high-rise on West 61st Street called The Alfred. The space was as Charlie had left it before he died, and at the bottom of a closet, underneath an assortment of dirty blankets, Italian suits, and hunting clothes, I found an old television still murmuring, its picture tube faintly aglow. It had been five months since Charlie was there, but I had the sense that the inflamed set had been attempting its manic, muffled communication even longer. The clothes inside the closet were as hot as if they’d just been ironed. Unlike the office I had been in 15 years earlier, this one was squalid, cluttered with foldable picnic tables, overstuffed vinyl chairs, and still-running air purifiers blackened by pipe tobacco. The couches were stained and burnt. Every level surface was covered with manuscript pages, newsletters from financial “gurus,” and advertisements for eternal life potions. The entire Central European history and literature sections of the Washington University library seemed to be on hand, plus hundreds of books on espionage and psychoanalysis. I made a list of titles near Charlie’s desk: Freud and Cocaine, Were-Wolf and Vampire in Romania, Escape from the CIA, A Lycanthropy Reader, Mind Food and Smart Pills. Back in the 1990s, when Charlie moved into the Alfred, the feature of his apartment he had been proudest of was a custom-built series of cubbyholes spanning one entire wall, which he would use to organize the Cannonia manuscript. Like his openness when discussing the book, the shelves had a reassuring aspect -- after all, they were finite (you could see where they ended) and therefore so must be the book! But the actual filing system I discovered after Charlie’s death bespoke madness, the cubbyholes having been filled with household items that had nothing to do with Cannonia. Instead, the manuscript was stored in dozens of sealed Federal Express boxes which had apparently been sent back and forth from New York to St. Louis and vice versa -- draft after draft after draft after draft, so many it was impossible to tell which was most recent. The boxes, many of them having been taped shut years ago and never reopened, piled up under the plastic picnic tables. Also in the apartment were hundreds of sealed manila envelopes containing those cut-out, typed-up sentences -- “Angry hope is what drives the world,” “He had brains but not too many,” “Women fight only to kill” -- which it appeared Charlie had also been mailing, one tiny sliver per envelope, whether to an assistant or himself wasn’t clear. Charlie had several helpers at The Alfred -- unofficially, the doormen, who knew he only left the building to go to the Greek diner two blocks away, and to call the diner’s manager when he did to make sure he arrived. There was also a young woman he had hired to fix his virus-flooded Gateway and provide data entry -- in the office I found her flyer with its number circled, the services it advertised including not only computer repair but martial arts instruction and guitar lessons. I met her a few times after Charlie’s death and we talked about the book, which she claimed Charlie had finally finished. “I know because we wrote it together,” she said. “He thought up the ideas for the scenes and I wrote them.” But she never showed me the completed, final manuscript, and a few weeks after we met she stopped returning calls. 4. Here is the story of Charlie’s book, I think. In the 1980s Charlie wrote a novel, the story of Felix, a bankrupt “breaker of crazy dogs and vicious horses,” and the Professor, a certain Viennese psychoanalyst who brings Felix neurotic animals and theories of the mind. This modestly-sized, thoroughly old-fashioned book “split the middle,” to use one of Charlie’s favorite phrases, between fantasy and autobiography -- Charlie, of course, being neither a Central European aristocrat living on an abandoned royal hunting preserve (as Felix is), nor an acquaintance of Freud. He was, however, a one-time breeder of hunting dogs who owned a kennel and horse farm in one of the most isolated parts of Appalachia, where, like Felix, he imported exotic plant specimens and found a way to escape the academic-literary-intellectual world he loathed. Losing the farm, as he did in the mid-1980s (to inflation, as he described it -- inflation also being the scourge of several of Charlie’s books, it is worth noting), was surely the novel’s impetus. “I wanted to write a long novel about the farm,” he once told an interviewer, “but the farm was so hurtful to me in many ways, not only economically but in terms of the loss of beloved animals,” as well as what he called a “nineteenth-century” existence." So he wrote a short novel instead, one that was a throwback as much as the farm. In many ways it is a response -- positive and hopeful, for all the unhappiness it apparently came out of -- to the wrenching blankness of White Jazz and The Post-Modern Aura, works that depict spiritual suffering (“a vast cultural sadness,” in Charlie’s words) in an age of multiple, overlapping determinisms. For if nothing else, Felix lives in a world where his own agency matters, and where meaningful connections -- with his wife, his animals, the Professor, and perhaps above all the land he lives on -- are possible. Charlie could have published the story of Felix and the Professor in the early '90s, roughly maintaining his schedule of a book every few years. But one of Charlie’s idiosyncrasies as a writer is that he would often write something, then put it aside, and years or even decades later find some unexpected way to combine it with other, different material. In the case of the book inspired by the farm, he decided to hold off in favor of incorporating it within a massively enlarged work to be harvested from the book’s fantastical setting -- Cannonia. Now instead of one book there would be roughly nine, divided into three volumes, all to be published at the same time. (“No dribbling out,” he growled when I asked if he would consider publishing even a little of the material before he’d reached the end.) Having thus re-envisioned his tidy coastal steamer as a three-decker battleship, Charlie set out to write an introduction of suitable vastness, providing centuries of background and introducing characters who would not reappear for thousands of pages. The nature of the project all but required him to take this world-building approach. The story itself could wait. Characters could get away with announcing themselves in the grandest possible manner, then vanish. Charlie’s passion for history and obscure primary sources could be indulged. It was all part of the excitement, the buildup, the setting of an appropriate tone. Ten years later, Charlie was still writing the overture to his symphony. And not surprisingly, the time it was taking, plus the future amount of work he could surely see coming, not to mention the embarrassment of attempting such a behemoth, weighed on him visibly. A lifelong alcoholic who frequently stunned even the people who knew him best with his capacity for self-destruction and recovery, Charlie had curtailed his drinking in the 1980s through Alcoholics Anonymous and sheer white-knuckle effort, then lost control in the '90s, undoubtedly in part due to the stress of Cannonia. Toward the end of the decade his nervous system began to break down, and he spent much of the following years in the hospital, where doctors at first thought he might have suffered a stroke or the onset of Parkinson’s. Intermittently unable to speak or walk, he put aside the trilogy for long stretches, struggled with depression, and when the wherewithal to write eventually returned, started a pair of new books instead, a history of American education and a long essay on terrorism. He also became estranged from family, saw his fourth and final marriage end (“Why do people fear dying alone and unloved?” he had already written at this point, glimpsing the future. “What difference does it make?”) and reduced his teaching to the point where he was scarcely seen on campus. During these years Charlie seemed to answer conflictingly every time he was asked if the book was done. In 1998, it was three-quarters finished, in 2005, only two-thirds, while in 2002 it was complete. His assistant in St. Louis believed he might never stop rearranging the table of contents and inserting new pages, and in fact he never did. 5. The first time I read a draft of In Partial Disgrace, Charlie was still alive, and reading it all but put me into despair, not only for Charlie but at the idea any writer could suffer the kind of delusion he’d suffered so long. Page after page after page, there was nothing but setting or background. Cannonia, “our ineffable tragi-comic protagonist, superior to tragedy,” a country that is “effectively all border” and usually covered on maps by the compass sign or coat-of-arms, its natives standing guard over a mystical redoubt where Europe’s vanished species, such as the Tarpan horse and auroch, still thrive, was certainly a magical-sounding place, but it appeared one in which things only happened, usually in the distant past—there was virtually no present, no now. In many passages Charlie’s powers as a writer, rather than being at their peak, seemed to have dribbled out of him after all. How could an author who once wrote this: “In front, as usual, were the graduate students, dressed in the russet, olive, beige and black of phlegmatic earnestness. Further back, spilling into the aisles, sprawled the gaudier, paisleyed and striped undergraduates, umbrellas and rainwear steaming in piles at their feet. In the balcony he could make out what must have been a visiting high school band class, restless, jaunty; girls smoothing tartan skirts about their knees, in serried rows assembled. How he loved girls who wore high socks.” (The Five-Thousandth Baritone) and this: “So it was that the Sandman had an inkling of Modern Revenge. The lost self, a bit of sugar in the gas tank. To the degree he had forgotten, he was.” (White Jazz) think seriously of publishing turds like “the muse is mostly merciless” and “misconstruction makes the morning coffee”? I was confused also because so much of the novel Charlie had talked about for so long seemed missing. Where was Freud? Where was Pavlov? Where were the battle scenes, and where were the spooks? After 400 pages I put it down -- obviously I held only a fragment of the overall work to come, and there was nothing to do but wait. Then, after Charlie died, I found the story of Felix and the Professor, a novel that was alive in its language, arresting in its ideas, and humanly engaging in its depiction of a friendship between two painfully isolated men. Like the television at the bottom of the closet, it pulsed with warmth. The question was how to disentomb it. 6. I had been struggling to edit the novel -- I could feel its shape but was groping for a center of gravity -- when one day while sorting through Charlie’s papers, one of those envelopes containing a single cut-out sentence dropped from a yellowed folder and landed at my feet. I picked it up, pulled out the scrap of paper and read, if not exactly a synopsis of the book, a clear answer to the Professor’s question. It was as if a series of flat, flickering images had suddenly merged into a three-dimensional figure and the figure had eyes that were looking into your own. The idea of “reversing” civilization was the book’s continuous line, though it dipped in and out of view, submerged at times by other lines. Previous books of Charlie’s contained it as well: “Hey, let’s get some dinner. Be civilized,” says one of the unpleasant characters in White Jazz, a cruelly cartooned airhead feminist. “What’s civilized about dinner?” the Charlie-esque protagonist retorts. I was elated, of course, but also chilled. In Partial Disgrace is positive and hopeful in that Felix is fully alive (unlike his weak, scolding counterpart, Dr. Freud), but what makes him so is his wrathful rejection of society, especially the institution of family. Essentially the book portrays a man who, in true Nietzschean fashion, wills his way past cant and technobabble and bad art and the disorienting spirals of inflation -- all the bad actors of our time -- to becoming historical, to claiming a place in time. However, in spite of this, or perhaps because of it, at the end of the book one of Felix’s key connections fails: the Professor commits one of those unforgivable aesthetic violations, and in his fury Felix is unmasked as a malevolent demon who wields art (like Charlie, Felix is writing a book he can’t finish) as a weapon, to “be brought to bear against the cult of family values and civil society in general.” If you remember the end of Notes from Underground, you know the feeling this brings. It is the most wretched and exhilarating ending to any book I have ever read. 7. And then last summer, while organizing Charlie’s papers, I came across another important document: a letter from an assistant doing research for him in the New York Public Library. The date: 1983, earlier than any other indication I’d seen of when Charlie started working on In Partial Disgrace. Did he ever envision the book would take 30 years? Had he known, if he had been able, what would he have changed? Nothing, I suspect. If you as a writer were given the choice -- family, sanity and health on one hand, and The Book on the other -- which would you pick? Especially if that book, or even just part of it, turned out exactly the way you wanted: perfect, dark, and unique. [Editor’s Note: This essay appears, in slightly different form, as the Editor’s Note to In Partial Disgrace, published this month by Dalkey Archive Press]