The first time I stole, I was told it was wrong. It was borrowed from a Garfield cartoon—one character says, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” and then in the next panel, a dictionary falls on his head. I thought it was funny; I included it in one of my stories. I was seven. When I showed the story to my parents, my dad asked if I’d come up with that joke on my own, and I admitted that I hadn’t. He explained to me that it wasn’t right to use someone’s words without giving credit to that person or without changing them enough so that they were my own; that was called plagiarism. It didn’t make sense to me. This cartoon had been drawn and printed and delivered to my parents’ doorstep for me to unfold and read while I ate my Cheerios. I could cut it out and stick it to the refrigerator with magnets, or roll out a ball of Silly Putty and pull Garfield right off of the page and into my hand. It didn’t make sense that enjoying or admiring or loving something wasn’t enough to make that something mine.
As a longtime lover of words, I was a master mimic. After hearing Donna Lewis’s “I Love You Always Forever” on the radio, I spent weeks trying to find and compose the tune on my Yamaha keyboard. I wrote my own song parodies à la “Weird Al” Yankovic. It only made sense that when I read books that I loved, I wanted to try and recreate them. Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones inspired my own series about a precocious six-year-old named Leslie Ann Mayfield. Cecily von Ziegesar’s Gossip Girl led to the creation of The Girls of Greenwich Academy. They were imitations; they were different only in the sense that I couldn’t have the original and wanted to have control over as close an approximation as I could. I loved these stories like I loved the barrage of letters that Elizabeth Clarry receives from various societies and clubs—each pointing out her faults and shortcomings—in Jaclyn Moriarty’s Feeling Sorry for Celia (the letters being reflections of Elizabeth’s own subconscious thoughts and not real letters, of course), or like I loved a particular passage from Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl that I wrote out in notebooks and repeated so many times I had it memorized and still can recite it today: “She was elusive. She was today. She was tomorrow…In our minds we tried to pin her to a cork board like a butterfly, but the pin merely went through and away she flew.” I wrote a story composed entirely of letters to myself from fictionalized clubs. I read Stargirl so many times the pages fell out of the binding. But no matter how many times I read these books, no matter how many times I tried to make them my own, they remained too elusive to pin down. My inexperience impeded me. My inability to create something of equal value frustrated me. To create something of my own worthy of that kind of love felt impossible.
After I met Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, I realized all of my past preoccupations—even with Blair Waldorf and Serena van der Woodsen—had merely been crushes. With Prep, I felt vulnerable and unnervingly understood—I felt loved. Lee Fiora was a misanthrope, a cypher—difficult to like and everything I feared myself to be. Over the course of the four years in which the novel takes place, Lee silently watches her peers, trying at once to imitate them and appear unassuming enough to not be seen. She fails, of course; she fails and exposes herself as a fraud in the most public and humiliating way. I typed out hundreds of pages of the novel, and the sensation of generating Sittenfeld’s words by my own hand on my own screen felt like ecstasy. I dreamed of writing Prep myself. I dreamed of a machine that would allow me to go back in time and steal the manuscript before it was ever published and claim it as my own. But because I couldn’t pluck Prep from Curtis Sittenfeld’s hands like I once pulled cartoon Garfield off a page with putty, I decided to make it my mission: I would write a book that would make someone ache with recognition, a book that someone could love—even if that someone was only me.
I couldn’t know at the time of my preoccupation that Junie B.’s speech patterns and penchant for nicknames is reminiscent of short story writer Damon Runyon. I never knew until later that von Ziegesar modeled Gossip Girl on The Age of Innocence. Even having heard Prep compared to everything from A Separate Peace to The Bell Jar to The Catcher in the Rye, Lee Fiora’s story never felt like anything but her own. It is inevitable to bear a resemblance to classic literature, it seemed to me; everyone is made to read the same books the summer before ninth grade and write the same reports. The difference was that classic literature felt wholly impersonal, unrelatable, obsolete. It was okay to rewrite those stories because—to me—they’d ceased to entertain, to matter.
As I began to study writing in earnest in college and later graduate school, I looked not to the past but to contemporaries for inspiration and guidance. I had a love affair with Lorrie Moore my junior year of college; I loved repetition, lists, and long, looping, loquacious sentences that Moore could make funny in their inanity. I met Edward P. Jones and experimented with time, turning to him for guidance so I could shift forward and back without warning and without losing a reader. I wrote whole stories trying to imitate the narrative style of Thomas Bernhard and Donald Barthelme. My senior year of college, Zadie Smith—actual Zadie Smith, that is—came to my advanced fiction workshop the day my story was up for critique, and she noted that I did the Lorrie Moore-esque technique of listing three things, each item more extreme or nonsensical than the last. “The ‘Three Things’ things—that’s a Lorrie thing. It’s been done,” she said. The only part of my story Zadie Smith took special notice of was when the character said she didn’t know how to cook chicken properly so that it wasn’t still pink inside. “That’s honest,” she said. At the time, the only thing that stuck with me after class was pleasure at being told that I wrote like Lorrie Moore.
I remember reading Taiye Selasi’s Ghana Must Go and, shortly after, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, and feeling almost betrayed—Roy’s influence on Selasi was so evident to me that I felt I’d uncovered something devious or even criminal. But everything is borrowed from something, I’ve learned; every story is influenced by those told before it, every voice a reflection of an earlier one. By borrowing stories, trying on different styles, imitating different techniques, I somehow learned to develop my own voice—a cocktail of everything I’d ever read and admired and loved, but diffused through me, made into my own. When I first started showing people my own novel, I heard comparisons to Alissa Nutting’s Tampa and Zoë Heller’s Notes on a Scandal, and—to my great delight—Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep. But readers also drew comparisons to stories I hadn’t even meant to echo: Lolita and Old School, so-called classics that I’d once dismissed as irrelevant, but that are still called up from the past today to be borrowed and reformed, made new again. Layers and layers of stories and voices in conversation with one another, building on one another; I love that idea, that every story I’ve ever loved is inextricable from my own. That I’ve finally, in a way, made them mine.
I worry that the novel I’ve written isn’t anything new. I worry that my story has already been told—been told dozens of times, in fact—and that I don’t contribute anything new to the story’s legacy except another tired imitation. But I also like to think that what I have contributed is my own truth, a personal intimacy, like the redemptive bit about the uncooked chicken. Writing the novel, I channeled Lorrie and Bernhard and Zadie all at once, exploring my characters and their story through several different lenses—empathic, contemptuous, tongue-in-cheek—but what never changed was my desire to make it all feel as achingly, cringingly honest as possible. Years later, an editor would read my novel and tell me that she’d always felt alone in her experience of depression until she read my character’s experience and, for the first time since I’d read Prep at age 14, I felt seen and understood.
I have created something, something that may even be worthy of love, but still I covet others. That won’t ever stop. I read to learn and to grow, and even if the things I read make me blind with envy—make me want to rip the pages from the bindings and hide them from the world and claim the words as my own—it only makes me want to improve. Each book I love is a new voice to carry with me, a new style to try on. A new something that I can stretch and hem and saturate with my scent until it feels like me. Like something honest.
Image Credit: Flickr/kooikkari.
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
It’s always difficult to play the sheepish part of the converted hater.
The novels of Paul Auster blend into one another. The same tropes emerge time and again, and after a few reads, the inevitable attitude becomes, “Okay, pal, I get it, I get it.” Every time there’s a new Auster novel out, I think it may be different, and I give him a chance, and soon find I’m back in the usual territory: identity puzzles, murky timelines, ominous danger. And I’ve given the guy so many chances.
The New York Trilogy was taut and thrilling, and seems to be Auster’s most lauded work to date, but the novellas are so terse in language that I often felt frustrated, wanting more. Granted, this is coming from a reader who champions maximalists like Wallace and Vollmann, but I’ve also liked the spare prose of writers like Coetzee. There’s just something missing for me in the Trilogy, a sort of isolative quality.
I gave it another shot with The Brooklyn Follies, and enjoyed myself more. Of course, it isn’t by any means a perfect book (Walter Kirn, he of Up in the Air fame, called it an “amateurish novel”). I found elements in it that I’d later come to recognize as the tired techniques to which Auster returns in nearly every outing. The narrator is old and busted, and begins the story by telling us, morosely, that he moved to Brooklyn to die. His name is Nathan Glass (get it, glass? Auster can’t refrain from name-dropping his own book, City of Glass, from The New York Trilogy). Glass is compiling anecdotes to write a book about human foolishness. Another predictable subplot involves an illegal caper that fails due to betrayal and greed. All that being said, the book is easy to get through—breezy and kind of pleasant. The second protagonist, Glass’ nephew Tom, is bumbling and likeable, easy to root for. I felt happy after finishing it—not bowled over, but amused.
Timbuktu, my third Auster choice, shattered my good graces. The book is silly, even childish. He pulls off the dog-as-narrator feat, sure, but the thing is so short and flat it feels completely unnecessary. “Mr. Bones,” really? And his friend is a homeless guy named Willy G. Christmas? Oy. I couldn’t even feel charmed by what I can only imagine is an animal hero that Auster lovers adore. Instead, I was bored and annoyed. Sections are introduced with hokey phrases like, “Thus began an exemplary friendship between man and boy.” Characters speak like they’re on an episode of Leave it to Beaver. “We’ve just got to keep him, Mama,” a girl begs her mother when Mr. Bones shows up at their door. Sure, Auster is mocking such spoiled American Dream families, but overall, it more often feels like he is trading in clichés, rather than sending them up.
It got worse from there. The book that would kill my interest for good (I thought) was Travels in the Scriptorium. It begins with an unnamed man, in an unnamed location, confused about—shocker, here—his identity (cue up Tony Soprano in his coma: “Who am I? Where am I going?”). Finally we get a name: Mr. Blank. The room is filled with post-its on objects: LAMP. DESK. It’s like a game of Clue. Did Mr. Blank kill his cousin, Mr. Doppelganger, in the ROOM with a RUSTY KNIFE? I finished the book in a few hours’ time and felt cheated. Paul Auster had become, for me, the literary equivalent of Weezer—an artist I respected and had once loved, but could no longer continue supporting and feel good about myself.
That was where I stood when he came out with Invisible. I wouldn’t have picked it up if I hadn’t accidentally attended a reading of his in Manhattan just days after the book’s release. I had gone there with the roundabout purpose of meeting Rick Moody, who would be introducing him (you can read my full “report” on the experience here), but in so doing I had to stay for the reading.
Auster strolled out confidently and launched into a vivid, unapologetic scene of incest between a biological brother and sister. He stepped on stage and belted it out, reading quickly and almost angrily. It was in second person narration so it felt, creepily, like he was telling you about the time you had sex with your sister. And boy, it was graphic. “As your sister gently put her hand around your rejuvenated penis (sublime transport, inexpressible joy), you forged on with your anatomy lesson,” he read. “When Gwyn came for the first time (rubbing her clitoris with the middle finger of her left hand), the sound of air surging in and out of her nostrils…” Oh my God.
He didn’t even make some self-deprecating joke after finishing, the way you’d expect an author to do (something to lighten the mood, perhaps, like “Well, hope that wasn’t too awkward!”). Instead, he shut the book dramatically and walked off the stage.
Such a move was fitting of the work. Invisible is not funny. And sure, Auster isn’t especially known to be a funny writer, but there is a fair wealth of light humor in Brooklyn Follies (albeit not always adult humor—a page-long fart joke comes to mind). Invisible has no interest in that territory; it’s a very serious story.
It is also a terrific read. It’s different from his others—or at least, it’s a better presentation of those same tricks. Clancy Martin, in his Times review of the book, nails it: “As soon as you finish… you want to read it again.”
Our protagonist is Adam Walker, who is likable in a very ordinary, easy way. He’s a student at Columbia, works in the school library (Auster calls it the “Castle of Yawns”), nurses a wound from an old family tragedy—a typical character. Where the book shines is in its narrative structure. It’s divided into four different sections, with three different narrators. The passing of time is gorgeously handled. The first section, told in the first-person, provides the bulk of the narrative at Columbia in 1967 and covers Adam’s friendship and conflict with Rudolph Born, the story’s cartoonish villain.
In the second section, which begins in 2007, an old friend of Adam’s (an author and clear Auster stand-in) receives a manuscript, which provides the content of the section—it’s Adam’s patchy attempt at a memoir, and it tells the story of Adam’s history with his sister, before he ever met Born. It’s written entirely in the second person.
In the third section, the friend, James, has received the second half of Adam’s manuscript, which now brings us back to 1967 and describes Adam’s time in Paris, in traditional third person narration. During this section Adam spends most of his time with two women. Neither is as important as the book’s central female figure, his sister Gwyn, but one of the two, Celine, is the young daughter of a woman Born is set to marry. Adam befriends the girl, but they have a falling out and he leaves Paris.
In the final section, we are back in the present of 2007, with James as he tracks down Gwyn and then Celine. The section ends, of all things, with a series of entries from Celine’s journal, describing a spontaneous, strange trip she took as a grown woman to visit Born, her would-be father-in-law. She flies to see Born at his remote, Moreau-like island home, and, as they say, hilarity ensues. By hilarity, I mean the Auster variety: surprising dramatic tension that can be darkly funny, but is really quite serious and usually not funny at all.
The different narrators provide fresh voices and insights, and the shifting narrative style (first, second, and third person are all used) keeps us intrigued. Yet the tone of each section is never so radical as to feel jarring.
Everything flows and fits nicely to create a reading experience that is exciting, but also simple. This ain’t Melville, but obviously it isn’t Stieg Larsson, either. Even though Auster has churned out some duds, he has the ability to write simply and intelligently, and he really knows how to move a plot along. He might be the least technically challenging writer of those revered by the high literary establishment, but nonetheless, he has always been perceived as part of it.
Invisible has its flaws. It has its fair share of Austerian (can I coin that phrase right here and now?) language—overt, tactless, groan-inducing. After Adam first meets Rudolph Born at a party, he is hesitant to get to know him more, and reflects to himself, “There is much to be explored in this hesitation, I believe, for it seems to suggest that I already understood… that allowing myself to get involved with him could possibly lead to trouble.” Oh, gee, okay. I suppose if this were a fifth-grade exercise the teacher would circle that and use it to define foreshadowing.
Above all else, the “bad guy” at the center of its plot, Born, is something of a joke. He spouts off cheesy idioms like a movie character (“your ass will be so cooked,” he threatens at one point, and at another, warns, “not a word, young Walker, not a word”). Recently, a nice piece on The Millions that discussed the influence of Shakespeare’s Iago on modern fiction did not mention Born, which seemed to me a surprising omission at first. But in fact, it’s only natural that Born wouldn’t come to mind in a discussion that includes characters like Barbara from Notes on a Scandal or American Psycho’s Pat Bateman. Rudolph Born just isn’t the cool, calculating emotional menace that other great villains have been.
But poor dialogue and a one-dimensional “bad guy” do nothing to ruin the novel. No one reads Auster to find beautiful prose, and Born’s role as a thorn in Adam’s side, though a bit contrived, is necessary. The book’s final scene castrates his power, anyway.
Born isn’t even the biggest obstacle to Adam’s happiness. That title belongs to Gwyn. It is their volatile sibling relationship that makes Invisible a compelling story, and leaves its troubling questions still lingering after you’ve put the book down.
Auster’s next novel, already up on Amazon for all to see, is called Sunset Park; it’s another New York story. According to a Booklist plot synopsis: “four flat-broke twentysomething searchers end up squatting in a funky abandoned house in Sunset Park.” Characters include such stock types as a guitarist, a struggling artist, and a grad student, as well as a fugitive “poisoned by guilt over his stepbrother’s death.” Another character plagued by a tragic event in his past? Uh-oh.
This one could go either way; it may be standard genre fare, or perhaps it’s something new and exciting. After Invisible, I’m at least willing to give it a shot. I guess I’m back on the Paul Auster bandwagon, for now.
Joan Didion’s Play it as it Lays famously opens with the question, “What makes Iago evil? Some people ask. I never ask.”
I’m one of the people who asks. Samuel Coleridge might have called the search for Iago “the motive hunting of motiveless malignity,” but I lack the capacity to accept that certain truths are just inscrutable. I reason that because fictional characters are born in the mind of the author, their actions must necessarily stem from something resembling Kantian categorical imperatives. Within the confines of their own logic, their actions make perfect sense. There is internal consistency and cause and effect. The system is governed by rules; the game is to discern exactly what those rules are.
It’s a cliché that nothing is more interesting to people than other people, but in essence, those of us who ask about Iago do so because he is not so different a puzzle from human beings. He is only a more tantalizing one, because his author has deliberately controlled what we see and know of him, as though dispensing clues. But the prize for solving a literary conundrum is the same as for solving a human one: if I can figure out Iago, I can figure out Hamlet, I can figure out anyone and I can figure out you.
1. As An Aside
Having searched for Iago predominantly throughout other works of fiction, I think it is worth pointing out that I’m aware of the tenuous merit of this project. It’s considered fairly dubious practice to explain the motivations of real people via fictional characters. But what about explaining the motivations of fictional characters via other fictional characters? Let alone fictional characters created long after the fictional characters in question? Won’t that turn into something of an analytical Ponzi scheme?
It may also be worth noting that real world psychology, if not always an exact science, is farther along than any such fictional goose chase. Iago might simply be found in the entry under “Antisocial Personality Disorder” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV for demonstrating “a pervasive pattern of disregard for, and violation of, the rights of others that begins in childhood or early adolescence and continues into adulthood.” Real world sociopaths have been described in detail in nonfiction, from Charles Manson in Helter Skelter to Dick Hickock in In Cold Blood. Dick Hickock has “one of those smiles that really work,” an IQ of 130 and the sort of toughness that “existed solely in situations where he unarguably had the upper hand.” Dick even looks exactly how Iago should look: “his own face enthralled him. Each angle of it induced a different impression. It was a changeling’s face, and mirror-guided experiments had taught him how to ring the changes, how to look now ominous, now impish, now soulful …”
But I’m not interested in diagnosing Iago, per se. I’m not trying to discern what he looks like, or what his childhood practices might have been. I am searching for the emotional truth of his nature, which (as Tim O’Brien famously opined) may be better found in another fictional story than in facts.
2. Excerpts From A Guide To Literary Sociopaths
The sort of villains in popular fiction that enjoy the same level of celebrity as Iago include the likes of Thomas Harris’ Hannibal Lector, Cormac McCarthy’s Anton Chigurh and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Moriarty. The common thread through many a literary sociopath is, as you may have noticed, that they have extremely evil-sounding names. Sociopaths in fiction are often intended to either appeal to readers’ fantasies that good and bad could be so easy to identify in real life, or are so absurdly riddled with diabolical clichés that they are parodies of themselves (like the pantheon of villains in Pynchon’s and Heller’s comic masterpieces, or Jasper Fforde’s Acheron Hades, who explains in his memoir, “Degeneracy for Pleasure and Profit,” that the “best reason for committing loathsome and detestable acts – and let’s face it, I am considered something of an expert in the field – is purely for their own sake.”)
But there is something far more understated, and sinister, about Iago as a villain. Like Zoe Heller’s Barbara Covett from Notes on a Scandal, Daphne Du Maurier’s Mrs. Danvers, or perhaps even Brontë’s Heathcliff, the real evil that Iago inflicts is upon the people to whom he is closest. He is the godfather of villains who rot from the inside out.
Destroying those to whom one is closest reeks of a certain sort of motivelessness. Kevin Frazier, in his excellent essay on A.C. Bradley here at The Millions, points to the following discussion of Iago from Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy:
To ‘plume up the will’, to heighten the sense of power or superiority—this seems to be the unconscious motive of many acts of cruelty which evidently do not spring chiefly from ill-will, and which therefore puzzle and sometimes horrify us most. It is often this that makes a man bully the wife or children of whom he is fond. The boy who torments another boy, as we say, ‘for no reason’, or who without any hatred for frogs tortures a frog … So it is with Iago. His thwarted sense of superiority wants satisfaction.
What strikes me most about this passage is that the examples chosen for being akin to Iago’s cruelty suggest that Iagoesque cruelty is almost commonplace. Horrifying though it is, there is nothing particularly rare or exotic about a man bullying a wife or child, or about thwarted superiority craving satisfaction. The implication is that it might not be such a mystery why Iago’s victims line up so willingly to be abused. Likewise, there might be nothing so superhuman about Iago’s power to abuse them. From Katherine Dunn’s sublime novel Geek Love, the following description of Arturo Binewski, the book’s megalomaniacal villain, struck me as pure, undifferentiated Iago: “He seems to have no sympathy for anyone, but total empathy.”
Empathy is a curious source of power. Relatively speaking, it is unglamorous in the extreme – it is of the sort best suited to Dostoevsky’s contention in Crime and Punishment that “Power is only given to those who dare to lower themselves and pick it up.” Far more than any sheer irresistibility, the ingratiating, servile role Iago must steadfastly play for both Desdemona and Othello is the key to his seductiveness. Othello the Venetian general might be a natural leader, but Iago cannot be puppet master without being puppet himself. He succeeds as long as he does solely because the near-sightedness of his victims prevent them from asking – not “why would he lie?” but – “why doesn’t he have any life of his own?”
3. How I Picture Iago When He Is Off-Stage
In Geek Love, while attempting to gain total control over his family, Arturo Binewski starts bugging the room of his sisters Iphy and Elly. Reports his documentarian Norval:
I find this depressing. The idea of Arty sitting and listening to hour after hour of footsteps, pages turning, toilet flushing, comb running through hair. Elly’s conversation has been reduced to the syllable mmmmmm and Iphy is not in the mood for song. Her piano is covered with dust … and Arty is listening to her file her nails.
4. A Comic Detour
That villainy can be pathetic is a well-explored contradiction in fiction. Brett Easton Ellis’ oddly beloved misanthrope and American Psycho Patrick Bateman and his ilk suffer from the incurable disadvantage of being impossible to take seriously. Their particular breed of literary sociopath consists, perhaps naturally, of comic characters, because there is something so pathetic about hating absolutely everyone. Grandiose ambitions aside, these characters are as paralyzed by issues as Phillip Roth’s Portnoy, and just about as menacing. In Sartre’s darkly funny “Erostratus,” the narrator sends out over a hundred letters announcing the following:
I suppose you might be curious to know what a man can be like who does not love men. Very well, I am such a man, and I love them so little that soon I am going out and killing half a dozen of them; perhaps you might wonder why only half a dozen? Because my revolver only has six cartridges. A monstrosity, isn’t it? And moreover, an act strictly impolitic?
Now, there is a relationship between the extent to which someone declares themselves to be a particular thing, and the extent to which he or she actually is that thing – and that relationship is plainly inverse. The comic sociopaths are so desperate to be taken seriously that they can never be taken seriously, and so fumbling and impotent in their attempts that you know they will only get themselves into trouble.
Returning now to Othello and the genre of tragedy, if you subtract the comedic element from being pathetic, who are you left with?
5. The Regular Joe
I suppose I always knew I’d arrive here at the end.
Dunn gets here first, of course. In one of Geek Love’s final notes on Arturo, his documentarian writes:
General opinion about Arty varies, from those who see him as a profound humanitarian to those who view him as a ruthless reptile. I myself have held most of the opinions in this spectrum at one time or another … however, I come to see him as just a regular Joe – jealous, bitter, possessive, competitive, in a constant frenzy to disguise his lack of self-esteem, drowning in deadly love, and utterly unable to prevent himself from gorging on the coals of hell in his search for revenge.
What Dunn so evocatively indicates is that the trick to the complexity of characters such as Arturo is that there is no complexity. The documentarian’s final notes on him ring of disgust upon making this discovery – self-disgust, and perhaps even a little disgust for his subject.
Likewise, we build a labyrinth of motive and mythology around Iago because for all of his manipulation and the epic destruction it causes, we believe – or hope – he must be a monster. We are wont to compare him to the vilest of both real world and fictional sociopaths. We resist stripping away at him, knowing we will be sorely disappointed by what we find underneath.
Kathy wrote in with this question:Our book club is focusing on books made into movies. We read fiction, no murder mysteries. I would like to keep either the book or the movie fairly current. Beloved is as far back as I would like to go. I thought about Wonder Boys and then heard The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is now a movie. We read Homecoming so we will probably do The Reader. My idea about books to movies is to compare the two mediums so I suppose the movie adaptation would not have to be topnotch.Three of our contributors had some recommendations for Cathy. We’ll start with Emily, who covers both fiction and memoir:The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: This beautiful, lyrical movie, directed by American painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, was based on a 1995 memoir written by the French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby. Bauby was 43 and the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine when he suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma. When Bauby awoke from the coma, he could only move was his left eyelid. His memoir, from which Schnabel’s movie takes its name, was written using the French language frequency-ordered alphabet. An assistant slowly recited the special alphabet (the letters ordered by frequency of use in French) over and over again, and Bauby blinked when the assistant reached the correct letter. He wrote his book letter by letter, blink by blink, composing the whole in his head. The memoir recounts both the anguish of being locked inside a corpse (the diving bell of the title), and the liberating pleasures of the imagination (the butterfly) that allowed Bauby to escape the confines of his prison-like body. Schnabel’s movie is breathtaking – one of the most visually lush, visceral film experiences I’ve had in a long time. It is also a testament to the power of the imagination.Oscar and Lucinda (1988 novel by the Australian novelist Peter Carey, also the winner of the Booker Prize for that year; 1997 film adaptation by Gillian Armstrong with Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchette): This is another beautiful movie, and though I haven’t read this novel of Carey’s, I loved Jack Maggs and The True History of the Kelly Gang. Oscar and Lucinda is the story of Oscar Hopkins (Fiennes), a young Anglican priest, and Lucinda Leplastrier (Blanchette), a young Australian heiress who buys a glass factory. These two lonely eccentrics meet sailing to Australia and discover that they are both obsessive and gifted gamblers. The crux of the story concerns the transportation of a glass church made in Lucinda’s factory in Sydney to a remote settlement in New South Wales. Carey’s novel was influenced by the 1907 memoir Father and Son by the literary critic and poet Edmund Gosse. Gosse’s book recounts his painful relationship with his father, the self-taught naturalist and fundamentalist minister, Philip Henry Gosse. Gosse Sr. is the model for Oscar’s father.This Boy’s Life (1989 novel/autobiography by Tobias Wolff; 1993 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Barkin, and Robert De Niro). Wolff’s memoir of his growing up is by turns funny and horrifying and very much in the tradition of Gatsby-esque self-reinvention. The book follows the wanderings of adolescent narrator and main character, Toby Wolff (who, inspired by Jack London, changes his name to Jack) and his hapless mother (who has a thing for abusive, damaged men). After an itinerant existence driving around the country (usually fleeing or in search of one of his mother’s bad-news boyfriends), Jack and his mother settle in Chinook, Washington where Jack’s mother marries Dwight. Dwight (De Niro in the film) turns out to be a vicious, tyrannical bastard once Jack and his mother are settled into his household. Wolff’s prose is strong, lean, and unsparing and De Niro, Barkin, and DiCaprio all give impressive performances in the adaptation.For another excellent film/novel pair also in the dysfunctional family vein (and also starring Leonardo DiCaprio), check out Peter Hedges’ 1991 novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Hedges wrote a screenplay version of the novel for Lasse Hallstrom’s 1993 adaptation, starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Lewis. The cinematography by the legendary Sven Nykvist is spectacular, as is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the mentally challenged Arnie (he earned an Oscar nod for it). For a third paring in this vein, consider Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running With Scissors, and the excellent film version of the same name (with Brian Cox, Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Gwenyth Paltrow, and Evan Rachel Wood). Finally, for an English book/movie take on the eccentric/dysfunctional family, there’s Dodie Smith’s novel I Capture the Castle and the film version of the same name (with Bill Nighy and the lovely Romola Garai, who is also in the film version of Atonement).If you’re in the mood for American Beauty-esque lambasting of the American dream, consider Revolutionary Road (movie) or Little Children (movie). Both film versions star the gifted Kate Winslet, and both tell the tales of the sadness and frustration hidden away in grand colonial homes surrounded by green lawns and picket fences. Little Children also features a smashing book group discussion scene. The book under discussion is Madame Bovary and if one wanted a primary and a secondary text to read alongside the movie, Flaubert’s novel might make a nice complement. For a third slightly different take on the deceptions of American family life, consider David Cronenberg’s deeply disturbing and violent (but masterful) A History of Violence (2005), based on the 1997 graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke. The movie stars Maria Bello, Viggo Mortensen, and Ed Harris.Possibly my favorite adaptation of a novel is the late Anthony Mingella’s 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel. Its ensemble cast – Cate Blanchette, Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Matt Damon – is one of the finest ever assembled, and the tale is a darker version of Gatsby myth: Tom Ripley, played by Matt Damon in the movie, decides that he wants the leisured life of his rich friend Dickie Greenleaf, no matter what the cost. Tom’s worshipful longing for well-made clothes and objects, travel, culture – a charmed, leisured life – is a kind of strange love story, and one of the most affecting and infectious depictions of desire I know. You want Tom to win even as he reveals himself to be utterly amoral and self-interested. Mingella’s reading of his source text gives Highsmith’s book a more tragic cast than I found the novel to have, and it also draws out homosexual undercurrents that I think Highsmith was more subtle about, but his version is just as captivating as the original. The movie is also a gorgeous period piece – necessary for a story about the irresistible power of material beauty and comfort.Don’t be put off by the title of this last one: Wristcutters: A Love Story. This 2007 movie directed by Goran Dukic is based on a short story called “Kneller’s Happy Campers” by the Israeli writer Etgar Keret (available in translation in the collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God and Other Stories). Basically, it’s about where you go after you commit suicide. But it’s not gothic or heavy-handed or overdone. The place that you go is pretty much like our world, only slightly cruddier and more run down – kinda how I imagine things were in Soviet states (scarcity, disrepair). After committing suicide, Zia (Patrick Fugit) finds himself in this world and befriends fellow suicide and former Russian punk band member Eugene (played by Shea Whigham), whose character is modeled on Gogol Bordello front man Eugene Hutz. Zia hears a rumor that his former girlfriend has also committed suicide and so is now in their alternate world, and Zia sets out to find her, accompanied by Eugene. Their adventures include an encounter with a self-proclaimed messiah (played by Will Arnett, GOB from “Arrested Development”) and another with a quasi-magical camp leader (played by Tom Waits). There’s a touch of Beckett about this movie, but there’s also something quietly humane and understated about it. It’s refreshing to see the afterlife imagined in such mundane terms.Lydia offers three movies she prefers over the books they were based on and two books she believes were done disservice by the movies made about them:
The English Patient – It is not Michael Ondaatje’s fault that Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas are basically the dreamiest couple possible. Maybe it’s because I saw the movie first, but I wasn’t as thrilled about the book. I know a number of people who completely freak out over Michael Ondaatje, but I completely freak out over tans and taciturnity.I have read that people take issue with the movie version of Schindler’s List because it, in its Spielberg way, glamorizes The Holocaust. I get this, because I think he made, in a weird way, such an intensely watchable film; it does follow a traditional Hollywood arc, and sometimes I find myself thinking, “Oh hey, I’d like to watch Schindler’s List,” just as I might think, “It’s been a while since I watched High Fidelity.” That’s kind of weird. But it is an incredible story, and I think that the performances of Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley (if you want to see range, by the way, watch this, then Gandhi, then Sexy Beast), are absolutely magnificent. The book is not particularly well-written, but it got the job done.Speaking of poorly written books that make great films, did you read The Godfather? Remember the tasteful subplot wherein the lady is always on the hunt for well-endowed gentleman because of a rather startling aspect of her physiology? How surprising that Francis Ford Coppola chose not to include that pivotal plot point. Jesus.Possession – This movie is a joke, which was disappointing because the novel is so wonderful. Whatever it is that is between Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart is the opposite of chemistry. It’s like giblets removed from a chicken, sitting coldly in their bag.Brideshead Revisited – Why someone would think it necessary to improve upon Waugh, and then Jeremy Irons, is beyond me. Everyone is very pretty in this movie. That is all that can be said on the matter.And Edan rounds things out with a pair of picks:Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson – I love this collection of loosely-linked short stories because it manages to be simultaneously masterful and raw, and because the drug use in the book doesn’t feel cliched, but instead weird and terrible and sometimes wonderful. The narrator of these stories is known as Fuckhead (played in the film by Billy Crudup), and all of these stories pay witness to moments of lucidity and beauty in a world that is otherwise incoherent and uncaring. The movie, I think, does the same. It also highlights the humor of the book: for instance, Jack Black takes Georgie, the pill-popping hospital orderly from “Emergency,” to a whole other level. Other cast members include Samantha Morton, Helen Hunt, Dennis Hopper, and even a cameo by Miranda July! It would be fun to discuss how the film takes on the adaptation of an entire collection, rather than a single story, which is a more common practice.Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller – This novel is darkly funny and disturbing, and the story is told in a series of diary entries by dowdy high school teacher Barbara Covett (played in the film by Dame Judi Dench), who befriends colleague Sheba Hart (played by Cate Blanchett), and becomes privy to Sheba’s extramarital affair with one of her students. I absolutely loved this novel, but felt ambivalent about the movie, which has a much more serious tone – probably because it loses Barbara’s wicked commentary on the world around her. It also focuses heavily on Barbara’s lesbian obsession with Sheba – in a way that screams obvious, even campy. Still, the film has been lauded by many, and the upsetting aspects of the book are even more so when watched on screen rather than imagined. (And, plus, Cate Blanchett’s cheekbones alone are worth watching for 2 hours.)If you have any suggestions, let us know in the comments. Thanks for the question Kathy!
Zoë Heller’s new novel, The Believers, is an enormously entertaining and sharply observed story about the Litvinoff family in New York City. When father Joel, a famous radical leftist lawyer, suffers from a stroke and falls into a coma, his wife Audrey and his two grown daughters, Rosa and Karla, find themselves wrestling with revelations about his identity, and their own. Joseph O’Neill calls the novel, “A moving, intelligent look at intellectual loyalties – to ideology, religion, family–and the humans attached to them.” You can browse inside the book here.Zoë Heller is the author of two previous novels, Everything You Know and, What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal, which was shortlisted for the Mann Booker Prize in 2003.The Millions: Early in the book, Audrey’s friend Jean wonders if the whole Litvinoff family possesses a genetic “gift of conviction” (26). It’s an interesting idea, and throughout the novel we see the female members of the family – Audrey, Karla, and Rosa – grasping onto old or new beliefs, perhaps as a way to render their lives comprehensible, or meaningful. Were you playing with this idea from the beginning, or did it emerge as you wrote these characters’ lives?Zoë Heller: I think I always saw this book as a novel about people with a particular aptitude for faith. But the way in which these characters struggle to maintain their beliefs in the face of contradictory evidence is something most people have experienced at some point in their lives, I think.TM: Why did you decide to portray a famous family of leftists? How do their political beliefs shape not only who they are, but how they interact with one another? When you began, were you setting out to satirize leftist politics, or simply strong political beliefs in general?ZH: I don’t think my aim was to satirize the left. Actually, I don’t think my aim was satire, period. I wanted to write about the way in which beliefs of all kinds – political, religious, conservative, progressive – operate on their adherents. The novel focuses on a family of leftists, largely I think because that is the political culture with which I am personally familiar, but it also deals with a number of other beliefs: Orthodox Judaism, the rigid ideas the characters have about themselves and their relationships. And so on.TM: One of the most fascinating parts of the book is Rosa’s interest in Orthodox Judaism, and her struggle to understand what she believes. She is resistant to the religion’s tenets, and yet, defends them to her atheist mother. Why did you decide to explore this world, and why did you place Rosa in this conflict?ZH: I think of Rosa as a woman with a particular susceptibility to grand theories of everything. When one God (revolutionary socialism) fails for her, it is only a matter of time before she finds another grand, ideological system (Judaism) to replace it. I am not a religious person, but I wanted to try to write sympathetically about a person finding religion and to point up some of the similarities between political and religious faith.TM: You’re British but you live and write in New York. Most of the characters in your book, aside from Audrey (who is English), are American, and you capture their varying voices and habits of speech with great accuracy – and humor, too. The myriad voices in your novel reminded me of On Beauty, by Zadie Smith, another British writer with a similar gift for rendering speech on the page. As a Briton among Americans, do you find yourself particularly sensitive to the ways in which people in the U.S. communicate? What went into capturing these characters’ speech habits on the page?ZH: I don’t think my immigrant status has much to do with my interest in how people talk. I’m just as interested in the speech mannerisms and dialects of my fellow Britons. Dialogue is the most purely enjoyable part of writing a novel, I think.TM: The novel begins in 1962, when Audrey and Joel meet in London. On the first page we are introduced to “a young woman” standing alone at the window – this woman happens to be Audrey. After reading further in the book, I was curious about this initial anonymity. Why did you decide to precede the story (the rest of which takes place in 2002) with this early history? What does this courtship tell us about Joel and Audrey?ZH: I wrote the Prologue partly because I wanted to show the reader the political climate and culture in which Audrey and Joel started out together. More important, I wanted the reader to get a glimpse of Audrey as a vulnerable young woman, so that later on, when she was being monstrous, the reader might be able to muster some empathy for her. The other thing I was interested in showing was Joel and Audrey’s initial misprision of one another. Like a lot of relationships, theirs begins on mutually faulty assumptions. Joel thinks Audrey is an enormously cool and self-possessed woman; Audrey thinks Joel is a man of political virtue, offering her a role as his equal partner in the struggle. And of course, neither of these initial impressions turns out to be quite correct.TM: I read your book twice, and the second time it was totally accidental – I simply could not stop myself! Do you have anything to tell us about readability, about what makes a narrative wonderfully infectious?ZH: I don’t think I have anything useful to say about readability. I spent the greater part of my working life as a journalist and it’s possible, I guess, that writing for newspapers teaches you a certain succinctness.TM: And, since this is a book blog, I must ask you: What is the last great book you read?ZH: The last great book I read was an advance copy of Colm Toibin’s novel, Brooklyn. It is a beautifully rendered portrait of Brooklyn and provincial Ireland in the 1950s. It is also an astute and utterly unsentimental portrait of a young woman’s journey into adulthood. Toibin writes about women more convincingly, I think, than any other living, male novelist.
The publishing industry (and every other industry) may be going down the tubes, but readers won’t be wanting for good new books this year, I suspect. Readers will get their hands on new Pynchon, Atwood, Lethem, and Zadie Smith – those names alone would make for a banner year, but there’s much more. Below you’ll find, in chronological order, the titles we’re most looking forward to this year. (Garth penned a few of these little previews, where noted. And special thanks to members of The Millions Facebook group who let us know what they are looking forward to. Not everyone’s suggestions made our list but we appreciated hearing about all of them.)In February, T.C. Boyle returns again to his unique brand of historical fiction with The Women. The four women in question all loved famous architect (and eccentric) Frank Lloyd Wright. Given the time period and subject matter, this one may resemble Boyle’s earlier novel The Road to Wellville. PW says “It’s a lush, dense and hyperliterate book – in words, vintage Boyle.”Yiyun Li wowed quite a few readers with a pair of standout stories in the New Yorker last year, and all her fans now have her debut novel The Vagrants to look forward to. PW gave this one a starred review and called it “magnificent and jaw-droppingly grim.” Quite a combo. All signs point to Li being a writer to watch in 2009 and beyond.Out of My Skin by John Haskell: I like John Haskell’s writing a lot, and I like books about L.A., and so I think I’ll like John Haskell writing a novel about L.A. (Garth)Home Schooling by Carol Windley: This book of short stories set in the Pacific Northwest is certain to garner comparisons to that other Canadian, Alice Munro. (Garth)March brings Jonathan Littell’s very long-awaited novel The Kindly Ones. American readers have waited for an English translation since 2006, when the book was originally published in French. The German reviews for this Prix Goncourt winner were decidedly mixed, but I’m still intrigued to read this novel about an S.S. Officer. Literature, pulp, or kitsch? We’ll know soon enough. (Garth)Walter Mosley, best known for his Easy Rawlins mysteries, offers up The Long Fall, the first in a new series, the Leonid McGill mysteries. The new book is notable in the change of venue from Los Angeles, Mosley’s heretofore preferred fictional setting, to New York City. PW says Mosley “stirs the pot and concocts a perfect milieu for an engaging new hero and an entertaining new series.”In Castle by J. Robert Lennon, “A man buys a large plot of wooded land in upstate New York, only to find that someone has built a castle in the middle of it–and the castle is inhabited.” Intriguing, no? (That description is from Lennon’s website.) In related news, Lennon’s collection of stories Pieces for the Left Hand will be published also in March. It’ll be the book’s first U.S. edition.Mary Gaitskill’s 2005 novel Veronica was a National Book Award finalist. Now she’s back with Don’t Cry. The title story in this collection appeared in the New Yorker last year.I’ve already devoured Wells Tower’s debut collection Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. Tower’s eclectic style is on full display here. Some of these stories are masterful iterations in the New Yorker style, while others experiment with voice and style. The collection closes with the title story, his most well known, an ingenious tale of vikings gone plundering. Normally a debut collection wouldn’t merit much buzz, but readers have had their eye on Tower for years because of his impressive long-form journalism in Harper’s and elsewhere. (Tower also appeared in our Year in Reading this year.)Zoe Heller had a huge hit with What Was She Thinking in 2003. Her follow-up effort, The Believers arrives in March. PW gives it a starred review and says it “puts to pointed use her acute observations of human nature in her third novel, a satire of 1960s idealism soured in the early 21st century.” The book came out in the UK last year, so you can learn plenty more about this one if you are so inclined. Here’s the Guardian’s review for starters.April brings Colson Whitehead’s novel Sag Harbor, which jumped a few notches on many readers’ wish lists following the publication of an excerpt (registration required) in the New Yorker’s Winter Fiction issue. Based on that excerpt (and the publisher’s catalog copy), we are in store for a coming of age story about Benji, a relatively well-off African-American kid growing up in New York (and summering on Long Island) in the 1980s.Colm Toibin has a new novel coming in May called Brooklyn. This one looks to be a novel of immigration. From the catalog copy: “In a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the 1950s, Eilis Lacey is one among many of her generation who cannot find work at home. So when a job is offered in America, it is clear that she must go.”I’ve been following Clancy Martin’s How to Sell as it’s appeared in excerpts in NOON and McSweeney’s. The writing is terrific, funny, and disturbing: ripe for a Coen Brothers adaptation. (Garth)Summer reading season gets going in June with Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, which his publisher is calling “his most ambitious work to date.” This one sounds like it will look in on the lives of several disparate characters in New York city in the mid-1970s. Audio of McCann reading from the book is available at CUNY Radio.Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won tons of praise for Half of a Yellow Sun. Now she’s back with a collection of stories, The Thing Around Your Neck, likely including “The Headstrong Historian,” which appeared in the New Yorker last year.Monica Ali is back with her third novel, In the Kitchen. This one is based in London and apparently involves a murder at a hotel.July: William T. Vollmann is known for his superhuman writing output, but his forthcoming book Imperial is a monster, even for him. Weighing in at 1,296 pages and carrying a list price of $55, this work of non-fiction is “an epic study,” in the words of the publisher, of Imperial County, California. Ed offers quite a bit more discussion of the book. Don’t miss the comments, where it’s said that Vollmann has called the book “his Moby-Dick.”August: When the deliberate and reclusive Thomas Pynchon puts out a new book it’s a publishing event, and with Pynchon set to deliver a new book just three years after his last one, well, that’s like Christmas in July, er, August. This one is called Inherent Vice and its cover is already causing much speculation (and some consternation) among the Pynchon fans. Expect rumors about the book to be rife through the first part of the year. Pynchon’s publisher Penguin, meanwhile, has called it “part noir, part psychedelic romp, all Thomas Pynchon – private eye Doc Sportello comes, occasionally, out of a marijuana haze to watch the end of an era as free love slips away and paranoia creeps in with the L.A. fog.”The Amateur American by Joel Saunders Elmore: I have to mention this novel by my old friend Joel, sections of which I read in manuscript. Surreal yet propulsive, it has one of the sharpest opening lines I’ve ever read… assuming he kept the opening line. (Garth)September: Scarcely a year goes by without Philip Roth sending a new novel our way. Little is known about his forthcoming novel except the title The Humbling. Amazon UK’s listing for the book puts it at just 112 pages which seems like just an afternoon’s work for the prolific Roth. As Garth notes, his last two outings have been underwhelming but with Roth there’s always a chance of greatness.Kazuo Ishiguro’s collection of stories also comes out in the U.S. in September (though it will be out in much of the rest of the English-speaking world in May). The catalog copy calls Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall “a sublime story cycle” that “explores ideas of love, music and the passing of time.”Acclaimed novelist Margaret Atwood will have a new novel out in September called The Year of the Flood. There’s not much info on this except that it is being described as “a journey to the end of the world.”E.L. Doctorow has an as yet untitled novel on tap for September.As does Jonathan Lethem. According to Comic Book Resources, Lethem said his untitled novel is “set on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it’s strongly influenced by Saul Bellow, Philip K. Dick, Charles Finney and Hitchcock’s Vertigo and it concerns a circle of friends including a faded child-star actor, a cultural critic, a hack ghost-writer of autobiographies, and a city official. And it’s long and strange.” I like the sound of that.A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore’s first new novel in over a decade will arrive in September. The Bookseller sums up some of the excitement.October: You probably already know that Dave Eggers is working with Spike Jonze on a film version of Where the Wild Things Are, but did you know that Eggers is doing a novelization of the childrens classic too? It’s apparently called The Wild Things and will show up in October.Arriving at some point in late 2009 is Zadie Smith’s Fail Better. With her critical writing in The New York Review, Zadie Smith has quietly been making a bid to become the 21st Century Virginia Woolf. When she writes from her own experience as a novelist, she’s sublime; when projecting her own anxieties onto others, she’s less so. It will be interesting to see which Zadie Smith appears in this book of essays on books and writing. (Garth)We encourage you to share your own most anticipated books in the comments or on your own blogs. Happy Reading in 2009!
Hollywood has always poached stories from the republic of letters (not to mention Broadway and, increasingly, Nick at Nite), and some of the greatest movies of all time have started out as novels. Still, this year seems notable for the number of literary adaptations coming to the screen (see our earlier post). It strikes me that movies made from books can disappoint in two ways: first, by hewing too closely to the source material, and, second, by venturing too far afield from it. Either way, one’s reading of a book can be spoiled by seeing a movie first. Instead of E.L. Doctorow’s Dutch Schulz, one sees… Dustin Hoffmann. And then one has to live with an ugly paperback edition of Billy Bathgate, whose cover is basically a movie poster.The most successful adaptations, I think, take on a life of their own, using the source material as a springboard. And any time previews lead me to believe that one of these adaptations is in the offing, I try to read the book in a hurry, before heading to the theater.My strategy has been paying handsome dividends lately. First, I bumped Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men to the head of the reading queue, and discovered one of my favorite books of all time. So much of what makes this novel great – its voice – seems unlikely to translate to the screen, and so I’ve elected to skip the recent movie version, starring Sean (no relation) Penn. Even if the DVD is on your Netflix queue… read this book first!Less likely to stand the test of time, but still a wicked-fun read, was Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. This book, too, was voice-driven, introducing me to the nasty wit and sly machinations of schoolmarm Barbara Covett. The movie version, with Dame Judi Dench in the Covett role, wisely eschews some of the book’s narrative elements, finding cinematic equivalents instead. Through a masterful Dench performance and some judicious voice-over, the movie manages to convey much of the ironic tenor of Barbara’s internal monologue, while giving us more insight into Cate Blanchett’s character than Heller does in the book. Still, I’d recommend the novel Notes on a Scandal to anyone looking for a literary page-turner.This month’s Bookforum offers insight on yet another movie adaptation: that of Patrick Suskind’s Perfume. This bestselling German novel from the 80s features an antihero who relates to the world entirely through his olfactory glands, and would thus seem to be unfilmable. In their Bookforum interview, director Tom Tykwer and producer Bernd Eichinger discuss the difficulties of adaptation. “You cannot really put this novel into an existing structure for a film,” Eichinger says. “It’s not a genre movie, not a thriller, not a horror, not a love story. It’s truly bizarre and original.” Which is a fair description of Suskind’s novel, the story of an 18th-century murderer.
As Oscar season nears (and, no, it hasn’t started yet… If you think Hollywoodland (IMDb), The Last Kiss (IMDb), or The Black Dahlia (IMDb) are winning anything more than a best art direction award, you’re wrong), it’s time to start thinking about serious literary adaptations. This year is full of them, including Stephen Zaillian’s updated adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (IMDb). This should be a fine film, as Zaillian is a first rate screenwriter. Also of note, James Carville is listed as a producer on the film. In this interview from KCRW’s “The Business” Carville talks about how he got involved in the project. Naturally, it all started on the set of Old School (IMDb).Another adaptation of note in the coming months is Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal (IMDb), starring Cate Blanchett and Dame Judi Dench. It should be no surprise that Scott Rudin is executive producing the film, as he owns nearly every literary novel of the note from the last ten years. Check out his rather staggering IMDb page. Not only does he have the “eagerly anticipated” Kavalier and Clay (IMDb) and The Corrections (IMDb), he’s also grabbed the slightly more obscure “The Smoker” (IMDb) based on a short story from David Schickler’s Kissing in Manhattan. While most of these projects are listed as in development (meaning two people once discussed the idea over lunch), obviously Rudin has the clout to bring them to fruition. The list of films does lend credence to the idea that Rudin isn’t merely a “foul mouthed, phone hurling” scourge of assistants, he’s also a reader.
Edan and I once ran a book club together. Once a month we would guide our herd of readers through our most recent selection. Not all of them would read the book, but we didn’t mind. Our only rule was “no saddies allowed.”East of Eden (or, as I like to call it, East of Edan) by John Steinbeck – Finally, finally, I read this wonderful book and I’m so thankful. Steinbeck’s sprawling novel is an intergenerational story about one family, with occasional asides about Steinbeck-the-narrator’s family. There’s much here about the nature of destiny, what is and isn’t inherited, and the problem of monsters. The story births other smaller, connected stories, and the shifting point of view is downright brave. It’s the kind of novel which gives permission for new, better novels to be written.What Was She Thinking?: Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller – This British novel is narrated by an older, embittered high school teacher named Barbara Covett, who’s writing a tell-all about her coworker Sheba, who has had an affair with her high school student. Barbara is a terrific narrator: she’s got an unflinching gaze and she’s damn funny. This book is both smart and character-driven, as well as being a quick, entertaining read.Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore – Okay. So I’m not going to hide it: I love Lorrie Moore; she’s one of my favorite living short story writers. This svelte novel moves back and forth between the narrator’s ailing marriage (and their trip to Paris), and an intense friendship the narrator had as a teenaged girl. The present story is characteristic Moore: comic, wry, with metaphors that will make you squeal with delight. The retrospective story is more lyrical and personal–a wonderful depiction of youth and all its confusion and devotion. This is a flawed book, but a beautiful one.
Some time during the month of December, squeezed in between the eggnog and the marathon sessions at malls swollen with frantic shoppers, I hope everyone has a moment or two to reflect on the last year. And as you are reflecting, I hope you set aside another, smaller moment to think about some of the great books you’ve read in the past year. I’ve asked several readers of The Millions to do some reflecting, and the results have begun to pour in. Over the next days and weeks, I’ll be sprinkling these reflections throughout The Millions for your enjoyment. Pay close attention because some of these folks may become regular contributors to The Millions in the coming months. If you want to join in the fun, email me and tell me what the best book you read this year was. Today, we’ll start things off with a couple of Canadians. Andrew Saikali (a new contributor here at The Millions).Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski – the first book I read by him and the book that single-handedly changed the way I think of non-fiction books. A collection of journalistic notes and descriptions of historical photos, assembled in such an extraordinary way that the reader gets a complete and provocative impression of the atmosphere and revolutionary mind-set leading up to the fall of the Shah.Also weighing in is Roy Santin, another reader from north of the border.My pick of the year is Zoe Heller’s What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal (excerpt), shortlisted for the Man Booker prize 2003- it’s very juicy, verging on nasty gossip, coming across as a very light insignificant thing that was tossed out, but actually is a very deep and thoughtful meditation on contemporary society both in our personal communities of family and friends and wider social trends. It’s also an interesting meditation on communication, intention and conflicting interests. It’s a lot of fun, with significant intimations on important issues.Stay tuned for more reflections coming soon.