Where I Was From

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A Year in Reading: Ismail Muhammad

I’d never been inside of
a prison until this past spring, when I received a grant to teach a creative
writing workshop at the Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall facility. This meant
driving every Tuesday morning for two months to Martinez, California, a sleepy
city to Oakland’s north, until I arrived at a squat, nondescript beige building
set off from the street by oak trees and a huge visitor parking lot that was
always full. Usually I parked on the street, which extended on into the
distance until it curved around into a residential neighborhood—California
ranches, two car garages, various shades of beige and gray. From the
neighborhood, not a single aspect of the prison was visible.

The strip mall parking
lot aside, the juvenile hall was an unassuming element of the neighborhood: it
featured a boxy modernist design, a pleasant little courtyard just out front,
and a sleek glass façade. If not for the signage indicating that I had indeed
stumbled upon a prison, I would have assumed I was walking into the local high
school, with its boxy Modernist structure, pleasant courtyard, and glass
façade.

The interior trashed that
illusion. When I arrived for a February meeting with prison authorities to
discuss the workshop’s logistics, a security guard barked at me from behind
bulletproof glass—rules required that I trade my driver’s license for a guest
badge. I felt a vague, animal discomfort about the exchange. The prison
librarian, a woman about my age whose easy smile and buoyant personality calmed
my nerves, arrived in the lobby and ushered me into the facility’s innards. The
prison revealed itself to be a seemingly endless labyrinth of identically spare
white cinderblock hallways leading to unmarked doors that opened up onto yet
more cinderblock hallways. There was little signage indicating what turns took
you where, but the librarian kept a quick pace. She whipped her away suddenly
around corners without much warning; I scampered after her. My shoes slipped about
on concrete floors so polished that I could almost see my reflection in them. I
wondered whether, if left to fend for myself, I’d ever find my way back out.
What would happen if a security guard caught me wandering the halls, if he
didn’t see my badge?

The librarian and I
chatted the entire way, about how excited the students were to meet me, how
relieved they were to encounter somebody new, how much they were looking
forward to writing. We approached one of the doors; the librarian stopped dead
in her tracks, but didn’t stop talking. I must have looked confused; “We have
to wait for the guards to open the door,” she explained. We stood for a few
seconds before a voice boomed from out of a speaker I could not find. “Tell him
to show his badge,” someone commanded. Startled, I lifted the badge from my
chest, offering it to a camera I knew was there but could not see.

We walked through, into
the prison’s center, and were immediately met by a group of boys, marching
slowly down yet another cinderblock hall. Something about their bodies—the
limited range and uniformity of their movements, the way they shuffled their
feet instead of lifting them from the ground, the way their heads bent so that
their faces were nearly parallel to the buffed concrete—was off. It took me a
few seconds to process what I was seeing: black and brown teenage boys being
marched single file by a CO, their hands and feet shackled to a single chain. They
appeared younger than I had imagined, their faces puffy with baby fat. Not a
single one of them looked older than 19, and when they lifted their heads,
their eyes met mine with a mix of hatred and shame.

That day, I left the
prison with sadness and doubt swirling in my gut.  What was my presence in that place and with
those boys meant to do? Was I just legitimizing the prison’s dehumanization of
black and brown youth? I had volunteered for the workshop out of some hazy
notion that I’d change how marginalized youth thought about their world, give
them the tools to represent their own lives via story. But the sight of those
shackles made my vision seem flimsy in comparison.

My experience in the prison sent me on a yearlong search for literature with the heft of reality—not of this reality, but another one, to remind myself that writing could conjure entirely worlds altogether different from the one I’d encountered in the prison. Before the first workshop session, I sent my students a poem—“Alternate Names for Black Boys,” a stand out from Danez Smith’s 2014 book [insert] boy, which I had read that spring upon the recommendation of an artist friend. Smith’s poetry feels religious in essence, in the way it insists that there has to be another world beyond this one, where black bodies are imprisoned, shot, choked out, electrocuted, subject to an endless series of horrors. There has to be another world, they insist, and we have to make it, together. In the poem “Poem Where I Be & You Just Might,” Smith writes: “God’s flaming eye, I stare into it always/Dying to blink, irises cracking like commandment stones.” Their language is incredibly visceral, urging the reader on to this bodily encounter with the divine—an encounter we can only begin to envision through communion with one another—moved me to tears when I first read [insert] boy. I’d hoped that my class, a gathering of black and brown boys, would find it an appropriate starting point for our workshop.

Smith sent me on a poetry bender, as I’m wont to do during the summers. Simone White’s Dear Angel of Death was my biggest summer obsession: it’s a patience-testing monster of a book that blends essay and poetry in order to rethink the prominence that music enjoys in African American studies. Smith is interested in how the tightknit relationship between a mostly male-dominated jazz canon constructs a strain of black studies that conflates “feeling black” with an immersion in black music. For her, this intellectual legacy forecloses some larger questions about blackness, and leads us to automatically associate any black music with radical black resistance. Her prose—audacious, often moving in two directions at once, infused with the ethos of the black vernacular, informed by hip hop culture but never succumbing to sentimentality about the music—is never less than riveting. Turning her attention to the rapper Future’s 2015 song “I Serve the Base”—an ode to being an unrepentant scumbag—Smith is decisive: undue commitment to music as an object of black study leads us to excuse a music that will serve “Whatever you want … for money, for a nihilistic, endlessly repetitive and narcotized kind of peace … the call to recede into the persona of whatever it is one serves.”

Jasmine Gibson’s Don’t Let Them See Me Like This was also impressive. It’s a poetry collection that manages to be simultaneously tender and incisively political. In “Electric Wizard,” she writes, “In which panel do I get to be Fred Moten or/Frantz Fanon, so that you can think my words are pretty too?//I want myself against everything/Stay there and be burned into the mind/Into the mind,” and I love the way that third line turns on a minute shift, from trenchant disdain for a world built on white supremacy into something like desire, the will to be “against everything,” as Mark Greif would have it, turning into the yearning for bodily proximity. For me, the collection’s incessant flitting between anger and sensuality destabilized what it means to undertake a radical politics, moving us away from a hardened antagonism and into something more receptive: an attention to the sensuality of black bodies, and all the ways they can be in the world.

I read plenty of good prose, too, that spoke to that sense of possibility. Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man is a collection of short fiction so masterful that you can’t help but put the book down to marvel at the architecture of his language. Brinkley’s virtue is that he doesn’t settle for merely representing black life (a black Greek party soundtracked by Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s “Brooklyn Zoo,” for example); instead, he uses fiction as a space in which to reveal the sense of enchantment that undergirds black life. By the end of “No More Than a Bubble,” Brinkley managed to make me think so deeply about the series of performances known collectively as “black masculinity” that he made me reconsider what the short story form is capable of. Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy performs similar alchemy, drawing our attention to the physical experience of black masculinity. Laymon asks us to think about what happens when black male bodies fail to mirror the images that the American cultural imaginary is always comparing us to. In doing so, he has also written an aesthetically gorgeous bildungsroman of the assorted tragedies, affections, and traditions that turned him into a writer.

There was so much more that I read and enjoyed this year. I’m a Californian, and it delighted me to no end to see an outpouring of literature by and about fellow Californians. There were a few highlights for me. Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State is at once a hilarious examination of poor white culture in Northern California’s far flung rural counties, and a harrowing portrait of single motherhood. Kiesling’s juxtaposition of motherhood and an incipient political crisis seems to equate the governance of tantrum-throwing Californians with the raising of tantrum-throwing children. Vanessa Hua’s A River of Stars is a vivid portrait of an urban community of immigrants. Wandering City Lights Books in San Francisco over the summer, I found a copy of Wanda Coleman’s Native in A Strange Land, a collection of prose poems and short stories about Los Angeles that evoke the loneliness, but also the enchantment, of being black in a city that has normalized alienation. Joan Didion’s Where I Was From made me reflect on my family’s scant presence in the state, such that I can’t think of California as a place that I’m from so much as a place that I ended up via a few historical aberrations: my maternal grandparents’ decisions to abandon Louisiana so they could become shipbuilders down at San Pedro.

More than anything else that I read this year, those two books made me appreciate the unlikeliness of my black life here in this golden state—the persistence and tenacity that preceded me and resulted in my being here at all. It’s a lesson that, after walking out of that prison, I needed to relearn.

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A Year in Reading: Emma Hager

1.A week before the Camp Fire raged through Butte County and decimated a little town called Paradise, I sat on the edge of Lake Tahoe, reading, until the sun went down. That evening the sun grew round and pink in the sky, and as it swelled, it turned the clouds pastel, too, and made a rosy blanket out of the lake’s surface. Usually the wind picks up at sunset and the water heaves against the shore’s pebbled incline. But as I sat there, looking east to the peaks of the Sierra Nevada, the air was eerily still, even ominous. I thought it miraculous that our state had made it out of one of the most vicious legs of fall unscathed.

That evening was too miraculous to last. The long week of the fires, masks were donned as defense against toxic air. Texts and calls accumulated, from family and friends, either inquiring about the blazes or noting the destruction they had caused in their lives, or the lives of those who were special to them. Coworkers and passersby buzzed with nervous inquiries about what’s to become of this state. I’ve noticed a decline in the amount of hope people are willing to wrangle out of the maxim that the uncertainty of California’s future is the only certain thing about it.

Autumn in California has always felt existential, the grave threat of wildfires aside. The light shifts and my mood shifts with it, toward melancholy. I lean on books about the state or the American West or the “frontier” — that confused, cruel place! — and often resort to rereading a select few. This year was no different. (If anything, the impulse seemed more exaggerated since I resumed probing my family’s pioneer past.) And on the shore of Lake Tahoe that evening, I had beside me Joan Didion’s mournful but resolute Where I Was From. “The redemptive power of the crossing,” Didion writes of pioneers’ journey westward, “was the fixed idea of the California settlement, and one that raised a further question: for what exactly, and at what cost, had one been redeemed?”

Didion does not pose such questions with the hope that they’ll be answered. Instead, they’re a useful means of illuminating a consequence of turning places into ideas: fraught histories, and to some degree catastrophic natural disasters, get flattened out in spells of obsession. But even Didion, who demonstrates a grating awareness to the ways in which overdetermined relationships to geographies are formed, is not fully immune to the urge. In this way, Where I Was From fits comfortably into the long tradition of texts that seek to touch the weight of the West, California included — only to come up with dead ends and futile object lessons. Perhaps this might always be a symptom of writing sacrament into the land, or the less successful project of seeking to untangle one from the other.

Still, this shared and unrelenting ambition to confront the ineffable seems unity enough. My consideration of Didion’s insoluble questions about settler redemption cast new light on Willa Cather’s brimming masterpiece of a novel, My Antonia (1918), and Mary Austin’s stunning collection of lyric essays, The Land of Little Rain (1903), both of which were autumn rereads. It is equally easy to be seduced by the prose styles of Cather and Austin — each singularly beautiful, but similarly tender and sure — and thus to read these works solely for the aesthetic rush. But behind the bewitching descriptions of billowing prairie grasses and deep, desolate valleys is the pang of something more sorrowful, if not entirely sinister. These texts don’t have the relative advantage of historical distance, yet monumental atrocity haunts both, its effects delivered through key absences — mostly of Native Americans, unless they appear as quiet relics or in the form of landmark names — and the glaring implications of the rhetoric of forged possibility.

Eula Biss articulates the compounded factors of the American West better than I can, though, in her astonishing book Notes from No Man’s Land. Over 13 essays she examines the potent and enabling mixture of racism, selective memory, and downright delusion that continues to make the frontier idea feasible. I reread the title essay at least once a week this fall, each time in awe of Biss’s ability, through vignettes and telling details, to identify modern offshoots of the pioneers’ “hostile fantasy” — that grave “mistake of considering an inhabited place uninhabited.”

In the wake of California’s apocalyptic blazes, I suspect there’s some contemporary form of this fantasy at play, too. A form that, despite the new and intransigent reality of a prolonged Fire Season, still indulges an idea of misplaced resilience as a justification for business as usual. I’m curious to see how the next generation of California writers will toggle between depicting our new reality (perversely beautiful descriptions of flames aplenty) and tending the mythologies of our state that keep us all marching onward, toward infinity.

2.When I graduated from university earlier this year it felt like I was foreclosing on some other kind of infinity. Aside from the idea that I was to be endowed with a few practical skills along the way, my undergraduate education largely revolved around the selfish cultivation of my intellectual curiosity. I spent four years reading various works of literature before discussing them with any number of encouraging professors, whom I idolized. Everything about this loop of artificial circumstances felt limitless, and giving it up was sobering. But it was not until doing so that I realized how transactional college had made my relationship to reading. There was always the underlying pressure to read better, smarter, and more rigorously—not to mention the relative impossibility of applying such a careful practice to the handful of novels that had to be read each week. Because I am naive, few aspects of leaving college felt as revelatory as coming to terms with my altered relationship to books.

I thus spent the months just after graduation freshly falling under reading’s spell. I would go to work, then go for a swim, then cancel plans so that I could curl up with a book on some grassy knoll with a view of the Bay, in the light’s remaining hours. And, as if an immediate prompting from the gods, Between Friends: The Collected Letters of Hannah Arendt and Mary McCarthy — a book over which I’d been in a semester-long Library-Hold War — became mine for more than a week. (In one letter, Arendt deems a scarf gifted from McCarthy too beautiful to be a “use-object,” and I suggest you read the collection just for moments like that.) Because it was the letters’ perfect complement, I finally finished Deborah Nelson’s Tough Enough, which is a dazzlingly smart and persuasive examination of several female intellectuals who, at least rhetorically, took no prisoners. Naturally this called for a rereading of Renata Adler’s perfect and hilarious novel Speedboat and a first galavant with n+1’s pamphlet, No Regrets, which features several discussions between women writers about reading in their 20s. Wisdom abounds in this delightful little book on topics like unusual author pairings and navigating first encounters with theory. But the conversations that both challenge collegiate obligations to the “boy canon,” and also the “oughts” of disciplined reading, were of particular comfort to me during my postgraduate limbo.

Regardless, there was still the plan, during those lulling summer months, to finally conquer George Eliot’s Middlemarch because the novel is Important. The conquering was to be done with a friend, also a recent graduate, who lived in Rhode Island. Through June and July he sent clever messages about his progress with the book until he finished it entirely. I disappointingly did neither. But what I did do — that is, fully immerse myself in the world of newly published fiction for the first time — was mostly a joyous and worthwhile experience.  

I read Ottessa Moshfegh’s pithy and conniving My Year of Rest and Relaxation. Then there was Andrew Martin’s enviably precise debut Early Work, which seems the blueprint for a certain kind of LRB-reading, late-millennial milieu. Ling Ma’s Severance is a dynamic and intriguing courting of the old “goodbye to all that” adage, though here it gets an update, you might say, with the onset of apocalypse, epidemic, and the ills of late capitalism. And I enjoyed Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, not least for the author’s near-philosophical treatment of an affair between a young, intellectually ambitious editorial assistant and a decaying, Roth-like writer. These books, with the exception of Moshfegh’s, join a host of recently published works whose plots are driven, in part, by the demands of literary production and the apprehensions they generate. More interesting still is the overarching trend in characterization: fictional attributes seem to emerge almost exclusively through the real-world connotations of cultural objects and of industries, rather than through descriptive language. This year novels and memes appear to have functions in common.

I found the fiction-as-snapshot tendency compelling, but R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries was a refreshing departure from the above works. It’s a stunning novel. The author’s ability to maintain such a streamlined style while fostering her characters’ unique perspectives is nothing short of alchemy. I feel similarly enthusiastic about Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State, which I regret reading in a sitting because I didn’t want it to end. This debut is a welcome modernization of the California novel because it seamlessly challenges all the genre’s mentioned absences, and also makes room for literary documentation of parenting’s tediousness. And while the contemporary and its objects loom large in Keith Gessen’s A Terrible Country—Russian politics, Facebook, and the grim academic job market all make cameos—I ardently devoured this book and reveled in the presence of its narrative arc, a construction that feels rarer and rarer.

Sheila Heti’s Motherhood yielded the most obliterating reading experience of the summer. I picked up a copy the weekend my family was in town for my department commencement, and in between the hours we’d spend together, I’d sneak away to read bits of it. The book’s central question is outwardly simple: Should or shouldn’t the writer-protagonist have a baby? But what transpires from this question is a profound and expansive engagement with all the ways one can be a mother, or a child. In a later chapter titled “PMS,” our narrator wrestles with her mother’s own parenting orientation. That is, how the narrator’s mother “lived her life turned towards her mother,” and not towards her offspring.

I clung tightly to this articulation of a life turned backwards, of a life lived for one’s mother, either out of honor or indebtedness or both. Though I read Jacqueline Rose’s comprehensive Mothers: An Essay on Love and Cruelty back in April, it wasn’t until encountering Motherhood that I felt as if a book had captured all that is indescribable, and oftentimes inexplicably tragic, about matrilineal bonds. What’s more, Heti confronts earnestly what can sometimes feel mystical about maternal lines, not least for their internal logics and passed-down lore. And as much as these bonds can be sources of love and pride, they can also be wells of great sadness, regret and loss. The afternoon I finished that chapter titled “PMS” I sobbed and sobbed, and then met my mother for a walk. As we ambled through the eucalyptus groves on my college campus, she retold the story of her medical school aspirations and how my birth had superseded but not ruined them. I told her I did not take it for granted that she was turned towards my brothers and me.

3.In these final moments of 2018, the mystical has hurtled into my life once again. If you walk into a bar or coffee shop in many parts of the Bay Area, you’re bound to hear people discussing astrology. Asking one’s star sign seems as much a habitual platitude as it does a search for cosmic compatibility. I remain skeptical, but I get the craze: like the mythologizing of California or the psychic weight one attributes to matrilineal bonds, astrology affords us an organizing principle for all that seems destined and chaotic in life. Now I reluctantly read The Cut’s Madame Clairvoyant column for my sign’s entry (Taurus) and also the entries for the signs of people I love or loathe. Then I check them all against tweets from the Astro Poets.

My doubt of and preoccupation with astrology has met its match in Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt School darling and iconic grump. I recently finished his tome-like 1957 essay “The Stars Down to Earth: The Los Angeles Times Astrology Column,” which takes Carroll Righter’s new age-y, quintessentially Los Angeles horoscopes column as its case study. From there, Adorno harangues his readers about astrology’s “pseudo-rationality” and its horrible incentive to “provide gratifications to aggressive urges on the level of the imaginary.” Naturally this means that people who “choose” astrology possess a lack of what is vaguely called “intellectual integration,” which I guess is depleted most profoundly by the unravelling of the social world.

There is something sustaining, or at least entertaining, about Adorno’s application of a critical seriousness to an enterprise he found so critically unserious. But the idea of closing out the year with such a dense and misanthropic essay is virtually unbearable to me. To remedy this I’m returning to Kiese Laymon’s Long Division, which is the first novel I read in 2018. As I revisit its pages, I am struck by how impossible it feels to capture all that Long Division does and is, in a matter of sentences. The book has time travel and romance and confrontations with race, sexuality, and gender, all of which are often cleverly introduced through the guise of satire, or wordplay. Moments of humor masterfully become moments of critique. For 2019 we should take note of how Laymon treats the realms of history and language with a cautionary capaciousness. Within the vastness of both there is always the threat that the reprehensible and catastrophic will multiply or mutate — and yet there remains room and potential enough to create something better.

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A Year in Reading: Bill Morris

It wasn’t planned, but 2017 turned out to be a year when my reading hopscotched happily between genres, styles, and voices. Here are half a dozen highlights, arranged by where you might find them shelved in your favorite bookshop.

Memoir
Joan Didion’s South and West is a string of stray thoughts and notebook jottings that reminded me why I find her such a mesmerizing and maddening writer. These 126 pages were compiled in the 1970s, when Didion was trying to conjure magazine articles about the deep South and the Patty Hearst murder trial. The articles never materialized, but this book reaffirms Didion’s mesmerizing prescience as a reporter, as well as her maddening tendency toward preciousness. The prescience comes from Didion’s observation that by 1970 the deep South had become everything California was not: “the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.” The remark now reads like a prophecy in a country that has elected Donald Trump president and has allowed itself to be reduced to a big fat gooey red center sandwiched between two wafer-thin blue coasts. The preciousness comes from Didion’s familiar, brittle persona, which makes it nearly impossible for her to get out of her rental car and pump gas on a “nightmare” stretch of Louisiana back road. The book’s most valid insight might be this: “In the South they are convinced that they have bloodied their place with history. In the West we do not believe anything we do can bloody the land, or change it, or touch it.” Maybe the very best thing about this uneven book is that its section on the West morphed into one of Didion’s finest meditations on her native California, the 2003 memoir Where I Was From.

Fiction
Nominated for the National Book Award, Carol Zoref’s powerful first novel, Barren Island, tells the story of immigrant children who grew up on the titular island, a remote industrial hell in New York City’s Jamaica Bay, where the city’s garbage and its dead animals were sent from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. Since I have been gathering string for more than a dozen years in the hope of writing my own novel set amid the horrors of Barren Island, the news that another writer got there first filled me with minglings of disappointment and dread. But Zoref’s book turned out to be both very fine and very different from the book I’ve been dreaming. Reading Barren Island reminded me that no writer owns a subject, and that no two writers could possibly write about a given subject in the same way. By the time I reached the final page, my dread had turned to relief, then resolve. There’s nothing stopping me from writing a book that now has a pedigreed predecessor, even if my book is still little more than a dream, a pile of notes, a central character, and a working title: The Angel of Barren Island. Thank you, Carol Zoref.

History
Deanne Stillman has spent the past three decades building an impressive body of work about the depredations visited on the land, the animals, and the people of the American West in the name of “progress.” She came out this year with a delightful hybrid, a sort of double-biography and cultural history called Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill. When the great Lakota warrior Sitting Bull returned from exile in Canada and briefly joined Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, the promotional posters trumpeted the unlikely alliance of two men who were “Foes in ’76, Friends in ’85.” They were not merely friends, in Stillman’s telling, but “a powerhouse of mythology.” Drawing on the vast literature about the two men and her own prodigious research, Stillman has delivered a book that cements her reputation as one of the most astute and passionate chroniclers of that vast, blood-soaked canvas known as the American West.

Macroeconomics
It’s not every day that you crack open a deeply researched, thickly annotated, 762-page work of macroeconomics and discover you’re in the grip of a page-turner. But that’s what happened as I breezed through Robert J. Gordon’s magisterial The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War. The book makes a compelling case that the years from roughly the end of the Civil War to 1970 were a time of profound change in Americans’ day-to-day lives that’s unmatched in human history. Moreover, the great inventions that propelled those changes were one-offs, which means the “special century,” as Gordon calls it, will never be repeated. This book, like Barren Island, struck a personal nerve with me: my paternal grandfather lived from 1863 to 1955, roughly the span covered by Gordon, and I had spent years trying to imagine what it was like to be born to a slave-owner during the Civil War and to die at the frosty peak of the Cold War. Thanks to Gordon, I now know enough to begin to imagine.

Crime
The Hard Case Crime series continues to surprise and delight. This year it introduced me to Max Allan Collins, a prolific crime writer who has just added the novel Quarry’s Climax to his long-running series about the professional assassin Jack Quarry, who gets the party started with this ice-breaker: “I’d been doing murder for hire for five years now—well, seven and change, if you include the two tours of Vietnam.” Quarry’s new mission has him headed to Memphis, where he’s been hired to kill the guy who’s been hired to kill Max Climer, a lovable Larry Flynt clone who runs a strip club, publishes a skin mag called Climax, and is launching a lucrative X-rated video line. Collins is a polished writer who keeps the story moving as the bodies pile up and the double-crosses go triple and quadruple. What a glorious moral cesspool!—where the cleanest guy in town is the one who gets paid to kill people, and always earns his paycheck.

Budding Genius?
As the year ends, I’m hip-deep in a belated first foray into the work of the decorated David Mitchell: his debut novel, 1999’s Ghostwritten, published when he was 31. So far the novel has transported me to Okinawa, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, with Mongolia, Petersburg, London, and other destinations up ahead. The writing is bracing, bewildering, and it makes me hungry to know where it will take me next and what kind of books come after it. To find out, I intend to spend the coming year reading all of Mitchell’s fiction in chronological order, something I’ve done with only one other writer, the prolific British fantasist China Miéville. If that immersion is any measure, 2018 is going to be another rich year in reading.

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Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

Prescient and Precious: On Joan Didion

I have had some dim and unformed sense, a sense which strikes me now and then, and which I cannot explain coherently, that Joan Didion is an extraordinarily gifted and prescient writer whose enterprise seems to me to be poisoned by something that may or not be fatal: she can be cloyingly precious.

Didion’s preciousness is on full display in her new book, South and West, a sampling of notes for two magazine articles that never got written.  The “Notes on the South” section consists of observations Didion made as she drove aimlessly from New Orleans through Mississippi and Alabama in a rented car with her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, in the torpid summer of 1970.  The shorter “California Notes” section is a series of stray reflections while Didion was trying to write about Patty Hearst’s trial in San Francisco in 1976.

The prescience that justifies this slight book’s existence is contained in a single sentence:
I had only some dim and unformed sense, a sense which struck me now and then, and which I could not explain coherently, that for some years the South and particularly the Gulf Coast had been for America what people were still saying California was, and what California seemed to me not to be: the future, the secret source of malevolent and benevolent energy, the psychic center.
This “unformed sense” may have seemed outlandish in 1970, but the election of Donald Trump has anointed it with an aura of prophecy.  But was it so outlandish?  In Lyndon Johnson’s landslide victory in the presidential election of 1964 — the year Congress passed the Civil Rights Act — five of the six states that voted for the Republican candidate, Barry Goldwater, were in the Deep South.  Before 1964 it would have unthinkable for Southerners to vote wholesale for the party of Lincoln; today it is unthinkable that they would not.  So 1964 marked the beginning of the wholesale tipping of the country to the right, toward the Republican party, toward the red-state ethos that spread from the South and became strong enough to elect the unlikeliest of presidents.  Joan Didion was one of those rare people who voted for Goldwater.  After segregationist Alabama Gov. George Wallace took up Goldwater’s far-right mantle in the 1968 election, with nearly identical results, Didion would write, “The thought that the reason Wallace has never troubled me is that he is a totally explicable phenomenon.”

Six years after the 1964 election, Didion and Dunne set out on their road trip along the Gulf Coast.  One day the couple drove through Louisiana’s Plaquemines Parish, which Didion calls “peculiar country.”  Here’s why:
There were run-down antiques places, and tomato stands, and a beauty shop called Feminine Fluff.  The snakes, the rotting undergrowth, sulphurous light: the images are so specifically those of the nightmare world that when we stopped for gas, or directions, I had to steel myself, deaden every nerve, in order to step from the car onto the crushed oyster shells in front of the gas station.
I had a visceral reaction to this passage, something close to anger.  I thought, Get out of the car and pump the fucking gas, already, or catch a plane back to L.A. where you belong.  Later, Didion reports:
It occurred to me almost constantly in the South that had I lived there I would have been an eccentric and full of anger, and I wondered what form the anger would have taken.  Would I have taken up causes, or would I have simply knifed somebody?
My anger resurfaced.  What horseshit, I thought.  You couldn’t bring yourself to kill a mosquito.

After reading South and West three times, I have come to realize that my visceral reaction to such passages misses the central point.  The central point is that ever since she burst onto the scene in 1968 with her stunning collection of New Journalism, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion has been playing a role.  Her fragile, remote, bewildered, haughty persona is a construct, a fiction, a way for her to give voice to the writing.  She is not the first writer to do this — Ernest Hemingway and Norman Mailer come immediately to mind – but she is arguably the first to get readers to conflate reality with her fictionalized persona and its hardware: the cigarettes, the Corvette, the cool gaze, the Céline sunglasses ads, the perpetual drip of dread.  As Emmett Rensin wrote recently in The New Republic, “Her constructed personality is so well rendered that we are often willing to suspend our judgment and believe in its reality.”  I believe he’s right about this, and I also believe that this is the central problem with Joan Didion.  She gets a pass because, well, because she is capable of prescience, wisdom, and gorgeous sentences.  She is allowed to inhabit a constructed — and frequently annoying — personality because legions of readers are convinced that the payoff has earned Didion a suspension of judgment, a disinclination to remain aware that her constructed personality is merely a pose.

In his introduction to South and West, Nathaniel Rich writes words that are intended as high praise but that strike me as an unintended exposure of the source of this problem.  Rich lauds “the cool majesty of her prose, written as if from a great, even empyreal distance.”  The operative words here are cool and empyreal.  “Cool” has long been the default adjective to describe Didion’s personal style and her approach to observing people and turning her observations into sentences.  But “empyreal” seems to me to be the true killer — this notion that a writer operates from on high, far above the grubby lives of people who set their husbands on fire in Volkswagens, people who live in trailers with the air-conditioning on all night, who go to cosmetology school and wear pink Dacron housedresses and drink beer out of cans and name their daughters Kimberly or Sherry or Debi.  There is no possibility for such a writer to inhabit the lives of her subjects, to achieve empathy; the only possibility is preciousness and cool detachment, which produces observations that always come back to the primary importance of the observer, and the secondary status of the observed.

At the Mississippi Broadcasters’ Convention in Biloxi, for instance, Didion writes:
The isolation of these people from the currents of American life in 1970 was startling and bewildering to behold.  All their information was fifth-hand, and mythicized in the handing down.  Does it matter where Taos is, after all if Taos is not in Mississippi?
And yet Didion’s aloofness from these people has gotten her snared in a trap. “When I think about New Orleans,” she writes, “I remember mainly its dense obsessiveness, its vertiginous preoccupation with race, class, heritage, style, and the absence of style.”  In her best books — among which I would include Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Where I Was From – Didion is obsessed with the very things she disparages here about New Orleans, particularly the absence of style.  The San Bernardino Valley, as she wrote in the ground-breaking essay “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” is “the country of the teased hair and the Capris and the girls for whom all life’s promise comes down to a waltz-length white wedding dress and the birth of a Kimberly or Sherry or Debi and a Tijuana divorce and a return to hairdressers’ school.”  Style doesn’t get any more absent than that.

This obsession with class, heritage, style, and the absence of style has opened Didion, inevitably, to charges that she is an “elitist.”  This is a serious sin in a society that tells itself it is “classless,” but it strikes me as a perfectly reasonable thing for a writer to be, provided it doesn’t negate the capacity for empathy or lead to preciousness.  Was any writer more of an elitist than Marcel Proust?  Or Henry James?  Or Virginia Woolf?  Or Flannery O’Connor?  Arguably not, but that didn’t stop the late Barbara Grizzuti Harrison from writing a takedown of Didion way back in 1979, in an essay so dyspeptic that it flirts with both lunacy and hilarity.  “Didion’s lyrical angst strikes me as transparently ersatz,” wrote Harrison, who went on to call Didion “a neurasthenic Cher” and “a lyricist of the irrational” whose “imperialist mentality” led her to vote for Goldwater, among other unpardonable sins.  Grizzuti identified Didion’s preciousness as a source of her popularity: “That coddled singularity/superiority is, I am afraid, one of the reasons readers love Didion.”  But in Grizzuti’s eyes, there is no worse sin this: “Didion’s heart is cold.”

The charges have merit, but since South and West is a Joan Didion book, you know there will be gem-like sentences. Here are a half-dozen random samples:
“A little girl with long unkempt hair and a dirty periwinkle dress that hung below her knees carried around an empty Sprite bottle.”
“A somnolence so dense that it seemed to inhibit breathing hung over Hattiesburg, Mississippi at two or three o’clock of that Sunday afternoon.”
“When I left Basic City a train was moaning, the Meridian & Bigbee line.  One is conscious of trains in the South.  It is a true earlier time.”  And: “Maybe the rural South is the last place in America where one is still aware of trains and what they can mean, their awesome possibilities.”
“We crossed the Demopolis Rooster Bridge over the Tombigbee River, another still, brown river.  I think I never saw water that appeared to be running in any part of the South.  A sense of water moccasins.”
“On weekday afternoons in towns like Winfield one sees mainly women, moving like somnambulists through the days of their lives.”
“The kudzu makes much of Mississippi seem an ominously topiary landscape.”
“The time warp: the Civil War was yesterday, but 1960 is spoken of as if it were about three hundred years ago.”
Another of the book’s delights is Didion’s portrayal of the Deep South through its motel swimming pools.  Like Neddy Merrill swimming home through a string of Westchester County pools in John Cheever’s indelible short story, “The Swimmer,” Didion swims her way across Dixie, filing regular reports on the water quality.  In Biloxi: “The swimming pool is large and unkempt, and the water smells of fish.”  In Birmingham: “I went swimming, which occasioned great notice in the bar.  ‘Hey, look, there’s somebody with a bikini on.’”  In Winfield: “There was algae in the pool, and a cigarette butt.”  In Oxford: “Later when I was swimming a little girl pointed out that by staying underwater one could hear, by some electronic freak, a radio playing.  I submerged and heard news of the Conservative victory in Great Britain, and ‘Mrs. Robinson.’”

In addition to such gems, this book produces an outsized irony.  The meat of the book — if a 126-page book can be said to be meaty — was supposed to lead to a magazine article, a “piece” in Didion-speak, that her editors at Life magazine referred to as “The Mind of the White South,” a nod to W.J. Cash’s masterpiece, The Mind of the South.  Indeed, Didion doesn’t talk to a single black person, preferring instead to spend her time with New Orleans aristocrats, white women in laundromats, the white owner of a black radio station, and Walker Percy, who serves up gin and tonics.  The closest Didion comes to acknowledging the plight of black people in the South is a memory of a girlhood visit to her father’s military posting in Durham, N.C., when a bus driver refused to leave the curb until the Didions had moved to the front of the bus, where white people belonged according to the iron dictates of Jim Crow.  Here is Didion’s closest encounter with a black person during her 1970 trip: “On that same afternoon I saw a black girl on the campus: she was wearing an Afro and a clinging jersey, and she was quite beautiful, with a NY-LA coastal arrogance.  I could not think what she was doing at Ole Miss, or what she thought about it.”  Tellingly, Didion doesn’t bother to ask.  This section ends with a simple epitaph: “I never wrote the piece.”

The irony is that the 13-page section of the book called “California Notes” also failed to produce the hoped-for magazine article, but it led to something much bigger. “This didn’t lead to my writing the piece,” Didion reports, “but eventually it led to — years later — Where I Was From (2003).”  That book, a reappraisal of Didion’s long-held myths about her family, her native California, and the rugged individuals who settled the place, is among her very finest writing, and it’s entirely driven by her thoughts on class, heritage, style, and the absence of style.  With deadpan scorn, she sums up the bankrupt myth of the “frontier ethic”: “Show spirit, kill the rattlesnake, keep moving.”  The inconvenient reality, from the railroad tycoon Leland Stanford on through big agriculture and the aerospace industry, is that the rugged individualism of the frontier ethic has always been supported by generous infusions of federal tax dollars.  Where I Was From is such a richly reported and deeply reasoned book that it’s hard to believe it grew from the closing pages of South and West.  But one thing must be believed: the fact that a major publisher has brought out these jottings in a handsome $21 hardcover is proof that Joan Didion can do no wrong because, quite simply, she was canonized a long time ago and readers have come to love her constructed personality and its coddled singularity/superiority.

March Preview: The Millions Most Anticipated (This Month)

We wouldn’t dream of abandoning our vast semi–annual Most Anticipated Book Previews, but we thought a monthly reminder would be helpful (and give us a chance to note titles we missed the first time around).  Here’s what we’re looking out for this month. For more March titles, check out the Great First-Half 2017 Preview.

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: In an unnamed city, two young people fall in love as a civil war breaks out. As the violence escalates, they begin to hear rumors of a curious new kind of door: at some risk, and for a price, it’s possible to step through a portal into an entirely different place — Mykonos, for instance, or London. In a recent interview, Hamid said that the portals allowed him “to compress the next century or two of human migration on our planet into the space of a single year, and to explore what might happen after.” (Emily)
 

The Idiot by Elif Batuman: Between The Possessed — her 2010 lit-crit/travelogue on a life in Russian letters and her snort-inducing Twitter feed, I am a confirmed Batuman superfan. This March, her debut novel samples Fyodor Dostoevsky in a Bildungsroman featuring the New Jersey-bred daughter of Turkish immigrants who discovers that Harvard is absurd, Europe disturbed, and love positively barking. Yet prose this fluid and humor this endearing are oddly unsettling, because behind the pleasant façade hides a thoughtful examination of the frenzy and confusion of finding your way in the world. (Il’ja)

White Tears by Hari Kunzru: A fascinating-sounding novel about musical gentrification, and two white men whose shared obsession with hard-to-find blues recordings leads them to perdition. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called White Tears “perhaps the ultimate literary treatment of the so-called hipster, tracing the roots of the urban bedroom deejay to the mythic blues troubadours of the antebellum South.” (Lydia)
 
 

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy: A memoir from an intrepid journalist who wrote, among other things, a truly unforgettable essay about losing a baby while on a reporting trip to Mongolia.  The memoir documents the forging of an extraordinary career, her loss and its aftermath, and the disintegration of her marriage. The Atlantic writes, “She plumbs the commotion deep within and takes the measure of her have-it-all generation.” (Lydia)
 
 

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion: Excerpts from two of the legendary writer’s commonplace books from the 1970s: one from a road trip through the American south, and one from a Rolling Stone assignment to cover the Patty Hearst trial in California. Perhaps the origin of her observation in Where I Was From: “One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in 1970, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it.” (Lydia)

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg: A novel about a 39-year-old woman taking stock of her life, from the best-selling author of The Middlesteins and St. Mazie. This one prompted Eileen Myles to ask “Is all life junk — sparkly and seductive and devastating — just waiting to be told correctly by someone who will hold our hand and walk with us a while confirming that what we’re living is true.” (Lydia)
 
 
 

Sorry to Disrupt the Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell: A singular debut describes a woman taking on the role of detective to account for her brother’s suicide. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly calls the novel “complex and mysterious, yet, in the end, deeply human and empathetic.” (Lydia)
 
 
 
 

Ill Will by Dan Chaon: Dustin Tillman was a child when his parents and aunt and uncle were murdered in his home, and it was his testimony that sent his older, adopted brother, Rusty, to jail for the crime. Forty years later, he learns that Rusty is getting out based on new DNA evidence. As that news sends tremors through Dustin’s life and the life of his family, he buddies up with an ex-cop who has a theory about some local murders. As often happens in Chaon’s book, you’ll be gripped by the story and the characters from the first page, and then all of a sudden you suspect that nothing is as it seems, and you’re sucked in even further. (Janet)

The Accusation by Bandi: For readers interested in a candid look at life in North Korea, The Accusation — originally published in South Korea in 2014 — will immerse you via the stories of common folk: a wife who struggles to make daily breakfast during a famine, a factory supervisor caught between denouncing a family friend and staying on the party’s good side, a mother raising her child amidst chilling propaganda, a former Communist war hero who is disillusioned by the Party, a man denied a travel permit who sneaks onto a train so he can see his dying mother. Bandi is of course a pseudonym: according to the French edition, the author was born in 1950, lived in China, and is now an official writer for the North Korean government. The stories, written between 1989 and 1995, were smuggled out by a friend — and will be available to us via Grove Press. (Sonya)

The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge: Fiction meets history in The Night Ocean’s series of intricately nested narratives. A psychologist’s husband, obsessed with a did-they-or-didn’t-they affair between horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and a gay teenage admirer, disappears while attempting to solve the mystery. Set over a 100-year period and spanning latitudes from Ontario to Mexico City, this novel from New Yorker contributor La Farge promises to pull Lovecraft’s suspense into the present day with flair. (Kirstin)

 

Most Anticipated: The Great 2017 Book Preview

Although 2016 has gotten a bad rap, there were, at the very least, a lot of excellent books published. But this year! Books from George Saunders, Roxane Gay, Hari Kunzru, J.M. Coetzee, Rachel Cusk, Jesmyn Ward?  A lost manuscript by Claude McKay? A novel by Elif Batuman? Short stories by Penelope Lively? A memoir by Yiyun Li?  Books from no fewer than four Millions staffers? It’s a feast. We hope the following list of 80-something upcoming books peps you up for the (first half of the) new year. You’ll notice that we’ve re-combined our fiction and nonfiction lists, emphasizing fiction as in the past. And, continuing a tradition we started this fall, we’ll be doing mini previews at the beginning of each month — let us know if there are other things we should be looking forward to. (If you are a big fan of our bi-annual Previews and find yourself referring to them year-round, please consider supporting our efforts by becoming a member!)

January

Difficult Women by Roxane Gay: Gay has had an enormously successful few years. In 2014, her novel, An Untamed State, and an essay collection, Bad Feminist, met with wide acclaim, and in the wake of unrest over anti-black police violence, hers was one of the clearest voices in the national conversation. While much of Gay’s writing since then has dealt in political thought and cultural criticism, she returns in 2017 with this short story collection exploring the various textures of American women’s experience. (Ismail)

 

Human Acts by Han Kang: Korean novelist Kang says all her books are variations on the theme of human violence. The Vegetarian, her first novel translated into English, arrested readers with the contempt showered upon an “unremarkable” wife who became a vegetarian after waking from a nightmare. Kang’s forthcoming Human Acts focuses on the 1980 Korean Gwangju Uprising, when Gwangju locals took up arms in retaliation for the massacre of university students who were protesting. Within Kang tries to unknot “two unsolvable riddles” — the intermingling of two innately human yet disparate tendencies, the capacity for cruelty alongside that for selflessness and dignity. (Anne)

Transit by Rachel Cusk: Everyone who read and reveled in the nimble formal daring of Outline is giddy to read Transit, which follows the same protagonist, Faye, as she navigates life after separating from her husband. Both Transit and Outline are made up of stories other people tell Faye, and in her rave in The Guardian, Tessa Hadley remarks that Cusk’s structure is “a striking gesture of relinquishment. Faye’s story contends for space against all these others, and the novel’s meaning is devolved out from its centre in her to a succession of characters. It’s a radically different way of imagining a self, too — Faye’s self.”   (Edan)

4321 by Paul Auster: Multiple timelines are nothing new at this point, but it’s doubtful they’ve ever been used in quite the way they are in 4321, Auster’s first novel since his 2010 book Sunset Park. In his latest, four timelines branch off the moment the main character is born, introducing four separate Archibald Isaac Fergusons that grow more different as the plot wears on. They’re all, in their own ways, tied up with Amy Schneiderman, who appears throughout the book’s realities. (Thom)

 

Collected Stories by E.L. Doctorow: Doctorow is known for historical novels like Ragtime and The Book of Daniel, but he also wrote some terrific stories, and shortly before his death in 2015 he selected and revised 15 of his best. Fans who already own his 2011 collection All the Time in the World may want to give this new one a miss, since many of the selections overlap, but readers who only know Doctorow as a novelist may want to check out his classic early story “A Writer in the Family,” as well as others like “The Water Works” and “Liner Notes: The Songs of Billy Bathgate,” which are either precursors of or companion pieces to his novels. (Michael B.)

Enigma Variations by André Aciman: The CUNY Professor New York magazine called “the most exciting new fiction writer of the 21st century” returns with a romantic/erotic bildungsroman following protagonist Paul from Italy to New York, from adolescence to adulthood. Kirkus called it an “eminently adult look at desire and attachment.” (Lydia)

 

 

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living, edited by Manjula Martin: Martin ran the online magazine Scratch from 2013 to 2015 and in those two years published some terrific and refreshingly transparent interviews with writers about cash money and how it’s helped and hindered their lives as artists. The magazine is no longer online, but this anthology includes many of those memorable conversations as well as some new ones. Aside from interviews with the likes of Cheryl Strayed and Jonathan Franzen, the anthology also includes honest and vulnerable essays about making art and making a career –and where those two meet — from such writers as Meaghan O’Connell and Alexander Chee. It’s a useful and inspiring read. (Edan)

Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh: A long, dull day of jury duty in 2008 was redeemed by a lunchtime discovery of Unsaid magazine and its lead story “Help Yourself!” by Moshfegh, whose characters were alluring and honest and full of contempt. I made a point to remember her name at the time, but now Moshfegh’s stories appear regularly in The Paris Review and The New Yorker, and her novel Eileen was shortlisted for the 2016 Booker Prize. Her debut collection of stories, Homesick for Another World, gathers many of these earlier stories, and is bound to show why she’s considered one of literature’s most striking new voices. (Anne)

Glaxo by Hernán Ronsino: Ronsino’s English-language debut (translated by Samuel Rutter) is only 100 pages but manages to host four narrators and cover 40 years. Set in a dusty, stagnating town in Argentina, the novel cautiously circles around a decades-old murder, a vanished wife, and past political crimes. Allusions to John Sturges’s Last Train From Gun Hill hint at the vengeance, or justice, to come in this sly Latin American Western. (Matt)

 

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran: Set in Berkeley, Sekaran’s novel follows two women: Soli, an undocumented woman from Mexico raising a baby alone while cleaning houses, and an Indian-American woman struggling with infertility who becomes a foster parent to Soli’s son. Kirkus called it “superbly crafted and engrossing.” (Lydia)

 

 

A Mother’s Tale by Phillip Lopate: One day in the mid-’80s, Lopate sat down with his tape recorder to capture his mother’s life story, which included, at various times, a stint owning a candy store, a side gig as an actress and singer, and a job on the line at a weapons factory at the height of World War II. Although Lopate didn’t use the tapes for decades, he unearthed them recently and turned them into this book, which consists of a long conversation between himself, his mother, and the person he was in the ’80s. (Thom)

 

The Gringo Champion by Aura Xilonen: Winner of Mexico’s Mauricio Achar Prize for Fiction, Xilonen’s novel (written when she was only 19, and here translated by Andrea Rosenberg) tells the story of a young boy who crosses the Rio Grande. Mixing Spanish and English, El Sur Mexico lauded the novel’s “vulgar idiom brilliantly transformed into art.” (Lydia)

 

 

Selection Day by Aravind Adiga: If Selection Day goes on to hit it big, we may remember it as our era’s definitive cricket novel. Adiga — a Man Booker laureate who won the prize in 2008 for his epic The White Tiger — follows the lives of Radha and Manju, two brothers whose father raised them to be master batsmen. In the way of The White Tiger, all the characters are deeply affected by changes in Indian society, most of which are transposed into changes in the country’s huge cricket scene. (Thom)

 

Huck Out West by Robert Coover: Coover, the CAVE-dwelling postmodern luminary, riffs on American’s great humorist in this sequel to Mark Twain’s classic set out West. From the opening pages, in which Tom, over Huck’s objections, sells Jim to slaveholding Cherokees, it is clear that Coover’s picaresque will be a tale of disillusionment. Unlike Tom, “who is always living in a story he’s read in a book so he knows what happens next,” Huck seems wearied and shaken by his continued adventures: “So many awful things had happened since then, so much outright meanness. It was almost like there was something wicked about growing up.” (Matt)

Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin. Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa called Schweblin “one of the most promising voices in modern literature in Spanish.” The Argentinian novelist’s fifth book, about “obsession, identity and motherhood,” is her first to be translated into English (by Megan McDowell). It’s been described “deeply unsettling and disorientating” by the publisher and “a wonderful nightmare of a book” by novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez. (Elizabeth)

 

Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson. Wilson’s first novel, The Family Fang, was about the children of performance artists. His second is about a new mother who joins a sort of utopian community called the “Infinite Family Project,” living alongside other couples raising newborns, which goes well until eventually “the gentle equilibrium among the families is upset and it all starts to disintegrate.” He’s been described by novelist Owen King as the “unholy child of George Saunders and Carson McCullers.” (Elizabeth)

 

Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke: Clarke’s award-winning short story collection Foreign Soil is now being published in the U.S. and includes a new story “Aviation,” specifically written for this edition. These character-driven stories take place worldwide — Australia, Africa, the West Indies, and the U.S. — and explore loss, inequity, and otherness. Clarke is hailed as an essential writer whose collection challenges and transforms the reader. (Zoë)

 

American Berserk by Bill Morris: Five years ago, a Millions commenter read Morris’s crackling piece about his experience as a young reporter in Chambersburg, Penn., during the 1970s: “Really, I wish this essay would be a book.” Ask, and you shall receive. To refresh your memories, Morris encountered what one would expect in the pastoral serenity of Pennsylvania Dutch country: “Kidnapping, ostracism, the paranormal, rape, murder, insanity, arson, more murder, attempted suicide — it added up to a collective nervous breakdown.” Morris has plenty to work with in these lurid tales, but the book is also about the pleasure of profiling those “interesting nobodies” whose stories never make it to the front page, no matter how small the paper. (Matt)

February

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders:  For Saunders fans, the prospect of a full-length novel from the short-story master has been something to speculate upon, if not actually expect. Yet Lincoln in the Bardo is a full 368-page blast of Saunders — dealing in the 1862 death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, the escalating Civil War, and, of course, Buddhist philosophy. Saunders has compared the process of writing longer fiction to “building custom yurts and then somebody commissioned a mansion” — and Saunders’s first novel is unlikely to resemble any other mansion on the block. (Jacob)

The Schooldays of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: This sequel to the Nobel Prize-winning South African author’s 2013 novel The Childhood of Jesus picks up shortly after Simón and Inés flee from authorities with their adopted son, David. Childhood was a sometimes thin-feeling allegory of immigration that found Coetzee meditating with some of his perennial concerns — cultural memory, language, naming, and state violence — at the expense of his characters. In Schooldays, the allegorical element recedes somewhat into the background as Coetzee tells the story of David’s enrollment in a dance school, his discovery of his passion for dancing, and his disturbing encounters with adult authority. This one was longlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. (Ismail)

To Be a Machine by Mark O’Connell: Millions staffer and author of Millions Original Epic Fail O’Connell brings his superb writing and signature wit and empathy to a nonfiction exploration of the transhumanist movement, complete with cryogenic freezing, robots, and an unlikely presidential bid from the first transhumanist candidate. O’Connell’s sensibility — his humanity, if you will — and his subject matter are a match made in heaven. It’s an absolutely wonderful book, but don’t take my non-impartial word for it: Nicholson Baker and Margaret Atwood have plugged it too.  (Lydia)

The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen: Pulitzer Prize Winner Nguyen’s short story collection The Refugees has already received starred pre-publication reviews from Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly, among others. Nguyen’s brilliant new work of fiction offers vivid and intimate portrayals of characters and explores identity, war, and loss in stories collected over a period of two decades. (Zoë)

 

Amiable with Big Teeth by Claude McKay: A significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance, McKay is best-known for his novel Home to Harlem — which was criticized by W.E.B. Dubois for portraying black people (i.e. Harlem nightlife) as prurient — “after the dirtier parts of its filth I feel distinctly like taking a bath.”  The novel went on to win the prestigious (if short-lived) Harmon Gold Medal and is widely praised for its sensual and brutal accuracy. In 2009, UPenn English professor Jean-Christophe Cloutier discovered the unpublished Amiable with Big Teeth in the papers of notorious, groundbreaking publisher Samuel Roth.  A collaboration between Cloutier and Brent Hayes Edwards, a long-awaited, edited, scholarly edition of the novel will be released by Penguin in February. (Sonya)

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li: The Oakland-based Li delivers this memoir of chronic depression and a life lived with books. Weaving sharp literary criticism with a perceptive narrative about her life as an immigrant in America, Your Life isn’t as interested in exploring how literature helps us make sense of ourselves as it is in how literature situates us amongst others. (Ismail)

 

Autumn by Ali Smith: Her 2015 Baileys prize-winning How to Be Both was an experiment in how a reader experiences time. It has two parts, which can be read in any order. Now, Smith brings us Autumn, the first novel in what will be a Seasonal quartet — four stand-alone books, each one named after one of the four seasons. Known for writing with experimental elegance, she turns to time in the post Brexit world, specifically Autumn 2016, “exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take.” (Claire)

 

A Separation by Katie Kitamura: A sere and unsettling portrait of a marriage come undone, critics are hailing Kitamura’s third book as “mesmerizing” and “magnificent.” The narrator, a translator, goes to a remote part of Greece in search of her serially unfaithful husband, only to be further unmoored from any sense that she (and in turn the reader) had of the contours of their shared life. Blurbed by no fewer than six literary heavyweights — Rivka Galchen, Jenny Offill, Leslie Jamison, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, and Karl Ove Knausgaard — A Separation looks poised to be the literary Gone Girl of 2017. (Kirstin B.)

Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez: This young Argentinian journalist and author has already drawn a lot of attention for her “chilling, compulsive” gothic short stories. One made a December 2016 issue of The New Yorker; many more will be published this spring as Things We Lost in the Fire, which has drawn advanced praise from Helen Oyeyemi and Dave Eggers. The stories themselves follow addicts, muggers, and narcos — characters Oyeyemi calls “funny, brutal, bruised” — as they encounter the terrors of everyday life. Fair warning: these stories really will scare you. (Kaulie)

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle. Darnielle is best known for the The Mountain Goats, a band in which he has often been the only member. But his debut novel, Wolf in White Van, was nominated for a number of awards, including the National Book Award for Fiction. His second novel, set in Iowa in the 1990s, is about a video store clerk who discovers disturbing scenes on the store’s tapes. (Elizabeth)

 

300 Arguments by Sarah Manguso: It’s as if, like the late David Markson, Manguso is on a gnomic trajectory toward some single, ultimate truth expressed in the fewest words possible — or perhaps her poetic impulses have just grown even stronger over time. As its title suggests, this slim volume comprises a sequence of aphorisms (“Bad art is from no one to no one”) that in aggregate construct a self-portrait of the memoirist at work. “This book is the good sentences from the novel I didn’t write,” its narrator writes. (Kirstin B.)

 

The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso: Set in South Africa, Omotoso’s novel describes the bitter feud between two neighbors, both well-to-do, both widows, both elderly, one black, one white. Described by the TLS as one of the “Best Books by Women Every Man Should Read.” (Lydia)

 

 

Running by Cara Hoffman: The third novel from Hoffman, celebrated author of Be Safe I Love You, Running follows a group of three outsiders trying to make it the red light district of Athens in the 1980s. Bridey Sullivan, a wild teenager escaping childhood trauma in the States, falls in with a pair of young “runners” working to lure tourists to cheap Athenian hotels in return for bed and board. The narrative itself flashes between Athens, Sullivan’s youth, and her friend and runner Milo’s life in modern-day New York City. According to Kirkus, this allows the novel to be “crisp and immediate,” “beautiful and atmospheric,” and “original and deeply sad.” (Kaulie)

Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom: Academic and Twitter eminence McMillan Cottom tackles a subject that, given a recent spate of lawsuits, investigations, and closings, was front-page news for a good part of 2016. Drawing on interviews with students, activists, and executives at for-profit colleges and universities, Lower Ed aims to connect the rise of such institutions with ballooning levels of debt and larger trends of income inequality across the U.S. (Kirstin B.)

 

Abandon Me by Melissa Febos. Febos’s gifts as a writer seemingly increase with the types of subjects and themes that typically falter in the hands of many memoirists: love (both distant and immediate), family, identity, and addiction. Her adoptive father, a sea captain, looms large in her work: “My captain did not give me religion but other treasures. A bloom of desert roses the size of my arm, a freckled ostrich egg, true pirate stories. My biological father, on the other hand, had given me nothing of use but life…and my native blood.” Febos transports, but her lyricism is always grounded in the now, in the sweet music of loss. (Nick R.)

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: A sweeping look at four generations of a Korean family who immigrates to Japan after Japan’s 1910 annexation of Korea, from the author of Free Food for Millionaires. Junot Díaz says “Pachinko confirms Lee’s place among our finest novelists.” (Lydia)

 

 

Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin: Following in the literary tradition of Charles Baudelaire, Virginia Woolf and Edgar Allan Poe, Elkin is fascinated by street wanderers and wanderings, but with a twist. The traditional flâneur was always male; Elkin sets out to follow the lives of the subversive flâneuses, those women who have always been “keenly attuned to the creative potential of the city, and the liberating possibilities of a good walk.” In a review in The Guardian, Elkin is imagined as “an intrepid feminist graffiti artist,” writing the names of women across the city she loves; in her book, a combination of “cultural meander” and memoir, she follows the lives of flaneuses as varied as George Sand and Martha Gellhorn in order to consider “what is at stake when a certain kind of light-footed woman encounters the city.” (Kaulie)

March

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid: In an unnamed city, two young people fall in love as a civil war breaks out. As the violence escalates, they begin to hear rumors of a curious new kind of door: at some risk, and for a price, it’s possible to step through a portal into an entirely different place — Mykonos, for instance, or London. In a recent interview, Hamid said that the portals allowed him “to compress the next century or two of human migration on our planet into the space of a single year, and to explore what might happen after.” (Emily)

 

The Idiot by Elif Batuman: Between The Possessed — her 2010 lit-crit/travelogue on a life in Russian letters and her snort-inducing Twitter feed, I am a confirmed Batuman superfan. This March, her debut novel samples Fyodor Dostoevsky in a Bildungsroman featuring the New Jersey-bred daughter of Turkish immigrants who discovers that Harvard is absurd, Europe disturbed, and love positively barking. Yet prose this fluid and humor this endearing are oddly unsettling, because behind the pleasant façade hides a thoughtful examination of the frenzy and confusion of finding your way in the world. (Il’ja R.)

White Tears by Hari Kunzru: A fascinating-sounding novel about musical gentrification, and two white men whose shared obsession with hard-to-find blues recordings leads them to perdition. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly called White Tears “perhaps the ultimate literary treatment of the so-called hipster, tracing the roots of the urban bedroom deejay to the mythic blues troubadours of the antebellum South.” (Lydia)

 

South and West: From a Notebook by Joan Didion: Excerpts from two of the legendary writer’s commonplace books from the 1970s: one from a road trip through the American south, and one from a Rolling Stone assignment to cover the Patty Hearst trial in California. Perhaps the origin of her observation in Where I Was From: “One difference between the West and the South, I came to realize in 1970, was this: in the South they remained convinced that they had bloodied their land with history. In California we did not believe that history could bloody the land, or even touch it.” (Lydia)

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg: A novel about a 39-year-old woman taking stock of her life, from the best-selling author of The Middlesteins and St. Mazie. This one prompted Eileen Myles to ask “Is all life junk — sparkly and seductive and devastating — just waiting to be told correctly by someone who will hold our hand and walk with us a while confirming that what we’re living is true.” Evidently so. (Lydia)

 

Ill Will by Dan Chaon: Dustin Tillman was a child when his parents and aunt and uncle were murdered in his home, and it was his testimony that sent his older, adopted brother, Rusty, to jail for the crime. Forty years later, he learns that Rusty is getting out based on new DNA evidence. As that news sends tremors through Dustin’s life and the life of his family, he buddies up with an ex-cop who has a theory about some local murders. As often happens in Chaon’s book, you’ll be gripped by the story and the characters from the first page, and then all of a sudden you suspect that nothing is as it seems, and you’re sucked in even further. (Janet).

The Accusation by Bandi: For readers interested in a candid look at life in North Korea, The Accusation — originally published in South Korea in 2014 — will immerse you via the stories of common folk: a wife who struggles to make daily breakfast during a famine, a factory supervisor caught between denouncing a family friend and staying on the party’s good side, a mother raising her child amidst chilling propaganda, a former Communist war hero who is disillusioned by the Party, a man denied a travel permit who sneaks onto a train so he can see his dying mother. Bandi is of course a pseudonym: according to the French edition, the author was born in 1950, lived in China, and is now an official writer for the North Korean government. The stories, written between 1989 and 1995, were smuggled out by a friend — and will be available to us via Grove Press. (Sonya)

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti: This new novel by the editor of One Story magazine follows a career criminal who goes straight to give his daughter a chance at a normal life. But when his daughter, Loo, gets curious about the 12 mysterious scars on her father’s body, each marking a separate bullet wound, she uncovers a history much darker than she imagined. Twelve Lives is “is one part Quentin Tarantino, one part Scheherazade, and twelve parts wild innovation,” says Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth. (Michael B.)

The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge: Fiction meets history in The Night Ocean’s series of intricately nested narratives. A psychologist’s husband, obsessed with a did-they-or-didn’t-they affair between horror writer H.P. Lovecraft and a gay teenage admirer, disappears while attempting to solve the mystery. Set over a 100-year period and spanning latitudes from Ontario to Mexico City, this novel from New Yorker contributor La Farge promises to pull Lovecraft’s suspense into the present day with flair. (Kirstin B.)

 

Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth: Unferth is an author about whom many overused litspeak cliches are true: she is incisive, bitingly funny, and — here it comes–— whipsmart. A National Book Critics Circle Award finalist for her memoir, Revolution, her short stories have been published in Granta, McSweeney’s, and the Paris Review, and are collected here for the first time. (Janet)

April

Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout: “As I was writing My Name Is Lucy Barton,” said Strout, the New York Times bestselling author and Pulitzer Prize winner, of her 2016 novel, “it came to me that all the characters Lucy and her mother talked about had their own stories.” Anything is Possible was written in tandem to Lucy Barton. For Strout’s many devoted readers, this novel promises to expand on and add depth to the story, while exploring themes for love, loss, and hope in a work that, “recalls Olive Kitteridge in its richness, structure, and complexity.” (Claire)

Devil on the Cross by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o: Set in post-colonial Kenya, this troubling allegory from the perennial Nobel candidate explores the evil that men do and the hope that serves as its only antidote. Written while in prison, the book’s proverbial structure and unapologetically political message — think Karl Marx delivering liberation theology in East Africa — follow a young Kenyan woman, Jacinta Wariinga, who, despite grave injustice, is determined to see neither her spirit nor her culture crushed. This is the original 1982 translation from the Gikuyu language, now being rereleased as part of the Penguin Classics African Writers Series. (Il’ja)

Marlena by Julie Buntin
I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of Buntin’s remarkable debut novel, about an intense friendship between two young women in rural Michigan, and I agree with Stephanie Danler, author of Sweetbitter, who calls it “lacerating.” Aside from a riveting story and nuanced characters, Buntin has also delivered an important story about addiction and poverty in middle America. In its starred review, Booklist called it “Ferrante-esque.” (Edan)

 

American War by Omar El Akkad: El Akkad is an award-winning Canadian journalist, whose reporting has ranged from the war in Afghanistan to the protests in Ferguson, Mo. His brilliant and supremely disquieting debut novel opens in 2074, at the outbreak of the Second American Civil War, and follows a young Louisiana girl, Sarat Chestnut, as time and conflict gradually transform her from a child into a weapon. (Emily)

 

The Book of Joan by Lidia Yuknavitch: In a new kind of world, we need a new kind of hero and a reimagined Joan of Arc from Yuknavitch seems like just the thing. Following her widely lauded The Small Backs of Children, this novel takes place in the near future after world wars have turned the Earth into a war zone. Those surviving are sexless, hairless, pale-white creatures who write stories on their skin, but a group of rebels rally behind a cult leader named Jean de Men. Roxane Gay calls it, “a searing condemnation, and fiercely imaginative retelling.” (Claire)

The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron: Our own Cameron returns with a new novel about two women separated by, oh, only 40,000 years: Girl, the eldest daughter in the last family of Neanderthals, and present-day archeologist Rosamund Gale, who is excavating Neanderthal ruins while pregnant. How these two stories echo and resonate with one another will be just one of its delights. Such an ingenious premise could only come from the writer who brought us The Bear, which O, The Oprah Magazine deemed “a tender, terrifying, poignant ride” and which People gave 4 stars, saying “it could do for camping what Jaws did for swimming.” (Edan)

Startup by Doree Shafrir: Probably you know Shafrir by her byline at Buzzfeed — her culture writing always whipsmart, current, and grounded. Shafrir’s debut novel sounds like more of the same: three people working in the same Manhattan office building with colliding desires, ambitions, and relations, head for major conflict and reckoning as scandal sucks each of them into a media-and-money vortex. Hilarity, a mindfulness app, and an errant text message are also involved. Looking forward to this one. (Sonya)

 

What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah: This debut collection of short stories, which takes its name from a story published in Catapult in 2015 to wide acclaim — one that seamlessly blends magical realism and a kind of sci-fi, resulting in a one-of-a-kind dystopia — announces the arrival of a brilliant new talent. Don’t take our word for it: one story, “Who Will Greet You at Home,” appeared in The New Yorker and was a National Magazine Award finalist, and others are already drawing high praise from across the publishing community. These stories explore the ties that bind us together, but in magical, even subversive forms. (Kaulie)

Void Star by Zachary Mason: In Mason’s second novel, three people living in wildly different circumstances in a dystopian near-future are drawn together by mysterious forces. The future that Mason imagines in Void Star is not particularly startling — extreme climate change, ever-widening class divisions, and AIs who have evolved well beyond the understanding of the humans who created them — but what sets Void Star apart is the stunning and hallucinatory beauty of Mason’s prose. Both a speculative thriller and a meditation on memory and mortality. (Emily)

Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke: I tell as many people as possible how cool I think Radtke is, so that when she blows up I’ll have proof that I was ahead of the curve. Besides having her own career as a writer and illustrator, she is the managing editor of Sarabande Books (where she not only published Thrown by Kerry Howley — one of my favorite books of the last 5 years — but designed its killer cover). Her first book is graphic memoir/travelogue about her life, family history, and a trip around the world in search of ruins. (Janet)

Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard: The author goes home in Gerard’s thorough, personal, and well-researched collection of essays on Florida, its inhabitants, and the ways they prey upon each another. As far as Floridian bona fides, it doesn’t get much more Sunshine State than growing up on the Gulf in an Amway family, and truly in the book’s eight essays, Gerard covers more of the state’s ground than Walkin’ Lawton Chiles. (Nick M.)

 

Kingdom of the Young by Edie Meidav: A new collection of the stories by novelist who brought us Lola, California, Crawl Space, and The Far Field. The stories have invited comparisons to Vladimir Nabokov, Clarice Lispector and Italo Calvino. (Lydia)

 

May

Men Without Women by Haruki Murakami: The seven stories in Murakami’s new collection concern the lives of men who, for one reason or another, find themselves alone. In “Scheherazade,” a man living in isolation receives regular visits from a woman who claims to remember a past life as a lamprey; in “Yesterday,” a university student finds himself drawn into the life of a strange coworker who insists that the student go on a date with his girlfriend. (Emily)

 

The Purple Swamp Hen by Penelope Lively: Across her many wonderful books, Lively has ranged from low farce (How It All Began) to high feeling (Moon Tiger), from children’s literature to a memoir on old age. Now comes her fourth story collection, the first in 20 years. The title story draws on reliably entertaining source material: the meretricious lives of Roman rulers. Robert Graves turned to a stammering Claudius for his narrator, Lively to a less exalted personage: a purple swamp hen. Other stories involve trouble: a husband and wife working their way out of it, and a betrayed wife doing her best to cause some for her husband. (Matt)

Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki: Our own Lepucki has always had keen insight into the psyches of women — particularly so-called “difficult” protagonists. Her first novel, California, may have been about a family surviving the end of society, but it was really a post-apocalyptic domestic drama full of sharp wit and observations. Her sophomore effort is more grounded in reality but equally cutting. Lady is a writer struggling to raise her two kids and finish her memoir when she hires S. to help, but the artist becomes more than just a nanny for Lady’s eldest troubled son. (Tess M.)

Trajectory by Richard Russo: In this new collection, Russo, a 2016 Year in Reading contributor, takes a break from the blue-collar characters that readers have come to know from his bestselling novels Nobody’s Fool and Empire Falls to spin tales of struggling novelists trying their hands at screenwriting and college professors vacationing in Venice. No matter. Readers can still count on Russo to deliver deeply human stories of heartbreak leavened by gently black humor. (Michael B.)

 

The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris: The book after Ferris’s Man Booker shortlisted To Rise Again at a Decent Hour is a collection of short stories. The title story, first published by The New Yorker in 2008, is about a couple who invite a boring couple over to dinner (“even their goddam surprises are predictable,”) only to be surprised when the boring couple manage to surprise by not showing up. The collection pulls together stories that promise the, “deeply felt yearnings, heartbreaking absurdity, and redemptive humor of life,” for which Ferris is so well known. (Claire)

The Leavers by Lisa Ko. Ko’s debut novel has already won the 2016 Pen/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction, a prize created and selected by Barbara Kingsolver. The contest awards a novel “that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships,” and Ko’s book certainly fits that laudable description. The novel is the story of Deming Gao, the son of a Chinese-American immigrant mother who, one day, never returns home from work. Adopted by white college professors, Deming is renamed and remade in their image — but his past haunts him. (Nick R.)

Isadora by Amelia Gray. The endlessly inventive Gray (whose story “Labyrinth” from The New Yorker is a gem) creates a fictional interpretation of Isadora Duncan, once described as the “woman who put the Modern into Modern Dance.” A dancer who mixed the classical, sacred, and sensual, Duncan is the perfect subject matter for Gray; if a writer can expertly resurrect the Theseus myth at a small-town fair, then she can do justice to a life as inspiring — and troubled — as Duncan’s. (Nick R.)

 

Chemistry by Weike Wang: In this debut novel, a graduate student in chemistry learns the meaning of explosive when the rigors of the hard sciences clash with the chronic instability of the heart. A traditional family, a can’t-miss fiancé, and a research project in meltdown provide sufficient catalyst to launch the protagonist off in search of that which cannot be cooked up in the lab. If the science bits ring true, in her diabolical hours, the author doubles as a real-life organic chemist. (Il’ja R.)

 

No One Can Pronounce My Name by Rakesh Satyal: Satyal’s novel takes place in a suburb near Cleveland and tells the story of Harit and Ranjana, who are both Indian immigrants that are experiencing loss. Harit’s sister has passed away and he’s caring for his mother; Ranjana’s son has left to college and she’s worrying her husband is having an affair. These two characters form a friendship amidst grief and self-discovery in a novel that is both heartfelt and funny. (Zoë)

 

Bad Dreams and Other Stories by Tessa Hadley: The New Yorker stalwart (whose title story “Bad Dreams” appeared in the magazine in 2013) comes out with her third collection of short stories in the past decade. In one set in 1914, a schoolteacher grapples with the rising power of the women’s suffrage movement; in another, a young housesitter comes across a mysterious diary. In general, the stories let tiny events twirl out into moments of great consequence — in the title story, a young child’s nightmare turns out to be the hinge of the plot. (Thom)

 

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter by Scaachi Koul. Ah, the current frontrunner for Most Relatable Title of the Coming Year. The Canadian writer’s debut essay collection is “about growing up the daughter of Indian immigrants in Western culture, addressing sexism, stereotypes, and the universal miseries of life.” Fans of her work online will be eager to see her on the printed page. Canadian journalist (and Koul’s former journalism professor) Kamal Al-Solaylee said of her writing, “To me, she possesses that rarest of gifts: a powerful, identifiable voice that can be heard and appreciated across platforms and word counts.” (Elizabeth)

Salt Houses by Hala Alyan: In her debut novel, Alyan tells the story of a Palestinian family that is uprooted by the Six-Day War of 1967 and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. This heartbreaking and important story examines displacement, belonging, and family in a lyrical style. (Zoë)

 

 

June

So Much Blue by Percival Everett: In Everett’s 30th book, an artist toils away in solitude, painting what may be his masterpiece. Alone in his workspace, secluded from his children, best friend, and wife, the artist recalls memories of past affairs, past adventures, and all he’s sacrificed for his craft. (Nick M.)

 

 

The Accomplished Guest by Ann Beattie: 1976 was a good year for Beattie: she published her first story collection, Distortions, as well as her debut novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter. Forty years and roughly 20 books later, Beattie has a new collection of stories, closely following last year’s The State We’re In, linked stories set in Maine. One defining trait of Beattie’s short fiction is her fondness for quirks: “However well you write, you can become your own worst enemy by shaping it so highly that the reader can relate to it only on its own terms. Whereas if you have some little oddities of everyday life that aren’t there to be cracked, it seems to me that people can identify with it.” (Nick R.)

Hunger by Roxane Gay: A few years ago, Gay wrote Tumblr posts on cooking and her complex relationship with food that were honest yet meditative. It was on the cusp of her breakthrough essay collection Bad Feminist. Now she may be a household name, but her second nonfiction book delves into the long-running topic of the role food plays in her family, societal, and personal outlook with the same candor and empathy. (Tess M.)

 

The Last Kid Left by Rosecrans Baldwin: The Morning News cofounder and author of Paris, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down returns with a murder mystery/romance/coming-of-age story set in New Hampshire. (Lydia)

 

 

 

Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim: Lim has long been publisher of the small, avant-garde Ellipsis Press, whose authors, including Joanna Ruocco, Evelyn Hampton, Jeremy M. Davies, and Lim himself, are remarkable for their unique voices, their attention to language and experimentation. Together they make a significant if lesser-known body of work. Dear Cyborg, Lim’s third novel, will be his first with a major press (FSG). Tobias Carroll has said, “Lim’s novels tread the line between the hypnotically familiar and the surreptitiously terrifying.” With comparisons to Tom McCarthy and Valeria Luiselli and praise from Gary Lutz and Renee Gladman, Lim’s work is worth seeking out. (Anne)

The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro: In this follow-up to Cutting Teeth, about a zeitgeisty group portrait of Brooklyn hipster moms, Fierro turns back the clock to the summer of 1992 when a plague of gypsy moths infests Avalon, an islet off the coast of Long Island, setting in motion a complex tale of interracial love, class conflict, and possible industrial poisoning at the local aircraft factory. Joanna Rakoff, author of My Salinger Year, says Fierro, director of Brooklyn’s Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, has written “a novel to slowly savor, settling in with her characters as you would old friends.” (Michael B.)

The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton: A debut novel about the Egyptian revolution from filmmaker and activist Hamilton, who has written about the events of Tahrir square for The Guardian and elsewhere.  (Lydia)

 

 

And Beyond

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward: The Odyssey has been repeatedly invoked by early reviewers of Sing, Unburied, Sing, which follows its protagonist on the journey from rural Mississippi to the state penitentiary and beyond. In the hands of a less talented writer, that parallel might seem over-the-top, but in the hands of one of America’s most talented, generous, and perceptive writers, it’s anything but. (Nick M.)

The Passenger by Cormac McCarthy: What does Niels Bohr’s take on quantum mechanics have to do with Johann Sebastian Bach and the suicide of a young New Orleans woman? Perhaps nothing. Or perhaps this, overheard at an advance reading — from 2015 — of Cormac McCarthy’s long-awaited new novel: “Intelligence is numbers; it’s not words. Words are things we made up.” That semi-colon haunts me. From Knopf: a “book one” and “book two” by McCarthy are set for a March 2017 release. A week later the story changes. Maybe July. Perhaps December. With McCarthy, the calculus remains inscrutable but the wait worth it. (Il’ja R.)

And So On by Kiese Laymon: We’ve learned virtually nothing new about this book since our last preview, but continue to expect it in 2017. As I said then, “Laymon is a Mississippi-born writer who has contributed to Esquire, ESPN, the Oxford American, Guernica, and writes a column for The Guardian. His first novel, Long Division, makes a lot of those ‘best books you’ve never heard of’ lists, so feel free to prove them wrong by reading it right now. What we know about his second novel is that he said it’s ‘going to shock folks hopefully. Playing with comedy, Afro-futurist shit and horror.’” (Janet)

The Seventh Function of Language by Laurent Binet: A madcap critical theory mystery by the author of HHhH. In the new novel, a police detective comes up against the likes of Jacques Derrida, Umberto Eco, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, and Julia Kristeva. It sounds bonkers. (Lydia)

 

 

Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang: Zhang’s got range: the poet/Rookie writer/essayist/ and now fiction writer has a voice that’s at once incisive and playful and emboldened. “If I fart next to a hulking white male and then walk away, have I done anything important?” she asks in her chapbook Hags, when wondering about ways to fight imperialism; she has written of encounters with white privilege as a Chinese American, of messiness and feelings and depression, of errata and text messages and Tracey Emin, and of resisting Donald Trump. Zhang’s sure to bring this force to her first collection of short stories, Sour Heart, which will be the first book published by Lena Dunham’s Lenny imprint. (Anne)

Made for Love by Alissa Nutting: Hazel ran out of her husband and moved into her father’s retirement community, a trailer park for senior citizens. She’s laying low for a while. Things are complicated, though. Her husband is the founder and CEO of Gogol Industries, a tech conglomerate bent on making its wares ubiquitous in everyday life, and he’s determined to use the company’s vast, high-tech resources to get her back. Meanwhile, did I mention Hazel’s father is obsessed with a realistic sex robot? (Nick M.)

 

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons: A debut novel from Apogee Journal cofounder and contributing editor at LitHub. Thandi loses her South African mother and navigates the process of grieving and growing up in Pennsylvania. (Lydia)

And Now We Have Everything by Meaghan O’Connell:  Millions Year in Reading alum and New York magazine’s The Cut columnist O’Connell will bring her signature voice to a collection of essays about motherhood billed as “this generation’s Operating Instructions.” Readers who follow O’Connell’s writing for The Cut or her newsletter look forward to a full volume of her relatable, sometimes mordant, sometimes tender reflections on writing and family life. (Lydia)

This Will Be My Undoing by Morgan Jerkins: Jerkins is way too accomplished for her age, but her range of skills and interests – 19th-century Russian lit, postwar Japanese lit, speaker of six languages, editor, assistant literary agent — is so awesome I just can’t begrudge her. Jerkins writes reportage, personal essays, fiction, profiles, interviews, literary criticism, and sports and pop culture pieces. Now she has an essay collection coming out: This Will Be My Undoing. Some of her previously published essays include “The Psychic Toll of Reading the News While Black”“Why I Got a Labiaplasty in My 20s”, and “How Therapy Doesn’t Make Me a Bad Christian” — all of which may or may not be collected in the new book; but you get a feel for the great stuff we can expect. (Sonya)

Sharp by Michelle Dean: Dean has made a name for herself as an astute feminist journalist and critic for the likes of The Guardian, the New Republic, and The Nation. Her work often focuses on the intersection of crime, culture, and literature. So it’s fitting that her first book is nonfiction on other powerhouse female critics. (Tess M.)

A Year in Reading: Lydia Kiesling

My dad lives in Greece and this September we took the baby who is no longer a baby there for a visit. I was vaguely dreading the trip, even though I love Greece and miss it dearly when I’m not there, which is most of the time. I didn’t want to be so callous — or to appear to be so callous — as to go on vacation to a country experiencing a refugee crisis with the express intention of avoiding the crisis. “We are visiting family,” I told people preemptively.

When we arrived I was surprised to see that everything looked eerily normal in my old Athenian haunts and on the island where we spent most of the trip. But while we were there, this article came out, and I was reminded that if you are not seeing the bad thing it is because someone doesn’t want you to see it, whether that someone is yourself or a group of politicians and others with whom you willingly or unwillingly collude. So we colluded, and had a nice time, and sat on a beach watching Italian package tourists doing group calisthenics, and the men we saw selling plastic clips and doodads on the beach were not refugees, or not new ones  — perhaps they were born elsewhere; now they spoke with one another in perfect Greek. During naptime I read Fates and Furies and Swing Time and Transit, and it felt like a sin to enjoy them all like I did.

Later I read Exit West, Mohsin Hamid’s forthcoming novel about the refugee crisis — a novel the surreal elements of which are only as surreal as the things people are facing in Syria and Iraq and Greece and points beyond. It’s a haunting yet spare and somehow efficient book that describes how quickly the conditions of ordinary people can change, and how few reasonable options those people have once events are in motion. I read the novel months after reading this unsparing article about the people who have been preparing for the (increasingly unlikely) day when Bashar al-Assad might be called to account. On Twitter, I see pictures of mortar-blasted infants and bloodied strollers on the ruined streets of Aleppo.

I have been thinking about collusion, and bubbles, and things seen and unseen. After Greece I read Negroland, in which Margo Jefferson describes upper-middle class black families whose class bubble was insufficient defense against the effects of whiteness:
Caucasian privilege lounged and sauntered, draped itself casually about, turned vigilant and commanding, then cunning and devious. We marveled at its tonal range, its variety, its largess in letting its humble share the pleasures of caste with its mighty.
I read about her relatives who took the course of abdicating and living as white people, functionally erasing whole parts of their lives: “When Uncle Lucious stopped being white, my parents invited him to dinner,” Jefferson writes.

After the election I read a series of astute tweets I wish I could find now about how liberal white Americans approach their lives with the same unfortunate tactics as illiberal ones; that is, they create their own enclaves and wall themselves off from elements they find unsavory. My deceased grandparents lived in a California county with a population of two people per square mile, and 71 percent of those people voted for Donald Trump. The last time we drove the hours and hours to get there I saw a huge “Kafir” flag on a lonely homestead, someone’s warning to would-be jihadists who might find themselves in the goddamned middle of nowhere, U.S.A. I try to picture life there now and experience a failure of imagination. I read Where I Was From, Joan Didion’s great California book on the “vexed issue” of “a birthright squandered, a paradise lost,” the illusion of which seems to animate so much of the white American psyche. (Even her investigation stops a few hundred miles short of that high-desert plain.)

Since coming aboard The Millions I feel like I know the titles of more books than ever before, while actually reading fewer books. I hate this. Partly it’s because I no longer have a commute with a daily designated hour for reading, but really it’s because I stare too long at my phone. Nonetheless, sometimes conditions and moods and books coincided to make memorable reading experiences. Before I quit my job I read Grief Is the Thing with Feathers over a single day’s commute and wept into my jacket on the train. Over Thanksgiving, while talking heads brayed horribly from the television in my in-laws’ kitchen, I read a new edition of The Haunting of Hill House with Laura Miller’s introduction. I have the best couch in the world; on it I read Here Comes the Sun and The Last Samurai and Queen Sugar and Housekeeping and Void Star and Gold Fame Citrus over the course of precious, orgiastic pig-in-a-blanket afternoons. My husband found me bawling as I read the final page of the latter — in addition to being a warning for the planet, I can’t think of a novel that better captures the bruising horror of loving small children.

Every year I seem to read about bereaved parents. I read this beautiful essay about a random, preventable disaster, and I read this article about an inevitable one. I’ve fixated cruelly on the family in the second piece. I tell myself Jesus doesn’t want me to politicize the death of a child, but everything is inflected by politics lately, and the rancor of a walled-off elite like myself for my non-elite white brethren is at its zenith. The rancor extends both ways, obviously; I read this heartbreaking article, and subsequently learned there are benighted people who believe it’s part of a vast liberal hoax. After watching Alton Sterling’s son weep next to his mother onscreen I read Citizen — its cover an homage to another dead child — aware that I was showing up late and unprepared, more colluding.

I felt late and unprepared again after the U.S. election, and I read this essay by Uday Jain, his reminder that “there is no single…story where if we just do this, this, and this, things will be fine.” I have been thinking about Jain’s lovely formulation:
When one gives up on being a Rawlsian, absolutely transparent to oneself, perfectly good in one’s own life, autonomous liberal subject — one gains the Platonic, the feminist, the Marxist sense of a self as constituted essentially by interdependence. I am not an individual. I am the voices and affects and legacies and bodies of everyone I’ve ever read, talked to, befriended, and loved; their parents and grandparents; the dead. Solidarity consists in this refusal of individuality — and simultaneously the maintenance of difference that makes interdependence possible.
I have wondered how to reconcile my interest in literature and my sense of it as a fundamentally bourgeois chronicle of individual concerns — my Of Human Bondage, my The Sea, the Sea — with the solidarity Jain describes. I don’t understand exactly how literature works with politics; perhaps the answer for now is simply that literature is one of the most pleasing and enduring ways of capturing those voices and affects and legacies. Currently I’m reading Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life; I dog-eared the page where she writes “Every word one writes, every dream and fear and hope and despair one reveals to others and to oneself — they all end up like chicks refusing to be returned to the eggshell.” (The chicks she mentions are dead, so it’s not super-hopeful, but what a line.)

I can’t stop worrying all these things between my teeth. My mom says I have to log off and tune out and I snarl at her, as though everything is her fault. I feel calm when I reread A Dance to the Music of Time. In volume one I found a torn-out poem from The New Yorker by Adam Zagajewski — “Erinna from Telos.” (I like the Claire Cavanagh translation that ends with “grasshopper” and not the one on Google Books that ends with “cricket.”) The poem is about death and art and history; my mother, Miss Cheer-Up-Charlie, is the one who tore it out of the magazine (she, by the way, exclusively reads morose novels by Eastern-European intellectuals). But I wonder if she has a point when she chastises me: if there is any value in feeling sad, any point wallowing in rancor, if you are not going to be good. If you are going to know about those bloody strollers and continue to go about your business.

Because I am going about my business, in spite of reading all these miserable things.  The day after the election, I saw the faintest of faint lines on a pregnancy test; it disappeared within a few days, as though the egg, while trying to settle in, had been warned off by troubled vibes.  This was less demoralizing than it might have been if I didn’t have a small child to parent. She just turned two, and she says, “Mommy Mommy Mommy Mommy,” and I answer, “Yes Yes Yes Yes.” She loves our cats, and she pets them and kisses them until they scratch her, and she says “scratchoo” and begs me to put a “benden” on the wound. From her I learned about that thing that Zadie Smith calls “joy” in something else I read this year:
Occasionally the child, too, is a pleasure, though mostly she is a joy, which means in fact she gives us not much pleasure at all, but rather that strange admixture of terror, pain, and delight that I have come to recognize as joy, and now must find some way to live with daily. This is a new problem.
Once you feel joy you can’t unfeel it; I’m fiending helplessly for more. The polar ice is melting, but I want to hold another baby.  I feel like the grasshopper who sang all summer.

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Octogenarian Hotties

1.
American book publishers have forever been on the lookout for the next hot young thing. In a country built by people who shucked the old world in favor of a new one they got to make up on the fly, this hunger for newness — in books and just about everything else — was probably an inevitable strain of the national character. And it hasn’t been an entirely bad thing. A very cursory list of American writers who got published before they turned 25 includes Truman Capote, Michael Chabon, Bret Easton Ellis, Jonathan Safran Foer, Langston Hughes, Norman Mailer, Carson McCullers, Karen Russell, Gore Vidal, and David Foster Wallace. Not a single dog in that pack.

But for every hot young thing who went on to a long and venerable career, there are dozens, hundreds, who blazed briefly and then vanished. Moreover, publishing’s abiding obsession with fresh voices ignores a curious fact about our current literary scene: a startling number of the finest writers at work today are not twentysomethings; they’re eightysomethings. Yes, we’re witnessing the unlikely rise of the octogenarian hottie. (Fellow staff writer Sonya Chung explores and celebrates the work of later-in-life writers at our sister site, Bloom.) Here are sketches of a half-dozen members of this implausibly durable and prolific tribe.

2.
Gay Talese
At the age of 84, Gay Talese has just published his 14th work of non-fiction. As we have come to expect from one of our greatest living journalists, The Voyeur’s Motel is richly reported, elegantly written — and deeply disturbing. Above all, it’s a testament to the payoffs when a skilled reporter stays in for the long haul. Talese, who once wrote for and then wrote a book about our newspaper of record, calls himself “a man of record.” In bulging file cabinets in his subterranean bunker in New York City, he tucks away every scrap of research for possible use at a later date. He discards nothing because he understands that everything has the potential to become a story.

This obsessive collecting accounts for the existence of The Voyeur’s Motel. The titular character is Gerald Foos, who bought a motel near Denver in the 1960s for the express purpose of spying on his guests. He cut holes in the ceilings of several rooms, then installed fake vents that allowed him to climb into the attic and observe everything that happened in the rooms below. In 1980, Foos wrote an anonymous letter about his project to Talese, who was about to publish his best-seller about sex in America, Thy Neighbor’s Wife. “I did this purely out of my unlimited curiosity about people and not just as some deranged voyeur,” Foos wrote, adding, “I have logged an accurate record of the majority of the individuals that I have watched, and compiled interesting statistics on each…”

Intrigued, Talese eventually visited the Manor House Motel and accompanied Foos into his attic observatory for several voyeuristic sessions. But since Foos was not willing to reveal his identity — and since Talese insists on using real names — the notes went into Talese’s file cabinets, along with the copious journal entries Foos began to send. Foos insisted that his retrofitted motel was not the lair of “some pervert or Peeping Tom,” but rather “the finest laboratory in the world for observing people in their natural state.” He saw himself as a “pioneering sex researcher” in a league with Masters and Johnson.

Foos’s journals chronicled every imaginable kind of participant in every imaginable scenario: sex between happily and unhappily married couples, group sex, swingers, cross-dressers, a nun, drug dealers, prostitutes, con artists, wounded Vietnam veterans, and one guy who had sex with a teddy bear. Foos even witnessed a murder. But since the voyeur remained unwilling to go on the record, Talese filed away the journal entries and eventually forgot about Gerald Foos.

Then in 2013 — 33 years after he first wrote to Talese, and several years after he sold his two motels — Foos called Talese to announce that he was finally willing to go public with his story. Talese was ready. He had everything he needed in chronological order in his file cabinets, including the fact that the voyeur’s experiment became a long slide into misanthropy. After decades of peeping, Foos concluded: “People are basically dishonest and unclean; they cheat and lie and are motivated by self-interest. They are part of a fantasy world of exaggerators, game players, tricksters, intriguers, thieves, and people in private who are never what they portray themselves as being in public.”

When Talese made one last research trip to Colorado in the summer of 2015, Foos took him to the site of the recently demolished Manor House Motel. Foos was hoping to find a souvenir in the fenced-in platter of dirt, but after a while he gave up. When his wife suggested they go home, he said, “Yes, I’ve seen enough.” There was to be one major hiccup. As the book was going to press, a Washington Post reporter dug up the fact that Gerald Foos had failed to tell Talese that he had sold his the Manor House Motel and then repurchased it in the 1980s — after the events recorded in The Voyeur’s Motel. Talese warned in the book that Foos could be “an inaccurate and unreliable narrator,” adding, “I cannot vouch for every detail that he recounts in his manuscript.” Despite these clear caveats, Talese blurted to a Post reporter that his book’s credibility was “down the toilet” and he would not be promoting it. Happily, Talese quickly came to his senses and disavowed his disavowal, then vigorously set about promoting a book that only a “man of record” and a gifted journalist could have written.

Cynthia Ozick
At the age of 88 — “piano keys,” as she merrily puts it — Cynthia Ozick has just published her seventh volume of criticism, Critics, Monsters, Fanatics, and Other Literary Essays, the yin to the yang of her high-minded novels (read our interview with Ozick here). A self-proclaimed “fanatic” in the cause of literature, Ozick is not ashamed to be wistful about the passing of a time when “the publication of a serious literary novel was an exuberant communal event.” In a sense, Ozick is a keeper of a guttering flame, but she presses on, living in the bedroom community of New Rochelle where she has lived since the 1960s, not far from her girlhood home in the Bronx. She rarely ventures beyond the neighborhood supermarket these days, and she still writes late into the night at the Sears, Roebuck desk she has owned since childhood.

One sign of greatness in a writer of fiction is the ability to make readers care about characters and worlds that would ordinarily be of no interest to them. I approached Ozick’s 2004 novel, Heir to the Glimmering World, with more than a little trepidation. It’s the story of a young woman named Rose Meadows who accepts a job as assistant to Rudolf Mitwisser, an imposing scholar of a medieval Jewish heresy known as Karaism. The novel unfolds in the Bronx in the mid-1930s, amid an enclave of refugees from Europe’s gathering storm. Not exactly my kind of set-up, but my trepidation vanished before I reached the bottom of the first page. I was beguiled, swept away.

The publication of that novel also served as a reminder that Ozick can be funny in a brazen, Buster-Keaton kind of way. Thirty-eight years after publishing her first novel, Ozick got sent out on her first book tour to promote Heir, a form of exquisite torture and humiliation that she chronicled for the New York Times in a story that should be required reading for every aspiring novelist and every comedy writer. Yes, high literature may be all but dead in America, but it helps that a keeper of the flame is still able to make us laugh out loud.

Toni Morrison
Last year, at the age of 84, Toni Morrison, our only living Nobel laureate, published a slender novel called God Help the Child. Unlike her previous 10 novels, this one avoids large historical themes — particularly slavery and its unending repercussions — and instead tells a fable-like story of a well-off cosmetics executive named Bride living in modern-day California. The damage done to children has been an abiding preoccupation of Morrison’s, going all the way back to her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in which an 11-year-old girl is pregnant after being raped by her father. In God Help the Child the damage is less brutal but no less insidious. Bride’s mother, Sweetness, was instantly and forever appalled by her daughter’s dark skin: “It didn’t take more than an hour after they pulled her out from between my legs to realize something was wrong. Really wrong. She was so black she scared me. Midnight black, Sudanese black.”

While God Help the Child is not Morrison’s finest work — how many novels rise to the level of Beloved? — it offers an insight into the sources of one writer’s late-career flowering. Arthritis has put Morrison in a wheelchair, and writing is not only a way out of physical pain, but a way to control her world. As she told The New York Times Magazine last year:
I know how to write forever. I don’t think I could have happily stayed here in the world if I did not have a way of thinking about it, which is what writing is for me. It’s control… Nothing matters more in the world or in my body or anywhere when I’m writing. It is dangerous because I’m thinking up dangerous, difficult things, but it is also extremely safe for me to be in that place.
Philip Levine
This fall, nearly two years after he died at the age of 87, the poet Philip Levine will posthumously publish a slim but sumptuous miscellany called My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry. A former U.S. poet laureate who came up through the infernos of his native Detroit’s auto factories, Levine was productive right up to the end of his long life, producing the essays, speeches, journal entries and verse fragments that make up this welcome new collection. It is, in essence, the story of how one poet got made, and it’s best read in tandem with Levine’s only other book of prose, The Bread of Time: Toward an Autobiography, from 1994. The new book offers a lovely description of Levine’s very first poems, composed when he was a teenager, at night, in woods near his home in Detroit. He called them “secret little speeches addressed to the moon.” Years later, on a return visit to his hometown, Levine encounters an elderly black man who is scratching out a garden and an existence amid the city’s ruins. As the two men talk, life and poetry merge. As Levine put it: “There are those rare times in my life when I know that what I’m living is in a poem I’ve still to write.”

Joan Didion
Now 81, Joan Didion has produced three fairly recent memoirs that prove beyond all doubt that she is a master stylist and one of our keenest social observers. The first of the three books, Where I Was From, is my favorite, a cold-eyed reassessment of the myths and assumptions Didion once held about her family and her native California, what she now scorns as “the local dreamtime.” The other two books, The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights, are unflinching dissections of the grief Didion lived through after the deaths of her husband and daughter. Bravery, it turns out, is not the exclusive province of the young.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
At the age of 97 — which makes him the only nonagenarian in this tribe — the poet, publisher and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti is shopping a new book called To the Lighthouse, a surrealistic blend of fiction and autobiography. Ferlinghetti, who has published some 50 volumes of poetry, including the million-copy-seller A Coney Island of the Mind, is still represented by his long-time literary agent Sterling Lord, who is a spry 95.

3.
So why is it that some writers dry up while others keep producing good work deep into the twilight of their lives? There is no single reason for this late-career productivity, just as there is no single approach that unifies these writers. Talese and Ozick continue to plow the same furrows they’ve been plowing for decades, to great effect. For Morrison, writing is a way to escape physical pain and assert control. For Levine and Didion, the late years became a time of looking back, of revisiting origins and reassessing beliefs. For Ferlinghetti, it’s a chance to explore a new form. If their motivations and methods vary, it’s safe to say that all of these writers share Morrison’s need to write forever, that they’re in the grip of what the writer Roger Rosenblatt has called “the perpetually evolving yearning.” There will always be something new to say, maybe even some new way to say it.

In his posthumous collection of essays, On Late Style: Music and Literature Against the Grain, Edward Said contended that late-life work isn’t always a summing up, or a display of accumulated wisdom, or a reassessment; it can also be “a form of exile” marked by “intransigence, difficulty and unresolved contradiction.” Said cited Jean Genet and Ludwig von Beethoven, among others, as exemplars of this intransigence. Late style can also be a response to the breakdown of the body, as when Henri Matisse underwent colon surgery at age 71 and, no longer able to stand and work at an easel, gleefully embarked on what he called his “second life,” a 13-year flurry when he sat in a wheelchair and used simple scissors and sheets of colored paper to create the ebullient, child-like cutouts that would become the exclamation point of his long career. He kept at it until he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 84. The painter Chuck Close, who underwent a major stylistic shift of his own in his mid-70s, recently said, “The late stage can be very interesting. Had Matisse not done the cutouts, we would not know who he was.”

The above list doesn’t pretend to be exhaustive. It omits countless octogenarians who are still doing fine work, as well as writers who were productive until they died in their 80s (and beyond), including: Maya Angelou, who died at 86 in 2014; the poet John Ashbery, still prolific at 89; Saul Bellow, who died at 89 in 2005; E.L. Doctorow, who died last year at 84 and will posthumously publish his Collected Stories next year; Elizabeth Hardwick, who died at 91 in 2007; Gabriel García Márquez, who died at 87 in 2014; the Canadian short story master and Nobel laureate, Alice Munro, still working at 85; Philip Roth, (who is currently in retirement but was productive into his 80s); James Salter, who died last year at 90; and Tom Wolfe (85).

As different as these writers are, they do have one thing in common: they were all in for the long haul, and they all found a way to keep up the good work.

Image: Wikipedia, Girolamo Nerli

Creation Myths: The Millions Interviews Lindsay Hatton

I met Lindsay Hatton at a party. There’s a lesson there: even a misanthrope should go to a party once in a while — you might meet someone remarkable. Hatton’s first novel, Monterey Bay, is just so beautiful that if we hadn’t met and hit it off, I would hate her. Her book is full of sentences I wish I had written, and it’s such a bold act of imagination, unfolding across decades, mixing history and fiction with a confidence that’s awe-inspiring.

All novels suffer from pithy summary. Monterey Bay is about a young woman and some old men who end up creating an aquarium on the titular body of water. But really, it’s a book about ambition, art, sex, obsession, and the devastation wrought on this planet by people — and the unsettling fact that no matter what we do to it, the planet will outlast us. Hatton kindly let me subject her to a few silly questions about her novel, John Steinbeck, and the weird exercise that is historical fiction. Here we go. 

Rumaan Alam: Any summary of your book must, it seems, mention John Steinbeck. He’s a character in the novel, though I would take exception to the suggestion that Monterey Bay is “about” Steinbeck. Is Steinbeck important to you as a writer generally and in this novel specifically?

Lindsay Hatton: To be honest, I knew basically nothing about Steinbeck’s work before writing this novel. I mean, I had been assigned the requisite titles in grade school (The Red Pony, The Pearl, etc.) but for some reason they didn’t make a huge impression. As a kid growing up in Monterey, I didn’t experience him as a writer so much as a tourist attraction. I think there was a part of me that resented the implication that because I lived in “Steinbeck Country” I had to be a superfan. So maybe my avoidance of his work was my first — but certainly not my last — act of pointless literary contrarianism.

It was only once I realized that he’d be a character in my book that I really dug in. And I’m so glad I did. Some of his work I adore (The Log from the Sea of Cortez, The Grapes of Wrath) and some of it I don’t (I know I might be alone here, but I find Of Mice and Men borderline unreadable). Either way, I have great respect for him. He wasn’t afraid of sentiment, which I think is very brave. He had strong ethical convictions that he always stuck to, often at great personal expense. His geographical descriptions are breathtaking. As a writer, I definitely hope to emulate these things.

As a character in my novel, Steinbeck is important but minor. He is my protagonist’s nemesis/role model and the catalyst for one of the book’s odder moments and the source of some occasional comic relief, but other than that he remains pretty much in the background.

RA: Steinbeck isn’t the focus; that honor belongs to Margot Fiske, a wise (but refreshingly adolescent) teenager who arrives in California with her dad, and takes up with Ed Ricketts, who was also a real person. Steinbeck himself fictionalized Ricketts in Cannery Row and I finished the book unsure whether Fiske and her dad were real people too. It minimizes the book to say it’s about the creation of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, though it is that. But is this creation story or creation myth? Until reading your book, it had never occurred to me that “historical fiction” is in fact a very postmodern exercise.

LH: My relationship to historical fiction is probably as complicated as my relationship to Steinbeck. As a reader, I really admire straight-up historical fiction but, as a writer, it plagues me. If I stay too faithful to the facts, my prose goes kind of stale. Like when you leave a glass of water out for a couple days and accidentally take a sip and taste the dust. I hate tasting that dust! I prefer it when I can see, or at least intuit, the act of fabrication and the freshness it brings. I love David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet and Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America for precisely these reasons. They’ve done their research, but they take immense pleasure in wild speculation. I think that’s exciting.

I also think history itself is exciting. I like how stories and themes and symbols arise naturally by sheer virtue of time and distance and the cognitive pressure they exert. And then I like messing around with those things for my own devious purposes. So from the very first drafts of the novel, this interweaving of fact and fiction was crucial to me. The question was how to manage it, and the answer I arrived at was to stay almost completely true to certain realms of fact (the wheres/whats/whens/whos of Steinbeck and Ricketts, the marine biological detail, certain technicalities and logistics surrounding the aquarium’s creation) and to go almost completely off the rails as far as Margot was concerned. It is, as you put it, definitely a creation myth as opposed to a creation story. I mean, there’s also the question of whether or not there’s a material difference between those two things. But that’s a debate for another time.

One thing in particular that might seem invented but was actually supported by my research was the possibility of Ricketts being attracted to someone Margot’s age. As Steinbeck said in his eulogy of Ricketts: “When I first met [Ricketts] he was engaged in a scholarly and persistent way in the process of deflowering a young girl.” ‘Nuff said, I think.

RA: Because of the connection to Steinbeck, I expected Monterey Bay to be in the vein of Colm Tóibín’s wonderful novel about Henry James, The Master. I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t love James enjoying Toibin’s book, but I have no particular feeling about Steinbeck and was swept into your book. That’s testament to your storytelling, but I think it’s also about the way you evoke Northern California. Does writing about geography entail a different set of responsibilities than writing about real people?

LH: When writing, I was hugely aware of place. Northern California is not only gorgeous; it’s also emotionally provocative. Whether they’re occasional visitors or lifelong residents, people feel very strongly about that landscape, often in quite proprietary ways.

So while the well-known, real-life location of the book is a selling point, it’s also kind of a minefield. I knew I’d be in for some criticism if my experience of the place didn’t match the readers’. My representation of the aquarium, in particular, was risky in this way. But that’s not really something I can worry about, you know? I can only be true to what I’ve seen and how I feel. I love my hometown and I acknowledge its spectacular beauty. But I also acknowledge its darkness. My adolescence was, like so many people’s, full of pain and drama and desire and a sense of not belonging. Monterey is where that all took place, so it stands to figure that my filter might be a little…gothic.

As for my responsibility in representing the town, I’m of two minds on that. The chapters that take place in 1998 depict the town as I knew it, so it was a question of accessing memories that are still very vivid and close to the surface. I trusted my own recollections and didn’t do much supporting research. As for showing what it was like in the 1940s, this is where I did my homework. I took this as seriously research-wise as I took my representation of Steinbeck and Ricketts. With very few exceptions, names and dates and locations are accurate. This was difficult. As any writer of historical fiction will tell you, there are times when the facts refuse to fit with your invented narrative; the book becomes a puzzle and not the fun kind. For a while, when things got really rough in that regard, I considered doing what Lauren Groff did so beautifully with Cooperstown in The Monsters of Templeton: presenting a bizarro, renamed version of the real thing. But at the end of the day, Monterey is just too famous and specific a place, and fictionalizing it in that way would have added a layer of metatext that probably would have distracted from the novel’s main goals.

RA: Sex is a not-insignificant aspect of your book. The action begins in the 1940s, but you have the liberty of writing about sex as someone who lives in the 21st century. As the book concludes, Margot is an elderly woman, there’s still something, well, sexual about her. I’m curious to hear what it meant to write about this character as a young girl and an old woman, and how consciously you wanted to explore the question of sex in the book.

LH: Oh yeah! Now we’re getting down to business! It was absolutely vital for me not to present Margot as a victim of anything. Sure, she’s the recipient of some nasty circumstances (a dead mom, a rigid and neglectful father, a nomadic lifestyle, an age-inappropriate romantic relationship that is, no matter how you slice it, very uncool), but I didn’t want to give the reader the easy out of pitying her. When you pity someone, you weaken them. You declaw them and rob them of agency. This is especially true in terms of sex stuff. Why is a show like Law & Order: Special Victims Unit such a huge success? Because sexual victimhood, especially as it relates to young women, is less threatening to us as a society than sexual empowerment. Young women with sex drives worry us: in our entertainment, we’d rather see them raped and killed than complicit in the fulfillment of their own desires. I wanted to Margot to break this mold. I wanted her to transcend the living hell of simultaneous fetishization and underestimation that most female teenagers experience. She is as bold, sexually and otherwise, as the men in her life and remains so despite the consequences.

The trick was making this believable in the 1940s, when sexual mores were different (theoretically, at least) than they are today. Margot had to be largely ignorant of these mores, thus the very unusual parameters of her upbringing.

As for older Margot, her vitality was also very much a conscious choice. Our culture doesn’t like thinking about adolescent sexuality, but we REALLY don’t like thinking about geriatric sexuality. When old people have sex in movies or books or TV shows, it’s usually in service of a punch line. And making something into a joke is often very much like pity: it neuters (ha!) its subject. Margot didn’t deserve that, so I didn’t inflict it on her.

RA: The natural world also figures via the animals, mostly sea creatures, that Ricketts collects, that the aquarium is dedicated to. In these pages, sometimes animals are just animals, but sometimes they feel nearer characters. I wouldn’t say you anthropomorphize, necessarily, but you use animals in a way I found unexpected.

LH: For the most part I like animals a lot. But I see them as animals. This was a lesson I learned during my time working at the aquarium, actually. With the exception of the otters and the occasional sevengill shark, none of the animals on display had official names. Avoiding anthropomorphism was taken very seriously. I wanted that to be true of my book as well.

BUT. You just can’t help yourself sometimes, you know? Sometimes there’s an emotional connection or a symbolism that’s impossible to ignore and you kind of have to run with it. I’m okay with that. I remember that being the case at the aquarium, too. There was this one psychologically deranged, obese sea turtle. The turtle, of course, was given a secret name and extra treats because we had projected human characteristics onto it and had fallen in love with it. And that’s not a bad thing.

RA: I wrestle with the inherent sexism of this question but here we go: you have two young children, but found the time and bandwidth to write this beautiful novel. On the one hand, it’s fucked up that novelists who happen to be women and happen to be parents are asked “How did you do it?” On the flip side, I see some value in coming clean about this; like it may well inspire their compatriots, whether mothers or fathers.

LH: Yeah, I don’t get as rankled by this question as some people do. I see it as an inquiry — however tactless and sexist it can sometimes come off — into the changing role of the artist in society. And this is a thing I’m really glad we’re thinking about. There’s that myth of the solitary (usually male, usually white) creator devoting his life solely to his work. Writing all day in his Parisian garret or lakeside cottage, and then drinking all night: that kind of thing. Art doesn’t get made this way anymore, at least not by anyone I know. But the myth still persists for some reason, and I enjoy the opportunity to help debunk it whenever possible.

You mentioned Colm Toibin’s The Master. I loved that book, too, but one of my predominant reactions to it was: “Man! Henry James had so much time and so few responsibilities!” I feel the opposite way about my life. No time! Too many responsibilities! But then again, I’ve also had the extraordinary benefit of a spouse who supported me financially when I was in the deep, unpaid murk of drafting the novel. I also find endless creative fuel in the act of parenting, however distracting and time consuming it can often be. Do my lifestyle choices stymie my writing in certain ways? Has my journey toward publication probably been longer as a result? Yes and yes. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.

RA: I believe I am supposed to ask you the last great book you read.

LH: I really enjoyed Leaving Lucy Pear by Anna Solomon. Her description of breastfeeding is perhaps the best I’ve ever read. Also, she is a total virtuoso when it comes to changing POV. And I’ve been obsessed with Joan Didion’s Where I Was From for a while now. Highly recommended for my fellow Californians in self-imposed exile.

At Home in Potatoland: On Joan Didion, Nostalgia, and Walt Disney

1.
My default location on weather.com is Walt Disney World.

This makes no sense. For one thing, I live in Cambridge, Mass. For another, there are places I visit far more often than I visit Orlando: my hometown in Monterey, Calif., for example. I’ve tried to change my settings on the website to better reflect this. But for some reason, the four trips I’ve taken to Disney World have thrown a wrench into the algorithm, and as a result I’m always cognizant of whether or not it’s warm enough for a spin on the Kali River Rapids. (Today, it’s 89 and cloudy in the Animal Kingdom, so the answer is yes.)

As a result of this little computer glitch, I think about Disney every day. I think about Monterey every day, too. I spent the first 18 years of my life there, although when I go back, I feel like a tourist. Growing up, there was no greater insult. I recall the uncharacteristic vitriol with which my dad (who is usually a jolly and even-tempered fellow) would mutter the epithet at the crowds on Cannery Row or at the drivers of the rental RVs that went way too slow down Highway One.

2.
Intense feelings demand action. We confront them or dull them or change them, or we question ourselves for having felt so strongly in the first place. Reading Joan Didion’s Where I Was From, I get a sense of the latter. The book is, among other things, a late-in-life exploration of her youth in California. I’m not talking Slouching Toward Bethlehem youth or Play It as It Lays youth: I’m talking early years. She was born in Sacramento in 1934, but her family’s tenure in the West stretches back to 1846, when her mother’s ancestors traveled, for a time, alongside the infamous George Donner-James F. Reed party. The depths of Didion’s California roots are troublesome for her. There is a “dissonance,” she says “which has to do with the slippage between the way Californians perceive themselves and the way they were, between what they believed to be their unlimited possibilities and the limitations of their own character and history.” She seems both skeptical of California’s allure and inescapably caught up in it: a contradiction that encapsulates the very nature of nostalgia and its discontents.

Nostalgia is something she shares with Walt Disney, another legendary Californian. Disney, however, did not share Didion’s ambivalence, and his nostalgia wasn’t a product of California. Rather, it was inspired by Marceline, Mo: his home in childhood. It was, to his mind, the perfect example of small-town America. The countryside was lush and welcoming. The downtown was charming and safe but also, because it served as a railroad division point, alive with commerce and community and all sorts of entertainment. The years Disney spent there were short but formative: “more things happened to me in Marceline than have happened since,” he once commented, “or are likely to in the future.” When Walt and his team were planning the layout of Disneyland, Walt would hold forth for hours on the charms of his former home: an exercise that eventually resulted in the Main Street sections of the parks that bear his name. Walking down these faux boulevards is a very strange experience. You get the sense that Walt never questioned the purity of his nostalgia. In fact, his hallucination of yesteryear is so dense and detailed and complete that even the most cynical visitor — myself included — can’t help but feel a weird twinge of homesickness. This twinge isn’t accidental or unique. It is, in the words of one Disney scholar, “a fantasized but nearly pitch-perfect representation of [our] deepest commitments and beliefs.” It is the bedrock of the Disney brand, and it is exploited at every turn. Welcome home! is how all visitors, even first time ones, are greeted by Disney hotel staff.

I’m drawn in by the hallucination but, like any good curmudgeon, I’m also irked by it. I’m always on the lookout for a chink in the armor, a glitch in the matrix. In 2013, the company began making revamped versions of its classic Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts. While the new storylines retain much of the harmless whimsy of the originals, there are times when the themes dig deeper, especially in Potatoland. In this short, Goofy longs to visit Potatoland: a theme park devoted to potatoes. The problem is, Potatoland doesn’t actually exist; it’s just a billboard slogan for Idaho that Goofy, as a child, took literally. Mickey and Donald are so touched by Goofy’s enduring enthusiasm and naiveté that they take it upon themselves to make his boyhood dream come true. They construct a Disney World entirely out of potatoes and guide an enraptured Goofy to each of the potato-centric attractions. As they’re walking down Potatoland’s Main Street, Goofy exclaims, “It feels so…magical!” The accompanying visuals, however, are anything but. We see Goofy peering into a storefront window, imagining the treasures within. The treasures, however, are nothing more than a dirt floor, some scrap lumber, and a potato on a stool: a fact that Goofy, from his perspective, cannot discern but that we, as the audience, can. Disney, in other words, is calling itself out on its own bullshit. But, in so doing, it also reinforces the bullshit’s primal power. You know it and we know it, the cartoon seems to say, and yet…here we are.

3.
What, then, does this imply about the value of the hallucination, especially in relation to the behind-the-scenes mechanisms required to keep it alive?

I’ve never been behind-the-scenes at a Disney park. I have, however, worked at The Monterey Bay Aquarium: a tourist destination that, although it welcomes far fewer visitors than the Disneyland or Disney World, is extremely popular in its own right. Its popularity is due to the fact that it is a distinctly beautiful aquarium experience. The tanks are flawlessly curated and maintained, the viewing corridors are spotless and thoughtfully lit and, where appropriate, full of haunting ambient music. When people describe their visits, it is often in borderline spiritual terms. Over the course of my tenure there, I had ample opportunity to see the fallacy of this. I could have seen a seamy underbelly. I could have witnessed corners cut or animals mistreated. I could have glimpsed the potato on the stool, so to speak. But I never did. If anything, the private spaces of the Monterey Bay Aquarium are even more magical that the public ones. The exact same aesthetic sensibility that pervades the viewing galleries — clean, calm, scientifically sound, technologically advanced — also characterizes the service corridors, which is nice because it appeals to my sense of symmetry. But does it actually matter? Does it change the intended visitor experience? Does it make the enacting of the touristic ritual any more blameless? If the hallucination doesn’t evaporate when you peek through the fake storefront window, is it replicated into infinity thereby becoming an even more convincing — and potentially insidious — performance of substance?

Unlike my Dad, I’m not interested in condemning tourists. I’ve been a tourist myself on countless occasions, and there are few things more maddening than someone bemoaning a phenomenon in which she is complicit. Like everyone else, I’ve spent money at places designed to meet the needs of the transient as opposed to the permanent. The fact remains, however, that the Monterey of 2016 is nothing like the Monterey in which I was born and raised. It has, in our culture’s parlance for something commercialized and sanitized to the point of self-parody, been “Disneyfied.” I’m sad about this but, like Didion, I question the validity of the sadness. I recognize that the aquarium — an institution I love and respect — is largely responsible for the town’s transformation. I also recognize that the sturdy structure of my childhood impressions is someone else’s (John Steinbeck’s, maybe?) flimsy façade. In Didion’s words:

Discussion of how California has ‘changed’…tends locally to define the more ideal California as that which existed at whatever past point the speaker first saw it: Gilroy as it was in the 1960s and Gilroy as it was fifteen years ago and Gilroy as it was when my father and I ate short ribs at the Milias Hotel are three pictures with virtually no overlap, a hologram that dematerializes as I drive through it.

I have similarly non-overlapping holograms, or hallucinations, of Cannery Row, the street on which the aquarium now resides. First, as the site of suspiciously well-contained warehouse fires; second, on the aquarium’s opening day; and third, as Monterey’s faux Main Street cum Times Square: a place where the crowds are bad, the commerce is frivolous, the prices are high, and where locals almost never go unless they’re entertaining someone who lives elsewhere.

4.
At the turn of the prior century, when Monterey was experiencing its first burst of attention from the leisure class, this onstage/offstage friction reached a literal flash point. The proprietors of the luxurious Hotel Del Monte were convinced its well-heeled patrons would not abide the aesthetic shortcomings of the town’s thriving fishing industry, so they did everything in their power — including arson, some say — to push the blue-collar undesirables out of both sight and mind.

And even though my love of the Monterey Bay Aquarium makes me once again hesitant to proclaim as much, there is evidence of the same sort of culling in terms of both their exhibit design and visitor demographics. Aquarium tanks are highly curated situations, and for a good reason. Few people would actually care to witness the true brutality and barrenness of life in the ocean. So the aquarists — the men and women who care for the fish and design their habitats — are tasked with presenting a highly edited and beautified version of life in the bay. In a sense, it’s a Disney World for fish: a place where the ugliness of reality is replaced by reality’s pleasantly circumscribed doppelgänger. It’s a considerable achievement, and it costs a lot to maintain, which is why the ticket prices are so high. Which, in turn, is why, when you roam the aquarium’s galleries, you often see more diversity inside the tanks than in front of them.

5.
From all accounts, Walt Disney never became disenchanted with Marceline, Mo. As Disneyland grew into a bona fide phenomenon, its founder’s ambitions became extraordinarily wide-ranging. In addition to considering Disney-branded golf courses, bowling alleys, cocktail bars, and childcare centers, Walt also had grand plans for his childhood homestead in Marceline. For a time in the late-1960s, he wanted to turn it into a model farm: a tourist-friendly version of the real thing. This particular vision was never realized, but that didn’t stop Disney from conducting other experiments in the forcible redefinition of home. To wit, Celebration, Fla: a master-planned community adjacent to Disney World that allows its residents to live the dream not just on vacation, but year-round.

Joan Didion ended up in New York. There are so many questions that, given the chance, I’d love to ask her. In spite of everything she’s come to realize about home and its limitations, does she still consider herself a Californian? Has she made her peace with the collective delusion on which the state was built and continues to operate? Does she still experience “a lightening of the spirit” when she flies west, or has that mellowed and darkened with time? Like Didion, I flew back to Monterey to bury my mother, and it’s hard to imagine a day when the sight of that coastline will be anything other than shattering.

Unlike Didion, however, I’ll try not to beat myself up about this. I won’t speak ill of nostalgia: mine or anyone else’s. I won’t condemn those who spend their hard-earned money and fast-vanishing time on hallucinations, convincing or otherwise. Most of all, I’ll try not to pass judgment on Disney’s latest trick. To find inspiration for the setting of Finding Dory, the sequel to Finding Nemo, Disney animators visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. They examined the viewing galleries and the service corridors. They made sketches that beautified the already beautiful, that condensed the already condensed. The final result is, of course, gorgeous: a hologram within a hologram in which viewers from every corner of the globe will feel instantly, inexplicably at home.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

How the West Was Lost

1.
Ivan Doig is dead. Long live Ivan Doig.

A writer who liked to say he sprang from “the lariat proletariat, the working-class point of view,” Doig died on April 9 at age 75 at his home in Seattle. Now we have his posthumous novel Last Bus to Wisdom, his 16th and final book, a reminder that Doig (pronounced DOY-guh) was a guiding light in a loose but hard core of writers who have chronicled and lamented one of our great national sorrows: How the West Was Lost.

Doig was born in White Sulphur Springs, Mont., where the Rocky Mountains begin their rise “like a running leap of the land.” His father was a ranch hand and his mother a ranch cook — the lariat proletariat personified — and as a boy Ivan accompanied his father on ranch jobs, becoming familiar with the open spaces and the taverns, the bunkhouses and one-room schoolhouses of a western Montana way of life that was already vanishing. It is the ache brought on by this vanishing that was to become Doig’s great subject.

Last Bus to Wisdom is one of Doig’s more autobiographical fictions. Readers of his 1979 memoir, This House of Sky, a finalist for the National Book Award, will recognize some of the new novel’s situations and events. The story is narrated by 11-year-old Donal (“without the d”) Cameron, who, in the summer of 1951, is being farmed off to relatives in Wisconsin by his guardian grandmother, a ranch cook, as she prepares to undergo surgery for “female trouble.” The boy travels alone by Greyhound, “the dog bus,” and in his innocent yet wised-up voice he introduces us to the gallery of colorful characters he encounters on the road. These include a hot waitress, a trio of soldiers shipping off to the Korean War, Jack Kerouac (!), an Indian, oilfield roughnecks, hoboes, a parolee with sticky fingers, and a pint-sized sheriff escorting his own step-brother back to jail in handcuffs. On the return westward journey Donal is accompanied by his great uncle, Herman the German, a World War I veteran with a fondness for Karl May’s Western novels, an iffy command of English, and a fear that the FBI will deport him because he’s an illegal alien. Together, Donal and Herman make their picaresque way west, dodging the law, getting into scrapes, and finally joining a team of hobo hay harvesters near the tiny Montana hamlet of Wisdom.

Donal and Doig, the character and his creator, are both born storytellers. After a string of plausible embellishments roll of his tongue, Donal, in an infectious vernacular reminiscent of characters out of Twain or Thomas Berger, gives us this succinct sketch of what he calls “storying,” the source of all fiction:

I was developing a feel for the perimeter of story that could be got away with. A detail or two expanded the bounds to a surprising extent, it seemed like.

So, there it went, again. Out of my mouth something unexpected, not strictly true but harmlessly made up. Storying, maybe it could be called. For I still say it was not so much that I was turning into an inveterate liar around strangers, I simply was overflowing with invention. The best way I can explain it is that I was turned loose from myself.

It is the nasty little sheriff with the handcuffed prisoner who reveals Doig’s version of How the West Was Lost. Rather than dwelling on the horrors that have begun to show themselves by the mid-20th century — the big dams, big ranches, big highways, big mines, big oil fields, big sprawling cities in places where cities have no business existing — Doig instead paints sepia portraits of the little people who are doomed to be either erased or exploited by these outsize abominations: the ranch hands and cooks, librarians, newspaper photographers, copper miners, and the catskinners who operate the heavy machinery that makes all the “progress” possible. (Donal’s father was a catskinner before he and his wife were forever killed by a drunk driver.) While the Greyhound skims alongside the Missouri River, Donal gazes in awe as the sheriff, Carl, and his prisoner/step-brother, Harv, have a conversation:

The bus suddenly humming in a different gear, it dropped down in a dip and showed no signs of coming out, the road following the Missouri River now. The broad river flowing in long lazy curves with thickets of diamond willows and cottonwood trees lining the banks impressed me, but the sight seemed to turn the sheriff’s stomach. Beside him, though, his hand-cuffed seat partner smiled like a crack in stone.

“There ’tis, Carl. What’s left of the river, hmm?”

“Shut up, Harv, I don’t need to hear about it.” Sounding fit to be tied, the sheriff shot a look over to where I still was taking in everything wide-eyed, and growled, “We’re just past Fort Peck Dam, the outlaw is talking about.” His mouth twisted. “Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn’t think the Missouri River worked good enough by itself, so he stuck in a king hell bastard of a dam,” a new piece of cussing for me to tuck away.

In one ingenious stroke, the sheriff is made to simultaneously embody and disparage the source of the West’s ruin: he, along with Indian reservation police, sheriffs, the FBI, and anyone else wearing a badge, is authority, the sworn enemy of individual freedom; yet he also despises the monstrous things authority has visited on the land, in this case the Fort Peck Dam. In the West, this authority has worn many name tags. In the 19th century it was the Central Pacific railroad, cobbled together by Leland Stanford and his robber baron cronies with the assistance of federal subsidies and land grants. In the Cold War it was the “military-industrial complex.” Lately it’s been Big Agra, hydroelectric dams, mining interests, the real estate boys, the federal government, the aerospace industry.

Doig was a conventional novelist, and he was less interested in these big villains than in the troubles they brought upon their little victims, the lariat proletariat. In his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” David Foster Wallace wondered if there’s any way out of the suffocating loop of knowingness for contemporary American writers. He concluded, “The next literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching…(w)ho treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction.”

The operative words in that sentence are untrendy and reverence and conviction, and they beautifully capture Doig’s approach to the writing of fiction. What I liked best about Last Bus to Wisdom is that it’s wise to the ways of the world yet free of the cheap cynicism found in so much writing today, and it’s content with being a conventional novel. Doig’s writing is so post-postmodern that it manages to be both old-school and fresh. That took some daring, and sizable skill.

Sven Birkerts called Doig “a presiding figure in the literature of the American West,” and while that’s certainly true I don’t want to get into the tired question of whether or not Doig was a “regional” writer. He wisely shunned the label and the handcuffs that come with it. As he put it, “I don’t think of myself as a ‘Western’ writer. To me, language — that substance on the page, that poetry under the prose — is the ultimate ‘region,’ the true home, for a writer.”

2.
Few American writers possess a gaze as cool as Joan Didion’s (which is different from calling her gaze “chilly” or “cold”). She has said famously, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Just as famously she has said, “Writers are always selling somebody out.” Something she hasn’t said, to my knowledge, could stand as the guiding tenet of her long and distinguished career as a writer of fiction and journalism: The lies we tell ourselves in order to live are what keep us from being truly alive.

Didion’s 2003 book Where I Was From, a mix of autobiography, history, reportage, and literary criticism, is an unflinching examination of the myths spawned by her native California, what she calls “the local dreamtime.” The past tense of the verb in the book’s title signals that this is to be a work of revisionism.

Didion begins by establishing her California bona fides. Her great-great-great grandmother came west in 1846 with the ill-fated Donner-Reed party, and Didion was born in 1934 in Sacramento, eventually earning a degree in English from the University of California at Berkeley. She will soon turn 81, and she has spent the majority of her life in the state. From an early age she was fed various versions of the crossing stories of her forebears and other early California arrivals, stories built on hardship and danger, loss and fortitude, which would form the basis for something known inside her family as “the code of the West.” Didion, with typically acid humor, distills the code to its three essential mandates: “You were meant, if you were a Californian, to…show spirit, kill the rattlesnake, keep moving.”

When she fixed her cool gaze on the facts, though, she began to see that the bedrock on which the code of the West was built — the nearly sacred notion of unfettered individualism — was actually nothing but sand. “A good deal about California does not, on its own preferred terms, add up,” Didion writes, noting that it is “a state where distrust of centralized government authority has historically passed for an ethic.” But as Didion’s digging reveals, Californians have always leaned on the largess of the federal government. The leaning began with Leland Stanford and his fellow Sacramento shopkeepers when they put together the railroad, with a generous assist from Washington. The leaning continued with the federal subsidies that brought the water that fed such thirsty, unsustainable crops as alfalfa, cotton, and rice — and, in the bargain, enabled Los Angeles to sprawl across miles of once-inhospitable desert. After the elaborate system of dams and levees came the defense contracts and the aerospace industry (“Star Wars,” anyone?), all of it built not on unfettered individualism, but on the broad back of the American taxpayer.

At a young age, Didion began to sense a disconnect between her family’s myths and its actual circumstances, and, by extension, between California’s “dreamtime” and its actual history. In Where I Was From, Didion recalls asking her mother which class the family belonged to. “It’s not a word we use,” her mother replied. “It’s not the way we think.” This leads Didion to muse:

On one level I believed this to be a deliberate misreading of what even a twelve-year-old could see to be the situation and on another level I understood it to be true: it was not the way we thought in California. We believed in fresh starts. We believed in good luck. We believed in the miner who scratched together one last stake and struck the Comstock Lode. We believed in the wildcatter who leased arid land at two and a half cents an acre and brought in Kettleman Hills, fourteen million barrels of crude in its first three years. We believed in all the ways that apparently played-out possibilities could while we slept turn green and golden.

Already at that young age, Didion understood that her family was old California, part of that class known loosely as the gentry. She also sensed that something was lacking from this class, as Tracy Daugherty writes in his new book, The Last Love Song: A Biography of Joan Didion: “For all its visibility and influence, the family felt prosaic, muted, sad to Didion, even as a girl. Clerks and administrators: hardly the heroes of old, surviving starvation and blizzards…A whiff of decadence clung to the gentry.”

Eventually, of course, most of the defense contracts dried up and the jobs vanished and the state of California fell on such hard times that it welcomed a boom in prison construction. By now, having dismantled the myths that propped up the bankrupt code of the West, Didion is appalled but hardly surprised by this latest turn of events. “We are seeing one more enthusiastic fall into a familiar California error,” she writes, “that of selling the future of the place we lived to the highest bidder, which was in this instance the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.”

And now, as a final indignity, California — that Eden where alfalfa and cotton and rice once grew, where green lawns and blue swimming pools once carpeted the desert vastness known as Los Angeles — is suffering through a brutal, four-year drought. The New York Times reports that the wealthy Los Angeles enclave of Beverly Hills is among the first to be fined for failing to meet the state’s stringent water-conservation targets. On the day the fines were levied, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency over an infestation of bark beetles that has killed tens of millions of trees during the drought. He is seeking help removing the dead trees from — you guessed it — the federal government. I’m sure Joan Didion was not surprised when she heard the news.

3.
For all their many differences of temperament and style, Edward Abbey and Jim Harrison could agree with Ivan Doig’s sour little sheriff on one thing: the West was lost through environmental degradation, a direct by-product of human greed, and there is no more potent metaphor for this greed than the very American urge to tame the wilderness by building dams. Dams — or, more precisely, the urge to blow them up — drive the plots these two authors’ most indelible novels: Abbey’s cult classic, The Monkey Wrench Gang, which inspired a whole generation of eco-saboteurs; and Harrison’s booze- and drug-addled caper, A Good Day to Die.

The novels have telling similarities. Abbey’s titular gang has an equal-opportunity loathing for billboards, construction machinery, barbed wire, coal trains, strip mines, lumber companies, copper smelters, nuclear power plants, and, above all, the massive Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, 60 miles north of the Grand Canyon. Harrison’s trio of eco-saboteurs form a lopsided love triangle — two unhinged guys falling in love with the same sexy girl — as they drive west to blow up a non-existent dam in the Grand Canyon, then set their sights on a small earthen dam in Utah that prevents steelhead trout from moving upstream to spawn.

Here’s George Hayduke, the unruliest of the four monkey wrenchers, likening the degradation of the West to the eco-horrors he witnessed as a Green Beret in Vietnam: “When I finally…found out they were trying to do the same thing to the West that they did to that little country over there, I got mad all over again.” And here’s Harrison’s unnamed narrator, hungover, trying to impress a roomful of strangers: “My voice became tight and humorless as I began a tirade against the realtors, land developers and lumber companies. In a few years there wouldn’t be much worth looking at and if anyone in the room planned on having a son there wouldn’t be any rivers or forests left and our sons wouldn’t have any fishing and hunting. What was needed was some sort of Irgun like the Israelis had when they drove out the British. Some men brave enough to blow up dams and machinery.”

These seemingly single-minded people are, in fact, dogged by doubts — doubts that blowing up one dam, or even 100 dams, will change the world; doubts that their motives are lofty; doubts that they even possess tangible motives. As Harrison’s narrator puts it, “It occurred to me that I should question my motives but found that I had none.”

In other words, the trip west is little more than a lark. A similar sense of pointless futility begins to overtake the Monkey Wrench Gang. While there’s no denying that the West has been scarred by these characters’ various nemeses, it becomes apparent as the two novels play out that their crusades are both feckless and doomed. They remind me of the high-minded Occupy Wall Street movement, with its fuzzy distaste for “the 1 percent” and its equally fuzzy refusal to formulate a strategy to bring about actual change. If you’re going to go to all this trouble and risk — sleeping on the streets, getting maced and clubbed by cops, burning billboards, blowing up bridges and dams — shouldn’t you have specific goals and a reasonable chance of realizing them? Otherwise, isn’t it all just posturing?

In the end, Ivan Doig, Joan Didion, Edward Abbey, and Jim Harrison come to very different conclusions about How the West Was Lost, but they share a sense that the loss is as irreversible as it was wrong-headed. The Glen Canyon Dam, a king hell bastard of a dam if there ever was one, stemmed the flow of the Colorado River in order to bring water and cheap electricity to Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and other “cities of the plain,” as Abbey called them with a Biblical sneer, putting them on a level with Sodom and Gomorrah. In a crowning irony, the most ardent sponsor of the dam, the arch-conservative Arizona senator Barry Goldwater, eventually came around to admitting that building the $750 million monstrosity had been a mistake. As consolations go, this doesn’t even begin to qualify as small. Lake Powell, with its 1,800 miles of shoreline, still sits there where Glen Canyon used to be. Meanwhile, drought-stricken California is losing tens of millions of trees. No wonder Abbey called Lake Powell “the blue death.”

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Surprise Me!

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