For my first ever Year in Reading at The Millions, I will only be featuring books which I checked out from the local public library in my sleepy Massachusetts town a few miles north of the Red Line’s terminus. Constructed in 1892 and modeled after the Renaissance Palazzo della Cancelleria in Rome, I’ve made this sandstone building a regular part of the itinerary on my way back from Stop ‘n Shop. The library has a resplendent mahogany reading room, the edges lined with framed 17th century drawings, with the back walls decorated with an incongruous painting of Napoleon’s ill-fated Russia campaign and a North African souk scene, all oranges and lemons in the sun. This room contains all of the new novels that come through the library, and after moving to Massachusetts and getting my card I made it a point to come every other week, and to take out more books than I had time to read.
I will not be considering books that I bought at the Harvard Co-Op or Grolier Poetry Bookshop, which without the deadline of a due-date tend to pile up next to my chair where they get chewed on by my French bulldog puppy. Nor will I write about books which I’ve taught these past two semesters, or which I published appraisals of and benefited from the generosity of publisher’s review copies. I’m also excluding non-fiction, preferring for the duration of this essay to focus entirely on the novel as the most exquisite vehicle for immersing ourselves in empathetic interiority to yet be devised by humans. And while there were seemingly endless books which I dipped into, reread portions of, skimmed, and started without finishing, holding to Francis Bacon’s contention in my beloved 17th century that “Some books are to be tasted… some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously,” I’ve rather chosen only to highlight those which the philosopher would have categorized as books that are “to be swallowed… to be chewed and digested.” Looking over the detritus of that complete year in reading, and examining that which was digested as a sort of literary coprologist, I’ve noticed certain traces of things consumed – namely novels of politics and horror, of imagination and immortality, of education and identity.
Campus novels are my comfort fiction, taking an embarrassing enjoyment in reading about people superficially like myself and proving the adage that there is nothing as consoling as our own narcissism. By my estimation the twin triumphs of that genre are my fellow Pittsburgher Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys and John Williams’s Stoner, the later of which remains alongside F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as among the most perfect examples of 20th century American prose, where not even a comma is misplaced. While nothing quite reached those heights, the campus novels which I did read reminded me of why I love the genre so much – the excruciating personal politics, the combustible interactions between widely divergent personalities, and the barest intimations that the Ivory Tower is supposed to (and sometimes does) point to things transcendent and eternal.
Regarding that last, utopian quality of what we hope that higher education is supposed to do, I recently read Lan Samantha Chang’s All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost. The director of the esteemed University of Iowa Writer’s Workshop, Chang’s slender novel follows the literary careers of the poets who all trained together in the graduate seminar of Miranda Sturgis at fictional Bonneville College. Chang uses the characters of Bernard Sauvet and Roman Morris to interrogate how careerism, aesthetics, and competition all factor into something as seemingly rarefied as poetry. Roman has far more professional success, but is always haunted by the aridness of his verse; his is an abstraction polished to an immaculate sheen, but lacking in human feeling. Bernard, however, is a variety of earnest, celibate, very-serious-young-man with an affection for High Church Catholicism that Chang presents with precise verisimilitude, and who toils monastically in the production of an epic poem about the North American Jesuit martyrs. It’s a strange, quick read that risks falling into allegory, but never does.
A very different campus novel was Francine Prose’s Blue Angel, which details over the course of one semester a brief affair between creative writing professor Ted Swenson and his talented, if troubled, student Angela Argo. Intergenerational infidelity is one of the most hackneyed themes of the campus novel, and Prose’s narrative threatens to spill into the territory of David Mamet’s Oleanna. A lesser writer could have turned The Blue Angel, which is loosely based on Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 film classic, into a conservative, scolding denunciation of gender politics; the twist being that it’s a woman whose delivering invective against the movement towards great accountability concerning sexual harassment. No doubt the novel must read very different after #MeToo, but the text itself doesn’t evidence the sympathy for Ted which some critics might accuse Prose of. As a character, Ted is nearer to Vladimir Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert from Lolita, albeit less charming. When read as the account of an unreliable narrator, The Blue Angel isn’t a satire of feminist piety, but to the contrary an exploration of Ted’s ability to rationalize and obfuscate, most crucially to himself.
Ryan McIlvain’s novel The Radicals is only superficially a campus novel; its main characters Eli and Sam are both graduate students at NYU, but the author’s actual subject is how political extremism can justify all manner of things which we’d never think ourselves capable of, even murder. Reflecting back on the first day they really connected (at that most David Foster Wallace of pastimes – a tennis game), Eli says of Sam “I couldn’t have known I was standing across the net from a murderer, and neither could he,” which I imagine would be the sort of thing you’d remember when reflecting on the halcyon days of an activist group that turned deadly. McIlvain’s prose is a minimalist in a manner that I’m traditionally not attracted towards, but which in The Radicals he imbues with a sense of elegant parsimony. The politics of The Radicals is weirdly hermetically sealed, lower Manhattan during the early Obama years more a set piece for McIlvain to perform a thought experiment on the psychology of insular, extreme groups. Sam, initially the less committed of the two, though whom we’re given indications of his character during a disturbing road rage incident in the opening pages of the book, ultimately becomes the leader of an anarchist cell that emerges out of a movement which seems similar to Occupy Wall Street. As the group stalks through the Westchester estate of an executive implicated in the ’08 financial crash, we’re presented with a riveting account of how ideology can quickly veer into the cultish.
There is an elegiac quality to McIlvain’s novel, a sort of eulogy for Occupy, though of course the actual movement never fizzled out in a spasm of violence as The Radicals depicts. A more all-encompassing portrait of American politics in our current moment is Nathan Hill’s The Nix (2017). Hill’s book is a door-stopper, and for that and other reasons it has accurately drawn comparisons to the heaviest of Thomas Pynchon’s novels. The Nix follows the story of another ill-fated creative writing instructor, the unfortunately named Samuel Andresen-Anderson, though unlike Prose’s protagonist his vice isn’t sleeping with his students, but an addiction to a World of Warcraft-type video game. Samuel is only one of dozens of characters in the book, including his ‘60s radical mother who is in legal trouble for throwing rocks in Chicago’s Grant Park at a right-wing presidential candidate who evokes Roy Moore, his entitled student who functions as a millennial stereotype that somehow avoids being overly cliché, the musical prodigy of his youth whom he still pines for, her Iraq War veteran brother, and even the interior monologues of Allen Ginsberg and Hubert Humphrey. Hill’s most immaculate creation is the trickster-god of a book agent Guy Periwinkle, a mercurial, amoral, nihilistic Svengali who reads as an incarnation of the era of Twitter and Facebook.
The narrative threads are so many, so complicated, and so interrelated that it’s difficult to succinctly explain what The Nix is about, but to give a sense of its asynchronous scope the novel ranges from Norway on the eve of World War II, the stultifying conformity of 60’s Iowa, the ’68 Democratic National Convention (and the subsequent protests), suburban Illinois in the ‘80s, New York during the anti-war protests of 2003, as well as the Iraq War, and the imagined alternative universe of 2016. Its concerns include political polarization, the trauma that family can inflict across generation, the neoliberal university, and video-game addiction. Few novels capture America as it is right now with as much emotional accuracy as The Nix, but it’s all there – the rage, the vertigo, the exhaustion. Of course, haunting the pages of The Nix is a certain Fifth Avenue resident, who is never mentioned, but is very much the embodiment of our garbage era. More than that, Hill performs an excavation of the long arc of our contemporary history, and the scenes with Samuel’s mother in ’68 draw a direct connection between those events of a half-century ago and today, so that the real ghost which permeates the novel is less the mythical Norwegian sprite that gives the book its title, than that other “Nix” whose presidency set the template for a corrupt, compromised, polarized, spiteful, and hateful age.
Adam Haslett’s Union Atlantic covered similar political and economic ground as both The Radicals and The Nix do, though as channeled through the mini-drama between upwardly mobile, self-made banker Doug Fanning and his new neighbor, the retired school-teacher Charlotte Graves. Union Atlantic follows Charlotte’s war of attrition against both Doug and the McMansion that he’s building in their tony Boston suburb. There is something almost Victorian about Haslett’s concerns; Doug’s journey from being raised by an alcoholic single mother in Southie to becoming a millionaire banker living in a Belmont-like suburb has a bit of the Horatio Alger boot-strap story about it, save for the fact that his protagonist never rises to the same heights of sympathy. Haslett portrays the contradictions of Massachusetts with admirable accuracy – the liberalism and the wealth, the Catholic city and the Protestant suburbs, the working class and the Boston Brahmins. As a nice magical realist touch, Charlotte is in the process of losing her mind, hearing her dogs speak to her in the voices of Cotton Mather and Malcolm X. I couldn’t help but be charmed by a dog who sputters invective in the tongue of the colonial Puritan theologian, saying things like “You dwell in Memory like some Perversity of the Flesh. A sin against the gift of Creation it is to harp on the dead while the living still suffer.”
A chilling evocation of those themes of sin and memory is supplied by Nick Laird in Modern Gods, though not without a bit of melancholic Irish wit. Laird provides a novel in two parts; the first concerns the wedding of Allison Donnelly to a man whom she later discovers was involved with the Ulster Unions in an act of spectacularly horrific violence during the Troubles, the second her anthropologist sister Liz’s trip to the appropriately named New Ulster in Papua New Guinea where she is involved in BBC documentary about the emergence of a cargo cult competing against the American evangelical missionaries who’re trying to convert the natives. Laird’s focus is on the horrors of sectarian violence, and the faith which justifies those acts. He could be writing of either the cargo cult, the evangelical missionaries, or the Ulster Protestants when he describes the “imagery of sacrifice and offering, memorials and altars … disguised as just the opposite, a sanctuary from materialism… a marketplace of cold transactions.” Laird’s most sympathetic (and disturbing) character is the cult leader herself, a native named Belef (just “belief” with the “I” taken out…) who appears as a character out of Joseph Conrad, and whose air of cold malice is as characteristic and as evocative of old Ulster as it is of new.
Cults from The Radicals to Modern Gods are very much on authors’ minds in our season of violent political rallies and epistemological anarchy, and so they’re a concern as well in Naomi Alderman’s science fiction parable The Power, where we see the emergence of a religion in opposition to the machinations of the patriarchy. Part of a tradition of feminist dystopian science fiction that finds its modern genesis in Margaret Atwood’s classic The Handmaid’s Tale (that author not for nothing prominently blurbing The Power). Alderman imagines an alternate world in which women are suddenly endowed with a physical strength that completely upends traditional gender roles, causing radical shifts in power from eastern Europe to Saudi Arabia, the Midwest to London. Alderman writes with narrative panache, moving rapidly between various intertwined plots and across wildly divergent voices, including that of the abused foster girl Allie who becomes the the leader of the new faith and christens herself Mother Eve; Roxie, the daughter of a Cockney-Jewish gangster; an American politician named Margot Cleary and her daughter Jocelyn; a Nigerian journalist named Tunde (who is the only major male character in the novel); and the Melania-like first-lady of Moldova, Tatiana Moskalev, who offs her piggish husband and establishes a female-sanctuary in her former country. The Power is a thought-provoking book, and one with some exquisite moments of emotional Schadenfreude, as when newly self-liberated women riot against repressive regimes in places like Riyadh, and yet it’s not a particularly hopeful book, as the new order begins to replicate the worst excesses of the old.
The Power is only one book in our current renaissance of feminist science fiction, written in large part as a response to the rank misogyny and anti-woman policies of our nation’s current regime. In The Guardian Vanessa Thorpe explains that this is a “matching literary revolution,” which sees a new “breed of women’s ‘speculative’ fiction, positing altered sexual and social hierarchies.” Louise Erdrich provides one such example in her Future Home of the Living God which reads as a sort of cracked, post-apocalyptic nativity tale. In a premise like that of P.D. James’s Children of Men, though without the implied reactionary politics, Erdrich presents the diary of Cedar Hawk Songmaker, college student and the adopted Ojibwe daughter of crunchy, upper middle-class Minnesota liberals. Cedar Hawk finds herself pregnant during an autumn when it seems as if evolution itself has started to reverse, as all manner of primeval beings hatch from eggs, one of which is the proverbial gestation of a theocratic government reacting to the ecological collapse. Erdrich remains one of our consummate prose stylists, and Cedar Hawk is an immaculate creation (in several different ways). A precocious and intelligent student, Cedar Hawk is a Catholic convert who grapples with women’s spirituality, and Erdrich presents a book that is both Catholic and vehemently pro-choice (while also understanding that to be pro-choice isn’t to be anti-pregnancy).
Genre fiction is perhaps the best way to explore our current moment, where the “Current Affairs” section and “Science Fiction” are increasingly indistinguishable. Erdrich and Alderman write in a tradition of literary speculative fiction which recalls recent work by Atwood, Chabon, Philip Roth, Cormac McCarthy, and Jim Crace, but old fashioned hard science fiction with all of its intricate world-building never loses its charms. Sam Miller provides just that in his infectiously enjoyable Blackfish City, which follows the intertwined stories of several characters living in a floating, mechanical city above the Arctic Circle in an early 22nd century ravaged by climate change. Despite hard science fiction’s reputation for being all about asteroid mining colonies and silvery faster-than-light starships, the reality is that from Samuel Delaney to Octavia Butler, science fiction has always been more daring in how it approaches questions of race and gender than conservative literary fiction can be. Miller’s novel provides a detailed, fascinating account of how the geothermal powered city (which is operated by a consortium of Thai and Swedish companies) actually works, but his thematic concerns include economic stratification, deregulation, global warming, and gender fluidity. That, and he has depicted neuro-connected animal familiars that communicate with their human partners, including a polar bear and an orca whale. So, there’s that!
Science fiction isn’t the only genre attuned to our neoliberal, late capitalist, ascendant fascistic hell-scape – there’s also horror, of course. Paul Tremblay offers a visceral, thrilling, and disturbing account of a home invasion/hostage situation in his horror pastoral The Cabin at the End of the World, which makes fantastic use of narrative ambiguity in rewriting the often-over-played apocalyptic genre. One of the scariest novels I read in the past year was Hari Kunzru’s postmodern gothic White Tears. The strange ghost tale has been discussed as if it was a simple parody of white hipster culture’s appropriation of black music, and yet White Tears grapples with America’s racial history in a manner that evokes both William Faulkner and Toni Morrison. Kunzru’s story follows the fraught friendship of Seth and Carter, who share a love of lo-fi Mississippi Delta blues music, both listening to and producing songs as an act of musical obsessiveness worthy of R. Crumb. Carter crafts a faux Robert Johnson style number attributed to an invented musician he christens “Charles Shaw,” based off of a recording of random, diegetic patter between two men playing chess in Washington Square Park which Seth picks up on one of his forays through New York to preserve ambient sound. The two discover that the fictional bluesman might be more real than they suppose.
The complexities and contradictions of American culture are also explored in Paul La Farge’s The Night Ocean, which though perhaps not a horror novel itself is still a loving homage to the weird fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. La Farge’s novel is an endlessly recursive frame-tale which follows a series of inter-nestled narratives ranging from the (fictional) homosexual relationship of Lovecraft with a young Floridian named Robert Barlow, to New York author Charlie Willett’s obsession with finding a lost pornographic work of the master himself, which is of course titled The Erotonomicon. Along the way the reader confronts questions of artifice and authenticity, as well as a consideration of the darker reaches of Lovecraft’s brilliant, if bigoted, soul. Le Farge moves across a century of history, and from the horror author’s native Providence to Mexico City on Dia de los Muertos, from northern Ontario to the Upper West Side, with a cameo appearance from Beat novelist William S. Burroughs. La Farge’s novel isn’t quite weird fiction itself, but he writes with an awareness that Lovecraft’s cold, chthonic, unfeeling, anarchic, nihilistic stories of meaninglessness are as apt an approach to our contemporary moment as any, where Cthulhu’s tentacles reach further than we’d care to admit and the Great Old Ones always threaten to devour us. Facing the uncertainties of terrifying push notification, reflect on the master himself, who wrote that the “oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.”
La Farge’s narrative progresses Zelig-like through 20th century literary history, its story encompassing fictionalized accounts of the intersection of both experimental and genre writing. I’ve always been drawn to picaresque, delighted by the appearance of historical figures as they arrive briefly in a story. Matt Haig’s masterful How to Stop Time has plenty of cameos in the life of its main character Tom Hazard, from William Shakespeare and Captain Cook to Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Tom isn’t quite an immortal, but in all the ways that matter he nearly is. Haig describes an entire secret fraternity of incredibly old people called the “Albatross Society” who vampire-like scurry about the margins of history. A Huguenot refugee who comes of age in Elizabethan England, Tom’s narrative follows his yearning to discover the missing daughter of his dead wife, the former a near-immortal like himself. Haig’s is a risky gambit, jumping from the 16th century to the 21st, yet he performs the job admirably, and as somebody who cashes checks from writing about the Tudor era, I can attest to the accurate feel of the Renaissance scenes in the book. Word is that a film adaptation is on the way, starring Benedict Cumberbatch (predictably), but more than even its cinematic action about secret societies and historical personages, How to Stop Time offers an estimably human reflection on what it means to grow old, and to lose people along the way.
As the nights grow dimmer and the temperature drops, the distant beginning of the year seems paradoxically closer, the months folding back in on themselves as the Earth reaches the same location in its annual terminus around our sun. January’s reading seems more recent to me than those summer beach indulgences when I got sand from Manchester-by-the-Sea in the creases of my library books, and so I end like an Ouroboros biting its own tale with the first book of 2018 which I read: Paul Kingsnorth’s enigmatic fable Beast. Founder of the Dark Mountain Project, which encourages artists and writers to grapple with what they see as an approaching climate apocalypse, Kingsnorth has been writing increasingly avant-garde prose in reaction to our inevitable demise. His main (and only) character Edward Buckmaster seems to be the same protagonist from his earlier novel The Wake, albeit that earlier novel takes place in the Dark Ages and is written in an Anglo-Saxon patois that is equally beautiful as tedious, while Beast by all intents seems to be broadly contemporary in its setting.
I’m unsure as to whether they’re the same character, or if Edward is to be understood as the reincarnation of his namesake, but both novels share a minimalist, elemental sensibility where the very nature of prose and narrative are stripped to bare essentials. Beast follows the surreal ruminations of Edward as he phases in and out of consciousness in a cottage on the English moors, in a landscape uninhabited by people, while he both stalks and is stalked by some sort of fantastic creature. The nature of the animal is unclear – is it a big cat? A wolf? Something else? And the setting is bizarrely wild, if not post-apocalyptic feeling, when compared to the reality of the urbanized English countryside. Beast is as if Jack London’s Call of the Wild was rewritten by Albert Camus. It’s the sort of “Man vs. Nature” plot that I always want to like and which I rarely do – save for this time, where I very much did enjoy Kingsnorth’s strange allegory. At least it feels like an allegory, but the nature of its implications are hard to interpret. Proffering a hypothesis, I will say that reading Beast, where boredom threaded by a dull anxiety is occasionally punctuated by moments of horror, is as succinct an experiential encapsulation of 2018 as any.
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Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon gets stuck. Sometimes plans don’t go according to the outline, if he even writes one. Sometimes an idea just pops into his brain and a book comes out.
Both are the case with Chabon’s latest release, Moonglow. Presented as a memoir about a grandfather, the novel weaves together the history of a man and his family during the 20th century. Like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay or Telegraph Avenue, this new novel features an interesting cast of characters, linked physically and thematically.
The author spoke to us at length, after a day of errands that took him around Berkeley, about his new novel, outlines, why memoirs are bullshit, and screenwriting.
The Millions: When Telegraph Avenue came out, you stated in an interview that with every book you wrote there was this collapse where you either didn’t think you would finish a book or that it wouldn’t turn out the way you wanted it to. Did that happen with Moonglow?
Michael Chabon: Yeah, that usually happens as soon as I start writing the first sentence. It’s already begun to diminish from what I envisioned in that glorious split second of imagination. Telegraph Avenue was much harder to write. It took over a decade, really, during its gestational period. From a pilot to a television series and then laying completely dormant for years before I revived it. I thought because I had written the pilot that it would be easy to novelize it, but that turned out to not be the case at all. I really struggled with Telegraph Avenue. I really struggled with The Yiddish Policemen’s Union. I really struggled with Kavalier & Clay. All in ways that I did not really struggle with this book at all.
In fact, this book — I’m not saying it was easy to write — but it had the same kind of magical birth as Wonder Boys, which is the only other book of mine that had this magical birth where I had no idea that I was going to be writing it until the day I sat down and the first sentence emerged. In both cases, I thought I was going to be working on a different book. With Wonder Boys, I thought I was beginning the fifth or so draft of what was supposed to be my second novel; a book called Fountain City. I thought okay, I had the outline for this new draft to be doing. I sat down and all of a sudden I was writing about Grady Tripp, growing up in this small town in Pennsylvania, and a pulp writer before I had any idea where any of that came from. It wrote itself fairly quickly, whereas this one took longer to write. It started off very much the same, though.
I thought I was going to be starting the first draft of another novel that was meant to be the follow-up to Telegraph Avenue and I didn’t have an outline, but I had definite thoughts of what it was going to be. I had been doing reading and research, but I found myself beginning to re-envision this moment of history from my family. A family story I had heard over the years about one of my grandfather’s brothers who was a salesman selling commercial office supplies and was fired one day from his job to make room on the payroll for Alger Hiss, who was just released from prison.
I had not been thinking about that story until the day I started actually working on the book. It just popped into my mind. I started following it. I didn’t get into any other weird nightmarish corners I had got into with other books.
TM: You briefly mentioned an outline for stories. Was there an outlining process or a plotting process for this book then?
MC: Typically, I’m not a big outliner. When I’m doing screenwriting work — like right now my wife and I are working on a script for this proposed series for Netflix that is a miniseries — when you’re doing that kind of work you have to outline. Of course, outlining makes your job easier, but you actually have to outline because the people who are writing your checks insist on seeing outlines. They want to see a full outline for the first episode and partial outlines for all of the remaining episodes. You have to generate your story ahead of time.
So, I know how to outline, I’ve done it, I completely see the value in doing it, and I’m completely grateful for one when I actually do an outline; however, when it comes to doing novels, I find the more detailed I try to get in my outline, the less interest I have in the story.
For me, part of the process of writing the novel — a big part — is finding out what happens. I like to find out what my story is about. There are two kinds of aboutness, too. One kind is on the plot level: what happens. I find out along the way and suddenly I think, Okay this will happen and that will happen and now I have to go back and throw away 200 pages doing that because now I know this is going to happen. Sometimes I have to completely add a new character because it appeared to me after two years of work. I have to proceed by groping and finding my way without really knowing what is going to happen. It’s a process of discovery and as much as it is torturous and incredibly inefficient when compared to working with an outline, it is part of the mystery that keeps me going. If I don’t have it, I sort of lose interest in the project.
Then there is the other kind of aboutness. There’s this question of what is the story About with a capital A. Thematically, that is. And I don’t even know the answer to that until I am almost done with the book. So many times, and it really happened with Moonglow, I didn’t fully understand what the biggest, most important things about Moonglow were. Especially the story about the grandmother. Not what happened to the grandmother, but what it meant to her, what did it mean to the grandfather, what did it mean to the family? What does that say about memory and history and madness and insanity?
A lot of the things about the nuts and bolts about the structure changed right in the last four to six weeks of me working on the book before I turned it into the publisher. It was like, “Oh my god, I see what my book is about now.”…In this magical period right at the end of writing, which was one of the most magical experiences I have ever had, I just started focusing on the grandmother and realized there was this constant motif throughout the book of dualities. People concealing other people within them. All of the imagery just started to click into place, including the moon imagery: with the dark side of the moon, the lunar eclipses. It was this idea of being half something and half something else. It was all there. I had the wiring, but it wasn’t hooked up to any battery until I hooked it up to the grandmother and the entire book just lit up.
I couldn’t have outlined that. If I had tried to outline something like that I think I would have lost interest in the book long before or, and this happens when I write outlines, I begin to hate the outline and the person who wrote the outline. Like, four years ago there was this smug asshole who wrote out this dumb-ass outline and he thought he knew so much but he didn’t know shit. Why would I even listen to him? He had no idea how wide ranging this book was going to be. I get into this place of resentment with the things I thought I knew.
If the story about the grandmother and duality was there from the beginning, I would have told myself “fuck you” and I wouldn’t have done it.
Outlines are wonderful tools, but they only do what they do in the proper context. Which is similar in the book with the rocket. In one context rockets take you to the moon, and, in other, they rain down terror on innocent people.
TM: Even though you didn’t outline this one, was it always meant to be a faux-memoir that was closely tied to your life?
MC: No, it was… As soon as I started to tell the story of the assault… Well, all I actually know is that one of my grandfather’s brothers was fired from his job to make room for Alger Hiss. I should add that the uncle I thought it was, I asked his daughter and his granddaughter, and neither had heard this story. I was so sure it was that uncle and not the other whom I can’t really ask about, so even that is a little dubious.
Whenever I hear “Alger Hiss,” I think of this story. At some point, I did hear this story. That uncle did sell office supplies. Ah! It had to be him. But that’s all I know. As soon as I made it my grandfather and not my great-uncle, I am in the territory of fiction.
There was no deliberate decision on this point for me, but almost immediately as soon as I had those words, “my grandfather,” I was writing in a reminiscent first person narrator who wasn’t giving his reminiscences but was giving his grandfather’s reminiscences. As soon as I had that structure it clicked immediately with this actual experience I had sitting with my actual grandfather when he was dying in my actual mother’s house. He did tell me a lot of stories. Maybe he did tell me the story about his brother getting fired; maybe that’s where I heard it for the first time. As soon as I had that in place, it was immediate that it was going to be the framework of the novel.
It was very quickly and wasn’t a conscious strategy in mind that this was going to be a memoir. It’s going to be my memoir of the week I spent with my grandfather and the story he told me that is going to end up being the story the reader ends up reading. At that point, I thought that’s going to be fun. That’s going to be a fun structure. Part of the thing that I have to do when I’m starting a book — I mean, everything has been done before — so all I can do is try to find a new approach to it. To find a different avenue for it.
With Moonglow, it was that I wanted to tell the story of this man’s life. It was a very 20th-century, East Coast, Jewish family story, but what’s my angle? What was my way to make it fresh to readers and fresh to me? This memoir angle immediately presented itself.
Then I actually had this more conscious, higher level of thinking of potential pleasure about the book being something I wanted to do. It derived from my feelings about the literary memoir.
TM: How do you feel about them in particular?
MC: [Some people have claimed] that memoirs are more appropriate to the time we live in, but also superior to fiction. Listening to that kind of talk and seeing situations like the James Frey incident…The thing that made everyone upset was the fact that he had lied, you know? That he passed this thing off as true when it was a work of fiction was wrong. What pissed me off as a novelist was that he wrote it as a novel and nobody wanted to publish it. Then he relabeled it as a memoir and suddenly everybody wants to publish it and everyone wants to read it.
That offends me because I’m a novelist and writing novels is what I do. I take that personally on some levels. It also offends me because it’s bullshit. Memoirs are bullshit to some degree. I don’t mean memoirists are liars; some might be, most are not. I know memoirists try to be scrupulous and try not to deviate from what they remember. It’s the last few words of my sentence where the bullshit comes in. Of course what you remember is a lie or a distortion. It’s inaccurate, there’s conflation, there’s elision. There are gaps, there maybe things that you’ve deliberately forgotten and then forgotten that you’ve forgotten so that you sincerely think they didn’t happen.
Some of my favorite books, some of the most beautiful books that have been written in the past quarter century have been memoirs, like Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time or Tobias Wolfe’s This Boy’s Life. There are people who have written beautiful works of literature that are memoirs. I’m not trying to impugn individual writers at all. I’m not even necessarily impugning the form of the genre. It’s just the claims that are made. The esteem that is given. The memoir seems to have a higher value because it claims to be the truth. Obviously it just simply can’t be on some level the truth.
As a novelist, I much prefer, and am much more comfortable with a self-declared lie that is invited by the person being lied to.
TM: Building off of that, did you feel there needed to be a lot of research or were those lies something you could live with?
MC: You can’t tell a good lie without research. Not a really good one.
TM: I want to shift from Moonglow to all of your works. You have these reoccurring topics of family, of history, of Judaism, and many more. Why do you keep coming back to these ideas and feelings that you write about?
MC: I can’t help it. That’s the honest answer. I have no choice in the matter. That’s how it works with compulsive behavior. It’s a kind of compulsion. I wrote a piece about this in my book Manhood for Amateurs about a family heritage of OCD. The piece is called “X09” because it’s about a boy, who at the time his brother was struggling with OCD, called it X09.
I do have it in my family. My paternal grandmother was clearly compulsive, especially about germs. My dad had these strange obsessive compulsive, ritualistic behaviors. I don’t see it in my own behavior or my thought processes, but I do think it is expressed in this return to certain subjects or themes or motifs that are beyond my control. It doesn’t seem to be hurting me, and I think it’s true in a lot of writers, though I wouldn’t be qualified to talk about it.
TM: Are you writing habits compulsive? I once read you always wrote at night. Is that still the case?
MC: I still do, yes. More than ever. I work very late. I still report for duty between 10 and 11pm. Sometimes as late until six in the morning. I get a lot more done in the last few hours than I did the entire time before.
TM: Are you already onto the next idea?
MC: I’m writing a children’s book for middle readers. It’s essentially a follow-up to Summerland, although it’s not a sequel in any way.
TM: What about that Netflix series that you’re kind of working on with your wife —
MC: More than kind of.
TM: More than kind of then, that’s great. Did you take a lot of time off from screenwriting, or did nothing just come to fruition?
MC: [laughs] It might seem like I took time off, but in fact, it’s just a series of failures to launch.
TM: What about screenwriting appeals to you so much on top of writing novels?
MC: I used to automatically just say the money, but when it comes to screenwriting for movies in Hollywood that would be better if [just the money] was the case. It’s so heartbreaking and so hard to get things made. While I was writing Moonglow, I took time off to work on a screenplay for a proposed Frank Sinatra biopic that Martin Scorsese was going to direct. Working on something that could have been directed by him and working with Frank Sinatra’s work was just so great. I just got into it and loved working on it. I think I wrote a pretty good script, and it just seems to be completely done.
I got paid and it would be easy to say, “Oh, I got paid well and that’s showbiz,” but unfortunately I became pretty invested in that project. It hurts to think it all was a waste of time.
With TV it’s a little different. On one end, the money up front just isn’t that good, so you can’t just be all about the money. Also, it seems more gets made and there is more opportunity to do a lot more work with a lot less interference. Though I don’t have any shows on the air, I seem more successful there because I actually had a couple of scripts make it to the screen. It doesn’t quite feel as well… I don’t know. It’s hard to say.
I actually worked on this earlier proposal for a show for HBO that was supposed to be called Hobgoblin that was really good; it would have been amazing. We actually wrote three scripts for that. So now I take it all back: it’s all equally heartbreaking and soul crushing.
Anyway, I’m doing it. I’m still writing scripts. The thing we’re doing for Netflix could be really good. I hope it happens, but you never know.
In the winter of 2011 I had been working as an adjunct English instructor for ten years. Back then I spent a lot of time pacing between my office cubicle and the adjoining lounge — kicking the carpet, wondering how my career had come to this. One day, as I muttered and paced, a streak of motion caught my eye and I went to the window. A mixed martial arts (MMA) gym had moved into the long-derelict building across the street. I could see two young men in a chain-link cage. They were dancing and hitting and tackling. I felt a sharp stab of envy.
I crossed the street to learn how to fight, and to research a book about the ancient glamor of violence. When I first entered the gym I was 38 years old. When I left it for the last time, three years later, I was 58.
Cage fighting is a game of breakage. The sport comes down to one-on-one tackle football — with the addition of punching, kicking, kneeing, elbowing, joint wrenching, and strangling. By the end of my time at the gym, I’d been hit in the brain thousands of times. I’d entered a minor league hockey arena and lost a forty-second fight to a twenty-four year old martial arts champion. I’d developed arthritis in my big toes, an evil case of Achilles tendonitis, a trick neck, a bum shoulder that just got the knife, some unhealable tear in my rib cartilage and, worst of all, a rupture in my hip joint which has my surgeon talking replacement.
But I also left the gym with a book that I was proud of. And I was proud, in large part, because of the damage. Like an anthropologist, I had immersed myself in the warrior culture of MMA, and I had the scarification to prove it. I liked George Plimpton’s Shadowbox, but I didn’t fully respect it. Plimpton didn’t live or train like a boxer, and he never really fought. Yeah, he sparred against the great light heavyweight champion Archie Moore, but it was more like friendly roughhousing than an actual fistfight. And so, at the end, Plimpton didn’t know how punches detonate like bombs inside the brain. He didn’t know how scary fighting is. He didn’t know how fun it is. He never learned how bad it hurts when you have to stop.
When I first crossed from cubicle to cage, I was obeying ancient authorial wisdom: Write what scares you. As the novelist Dorothy Allison once put it, “I believe the secret of writing is that fiction never exceeds the reach of a writer’s courage…I believe, absolutely that if you do not break out in that sweat of fear when you write, then you have not gone far enough.” So many different writers have said this in so many different ways that is represents something like the Prime Directive of creative writing. Here’s how the novelist and writing teacher Chuck Kinder puts it: “You gotta risk all the risk you can possibly take. What’s the worst thing that can happen to you?”
On the milder side, you could become like Kinder himself, who served as the model for the struggling writer Grady Thompson in Michael Chabon’s The Wonder Boys. Much like the character in the novel, Kinder endured an absurdist twenty-year war with a novel that metastasized to over three thousand pages before finally being published at one-tenth the length. Or you could be like George Orwell, who went to the front lines of the Spanish Civil War to fight and write, and got himself shot through the throat by a fascist sniper. Miraculously, the bullet missed everything vital, which is why we have Homage to Catalonia, not to mention 1984 — a novel which, according to Orwell’s biographer Michael Shelden, cut the author’s life short by a number of months or even years. In his frenzy to finish the novel, Orwell severely overworked himself, neglected medical care, and succumbed to tuberculosis at 46.
Or you could spend years working up a non-fiction Fight Club and endure all the violence in the cage along with the usual violence at your writing desk. Once the book is released, you could watch as the reviews begin to appear, and then taper off. And you see that your book just doesn’t have that elusive brilliance, or shamelessness, or luck that makes a book really go. And you could fall into a year of sadness, watching your Amazon rank plummet along with your sense of self-worth.
I set out to write about authors who had been broken, in big ways or small, by their own books. But I ran into a problem: Literary history is a history of victors. So stories about the struggles of well-known writers almost always follow the comforting arc of suffering redeemed. But what about the true failures? What about the legions of writers who dreamed big and dared greatly but lacked talent or luck?
I described my problem to my father, and he sent me the journal of his dead sister — the poet, Sally Patton (she wrote under the name Sarah Patton). In the summer of 1991, my Aunt Sally was struggling with schizophrenia and diabetes. She was unemployed and so impoverished that she couldn’t afford eyeglasses, allergy medicine, false teeth, or postage for poetry submissions. She was dealing with a solid year of rejection slips from the poetry journals. She was living in a trailer, chain-smoking her way toward emphysema. She was trying to remind herself that the taunting voice in her head — You are no good, just no good — was only her disease talking. At 53, Sally had reached a state of loneliness, poverty, and despair that was impressive even for a poet.
The summer of 1991 began with Sally waiting eagerly, as any author does, for her new book to arrive from the publisher. “I am waiting for my book,” she writes. “The book will change everything. I know it. I feel it. It is the deciding factor for me. It will change me inside and out. It is a wonderful book.”
She dreamed that the book might bring in a little money and a little respect. But mainly she just wanted to communicate with the world outside of her trailer. “[Writing poetry] has enabled me to realize much. I can only hope someday it may help others to become deeper and more aware. That is why it is important to get published. People need their writers, whether they know it or not.”
And writers need their readers too. Sally knew that a book without readers is just pulp and ink. Writing only stirs to life when it is held in the hands and minds of readers. So when hundreds of copies of her book, The Roses, finally arrived in boxes, Sally saw at once how foolish she had been. Her books would be trapped, as she was, inside the old trailer. She had spent her last $800 printing the book at a vanity press. She couldn’t afford to advertise. She didn’t know how to place it in stores.
Sally fell into a ruthless depression. She wanted death, and prayed for it. Her journal begins to read like a prelude to suicide. And, in a sense, it was. Sally decided to kill the best and truest part of herself. She swore off poetry for good. From that point on, she would try to live without the torture of artistic hope. She would putter around her home and garden, “reading murder mysteries and the poems of those who have succeeded.”
“Yes,” Sally wrote, “it has been a bad life.” But she had one small solace. “Someday I will be gone, but some of them [her poems] will remain, at least for a while. That’s really a rather remarkable thing. They will survive. My book will survive — at least for a while.”
Thirteen years after her death in 2003, I could find only a few copies of Sally’s books shelved at the 72,000 libraries searchable through WorldCat. Even Google knows nothing about her, save that she died of emphysema at 65, and was given a private service in a Kerrville, Texas funeral home.
My Aunt Leslie sent me a copy of The Roses from her own shelves. It’s a thin volume between slick covers — a pamphlet. But the poems are fine. One of Sally’s favorites, “The Glasses,” evokes a summer day with the smell of gasoline and iced-tea, and “a lawnmower licking up the lawn.” It describes how merlot flowed “like the blood of black tulips/into the pistils of wine goblets.”
Sally felt “mislead” by a romantic notion that if she felt deeply and wrote honestly, the world would take notice, and she would be saved from poverty and solitude. “I tried so hard,” she wrote. “I thought it was possible.”
It’s too little now and too late, but I noticed. This poem, “Dark, Bitter,” is one of my favorites.
She narrows her eyes,
draws in thin lips,
sucks at the dark, bitter coffee.
She presses gaunt arms
against her sides, pulls hard
on her cigarette,
tucks a stringy hair
behind a small, close ear.
From a mouth slit
slide ticker tapes
of paper-thin whines
Dark and bitter
her life has been;
that’s how she tells it,
tinny and flat
like small change
on the table.
I see the meticulous waiting,
her life pincurled
to her head for years
and never brushed out.
Like this poem, the total effect of Sally’s journal is heartbreaking. It is a reminder that the writing game, like the fighting game, mostly ends in breakage. But the journal is also an inspiring testament to the crazy resilience of a real writer. Sally was brutalized by the world’s indifference. But she was never fully broken, and all of her attempts at artistic suicide were botches. Again and again, she’d bid farewell to writing on one page of her journal only to find herself scratching new stanzas on the next. Writing wasn’t something Sally did. A writer is what she was, inescapably, whether she liked it or not. She lived twelve more years, occasionally collecting new poems in self-published volumes.
And I’m still writing too. But as I limp through life, diminished in my body and my career prospects, I find myself fantasizing about time travel. I see myself moving back through the years. I feel my body mending itself as all of those punches and tackles play back in reverse. I see myself standing once again in the English Department window, envying the tough boys across the road. And I say to myself: “Don’t be an ass. It’s not for you. Even Hemingway knew to study the bulls from the stands.” And then maybe I’d write my book in a safer way — or maybe I wouldn’t at all.
But I know it isn’t true. I couldn’t bear to sit in my time machine watching my book unwrite itself from last page to first. I’m fond of the book. It is part of me. And I can’t regret it any more than I could regret an underachieving child. If I had a chance to go back, I know I’d do it all the same way, risking all the risk I could take.
The most unexpected literary metropolis in the United States is Pittsburgh. Known less for literature than for producing more steel than any other place on Earth, Pittsburgh was literally the Ally’s arsenal during WWII and was central in America’s 20th-century ascent. But when industry collapsed during the Reagan administration, it — like her sisters Cleveland, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Detroit — became a region adrift. For years the city was a Rust Belt punch line to those too ill-informed to experience the tough beauty of the place. And yet economics can be destiny, which is why it’s heartening, surprising, and in some sense worrying to see Pittsburgh discovered now by national magazines and newspapers which are always looking for the next location, a new Portland or Austin where arty people with expendable cash can drink craft beer and go to pop-up art galleries. In a few years we’ve gone from being the “Paris of Appalachia” (as if there should be any shame in that!) to Williamsburg on the Three Rivers. Yet the place itself remains more complicated, confusing, contradictory, beautiful, and glorious than the national media ever realized.
These dichotomies are too simple, though; they skirt the reality of a place, especially one that was so central in the “consequence of America” (as Pittsburgh poet Jack Gilbert put it). Pittsburgh is a synecdoche for the nation, a microcosm of the things that made America magnificent, but also of the things that damaged the country. There is great drama in its story, from being the first metropolis on that ever westward expanding frontier, to becoming the industrial “hell with the lid taken off” of Victorian essayist James Parton, to the reinventions of today. This is inevitably the stuff of great literature.
No less than Herman Melville once declared that “men not very much inferior to Shakespeare are this day being born on the banks of the Ohio.” Gilbert echoed Melville, when he remarked to The Paris Review, “You can’t think small in a steel mill.” Part of this is because the area certainly has a lot that can be written about: dramatic topography and sometimes-tragic history, cosmopolitan expansiveness as well as damaging provincialism, the still almost inexplicable physical beauty and the grime of industry. No declaration of it as the “Most Livable City in America” can fully contain these paradoxes. But in the writing of Willa Cather, John Edgar Wideman, Michael Chabon, Stewart O’Nan, and Ellen Litman we see a fuller expression of the raw energy of Pittsburgh than one does in the simple platitudes of official civic boosters.
As a native Pittsburgher, even when I was young, I intuited how heavy and determined the history of the city was, the very surroundings a sort of palimpsest. As with that type of manuscript, even though there may be an accumulation of layers of new letters on top, the previous generations’ words can still be visible underneath, if not always legible. What follows is a recommended reading list that tries to elucidate the nature of this palimpsest. We shouldn’t be surprised by that variety of voices. Pittsburgh continues to have a thriving literary scene outside of all proportion for its size, not just in the celebrated creative writing departments at the University of Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon, and other colleges and universities in the area, but in initiatives like City of Asylum, which houses writers in exile from their home nations; the writers’ network Litsburgh; or the small bookstore scene (with the welcome recent return of the excellent City Books). The region lends itself to such sublime inspirations as to create poets and writers of a surprising caliber, as Annie Dillard herself imagines Pittsburgh “poured rolling down the mountain valleys like slag” where she can “see the city lights sprinkled and curved around the hills’ curves, rows of bonfires winding. At sunset a red light like house fires shines from the narrow hillside windows; the houses’ bricks burn like glowing coals.” Gilbert was right; it’s hard to think small here.
1. Modern Chivalry: Containing the Adventures of Captain John Farrago and Teague O’Regan, His Servant by Hugh Henry Brackenridge (1792)
One candidate for the first actual American novel is the first work on this list. Although rarely read by anyone other than specialists today, Brackenridge conceived of Modern Chivalry as an American Don Quixote, a maximalist attempt to convey the full complexity, vigor, and reality of life on the western frontier. The errant knight in Breckenridge’s massive novel is John Farrago, who decides to “ride about the world a little…to see how things were going on here and there, and to observe human nature.” In his endeavors through the western Pennsylvanian landscape, Farrago’s Sancho Panza is a drunken Irish layabout named Teague O’Regan. Along the way, Brackenridge presents his readers with a Pynchonesque satire of an America on the verge of both the second great awakening and ultimately Jacksonian democracy, making the first American novel also the first road novel. Brackenridge was in some ways as quixotic as the character he created. Scottish by birth and Philadelphian by upbringing, Breckenridge’s literary ambitions began at Princeton, where he wrote the poem “The Rising Glory of America” (about what you’d expect) with his friend Philip Freneau and delivered it on the steps of Nassau Hall in 1771 in a pique of revolutionary fervor. After the War of Independence, he set out to the west to make his fortunes in Pittsburgh, which though already the metropolis of Trans-Appalachia was still a frontier settlement of no more than 400 people. While there Brackenridge would make himself the “great man” that he felt he had the potential to be, a potential that due to its large size would not be realized in that Quaker city to the east. Brackenridge afforded himself of every opportunity the growing western settlement offered, not just writing Modern Chivalry but both founding what would be The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the University of Pittsburgh. In Modern Chivalry he proves Ralph Waldo Emerson’s assertion that “Europe extends to the Alleghenies; America lies beyond,” depicting a growing city that was part of France longer than it was in Britain, and thus becomes more originally American than Puritan Boston, Quaker Philadelphia, Dutch New York, or Cavalier Baltimore. Modern Chivalry presents to us with a strange twilight era, the age of the French and Indian War, Pontiac’s Rebellion, and the Whiskey Rebellion. The novel shows Pittsburgh on the edge of civilization, when the frontier began to burn its way west to the Pacific, a liminal Pittsburgh neither totally east nor west (as indeed it remains so today).
2. The Gospel of Wealth by Andrew Carnegie (1892)
Pittsburghers have a strange relationship to the generation of men who made the city one of the wealthiest metropolises in the country (and indeed whose accumulated inherited wealth in part helped the city survive the collapse of industry). Names like Carnegie, Frick, Mellon, Westinghouse, and Heinz adorn museums, universities, schools, parks, and churches. Yet an appreciation is tempered by a certain working class suspicion; the hike is short from Henry Clay Frick’s opulent Clayton estate at the edge of the park named for him to the spot on the Monongahela across from where Pinkertons killed nine striking steelworkers in 1891. Carnegie occupies a complicated place in the psyche of the city, a poor Scottish immigrant whose life story is uncomfortably close to the bootstrap mythos of his adopted nation. Carnegie wasn’t simply the richest man in the world, but also one of the most generous philanthropists the country ever produced. A socialist in his youth, Carnegie eventually argued that redistributive justice through either labor unions or state intervention was unnecessary, and rather it was the paternal responsibility of the great man of industry to support his working brother. And so a thousand libraries bloomed, whether workers wanted them or not (raises in pay and better working conditions were another matter). In The Gospel of Wealth he puts forward his philosophy of philanthropy, one that was perhaps generous, but also very firmly on his terms (and sometimes not so transparently to his benefit as well). His bearded, kindly face peers out of a bronzed statue in the lobby of the music hall that bears his name, his shockingly small stature giving him an elfin appearance. There is an ambivalence surrounding him — gratitude for the sheer amount of good he contributed with his wealth, but also the feeling that it was a fire escape used to ameliorate guilt he felt over things like his deputy Frick’s handling of the Homestead steel strike (not to mention the role both played in the tragic Johnstown Flood). Despite it all, there is something avuncular about his still-ghostly presence as Pittsburgh’s tiny Scottish uncle, who must feel some gratitude that we’re the only people west of Edinburgh able to pronounce his name correctly (emphasis on that first syllable).
3. “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather in The Troll Garden (1905)
While most associated with the weather-beaten plains of her adopted Nebraska explored in novels like O Pioneers! (1913) and then the scorched deserts of New Mexico in Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), Cather made Pittsburgh her home for 10 years. She explored the city in several short stories, most famously in her poignantly heartbreaking “Paul’s Case.” A landmark in American queer writing, “Paul’s Case” follows the attempted escape of its titular character, a sensitive adolescent aesthete who is oppressed by the Protestant work ethic of his father that permeates everything as completely as the industrial exhaust clinging blackly to every building’s exterior. Yet an opera performance at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Hall indicates to the young man that a different manner of being is possible. He absconds with stolen money from his father and spends a week living the life of a refined sophisticate in New York City. When his father comes to retrieve him, rather than return home, Paul commits suicide by jumping in front of a train bound for Pennsylvania. A work of nuanced sophistication, “Paul’s Case” captures Pittsburgh at its dreary, industrial height, and connects the regimented, clock-work like rationalism of its factories to the oppressive strictures of the Calvinism that justified the dour capitalism of the era. In this context Paul’s rebellion, though tragic, is not a failure, for in the music halls of this gray city he was able to see a different world, even if he couldn’t make that world his home.
4. The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein (1933)
Her name conjures images of Left Bank bohemianism, of late-night absinthe and hash-fueled salons in her parlor, of the Seine slinking through Paris. Yet despite being the veritable mayor of the expat Lost Generation, the first river Stein would have known was not the Seine but the Allegheny. Born to a family of wealthy German Jews in Allegheny, Penn., (which is now Pittsburgh’s Northside), she was of the same community that fostered families like the Kaufmanns, once famous for their now-defunct department store chain and primarily associated with their glorious Frank Lloyd Wright house at Fallingwater. Allegheny was to Pittsburgh as Brooklyn was to New York, and as both were in some sense forcibly annexed by their larger neighbors, a certain independence still lingers in both places today. Stein reflected little on her short Pittsburgh childhood (the family moved to Oakland), and yet in the ghostwritten voice of her lover Alice B. Toklas, she wrote, “As I am an ardent Californian and as she spent her youth there I have often begged her to be born in California but she has always remained firmly born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania. She left it when she was six months old and has never seen it again and now it no longer exists being all of it Pittsburgh.”
5. Out of This Furnace by Thomas Bell (1941)
Although today the adjacent city of Braddock is primarily known for a maudlin (and yet still moving) Levi’s ad and its imposing shaven-head mayor John Fetterman, it was once the site of the Edgar Thompson Steelworks, the first Bessemer process steel mill in the world. (It should be said that portions of the mill are still in operation, despite the city losing 90 percent of its population from its historic height). That industrial site is the setting for Thomas Bell’s (ne’ Adalbert Thomas Belejcak) working class epic about Slovakian, Lemko, and Hungarian mill workers from the late 19th century through the mid-20th. Alongside other marginalized modernist authors like Tillie Olsen and Pietro di Donato, Bell offered an unsparing and unsentimental portrait of the brutality of work, alongside the often-insurmountable bigotry directed towards immigrants. Bell eschews any sort of romanticism, and Out of This Furnace is not social realist agitprop, but it is a clear-eyed depiction of the sort of violence that unregulated capitalism can enact on individuals and their communities. Throughout what emerges is a sober defense of labor rights and unionization in ensuring that the American dream is equitably available to all.
6. Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City by Stefan Lorant (1964)
Pittsburgh has the appearance of a love-child produced after a drunken one-night stand between San Francisco and Detroit. This is a compliment. Carved by three rivers cutting through the Allegheny Mountains, the city has a dramatic vista that is endlessly commented on in Pittsburgh and perennially surprises newcomers. The combination of a modern metropolis nestled among the river-kissed valleys and mountains gives the entire place a profoundly different feel from other similarly sized cities. With the iconic inclines on Mt. Washington, or the sudden conjuring of the cityscape like a mirage onto one’s field of vision as it emerges from behind the rural hills dotting I-79 North, the skyline is consistently ranked one of the most beautiful in America. Hungarian journalist Stefan Lorant worked with Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith to produce this massive album of Pittsburgh at mid-century, during the middle of what has been called “Renaissance I.” This civic improvement project, initiated by progressive mayor David L. Lawrence and banker Richard K. Mellon was in large responsible for beautifying the city, pushing for environmental initiatives to clean up the famously Gotham-like grime of the region, and to inaugurate massive building projects. Lorant and Smith’s massive project resulted in a text, that while suspiciously looking like a coffee table book, was perhaps one of the most comprehensive recordings of a mid-sized American city ever accomplished. Perennially popular (and going through several more editions), Pittsburgh: The Story of an American City chronicled in exacting and gorgeous detail everything from the Fifth Avenue mansions on Millionaire’s Row to the brick row houses of Bloomfield and Lawrenceville. It remains endlessly fascinating.
7. About Three Bricks Shy: And the Load Filled Up by Roy Blount Jr. (1974)
Western Pennsylvania was the forge that created Joe Montana, Johnny Unitas, Mike Ditka, Dan Marino, and Joe Namath. Football, from its glories to its toxicity, is religion in Pittsburgh. To fully explain that world requires someone familiar with the doctrine and sacraments of said religion, which the Steelers found in Southern writer Roy Blount Jr., an inhabitant of the only region in American perhaps more football obsessed than Pittsburgh. His About Three Bricks Shy: And the Load Filled Up disproves George Plimpton’s assertion that the smaller the ball, the better the sports writing. A classic of the genre, Blount’s account follows the exploits of the team before the Steel Curtain juggernaut of the late-’70s. The glory days of four Super Bowls in six years was still in the future. But the ingredients were all there: Terry Bradshaw as quarterback; the brilliant coach Chuck Noll; running backs Rocky Bleier and John “Frenchy” Fuqua; defensive lineman L.C. Greenwood; defensive back Mel Blount; and the running back Franco Harris (along with his famed “Italian Army”), who one year before accomplished the greatest play in football history with his “Immaculate Reception” (so named in the honking yinzer accent of sportscaster Myron Cope). Blount depicts a team on the verge of greatness, where all the pieces should work together, but just don’t quite do so yet. Presided over by the stodgy yet beloved Irish-Catholic owner Art Rooney Sr., Blount’s book is fascinating for depicting a team right before they would become the high priests of this strange Pittsburgh religion of football.
8. The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again) by Andy Warhol (1975)
The city could be cold to an eccentric boy like Warhol, but in college at Carnegie Tech he was able to find a community of like-minded artistic compatriots and even mythically contributed a hidden mural to Holiday, now-closed but once the city’s oldest gay bar. With his degree in design, he escaped like Willa Cather’s Paul to New York and supposedly never looked back (though he was buried in the South Hills, his grave littered with Campbell Soup cans from admirers). Yet Andrew Warhola was a good Slovakian Catholic, attending Mass everyday with his mother, even as an adult. She took her son to the Church of St. John Chrysostom when he was an awkward, shy, St. Vitus’s dance afflicted boy. In the Byzantine Catholic splendor of the cathedral in Four Mile Run (the veritable basement of the city, bisected by the Parkway East), he would have marveled at icons of the church’s namesake and the Patristic fathers. In adulthood what did he do but invent a new form of icon based not around Christianity but America’s new religion of capitalism and celebrity, the Virgin Mary replaced with Marilyn Monroe, St. Monica with Jackie O? The city is now home to a large museum devoted to the artist, even though he had a reputation for obscuring his Pittsburgh roots. Indeed The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B & Back Again) strangely incorrectly claims the distinctly less glamorous McKeesport as his hometown. In another interview, he claimed, “I come from nowhere.” And yet an affection for the city in some sense always remained. When David Bowie played him in the film Basquiat (1996), he speaks of the Architecture Hall at the Carnegie Museum of Art where he once took classes: “Hey, we could go to Pittsburgh! I kinda grew up there. They have this room with all the world’s famous statues in it, so you don’t even have to go to Europe any more…just go to Pittsburgh.” Indeed the Northside is still home to Paul Warhola Scrap Metal Inc., run by Andy’s nephew who inherited it from his father, and only a few blocks away from the fashionable art museum baring his uncle’s name. Warhol may have made his career in New York, but he was always a Pittsburgher to the core, another Catholic son of mill hunkies working in a Factory.
9. Hiding Place by John Edgar Wideman (1981)
Although also associated with that other Pennsylvania city to the east where several of his books are set, Pittsburgh is still very much John Edgar Wideman’s town. A writer’s writer who has never claimed the mass readership he deserves (though he certainly has received the prizes, including a PEN/Faulkner award — twice) Wideman chronicled the defeats and triumphs of Pittsburgh’s black neighborhood of Homewood. His novel Hiding Place was rereleased by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1992 sandwiched between his short story collection Damballah (1981) and the novel Sent for you Yesterday (1983) under the title The Homewood Books. Wideman writes in the tradition of Sherwood Anderson, or Jean Toomer, with an understanding of the deep roots (or tentacles) that tie us to our place of origin. Damballah, named about the Haitian Loa of both creation and death, is a magical realist inflected story about Homewood’s semi-mythic creation. Wideman’s works set in Pittsburgh connect the antebellum South, legacies of slavery and intuitional racism, the Great Migration of African Americans to the industrial North, and modern urban blight. In his telling, the runaway slave Sybil Owens founds the neighborhood in the 1840s, her very name conjuring the Sibylline Oracles, a conflation of hoodoo myth and Western classicism. Wideman understands that in life and in fiction the network of interconnection between disparate elements is the very substance of life. One character reflecting on stories told to him by his aunt says, “I heard her laughter, her amens, and can I get a witness, her digressions, the web she spins and brushes away with her hands. Her stories exist because of their parts and each part is a story worth telling, worth examining to find the stories it contains.” For Wideman, storytelling is an act of personal etymology, a way of excavating the repressed history (both individual and national), of cleaning off that which has accrued to your soul.
10. Fences by August Wilson (1983)
Unsurpassed in scope, Wilson wrote 10 plays for each decade of the 20th century, nine of which are focused on the historically black Pittsburgh neighborhood of the Hill District. He has been celebrated with two Pulitzer Prizes, his name in marquees lights on a Broadway theater, a museum in Pittsburgh, and soon a Denzel Washington–produced series based on the entire cycle to appear on HBO. Born to a black mother who moved north in the Great Migration from North Carolina and a German immigrant father, Wilson was a master of code switching with an ear for American vernacular that surpasses David Mamet. In depicting the denizens of Wylie and Centre Avenues some characters reoccur, such as the supernatural Aunt Esther, a “washer of souls” who is already 285 years old at the time of Gem of the Ocean (2003), the first play in the cycle set in the 1900s. Across plays like Jitney (1982), The Piano Lesson (1987), and King Hedley II (1999), he explores painful issues of race and class in a way no playwright has before or since. Composed out of chronological order, The Pittsburgh Cycle in its entirely allows audiences to explore the relationships between space and time in the production of a particular place. Although grounded in the concrete streets of the Hill, he’s able to focus that vision out in a universal manner. Wilson takes the encyclopedic vastness of the great explorers of location, like James Joyce and William Faulkner, and weds it to performed drama. In the mouths of his characters, the Hill is animated on stage in a way few other places have ever been in the theater. Fences, set in the ’50s, is arguably the most celebrated play of the cycle, winning both a Pulitzer and a Tony, and starring James Earl Jones in its Broadway premiere. Focusing on Troy, a once promising baseball player who didn’t break into the Negro League and who now works as a garbage man, the play’s themes of middle-aged despair and infidelity lend it a universal quality despite being set in a particular time and place (one that is perhaps distant from those in the audience, especially people lucky enough to be in the expensive seats). As Wilson said about the play, audiences see in Troy “love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty,” and can begin to understand that “these things are as much part of his life as theirs.”
11. An American Childhood by Annie Dillard (1985)
Although she grew up only a 20-minute bus ride from the neighborhood depicted in The Pittsburgh Cycle, Dillard’s upbringing was one of privilege, which she explores in this memoir. She calls her childhood neighborhood of Point Breeze the “Valley of the Kings,” after the Egyptian necropolis of the pharaohs. Though by the time of her youth in the ‘50s, the area was solidly upper middle class (her father was an oil executive, and she attended the exclusive Ellis School), the remnants of its much more opulent Gilded Age past marked Point Breeze. Evidence of the tremendous wealth that shaped the city was everywhere, in robber baron mansions subdivided into apartments and the wrought-iron gate that used to be H.J. Heinz’s fence running alongside blocks of Penn Avenue. The city was built on top of itself, its history waiting to be excavated like an archeologist scouring that actual Valley of the Kings. This helped to develop Dillard’s gift for sensory detail, which she has honed into an almost theological precision. In An American Childhood she recounts how upon officially leaving the Presbyterian church as an adolescent, the minister told her that she would be back, and in many ways he was correct (if not as how he intended). Her prose (which has more than a bit of the poetic about it) adopted the sacramental poetics of a Gerard Manley Hopkins, awareness that the world is simultaneously fallen and enchanted with a charged energy. As she writes,
Skin was earth; it was soil. I could see, even on my own skin, the joined trapezoids of dust specks God had wetted and stuck with his spit the morning he made Adam from dirt. Now, all these generations later, we people could still see on our skin the inherited prints of the dust specks of Eden.
One of the most important themes of Pittsburgh literature, if we can generalize a theory of the genre, is for the possibility of transcendence in the mundane and for the sacred in the profane. Dillard may be most celebrated for bringing this awareness to her observations of the natural world in rural Virginia, but it was a spiritual skill inculcated by the contradictions of Pittsburgh, where rusting mills abut massive parks, that she first learned the personal vocabulary of matter and spirit.
12. Paradise Poems by Gerald Stern (1985)
One of the great Pittsburgh poets, Gerald Stern has diction and a personality that many would read as “New York,” which is to say as “Jewish.” Indeed (and not to conflate the regions) Stern would find himself in the unlikely position of Poet Laureate of New Jersey from 2000 to 2002. But despite his ultimate destination, Stern was very much a product of the steep, cobble-stoned streets of South Squirrel Hill, and his yiddishkeit personality of wry ironic humor and steadfast commitment to justice were very much incubated there. Many are surprised to learn that Pittsburgh is home to one of the largest urban Jewish communities in the United States, where every variety of the Jewish experience from Hasidism to socialist Zionism historically has had adherents. Often compared to his friend the former U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine (who similarly explored his own native city of Detroit), Stern’s verse expresses a similar industrial and Midwestern Jewish American experience. Like his other friend Gilbert, Stern would spend his life traveling and living in more exotic locations than the east end of Pittsburgh (pursuing graduate school in Paris for example). But also like Gilbert he can’t shake Pittsburgh, the language of that city permeating his speech and more importantly his consciousness. Stern’s poetry is not just introspective or confessional, but indeed sly and funny; it’s not just intellectual, but unpretentious. He is not simply wise; he is also humane. His commitments come from both a secular understanding of the Torah and the Talmud, and the working class experience of a Pittsburgh youth, what Gilbert called the “tough heaven” of the city. This is a distinctly non-utopian place where Stern argues that we must stake out our claims to utopia even within the heartbreak and discord of a broken and fallen world. This sense of not just the possibility for a restored world, but also the ethical imperative of it, is seen in his poem “The Dancing” from the collection Paradise Poems. A profound Holocaust poem, he depicts a “tiny living room / on Beechwood Boulevard” where his family celebrates the conclusion of the Second World War. Here they joyously dance to Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro,” “my hair all streaming, / my mother red with laughter, my father…doing the dance / of old Ukraine.” He calls upon the “God of mercy, oh wild God” here “In Pittsburgh, beautiful filthy Pittsburgh,” which exists in a world that can produce both the horrors of the Holocaust and the joys of dancing. Stern’s prophetic injunction is that we must live as if the world could be perfected precisely because it can’t be.
13. Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon (1989)
Chabon would later claim that he conceived of Mysteries of Pittsburgh as an unlikely cross between The Great Gatsby and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Like both of those novels, Mysteries of Pittsburgh is a bildungsroman of sorts, a young man’s novel all the more exceptional precisely because of how young a man its author was. The book was started at the almost absurdly tender age of 21, all the more remarkable for how he deftly communicated the coming-of-age of its protagonist, Art Bechstein, and that character’s sexually confused summer after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh. A native of Columbia, Md., Chabon moved to the city as a teenager, graduating from Taylor Allderdice high school (like Stern) and studying at both CMU and Pitt. He combines both an outsider and transplant’s eye for the region, chronicling the previously underexplored reality of characters associated with the universities of the area that have increasingly come to dominate the cultural and economic life of the city as Pittsburgh transforms itself into America’s largest college town. Although acutely aware of the industrial past, Chabon’s men and women travel the leafy, Tudor-homed, middle-class streets of Shadyside and Squirrel Hill, and work in Oakland under the shadow of Pitt’s massive gothic skyscraper of a building called the Cathedral of Learning. Mysteries of Pittsburgh eschews the typical lunch-pail, shot-and-a-beer, smokestack stereotypes that linger about the city, rather portraying the tweedy, quasi-bohemian lives of writers and students (though those characters are just as likely to enjoy a boilermaker or several at that dive, the Squirrel Cage). He fuses Jewish, queer, and popular culture themes while generating characters that display a deep interiority. Both his honesty and nostalgia avoid the pitfalls of cynicism; his Pittsburgh is what it is, exhibiting a clear affection while also being aware of where it lags. This is perhaps even clearer in 1995’s Wonder Boys, arguably one of the greatest campus novels ever written, and certainly the greatest one about the Pittsburgh literary scene. It follows the weekend exploits of Professor Grady Tripp (obviously based on Pitt’s Chuck Kinder) and his brilliant student James Leer. In the narrative concerning Tripp’s demons and his sort-of-redemption, Chabon’s honesty allows us to avoid sentimentality while still offering a defense of why we read fiction at all. That doesn’t mean he can’t engage in some earthy Pittsburgh anti-pretentious shit-talking, as Tripp remarks, “There were so many Pittsburgh poets in my hallway that if, at that instant, a meteorite had come smashing through my roof, there would never have been another stanza written about rusting fathers and impotent steelworkers and the Bessemer convertor of love.”
14. The Great Fires: Poems 1982-1992 by Jack Gilbert (1994)
After winning the coveted Yale Younger Poets Prize in 1962, East Liberty’s Jack Gilbert briefly found himself celebrated as a literary wonder boy, yet he would ultimately choose what he called a “self-imposed isolation.” Though he spent a life “In Paris afternoons on Buttes-Chaumont” and “On Greek islands with their fields of stone,” he psychically remained grounded in “what remains of Pittsburgh in me.” His hometown was such an abiding subject of Gilbert’s that his poetry concerning it was collected in the anthology Tough Heaven (2006), including “Searching for Pittsburgh” originally included in The Great Fires. He describes, “The rusting mills sprawled gigantically / along three rivers” and the “gritty alleys where we played every evening” that were “stained pink by the inferno always surging in the sky.” For Gilbert, Pittsburgh is “Sumptuous-shouldered, / sleek-thighed, obstinate and majestic, unquenchable” — as perfect a description as I have ever read. This is a place of “deep-rooted grace. / A city of brick and tired wood,” with “The beauty forcing us as much as the harshness.” This catholic (lowercase c) sense of the numinous embedded even in the injustices of the world was one Gilbert witnessed first hand among the hardships but also the sublimity of working-class life in East Liberty; it allowed him to understand that “If the locomotive of the Lord runs us down, / we should give thanks that the end had magnitude” (as he wrote in his poem “A Brief for the Defense”). Central to Gilbert — and maybe Pittsburgh writers from Stern to Dillard — is this powerful, nostalgic, sense of loss, of an ache associated with the disappearance of things once so significant. In one of his most moving Pittsburgh poems, “Trying to Have Something Left Over,” also collected in The Great Fires, Gilbert describes entertaining the baby of his Danish mistress while the mother is occupied with chores. He writes of making the child laugh saying, “Pittsburgh softly each time before throwing him up…Pittsburgh and happiness high up. / The only way to leave even the smallest trace. / So that all his life her son would feel gladness/unaccountably when anyone spoke of the ruined / city of steel in America. Each time almost / remembering something maybe important that got lost.”
15. Muscular Music by Terrance Hayes (1999)
One of the last poems in Rita Dove’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth Century American Poetry was about a gay bar in Downtown Pittsburgh and was by a then–29-year-old, straight, black poet from Columbia, S.C., named Terrence Hayes. Dove included Hayes alongside poets like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Robert Frost, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, Robert Lowell, and Allen Ginsberg as an exemplar of American verse. In what was consciously (and controversially) a cannon-defying collection, Dove choose to include Hayes as the almost-culmination of the last century of American poetry, a vote of confidence for his future significance. Across four collections, and first as a creative writing professor at Carnegie Mellon and now at Pitt, Hayes has explored race and sexuality, popular culture and personal epiphany. He is a poet for our moment, a bard for Barack Obama’s America examining issues of gender and race as lived in this moment. In “At Pegasus,” he writes of awkwardly informing one man who asks him to dance “I’m just here for the music. Even with the masculine defensiveness, he is able to tenderly reflect that he has “held / a boy on my back before. / Curtis & I used to leap / barefoot into the creek,” transporting himself from Pegasus back to a southern childhood. Considering the liberatory potential of the place, he describes the bar in distinctly Yeatsian terms with “the edge of these lovers’ gyre, /glitter & steam, fire, / bodies blurred sexless / by the music’s spinning light,” a veritable egalitarian democracy of men. He is able to empathetically link his childhood play with these men, “each breathless as a boy / carrying a friend on his back.” He explains, “These men know something / I used to know. / How could I not find them / beautiful, they way they dive & spill / into each other.” For Hayes, Pittsburgh isn’t some conservative old industrial town, but indeed a place that, however unlikely some may think, can hold a bit of emancipatory potential for those willing to look (even for outsiders).
16. One Shot Harris: The Photographs of Charles “Teenie” Harris by Deborah Willis (2002)
Pittsburgh’s African-American neighborhoods have had an outside influence on wider black culture. The Hill District would ultimately become Pittsburgh’s version of Harlem, home to jazz clubs and bars, and a center in that cultural renaissance. As the halfway point between New York and Chicago, the Pittsburgh jazz scene hosted every major musician to perform. The city also produced an unlikely array of talent, including Art Blakey; George Benson; Erroll Garner; Ahmad Jamal; Stanley Turrentine; Billy Eckstine; Lena Horne; and most notably Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington’s composer whose signature “Take the A Train” was based off of directions that Strayhorne received. The Hill was also home to The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the country’s oldest and most venerable black newspapers, which employed the photographer Charlie “Teenie” Harris (so nicknamed for his diminutive height). Teenie had another nickname, “One Shot,” for his borderline mythic ability to capture an almost perfect image on one try. This collection of his mid-century work curated by artist Deborah Willis gives the viewer a sense of the photographer’s scope. As the presiding archivist of the Hill, Harris took over 80,000 images, of everyone from the celebrities who traveled through (including JFK, Joe Louis, Richard Nixon, Dizzy Gillespie, Martin Luther King Jr., and dozens of others) to life in Pittsburgh’s speakeasies and black churches, from the Crawford Grill to that jazz club’s Negro League baseball team the Pittsburgh Crawfords. His massive inventory of images is perhaps the most full and complete recording of any black community in the United States, perhaps of any community at all. Archivists at the Carnegie Museum of Art are combing through the collection, identifying figures and locations. Through the entire body of work what is most conveyed is singular warmth of the people depicted even in sometimes desperate circumstances, a characteristic of the Pittsburgh aesthetic.
17. The Last Chicken in America: A Novel in Stories by Ellen Litman (2008)
Western Pennsylvania, like many parts of the industrial Midwest, has long been home to eastern European communities. Onion-domed churches punctuate the skylines of industrial towns as surely as factory smokestacks. The latest wave of immigrants arrived starting in the late-‘70s and early-‘80s, when the campaign to save Soviet Jewry resulted in the relocation of thousands of persecuted Russian Jews to the United States. In Pittsburgh many of them settled in the neighborhoods of Squirrel Hill and Greenfield, including Ellen Litman, who emigrated from Moscow in 1992, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Last Chicken in America follows her roman a clef Masha’s hybridized identity split between the Old World and New. Litman could be classifiable as part of the movement of young Russian American authors like Gary Shteyngart writing about America through the prism of their Russian backgrounds. Masha comments on the “unpleasantly wholesome smile” of a Russian friend who has assimilated a bit too readily into American culture, where that mouth now emanates “charm and fluoride, good fortune and good breeding, and you either know it’s fake and don’t trust it, or you trust it too much.” Litman’s account of first generation anxiety translates the Russian genius for ironic pessimism into a middle American vernacular. Her stories capture the storefronts of upstreet Squirrel Hill, where memories of Moscow, Leningrad, and Odessa were first discussed in Russian, then heavily accented English, then English, only to maybe eventually be forgotten. Her character Victor says, “For a true Russian person, immigration is death. A Russian poet can’t survive in immigration.” The novel’s position is agnostic on Victor’s claims, and yet it affirms that the truth of being a hyphenated American can be as contradictory and difficult in 1992 as it was in 1892 (or 2016).
18. The Bend of the World by Jacob Bacharach (2014)
That people are finally paying attention to Pittsburgh is obviously good. It’s heartening for residents to see the city of which so many are fiercely proud receiving some positive press after decades of being overlooked or portrayed as another Rust Belt casualty. But there is a fear that something could be lost if this enthusiasm is too manufactured, for as the writer of Ecclesiastes might have reminded us (in his own way), “What The New York Times Sunday Style section giveth, The New York Times Sunday Style section can taketh away.” One must remember that to be the “New Portland” requires that there is an “Old Portland,” and all it takes is for Cincinnati or Buffalo or Peoria or wherever to unseat you. Hipsters (and their fellow travelers) were of course first attracted to the city by how cheap it was, but part of the charm of the place is something I call “gentle surrealism.” This is a phenomenon that resists the conscious weirdness of those trying too hard; its unpretentious and seemingly unaware of what uncoolness even is. An area that used to view pretzels encased in lime-green Jell-O as a type of desert has more than a whiff of the gently surreal about it. In first-time novelist Jacob Bacharach’s The Bend of the World, the protagonist believes that Pittsburgh is a “nexus of intense magical occurrence.” The satirical novel features UFO’s, Sasquatches, and inter-dimensional conspiracies, a gentle slice of surrealism served, Pittsburgh-style, with fries on top. Bacharach proves true what Jack Gilbert wrote all those years ago, that whether Steel City or travel section destination, “Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.”
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Welcome to a new episode of The Book Report presented by The Millions! This week, inspired by the recent reconciliation of Axl Rose and Slash of Guns N’ Roses, Janet and Mike talk about great literary friendships.
Discussed in this episode: Scarlett O’Hara, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Rhett Butler, Melanie Wilkes, Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer, female friendships, P.G. Wodehouse, Jeeves & Wooster, Purity by Jonathan Franzen, birds, “Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses.
Not discussed in this episode: The obscure Guns N’ Roses cover of the theme song from Barney. Only two seven-inches are known to exist. Janet has both of them.
“Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!”
For years I bought into the old saw that says the second novel is the hardest one to write. It seemed to make sense. When starting out, most writers pour everything from the first 20 (or 30, or 40) years of their lives into their debut novel. It’s only natural that on the second visit to the well, many novelists find it has gone dry.
Stephen Fry, the British writer and actor, explained it this way: “The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel. If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23 and my second novel takes me two years, which one have I written more quickly? The second, of course. The first took 23 years and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of a lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.”
Fry made these remarks at the inaugural awarding of the Encore Prize, established in England in 1989 to honor writers who successfully navigate the peculiar perils of the second novel. Winners have included Iain Sinclair, Colm Toibin, A.L. Kennedy, and Claire Messud.
Fry’s point is well taken, but it’s just the beginning of the difficulties facing the second novelist. If a first novel fails to become a blockbuster, as almost all of them do, publishers are less inclined to get behind the follow-up by a writer who has gained a dubious track record but has lost that most precious of all literary selling points: novelty. Writers get only one shot at becoming The Next Big Thing, which, to too many publishers, is The Only Thing. Failure to do so can carry a wicked and long-lasting sting.
(Full disclosure: I’m speaking from experience. My first novel enjoyed respectable sales and a gratifying critical reception, including a largely positive review from impossible-to-please Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times. But the novel failed to land on any best-seller lists or get me on Oprah. Five years later, my second novel disappeared like a stone dropped in a lake. I don’t think anyone even noticed the splash. I recently sold my third novel — 17 years after that quiet splash.)
There’s plenty of empirical evidence to support the claim that the second novel is the hardest one to write — and that it can be even harder to live down. After his well-received 1988 debut, The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon spent years wrestling with a woolly, 1,500-page beast called The Fountain that finally defeated him and wound up in a drawer. Wisely, Chabon went in a different direction and produced Wonder Boys, a successful second novel that was, technically, his third. After getting nominated for a National Book Award for her 1973 debut, State of Grace, Joy Williams puzzled and pissed-off a lot of people with The Changeling, her unsettling second novel about a drunk woman on an island full of feral kids. Williams blamed the book’s frosty reception on the political climate of the late 1970s: “Feminism did not need a guilty drunk!” Martin Amis followed his fine debut, The Rachel Papers, with the disappointingly flippant Dead Babies. I still find it hard to believe that the writer responsible for Dead Babies (and an even worse wreck called Night Train) could also be capable of the brilliant London Fields, Time’s Arrow, The Information and, especially, Money: A Suicide Note. Then again, outsize talent rarely delivers a smooth ride. Even Zadie Smith stumbled with The Autograph Man after her acclaimed debut, White Teeth.
Sometimes a hugely successful — or over-praised — first novel can be a burden rather than a blessing. Alex Garland, Audrey Niffenegger, Charles Frazier, and Donna Tartt all enjoyed smash debuts, then suffered critical and/or popular disappointments the second time out. Frazier had the consolation of getting an $8 million advance for his dreadful Thirteen Moons, while Niffenegger got $5 million for Her Fearful Symmetry. That kind of money can salve the sting of even the nastiest reviews and most disappointing sales. Tartt regained her footing with her third novel, The Goldfinch, currently the most popular book among readers of The Millions and a few hundred thousand other people.
A handful of writers never produce a second novel, for varied and deeply personal reasons. Among the one-hit wonders we’ve written about here are James Ross, Harper Lee, Margaret Mitchell, and Ralph Ellison. And in certain rare cases, the second novel is not only the hardest one to write, it’s the last one that gets written. Consider Philip Larkin. He published two highly regarded novels, Jill and A Girl in Winter, back to back in the 1940s — and then abruptly abandoned fiction in favor of poetry. Why? Clive James offered one theory: “The hindsight answer is easy: because he was about to become the finest poet of his generation, instead of just one of its best novelists. A more inquiring appraisal suggests that although his aesthetic effect was rich, his stock of events was thin…Larkin, while being to no extent a dandy, is nevertheless an exquisite. It is often the way with exquisites that they graduate from full-scale prentice constructions to small-scale works of entirely original intensity, having found a large expanse limiting.” In other words, for some writers the biggest canvas is not necessarily the best one.
Of course, second novels don’t always flop — or drive their creators away from fiction-writing. Oliver Twist, Pride and Prejudice, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, and John Updike’s Rabbit, Run are just a few of the many second novels that were warmly received upon publication and have enjoyed a long shelf life. But until about a year ago, I regarded such stalwarts as the exceptions that proved the rule. Then a curious thing happened. I came upon a newly published second novel that knocked me out. Then another. And another. In all of these cases, the second novel was not merely a respectable step up from a promising debut. The debuts themselves were highly accomplished, critically acclaimed books; the second novels were even more ambitious, capacious, and assured.
I started to wonder: With so much high-quality fiction getting written every day in America — especially by writers who are supposed to be in the apprentice phase of their careers — is it possible that we’re entering a golden age of the second novel? Here are three writers who make me believe we are:
Rachel Kushner’s 2008 debut, Telex from Cuba, was a finalist for the National Book Award. Refreshingly free of the mirror-gazing that mars many first novels, it told the story of two insulated colonies in the eastern end of Cuba in the late 1950s, where Americans were blithely extracting riches from sugar crops and nickel deposits while Fidel Castro and his rebels were getting ready to sweep away the corrupt regime of Fulgencio Batista — and, with it, the Americans’ cloistered world.
The novel is richly researched and deeply personal. Kushner’s grandfather was a mining executive in Cuba in the 1950s, and her mother grew up there. Kushner interviewed family members, pored over their memorabilia, even traveled to Cuba to walk the ground and talk to people who remembered life before the revolution. To her great credit, Kushner’s imagination took precedence over her prodigious research as she sat down to write. As she told an interviewer, “Just because something is true doesn’t mean it has a place.”
While her debut took place inside a hermetically sealed cloister, Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, explodes across time and space. The central character is Reno, a young woman from the West hoping to break into the 1970s downtown New York art scene, a motorcycle racer with “a need for risk.” But Reno’s artistic aspirations are merely the springboard for this ambitious novel as it moves from the 1970s to the First World War, from America to Europe to South America. It teems with characters, events, voices, ideas. It’s a big, sprawling, assured novel, and it announced the arrival of a major talent.
Dear American Airlines, Jonathan Miles’s first novel, exists in an even more tightly circumscribed space than Kushner’s American enclave in pre-revolutionary Cuba. This novel takes place inside the American Airlines terminal at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport — or, more accurately, inside the brain of Benjamin R. Ford, who has been stranded at O’Hare while trying to fly from New York to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of his gay daughter and, just maybe, reverse the downward momentum of a magnificently botched life. The novel’s conceit is a beauty: furious and utterly powerless, Ben, a failed poet, a failed drunk, a failed husband and father — but a reasonably successful translator — decides to sit down and write a complaint letter, demanding a refund from the soulless corporation that has kept him from attending his daughter’s wedding, effectively thwarting his last chance at redemption. The conceit could have turned the novel into a one-trick pony in less capable hands, but Miles manages to make Ben’s plight emblematic of what it’s like to live in America today — trapped and manipulated by monstrous forces but, if you happen to be as funny and resourceful as Ben Ford, never defeated by them.
It was a deft performance, but Miles outdid it last year with his second novel, Want Not, a meditation on the fallout of omnivorous consumerism. It tells three seemingly unrelated stories that come together only at the novel’s end: Talmadge and Micah, a couple of freegan scavengers, are squatting in an abandoned apartment on the New York’s Lower East Side, living immaculately pure lives off the grid; Elwin Cross Jr., a linguist who studies dying languages, lives alone miserably in the New Jersey suburbs, regularly visiting the nursing home where his father is succumbing to Alzheimer’s; and Dave Masoli, a bottom-feeding debt collector, his wife Sara, whose husband was killed on 9/11, and her daughter Alexis, who brings the strands of the story together, in shocking fashion.
From the first pages, it’s apparent that the themes are large, the characters are vivid and complex (with the exception of Dave Masoli), and the prose is rigorously polished. Here’s one of many astonishing sentences, a description of what Elwin hears after he has accidentally struck and killed a deer while driving home late at night:
It took a few seconds for the panicked clatter in his head to subside, for the hysterical warnings and recriminations being shouted from his subcortex to die down, and then: silence, or what passes for silence in that swath of New Jersey: the low-grade choral hum of a million near and distant engine pistons firing through the night, and as many industrial processes, the muted hiss and moan of sawblades and metal stamps and hydraulic presses and conveyor belts and coalfired turbines, plus the thrum of jets, whole flocks of them, towing invisible contrails toward Newark, and the insectile buzz of helicopters flying low and locust-like over fields of radio towers and above the scrollwork of turnpike exits, all of it fused into a single omnipresent drone, an aural smog that was almost imperceptible unless you stood alone and quivering on a deserted highwayside in the snow-hushed black hours of a November morning with a carcass hardening in the ice at your feet.
Want Not is a profound book not because Miles preaches, not even because he understands that we are what we throw away, but because he knows that our garbage tells us everything we need to know about ourselves, and it never lies.
In 1994, Charles McNair’s weird little first novel, Land O’ Goshen, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. It reads as if it were written by Faulkner on acid. It’s corn-pone sci-fi. It’s nasty and funny. It’s brilliant.
The title conjures two locales: the place in Egypt where the Israelites began their exodus to the Promised Land; and the place where the novel unfolds, a little one-blinking-light grease stain in the piney wastes of southern Alabama. The story is told by Buddy, a 14-year-old orphan who lives in the woods, dodging the Christian soldiers who are trying to subjugate the populace. This future era is called the New Times, but it’s a lot like the Old Testament — bloody tooth and bloody claw. Sometimes Buddy dresses up in animal skins and, as The Wild Thing, terrorizes the locals, trying “to wake up those tired, beaten-down old souls in every place where folks just gave up to being stupid and bored and commanded.” Buddy enjoys a brief idyll at his forest hideout with a beautiful girl named Cissy Jean Barber, but the world won’t leave them in peace. Through the nearly Biblical tribulations of his coming of age, Buddy learns the key to survival: “Sad sorrow can’t kill you, if you don’t let it.”
Last year, after nearly two decades of silence, McNair finally published his second novel, Pickett’s Charge. It’s bigger than its predecessor in every way. It traverses an ocean, a century, a continent. If Land O’ Goshen was content to be a fable, Pickett’s Charge aspires to become a myth. It tells the story of Threadgill Pickett, a former Confederate soldier who, at the age of 114 in 1964, is a resident of the Mobile Sunset Home in Alabama. As a teenage soldier, Threadgill watched Yankees murder his twin brother, Ben, a century earlier, and when Ben’s ghost appears at the nursing home to inform Threadgill that he has located the last living Yankee soldier, a wealthy man in Bangor, Maine, Threadgill embarks on one last mission to avenge his brother’s death.
Pickett’s Charge has obvious echoes – the Bible, Twain, Cervantes, Marquez, Allan Gurganus’s Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. But this novel’s most direct forebear might be Charles Portis’s Norwood, another story about a southerner’s quixotic journey to the North to seek justice. While Threadgill Pickett is after something big — vengeance — Norwood Pratt is simply out to collect the $70 he loaned a buddy in the Marines. Yet McNair and Portis seem to agree that folly is folly, regardless of its scale. And they both know how to turn it into wicked fun.
Of course one could argue that a half dozen books do not constitute a trend or herald a new golden age. But I’m sure I’ve missed a truckload of recent second novels that would buttress my claim. Maybe Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which has come out 15 years after her debut and is concerned, in part, with the difficulty of writing a second novel. Surely there are others that disprove the old saw. I would love it if you would tell me about them.
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We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.
The Pioneer Detectives
The Orphan Master’s Son
This month our second ebook original The Pioneer Detectives moves into the top spot as the book continues to garner very positive reviews from readers. We hope you’ll pick it up if you haven’t already.
Meanwhile, our list sees a big shake up as three books graduate to our Hall of Fame:
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: Ben Fountain’s book won the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award. Fountain appeared in our Year in Reading, and Edan Lepucki interviewed him in these pages last June.
These graduates make room for three heavy-hitting debuts, all of which appeared in our big second-half preview: Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon, MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood (don’t miss Atwood’s appearance in our Year in Reading; we haven’t quite tracked down Pynchon yet for this), and The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri.
David Bowie hasn’t performed live in seven years, but he has a good excuse — he’s been reading. His top 100 books are part of the “David Bowie Is” traveling exhibition (currently in Toronto.) The list reveals that he’s a big fan of American lit, including Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, Saul Bellow’s Herzog, James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, and more. He’s also an amateur rock historian, naming Charlie Gillete’s The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll and Peter Guralnick’s Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Southern Dream of Freedom among others. When can we sign up for the class, Professor Bowie?
We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.
The Pioneer Detectives
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Stand on Zanzibar
The Orphan Master’s Son
Tao Lin’s Taipei remains in our top spot. (For more on the book’s success in our Top Ten, take a look at my commentary on June’s list.) Meanwhile, our Millions Original The Pioneer Detectives by Konstantin Kakaes surges into the second spot and continues to win rave reviews from readers. Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain was also a mover, landing in the third spot as it nears graduation to our illustrious Hall of Fame.
Pessl bumps Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell from the Top Ten (at least for now).
“Why do we read?” That was the journal prompt given one day to seniors at the International High School at Prospect Heights, a Brooklyn public school that teaches English to newly arrived immigrants and refugees from around the world. I spent a year at the school reporting my first book, The New Kids. During that time I heard many, many journal prompts, but this one made a lasting impression, in part because of one student’s answer. “We read to survive in the world,” wrote Hasanatu, who had grown up in Sierra Leone during the war, “because when we know how to read, we can have gob.”
Hasanatu had learned how to read only recently, around the same time that she learned how to write. Sometimes she read for fun — she liked Superfudge by Judy Blume — but reading had a more practical purpose, too. She read to learn English, to sharpen her language and communication skills, to propel her forward toward college, and, yes, toward a good job. She also read to find answers to pressing questions. For instance, she wanted to know why it seemed that only African Muslims practice female circumcision? She spent days in the library investigating.
For me, the question “What are you reading” inevitably leads to the question, “Why do we read?” This year, I’ve been reading mostly for entertainment and escape — more like I used to read as a kid. In past years, I’ve found myself reading books on a theme, usually related to whatever I’m working on at the moment. Before writing The New Kids, I read and revisited books about the immigrant/outsider experience: What Is the What and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, Outcasts United by Warren St. John, and Call It Sleep by Henry Roth. (I wrote about a few of those books here.)
If I had known about The Gangster We Are All Looking For, Lê Thi Diem Thúy’s slim and elegant novel about a young girl who washes ashore in San Diego after fleeing Vietnam with her father by boat, I would have read it before writing my own book. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t know about it — I was able to read it without taking endless mental notes. I was pleased to discover that the author has a connection to western Massachusetts (where I recently moved with my husband), also home to Tracy Kidder, whose book Home Town gave me a glimpse into the inner workings of Northampton.
Leaving New York City helped rekindle my interest in books about my former home, which I sometimes miss. I loved Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, not just for its memorable characters and pervasive sense of nostalgia, but for Egan’s wonderful inventiveness with language. I also ate up Amy Sohn’s bitchy Prospect Park West — especially the parts where she imagines dialogue for the “character” of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who works at the Park Slope Food Coop.
On the subject of Park Slope, I finally got to read the works of some of my friends from the neighborhood’s own Brooklyn Writers Space. Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal is a cookbook written as a collection of pithy essays, in the tradition of M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. Bryan Charles’ memoir, There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, is about his first few years living in New York City, where he worked in a cubicle on the seventieth floor of the World Trade Center up until and on the day of 9/11. Michael Chabon described the book as “a sneakily disturbing, disarmingly profound, casually devastating memoir, taut and adept, that cracked me up even at its saddest moments.” I think he nailed it.
Speaking of Chabon, I finally read Wonder Boys, which has one of the best last lines of any book that I can remember. I also read Emma Donoghue’s Room, which ruined a recent family weekend vacation (I wouldn’t talk to anyone until I finished), and Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, another creepy book. This one is a young-adult novel — featuring some beautifully haunting vintage photos — about an abandoned orphanage filled with some very weird kids.
Last but not least, I revisited a few old favorites, including Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, the first western I ever read, and Black Hole, the first graphic novel I ever read. The former is an epic adventure about a couple of aging Texas cowboys who embark on a perilous journey to settle amid the wilderness of Montana. The latter is a grotesque modern fable about a bunch of teenagers in 1970s Seattle, where a sexually transmitted “bug” is causing some horrific mutations among the locals.
Two titles you wouldn’t find side-by-side on most bookshelves, but I see a connection. As Hasanatu said, we read to survive in the world, but sometimes we just like reading about survival.
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Kathy wrote in with this question:Our book club is focusing on books made into movies. We read fiction, no murder mysteries. I would like to keep either the book or the movie fairly current. Beloved is as far back as I would like to go. I thought about Wonder Boys and then heard The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is now a movie. We read Homecoming so we will probably do The Reader. My idea about books to movies is to compare the two mediums so I suppose the movie adaptation would not have to be topnotch.Three of our contributors had some recommendations for Cathy. We’ll start with Emily, who covers both fiction and memoir:The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: This beautiful, lyrical movie, directed by American painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel, was based on a 1995 memoir written by the French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby. Bauby was 43 and the editor-in-chief of Elle magazine when he suffered a massive stroke and fell into a coma. When Bauby awoke from the coma, he could only move was his left eyelid. His memoir, from which Schnabel’s movie takes its name, was written using the French language frequency-ordered alphabet. An assistant slowly recited the special alphabet (the letters ordered by frequency of use in French) over and over again, and Bauby blinked when the assistant reached the correct letter. He wrote his book letter by letter, blink by blink, composing the whole in his head. The memoir recounts both the anguish of being locked inside a corpse (the diving bell of the title), and the liberating pleasures of the imagination (the butterfly) that allowed Bauby to escape the confines of his prison-like body. Schnabel’s movie is breathtaking – one of the most visually lush, visceral film experiences I’ve had in a long time. It is also a testament to the power of the imagination.Oscar and Lucinda (1988 novel by the Australian novelist Peter Carey, also the winner of the Booker Prize for that year; 1997 film adaptation by Gillian Armstrong with Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchette): This is another beautiful movie, and though I haven’t read this novel of Carey’s, I loved Jack Maggs and The True History of the Kelly Gang. Oscar and Lucinda is the story of Oscar Hopkins (Fiennes), a young Anglican priest, and Lucinda Leplastrier (Blanchette), a young Australian heiress who buys a glass factory. These two lonely eccentrics meet sailing to Australia and discover that they are both obsessive and gifted gamblers. The crux of the story concerns the transportation of a glass church made in Lucinda’s factory in Sydney to a remote settlement in New South Wales. Carey’s novel was influenced by the 1907 memoir Father and Son by the literary critic and poet Edmund Gosse. Gosse’s book recounts his painful relationship with his father, the self-taught naturalist and fundamentalist minister, Philip Henry Gosse. Gosse Sr. is the model for Oscar’s father.This Boy’s Life (1989 novel/autobiography by Tobias Wolff; 1993 movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Ellen Barkin, and Robert De Niro). Wolff’s memoir of his growing up is by turns funny and horrifying and very much in the tradition of Gatsby-esque self-reinvention. The book follows the wanderings of adolescent narrator and main character, Toby Wolff (who, inspired by Jack London, changes his name to Jack) and his hapless mother (who has a thing for abusive, damaged men). After an itinerant existence driving around the country (usually fleeing or in search of one of his mother’s bad-news boyfriends), Jack and his mother settle in Chinook, Washington where Jack’s mother marries Dwight. Dwight (De Niro in the film) turns out to be a vicious, tyrannical bastard once Jack and his mother are settled into his household. Wolff’s prose is strong, lean, and unsparing and De Niro, Barkin, and DiCaprio all give impressive performances in the adaptation.For another excellent film/novel pair also in the dysfunctional family vein (and also starring Leonardo DiCaprio), check out Peter Hedges’ 1991 novel What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Hedges wrote a screenplay version of the novel for Lasse Hallstrom’s 1993 adaptation, starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Lewis. The cinematography by the legendary Sven Nykvist is spectacular, as is Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the mentally challenged Arnie (he earned an Oscar nod for it). For a third paring in this vein, consider Augusten Burroughs’ memoir Running With Scissors, and the excellent film version of the same name (with Brian Cox, Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin, Gwenyth Paltrow, and Evan Rachel Wood). Finally, for an English book/movie take on the eccentric/dysfunctional family, there’s Dodie Smith’s novel I Capture the Castle and the film version of the same name (with Bill Nighy and the lovely Romola Garai, who is also in the film version of Atonement).If you’re in the mood for American Beauty-esque lambasting of the American dream, consider Revolutionary Road (movie) or Little Children (movie). Both film versions star the gifted Kate Winslet, and both tell the tales of the sadness and frustration hidden away in grand colonial homes surrounded by green lawns and picket fences. Little Children also features a smashing book group discussion scene. The book under discussion is Madame Bovary and if one wanted a primary and a secondary text to read alongside the movie, Flaubert’s novel might make a nice complement. For a third slightly different take on the deceptions of American family life, consider David Cronenberg’s deeply disturbing and violent (but masterful) A History of Violence (2005), based on the 1997 graphic novel of the same name by John Wagner and Vince Locke. The movie stars Maria Bello, Viggo Mortensen, and Ed Harris.Possibly my favorite adaptation of a novel is the late Anthony Mingella’s 1999 The Talented Mr. Ripley, based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1955 novel. Its ensemble cast – Cate Blanchette, Jude Law, Gwenyth Paltrow, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Matt Damon – is one of the finest ever assembled, and the tale is a darker version of Gatsby myth: Tom Ripley, played by Matt Damon in the movie, decides that he wants the leisured life of his rich friend Dickie Greenleaf, no matter what the cost. Tom’s worshipful longing for well-made clothes and objects, travel, culture – a charmed, leisured life – is a kind of strange love story, and one of the most affecting and infectious depictions of desire I know. You want Tom to win even as he reveals himself to be utterly amoral and self-interested. Mingella’s reading of his source text gives Highsmith’s book a more tragic cast than I found the novel to have, and it also draws out homosexual undercurrents that I think Highsmith was more subtle about, but his version is just as captivating as the original. The movie is also a gorgeous period piece – necessary for a story about the irresistible power of material beauty and comfort.Don’t be put off by the title of this last one: Wristcutters: A Love Story. This 2007 movie directed by Goran Dukic is based on a short story called “Kneller’s Happy Campers” by the Israeli writer Etgar Keret (available in translation in the collection The Bus Driver Who Wanted To Be God and Other Stories). Basically, it’s about where you go after you commit suicide. But it’s not gothic or heavy-handed or overdone. The place that you go is pretty much like our world, only slightly cruddier and more run down – kinda how I imagine things were in Soviet states (scarcity, disrepair). After committing suicide, Zia (Patrick Fugit) finds himself in this world and befriends fellow suicide and former Russian punk band member Eugene (played by Shea Whigham), whose character is modeled on Gogol Bordello front man Eugene Hutz. Zia hears a rumor that his former girlfriend has also committed suicide and so is now in their alternate world, and Zia sets out to find her, accompanied by Eugene. Their adventures include an encounter with a self-proclaimed messiah (played by Will Arnett, GOB from “Arrested Development”) and another with a quasi-magical camp leader (played by Tom Waits). There’s a touch of Beckett about this movie, but there’s also something quietly humane and understated about it. It’s refreshing to see the afterlife imagined in such mundane terms.Lydia offers three movies she prefers over the books they were based on and two books she believes were done disservice by the movies made about them:
The English Patient – It is not Michael Ondaatje’s fault that Ralph Fiennes and Kristin Scott Thomas are basically the dreamiest couple possible. Maybe it’s because I saw the movie first, but I wasn’t as thrilled about the book. I know a number of people who completely freak out over Michael Ondaatje, but I completely freak out over tans and taciturnity.I have read that people take issue with the movie version of Schindler’s List because it, in its Spielberg way, glamorizes The Holocaust. I get this, because I think he made, in a weird way, such an intensely watchable film; it does follow a traditional Hollywood arc, and sometimes I find myself thinking, “Oh hey, I’d like to watch Schindler’s List,” just as I might think, “It’s been a while since I watched High Fidelity.” That’s kind of weird. But it is an incredible story, and I think that the performances of Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, and Ben Kingsley (if you want to see range, by the way, watch this, then Gandhi, then Sexy Beast), are absolutely magnificent. The book is not particularly well-written, but it got the job done.Speaking of poorly written books that make great films, did you read The Godfather? Remember the tasteful subplot wherein the lady is always on the hunt for well-endowed gentleman because of a rather startling aspect of her physiology? How surprising that Francis Ford Coppola chose not to include that pivotal plot point. Jesus.Possession – This movie is a joke, which was disappointing because the novel is so wonderful. Whatever it is that is between Gwyneth Paltrow and Aaron Eckhart is the opposite of chemistry. It’s like giblets removed from a chicken, sitting coldly in their bag.Brideshead Revisited – Why someone would think it necessary to improve upon Waugh, and then Jeremy Irons, is beyond me. Everyone is very pretty in this movie. That is all that can be said on the matter.And Edan rounds things out with a pair of picks:Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson – I love this collection of loosely-linked short stories because it manages to be simultaneously masterful and raw, and because the drug use in the book doesn’t feel cliched, but instead weird and terrible and sometimes wonderful. The narrator of these stories is known as Fuckhead (played in the film by Billy Crudup), and all of these stories pay witness to moments of lucidity and beauty in a world that is otherwise incoherent and uncaring. The movie, I think, does the same. It also highlights the humor of the book: for instance, Jack Black takes Georgie, the pill-popping hospital orderly from “Emergency,” to a whole other level. Other cast members include Samantha Morton, Helen Hunt, Dennis Hopper, and even a cameo by Miranda July! It would be fun to discuss how the film takes on the adaptation of an entire collection, rather than a single story, which is a more common practice.Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller – This novel is darkly funny and disturbing, and the story is told in a series of diary entries by dowdy high school teacher Barbara Covett (played in the film by Dame Judi Dench), who befriends colleague Sheba Hart (played by Cate Blanchett), and becomes privy to Sheba’s extramarital affair with one of her students. I absolutely loved this novel, but felt ambivalent about the movie, which has a much more serious tone – probably because it loses Barbara’s wicked commentary on the world around her. It also focuses heavily on Barbara’s lesbian obsession with Sheba – in a way that screams obvious, even campy. Still, the film has been lauded by many, and the upsetting aspects of the book are even more so when watched on screen rather than imagined. (And, plus, Cate Blanchett’s cheekbones alone are worth watching for 2 hours.)If you have any suggestions, let us know in the comments. Thanks for the question Kathy!