In early 2016, during a monthslong relocation to Barcelona, I fell under the spell of three contemporary masters of Spanish-language fiction: Javier Cercas, of Barcelona, Javier Marías, of Madrid, and Álvaro Enrigue, of Mexico and New York. Even now, back in the U.S., I feel with these writers the special connection you get when your reading life and your life-life come close enough to touch. And over the last couple years, I’ve managed to track each of them down for an interview. The first piece in this series featured Cercas and the second Enrigue; the finale, though the first of them chronologically, features Marías.
The internationally bestselling author of novels including A Heart So White, The Infatuations, and the trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, Javier Marías has often been called “Spain’s living greatest writer.” His new collection of essays, Between Eternities, is his first to appear in English in a quarter century and features meditations on lederhosen, soccer, Joseph Conrad, and “Why Almost No One Can Be Trusted.” I sat down with him at the 92nd Street Y in late 2016 to discuss his “literary thinking” on the occasion of his novel Thus Bad Begins (video of the event can be found at 92y.org). What follows is a slightly condensed version of that discussion.
The Millions: I read an interview where you talked—I’m not sure how facetiously—about writing novels for the purpose of including a few paragraphs or sentences that wouldn’t stand up on their own … where the novel is a sort of arch to hold up this one capstone. The example you gave in the interview was Tomorrow in the Battle, Think on Me. I’m wondering if there is similarly a core passage or image or set of paragraphs or images in Thus Bad Begins that you felt yourself writing around or toward … or that you began with.
Javier Marías: Well, if there is, I won’t say which one! But what I meant then, and maybe it’s true sometimes, is that most novelists … or, that would be presumptuous on my part, at least the kind of novelist I am, and maybe others too, often think (of course, you’re never able to judge what you do) that there are a few paragraphs or a couple of pages that are better than the rest.
In my case, I usually think—and I may be mistaken, of course—of some paragraphs which are slightly lyrical, or they contain a digression or a reflection or a short meditation, maybe it’s even half a page or something, sometimes a little more … and you are rather satisfied with that. You say, “This is the gist.” The gist of the novel? You can say that?
TM: I think so. I think you can say that: the gist.
JM: I mean that when the novel is more or less finished, there is sometimes the thought, “Well, now I realize”—at least, in my case; I’m speaking always for myself, obviously—“that because of these paragraphs, I wrote this novel. Because of this couple of pages, for instance. I realize that now.” And then sometimes you think—because I’m not a poet, I don’t write poetry, never wrote poetry, not even when I was a young man or a teenager—you say, “But I had to surround this with something else, with something huge, with an architecture to hold it, to make it acceptable. What I want is the reader mainly to look at these pages, but I have to distract him or her with stories, plots, dialogues—”
TM: All that stuff.
JM: All that stuff. But that is something you realize when you finish the novel—it’s not something that you have in your mind previously.
TM: I see. So you’re speaking of those paragraphs for which you realize, in the end, “All along I was moving toward this …”
JM: In a way, yes. But it’s not a premeditated thing to do. That would be … vile, I suppose. But sometimes you say [later], well, yeah, the justification for this whole thing is these two pages.
TM: You you spoke of plot and character and “all that stuff” … and I wanted to talk about one of those things, one of those novelistic things that keeps readers reading, which is the degree—especially in your novels—the degree of suspense generated. Often when I’m reading you, even before I know what the question is, I feel myself waiting to get to the answer. I remember reading The Infatuations, the moment when Maria is going to the door to eavesdrop, and I was reading as though I were in a movie theater, covering my eyes. You know, “Don’t go to that door!” I’m wondering how cognizant you are of the pulse of suspense as you’re writing—whether this is something that just comes very naturally to you, or whether it’s an epiphenomenon of your style, or whether you actually do a lot of editing and revising—of scheming.
JM: Oh, no, not really. My method for writing is a very suicidal one.
TM: All methods for writing are suicidal ones.
JM: Probably, but you feel more suicidal over the one you chose. Or the one that chose you …
You know, one of the problems with novelists is that we never learn the job. We never learn it! I mean in the sense that other people do. A professor goes to give his lesson after 40 years—as is my case; I published my first novel when I was 19, which was over 40 years ago—and the teacher knows he will give a good lesson, or at least a decent one. And he will do it with ease. And the carpenter who’s been making tables for 40 years or whatever knows he will succeed with the next table. But a novelist doesn’t know that at all!
TM: Do you have a moment where you sit down to write the next book and you think you must have learned something last time?
JM: No, no, you learn you haven’t learned anything! And even if some of the previous books have been praised, and people have enjoyed them and all that, not even that is reassuring, in my case, because it’s “Oh, well, yeah, I was lucky with that one.” Or “People were misled!” Or something. But that doesn’t guarantee anything for this one that I’m starting now.
But what I was going to say is that my usual way … Well, as I’ve said on many occasions, there are of course all kinds of writers, but … There are some who write with a map, as it were. That is, they know exactly … or with a chart.
TM: I hate those people. I don’t understand them at all.
JM: No, no … why should you hate them? I mean, all methods depend on the result … But before they start a novel, they have the full story in their mind, they know exactly what’s going to happen to every character, and when, et cetera, et cetera, which is certainly not my case. I think that if I knew a complete story before I started writing a novel, I wouldn’t write it, because I’d say, “What a bore!”
I like to find out as I write. I’ve mentioned on many occasions before that the word “invent,” which is the same in English and Spanish and many other languages, “inventar” in Spanish, comes from Latin, “invenire.” And “invenire” originally, in Latin, meant to find out, to discover. And so to invent—in our sense, in English or in Spanish—has to do, etymologically at least, with the idea of finding out—which is what I like to do.
I start writing with a compass. I don’t have a map. I just have a compass. So I’m heading north, as it were. I know more or less where I would like to go, but I don’t know the way, not at all. And I don’t even know whether I shall find a desert in the middle or a cliff, or a river, or a jungle, or what. I must cross them as I find them. Whereas the one with a map knows that he will find the jungle and the desert and the cliff—but he knows beforehand, and he knows very well when and how.
And then the thing is that I don’t know exactly how I do my novels. Every time, I realize I don’t know how a novel is written. I don’t know how other people write them, and in fact, I don’t know how I write them myself. All of a sudden you happen to have 300 or 400 or even 500 pages, and say, “Oh. This looks like a novel.” But I work page by page. I never make a draft of five or 10 pages in a row. Never. I make one page, I work on that—I still use a typewriter—and then I take out the piece of paper and I make corrections by hand and erase things, add arrows and suppressions and additions and everything. Then I retype it again, once, twice, three times, four times—five times, sometimes—until I think, “Well, I can’t do it better than this.” Or “I’m tired,” which is also possible. And then that page generally goes to the printer like that. One page after another.
And I never reread the whole thing until the novel is finished. Because I’ve been saying, “Oh, come on. I have 200 pages now. Shall I reread them? What if I found them awful? Now the whole thing would be ruined. And I wouldn’t have the faith to go on.” So I won’t read them. And just one by one, one by one, each as if it were the only one, I concentrate on that one page, I do it as best I can, but it has no real relationship to the next one or to the previous one, so to me it is rather mysterious that in the end, as some readers, very kind readers, have told me—some of them even say, “I couldn’t put it down”—“Your novels are so seamless!” And I say, “Oh, dear me, it’s exactly the opposite.”
TM: I think the reason I said I hate the map people is that I have this idea that the map people aren’t suicidal. And that it’s the compass people who are going, I have no idea how to—
JM: No, they are [suicidal], too.
TM: OK. Well, that’s reassuring.
JM: No, they are, too, because there is one thing that plays against them, I think. Which is, because of their knowing exactly what’s going to happen throughout the novel, or what suspense they will need at a given moment, they are more predictable. And sometimes they don’t realize that, because they already know the ending, the reader can get the ending much easier than in the novels of the writers with only a compass, who have improvised, who didn’t know the ending, even 30 pages from the end. I remember I wrote a short novel in 1986, in which I was 30 pages from the end and didn’t even know who was going to die, or if anyone was going to die. And I had to decide: “Shall I make him die?” Now it seems impossible that someone else would die instead of the one who did die, but of course, a long time has elapsed …
And by the way, if you’ll allow me, I think it’s worth talking [more] about that. I think it’s one of the reasons why we still write and read fiction … I wrote a few years ago a speech that was on telling, and what I said was that telling is very difficult, and that telling actual things is almost impossible—for a historian, for instance. A historian tells facts, as much as he knows about them, but some other historian may come along and contradict him or her, and say, “No, no, no, you’re not right.” Or say, for instance, “We have just discovered a bunch of letters from Napoleon, and that makes the story completely different …” Even when we tell something that we just witnessed, an incident that happened this morning on the way to our job, on the subway, for instance … and you say, “Well, I saw this man striking that other man,” and you start telling something very simple, and then if someone else is with you who witnessed the scene, they say, “Wait a minute, you came late to the scene, because what you didn’t see, I saw. I had a better angle. It’s that the beaten man provoked the other one,” and so on. So nothing is very certain …Telling with words is very difficult. Everything can be denied, everything can be contradicted.
And I think that one of the reasons we write and read novels is that in a way we need something, even if it’s fictional, even if it never did happen, to be told once and for good, once and forever. And the only thing that no one can contradict or deny is fiction. I mean, Madame Bovary died the way she did. And no one can come and say, “Oh, I disagree. She didn’t die.” Or “She stabbed herself.”
TM: “She faked her death.”
JM: No one can say that. So Madame Bovary did die, died the way Flaubert decided, and that’s the end of it! No one can contradict it. And even if it’s fiction, even if she didn’t really exist, we need the security, or the comfort, of something told for sure, once and for all. And something not told forever, as well—for you must have in mind that what is not told in a novel shall never be told by anyone … What is told is told forever, what is not told shall never be. No?
TM: No, this sounds plausible to me. It’s like: The only thing we can believe in is what’s completely made up.
JM: Yes. But at least we have a full story, you know?
TM: And your father was a philosopher, is that right?
JM: Ortega y Gasset’s main disciple, yes.
TM: And so I wanted to ask you finally: There’s almost a philosophical world in which your fiction takes place, preoccupations with eternity, and infinity, and variation and the impossibility of variation, with, you know, what’s about to happen, what can never happen, everything has already happened. Have you been thinking about these things more or less your whole life, or was there a moment in your writing life where you thought, a-ha! “This should come into my work.”
JM: I don’t think my novels are philosophical at all, precisely because my father was a philosopher and I know … that there is a huge difference between what a novelist can do and what a philosopher does, to begin with.
What I do, I think, is a different thing, and I’m not the only one to do it—in the past, many of us did it—which is what you might call, and what I have called often, literary thinking. Which has nothing to do with thinking about literature, that would be boring, it’s thinking literarily of things.
I mean, you have all kinds of thinking, religious thinking, scientifical thinking, philosophical thinking, of course, psychoanalytic, whatever …all kinds of thinking. There is a literary way of thinking, as well. And it has some advantages, in comparison with philosophy, for instance. One of those things is when you all of a sudden say something in a novel that the reader recognizes as something truthful … I’ve often used the word “recognition” for novels. I think one of the things that moves me most as a reader is when I find a scene or a meditation or an observation in a novel and I recognize it and say, “Yes, yes, this is true. I have experienced this, but I didn’t know that I knew it, until I’ve seen it said by Proust.” Of course, he’s the master of that, or Shakespeare, as well. And then, [in a novel] you can say these things in a very arbitrary way. They are like flashes. Whereas philosophers—or at least the old philosophers—need to demonstrate the principle, need to demonstrate step by step what a novelist doesn’t.
On the contrary, a novelist just throws something, throws a true sentence, or a true observation. Someone who reads it may feel it’s true precisely because he recognizes something he didn’t know he knew. But he recognizes it and says, “I’ve experienced that.” And I think that’s quite a different thing. To answer your question, it’s not something that I already decided, “Oh, this could be useful for my novels.” No, I don’t look for subjects for my novels. For the last 30 years, I usually write on the same things that concern me in my life. And the things that make me think. And some of them are, for instance, secrecy, treason, friendship, betrayal … the impossibility of knowing anything for certain.
Maria Dolz sees the same couple at the same café in the same city, Madrid, nearly every morning. “[T]he sight of them together” calmed her, and provided her “with a vision of an orderly or, if you prefer, harmonious world.” Maria works for a book publisher, where she often must deal with vain and pretentious authors — including one who is so infatuated with the Nobel Prize that he has already prepared an acceptance speech in Swedish. She is somewhere just south of 40, and has not married. To her, the couple was the ideal form of love, a couple who unselfconsciously enjoyed every second in each other’s presence. “[I] didn’t regard them with envy, not at all,” Maria says, “but with a feeling of relief that in the real world there could exist what I believed to be a perfect couple.”
But then the husband, Miguel Desvern, is murdered violently by a deranged homeless man, who raves about his daughters’ forced prostitution and wildly accuses Desvern of taking his inheritance. Thus ends the tranquil preprandial café moments — although the murder is less jarring (for Maria) than its aftermath. After another encounter with Miguel’s wife, Luisa, Maria strikes up a small friendship. Maria also begins seeing Javier Diaz-Verela, a friend of the couple’s; their relationship forms the core of Spanish author Javier Marías’s 12th novel, The Infatuations.
If you have been paying attention, you have noticed this is a book by a man named Javier Marías that features a complicated story of Javier and Maria. And if you knew Javier Marías’s work, this type of tongue-in-cheek wordplay would not be surprising: While The Infatuations contains strong elements of its author’s biography — Marías’s own life is often a motif in his fiction — it is not autobiographical. His novels “dare us — subtly here, grandly there — to mistake the narrator for the author himself,” Wyatt Mason has written. “Marías seems to be saying, what we believe — and what is believed about us — is where the trouble begins.”
As The Infatuations opens, Maria Dolz believes, it seems, in love — or “true love,” as the way we often refer to it — of a “perfect couple.” And that was precisely the start of a catastrophe.
Javier Marías may be the only significant working writer to also be a king. As the sovereign of Redonda (a small, rocky island north of Montserrat and west of Antigua), Marías is the honorary (“void of content,” in his words) monarch. His two-decade reign has nearly entirely consisted of bestowing titles on various artists — John Ashbery is the Duke of Convexo, for example — as part of an effort at tongue-in-cheek recognition.
Marías does not take it seriously, but the title of “king,” in some ways, feels apt. The cover of The Infatuations notes striking praise for the author from heavyweights J.M. Coetzee (“one of the best contemporary European writers”), Roberto Bolaño (“By far Spain’s best writer today”) and Orhan Pamuk (Marías “should get the Nobel Prize”). His books have sold more than 6.5 million copies throughout the world, and have been translated into 42 languages, yet neither my local libraries nor any hometown shop — independent bookstore or Barnes & Noble — carried any of his titles, and even the state university’s large library only had a handful of his books, mostly in Spanish. Marías may be royalty, but in the United States he remains nearly as obscure as Redonda.
Nearly the moment after Marías’s birth, his father, Julián, a philosopher, moved from Madrid to Massachusetts for a teaching job at Wellesley, while Marías, his mother, and his older brothers moved shortly thereafter. Marías would spend chunks of his childhood in the United States, where his first novel, completed before he turned 21, was set; but he eventually went on to study English at Complutense University in Madrid. After two novels, he turned to translation for a half-dozen years. His work — Spanish versions of Sir Thomas Browne, Laurence Sterne, and William Faulkner, for example — seems to be a guide to his subsequent fiction. For a period he taught translation theory at Oxford, where his novel All Souls takes place. It is difficult to understate how fundamental translation (as a concept) is to reading Marías, and that is perhaps one reason why reading him in English seems almost as fitting as the original Spanish; indeed, his work, in its original language, has been criticized as “sound[ing] like translations,” because, among other things, it lacks much distinct Spanish-ness, no (in Marias’s words) “bullfighting, no passionate women.” To Marias, sounding like a translation was praise, even if it was meant as an insult. “One of the things I didn’t want to be was what they call a ‘real Spanish writer.'”
A translator is a “privileged reader and a privileged writer,” Marías has said. “[I]f I ever had my own creative writing school I would only admit people who could translate, and I would make them do it over and over again.” The narrator of A Heart So White is a translator, for example; the narrator of Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow trilogy is an “interpreter of people,” who is asked to establish if a person would lie or kill in the future. Translation is, in typical Marías fashion, an allusion to his biography: the author’s own mother, in fact, was also a translator.
Marías’s other narrators are frequently interpreters by another name, who occupy themselves interpreting and translating, from Juan’s obsessive interpretations of his wife’s small gestures in A Heart So White, to Victor’s ghostwriting in Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, to Maria’s attempts at deciphering words not being said by feminine lips of Javier Diaz-Verela in The Infatuations. It is a fundamental human occupation, Marías seems to be conveying, prone to gaps and misses. “[A]ll the valuable information to which people imagine we translators and interpreters working in international organizations are privy,” Juan says, “in fact, escapes us completely, from beginning to end, from top to bottom, we haven’t a clue about what’s brewing or being plotted and planned in the world, not the slightest glimmer.”
As a regular columnist for El Pais, Marías has opined on a huge range of topics. Perhaps having to produce so much copy, and so often, has rendered him to strikingly straightforward and eloquent — in virtually any interview — about his process and his books, although one suspects that Marías possesses such grace naturally. He seems to understand his own writing — which often seems effortless, and never showy — better than anyone. He is a retort to Barthes: the author, in other words, is not dead, but a key to the entire process. “A novel is a more savage and wild thing in the sense that you can say anything, and your narrators or characters can say anything,” Marías has said. “Yet it still arrives at a kind of truth.”
The truth that The Infatuations arrives at, if it does, is a most uncomfortable and perplexing one.
Perhaps the only thing wrong with The Infatuations is its title. In Spanish, it is Los Enamoramientos, which could also be translated as “crushes,” but which is defined in the novel — in a long speech of Javier Diaz-Varela — as the “state of falling or being in love.” Of course, the title is one of the vagaries of translation — how fitting for a Marías novel — since “enamoramiento” cannot be easily translated into English. If, in English, there had been a noun form for “to be enamored with,” perhaps that would have worked best; still, “infatuation” manages well enough.
The book probes what defines the boundary between love and infatuation, and how often both can be on shaky ground. Our lives are “very limited in our choices of partner by location, class, history and who is willing to accept our advances,” Marías said, talking about the novel. “How many times are we not the first choice? Or even the second, or the third?”
This is rather a disturbing notion, after all; many hardened atheists still believe in love or perhaps a version of a soulmate, and most often it seems it’s the religiously devout who remain unmarried. The Infatuations purposefully attempts to suggest imperfect, impure love is more common than is ever spoken. Javier tells Maria that she is not in love with him, as she claims, and that “even the most transient and trivial of infatuations lack any real cause, and that’s even truer of feelings that go far deeper, infinitely deeper than that.” In this way, human affection seems tantamount to human hatred, such as the homeless man’s killing of Miguel: causeless, random, the product of inward self-obsessions instead of the outward direction of the self. (Perhaps that was hinted by “Maria” falling for “Javier,” as they are both just the creations of Javier Marías.)
But maybe this depressing suggestion is just Marias speaking out of both sides of his mouth — what he has called *pensamiento literario*, or “literary thinking,” a way of thinking that lets the writer contradict himself. In The Infatuations, we have the possibility that perhaps life, unlike the novel, is quite a different, more complicated thing, and the jaded notions of manipulations and cynicism apparent to Maria are simply products of her bitter worldview: “…no novel would ever dare give houseroom to the infinite number of chances and coincidences that can occur in a single lifetime,” Maria thinks at one point, “let alone those that have already occurred and continue to occur. It’s quite shameful the way reality imposes no limits on itself.” It’s shameful to Maria, but perhaps it is hopeful for the rest of us.
Beyond the interesting ideas his work draws on, Marías’s novels are simply a pleasure to read — they possess the sort of flat, hypnotic quality of the prose of W.G. Sebald, who, along with Marías, can make anything seem interesting. Marias’s sentences — like Sebald’s — are long, and feature lots of commas, where thoughts appear and pop up and then disappear, building and strengthening, and often the sentences contains strings of complex and compound ideas, much like this sentence, as the author burrows further and further into particular moments, stretching them out for pages. His novels contain what Marías calls “a system of echoes or resonances,” or ideas, motifs, details, which the story keeps revisiting. Sometimes these are literary touchstones — in The Infatuations, Maria keeps coming back to bits of Balzac and Dumas, while in A Heart So White it is Macbeth — and other times they are bits of distinct dialogue or details (such as Diaz-Verela’s feminine lips). Perhaps because Marias does not outline his novels, these important “reoccurrences” feel organic. If there is a Chekhov’s gun, it was in the first draft.
Throughout the course of The Infatuations, Maria learns too much about Javier Diaz-Verela, too much about Luisa, too much about Miguel. The love of Luisa and Miguel, that perfect couple, is replaced with another kind of love — to say more would spoil it — that seems no less dedicated, if significantly less pure. There hardly exists, at the end of the novel, a “perfect couple,” but perhaps that feels more real. It is precisely these quandaries, contradictions, and realities that makes Marías’s fiction so good; The Infatuations, containing the qualities of Marías’s best work, is an important addition to his oeuvre.
Literature, Marías has said, “doesn’t properly illuminate things, but like the match it lets you see how much darkness there is.” The Infatuations leaves us with the unsettling possibility that the darkness is deep indeed.
The first half of 2013 delighted us with new books by the likes of George Saunders, Karen Russell, and Colum McCann, among many others. And if the last six months had many delights on offer for book lovers, the second half of the year can only be described as an invitation to gluttony. In the next six months, you’ll see new books by Jhumpa Lahiri, Margaret Atwood, Donna Tartt, Marisha Pessl, Norman Rush, Jonathan Lethem, and none other than Thomas Pynchon. And beyond those headliners there are many other tantalizing titles in the wings, including some from overseas and others from intriguing newcomers.
The list that follows isn’t exhaustive – no book preview could be – but, at 9,000 words strong and encompassing 86 titles, this is the only second-half 2013 book preview you will ever need. Scroll down and get started.
Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda: Crime writer Dennis Lehane chose Pochoda’s lyrical and atmospheric second novel for his eponymous imprint at Ecco/Harper, calling it “gritty and magical.” Pitched as a literary thriller about the diverse inhabitants of Red Hook, Brooklyn, Visitation Street has already received starred reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and Library Journal. Lionel Shriver says, “I loved it,” and Deborah Harkness calls it “marvelous.” (Edan)
Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff: Rakoff was the author of three books of essays, the winner of the Thurber Prize for American Humor, and a beloved regular on This American Life who died last year shortly after finishing this book. A novel written entirely in verse (a form in which he was masterful, as evidenced here), its characters range across the 20th century, each connected to the next by an act of generosity or cruelty. (Janet)
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman: Waldman recently weighed in for us on the centuries-old Richardson vs. Fielding debate. Now, in her first novel, she expertly plays the former’s psychological penetration off the latter’s civic vision. The titular Nathaniel, one of Brooklyn’s sad young literary men, seeks to navigate between his public ambitions and his private compulsions in a series of romantic encounters. Those without 718 area codes shouldn’t let the milieu scare them off; questions of whether Nate can heed the difficult imperatives of the conscience—and of how Waldman will pull off a whole book from the man’s point of view—keep the pages turning, while generating volumes of quotable insight, in the manner of The Marriage Plot. (Garth)
Fin & Lady by Cathleen Schine: A country mouse moves to the city in Cathleen Schine’s ninth novel. The mouse is Fin, an orphaned eleven-year old boy, and the city is Greenwich Village in the 1960s. Under the guardianship of his glamorous half-sister, Lady, Fin gets to know both the city and his wild sister, and encounters situations that are a far cry from his Connecticut dairy farm upbringing. As with many of Schine’s previous novels, Fin & Lady explores changing definitions of family. (Hannah)
My Education by Susan Choi: Reflect upon your sordid graduate school days with a novel of the perverse master-student relationship and adulterous sex triangle. Professor Brodeur is evidently the kind of man whose name is scrawled on restroom walls by vengeful English majors—rather than end up in the sack with him, Choi’s protagonist Regina instead starts up an affair with his wife. Later in the novel and in time, Regina reflects on this period in her life and the changes wrought by the intervening 15 years. Choi was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her second novel, American Woman. (Lydia)
Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw: The third novel from the winner of the 2005 Whitbread First Novel Award follows the lives and business ventures of five characters in Shanghai, each representing various—and at times dichotomous—social strata. There’s Phoebe, the poor and unsophisticated migrant worker from Malaysia; and there’s Yinghui, the rich and ambitious businesswoman. There’s Gary, the waylaid pop star; and there’s Justin, the scion of a wealthy real estate family. Lastly there’s Walter, the eponymous billionaire, who meddles behind the scenes with the lives of almost everybody. Altogether, their multi-layered, intersecting lives contribute to make “Shanghai itself [into] the book’s real main character,” writes Jill Baker in the Asian Review of Books. It’s a city “luring in people hoping for a second chance or … any chance at all.” (Nick)
Lotería by Mario Alberto Zambrano: It’s a rare first novel that can appeal to partisans of both S.E. Hinton and Julio Cortázar, but Lotería does just that. The story 11-year-old Luz Maria Castillo begins telling us from her room in a state institution is deceptively plainspoken: Here’s how I got here. But as the story proceeds in fragments, keyed not to chronology but to a deck of cards from Lotería (a kind of Mexican bingo), things get shiftier. Color reproductions of the cards introduce each chapter, making the book, if not exactly Kindle-proof, then at least uncommonly handsome. (Garth)
The Unknowns by Gabriel Roth: Gabriel Roth’s debut novel follows Eric Muller from his lonely high school days as a computer geek to his millionaire success in Silicon Valley as a computer geek. Slightly disoriented by his newfound abilities to make money and bed women, Muller wryly observes his life as if he is that same awkward teenager trapped in a dream life. When he falls in love with Maya, a beautiful woman with a mysterious past, he must choose between the desire to emotionally (and literally) hack into it, or to trust his good fortune. (Janet)
The Hare by César Aira: A recent bit of contrarianism in The New Republic blamed the exhaustive posthumous marketing of Roberto Bolaño for crowding other Latin American writers out of the U.S. marketplace. If anything, it seems to me, it’s the opposite: the success of The Savage Detectives helped publishers realize there was a market for Daniel Sada, Horacio Castellanos Moya, and the fascinating Argentine César Aira. The past few years have seen seven of Aira’s many novels translated into English. Some of them, like Ghosts, are transcendently good, but none has been a breakout hit. Maybe the reissue of The Hare, which appeared in the U.K. in 1998, will be it. At the very least, it’s the longest Aira to appear in English: a picaresque about a naturalist’s voyage into the Argentinean pampas. (Garth)
Night Film by Marisha Pessl: Pessl’s first novel since Special Topics in Calamity Physics, her celebrated 2006 debut, concerns a David Lynchish filmmaker whose daughter has died in Lower Manhattan under suspicious circumstances. Soon, reporter Scott McGrath has launched an investigation that will take him to the heart of the auteur’s secretive empire: his cult following, his whacked-out body of work, and his near impenetrable upstate compound. With interpolated web pages and documents and Vanity Fair articles, the novel’s a hot pop mess, but in the special way of a latter-day Kanye West album or a movie co-directed by Charlie Kaufman and Michael Bay, and the climax alone—a 65-page haunted-house tour-de-force—is worth the price of admission. (Garth)
Cannonball by Joseph McElroy: McElroy was writing the lights out in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, and in the last few years has been rediscovered by a younger generation of readers, who justly class him with Thomas Pynchon—a writer of a wildly different sensibility, but a similar, world-devouring ambition. Hell, he even did a Year in Reading. If 2011’s Night Soul is any indication, McElroy’s can still intrigue, baffle, and stop the heart, often all at once. This, his first novel in many a moon, concerns the Iraq War, among other things, and it’s hard to think of an author more suited to reimagining the subject. (Garth)
Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat: The author of a string of heartbreaking novels about the strife-torn Caribbean nation of Haiti, including The Farming of Bones and The Dew Breaker, Danticat here tells the story of a young motherless girl whose poverty-stricken father considers giving her away a wealthier family. Hailed by Publishers Weekly as “magical as a folk tale and as effective and devastating as a newsreel,” the novel paints a stark portrait of village life in Haiti. (Michael)
Remember How I Told You I Loved You? by Gillian Linden: Gillian Linden’s debut collection of linked stories follows a young woman through college, careers, love affairs and marriages— “from delayed adolescence to (delayed) adulthood.” The publisher, Little A (Amazon’s new literary fiction imprint), describes the collection as “a sharp and intimate take on romance and infidelity, trust and betrayal,” written in a “deadpan narrative, cool and precise.” Linden’s story “Pests” was recently published in The Paris Review. Linden will join the ranks of several talented literary writers that Little A has published since its launch in March — including A.L. Kennedy, Shawn Vestal, and Jenny Davidson. (Sonya)
The Infatuations by Javier Marias: Marias’s only competitor for the title of Spain’s Most Important Living Writer may be Enrique Vila-Matas. Each of his last few books with New Directions, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, set a new high-water mark—most recently, the mammoth trilogy Your Face Tomorrow. Now he’s made the jump to Knopf, which means you’re about to hear a lot about him. And deservedly so, it would seem: The Infatuations has already been called “great literature” in Spain and “perhaps his best novel” in the U.K. Is there any reason on earth you wouldn’t want to read the greatest novel of Spain’s greatest living writer? Of course there isn’t. Now get thee to a bookshop! (Garth)
The Color Master by Aimee Bender: Ogres, tiger-mending and playing at prostitution—yep, it’s time for Aimee Bender to once again enchant us with her whimsical and magical fiction. Her next story collection comes out just three years after the publication of her bestselling novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, and it looks like the book is a return to form for Bender. Publishers Weekly says that even the tales that resemble children’s storybooks “are haunted by a taut, sardonic melancholy,” noting that her “mood pieces” about female friendship are the strongest of the bunch. (Edan)
Elect H. Mouse State Judge by Nelly Reifler: To Kafka’s “Josephine, the Mouse-Singer” and Bolaño’s “Police Rat” and Mrs. Frisby and that one A.M. Homes story where the kid gets it on with a Barbie doll, we must now add Nelly Reifler’s first novel. It’s a fast-paced caper—politician’s kids get abducted, private eyes go searching—but with a major twist: H. Mouse is a mouse, and both perps and dicks are dolls. Shrewdly, Reifler serves this concoction neat; what could have been cheap thrills give way to weirder and more surprising effects. (Garth)
The Rathbones by Janice Clark: The Rathbones is the most sui generis debut you’re likely to encounter this year. Think Moby-Dick directed by David Lynch from a screenplay by Gabriel Garcia Marquez…with Charles Addams doing the set design and The Decembrists supplying the chanteys. Initially the story of the last surviving member of an eccentric 19th-Century whaling dynasty, it becomes the story of that dynasty itself. I should also say that this was the single most exciting thing I read in manuscript in graduate school, where the author and I studied together. Clark writes a beautiful prose line, and the story, like the ocean, get deeper, richer, and stranger the farther out you go. (Garth)
A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories by Robert Walser: For a long time, Walser addicts—which is to say, pretty much anyone who has come into contact with this intoxicating writer—had to make do with the novel Jakob van Gunten (but what a novel!) and a slim edition of selected stories. But, half a century after his death, the Swiss master of smallness and obscurity is finally getting the treatment he deserves. Microscripts was one of the best books I read in 2012. The tireless Susan Bernofsky has also given us versions of The Tanners, The Assistant, and a collection of Berlin Stories. In this volume, Damion Searls translates a group of stories about school life—also the engine of much of Jakob van Gunten’s exquisite comedy. (Garth)
Necessary Errors by Caleb Crain: Lately, it’s seemed that the “literary” first novel had become a genre unto itself: a certain page-limit, a certain definition of scope, a certain set of problems, modestly conceived and modestly transcended. If so, Crain’s stately, wry, and generous first novel breaks the mold. Certainly, there’s a classic coming-of-age narrative here. But as the back-cover blurbs attest, the adventures of American Jacob Putnam in Czechoslovakia right after the Iron Curtain’s fall recall Henry James as much as they do Ben Lerner. Crain’s broad social canvas and his deep interest in the lives of other people are marks of distinction. (Garth)
The Novel: An Alternative History (1600-1800) by Steven Moore: The first volume of Moore’s magisterial survey advanced a theory of the novel as inherently experimental and multicultural, and much older than is generally acknowledged. It’s not that Jane Austen moves to the margins and Gertrude Stein to the center, but that Austen and Stein become recognizably part of the same story. And though Moore hews closer, necessarily, to synopsis than to close-reading, his project is an invaluable desk reference for the catholic reader. In volume 2, he turns his sights to the era that inspired the argument in the first place, a period that begins with Don Quixote. (Garth)
The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez: At The Age, Cameron Woodhead writes: “With The Sound of Things Falling, Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vásquez has created a story that can be appreciated purely for the dramatic way it dives into the black hole of his country’s past—the drug cartels and paramilitaries that scarred a generation—although the supple thought-weave of the prose won’t be lost on anyone with a taste for more reflective fiction.” Woodhead also compares Vasquez to Graham Greene, W.G. Sebald, and Robert Bolaño—all writers who give us an expansive sense of a country’s history and legacy through the lives of compelling individuals. The protagonist is a Colombian lawyer named Antonio whose memory takes him back to a long-ago acquaintance with the ex-pilot Ricardo LaVerde and a series of mysterious (and yes, violent) occurrences. Vásquez, who is 40, has published four previous novels, but prefers to not count the first two, which he wrote in his early 20s; so “officially,” Sound is his third novel. (Sonya)
The Virgins by Pamela Erens: This smart, unsettling novel is narrated by a middle-aged man obsessed by the star-crossed love affair of two classmates at his boarding school thirty years ago. Erens, author of one previous novel, The Understory, displays an uncanny gift for writing honestly about pot-toking, hormone-addled adolescents while granting them the full range of human emotion one expects from a novel for adults. The novel is from indie press Tin House Books, a spinoff of the well-known literary magazine that has quietly built a reputation as a home for first-rate literary fiction. (Michael)
The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood: Alex Marwood is the pseudonym of British journalist Serena Mackesy, and The Wicked Girls is her dark and beautifully executed first novel. In the mid-eighties, two eleven-year-old girls meet for the first time and become friends. By the end of the day, a younger child has died at their hands. Twenty-five years later, with new lives and changed identities, the two women encounter one another in a seaside town where a serial killer is active. A haunting meditation on crime and punishment. (Emily)
The Affairs of Others by Amy Grace Loyd: Loyd, formerly the fiction editor at Playboy, moves to the other side of the desk with a first novel of elegant intensity. A young widow in Brooklyn has bought her apartment building, and so become an accidental landlord. Or do people still say landlady? At any rate, her straitened existence is challenged by the arrival of a fascinating new tenant, with emotional transformation the ultimate issue. Loyd’s burnished, spare sentences conceal hidden volumes of emotion, and in its different moods, the book may put readers in mind of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland or of a more hopeful version of Claire Messud’s recent The Woman Upstairs. (Garth)
Brief Encounters with the Enemy by Saïd Sayrafiezadeh: Sayrafiezadeh’s acclaimed memoir, When Skateboards Will Be Free, chronicled a childhood being raised by an Iranian father and American Jewish mother united by an extreme devotion to the Socialist Workers Party. Three years later, Sayrafiezadeh, whose fiction has appeared in Granta, The New Yorker, and The Paris Review, among other places, publishes his first short story collection. The everyday trials of his characters, some of them grappling with the rippling effects of a nameless war (“this could be any war, or perhaps the next war,” Sayrafiezadeh told The New Yorker) “are transformed into storytelling that is both universally resonant and wonderfully strange.” (Elizabeth)
The Hypothetic Girl by Elizabeth Cohen: From Other Press, a collection of stories that “captures all the mystery, misery, and magic of the eternal search for human connection” via tales about the bizarre and inarguably ubiquitous world of online dating. Says Amazon: “With levity and high style, Cohen takes her readers into a world where screen and keyboard meet the heart, with consequences that range from wonderful to weird.” For anyone who’s been submerged in this wonderful weird search, these stories are likely to ring a therapeutic bell. Or, in some cases perhaps, a gong. Look out for an essay from Cohen in July, and an excerpt in early August, at Bloom. (Sonya)
MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood: MaddAddam concludes the dystopian trilogy that Atwood began ten years ago with Oryx and Crake and continued in 2009 with The Year of the Flood. Booklist calls MaddAddam a “coruscating finale in an ingenious, cautionary trilogy of hubris, fortitude, wisdom, love, and life’s grand obstinacy.” (Emily)
Bleeding Edge by Thomas Pynchon: Since his 1997 comeback, Pynchon’s been uncommonly productive…and, more characteristically, all over the map. I thought Mason & Dixon his best book; Against the Day vastly underrated; and Inherent Vice fun but disposable. Proximity to the present moment can be a telling index of the quality of a Pynchon project, so the setting here—New York’s Silicon Alley on the eve of the dot-com crash—gives one pause. But Pynchon’s ability to “think the present historically” in his last two books was the best thing about them, so maybe he still has much to tell us about the way we live now. (Garth)
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King: Thirty-six years later, it’s here: a sequel to The Shining. Dan Torrance, the tricycle peddling protagonist of the original horror classic, is now middle-age and working in a nursing home in New Hampshire where he uses his ebbing mental powers to comfort the dying. The story picks up when Dan tries to save Abra Stone, a twelve-year-old girl with gifts like the ones he used to have, who is in danger from a group called The True Knot, which travels the country consuming children with the gift of The Shining. (Kevin)
The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri: Lahiri’s second novel (and fourth book) comes heaped with expectations and describes the relationship between two formerly inseparable brothers born in mid-century Calcutta. The first, Udayan, is drawn into revolutionary politics; the second, Subash, leaves his native country to make a better life for himself as a scientist in the United States. But tragedy strikes Udayan and Subash returns home where he gets to know Udayan’s former wife and reconnects with childhood memories. (Kevin)
Someone by Alice McDermott: An excerpt of Alice McDermott’s new novel, Someone, appeared in the New Yorker as a story of the same name. The story is about Marie, who is seventeen years old in 1937, when a boy from her Brooklyn neighborhood turns her head, fondles her breast, promises marriage, and then spurns her for a better-looking girl. In the story, the titular Someone is the person who, Marie’s brother promises, will one day love her. McDermott told The New Yorker’s Deborah Treisman that the novel is the story of “one unremarkable woman,” because “novels about unremarkable women, especially those written by unremarkable women, seem a thing of the past.” Who you calling “unremarkable,” Alice McDermott? (Lydia)
Seiobo There Below by László Krasznahorkai: In the last few years, American readers have rapidly awakened to Krasznahorkai’s important place in the republic of world letters. He is one of few working novelists who still aspires to mastery, in the Modernist sense, and each of the three previous novels translated into English has been a masterpiece. Those books were set in Europe and New York. Seiobo, published in Hungarian in 2009, reveals a different side of the Krasznahorkai oeuvre: his decades-long engagement with East Asia. It’s a major feat of editing and translating, and the publication date been pushed back. Those who can’t wait should check out the excerpt in Music & Literature. (Garth)
Enon by Paul Harding: Harding’s 2009 debut, Tinkers, won him the Pulitzer Prize and instant acclaim as one of the most profound writers of our time. Enon follows Charlie Crosby, the grandson of Tinkers protagonist George Washington Crosby, through a year of his life after a devastating loss. Inhabiting the same New England landscape so intricately rendered in Tinkers (Enon is the town where George Crosby died), Enon is a story about small moment and big questions. (Janet)
John Updike: The Collected Stories by John Updike: This two-volume collection spans the arc of a life’s work. One hundred and eighty-six stories are presented in their final versions and in definitive order of composition, established for the first time by archival research: from “Ace in the Hole” (1953), written when Updike was still a student at Harvard, to “The Full Glass” from 2008, the final year of his life. In his poem “Spirit of ’76,” written during his final illness and published in The New Yorker three months after his death, Updike wrote:
I see clear through to the ultimate page,
the silence I dared break for my small time.
No piece was easy, but each fell finished,
in its shroud of print, into a book-shaped hole. (Emily)
Nine Inches by Tom Perrotta: American fiction’s favorite lighthearted chronicler of suburban angst delivers his first collection of short stories since Bad Haircut, his first book, nineteen years ago. In Nine Inches, Perrotta, the author of the Hollywood-friendly novels Little Children and The Leftovers (currently under development as a HBO series), returns to familiar themes of fractured families and the undercurrent of disappointment that lurks just below the placid surface of suburban life. Perrotta knows his way around a punch line, so expect some chuckles to go along with your quiet desperation. (Michael)
The Childhood of Jesus by J.M. Coetzee: When it came out in the UK and Ireland this Spring, Coetzee’s new novel was received with an even more potent combination of admiration and confusion than his work is normally met with. Reviewing the book in the Telegraph, Michael Preston asked whether it was “possible to be deeply affected by a book without really knowing what it’s about?” (The fairly obvious answer: yes.) A man and a five year old boy arrive in a sort of refugee camp, where they are assigned new names and ages. The boy speaks in riddles and claims to be able to perform miracles. Together, they search for the boy’s mother, and endure a series of odd bureaucratic encounters. The inscrutable spirit of Kafka has often flickered across Coetzee’s pages, and that spirit seems to loom large here. (Mark)
The Maid’s Version by Daniel Woodrell: Daniel Woodrell, a master of “country noir” fiction, makes rare use of autobiography in his new novel, The Maid’s Version. While growing up in West Plains, Missouri, Woodrell listened to stories his grandmother told about a mysterious dance hall explosion in town in 1928 that killed 39 people. In the novel, a grandmother tells her grandson about working as a maid for the family that was implicated in the blast but never held responsible. The novel is “very lyrical and not completely chronological,” Woodrell told an interviewer, “because it’s the story of a family and the after-effects on the family and the grandmother trying to get justice or revenge.” (Bill)
Levels of Life by Julian Barnes: Julian Barnes’s new book is not a novel, and not a memoir, and not a collection of essays, although it appears to contain elements of all three. The collection begins with a brief history of hot air ballooning and the characters involved in its development and lured by its attractions. Part two is an imagined romance between Sarah Bernhardt, who was in life one of the people from the latter category, and Colonel Frederick Burnaby, intrepid ballooner (who is, incidentally, documented on the delightful website “Great British Nutters”). In the third part of his new book, Barnes ties these curious introductory portions into a memoir of his profound grief following the loss of Pat Kavanagh, his wife of 30 years. (Lydia)
Traveling Sprinkler by Nicholson Baker: Last year, Nicholson Baker treated the Internet to a cluster of peculiar, melancholy protest songs about Bradley Manning and the Obama administration’s drone assassination program. The venture was out of character in a way that was, weirdly, entirely characteristic of Baker. The songs appear to have been, at least in part, an aspect of a method writing exercise for his new novel, Traveling Sprinkler—a sort of sequel to 2009’s The Anthologist, in which Paul Chowder sat around having a lot of thoughts about poetry while failing to write the introduction to a poetry anthology. In the new novel, Chowder sits around trying to write protest songs. Very few writers are as interesting as Baker on the theme of men sitting (or standing) around, so this looks promising. (Mark)
Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem: Of the greats of his generation, Lethem is one of the few who’s gotten steadily better, novel by novel. Fortress of Solitude is a better book than Motherless Brooklyn, and in my read, Chronic City is even better than that—the highs less high, but the consistency more consistent. It’s also worth noting that Lethem’s always been a political writer (science-fiction being among other things a way of thinking about the possible) and has been more so lately. Expectations for Dissident Gardens, then—a generation-spanning saga centered around Leftists from Sunnyside Queens—should be very, very high. (Garth)
Mood Indigo by Boris Vian: Few of Vian’s novels have been translated, but L’Ecume des Jours is appearing in English for the third time, with a third title (Mood Indigo, Froth on the Daydream, Foam of the Daze, take your pick). Still, we should be grateful for what we are given—Le Monde named L’Ecume number 10 on the 100 best books of the century. Vian (d. 1959), published under his own name and the pseudonym Vernon Sullivan. He was a trumpeter in the Hot Club de France, devotee of Duke Ellington, ingester of peyote, consort of Sartre (until Sartre consorted with his wife). Written in 1947, L’Ecume is a sad, fanciful love story (which, the Harvard Crimson wrote in 1969, read like “perceptions at a stoned-soul picnic,” in a good way). Mood Indigo received the Michel Gondry film treatment last spring. (Lydia)
Subtle Bodies by Norman Rush: The decade-in-the-making follow-up to Mortals (one of our Best Novels of the Millennium) is also a departure. The first of Rush’s books not set in Botswana, it’s shorter by half than either of his previous novels, and when I got a galley in the mail, the jacket copy—comfortable fortysomethings at a Big Chill-style reunion near the start of the Iraq War—made me even more nervous. Was the Rush magic still there? Then my wife started reading it, then started putting it down to laugh, and finally began forcing me to listen to her read whole passages aloud for the sheer pleasure of the phrases. Note to Mr. Rush: You had me at “berserk industry.” (Garth)
His Wife Leaves Him by Stephen Dixon: A 600-page depiction of a jilted lover’s interior thoughts might not be your idea of an enjoyable book, but in the hands of a writer as talented as Stephen Dixon, it’s certainly one worth reading. In his own description of the novel, he’s noted that it’s about “a bunch of nouns” such as “love, guilt, sickness, death, remorse, loss, family, matrimony, sex, children, parenting, aging, mistakes, incidents, minutiae, birth, music, writing, jobs, affairs, memory, remembering, reminiscences, forgetting, repression, dreams, reverie, nightmares, meeting, dating, conceiving, imagining, delaying, loving.” Indeed these words convey the complexity of a life rendered whole, of a relationship’s threads and effects laid bare, and of honest memories enlivened by an acute and unrelenting ache. When a relationship dies, all that remains are remembered details, and in the words of Jim Harrison, “death steals everything except our stories.” (Nick)
Local Souls by Allan Gurganus: For his first book in a decade, Allan Gurganus returns to the imagined town of Falls, N.C., where he set his first and best-known novel, Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All. His new book, Local Souls, which owes more to Flannery O’Connor than to Nikolai Gogol, is three linked novellas set in the contemporary New South, with its air-conditioning and improved telecommunications, its freer sexuality and looser family ties. However, some old habits prove hard to break—including adultery, incest and obsession—in these tales that unfold in a Dixiefied version of Winesburg, Ohio. (Bill)
Between Friends by Amos Oz: Born in Jerusalem in 1939, Amos Oz spent three decades living on a kibbutz because city life was not “radical” enough for him and, as he puts it in his new book of stories, Between Friends, he wanted to live among “people with patience and doubts and compassion.” These eight stories, set in the imaginary Kibbutz Yikhat during the 1950s of Oz’s youth, spin around the shortcomings of idealism and the fragility of all utopias. In the end, the stories affirm Oz’s long-held belief that both on the kibbutz and throughout the larger Middle East, the only hope lies not in conflict, but in compromise. (Bill)
The Brunist Day by Robert Coover: Aside from being a terrific year for first novels, 2013 may be remembered for its efflorescence of major work from the eminences grises of postmodernism. So far, we’ve gotten Gass’s Middle C, Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, and McElroy’s Cannonball. Now Coover, author of a couple of the great postwar novels (e.g., The Public Burning), returns with a thousand-page sequel to his very first book, The Origin of the Brunists. I haven’t been this excited to read new Coover…well, since I started reading Coover. The folks at Dzanc Books should be commended. (Garth)
Hawthorn & Child by Keith Ridgway: This isn’t the story of a family business, à la Dombey & Son, but rather a buddy-cop detective vehicle—except the cops aren’t exactly buddies, and most of what gets detected is random violence and existential unease. Ridgway is a brilliant stylist from Ireland, and the early word from the U.K. is that he’s hit his stride here, in a kind of deadpan avant-pop tour of contemporary London. (Garth)
Duplex by Kathryn Davis: Davis’s earlier novel, The Thin Place, is set in a place where the membrane between the real world and the spirit world is extremely thin. Most of her work, which includes six previous novels, sits at this same juncture, combining real and imagined worlds. Duplex is the story of Mary and Eddie, two children growing up in a duplex outside time, while “adulthood”—a world of sorcerers, robots, and slaves—looms ahead. (Janet)
Goat Mountain by David Vann: In his writing across a variety of forms—short stories, novels, memoir, and reportage—David Vann has returned repeatedly to the same deep well of themes: nature, thwarted masculinity, family, and violence. In his third novel Goat Mountain, an eleven-year-old boy goes on a deer-hunt with his father and grandfather, and things, as they tend to do this writer’s work, take a devastating turn. There’s a rawness and obsessional urgency to Vann’s writing that makes this ongoing project of recasting and development among the most compelling in contemporary literature. (Mark)
At the Bottom of Everything by Ben Dolnick: Dolnick’s third novel is about a dark secret that tears apart a boyhood friendship and how the two are brought back together as adults to reckon with what happened long ago. The jacket copy calls it “a tale of spiritual reckoning, of search and escape, of longing and reaching for redemption—a tale of near hallucinatory power.” Dolnick, who writes for NPR and the New York Times, has also written a Kindle single called Shelf-Love, about his fanaticism for Alice Munro. (Edan)
The Traymore Rooms by Norm Sibum: Poet Norm Sibum’s 700-pager should be on the radar of all the maximalism-starved readers who landed A Naked Singularity on our Top 10 list in 2012—though the book might more rightly be likened to something by William Gass or Alexander Theroux. Plot isn’t Sibum’s thing, exactly, but his erudition (considerable), sense of character (eccentric), and mood (quietly splenetic) more than compensate. The novel concerns a group of aging friends who share haunts in downtown Montreal. They talk, fight, love, and try to make sense of a historical moment that has disappointed their youthful hopes. And apart from an overreliance on that contemporary workhorse, the absolute phrase, the prose is a consistent pleasure. (Garth)
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: In a 2002 interview with The Guardian, Tartt said she couldn’t “think of anything worse than having to turn out a book every year. It would be hell.” She seems to have settled into a pattern of turning out a book every ten or eleven years instead. In her third novel, The Goldfinch, a young boy named Theo Decker survives an accident that kills his mother. In the years that follow, he finds himself drawn to things that remind him of her, including a painting that draws him eventually into the art underworld. (Emily)
Identical by Scott Turow: Every three years, with metronome-like regularity, bestselling lawyer-author Scott Turow comes out with another well-turned legal thriller set in corruption-rife Kindle County. Three years after 2010’s Innocent, Turow is right on schedule with a new thriller focusing on a pair of identical twins, one a candidate for mayor in Kindle County, the other a convicted murderer just released from prison after serving 25 years for killing his girlfriend. This is Turow country, so nothing is as it seems and the plot turns on a re-investigation of the decades-old murder that sent one of the brothers to prison. (Michael)
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert: Elizabeth Gilbert’s return to fiction (she wrote that little-known memoir called Eat Pray Love) is a sprawling historical novel about Alma Whittaker, the daughter of a botanical explorer, and talented scientist in her own right, and her relationship with Utopian artist Ambrose Pike. As the jacket copy says, “Alma Whittaker is a witness to history, as well as maker of history herself.” The book spans the globe and two centuries, and it sounds like a big and exciting artistic departure for Gilbert. (Edan)
Solo (James Bond) by William Boyd: At this year’s London Book Fair, venerated author William Boyd announced the one-word title of his forthcoming James Bond novel, which reflects the spy’s solitary and unauthorized mission. The book is an authorized sequel to Jeffery Deaver’s novel, Carte Blanche, published in 2011. At the Book Fair, Boyd said that key action takes place in Africa, the US and Europe, and remarked that Bond “goes on a real mission to real countries and the world he’s in is absolutely 1969. There are no gimmicks, it’s a real spy story.” (Edan)
Dirty Love by Andre Dubus III: The four interlocking stories within Andre Dubus III’s sixth book explore the “bottomless needs and stubborn weaknesses of people seeking gratification in food and sex, work and love.” These highs and lows are depicted by Mark, a Massachusetts man who’s recently discovered his wife’s infidelity; by Marla, an overweight young woman who’s just found a lover; by Robert, who’s just betrayed his pregnant wife; and by Devon, a teenager terrorized by a dirty picture she’s posted online, and whose story comprises the collection’s titular novella. (Nick)
Cartwheel by Jennifer DuBois: Jennifer DuBois follows her decorated first novel, A Partial History of Lost Causes, with Cartwheel, a novel with loud echoes of the recent murder trial, conviction and eventual acquittal of Amanda Knox. Cartwheel’s protagonist, Lily Hayes, is an American arriving in Buenos Aires for a semester abroad. Five weeks later she’s the prime suspect in her roommate’s brutal murder. Questions arise. Is Lily guilty? More importantly, exactly who is Lily Hayes? “Cartwheel will keep you guessing until the final page,” the publisher promises, “and its questions about how much we really know about ourselves will linger well beyond.” (Bill)
The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna: Aminatta Forna made her name with The Devil That Danced on the Water, her memoir about her father’s execution for treason in Sierra Leone. In her new novel, The Hired Man, a naive middle-class Englishwoman named Laura arrives with her two teenage children in the Croatian town of Gost, planning to renovate an old house. She enlists the help of an introspective handyman named Duro, and before long the haunted memories of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s come bubbling up from the past. Ill-equipped to understand the dark local history, Laura will come to see that there is great power in overcoming the thirst for revenge. (Bill)
Heart of Darkness (Illustrated) by Matt Kish: In October 2011, Tin House books published Matt Kish’s Moby Dick in Pictures, with artwork for each page of text taken from the Signet Classic Paperback. Now, Heart of Darkness will get similar treatment, although this project has 100 illustrations to Moby Dick’s 552. The New York Post showcased some wonderful images from the upcoming publication. Matt Kish, a librarian by day, prefers “illustrator” to “artist,” he says, “There’s a lot of artists out there, they’re real assholes, and if you haven’t gone to art school, if you haven’t had an MFA, if you haven’t had a gallery show, if you cant put together some rambling artist statement, you’re not worthy of that term.” Looks like art to me. (Lydia)
Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips: The creepy-sounding plot of Jayne Anne Phillips’s fifth novel is based on a true-life 1930s story of a con man who insinuated himself into the life of a young, impoverished widow only to murder her and her three children. Like Phillips’s previous novel, Lark & Termite (a 2009 National Book Award Finalist), parts of the story are set in rural West Virginia, where Phillips herself is from. With a reporter protagonist who sets out to investigate the crime after the fact, there are shades of In Cold Blood. (Hannah)
At Night We Walk in Circles by Daniel Alarcón: Peruvian native Daniel Alarcón’s stories thrive on equal parts revolution and spectacle, as evidenced in his first collection, War by Candlelight, as well as in his first novel, Lost City Radio, where the emcee of a popular radio show reunites loved ones separated during a recent civil war. In At Night We Walk in Circles, the Whiting Award-winning Best Young American Novelist draws inspiration from stories told to him by prisoners jailed in Lima’s largest prison. Alarcón again situates his novel in a South American state, where the protagonist flounders until he’s cast in a revival of touring play penned the leader of a guerilla theatre troupe. (Anne)
The Last Animal by Abby Geni: This debut collection of short stories is thematically linked by characters who “use the interface between the human and the natural world to contend with their modern challenges in love, loss and family life.” Geni, who is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a winner of the Glimmer Train Fiction Open, has received early praise from Dan Chaon, who says, “These are sharp, incisive, thoughtful, and utterly original stories” and from Jim Gavin, who calls these stories “Haunting and beautiful.” (Edan)
Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont: Is it strange that an author many wouldn’t hesitate to call the greatest living American writer has yet to be the subject of a major critical work? Pierpont remedies this with a book described as “not a biography…but something more rewarding: an attempt to understand a great writer through his art.” The New Yorker staff writer should prove a fascinating non-biographer: her previous book was Passionate Minds: Women Rewriting the World, and while her current subject has been accused of sexism many times throughout his long career, David Remnick reported that at a celebration of Roth’s eightieth birthday in March, Pierpont “took it upon herself to survey the variety, depth, and complexity of Roth’s female characters — a strong, and convincing, rebuke to years of criticism that the books are misogynistic.” (Elizabeth)
How to Read a Novelist by John Freeman: Former Granta editor John Freeman’s first book, The Tyranny of Email, considered the ways that email collapsed great distances between us. In it he argues for a more nuanced and discerning form of communication through conversation—an art form that he showcases in his latest book, How to Read a Novelist. In more than fifty interviews and author profiles of literary titans such as Haruki Murakami, Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace, and Doris Lessing, Freeman’s conversations and observations uncover these authors’ obsessions, quirks, and nuances of character as if they’re characters themselves. According to Freeman, a novelist requires observational distance, something to be considered in light of the subject of his first book: “it’s the miraculous distance that I think makes the writers who they are.” (Anne)
The Karl Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen: Karl Kraus, as immortalized in Walter Benjamin’s essay of the same name, was an incendiary aphorist and, in his one-man journal Die Fackel (The Torch), a critic who rivaled Nietzche for implacability. His influence on the culture of pre- and interwar Austria and Germany can’t be overstated; writers from Broch to Canetti are in his debt. Yet aphorisms are notoriously hard to translate, and to date, no really good volume of Kraus has been available to lay readers in English. Jonathan Franzen’s decision to attempt one is as likely to provoke grousing as most everything he does, but I, for one, salute his berserk industry. (Garth)
The Most of Nora Ephron by Nora Ephron: Ephron died a year ago and this fall Random House is bringing out a wide-ranging collection of her writing edited by Robert Gottlieb. The screenplay to When Harry Met Sally will be in there, as will her famous piece on being flat-chested, blog posts on politics and dying, and the screenplay to her last work, Lucky Guy. (Kevin)
The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble: Drabble’s eighteenth novel—her first since 2006—is set in 1960s London. It centers on Jessica, an anthropology student who, after becoming pregnant during an affair with a married professor, is forced to raise a daughter alone, her own life’s trajectory fracturing as a result. “One thing I have never been very good at is creating ‘good’ mothers,” Drabble said in a 1978 The Paris Review interview. “I’d written books and books before someone pointed out that I was perpetually producing these ‘bad’ mothers.” The “prismatic” novel is told from the perspectives of “the mothers who surround Jess,” examining “unexpected transformations at the heart of motherhood.” (Elizabeth)
Half the Kingdom by Lore Segal: Lore Segal is a treasure-house of wit and a power-house of style. Lucinella, reissued as part of Melville House’s Art of the Novella Series, was one of the best books I read in 2009. Now Melville House returns to the well for her first novel since the Pulitzer finalist Shakespeare’s Kitchen. The plot involves a suspicious surge in the incidence of Alzheimer’s Disease among patients (characters from previous Segal novels among them) at a Manhattan emergency room in the period after September 11. Even the catalog copy brims with insight: “terrorist paranoia and end-of-the-world hysteria masks deeper fears about mortality.” You’re welcome, America. (Garth)
The Night Guest by Fiona MacFarlane: Penguin Australia is calling Macfarlane “a new voice” and “a writer who comes to us fully formed.” It’s true that The Night Guest, which will be published in October, is Macfarlane’s debut novel; but she’s been publishing stories for some time now, and here you can read a Q&A about her story “Art Appreciation,” published in The New Yorker this past May. The Night Guest centers around the mysterious arrival of Frida at the isolated beach house of Ruth, a widow, but “soars above its own suspense to tell us, with exceptional grace and beauty, about ageing, love, trust, dependence, and fear; about processes of colonization; and about things (and people) in places they shouldn’t be.” (Sonya)
Every Short Story: 1951-2012 by Alasdair Gray: Exactly what it says on the tin: the comprehensive volume (nearly 1,000 pages!) offers up more than half a century of the Scottish fantasist’s short fiction, including sixteen stories published here for the first time. Known for his dark humor and wild imagination, the stories span the broad range of his fascinating career. Whimsical drawings are interspersed throughout, the stories as much visual works as literary ones. “Illustration and typography play a major part in his work,” says The Guardian. “He doesn’t just write books, he creates them.” It’s probably worth noting, too, that The Guardian has also described Gray as a “a glorious one-man band, the dirty old man of Scottish letters.” (Elizabeth)
Personae by Sergio de la Pava: In the wake of A Naked Singularity’s success, the University of Chicago Press is likewise reissuing de la Pava’s self-published second novel, Personae. In most ways, it’s as different from its predecessor as grits from greens—a Cloud Atlas-y series of nested genre pieces covering the whodunit, the interior monologue, and the theater of the absurd. But fans of the earlier book will recognize de la Pava’s fearlessness and wild ambition, along with the ventriloquistic range that made the Jalen Kingg letters so moving. An excerpt is available at The Quarterly Conversation. (Garth)
The Daylight Gate by Jeanette Winterson: Winterson’s new novella, published to critical acclaim in the UK last year, takes on the trial of the Lancashire Witches in 1612, when a group of destitute outcasts, mostly women, were put on trial for witchcraft. “What is clear amid the poverty and brutality here,” the critic Arifa Akbar wrote in The Independent, “is that other-worldy evil is far outweighed by the harm that human beings inflict.” (Emily)
The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton: The author of the critically acclaimed debut novel The Rehearsal returns with a literary mystery set in 19th century New Zealand. When Walter Moody arrives on the coast of New Zealand, hoping to strike it rich in the gold fields, he stumbles upon a gathering of men who have met in secret to discuss a number of apparently coincidental recent events: on the day when a prostitute was arrested, a rich man disappeared, a down-on-his-luck alcoholic died, and a ship’s captain canceled all of his appointments and fled. The prostitute is connected to all three men, and Moody finds himself drawn into their interlinked lives and fates. (Emily)
A Prayer Journal by Flannery O’Connor: When Flannery O’Connor was in her early 20s and a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she kept a journal which focused on her relationship with her faith. Recently discovered, this journal should be a fascinating prospect for anyone with an interest in O’Connor’s writing, inseparable as it is from her Catholic belief in sin and redemption. It dates from 1946-47, around the time she was writing the stories that would converge into her debut novel Wise Blood. It looks to have been an exercise in bringing herself closer to her God through the act of writing: “I do not mean to deny the traditional prayers I have said all my life; but I have been saying them and not feeling them. My attention is always fugitive. This way I have it every instant.” (Mark)
Death of the Black-Haired Girl by Robert Stone: Steven Brookman is a brilliant professor at an elite college in New England. Maud Stack is his promising and alluring young student. You know where this is going. Unfortunately, however, Professor Brookman is a married man, and Maud Stack’s passions are “not easily contained or curtailed.” In this tale of infidelity and its affects on human relationships—as well as on the institutions in which they reside—Robert Stone makes clear that almost nothing is black and white, and that when it comes to “the allure of youth” and “the promise of absolution,” all roads may lead to madness. (Nick)
A Permanent Member of the Family by Russell Banks: Russell Banks—the author of The Sweet Hereafter and The Darling (among many others) and an acknowledged master chronicler of the tragedies of American life—will publish his first collection of short stories in fifteen years. The book is composed of twelve stories, six of which appear for the first time. The two-time Pulitzer Prize finalist’s last novel, Lost Memory of Skin, documented the straitened lives of a group of sex offenders living under a Florida causeway. (Lydia)
Report from the Interior by Paul Auster: Last year Auster released Winter Journal, a personal history of the author’s own body. This fall he will publish a companion piece of sorts that depicts the world as he saw it as a child growing up in New Jersey in the 1950s. (Kevin)
The Isle of Youth by Laura van den Berg: Laura van den Berg brings her mystical touch to her second collection of short stories, following her highly praised first collection, What The World Will Look Like When All The Water Leaves Us, which was shortlisted for The Frank O’Connor International Award. From a writer who professes to “freaking love coming up with zany plots,” The Isle of Youth delivers with stories of magicians, private detectives, and identity-trading twins. (Hannah)
Hild by Nicola Griffith: Nicola Griffith, British novelist and former poster child for the woes of American immigration policy (in 1998, The Wall Street Journal called her “a lesbian science-fiction writer,” like it’s a bad thing). Her newest novel Hild takes place in seventh-century Britain in the Synod of Whitby, where the people were deciding what kind of Christians to be. The name “Hild” refers to the person we now know as St. Hilda, who presided over the conference during which the Synod debated the relative merits of Celtic and Roman Christianity. In an interview with her editor, Griffith reported that the source material on St. Hilda is basically limited to five pages in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, so she was compelled to do a ferocious amount of research to recreate the world and customs, if not the life, of this early English figure. (Lydia)
Collected Stories by Stefan Zweig: Pushkin Press anointed 2013 as “The Year of Stefan Zweig,” in order to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the famed Austrian author’s death by a wartime suicide pact. Zweig’s fictions are oft fueled by seduction, desire, and affairs of the heart, mettle which helped make him an author of international renown during his tumultuous lifetime. Pushkin is singlehandedly attempting to reinvigorate Zweig’s reputation by issuing a series of rereleases and a handful of new translations of his works. An ideal introduction for the unacquainted comes in the form of Zweig’s Collected Stories, featuring twenty-three stories translated by Anthea Bell. (Anne)
Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow: Speaking of eminences grises… From The March to Homer & Langley to that cover version of Hawthorne’s “Wakefield” that ran in The New Yorker a few years back, Doctorow just keeps swinging. The product description on Amazon is sketchy, but the talk of a main character “speaking from an unknown place and to an unknown interlocutor [about] the circumstances that have led him to commit a mysterious act” sound downright Beckett-y, while the title makes me secretly hope Doctorow’s returning to science fiction (after suppressing his previous effort, Big as Life). (Garth)
A Place in the Country by W.G. Sebald: W.G. Sebald’s collection of six essays was originally published in German in 1998, three years before his untimely death. The collection is an homage to six writers and artists (“colleagues,” he calls them, and “Alemmanic”), all of whom meant something to Sebald: Johann Peter Hebel, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Eduard Mörike, Gottfried Keller, Robert Walser, and Jan Peter Tripp. Already out in the United Kingdom, the essays are apparently solidly in the Sebald tradition—which, as I understand it, defies attribution of stolid nouns like “criticism,” “fiction,” or “biography,” rejoicing instead in the patterns and echoes of what one critic called “half-reality.” (Lydia)
Silence Once Begun by Jesse Ball: Chronically saddled with the designation of “experimental author,” Jesse Ball has written three novels, including The Way Through Doors, a book of poems and flash fiction, and a co-written prose poem, each work demonstrating a gift for quiet, powerful prose and a loose relationship with realism. His first hardcover release, Silence Once Begun, tells the story of a man who confesses to a string of crimes in writing, then never speaks during his arrest or interrogation, and the journalist who becomes obsessed with his case. (Janet)
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee: Best known for his haunting stories of Korean history and American immigrant life, Korean-American novelist Chang-rae Lee tries his hand at speculative fiction, setting his new novel in a dystopian future in which America is in steep decline and urban neighborhoods have been turned into walled labor colonies that provide fresh produce and fish for the surrounding villages where the elite live. In the novel, Fan, a woman laborer, sets out in search of a vanished lover and finds herself crossing the lawless Open Counties, where the government exerts little control and crime is rampant. (Michael)
Perfect by Rachel Joyce: Rachel Joyce’s first novel, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, was a national bestseller and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Her highly anticipated second novel has two narratives, one about two boys in the early 1970s and their obsession with the two seconds added to clock time to balance with the movement of the earth, and one about a present-day man who is debilitated by his obsessive-compulsive routines. Blogger Kate Neilan loved it, saying, “Rachel Joyce should be praised from the rooftops for Perfect; there’s not a thing I’d change about it.”
Leaving the Sea by Ben Marcus: “With Ben Marcus, as with Beckett, such disruptions are signs of literature itself being stretched and tensed, pressed to express the process of a writer testing his limits,” says David Winters in his Millions review of Marcus’s recent novel The Flame Alphabet. Marcus has long been a champion of experimental writing and innovative uses of language, as demonstrated by the stories he selected for the unmatched Anchor Book of New American Short Stories. His forthcoming Leaving the Sea is the first collection of Marcus’s short stories. Expect nothing except more boundary pushing and an exquisite sense of the unexpected. (Anne)
In Marilynne Robinson’s brilliant and engaging essay, “Imagination and Community,” she writes that we live on a small island that consists of what can be said, “which we tend to mistake for reality itself.” As she transforms the voices of her narrators into the sentences of her fictions, she tries to make “inroads on the vast terrain of what cannot be said — or said by me, at least.” The result has been three novels, all award winners, still selling well in dozens of languages. Now along comes A Questionable Shape, a wisely titled and rich first novel by Bennett Sims, who in his own way explores what Robinson calls “the frontiers of the unsayable.”
Before I go further, perhaps I should say that I am sixty-something and a picky reader, someone whose favorite novels fill a single shelf. There sit Robinson and Faulkner, Isaac Babel, Elio Vittorini, J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. Herta Müller’s Herztier, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo. Nuruddin Farah’s Maps, Javier Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow. Like Sims, I studied with Robinson. Unlike him, I have not found an easy way into the works of David Foster Wallace, with whom he also studied, and to whom he dedicates this book: “For Dave.”
On the surface, the storyline of A Questionable Shape is simple. During an epidemic of undeath that has savaged Baton Rouge and the world, a loner, plumber, and collector/hoarder has vanished and is presumed undead. His son wants to find him, even though the father he knows and loves has changed so completely that he would bite his only son and leave him incurably undead. The narrator joins the search, thereby risking being bitten, too.
“What we know about the undead so far is this: they return to the familiar,” the narrator begins. “…They will climb into their own cars and sit dumbly at the wheel, staring out the windshield into nothing. A man bitten, infected, and reanimated fifty miles from home will find his way back, staggering over diverse terrain — which, probably, he wouldn’t have recognized or been able to navigate in his mortal life — in order to stand vacantly on a familiar lawn.”
Who among us has not sat at the steering wheel of a vehicle staring into nothing, or stood vacantly on a lawn or a grassless patch of dirt staring at something no one else could see? Or, for that matter, staggered. Herein lies one strength of Sims’ novel — we are as likely at certain moments to identify with the undead as with the living: to see ourselves too easily as stunted, ravaged, hardly human.
But, dear Reader, do not be fooled. You are fully human. Also, undeath is the topic of A Questionable Shape the way Yoknapatawpha County is the topic of Faulkner, which is to say, it is merely the apparent topic, the setting, the metaphor, the externality that allows the narrator to settle in and explore the shades, shapes, and melodies of consciousness and experience. As Sims’s narrative moves forward, he uses footnotes, asides, diversions, explications, and lyrical imaginings to produce in the reader a kind of double vision of the mind, an extra set of eyes somewhere back in the head.
The two friends, both of whom are addicted to books, but in different ways, try to imagine themselves deep enough into the mind of the missing man to discover the locales he would long for in his undeath. When he was living, he lifted coffee to his lips in a certain café, browsed through the daily objects of yesteryear in a particular antiques mall, watched movies with his son in their favorite theater. But does that mean his savaged mind, reduced to its most intense nostalgias, would drag its ruined body back to any of those spots? This and other questions lead the narrator into meditations on yearning, life, death, time, memory, nostalgia, sight, insight, wisdom. On the world as it is and as it seems to be. On the perplexities of trying to know and understand the people we are closest to.
Often the narrator observes his partner closely, trying to understand her. In his recounting, these scenes become prisms of life. In one, she lies on a red blanket on the grass, intent on protecting her white sweater from grass stains, when “a rogue dead leaf” becomes enmeshed in the fine fuzz of the cashmere. “From a certain angle, this gave the brittle leaf the appearance of hovering in the air…. Beaming down at the levitating leaf, she said it looked as if it were bodysurfing on a crowd of ghosts. And by God it did: that dead leaf, brown and crispate, seemed to be borne aloft by a thousand invisible, white hands.” The allusion-loving narrator labels such moments “my private Bethlehem stars.” But Sims is fastidious in fashioning his metaphors. Readers will find meaning within meaning in those invisible white hands.
A Questionable Shape offers its readers many Bethlehem stars. For me, the first were the phrases, in an early footnote, “infected texts” and “phantom feet.” They lifted me away from the narrative and sent images flying back and forth between memory and imagination. When I returned to the page, I felt more alive, ready to move forward through the coming explorations. Reading on, I had the sense that I was tramping towards the roar of many rivers, wondering where and how they might join. Along the way, the characters and their search grew gradually more important to me, until their quest was mine, their thoughts and doubts and worries mine, their dangers mine.
Are we not every day in our own quests large and small exposed to attacks on the body, to outbreaks threatened or actual against the spirit or mind? Where I live, among the mesas and mountains of northern New Mexico, at any dawn or dusk a mountain lion could spring from behind, bite my neck and break it, giving me no chance to raise my mace and spray. I would be lucky to be merely undead. Bears here open doors, enter living rooms and kitchens, eat pies or popcorn, occasionally people. Fleas spread plague, ticks carry spotted fever. Mice with deer-like ears spray the air with Hantavirus every time they pee. A rattlesnake might sink fangs into my calf, a boulder overhead break loose and smash me, a flashflood wash me into the Río Grande. Meanwhile, chemicals leach from the earth they were carelessly buried in. I might any day tramp through an invisible, unfeelable patch of radioactivity and, with the sole of my shoe, pick up a particle containing plutonium and transport it unknowingly into the bedroom. As I set out for Santa Fe, drivers pass with bumper stickers like these: “Atomic bombs=sixty-five years of peace” and “Keep your sissy hands off my guns.”
Am I to give up the highways, the neighbors, the mesas, the state, my homeland, the planet? Am I to wear side mirrors on my glasses or devise armor, costume, incantation, poultice to keep danger away? Am I to lock myself in a room and fall undead, forfeiting beauty, mystery, pleasure, wisdom, as termites chew the roof and walls away?
A Questionable Shape is a novel for those who read in order to wake up to life, not escape it, for those who themselves like to explore the frontiers of the unsayable. I envision the core readership as brilliant and slightly disaffected men and women. In the larger circle will be fans of Anne Carson, Nicholson Baker, Rivka Galchen, Juan Rulfo, W.G. Sebald, Henry and William James, and gaggles of Russian and German writers. Also, I suspect, fans of David Foster Wallace.
There may be readers who will — on discovering that A Questionable Shape combines a quest, a romance, humor, and an epidemic of zombies, with philosophy, footnotes, history, science, the arts, half of Daniel Webster, cascades of lyricism and truckloads of realism — refuse to so much as open the back cover and peer at the author’s eyebrows. The same may be true of those who expect a novel to contain certain elements and behave in certain ways.
I wish them peace. I wish them well. I wish they would do what I so often do not, and rethink their decision.
To the rest of you I say, Climb a tree and take this book into the leaves and branches with you. Stuff it in your backpack and read it in a meadow. Take it to Dallas. Take it to New Zealand. It is more than just a novel. It is literature. It is life. It is going on my shelf between Your Face Tomorrow and Pedro Páramo.
If the skeleton standing on the corner tapping her watch and staring at me doesn’t drag me off first, I may yet find joy in reading David Foster Wallace.
Instead of A Year in Reading, can I call this my Year of Books Half-Read? Lately I seem to find it impossible to spend more than half an hour at a time reading anything, and as a result I realize that I’ve succumbed to what I call the slug syndrome, as defined by the Mexican essayist and poet Gabriel Zaid. He writes: “Is anything more certain to make a book completely unintelligible than reading it slowly enough? It’s like examining a mural from two centimeters away…like a shortsighted slug.” (from So Many Books, a quick and enlightening read, translated — full disclosure — by me). And so I append a (short) list of books that really deserve better from their readers:
Jorge G. Castañeda’s Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War. This book originally came out in 1993, long before Castañeda’s tenure as Mexico’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs. It filled in all kinds of holes in my understanding of the Latin American left (especially the ways in which the Cuban revolution both inspired and doomed homegrown leftist movements around the region), and generally left me marveling at the dazzling range of leftist thought in Latin America. The book is densely packed with ideas and citations (great sources for further reading), but it’s also informed by interviews on the ground with an impressive array of revolutionaries, as well as with their chroniclers and critics. Should probably be read in its entirety (the first half, at least, is brilliant).
Javier Marías’ Los enamoramientos. Not out yet in English, so you have plenty of time to plan ahead and clear your schedule for this one — or just go ahead and read A Heart So White (there’s also the 1000+ page trilogy Your Face Tomorrow, a great choice for those who prefer to feel completely outmastered, as opposed to simply defeated). This is Marías’ first novel with a female protagonist, and it’s just as preoccupied by the circumlocutions of thought as Marías’ previous works. Characters defy literary convention by ceaselessly turning ideas over in their heads in a way that is at once strange and completely familiar. The book also has much to say about the dynamics of happy marriages, always satisfying terrain in Marías’ novels. Best of all for this reader is Marías’ relentless focus on the effects of the passage of time. This too shall pass: a comforting theme for those of us eager to do better next year. By the way, I do firmly intend to finish this one by Dec. 31.
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It’s time again for spring cleaning, as well as the more enjoyable spring reading. Scott Esposito at Conversational Reading is gearing up for Your Face This Spring, which will read the entire 1200 pages of Javier Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow trilogy. And Big Other is orchestrating a group read of Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds. After you finish a closet, open a book–both start next week.
As I attempt to conjure the most memorable books of the year, my mind returns to the titles I anticipated reading but for one reason, or a few, did not read. These yet-unread books provide the pleasure of anticipation coupled with the wistful remorse of neglect. Many held me in their thrall, albeit briefly; we dallied, but due to deadlines and distractions I couldn’t commit to their length. For some, like Javier Marias’s Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear, Vanessa Place’s La Medusa, and Lydia Davis’s Collected Stories, I still pine, and have placed them at the head of next year’s list.
Reading Joanna Howard’s On The Winding Stair (which I reviewed for Bomb) was like witnessing a dizzying set of pirouettes masterfully executed atop a parapet. Howard spins spare, seductive sentences and uses them to build worlds of dissipated wealth and decaying elegance, setting crumbling mansions among verdant pastures. Sailors, wraiths, rogues, and dandies populate these tales of kidnappings and escapes, and are often impelled by haunting desire. The book’s brevity defies its depth. I suggest reading and then rereading it.
Poet, novelist, and here essayist Fanny Howe riffs on childhood, mysticism, consciousness, and writing as vocation in The Winter Sun. In this part-memoir, part-meditation, she rustles through her past while contemplating the nature of relationships and how identity is formed. Howe seems to have compressed many lives into her one, which includes trailing her mother’s friend, Samuel Beckett, around Paris; being mentored and chased (literally) by literary curmudgeon Edward Dahlberg; toiling long hours over books and words; dancing dressed in silver lamé. At the heart of Howe’s web of reflections and accounts of mystics, thinkers, and activists (including Simone Weil and Jacques Lusseyran) lies an examination of her vocation: “Why all this scratching and erasing? It was more like drawing an invisible figure than painting what was in front of me. I wanted something to recognize: a disembodied presence.”
In Nobody’s Home, writer Dubravka Ugresic uses a visit to a New York nail salon to depict the mish-mash of contemporary cultures, calls out celebrities as the new secular saints (and memoir the new hagiography), and debunks the romanticism of exile while deeming the suitcase its god. Ugresic’s identity as a former Yugoslavian, now Croatian, currently living in exile in Amsterdam informs her sharp, witty insights into modern transience, myths of identity, and the miscegenation of Eastern and Western European cultures. Lines at the MoMA to see an Eastern European artist’s exhibition prompts a memory of lengthy East German lines to buy laundry detergent twenty years before (she remarks it’s as if the New Yorkers are “returning the favor”); a large European market where families from a melange of ethnic groups pass their Saturdays shopping and eating (while their children intermingle and play) provokes Ugresic’s observation that the allegiance to ethnic identity prevents the groups from recognizing their greater commonality, class.