Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomers: You’ve Come a Long Way, Lady James

The post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a monthly feature at The Millions. 1. Years ago, a friend of mine complained about the lack of intellectual stimulation at his day job. He gave as an example a coworker who spent her breaks reading -- insert scorn here -- a mystery novel. “Whose mystery is it?” I remember asking. “If it’s by, say, P.D. James, then your coworker is probably pretty smart.” A few weeks later, my friend called me back. “The book was P.D. James, and she is really smart.” Phyllis Dorothy James White, the daughter of a tax inspector, has more than a dozen honorary doctorates and fellowships, and from institutions as eminent as Oxford and Cambridge. At 15 or 16, she won her high school’s prize for a story she describes as “low in credibility but high on drama and atmosphere” (she no longer has a copy). Her father was “not well off and not disposed to educate girls,” so James left school at 16 to work in a tax office, only returning to formal education decades later for night classes in hospital administration. Around that time, her mother was committed to a mental hospital, leaving James to care for her younger siblings. In a 1995 interview with The Paris Review, she said, “I would have loved to have gone to university, but I don’t think I would necessarily have been a better writer, indeed perhaps the reverse.” Regardless, her books abound with highly educated, often-influential characters who spout references to classic British literature and debate fine points of moral theology; and her most enduring creation, the fictional detective Adam Dalgliesh, is both a commander at New Scotland Yard and a famous poet. (He also shares a surname with one of James’s English teachers at Cambridge High School for Girls.) In the decades before she published her first novel, Cover Her Face, at 42, James married an army doctor, survived World War II, struggled to raise two daughters when her husband returned from the war incapacitated by a mental illness that may have been schizophrenia, and worked full time to support her family. In the decades since, she has written 16 detective novels (including a sequel to Pride and Prejudice in which one of the characters is murdered), a disquisition on the history of detective fiction, a memoir, and the dystopian morality tale The Children of Men. She was honored with the title of baroness by Queen Elizabeth and has subsequently sat on the Conservative benches of the House of Lords. Despite her success as a novelist, she kept her administrative job until she retired at 60, a decision she attributes to growing up during the Depression, when secure civil service jobs were coveted. As recently as last October, she claimed to have cracked an unsolved 1931 murder. James intended 2008’s The Private Patient to be the last Adam Dalgliesh novel, confessing to USA Today in 2010 that, at 90 years old, “I felt I wasn't quite sure whether I could begin a new Dalgliesh...I hate the thought of not completing it.” In an April 2013 interview with the London Evening Standard, she revealed that she hoped to bring Dalgliesh back for a 15th book, in which she plans for Dalgliesh (whom James describes as “a reverent agnostic”), like his creator, to confront the certainty of his own death. But by December 2013, she again expressed doubts about her ability to finish: “[b]ut I have no time, no time at all and I do not think [the book] is going to get written, and I am just having to face that...but I hope it may get written.” Undoubtedly, so do her fans. 2. James resists what she sees as an artificial divide between literary and genre fiction. She takes pains, however, to draw distinctions between the detective fiction she writes and other species of crime novels -- particularly ones in which the reader knows the murderer’s identity but the characters don’t, or in which, for the sake of suspense, the author deliberately withholds from the reader facts that are known to the characters. By contrast, a true detective novel makes a compact with the reader, as James explains in Talking about Detective Fiction: What we can expect is a central mysterious crime, usually murder; a closed circle of suspects, each with motive, means and opportunity for the crime; a detective, either amateur or professional, who comes in like an avenging deity to solve it; and, by the end of the book, a solution which the reader should be able to arrive at by logical deduction from clues inserted in the novel with deceptive cunning but essential fairness. A well-crafted detective novel fulfills the same essentials of “a perfect tragedy” as outlined in Aristotle's Poetics: it begins with catastrophe; calls forth fear, pity, and finally recognition; and invokes catharsis -- a purging of emotion and restoration of order. As James herself pointed out in a 2009 interview for NPR’s Morning Edition, “The theory is that the mystery flourishes best in times of acute anxiety.” Any reader who picks up a murder mystery does so with absolute assurance that the murderer will be caught and brought to justice by the end, which partly accounts for the genre’s popularity. Within this structure, however, writers can (and do) weave social and political commentary, unresolved and conflicted relationships, philosophical and ethical questions, and often unsettling portraits of lives before and after a murder. Another of the detective novel’s pleasures is that it asks the reader to solve the central mystery along with the detectives. The author unveils facts as the characters experience them, while simultaneously manipulating these revelations in ways that create deception and misdirection; but both the solution and the process of discovering it are supremely logical. Says James: “The detective can know nothing which the reader isn’t also told ...It would be a very, very bad detective story at the end if the reader felt, ‘Who could possibly have guessed that?’” In the end, the detective’s (and the reader’s) triumph reaffirms the power of humanity over forces of darkness and sometimes terror. As James puts it, the mystery is “solved not by good luck or divine intervention...It’s solved by a human being. By human courage and human intelligence and human perseverance. In a sense, the detective story is a small celebration of reason and order in our very disorderly world.” James admits that she abhors disorder: “In a long life, I have never taken a drug or got drunk, and I say that not as a matter of pride: it's because the idea of being out of control is appalling to me. I think that when one writes detective stories one is imposing order, and a form of imperfect but human justice, on chaos.” Yet her flirtation with disorder, the terror that an ordinary person could transform into a killer or a killer’s victim, shares more with the complexity of literary fiction than it does with the tidy plots and flat characterization in, say, Agatha Christie mysteries. She has no interest in mass murders or psychopaths, she explained in a 2010 Telegraph interview: “They don’t interest me as much from a crime writing point of view because they kill without recognisable (sic) motives. What is fascinating is when you have an educated, law-abiding person who steps over a line.” 3. In Time to Be in Earnest, James recounts a day when she was feeding her baby daughters butter that her husband, Dr. Ernest Connor Bantry White, had sent from where he was stationed in India. I was feeding fingers of toast into Jane’s buttery mouth that I heard...the news of the dropping of the atomic bomb...I knew that the dropping of the bomb would almost certainly bring Connor home earlier and probably safely. But it was still, for me, a moment of horror and, looking almost aghast at my two happy, buttery daughters...I knew that for all of us the world had changed for ever. Sadly, her husband’s return from the war brought James neither peace nor safety. Suffering from psychosis, Connor was in and out of mental hospitals and sometimes violent. In 1986, pressed by an interviewer, she said, “He did have highs and lows. It was terrifying and terribly disruptive. It's not a part of my life that’s very happy for me, and I don't think about it often.” He died at 44 in what some articles have suggested may have been a suicide, but James has rarely discussed him and has never disclosed the details of his death. “One suffers with the patient and for oneself,” she writes in Time to Be in Earnest. “Another human being who was once a beloved companion can become not only a stranger, but occasionally a malevolent stranger.” She never considered divorce even when it became clear that Connor would never be well again, and she has turned down more than one marriage proposal. Asked in 1986 why she had never remarried, she replied, “Connor was a very exceptional man -- one of the few men I've met who really believed in the equality of women...I certainly miss my husband as much now as when he first died...We did have a mutual understanding. But I’m not sure one can find that very easily in another man.” Her love for her late husband was just as strong in a 2010 interview: “If I had met someone I wanted to spend the rest of my life with, I would have. I had men friends and I like men generally but I never met the right one again.” Her husband, troubled as he was, was James’s great love. 4. Arguably, James’s other great love is her fictional hero, Adam Dalgliesh, who embodies good looks, poetic sensibility, uncompromising ethics, compassion, wisdom, and, most of all, dispassionate intellect. When we first meet him in James’s first novel, Cover Her Face (1962), he has lost his wife in childbirth more than a decade earlier and has remained resolutely single ever since. Cordelia Gray, a detective in James’s only two novels to feature a female protagonist, encounters Dalgiesh through the investigation in An Unsuitable Job for a Woman. In the next novel, A Taste for Death, Gray and Dalgliesh have been seen dining together, but James is too coy to discuss the nature of their relationship: “I'm afraid that as far as Adam’s sex life is concerned, what he does in private with a consenting adult is no affair of mine.” Inevitably, interviewers ask about the relationship between James and her leading man. In a 1977 interview for The New York Times, James said of Dalgliesh, “I wanted a very sensitive, essentially lonely and withdrawn person;” by 1996, interviewed by People, she says, “I think in some ways he may be the masculine equivalent of me...He's not a self-portrait, but he does have qualities I admire. He’s intelligent, he’s literary. I admire his sensitivities and certainly his courage and his self-sufficiency, but he may be too self-sufficient. I think there’s a splinter of ice in his heart.” Over the years, Dalgliesh’s character has softened somewhat -- he falls in love over the course of the most recent four novels and finally remarries at the end of The Private Patient. As a character, Dalgliesh can sometimes be too exemplary to be convincing. For example, though he contracts SARS in The Lighthouse and ruminates on the possibility of never seeing his soon-to-be fiancée again, before he collapses he completes an examination of a body, gives exhaustive instructions to his subordinates, and, later, in his delirium, solves a key piece of the mystery and insists on holding staff meetings from his sickbed. At such moments, Dalgliesh’s personal life seems superfluous. In giving him one, James gestures toward continuity of character that readers can follow from novel to novel, but she has made him so dependably unimpeachable that his inner conflicts have far less resonance than those of his subordinates and the minor characters he encounters -- many of whom are so sharply and compassionately observed that her disciplined main plots contain a kaleidoscope of tiny and evocative stories. In The Lighthouse, a servant grieves when she learns that a victim died wearing something she had sewed, tormented by the idea that the clothing had caused the death; Kate Miskin, Dalgliesh’s second-in-command, is acutely aware of the servant’s desolation but struggles to express compassion; her subordinate briefly recalls feeling as a child like his existence intruded on his parents’ intimacy: “Coming quietly and unexpectedly into a room where they were alone, he would see the cloud of disappointment quickly change to smiles of welcome -- but not quickly enough.” In the last Dalgliesh novel, The Private Patient, the murder victim has waited 34 years to have plastic surgery for the scar left when her drunken father slashed her cheek with a bottle and her mother let the wound get seriously infected rather than reveal the abuse. Questioned by the doctor about her motives for removing the scar, she replies, “Because I no longer have need of it.” 5. For Dalgliesh as well as James, solving the murder is paramount, and James’s novels are notable for the virtuosity with which their plots are executed. James’s 2005 novel, The Lighthouse, for instance, begins with Dalgliesh being summoned to his superior’s office: a murder has been committed on an isolated island where the Prime Minister would like to hold a private meeting in a few months. The island has no cell phone service, allows only VIPs personally referred by previous guests to visit, and can be accessed only by private boat. More than 100 pages elapse -- in which each of the characters is painstakingly introduced -- before the body appears, swinging dramatically from the island’s lighthouse railing as gulls (and a servant) shriek in the background. James narrows her gaze to the disquieting image of “the neck mottled and stretched like the neck of a bald turkey, the head, grotesquely large, dropped to one side, the hands, palms outward, as if in a parody of benediction.” The body belongs to a famous novelist, publicly celebrated for his brilliant writing, disliked on the island for his difficult personality, and privately loathed for spectacular cruelties that emerge during the investigation. A handful of suspects stand at the foot of the lighthouse and look up at the body; the permanent staff sequester themselves in a dining room to speculate about the current batch of visiting VIPs; Dalgliesh and team promptly swoop in by helicopter to investigate. Suddenly, the game is on. It’s at this point that James’s novels make their bid for a place among the “Queens of Crime” (Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh, and Margery Allingham), whose books she devoured as a teenager. Her plots combine Christie’s audacious cleverness, Marsh’s evocation of situation and setting, Sayers’s acute sense of morality, and Allingham’s sensitivity to character. The resulting detective novels represent the best qualities of the genre: they are absorbing, intellectually challenging, emotionally satisfying, and artfully constructed. The process of unraveling the mystery demands the reader’s attention and patience as the investigators work through the evidence, and yet the solutions that emerge seem simultaneously surprising and inevitable. No matter how chilling, the murderers are sympathetically drawn; and the supposed innocents differ morally from the guilty only in that they happen not to have committed murder. In James’s hands, murder is simply another gesture that arises from character motivation. James writes in Time to Be in Earnest: As a writer I find that the most credible motive and, perhaps, the one for which the reader can feel some sympathy, is the murderer’s wish to advantage, protect or avenge someone he or she greatly loves. But should the reader feel sympathy for the murderer? Perhaps sympathy is too strong a word; but I think there should be empathy and understanding. This empathy and understanding distinguishes James from other giants of detective fiction. In Talking about Detective Fiction, James, in explaining the detective story’s “Golden Age,” writes with admiration for Agatha Christie’s “imaginative duplicity,” but notes, “Both the trickery and the final solution are invariably more ingenious than believable...there is no grief, no loss, an absence of outrage.” For James, conscience cannot be separated from compassion, and her work never delivers justice without also reaching into those dark places where the human spirit falls short. 6. James was born on August 3, 1920 -- a few weeks before women’s suffrage would go into effect in the U.S.; and in England, women (including her role model Dorothy L. Sayers) would not be allowed to enroll at the University of Oxford for a few more months. In Time to Be in Earnest, James writes, “I can recall a sentence from the Cambridge High School prospectus which, after pointing out that girls could enter the sixth form and be prepared for teacher training college or could take a secretarial course, added: ‘The school thus prepares either for a career or for the ordinary pursuits of womanhood.’” She recounts applying for promotions: “I accepted that I would have to be not only better qualified than the male candidates, but considerably better qualified. This can hardly be regarded as equality of opportunity.” When her debut novel Cover Her Face was published in 1962, all but one reviewer assumed it was written by a man. James denies any intention to conceal her sex, writing that she decided P.D. “was enigmatic and would look best on the book spine.” Even in her memoir, James refuses to dwell too long on her own memories. She writes: I see no need to write about these things. They are over and must be accepted, made sense of and forgiven, afforded no more than their proper place in a long life in which I have always known that happiness is a gift, not a right...Like dangerous and unpredictable beasts they lie curled in the pit of the subconscious. This seems a merciful dispensation; I have no intention of lying on a psychiatrist’s couch in an attempt to hear their waking growls. One could easily imagine James pursuing a different literary path driven by autobiographical impulses, mining her parents’ uneasy marriage, her mother’s institutionalization, her husband’s disintegration into mental illness, her struggles to support a family and gain professional standing, her triumphant career as a writer. One could also easily picture James as a child in a difficult family, discovering the writers who became influences -- Jane Austen, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot -- and reading simply for the pleasure they gave her. The challenges that have informed James’s writing could easily have kept her from writing at all. The mystery writers she read in adolescence and most admires as influences -- Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Ngaio Marsh, and Josephine Tey -- could have been devoured and forgotten. Instead, P.D. James has taken her place among them. Image Credit: Flickr/Chris Boland
Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomers: Ellen Meloy and Understanding Everything

Click here to read about “Post-40 Bloomers,” a monthly feature at The Millions. 1. The members of my family who are not Cherokee did not come to the United States aboard the Mayflower, pass through Ellis or Angel Island, or cross either the Mexican or Canadian borders. What I know of one adventurous ancestor is that the ship he boarded in Scotland landed on the shores of Galveston, Texas -- a lesser-known but also historical point of immigration -- and made his way to Los Angeles. Early in the 20th century, when an entire nation was moving west, his son felt the tug of these roots and moved east -- all the way to Roswell, N.M., where my mother was born. Like the writer and naturalist Ellen Meloy (1946-2004), a fifth-generation Californian who lived most of her adult life in Utah and Montana, I am a Westerner who lacks the romanticized, Manifest Destiny-informed view that Thoreau expressed in his 1862 essay “Walking”: “We go eastward to realize history and study the works of art and literature, retracing the steps of the race; we go westward as into the future, with a spirit of enterprise and adventure.” What Meloy does share with Thoreau is a need for wilderness. As a naturalist and memoirist, she guides her readers toward a conscious relationship with the natural world, urging them to bear witness -- to choose something to care about -- because, as she writes in her final book, Eating Stone: Imagination and the Loss of the Wild, “When you truly understand one thing, a hawk, a juniper tree, a rock, you will begin to understand everything.” 2. Meloy spent much of her childhood in California, but her family moved frequently as her father’s work with the Federal Aviation Association required. She graduated from high school in London, studied art in France and Italy, and then returned to the U.S., where she earned a degree in art from Goucher College. In the 1970s, she received a Master’s in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana. She married Mark Meloy, a river ranger for the Bureau of Land Management, in 1985. For a decade beginning in 1994, when she published her first book, and ending in 2004, when she died suddenly from a heart attack, Ellen Meloy wrote four books, each devoted to some aspect of the Colorado Plateau, the Chihuahuan Desert, or the Great Basin -- the rugged geography she knew best. Her first book, Raven’s Exile: A Season on the Green River, was published when Meloy was 48 and won the Spur Award for contemporary nonfiction from the Western Writers of America. Between the publication of Raven’s Exile and her second book, The Last Cheater’s Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest (1999), Meloy received a Whiting Award (1997). Eating Stone, published posthumously in 2005, was nominated in nonfiction for the National Book Critics Circle Award and also received a Banff Mountain Book Award for Adventure Travel. More personal than her other books, The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone, and Sky -- a 2003 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, winner of the Utah Book Award, and a Banff Mountain Book Award -- provides a window into Meloy’s creative life. In the opening essay, she writes that for many years, she “made a living in technical illustration, churning out laboriously stippled pen-and-ink drawings of bones, feathers, fish, and wolves.” While she is never explicit about why she turned to writing, it is easy to to imagine after reading even one of her books that the depth of her imagination and breadth of her knowledge would need an additional outlet. Luckily for her readers, Meloy employs both talents in each of her books, illustrating them with maps, petroglyphs, plants, and animals. In the closing essay of Anthropology, Meloy reflected on the challenge modern nature writers face: A great deal of nature writing sounds like a cross between a chloroform stupor and a high mass, in Latin, on a hot day, surrounded by bleeding plaster icons. Words penned to the “wild” chronicle a failing purity, where no land or seascape is untouched and all that is truly wild is lost...I write a book about a river and cannot tell if it is a love story or an obituary or both...As I bury my face in the voluptuous innards of cliffrose petals on a remote mesa, a low-flying, kelp-colored military jet passes over with a roar so thunderous it nearly makes my ears bleed. Today is my birthday, and during its twenty-four hours nineteen species will become extinct. She evidently questioned the power of her art to effect change; and yet she continued to write, up until her untimely death. Capturing her expansive spirit in an appreciation column for The New York Times Verlyn Klinkenborg wrote, Knowing her, I find it easy to imagine that on the night she died, Ellen came to a waterfall in her dreams -- a stream pouring over the edge of the slick rock -- and jumped and simply kept falling...Like any good naturalist, Ellen...also recorded many true things about herself, things that her sudden death make even truer somehow. [About herself] as a girl, she wrote, "I thought I would never survive my imagination." She survived it just long enough for friends and readers to see how powerful it really was. I discovered Meloy’s writing shortly after her death, and as I read, it was impossible not to mourn the loss of her voice, her intellect, and the considerable energy with which she advocated for the protection of desert landscapes -- landscapes that, time and again, have been deemed sites for damming, bombing, and dumping hazardous waste. To support writers who investigate such landscapes the The Ellen Meloy Fund for Desert Writers was established at the time of her death; the Desert Writers Award has been given annually since then to a writer of nonfiction. 3. Taking a journey down any part of the 730-mile trip through Desolation Canyon along the Green River, the setting of Raven’s Exile, requires one to either “run the river with a licensed commercial outfitter or obtain a permit from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).” Meloy thus makes the trip with her husband, who works for the BLM. She also takes a side trip with Ken Sleight, the river runner used as a model for the eco-guerilla Seldom Seen Smith in Edward Abbey’s influential 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang. While Abbey's brand of activism is not hers, the book is, in many ways, a tribute to Abbey: Sleight recalls for her what Glen Canyon looked like before it was dammed and filled with water by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation in 1963 to create Lake Powell, which he calls Blue Death. While there with him, she jokes about making a run to Las Vegas to purchase dynamite and committing a little “monkey-wrenching,” but then adds, I try hard to fill my coward’s heart with the hope of Sleight, Abbey, and others for whom Glen Canyon was a tragedy but also a force around which to rally and say, No more wasting of places like Glen Canyon, no more oversized, outstripped, ultrazealous, transcendence of the West’s own limits, no more trying to make Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and the rest of the desert look like upstate New York. While Meloy often writes about loss, she also celebrates what exists, reminding us that there is still plenty to care about. On the Green River, she works with her husband and a fisheries team investigating the habitat of the chub, a species of fish that adapted over millions of years [coping] with salinity shifting streambeds and waters that ranged from the cold torrents of spring to the tepid shallows of summer. They survived the rivers of lava that poured from nearby volcanoes into the Grand Canyon’s nascent chasm every few thousand years, damming the Colorado River near Lava Falls until the lava dam succumbed to the river’s power. 4. In The Last Cheater’s Waltz, Meloy creates what she calls her “Map of the Known Universe,” as she treks through the atomic and nuclear geography of the Chihuahuan Desert of the Southwest, marrying it with places like “Australia’s Maralinga, the African Sahara, China’s Lop Nur west of the Gobi Desert, the Rajasthan in northwest India” -- all regions that provided “the geographic equivalent of a ‘neutral laboratory’’’ for weapons testing by those operating on the assumption that the populations of these areas were “invisible, expendable, or relocatable.” Juxtaposing the behavior of a species native to the desert with that of the men conducting the atomic bomb test at Trinity, Meloy describes the Jornada del Muerto toad colony, whose mating ritual is triggered by rainstorms. As the sky cleared and Oppenheimer made the decision to go forward with the test, the toads began to croak, rose to the surface of the sand and “straddle[d] one another like refueling bombers.” Having planted that image in our heads, Meloy turns our attention to the homo sapiens. Lying in their trenches, their heads turned away from ground zero and eyes shaded against the coming bright flash, they filled their lungs with the aroma of wet creosote and their ears with sweet unearthly notes of The Nutcracker Suite, which floated into the ether of ground zero when a distant radio station crossed wavelengths with the Trinity frequency. Yet so intent did they seem on the imminent mining of their long-awaited white light, the immediate world around them offered only counterpoint. The soundtrack for the ultimate evolutionary moment of this century, to which nothing on Earth would be immune, could not have been stranger: a Tchaikovsky waltz and small pockets of air pushed through hundreds of ballooning throats. The subject matter makes this Meloy’s darkest book, but it is also the one in which she initially writes of “San Andreas Ewe 067,” who she first encounters in the Trinity site environment. Her interest in this hardy, lone ewe would inspire Eating Stone. 5. Meloy chooses the endangered bighorn sheep to help her “understand everything” and logs thousands of miles to learn as much as possible about the species. In Eating Stone, her quest begins at her home in Utah where she observes local bighorns, and takes her to Arizona, Southern California, and as far as Mexico’s Baja peninsula (near the setting of John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez). When she returns to the protected area of the Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico, she discovers that San Andreas Ewe 067 has died. Much of Eating Stone celebrates the heroic persistence of bighorn sheep, particularly those in Utah and Southern California. But at the end of the book, Meloy becomes somewhat melancholy: Sometimes I picture this moment in history, a moment with which my own lifetime chances to coincide, as a gate that we have been closing for some time. On the other side of the gate, deep landscape falls farther and farther away, always at the point of loss. The spellbound threshold between humanity and the rest of nature is very nearly pulled shut to the latching point. Soon we shall turn our backs and walk away entirely, place-blind and terribly lonely. Even so, Meloy has given us eyes with which to see the many things she cares about and complex, multiple ways to think about them. 6. Meloy investigates different modes of advocacy for the preservation of wilderness, but she is not prescriptive, nor does she attach herself to a particular movement, such as the Sierra Club or Earth First. But in the essay “Tilano’s Jeans,” from The Anthropology of Turquoise, Meloy is explicit about our responsibility to the planet. Treating nature as a pet or a therapist ends up little better than treating it as a slave. Kinship demands reciprocity. Every nature girl and boy should be prepared to defend the places they love. Otherwise we have not earned them. When we march in from the starry nights and dazzling rivers, we must argue on their behalf, pressure politicians and other moronic invertebrates to wean themselves from their unsightly addiction to corporate blubber and for once act in favor of things that matter, like air to breathe, water to drink, and space to roam. We must exalt the biocentric paradigm, speak for the creatures that have no voice, staunch the lunatic hemorrhage of wild lands from the face of the planet. Choose something to care about. I choose Eucalyptus globulus, the blue gum eucalyptus, 22,000 of which are scheduled for removal from a Berkeley hillside because they threaten the growth of native species. The language we use to talk about non-native species raises questions that interest me: given the change we have affected on the planet, can the status of a non-native species ever be considered native? Which non-native species get to survive and where? Who decides? I doubt I’ll “begin to understand everything.” But I’ll begin to understand something. Choose something. Image Credit: Flickr/patrick wilken
Post-40 Bloomers

Thought Episodes: Norman Rush’s Novels of Ideas

This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. The novels of Norman Rush are full of sharp-eyed, straight-talking men and women who are fearless in the pursuit of ideas, but who don’t forget to have fun. And though they love arguing most of all, they’re also passionate about sex and adventure. Rush, now 80, is the author of four masterly, unique works of fiction. The first, Whites, a collection of taut, voice-driven stories published in 1986 when Rush was 53, was shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. Five years later, Rush emerged with his debut novel, Mating, which won the 1991 National Book Award, and his novel Mortals followed in 2003. Just shy of 500 and 800 pages, respectively, these two novels are expansive, exuberant narratives set in Botswana (also the setting for Whites), where Rush and his wife of 56 years, Elsa, co-directed the country’s Peace Corps program from 1978-1983. Thick with meditations on matters scholarly and literary, political and psychological, these books feature delightful wordplay. Rush’s most recent novel Subtle Bodies was released in September. It’s his first work set entirely in America, and it’s a mere 230 pages. While much more compact than his previous novels, this fiction has lost none of Rush’s signature style nor his deep interest in human relationships — particularly marriages — and political ideals. These qualities, along with the ambition of his narrative structures and the penetrating elegance of intellectual thought woven into characters’ talk and action, have made critics swoon and generations of younger writers dive into his dense works as if they were barrels of jellybeans. In 2006, a body of more than one hundred writers and critics polled by the New York Times Book Review declared Mating one of the best American novels of the past quarter-century. Particularly striking in Rush’s books is the rich development of both action and thought. His stories are stuffed with what the author calls “thought episodes.” Norman Rush’s idiosyncratic, strong-willed people act and think for themselves — an independence of mind scarce in contemporary literature. By combining our two most powerful forms of explanation, narrative, and argument, Rush has successfully created that rare and most valuable art form, the novel of ideas. 2. Rush excels at two forms of hard-to-achieve novelistic thought. The first consists of the rich mental description we might call Jamesian, most evident in works like The Portrait of a Lady. James Wood titled his review of Mortals, “Thinking,” for the book whose “central achievement has to be the fidelity with which it represents consciousness, the way in which it tracks the mind’s own language.” Consider the opening paragraph: At least whatever was wrong was recent, Ray kept telling himself, he realized. Because he’d just done it again, turning in to Kgari Close, seeing his house ahead of him, their house. Whatever was going on with Iris was different from what had gone on in earlier episodes, minor episodes coming under the heading of adjusting to Africa. This was worse because what was going on was so hard to read. He needed to keep in mind that knowing something was going wrong at an early point was always half the battle. And he knew how to stop things in their tracks. In fact that was his field, or one of them. Anyway, he was home. He loved this house. This passage shows Ray thinking, in wonderfully penetrating detail, about thinking. He’s both trying to identify an elusive problem and reflecting on the ways in which one comes to know something. He realizes that, because he has noticed that something is wrong, he’ll come to the knowledge of the wrong thing sooner. Ray is trained to notice; he is a spy. He is also a most uxorious husband. This passage invests the reader in learning what the problem is with Iris — we want Ray to stay with Iris in the house that he loves — and in tracking precisely how he discovers it. Though Rush wrote stories from an early age, from self-publishing at age 11 to completing a “non-violent thriller” during the nine months he was imprisoned for conscientiously objecting to the Korean War, it took him years to master Mortal’s acute, free, indirect style. For a long time he wrote abstract pieces populated with inactive talking heads. When his first critical success came in 1971 — his short story “In Late Youth” was anthologized in Best American Short Stories — Rush was consciously working to write simpler tales and, as he said in a Paris Review interview, “to sync thought more closely to a character’s actions.” Mortals demonstrates how supremely Rush has accomplished this. Yet while Ray’s recursive self-examination adds depth, comedy, and poignancy, it also slows down the story. Wood doesn’t see this as a detriment — “a high level of analysis never insults the hospitality of storytelling” — but not all critics agree. John Updike wrote that Ray, “a control freak, a fussbudget, a tireless ruminator, and annoyance-nurser [most of whose] overflowing mental energy goes into an anxious gloating over his happy marriage,” is “perhaps the most annoying hero this reviewer has ever spent seven hundred pages with.” While I don’t share Updike’s level of irritation, I do find considerably more compelling the inner life and intellectual urgency of the unnamed female narrator of Mating. A nutritional anthropology grad student, she falls hard and fast for a “Serious Man” named Nelson Denoon, an intelligent do-gooder who has established a feminist utopian village in the desert. After abandoning her dissertation and dating several minimally desirable men, she takes off, solo, across the Kalahari to throw herself at the feet of Denoon and the sui generis village of Tsau. The anthropologist’s barrel-scraping, yet somehow joyful, journey toward love and self-knowledge is propulsive from the novel’s early pages. Her attractiveness stems in part from her peculiar diction, which combines high-register Latin, French, and academic phrases with vulgar formulations. Here she explains her fierce desire to visit Victoria Falls: I not only wanted to go to Victoria Falls but to stay there in splendor at the Vic Falls Hotel, the way the colonial exploiters had. This was less greed per se than it was wanting to visit or inhabit a particularly gorgeous and egregious consummation of it. I was convinced that under Mugabe accommodations would be democratized and establishments like the Vic Falls Hotel would cease to exist, which of course was only one of a number of things that didn’t happen under Mugabe. I had a fixation on seeing the greatest natural feature in Africa and seeing it at the maximal time of year, which was just then, when the Zambezi was still in spate. I might be going back home to exile in the academic tundra, but I wanted to have seen the world’s greatest waterfall from the windows of an establishment amounting to a wet dream of doomed white settler amour propre. We’re eager to follow our anthropologist — and her piercing thoughts — wherever they go. Unlike worrywart Ray, her introspection and argumentation are infused with a contagious joie de vivre. 3. A novel of ideas is driven by both story and thought. The kind of fictional thinking illustrated above is crucial, but it’s not enough. A true novel of ideas must also have arguments, the second kind of novelistic thought at which Rush excels. Ideas, just like places and people, create a vibrant fictional world and fuel its stakes: what do the people in this world believe and why? What do they want to understand, and what do they ignore at their peril? A contemporary novel of ideas must not only investigate topics of intrinsic interest, but must also render flesh-and-blood characters who vigorously and clearly express these ideas — who care about and challenge them. How does one integrate argument into narrative? It would seem the two forms of explanation are at odds. Though both require precision, argument is pegged only to logic, not to time. Narrative, on the other hand, depends absolutely on chronology and can be bogged down by too much explanation. When Rush would show to Elsa, his first reader and most rigorous editor, early pages too thick with explanations, she’d respond: “Consider maybe that there are some extremely smart people out there who are not interested in stories that require a seminar.” His tendency is to be exhaustive, he explains in the same Paris Review interview — “to show the human project of trying to reshape the world, in all its particular guises and methods.” One technique Rush exploits well is argumentative dialogue occurring at high-stakes moments. In Subtle Bodies, male college friends gather for the funeral of their former ringleader Douglas. Ned, a respected activist in the Fair Trade movement, tries to convince each jaded friend to sign his petition protesting America’s impending war against Iraq. Their jousting is energized by knowing how much it means to Ned that his friends support him and that he prove himself able to convince them on both pragmatic and idealistic grounds — thereby escaping, finally, Douglas’s shadow. But surely argument can happily exist outside heightened moments of battle. In life, arguments are sustained over time. “I like to discern an unstated, but illustrated, argument in a novel,” Rush says. “I mean, I like to become aware of an embodied view of a particular moral-slash-philosophical problem or circumstance. With my novels, I want readers to argue about my argument, at least in their heads. While writing I am very conscious of it.” Mating exemplifies how argument can be embodied throughout a novel’s entire arc. Our anthropologist is desperate to know if equality in a male-female romance is possible, given all the cultural and biological factors working against it. Her desire to understand something abstract is converted into her real-time relationship with the exalted Denoon. Tsau, a community built from scratch upon feminist and socialist ideologies, is also put under the microscope. The whole action of the novel tests whether either of these utopias is viable. 4. While Rush beautifully embodies arguments in circumstance, he does even more than that, as a true novel of ideas should. Real people think about more than what’s immediately in front of them. They argue about free trade and two-party political systems; the virtues of television versus reading. Arguments that examine, broadly, how we should understand and reshape the world are just as much the necessary and joyful and fascinating stuff of life as the things that happen to us directly. Rush therefore also imbues his novels with abstract arguments that extend to the larger world. At the dinner party where the narrator of Mating first meets Denoon, he gives a long lecture on development in Africa, which includes five reasons why socialism will not succeed there. The whole novel is told in hindsight, and this lecture, too, is related after the fact. The lecture reads like a play. The narrator’s interpretive notes are interspersed in italics. This may sound cumbersome, but it works cleanly. We get Denoon’s arguments in his own words, as presented to his live audience. For example: Let us say you want to clear away private ownership of productive property and put everything under the state. Well and good, but then you must be prepared to pay five surcharges, very heavy surcharges. These are permanent recurrent costs that never go away. They are intrinsic to your system. At other points, the narrator summarizes Denoon, often because she’s impatient or dissatisfied with the way he puts things: [Point] Five was a mess. He couldn’t get it schematic enough, and during it some people got bored to the hilt. My notes, which I made when I went home that night, say that there are two ways to extract the social surplus--... Additionally, as Denoon speaks, the narrator speculates about how and why he’s arrived at various formulations. She explains a particularly circuitous set of remarks thus: This is intellectual loneliness showing, I thought. ...I had no idea who he had with him out in the bush, but this scene suggested that they left something to be desired as discussants. The same sort of hysteria was familiar to me. Naturally, she has a solution: she should become his mate. Rush’s Knopf editor, Ann Close, was worried this long exchange would bore readers, but Rush felt it was crucial “to prove to the reader that Denoon was an intellectual of a certain caliber.” Indeed, we have to see for ourselves that Denoon is not a charlatan. We’re to experience through our anthropologist’s eyes and intelligence, for another four hundred pages, people and places we’ve never or rarely encountered and ideas we perhaps haven’t thought much about. It’s also imperative that we trust the intelligence of our narrator. We must know she’s not been hoodwinked by Denoon’s status, charisma, or beauty — all of which he has in spades. Among Rush’s three novels of ideas, Mating is the most successful. Although it does occasionally give us too much of a good thing, by piling on more argument than can be absorbed, ideas are given life by a torrentially passionate narrator for whom it’s clear how deeply ideas matter. Developing her unusual, entertaining language was important to Rush not only in order to create a fully realized, never-before-seen character, but also because her linguistic prowess empowers her. The narrator, in her vocabulary and her attitude toward language, is like several people I have known who considered themselves underclass and at a disadvantage socially, but who were smart and discovered that knowing how to use language better than the people oppressing them was a form of power. Ned’s wife Nina in Subtle Bodies has fewer years of education than Mating’s anthropologist (who is in fact closely modeled on Elsa Rush), but Nina is similarly bold, innovative, and articulate in her use of language. 5. When asked in a recent interview in Tin House, “Will your next project find you returning to a longer form?” Rush said, “Dude, I’m 80.” He hopes to write more short stories, though he recognizes that despite Elsa’s “extraordinary forbearance” during his long-gestating novels, it may be time for the couple to spend more time on pursuits other than writing. These days Rush also worries about the value of fiction writing in a world that would benefit more from advocacy and political action than another novel. In an August 2013 profile in the New York Times Magazine, Rush dispiritedly admits to himself: “You’re an artist. You’re not a nuclear engineer, you’re not a statesman, you’re not the head of the World Bank, you’re nothing, really, in terms of who pulls the strings of the world. ...None of your acts are designed to change things.” But Rush’s argumentative impulse clearly hasn’t subsided, so one hopes for another opportunity for adventuresome intellectual love, which our anthropologist describes like this: the feeling of observing a mental searchlight lazily turning here and there and lighting up certain parts of the landscape you thought might be dubious or fraudulent but lacked the time or energy to investigate or the inner authority to dismiss tout court. It’s a description that could be aptly applied to the experience of reading Norman Rush’s body of work — with the exception of the word “lazily.” His scouring mental searchlight prompts questioning and reflection and, most of all, it makes you want to argue.
Post-40 Bloomers

Jane Gardam’s Characters: Organically Grown

This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. The names alone hint at underlying complexities: Old Filth, Polly Flint, Fred Fiscal-Smith, Bilgewater (whose given name is Marigold). Jane Gardam’s characters have enormously involved inner lives, but rather than waste time telling us this, she instead grows them — like a patient, experienced gardener — as we read. Like late-season flowers, or heirloom tomatoes ripening slowly on the vine, the people in Gardam’s stories become who they are organically; and the results are intensely rewarding. Gardam’s gifts as a writer are many: a sly black humor alongside true compassion, the ability to paint a vivid picture of the English countryside with just a few verbal strokes, and an ear for the way people speak past each other in service to their own marvelous trains of thought. Her characters unfold, mysteriously and in their own time, demonstrating both her love for them and her unobtrusively steely control as a writer. Hers is clearly a mature talent: Gardam didn’t sit down to write what would become her first collection of short stories until she was 41. But even in her first works, written for children, a reader can sense a lifetime of thoughtful observation — and the even hand of a veteran gardener, which, it turns out, she is. While the precocious young narrator of her first novel, A Long Way from Verona, opens her story with a firm refutation of the author’s method — I ought to tell you at the beginning that I am not quite normal, having had a violent experience at the age of nine. I will make this clear at once because I have noticed that if things seep out slowly through a book the reader is apt to feel let down or tricked in some way when he eventually gets the point. — Gardam takes great pleasure, here and in the more than 30 books that would follow, in proving her wrong. 2. Jane Gardam was born Jean Mary Pearson in July of 1928, in Coatham, a former fishing community in North Yorkshire. Her father was the son of a farmer turned schoolteacher, and a well-loved housemaster at Sir William Turner’s School. Her mother’s formal education ended at age 12 — she had a bad heart and wasn’t expected to last long, though she ended up living to 90 — but she was a dedicated letter writer, possessed of great faith in the power of words. Gardam always knew she wanted to be a writer. She wrote stories as a child, but furtively, and hid her first efforts in the chimney of the unused fireplace in her bedroom. "In those days in Yorkshire, you never had a fire in your bedroom unless you were very ill,” she told Lucasta Miller in a 2005 Guardian interview. The winter she was six she came down with chicken pox, a fire was lit before she could protest, and all her work literally went up in flames. That year would also provide another trauma by fire, in which she burnt both hands severely in an accident; at 85, she still bears the scars. And soon after that, her mother nearly died of scarlet fever after giving birth to her brother. That year of pain and uncertainty changed something in her, she recalls: “That was the end of the happy little girl.” Books were a deep source of comfort, and when a library opened in her hometown when she was eight, she decided that she would someday go to London "to be among people who cared about books as much as I did." And indeed, at 17 Gardam earned a scholarship to read English at Bedford College, University of London. She planned on a career in literary scholarship, and did good work on a thesis on Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. But she was forced to abandon it after running out of money, and on graduating went straight to work. She put in time as a researcher, then as a Red Cross Traveling Librarian for hospital libraries for two years, and eventually as a journalist, first as sub-editor at Weldon’s Ladies’ Journal, and finally as an assistant literary editor at Time and Tide. She had met David Gardam, an up-and-coming young barrister, at a party while still at university, and they were married in 1952. When she gave birth to her first son, Timothy, in 1956, she left her job at Time and Tide, vowing to be back in three weeks. But as her other children came along — Kitty, and then Tom — she settled into life as a wife and mother at home. David Gardam’s law career provided comfortably for the family. He was often away, however, traveling abroad in the service of construction litigation, and keeping the home front together was a full-time job. It wasn’t until her youngest son started school — that same morning, as she tells it — that she finally found the time and space to write. And the floodgates opened. Gardam wrote and wrote. “Without writing,” she told the Guardian, “I would have been bored and unfaithful, maybe both.” Instead she finished a collection of short stories for young adults, A Fair Few Days, in 1970, and promptly sent it off to a publisher. Having no idea how the business worked, she called back three weeks later to see what was taking them so long ("'There's an awful woman on the phone,' was the first response. 'Get rid of her.'") But an editor at Hamish Hamilton liked it, and contracted her for a second as well, and she was on her way. In a recent interview, she admits, "I think I would have died if it hadn't been published. I was desperate to get started — I was possessed." 3. As of this year, Jane Gardam has published 12 young adult books, 10 adult novels, and eight short story collections, as well as a retelling of the Green Man myth with illustrator Mary Fedder and a work of nonfiction about the landscape of her childhood, The Iron Coast: Photographs of Yorkshire. She is the only writer to have won the Whitbread Award — now the Costa — twice, for The Hollow Land in 1983 and The Queen of the Tambourine in 1991, and has been awarded countless other prizes as well. God on the Rocks was nominated for a Booker; Old Filth for the Orange Prize, and in 1999 Gardam received the Heywood Hill Literary Prize for a lifetime’s contribution to the enjoyment of literature. Her lifetime’s contribution covers a lot of ground, but a dedicated reader will recognize recurring themes. She is interested in England, of course — Gardam’s characters and general tone are quintessentially British, even when the story is set elsewhere. And along with that particular Britishness comes a fascination with Empire, the bill of goods sold to an entire nation which began to exhibit its first fault lines as her generation came of age. Even more than the cracks in the façade of England’s nationalism, Gardam is fascinated by the ways its people construct personal walls — which are also prone to crumbling at inopportune moments. Life doles out its misfortunes to her players, and she shines, as a writer, when she chronicles the struggles between their inner and outer lives. She is never heavy-handed here. Characters move through their emotional and psychological battles under her sympathetic gaze — an awareness that the line between decorum and breakdown can be very thin indeed. Or, as Courtney Cook describes Gardam’s novels in the LA Review of Books, “they are a taxonomy of ordinary madness, and by that I mean the kind of madness that does not require a visit to an institution, or at least, not often.” 4. Perhaps her best portrait of this “ordinary madness” is that of Eliza Peabody in The Queen of the Tambourine. This epistolary novel traces Eliza’s mental descent and ascent — although it’s never quite so clearcut a progression as that — through a series of letters she writes to Joan, her neighbor across the street, who has abandoned their proper, middle-class suburb for a series of exotic locales: Prague, Kurdistan, India. Or has she? Is there, in fact, a Joan? Eliza’s state of mind is never quite identifiable enough for the reader to relax into knowing that this is one kind of story or another, and Gardam obviously takes pleasure in letting us proceed in this fashion. Eliza is ditsy — “You have a grasshopper mind,” a friend’s husband tells her — but also serious, pained, and terribly funny. Her husband leaves her, neighbors fuss over her condescendingly, she sees an Oxford don suddenly dissolve and trickle down a drain, and through it all she muses with a dispassionate eye, pathetic one moment and hilariously arch the next. Through her letters, Gardam captures the sudden realizations of middle age as only a fellow-traveler could: I looked along my skinny body, half a century old: the purple ridge, the appendix scar, the blotches of the old-fashioned vaccination marks on my thigh, but all still serviceable enough. A body not much noticed since the womb. Unused. What might it have looked like? If I had married a man who thought sharing a bed important? Fat and flaccid? Covered in stretch-marks and Appalachian ranges? I've never seen a stretch-mark and don't know what it looks like. I have never seen a contraceptive pill. I have never seen pot or hash or heroin. I've never actually examined a condom, and still feel they are rather secret, nasty things. Bosoms. Scarcely there. They might, I suppose, by now be hanging like old leather bottles? The children saying, "Mother's letting herself go. Such a shame." But I'd have looked used. Yet Gardam is not above having some fun at her own expense, and Eliza’s description of a self-important neighbor who writes children’s books is catty, self-deprecating, and extremely funny: With the solicitor husband and his international practice, the five healthy children all now at boarding-school and scarcely needing her, with her own effulgent bounce and so much money she doesn't know what to do with it, she now writes fiction...She is always being interviewed on television as the fully mature woman with the perfect life. She is asked her views on Margaret Drabble and Proust, at least she was until she confused the two. Among other afflictions, Eliza lost her mother young.  In fact, many of Gardam’s characters are orphans of one sort or another. There are the literal kind, like the eponymous Faith Fox, or Polly Flint of Crusoe’s Daughter, whose mothers die at birth and are given up to relatives or friends by fathers who are unable to care for them, and also the children known as “Raj orphans” — born to parents stationed in the colonies and sent back to England at a tender age, alone or with siblings, to be raised and schooled in civilization, without their parents. Gardam may have grown up in an intact family, but she is consistently interested in exploring how the injured child informs the outwardly functional adult. These explorations into the reverberations of loss echo through her 40 years of writing, but are probably most skillfully — and most touchingly — realized in the three books that make up her “Old Filth” trilogy: Old Filth, The Man in the Wooden Hat, and Last Friends. 5. Old Filth, considered by many to be Gardam’s best book, is the story of Edward Feathers, a Queen’s Counsel barrister who made his fortune practicing in Hong Kong. His nickname, Filth, comes not from any lack of personal hygiene, but from a vaguely derogatory acronym used about lawyers who fled the home country: Failed In London, Try Hong Kong. The book opens on his final years; he and his wife, Betty, have retired from Asia to the quiet countryside of Dorset, and Betty dies one afternoon while planting tulips. Feathers has spent the better part of his life cultivating an impression that everyone around him seems to agree on: he is exemplary, immaculate, and a bit boring. But Old Filth is not quite what he seems, and Betty’s death begins to unmoor him — not all at once, of course, and here Gardam is at the top of her form, building her story, and the characters who inhabit it, with great subtlety and perceptiveness. Old Filth takes the reader on a journey as complex as that of Feathers’s inner workings, which turn out to be very complex indeed. Based partly on Rudyard Kipling’s tales of his own Raj orphanhood, particularly his short story “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” Gardam has given her protagonist some terrible — and terribly sad — secrets to carry. He explains his and Betty’s childlessness to a young woman: If you’ve not been loved as a child, you don’t know how to love a child. You need prior knowledge...I was not loved after the age of four and a half. Think of being a parent like that. Gardam never hurries to unburden herself of Feathers’s burdens, though, and neither does she condescend to her readers. He’s as complicated a character as anyone you might meet, or know, or simply wonder about. And she carries these dense lives through the rest of the trilogy, The Man in the Wooden Hat — Betty’s side of the story — and 2013’s Last Friends, which brings in several peripheral characters and manages to make the story interesting all over again. Clearly this is a labor of love — she referred to Feathers as “my little boy” in a recent WNYC interview — but the time she has spent with these characters also reflects a willingness to let a story grow at its own pace — a gardener’s sensibility. In a Publisher’s Weekly interview that explicitly dubbed her a “Late Bloomer,” Gardam explains,“I couldn't have written any earlier. I wasn't ready. I was a very anxious sort of woman.” Clearly she waited just long enough: there is no anxiety to her work. Rather, she has a kind of authorial green thumb. Gardam understands the beauty of coaxing something to unfold over time, and trusts her readers with the patience to watch her stories grow.
Post-40 Bloomers

Southern Myths and Yankee Murder in the Strangely Wonderful World of Pickett’s Charge

This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Charles McNair’s strange, frequently beautiful new novel Pickett’s Charge is about an old Confederate soldier who embarks on a journey from Alabama to Maine looking for vengeance. I received the book in the mail just as I was beginning a nearly opposite journey — though for work, not blood — and I picked it up hoping that the story would help me begin to understand a unique part of the country I’d soon be calling home. The South, more than any other region of America, is forbidding to outsiders. I watched two kids from my high school class attempt college in the South before retreating back to Maine within a year, which left me thinking maybe it was never wise for New Englanders to stray into such unfamiliar territory. More generally, I grew up with what I take to be a somewhat common perspective, on the South as charming but inscrutable, languid but dangerous, a place where sinkholes — real and metaphorical — await anyone who doesn’t know exactly where to step. Even for natives, apparently, the South is perilous. When Pickett’s Charge opens, Threadgill Pickett is a magically spry 113-years-old and living in a nursing home in Mobile. Everywhere he goes he wears a gray cap with a faded yellowhammer feather, a holdover from his brief, terrible stint as a teenage soldier in the Rebel army. The hat covers horrific burns that melted Threadgill’s head down nearly to the gray matter, and it covers other wounds, too, like the memory of his twin brother, Ben, being executed by vicious Yankee soldiers. The scars on Threadgill’s head reflect the anger and shame scarred into his heart. One wonders whether McNair means for Threadgill to reflect the state of the South, too, a century after its final surrender. Threadgill is idling in the nursing home when Ben drops like an apparition into his room with an important message. “Ain’t but one Yankee left now, Gill. Just one. He’s up in Bangor, Maine...You hearing me? Hear what I’m saying?” Ben says. Provoked, Threadgill sets off on an assassin’s quest to avenge his brother’s death, during which he has a bewilderingly imaginative range of Southern adventures — with a lesbian cab driver, a mad monkey smuggler named Larry LaRue, a midget passing a kidney stone, and an island populated only with goats. Pickett’s Charge is filled with phantasms, but it’s rooted in Alabama soil. Charles McNair, 59, grew up in Alabama, and has written just one previous novel, Land O’Goshen, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. His virtues as a writer are plain. He’s inventive, original, and has a particular talent for finding language that is surprising without being showy. But his real skill is his deep familiarity with the South as a place, it’s creatures, customs, and yearnings. For example, alone on that goat island, Threadgill puts his foot down on “something pulpy,” and instantly realizes what “[e]very boy raised in the South knows,” that he’s just stepped on a deadly cottonmouth. Elsewhere in the story, a tornado rips through a poultry farm, leaving behind tens of thousands of dead chickens, which sets the stage for a grand barbecue like a heavenly feast. It’s a fantastic setup, but McNair fills it with knowing details — “Men wore muleskinner gloves to drag the hot tin. Crews with pitchforks spread the chickens into cardboard boxes” — that conceal the edges of the myth. From a national view, the South is still a place of myths and larger than life characters: Bible thumpers, Tea Partiers, Creationists, secessionists, vote suppressors. The biggest mythology of all, though, is about race and the idea that 150 years after what is generally referred to as the Civil War, the South remains insufficiently repentant about the place that slavery and racism occupy in its cultural heritage. You can’t spend five minutes in the South without beginning to look for evidence of the myth in practice, without seeing in every interaction between a black cashier and a white patron, a direct extension of that peculiar institution. Pickett’s Charge is not about race, and Threadgill’s hatred for the North overwhelms any particular views he might have about people with darker skin than his. Nevertheless, his murderous quest is bound up with the South’s racial legacy. At one point he finds himself at night in a forest filled with wailing black men and women, whose backs are striped with scars. Later, he witnesses the last act of brutal murder, a black preacher’s body tossed into a river. You keep waiting for all the violence and strangeness to knock Threadgill off his mission. In such a bizarre, capricious world, surely one man’s single-minded effort to kill the last remaining Yankee soldier must be folly. McNair is an expansively generous writer — attentive to his readers and kind to his characters — and he carefully avoids reducing Threadgill to an object of pity. But he does suggest that Threadgill’s deliberate course north is misguided, just as many attempts to find the edges of a myth are likely only to lead you deeper into the swamp.
Curiosities, Post-40 Bloomers

Audio Conversation With Paul Harding

At Bloom this week, a spotlight on Pulitzer-Prize winner Paul Harding, whose second novel Enon has just been released.  Plus a special treat: Joe Schuster speaks to Harding by phone in this two-part interview.
Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomers: The Risky Fiction of Paul Harding

This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. On the surface, it may seem that Paul Harding made a safe choice when he settled on the territory for his new novel, Enon. It shares the same geographic setting as his debut, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Tinkers — both take place in the fictional New England town that gives his second novel its title — and centers on the same family that populates that earlier novel. Tinkers tells the story of the last days of the life of George Crosby and Enon that of his grandson, Charlie, who appears briefly in the first novel. Beyond those surface elements, the narrative mechanism of both books turns on a similar event — the death of an important figure. In Tinkers, we learn in the first sentence that the central character is dying, and in Enon, the third sentence tells us that Charlie's daughter dies after a car hits her, days before she is to start high school. Following those openings, both trace the deterioration of their protagonists. In Tinkers, we watch George's body fail and his mind shift in and out of consciousness with varying connection to reality, and the largely interior narrative moves back and forth in time, both within his life and within the lives of his father and his grandfather, slipping sometimes into hallucination. In Enon, after the accident that kills his daughter, we watch Charlie's life unravel: the interior narrative moves through the end of his marriage and then we observe his fall into a depression that deepens until he is able to do little more than sleep on the couch. When he does stir from his house, it’s only because of a kind of animal need — at first to buy coffee and cigarettes, then to convince a series of doctors to write him prescriptions for pain killers, and then, when the doctors stop writing the prescriptions, to meet with a dealer who sells him drugs for exorbitant prices. Finally, we see Charlie breaking into the homes of elderly residents who, he suspects, will have drugs he can steal to numb his pain. Sometimes Charlie wanders the town in his grief, visiting the cemetery where his daughter's ashes are buried, becoming nearly as much a ghost as she is; sometimes he's a sort of ghost in his own life, waking in the cemetery with no notion of how he got there. Despite these marked similarities, however, Enon is, in a number of ways, just as risky a venture as was Tinkers and gives strong evidence that Harding is a writer who, despite the considerable accomplishment of his first novel, is serious about continuing to test himself. In fact, according to Harding, there's no point in trying to write serious fiction unless you're willing to accept that it must test you: "If you feel comfortable then something has gone wrong," he says. "I sat down every day writing Enon thinking, 'I can't do this. I can't write this book.' Faulkner talked about this: You have to write better than you're able to write. With any project I always have the sense that I am not a good enough writer to write the book I want to write. But then the only way to become a good enough writer to write the book I want to write is to write the book I am trying to write." 2. By now, Harding's story is familiar to anyone who pays attention to contemporary literature. In 2004, a handful of years after he earned his MFA at the Iowa Writers' Workshop, he finished a short novel, Tinkers, and set about trying to find an agent or a publisher for it. He had no takers. As he later told a reporter for The New York Times, "[The agents and editors] lectured me about the pace of life today. It was, 'Where are the car chases? Nobody wants to read a slow, contemplative, meditative quiet book.'" Harding put the novel away and assessed his motives for writing at all. "I had to reconcile myself with making art for art's sake because I had to face the fact that publishing might not be a part of my life as a writer," he says. Eventually, an editor for a small publisher who had declined the book called it to the attention of the publisher of a non-profit press connected with the New York University School of Medicine, Bellevue Literary Press, who offered Harding a modest $1,000 advance. The novel appeared in 2009 when Harding was 42 and once it was out in the world, it began accumulating fans. Tinkers wound up on several "best of" lists at the end of the year. NPR named it one of the top debuts of the year and The New Yorker included it among its annual compilation of "reviewers' favorites." Random House signed Harding to a two-book deal and then, in April 2010, Tinkers won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction – such a surprising selection that one newspaper called the choice a "real sleeper" and The New York Times headlined its profile of Harding after the prize "Mr. Cinderella." 3. Like Tinkers, which weighs in at around 40,000 words, Enon, at roughly 70,000, is a relatively short work. Despite their brevity, the two novels are sprawling, in both scope and ambition. While the event in Tinkers that helps organize the novel, George's death, occupies only eight days, the book covers more than a century, giving us George's life as well as those of his father Howard and his unnamed grandfather. In its framing narrative, Enon deals with little more than the year following Charlie's daughter's death, but Harding extends the chronologic scope, largely with flashbacks to Charlie's boyhood and then further because of Charlie’s fascination with the history of the town of Enon, which reaches to the seventeenth century. The subject of time, in fact, is one of Harding's principle concerns as a writer, something he deals with in several ways and for specific purpose. In Tinkers, George repairs clocks, and Enon reflects this in Charlie's memories of accompanying his grandfather as a quasi-apprentice — most importantly to repair one clock in particular, made by Simon Willard, who made clocks for Thomas Jefferson and Paul Revere, among others. In his memory of that day, Charlie recalls: The old air fell out of the clock, dry, held in the cubic shape of the case for who knows how many years until I opened the door and it collapsed out into the contemporary atmosphere, distinct and nearly colonial for a moment and then subsumed, and I wondered how old it was, it if contained any of Simon Willard's breath. Harding pushes Enon even farther back in time than the late eighteenth century, as Charlie's growing grief and increased drug use sends him spinning into hallucination, including one in which he sees himself rising out of some primordial soup: I felt as if I were the only man on earth, as if I were floating through some uninhabited, primeval realms. Only jellyfish and I would watch the vast nets of lightning being cast across the sky above...and hear the muted roaring of the winds over the face of the water and watch with our simple eyes the atmosphere cooking and boiling and synthesizing itself so that when the storms quieted...and the sun shone back down on us, we would step onto the sand with our brand-new feet and walk...onto the fern-littered shore. For Harding, the centuries, and even eons, through which his novels travel give a sense of his characters inhabiting a real world that has breadth extending beyond their own life spans. More than that, his concern with time reflects one of his larger ambitions for his novels: It's the coupling of the infinite with the infinitesimal and how one illuminates the other. You feel how overwhelmed you are by how infinitesimal you are, when you place yourself in geographic, geologic, cosmological time. But at the same time, when you go back to your own experience of that, [you introduce] the primacy of consciousness. In some ways, you're nothing in the universe and in some ways you're everything – the idea of the possibility that reality exists because you're there to observe it. All of this then means that you inevitably and naturally and organically and totally belong to creation and to time. But at the same time nothing could alienate you more than that cosmological time. You just feel outmatched by it. 4. Beyond his willingness to explore such large questions about what we're to make of ourselves against such a seemingly incomprehensibly vast canvas, Harding's riskiness as a writer is apparent in other ways. For example, in both Tinkers and Enon, he is willing to allow readers to lose their bearings in the work as he attempts to draw us deeper into the points-of-view of two characters with tenuous connections to reality. Sometimes, he makes plain to readers the trigger for George's or Charlie's imagining, telling us, “I thought about Kate" or "Eighty-four... before he died, George thought," or, "There was a photograph of Main Street in 1890 [and] I closed my eyes and imagined what it must have been like..." But at other points, he launches into a passage with no such safety net. In Tinkers, for example, we sometimes encounter, with no introduction, excerpts from a fictional treatise on clock repair — The Reasonable Horologist — that Harding invented for the novel. Coming to such a passage, in the middle of a section where Charlie is reading aloud to his grandfather, we're brought up short: what are we to do with this, what does it mean, why is it here? But Harding is writing about a character who moves suddenly between sleeping and waking and such passages bring us deeper into his experience, as if not only is he waking while someone is in the midst of reading aloud to him, but we are as well. In Enon, some of these kinds of passages are even more disconcerting — intentionally so — than they are in Tinkers. For example, Charlie and his wife, Susan, elect to cremate their daughter. At one point later in the novel, as Charlie slips deeper into remorse and near madness, Harding gives us a masterful two-page passage in which he pushes us, with no preparation, into a hallucination that manifests Charlie's horror over his thoughts of his daughter's body burning: The obsidian girl...is all but invisible, the girl of black glass...[She] steps in front of the furnace...The heat blasts at her...The outlines of her face and arms and legs begin to buckle and kink. Her legs give at the knees, and the rest of her slides off them and drops in front of them. She remains upright for a moment on the stumps of her legs, but then she toppled face-first onto the dirt floor... The images themselves are terrible to consider: the daughter's body, already inhuman at the beginning of the hallucination, melts away, but Harding makes the moment even more difficult for the reader, and to great effect. He pushes us deeper into Charlie's point-of-view so that, in a way, it becomes ours. A more conventional approach would have signaled the start of the dark vision: "One morning, Charlie dreamed that his daughter was obsidian, a girl of black glass." There is safety for the reader in such an approach. For one thing, we can keep our bearings more easily, as we know without doubt how the passage connects to the narrative; for another, because the fantasy would be mediated through a statement that establishes the point-of-view, the reader could remain at a distance from Charlie's horrible fantasy. Instead, Harding strips away that distance and forces us to confront more fully Charlie's grief and increasing disorientation. Doing so, he increases our discomfort — always a risk in the relationship between author and reader — and to great effect. Harding also risks alienating readers in the very character that Charlie becomes as the novel progresses. While in Tinkers, Harding gives us a character that never ceases being attractive – he's a good and upright man who had some of the difficulties that make characters in fiction engaging (for one, his father abandons him when he's twelve) – in Enon, Harding is not shy about making Charlie unattractive. His deterioration is increasingly difficult to bear as he wallows in his grief, pushing for some bottom; he's "ravaged and haunted," waking in his own vomit after a night of drugs, whiskey, and, when the whiskey is gone, cough syrup. Even more, he turns into the sort of man who steals drugs from people who trust him and who need the drugs. 5. According to Harding, the litmus test of a book's achievement is whether, when he finishes reading it, he thinks, "I'm totally shaken because I just read a great work of art." For him, just as he doesn't want to feel he's in safe and comfortable territory when he writes, the point is that readers should also be able to confront something challenging as well. In a way, writing – and reading – risky work is an appropriate response to one of Harding's obsessions as a writer, the exploration of our minuteness in the context of the seeming infinite. Because they're not "safe," books like Harding's two novels offer a sort of invitation to see beyond our own tiny selves: here is the vastness of time, here is the vastness of one man's grief. We can either look or not look. In not looking, we perhaps preserve a bit of security and our minds remain untroubled. But doing so pushes us further into our smallness. In looking, we may not enjoy what we see, we may not enjoy the discomfort that novels like Tinkers and especially Enon bring us, but in pulling us out of our safe, comfortable selves, they allow us to participate in the vastness that dwarfs us. I, for one, would rather look.
Post-40 Bloomers

Post-40 Bloomer: Thomas Van Essen and the Ekphrasis of Ecstasy

This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. 1. ekphrasis (/'ek.fr ə-səs\): a literary description of or commentary on a visual work of art; from the Greek ἔκφρασις (ekphrasis, “description”), from ekphrazein, to recount, describe; from ex- out + phrazein to point out, explain. It’s no coincidence that ekphrasis shares its prefix with ecstasy. Originally used as a rhetorical device, ekphrasis — a technique for translating music, performance, or visual art into words — has traditionally gone beyond objective description, past art theory or criticism, to express an emotion or make some kind of subjective declaration. And often — because after all, this is art we’re talking about — that assertion is one of great joy. From Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to Nat King Cole’s “Mona Lisa,” the best art about art is born out of passion for the original. But what happens when the work in question is too wonderful for words? How might a writer go about describing the indescribable — a painting, for instance — so moving, so sexy, so game-changing as to defy the vocabulary of formal analysis? Maybe he doesn’t. Perhaps, instead of relying on the conventional tools of ekphrasis, such a work demands that the tale of its equally ecstatic creation be told instead. Thomas Van Essen’s The Center of the World is such a novel, and it may not surprise a receptive reader that it has a few things to say as well about beauty and decay, luck and the gods, class, mortality, and the power of art to transform lives. 2. The Center of the World is, simply, the story of a painting. But the eponymous painting, a full-figure portrait of Helen of Troy by the 19th-century British landscape artist J.M.W. Turner, turns out to be more than just oil on canvas. It is imbued, somehow, with Helen’s mystical beauty and erotic life force, and as the book moves between the story of its creation in the 1830s and its rediscovery in 2003, the reader is treated to tantalizing glimpses — but glimpses only — into how this came to be. In fact, there is no work called “The Center of the World.” While Joseph Mallord William Turner occasionally painted figure studies, his reputation rested almost entirely on his stunning treatment of light in landscape. But in Van Essen’s fictional world, the painting’s existence is entirely believable. We first meet Turner at Petworth, the majestic Sussex estate of the Third Earl of Egremont. Lord Egremont is a salonnière and patron of the arts, holding court to a mix of gentry, commoners, and artists with his mistress, the lovely Mrs. Spencer. She and Charles Grant, a recent guest of Egremont’s, become good friends; theirs are the voices narrating the birth of “The Center of the World.” Eventually Turner asks each to model for him; she is to be his Helen, Grant her Paris. The result is a stunning, almost alchemically powerful work that enthralls, entices, and — in one way or another — enslaves everyone who views it. The painting is no less potent a century and a half later, when Henry Leiden discovers it on his family’s upstate New York property, wrapped up and hidden behind a barn wall. Leiden is a middle-aged, middle-class, middle-management guy, long-married and vaguely sad about practically everything. Finding the painting changes all that in an instant — not only the thought of the fortune an original Turner might bring, but the sudden possibilities of a world where such beauty can exist. He has never seen anything like “The Center of the World” — nor, as it turns out, has the unscrupulous Manhattan art dealer Arthur Bryce, but he has been following its trail for a while. Bryce enlists his pretty young go-getter of an assistant, Gina, to help track it down, and it’s through Gina’s and Henry’s eyes that we watch the painting’s 21st-century trajectory. 3. A painting goes on a journey; a painting comes to town. The Center of the World is a great yarn and a bit of a thriller, but it’s also an arresting expression of the inexpressible. Part of that is literal, and obviously intentional. Although Van Essen describes its components — Helen, barely clothed, waiting for Paris, her jewels discarded on the floor, soldiers locked in battle on the field seen through her window — most of it is left to the reader to visualize. And though we know it strikes lust into the heart of every viewer, how that’s done is up to us to decide as well. Van Essen's words do the same work as Turner's brushstrokes: he implies, working around the actual image by describing, instead, the reactions it inspires. A young prostitute, hired off a London street by one of the painting’s owners in the 1930s, attests: I had seen a lot of paintings, sir, and I had seen my share of French postcards that showed all sorts of things, but I never seen nothing like this. It made me feel all shimmery inside, like I was on fire, and it brought a smile to my face so I almost forgot who I was and why I was there. Much as Turner used light and reflection to model a figure in space, Van Essen uses the passion of viewers for “The Center of the World” to stand in for the painting itself. The act of creation is also a major touchstone. Turner is a wonderfully odd and prickly character, and Van Essen does a fine job of teasing out how a master painter might think about what he does: All of this. This wine. This meat. This house. This countryside. And all the shades of light that illuminate them. It is all a burden. A blessing, too, of course, because, you know, we wouldn’t have anything if it were not for everything. But for the artist, you see, all this is a burden, a weight. Sometimes I feel it on my shoulders, pressing me down. Or a curtain. Heavy rich stuff — some tapestry, you know. One can’t see truth through it. But I do what I can. Sometimes a speck of light peeps through. Light, as a subject, is fleeting. And, as every artist knows, so is beauty. Even as Van Essen is bewitching us with Turner’s magical painting, there is also a strong backbeat of memento mori running through the narrative. As Turner tells Grant, The passage of the past to the present, of youth to age, of the golden age to the dismal one, the rise of empires and their fall. Most fellows don’t think of it as they paint, but one must, since it takes so damn long to execute a painting and nothing is as it was when you started. Or, as a private investigator describes Henry Leiden’s house on the page just preceding, “There’s nothing here…. Just the same old same old. Middle age and all that shit. Some day it will bite you in the ass too. Just you wait.” Both Grant and Mrs. Spencer find modeling for Turner deeply unpleasant, the artist’s intense objectification discomfiting to a former courtesan and a homosexual man. Both feel physical beauty to be a blessing and a curse, and their ambivalence draws them together. But that is no concern of Turner’s; he is interested only in what needs to be created in the moment. Even he can’t explain his sudden need to paint the figure, when it has not historically been his strong suit: “[I] had my doubts. Not my usual line, you know…. I thought perhaps I might be mad. See the thing for one thing when in fact it is another. Enthusiasm can lead one astray — it’s hard to trust it.” Not this time, however. He has the chance to make beauty last, and he will not be denied. 4. Thomas Van Essen knows a few things about creativity’s insistence. A self-described literary-magazine type in high school, Van Essen went on to Amherst, which proved to be a bit too much “like boarding school with beer.” He transferred to Sarah Lawrence, which was more to his taste; his girlfriend — now his wife — was there, and Grace Paley, Tom Lux, Clarence Major, and Jane Cooper were on the school’s stellar writing faculty. Van Essen studied with Joseph Papaleo and E.L. Doctorow, whose “Writing a Novel” class was a fine place for an aspiring young author. Students critiqued each other’s work in class, met with Doctorow individually whenever they completed 50 new pages, and got to hear him read pieces of his work in progress, Ragtime. Van Essen went on to graduate school at Rutgers, where he studied English — mainly Victorian — literature, and wrote his dissertation on Wilkie Collins. (The Collins family makes a cameo appearance in The Center of the World.) But as his degree was moving along, so was the rest of life. He married after leaving Sarah Lawrence, and had two children by the time he completed his Ph.D. Teaching was enjoyable, but family life called for something a little steadier. He ended up taking a job writing test questions for Princeton’s Educational Testing Service — first logical reasoning questions for the GRE and then analogies and reading comprehension questions for the SAT, where his close reading skills proved to be an asset. He was a good manager as well, and rose up steadily through the ranks. Van Essen fully intended to keep writing. Just because his academic dreams hadn’t worked out, he thought, he could still write at home, at night, after the kids were in bed. And he did — after a few years he had what he felt was a good, “Paul Auster-ish” detective novel. He found an agent, and the book made some rounds, but ultimately she couldn’t place it. “After she started asking me to pay for photocopies,” he says, “I gave up,” and spent the next decade concentrating on his family and career. Life was comfortable, and he was good at what he did. But in 2003 he turned 50, and one evening, out of the blue, that creative longing reared its head with a vengeance. As he told Other Press in a recent interview: I was the last one left in the office; I had just gotten off the phone with a very demanding client and I knew that I had done a pretty good job of handling a complicated situation. In some universe I should have been very pleased with myself, but I just felt empty and depressed. Is this what I really want out of life? Is this all there is? I had stopped writing after I had failed to find a publisher for my first novel ...but I knew that I needed to go back to it. What he needed to do, Van Essen decided, was just write — not worry about publishing, or declare himself an artist or join a writers’ group, but just get the ideas on paper. He had an idea that had been in the back of his mind since graduate school, and he needed to follow it through: I made this deal with myself. I would get up an hour and half early every morning and write before I went to work. No adolescent agonizing, just produce some prose every day. All I had to do, I figured, was write 200 words a day, or 1,000 words a week. 50,000 words a year and I’d have a novel in two years. Piece of cake. It was, of course, more complicated than that and the two years turned to three and to four between living and crossing stuff out, but I stuck with it because I fell in love with what I was doing. That love, of course, is what it takes. Like Turner in his borrowed garret at Petworth, Van Essen worked in private — only his wife and a couple of close friends even knew he was writing — until his vision was ready. 5. We will never know what “The Center of the World” really looks like, or what its hold over its witnesses actually involves. But Turner is the first to admit he doesn’t know what Helen truly looked like. He asks Grant: But what about "the face that launched a thousand ships" and all that? She surely must have looked like something. Grant offers: But that is Marlowe, not Homer. And Marlowe put it as a question. What Faustus saw before him was a boy actor smeared with paint and covered with horsehair. "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?" I think not. Shakespeare came closer to the mark when he has Ulysses describe her as "a theme of honor and renown." He understood that she was not flesh so much as an idea. And so it serves the reader well to remember that “The Center of the World” is not so much pigment on canvas as an idea — about the impulse that drives people to make art, and the wish to apprehend time and beauty for a satisfying instance. That Turner was sure of what he was doing was his gift; that Van Essen allows his ekphrasis enough ambiguity for ecstasy is our good fortune.
Post-40 Bloomers

In Search of Lost Dream Time: Two New Books by André Aciman

This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.  1. If ever there was a writer disappointed with the here and now, it’s André Aciman. Best-known for evoking the lost Alexandria of his childhood, Aciman writes in a recent essay: Things that do not have an Egyptian analog do not register, have no narrative. Things that happen in the present without echoing even an imaginary past do not register either. They cease to exist. They do not count. In an interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books, he underscores this perpetual dissatisfaction even more strongly: “I was never in one place, ever, in my whole life, without thinking of being somewhere else.” The tragedy of feeling out of place and in the wrong time is at the aching heart of Aciman’s writing, and on grand display in two new books published this year: Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere and his third novel, Harvard Square. The tragedy of his displacement, however, does not create victims. Aciman’s narrators are disappointed not only in the world before them but also in themselves. He has been hailed as a writer who excels in the investigation of memory, but it’s not a fixed past that offers the siren’s call; it is a past that dreams of and anticipates a future full of longing for itself. The act that goes by the name of remembering in Aciman’s world is actually a process of invention and loose reconstruction whose appeal is the formation of a coherent narrative of desires. Most of us would say “experience” is the fabric of our lives, but for Aciman it’s the desire that motivates experience, and that remains after the fact, that constitutes our identity. “The disconnect, the hiatus, the tiny synapse — call it once again the spread between us and time, between who we are and wish we might have been — is all we have to understand our place in life,” he writes. “One measures time not in units of experience but in increments of hope and anticipated regret.” What do we long for and why? This is what Aciman wants to know. 2. Born in 1951, Aciman lived his first 14 years in Alexandria, Egypt, among a multinational, multilingual, and multigenerational Jewish family of educated entrepreneurs. Shortly after his birth the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown, followed by the Suez Canal Crisis in 1956, in which Israel, joined by Britain and France, invaded Egypt to reverse President Nasser’s nationalization of the Canal. After Israel’s attack, Jews were no longer welcome in Egypt. When Aciman’s uncle was arrested on the night of the author’s great-grandmother’s 100th birthday, nervous relatives began to flee to the world’s Western corners. Aciman’s own parents lasted until 1965, when his father’s profitable textile mill was nationalized. The family then fled to Rome, where they lived for three years while waiting for visas to the United States. In 1968 he moved, with his parents and brother, to New York City. Aciman calls himself a late bloomer as a writer, pointing first to the fact that he didn’t start until the fifth or sixth grade and, more significantly, to how long it took him to develop an American, non-academic style and sensibility. Aciman grew up speaking primarily French, with Italian, Greek, English, Ladino (the Spanish-like language of Sephardic Jews), and Arabic mixed in. His boyhood schooling was stark and unhappy, marked by poor teaching and the humiliation of corporal punishment. (In the era of nationalization, Aciman’s flunking Arabic class was of great consternation to his father, who believed his son’s failure would draw retribution from the government.) In America, Aciman’s academics improved considerably, and he eventually earned a doctorate in comparative literature from Harvard. But he soon found his academic career limiting. He began writing book reviews for Commentary, whose editor he asked if he could write something for the magazine about growing up Jewish in Alexandria. 3. Aciman’s debut book, the exceptional memoir Out of Egypt, was published in 1995, when he was 44. The book traces his family’s Alexandrian life from 1905 to 1965, telling the stories of various aunts and uncles in exciting, up-close detail, even though the events take place up to 50 years before the author’s birth. “Gossip is, for me, a fount of information superior to history,” he says. The young Aciman is fought over by his two grandmothers, the Princess and the Saint, and absorbs the rigid class and cultural distinctions resulting from the fact that his mother’s father is an Aleppo-born Syrian Jew. The European Sephardi side of the family attempts constant rescue of the young boy from the uncouth ways of “the Arabs.” The prose is beautifully fluid and elegiac throughout without being in the least sentimental, and the book’s scenes unfold like a play I could watch for hours, not caring so much about the story but captivated by the pride, sorrow, invective, and determined survival of this family and their friends and servants. In a gorgeous essay called “Intimacy” in his 2013 collection Alibis, Aciman returns with his wife and sons to the apartment in working-class Rome where his family lived during their three years of visa-limbo. His approach to the old place is sly, strategic, timed to build just the right amount of apprehensive anticipation; he has avoided returning for a reason: I had always been ashamed of Via Clelia, of its good people, ashamed of having lived among them, ashamed of myself now for feeling this way, ashamed, as I told my sons, of how I’d always misled my private-school classmates into thinking I live “around” the affluent Appia Antica. He describes shame as “the reluctance to be who we’re not even sure we are” and suggests it “could end up being the deepest thing about us, deeper even than who we are, as though beyond identity were buried reefs and sunken cities teeming with creatures we couldn’t begin to name because they came long before us.” To get around this shame, Aciman dissembles, faking how he felt then and how he feels now. He tells his sons with false disaffection: “Fancy spending three years in this dump.” He doesn’t let on how much he wants to be injected by the past. The memory of his former, vulnerable self in this ancient city — in this bursting-with-character neighborhood — should move him, shouldn’t it? But the dissembling, both then and now, is successful, which leads to an unintended side effect: he’s untouched by the return. He looks around, sees, recognizes, but feels nothing. The present has failed him. Later in the day, Aciman returns in his mind to Via Clelia and tries to sort out the visit by writing about it, hoping the process will “un-numb” him and bolster the event with “retrospective resonance.” Of course, as soon as he has recorded this hope, he doubts such a thing is possible. Instead of revealing, he asks, does writing “provide surrogate pleasures the better to numb us to experience?” His lack of response to the place leaves him wondering if some part of him has permanently disappeared; or perhaps his former self was merely a shadow. The majority of Aciman’s Rome years were spent reading in his bedroom — Lampedusa, Baudelaire, Dostoevsky, Wordsworth, Joyce. These fictions papered over the daily misery of his exile, and now, when he revisits with his wife and sons, Aciman realizes that “all I’d been able to cull here were the fictions, the lies I’d laid down upon this street to make it habitable. Dreammaking and dissemblance, then as now.” “Intimacy” is signature Aciman, an essay that originates with a pilgrimage and rushes headlong into the past in expectation of a revelation that never comes — that cannot come. He dives into the current of memory to fetch a dropped object only to surface many yards downstream triumphantly upholding a prize similar, but not identical, to what was lost. He is not fooled, though. He knows the object never existed, but it is far more interesting to write about a failed search after the fact than to admit at the beginning that such an attempt is futile. 4. Such reflections on the influence of writing on experience are layered throughout Alibis, as are musings on the empathetic and escapist activity of reading. Aciman is a devout classicist with little patience for contemporary writing, and it should come as no surprise that Proust is of paramount importance to him. In “Temporizing,” Aciman assigns the French time-seeker a verb tense all his own, the imperfect-conditional-anterior-preterit (a concept I’ve explored in The Common), and Proust’s more general influence — especially in his labyrinthine sentences — threads throughout his work. As in Proust, a richly sensory world swirls and flares around the figure I have come to think of as “the Aciman narrator” — the voice of his essays and the unnamed first-person narrator of Harvard Square. Through the sun-washed beach of the Lido in Venice, the ocher walls and refuse of Roman alleys, the lavender scent of a snug Old World, Middle Eastern living room, and the wooded sunshine of Walden Pond, Aciman’s worlds are vivid and particular. However, on closer look, even these descriptions reveal his distance from the moment. Rereading “Intimacy,” I was surprised to see that the “frail street singer [who] would stand every afternoon and bellow out bronchial arias you strained to recognize” was a tune pulled from the past; very little of Via Clelia at the moment of his return makes it onto the page. The wonderful Walden Pond scene in Harvard Square hardly features the place, but rather the effect of the larger-than-life central character, Kalaj, on the narrator and the foreign au pairs who accompany them for a swim. Sensory experience is only the premise upon which deeper emotional and psychological investigations are built. Aciman’s places — mostly cities—are projections, patinas he perfectly calls “wishfilms.” He doesn’t know the Rome of 1965-68 as it really existed, only as he dreamed it then and has chosen to remember now. But this shouldn’t matter. Who cares about the actual street sequence of shops or the exact words of a conversation? We seldom ever see, or read, or love things as they in themselves really are, nor, for that matter, do we even know our impressions of them as they really are. What matters is knowing what we see when we see other than what lies before us. It is the film we see, the film that breathes essence into otherwise lifeless objects, the film we crave to share with others. So it is with the narrator of Harvard Square, the reclusive, evasive graduate student of literature inevitably drawn to the brash swagger of a libidinous Arab. In addition to his relentless pursuit of women, Kalaj — short for Monsieur Kalashnikov, after his rat-a-tat diatribes — is forever slicing up the world in hugely enjoyable rants. All of America is “jumbo-ersatz,” he says, from its peroxide blondes with boob jobs to its love of nectarines, an overly fleshy, hybrid fruit that is “all graft” and therefore cannot reproduce. Having both grown up in Arabic North Africa, the two men have a natural affinity: “There was something in the timbre and inflection of his words that seemed to rummage through a clutter of ancestral fragments to remind me of the person I may have been born to be but had not become.” This shared history allows the narrator, for a while, to hand over to Kalaj the responsibility of making sense of his new world. The intimacy of the two men is real, necessary, and yet the graduate student and the illegal taxi driver are worlds apart: I have a green card, he a driver’s license. He saw the precipice every day of his life, I never had to look down that deep....But there was another difference between us: he knew how to wiggle his way around the precipice; I, however, put him right between the precipice and me. He was my screen, my mentor, my voice. Perhaps his was a life I was desperate to try out. In the end, the narrator cannot uphold the bonds of friendship. He wants intimacy but not the obligation that could compromise his own ambitions. He is, of course, ashamed of Kalaj, about what an alliance with this brash, vulgar man says about not only the narrator’s origins but who he is now, who he will become. 5. Beyond any particular exodus or return, it is Aciman’s prose — the rants and curses, the Proust-like rushing forward, diving down, and doubling back — that carries the reader urgently through Alibis and Harvard Square. As he has said about his own writing, even more than finding a kind of comfort zone through literature, he has built the lifeboat that ferries him from shore to foreign shore with cadence: Cadence is like feeling, and cadence is like breathing, and cadence is heartbeat and desire, and if cadence doesn’t reinvent everything we would like our life to have been or to become, then just the act of searching and probing in that particularly cadenced way becomes a way of feeling and of being in the world. For Aciman, we will be in the world tomorrow. Today we will write about the dreamed-up past.
Post-40 Bloomers

Just How Far Will She Go? Nicole Wolverton’s The Trajectory of Dreams

This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.  1. There’s a voiceover passage in Steven Soderbergh’s film Solaris that I particularly like. Toward the end of the film, a character tries to resume his old life after a harrowing experience on a space station: “I tried to find the rhythm of the world where I used to live. I followed the current. I was silent, attentive, I made a conscious effort to smile, nod, stand, and perform the millions of gestures that constitute life on earth. I studied these gestures until they became reflexes again.” The phrase has always stayed with me, because what are our lives, especially our early lives, if not a crash course in the customs of life on earth? We are trying to make sense of this strange world in which we’ve found ourselves, or at least I am, always, and there are moments when this world feels as foreign and inscrutable as the mysterious planet in the Soderbergh film. We perform the gestures of day-to-day life until they become reflexes, we try to walk the line between living easily in this life and disappearing into the crowd. A condition of being alive in the world is that we will not always understand this place, or each other. I found myself thinking of the Solaris quote while I was reading Nicole Wolverton’s spare and harrowing debut novel, The Trajectory of Dreams. Not so much for the space travel aspects of the book, but for the protagonist’s profound alienation. 2. Wolverton’s protagonist is Lela White, a Houston sleep technician with a secret life. Nothing about human interaction comes naturally to her. She has studied the habits of the species with diligence, but her reflexes are hopelessly out of sync. She’s spent some time practicing her smile in the mirror, for instance, but adults have a tendency to wince or gasp involuntarily when her smile “slams into place.” Children sometimes burst into tears. She lives a precisely-ordered double life. She is competent and unfailingly professional in her job as a sleep technician, but her real life is played out after hours. Lela is of the generation of schoolchildren who watched the Challenger explode on live television. She’s convinced that her mother played a role in the disaster, and she believes the universe has entrusted her with a secret mission to protect the American space program from further catastrophe. The mission requires breaking into homes and observing astronauts as they sleep, an assassination plan at the ready in case one should wake up and see her standing there by the bed. It is of utmost importance that the astronauts sleep well. Lela has lived alone since the death of her father a year ago, although she still hears his voice. Lela’s unhinged and abusive mother left when Lela was a child, much to Lela’s relief, although Lela finds herself troubled at times by the fact that her mother left all of her possessions — even her underwear — behind. It seems best not to think about this too deeply. Lela’s primary companion is her cat, Nike, with whom she discusses the finer points of her mission. Nike often has useful advice. Naturally, Lela’s convinced of her own sanity, but living in the world requires a set of skills that she knows she hasn’t entirely mastered, and she’s aware at times that something is amiss: There had been times we’d been a happy family, but Mom’s weirdness as I got older made sure we didn’t stay that way. There was something that had constricted its grip on me after she was gone, too. The shuttle disaster, her role in it, my mother’s leaving... it all had something to do with the way my skin hugged me like a straitjacket. She goes every day to a Russian tea house, where it’s important that she always order the same thing. Here she meets Zory Korchagin, a Russian astronaut on loan from his homeland. Zory’s beloved grandmother was mentally ill, he tells Lela, but she seemed normal to him. Perhaps because of this, he has certain blind spots. To Lela, their burgeoning romance is an opportunity for closer study; she’ll be able to take notes on Korchagin’s sleep patterns without breaking into his home. Although it’s always possible, of course, that the universe will require her to test her commitment to her mission by killing him. 3. The Trajectory of Dreams is a wholly original and fearlessly dark novel, an interesting combination of psychological thriller and character study. In Lela White, Wolverton has created one of the most haunting unreliable narrators I’ve ever come across. Lela’s illness is a curtain between herself and the world. She can see through only dimly. She feels and sees things others don’t — “A howling rose out of the pavement and wound around my ankles” — and Wolverton is at her best in her depiction of the queasy mismatch between Lela’s perceptions and what the reader knows or suspects to be true. She lives in a dangerous world of patterns and signs, of plots and assassination plans. If a coworker invites Lela to join her for lunch, then obviously the coworker is trying to kill her; the only question is whether Lela should strike first, preemptively, or bide her time. Lela has drifted very far from the realm of consensual reality, and the book’s considerable tension arises from the question of just how far she will go. She is heartbreaking, because for the moment at least she is lost. She is both deeply sympathetic and extremely dangerous. The Trajectory of Dreams is Wolverton’s debut, but she’s been honing her skill for some time. Wolverton, who is in her early forties, has published several short stories and wrote a half-dozen other manuscripts prior to Trajectory, “which are mouldering away in a drawer,” she wrote recently, “never to be seen again. ...I'm not sure who said it first, but there's that whole thing about writing a million words of crap before you find your voice and get to a place where your writing isn't wretched.” She has come to a place where her writing sings with tension.