The Light and the Dark: On Ali Smith’s ‘Summer’

Don’t you think it’s sad when people say they can’t wait for summer to end? Like, I can’t wait for this chunk of my life to be over with. It’s too hot, it’s too boring, the sky’s not blue enough. It’s not autumn.

I couldn’t wait for Summer to arrive this year, though Spring was a bit disappointing. And when finally I held Ali Smith’s book in my hands, I wasn’t eager for it to end. Though it had to, of course.

So?

So.

Ali Smith’s Summer opens:
Everyone said: so?
As in So what?
The so-question mark of indifference, rejection, defensiveness,
…their own punchy little
so?
So.
The so-period. The so that announces: Listen. I’m about to dare to say something sincere. It might not be earth-shaking (or it might be that), but it’s important to me, and not only is it important for me to know, it’s important to me that I tell you about it. With this so, the tales told by Summer truly begin.

Smith’s Seasonal Quartet runs: Autumn (published October 2016), Winter (November 2017), Spring (April 2019), and Summer (August 2020). Each book pokes relentlessly at our consciences with accounts of people, including ourselves, affected by climate change, Brexit, immigration, homelessness, social indifference, the lethal missteps of public health authorities during the Covid-19 pandemic. Each book loves duos and paradoxes. Migrants can be fleeing refugees or swifts flying from Africa to England. There’s the meaning of art and/or life, or the lack thereof. Families are sundered by external forces like poverty and detention, and by internal forces like divorce and drift. Silence can be meditation or muteness, elected or imposed, with human communication breaking through for better or worse. Isolation can offer time and space for insight and inspiration, or it can be a punishing confinement, or at the least a frustrating restriction. Or, as we know, all of these.

Each book has rants, often out of the mouths of children, about the mangling of human discourse in social media and in the mouths of politicians. In each, the work of a woman visual artist, renowned in her time and nearly forgotten in ours, figures prominently. Not to mention a motley crew of cultural icons, especially Shakespeare, Dickens, and Charlie Chaplin.

Most of all, the Seasonal Quartet is a foursome of togetherness and apartness, life and death, brought close by memory. Or are togetherness, et cetera, really the elements of this foursome? And if so, is it memory—rather than vague kinship or friendship, or duty imposed by family chosen or born, or plain old coincidence, or fate—that brings them together? Or is there a blamed foursome at all, besides the four seasons?

To assemble the puzzle pieces of an Ali Smith book is a challenge that might not be meant to be met. But to quote another familiar figure of Smith’s—the sage girl or woman—from Summer: “I really am me. And you really are you. But if we follow Einstein’s thinking [in his response to a bereaved man who asked, ‘what was the point, in being innocent, and gifted, and dying and becoming nothing but dust’] and add together you plus me plus time plus space. What does that all make?…It makes you and I more than just you or I… It makes us us.”

Summer’s “us” includes most of the ensemble Smith has been building through the previous seasons. (Though, curiously, Spring’s people barely make an appearance at all.) Daniel is now a very, very old man floating amidst memories, especially of his father and his sister Hannah during World War II. Grace Greenlaw, a former actress, ushers along in life, sometimes fumblingly, her two children, Sacha and Robert, both of them annoying and clever in equal measure. Iris, once a hippy, always an activist, connects again with Art, her earnest nephew, and with Charlotte, Art’s friend and ex-girlfriend. Missing fathers, grandmothers, brothers and sisters, and even an artwork, reunite with kin, in memory if not in the book’s present.

Summer brings us, too, a completion of the cycle of seasons: suffering to hope, green to gray, life to death, and back again. Or all of them at once. Or not really at all. For example, “life to death and back again” is not a given.

Take The Winter’s Tale, paradoxically, the Shakespeare play that runs through Summer. Grace remembers it from a long-ago summer tour with a theater company. She played Perdita, a dead queen who comes back to life—or a queen who pretended to be dead and to come back to life. After a particularly catty exchange with her fellow actors, Grace took a walk, ending up in an old church graveyard, talking with a mason working there. When she tells him of the (possibly mock) resurrection, he asks about the children who died in the play.
Do they come back too?
Only one of them, she says. It’s a very uneasy play, really. Pretending to be a comedy.
Smith’s references to Charlie Chaplin and Lorenza Maretti, two artists with unbearably harsh childhoods, caution the reader on the precariousness of pretend comedies, of happy endings, and happy beginnings and middles.

Hope, or optimism to put it in more practical terms, pulls people through. Grace says to the mason, “The Winter’s Tale’s all about summer, really. It’s like it says, don’t worry, another world is possible. When you’re stuck in the world at its worst, that’s important. To be able to say that. At least to tend towards comedy.”

Ali Smith’s Summer tends toward comedy. Though unable to turn her face from the suffering happening right now, right here in our world, Smith can’t resist…To say she can’t resist seeing the bright side is to invoke a phrase appealing, but long gone trite.

So?

So.
Summer’s like walking down a road just like this one, heading towards both light and dark.
Bonus Links:
Things Fall Apart: On Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn’ and ‘Winter’
Rites of Spring: Does the Latest in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet Satisfy?

Letter from Wartime

“Questo è il fiore del partigiano,/o bella ciao, bella ciao, bella ciao ciao ciao,/questo è il fiore del partigiano/morto per la libertà.”                                         —Italian Partisan Song, “Bella Ciao”
“Heard about Houston? Hear about Detroit?/Heard about Pittsburgh, PA?/You oughta know not to stand by the window/Somebody see you up there.”                                         —Talking Heads, “Life During Wartime”
In the hours before Hurricane Sandy slammed into the northeastern United States, my apartment in Bethlehem (Pennsylvania), which was 100 miles and a few hours from the Atlantic, was permeated by the unmistakable smell of the shore. Stolid son of the Alleghenies that I am, I’d never experienced the full onslaught of a hurricane before. This almost miasmic odor I associated with vacation—a fragrance inextricably connected to the Jersey boardwalk and Massachusetts beaches, of salt-water taffy and lobster rolls—suddenly permeating my living room, whose window looked out on a hulking, rusting former steel mill, felt borderline apocalyptic. As is the nature in things apocalyptic, it’s the incongruity that is alarming. As it was for some frightened 17th-century peasant reading a pamphlet foretelling doom because of the appearance of a mysterious comet in the heavens or the birth of a two-headed calf. The unexpected, the unusual, the unforeseen act as harbinger.
A landlocked home smelling like the beach is perhaps not as dramatic as those former examples, of course, and yet as with a sun-shower or the appearance of frost in May, there is a certain surrealism in things being turned upside down. That disruption in the nature of things makes it feel like worse disorder is coming. As it did, certainly, those hours before climate-change-conjured Sandy knocked out transponders, their explosions lighting up the horizon an oozing green all through the night, the winds howling past my building on its hill overlooking the river, where ultimately the power was out for more than a week, and roads made unpassable by the felled centuries-old oaks and maples which dotted the Lehigh Valley. It’s the eerie stillness in the air before the storm came that impressed itself upon me (so much so that this isn’t the first time I’ve written about it), those last few moments of normalcy before the world ended, but when you could tell it was coming, and there was nothing to do but charge your phone and reinforce your windows to withstand the impact from all of the debris soon to be buffeted about. Can you smell the roiling, stormy, boiling sea in the air right now?
“If destruction be our lot,” state representative Abraham Lincoln told a crowd gathered at the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Ill., in the winter of 1838, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” Historical parallels outlive their critical utility; some of us have made a cottage industry out of comparing whatever in our newsfeeds to the Peasants’ Rebellion or the English civil wars. In the realm of emotion however, in psychological reality, is the autumn of 2020 what it felt like to learn that Polish defenses had been overrun by the Nazi blitzkrieg? To apprehend the dull shake of those guns of August a generation before? To read news that Ft. Sumter had fallen? As Franco’s war in Spain was to the world war, as Bleeding Kansas was to the civil, are we merely in the antechamber to a room that contains far worse horrors? Ultimately no year is but like itself, so that we’re already cursed enough to live during these months of pandemic and militia, of incipient authoritarianism contrasted with the uncertain hope for renewal. On the ground it can’t help but feel like one of those earlier moments, so that we’re forced to fiddle about with the inexact tool of historical comparison, of metaphor and analogy. Something of what Lincoln said, more than something, seems applicable now. “Suicide” might not be the right word though, unless we think of the national body politic as a single organism in and of itself. Certainly there are connotations of self-betrayal, but it’s more accurate to see this season of national immolation as what it is—a third of the country targeting another third while the remaining third remains non-committal on what stand they’ll take when everything starts to finally fall apart.
We shouldn’t misread Lincoln’s choice of word as indicating an equivalence of sides; in this split in the national psyche there is the malignant and the non-malignant, and it’s a moral cowardice to conflate those two. On one side we have a groundswell movement on behalf of civil and human rights, a progressive populism that compels the nation to stand up for its always unrealized and endlessly deferred ideals; on the other we have the specter of authoritarianism, of totalitarianism, of fascism. This is not an issue of suicide, it’s one of an ongoing attempted homicide, and if you’re to ever not shrink away from mirrors for the rest of your life—even if the bad guys should win (as they might)—then choose your side accordingly. And figure out that you don’t even have to like your allies, much less love them, to know that they’re better than the worst people in the room. If you bemoan “cancel culture” and “social justice warriors” but not extrajudicial kidnapping of activists by paramilitaries, then you are at best a hypocrite and a fool, and at worst a bad-faith actor justifying the worst of the U.S. government. If your concern is with the rhetorical excesses of a few college kids on Twitter, but you’re silent about the growing fascist cult currently in control of the federal executive, the federal judiciary, half of the federal legislature, and a majority of state governments (not to speak of the awesome power of the military), then you’ve already voted with your words. If you’re disturbed by property destruction, but not the vigilante murder of protestors, then you’ve since made your decision. We all have to imagine that speaking out might still mean something; we have to pretend like voting might make a difference; we all have to live with ourselves as citizens and humans beings. What I’m writing about is something different, however. What I’m writing about is what it feels like to be living through the blood-red dusk of a nation.
When the Romans left Britain, it was so sudden and surprising that we still have record of the shock amongst the locals over the retraction of the empire from their frosted shores. The Medieval English monk Gildas the Wise, as well as his student the Venerable Bede, record that in the immediate years following this abandonment, an appeal was sent to the capital for assistance. “The barbarians drive us to the sea,” wrote the Britons’ leaders, “the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death, we are either killed or drowned.” Under the protection of the imperial hegemon, the British Celts built an advanced civilization. Aqueducts brought water into the towns and cities, concrete roads lined paths through the countryside. One imagines that the mail arrived on time. In a shockingly brief period, however, and all that was abandoned; the empire having retracted back into itself and left those for whom it was responsible at the mercy of those who wished to pick apart its bones. Three centuries later, and the inhabitants of England no longer even remembered Rome; an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet writes of a ruined settlement, that “This masonry is wondrous; fates broke it/courtyard pavements were smashed… Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers,/the frosty gate with frost on cement is ravaged,/chipped roofs are torn, fallen,/undermined by old age.” Have you seen American infrastructure lately? By the eighth century and that silent scop singling his song of misinterpreted past glories can’t even imagine by what technology a city like Londinium was made possible. He writes that “the work of giants is decaying,” because surely men couldn’t have moved stones that large into place.
Because historical parallel is such a fickle science, an individual of very different political inclinations than myself might be apt to misunderstand my purposes. They may see some sort of nativist warning in my allegory about Picts and Scots pushing beyond Hadrian’s great, big beautiful wall. Such a reading is woefully incorrect, for the barbarians that I identify are not some mythic subaltern beyond the frontier, but rather the conspiratorial minded fanatics now amassing at the polls, the decadent parsers of tweets who believe in satanic cabals, and the personality cultists who’ve all but abandoned a belief in democracy. As the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy wrote, “Why isn’t anything going on in the senate?/Why are the senators sitting there without legislating?/Because the barbarians are coming today.” We’re beyond the point of disagreeing without being disagreeable, the era of going high when they go low is as chimerical as it ever was.  There is something different in the United States today, and I know that you feel it; something noxious, toxic, sick, diseased, and most of all decadent. The wealthiest nation on Earth with such iniquity, where pandemic burnt—still burns—through the population while the gameshow host emperor froths his supporters into bouts of political necromancy. There is no legislation today because it increasingly feels like this is not a nation of laws, but something lower and uglier.
When I say that there is a decadence, I mean it in the fullest sense of that word. Not in the way that some reactionaries mean, always with their bad faith interpretations; nor exactly in the manner that my fellow leftists often mean, enraptured as they are to that ghost called “materialism.” Rather I mean a fallenness of spirit, a casual cruelty that if I were a praying man I’d identify as being almost devilish. Perhaps there are satanic cabals after all, just not where the letter-people think (I suspect the call is actually coming from within the White House). Since the republic was founded, we’ve fancied ourselves Rome, always fearing the Caesar who never seems to finally cross the Potomac. That’s the thing with self-fulfilling prophecies. Now the denizens of the fading order of Pax Americana seem every bit as incredulous at collapse as those poor Britons a millennium-and-a-half ago. Writing in The Irish Times, the great critic Fintan O’Toole notes that “Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the U.S. until now: pity.” I can genuinely say that I appreciate his sentiment.
When I lived in Europe, I couldn’t help but feel that there was ironically something younger about my friends—I imagine it would seem compounded today. The irony comes from the traditional stereotype of “The American,” this rustic well-meaning hayseed, this big, bountiful, beautiful soul traipsing on his errand into the wilderness. If America was a land without history, then the Old World was supposedly death haunted, all those Roman ruins testament to the brutality that marked that continent, not least of all in the last century. Such was the public relations that marked this hemisphere from its supposed discovery onward—but how easily we forget the blood that purchased this place, a land which was never virginal, but that was raped from the beginning. I envy Europeans. I envy their social democracy and their welfare states, their economic safety nets and their sense of communal goodwill (no matter how frayed or occasionally hypocritical). Every European I met, the English and Scots, the French and Italians, seemed more carefree, seemed more youthful. They seemed to have the optimism that Americans are rumored to have but of which there is no remaining evidence of as the third decade of this millennium begins. During the early days of the pestilence the Italians were locked inside all of those beautiful old stone buildings of theirs. Now they’re sitting outside in cafes and trattorias, going to movies and concerts. We’re of course doing those things too, but the difference is that we have more than 200,000 dead and counting, and from the top on down it seems like few care. A French friend of mine once asked how Americans are able to go to the grocery store, the theater, the public park, without fear of getting shot? In the end, America will get you, whether by bullet or microbe. As a nation of freemen, we’re a traumatized people…

One of the few outsiders to really get our number was D.H. Lawrence, who in his Studies in Classic American Literature noted that “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.” How could it be otherwise, in a nation built on stolen land by stolen people? America’s story is a gothic tale, a house built on a Native American burial ground. The legacies of bloodshed, of assault, of exploitation, of oppression that mark this forge of modernity ensure that it’s hard to be otherwise, even if we’re not allowed to ever admit such unpatriotic things. In that sense I don’t wonder if it wasn’t inevitable that we’d eventually be led—against the wishes of the majority—by this fool who promises to steal an election while accusing his adversary of the same, who will no doubt refuse to concede even when it becomes clear that he’s lost. We’re continually told by nice, liberal, and morally correct commentators that this is not who we are, but the American president is a philandering, sociopathic carnival barker who sells bullshit to people who can’t be so brain dead as to not know that it’s bullshit, all because they hate people who look different from them more than they love their own children. He’s Elmer Gantry, Harold Hill, “Buzz” Windrip.  He’s the unholy union of P.T. Barnum and Andrew Jackson. What could be more American?
Of course our saving grace has always been that we’re a covenantal nation, defined by supposed adherence to an abstract set of universal values. No land for anything as mundane as blood and soil (even though those ghouls at Charlottesville spread their terror for exactly that reason). There was something scriptural in the idealism that John Winthrop maintained in 1630, whereby national sustenance was in “our community as members of the same body,” or Lincoln in 1864 providing encomium for “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” and Barack Obama in 2004 declaring the American mantra to be one of “Hope in the face of difficulty, hope in the face of uncertainty, the audacity of hope.” That old saw about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. No nation since that of the ancient Hebrews was so fully founded upon an idea—this idea that is by definition so utopian and so completely unattainable that to be a satisfied American is to make your peace with heartbreak, or else to see yourself become either delusional or cold and cruel.
There is an idea of America and the reality of the United States, and all of our greatest literature, rhetoric, and philosophy lives in that infinite gap between, our letters always being an appraisal of the extent of our disappointment. “The promises made in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution,” writes critic Greil Marcus in The Shape of Things to Come: Prophecy and the American Voice, “were so great that their betrayal was part of the promise.” Thus the greatest of American political modes from the Puritans to Obama would be the jeremiad. Thus our most native of literature, be it Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn or Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, chart the exigencies of a dream deferred. All of American literature is a tragedy. What we’re living through now isn’t a tragedy, however—it’s a horror novel. Only the most naïve of fools wouldn’t be aware that that strain of malignancy runs through our country’s narrative—all of the hypocrisies, half-truths, and horrors—that define us from the moment when the word “America” was first printed on Martin Waldseemüller and Mathias Ringmann’s map of the world in 1507. In Stephen Vincent Benet’s classic short story “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” Old Scratch himself says that “When the first wrong was done to the first Indian, I was there. When the first slaver put out for the Congo. I stood on her deck…I am merely an honest American like yourself—and of the best descent.” What would Eden be, after all, without the serpent? A thing with devils is that they imply there must be angels; if you can find proof of hell, that indicates that there might be a heaven, somewhere. That’s the corollary to the failed covenant, that even with all of the hypocrisy, half-truth, and horror, there is that creed—unfulfilled, but still stated. Freedom of expression. Equal opportunity. The commonwealth of all people. Do I write jeremiads myself? Very well then.


I only do so to remind us that the confidence man huckster (who as I write this is only a few miles down Pennsylvania Avenue undoubtedly conspiring on what nightmares he’ll unleash upon his fellow citizens when he doesn’t get his way) is an American, if a cankered one. Take solace, though, because America isn’t just Stephen Miller, but Harriet Tubman and John Brown also; it’s not only Steve Bannon, but Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; more than Donald Trump, it’s also Eugene Debs and Dorothy Day, James Baldwin, and Emma Goldman, Harvey Milk and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Such a litany of secular saints is of course inconsistent, contradictory, and I’ll unabashedly confess a bit maudlin. But that’s okay—we need not all agree, we need not all be saints, to still be on the side of those beings in any such Manichean struggle. More than just angels can fight demons; the only thing required is the ability to properly name the latter. Because if American history is anything, if the American idea is anything, it’s a contradictory story, that dialectical struggle that goes back through the mystic chains of memory, a phrase which I once read somewhere. The contradictions of American culture once again threaten to split the whole thing apart. Make your plans accordingly, because the battle always continues.
For such is the great moral struggle of this century. It is against neofascism and its handmaiden of a cultish twisted civil religion. It requires the breaking of this fractured American fever dream, where a vaccine is far from assured. Right now it seems like our choices are authoritarianism or apocalypse, though perhaps there are always reasons to hope for more. What’s coming, I can’t be sure of, but that lyric of the great prophet Leonard Cohen “I’ve seen the future, brother/It is murder” echoes in my numbed brain. Whether or not we can stand athwart history and yell “Stop!” or not, whether or not there is the possibility to affect genuine change, whether or not it’s we can still salvage a country of decency, justice, and freedom—I’m unsure. What I do know is that whether or not any of those things can happen, we must live our political lives with a categorical imperative that acts as if they can. Least of all so that we’re able to live with ourselves alone in the rooms of our minds. Live with at least some convictions, live spiritually like the men remembered in poet Genevieve Taggard’s lyric in honor of those veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. Americans (mostly socialists, communists, and anarchists) who went to Spain to fight the fascists in the years before the Second World War. “They were human. Say it all; it is true. Now say/When the eminent, the great, the easy, the old,/And the men on the make/Were busy bickering and selling,/Betraying, conniving, transacting, splitting hairs,/Writing bad articles, signing bad papers,/Passing bad bill,/Bribing, blackmailing,/Whimpering, meaching, garroting, – they/Knew and acted.”
Bonus Links:—Letter from the Other ShoreLetter from the PestilenceSteal This Meme: Beyond Truth and LiesOn Pandemic and Literature
Image Credit: SnappyGoat.

Correcting History: On C Pam Zhang’s ‘How Much of These Hills Is Gold’

1.
As a life-long lover of long shots, I was delighted by the news that C Pam Zhang’s stunning debut novel, How Much of These Hills Is Gold, made the long list for this year’s Booker Prize. The field was larded with the predictable odds-on favorites, including two-time winner Hilary Mantel (who was up for the third installment in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, The Mirror & the Light), plus the much-decorated thoroughbreds Anne Tyler (Redhead by the Side of the Road) and Colum McCann (Apeirogon).

Though Zhang’s chances against this field appeared slim, her gorgeously written novel deserves praise not only for its artistry but also for its attempt to fill a shameful gap: the scarcity of Chinese characters in the literature and history of the American West. Yet Zhang’s novel is much more than a long-overdue corrective; it’s an absorbing, richly imagined account of one Chinese family scrabbling to survive the violence and racism that prevailed in the California gold fields and in the gangs that built the transcontinental railroad. Historians have been less neglectful than novelists in probing this material. To name just a few of the many valuable history books: Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad by Gordon H. Chang; the oral history Voices from the Railroad: Stories by the Descendants of Chinese Railroad Workers, edited by Connie Young Yu and Sue Lee; and Empire’s Tracks: Indigenous Natives, Chinese Workers, and the Transcontinental Railroad by Manu Karuka. Despite these commendable efforts, there are too many stories still untold.

How Much of These Hills Is Gold opens with two young sisters, Lucy and Sam, setting out to bury their father, a tortuous, gruesome mission that will invite inevitable comparisons to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. But Zhang uses this mission as a springboard to tell the story of how the father, Ba, met his wife, Ma, and how they were brought together by a horrific accident and, possibly, by the attack of a mythical tiger. These passages, narrated by Ba from inside his coffin, are the needed beginnings of the creation of an American anti-myth, a first step toward dismantling the widely accepted narrative that the American West was won through rugged individualism, resourcefulness, persistence, and hard work. The truth is that the California railroads were built with taxpayers’ dollars and the sweat and blood of underpaid immigrants who remain largely invisible to this day. That invisibility is at the heart of this novel, and it’s the source of Sam’s desire to cross the Pacific and live one day in a land that might become a true home. “Over there they won’t just look,” Sam says. “They’ll actually see me.”

2.
To understand just how overdue Zhang’s novel is, we need to flash back to an event from a century and a half ago that has become a cornerstone of the myth America chooses to believe about itself. On May 10, 1869, a pair of locomotives was parked nose-to-nose on a stark stretch of Utah desert called Promontory Summit. Facing east was the Jupiter of the Central Pacific Railroad; a few yards away, facing west, was No. 119 of the Union Pacific. Standing on the tracks between them with a silver maul in his soft hands was a portly, bearded robber baron named Leland Stanford, a former Sacramento shopkeeper and a former governor of California who had used lavish federal subsidies to buy the land and lay the track from Sacramento to this historic spot. He was surrounded by a boisterous throng of politicians, dignitaries, businessmen, reporters, and photographers. Someone is holding a bottle of champagne aloft, the crowning touch on the nation’s first orchestrated media event. As cameras clicked, Stanford raised the maul and dropped it on a ceremonial golden spike, sinking it into a pre-drilled hole in a laurel tie. The spike was wired to a telegraph line that sent a simple message jittering across the land and, via the undersea telegraphic cable, all the way to the United Kingdom: “DONE!”

The transcontinental railroad was complete. It was now possible for people and goods to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific on a patchwork of iron rails that had only one gap. The Missouri River would not be spanned for another three years, so passengers and cargo had to be ferried between Omaha, Neb., and Council Bluffs, Iowa. This trifle failed to dampen the spirits of the coast-to-cost celebrants, who were too giddy to be bothered by a few inconvenient truths. The first of these truths is revealed by the iconic photograph of that historic day at Promontory Summit—or, more precisely, by what is missing from that iconic photograph. In keeping with the jingoistic spirit of the pre-packaged event, there are no immigrants in the picture, even though Stanford and his partners—known alternately as the Big Four and the Associates—employed more than 20,000 Chinese laborers to do the brutal, deadly work of blasting a path and laying track from Sacramento through the Sierra Nevada mountains to Utah. And the pay given these laborers? Half of what they paid white workers, mainly Irish immigrants.

That famous photograph finds its way into the closing pages of How Much of These Hills Is Gold. Lucy, now a teenager, has wound up in San Francisco, where she has spent years working off a debt run up by her wild, androgynous sister Sam, who has fled across the Pacific seeking that home where people will actually see her. When the telegraph wire announces that the transcontinental railroad has been completed, Zhang writes of Lucy: “She hears the cheer that goes through the city the day the last railroad tie is hammered. A golden spike holds track to earth. A picture is drawn for the history books, a picture that shows none of the people who look like her, who built it.”

3.
Leland Stanford had been swept west with the gold rush just as the first Opium War and famine were pushing tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants across the Pacific to California, where they flooded the gold fields and joined the gangs of workers laying railroad tracks. (Zhang’s fictional Ma was one of these desperate immigrants; Ba was born in California, a nice dig at the stereotype that all Chinese in the West were recent immigrants.) Inevitably, violence flared between white miners and the Chinese newcomers, and the state responded in 1852 by passing the Foreign Miners Tax—$3 a month on non-citizens—and two years later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Chinese immigrants, like African Americans and Native Americans, were forbidden from testifying in court, leaving them virtually defenseless against mob violence.

Also missing from the record of that historic day at Promontory Summit are these remarks Stanford had made at his inauguration as governor of California in 1862: “To my mind it is clear, that the settlement among us of an inferior race is to be discouraged by every legitimate means. Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population…It will afford me great pleasure to concur with the Legislature in any constitutional action, having for its object the repression of the immigration of the Asiatic races.”

It took 20 years for Stanford’s dream to come true in the form of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended Chinese immigration for 10 years and made Chinese immigrants already in the country ineligible for naturalization. It was the first of many laws to restrict immigration, but it fit a pattern already established in California and much of the rest of the nation, a pattern stoked by fear that immigrants would seize jobs from Americans—that is, white people—while depressing overall wages. The 1882 law was also a precursor to the Immigration Act of 1924, which set strict quotas designed to encourage immigration from Western Europe, block most immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe, and bar all immigration from Asia. The law was, in the words of the eugenicist Madison Grant, an attempt to protect Americans from “competition with the intrusive people drained from the lowest races.” It is not a stretch to say that these precedents made possible—even inevitable—the brutal internment of American citizens of Japanese descent after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. This history illustrates that the xenophobia that helped Donald Trump win the presidency in 2016 is nothing new. Such deep-rooted xenophobia in a nation made mostly of immigrants and their descendants is the second of this nation’s two abiding paradoxes. The first, of course, is that men who owned human beings were able to conceive and publicly embrace the notion that all men are created equal.

4.
Now we flash forward to the present day. While the president of the United States strains to build a wall along the Mexican border to repress immigration from Latin America, it comes to light that dozens of people doing menial, low-paying jobs at his resorts and golf clubs are undocumented immigrants from Latin America. So venality and duplicity, like the desire to wall out the “dregs” and “rapists” of an “inferior” race, are simply old pillars of American politics that refuse to die. In keeping with the Sinophobia first codified in the Chinese Exclusion Act, this president has dubbed the current global pandemic “the Chinese virus” and “kung flu.” In doing so, he has completed the second of the two knee-jerk reactions that have greeted the arrival of pandemics throughout human history. The first reaction is denial, which Trump has expressed masterfully; and the second is the need to blame the disease on an outside source. During the plague in Athens in 430 B.C., Thucydides, who contracted the disease and survived, claimed it originated in Ethiopia and passed through Egypt and Libya before entering the Greek world in the Mediterranean. During a smallpox plague in the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius blamed Christians, who’d failed to appease the Roman gods. During the Black Death that decimated Europe in the 14th century, Jews were the scapegoat, falsely accused of poisoning wells. Today in America, according to our government, it’s the Chinese—not the appalling failures of our government.

These events, coupled with our current national reckoning over race, make How Much of These Hills Is Gold not only overdue but also vital and timely. As I’d expected, Zhang did not make the short list for this year’s Booker Prize. Unexpectedly, neither did Mantel, Tyler, or McCann. No matter. I’m hoping for many more novels like How Much of These Hills Is Gold: novels that breathe life into people who have gone unseen too long.

Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: C Pam Zhang

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Lalami, Petersen, Chiasson, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Laila Lalami, Anne Helen Petersen, Dan Chiasson, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Conditional Citizens: “In this eloquent and troubling account, novelist and National Book Award–finalist Lalami (The Other Americans) draws on her personal history as ‘an immigrant, a woman, an Arab, and a Muslim’ to argue that becoming a U.S. citizen does not necessarily mean becoming ‘an equal member of the American family.’ Recalling that the first time a U.S. customs agent examined her American passport, he wanted to know how many camels her husband had to trade in for her, Lalami critically assesses political rhetoric from 9/11 through President Trump’s border wall; skillfully unpacks charged words such as ‘allegiance’ and ‘assimilation’; reflects on Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh through the lens of her own experience calling out workplace sexual harassment; and examines the erasure of Muslims from American history. ‘Conditional citizenship,’ she writes, ‘is characterized by the burden of having to educate white Americans about all the ways in which one is different from them.’ Lalami offers essential insights into how racism and sexism function in American society, and makes a persuasive case for preserving the ‘gray zones’ between religious, ethnic, and national identities as a way to push back against tribalism and sectarianism. This profound inquiry into the American immigrant experience deserves to be widely read.”
Can’t Even by Anne Helen Petersen
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Can’t Even: “BuzzFeed writer Peterson (Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud) explores how low-paying jobs, overstimulation, and unattainable expectations have contributed to millennial malaise in this trenchant and well-researched account. Young people who once received participation trophies now seek ‘cool’ jobs, Petersen writes, only to fall into the ‘trap’ of long hours and inadequate pay. Though older generations mischaracterize America’s largest demographic group as lazy and selfish, millennials are actually working multiple jobs to pay bills in the modern gig economy as they watch the American dream slip away, Petersen contends. She weaves together personal reflections, profiles of other millennials, and a plethora of demographic information to addresses issues such as parenting, social media, college debt, and health care. Though she recommends finding ‘solace’ in hobbies and notes that one family reduced their stress by moving from the East Coast to Idaho, Petersen is more focused on bluntly describing her generation’s many obstacles than offering solutions to burnout. By turns exasperated, indignant, and empathetic, she supports her claims with strong evidence and calls on millennials to be a force for widespread social change. The result is
The Math Campers by Dan Chiasson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Math Campers: “The meditative fifth collection from poet and critic Chiasson (Bicentennial) invites the reader to witness the poet’s processes of creation, retrieval, and revision as a writer and dreamer, father and son. Framed by ekphrastic poems that gloss murals by David Teng Olsen adorning the walls of the poet’s home, the book works by a loose Russian-doll principle: just as the murals reflect and refract details from the lives of the poet and his immediate family, so do these nested poems. As a teenager, the poet prays ‘that art/ would sometime send a ladder from the sky,’ and that he might ‘become the love child/ of Sylvia Plath, Ozzy, and Alex DeLarge.’ Years later, he finds himself ‘almost Ozzy, mansplaining/ to my eleven-year-old son the photo/ of a Louis Quatorze gilt dildo he found in our cloud.’ Intimations of social crisis and environmental disaster glow on the horizon, ‘Caskets line up for the slip-n-slide./ A collarbone surfboards down the alley./ Through the mudslide we humans wade,’ but the book centers on intimate dramas of adolescence, middle age, masculinity, and literary genealogy (poetic allusions from Milton and Eliot to Merrill and Bidart abound). These beautifully crafted poems are a memorable addition to Chiasson’s singular oeuvre.”
Also on shelves this week: Horsepower by Joy Priest.
Bonus Links: —American Inequality: On Laila Lalami’s ‘Conditional Citizens’A Year in Reading: Laila LalamiShip of Fools: On Laila Lalami’s ‘The Moor’s Account’Must-Read Poetry: September 2020

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Clarke, Akhtar, Nemerever, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Susannah Clarke, Ayad Akhtar, Micah Nemerever, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.

These Violent Delights by Micah Nemerever

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about These Violent Delights: “Nemerever’s dark, inspired debut depicts a Leopold and Loeb–like thrill killing committed by two gay Jewish college students in 1970s Pittsburgh. Sensitive Paul Fleischer, an artist, comes from a working-class family and is grieving his father’s recent suicide. He easily falls under the spell of Julian Fromme, a rich psychology student who exudes wit and energy. As the young men become lovers, Paul’s family worries about the amount of time he spends with Julian, and his mother pleads with him to hang out with girls, while Paul resigns himself to taking what he can get from the withholding Julian (‘If Julian were to love him, it would feel like something he deigned to do. It meant more to be needed’). Julian’s power over Paul becomes more intense after he uses Paul to break free of his own overbearing family. Soon the young men are imagining violent deaths (‘How about a Helter Skelter kind of thing, wouldn’t that be fun? We could paint gibberish in blood on the walls,’ Julian says), and they work their way up to kidnapping a stranger. The buildup digs into the why as much as the how, allowing Nemerever to chart an enthralling exploration of what drives these young men to violence. Fans of Patricia Highsmith will definitely want to take note of this promising writer.”

Bonus Link: Writers to Watch: Fall 2020

Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Homeland Elegies: “Akhtar (American Dervish) reckons with the promises and deceptions of the American dream in this wrenching work of autofiction. The narrator, Ayad, was, like the author, born in Staten Island to Pakistani immigrant parents and raised in Wisconsin, and wrote a Pulitzer-winning play. In eight well-developed chapters structured as musical movements, starting with an overture and ending with a coda, Ayad traces his often complicated personal, philosophical, and political stance toward an America in which he sees himself as ‘other.’ In the process, Ayad responds to criticism of his past writings for rationalizing violence committed by Muslims; critiques capitalism while acknowledging how it benefits him; and confronts his own internalized conflation of race and sex. Most often, these issues are viewed through the lens of family, especially his parents. His mother is chronically homesick not only for her native Pakistan but also for her first love. By contrast, his father, a doctor slammed with a malpractice suit, finds his shortsighted optimism and eventual disillusionment with the American promise play out against the backdrop of the first two years of Trump’s presidency in a pair of stories—one broadly humorous, one heartbreaking—that open and close the book. Akhtar’s work is a provocative and urgent examination of the political and economic conditions that shape personal identity, especially for immigrants and communities of color. With an audacious channeling of Philip Roth’s warts-and-all approach to the story of an American writer and his family, this tragicomedy is a revelation.”

Bonus Link: Ayad Akhtar’s Flesh and Blood 

Straight from the Horse’s Mouth by Meryem Alaoui (translated by Emma Ramadan)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Straight from the Horse’s Mouth: “Moroccan writer Alaoui’s mesmerizing debut introduces the resourceful, foul-mouthed, and spirited Jmiaa Bent Larbi. In the mid 1990s, Jmiaa’s husband, Hamid, takes her to Casablanca to pimp her out to men to raise money for his many fruitless business schemes. Almost 15 years later, 34-year-old Jmiaa is still working as a prostitute to support herself, her seven-year-old daughter, Samia, and the parasitic Hamid, who has illegally migrated to Spain. After Jmiaa meets Chadlia, a Moroccan Dutch film director she nicknames “Horse Mouth” for his toothy grin, Jmiaa agrees to consult on a script Horse Mouth plans to shoot in Morocco. Many remarkable characters people the novel in addition to Jmiaa: Halima, a sullen, Quran-studying prostitute; Samira, a loyal friend and colleague of Jmiaa’s; Houcine, the intimidating pimp who keeps them all safe; Jmiaa’s mother, with whom Jmiaa leaves her daughter; and the clients who come and go. Jmiaa’s Casablanca is full of corrupt cops and exploitative men who take advantage of the prostitutes’ vulnerability, but it is also full of friendship, laughter, and triumph, as Jmiaa’s association with Horse Mouth leads her to dream of a new life as a film star. Alaoui’s shimmering prose is funny and original; one of Jmiaa’s neighbors looks like an ‘armoire’; a client has ‘the breath of a corpse’; and Jmiaa, noting Horse Mouth’s Arabic is unusually fluent for an immigrant, says, ‘Normally it’s like their tongue is in physical therapy: it needs crutches to get to the end of a phrase.’ Alaoui’s tale is one to savor for its language and its verve.”

Piranesi by Susannah Clarke

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Piranesi: “Clarke wraps a twisty mystery inside a metaphysical fantasy in her extraordinary new novel, her first since 2004’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. The story unfolds as journal entries written by the eponymous narrator, who, along with an enigmatic master known as the Other (and 13 skeletons whom Piranesi regards as persons) inhabits the House, a vast, labyrinthine structure of statue-adorned halls and vestibules. So immense is the House that its many parts support their own internal climates, all of which Piranesi vividly describes (‘I squeezed myself into the Woman’s Niche and waited until I heard the Tides roaring in the Lower Halls and felt the Walls vibrating with the force of what was about to happen’). Meanwhile, the Other is pursuing the ‘Great and Secret Knowledge’ of the ancients. After the Other worriedly asks Piranesi if he’s seen in the house a person they refer to as 16, Piranesi’s curiosity is piqued, and all the more so after the Other instructs him to hide. In their discussions about 16, it becomes increasingly clear the Other is gaslighting Piranesi about his memory, their relationship, and the reality they share. With great subtlety, Clarke gradually elaborates an explanatory backstory to her tale’s events and reveals sinister occult machinations that build to a crescendo of genuine horror. This superbly told tale is sure to be recognized as one of the year’s most inventive novels.”

Also on shelves this week: Glossary for the End of Days by Ian Stansel.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Nunez, Rankine, Bhatt, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Sigrid Nunez, Claudia Rankine, Jenny Bhatt, and more—that are publishing this week.

Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about What Are You Going Through: “Nunez’s deceptively casual and ultimately fierce work (after the National Book Award-winning The Friend) ambles through a range of digressions toward a plot involving euthanasia. At the beginning, the unnamed narrator has traveled to visit her unnamed old friend in a hospital, where the friend is being treated for cancer. But before the narrator describes the visit, she details her experience at a depressing lecture by a pretentious journalist—who turns out to be her ex. This side trip involved an Airbnb, where ‘a cat had been promised,’ but after she checked out, having never seen the cat, she learned it had died. Eventually, she reaches the hospital, and the tension picks up. Her friend is planning to kill herself before she’s too debilitated, and two other friends have refused to help. Will the narrator? As the two women make and implement their plan, Nunez studies the intersection of friendship and morality. Much of the novel’s action is internal, as the attention of its judgmental, withholding narrator flicks from books to movies to sharp-edged thoughts about the people she encounters, offering plenty of surprises. Those willing to jump along with her should be tantalized by the provocative questions she raises.”

Bonus Link: A Year in Reading: Sigrid Nunez

Just Us: An American Conversation by Claudia Rankine

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Just Us: “MacArthur Fellowship recipient Rankine (Citizen: An American Lyric) combines poetry, prose, and imagery in this unique and powerful meditation on the challenges of communicating across the racial divide in America. Drawing on her own experience as a Black woman married to a white man, Rankine highlights the necessity of having uncomfortable conversations in order to understand both the experiences of other people and one’s own needs and beliefs. In the essay ‘liminal spaces i,’ she recounts asking a white stranger about his understanding of white male privilege after he complained that his son couldn’t use ‘the diversity card’ to gain early admission to Yale, where Rankine teaches. In another essay, she contemplates asking her mixed-race daughter’s white teachers about their ‘unconscious inevitable racism and implicit bias’ at a parent-teacher conference. ‘José martí’ features Rankine grappling with the limits of her own knowledge as she talks with a new friend about anti-Latinx racism. The discussion hits several snags, yet Rankine persists: ‘I still have questions, and the way to get answers is to bear her corrections.’ Other pieces incorporate commentary from Rankine’s conversational partners and ‘fact checks’ of her own assertions. The result is an incisive, anguished, and very frank call for Americans of all races to cultivate their ’empathetic imagination’ in order to build a better future.”

Bonus Link: An Imagined Possibility: The Millions Interviews Claudia Rankine

Each of Us Killers by Jenny Bhatt

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Each of Us Killers: “The stories in Bhatt’s rich debut collection mine the complicated experiences of Indians and immigrants. As one character notes in ‘Journey to a Stepwell,’ destiny ‘is simply a dagger thrown at you, which you must catch either by the blade or the handle. If you can figure out which end is which.’ In ‘Return to India,’ Bhatt gives voice to a group of employees at a U.S. engineering firm who piece together the details of an Indian American coworker’s murder while revealing their history of microagressions and racial bias. ‘Life Spring’ explores a divorced baker’s life in Mumbai and the inspiration she takes from a one-night stand (‘I think, sometimes, of what happened that night with Charlie as a kind of oven spring for my life’). In ‘Neeru’s New World,’ a live-in maid in Ahmedabad is propositioned and blackmailed by another servant, causing her to feel trapped not only by the class divide but by her limited power as a woman. Bhatt is skilled at locating her characters’ suffering and desires, and her blunt prose captures their matter-of-fact worldviews. These stories are memorable on their own, and they add up to a powerful expression of the hunger for success on ones own terms.”

Bonus Link: But Let Us Cultivate Our Garden

Be Holding by Ross Gay

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Be Holding: “The brilliant fourth book from Gay, his first since winning the National Book Critics Circle Award with 2015’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, continues his now-signature inquiry into feeling. Shaped as a single poem in a long sentence of center-justified couplets, the drama of this unfolding sentence is impeccable, a suspension that mirrors its subject: basketball Hall-of-Famer Julius Erving’s midair ‘baseline scoop’ in the 1980 NBA finals. An invocation of a video of Erving opens the poem’s investigation into flight, falling, and Black genius: ‘[H]ave you ever decided anything/ in the air?’ Gay asks in an interjection. In the space of that air, he crafts a book of associative digression, exploring photography, his own upbringing, and the afterlife of slavery in the U.S. ‘[T]he cotton, the unshared crop,/ let’s hereon call it what it is,’ he writes, ‘loot, plain and simple,/ which, too,// my great grandfather’s body was,/ loot, and his life, loot.’ When, in interjections and asides to the reader, a period does appear, it is not as a halt or a command but a gesture of care: ‘But let’s breathe first./ We’re always holding our breath.// Let’s stop and breathe, you and me.’ This extraordinary book offers an unforgettable flight from the conventional boundaries of the sentence.”

Three Rings by Daniel Mendelsohn

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Three Rings: “Bringing together memoir, history, and literary analysis, critic Mendelsohn (An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic) delivers a fine study of digression, exile, and circularity. Mendelsohn approaches his themes primarily through the lens of Homer’s The Odyssey, in terms of its story line of a long-delayed arrival home, and of Homer’s narrative technique of ‘ring composition,’ in which flashbacks and digressions are layered ‘in the manner of Chinese boxes or Russian dolls.’ He explains how this technique led him to a breakthrough with his previous book, and illustrates the technique here with digressions into the lives and work of other authors. These include German scholar Erich Auerbach, who wrote his masterpiece of literary analysis, Mimesis, which includes a chapter on ring composition, while fleeing Nazism; and 17th-century author François Fénelon, whose Odyssey adaptation The Adventures of Telemachus won him fame but also, thanks to its veiled criticisms of King Louis XIV, the loss of his post as royal tutor at Versailles. Mendelsohn’s talent with descriptive detail brings his work alive, such as repeated descriptions of Auerbach, while exiled in Istanbul, gazing through a palace window over the turquoise Sea of Marmara. Mendelsohn never fails to entertain as he takes the reader across thousands of years’ worth of literature and lives.”

Bonus Link: The Story Is Never the Whole Story: The Millions Interviews Daniel Mendelsohn

Also on shelves this week: Carry: A Memoir of Survival on Stolen Land by Toni Jensen, Arrow by Sumita Chakraborty, and Red Stilts by Ted Kooser.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Cline, Gyasi, Biss, Ferrante, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Emma Cline, Yaa Gyasi, Eula Biss, Elena Ferrante, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
Daddy by Emma Cline
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Daddy: “Cline follows up her bestselling The Girls with a probing, low-key collection that speaks to the raw nerves of everyday people as they struggle against pressures both personal and perennial. Families torn apart by secrecy and regret feature in ‘What Can You Do with a General,’ in which a family’s Christmas Eve is darkened by the prospect of euthanizing their dog, and ‘Northeast Regional,’ where a father facing his missteps in life is summoned to the boarding school where his son was expelled after a violent incident. A woman caring for a child of celebrities becomes thrust into a scandal in ‘The Nanny,’ and retreats to a family friend’s house in the canyons north of Los Angeles. Two adolescent girls undertake a disastrous attempt to get the attention of a near-stranger in ‘Marion.’ Cline’s ability to peer into the darker corners of her characters’ lives and discern desolation is also on display in ‘A/S/L,’ which follows a young girl in and out of rehab, while a son living in his film producer father’s shadow debuts his terrible movie in ‘Son of Friedman.’ The subtlety of these 10 stories may surprise readers expecting the same luridness Cline brought to The Girls, but the payoffs are as gratifying as they are shattering.”
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Transcendent Kingdom: “Gyasi’s meticulous, psychologically complex second novel (after Homegoing) examines the consequences of a Ghanian family’s immigration to Huntsville, Ala. Gifty, the only member of the family born in the United States, is six years into a doctorate in neuroscience at Stanford, where she is attempting to see if she can alter the neural pathways leading to addiction and depression. Her project is motivated by the fate of her beloved older brother who died from a heroin overdose when she was in high school, and by the condition of her depressed mother, who is staying at Gifty’s apartment. Though she now determinedly puts her faith in science, Gifty still feels the pull of her evangelical upbringing, and she struggles to reconcile the two opposing belief systems while juggling her dissertation and care for her mother, plus a growing attraction to her awkward lab mate. The narrative moves smoothly between the present and Gifty’s childhood, with episodes such as a summer spent in Ghana with her aunt during a previous phase of her mother’s depression rising in the background while Gifty works her way up in her field. Gyasi’s constraint renders the emotional impact of the novel all the more powerful: her descriptions of the casual racism endured by the family, particularly at the hands of their nearly all-white church in Alabama, is more chilling for being so matter-of-fact. At once a vivid evocation of the immigrant experience and a sharp delineation of an individual’s inner struggle, the novel brilliantly succeeds on both counts.”


Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs, and Revolution in the Americas by Roberto Lovato
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Unforgetting: “Salvadoran-American journalist Lovato recounts in this anguished memoir his 2015 trip to El Salvador to investigate the country’s horrific gang wars. Along the way, he visits mass graves, and speaks with a gang chieftain enamored of the Hunger Games novels and a police official who hints at extrajudicial executions of gang suspects. In Lovato’s telling, the carnage is an American tragedy: El Salvador’s current gangs were founded in California by refugees from the country’s civil war in the 1980s, in which thousands of civilians were killed by the U.S.-backed military and right-wing death squads battling FMLN insurgents. It’s also a personal story as he revisits his work with the FMLN and a love affair with a traveling companion. He weaves in the troubled saga of his father, who as a boy in 1932 witnessed La Matanza, a massacre of thousands of Salvadoran peasants and Indigenous people by an earlier generation of death squads. Mixing fraught reminiscence with vivid reportage—his driver, a Salvadoran Army veteran, recalls a mission to recover the corpses of comrades: ‘When we started picking them up, we yanked the meat right off them, like when you have a fried fish and the skin and meat fall right off’—Lovato delivers an intimate, gripping portrait of El Salvador’s agony.”
Ruthie Fear by Maxim Loskutoff
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Ruthie Fear: “Loskutoff’s superb debut novel (after the collection Come West and See) sets a revisionist contemporary western in the Bitterroot Valley of Montana. Ruthie Fear is abandoned as a toddler by her mother and raised by her father, Rutherford, a man ‘angry at the rich, the government, and Ruthie’s departed mother in varying order and intensity.’ One night, on the outskirts of No-Medicine Canyon, six-year-old Ruthie and her dog, Moses, see a terrifying headless creature. She and her friend Pip then spend years searching for this ‘wrongness in the woods.’ As earthquakes, mudslides, and droughts make Ruthie feel ‘shadowed by violence,’ mill jobs dry up, and developments and mansions are constructed, creating brutal divides among the rich and poor, the whites and Salish natives, and the ‘arrogant’ scientists who work at a local lab and look down on the ‘uneducated rednecks’ who live in trailers and spend their money on machine guns. At 15, Ruthie, still obsessed with the headless creature, attends a protest at the lab, where she imagines evil, unnatural deeds taking place. Loskutoff captures the vast and lonely land along with its beauty with breathtaking descriptions of violence and empathy, and ends with a shocking and poignant surprise. With its humor and heart, Loskutoff’s harrowing tale offers a heroine to root for. This one hits hard.”
Having and Being Had by Eula Biss
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Having and Being Had: “Biss (On Immunity) delivers a stylish, meditative inquiry into the function and meaning of 21st-century capitalism, inspired by becoming a homeowner for the first time. In essay-length ruminations divided into four sections (‘Consumption,’ ‘Work,’ ‘Investment,’ and ‘Accounting’), Biss draws from incidents in her own life as an upper-middle-class Chicagoan and engages with works of literature, history, sociology, economics, and psychology. Disillusionment with items in a furniture store prompts a consideration of cultural critic Lewis Hyde and “the strange unspecific desire” of consumerism. Biss also reflects on her young son’s education in the difference between cost and value as he earns the money to purchase and trade Pokémon cards with his friends. She examines women’s labor through the works of Marxist social scientist Silvia Federici, novelist Virginia Woolf, and authors Joan Didion and Gertrude Stein, and analyzes popular culture, including the contract dispute behind Donna Summer’s song ‘She Works Hard for the Money’ and the anti-capitalist messages of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? Biss doesn’t shy away from acknowledging her own privilege, and laces her reflections with unexpected insights and a sharp yet ingratiating sense of humor, though she doesn’t push too hard for change, either in her own life or her readers’. Still, this eloquent, well-informed account recasts the everyday world in a sharp new light.”
Mill Town by Kerri Arsenault
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Mill Town: “In this powerful investigative memoir, book critic Arsenault examines her relationship with Mexico, Maine, her now-downtrodden hometown. In 2009, Arsenault returned there from Connecticut after her grandfather died; while in this town (pop. 2,600) that owes its existence to a nearby 118-year-old paper mill, she decided to resume research on the Arsenault family’s French-Canadian lineage. She quickly learns of the environmental havoc wrought by the mill, which earned Mexico the nickname of ‘Cancer Alley,’ and uncovers the many obituaries citing people who ‘died after a battle with cancer’ believed to be caused by ash emitted by the mill (dubbed ‘mill snow’) that also crept into her family’s home. From there, Arsenault embarks on a decade-long probe into the environmental abuses of a company that supported her family for three generations. ‘The legacies powerful men construct almost always emerge from the debris of other people’s lives,’ she writes, yet her inquiry only deepened her bond with Mexico (‘We can and probably should go back to confront what made us leave, what made us fall in and out of love with the places that create us, or to see what we left behind’). Arsenault paints a soul-crushing portrait of a place that’s suffered ‘the smell of death and suffering’ almost since its creation. This moving and insightful memoir reminds readers that returning home—’the heart of human identity’—is capable of causing great joy and profound disappointment.”
The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante (translated by Ann Goldstein)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Lying Life of Adults: “A single comment can change a life, or for Giovanna, the adolescent only child of a middle-class Neapolitan couple in the early 1990s and narrator of Ferrante’s sumptuous latest (after The Story of the Lost Child), it can set it in motion. ‘She’s getting the face of Vittoria,’ Giovanna’s father, Andrea, says about her, referring to Giovanna’s estranged aunt Vittoria, whom Andrea disdains and calls ugly. The comment provokes Giovanna into seeking out Vittoria on the other side of Naples, where she finds a beautiful, fiery woman, consumed by bitterness over a lover’s death and resentful of Andrea’s arrogance at having climbed the social ladder. Andrea can’t save Giovanna from Vittoria’s influence, and their relationship will affect those closest to Giovanna as family secrets unravel and disrupt the harmony of her quiet life. Giovanna’s parents’ devastating marital collapse, meanwhile, causes her to be distracted at school and held back a year, and prompts Giovanna into a steely self-awareness as she has her first sexual experiences along a bumpy ride toward adulthood. Themes of class disparity and women’s coming-of-age are at play much as they were in Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet, but the depictions of inequality serve primarily as a backdrop to Giovanna’s coming-of-age trials that buttress the gripping, plot-heavy tale. While this feels minor in comparison to Ferrante’s previous work, Giovanna is the kind of winning character readers wouldn’t mind seeing more of.”
Bonus Links from Our Archive:—Occupy Author Photo: On Elena Ferrante, Privacy, and Women WritersElena Ferrante Names the Devil and Slays the MinotaurOutside the Neighborhood: Reading Italy Through Elena FerranteLook at Your Game, Girl: On Emma Cline’s ‘The Girls’A Year in Reading: Roberto LovatoA Year in Reading: Eula BissAn Inoculation Against Mistrust: Eula Biss’s ‘On Immunity’

Normal Was a Myth: On ‘I’m Thinking of Ending Things’

1.Sometime in the late 1980s, I found my family’s VHS copy of The Shining in the basement, and pushed play. The turquoise-colored opening credits rolled up the screen in silence. I knew there was supposed to be sound—I’d watched parts of the movie before on TV—but in this old recording, the yellow Volkswagen Beetle drove along Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park with only the cassette’s soft fuzz as soundtrack. 

Then, a minute or so into the film, sound pierced the tape—just as the camera shifted from behind the car and drifted left off the mountain road’s shoulder, over a tree-lined cliff that overlooks St. Mary Lake. It had been so quiet in the basement that it was like I’d discovered noise again. 

Years later, I can still hear that moment of sound’s sudden return; it has infected me. I felt it when my soccer coach sped our team’s van along Pike’s Peak Highway, and I imagined us careening into the air. I feel it whenever I drive up a long hill—the worry that my car’s tires will lift off the ground and I will drift away. In those moments, anxiety has little concern for logic.

It feels a lot like disorientation—a total loss of control.

2.The Shining always leaves me tired. It might be that its hallways and rooms invite our eyes to ride the perspective, to become one with the film. The claim of Kubrick aficionados that the Overlook Hotel’s layout is spatially impossible—fully interior rooms with exterior windows, like the manager’s office—helps explain its overwhelming sense of disorientation.

I felt much the same way for most of I’m Thinking of Ending Things, the new Netflix film by Charlie Kaufman—especially the overlong scenes in the car. A “young woman” (Jessie Buckley) and her boyfriend Jake (Jesse Plemons) are driving to visit his parents; it will be her first time meeting them, and she’s skeptical there will be a second time. Irish actress Buckley is known to American audiences for her appearance in the Chernobyl series, but the best precedent for this new story is her wild performance in the 2017 film Beast—Buckley shows that she’s the perfect choice to portray a character who has lost her sense of reality.

The young woman thinks that Jake is nice enough, but she’s bored with the relationship. We hear her thoughts—and sometimes Jake seems to also hear them—but we never learn her name. Sometimes their sentences tangle and overlap, and we start to suspect that it’s more than mere coincidence. 

Time is malleable in the film, but even within Kaufman’s blurred reality, the road scene pushes the viewer to a point of frustration. I admire when filmmakers linger long enough to court annoyance, and in Kaufman’s case, it is for good reason. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is replete with contradictions, inconsistencies, and rejections of linear narrative. One of the most linear movie tropes of all—a couple moving straight down a long road—is the perfect entrypoint toward this subversion.

When the couple finally arrives at Jake’s childhood home, his mother (Toni Collette) is frantically waving at them from the window—but when they enter the house, she takes a long time to come downstairs. She and Jake’s father (David Thewlis) are hilarious and unhinged; Jake is embarrassed, and his girlfriend is confused. Things are just normal enough—the silly stories of Jake’s youth, the doting mother, the aloof father—but Kaufman turns them toward darkness. The surreal within the painfully domestic creates an eerie sense of distortion and disorientation. 

I watched Kaufman’s film after midnight in August—prime setting to settle into a strange story. Back in the early days of the pandemic, I thought the most powerful and relevant horror would be zombie films: lumbering, virulent husks of our past selves. But I think we’re past the point of initial shock of the health crisis, and at the curious moment where the most appropriate horror might be one of disorientation. Put simply, maybe things will never get back to normal because normal was a myth.

After the couple leaves the house, there’s another road trip scene—and somehow it feels even longer than the first. The second half of the film descends into the fully surreal while also settling into horror—one especially creepy scene happens at a late-night visit to a roadside ice cream parlor—before becoming fantastical (think somewhere between Eugène Ionesco’s The Bald Soprano and Rhinoceros). The ending won’t quite work for everyone, but that’s probably the point. Kaufman finished this film well before the pandemic, but sometimes coincidence becomes context. I’m Thinking of Ending Things couldn’t have arrived at a better time—either we try to fit together the film’s dizzying puzzle, or we accept that its fractures feel especially true.

Bonus Links:—Eight Horror Films About WritersMy Chernobyl

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Flynn, Johnson, Diamond, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Nick Flynn, Daisy Johnson, Jason Diamond, and more—that are publishing this week.
Want to learn more about upcoming titles? Then go read our most recent book preview. Want to help The Millions keep churning out great books coverage? Then become a member today.
This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire by Nick Flynn
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about This Is the Night Our House Will Catch Fire: “In this outstanding work, poet and playwright Flynn bookends his first memoir, 2004’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, with this unsparing look at his early childhood and his mother, who died by suicide when Flynn was 22 years old. He makes a series of visits to his hometown of Scituate, Mass., with his young daughter and describes his solitary childhood spent living with his mother in a small, ‘ugly’ house that she bought after she left Flynn’s father. When Flynn was seven years old, his mother set fire to the house, an event he is still trying to understand: ‘Maybe my mother set our house on fire not merely to collect the insurance money, but simply to see what it was that she was losing.’ His return trips are not only a chance to tell his daughter ‘where your father came from’ but also to deal with his own unhappiness that led him to cheat on his wife. He comes to a realization that ‘we are so lost inside ourselves sometimes that it is impossible to think of other people, even those we love.’ Readers will devour this powerful memoir of letting go.”
Sisters by Daisy Johnson
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Sisters: “Johnson (Everything Under) returns with a well-crafted, consistently surprising psychological thriller. September and July are teenage sisters, born 10 months apart. After an incident at their Oxford school, its dark details hinted at as the story unfolds, their mother, Sheela, whisks them away to the dilapidated house where September was born, on the desolate coast of the North York Moors, and holes up in her room, ill-advisedly leaving July at the mercy of her sister. September bullies, intimidates, and cruelly manipulates the passive, compliant July, daring her to perform increasingly dangerous acts in the form of games like ‘September Says.’ September taunts a man who comes to set up their internet, and when the girls get online, they seduce men on dating sites and pretend to have entrapped them as part of a police sting. Sheela, meanwhile, writes and illustrates children’s picture books, and her deep depression contributes to her neglectful parenting (‘I will always love you, she says. And if you need me you come get me. But I need some time,’ July narrates). The sisters share an eerie, symbiotic relationship; they seem at times to share a single consciousness, and even a single body. In achingly lyrical prose, Johnson employs alternating narratives, divulging and withholding information by turns, keeping the reader unsure of what to believe. When the revelations hit, they are intensely powerful. Readers of classic gothic fiction will find a contemporary master of the craft here.”
The Sprawl by Jason Diamond
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Sprawl: “In this insightful work of narrative nonfiction, journalist Diamond (Searching for John Hughes) draws from personal experience, history, and media to consider the significance of the suburbs in American culture. Revisiting the Chicago-area towns in which he grew up in the 1980s, Diamond finds signs of economic decline in the familiar big-box stores and movie theaters that are now shuttered. He considers suburban conformity through stories of new arrivals who received unfriendly receptions, and describes incidents in which violence upended the presumption of the suburbs as a safe haven, recounting a 1977 murder in Long Grove, Ill., where he once lived. Throughout, he engages with writers like John Cheever, who ‘shaped so many of our ideas of what the suburbs were like’ in the post-WWII era, and Shirley Jackson, who ‘explained the suburban condition better than nearly any other writer before or after,’ as well as suburban-set movies—he deems the villains of the Halloween and Nightmare on Elm Street horror series as particularly suburban bogeymen. Though Diamond occasionally strays into repetition with his personal reflections—such as repeated observations that he now lives in New York City and views the suburbs as an outsider—his cultural criticism is consistently astute. This is a smart, enjoyable study that will be particularly appreciated by other suburban expats.”
An Inventory of Losses by Judith Schalansky (translated by Jackie Smith)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about An Inventory of Losses: “Schalansky’s inspired latest (after Atlas of Remote Islands) melds history, memoir, and fiction into something new and extraordinary: a museum of the extinct, the missing, and the forgotten. Chronicled in 12 short pieces, each based on a ‘lost’ object—among them an early-20th-century film, fragments of Sappho’s poetry, destroyed Italian villas, demolished East German government buildings—the narratives are distinct, memorable, and, at their best, spellbinding. Some are highly researched, meticulously reconstructing historical places such as the the Villa Sacchetti at Castelfusano in Rome and figures such as 18th-century British explorer James Cook, who, in search of a then-mythical southern continent, “had ploughed the southern seas in huge, sweeping zigzags and discovered nothing but mountains of ice.” Other tales take on the flavor of impressionistic, contemporary memoirs, rooted in the narrative of a Schalansky-like writer-researcher as she explores the topic at hand. Still others have the feel of speculative fiction, so detailed in their histories that they feel like memories. In one, wild animals are brought to fight one another before the massive audiences of Rome; another follows the moments, both dramatic and mundane, of a day in the life of an East German couple. With this collection of illuminating meditations on fact and fiction, Schalansky cements her reputation as a peerless chronicler of the fabulous, the faraway, and the forgotten.”


Count Luna by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (translated by Jane B. Greene)
Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Count Luna: “Austrian writer Lernet-Holenia (Mona Lisa, 1897–1976) addresses guilt over WWII in this masterly novel, originally published in 1955. Nearly a decade after the war, Alexander Jessiersky, the head of an Austrian transport business, travels to Rome, enters the catacomb beneath a church, and disappears. Lernet-Holenia then rewinds to the beginning of Jessiersky’s fateful journey. WWII has erupted, and his company’s board of directors encourages anti-Nazi Jessiersky to purchase a parcel of railroad-adjacent property from the reluctant Count Luna, an aristocratic heir. Jessiersky refuses, and the board, determined to satisfy wartime demand, has Luna shipped to a concentration camp for alleged anti-Germanness. Jessiersky sends care packages to Luna, and by war’s end, Luna is assumed dead. Years later, Jessiersky’s children claim to have seen Luna alive, and after one falls mysteriously ill, Jessiersky convinces himself Luna has survived the war and is out for revenge. While waiting for Luna to resurface, he retreats into his library to read about Luna’s family. A series of strange happenings, such as the sound of footsteps in the attic, stoke Jessiersky’s paranoia, and he goes on a disastrously quixotic offensive before going into hiding. Lernet-Holenia’s dark humor propels the narrative, and Jessiersky’s obsession is expertly handled, leading to a wholly unexpected conclusion. Driven by intense psychological descriptions, this tale of inaction against injustice has aged quite well.”
Also on shelves this week: Summer by Ali Smith.
Bonus Links:—I Didn’t Have a Plan: The Millions Interviews Nick FlynnThe Space Between Silence & Enough: Featured Poetry by Nick FlynnA Year in Reading: Nick FlynnThe Dark Side of Daisy JohnsonRethinking Suburbia: The Millions Interviews Jason DiamondA Year in Reading: Jason DiamondRites of Spring: Does the Latest in Ali Smith’s Seasonal Quartet Satisfy?Things Fall Apart: On Ali Smith’s ‘Autumn’ and ‘Winter’Wordsmith: The Beguiling Gifts of Ali Smith

Humble Words Organized Beautifully: Ward Farnsworth on Style

Something disappointing in the fact that despite his immaculate New Yorker essays and his perfect children’s books (the latter of which is nothing to scoff at), E.B. White will most likely be primarily remembered for his over-valorized and pedestrian composition guide based on punched-up lecture notes from his old Cornell professor William Strunk. I’ll confess that White’s Stuart Little moves me more than Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, even if the former is about an anthropomorphic mouse who falls in love with a bird and the latter is about Virginia Woolf killing herself, but when it comes to The Elements of Style, I’m left completely cold. Linguist Geoffrey Pullum gleefully demolished the shrine to Strunk and White in a Chronicle of Higher Education piece where he condemned the “book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity,” which is not “underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar.” Still you’ll find precocious English majors and pretentious English professors who cling to White and Strunk’s guide as if holy writ, repeating their dogma of the best (or only) writing as “being specific, definite and concrete” or that “Vigorous writing is concise,” as if those were postulates of physics and not aesthetic suggestions mediated through a particular time and place (with the attendant masculine obsessions of that time and place).

The Elements of Style endures, however, like some antique bacterium in Siberian permafrost released by climate change and threatening us all; something better left as a relic of the time that produced it rather than as a universal guide to good composition. They arrogantly pose laws as if they were the Author of the Decalogue, and their stylistic affectations are configured as inviolate rules of grammar. Strunk and White are mummies of the Lost Generation, bound in typewriter ribbon and pickled with scotch, and their adjective-slaying, adverb-slaughtering, violent Fitzgeraldian demands to kill your darlings reflect a type of writing that’s only one example in the many-mansioned house that is literature. It’s not that the advice they give leads to bad writing, and if concision is your aim than by all means dog-ear those pages of their book. It’s rather that Strunk and White exclude anything with a glint of the maximalist, a hint of the baroque, a whiff of the rococo, a sniff of the Byzantine, or—egad!—even a touch of the purple. They make totems of simplicity, fetishes of concision, idols of conventionality. I can’t in good conscience tell students that they should “Prefer the standard to the offbeat” or that that they should “not affect a breezy manner.” Literary style, as with clothing, is an issue not of dressing like somebody else, but of being the most fully you that you can be (as Queer Eye’s Tan France would no doubt confirm). If Brooks Brothers is your thing, then by all means let Strunk and White be your guide, but never forget that the wardrobe goes back a way. “It’s sad,” Pullum writes of the regard in which the book is still held a century after it was written. For 13 years I’ve taught college composition, and for all 13 of them I’ve refused to teach The Elements of Style.

Luckily there are no shortage of composition guides of varying qualities and uses, and I’ve taught a cornucopia of them (veggies both rotten and succulent). The nearest to Strunk and White is George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language,” which for what it shares with The Elements of Style—in demands for the elimination of excess words, the denigration of the noble passive voice, and the provincialism that piously intones that we should “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word”—still has crusted about it some interesting philosophical observations about the relationship of language to thought. Many of my colleagues are partial to Gerald Graff’s They Say/I Say, which is less a style guide than it is a general first-year composition guide, focusing on the way in which arguments can be posed—a useful volume, even if its Stanford doctorate holding author’s affectation of being a reformed ‘50s greaser who learned the importance of higher education leaves Generation Z befuddled. Several years ago, I put in a book order for Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One, enchanted by his mea culpa that “Some people are bird watchers…I belong to the tribe of sentence watchers.” Yet like many Fish books it seemed like a good idea at the time. For similar reasons, I never even thought to crack the spine of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, with its promise to bring cognitive science to bear on the humble scribbler’s trade.

Style guides that deserve less snark include Karen Elizabeth Gordon’s delightfully gothic and grammatical The Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed, Sam Leith’s excellent oratory and composition guide Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama (as terrible a title as that may be), and the wonderfully practical and pop culture infused primer by Arthur Plotnik, Spunk & Bite: A Writers’ Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style (as great a title as that is). I’d be remiss not to mention Random House’s chief copy editor Benjamin Dreyer’s engaging Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, which is a chatty, if thorough, encomium for the lost art of line editing, and which I’ve been pleased to read but have never taught. I’ve neither taught nor read Francis-Noël Thomas’s Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, with its promise of continental elegance and the Attic style, with its sophisticated sense that “learning to write cannot be reduced to acquiring writing skills,” but it’s to my loss.

Now our bookshelves can include a new title by Ward Farnsworth, dean of the University of Texas Law School, entitled Farnsworth’s Classical English Style. This title concludes a trilogy of Farnsworth’s, joining the unlikely cult hits of Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric and Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor, bringing to a close his series of vaguely Victorian, vaguely tweedy, and vaguely Anglophilic guides to style and writing (joining The Practicing Stoic, which I reviewed for The Millions). In his preface, Farnsworth avails himself well in the style guide turf war between linguistic prescriptivists and descriptivists, noting with admirable writerly latitudinarianism that “Most modern books offer advice: write this way, not that way. This book does not offer advice of that kind.” Belying the slightly fussy affectation that the book presents, from its title evocative of the 19th century, to the bulk of Farnsworth’s examples coming from writers like Dickens, Churchill, Lincoln, and Dr. Johnson, his philosophy of composition is wonderfully anarchic when compared to the partisans of prescription who dominate the writing classroom and the style-guide racket. The packaging says “conservative,” but the spirit says “rip the pages out of your book.” Farnsworth’s Classical English Style is a Molotov cocktail wrapped in paisley; a hand-grenade cushioned in madras. “Books on style usually state precepts that have merit but that talented writers violate often. Much of this book is about the violations and reasons to commit them,” Farnsworth writes, but “Our topic, in part, is when to make exceptions.” A manifesto for the preppy revolutionary of the writing seminar. Because every single dictum of the Strunk-White Industrial Complex is complicated by Farnsworth; within the pages of his book you will encounter a defense of passive voice, a glorying in the labyrinthine curve of sentences that pack clause upon clause, and a celebration of the Latinate (though not at the expense of the Saxon).

Orwell offered six rules of writing; Strunk and White had their 11 principles (as if writing were a management course), but Farnsworth correctly notes that the “only rule really worth worrying about is simple: have a reason for whatever you do in your writing.” The whole of the law is thoughtfulness, otherwise do what thou wilt. Consequently, Farnsworth’s grills the sacred cows of muscular modernism’s style guides into bloody hamburger. If a revolution refers to a turning back (a “revolving” back) than Farnsworth doesn’t reject the icons of efficient writing so much—Papa Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy with all their swagger and exterminated adjectives—so much as he turns back to the rich classical rhetoric of the era that modernism supplanted, valorizing Thomas Paine and Charles Dickens, Mary Wollstonecraft and Frederick Douglas—with all of their biblical phrasing, their classical allusion, their gargantuan sentences and erudite diction. None of these writers would have passed the Strunk and White smell test; they could be long-winded, they could be multisyllabic, they could be meandering, allusive, and illusive. Eighteenth- and 19th-century prose calls to mind the Victorian critic Thomas Macaulay’s ambivalent assessment of Dr. Johnson, that “All his books are written in a learned language, in a language which nobody hears from his mother or his nurse, in a language in which nobody ever quarrels, or drives bargains, or makes love, in a language in which nobody ever thinks.” Which naturally makes one ask if some things might not precisely call for an unnatural language; which makes one apprehend that there might be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in The Elements of Style.

Farnworth notes that “different styles are right for different occasions,” and while he doffs his cap to the style guides that reign triumphant, he also makes clear that “This book treats efficiency as important but as not enough.” The clipped sentences were advocated for and the endangered punctuation, adverbs, and adjectives threatened by the modernists and their intellectual descendants, who have long dominated the teaching of correct style and derived their conclusions in part because they were constrained by material conditions. A journalist like White was naturally limited by the tyranny of the margin, and much of style guide orthodoxy comes from print reporting where one really did have to be judicious with verbiage. Little wonder that efficiency and concision, in all of their capitalist and Protestant dreariness, became the shibboleths of proper style. Farnsworth’s point is that things were not always as such, nor that they always have to be so. If advocates for simplicity believe that the “purpose of a piece of writing is to transmit meaning to the reader; so, the writer’s job is to make the meaning easier to understand,” they’ll find little to agree with in Farnsworth’s Classical English Style. He summarizes the White-Strunk Consensus as being that good writing uses “simple words… short sentences… [and is] direct.” From that ideal there must be an exterminator’s crusade against “Needless words, needless length, or needless anything,” since they are rank inefficiencies. Farnsworth challenges every single one of those assertions.

But he’s not a complete libertine, and if anything, Farnsworth’s Classical English Style provides some deeper and more useful axioms of writing. Farnsworth offers a novel encapsulation of what makes good writing good, whether in the King James Bible or the Gettysburg Address. He hypothesizes that “Rhetorical power doesn’t come from just being clear or just being concise or by pushing in any other one direction. It’s usually created by some sort of push and pull, or in a word by contrasts.” Where a traditional style guide would emphasize shortness and simplicity as a means to writerly elegance, Farnsworth says its in the display of difference that writing becomes most fully engaging, with the union of oppositions, “usually one of friction or contrast, between two things.” Illustration of this is provided when he analyzes the average sentence structure and length in the writing of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, arguably the greatest American legal writer (and thus close to Farnsworth’s judicial attorney’s heart). While taking care to emphasize that sentence length should be varied, most contemporary style guides hew towards the mantra that shorter is better. Farnsworth compares two paragraphs of legal writing, one from Holmes and the other from the entirely more pedestrian writer (and man) Chief Justice William Rehnquist. What Farnsworth discovers isn’t that Holmes’s sentences are either shorter or longer on average than those of Rehnquist, rather Holmes’s shorter sentences are much shorter and his longer sentences are much longer. The consensus perspective might be that briefer sentences are preferable, and the oppositional pugilist might challenge that, but the reality is more nuanced—it was in the juxtaposition of such extremity, Farnsworth argues, that Holmes’s talents lay (It would be fascinating to see an analysis of Antonin Scalia, for what that justice lacked in scruples or ideas he made up for in style).

The rhythm of like and unlike is what becomes Farnsworth’s stylistic equivalent of the unified field theory of physics; it is (not unconvincingly) his argument for what separates the sublime from the passable. A shift in difference can take many forms; he writes that the “two things might be plain and fancy words, long and short sentences, hard and soft syllables, high or rich substance and low or simple style…the concrete and the abstract, the passive and the active, the dignified and the coarse, detachment from the audience and engagement with it.” The point, he seems to be saying, is that strict prescriptions for what words to pick, how long to make your sentences, what tone to affect, miss the point—the whole game is in setting up some pair of dueling Manichean principles and letting that tension be the energy that propels the prose. The whole thing puts me in mind of an old comic strip that one sees posted upon many a faculty office door. Underground cartoonist Matt Groening, now very wealthy from being creator of The Simpsons, had an entry in his strip Life in Hell entitled “The 9 Types of College Professor,” which included the “Single Theory-to-Explain-Everything Maniac.” His warning about this genus of academic was that their “Theory may be correct.”

That’s a bit what Farnsworth’s contention feels like to me—I’m skeptical, but his rhetorical analysis goes a long way to reverse engineering what makes great prose effective. The strength of his theory is that it’s general enough, for disjuncts in prose can be manifested in a variety of ways. He shows the strength of his observation when turning towards the Gettysburg Address, often configured as an exemplar of the plain-spoken Attic style. “The beauty and power of Lincoln’s wording,” however, “lies not in a relentless use of Saxon words but in the movement between earthy language and airier words and phrases that elevate.” Contrary to the Orwell prescription that native English etymology must always be preferred, Farnsworth says that Lincoln’s genius was in knowing how to weave the various strains of English together, so that “The Saxon words create feeling and convey simplicity and sincerity. They hit home. The Latinate words evoke thought and connect the images to concepts and ideals. The sound and tone of each balances the sound and tone of the other.”

If there is a drawback to Farnsworth’s Classical English Style, it’s that he leans so heavily on excerpts from “Shakespeare and the King James Bible, from Lincoln and Churchill, from Charles Dickens and Mark Twain.” His contention that “writers of lasting stature still make the best teachers” is well taken; I always tell my students that there is no shortcut to good writing, it can only come about by reading all of the time. But the problem with the canon is that it’s a surprisingly anemic syllabus. Farnsworth says that the “premise of the book” is that these canonical authors provide “a set of lessons on style drawn from writers whose words have stood the test of time.” To which it could be retorted that that’s true for some of them; Lincoln and Churchill are unambiguously great, G.K. Chesterton is a bit too sherry-pickled for my taste, and the passages from the Irish parliamentarian Henry Gratan were certainly good, but I don’t know if he’s withstood the test of time in the sense that he doesn’t appear on a Barnes & Noble tote bag. At a certain point the litany of selections from Cardinal Newman and Patrick Henry, Daniel Webster and Edmund Burke gets tiring. Farnsworth doth protests too much about there not being enough contemporary examples exhibiting the exact qualities he celebrates, pernicious modernist minimalism or not. Farnsworth’s Classical English Style would have benefited by some Joan Didion or James Baldwin, if we’re hunting for great sentences.

A small quibble, that. Because while Farnsworth’s tastes might be conservative, his appreciation is radical. Farnsworth’s Classical English Style has a great benefit in exploding all of the pious certitude of every grammarian who has yelled at somebody for ending a sentence in a preposition, every knife-wielding composition teacher who with red pen excises succulent meat from the bare-bone of the sentence, every sectarian of shortness declaiming that their way of writing is the only way of writing. Questions of composition pedagogy are often configured as a pitched battle between conservative prescriptivists and liberal descriptivists, the former drafting laws that must be followed and the later simply describing language as it’s actually used. Any number of conservative commentators who decry the so-called degradation of contemporary language, blaming texting or pop music, are within the prescriptivist camp even while most teachers of writing are firmly descriptivist. It would be easy to see the author names that Farnsworth uses to illustrate his points and to assume he’s in the conservative faction, and it’s true that he opposes a certain literary entropy, but he’s not mounting the same argument that people who decry text-speak are making. “Those who wring their hands about the decline of the language sometimes worry too much about the wrong things,” Farnsworth writes, “They observe with horror that people confuse uninterested with disinterested, or don’t know when to say fewer and when to say less, or fumble in their use of the apostrophe or other punctuation marks.” But grammar is incidental, in many ways; the true decline has been one of style, in part ironically pushed by the very people who claimed to be defending the honor of English. He argues that “the more meaningful decline of the language doesn’t involve the presence of mistakes. It involves absences that are easier to overlook: the abandonment of half the orchestra, the erosion of rhetorical ability, the dwindling of attention spans, the scarcity of speech that inspires and rouses and strikes deep.”

Farnsworth’s Classical English Style is a worthy rejoinder to The Elements of Style. If Strunk and White sent half the orchestra home, furloughing all of the grab-bag of rhetorical tropes that make language musical from anaphora to zeugma, then Farnsworth is passing around a collection plate to make sure that we can still hear their music. He’s correct that the style promoted by the composition guides that dominate our definitions of good writing have worthy observations in them—there is no shame in that mode, as long as we acknowledge it as one among many. But the full variety of ways of writing are reduced, minimized, obscured. Farnsworth is right to mount a defense of the beleaguered Byzantine. It puts me in mind of a volley in the Pedant’s War that I once got into with a colleague who objected to my favored use of the rhetorical trope of asyndeton, the practice of deleting conjunctions so as to effect a kind of breathless rhythm when listing ideas at the end of a sentence. For him this was unconventional and distracting; for me, it gave the structure of the sentence exactly what I wanted—a sense of things as being rushed, energetic, incomplete. Count me in Farnsworth’s camp. What he offers is a beautiful stylistic disestablishmentarianism. A sentiment that gives student and writer alike the permission to be breezy—the permission to prefer the offbeat to the standard. Follow the call: enjoy the unconventional word, the meandering sentence, the affected rhetorical trope. Extremism in defense of the baroque is no vice; moderation in pursuit of minimalism is no virtue.

Bonus Links:—A Year in Reading: Ward FarnsworthThinking Makes It So: Ward Farnsworth Reframes the Stoics with Wit and InsightWard Farnsworth Doesn’t Mess Around: On ‘Classical English Metaphor’A Review! A Review! Farnsworth’s Classical English RhetoricScenes From Our Unproduced Screenplay: ‘Strunk & White: Grammar Police’Prescriptivists vs. Descriptivists: The Fifth Edition of The American Heritage DictionaryThe Impediments of Style: Advice from Steven Pinker and the CIA