Was Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ Inspired by an Edgar Allan Poe Story?

In Jordan Peele’s new movie, Us, the Wilson family—father, mother, son, daughter—encounters their own strange doubles, who’ve come to exact a terrible revenge. But the Wilsons aren’t the only family to be stalked and menaced. In the second half of the movie, it becomes clear that nearly everyone else in the United States is encountering their doubles—and with similar results.

There are two Americas, Peele suggests. The first is populated by the leisure class and the second is made up of an aggrieved, murderous underclass. So far, so standard, but what exact social issue or experience is Peele attempting to make literal? Us never feels like a straightforward critique of capitalism. The many elements of the story—including the numerous allusions and Easter eggs—never really add up to anything we’ve got words for. We’re left sensing a larger theme we can’t quite name.

And maybe that’s as it should be. Peele is working in the realm of the unspeakable, and as Rod Serling’s famous Twilight Zone intro goes, that territory “lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge.” Some of it is unconscious. Even the geniuses don’t always know exactly what they’re laying bare.

Just take what is arguably the source material for Us—Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 short story “William Wilson,” in which a young man encounters, and ultimately murders, his own uncanny double. “William Wilson” initially appears to have an almost annoyingly obvious meaning: The man’s double is his conscience, or superego as Freudians would have it, and we’re all our own worst enemies. Except I’m not sure we’ve ever really understood Poe’s story. What if “William Wilson” isn’t about what it’s always seemed to be about?

I’d like to float a fresh theory about “William Wilson,” which I think casts light on Us, too. It comes down to the autobiographical nature of Poe’s story and to new research published by the British psychoanalyst Joy Schaverien, namely her work on Boarding School Syndrome.

Schaverien first coined the term “Boarding School Syndrome” in a 2011 paper. In treating patients over many decades, she began to detect a distinct pattern—“an identifiable cluster of learned behaviors and emotional states”—in those patients who’d attended Britain’s elite boarding schools. The image of such education as the pinnacle of privilege has blinded us to the cruelty of the practice, she argued, characterizing the phenomenon as “socially condoned abandonment of the very young” in her 2015 book, Boarding School Syndrome: The Psychological Trauma of the ‘Privileged’ Child.

Children who are separated from their families and put into boarding school at a tender age, she’s written, “suffer the sudden and often irrevocable loss of their primary attachments.” Even when not bullied or mistreated at school, the experience of being sent away itself may constitute a “significant trauma” that children may experience as “literally unspeakable.”

“There are no words to adequately express the feeling state and so a shell is formed to protect the vulnerable self from emotion that cannot be processed,” Schaverien has said. “Whilst appearing to conform to the system, a form of unconscious splitting is acquired as a means of keeping the true self hidden.”

“William Wilson” reads like a virtual case study in Boarding School Syndrome. And Poe wrote the story in part about his own experience of boarding school. As most fans know, Poe lost his biological parents early, with both succumbing to tuberculosis in 1811. Few people realize that he effectively lost his family all over again, when his foster parents, John and Frances Allan, put him into boarding school.

The Allan family had moved from Richmond, Va., to London in 1815 so that John could open up a new branch of his business. But Frances quickly grew depressed and withdrawn, and John’s business tanked with the broad economic downturn that began in 1816. Little Edgar, per the longstanding tradition for boys of his age and class, was sent off to school at age six. He first lodged with the Misses Dubourg in a nearby neighborhood. At nine, he was transferred to the more prestigious (and more expensive) Manor House School, in Stoke Newington, much further from the Allans’ home in central London.

Poe used the Manor House School as the initial setting in “William Wilson,” more or less explicitly. The story offers extensive details of its building and grounds. Poe didn’t even bother to change the name of the headmaster, Reverend Bransby (who, according to one source, did not appreciate the mention).

Here the narrator, on his very first day, encounters another boy who’s also entering the school that day. This boy shares the narrator’s name and birthday, as well as every “counter of person and outline of feature.” Other students assume they are brothers.

Though the narrator struggles to define or describe his feelings about his double, he does register “uneasy curiosity” at the “knowing and strangely sarcastic smiles” and “advice not openly given but hinted or insinuated.” Something about this other boy causes him to recall “dim visions of my earliest infancy—wild, confused and thronging memories of a time when memory herself was yet unborn.” When at last the narrator murders his double, the other William Wilson responds, “how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.”

The double, of course, is a part of the narrator, his own twin. Or perhaps he’s the narrator’s shell, formed the very day he was put into boarding school. Poe may have been portraying his own unspeakable experience, giving his own psychic split a literal treatment. “William Wilson” drew on some contemporary literary sources, too, but it’s still among the most autobiographical of Poe’s tales.

Art, Schaverien wrote in her book, “offers a way of revealing imagery which has previously had no other form of representation. It shows what cannot be spoken and mediates between conscious and unconscious.” She described one patient who insisted that, on his first day at school, he had “murdered” a part of himself. The man eventually recovered, in part by drawing pictures of his experiences—including a portrait of his “soul murder.” (“They made us cut ourselves in half!” he told Schaverien. “Can it ever be put back together?”)

Reading “William Wilson” in context of Boarding School Syndrome isn’t just an exercise in armchair diagnosis. It raises the possibility that what Poe portrayed in the story—consciously or unconsciously—isn’t solely the symbolic killing of one’s conscience or superego but a deeper and more intimate kind of “soul murder,” through which we become dead to our own feelings, including empathy. The same goes for Peele’s Us.

Though Freud popularized the term “soul murder,” it’s more lately been used to describe abused children who experience psychic splits and by the historian Nell Irvin Painter to explain the psychological dynamics of slavery in antebellum America, including what Painter identified as a deadening of conscience among the privileged, literal master class.

Here’s one example Painter offered.
John Nelson was a Virginian who spoke in 1839 about his own coming of age… He says, when he was a child, when his father beat their slaves, that he would cry and he would feel for the slave who was being inflicted with violence. He would feel almost as if he himself were being beaten, and he would cry. And he would say, “Stop, stop!” And his father, “You have to stop that. You have to learn to do this, yourself.” And as John Nelson grew up, he did learn how to do it. And he said in 1839 that he got to the point where he not only didn’t cry; he could inflict a beating himself and not even feel it.
Is it just me, or in all this does the inchoate subtext of Us start to become clearer? What if Us is also about a kind of soul murder, the soul murder that results from privilege, from constantly observing terrible shit and not doing anything about it, from our becoming numb to the inequities (and iniquities) of class in contemporary America, from our loss of attachment to anything resembling collective interests? What if Us isn’t really about class struggle so much as the dreadful knowledge so many of us live with and are—at the same time—effectively deadened to: our awareness that so much of what’s good in our lives depends upon the exploitation, even subjugation, of people who, but for the circumstances of their birth, are just like us?

Maybe we just don’t have a name for this syndrome yet, even though we can sense it effectively operating at scale among us. But I think that, one day, in what I hope is a slightly more enlightened age, we will. Then we might see Us, like “William Wilson,” as a case study ahead of its time.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Chapman, Miller, Cásares, Auster, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Ryan Chapman, Mary Miller, Oscar Cásares, Paul Auster, and more—that are publishing this week.

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Riots I Have Known by Ryan Chapman

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Riots I Have Known: “While fellow inmates at the Westbrook prison in upstate New York are rioting, an erudite unnamed Sri Lankan intellectual attempts to put into words his philosophy, personal history, and, eventually, the events that led up to the riot in Chapman’s funny and excellent debut. The narrator has barricaded himself in the Media Center, trying to finish what could be the final issue of his in-house magazine, The Holding Pen. The narrative gets its most solid comic charge from the ironic disparity between the rough circumstances of prison life and the incongruous need of humans to intellectualize. The narrator reports that just before another inmate was stabbed in the yard, ‘he said: ‘Time makes fools of us all.’’ Later he recounts the tale of inept would-be suicide Fritz, who can’t ‘master the hangman’s noose, he kept falling to his cell floor in a blooper of self-abnegation.’ While the narrator documents his uneasy adjustment to prison life and his complex relationship with a pen pal, he is most concerned with his legacy within the niche world of ‘post-penal literary magazines.’ He confesses early on: ‘I am the architect of the Caligulan melee enveloping Westbrook’s galleries and flats.’ The explanation for this claim is offered in spoonfuls; it’s mostly a MacGuffin for protracted yarn spinning and Chapman’s dazzling virtuosity. Supremely mischievous and sublimely written, this is a stellar work.”

Biloxi by Mary Miller

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Biloxi: “When 63-year-old retiree Louis McDonald Jr., the narrator of this excellent novel from Miller (Always Happy Hour), spots a ‘Free Dogs’ advertisement when out driving one day, he stops and adopts Layla, a black and white pup with a gagging complex. The duo pokes around coastal Mississippi while Louis also deals with visits from Frank, his ex-wife’s brother, who’s concerned about Louis’s loneliness; calls with his semi-estranged daughter, Maxine; and his own attempts to settle the estate of his recently deceased father. A witty, insightful exploration of masculinity and self-worth, the story lets its protagonist roam with Layla and discover a new lease on life before introducing Layla’s original owner, Sasha, the wife of the man who gave her away without permission. When Sasha sees that Layla, known to her as Katy, did not run away, as her husband claimed, the much younger woman leaves him and shacks up with Louis, who is initially happy for the company, but who soon grows weary of her as their situation comes to a head. In Louis, Miller captures the insecurities of an imperfect man beyond his prime as he tries to find his purpose in the world, and the result is a charming and terrific novel.”

The Organs of Sense by Adam Ehrlich Sachs

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Organs of Sense: “In his sublime first novel (following the story collection Inherited Disorders), which recalls the nested monologues of Thomas Bernhard and the cerebral farces of Donald Antrim, Sachs demonstrates the difficulty of getting inside other people’s heads (literally and figuratively) and out of one’s own. In 1666, a young Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz—the philosopher who invented calculus—treks to the Bohemian mountains to ‘rigorously but surreptitiously assess’ the sanity of an eyeless, unnamed astronomer who is predicting an impending eclipse. Should the blind recluse’s prediction come to pass, Leibniz reasons, it would leave ‘the laws of optics in a shambles… and the human eye in a state of disgrace.’ In the hours leading up to the expected eclipse, the astronomer, whose father was Emperor Maximilian’s Imperial Sculptor (and the fabricator of an ingenious mechanical head), tells Leibniz his story. As a young man still in possession of his sight, he became Emperor Rudolf’s Imperial Astronomer in Prague, commissioning ever longer telescopes, an ‘astral tube’ whose exorbitant cost ‘seemed to spell the end of the Holy Roman Empire.’ The astronomer also recounts his entanglements with the Hapsburgs, ‘a dead and damned family,’ all of whom were mad or feigning madness. These transfixing, mordantly funny encounters with violent sons and hypochondriacal daughters stage the same dramas of revelation and concealment, reason and lunacy, doubt and faith, and influence and skepticism playing out between the astronomer and Leibniz. How it all comes together gives the book the feel of an intellectual thriller. Sachs’s talent is on full display in this brilliant work of visionary absurdism.”

Where We Come From by Oscar Cásares

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Where We Come From: “The author of the collection Brownsville returns to that Texas border town for this thoughtful and quietly suspenseful novel. Retired single schoolteacher Nina lives with and cares for her crabby, bedbound mother. She is looking forward to spending a few summer weeks with her 12-year-old godson, Orly, whose advertising executive father, Nina’s nephew, lives in Houston, and whose mother recently died of an aneurysm. Meanwhile, a few months before Orly’s visit, Nina has gotten in over her head by providing secret housing for undocumented immigrants in the rental house behind her mother’s. When Orly arrives, one boy, 12-year-old Daniel, is hiding there. Despite Nina’s efforts, Orly discovers Daniel’s existence, and the two form a tentative bond, in the process putting Nina’s extended family in danger. While keeping the focus on family dynamics and the characters’ internal struggles, Cásares frequently, and often heartbreakingly, sets this domestic story in a wider context by stepping back to investigate the stories of people with whom the main characters interact only tangentially (a waiter who provides room service for Orly’s father in San Francisco; the gardener who cleans the gutters at Orly’s house in Houston). With understated grace and without sermonizing, Cásares brilliantly depicts the psychological complexity of living halfway in one place and halfway in another.”

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Confessions of Frannie Langton: “Collins’s debut is a powerful portrayal of the horrors of slavery and the injustices of British society’s treatment of former slaves in the early 1800s. Frannie Langton lives as John Langton’s slave in Jamaica from 1812 until 1825. When the harvest burns, ownership of the land reverts to Langton’s wife and her brother, and Langton returns to London with Frannie. Once in London, he gives Frannie as a servant to fellow scientist George Benham and his wife, Meg, a woman intrigued by Frannie and the breadth of her education. Benham asks Frannie to spy on Meg, whom he thinks might do something to embarrass him socially; meanwhile, Frannie and Meg become lovers. But when Benham and Meg are murdered, Frannie is arrested. She claims no memory of the crime, and a good defense seems unlikely both because of her race and her spotty memory. Frannie’s dislike of Benham, her jealousy of his relationship with Meg, and memory gaps caused by Frannie’s use of laudanum add to the reader’s uncertainty of her involvement. This is both a highly suspenseful murder mystery and a vivid historical novel, but best of all is the depiction of Frannie, a complex and unforgettable protagonist. This is a great book sure to find a wide—and deserved—audience.”

Talking to Strangers by Paul Auster

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Talking to Strangers: “Man Booker Prize finalist Auster (4 3 2 1) gathers 44 pieces of nonfiction and essays in this wide-ranging and probing collection. His insightful literary criticism, written in the 1970s and ’80s for Commentary and the New York Review of Books, among others, discusses Kafka’s letters, the short-lived Dada movement, and the influence of French poets on their British and American counterparts. More recent works include a tribute to Auster’s long-lived manual typewriter and an account of an evening at Shea Stadium watching Mets pitcher Terry Leach shut out the Giants. The collection’s highlights include reflections on artists both classic and contemporary, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, whose notebooks reveal the humorous side of ‘a notoriously melancholy man,’ and Jim Jarmusch, whose films are characterized by “loopy asides, unpredictable digressions and an intense focus on what is happening at each particular moment.’ The book also includes newly published work, notably a lively 1982 lecture on ‘the luckless, misunderstood Edgar Allan Poe,’ who was greatly admired—and rescued from obscurity—by French poets Baudelaire and Mallarmé. This vibrant collection fully displays Auster’s wit and humanity and offers a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a celebrated author.”

Little Glass Planet by Dobby Gibson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Little Glass Planet: “In his fourth book, Gibson (It Becomes You) offers an ode to poetry and the respite it provides from a restless, cacophonous world. A gentle protest of the politics that scorn love and empathy, this book invites the reader to log off from the ceaseless relay of information in order to reconnect with the natural world, as well as simple, beautiful objects, such as an antique Korean fishing bobber. Gibson is charmingly funny, as when he presents a mock etymological elegy for the actor Abe Vigoda: ‘That name, like something resurrected/ from a dictionary. Abe: another word/ for honesty. And vigoda, meaning:/ a sacred temple for vampires.’ The poem ‘Roll Call’ considers activities that ‘the gods’ may be engaging in at any given time, including ‘updating their secret map of lost mittens’ and ‘chasing one another at the god park.’ The book contains many pithy observations (‘it’s impossible to get/ the same haircut twice’) which occasionally seem cute or unnecessary. However, it contains many more remarkable, arresting images: ‘a lemon tree dressed in December ice like a girl in her grandmother’s jewelry.’ The poem that opens the book’s third section, ‘Inside the Compulsion to Wonder Lies the Will to Survive,’ effectively epitomizes the poet’s worldview. Gibson offers the reader a quiet space to reflect on the metaphysical and to find peace in a time of chaos.”

Dubrava Ugrešić Looks for Home

1.
As her native Yugoslovia became embroiled in war in the early 1990s, Dubrava Ugrešić left. She thought she was leaving for a short time—just a brief visit to Amsterdam. She wound up staying away longer than she planned, as she writes in the opening pages of American Fictionary: “Every day I would set off for the station and then postpone my return to Zagreb with the firm intention of leaving the next day…And then I suddenly decided I would not go back.” Ugrešić remained in Amsterdam until the time came for her to travel to Middletown, Connecticut, for a guest lectureship at Wesleyan University. She would eventually return to her homeland a year or so later, but only briefly, eventually being forced into exile in Amsterdam for her anti-war and anti-nationalist stances.

American Fictionary, out last year from Open Letter in an excellent updated translation by Ellen Elias-Bursać, is a collection of essays written while Ugrešić lived in Middletown. The brief pieces run the gamut of topics, from the American obsession with the organizer, to what it means to be an Eastern European Writer, to the mythical image America has of itself, even to a diatribe against the muffin (“A muffin is an infantile form of mush, a hodge-podge, the muffin is a treat for the poor and the amateur, the muffin is not just simple, it’s crude”).

Ugrešić writes as a poignant critic of American consumerism, of American individualism, and of the American pursuit of perfection. She sees in American cultural obsessions a commitment to the pursuit of tidiness. Though she recognizes an absence in her American subjects—“No American with a smidgen of self-respect knows who he or she is: that’s why every American has a shrink”—she keenly observes that they do everything in their power to mask it. We Americans hide our chaos in our organizers. “Chaos is divvied up into little piles, stowed away in shiny plastic compartments and closed with a zip-lock. Zip! There. No more chaos. No more darkness.” She longs to do the same with her own personal wreckage:
I don’t know where my former home is or where my future home will be, I don’t know whether I have a roof over my head, I don’t know what to think of my childhood, my origins, my languages. What about my Croatian, my Serbian, my Slovene, my Macedonian? What about the hammer and the sickle, my old coat of arms and my new one, or the yellow star? What to do with the dead, with the living, with the past or the future. I’m walking, talking chaos. This is why I buy organizers.
This sense of a lost home, and the disorientation Ugrešić experiences in its wake, is at the heart of her work. Reading American Fictionary with some knowledge of what’s to come for Ugrešić is harrowing—the return home that Ugrešić occasionally anticipates in these essays will not come to fruition; her homeland will not take her back.

“I shudder at my homeland,” she writes in “Life Vest,” the last original piece in the book, written as she finally flies toward Zagreb. “I shudder at the thought of the new country where I’ll be a stranger, whose citizenship I have yet to apply for, I’ll have to prove I was born there, though I was, that I speak its language, though it is my mother tongue.” Ugrešić imagines a certain kind of homelessness—one in which, though living in her native place, she has to go through the motions of acquiring legitimate legal residence. What she ended up with was exile. As she writes in “P.S.,” her addendum to American Fictionary included in Open Letter’s new edition, “I imagined that my work on the essays for my American fictionary would be my way of sketching my homeward trajectory. Soon enough the opposite proved true: the essays were, instead, an introduction to a different sort of fictionary, to the exile on which I embarked in 1993, only a year after I’d returned from America.” Ugrešić has been based in Amsterdam ever since.

2.
There’s a passage in Fox, another recent work of Ugrešić’s published by Open Letter (and translated by Ellen Elias-Bursać and David Williams), that suggests how Ugrešić might conceptualize the idea of home today. In the passage, an anonymous reader bequeaths the narrator, who closely resembles Ugrešić, a home in Kuruzovac, a remote town in Croatia. The gesture is rife with symbolism, of course, in part suggesting that insofar as Ugrešić has found a home to replace the one she lost, she’s found it in her global community of readers.

The narrator spends several idyllic days in the home in Kuruzovac, days that include a brief love affair with a mine remover who was squatting in the home when she arrived. The landscape of the region, the purple lilacs that abound, prompt memories of her childhood, of how, “when we were little girls, we carried flowers around in the thumb crease, holding our hands out before us like tiny trays bearing crystal goblets.” The morning after she arrives at the home, she goes out to the porch: “The air was redolent of lilacs. Down the steps I went and picked a lilac cluster. Back on the porch, I sat on the bench, broke off a tiny goblet-like floret, and poked it into the crease alongside my thumb. I sat there, thumb out before me, elbow propped on knee, taking care that the floret didn’t tip over—and breathed in the new morning. I cannot remember a morning that seemed newer.” The passage seems to harken to this one from American Fictionary, where Ugrešić recounts a stay at an inn in Norman, Oklahoma:
When I came out in my pajamas one early October morning onto the veranda, I sat on the porch swing and sipped at my warm coffee…the wail of a train’s whistle cut through the stillness, a sound I hadn’t heard since my childhood. This was an auditory reminder that trains passed through the town but didn’t stop. Enchanted by the air, as sweet and fragrant as an overripe melon, I felt as if here, on this porch…I could stay forever. That veranda is my “homeland.”
Similarities abound between these two depictions of a homeland—home is found in a middle-of-nowhere place, away from the forces of power and war that might like to force her out; the feeling of having found some sort of home comes on the heels of recollections from her childhood, perhaps the only time when she felt she truly had a home. As Fox’s narrator leaves Kuruzovac, though, the reality of what home has become in her life reemerges, and she faces the true nature of her world: “The world is a minefield and that’s the only home there is. I must accustom myself to this fact.”

I feel melancholy when I read Ugrešić—for the ways in which she calls out the foolishness of American culture and what we choose to value (observations as sharp today as they were some 25 years ago), and for seeing what was lost for her and so many others divorced from their homeland. There’s a palpable sorrow in her writing, culminating in moments where the wound feels especially raw. “At the end of every year I secretly wish for all my friends and acquaintances to live at last in peace with themselves.” Reading these essays, I find myself wishing that for Ugrešić—that she might find herself calmly reclining on that verandah in Norman, Oklahoma, at some version of peace with herself.

Martha Cooper: A Reluctant Icon

1.
This year’s Tribeca Film Festival featured a new category called “This Used to Be New York.” One of the category’s three entries was the Australian filmmaker Selina Miles’s debut feature-length documentary, Martha: A Picture Story, about the renowned street photographer Martha Cooper. As I settled into the screening room, I was feeling anticipation tinged with dread. The anticipation came from my unquenchable hunger to time-travel back to the bunged-up, brawling, beautiful New York City of my youth; the dread came from my fear that this movie was going to be another work of misty-eyed nostalgia. The category title “This Used to Be New York” was the first red flag, and the description of the movie in the festival catalog was the clincher. It read:
Selina Miles’ film is a portrait of photographer Martha Cooper, who, with inimitable energy and a sharp eye, recorded images of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s—eras when the city’s vibrancy was deemed dangerous. Cooper’s images of graffiti and hip hop culture showcased a joyous street life that now exists simply as frozen smiles in a city transformed by real estate greed.
Wow. I trust you’re beginning to understand my dread. The writer of the above paragraph claims that the city’s vibrancy of the ’70s and ’80s “was deemed dangerous.” Anyone who lived in the city in those years knows there was no deemed about it. The city was dangerous by any definition of the word, whether you define it by the murder rate, street crime, the onslaught of AIDS, the city’s teetering finances, or the countless abandoned and burning buildings. Of course there was an upside to that danger—an untethering of old sexual, social and artistic restraints, a sense that anything goes, a flowering of creativity that Martha Cooper chronicled and that continues to inspire artists today, from those who lived through it to those who were born after it had passed, from Patti Smith to Colum McCann, Will Hermes, Garth Risk Hallberg, and many others.

The writer of the paragraph in the catalog concludes that Martha Cooper’s photographs showcased “a joyous street life that now exists simply as frozen smiles in a city transformed by real estate greed.” Now we’ve arrived at the true source of my dread: this movie was being offered up in service of the facile cliché that New York City used to be an interesting place but it got bled dry by big money, and all the artists got pushed out when the hedge-funders moved in. As someone who has been struggling to cover grand-larceny New York rents for most of my adult life, I can certainly corroborate that the city is—always has been, always will be—awash in real estate greed. As I write these words, I can look across the street at an ugly new 60-story glass condo tower and, next door to it, a construction site where another one is clawing its way into the sky. These abominations will never stop coming. There are more than 60,000 homeless people in the city today, and a hedge-fund gazillionaire just paid $240 million for a penthouse on Billionaires’ Row near Central Park. So, yes, there is real estate greed and there is obscene money and there is inequality in New York City today, and there is no denying that these forces have had a chilling effect on people struggling to make art. But to say that everyone is wearing a “frozen smile” is just lazy and wrong, and it feeds the blooming cottage industry of nostalgia, which I define as the yearning for a time that never existed, a time when everything was supposedly cheaper, freer, better.

This nostalgia is nothing new. It dates back at least to the 1920s, when Edmund Wilson lamented that rising rents were driving writers and artists out of Greenwich Village, and a much-loved cultural gathering spot called Frank Shay’s Bookshop closed down, possibly because rents were rising and demographics were shifting. The ür-text of disillusionment with New York might be Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That” from her nonfiction masterpiece, Slouching Towards Bethlehem. The essay was Didion’s take on an old story—how a young person’s infatuation with New York, “the shining and perishable dream itself,” slowly unravels. In 2010, Patti Smith declared, “New York has closed itself off to the young and the struggling…New York City has been taken away from you. So my advice is: find another city.” Three years later, the musician David Byrne wrote a widely read essay bemoaning the way great wealth in the hands of the few was making the city untenable for the many, especially creative people. “Middle-class people can barely afford to live here anymore,” Byrne wrote, “so forget about emerging artists, musicians, actors, dancers, writers, journalists and small business people. Bit by bit, the resources that keep the city vibrant are being eliminated.” He described the city as pockets of gated “pleasure domes for the rich” surrounded by the striving 99 percent of the rest of us.

That same year, Sari Botton edited a collection of essays by 28 women that borrowed its title from Didion’s essay (which was borrowed from Robert Graves’s memoir about his life through the First World War). Botton’s book, which carried the subtitle Writers on Loving and Leaving New York, was a string of bittersweet farewells in the Joan Didion mode. Perhaps a tick too bitter, because a year later Botton followed it with a more upbeat collection called Never Can Say Goodbye, which was a string of unabashed mash notes to the city, bearing the subtitle Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York. I was particularly taken by Rosanne Cash’s essay, “New York, in the Mirror,” which catalogued the many downsides of New York life today—the crippling cost of living, of course, plus the demolition of cherished places to make way for franchise restaurants and nail salons and condos, the influx of obscene money, the hordes of tourists clogging the High Line. But in the end, Cash realizes she still loves living here. I agree with her conclusion about the recent changes: “It’s too bad, but it’s the way it is.” She might have added: It has been this way since forever, so quit whining and get on with it.

2.
When Martha: A Picture Story started rolling, my dread gave way to delight. Miles had wisely steered clear of the cockeyed nostalgia promised by the catalog notes and instead focused on her subject, a young woman with an unkillable dream of making it as a photographer in New York in the 1970s. There is home-movie footage of a young Martha Cooper in Japan with her husband, where she became fascinated by the subculture of tattooing, then more footage of her prowling the bunged-up and beautiful streets of New York’s Lower East Side and the Bronx in the 1970s, camera in hand. Eventually she got hired by the New York Post, which gave her a license (and a paycheck) to chronicle the life of the streets, from the slums to Central Park. She gained entrée to the crews of artists who were coating subway cars with their rococo, loopy dreams, most notably the underground star Dondi. This, in turn, led her into the nascent world of hip hop, the deejays, break dancers and b-boys who had such an implausibly large hand in shaping today’s global culture. Economic hardship was a constant for Cooper, but she had found her place in the city and you get the feeling she wouldn’t have given it up for anything. Interviewed on camera, Cooper, now white-haired, comes off as intrepid, self-deprecating, very funny, deeply private, and nearly monastic in her devotion to chronicling the life of the streets. “I’m not comfortable with the idea that I’m a legend or an icon,” she says at one point, though she has clearly become both, with fans all over the world. As for New York back in the day, yes, it was dangerous, she says, “but it was actually a great place to explore.” As for what drove her to turn street life into art, she says with a shrug: “I believed in it.” And the subject of her art? “It’s about people who are making New York City their own.”

3.
As it happened, both Miles and Cooper were on hand for the screening I attended, and after the credits finished rolling, they stood at the front of the theater to take questions. A man in the audience asked Cooper if she had visited Brooklyn recently and seen all the fabulous street art sprinkled between all the obscene new condo towers. To her credit, Cooper didn’t take the bait. She said, “I don’t like to look backward. Yes, this city is getting iffy, but there are still interesting things out there. I don’t think gentrification is all good or all bad. I just wish I had gone to Williamsburg and Bushwick and taken more pictures.”

This drew an appreciative laugh. The next questioner asked Cooper if she saw herself as an artist or as an historian and anthropologist. “Now that’s a good question,” Cooper said, clearly implying that the leading question about gentrification was not. Cooper, in her humble way, said she never considered herself an artist. She said she was always more interested in documenting and preserving subcultures that were destined to blaze and then vanish. If nobody documents them, they will not only vanish, they will also be forgotten. History can’t live on memory alone. Without a whiff of pretension, Cooper made her life’s work sound almost like a holy calling. And in doing so, she implied that nothing—not money, not gentrification, not the corporate ooze now overtaking New York—has the power to keep her and her kind from pursuing their calling. I had walked into the theater feeling anticipation tinged with dread. I walked out feeling recharged and reborn. Thank you, Selina Miles. And thank you, Martha Cooper.

Reading Roberto Bolaño’s Final Wake-Up Call

Before we get too far, I have to be candid: Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is a book from which one must recover. I’m serious. No book since Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian has left me in such a state of utter, cosmic helplessness. So, if you’re here because you’re trying to decide whether or not to read Bolaño’s 900-page opus, I can only say this: it must be read, but no shame to any person who cannot.

And don’t, I would add, read it when you’re sick. I can say this with some confidence because I read it recently when I was sick, parked on the couch while my little kids played and did homeschool at the dining room table, and the dark fingers reaching up from the pages constituted a private hell to which my cheerful family remained utterly oblivious. 2666 is taxing on the best of days, to say nothing of when you’re all body aches and fever.

2666 was Bolaño’s last book—published in 2004 with the English translation arriving in 2008—and the grandest realization of his bleak, charged vision. The central thrust is necessarily vague, but basically here it is: For a host of reasons, a cast of seemingly unrelated characters—a scholar, a sports reporter, a celebrity detective, and a reclusive writer (along with the three literary critics who are hoping to find him)—have all come to Santa Teresa, a stand-in for Ciudad Juárez, a city haunted by the mysterious murders of hundreds of women. No one knows how or why the women die. They simply turn up in the desert.

Bolaño’s signature conflation of high and low literature has always been underscored by a palpable sense of dread, but in Santa Teresa that dread builds into a haunting wail that billows across the desert and envelopes his characters and readers. For hundreds of pages. Several times, we feel we’re close to an explanation for the crimes but, of course, an explanation never comes. And central to this tormented stasis is the never-explained 666 in 2666.

It is easy to reduce Bolaño’s vision to a familiar apocalyptic trope: everything’s going to hell, everything’s burning up. But to do so is to misread both Bolaño’s book and the purpose of apocalyptic literature, which, most often, was not written to explain the end of the world or reveal prophecy—though in some notable occasions it does just that. Rather, as Flannery O’Connor once said of the grotesque in fiction, apocalyptic literature offers a cartoonish exaggeration to shock the apathetic. Resisting common misreads, apocalyptic literature traditionally serves to describe a spiritual condition or stasis. The title of Bolaño’s novel represents a stasis that has little to do with the year 2666 but everything to do with the century that was dawning at the time of his untimely death. By blotting out the new millennium’s ever-changing numbers (2008, 2027, 2912…) with the placeholder 666, Bolaño hinted at a horrific—and, yes, apocalyptic—continuum descending upon us. One that we are growing accustomed to and, eventually, will fail to notice.

Humanity is entering its prolonged denouement. Will we make it to the year 3000? With the constant news of daily violence and ecological catastrophe, that sometimes seems hard to imagine—certainly this was the case for Bolaño, who cited the 20th century as a possible explanation for 2666’s deconstructed narrative terrain. The unprecedented horrors of World War I and World War II are where we come from, Bolaño suggests, and the tortured earth of Santa Teresa embodies our not-too-distant future: we are asleep at the wheel, coddled in luxury, indifferent and distracted, and we are largely blind to the many ways in which our world, every day, breaks just a little more.

Even the most dedicated readers, wading through the ceaseless violence of “The Part About the Crimes” section of 2666, will grow tired of the descriptions. The horrific rape and murder begin to blur as our brains, struggling to cope, become desensitized. Bolaño intended this. He lulls the reader into blood-spattered apathy. Then, in perhaps the greatest example of his authorial sleight-of-hand, Bolaño describes the investigating police trading chauvinistic jokes while ending their shifts. Immediately, we realize our own apathy. If the police investigating these inhumane acts can make jokes about the victims—and this is what captures our attention as readers, not the continued violence—then what does it say about us? Sure, we find the jokes distasteful, but our own indifference is worse: in our need for comfort, we stopped caring about the murder victims. Bolaño has called us out—and, as long as such horrors exist in the world, each of us remains culpable by extension. In this way, Bolaño bludgeons us awake with a power few writers possess, and the murders become shocking once more.

Again and again, Bolaño grabs us by the scruff of the neck and pushes our heads into the abyss. For Bolaño, the year 2666 is the symbolic culmination of humanity’s neglect and violence, a state of being that has become our modus operandi. Even our best efforts cannot avert the evil bearing down on victims and the apathetic onlookers alike. For that, Bolaño suggests, is where it all starts: at the very spot where we stop paying attention and slip into deadened stasis.

The True Crime Story That (Might Have) Inspired Nabokov to Write ‘Lolita’

The headline says it all: “Girl Who Was Kidnaped [sic] at 11 Killed at 15 in Auto Crash.”  The newspaper article, dateline Woodbine, N.J., goes on to report: “Florence (Sally) Horner, 15, the victim in a bizarre kidnapping case a few years ago, was killed in an automobile accident yesterday on the Woodbine-Dennisville road.” “Yesterday” was around midnight on August 17, 1952.

In her thoroughly researched The Real Lolita, Sarah Weinman proposes that Sally Horner was the inspiration for Dolores Haze (a.k.a. Lolita) in Vladimir Nabokov’s masterwork, Lolita, a novel that has endured for more than 60 years.

Does it really matter? What if the young girl from Camden was the model for the nymphet from Ramsdale? Who was Sally Horner? Who is Dolores Haze? Does one person illuminate or eliminate the other? Does it make any difference in reading the novel?

These are just a few of the tantalizing questions raised by Weinman’s evocative literary detection. Arguably she has done exhaustive research.  But to what end? And for what purpose?

Weinman carries some serious pedigree in the world of crime fiction. She edited two volumes about women writers and domestic suspense—Women Crime Writers: Eight Suspense Novels of the 1940s & 50s and Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from Trailblazers of Domestic Suspense. Like all good scholars she likes subtitles.

In this case, the subtitle—“The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World—promises more than the book can deliver. Sally Horner’s kidnapping was real. Lolita’s kidnapping is fiction. And Dolores Haze rose from the imaginative mind of her creator.

Weinman takes as her impetus a parenthetical aside late in the novel. The narrator, Humbert Humbert, conjectures, “(Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, a fifty-year old mechanic, had done to eleven-year-old Sally Horner in 1948?).” In the context of the novel, the sentence hardly bears rereading. It seems an intrusion into the narrative. Out of context, it conflates a historic event with a fabricated one. But, who was Frank Lasalle? And what does he—the person who kidnapped the real-life Sally—have to do with Lolita or Lolita to do with him?

The first fact reported about Sally Horner in the opening pages of The Real Lolita is a childhood incident that connects her to Frank Lasalle. On a dare from friends in the fifth grade, and wanting to be a part of their group, Sally steals a five-cent notebook from a Woolworth’s in Camden, N.J., in March 1948. She’s unaware that she’s being watched by a middle-aged man. When he accosts her, he claims to be an FBI agent. He says he is going to arrest her but will let her go if she agrees “to report to him from time to time.”

That man turns out to be Lasalle (a.k.a. Frank Warner), a convicted sex offender who had just been released after “serving a sentence for statutory rape of five girls between the ages of twelve and fourteen.” The petty crime and subsequent encounter define the remainder of Sally’s short, tragic life.

While it’s important to recognize the facts about Sally Horner, Weinman also relies on conjecture, often based on second-hand information from friends or acquaintances of Sally to fill the gaps of her speculative narrative. This mixing of fact and conjecture mutes the overall effect of her argument.

What is known is the circuitous path that Sally and Lasalle took across America beginning on June 14, 1948, starting with a bus ride to Atlantic City. They quickly left the shore town and headed to Baltimore, Maryland, which they left by early 1949, heading to Dallas, Texas, where Lasalle claimed the FBI has reassigned him. Eventually the pair end up in a trailer park in San Jose, California, having passed through Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, and Southern California. The itinerary is noteworthy because it shadows the kind of drives across the U.S. that Nabokov often took with his wife, Vera, and their young son, Dmitri.

In her effort to link Sally to Lolita and Nabokov, Weinman establishes a parallel chronology focusing on the writer’s academic, personal, and creative life. Of the book’s 29 chapters eight detail Nabokov’s 20-year struggle to complete his novel, speculate about how he might have learned about Sally, and outline his efforts to publish what would become a notorious piece of fiction.

The assertion that Dolores is based on Sally is pure conjecture. Granted their ages and their cross-country treks are similar. But everything about the essence of Sally’s road trips is speculative.

In his search for butterflies, Nabokov (usually during summer breaks from teaching at Wellesley, Cornell, and Harvard), took his family (first in 1941 in a new Pontiac; later, in a used Oldsmobile) from the East to the West Coast. Once to a 10-day writers’ conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, by way of the Great Lakes, Iowa, and Nebraska, then to the Grand Tetons of Wyoming and West Yellowstone in Montana. A drive in 1953 went from Ithaca, New York, to Birmingham, Alabama, to Arizona, past California lakes, ending in Ashland, Oregon.

Those trips manifest themselves in the novel in memorable chapters that capture the nature of the late 1940s, with Nabokov satirizing details of Americana. With his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, he describes “the Functional Motel—clean, neat, safe nooks,” the “stone cottages under enormous Chateaubriandesque trees,” the “Tourist Homes, country cousins of Funeral ones.” He provides the “repetitious names” of the various “Sunset Motels, U-Beam Cottages, Hillcrest Courts, Mountain View Courts, Green Acres” made of “the brick unit, the adobe unit, the stucco court.”

Along their route Humbert Humbert notes that he and Lolita frequent the “whole gamut” of roadside restaurants “from the lowly Eat with its deer head [and] one half of a chocolate cake under glass” to the “more expensive place with subdued lights, preposterously poor table linen…and an orchestra of zoot-suiters with trumpets.” Nothing like this is recorded in Lasalle and Horner’s real-life journey—it should be clear to everyone that Nobokov is drawing on his own experiences and not those of Sally Horner.

By March 1950, Sally and Frank ended up at the El Cortez Motor Inn in San Jose, California. This was Sally’s salvation. Befriended by Ruth Janisch, another resident of the trailer park, she revealed to her that Lasalle was not her father (which he had been claiming since he abducted her) and that she “want[ed] to go home as soon as [she could].”

That takes the reader to chapter 15, about halfway through Weinman’s investigation. The rest of the book follows Sally’s life to its ultimate end in the car crash. Weinman continues to defend her premise with information about Sally’s return to New Jersey, her reunion with her mother, Lasalle’s guilty plea and conviction, and the progress of the writing of Lolita up to its publication abroad by Olympia Press in 1955, then by G. P. Putnam’s Sons in the U.S. in 1958.

By 1955, Sally had been dead five years; in a dark coincidence, Dolores Haze came alive in August 1958, eight years to the day after Sally’s death.

Throughout his life, Nabokov denied any connection between Sally’s story and Lolita’s. Vera Nabokov also vehemently denied any link between the two. Nonetheless, Weinman perseveres, citing the Nabokovs’ “maddening, contradictory behavior when anyone probed Lolita’s possible influences.”

In the end, what is the takeaway from The Real Lolita? Weinman concludes that there “is no question Lolita would have existed without Sally Horner because Nabokov spent over twenty years dwelling on the theme…But the narrative was also strengthened and sharpened by the inclusion of her story.”

What is a reader of both books to do? Believe Sally was the inspiration for Dolores? And thereby refute Nabokov’s belief that “art supersedes influence.”

It’s easy to praise Weinman’s book as a new look at Lolita. It’s also just as easy to dismiss its contribution to Nabokov scholarship. Neither judgment is completely fair. Weinman is owed her due. But Nabokov’s novel overshadows it all.

Weinman’s book neither diminishes nor enhances his. Reading hers should not affect the reading of his. While Weinman’s work informs the creative process, it does not change the response to Nabokov’s masterwork. The novel will be read for another 60 years. Perhaps read hers in one hand and his in the other. The Real Lolita is best considered with an asterisk, as a footnote to Nabokov studies. It should provide incentive to read or reread the real Lolita.

This New Translation of a Russian Epic Restores What Censors Stole

Vasily Grossman’s novel Stalingrad, newly translated from the Russian by husband and wife Robert and Elizabeth Chandler and publishing in June from New York Review Books, is a book of three parts and 959 pages. It has an introduction, an afterword, and a pleasant forest-green spine. These markers of being are remarkable given the fact that an original Russian edition of this translation of Stalingrad doesn’t exist.
In truth, the Chandlers’ translation of Stalingrad draws on three published Russian editions of Grossman’s novel, which are all different from one another, plus several typed drafts and handwritten notes. The new translation is the result of the Chandlers’ “detailed comparison” of the three versions, and of their determination to prove that the novel can stand up to its better-known sequel, Life and Fate, which has long been recognized as Grossman’s masterpiece.
The idea that Stalingrad must be Grossman’s lesser book is a legacy of Soviet censorship, Robert says. Grossman wrote the novel in the late 1940s and early ’50s, when all literature in the Soviet Union had to follow the tenets of socialist realism. Official doctrine demanded a “historically specific depiction of reality,” in which characters would undergo “ideological rework… in the spirit of socialism.”
Writing that was judged insufficiently socialist realist by censors would remain unpublished, and its author might be sent to a labor camp or killed. Given these possibilities, Robert explains, “no writer in the Soviet Union ever wrote without an awareness of how the authorities would react, and every editor was, in effect, a censor.”
For Grossman, a sense of danger seems not to have been intuitive. Born in Ukraine in 1905, he studied chemistry in Moscow and then worked in a Donbass mine as an engineer. But writing drew him, and he returned to Moscow and published two novels and a short story praised by Maxim Gorky, then the Communist party’s favored writer. During Stalin’s purges, Grossman’s second wife was arrested by the NKVD, a forerunner of the KGB. Daringly, Grossman wrote a letter arguing for her innocence, and she was released. And when Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, Grossman—a 35-year-old Jewish intellectual who couldn’t shoot—volunteered for the Red Army. He was sent to the front as a journalist for the Krasnaya Zvezda newspaper.
Elizabeth speaks of the “emotional balance and steadiness of imagination” characteristic to Grossman’s prose. It was perhaps this equanimity, and his knack for getting a good interview, that made Grossman’s articles the newspaper’s most popular pieces. In August 1942, he went to Stalingrad.
“Grossman’s evocation of the inner life of young men who know they are certain to die within the next 24 hours is remarkably convincing,” Robert notes in his introduction to the novel. For much of the five-month Battle of Stalingrad, in which two million people died, Grossman lived alongside the Soviet soldiers fighting to take back Stalingrad from Axis forces. He spent hours talking with snipers, nurses, and divisional commanders; he saw them crossing the Volga under fire to enter the bombed-out city. Sometimes he traveled with them.
Writing of this wartime crossing in his novel, Grossman describes a sublime steppe landscape that becomes riddled with the corporeal—with corpses: “Millions of stars gazed down at the city and the river, listening to the murmur of water against the shore…. Some dark object slid down the river, painfully slowly, and there was no way of knowing whether it was a boat without oars, the swollen corpse of a horse or part of a barge destroyed by a bomb.” Grossman’s characters also embody this strange wartime synthesis: some are terrified while others sit calmly in their fired-upon barges and boats, making plans to read the day’s paper.


Like Grossman, the Chandlers also became interviewers as they worked on Stalingrad. Specialists and scholars, including Yury Bit-Yunan, Brandon Schechter, and Pietro Tosco, were particularly helpful, and “there are dozens of other people—translators, writers, friends, military historians, historians of the coal mining industry—who have read drafts,” Robert says. These readers helped the Chandlers accurately render details of life in the Soviet Union in the 1940s.
Under the title For a Just Cause, Grossman’s novel was finally published in 1952 in a “heavily censored” version, Robert says. Two somewhat less censored editions followed in 1954 and 1956. The English translation of Stalingrad restores Grossman’s preferred title and “follows the third edition for the general plot and the ordering of the chapters.”
It also includes, as the Chandlers often emphasize, “several hundred of the vivid, comic, and surprising passages” that were published in only some of the Russian editions, and passages that were never published, such as those describing a Red Army commander reminiscing about making his wife a dress, a doctor complaining about overcrowding at a hospital, a roach “scuttling across a map” of military operations, mentions of a postwar future, and a woman with a tomato.

The censors struck out anything that wasn’t politically on-message, as well as any details that weren’t elevated enough, Robert says, to be mentioned in connection with the venerated Red Army. Men sewing, crowded hospitals, bugs, the future, and errant vegetables were, inconveniently, just real—not socialist realism.
In Grossman’s reality, people were struck out too. He was one of the first journalists to write about the Holocaust, in which his mother was killed. But after the war, he signed a document giving credence to Stalin’s anti-Semitic purges. It’s possible that Grossman’s momentary lapse came because he feared that his next novel, Life and Fate, would be censored. He was right: Life and Fate, the sequel to Stalingrad, was clearly no longer bound by the strictures of socialist realism. The KGB confiscated the manuscript in 1961. Grossman died in 1964, and the book remained unknown until it was published in Switzerland in 1980.
It was through this Swiss, Russian-language edition, 40 years ago, that Robert Chandler first encountered Grossman. The art historian Igor Golomstock suggested that Robert take it on as a translation project. At the time, Robert was just starting out as a translator, and his immediate reply was that he “did not read books as long as Life and Fate in Russian, let alone translate them.”

The chapter that Robert eventually translated interested the British publisher Collins Harvill, who bought the book and published it in 1985. And the Chandlers’ collaboration began when Elizabeth retyped several chapters of Robert’s full translation of Life and Fate and then offered to type his translation of Andrey Platonov’s novel Happy Moscow. “We gradually got into discussing, and improving, more and more passages,” she says. They’ve continued this way of working through subsequent translations of Grossman, Platonov, and Pushkin.
Robert, who is the fluent Russian speaker, prepares drafts he reads aloud to Elizabeth. “Whenever either of us feels that something is unclear or that the tone is wrong, we discuss that sentence, batting different versions between us, until we feel we have got it right,” he says.
“If translations fail, this is very often not because they are inaccurate but because they fail to convey an author’s voice,” Elizabeth says. “With time, one gets a sense of what words a particular writer would or wouldn’t use. Grossman, for example, is often extremely funny, but he is seldom mocking.”
Life and Fate is the achievement of the broad, lucid view of Soviet life toward which Grossman had been working, and in which both humor and deep pathos have a place. But this view was already apparent in Stalingrad. In the novel, even Grossman’s worst-tempered characters are afforded moments of insight and clarity—and, Elizabeth says, “unlike nearly all his Soviet contemporaries, he treats even his German characters with respect.”

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly and also appeared on publishersweekly.com.

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Russell, Wang, Hanif, Greene, and More

Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from the likes of Karen Russell, Xuan Juliana Wang, Mohammed Hanif, Jayson Greene, 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 sign up to be a member today.

Orange World and Other Stories by Karen Russell

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Orange World and Other Stories: “The inimitable Russell (Vampires in the Lemon Grove) returns with a story collection that delights in the uncanny, parlaying the deeply fantastical to reflect the basest and most human of our desires. In ‘The Bad Graft,’ an eloping young couple, Angie and Andy, go hiking at Joshua Tree National Park. They’ve arrived during peak pulse event season, when yucca moths swarm and ‘the Joshua tree sheds a fantastic sum of itself.’ This refers to both pollination and a Joshua tree’s so-called Leap, during which Angie becomes the human vessel for the tree’s spirit. In ‘The Tornado Auction,’ Robert Wurman is a former tornado farmer, retired now after decades of raising tornadoes for ‘weather-assisted demolition.’ His spontaneous decision to purchase a young tornado begins to spiral out of control as the tornado grows larger and more destructive, and he is forced to face the ramifications of his choices on his family. And in the title story, a mother desperate to save her child makes a deal with the devil, allowing the devil to breast feed from her in exchange for protection and peace of mind. Each story is impeccably constructed and stunningly imagined, though not all of them land emotionally. Regardless, this is a wonderfully off-kilter collection.”

Home Remedies by Xuan Juliana Wang

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Home Remedies: “Wang’s formidable imagination is on full display in this wide-ranging debut collection about modern Chinese youth. Her characters include artistic and aimless 20-year-olds eking out a living shooting subversive music videos for bands in Beijing (‘Days of Being Mild’); a Chinese-American girl in Paris, who finds her life changed when she begins wearing a dead girl’s clothes (‘Echo of the Moment’); and a struggling writer who receives a mysterious gadget in the mail that ages whatever she puts into it, whether it’s avocadoes, wine, or her cat (‘Future Cat’). Wang plays with form as well, as in ‘Home Remedies for Non-Life-Threatening Ailments,’ written as a catalogue of such ailments as ‘Inappropriate Feelings’ and ‘Bilingual Heartache,’ or ‘Algorithm Problem Solving for Father-Daughter Relationships,’ which allows a computer science–minded Chinese immigrant father to apply his discipline’s techniques to his relationship with his second-generation Chinese-American daughter. One of the best stories in the collection is ‘Vaulting the Sea,’ in which Taoyu, an Olympic hopeful synchronized diver, struggles with complicated feelings for his partner Hai against a greater backdrop of sacrifice, ambition, and tragedy. Though some of the stories’ narrative momentum can’t match the consistently excellent characters, nonetheless Wang proves herself a promising writer with a delightfully playful voice and an uncanny ability to evoke empathy, nostalgia, and wonder.”

Lanny by Max Porter

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Lanny: “In his bold second novel, Porter (Grief Is the Thing with Feathers) combines pastoral, satire, and fable in the entrancing tale of a boy who vanishes from an idyllic British village in the present day. Lanny is an elfin, perpetually singing child ‘more obviously made of the same atoms as the earth than most people these days seem to be.’ He is a mystery to his parents, recent transplants to the picturesque, increasingly fashionable (and expensive) town: the mother is a former actress working on a gruesome novel, and the father’s a yuppie commuting to London. Lanny’s somewhat cloying eccentricity (‘Which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope?’) captivates a reclusive artist, ‘Mad Pete,’ who gives him drawing lessons, and enchants Dead Papa Toothwort, the town’s ancient and resilient presiding spirit: ‘[The villagers] build new homes, cutting into his belt, and he pops up adapted, to scare and define.’ Toothwort is a mischievous, Green Man–esque deity who prowls the village ‘chew[ing] the noise of the place’ and especially enjoys feasting on Lanny’s song. When Lanny goes missing, the suspicion falls on Mad Pete, and the resulting media blitz turns the village into a ‘hideous ecosystem of voyeurism,’ exposing its rifts and class resentments. In the novel’s satisfying conclusion, Toothwort stages a hallucinatory play that reveals Lanny’s fate. This is a dark and thrilling excavation into a community’s legend-packed soil.”

Tears of the Trufflepig by Fernando A. Flores

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Tears of the Trufflepig: “A near-future picaresque of genetic manipulation, indigenous legend, and organized crime on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, Flores’s delirious debut never quite delivers on its imaginative premise. Bellacosa, a freelance South Texas construction equipment locator, gets drafted by journalist Paco Herbert to attend an ‘underground dinner’ where wealthy invitees eat extinct animals that have been recreated through the process of ‘filtering.’ Among the living amusements is a Trufflepig, a ‘piglike reptile’ central to the mythology of the (fictional) Aranaña tribe. Once home, Bellacosa is greeted by his brother, who has just escaped a Mexican syndicate attempting to shrink his head and sell it as an Aranaña artifact. Bellacosa himself is soon kidnapped by a crooked border patrolman and, in the sequence leading to the story’s conclusion, hooked with electrodes to a Trufflepig that transforms his psyche into ‘the memory of all living things.’ Flores’s novel is jam-packed with excitement, but his inability to prioritize his ideas prevents them from cohering into a credible vision of dystopia. Despite this, Flores’s novel shows he has talent and creativity to spare.”

Red Birds by Mohammed Hanif

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Red Birds: “Hanif, Booker-longlisted for A Case of Exploding Mangoes, dives headfirst into an unnamed desert in the present day and the disparate characters stuck in it. Ellie, an American bomber pilot who’s crash-landed, struggles through the desert half-hallucinating until he comes upon a dog. The dog, Mutt, is no stray, but rather the beloved and disgruntled pet of Momo, a shrewd and scheming 15-year-old. Momo lives in a nearby refugee camp with his family, who have been devastated by the disappearance of Momo’s older brother, Ali, who left the camp to work at a mysterious American army outpost that was recently nearby. As Ellie recovers in the camp he was intended to bomb, hoping for rescue and suppressing a major trauma he left back at home in the States, Momo develops a plan to use the American soldier as leverage to get his brother back. Narrated in turns by Ellie, Momo, aid workers, Momo’s mother, and rather beautifully by Mutt, Hanif’s portrait of the surrealism and commonplaceness of America’s wars in Muslim countries is nearly impossible to put down. The camp in particular crackles with humanity, bizarreness, and banality—at one point, Ellie thinks, “I was beginning to like this, people talking earnestly about sewage and cheating spouses, about the need for winter shelters and better ways of teaching math.” The novel manages to remain delightful and unpredictable even in its darkest moments, highlighting the hypocrisies and constant confusions of American intervention abroad.”

Once More We Saw Stars by Jayson Greene

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Once More We Saw Stars: “Freelance journalist Greene struggles with the 2015 death of his daughter in this heart-wrenching yet life-affirming memoir. After two-year-old Greta was killed when a brick fell from an eighth-story windowsill in New York City and hit her on the head (also injuring his mother-in-law), Greene and his wife Stacy descended into despair and realized they must pass ‘through some magnificent, terrible threshold together.’ Grasping for solace, the couple attended a retreat at the Kripalu Center in Massachusetts, for people who have lost loved ones, which featured a medium and daily yoga sessions. Afterwards, back home, Greene, jogging through Central Park suddenly felt the world becoming ‘thin, translucent’ and he sensed Greta’s presence. Then, on what would have been their daughter’s third birthday, they tried a New Age healing ceremony in New Mexico that took them on separate vision quests that allowed them to confront and be at peace with their grief. Their second child was born a year later, and Greene movingly writes of the joy he felt holding his newborn son along with the simultaneous metaphysical connection he experienced with Greta. The result is an amazing and inspirational exploration on the meaning of grief and the interconnectedness of love and loss.”

Out East by John Glynn

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Out East: “In this sun-dazed debut memoir about loss, identity, and partying with the preppy set, book editor Glynn turns the magnifying glass on his inner turmoil but never manages to inspire much sympathy for his plight. Raised by happy and loving parents and now working in publishing (currently at Hanover Square), living in TriBeCa, and surrounded by friends, Glynn seems to have it all. Yet, he writes, ‘I was compulsively afraid of dying alone.’ Attempting to escape that torment, Glynn plunked down $2,000 for a summer share in Montauk, on the tip of Long Island in 2013. The weekends of beachy boozing with ‘the girls, the finance guys, and the gays’ are described in detail that will make many readers want to head for Montauk themselves (‘the beaches were sweeping and majestic, and the town had a surfery charm’). As a microcosmic rendition of a lost summer’s drunken rhythms and Glynn’s slowly unfolding realization about his own sexuality, the writing resonates with a shimmery tingle (falling for a man, he felt ‘a kind of giddy, queasy, terrifying downrush’). Glynn’s point of view, however, remains so swaddled in privilege that his emotional distress registers as mere entitlement (‘Not everyone had money, but everyone had access’). Ultimately this is a neatly observed but light story about coming out.”

Our Time in the Barn: Reading ‘Charlotte’s Web’ with My Daughter

Spring has been falling all week in a mystic drizzle. All I can say is: huzzah. What a hard Midwestern winter it’s been. We hunkered down in our house—myself, my wife, our four-year-old daughter and infant son, an ailing spaniel that can hardly walk—and read E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web over and over. And over. And over. In fact, this winter I read Charlotte’s Web dozens of times. I read it to my daughter every night before bed and then again over breakfast and sometimes lunch. If that seems like obsessive behavior to you, then (a) you’re right, and (b) you probably aren’t the parent of a young child.

Not that I’m complaining. I would rather read Charlotte’s Web for the thousandth time than “make a milkshake” by putting imaginary ingredients in an invisible blender while my daughter goes to the potty, or pretend she is a cow that has to be milked and then let out to pasture, or be instructed to “talk about the egg” she has become by curling up into a ball on the floor. (There is a kitten in the egg. Its tail and whiskers are rainbows.) At least Charlotte’s Web is not mindless, no matter how many times we read it.

My wife, who is Jewish—and who refuses to read the book anymore—jokingly referred to our cyclical reading of Charlotte’s Web as “Simchat Torah,” a reference to the Jewish holiday that accompanies the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle. Each week at every synagogue in the world a section of the Torah is read aloud. Every synagogue reads the same 54 sections in the same order. In the last week, the book is finished—and immediately begun again. Simchat Torah celebrates that cycle and the way the Torah gives structure and meaning to people’s lives. So, it was with Charlotte’s Web. As soon as I read the last paragraph and closed the book, always with great ceremony, my daughter would insist that we go back to the beginning. In this and other ways reading Charlotte’s Web became a ritual. We were marking something. One phase of childhood was ending, another just beginning.

My daughter is four and, believe it or not, everything is starting to change. She’s learning to read. She spends more time looking in the mirror, making faces, taking her glasses off and putting them on and taking them off again to see which look she prefers. Her afternoons are filling up with lessons—swimming, ice skating, soon ballet and gymnastics—instead of the free play she’s used to. Kindergarten starts next year. Play dates loom.

At the heart of Charlotte’s Web are two subjects about which my four year old is intensely curious: friendship and death. Charlotte (the spider) and Wilbur (the pig) are each other’s first and best friends. They ease each other’s loneliness, on rainy days, especially. They play. Charlotte tells Wilbur stories and sings to him. By writing the words “some pig,” “terrific,” “radiant,” and “humble” in her web, Charlotte saves Wilbur’s life, convincing Homer Zuckerman that Wilbur is extraordinary, a miracle, and so should not be slaughtered for smoked bacon and ham.

As for what Wilbur does for Charlotte, well, that’s a little harder to parse. Wilbur himself asks about it near the end of Charlotte’s life. “‘Why did you do all this for me?,’ he asked. ‘I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.’ ‘‘You have been my friend.’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.’” It is, isn’t it? They lift up each other’s lives—that’s how Charlotte puts it. Friendship teaches them that they are capable of love. Will my daughter find such a friend in her kindergarten class? Until this winter, her only real friend was her doll, New Baby, but the times they are a changin’. Last week I watched her skate around the ice rink with a girl whose helmet she admired. (It had a unicorn horn.) She was smiling the whole time.

Death is Charlotte’s Web’s other great subject and, as I said, a topic of some fascination for my daughter. The cemetery we pass on our way home from school never fails to bring up new questions, which range from the logistical (Does the body go up and down or side-to-side?) to the existential (Does life get sillier and sillier and then we die?) to the just plain weird (Do we all die in the same hole?). My answers (side-to-side, no, no…but also yes?) never satisfy either of us. I don’t know what’s behind her questions, whether fear, anxiety, simple curiosity. Is she grasping after her own finitude? Maybe. Is the world made strange when she sees those headstones from the road? Not sure. I guess we both have our questions. We both want to understand something that is essentially unknowable.

My daughter wept the first couple times we read about Charlotte’s death, which happens in the last paragraph of the next-to-last chapter. So did my wife. (Whenever my wife cries during reading, which happens not infrequently, my daughter insists on tasting her tears.) Since those initial traumas, my daughter hasn’t let us get close to that paragraph, requesting that we skip it many chapters in advance. In Charlotte’s Web death is wrenching. White ends that last paragraph: “No one was with her when she died.” It’s inevitable. Not just inevitable, though: necessary. Death, weirdly, gives the world shape and meaning.

There is a discernible order to things in Charlotte’s Web. Three times a day, the hired man Lurvy walks down to the barn with food for Wilbur. Goslings hatch every spring. In early summer the birds come out and start singing (“everywhere love and songs and nests and eggs”). In early fall, spiders lay their egg sacs full of baby spiders—514 of them for Charlotte—and then die. In late fall, the squashes and pumpkins are brought into the barn to protect them from frost. Time exists and brings change, but change makes the world beautiful.

The book takes place over the course of a year, shaped by the seasons of both nature and human life. Fern, the eight-year-old girl whose native sense of justice saves Wilbur from an untimely death—and from whose perspective we witness all the goings-on among the animals—grows up by the end of the book, drawn finally away from the simple world of the barn by a boy her age named Henry Fussy. In the first chapter Fern is nursing Wilbur with a bottle. In the last she’s absent. White treats this change with characteristic equanimity and humor. “She was growing up,” White writes, “and was careful to avoid childish things, like sitting on a milk stool near a pigpen.”

My daughter is not there yet—she would happily sit on a milk stool near a pigpen—but she is growing up. The world is coming into focus, big with possibility, vertiginous and changeable. Reading Charlotte’s Web on repeat was a comfort in the face of these changes, for both of us. It was a way to process the loss of what was, the anticipation of what will be. Sitting together at the end of the day, me propped against the side of her bed, her under the covers, the two of us making a T, we said goodbye to our own time in the barn (that kitten, those rainbows), even as we looked ahead to what’s next.

“Who wants to live forever?” Templeton (the rat) asks in the last chapter. He’s right, but I hate how carelessly he says it. Charlotte is gone. Fern has moved on. Fall passes. Winter comes, then spring, bringing frogs and sparrows, new friendships and adventures. Our baby has started on solids. Our spaniel struggles to get his hind legs up our two front steps after a walk. Suddenly, the neighborhood is teeming with robins, which my daughter attempts to befriend, and a fox even trotted up to our door this morning. The world is unfolding its hands again, full of gifts. It will lead her a little farther away from me, as it does every year. We’ve moved onto Stuart Little, but I still steal glances at Charlotte’s Web, the sublime last chapter in particular. If you have time this spring, I suggest you do the same. E.B. White perfectly captures the mixed emotions of the season: “The light strengthened, the mornings came sooner. Almost every morning there was another new lamb in the sheepfold. The goose was sitting on nine eggs. The sky seemed wider and a warm wind blew. The last remaining strands of Charlotte’s old web floated away and vanished.”

In Praise of Poems That End with Questions

To end a poem with a question is to
offer an invitation. Here, the poet says, now it’s your turn. Rhetorical or
direct, a question requests our participation. We sit up, re-read, and become a
part of the poem.

A question, then, closes a poem with an opening. “Breathing” by Irene McKinney ends with two questions. Her poem starts with the line: “When I refuse to see the chair has presence / I trip over it repeatedly.” Yet when she smells “the oil of hands on the wooden arms of the chair” and sees the “careful fittings of the joints,” she knows the chair has place and space. She will push forward through her life, past chair and even through stream and snow, although she is “wet and cold, hunched against the touch / of the flakes.” She perseveres because she is still breathing, because our “lungs are a happiness kit / that we can carry everywhere and assemble / where there’s time and inclination.” She pauses, we imagine, and then ends: “Why not? / I repeat, I mean it, why not?”

I mean it: McKinney’s question feels entrenched and yet open, a gesture. Don’t doubt that poems are written to be read—and questions offer readers a space to enter. “Naming the Heartbeats” from Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s Oceanic is an explanation of the narrator’s penchant for pet names. She calls her children “Sugarpie, / Honeybunch, Snugglebear,” although “What I call my husband is unprintable.” She ponders the names of collected animals, but wonders about the unnamed moments of existence, ending with a beautiful question: “And what is the name for the movement we make when / we wake, swiping hand or claw or wing across our face, like trying / to remember a path or a river we’ve only visited in our dreams?”

Nezhukumatathil asks, so we’re left to wonder. A poem can leave us like that: unsure, our eyes closed, meandering and meditating. I feel the same way when I read Mary Oliver, who ended several poems with questions. In fact, her poem “How Would You Live Then?” is composed entirely of questions. “What if,” Oliver asks, “a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks / flew in circles around your head?” And then: “What if the brook slid downhill just / past your bedroom window so you could listen / to its slow prayers as you fell asleep?” Her questions are connected by a certain sentience to the world around us—a presence that we know exists but Oliver gives a particular form. Her final question: “What if you finally saw / that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day / and every day—who knows how, but they do it—were / more precious, more meaningful than gold?”

Oliver’s homiletic touch comes from that concluding question, as if we are to close the book, go outside, and consider her words. Other poetic questions call me to attention and send me back through the poem to comb and cull. Analicia Sotelo’s “Ariadne at the Naxos Apartment Complex, 10am” from Virgin begins in what the narrator calls a garden, among “A/C units dripping green-black rivers, // the residue of last night’s rain / sitting in a cheap cherub’s eye.” She ends in ambiguity: “Except the light is blind this morning / like a child at a funeral // asking, What are we all standing here for?”

We don’t have the answer. A poem that ends with a question might leave us without satisfaction—but what do we desire, exactly, at the end of a poem? What does it mean to be complete? In “Dark Slides” by Chase Twichell, we look over the shoulder of a narrator who sifts through overexposed slides of her father’s carrot garden, a horse with “blood-flecked froth at the bit,” and a sled abandoned in the snow, “Footprints, but no humans visible. / Who saved this one, and why?”

A poem that ends on a question is an affirmation of the importance of questions. Seek poems that end with those open, vulnerable moments. “Why not trust / that almost everyone, even in / his own house, is a troubled guest?” asks Stephen Dunn in “The Inheritance.” In Anagnorisis, Kyle Dargan exits “Poem Resisting Arrest” with the perfect question: “This poem knew // it was dangerous to ask why?” Blas Falconer’s “Vigil” tells us that “All day, the body is / failing, the mind failing / to forgive the body for this failure.” The poem ends on an elegiac note: “You, who tended to the body, what // will you do when all / the bedding has been washed // and folded, what pain // will you tend to, now, / if not yours?”

Do you feel that? The poet gesturing to us? In “Leaving Early,” Sylvia Plath describes a room “lousy with flowers.” She’s “bored as a leopard / in your jungle of wine-bottle lamps,” and feels “stared at / By chrysanthemums” while she listens to mice “rattling the cracker packets.” Her final lines: “Lady, what am I doing / With a lung full of dust and a tongue of wood, / Knee-deep in the cold and swamped by flowers?” Plath’s question reverberates beyond the final line, as do the questions of Justin Phillip Reed in Indecency. In “Take It Out of the Boy,” the narrator is “tired / of pretending.” Told that “you always acted like / a white boy,” the narrator responds with lines “so. so black my elbows / stripe their char on the carpet.” He ends: “are we convinced?”  

I like how heavy that question feels. A poem that ends with a question has a little whisper of eternity in that curved punctuation mark. Natasha Trethewey ends her book Monument with a poem that ends with a question. “Articulation,” written after Miguel Cabrera’s Portrait of Saint Gertrude, ponders Gertrude’s devotion to the Sacred Heart. The narrator looks at her among “quill, inkwell, an open book, // rings on her fingers like Christ’s many wounds” and can’t help but think about her mother’s last portrait. She sees her mother’s face; her mother’s wounds. Her mother’s murder. How her mother “came to me / in a dream, her body whole again but for / one perfect wound, the singular articulation // of all of them: a hole, center of her forehead, / the size of a wafer—light pouring from it.”

She ends her poem with two questions:
“How, then, could I not answer her life / with mine, she who saved me with
hers? // And how could I not—bathed in the light / of her wound—find my calling
there?”

We will never know all of the answers
in poetry—but we are blessed by the questions.

Image credit: Unsplash/Evan Dennis.