Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Whitehead, Jones, Williams, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Colson Whitehead, Gayl Jones, Joy Williams, and more—that are publishing this week.
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Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Harlem Shuffle: “Two-time Pulitzer winner Whitehead (The Nickel Boys) returns with a sizzling heist novel set in civil rights–era Harlem. It’s 1959 and Ray Carney has built an ‘unlikely kingdom’ selling used furniture. A husband, a father, and the son of a man who once worked as muscle for a local crime boss, Carney is ‘only slightly bent when it [comes] to being crooked.’ But when his cousin Freddie—whose stolen goods Carney occasionally fences through his furniture store—decides to rob the historic Hotel Theresa, a lethal cast of underworld figures enter Carney’s life, among them the mobster Chink Montague, ‘known for his facility with a straight razor’; WWII veteran Pepper; and the murderous, purple-suited Miami Joe, Whitehead’s answer to No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh. These and other characters force Carney to decide just how bent he wants to be. It’s a superlative story, but the most impressive achievement is Whitehead’s loving depiction of a Harlem 60 years gone—’that rustling, keening thing of people and concrete’—which lands as detailed and vivid as Joyce’s Dublin. Don’t be surprised if this one wins Whitehead another major award.”

Palmares by Gayl Jones

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Palmares: “Jones (Mosquito) reemerges after a 21-year hiatus with an epic and inventive saga that weaves together magic, mythology, and Portuguese colonial history. Eight-year-old Almeyda is enslaved on a 17th-century Brazilian plantation when her enslaver welcomes a man who seeks the blood of a Black virgin for a cure. While an herbal drink from her mother serves as protection, the price for it comes heavy as the mother is sold and separated from her. Later, as a young woman, Almeyda is rescued and taken to Palmares, a hidden settlement for freedom seekers. There, she is chosen by settlement member Anninho and the two are married. Soon after, Palmares is razed by Portuguese soldiers and its leader, King Zumbi, is killed. While in the soldiers’ custody, Almeyda wakes to find her husband gone. Determined to reunite with him, Almeyda escapes again to journey through Brazil. She hears of a New Palmares and that Zumbi’s spirit may still be alive, perhaps transformed into a bird, and apprentices with a medicine woman who knows Anninho and gives her a lead on his whereabouts. The magical elements are difficult to get an initial purchase on, as they aren’t given much explanation, but Jones brings her established incisiveness and linguistic flair to the horrifyingly accurate portrayal of racial struggle. All in all, it’s a triumphant return.”

The Spectacular by Zoe Whittall

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Spectacular: “Whittall (The Best Kind of People) delivers a clear-eyed portrait of maternal ambivalence in her impressive latest. Missy Wood, 21, is on a mission to have her tubes tied. She’s about to go on tour with her band, the Swearwolves, and doesn’t want to worry about getting pregnant. Though two doctors say she’ll regret the move and refuse to do it, her bandmate Billy had no trouble getting a vasectomy. (‘I told him I was the lead singer in a band. He got it immediately. Isn’t that sexist?’) While Missy is held up in Vancouver by U.S. customs agents for carrying cocaine, she reads a magazine story about an ashram sex scandal that mentions her mother, who left Missy when she was 13 and whom Missy hasn’t been able to locate. Whittall switches points of view between mother and daughter as their paths gradually converge, and adds an extensive and extraneous section from the point of view of Missy’s paternal grandmother, Ruth, on Ruth’s earlier life in Turkey. Whittall is excellent at writing the small, intimate details and sharp dialogue, as well as the mostly propulsive plot, while making no bones about opinions on gender inequities. Whittall is a great storyteller, and her latest does not disappoint.”

The Wrong End of the Telescope by Rabih Alameddine

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Wrong End of the Telescope: “A Lebanese doctor travels to the island of Lesbos to help refugees and confront her past in the profound and wonderful latest from Alameddine (The Angel of History), a meditation on loss, resilience, and love. Born in Beirut but long settled in the U.S., Mina Simpson is trans and estranged from every member of her family except her older brother Mazen, who flies to the island to assist her. Soon, their paths cross that of a blocked Lebanese writer. The chapters alternate between Mina’s account of her time on Lesbos, where she treats a Syrian woman named Sumaiya who is dying from liver cancer and pleads with Mina not to tell her family, and second-person narration directed at the writer, who encouraged Mina to write about the refugees because he didn’t feel up to the task (‘You weren’t able to find the right words even after numerous sessions on your psychiatrist’s couch,’ Mina narrates). Confronted by the pain so many refugees describe, Mina recalls the lost world of her own childhood and bonds with Sumaiya over their shared desire to protect their families from the truth. As Mina and her writer-interlocutor are each consumed by the effort to communicate the horror of the refugee experience, Alameddine crafts a wise, deeply moving story that can still locate humor in the pit of hell (Mina, agreeing to let the writer tell her story, jokes, ‘Whatever you do … don’t fucking call it A Lebanese Lesbian in Lesbos’). This is a triumph.”

Kaya Days by Carl de Souza (translated by Jeffrey Zuckerman)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Kaya Days: “De Souza’s electric English-language debut recounts Mauritius’s 1999 Kaya riots over two days as seen through the eyes of a young girl. Teenager Santee leaves her village to pick up her younger brother Ramesh in the large town of Rose-Hill, not knowing that the singer Kaya has been jailed and found dead in his cell, or that the discovery has sparked riots in town. A case of mistaken identity leads to the owner of a gambling den trying to rape her. She gets away and into the first cab that stops. Halfway through the night, after the driver ditches Santee, she meets Ronaldo moments before a group of young men flip the cab and light it on fire. Santee’s perspective is delivered in a dreamlike rush as she allows chance encounters to pull her along. In the streets, gardens, and gorges of the burning city, Santee continues her search for Ramesh. Encountering Chinese, Creole, Hindu, and Muslim Mauritians, her circuitous trek opens up the otherwise anonymous nature of the mob to find personal stories and uncover human community. De Souza’s unpredictable, propulsive tale is a rip-roaring trip teeming with beauty, anger, possibility, and helplessness.”

Inter State by José Vadi

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Inter State: “Part love letter, part indictment, this moving debut essay collection from Vadi captures the changing landscape of California. A native Californian, aging skateboarder, and poet, Vadi laments in deeply felt prose California’s transformation. ‘Standing in the Shadows of Brands’ covers the rise in homelessness in the Bay Area as the tech economy reshaped the city’s culture and skyline, while ’14th and Jackson’ describes the diminishing of a ‘decade’s worth of artistic potential’ in Oakland as the city has gentrified. The title essay bears witness to the quickly vanishing landmarks of the California to which his grandparents came as migrants from Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl—and sees Vadi heading toward ‘the only local landmark I know, a skate park.’ Things often come back to skateboarding—’but then I remember those visceral, intrinsic moments when the earth beneath our skateboards shook, and we asked one another with our eyes, Did you feel it?’—and many of his references will land best for readers familiar with San Francisco and Los Angeles. But even those who have never stepped foot in California will recognize Vadi’s anguish and frustration in watching the place change. The provocative observations will please essay fans.”

Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body by Megan Milks

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Margaret and the Mystery of the Missing Body: “Milks’s engaging debut novel (after the collection Kill Marguerite) blends the tropes of classic girl fiction like Nancy Drew with a 16-year-old sleuth’s tumultuous exploration of her queer identity. Margaret Worms, president of the Girls Can Solve Anything club, now spends her days alone, operating as the club’s sole remaining member in an attempt to forget her now-fractured friendships and developing anorexia. But when her disorder leads to repeated fainting spells and visits to her doctor, Margaret is shipped off to the Briarwood Residential Treatment Center, where she encounters the magnetic and rebellious Carrie, a roommate and romantic interest; kindhearted doctors; and even a suffragist ghost—all of whom prompt Margaret’s reckoning with her own body, gender identity, and desires. Weaving together flashbacks, pop culture references (GCSA originated as the Shady Bluff Baby-Sitters Club), and accounts of old GCSA cases, Milks’s dynamic, fast-paced novel beams with wonderful insight, even as its various timelines and registers do not always meld into a consonant whole. The book’s exploration of eating disorders, mental illnesses, and healing is superbly nuanced, as Milks carefully dives into the clinic’s various characters’ histories. Throughout, this is emotionally complex and illuminating.”

Assembly by Natasha Brown

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Assembly: “Brown’s provocative and lyrical debut follows a young Black British woman’s navigation of the racism and sexism at her investment banking job while she contends with a breast cancer diagnosis. Brown opens with three third-person vignettes describing an unnamed woman’s sexual harassment from a man she works with, who calls her hair ‘wild’ and her skin ‘exotic,’ then shifts to a first-person account from an unnamed woman, possibly the same one, of why she chose to work for banks. ‘I understood what they were. Ruthless, efficient money-machines with a byproduct of social mobility.’ Her ‘Lean In feminist’ work friend thinks the narrator’s white boyfriend will propose during an upcoming visit to his parents’ estate, but the narrator can tell her would-be mother-in-law hopes it’s a passing fling. Before the trip, she gets the results of a biopsy and tells her boyfriend there’s nothing to worry about. She also reflects ominously on the doctor’s admonishment on her resistance to getting surgery (‘that’s suicide’), and on the notion that a successful Black person can ever ‘transcend’ race. References to bell hooks’s writing on decolonization and Claudia Rankine’s concept of ‘historical selves’ bolster her fierce insights. This is a stunning achievement of compressed narrative and fearless articulation.”

Harrow by Joy Williams

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Harrow: “Pulitzer finalist Williams (The Quick and the Dead) returns with a dystopian saga of environmental cataclysm that is by turns triumphant, damning, and beguiling. Sometime in the near future, Khristen is sent to a boarding school in the desert of the American West by her mother, a woman haunted by the fact that she believes Khristen briefly died as an infant and came back to life. After the school is shut down, Khristen sets off across a decimated landscape only to end up lodging at a remote hotel inhabited by elderly ecoterrorists, visionaries, and would-be assassins, led by their host, Lola. Among these residents, Khristen also meets a strange 10-year-old named Jeffrey, and together they face the environmental ruination and human depravity that mark the new world these characters all inhabit, while still remembering ‘the old dear stories of possibility’ and noting how ‘no one wanted them anymore, but nothing had replaced them.’ Rollicking with language that is at once biblical and casual, this builds like a sermon to a fever pitch. Williams’s well-known themes of social decline and children in danger are polished to a gorgeous luster in this prescient page-turner. The result serves as both an indictment of current culture and a blazing escape from it.”

Also on shelves this week: Other Girls to Burn by Caroline Crew.

This Isn’t the Essay’s Title

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“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Crack Up” (1936)

“You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you.” —Carly Simon (1971)

On a December morning in 1947 when three fellows at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study set out for the Third Circuit Court in Trenton, it was decided that the job of making sure that the brilliant but naively innocent logician Kurt Gödel didn’t say something intemperate at his citizenship hearing would fall to Albert Einstein. Economist Oscar Morgenstern would drive, Einstein rode shotgun, and a nervous Gödel sat in the back. With squibs of low winter light, both wave and particle, dappled across the rattling windows of Morgenstern’s car, Einstein turned back and asked, “Now, Gödel, are you really well prepared for this examination?” There had been no doubt that the philosopher had adequately studied, but as to whether it was proper to be fully honest was another issue. Less than two centuries before, and the signatories of the U.S. Constitution had supposedly crafted a document defined by separation of powers and coequal government, checks and balances, action and reaction. “The science of politics,” wrote Alexander Hamilton in “Federalist Paper No. 9,” “has received great improvement,” though as Gödel discovered, clearly not perfection. With a completism that only a Teutonic logician was capable of, Gödel had carefully read the foundational documents of American political theory, he’d poured over the Federalist Papers and the Constitution, and he’d made an alarming discovery.

It’s believed that while studying Article V, the portion that details the process of amendment, Gödel realized that there was no safeguard against that article itself being amended. Theoretically, a sufficiently powerful political movement with legislative and executive authority could rapidly amend the articles of amendment so that a potential demagogue would be able to rule by fiat, all while such tyranny was perfectly constitutional. A paradox at the heart of the Constitution—something that supposedly guaranteed democracy having coiled within it rank authoritarianism. All three men driving to Trenton had a keen awareness of tyranny; all were refugees from Nazi Germany; all had found safe-haven on the pristine streets of suburban Princeton. After the Anschluss, Gödel was a stateless man, and though raised Protestant he was suspect by the Nazis and forced to emigrate. Gödel, with his wife, departed Vienna by the Trans-Siberian railroad, crossed from Japan to San Francisco, and then took the remainder of his sojourn by train to Princeton. His path had been arduous and he’d earned America, so when Gödel found a paradox at the heart of the Constitution, his desire to rectify it was born from patriotic duty. At the hearing, the judge asked Gödel how it felt to become a citizen of a nation where it was impossible for the government to fall into anti-democratic tyranny. But it could, Gödel told him, and “I can prove it.” Apocryphally, Einstein kicked the logician’s chair and ended that syllogism.

Born in Austria-Hungary, citizen of Czechoslovakia, Austria, Germany, and finally the United States, Gödel’s very self-definition was mired in incompleteness, contradiction, and unknowability. From parsing logical positivism among luminaries such as Rudolph Carnap and Moritz Schlick, enjoying apfelstrudel and espresso at the Café Reichsrat on Rathausplatz while they discussed the philosophy of mathematics, Gödel now rather found himself eating apple pie and weak coffee in the Yankee Doodle Tap Room on Nassau Street—and he was grateful.  Gone were the elegant Viennese wedding-cake homes of the Ringstrasse, replaced with Jersey’s clapboard colonials; no more would Gödel debate logic among the rococo resplendence of the University of Vienna, but at Princeton he was at least across the hall from Einstein. “The Institute was to be a new kind of research center,” writes Ed Regis in Who Got Einstein’s Office?: Eccentricity and Genius at the Institute for Advanced Study. “It would have no students, no teachers, and no classes,” the only responsibility being pure thought, so that its fellows could be purely devoted to theory. Its director J. Robert Oppenheimer (of Manhattan Project fame) called it an “intellectual hotel;” physicist Richard Feynman was less charitable, referring to it as a “lovely house by the woods” for “poor bastards” no longer capable of keeping up. Regardless, it was to be Gödel’s final home, and there was something to that.

Seventeen years before his trip to Trenton, and it was at the Café Reichsrat where he presented the discovery for which he’d forever be intractably connected—Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems. In 1930 he had irrevocably altered mathematics when Gödel demonstrated that the dream of completism that had dogged deduction since antiquity was only a mirage. “Any consistent formal system,” argues Gödel in his first theorem, “is incomplete… there are statements of the language… which can neither be proved nor disproved.” In other words, it’s an impossibility that any set of axioms can be demonstrated to be true as part of a self-contained system—the rationalist dream of a unified, self-evidently provable system is only so much fantasy. Math, it turns out, will never be depleted, since there can never be a solution to all mathematical problems. In Gödel’s formulation, a system must either sometimes produce falsehoods, or it must sometimes generate unprovable truths, but it can never consistently render only completely provable truths. As the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter explained in his countercultural classic Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, “Relying on words to lead you to the truth is like relying on an incomplete formal system to lead you to the truth. A formal system will give you some truth, but… a formal system, no matter how powerful—cannot lead to all truths.” In retrospect, the smug certainties of American exceptionalism should have been no match for Gödel, whose scalpel-like mind had already eviscerated mathematics, philosophy, and logic, to say nothing of some dusty parchment once argued over in Philadelphia.

His theorems rest on a variation of what’s known as the “Liar’s Paradox,” which asks what the logical status of a proposition such as “This statement is false” might be. If that sentence is telling the truth, then it must be false, but if it’s false, then it must be true, ad infinitum, in an endless loop. For Gödel, that proposition is amended to “This sentence is not provable,” with his reasoning demonstrating that a sufficiently formal system of logic can’t demonstrate that proposition, regardless of its truth value, since to prove the statement is to make it unprovable, but if unprovable, then it’s proved, again ad infinitum in yet another grueling loop. As with the Constitution and its paeans to democracy, so must mathematics be rendered perennially useful while still falling short of perfection. The elusiveness of certainty bedeviled Gödel throughout his life; a famously paranoid man, the assassination of his friend Schlick by a Nazi student in 1936 pushed the logician into a scrupulous anxiety. After the death of his best friend Einstein in 1955 he became increasingly isolated. “Gödel’s sense of intellectual exile deepened,” explains Rebecca Goldstein in Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel. “The young man in the dapper white suit shriveled into an emaciated man, entombed in a heavy overcoat and scarf even in New Jersey’s hot humid summers, seeing plots everywhere… His profound isolation, even alienation, from his peers provided fertile soil for that rationality run amuck which is paranoia.” When his beloved wife fell ill in 1977, Gödel quit eating since she could no longer prepare his meals. The ever-logical man whose entire career had demonstrated the fallibility of rationality had concluded that only his wife could be trusted not to poison his food, and so when she was unable to cook, he properly reasoned (by the axioms that were defined) that it made more sense to simply quit eating. When he died, Gödel weighed only 50 pounds.

Gödel’s thought was enmeshed in that orphan of logic that we call paradox. As was Einstein’s, that man who converted time into space and space into time, who explained how energy and mass were the same thing so that (much to his horror) the apocalyptic false dawn of Hiroshima was the result. Physics in the 20th century had cast off the intuitive coolness of classical mechanics, discovering that contradiction studded the foundation of reality. There was Werner Heisenberg with his uncertainty over the location of individual subatomic particles, Louis de Broglie and the strange combination of wave and particle that explained the behavior of light, Niels Bohr who understood atomic nuclei as if they were smeared across space, and the collapsing wave functions of Erwin Schrödinger for whom it could be imagined that a hypothetical feline was capable of being simultaneously alive and dead. Science journalist John Gribbin explains in Schrödinger’s Kittens and the Search for Reality: Solving the Quantum Mysteries that contemporary physics is defined by “paradoxical phenomena as photons (particles of light) that can be in two places at the same time, atoms that go two ways at once… [and how] time stands still for a particle moving at light speed.” Western thought has long prized logical consistency, but physics in the 20th century abolished all of that in glorious absurdity, and from those contradictions emerged modernity—the digital revolution, semiconductors, nuclear power, all built on paradox.

The keystone of classical logic is the so-called “Law of Non-Contradiction.” Simply put, something cannot both be and not be what it happens to be simultaneously, or if symbolic logic is your jam:  ¬(p ∧ ¬p), and I promise you that’s the only formula you will see in this essay. Aristotle said that between two contradictory statements one must be correct and the other false—”it will not be possible to be and not to be the same thing” he writes in The Metaphysics—but the anarchic potential of the paradox greedily desires truth and its antecedents. And again, in the 17th century the philosopher Wilhelm Gottfried Leibnitz tried to succinctly ward off contradiction in his New Essays on Human Understanding when he declared, “Every judgement is either true or false,” and yet paradoxes fill the history of metaphysics like landmines studded across the Western Front. Paradox is the great counter-melody of logic—it is the question of whether an omnipotent God could will Himself unable to do something, and it’s the eye-straining M.C. Escher lithograph “Waterfall” with its intersecting Penrose triangles showing a stream cascading from an impossible trough. Paradox is the White Queen’s declaration in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass that “sometimes I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” and the Church Father Tertullian’s creedal statement that “I believe it because it is absurd.” The cracked shadow logic of our intellectual tradition, paradox is confident though denounced by philosophers as sham-faced; it is troublesome and not going anywhere. When a statement is made synonymous with its opposite, then traditional notions of propriety are dispelled and the fun can begin. “But one must not think ill of the paradox,” writes Søren Kierkegaard in Philosophical Fragments, “for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without the paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow.”

As a concept, it may have found its intellectual origin on the sunbaked, dusty, scrubby, hilly countryside of Crete. The mythic homeland of the Minotaur, who is man and beast, human and bull, a walking, thinking, raging horned paradox covered in cowhide and imprisoned within the labyrinth. Epimenides, an itinerant philosopher some seven centuries before Christ, supposedly said that “All Cretans are liars” (St. Paul actually quotes this assertion in his epistle to Titus). A version of the aforementioned Liar’s Paradox thus ensues. If Epimenides is telling the truth then he is lying, and if he is lying then he is telling the truth. This class of paradoxes has multiple variations (in the Middle Ages they were known as “insolubles”—the unsolvable). For example, consider two sentences vertically arranged; the upper one is written “The statement below is true” and the lower says “The statement above is false,” and again the reader is caught in a maddening feedback loop. Martin Gardner, who for several decades penned the delightful “Mathematical Games” column in Scientific American, asks in Aha! Gotcha: Paradoxes to Puzzle and Delight, “Why does this form of the paradox, in which a sentence talks about itself, make the paradox clearer? Because it eliminates all ambiguity over whether a liar always lies and a truth-teller always tells the truth.” The paradox is a function of language, and in that way is the cousin to tautology, save for the former describing propositions that are always necessarily both true and false.

Some intrinsic meaning is elusive in all of this this, so that it would be easy to reject all of it as rank stupidity, but paradoxes provide a crucial service. In paradox, we experience the breakdown of language and of literalism. Whether or not paradoxes are glitches in how we arrange our words or due to something more intrinsic, they signify a null-space where the regular ways of thinking, of understanding, of writing, no longer hold. Few crafters of the form are as synonymous with paradox as the fifth-century BCE philosopher Zeno of Elea. Consider his famed dichotomy paradox, wherein Zeno concludes that motion itself must be impossible, since the movement from point A to point B always necessitates a halving of distance, forever (and so the destination itself can never be reached). Or his celebrated arrow paradox, wherein Aristotle explains in Physics that “If everything when it occupies an equal space is at rest at that instant of time, and if that which is in location is always occupying such a space at any moment, the flying arrow is therefore motionless at that instant of time and at the next instant of time.” And yet the arrow still moves. Roy Sorenson explains in A Brief History of the Paradox that the form “developed from the riddles of Greek folklore” (as with the Sphinx’s famous query in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex), so that words have always mediated these conundrums, while Anthony Gottlieb writes in The Dream of Reason: A History of Philosophy from the Greeks to the Renaissance that “ingenious paradoxes… try to discredit commonsense views by demonstrating that they lead to unacceptable consequences,” in a gambit as rhetorical as it is analytical. Often connected primarily with mathematics and philosophy, paradox is fundamentally a literary genre, and one ironically (or paradoxically?) associated with the failure of language itself. All of the great authors of paradox—the pre-Socratics, Zen masters, Jesus Christ—were at their core storytellers, they were writers. Words stretched to incomprehension and narrative unspooling is their fundamental medium. Epimenides’s utterance triggers a collapse of meaning, but where the literal perishes there is room made for the figurative. Paradox is the mother of poetry.

I’d venture that the contradictions of life are the subject of all great literature, but paradoxes appear in more obvious forms, too. “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22,” writes Joseph Heller. The titular regulation of Heller’s Catch-22 concerned the mental state of American pilots fighting in the Mediterranean during the Second World War, with the policy such that if somebody requests that they don’t want to fly a mission because of mental infirmity, they’ve only demonstrated their own sanity, since anyone who would want to fly must clearly be insane, so that it’s impossible to avoid fighting. The captain was “moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.” Because politics is often the collective social function of reducto ad absurdum, political novels make particularly adept use of paradox. George Orwell did something similar in his celebrated (and oft-misinterpreted) novel of dystopian horror 1984, wherein the state apparatus trumpets certain commandments, such as “War is peace. /Freedom is slavery. /Ignorance is strength.” Perhaps such dialectics are the (non-Marxist) socialist Orwell’s parody of Hegelian double-speak, a mockery of that supposed engine of human progress that goes through thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Within paradox there is a certain freedom, the ability to understand that contradiction is an attribute of our complex experience, but when statements are also defined as their opposite, meaning itself can be the casualty. Paradox understood as a means to enlightenment bestows anarchic freedom; paradox understood as a means unto itself is nihilism.

Political absurdities are born out of the inanity of rhetoric and the severity of regulation, but paradox can entangle not just society, but the fabric of reality as well. Science fiction is naturally adept at examining the snarls of existential paradox, with time travel a favored theme. Paul Nahin explains in Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction that temporal paradoxes are derived from the simple question of “What might happen if a time traveler changed the past?” This might seem an issue entirely of hermetic concern, save for in contemporary physics neither general relativity nor quantum mechanics preclude time travel (indeed certain interpretations of those theories downright necessitate it). So even the idea of being able to move freely through past, present, and future has implications for how reality is constituted, whether or not we happen to be the ones stepping out of the tesseract. “The classic change-the-past paradox is, of course, the so-called grandfather paradox,” writes Nahin, explaining that it “poses the question of what happens if an assassin goes back in time and murders his grandfather before his (the time-travelling murderer’s) own father is born.” The grandfather’s murder requires a murderer, but for the murderer in question to be born there is also the requirement that the grandfather not be murdered, so that the murderer is able to travel back in time and kill his ancestor, and again we’re in a strange loop.

Variations exist as far back as the golden age of the pulps, appearing in magazines like Amazing Stories as early as 1929. More recently, Ray Bradbury explored the paradox in “A Sound of Thunder,” where he is explicit about the paradoxical implications that any travel to the past will alter the future in baroque ways, with a 21st century tourist accidentally killing a butterfly in the Cretaceous, leading to the election of an openly fascistic U.S. president millions of years into the future (though the divergence of parallel universes is often proffered as a means of avoiding such implications). In Bradbury’s estimation, every single thing in history, every event, every incident, is “an exquisite thing,” so that a “small thing that could upset balances and knock down a line of small dominoes and then big dominoes and then gigantic dominoes all down the years across Time.” This conundrum need not only be phrased in patricidal terms, for what all temporal paradoxes have at their core is an issue of causality—if we imagine that time progresses from past through future, then what happens when those terms get all mixed up? How can we possibly understand a past that’s influenced by a future that in turn has been affected by the past?

Again, no issue of scholastic quibbling, for though we experience time as moving forward like one of Zeno’s arrows, the physics itself tells us that past, present, and future are constituted in entirely stranger ways. One version of the grandfather paradox involves, rather than grisly murder, the transfer of information from the future to the past; for example, in Tim Powers’s novel The Anubis Gates, a time traveler is stranded in the early 19th century. The character realizes that “I could invent things—the light bulb, the internal combustion engine… flush toilets.” But he abandons this hubris, for “any such tampering might cancel the trip I got here by, or even the circumstances under which my mother and father met.” Many readers will perhaps be aware of temporal paradoxes from the Robert Zemeckis Back to the Future film trilogy (which for what they lack in patricide they make up for in Oedipal sentiments), notably a scene in which Marty McFly inadvertently introduces Chuck Berry to his own song “Johnny B. Goode.” Ignoring the troubling implications that a suburban white teenager had to somehow teach the Black inventor of rock ‘n’ roll his own music, Back to the Future presents a classic temporal paradox—if McFly first heard “Johnny B. Goode” from Berry records, and Berry first heard the song from McFly, then from whence was the song actually composed? (Perhaps from God).

St. Augustine asks in The City of God “What is time, then? If nobody asks me, I know; but if I were desirous to explain it to one who should ask me, I plainly do not know.” Paradox sprouts from the fertile soil of our own incomprehension, and to its benefit there is virtually nothing that humans really understand, at least not really. Time is the oddest thing of all, if we honestly confront the enormity of it. I’m continually surprised that I can’t easily walk into 1992 as if it were a room in my house. No surprise then that time and space are so often explored in the literature of paradox. Oxymoron and irony are the milquetoast cousins of paradox, but poetry at its most polished, pristine, and adamantine elevates contradiction into an almost religious principle. Among the 17th-century poets who worked in the stead of John Donne, paradox was often a central aspect of what critics have called a “metaphysical conceit.” These brilliant, crystalline, rhetorical turns are often like Zeno’s paradoxes rendered into verse, expanding and compressing time and space with a dialectical glee. An example of this from the good Dr. Donne, master of both enigma and the erotic, who in his poem “The Good-Morrow” imagined two lovers for whom they have made “one little room an everywhere.” The narrator and the beloved’s bed-chamber—perhaps there is heavy wooden paneling on the wall and a canopy bed near a fireplace burning green wood, a full moon shining through the mottled crown glass window—are as if a singularity where north, south, east and west; past, present, and future; are all collapsed into a point. Even more obvious is Donne in “The Paradox,” wherein he writes that “Once I loved and died; and am now become/Mine epitaph and tomb;/Here dead men speak their last, and so do I,” the talking corpse its own absurdity made flesh.

So taken were the 20th-century scholars known as the New Critics with the ingenuity of metaphysical conceits that Cleanth Brooks would argue in his classic The Well Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry that the “language of poetry is the language of paradox.” Donne and Andrew Marvell, George Herbert, and Henry Vaughan used paradox as a theme and a subject—but to write poetry itself is paradoxical. To write fiction is paradoxical. Even to write nonfiction is paradoxical. To write at all is paradoxical. A similar sentiment concerning the representational arts is conveyed in the Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte’s much parodied 1929 work “The Treachery of Images.” Magritte presents an almost absurdly recognizable smoking pipe, polished to a totemistic brown sheen with a shiny black mouth piece, so basically obvious that it might as well be from an advertisement, and beneath it he writes in cursive script “Ceci n’est pas une pipe”—”This is not a pipe.” A seeming blatant contradiction, for what could the words possibly relate to other than the picture directly above them? But as Magritte told an interviewer, “if I had written on my picture ‘This is a pipe,’ I’d have been lying!” For you see, Magritte’s image is not a pipe, it is an image of a pipe. Like Zeno’s paradoxes, what may first initially seem to be simple-minded contrarianism, a type of existential trolling if you will, belies a more subtle observation. The philosopher Michel Foucault writes in his slender volume This Is Not a Pipe that “Contradiction could exist only between two statements,” but that in the painting “there is clearly but one, and it cannot be contradictory because the subject of the propositions is a simple demonstrative.” According to Foucault, the picture, though self-referential, is not a paradox in the logical sense of the word. And yet there is an obvious contradiction between the viewer’s experience of the painting, and the reality that they’ve not looked upon some carefully carved and polished pipe, but rather only brown and black oil carefully applied to stretched canvas.

This, then, is the “treachery” of which Magritte speaks, the paradox that is gestated within that gulf where meaning resides, a valley strung between the-thing-in-itself and the way in which we represent the-thing-in-itself. Writing is in some ways even more treacherous than painting, for at least Magritte’s picture looks like a pipe—perhaps other than some calligraphic art, literature appears as nothing so much as abstract squiggles. Moby-Dick is not a whale and Jay Gatsby is not a man. They are less than a picture of a pipe, for we have not even images of them, only ink-stained books, and the abject abstraction of mere letters. And yet the paradox is that from that nothingness is generated the most sumptuous something; just as the illusion of painting can trick one into the experience of the concrete, so does the more bizarre phenomenon of the literary imagination make you hallucinate characters that are generated from the non-figurative alphabet. From this essay, if I’ve done even a somewhat adequate job, you’ve hopefully been able to envision Gödel and Einstein bundled into a car on the Jersey turnpike, windows frosted with nervous breath and laughter, the sun rising over the wooded Pine Barrens—or to imagine John and Anne Donne bundled together under an exquisite blanket of red and yellow and blue and green, the heavy oak door of their chamber closed tight against the English frost—but of course you’ve seen no such thing. You’ve only skimmed through your phone while sitting on the toilet, or toggled back and forth between open tabs on your laptop. Literature is paradoxical because it necessitates the invention of entire realities out of the basest nothing; the treachery of representation is that “This is not a pipe” is a principle that applies to absolutely all of the written word, and yet when we read a novel or a poem we can smell the burning tobacco.

All of literature is a great enigma, a riddle, a paradox. What the Zen masters of Japanese Buddhism call a kaon. Religion is too often maligned for being haunted by the hobgoblin straw-man of consistency, and yet the only real faith is one mired in contradiction, and few practices embrace paradox quite like Zen. Central to Zen is the breaking down of the dualities that separate all of us from absolute being, the distinction between the I and the not-I. As a means to do this, Zen masters deploy the enigmatic stories, puzzles, sayings, and paradoxes of kaon, with the goal of forcing the initiate toward the para-logical, a catalyst for the instantaneous enlightenment known as satori. Sometimes reduced to the “What is the sound of one-hand clapping?” variety of puzzle (though that is indeed a venerable kaon), the monk and master D.T. Suzuki explains in An Introduction to Zen Buddhism that these apparently “paradoxical statements are not artificialities contrived to hide themselves behind a screen of obscurity; but simply because the human tongue is not an adequate organ for expressing the deepest truth of Zen, the latter cannot be made the subject of logical exposition; they are to be experienced in the inmost soul when they become for the first time intelligible.” A classic kaon, attributed to the ninth-century Chinese monk Linji Yixuan, famously says “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.” Linji’s point is similar to Magritte’s—”This is not the Buddha.” It’s a warning about falling into the trap of representation, of refusing to resist the treachery of images, and yet the paradox is that the only way we have of communicating is through the fallible, inexact, medium of words. Zen is the only religion whose purpose is to overcome religion, and everything else for that matter. It asks us to use its paradoxes as a ladder to which we can climb toward ultimate being—and then we’re to kick that ladder over. In its own strange way, literature is the ultimate kaon, all of these novels and plays, poems and essays, all words, words, words meaning nothing and signifying everything, gesturing towards a Truth beyond truth, and yet nothing but artfully arranged lies (and even less than that, simply arrayed squiggles on a screen). To read is to court its own type of enlightenment, of transcendence, and not just because of the questions literature raises, but because of literature’s very existence in the first place.

Humans are themselves the greatest of paradoxes: someone who is kind can harbor flashes of rage, the cruelest of people are capable of genuine empathy, our greatest pains often lead to salvation and we’re sometimes condemned by that which we love. In a famous 1817 letter to his brothers, the English Romantic poet John Keats extolled the most sublime of literature’s abilities that was to dwell in “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” a quality that he called “negative capability.” An irony in our present’s abandonment of nuance, for ours is a paradoxical epoch through and through—an era of unparalleled technological superiority and appalling barbarity, of instantaneous knowledge and virtually no wisdom. A Manichean age as well—which valorizes consistency above all other virtues, though it is that most suburban of values—yet Keats understood that if we’re to give any credit to literature, and for that matter any credit to people, we must be comfortable with complexity and contradiction. Negative capability is what separates the moral from the merely didactic. In all of our baroque complexity, paradox is the operative mode of literature, the only rhetorical gambit commensurate with displaying the full spectrum of what it means to be a human. We are all such glorious enigmas—creatures of finite dimension and infinite worth. None of us deserve grace, and yet all of us are worthy of it, a moral paradox that makes us beautiful not in spite of its cankered reality, but because of it. The greatest of paradoxes is that within that contradictory form, there is the possibility of genuine freedom—of liberation.

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Rooney, Tóibín, Groff, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Sally Rooney, Colm Tóibín, Lauren Groff, and more—that are publishing this week.
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Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Beautiful World, Where Are You: “Rooney (Normal People) continues her exploration of class, sex, and mental health with a cool, captivating story about a successful Irish writer, her friend, and their lovers. Alice Kelleher, 29, has suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of her work’s popularity. After moving from Dublin to a small seaside town, she meets Felix, a local with a similar background—they both grew up working-class, and both have absent fathers—who works in a shipping warehouse. She invites him to accompany her to Rome, where he falls in love with her but resents what he takes to be her superior attitude. Meanwhile, in Dublin, Alice’s university friend Eileen Lydon works a low-paying literary job and explores her attraction to a childhood friend who seems to return her feelings but continues seeing other women. Alice and Eileen update each other in long emails, which Rooney cleverly exploits for essayistic musings about culture, climate change, and political upheaval. Rooney establishes a distance from her characters’ inner lives, creating a sense of privacy even as she describes Alice and Eileen’s most intimate moments. It’s a bold change to her style, and it makes the illuminations all the more powerful when they pop. As always, Rooney challenges and inspires.”

The Magician by Colm Tóibín

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Magician: “The Booker-shortlisted Tóibín (House of Names) unfurls an expansive fictional biography of Thomas Mann, a Nobel laureate who was devoted to family, obsessed with physical beauty, and driven by desire. Tóibín draws on excerpts from Mann’s diary entries, exposing unrequited loves and erotic encounters with male classmates and boarders as a young man in Lübeck, Germany, around the turn of the 20th century. The Mann who emerges in these pages is a man led by dangerous impulses and constantly pursued by the ‘lure of death and the seductive charm of timeless beauty’ who creates a thinly veiled depiction of a merchant family from Lübeck in Buddenbrooks, records his hypersexual attraction to a young Polish boy in Death in Venice, and draws from his visits to his ailing tubercular wife at a sanatorium for The Magic Mountain. An academic sojourn in Princeton and worldwide lecture tours lead a U.S. State Department official to tell him, ‘after Einstein, you are the most important German alive.’ But a series of traumatic events including several suicides (siblings and two of his six children) compound the effects of the wars and his struggles with his sexuality, and he goes into exile in the Pacific Palisades. The glory of music dominates much of the novel—the strains of Wagner’s Lohengrin; the ‘collision between bombast and subtlety’ of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony; and the glow said to have radiated from Bach when his music was performed, which Mann aspires to replicate in prose. This vibrates with the strength of Mann’s visions and the sublimity of Tóibín’s mellifluous prose. Tóibín has surpassed himself.”

Matrix by Lauren Groff

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Matrix: “Groff (Florida) fashions a boldly original narrative based on the life and legend of 12th-century poet Marie de France. After Marie is banished to a poverty-stricken British abbey by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine at age 17 in 1158, she transforms from a reluctant prioress into an avid abbess. With the rhythm of days and nights regulated by the canonical hours from Lauds to Prime, from Compline to bed, Marie reshapes the claustrophobic community into a ‘self-sufficient… island of women,’ where ‘a woman’s power exists only as far as she is allowed.’ To that end, she confesses a series of 19 beatific visions that guide her in designing an impenetrable underground labyrinth as a secret passageway to the convent, building separate abbess quarters, establishing a scriptorium, and constructing a woman-made lake and dam to insure a constant water supply. Groff fills the novel with friendships among the nuns, inspirational apparitions, and writings empowered by divine inspiration. Transcendent prose and vividly described settings bring to life historic events, from the Crusades to the papal interdict of 1208. Groff has outdone herself with an accomplishment as radiant as Marie’s visions.”

How to Wrestle a Girl by Venita Blackburn

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about How to Wrestle a Girl: “Blackburn (Black Jesus and Other Superheroes) presents a variety of Black and queer voices in this provocative collection. In ‘Bear Bear Harvest TM,’ a girl’s family members have their excess body fat siphoned and sold for food processing. In ‘Biology Class,’ a girl’s classmates bully a teacher into a breakdown. The second half of the collection follows an unnamed Black queer teen through a series of linked stories as she struggles to endure after her father’s death and her mother’s neglect. In ‘Fat,’ she reacts to a white male physician’s assistant telling her she’s fat. In ‘Dick Pic’ and ‘Black Communion,’ she ponders her mother’s relationship with a pastor who sends pictures of his penis to her sister, and in ‘Halloween,’ she and her friend Esperanza intervene after witnessing a car suspiciously follow a little girl. ‘Ground Fighting,’ one of the strongest and longest stories on offer, finds the narrator coming out to a friend. Blackburn relies a bit too much on clever forms, such as crossword puzzles and lists, which tend to feel like exercises, but many entries present well-wrought narratives of young women coming to terms with their bodies and sexuality. It’s a mixed bag, but Blackburn clearly has plenty of talent.”

On Freedom: Four Songs of Care and Constraint by Maggie Nelson

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about On Freedom: “Critic Nelson (The Argonauts) traces the limits of liberty and the call to care in this expansive and sharp-eyed study. Exploring ‘structural questions’ about freedom, Nelson exposes instances where conventional uses of the term—for instance, the ‘intensely American’ idea ‘that liberty leads to well-being’—clash with the contradictions of human nature. Skillfully reading the works of such critics as Eve Sedgewick and Hannah Arendt, Nelson outlines the complexities at the heart of her subject: the paradox of sexual freedom, for example, means ‘many of our most basic and hard-earned sexual freedoms… are legally dependent on principles of individual liberty.’ On climate change, she probes the costs of personal liberty when humans are changing the planet in ‘genocidal, geocidal’ ways. Patient and ‘devoted to radical compassion,’ Nelson turns each thought until it is finely honed and avoids binaries and bromides. While the literary theorizing is rich, this account soars in its ability to find nuance in considering questions of enormous importance: ‘We tend to grow tired of our stories over time; we tend to learn from them what they have to teach, then bore of their singular lens.’ Once again, Nelson proves herself a masterful thinker and an unparalleled prose stylist.”

Hao by Ye Chun

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Hao: “Chun’s tender and skillful debut collection explores the power and shortcomings of language for a series of Chinese women in the U.S. and China over the past three centuries. In the gripping opener, ‘Stars,’ Luyao is doing graduate studies in the U.S. when she suffers a stroke and loses the ability to speak. Her speech therapist gives her exercises in English, which reminds her of when she learned the language as a child in China, though she craves the ability to speak Chinese again. In the title story, set during the Cultural Revolution, Qingxin plays a ‘word game’ with her four-year-old daughter, Ming, tracing Chinese words on Ming’s back for her to guess their meaning. ‘Milk’ depicts a young man selling roses in an unnamed Chinese city while posting commentary on his blog about anachronisms on the streets of his purported ‘world class metropolis.’ ‘Gold Mountain’ features an abstract but vivid portrait of 1877 anti-Chinese riots in San Francisco, as a woman takes shelter above a store and tries to decipher overheard English speech. While some stories feel like exercises, serving mainly to provide connective tissue for the overarching theme, Chun consistently reveals via bold and spare prose how characters grasp onto language as a means of belonging. Not every entry is a winner, but the best of the bunch show a great deal of promise.”

The Archer by Shruti Swamy

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Archer: “Swamy’s affecting debut novel (after A House is a Body) follows a woman’s interest in dance and self-determination after growing up in poverty in 1960s Northern India. At seven, Vidya encounters a class of girls learning kathak, a form of Indian classical dance. By the time she’s in her teens, Vidya has become a dedicated kathak pupil, devoted to the ‘wild, nearly unbearable pleasure’ of dance. In college, she studies engineering while continuing to work every day with a new dance teacher from Bombay. Always set slightly apart from her peers by her poverty and intensity, Vidya is surprised by the depth of her connection to another student, the solitary and brilliant Radha. Swamy writes with keen perception of Vidya’s anger and unyielding will to dance, despite her predicament (she never forgets that she is ‘dark, overeducated, unpedigreed’). Later in the book, after Vidya’s brief romance with Radha, she marries a man from a very different socioeconomic class, a decision that further illustrates how the odds are stacked against her as a young woman attempting to live on her own terms. Swamy confidently evokes the time and place with spare, precise prose. This writer continues to demonstrate an impressive command of her craft.”

Beautiful Country by Qian Julie Wang

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Beautiful Country: “In this extraordinary debut, civil rights lawyer Wang recounts her years growing up as an undocumented immigrant living in ‘the furtive shadows’ of America. During China’s Cultural Revolution, her uncle was thrown in prison for criticizing Mao Zedong, leaving his parents and younger brother, Wang’s father, to pay for his ‘treasonous’ ways in the form of public beatings and humiliation. This fueled her father’s desire to find a better life in America, the ‘Beautiful Country.’ In China, Wang’s parents were professors, but upon arriving in New York City in 1994, their credentials were meaningless. ‘Pushing past hunger pains,’ they took menial jobs to support Wang, who worked alongside her mother in a sweatshop before starting school at age seven. During her five years in the States—’shrouded in darkness while wrestling with hope and dignity’—Wang managed to become a star student. With immense skill, she parses how her family’s illegal status blighted nearly every aspect of their life, from pushing her parents’ marriage to the brink to compromising their health. While Wang’s story of pursuing the American dream is undoubtedly timeless, it’s her family’s triumph in the face of ‘xenophobia and intolerance’ that makes it feel especially relevant today. Consider this remarkable memoir a new classic.”

The Breaks by Julietta Singh

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Breaks: “In a kind of spiritual successor to the genre-defying No Archive Will Restore You, Singh, an associate professor of English and gender studies, reveals the most intimate details of her life and politics. Using the form of a letter to her daughter, Singh offers ‘alternative histories… of those who have faced annihilation and lived toward survival’ in the face of Western capitalism’s ‘wholesale destruction of the earth,’ and criticizes the ‘dominant narratives’ that have shaped mainstream culture—such as Disney’s painting of Indigenous peoples as ‘savage’ and the white man as ‘fundamentally good’ in the movie Pocahontas. To go ‘against the grain’ of these racist depictions, Singh recalls her youth fighting discriminatory aggression as a mixed ‘Brown’ child in the ‘purportedly multicultural Canada of the 1980s,’ her lifelong endurance of bodily and medical trauma, and the home she’s created with her partner—as ‘queer collaborators’ who play ‘with what constitutes family.’ Singh has a tendency to wax academic, but that doesn’t detract from the beauty of her insights as she exquisitely links theory and poetics to her own fears, insecurities, and certainty that one day her child will need to break away from her. This is a stunning work.”

The Water Statues by Fleur Jaeggy (translated by Gini Alhadeff)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Water Statues: “In this strange and shimmering nonlinear text from Swiss writer Jaeggy (I Am the Brother of XX), the lonely children of the wealthy and their eccentric employees negotiate the boundary between companionship and solitude. In Amsterdam, Beeklam grows up with only his father, Reginald, after the death of his mother, Thelma. Reginald never remarries and lives in seclusion with his servant, Lampe, a man curiously similar to him: ‘the two men had hardly met but were in perfect agreement, two finicky little plants,’ Jaeggy observes. As an adult, Beeklam stocks the basement of his house with statues and spends more and more time with them, ‘losing control of the hours and of life.’ Beeklam, too, has only one companion: his servant, Victor. After Reginald, at 70, suddenly leaves his house and abandons Lampe, Lampe goes to work for Kaspar, another widower who was a friend of Thelma’s. Through this new connection to Kaspar and a child who lives with him and may be Kaspar’s daughter, Beeklam and Victor’s small universe grows a little larger. In short, enjoyably expressionistic sections, Jaeggy sketches the emotional lives of people marooned but not content to remain entirely alone. What emerges is a fascinating and memorable portrait of a milieu obsessed with the passing of time.”

Martita, I Remember You by Sandra Cisneros (translated by Liliana Valenzuela)

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Martita, I Remember You: “In this bilingual edition (written originally in English and translated into Spanish by Liliana Valenzuela) of Cisneros’s exquisite story (after Puro Amor), a woman relives her time in Paris two decades earlier via a cache of discovered letters. At 20, Corina aspires to become a writer and escape her poor Mexican Chicago family, prompting her to travel to Paris. She meets Marta, from Chile, and Paola, from Italy, and mingles with artists, dancers, and performers. She stretches her money to stay longer, realizing, ‘I can’t go home yet. Because home is bus stops and drugstore windows, elastic bandages and hairpins, plastic ballpoints, felt bunion pads, tweezers, rat poison, cold sore ointment, mothballs, drain cleaners, deodorant.’ Back in Chicago, she holds onto a photo of herself with Marta and Paola, but swiftly loses touch with them. Decades later, she discovers a letter from Marta sent shortly after she’d left, suggesting they meet in Spain, ‘in case you’re still traveling.’ Corina speaks to Marta in her thoughts and gives the rundown of her life: divorced, remarried, two daughters. Cisneros’s language and rhythm of her prose reverberate with Corina’s longing for her youth and unfulfilled promise. The author’s fans will treasure this.”

Also on shelves this week: Heart Radical by Anne Liu Kellor, Letters to Amelia by Lindsay Zier-Vogel and Misfits by Michaela Coel.

Circles of the Damned

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Maybe during this broiling summer you’ve seen the footage—in one striking video, women and men stand dazed on a boat sailing away from the Greek island of Evia, watching as ochre flames consume their homes in the otherwise dark night. Similar hellish scenes are unfolding in Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya, as well as in Turkey and Spain. Currently Siberia is experiencing the largest wildfire in recorded history, an unlikely place for such a conflagration, joined by large portions of Canada. As California burns, the global nature of our immolation is underscored by horrific news around the world, a demonstration of the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change’s conclusion that such disasters are “unequivocally” anthropogenic, with the authors signaling a “code red” for the continuation of civilization. On Facebook, the mayor of a town in Calabria mourned that “We are losing our history, our identity is turning to ashes, our soul is burning,” and though he was writing specifically about the fires raging in southern Italy, it’s a diagnosis for a dying world as well.

Seven centuries ago, another Italian wrote in The Divine Comedy, “Abandon all hope ye who enter here,” which seems just as applicable in 2021 as it did in 1221. That exiled Florentine had similar visions of conflagration, describing how “Above that plain of sand, distended flakes/of fire showered down; their fall was slow –/as snow descends on alps when no wind blows… when fires fell, /intact and to the ground.” This September sees the 700th anniversary of both the completion of The Divine Comedy and the death of its author Dante Alighieri. But despite the chasms of history that separate us, his writing about how “the never-ending heat descended” holds a striking resonance. During our supposedly secular age, the singe of the inferno feels hotter when we’ve pushed our planet to the verge of apocalyptic collapse. Dante, you must understand, is ever applicable in our years of plague and despair, tyranny and treachery.

People are familiar with The Divine Comedy’s tropes even if they’re unfamiliar with Dante. Because all of it—the flames and sulphur, the mutilations and the shrieks, the circles of the damned and the punishments fitted to the sin, the descent into subterranean perdition and the demonic cacophony—find their origin with him. Neither Reformation nor revolution has dispelled the noxious fumes from inferno. There must be a distinction between the triumphalist claim that Dante says something vital about the human condition, and the objective fact that in some ways Dante actually invented the human condition (or a version of it).  When watching the videos of people escaping from Evia, it took me several minutes to understand what it was that I was looking at, and yet those nightmares have long existed in our culture, as Dante gave us a potent vocabulary to describe Hell centuries ago. For even to deny Hell is to deny something first completely imagined by a Medieval Florentine.

Son of a prominent family, enmeshed in conflicts between the papacy and the Holy Roman Empire, a respected though ultimately exiled citizen, Dante resided far from the shores of modernity, though the broad contours of his poem, with its visceral conjurations of the afterlife, are worth repeating. “Midway upon the journey of our life/I found myself within a forest dark,” Dante famously begins. At the age of 35, Dante descends into the underworld, guided by the ancient Roman poet Virgil and sustained by thoughts of his platonic love for the lady Beatrice. That Inferno constitutes only the first third of The Divine Comedy—subsequent sections consider Purgatory and Heaven—yet that it is the most read, speaks to something cursedly intrinsic in us. The poet descends like Orpheus, Ulysses, and Christ before him deep into the underworld, journeying through nine concentric circles, each more brutal than the previous. Perdition is a space of “sighs and lamentations and loud cries” filled with “Strange utterances, horrible pronouncements, /accents of anger, words of suffering, /and voice shrill and faint and beating hands” who are buffeted “forever through that turbid, timeless air, /like sand that eddies when a whirlwind swirls.” Cosmology is indistinguishable from ethics, so that each circle was dedicated to particular sins: the second circle is reserved for crimes of lust, the third to those of gluttony, the fourth to greed, the wrathful reside in the fifth circle, the sixth is domain of the heretics, the seventh is for the violent, all those guilty of fraud live in the eighth, and at the very bottom that first rebel Satan is eternally punished alongside all traitors.

Though The Divine Comedy couldn’t help but reflect the concerns of Dante’s century, he still formulated a poetics of damnation so tangible and disturbing that it’s still the measure of hellishness, wherein he “saw one/Rent from the chin to where one breaks wind. /Between his legs were hanging down his entrails;/His heart was visible, and the dismal sack/That makes excrement of what is eaten.” Lest it be assumed that this is simply sadism, Dante is cognizant of how gluttony, envy, lust, wrath, sloth, covetousness, and pride could just as easily reserve him a space. Which is part of his genius; Dante doesn’t just describe Hell, which in its intensity provides an unparalleled expression of pain, but he also manifests a poetry of justice, where he’s willing to implicate himself (even while placing several of his own enemies within the circles of the damned). 

No doubt the tortures meted out—being boiled alive for all eternity, forever swept up in a whirlwind, or masticated within the freezing mouth of Satan—are monstrous. The poet doesn’t disagree—often he expresses empathy for the condemned. But the disquiet that we and our fellow moderns might feel is in part born out of a broad theological movement that occurred over the centuries in how people thought about sin. During the Reformation, both Catholics and Protestants began to shift the model of what sin is away from the Seven Deadly Sins, and towards the more straightforward Ten Commandments. For sure there was nothing new about the Decalogue, and the Seven Deadly Sins haven’t exactly gone anywhere, but what took hold—even subconsciously—was a sense that sins could be reduced to a list of literal injunctions. Don’t commit adultery, don’t steal, don’t murder. Because we often think of sin as simply a matter of broken rules, the psychological acuity of Dante can be obscured. But the Seven Deadly Sins are rather more complicated—we all have to eat, but when does it become gluttony? We all have to rest, but when is that sloth?

An interpretative brilliance of the Seven Deadly Sins is that they explain how an excess of otherwise necessary human impulses can pervert us. Every human must eat; most desire physical love; we all need the regeneration of rest—but when we slide into gluttony, lust, sloth, and so on, it can feel as if we’re sliding into the slime that Dante describes. More than a crime, sin is a mental state which causes pain—both within the person who is guilty and to those who suffer because of those actions. In Dante’s portrayal of the stomach-dropping, queasy, nauseous, never-ending uncertainty of the damned’s lives, the poet conveys a bit of their inner predicament. The Divine Comedy isn’t some punitive manual, a puritan’s little book of punishments. Rather than a catalogue of what tortures match which crimes, Dante’s book expresses what sin feels like. Historian Jeffrey Burton Russell writes in Lucifer: The Devil in the Middle Ages how in hell “we are weighted down by sin and stupidity… we sink downward and inward… narrowly confined and stuffy, our eyes gummed shut and our vision turned within ourselves, drawn down, heavy, closed off from reality, bound by ourselves to ourselves, shut in and shut off… angry, hating, and isolated.”

If such pain were only experienced by the guilty, that would be one thing, but sin effects all within the human community who suffer as a result of pride, greed, wrath, and so on. There is a reason why the Seven Deadly Sins are what they are. In a world of finite resources, to valorize the self above all others is to take food from the mouths of the hungry, to hoard wealth that could be distributed to the needy, to claim vengeance as one’s own when it is properly the purview of society, to enjoy recreation upon the fruits of somebody else’s labor, to reduce another human being to a mere body, to covet more than you need, or to see yourself as primary and all others as expendable. Metaphor is the poem’s currency, and what’s more real than the intricacies of how organs are pulled from orifices is how sin—that disconnect between the divine and humanity—is experienced. You don’t need to believe in a literal hell—I don’t—to see what’s radical in Dante’s vision. What Inferno offers isn’t just grotesque descriptions, increasingly familiar though they may be on our warming planet, but also a model of thinking about responsibility to each other in a connected world.

Such is the feeling of the anonymous authors of the 2018 anarchist manifesto The Invisible Committee—a surprise hit when published in France—who opined that “No bonds are innocent” in our capitalist era, for “We are already situated within the collapse of a civilization,” structuring their tract around the circles of Dante’s inferno. Since its composition, The Divine Comedy has run like a molten vein through culture both rarefied and popular; from being considered by T.S. Eliot, Samuel Becket, Primo Levi, and Dereck Walcott, to being referenced in horror films, comic books, and rock music. Allusion is one thing, but what we can see with our eyes is another—as novelist Francine Prose writes in The Guardian, those images of people fleeing from Greek wildfires are “as if Dante filmed the Inferno on his iPhone.” For centuries artists have mined Inferno for raw materials, but now in the sweltering days of the Anthropocene we are enacting it. To note that our present appears as a place where Hell has been pulled up from the bowels of the earth is a superficial observation, for though Dante presciently gives us a sense of what perdition feels like, he crucially also provided a means to identify the wicked.

Denizens of the nine circles were condemned because they worshiped the self over everybody else; now the rugged individualism that is the heretical ethos of our age has made man-made apocalypse probable. ExxonMobil drills for petroleum in the heating Arctic and the apocalyptic QAnon cult proliferates across the empty chambers of Facebook and Twitter; civil wars are fought in the Congo over the tin, tungsten, and gold in the circuit boards of the Android you’re reading this essay with, children in Vietnam and Malaysia sew the clothing we buy at The Gap and Old Navy, and the simplest request for people to wear masks so as to protect the vulnerable goes unheeded in the name of “freedom” as our American Midas Jeff Bezos barely flies to outer space while workers in Amazon warehouses are forced to piss in bottles rather than be granted breaks. Responsibility for our predicament is unequally distributed, those in the lowest circle are the ones who belched out carbon dioxide for profit knowing full well the effects, those who promoted a culture of expendable consumerism and valorized the rich at the expense of the poor. Late capitalism’s operative commandment is to pretend that all seven of the deadly sins are virtues. Literary scholar R.W.B. Lewis describes the “Dantean principle that individuals cannot lead a truly good life unless they belong to a good society,” which means that all of us are in a lot of trouble. Right now, the future looks a lot less like paradise and more like inferno. Dante writes that “He listens well who takes notes.” Time to pay attention.

Bonus Link:—Is There a Poet Laureate of the Anthropocene?

Image Credit: Wikipedia

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Hamya, Wolitzer, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Jo Hamya, Hilma Wolitzer, 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.
Three Rooms by Jo Hamya

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Three Rooms: “Hamya’s cerebral debut explores a young British woman’s identity formation while her country is besieged by inequality, disconnection, and political instability. In the fall of 2018, the unnamed narrator, a millennial woman of color, has just moved into student accommodations at Oxford for a temporary research assistant position. Trying to find her footing, she spends most of her time online, contemplating how others manage their online personae, such as a student named Ghislane, whose father recorded a hit ‘faux-folk’ song of the same name in the 1990s (‘Ghislane was not as famous as her father,’ the narrator notes, perusing her Instagram profile, ‘but there were the beginnings of some distinction there’). Later, the narrator moves to London and scrapes by while working yet another temporary job at a society magazine with a pitiful salary. As Brexit divides the nation, she reflects on the changing cultural climate and the purposelessness of her toils: ‘When did it become ridiculous to think that a stable economy and a fair housing market were reasonable expectations?’ In precise prose, Hamya captures the disillusionment and despair plaguing her protagonist. This perceptive debut will delight fans of Rachel Cusk.”

Several People Are Typing by Calvin Kasulke

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Several People Are Typing: “Kasulke’s ambitious if underwhelming debut, a fantastical workplace comedy, unfolds via Slack messages sent by employees of a New York City PR firm. Gerald works from home, trapped indefinitely ‘within the confines of [Slack].’ Other colleagues also find opportunities to ‘wfh,’ citing a blizzard, or kids, but one of them, Tripp, continues going into the office, where he meets Beverly, a new team member, and the two begin a secret romance. Kasulke does a good job pulling together the signifiers of office culture—the team trade pet pics and carry on inside jokes with an emoji named ‘dusty stick’—and they work on a campaign for a dog food company that’s in crisis mode over its product allegedly containing poison. But none of these or the other internal mini dramas—such as the incessant ‘howling’ Lydia hears or Gerald’s unease-turned-existential crisis—are particularly engaging or inspiring, and things take a series of odd turns after the Slackbot AI takes over Gerald’s body with his mind still stuck in the digital realm. However clever the setup is, the satire lacks bite and feels not unlike listening to a friend complain about their job. For a book about Slack, it’s largely that.”

Moon and the Mars by Kia Corthron

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Moon and the Mars: “Playwright and novelist Corthron (The Castle Cross the Magnet Carter) combines a propulsive coming-of-age story with a fascinating history of the years before and after the Civil War. Beginning in 1857, biracial seven-year-old narrator Theo Brigid Brook observes the social upheaval and racial injustice leading to the conflict. She lives in Manhattan’s infamous Five Points neighborhood with her Grammy Brook and Grammy Cahill, who are discriminated against for being Irish and Black, respectively. Other residents of the Brook household include a barber who boards with them and a woman who escaped from slavery in South Carolina. Theo is acutely attuned to such events as the Metropolitan Police riots, and her intense relationship with the rough-and-tumble Irish lad Ciaran seems fated from an early age. While Theo is bookish and entrenched in family and community, Ciaran eschews education and takes a series of manual labor jobs. Corthron smoothly weaves in historical developments as divisions flare in the Five Points, such as the implications of the Dred Scott case, something Grammy Brook sums up concisely: ‘Whenever the rich make a crisis, you know what gonna fall to the poor is catastrophe.’ Corthron’s ambition pays off with dividends.”

Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket by Hilma Wolitzer

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket: “In this sage collection of stories, many of which were published in the 1960s and ’70s, Wolitzer (An Available Man) considers love, marriage, and motherhood. The title story is narrated by a woman who regrets her inability to help when she sees a woman with two children having a nervous breakdown in a supermarket. In ‘Mrs. X,’ a housewife receives a note signed from an ‘anonymous friend’ hinting that her husband is having an affair and grows angry at the friend for interfering in their lives. In ‘Overtime,’ a husband and wife allow the former’s needy ex to move in with them temporarily—with unsurprisingly uproarious results. In the affecting ‘Mother,’ a woman who has just given birth worries that something is wrong with her premature baby and leaves the maternity ward to search the hospital for her. Several of the stories revolve around a New York couple, Paulette and Howard; in a contemporary story, the couple must cope with the coronavirus pandemic: ‘We were going to have a Zoom meeting, whatever that was,’ Paulette narrates about a March 2020 book club meeting, her memories undercut with a wistfulness over the devastation that would come in the months to follow. Throughout, Wolitzer captures the feel of each moment with characters who charm with their honesty. The result is a set of engaging time capsules.”

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Levy, Jeffers, Barker, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Deborah Levy, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, Pat Barker, 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.
Real Estate by Deborah Levy

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Real Estate: “Levy (The Cost of Living) brings her trilogy of autobiographies home in this incandescent meditation on writing, womanhood, and the places that nurture both. From her shabby flat in North London, she imagines a dream property: ‘a grand old house with the pomegranate tree in the garden,’ and returns to this refrain throughout her delightful memoir-in-vignettes. Levy is 59 and single, and, with her youngest daughter off to university, takes a fellowship in Paris and contemplates the nature of middle-aged female freedom that includes, for her, a deep longing for an expansive kind of rootedness. ‘Domestic space,’ she observes, ‘if it is not an affliction bestowed on us by patriarchy, can be a powerful space. To make it work for women and children is the challenge.’ She accumulates treasures for the ‘unreal estate’ of her dreams, contemplates a friend’s extramarital affair, rents a crumbling old home in Greece, and encounters sexist male writers. Despite what physically occurs, this is a cerebral affair—Levy’s mind is both troubled and titillated by the slipperiness of time and place—and her wry wit and descriptive powers are more pleasurable than any plot. Eloquent and unapologetically frank, Levy’s astute narrative is a place worth lingering in.”

The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois: “Poet Jeffers (The Age of Phyllis) debuts with a staggering and ambitious saga exploring African American history. Ailey Pearl Garfield, the youngest daughter of Geoff Garfield, a light-skinned Washington, D.C., physician, and Belle Driskell Garfield, a Southern school teacher, reckons with ancestral trauma while growing up in the 1980s and ’90s. Throughout, historical sketches (or ‘songs’) link Ailey to her ancestors: Creeks, enslaved Africans, and early Scot slave owners. Ailey follows in the footsteps of her parents, attending the southern HBCU where they met and married as undergraduates before moving north to the ‘City,’ where Geoff attended medical school at Mecca University (a thinly veiled Howard). W.E.B. Du Bois’s theories emerge in epigraphs throughout and are sagaciously reflected in the plot, as the accounts of Ailey’s college life correspond to the ‘talented tenth.’ Later, tragedy unfolds as Lydia, Ailey’s oldest sister who is haunted by childhood sexual abuse, succumbs to crack addiction. The multigenerational story bursts open when Ailey unearths some unknown family history during her graduate studies, as well as secrets of the Black female founder of her family’s alma mater. Themes of family, class, higher education, feminism, and colorism yield many rich layers. Readers will be floored.”

Something Wonderful by Jo Lloyd

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Something Wonderful: “Each story in Lloyd’s crisp and layered debut collection is like a picture postcard from the Welsh countryside, belied by family secrets, dashed hopes, and the long shadows of history. In ‘My Bonny,’ a widow raises her son after her husband is killed at sea, beginning a family saga that stretches into an ominous future in just a few short pages. The unseen upper-class visitors to a close-knit community leave a mark on its citizens in ‘The Invisible,’ and in ‘Butterflies of the Balkans,’ set in the run-up to WWI, two young women pursue a passion for lepidopterology. Other stories feature hopeful young people falling in and out of love as they make their first forays into adulthood, as in ‘Ade/Cindy/Kurt/Me’ and ‘Your Magic Summer’; the latter follows the friendship of two girls as they become women, marry, and find their rapport threatened by the changes in their lives. Perhaps the best entry is the gothic ‘The Earth, Thy Great Exchequer, Ready Lies,’ wherein the imperious and self-made lord of a humble township ventures into the lowlands, only to meet a mysterious fate. Throughout, the author shows a knack for stretching each germ of a story into a miniature epic. Lloyd’s singular talent is on full display.”

The Women of Troy by Pat Barker

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Women of Troy: “In Barker’s masterly continuation of her fiercely feminist take on Homer’s Iliad (after The Silence of the Girls), the Greeks drag their wooden horse into Troy and achieve victory after a 10-year siege, but a freak storm prevents their ships from returning home. As time drags on, Briseis, the heroine of the previous installment, struggles to survive as an enemy noncombatant prisoner in the siege camp. A former queen of a Trojan ally, she was kidnapped by Achilles as his prize of honor and turned into his sex slave. But now Achilles is dead and Briseis is pregnant. Handed down to Lord Alcimus as his wife, she spends her days, as soldiers play football with a human head, commiserating with the other Trojan women—Hecuba, Cassandra, Andromache and, of course, Helen, the cause of the war. Briseis shares narrative duties with Pyrrhus, the bloodthirsty son of Achilles, and Calchas, a canny priest of Troy. In a novel filled with names from legend, Briseis stands tall as a heroine: brave, smart and loyal. The author makes strategic use of anachronistic language (‘living in the real world,’ ‘keep a low profile’) to illuminate characters living at the dawn of myth. Barker’s latest is a wonder.”

Who’s There?: Every Story Is a Ghost Story

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“One need not be a chamber to be haunted.” —Emily Dickinson

Drown Memorial Hall was only a decade old when it was converted into a field hospital for students stricken with the flu in the autumn of 1918. A stolid, grey building of three stories and a basement, Drown Hall sits half-way up South Mountain where it looks over the Lehigh Valley to the federal portico of the white-washed Moravian Central Church across the river, and the hulking, rusting ruins of Bethlehem Steel a few blocks away. Composed of stone the choppy texture of the north Atlantic in the hour before a squall, with yellow windows buffeted by mountain hawks and grey Pennsylvania skies. Built in honor of Lehigh University’s fourth president, a mustachioed Victorian chemistry professor, Drown was intended as a facility for leisure, exercise, and socialization, housing (among other luxuries) bowling alleys and chess rooms. Catherine Drinker Bowen enthused in her 1924 History of Lehigh University that Drown exuded “dignity and, at the same time, a certain at-home-ness to every function held there,” that the building “carries with it a flavor and spice which makes the hotel or country club hospitality seem thin, flat and unprofitable.” If Drown was a monument to youthful exuberance, innocent pluck, and boyish charm, then by the height of the pandemic it had become a cenotaph to cytokine storms. Only a few months after basketballs and Chuck Taylors would have skidded across its gymnasium floor, and those same men would lay on cots hoping not to succumb to the illness. Twelve men would die of the influenza in Drown.

After its stint as a hospital, Drown would return to being a student center, then the Business Department, and by the turn of our century the English Department. It was in that final purpose that I got to know Drown a decade ago, when I was working on my PhD. Toward the end of my first year, I had to go to my office in the dusk after-hour, when lurid orange light breaks through the cragged and twisted branches of still leafless trees in the cold spring, looking nothing so much like jaundiced fingers twisting the black bars of a broken cage, or like the spindly embers of a church’s burnt roof, fires still cackling through the collapsing wood.  I had to print a seminar paper for a class on 19th-century literature, and to then quickly adjourn to my preferred bar. When I keyed into the locked building, it was empty, silent save for the eerie neon hum of the never-used vending machines and the unnatural pooling luminescence of perennially flickering fluorescent lights in the stairwells at either end of the central hall. While in a basement computer lab, I suddenly heard a burst of noise upstairs come from one end of the hall rapidly progress towards the other—the unmistakable sound of young men dribbling a basketball. Telling myself that it must be the young children of one of the department’s professors, I shakily ascended. As soon as I got to the top the noise ceased. The lights were out. The building was still empty. Never has an obese man rolled down that hill quite as quickly as I did in the spring of 2011.

There are several rational explanations—students studying in one of the classrooms even after security would have otherwise locked up. Or perhaps the sound did come from some faculty kids (though to my knowledge nobody was raising adolescents at that time). Maybe there was something settling strangely, concrete shifting oddly or water rushing quickly through a pipe (as if I didn’t know the difference between a basketball game and a toilet flushing). When depleted of all explanations, I know what I heard and what it sounded like, and I still have no idea what it was. Nor is this the only ghost story that I could recount—there was the autumn of 2003 when walking back at 2 a.m. after the close of the library at Washington and Jefferson College, feet unsteady on slicked brown leaves blanketing the frosted sidewalk, that I noted an unnatural purple light emanating from a half-basement window of Macmillan Hall, built in 1793 (having been the encampment of Alexander Hamilton during the Whisky Rebellion) and the oldest university building west of the Alleghenies. A few seconds after observing the shining, I heard a high-pitched, unnatural, inhuman banshee scream—some kind of poltergeist cry—and being substantially thinner in that year I was able to book it quickly back to my dorm. Or in 2007 while I was living in Scotland, when I toured the cavernous subterranean vaults underneath the South Bridge between the Old and New towns of Edinburgh, and I saw a young chav, who decided to make obscene hand gestures within a cairn that the tour guide assured us had “evil trapped within it,” later break down as if he was being assaulted by some unseen specter. Then there was the antebellum farm house in the Shenandoah Valley that an ex-girlfriend lived in, one room being so perennially cold and eerie that nobody who visited ever wanted to spend more than a few minutes in it. A haunted space in a haunted land where something more elemental than intellect screams at you that something cruel happened there.

Paranormal tales are popular, even among those who’d never deign to believe in something like a poltergeist, because they speak to the ineffable that we feel in those arm-hair-raised, scalp-shrinking, goose-bumped-moments where we can’t quite fully explain what we felt, or heard, or saw. I might not actually believe in ghosts, but when I hear the dribbling of a basketball down an empty and dark hall, I’m not going to stick around to find out what it is. No solitary person is ever fully a skeptic when they’re alone in a haunted house. Count me on the side of science journalist Mary Roach, who in Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife writes that “I guess I believe that not everything we humans encounter in our lives can be neatly and convincingly tucked away inside the orderly cabinetry of science. Certainly, most things can… but not all. I believe in the possibility of something more.” Haunting is by definition ambiguous—if with any certainty we could say that the supernatural was real it would, I suppose, simply be the natural.

Franco-Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov formulated a critical model of the supernatural in his study The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, in which he argued that stories about unseen realms could be divided between the “uncanny” and the “marvelous.” The former are narrative elements that can ultimately be explained rationally, i.e., supernatural plot points that prove to be dreams, hallucinations, drug trips, hoaxes, illusions, or anything unmasked by the Scooby-Doo gang. The latter are things that are actually occult, supernatural, divine. When it’s unclear as to whether or not a given incident in a story is uncanny or marvelous, then it’s in that in-between space of the fantastic, which is the same place any ghostly experience has had to be honestly categorized. “The fantastic is that hesitation experienced by a person who knows only the laws of nature, confronting an apparently supernatural event,” writes Todorov, and that is a succinct description of my Drown anomaly. Were it to be simply uncanny, then I suppose my spectral fears would have been assuaged if upon my ascent I found a group of living young men playing impromptu pick-up basketball. For that experience to be marvelous, I’d have to know beyond any doubt that what I heard were actual spirits. As it is, it’s the uncertainty of the whole event—the strange, spooky, surreal ambiguity—that makes the incident fantastic. “What I’m after is proof,” writes Roach. “Or evidence, anyway —evidence that some form of disembodied consciousness persists when the body closes up shop. Or doesn’t persist.” I’ve got no proof or disproof either, only the distant memory of sweaty palms and a racing heart.

Ghosts may haunt chambers, but they also haunt books; they might float through the halls of Drown, but they even more fully possess the books that line that building’s halls. Traditional ghosts animate literature, from the canon to the penny dreadful, including what the Victorian critic Matthew Arnold grandiosely termed the “best which has been thought and said” as well as lurid paperbacks with their garish covers. We’re so obsessed with something seen just beyond the field of vision that vibrates at a frequency that human ears can’t quite detect—from Medieval Danish courts to the Overlook Hotel, Hill House to the bedroom of Ebenezer Scrooge—that we’re perhaps liable to wonder if there is something to ghostly existence. After all, places are haunted, lives are haunted, stories are haunted. Such is the nature of ghosts; we may overlook their presence, their flitting and meandering through the pages of our canonical literature, but they’re there all the same (for a place can be haunted whether you notice that it is or not).

How often do you forget that the work that is the greatest in the language is basically a ghost story? William Shakespeare’s Hamlet is fundamentally a good old-fashioned yarn about a haunted house (in addition to being a revenge tragedy and pirate tale). The famed soliloquy of the Danish prince dominates our cultural imagination, but the most cutting bit of poetry is the eerie line that begins the play: “Who’s there?” Like any good supernatural tale, Hamlet begins in confusion and disorientation, as the sentries Marcellus and Bernardo patrolling Elsinore’s ramparts first espy the silent ghost of the murdered king, with the latter uttering the shaky two-word interrogative. Can you imagine being in the audience, sometime around 1600 when it was a widespread belief that there are more things in heaven and earth than can be dreamt of in our philosophies, and hearing the quivering question asked in the darkness, faces illuminated by tallow candle, the sense that there is something just beyond our experience that has come from beyond? The status of Hamlet’s ghost is ambiguous; some critics have interpreted the specter as a product of the prince’s madness, others claim that the spirit is clearly real. Such uncertainty speaks to what’s fantastic about the ghost, as ambiguity haunts the play. Notice that Bernardo doesn’t ask “What’s there?” His question is phrased towards a personality with agency, even as the immaterial spirit of Hamlet’s dead father exists in some shadow-realm between life and death.

A ghost’s status was no trifling issue—it got to the core of salvation and damnation. Protestants wouldn’t believe that souls could wander the earth; they would either be rewarded in heaven or punished in hell, while ghosts must necessarily be demons. Yet Shakespeare’s play seems to make clear that Hamlet’s father has indeed returned, perhaps as an inhabitant of that way station known as purgatory, that antechamber to eternity whereby the ghost can ascend from the Bardo to skulk around Elsinore for the space of a prologue. Of course, when Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, ostensibly good Protestant that he was, he should have held no faith in purgatory, that abode of ghosts being in large part that which caused Luther to nail his theses to the Wittenberg Cathedral door. When the final Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England were ratified in 1571 (three decades before the play’s premier), it was Article 22 that declared belief in purgatory was a ” thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of scripture; but rather repugnant to the word of God.” According to Stephen Greenblatt’s argument from Hamlet in Purgatory, the ghost isn’t merely Hamlet’s father, but also a haunting from the not-so-distant Catholic past, which the official settlement had supposedly stripped away with rood screens and bejeweled altars. Elsinore’s haunting is not just that of King Hamlet’s ghost, but also of those past remnants that the reformers were unable to completely bury. Greenblatt writes that for Shakespeare purgatory “was a piece of poetry” drawn from a “cultural artery” whereby the author had released a “startling rush of vital energy.” There are a different set of ambiguities at play in Hamlet, not least of which is how this “spirit of health or goblin damned” is to be situated between orthodoxy and heresy. In asking “who” the ghost is, Bernardo is simultaneously asking what it is, where it comes from, and how such a thing can exist. So simple, so understated, so arresting is the first line of Hamlet that I’m apt to say that Bernardo’s question is the great concern of all supernatural literature, if not all literature. Within Hamlet there is a tension between the idea of survival and extinction, for though the prince calls death the “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns,” he himself must know that’s not quite right. After all, his own father came back from the dead (a role that Shakespeare played himself).

Shakespeare’s ghoul is less ambiguous than those of Charles Dickens, for the ghost of Jacob Marley who visits Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol is accused of simply being an “undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” Note that the querying nature of the final clause ends in an exclamation rather than a question mark, and there’s no asking who somebody is, now only what they are. Because A Christmas Carol has been filtered through George C. Scott, Patrick Stewart, Bill Murray, and the Muppets, there is a tendency to forget just how terrifying Dickens’s novel actually is. The ultimately repentant Scrooge and his visitations from a trinity of moralistic specters offer up visions of justice that are gothic in their capacity to unsettle. The neuter sprite that is the Ghost of Christmas Past with holly and their summer flowers; hail-fellow-well-met Bacchus that is the Ghost of Christmas Present; and the grim memento mori visage of the reaper who is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (not to mention Marley padlocked and in fetters). Dickens in the mold of Dante, for whom haunting is its own form of retribution, a means of purging us of our inequities and allowing for redemption. Andrew Smith writes in The Ghost Story 1840-1920: A Cultural History that “Dickens’s major contribution to the development of the ghost story lies in how he employs allegory in order to encode wider issues relating to history, money, and identity.” Morality itself—the awesome responsibility impinging on us every second of existence—can be a haunting. The literal haunting of Scrooge is more uncertain, for perhaps they’re gestated from madness, hallucination, nightmare, or as he initially said, indigestion. Dickens’s ghosts are ambiguous—as they always must be—but the didactic sentiment of A Christmas Carol can’t be.

Nothing is more haunting than history, especially a wicked one, and few tales are as cruel as that of the United States. Gild the national narrative all that we want, American triumphalism is a psychological coping mechanism. This country, born out of colonialism, genocide, slavery, is a massive haunted burial ground, and we all know that grave yards are where ghosts dwell. As Leslie Fiedler explained in Love and Death in the American Novel, the nation itself is a “gothic fiction, nonrealistic and negative, sadist and melodramatic—a literature of darkness and the grotesque.” America is haunted by the weight of its injustice; on this continent are the traces of the Pequod and Abenaki, Mohawk and Mohegan, Apache and Navajo whom the settlers murdered; in this country are the filaments of women and men held in bondage for three centuries, and from every tree hangs those murdered by our American monstrosity. That so many Americans willfully turn away from this—the Faustian bargain that demands acquiescence—speaks not to the absence of haunting; to the contrary, it speaks of how we live among the possessed still, a nation of demoniacs. William Faulkner’s observation in Requiem for a Nun that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” isn’t any less accurate for being so omnipresent. No author conveyed the sheer depth and extent of American haunting quit like Toni Morrison, who for all that she accomplished must also be categorized among the greatest authors of ghost stories. To ascribe such a genre as that to a novel like Morrison’s Beloved is to acknowledge that the most accurate depictions of our national trauma have to be horror stories if they’re to tell the truth. “Anything dead coming back to life hurts”—there’s both wisdom and warning in Morrison’s adage.

Beloved’s plot is as chilling as an autumnal wind off of the Ohio River, the story of the former enslaved woman Sethe whose Cincinnati home is haunted by the ghost of her murdered child, sacrificed in the years before the Civil War to prevent her being returned to bondage in Kentucky. Canonical literature and mythology have explored the cruel incomprehension of infanticide—think of Euripides’s Medea—but Sethe’s not irrational desire to send her “babies where they would be safe” is why Beloved’s tragedy is so difficult to contemplate. When a mysterious young woman named Beloved arrives, Sethe becomes convinced that the girl is the spirit of her murdered child. Ann Hostetler, in her essay from the collection Toni Morrison: Memory and Meaning, writes that Beloved’s ghost “was disconcerting to many readers who expected some form of social or historical realism as they encountered the book for the first time.” She argues, however, that the “representation of history as the return of the repressed…is also a modernist strategy,” whereby “loss, betrayal, and trauma is something that must be exorcized from the psyche before healing can take place.” Just because we might believe ourselves to be done with ghosts doesn’t mean that ghosts are done with us. Phantoms so often function as the allegorical because whether or not specters are real, haunting very much is. We’re haunted by the past, we’re haunted by trauma, we’re haunted by history. “This is not a story to pass on,” Morrison writes, but she understands better than anyone that we can’t help but pass it on.

Historical trauma is more occluded in Stephen King’s The Shining, though that hasn’t stopped exegetes from interpreting the novel about homicide in an off-season Colorado resort as being concerned with the dispossession of Native American, particularly in the version of the story as rendered by director Stanley Kubrick. The Overlook Hotel is built upon a Native American burial ground, Navajo and Apache wall hangings are scattered throughout the resort. Such conjectures about The Shining are explored with delighted aplomb in director Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237 (named after the most haunted place in the Overlook), but as a literary critical question, there’s much that’s problematic in asking what any given novel, or poem, or movie is actually about; an analysis is on much firmer ground when we’re concerned with how a text works (a notably different issue).  So, without discounting the hypothesis that The Shining is concerned with the genocide of indigenous Americans, the narrative itself tells a more straightforward story of haunting, as a bevy of spirits drive blocked, recovering alcoholic writer and aspiring family destroyer Jack Torrance insane. Kubrick’s adaptation is iconic—Jack Nicholson as Torrance (with whom he shares a first name) breaking through a door with an axe; his son, young Danny Torrance, escaping through a nightmarish, frozen hedge-maze of topiary animals; the crone in room 237 coming out of the bathtub; the blood pouring from the elevators; the ghostly roaring ’20s speakeasy with its chilling bartender, and whatever the man in the boar costume was. Also, the twins.

Still, it could be observed that the only substantiated supernatural phenomenon is the titular “Shining” that afflicts both Danny and the Overlook’s gentle caretaker, Dick Halloran. “A lot of folks, they got a little bit of shine to them,” Dick explains. “They don’t even know it. But they always seem to show up with flowers when their wives are feelin blue with the monthlies, they do good on school tests they don’t even study for, they got a good idea how people are feelin as soon as they walk into a room.” As hyper-empathy, the shining makes it possible that Danny is merely privy to a variety of psychotic breaks his father is having rather than those visions being actually real. While Jack descends further and further into madness, the status of the spectral beings’ existence is ambiguous (a point not everyone agrees on, however). It’s been noted that in the film, the appearance of a ghost is always accompanied by that of a mirror, so that The Shining’s hauntings are really manifestations of Jack’s fractured psyche. Narrowly violating my own warning concerning the question of “about,” I’ll note how much of The Shining is concerned with Jack’s alcoholism, the ghostly bartender a psychic avatar of all that the writer has refused to face. Not just one of the greatest ghost stories of the 20th century, The Shining is also one of the great novels of addiction, an exploration of how we can be possessed by own deficiencies. Mirrors can be just as haunted as houses. Notably, when King wrote The Shining, he was in the midst of his own full-blown alcoholism, so strung out he barely remembers writing doorstopper novels (he’s now been sober for more than 30 years). As he notes in The Shining, “We sometimes need to create unreal monsters and bogies to stand in for all the things we fear in our real lives.”   

If Hamlet, A Christmas Carol, Beloved, and The Shining report on apparitions, then there are novels, plays, and poems that are imagined by their creators as themselves being chambers haunted by something in between life and death. Such a conceit offers an even more clear-eyed assessment of what’s so unsettling about literature—this medium, this force, this power—capable of affecting what we think, and see, and say as if we ourselves were possessed. As a trope, haunted books literalize a profound truth about the written word, and uneasily push us towards acknowledging the innate spookiness of language, where the simplest of declarations is synonymous with incantation. Richard Chambers’s collection of short stories The King in Yellow conjures one of the most terrifying examples of a haunted text, wherein an imaginary play that shares the title of the book is capable of driving its audience to pure madness. “Strange is the night where the black stars rise, /And strange moons circle through the skies,” reads verse from the play; innocuous, if eerie, though it’s in the subtlety that the demons get you. Chambers would go on to influence H.P. Lovecraft, who conceived of his own haunted book in the form of the celebrated grimoire The Necronomicon, which he explains was “Composed by Abdul Alhazred, a mad poet of Sanaa in Yemen, who was said to have flourished during the period of the Ommiade caliphs, circa 700 A.D.,” and who rendered into his secret book the dark knowledge of the elder gods who were responsible for his being “seized by an invisible monster in broad daylight and devoured horribly before a large number of fright-frozen witnesses.” Despite the Necronomicon’s fictionality, there are a multitude of occultists who’ve claimed over the years that Lovecraft’s haunted volume is based in reality (you can buy said books online).

Then there are the works themselves which are haunted. Shakespeare’s Macbeth is the most notorious example, its themes of witchcraft long lending it an infernal air, with superstitious directors and actors calling it the “Scottish play” in lieu of its actual title, lest some of the spells within bring ruin to a production. Similar rumors dog Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe and his play Doctor Faustus, with a tradition holding that the incantations offered upon the stage summoned actual demons. With less notoriety, the tradition of “book curses” was a full-proof way to guard against the theft of the written word—a practice that dates back as far as the Babylonians, but that reached its apogee during the Middle Ages, when scribes would affix to manuscript colophons warnings about what should befall an unscrupulous thief. “Whoever steals this Book of Prayer/May he be ripped apart by swine, /His heart splintered, this I swear, /And his body dragged along the Rhine,” writes Simon Vostre in his 1502 Book of Hours. To curse a book is perhaps different than a stereotypical haunting, yet both of these phenomenon, not-of-this-world as they are, assume disembodied consciousness as manifest among otherwise inert matter; the curse is a way of imbuing yourself and your influence beyond your demise. It’s to make yourself a ghost, and it worked in leaving those books complete. “If you ripped out a page, you were going to die in agony. You didn’t want to take the chance,” Marc Drogin dryly notes in Anathema! Medieval Scribes and the History of Book Curses.

Not all writing is cursed, but surely all of it is haunted. Literature is a catacomb of past readers, past writers, past books. Traces of those who are responsible for creation linger among the words on a page; Shakespeare can’t hear us, but we can still hear him (and don’t ghosts wander through those estate houses upon the moors unaware that they’ve died?). Disenchantment has supposedly been our lot since Luther, or Newton, or Darwin chased the ghosts away, leaving behind this perfect mechanistic clockwork universe with no need for superfluous hauntings. Though like Hamlet’s father returned from a purgatory that we’re not supposed to believe in, we’re unwilling to acknowledge the specters right in front of us. Of all of the forms of expression that humanity has worked with—painting, music, sculpture—literature is the eeriest. Poetry and fiction are both incantation and conjuration, the spinning of specters and the invoking of ghosts; it is very literally listening to somebody who isn’t there, and might not have been for a long while. All writing is occult, because it’s the creation of something from ether, and magic is simply a way of acknowledging that—a linguistic practice, an attitude, a critical method more than a body of spells. We should be disquieted by literature; we should be unnerved. Most of all, we should be moved by the sheer incandescent amazement that such a thing as fiction, and poetry, and performance are real. Every single volume upon the shelves of Drown, every book in an office, every thumbed and underlined play sitting on a desk, is more haunted than that building. Reader, if you seek enchantments, turn to any printed page. If you look for a ghost, hear my voice in your own head.

Bonus Link:—Binding the Ghost: On the Physicality of Literature

Image Credit: Flickr/Kevin Dooley

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Moreno-Garcia, Myo Kyaw Myint, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint, 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.
Velvet Was the Night by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Velvet Was the Night: “This seductive neo-noir thriller from bestseller Moreno-Garcia (Mexican Gothic) draws on the real-life efforts of the Mexican government to suppress political dissent in the 1970s. Maite, a 30-year-old secretary in Mexico City who feels life has passed her by, escapes from routine by reading the magazine Secret Romance, oblivious to the political upheaval around her. When her beautiful art student neighbor, Leonora, disappears, Maite, with the help of Rubén, Leonora’s former lover, begins a search that takes her into the world of student radicals. Meanwhile, 21-year-old Elvis, muscle for a clandestine, government-funded shock troop employed to suppress student protests, longs for something more and wishes to escape his old life. When Elvis’s boss assigns him to track down Leonora, his search crosses that of Maite, with whom he becomes fascinated. As the two get closer to discovering the reason behind Leonora’s disappearance, they uncover secrets that shadowy forces, both domestic and foreign, will kill to protect. This is a rich novel with an engrossing plot, distinctive characters, and a pleasing touch of romance. Readers won’t be able to put it down.”

Against White Feminism by Rafia Zakaria

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Against White Feminism: “Attorney and journalist Zakaria (Veil) makes a lucid and persuasive argument that feminism must address its ‘problematic genealogies’ of whiteness. She notes that British suffragists refused to support Indian self rule, while those in the U.S. demanded that white women get the vote before Black men, and critiques early feminist theorists including Simone de Beauvoir for centering white womanhood as universal. Zakaria, a Pakistani Muslim woman, describes her own dismissive treatment at the hands of white feminists, but the book’s strongest sections detail how Western aid organizations and feminist groups including the National Organization for Women alienate and devalue women of color worldwide. Among other topics, she dissects the culturally myopic attitudes embedded in sex-positive ’empowerment’ messaging and the ‘ruthless individualism’ of white women journalists who seek to ‘gain access to the intimate spaces of Black and Brown women.’ Zakaria also links ‘moral outrage’ in the West over Muslim ‘honor killings’ to the ‘agenda of colonialism,’ which ‘involved manufacturing definitions of new crimes and new classes of criminality to make a point about the moral degeneracy of the people whose freedom, goods, and land were being looted.’ Tackling complex philosophical ideas with clarity and insight, Zakaria builds an impeccable case for the need to rebuild feminism from the ground up. Readers will want to heed this clarion call for change.”

Names for Light by Thirii Myo Kyaw Myint

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Names for Light: “In this hypnotic memoir, Burmese-American novelist Myint (The End of Peril, the End of Enmity, the End of Strife, a Haven) looks to myth and folklore to explore her family’s legacy. Ghosts, reincarnated relatives, dark omens, and imagined scenes populate a timeline that oscillates between the author’s forbears’ past and present day, stretching from Myanmar, where she was born in 1989, to Thailand, California, Spain, and Colorado. In lyrical prose, Myint straddles dream and reality beginning with a mythic take on her great-grandfather, who ‘died a man but was reborn as me.’ Lived experience is overlaid with speculative history, as Myint, who moved to the U.S. as a child, mines the alienation—sowed by the colonialism and racism endured by generations of her family—that has rendered her ‘a ghost’ throughout her life. To fill the void of loneliness surrounding her, she pieces together her family’s past, from her mother’s ‘cursed’ home in Yangon and her parents’ marriage on a lake that was ‘constructed by the British’ to her older brother’s illness and death (‘I also believed he had drowned in the lake’). While her poetic narration is indisputably alluring, the nonlinear story line can sometimes become taxing. For those willing to put in the work, this serpentine narrative is a thing of beauty.”

Gordo by Jaime Cortez

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Gordo: “Artist and graphic novelist Cortez (Sexile) celebrates Chicano life in this exuberant collection. Stories such as ‘El Gordo’ focus on the experiences of the title character, a child of migrant farm workers. Cortez then moves with ease from depictions of Gordo’s family to the intersecting lives of the inhabitants of Watsonville, Calif., in the 1970s. In ‘The Jesus Donut,’ a heretical young girl becomes a hero after she shares a donut with other kids, offering bits of it as communion. In ‘Alex,’ Gordo’s family helps out their injured butch lesbian neighbor, Alex, and the burgeoning friendship becomes a cover for Gordo’s mother to help Alex’s abused femme partner escape to safety. In ‘The Problem of Style,’ bullied sixth grader Raymundo gains confidence when he decides to grow his hair out and become ‘artistic.’ At their best, Cortez’s stories highlight the community’s functional and paradoxical stew of interpersonal relationships, brimming with threats as well as love. Cortez has a bright, clear voice that avoids stereotypes and navigates issues of identity with ease: ‘Raymundo tossed his hair, turned smartly on his heels, and crossed an unmarked border into a new country.’ Readers will be delighted.”

Agentless Agency: On Submitting to Lit Journals

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1.
Last month, I came across a sentence in Cal Newport’s A World Without Email that took my breath away: Outsource what you don’t do well. Newport describes how one entrepreneur’s decision to hire a part-time assistant swiftly drove up the startup’s efficiency and the entrepreneur’s satisfaction with his job. I put down the book and watched two dogs wrestle in my neighbor’s yard. Newport’s dictum had sparked an idea that seemed so scandalous, so alluring, so taboo, that it might just work…

What if I could find the funds in my teaching salary to hire a writing assistant for a few hours a week? Namely, someone to submit my stories and essays for me?

Creating work has never been an issue. I began composing short stories and poems as a kid, majored in creative writing in college, and attended an MFA program, where I largely worked on fiction. I rarely submitted the stories that I’d spent months and years polishing.

Professors urged us to submit regularly, to create Excel spreadsheets, to amass rejections and keep going. But the whole system felt so obtuse and unrewarding: you submitted a story, waited for months on end, then received a polite form rejection, if that. Every now and then a personal note would come through, suggesting that you send something else. Discouraged by the rejections, I rarely did.

When I managed to actually publish work, the path to success seemed difficult to repeat. In one instance, a college professor kindly nominated me for an Emerging Writers issue. Afterward, a magazine editor at a tiny lit mag reached out, urging me to submit a story. I did so, and somehow the piece wound up being selected as an O’Henry Prize Story that year. All of it—the professor’s nomination, the solicitation, the prize—came down to incredible, unthinkable luck, and no real work on my part, aside from writing and editing the piece itself.

When it came time to look for an agent, a friend offered to put me in touch with his. She eventually agreed to shop my story collection around, but didn’t get any bites. And since the agent regularly misspelled my name in emails, I figured I wasn’t her first priority. Then another friend from grad school, who had since begun agenting, reached out and offered to represent me. I said yes, and she recommended I try my hand at a novel before selling the story collection. I wrote the novel in a couple years, she sold it, and I wound up with a generous book deal and a great editor, even if the novel itself didn’t sell very well.

I assumed that this method would continue for the rest of my career: I’d write another novel, she’d sell it, basta. But none of my drafts seemed to satisfy her, and after five years, we parted ways. Now, on my own (cue the Les Mis soundtrack), with 20 years of writing and publishing under my belt, I still feel squeamish when it comes to submissions. I’ve begun writing more nonfiction, and have had some luck placing personal essays, although this, too, feels scattershot.

Meanwhile, there’s a groaning file labeled WRITING on my computer that contains, I swear, dozens of standalone pieces—poems, short stories, flash fiction and nonfiction, essays, novel drafts, a memoir—all of which silently rebuke me whenever I open Microsoft Word. I’m proud of that work. I think most of it holds up (even if, skimming an old short story the other day, I realized I’d need to substitute a character’s “CD-burning” for a Spotify mix.)

Agentless, as the majority of writers are, how do we find our own agency? My fiancé, Alejandro, ironically, is exactly where I was 10 years ago: poised to finish and publish his first novel. He has done well with submissions: an American Short Fiction prize two years ago turned into a Best American prize last year. He seems less fazed by the whole slush pile prospect: as I type this, he’s in his office next door, shortening a short story for a Guernica submission. Is it his scrappy, thick-skinned approach (he applied to the Michener Program four years in a row before an acceptance) or is he innocent of an industry weariness that my 20 years in the biz has conferred, like a professional tennis player’s sore shoulder?

2.
I love reading business and productivity books because they’re reassuringly matter of fact. But Newport’s suggestion to outsource your headaches is complicated when it comes to submitting creative writing. How can I instruct someone on how to submit my work if I don’t have a reliable process in place? Should I hire a marketer? A college student? A virtual assistant? A freelance publicist?

Ideally, I would hand my teeming file of writing to a deeply organized soul who would go to town organizing it, strategizing about where to submit, and then send work out like mad, using my cover letters. I could offer bonuses for work that was accepted, along with a fair hourly wage. But with such an enormous lag time between submitting and hearing back, and with acceptance rates so low, it’s hard to create an appealing incentive. And the prospect of sacrificing therapy sessions for a publishing assistant seems dubious, to say the least.

Another one of my favorite productivity gurus, Greg McKeown, whose latest tome, Effortless, I devoured in the way I no longer devour novels (see: industry weariness), suggests asking yourself these questions when approaching a thorny task: How could this be easy? And: How am I making this too complicated?

3.
After finishing Newport’s book, I spent a full week trying to come up with a job description for a writing assistant before deciding I probably just need to do the work. Last week, during a lull from teaching responsibilities, I decided I would look over old pieces and edit them in the morning, and then send each story out to five places in the afternoon. Simple, right? Log into Submittable, copy and paste the cover letter, attach the short story file, basta! (Sadly, anytime my plans end with basta, it’s usually a sign that they’re not going to work out.)

Sitting down at my laptop to submit again reminded me why I always avoided it. Trying to figure out if a magazine is in a reading period. Trying to scout out the appropriate editor on the masthead. (Alejandro, scandalously, told me that he just addresses his letters to an anonymous Editor. Ballsy.) Trying to decide what my list of publications should be. Do I attempt a college admissions approach, with reaches and safeties? But if I’m sending out a bunch of work over the course of several weeks, including several short stories, how to choose which magazine should receive what?

Barf.

4.
For a long time after my divorce, six years ago, I refused to date online. I didn’t want to go through the drama of meeting people who wouldn’t work out. I wanted connection to happen naturally, in the real world. Unfortunately, this meant I jumped at every odd encounter that occasionally crossed my path, just to prove to myself that this organic method was serving me well.

When I finally took the plunge and signed up for dating apps, it took six months of good, shitty, and largely underwhelming dates before meeting Alejandro. I was his first Bumble date, go figure. I told you he was lucky when it came to submissions. And now that I think about it, he totally lured me by touting that recent ASF short story prize in his dating profile, as if I were another magazine editor instead of a romantic prospect.

But maybe there’s something to thinking about submitting as a kind of matchmaking for my creative work rather than as a test of its fundamental worth. Scrolling through lit mags the way I once swiped through faces and profiles. We’re told to go for the most selective publications first, but maybe looking for the friendliest and most intriguing journals would be a more enjoyable prospect. Over the years, my writing has gotten more experimental, and prospective publishers for later work will likely look much different than publishers for work from my 20s and early 30s, just as my romantic partners have changed along with shifts in my personality and my priorities.

5.
The first definition of “submission,” according to Oxford Languages, is “the action or fact of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person.” Part of why I’ve avoided submitting in the past is that it always makes me feel so powerless, so… submissive. But perhaps submitting is also about yielding to the truth that my work isn’t for everybody, just as my style of clothing (I’m newly obsessed with vests.) or taste in music (‘90s country forever!) is off-putting to some.

Okay. New plan. I’m going to approach submissions as an online dating adventure for my writing, and see if I can set my pieces up on some alluring blind dates. After all, it’s way better to imagine my story sipping wine at a candlelit Italian restaurant than drowning in a “slush pile.” First step: submit this essay on submitting.

Image Credit: Pixabay

Tuesday New Release Day: Starring Chin, Murray, and More

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Here’s a quick look at some notable books—new titles from YZ Chin, Sabina Murray, 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.
Edge Case by YZ Chin

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Edge Case: “Chin makes an impressive debut with this sharp take on faltering romance, the American dream, and self-realization. Edwina and her husband, Marlin, are both Malaysian immigrants working for tech startups in New York City. Edwina endures a sexist and uninspiring work environment at AInstein, hoping that if she excels in her job her employers will sponsor her green card application. Then she comes home one day to discover Marlin has moved all of his things out. For the next 18 days, Edwina searches for her husband and tries to figure out how their marriage went wrong. When Edwina met Marlin, she was drawn to his logical mind, but more recently Marlin had turned to psychic dowsing and other forms of divination in the six months since his father died. While Edwina was alarmed by Marlin’s behavior, she also wonders whether her mental health has been damaged by her mother, who constantly criticizes Edwina’s weight and suggests that Edwina’s struggles are the consequences of transgressions committed in previous reincarnations. Edwina’s wry outlook and wrestling with thoughts about what it means to make it in America will resonate with readers. Those who enjoy the work of Charles Yu should take a look.”

The Shimmering State by Meredith Westgate

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Shimmering State: “A dangerous new party drug hits the streets of Los Angeles in Westgate’s ambitious debut. Mem, short for Memoroxin, an experimental, shimmering pill, contains a person’s happy memories, which they’ve selected. While Mem is manufactured to help those with Alzheimer’s, trauma, and mental illness, it becomes a hot black-market item thanks to its ability to allow people ‘to experience a moment as someone else.’ Lucien, a flailing photographer, steals his grandmother’s Mem pills in hopes of seeing his deceased mother through the grandmother’s memories. Sophie, an ambitious ballerina and a waitress at Chateau Marmont, also gets hooked on Mem. Both Lucien and Sophie end up in a rehab facility run by the drug’s producers, where they form a deep connection and Lucien feels they’ve met before. When they’re out, they collaborate on a film project inspired by Lucien’s grandmother’s memory. In chapters alternating before and after the rehab stint, Westgate weaves a tight tale of relationships and loneliness in a city populated by people always on the hunt for the next big escape. It’s a captivating story, one that leaves readers wondering if a life scrubbed of pain and real connection is a life at all.”

Ramadan Ramsey by Louis Edwards

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about Ramadan Ramsey: “New Orleans music industry veteran and Whiting Award winner Edwards (Oscar Wilde Discovers America) returns after almost two decades with an ambitious globe-trotting epic as luscious and musical as the city he calls home. The tale takes readers from the Crescent City to Istanbul and finally to the war-torn city of Aleppo, as the eponymous hero searches for his father with an old letter found in a convenience store as his only clue. In between, Ramadan bonds with his grandmother, basks in the beauty of the Mississippi River, survives Hurricane Katrina, and makes countless friends in the Middle East by bonding over basketball, hip-hop, and other bits of Americana that appeal to young men across the world. Ramadan’s resilience, quick wit, and steadfast spirit render him something of a 21st-century update on the characters of Dickens and Twain. Edwards, meanwhile, is a rare writer of deep, paternal wisdom, who can find the deeply, upliftingly spiritual element of nearly everything. (Even a potato chip can be as ecstatically powerful as those “symbolic bodies of Christ” that are offered at communion.) This will have readers enthralled with the beauty of life, despite all its tragedies and sorrows.”

The Human Zoo by Sabina Murray

Here’s what Publishers Weekly had to say about The Human Zoo: “Smart, crisp prose distinguishes Murray’s action-packed latest (after Valiant Gentleman). The beautiful Christina Klein, or ‘Ting’ as she’s known to her Filipino family, is newly separated from her American husband when she shows up on the doorstep of her wealthy 90-year-old aunt in Manila, uninvited and with no plan for the future. A journalist who reported on the corruption and violence of the Philippines’s populist regime, Ting soon catches up with old friends and an old flame, Chet, whose murky business dealings may be connected to the regime. Meanwhile, her research for a book on ‘human zoos’ in turn-of-the-century New York City digs up a devious entrepreneur who tricked native Philippine Bontoc tribesmen into participating, prompting her to reflect on the historical relationship between the U.S. and poor, indigenous Filipinos: ‘It was as if the United States still needed the Philippines to be recognizable but savage in the same way that Heart of Darkness needed Africa to make Europe seem enlightened.’ When someone close to her dies violently, Ting finds herself embroiled in a dangerous mystery, unsure whether Chet is friend or foe. By interrogating Ting’s privilege, Murray successfully and cleverly avoids writing a human zoo herself. This is captivating.”